Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rocky Raccoon Race Report: A Tale of Records and Revelations

What an incredible weekend in the world of Ultramarathons and I got be right in the middle of the whole thing as it unfolds.  The adventure starts with a very challenging drive from Dallas, 200 miles down I-45 to Huntsville.  Icy roads were now covered with 4-6 inches of snow.  I was carpooling with Deborah Sexton, a fellow NTTR runner, and she had me drive her 4x4.  We fare better than most while making steady progress down the ice and snow covered road.  Once again, all the overconfident impatient idiots in pick-up trucks dominated the vehicles crashed into guardrails and stuck in ditches.  The trip only takes us an extra 1-1.5 hours and we hit town in good shape. 

Events like this are rare in Dallas so there is not adequate equipment to clear roads.

On the way down my “allergies” seem to be kicking up.  Deborah points out that most allergens are not active when it is 20 degrees out.  At our pit stop at Buccee’s in Madisonville I pick-up some cold medicine just to be safe.  After checking into the hotel I take a great two-hour nap.  When I wake up I am in a little bit of a fog and have a pressing sinus headache.  I drink another 1.5 liters of water and take 1,000mg of vitamin C. 

The men's restroom has more urinals than the old Texas Stadium.

From there we are off to drop supplies at the Damnation aid station run by NTTR.  What can I say about the volunteers who give up an entire weekend to help others pursue their endeavors?  Lynn Ballard heads up an all-star crew again this year.  Volunteering at these races is a gift given to all the runners on the course.  It is definitely way past due for my time to return this gift.  I will be volunteering at a race near you soon! 

The work for volunteers begins 12-24 hours before the race ever starts and ends well after when the last runner is through .

Next on the agenda is packet pick-up and I have still have to register.  There is a limit of 750 runners between the 100-mile and 50-mile races.  Early in the week there were still 80 spots and looming bad weather gives me confidence this would not be an issue.  As it turns out almost 200 people will fail to start.  With runners from 35 states and 8 countries many have difficulties with flights and other travel arrangements.

Moments before departing into the frosty darkness.

Now it is on to dinner with my pacers and dear friends, Craig and Carla Vining.  I love these guys!  It means a great deal to me that they brave the elements just to get here as well as run with me through a very cold and dark Saturday night.  Pacing for a runner is another very special gift similar to what the volunteers offer the runner on the trail.  It comes in the form of very vocal and direct physical support during the race and even more of an impact is made by just knowing they are there for you supporting your heart and soul as you put it all on the line that day.  I have been on both sides of this equation and it is a beautiful thing and it is not dissimilar to surviving a combat situation with someone.  Many strong bonds and lasting friendships have been built between strangers over these weekends.

It was amazing to toe the line and run the course with this cast of amazing runners.

After dinner it is off to bed and early to rise at 4am in advance of the 6am start.  One more proactive dose of cold medicine and I quickly drift off to sleep.  Upon awaking I take a hot shower to get everything warmed-up and try to clear my congested head as much as possible.  I readjust some of my strategies for layers and clothing and we head towards the course.  The check-in and and starting line are abuzz with energy despite the frigid temperature of 20 degrees.  There is definitely extra energy in the air this year with a world-class field in the men’s race.  Anton Krupicka, Scott Jurek, Zach Gingerich, Hal Koerner, Karl Metzler, and some dude named Ian.

Topping off fluids at Damnation aid station.

My plan for the day is simple.  Run 4-hour loops in a very steady fashion all day long and into the night.  That is a 12:00/mile pace.  This is very conservative on this flat course, but will allow me to pursue a strong 20-hour finish.  The first few miles tick by easily and the body welcomes the latent heat now being generated.  I am careful to moderate my effort to stay on pace and not to sweat too much in the early morning freezing temps.  I hit my marks on the button all the way around the course during the first loop and come into the start/finish at 3:58. 

Me and my Running Beard at mile 45.  The beard got a significant trim on Monday.

