For six straight years, I’ve run in the Rocky Raccoon 100-mile trail run. It’s not just because it’s a well-run event, (which it is). I do it because it has also been a good barometer for me, to gauge the effectiveness of my Winter training. And it’s a great way to start out the new year right, in an “Ultra” sort of way.
Mentally, I need Rocky at this time of the year. It keeps me sharp by not letting me be a total slacker, when there are so many excuses and reasons to become a slacker in Wintertime. Reasons such as the holidays and all that of the excess and baggage they bring with them, the height of football season and other diversions, and the sometimes cruel Midwest Winter weather, which might make you think twice before leaving your warm home to go for a 5-hour training run.
As an Ultrarunner and lifelong veteran of living in climates with “interesting” weather, the old Norwegian saying, “there is no bad weather, just bad clothing,” is a good saying to pin to your hat, whether you believe it or not. At least it helps you to feel empowered that you can do something to accommodate any harsh conditions thrown your way by Thor and his minions.
Training for Rocky went very well, this year. All of my runs were “quality” runs. I usually only run five days per week, and on some weeks only four days, depending upon the mileage I put-in on the weekend. Most of my weekends have two high-mileage days. That’s the only difference between training for a marathon or for a 50 to 100-mile ultra, in my opinion, is the two-long-runs on weekends.
About 11 weeks out from the race, I started hitting the gym with a vengeance, once again. This is in addition to my normal running schedule. All of my leg presses and such on “leg day,” which always fell on Wednesdays, were of the one-leg variety, to strengthen knees and stabilizer muscles. High-reps and low weight ruled my leg workouts. I wanted to feel the burn on those last five reps. My upper body workouts were geared toward good core strength, and regaining some strength in my upper body that I had lost over the past year, due to lack of consistency in my gym training.
It all came together about a month out from the race. I not only felt strong on every run that I did...I felt bullet-proof. I was thinking I had a pretty good chance to beat my old 2006 P.R. on the course, which was 22 hours, and four minutes. But I also knew that race performance is always hinged on how you feel on the given race day, and that fact is amplified significantly for the 100-mile distance. It can come down to a matter of survival, rather than worrying about some ego-induced pie-in-the-sky finish time. So my thoughts of glory are always tempered by the thought that “just finishing in one piece” should be the first rule to consider on any 100-mile race day. And if you’re feeling good from mile sixty onward, hit it hard and go for broke.
The Trip down was going to be fun and entertaining. I had decided to drive down again, and this time I had good company. Gary Henry, good friend, multiple hundred-mile veteran, noted Luddite, and co-inventor of our Pod Trod MP3-Mile Challenge, would be going. My son Matt was going down with us also. He was going to be our crew (and entertainment, it would seem). And we would be stopping by in Wichita to pick up Tony Clark, a young ultrarunner who had completed his first 100-miler last October.
We left the Kansas City area at 6 a.m. and headed south on I-35. We started to hit blizzard conditions about 30 miles north of Wichita. By Wichita, we were driving through 5 inches of fresh, blowing snow.
I barely knew Tony, except from email conversations about trip planning and 100-mile race strategy. He had run in our inaugural (Trail Nerds) Psycho Psummer 50K, back on a scorching July day; and I had seen him briefly when he passed through an aid station I was staffing at the Heartland 100-miler. I was pleasantly surprised that we all hit it off great, right from the start.
The trip down ended up taking four extra hours. We drove through a 500-mile wide blizzard. Luckily, In my past, I had lots of experience negotiating snowed-out mountain passes, so I just reset my brain for "avalanche-mode" and continued on. Matt had control of the IPod and story-telling, and I stayed on task.
By the time we got to Dallas, the "white stuff" had completely disappeared. We had arrived in Dallas right at rush hour. I grinned and bared it, and settled into the traffic, while Gary waxed poetic on the intrcacies of commercial building exterior refurbishing.
We stopped about 2 hours south of Dallas for dinner at about 8 p.m., then again steered south to Huntsville, Texas. We finally arrived at the motel, and settled into our rooms.
First thing in the morning, we head out to Huntsville State Park, to pick out the shelter we had reserved. We found one just a stone's throw from the trail we'd be running on. We went to Walmart and got some painter's drop cloth plastic to wrap the screen windows with, to keep out the wet cold of Texas nights. I had a small space heater to run all night while we slept. Gary and Matt, ever the artistic bohemians, set about decorating the plastic with Trail Nerd-related graphics.
