The Plan, The Race, The Aftermath

Rocky Raccoon

Matt and Julie at the finish of the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Race in Texas.

The Plan

Based on last year’s failure after 60 miles, I decided that this year, I needed a plan. Not that a plan could guarantee success, but it sure couldn’t hurt. The plan started with getting to the race course a full 5 days before the race even started. We camped at the very park in which the race was held, ran a part of the course every day, and familiarized ourselves with the technical footing of the trails, the turns the race took, and just the general feel of each section between aid stations. Last year I didn’t even know what the aid stations names were, let alone how much distance was in between them. I’m ashamed that I went into a race so blind, and am shocked that I even made it 60 miles with such a shoddy plan. This time was the complete opposite, as Matt and I memorized the distances between aid stations, along with the terrain in between, so we could estimate our time on each section during the race. It’s a heck of a lot easier to tell yourself you have 3.1 miles to get to the next aid station rather than 20 miles until the next loop is over.

The other part of the plan was to set up “drop bags” as they are called, which the race volunteers will place at aid stations for you to have along the way. It’s a way to crew for yourself, by having a bag with your extra clothes, special food that you eat beyond what’s available at the aid stations, and any other essential items like an extra headlamp or extra batteries. I had one of these bags at the DamNation aid station, which was at miles 6 and 12 of the course, and left another bag of similar contents with Matt’s dad, John Urbanski, at the Dogwood aid station, which was at miles 0, 20, 40, 60, 80, and 100. In each bag, I had two extra pieces of every type of clothing, headlamp batteries, crackers, energy bars, gu and PB&Js. I also had a separate medical kit bag with all the essentials, including baby wipes, ibuprofen and Vaseline. This brings in the other part of the plan: having crew support. While you can self-crew your way through an ultra, it’s a fabulous luxury to have a friend or family member there to give you extra food, clothing, or just words of motivation. We did not have any crew last year, and relied only on a drop bag at Dogwood, so again, this plan was above and beyond anything we did last year.

The third part of my plan was to run as much as possible in the daylight. Those miles can get pretty lonely, slow and downright scary when it’s dark and people are so spread out that there isn’t a headlamp in sight. I mean, come on, we’re running in the dark, in the woods, with the confirmed presence of 40 adult alligators. I definitely had my reasons for being scared of the dark. My goal was to at least get three laps in before sunset, and be started on my fourth. That gave me 12 hours to get in 60 miles, and I counted on taking the next 12 hours to get in the last 40. It seems crazy to plan like that, but I knew how much pain would set in by 60 miles, and I also knew how much slower walking can be, so I was prepared for a major slow down for the last two laps.

So that was the plan. I knew it wouldn’t all fall into place as planned, but just the fact that I put that much thought and preparation into the race got me excited to get started, and made me really face the fact that I’d have to come up with a way to get through the 100 miles. One of my favorite parts of running these kinds of races is that they never go as planned, and that I have to just be ok with adjusting them as I go. I got to the starting line thinking, “I made it this far, I’ve done the work, and now let the chips fall where they may.”

The Race

Now for the actual race, the event that I’d been thinking about since we signed up in October, and ever since I dropped out last February.

Lap One – Being Thrown into the Fire

The race start certainly had less than ideal conditions and was far from anything I had envisioned. The skies unleashed a fury of heavy downpour, thunder and lightning, at 5am, and hardly let up by the time we got started at 6am. I was still sitting in the car 10 minutes before the start of the race because I wanted to stay dry as long as possible, and I was deciding what clothes to wear. I hadn’t really prepared for a true downpour, so at the last minute I threw on my rain jacket and decided I’d rather risk being warm in the rain jacket rather than cold and wet with just a short sleeve shirt. It was a good decision.

Once the race got started, it was a shock to me that there we were, starting a 100 mile race, in a thunderstorm, and that the trail was already saturated with water. There were several stretches of shoe-sucking mud for as long as a hundred yards, and the fact that hundreds of pairs of feet were going over the same muddy terrain was of no help to the conditions.

Despite the rainy start, I had a good lap, as I ran it in 3:26. My goal was to be around 3:30, and that included aid station stops, general slowness with so many runners funneled into a single track trail, and navigation through the mud fields. I didn’t feel great physically, as I was having trouble taking in food, but all I could do was keep running and hoping my stomach would settle.

