Thursday, February 10, 2011

Rocky Raccoon 100 Race Report 2011 (Part 2)

The first few miles of a race are always just a frenzied blur for me. I typically end up taking off way to fast, caught up in the excitement of the moment. That is not a problem for most runners at Rocky Raccoon 100 because it is near impossible to actually run the first couple of miles.

The single-track trail gets so crowded with over 700 runners on it that things start off at a steady walking pace. By the first aid station, the crowd starts to thin out as people fall into their respective paces and race strategies. Some take off like race horses. Others play it more conservatively and hold back. I'm a fan of the latter strategy. My feeling is this: the goal is to be as fresh as possible late in the game. If you burn all your energy early on, you're going to be doing a heck of a lot of walking towards the end. Patience is key in these races.

I understand some people have their time goals. Many ultrarunners view a sub-24 hour finish as the benchmark for a good finishing time, much in the same way amateur marathoners view a sub-4 hour marathon as achievement worth striving for. And that's fine. But, for this particular race, my first 100 mile finish, all I wanted was to make it to the end. If it took me the full 30 hours, I would be happy with that. So, I took off at a steady, but conservative pace.

You know how they say in ultrarunning that something is always bound to go wrong? No matter how much you train for something, no matter how prepared you are, the unexpected will almost always happen. Things will fall apart. I knew this going into it. I expected shit to happen. What I didn't expect was for it to happen so soon.

As soon as we left the start line, my flashlight started giving out. I don't know if it was the cold weather or what, but the light would just dim suddenly and then go out completely. Crap. All I had left for back-up was a headlamp. Note to self: take a couple of flashlights with you out on the trail. Don't get me wrong. Headlamps are fine for providing light, but since the light of a headlamp illuminates from above rather than from a low angle (as a flashlight do), you do not get to see as much of the relief of the trail, the technicalities that obstruct your path. It is easier to trip on roots and rocks at night when all you have to guide your way is a measly headlamp. Oh well. I had to make do.

Eventually, we all came up to the first set of wooden plank bridges that adorn the trail. Normally, these bridges are a welcome change in the monotony of the flat, pine needle-covered trail. Not this time. The wood was covered with a thin layer of ice, and the ice was slick! One wrong step, and your ass was down on the ground. It was really quite dangerous. You had to be cautious. At first, I sort of shuffled across the bridges. Then I saw something that made my stomach turn.

I was running behind this woman, and we were both going steadily along, minding the trail, when we came upon another one of these bridges. As she made her way across, I saw her spread out her arms to balance herself. And in the blink of an eye, I saw her lose her balance. She must have put all her weight on one foot in completely the wrong way because her ankle just snapped from under her. She fell to the ground screaming.

"Oh, shit! My ankle," she cried out. I was running right behind her when she fell, so I had to quickly jump around her to avoid falling on top of her. I stopped and stood over her as she continued to scream. "This is bad," she kept saying. Soon, some other runners came up from behind and we all helped carry her to the side of the trail. After assuring us that she couldn't stand up, we decided to keep going and tell the volunteers at the next aid station that there was a runner down. This was just 4.5 miles into the race.

I second-guessed every step I took on the bridges after that. I was so afraid of getting injured like that lady. I felt bad for her. Her screams echoed in my head. Eventually, I just started going around the bridges rather than run on them. Soon the sun came up and the ice started to melt.

Another unexpected happening occurred when I came to the first aid station: I didn't want to eat. That's a rarity! I usually love the prospect of food, but as I was coming into the aid stations, I found myself repulsed by the idea of downing solids. Maybe it was nerves or something, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Second aid station went by. No dice. I just wasn't in the mood to eat. Even the GU gels were difficult to get down. The cold weather made the gel thick and hard to chew. It all made my stomach quite nauseous. I didn't vomit, but I felt capable of vomiting if I pushed it. So, for the first couple of loops, I stuck to just one GU gel an hour and about half a bottle of Heed. Occasionally, I would grab a handful of pretzels, but even then, I could only manage to put two or three in my mouth. However, I wasn't too worried about my decreased appetite. I felt that as long as I kept moving forward and was feeling okay things would be fine. Gotta keep on moving.

By the time I hit Lake Raven, the most scenic part of the trail, I was fully enjoying my racing experience. The mist that came off the surface of the lake was absolutely enchanting. I felt like I was in some exotic land, a story-book world where anything was possible. Dragons. Knights. Mermaids. Magic. This land had it all. And I was smack in the middle of it. My spirits were lifted as I soared in to complete the first loop.

As I made my way in to the main aid station, the 20 mile mark, I noticed a small, sharp pain in my left knee. It didn't exactly hurt, but it was enough to get me to notice there was a problem developing. These ultramarathons are funny in that they tend to magnify the small stuff. Little problems become big problems if left untreated. A baby blister can become a fist-sized pustule. A small leg cramp can become a debilitating, throbbing pain. This knee thing worried me. It was popping a little bit when it bent, like the bone was out of alignment or something. All I could think to do was tie a bandanna around the knee to brace it and keep going.

By mile 40, the pain was obvious, crystal clear and brilliant. There was no ignoring it now. I was in trouble. With serious doubts about my ability to finish - still sixty more miles left to go - I did the only thing left to do: I started to walk. I walked and walked. And I walked some more. With each passing mile, my thoughts grew darker and darker. What if I didn't finish? What if I had to DNF? No. I couldn't allow myself to DNF. I had to stick with it. Even if I had to walk the rest of the race, I would rather be pulled off the course for not making the time cut-off than drop out of this one. No throwing in the towel. So I just kept walking.

But, dammit, I wanted to finish. I didn't want to get pulled off the course for not making the cut-off time! But, I knew that at my current pace, I would probably not make it in 30 hours. I needed a miracle. I needed this knee pain to subside so that I could continue running. I needed... Then it hit me. I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my contacts list.

This race report will be published in three parts. For Part 1, click here. For Part 3, click here.

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