Tuesday 3 February 2015

Rocky Raccoon 100 USATF National Championship 2015

Mid-race. Photo: Scott Dunlap.

I've lived in the US for five years now and only missed one Rocky Raccoon 100 in that time. There's something really fun about having a big winter target while most runners I know are just starting to build back up to get fit for Spring.

Why do I keep going back? Well, it feels like it's one of the classics of ultrarunning and is one of the older 100s (this was the 23rd year) with many outstanding performances over the years and a lot of top level runners have given it a shot. The five 20-mile loops also allow for a lot of social interaction with out-and-back sections and less loneliness and solo running than on point-to-point courses. It always feels like a big social catch-up too, like the way I ran much of lap one with Liza Howard (one of the coaches at Sharman Ultra and a two-time winner - here's her very amusing race report on getting 2nd place) and James Elson (RD of Centurion Running in the UK and a good friend - here's his race report from running a sub 15hr race this year). It's also impeccably organized by Joe and Joyce Prusaitis plus their team.

Undoubtedly RR100 is a fast course, but it still has small rolling hills throughout and has significantly slower terrain than flat road or track running, especially during the night sections. That potential to run a quick time draws in a lot of runners aiming for a PR (myself included) and a lot of first-time 100-milers, but it can also be deceptive and cause runners to forget some of the basics of ultra pacing and instead aim for fast splits no matter what.

I had high hopes of running well and hopefully having a shot at my 2011 course record of 12:44, but knew that I couldn't really gauge that until maybe 30-40 miles into the race. After a shortened build-up after fracturing my foot back in July on Mt Whitney, I'd lost a lot of fitness before restarting walking at the end of October. However, I felt fit and the foot seemed to have healed, allowing me to run approx 300 miles/month for December and January, including some decent speed work by late December.

The Race

Starting in the dark for the first hour of running, the weather wasn't too cold and it remained very pleasant all day, between about 43 F and maybe 60 F, but without last year's humidity. Frankly it was perfect weather for speedsters. However, I was surprised at the end of the first 20-mile loop to find I was 12 mins back from the leader who set a lap record of 2:19 to my 2:31 (the CR split was 2:29) and I was in about 8th, just ahead of the first two women.

It didn't worry me since I was running at a fairly comfy pace and I know the last two laps are the ones that count and that small differences in early laps make little difference overall. That next loop was gradually harder and I could tell I didn't quite have the endurance I'd hoped for. I hadn't run too fast early on, I just hadn't had enough time to build up my endurance. So there's only one sensible thing to do that early in the race - adjust the pace and focus 100% on looking after my body and making things sustainable.

Lap two was marginally slower in 2:34 so I was happy it wasn't too much worse despite making things easier for myself. Things got fairly bad in lap three and my stride was shortened, I felt tight and I had to concentrate hard to stop myself focusing on negative thoughts like how slow the last loop could end up being. I was extremely tempted to drop, cut my losses and continue working on my fitness for the rest of the season. The one thing that stopped me was that I wasn't injured and was moving forward fine, it was just harder and slower than it should have been. That's not a good enough reason.

Lap three dropped to a 2:49, making sub-14 hours less likely if the slow-down continued, although the early leader had dropped by this point and I wasn't far from the podium, now in 4th. I made sure I ate more (especially the new savory Clif Bar Organic Energy Food pouches, which I used at WS100 and Leadville last year too) during that loop and near the end I started to feel a little more normal. Then the wind was knocked out my sails when I saw several runners right behind me at the turn around, including female leader Nicole Studer. They all looked better than I felt, but that's fairly meaningless since some runners look great when they're struggling and others look like the walking dead when they're actually cruising.

Mentally I switched gear after that third loop and starting thinking about how mile 60 was the start of the real race, the important part that separates the runners at the front. I'd not pushed too hard to this point and had spent 20 miles trying to sort out things, so it started to pay off. Paul Terranova caught me a couple of miles into the loop and we ran together with his pacer and chatted. Back in 2011 he'd paced me on loop 4 for a 2:35 loop, so the quirkiness of having him there to 'pace' me again at the same stage felt like a good change and a nice mental boost. Half way through the loop I started feeling genuinely good and gradually pulled away from Paul, catching 3rd and 2nd over the next 10 miles and getting to within two minutes of the leader since about halfway, Marco Bonfiglio from Italy, a winner of numerous 100-milers in Europe and 4th at last year's Spartathlon.