Lap Two – Passing Matt

After a short stop at Dogwood with our crew, Matt’s dad, I started on my second lap. I knew I’d have to figure out how to eat at each aid station, or there was no way I was going to make it without taking in calories. I was able to choke down a handful of cheetos, fritos, pretzels, and animal crackers at each aid station, and it kept me going. I also managed to run most of the lap with another woman, Vikki, and the lap passed relatively quickly since we were able to talk most of the time. It was her second hundred, as she had completed one before and dropped out of another one.

The low point on the lap came around 9 miles in, when I recognized a t-shirt on a runner ahead of me. He was walking, and as we came up on him, I realized it was Matt. It made me so sad to see him, because I knew he was hurting, especially if he was already walking on lap 2. I knew how fast of a first lap he had run because John had filled me in, so I knew he was crashing hard. I didn’t want to leave him. I let Vikki run ahead, and thought about staying with him. It seems odd to say this, but I would have quit right there had he wanted me to; I just wanted to be with him and no longer cared about the race. I was so sad that his race was falling apart so quickly, all because of bad food from the night before, and that all of his potential was out the window. The other part of me still felt good running, and wanted to continue running my own race. I felt bad leaving him, but gave him a hug, kissed him goodbye, and promised to warn his dad when I went through mile 40.

I took 3:41 to run that lap, including aid stops, so I was very happy with my time after 40 miles under my legs. I left Matt’s dad, sad to report such bad news about Matt, but also hopeful that my race plan was working out in my favor.

Lap Three – Feeling Hopeful and Doubtful

One aspect of ultramarathons that is very similar to long-distance hiking is the swing in emotions that one goes through, sometimes all in the same minute. Lap 3, from miles 40 to 60, was just that. I was still so far from the finish, but had run really well thus far. I was also still pushing to get in as many miles as possible before sunset, so that stress was starting to weigh on me. I was still around Vikki, and would run with her when I felt positive, then drop back when I started feeling negative. Basically, I was all over the place during those 20 miles. The one thing that did make me feel better was that I saw Matt coming in as I was going out, so I knew he was able to pick it up again and get back to Dogwood. Just knowing that he was still going kept me going.

The other aspect of this lap was that it had started raining again, and was still so darn muddy. I could feel the mud building up under my toes, and had planned on doing a complete wardrobe overhaul at Dogwood with Matt’s dad. I was very much looking forward to the end of lap 3, which made it all the harder to get through.

This was also the lap that I was thankful for the lead runners. They are amazing. They are willing to push through such mental and physical limits, and are in such fantastic shape, that it really is awe-inspiring to see them run. In the middle of the lap, I had been lapped by the men’s leader, Hal Koerner, and when I had two miles left of my lap, I saw him starting his fifth lap. There I was, walking, and he was pushing himself so hard, and after he passed me, I thought, “What the hell am I doing? He’s a badass, pushing his limits, and I’m feeling sorry for myself. I need to get my ass moving!” After that I ran it in to finish the lap in 3:55.

As planned, I cleaned out my shoes, changed socks, re-lubed my feet and sports bra area with Vaseline, changed my sports bra and shirt, picked up my ipod, and put on my compression sleeves for my calves. John helped immensely, as he wiped down my calves with baby wipes while I changed my top clothing and downed a cup of cheetos. It was no small feat to get all that dirt off my calves, and he also cleaned off the half-inch of dirt that had accumulated on my shoe insert, just under my toes. This was also the first time I looked at my toe nails, whose existence were questionable going into the race, and which looked even worse. I considered duct taping them, but decided to leave them as they were, slapped on some new vaseline, and went on my fourth lap. That whole process took 15 minutes, so quite a big break, but I needed it, and felt really refreshed going into my fourth lap.

Lap Four – Feeling Defeated

Just as I had come in to end my third lap, I saw Matt leaving, and I was very confused. I thought I was still ahead of him, and yelled out, “When did you pass me?” He said back, “I didn’t. I’m just starting my third lap, and I’ll run your fourth lap with you. I’ll get started and you can catch me.”

This was very exciting for me. I had been dreading running alone in the dark, and was guaranteed to have someone with me for at least the next 20 miles, maybe even the next 40. After I did my complete overhaul with Matt’s dad, I took off shuffling after Matt. By this point, things were hurting. My left IT band hurt in my hip area with every step, and my right hip flexor was getting weary of picking up my feet. The wheels were starting to come off.

