Monday, February 6, 2012

Rocky Raccoon Race Report

What do you get if you mix together miles of plush south Texas trails, a couple inches of rain and hundreds of trail nerds? The answer: Rocky Raccoon 2012. Part I of my report will be dedicated to the race itself. I'll reserve the road trip aspect of things to Part II. 

To start off it must be mentioned that course conditions were less than ideal. By no means am I complaining. After all, folks, this is trail running. However, for the uninitiated, what this means is that the conditions made this scamper exponentially more difficult to many a racer this weekend. I must also disclose that this was by far the largest trail race I have participated in to date. Rocky Raccoon was 20 years old this time around and for the first time registration was closed. In that regard I feel fortunate to have been a part of it. This was also the first time that I have been in a race that featured world class ultra runners. Like many, I have heard about how approachable these elite athletes can be. I can now attest that it's true. At the race briefing on Friday afternoon I had a chance, thanks to a running buddy, to meet Karl Meltzer. There was a line of folks that he worked his way through, taking time to shake hands and share words with each. At my last road marathon the elite runners were more or less quarantined from us regular folks, hauled around in private vehicles, had handlers and so forth. Later that night another in our group accidentally met Hal Koerner in our hotel lobby. He didn't recognize Hal due to that boss of a beard he was sporting. Thought he was just another runner and started chatting him up. When David asked the as yet unknown runner what his goal was for the 100 miles and the guy replied "about 13 hours" the gig was up. 

Dogwood, start of loop 2, photo by R. Holler

As we rolled into Huntsville State Park it had been raining for hours and there were no signs of it letting up. We arrived about 30 minutes prior to the start and ended up parking a mile from Dogwood. So we got to do a mile warm up jog down the park road. "Hey, we're going 50, what's one more?" Still raining we found refuge in a little corner of one of the tents. I saw runners decked out as if it were below 30 degrees and snowing. I saw some a guy in sandals ready to toe the line. And there were lots of trash bags being worn. Once it started we all scampered across the mat and headed out into the woods. Trying to keep pace among about 400 runners on a trail, in the rain, in low light conditions can be tricky. Especially when some folks found it necessary to keep their shoes dry by slowing down and tip toeing around puddles. It took a couple of miles before I could pick my way through and things got strung out enough to have some room. My strategy was to keep as even a pace as possible, that's what works for me. I had three goals for the race. Finish in under 12 hours, finish in under 10 hours and see how far I could push myself. I thought about having simply finishing as a goal at one point but decided, as Stuart Smalley would say, that is stinkin' thinkin'.

The "Bloody Nipple" shirt.

Once I found my happy place I quickly settled in got comfortable. The course is quite different from what I am used to up here in the Ozarks. It's wide single and double track stuff, mostly a sandy dirt mix, a few roots here and there, little elevation and only a handful of rocks. For us NWA GOATS this course is paradise. On the first loop I planned on being very chill and simply wanted to get a good look at the course, identify any potential obstacles and stay relaxed. And that's precisely what happened. I came back in at Dogwood in just over 3 hours for the roughly 16.5 mile loop. As promised, Ryan Holler was at Dogwood ready to pass out my goodies. My wish list was a Vespa, a Stinger waffle, 4 Gu gels and a few S! caps. After refilling my bottles I made the turn and headed back out for the second of three loops. Shortly into it I realized that I should have changed shoes. I started in Brooks Pure Grit and had the Saucony Peregrine as a back up. My feet were just starting to feel the miles but no way was I going to turn back. A change would have to wait. I told myself to focus on the task at hand and not to worry about the shoes or my feet. The second loop went much like the first and I came back to Dogwood at about 6 hours and 17 minutes. As I passed Ryan I asked him to get the shoes and a change of socks ready. Getting a pair of clean socks and dry shoes felt great. As I headed out for the final loop I knew breaking 10 hours would require some work. And I was headed into uncharted territory as my longest run to date had been 33 miles. I knew I would finish. The question was how quickly? By now my mantra was in high gear. I ended up reminding myself repeatedly to not be scared. That I wouldn't rig up and bonk. "Don't be scared to keep at it, do not slow down, yeah my feet kinda hurt but so what? Don't be a p*$$y." I condensed that down to simply, "Don't be scared." Despite sore feet and a hamstring getting sketchy all I needed to do to was pick 'em up and put 'em down. Through the next several miles everything continued to stay steady. Throughout the day I stayed on top of hydrating and fueling and had no GI issues. I did, however, suffer an injury. All the rain and miles had washed away my Slather by Skin Strong (which worked wonderfully on my feet). Like an idiot I forgot to pack any extra. I wouldn't have even noticed it except for a passing runner pointing and exclaiming "Bloody nipple!" I just flipped my shirt up over my head and behind my neck like we used to do while playing soccer as a kid and continued forward. At the first hint of a sour stomach about mile 40 I popped a ginger chew and knocked it out. The final pass through Park Road as I waited for one of the wonderful volunteers to fill my bottles my right leg seized up. I tried to jog it out but it refused. I looked at my Garmin and saw it was about .5 mile to reach 46 miles and decided to walk it out and reassess at that point. I used the extra time to take some deep breaths and get some fluids down. When the watch chimed in I started a jog up that incline and the leg responded as it should. My pace was slower than it had been those last few miles but that was OK. Admittedly, I was relieved to make that last left turn and see the finish up ahead. Ryan was ready and snapped some pics. But not before I slowed to put my shirt back down. Not only did I want my Rush Running shirt to show up in my finish line photo I wanted to spare my family the embarrassment of my shockingly pale belly in any said photo. A quick glance at the watch told me I could get 10h5min if I picked it up and I did. Of course, I met Joyce at the finish where she presented me with my finisher medal and gave me a warm hug. That was fantastic. 