My fuel and hydration strategy for the day is quite simple.  With my improved metabolic efficiency I am going to consume around 150 calories an hour and hydrate heavily with Nuun from my hydration pack.  The first loop I fall behind a bit on hydration due the tube to the mouth piece freezing solid.  Food for the day is organic, vegan Bonk Buster bar.  I also supplement with Endurolytes to make sure my electrolytes stay topped off.  I will not fall victim to GI distress today.

Anton and Hal coming back into Damnation.  Scott Jurek is just a 100 yards behind them.

I start the second loop just as I did the first.  Steady and even.  All systems are go through the first aid station.  On the way to Dam Road I notice my sweat rate is picking up quite a bit.  I feel flashes of warmth not in a good way in the still cool morning.  Now that the hydration tube has thawed I redouble efforts to stay on top of my fluid intake.  I am hoping I can flush whatever is ailing me with liquids and a healthy sweat.  The leaders on the course are smoking it.  At one point I come around a corner and there is an apparition otherwise known as Anton floating effortlessly over the trail towards me.  Hal is right behind him with a big smile and a friendly hello. 

A great ambassador for the sport.  Scott was very friendly and gracious to all who approached him all weekend.

A few minutes later and here comes Scott Jurek.  I pinch myself to see if I am dreaming.  Maybe a dream within a dream?  I just watched Inception for the first time so I reach for my talisman to insure myself this is real.  On the way back to Dam road I actually get to run WITH Scott Jurek for a few minutes.  He has a minor injury that was bothering him so he had already decided to stop after his 3rd loop.  He is chatting with everyone.  It is very cool to be treading through the single track on a beautiful morning in the forest right behind Scott.  When he gets back to Damnation he stays for over 10 minutes and visits with everyone, takes pictures, etc.  He is the real deal and a total class act.  I leave the aid station to move on and it is not long before he co bmesy me again.  He is really moving this time.  He offers a friendly “looking good” and continues gliding forward.

Who is this Ian guy running out front with last years Badwater winner Zach Gingerich?

How can it be that I am in trail running heaven and dealing with this stupid cold?  The second half of this loop I find myself falling off this very easy pace I have been running even after the inspiration of all the great runners I am getting to share the trail with this morning.  With almost 4,000 miles of training last year, the fatigue I am starting to feel is not due to lack of preparation.  By the time I reach the start/finish I have given an hour back to the course and finish the second loop in 5 hours. 

These are my Brook's Cascadia trail shoes.  I logged over 3,000 miles in these shoes last year.  

Craig and Carla are there again to help me transition to the next loop.  I talk about some of my struggles and my strategy.  Even though this is their first time to crew, they seemed to instinctively know to keep pressing me forward and talk about nothing other than working the plan.    At this point I am nine hours into the effort.  My body feels like it is 19.  Body aches in my upper torso and places that usually do not ache from a 40-mile effort.  At this point my legs and my heart tell me to just keep moving forward and to not think about the time.  Despite the motivation of my spirit, my head starts doing calculations on pace and time.  I am 9 hours in with 3 loops to go.  It will probably take me 5.5 hours to do loop 3 unless I am able to rally significantly.  Loops 4 and 5 will be in total darkness and in falling temperatures below freezing.  6 hours each for these loops.  That makes 9 hours plus another 17.5 hours to go at these paces.  26.5 hours to complete the 100 miles.  This sounds doable under fairly “normal” ultra conditions.  Not a great time, but any finish is a victory in itself regardless of the time.  

Here I am on the same course in the fall.  Everything clicked on this day.  

On many courses on any given day this is what it can boil down to.  Do you have the mental toughness and determination to endure this kind of death march to get it done?  The wild card for me today is the fever and the severe temperatures I will have to endure through the night.  I spent most of December and part of January with a very bad bronchial cough that sidelined me for a while.  I am not excited about the prospect of a repeat performance.  Logically in my head I have determined that I need to drop and probably do so at a reasonable place on the course before darkness.  The miles I have gotten in today so far have been good from my legs perspective, although the rest of my body aches and aches. 

