Monday 8 February 2010

Rocky Raccoon 100 Miler

Pre-race nerves in the car?

The start/finish line for each lap

It's taken a while, but last weekend was my first 100 miler...or should have been. I picked Rocky Raccoon in Huntsville, Texas, because it's a quick course (as 100s go, anyway) with just 5,000ft of climb over the five 20-mile laps. Basically a nice trail to run on, although the heavy rain over the previous days made for a lot of mud and puddles this year. From what I've heard the conditions were better than normal and it was certainly a good course with plenty of aid stations, never more than six miles between them.

Unfortunately, I came to the race still injured and after not training properly for two months. I'd thought the ITB/back of the hamstring issue had gone away after the Arizona marathon in Phoenix but it came straight back. That left two weeks to get some physio from Mark DeJohn (highly recommended by other runners and with a list of impressive elites as clients).

On paper two months of 10-20 miles/week, all of it slow, plus the Bad Ass 50k (slow) and the recent marathon (not too slow and full effort) would not be the ideal build-up. But ultras are funny beasts and there's an art to nailing them which sometimes goes against the science. Therefore, I reasoned it'd still be possible to run the full 100 miles but to do so slower than initially intended and to find it harder. I might even escape making the knee worse. No harm in being an optimist, especially when everything's already been bought and paid for.

Back to last weekend. Huntsville isn't the most exciting place and seems to be mainly famous for being home to Sam Houston, a famous ex-Governor who got a city named after him. There were also lots of people who looked like Jerry Springer extras and a large selection of restaurants with a wide variety of Mexican and barbecue dishes. Couldn't find pasta anywhere, except at the pre-race dinner, but I'd have been there anyway to meet the runners and hear the briefing.

Never before have I turned up to a race where the 50-mile option (three 16.7 mile loops, following most of the 100-mile course) is considered the easy choice. I'd toyed with the (sensible) idea of switching down to this, but I'd entered the 100 and wanted to see if I'd make it round. The 30-hour cut-off should make that a formality as long as my knee didn't go, but I had no intention of taking nearly that long. Maybe it's a bit snobby, but I'm a runner and I like running, so the idea of walking most of the way doesn't appeal. It's one of the main reasons I've avoided 100-milers to date - the pace just seems too slow to be fun. Plus I'd rather be able to race again within a week or so and that's not really possible (at least to actually 'race') with 100s.
I can see the appeal of pushing the body to the limits in the sense of going til you drop, no matter how slow that is. But it doesn't appeal to me in quite that way. I'd rather run, not even shuffle, and certainly not walk (unless it's steep uphill). I'm amazed at the people I meet who set out knowing they'll keep up a pace of 4mph and barely go quicker than that even at the start. It takes real guts and stubbornness. But the challenge I find more interesting is to see how hard I can push it and for how long.

Given that, I intended to jog Rocky Raccoon and see if I could keep it up for the whole distance and avoid pushing the knee too much. So as I lined up in the cold, but not freezing, pre-dawn I was excited to find out what it would feel like to run further and for longer than ever before. Everyone was friendly, as I'd expect from an ultra, and 360 of us got going on to the trails at 6am, with about as many 50-milers starting at 7am.

It took 45 mins for there to be enough light to turn off the headlamps, in which I'd chatted to a few people and generally followed in a line, occasionally stumbling on the protruding tree roots. Knowing that I'd be out until a bit after it got dark again was a daunting thought, although not an unusual one for my ultra friends. There'd be almost 12 hours before I'd need the headlamp again, so I wanted to get as many miles under my belt before the dark slowed me down even more. Maybe just the last 10-15 miles in the dark would be possible, but I wanted at least to have started the last lap by then.

The knee didn't even whisper any complaints and I felt really good jogging through the undulations and frequently seeing the lake in the middle of the forest. Lap one went by before I even knew it and I'd worked myself into a steady pace of around 8 min/miles. Half way through the second lap I was recognising the trails and was surprised to be told I was in second. It doesn't mean anything that early on, but it was good to know that I was in a good position while running my own race sensibly.

The sun got higher and brighter as a beautiful day unfolded and temperatures got pleasantly warm. With the lack of clouds the forest looked great so the run was really enjoyable. Every now and then I'd look at my watch and have a dispiriting thought about how much further I had to go, but each time I just settled back into the moment to keep enjoying it while I could and before it started getting hard.