The "artistic types" at work on their plastic canvas. (Gary and Matt).
My dirty car that went through a 500-mile wide "Hella Blizzard."
Yep, we fit 4 grown guys, our running stuff, and camping gear in my little Element!
We drove back into town for breakfast and then some coffee at Starbucks, and met up with the other Nerds who had flown into Dallas, and had just arrived in Huntsville. John King was to be running in his first-ever 100, Gabe was on number four, and Kyle was going to run together with Tony, since they have similar speeds and running styles. Gabe's wife Tiffanie, Kyle's wife Stacy, and John's wife (the other Stacey) were to be our crew, along with my son Matt . Everybody seemed happy to be in a warmer clime, but there was a certain tension in the air...everybody was secretly chomping at the bit to get on with our task of running or crewing a hundred mile run!
The day before, at Starbucks in Huntsville, TX
The day before, at 'Bucks.
Everybody headed out to the park to see what it was like, and to get ready to attend packet pickup. The group cavorted around our shelter for a while, and it started feeling more and more like a great "home base" for the Trail Nerds.
Packet pickup and dinner were a lot of fun. I got to see Dirtrunner Rick, Beth Simpson-Hall and her new hubby Larry, Dale, Dann Fisher, and many of the other "usual suspects" that I see at 100-mile events. It's not like a marathon, where you are just one participant in 60,000. Rocky is one of the largest-attended 100-milers now, but it still has less than 300 participants, after all. You tend to run into the same folks a lot, if you do hundreds on a regular basis.
Rick from Texas. He had a great AT100 back in October, and was Hell-bent to finish RR100.
Beth Simpson-Hall. I got to meet her daughter, too.
Dale! He may be big, but he can kick most 100-mile course's butts.
Gary, Tony, Matt and I head back to the shelter after dinner. We each did our pre-race-night routines, and settled into our sleeping bags. It was still pretty early, so Matt entertained us with a couple of funny video episodes of the "Trailer Park Boys" (a Canadian show), on his laptop computer.
Trailer Park Boys. (Julian, Ricky, and Bubbles). My heros, and what I someday aspire to be like.
We all slept soundly that night, and woke up promptly at 4:30 a.m. Tony and I headed up to the showers and had a nice, hot shower. (In separate shower stalls, of course). We got on our race gear, laid-out our drop bags and instructions to our crew Matt (and Kyle's wife, Stacy), and then head straight for the starting area.
Promptly at 6 a.m., we started shuffling out of the starting area; a huge conga line of bobbing L.E.D. headlamp and flashlight-bearing crazies, intent on partying as long as it took to get through the woods, roots, dirt, and pain to arrive at that elusive, etheral and rapturous point, known to others merely as "finish line."
Off, into the morning.
The first loop went well. After surging-out early, to stay ahead of the folks not used to running in the dark, I settled into a nice running rythymn. In fact, everything was just peachy. I found beauty in every direction I turned on the trail. I was on a natural high. There was a strange and fantastic sense welling-up in me that everything that I was doing was right, that I was doing something incredibly important, and that quite possibly...the world actually revolved from the mere act of my two feet pushing-off on the ground with each stride.
And then I fell flat on my face. Not like the nose-shovel landing that I did on Mount Hood last Summer...but something more akin to a knuckle-dragging ape caught out in the open savannah, trying to run away from an attacking lion and tripping over his own flailing limbs. Or how a gangly and ungainly teenage boy, walking with mouth agape, trying to catch a passing glance at a beautiful girl, ends up falling in a tangled heap of self-loathing at her feet. Yep, one of my big size thirteen feet had gotten stuck under a root, and the root didn't give even an inch, so my offending left foot had to do all of the "giving," before I pulled it out just shy of it's breaking point, in a move that would make any NFL rookie (avoiding a tackle), proud.
I got up, took a quick inventory, dusted myself off, and started running again. Fifteen miles and only one minor incident. Whew! I was lucky. Or was I?