Thankfully, I was prepared to hurt physically. I knew there was no way I’d sail through a 100 miler without any physical pain. What I wasn’t prepared for, or at least was not looking forward to, was the mental hurting. Matt and I ran/walked a lot of the fourth lap, and I would go in and out of feeling positive and negative all in the same moment. Then we hit the Park Road aid station 4 hours into that loop, which was 4.4 miles from the Dogwood start/finish area, and I cracked. I only wanted to walk, and was sure that I was quitting after 80 miles. I even had the title to my follow up story of, “80 Will Have to Do.” I was telling myself that I was not an ultramarathoner, that I didn’t care if I finished, and that I was tired of hurting. Basically, I was a big whiny baby, and I had Matt to whine to. While it was so nice having someone with me, it was also to my detriment because I had someone I could complain to, and I knew he’d listen or at least let me vent. I even asked him if he’d be disappointed if I quit, and though he said no, I knew it would bother him and possibly lower his chances of finishing. In those last 4 miles of walking, he convinced me to not give up my timing chip right away, but to take a short nap in the tent. I still had plenty of time to even walk the entire last lap, so I agreed to not quit right away. We finished that lap in 5:23, and I felt defeated beyond belief.

Lap Five – Napping and Hauling Ass (at a blistering 13 minute mile)

I took Matt’s advice of lying in the tent, eating some food, and taking ibuprofen, before making any decisions of quitting. After about 20 minutes, Matt got up and started on his 4th lap. I didn’t want to move, let alone sign up for another 20 miles, so I stayed in the tent. I fell asleep and woke up an hour later to Matt’s dad, asking me if I’d decided anything yet. I said I hadn’t, and in the silence that came after he left the tent and went back to the car, the switch in my brain flipped on. I looked at my watch, and the overall time was 17:48. I gave myself 12 minutes to put on fresh clothes, fresh socks, went to the bathroom, and filled up my bottle with fresh Gatorade. That left me with 6 hours to still make it under 24 hours, and I told myself that as long as I could keep the same pace of the 4th lap, or even do slightly better, that I’d make it. I also promised myself that I was going to run as much as possible, no matter the pain. Running and walking hurt all the same, and running got me a heck of a lot further in the same amount of time, so I ran as hard as I could for the last 20 miles.

By that point I knew the course so well that I knew exactly the points in which I would walk, and hurriedly got past those sections so I could start running again. I actually felt my form come back to me, and passed at least 30 people in that last lap. I was so proud when one runner said to me, “I knew someone would still be out here running,” as everyone else was resolved to a walk at that point. Nearly everyone asked me if it was my last lap, as if they could sense the excitement and urgency in my pace. I also rocked out on the ipod to Rage Against The Machine, Kanye West, and Eminem. Running is pretty much the only time I listen to these artists, but man do they get me motivated. “Lose Yourself” was the song playing as I crossed the finish line, and I couldn’t have thought of a better song to bring me home.

I crossed the finish line in 22:34, with my last lap including a 95 minute break, and 4:32 for the last 20 miles.

As with most epic events, the end was rather anticlimactic. Because people are so spread out, there’s not really a way for people to know what lap you are on. As I crossed the finish line, I didn’t see Matt or John, I heard my timing chip beep across the finish line, and I stopped my watch. The volunteer at the finish line asked me if I was finished, and after I said yes with choked-back tears, he handed me my sub-24 hour belt buckle. And that was that. After 22 hours and 34 minutes of effort, I felt the one second thrill of crossing the finish line.

Another part of these events that is so similar to long-distance hiking is the build up to the finish. Oftentimes, one looks forward to the finish for so long, a finish that lasts for just seconds compared to the hours, or even months, that are taken to get to that one end point. My downfall in long-distance hiking is that I often miss the good stuff in the middle because I’m so focused on the end, but because I recognize that downfall, I’m more aware of it during races such as marathons. I was aware of this during the 100, and tried to take it all in as it came, with each joyous and depressing mile, and I didn’t start getting excited about that moment of crossing the finish line until I was on my last 4.4 mile section.