I saw Anita Fromm conquer adversity many times while pacing her along the Badwater course last summer.

Now my heart and soul start to take over the conversation.  This is the moment I always seek out.  That place where you have to open the door to full-on commitment to the cause no matter what.  While it takes courage to sign-up and toe the starting line, there is still always this point I described where that commitment will be reaffirmed in a profound way.  This is that moment.  I think back to all the battle lines I had drawn in my mind regarding how I was going to attack this day in this blog post a few days ago:  Testing My Soul Yet Again.  Now I find myself maybe considering dropping before I ever get to take on Loop 4!  I think about all my friends in my tribe who offer me encouragement and support.  Craig and Carla who endured a dangerous drive just to get here!  They are more excited about running tonight with me than I am at times.  This is going to be their first experience at a true ultramarathon.  How can I let them down?  How can I let myself down?

I battled several bouts of nausea at AT100, but was able to prevail on this day.

Two thoughts prevail:  1. I did not come here to walk all night.  I came here to run.  2.  I do not want to wreck the next 2 months of training due to another extended illness.  I have about 2 miles into the next aid station.  If I can generate and maintain enough effort to run a reasonable pace all the way in to Nature Center I will continue.  The plan is to make this decision aid station-by-aid station for the next 13 stops.  I ramp back up to my pace and plaster a big smile on my face and revel in the sunshine.  This is short lived.  A surge of fever and cold sweats overwhelm my body with even this modest effort.  I shut it down and walk the rest of the way into Nature Center.  I make a very conscious decision at that moment to not wallow in any negativity or second-guess my decision.  It is done and it is the correct decision. 

Raven Lake on the morning of the race.  It was quite nice at this point to be just walking in the woods.

Now I am just out for a nice stroll in the woods along the lake with the sunshine on my shoulders.  I round a corner and some dude named Ian comes blazing down the trail.  I have seen him a few times and he is always moving fast.  He has number 6 on his race bib.  He is not one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but he looks capable of giving a good chase for sure.  Little did I know at the time he is the leader!  A short while passes and along comes Anton floating down the trail.  They are finishing their 4th lap.  I will now get the pleasure of being at the finish line to potentially see history in the making.

Ian Sharmer widens the gap on the field of contenders.

I hit Nature Center and check-in so they will know I was there.  I remove my bib number and the resignation is complete.  It is about 2 miles back to the start finish.  I am sure I could have gotten a ride, but even though I was totally OK with the decision, I still did not want to be carted back to the finish.  I want this to all be my decision and on my terms under my own power.  If it is OK for Scott Jurek to make a smart call today and drop it is for me as well.

This guy was awesome all day.  He ran most of the afternoon with his shirt off.  If that Running Beard could talk!

When I return to the start/finish I take off some wet clothing and layer up a bit for the impending darkness.  The second part of a glorious weekend immersed in the ultramarathon community is just beginning.  Hanging out at the finish line I am now able to cheer on all the people finishing their 50-mile races.  For many these are the first ultras they will complete and there is wild celebration for each and every one.  A steady stream of 100-milers come and go.  I take on the role of aid station volunteer and fetch hot cups of soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, or whatever else they might need.  I encourage several who are going out into the fading daylight in just short sleeves to layer-up or at least take something warm with them.  Outside of the contenders on their last loop, most of these other sturdy, courageous souls are in for a long, cold night.

The two best pacers that never got used!  Thanks for being there guys!

Craig and Carla wander back over form their campsite close to the time they were expecting me to finish the next loop.  I know they are disappointed for me, but I assure you, I am way more disappointed for them.  They sacrificed a weekend with their family to come to battle with me and it is over before the fight even really begins.  Craig makes plans to go for a run after dark and get some miles in since he is already planning on running with me and I camp out at the finish line to see if this guy named Ian will break the course record.