Marco had looked great all day but he was around 12 mins ahead at mile 60 so the two min gap was very encouraging for me. Lap four was an improvement on lap three, in 2:46, but the more important factor was that I was running freely and felt like a new man. The uphills were easy when I'd had to hike some of them on lap three. I had no doubt I'd catch Marco and I did so after about four miles, making sure I passed strongly to get out of sight within a couple of minutes. Now the adrenaline was flowing and I knew it was completely within my control whether I won or not.

As the light faded I sped up, knowing the dark would force slower running with the roots and occasional bumpy terrain. I turned my headlamp on around mile 91 and kept pushing to avoid any chance of getting caught. That's a lot easier to do when you're in the lead and have a bigger incentive to push, plus I felt much stronger than 50 miles earlier. It looked like the tortoise's slow and steady tactics were going to pay off. Those final miles were surprisingly comfortable, although I fell twice more in the dark (total for the day was four full-on trips). So the final loop was 2:50 for a finish of 13:32, 48 mins off the record but still respectable for a winning time.

Nobody else broke 3:15 on that last loop, reaffirming my belief that to really race a competitive 100-miler well, it's mainly about getting to the latter stages in good shape then being able to hammer it to the finish. Just in 2014 there were two perfect examples of this - look at Kilian's last 25 miles at Hardrock 100 or Rob Krar's push from mile 62 at Western States 100. Those guys weren't leading in the first half of those races but dominated at the end.

I feel this was probably the best race of my life, not because of the time or my fitness level, but because I really got the most out of my body and stuck to my tactics throughout, despite being over 30 mins back near halfway. It's certainly the most satisfying and I'm now ecstatic that I didn't give into the demons mid-way through and drop out pathetically. It gives me a lot of confidence that with a few more months of training and getting fitter, I can hit the summer races as hard as possible, especially Western States and Leadville. After all, I only ran a little over 750 miles between the injury and the start line so tripling or quadrupling that (over a longer build-up) would help a lot. Frankly, I'm really excited for what 2015 has in store.

One comment I made post-race was that longer ultras are 20% physical and 80% mental. That doesn't mean you don't need to be fit, just that fitness will only get you so far. Grit is important, but that's not the full meaning of the mental side and it also includes the tactics, pacing and ability to plan for and react to issues mid-race.


Here's the Strava data, including HRM data - this was the first time I've worn a HRM for an 100. Note it shows the course is 96 miles due to the constant tree cover and cloudiness. I wore two watches as an experiment to see which was more accurate, my old Garmin 910XT and my new Garmin Fenix 2. It wasn't even close - the 910 worked throughout and kept a better signal while the Fenix 2 dropped signal in the trees frequently and just stopped recording after 58 miles because it couldn't regain the signal.

This is the beautiful trophy for the win (always something unique from Tejas Trails races), plus the coveted sub 24-hr colored silver buckle:

Full results here and the USATF National Champions are Paul Terranova (3rd man, behind a Brit and an Italian who don't count) and Nicole Studer with her new 100-mile trail best of 14:22, taking 23 mins off Traci Falbo's 14:45 last November. Plus loads of photos and a great write-up from Scott Dunlap here.

Also, here's the post-race interview with Ultrasportslive.tv who covered the race superbly:

Thanks and congratulations to everyone involved with organizing the race, the volunteers, the runners themselves and everyone for your kind messages post-race, as well as Mark Kenney for crewing me. Also, I always know I can count on the following companies to provide me with what I need at races:

Altra - Lone Peak 2.0s which meant I didn't even feel the tiniest pressure on my healed stress fracture
Julbo - new Venturi shades with ventilation
Drymax - Maximum Protection Trail socks (the only model of sock I've used for the past four years of trail races)
Clif Bar - more gels than I can count, plus Shot Bloks and the new Organic Energy Food pouches
UltrAspire - Isomeric 8oz handhelds
UVU - comfiest T-shirt available