Bringing it home, photo by R. Holler

Checking my Garmin data I am pleased with how steady I was able to keep my pace throughout the day on a sloppy course. I attribute that to a couple of different things. First, my training was pretty much spot on. I combined a schedule from Relentless Forward Progress and mixed it with some tidbits from fellow ultra runners to come up with my own. My focus was on long doubles over the weekend and of course plenty of elevation (compared to Huntsville) here in the Ozark foothills. I avoided hardtop and ran on trails as much as I could. There was no speed work (track stuff) but I did a "hot 6" or so every week. I did in training what I planned to do in the race. That meant two full bottles, one S! cap per hour and a Gu every 45 minutes for every run. I did ditch one aspect of my training and pre-race strategy. During most of my long runs (over 3 hours) I used regular walking breaks. I had set my Garmin to chime a time alert every 13 minutes and every mile. When I reached a mile I would walk until the time alert sounded and then kick off again. The reason I decided to forego that was personal preference. When I get tired I have found that getting back in gear after a walking break taxes my willpower. I didn't want to face the temptation of extending a break a little longer "just this time". So I would see how far I could run. Second, my hydration and fueling were spot on. I started early on the fluids and kept it going all day. Besides the gels (every 45 minutes), S! Caps (1 per hour) and waffles (1 per loop) I had something at every aid station. Chips or cookies, maybe some fruit, pretzels or noodles. I started off the race wearing a tech shirt and shorts, that's it. No jacket or gloves. Several miles into the race I saw people still sporting trash bags and thought how miserable I would have been doing that. One dude was even wearing a ski jacket. Seriously? For me, anything above 40 degrees I'm good with a shirt and shorts. I have to think that my attire helped to regulate my body temp and sweating better than wearing a big plastic bag around my core. 

Something that struck me during the race was how few runners actually ran uphill. And by uphill I mean slightly elevated inclines. Then I realized that if you live in Houston or other similar areas it's hard to find hills. Honestly, our guys would hesitate to even call them hills. I am fortunate in that on any given day I can go out and run Slaughter Pen, or Blowing Springs or Hobbs or Devils Den and easily get three, five, eight thousand feet of elevation change or more inside 24 miles on rocky, fairly technical terrain. It was a huge benefit that made the Rocky Raccoon hills and trail seem easy. Mike Rush was absolutely correct when he convinced me to run the Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon (9,000 ft of elevation change) a month before Rocky. He said that Rocky would seem like a piece of cake after that. Looking back I can see that ABF was a huge confidence booster. Read my race report for ABF here. The most difficult aspect of the hills was how slippery a couple got later in the day, traction was at a premium for sure. Perhaps doing hills regularly takes any hint of trepidation out of them too. 

In the end I am quite pleased with the result. Not only my time of 10:05:30 (especially on a sloppy course) but with how well my body did hold up and that my energy level never dipped low. Rocky Raccoon is full of great volunteers, is organized very well, is a fast course and a perfect first time event for a 50 or 100 miles. I give a huge shout out to everyone that was out there in any fashion or role. There were volunteers that spent up to 30 hours or more of their time making this happen. In the rain, mud and through the night. Complete strangers at road crossings that would cheer on the runners. Some of them I saw on every loop. 