After 40 miles I had a good idea of what the laps looked like and the frequent aid stations were making things easier by being so well manned and well stocked. Kudos to the organisers for taking some of the hassle out of the race for us, although I'd not bothered to drop a bag apart from at the start/finish area as I knew there was enough food and drink out on the course, plus I had my Camelbak and a strap-bag for food. No doubts had entered my mind so I could just focus on running along and trying to eat enough for later on.

The third lap went well too, although I started to feel a bit more tired through it and slowed down to a 9 min/mile pace. I arrived at 60 miles not wanting to leave the checkpoint. Not because I couldn't, but because I saw 50-milers finishing and kind of wished I'd entered their race as I'd be legitimately done. But I got going after a stretch and knew that every extra step was making this my longest run ever - Comrades at 55.5 miles had been the previous longest.

By the Dam Road aid station, six miles in, I'd shifted from enjoying a comfy pace to almost shuffling and everything being a real effort. All I could do was aim for the next aid station and keep moving, so that's what I did. Walking through an aid station made it hard to get going again so I reasoned it would be better to jog through and basically not stop at all. This reasoning worked in my first Comrades and has the handy benefit of being a lot quicker than stopping and standing around.

However, by the time I reached the 69-mile checkpoint on the long loop back to Dam Road I had to weigh up my race. I had hoped I'd last longer before having to grind out the race so I had to decide how important a finish would be for me. Given the injury and lack of training, I thought that pushing my body into shuffling through the last 30 miles might be a bad idea. By Dam Road at 72.2 miles I'd decided that it would definitely be a bad idea to push things and it could make the knee flare up as well as put me out of racing for a much longer period. So I called it quits after 10h22m, while in second. Being sensible is tough, but I had no interest in walking the remaining 27.8 miles and wanted to cut my losses and bank the pluses from the day.

I walked to the 80 mile mark at a gentle pace, stopping to eat a lot and to stretch frequently. I'd already gone out of racing mode and into recovery mode, but it's difficult to accept a DNF, no matter what the reasons are, especially when self-imposed. I got to the end of the lap in 12h59m, just half an hour after needing to turn my light on. At least I managed to stay out there for the full amount of daylight and to get in a great training run for Western States and the other ultras coming up sooner.

A few days on from that DNF, I can now appreciate just how right my decision was even though it was tough. To just finish the race at all costs, no matter how slow or painful, was not the point. Just to make the starting line had a lot to do with Mark DeJohn's magical therapy and to not damage the knee further was also a critical goal. It seems that my normal road running gait involves planting each foot almost in a direct line, so this twisting of the lower leg in to the centre is what seems to have caused the problem.

But given I was going slowly and on uneven trails, I was able to force my legs to each move in one flat vertical plane of motion, rather than to drift into the middle. Amazingly, this seems to have not just got me through the 80 miles, but to have also worked as a great exercise for the necessary muscles to run in a more neutral way. I think the fact I just started yoga classes for the past couple of weeks also helped to stretch things out enough to make my legs swing more freely. I'm now converted to the benefits of yoga and will keep doing it as much as I can, roughly five hours a week. I can't believe I've done without it for so long as it's so obviously good for me, by not allowing any tightness to force unnatural running movements or gaits. Try it out if you don't mind seeming too girly - at least one other guy is in each of the classes I've been too and I'm graduating from the least flexible by miles to being as bendy (helps to live in Bend, probably) as most in some positions.

My trip to Texas was more successful than I could have expected and it looks like maybe now I can run properly again...but only after a forced week off to give my legs a rest. I'm looking forward to not worrying about the knee and going at a running pace instead of jogging. It's amazing how much I missed it and how frustrating it's been. And congratulations to everyone who finished the 50- or 100-miler as it's never easy going that far, no matter how fit you are. Greg Crowther won the 100 comfortably in 14h58m. I'm sure I'll return to this race, not because I feel I need to beat the course but because it's well organised and I'd like to beat my time of 12h59m, except to have done that last lap too. I know now that I've got more in the tank and that if I turn up fit and prepared I could give it a really good go. Anyone want to join me in 2011?