Moments after finishing.  The whole running world knows Ian Sharmer now.  12:44!!!

Not long after darkness the somewhat anonymous Ian crosses the line in 12 hours and 44 minutes.  He crushed the record by 32 minutes!  7:38 per mile pace for 100 miles! Now some may be surprised that Ian came from out of nowhere to shock the ultrarunning world on this day amongst a star-studded field of runners.  A more careful examination of his running CV will indicate otherwise.  Ian has been a very fast and competitive 50-miler for a few years and finished in 8th place at Western States this past summer.  Certainly the sun, moon, and stars align for him on this day.  Perfect weather amongst a looming forecast.  A dry and fast course (except for the icy bridges).  Nutrition, hydration, and his stomach all stay in his favor.  We all know how any one of these factors can create a less-than-desired outcome.  Bravo Ian!

Anton crossing the line at 13:18 on a day where at one point the thought of dropping due to an injury crossed his mind.

The next question is going to be is how far behind him is Anton?  How about Hal?  Will they come in below the previous course record of 13:16 as well?  At 13:18 Anton crosses the line.  Minutes after finishing he barely looks like he has even been out for a short training run let alone 100-miles at a sub 8:00 pace.  Hal Koerner is just 7 minutes behind Anton.  At this point many are circulating around trying to grab tidbits of commentary from the runners about their day on the trail and how the race unfolded.  

Hal Koerner was breathing (and coughing) down Anton's neck all day on the way to an amazing 13:25 finish!

Very opportunistically I grabbed a camp chair near a heater at the back of the tent close to where Ian is regrouping and loading up on some hot food.  What a great guy Ian is.  Very affable and talkative I engage in a conversation with him about his day on the trail, how he felt along the way, thoughts in his head, etc.  Just another one of the great people you meet in the running community only he runs 100 miles faster than anyone ever has on US soil!

Anton and Hal also grab chairs just to the other side of me by Ian and I get a front-row seat to how the race unfolded from each of their perspectives.  Anton gives Ian a very good natured “You bastard!” for his stellar effort for the day.  Anton is very gracious and congratulatory.  Hal is beaming that huge grin he carried on his solidly bearded face all day long.  Why not?  He just ran 13:25 for 100 miles!  A short while later and Karl Metzler finishes and joins the rambling dialogue.  Oh just as an aside, Scott Jurek also came back to see them finish and plops down in the chair right next to me.  Now I am not name-dropping because these guys are  running “celebrities”.  Most people on the street will not recognize them or know them by name.  I respect their abilities knowing what a commitment it takes to complete any ultramarathon let alone be competitive at the highest level.  At the end of the day they are regular guys who love running as much as I do, only do it much faster!  All told they hang out for well over an hour and a half.  Scott and I talk for a long time about Vegan stuff, my Cascadias with over 3,000 miles on them, etc. 

Course records and PR's abounded for most of this group.  

Once the elites disperse I go back into full-time crewing mode for the continuing stream of 100-milers braving the elements.  I am also still waiting on my friend Deborah Sexton to finish her 50-miler.  She will be the first one to tell you she is not fast, but she is determined.  After a rough 2nd loop, she is able to rally and finish her 3rd and final loop in strong fashion.  Many more courageous runners trickle in and out of the aid station.  Some come in with beaming smiles on their faces while others are struggling to keep their eyes open.  They are warriors each and every one of them.  During this time Liza Howard comes in as the winner of the women’s field.  She posts a time of 15 hours and 33 minutes as the first woman and 5th overall finisher.  What a class act Liza is.  Until that night I have never had the chance to sit and chat with her.  I play gopher for her and get her some hot food and drinks as she basks in the glow of the space heater and her victory. 

Liza Howard with one of the best in the business, RD Joe Prusaitis.

