The Rocky Raccoon 100-mile endurance run is a week away. Huntsville State park is due to have rain all week leading up to the race and during the 24-hours on the trail there will be off and on rain. Today’s inclement weather has given me a perfect opportunity to put myself outside in the elements and suffer a bit as opposed to being huddled-up by a fire with a glass of wine. That can come later. It is getting to be 3:00 in the afternoon on a Friday and the weather has been deteriorating all day. The worse the weather gets the more I get the itch to go commune with nature on my favorite local trail.
It has been raining for the better part of 2 days and the ground is already saturated. I love running this trail when it rains. There are a dozen or so stream crossings and most of the single-track turns into a running river itself. I tie-up all my loose ends on my desk after an amazing week at work. Feeling satisfied that I made the most of my time indoors this week, I feel the need to reward myself with some well deserved time in the great outdoors on a blustery winter’s day.
I certainly had a plan for the day when I woke-up this morning. I knew there was a chance of snow and I had packed all of my gear in the car this morning before heading to work. Most people watching the weather throughout the day would probably have described it as getting worse as the day progressed. From my vantage point it was only getting better!
I quickly change at the office and make some careful selections for layers. My primary concern is to not have too much clothing on. I walk outside to the car and feel the northerly winds whip across my face. I feel cold very quickly after standing there for less than a minute. From experience this tells me that I probably got the layers right. By the time I get my effort going on the trail I should have ample coverage from the elements, but still be able to toss-off excess body heat with soaking myself with sweat.
I reach the entrance to the park 20-minutes later. Not a soul in sight. Not that I ever expect to see anyone when I show up at times like this. Raining, 100+ degrees, or middle of the night. My favorite times on this 200-acre tract are the times when I have it entirely to myself. As I navigate to the trailhead I can see that I am not going to be disappointed today in any category. Every inch of trail is inches deep in water at the least or a swiftly running stream in many sections.
I tighten my shoes down extra tight before I put on my gloves. The last thing I want to do is lose a shoe in the suction of a mucky mire of mud. I squeeze down a Gu gel. My favorite flavor is “plain”. I am carrying no water today. I have been hydrating all day and I want to travel light. I plan on running pretty aggressively considering the conditions. 1 hour 30 minutes or less is my target. I have done the loop on this course under dry, fast conditions in about 65 minutes. With only a week to the race I will push it, but not take foolish chances and risk an injury.
My first steps on the trail are a bit sluggish. Immediately my feet are completely soaked to the bone. I give myself a chance to find my rhythm and after about 15 minutes I am smoothly flowing along the trail to the sound of my squishy steps. The creeks I am running along are roaring and swelling to fill their banks. The guttural groan of water amongst the fallen trees in the creek bottoms is all that can be heard.
I hit the first open section on the back of the park. The wind blasts me pretty hard and the sweat of my brow makes me feel cold all over for a moment. I was actually working up a pretty good sweat amongst the protection of the woods. It is refreshing to be in the wide open spaces. I stride it out across the native grasslands. I am trying to make up some time in these areas.
The trail dives back into the woods and plunges downhill. Water is rapidly rushing through this section and pieces of flotsam ride the current like flumes on a water ride. I pound my way right down the center of the trail where the water is the deepest. This part of the terrain is the hardest packed and offers the surest footing despite being covered by the most water. I throw caution to the wind and kick things into high gear. As usual I am living for the moment and soaking up everything this day, this moment, and this trail have to offer me. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow.
I hammer through a 2-mile section of twisty, technical trail with zero effort. All thoughts of the trials and tribulations that life throws a person’s way have been washed away. It is just me, the trail, and lots of water everywhere. The trail breaks into the open again at the right time that I need to get cooled off. Another great section to stride it out, focus on form, and make some time.
At one point, the trail dives down and makes a hard left around a stand of evergreen trees. As I splash around the corner I am almost on top of a young red fox. I do not know who is more startled at the moment. A flick of the tail and the fox disappears into some brush. It all happened so quickly it makes me wonder if I imagined it. I have spent hundreds of hours on this trail at all times of day and in all kinds of conditions and I have never seen a fox.
Back into the root covered, mucky part of the trails. I check my watch and see that I am right on time. The route traverses up and down a ridge along the northern side of the park. The next half-mile section of the trail is literally under half a foot of water. The frigid waters are invigorating my legs on every step.
This next section has several water crossings. Normally these can be cleared in-stride. Not today. One of the first is deep and wide. I plunge in clear to my knees and burst onto the bank on the other side and begin a slippery bear crawl up the steep bank. If I go backwards I will end-up wet from head-to-toe. With the help of a just-mature-enough sapling I haul myself to the top.
Next are a series of footbridges. The first 2 are completely under water. The trail marshals have just recently repaired these. I wonder if they will hold up to the pressure of the recent heavy rains. One last hill to navigate and my day is done. I give it all I have got running against the current rapidly flowing down the hill. I break out of the tree-line into the open amongst increasing snow flurries. I sprint the last 100-yards to my car. 1 hour 24 minutes.
I take a few minutes to peel off my sweaty layers and reflect on the day’s effort. I feel completely ready to tackle to 100 miles in Huntsville under whatever conditions the day offers. Over the last 3 months I have run in the worst the elements had to offer. I may be one of the few people to toe the line at this race next week that is actually praying for rain!