Volunteering at Dogwood crossing, photo by R. Holler

After I finished and was cleaned up I found myself back at Ryan's spot on the road just up from Dogwood. As the sun set in the west and darkness fell upon Rocky, I took up his role crossing guard/cheer leader so he could prepare to pace Tim the final 40 miles of his adventure. I stayed there for about three hours until my buddy finished. As the runners passed by I was struck with how much grit it would require to make that turn into the woods, in the dark, on that water logged course to start another loop. And yet they kept coming. That's dedication. That kicks ass. That is why ultra trail running is simply epic.

The data: Garmin 305 showed 48.86 miles at 10:05:22 and about 6,500 ft of elevation change. Good enough for 53rd place out of 366 starters. I think I can do 9h15m on that course which might put me in the top 25 next year.

The gear: Brooks Pure Grit (33 miles) and Saucony Peregrine (17 miles). Balaga trail socks and Slather skin protectant from Skin Strong, I had zero blisters and one minimally bleeding nipple. Pearl Izumi shorts (love the zipper pockets), Pearl Izumi compression shorts (another zip pocket). Tech shirt (Rush Running) and tech hat (Inca Runners).

As a side note I performed a little test on my shoes. It seemed to me that my feet seemed to be less wet in the Peregrine compared to the Grit. This highly scientific examination consisted of putting my shoes in the bath tub and filling them with water (they needed to be cleaned anyway). Hands down the Peregrine emptied faster than the Grit. It wasn't even close. So there you go.

As always you can follow me on Twitter @RedDirtRunner


Update 02/07/2012
Got a post race massage today from Carlie at Excel Massage in Bentonville. This was a Thai Yoga style massage and I walked out feeling noticeably better. My left leg was rigged up tighter than a snare drum and my right calf/hamstring sore as hell. Carlie worked it out though.

Update 02/09/2012
I was talked into a run Wednesday morning by a couple of buddies. I felt I could do 5 or maybe 6 easy miles. The body was a little cranky getting started but it felt OK to be moving. At mile 6 the wheels flew off. Pain in my right foot. I was about 1.5 miles from my truck. I grinded out another mile before throwing in the towel. After getting back home I soaked my foot in an ice bath and then a hot epsom salt soak. The back of my right knee is also pretty sore.


  1. great report. It was an awesome weekend to be a trail runner.

    1. Thank you, I love comments. It was an awesome weekend. The rain and mud only added to the challenge. The best part was sharing it with family and friends.

  2. Congrats on a great race James! I'm so proud of what you accomplished. You definitely represented Rush Running well!!!

    1. Whitney, thanks for reading and I appreciate the reply. Mike threw down a fantastic race. I kept going because I didn't want him to lap me. David showed some true grit fighting through some issues. We all tried our best to represent Rush and the (479). I have to agree that we did pretty good.

  3. I reckon you might be reluctant to carry on publicly about your wonderful family, James, but... I think it should be mentioned that your kind parents not only opened their beautiful home to us for rest, but also provided hearty culinary delights of both commercial and home-cooked varieties during our trip, both to and fro. I'm sure David would agree that meeting and visiting with them was one of the highlights of the weekend. I am certainly grateful. If fact, I'm considering a return visit, with or without you, James.

    1. You know I felt a little selfish on this post because I knew I was leaving out all the good stuff about the people behind the scenes. That's why I decided to make it a two part story. I'll get it covered in Pt. II in short order. My parents have always enjoyed meeting their our friends and I'm sure they'd welcome you back. Dad sure gets a kick out of all the running stories.

  4. First, let me say congratulations on a very solid finish in less than solid conditions at Rocky Raccoon. I enjoyed reading your report and getting the perspective of a newcomer to Huntsville and of someone moving up to the new distance.

    Glad you enjoyed your time at Rocky Raccoon, nice report... you DID represent NW Ark well!

    Lynn B
    DamNation Captain

  5. Thank you Lynn. On one hand I'm a little disappointed that I didn't get to know the aid station volunteers better. However, I limited myself, on purpose, to topping off my fluids and grabbing a handful of grub on the go. Fortunately, I didn't need anything more than that. I can say that at every AS a volunteer was waiting and ready to refill my bottles for me and made sure I knew there were snacks available. Next year I'll take the time to shout out as I pass by. Much thanks for leading Damnation in those conditions. Cheers to you.