As we sit there an extremely wobbly and weary looking runner approaches the heater.  I immediately jump up and help him into a chair.  Those of us sitting there quickly recognize the signs of someone whose day is done.  He has just completed his third loop and is shivering very badly and vocally.  I start talking to him to see if he is cognizant enough to have a conversation and see just how bad off he is.  Forming words between his shivering is very difficult for him.  He rejects my initial attempts to get him some hot food, hot chocolate, hot soup, or something.  I persist a bit and he agrees to take some hot chocolate.  I hand him the glass and he tentatively takes a sip and resumes rocking back and forth as his entire body shivers.  He tells me that he has taken a pretty good fall and it is hard to breathe deep and his shoulder hurts pretty badly.  I begin to look for the race medical director because it is obvious this guy could be in real trouble.  In the meantime, he falls asleep while sitting in the chair and begins to spill his drink.  

Liza makes a quick save to keep him from being cold and wet and the doctor now has his full attention.  She starts with his vitals while asking him questions about his condition.  Turns out he is a surgeon himself.  His blood pressure is kind of low so we help him lie on the ground and get his feet elevated above his head.  We pack 4-5 blankets around him and start putting hand warmers and hot water bottles next to his skin to help raise his core temperature.  I ask him if there is anyone we can call.  All he can say is “Tom, Holiday Inn Suites, Rm 208.”  I get Tom on the phone and assure him that his friend is getting great care and will be OK, but is in pretty bad shape.  At this moment I realize that that could have easily been me later in the evening had I decided to continue.  Before the night is through 4 other people will be transported to the hospital for hypothermia and another for a badly broken leg.  Running 100-miles is difficult and rewarding, but it can also be dangerous if you do not keep your wits about you.  Joe and his crew always look out for the safety of runners and put necessary precautions/safeguards in place.  In the end you are responsible for yourself, but we all look out for one another.

Breakfast with Ian on Sunday.  We will hear more from this guy!

Shortly thereafter, Deborah and I gather our drop bags and head back to the hotel for hot showers, warm beds, and a good night’s sleep.  While the shower was great and the bed was comfortable, I would have much rather been out there kicking Loop 4’s arse!  I drift off to sleep sending positive energy out to my many running friends who are bravely trudging through the cold, dark night. 

Gerard and I at the start.

One person in particular comes to the forefront of my mind.  Gerard Martinez.  He is a 25-year-old law student who is relatively new to running, let alone running Ultramarathons.  Gerard and I have become good friends over the last year due to our common love of all things ultrarunning.  We first met at Badwater last year while pacing different runners.  He is on quite the journey.  Visit his blog here:   If you do not take inspiration away from this young man’s story we may need to check your pulse.  Back in October he DNF’d at Cactus Rose after getting severely lost and missing the cut-off times.  I believe he ended up covering 90 miles of the most rugged course in Texas before it was painfully obvious he was going to run out of time.  There is never any shame at a DNF at Cactus Rose after giving your all.  That course has chewed up and spit out all variety of runners.

I saw Gerard out on the course several times throughout the day.  A few times I saw him he did not appear to be having his best day by his responses or his body language.  We would  encourage each other and we would both keep moving on.  I really wanted him to be able to keep it together, hold on during the night, and rally to find the strength to get it done.  When it comes to heart and perseverance there is no doubt he has the right stuff and he is committed to his training and nutrition as well.  When I wake up in the morning it is close to 9:00.  I wonder who finished when?  Did Gerard finish?  I know he runs with his phone so I sent him a text around 10:00.  A minute later the phone rings and the caller ID lets me know it is him.  I skip the pleasantries of hello, etc and get right to the point.  “Did you finish?!”  He responds that he is at about mile 98 and moving!  He’s going to make it!  To me seeing this milestone in his evolution take place is the highlight of the entire weekend for me.  Over the past year we have both taken much inspiration from each other.  Here is a quick video clip of him crossing the finish line Sunday morning over 28 hours after starting:  Gerard's finish at RR100

On the ride home I get to thinking:  Where does all this leave me in my journey not only in running but my own personal evolution in life?  As far as running goes I think I may have lost sight a bit in the pure joy of running for running’s sake.  I believe I became a little bit too event/distance/time focused.  The events are great and the camaraderie with all the great people is a big part of why I love running ultras.  When you boil it all down most of the time it is just you out there with your own thoughts and testing the limits of your body and spirit. 