Once I crossed the finish line, the volunteers asked me if I needed anything, but I declined, and walked over to our tent. I found Matt taking a break between his 4th and 5th lap, and John was getting stuff for Matt from the car. I started crying as I told Matt that I was finished, with part of me sad that I had beat him and that he had one lap to go. John walked up shortly thereafter, surprised to see me, and regretful that he missed my finish, but I didn’t care. I was so happy to hug him as relief washed over me and I let myself have a short cry of joy. I had finally finished 100 miles.

The Aftermath

In summary, the 100 mile race was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, both mentally and physically. I can’t really compare it with hiking the PCT or the AT, because those events are so much longer in comparison, but they all rank high up on the list.

The only mantra that got me through the 4th and 5th lap was “Never Again.” As I was walking the end of the 4th lap with Matt, I told him, “Don’t ever ask me to do one of these again.” And now that I’m just a day removed from the event, I have to say that though I don’t see myself doing another 100 miler, I can’t say “Never.” Words like “never” and “always” only put limits on oneself, so while I’ll use them as a mental tactic in a race, I’ll take them back once I’m back in the logical land of non-racing.

There are things that I would do differently, now that I look back on my race. I would have tried to force down more calories on the loops, in the form of gu. I started to eat gu again on the 5th lap, and felt immediately stronger, and thought to myself, “Why the hell didn’t I do this before?” I’m also not sure I would have run with Matt for my 4th loop. I let myself be a big baby, and walked way too much on some flat sections. He was fresh and ready to run, and I was pooped and ready to walk, so it wasn’t a good combo, at least for me. I can’t say that I regret the 95 minute break. It let me digest food, feel refreshed, and got me pumped up to run as much as possible for the last loop. Though my last lap was slow because of the long break, it felt so much faster because I ran so much of it. I think I’d rather have had the break and ran faster, rather than walked nearly the entire thing. All this being said, one can never know what would happen had different factors been put into play, so I can’t be upset for lost time due to walking and breaks. My main goal was to finish, my second goal was to be under 24 hours, and I accomplished both, so I have to be happy with that. There will always be that voice that asks me if I could have done better, and the answer will most likely be yes. That’s probably why people go back to these races again and again, no matter how much it hurts in the race. That’s the beauty of the human spirit and of endurance sports: that you’ll go through hell and back to reach the finish, and the words “Never Again” slowly morph into, “Next time” with that much more hope and excitement for the next challenge.

Despite the fact that I currently don’t want to subject myself to another 100 miler, I’m so glad I didn’t listen to my mind, and that I pushed through and finished. It would have been so easy to quit, and I was ready to, but it almost felt harder to explain to people why I would quit. I wasn’t injured, I was just plain hurting, and didn’t want to go on. Those reasons simply were not good enough to quit. I’m just glad I still had the mental capacity to recognize that. It’s amazing what happens to the brain once the body and mind are subjected to so much pain for such a prolonged period of time. Decisions that you told yourself you’d never make, cross your mind more often that you’d like to admit. I even told Matt on the fourth lap that I was quitting. It just felt good to say it out loud and try on the statement. For me, it’s like trying on a pair of patent leather pants. Sure, I’m never going to wear them, but man, am I curious what they look like on me. I just wanted to hear myself say that I was quitting, and after I heard my own voice, I knew the statement didn’t fit, and I knew I would finish. It just took getting to the lowest point to be able to get to the finish. I imagine most people who do these sort of events go through similar emotions.

As for results, I finished in 22:34, the 6th female and missed top 5 by just over a minute. Since the top 5 were out of the age group results, I did win my age group of 30-39 and won a sweet lizard- shaped award in addition to my belt buckle. Vikki, the runner from the first few loops, finished as the 2nd female in 20:01. She was a rock the whole time, and there was no cracking her mental or physical strength. I was so impressed with how she ran that race and shocked to hear the results, as she said she was aiming for 22 hours. In the end, one of my toe nails in fact fell off in the shower after the race, so it too held on until every last ounce of effort was put forth to finish the race.

A huge thank you goes out to all our family and friends who supported us in our training and racing, especially to John Urbanski for flying out to crew the race, for putting up with me for the entire race, for standing in the pouring rain for us, and for going so far as to wipe the dirt of my legs and shoes as I sat in the chair and he tended to my needs. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew member.

Finally, I’m glad I did it, glad I finished, glad it’s over, and glad to be moving on to the next adventure: Guatemala. Marathon Madness has officially come to a close, and Going Guatemalan is now on center stage. I imagine I’ll still get some running in though.

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