These are the moments I live for out on the trail...

I think I need to get back to some basics.  Late night runs under a full moon with nothing but the sound of my feet crunching on a trail.  Solo boondoggle runs under the cover of darkness where the only spectator is the guy working the graveyard shift at 7-11 where I refill my water bottles.  Forget about time and distance.  Henry Hobbs and the trail marking crew always post interesting quotes around the course at races.  This particular one grabbed me:  “Where ever you are, be there.”  Lately I have caught myself too focused on where I am going, where I need to go, or what time or how long it should take me to get there. 

Lisa and some friends enjoying her "backyard".

To that end there are only 2 organized events I am going to keep on my calendar for 2011 at this point.  Pacing at Badwater and running Lisa Smith-Batchen’s inaugural Grand Teton’s 100-miler in September.  Other than that I am going to take my running moment-by-moment and revel in each beautiful stride.  I am sure I may find myself at some other organized events, but I will be the guy with the biggest grin on his face enjoying each step.  And if everything clicks, I might even be fast that day.

I’ll close with a quote that was shared with my by a kindred spirit runner-poet, La Mariposa.  She did not write these words but brought them to my attention and she certainly embodies them in her every moment.

Apache chief and medicine man Geronimo.

I was warmed by the sun, rocked by the winds, and sheltered by the trees.  I ran free, where the wind blew with nothing to break the light of the sun, where there were no enclosures. I lived peacefully. I ate well, slept well, running everywhere with a good feeling. We have an oath, not to do anything wrong to one another, or to scheme, or deceive one another. While living, I will always live well.”

-Goyathlay (Geronimo)


sharmanian said...

Great write-up, Dave, and it was a pleasure to meet you. Sorry you were ill for it, but it's always important to have fun and there's no point in grinding out a result when injured or ill, then suffering for months afterwards. DNFs suck, but sometimes it's the right choice.

K said...

Loved the report, Dave. I've been not-so-patiently waiting for it! LOL

I hope it's ok with you, but I brought you along on loop 4 with me! We took it down together, if only in spirit!

DNF's are all part of the process. Knowing when to take care of yourself is just as important, if not more important than pushing yourself.

Hope you are feeling better!

Dave said...

I am def feeling better today. Very tempted to go run in the snow, but will make another wise choice and stay out of the cold air.

K-very happy for your conquest this weekend in your ongoing journey!

Ian- We'll be cheering you on from Texas!

Lynn B said...


I am so sorry you were battling the cold! How fortuitous that you were able to spend the time at the finish with the elite! You'll live to set new personal bests another day... consider 2011 RR100 as a finish line ambiance personal best!

Glad you enjoyed some of my photos from DamNation!

Lynn B

Dave said...

Thanks Lynn! It was a great consolation prize. Your photos were awesome! Way better than the Enduro guys stuff....An amazing job you and your crew did out there over 2 very cold nights!

Rachael said...

DAVE! I love your reports and your tenacious perspective.
So much so? That...the...gravitational...pull...of the trail...of the...100 miler...too resist. (Think: the ORIGINAL Captain Kirk.)

Joe Prusaitis said...

You have a strong spirit Dave. I wonder what some of your totems might be?

Dave said...

Thanks Joe- I would be curious myself. You got me thinking about that now. Something to rabbit trail tonight....Peace!

misszippy said...

Found your blog via Jason. What an amazing race report you put together! And what an amazing event you ran. A DNF stinks, to be sure, but you are a stud regardless. I love how you talk about wanting to get back to the simplicity of just running, not for time/event, etc. You have great perspective. Enjoy the journey!

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