The end of loop one of this five-loop course was about to end. I saw Matt and Stacy off in the distance on the trail. They had all of my stuff ready. I ran to the chip timing mat, and then came back to their mini aid station. I stayed about 30 seconds too long, and then headed back out. My main aid station strategy is to never stay for more than 10 seconds. I keep to that strategy 90% of the time. I unscrew my water bottle or bottles, have the aid person fill it, while I grab some food that will stay down and head back out with my full bottle. I'll eat the food on the next up-hill walk that I do. Aid station time rips apart your total run time, so you've got to watch it.
Loop two felt pretty good. I had gone a little fast through loop one, finishing in 3 hours, 30 minutes, but I'd gotten to run with John King for the last part of the loop. He was having a banner day, so I let him go at the start of the 2nd loop. I needed to rein-in the horses, and keep my speed to a sustainable clip. The day was starting to heat up in a humid, East Texas sort of way, and that would probably end up regulating my speed anyway.
My left foot was hurting. I loosened the shoe laces on that shoe, and kept going. The rest of loop two went okay. I rolled into the main aid station and then back to the Matt/Stacy station in a decent time for mile forty. I took off on loop three, walking a little, while eating on the way out. My foot was still swelling, but I didn't take it too seriously. On this loop, I got to see Jorge Pacheco, still cruising along at a sub-eight-minute pace, and about 20 miles ahead of me, at this point. Two years ago, he finished this course in the 2nd fastest trail 100 time ever, about 13 hours and change. He doesn't speak English well, but throughout the race, he continuously cheered-on any runners he encountered. A heck of a guy.
Jorge cruising along the "Jeep Road" section.
I hit the mile 50 point at Farside aid station in 10-hours, 15 minutes. Not a bad time, but I had slowed down somewhat. During this time, I started having some stomach issues. Nothing looked good to eat, and I couldn't put sports drink powder into my water bottles anymore. Water was the only thing that tasted good. I needed calories and luckily, the Dam Road Aid Station, had a great selection from which to choose. I love this aid station, easily one of the best in the world of ultrarunning. I found some potato chips and saltines that helped settle my tummy a little.
Dam Road Aid Station...the most efficient anywhere.
John King on the out-and-back Farside Trail.
On the root-filled section of single-track from Dam Road to Site 174 aid station, my left foot was bugging me, yes...but I had something else going on all of a sudden. I had started chafing pretty badly on the inside of my thighs. I had noticed some chafing about 10 miles prior, but had applied some vaseline to stop it in its tracks. I normally never have this happen, even in humid weather. I always wear a pair of tight bicycle-type shorts under my regular shorts, which usually eliminates all friction in that area, and at the same time keeps compression on my hamstrings, which keeps them in good shape during a long race. So why the chafing??? It slowed me way down, on this section. It hurt like hell with each swish of a leg past the other.
At this point, I picked up an inadvertent pacer...another participant named Yong Collins. Yong was running the race in memory of her late husband (Ralph), and had his photo on her front and back. They had done over a hundred marathons together and many ultras, and he was supposed to be at Rocky to run with her on her first 100-miler. He had died last March. Yong was a very sweet companion to run with. Talking to her kept my mind off of my own pain, and we ran 95% of the trail to Site 174 Aid Station. But I was still in a lot of pain.
"I hate to say this, but this place is getting to me. I think I'm getting the fear." That's one of my favorite lines from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and it seems completely applicable to this moment in time on the race. The left foot pain and swelling was explainable, but the severe chafing that I was experiencing was not. I still had 45 miles to go, and bad stuff was happening. By the time I got to the Site 174 Aid Station, I was looking for some relief. I slathered a ton of vaseline on the affected areas, and moved on down the trail with Yong.
Me...getting through the course.
I ran the last 2.7 miles of the third loop at a slow jog. The chafing was still hurting. Matt ran back on the course a ways to greet me, because he had heard I was having some major trouble. I had him prepare my flashlight and headlamp arrangement for me, so I wouldn't take much time grabbing all of my night gear, after going across the start/finish aid station chip-timing mat. While I was getting my stuff together, Yong went by with a pacer and said "come on, Ben," so I left and tried to catch up to her and her pacer.
Gabe Bevan being cheered-on by Stacy Amos.
Even though I was hurting, I was resolved to run all of loop four. Night was falling, and I started setting my goals on realistic and tangible targets, which would be each in a succession of aid stations. Yong and her pacer were going at an erratic pace, so we would pass each other from time to time. I decided to run at my own pace.
The next aid station was the Jeep Road aid station. My son Matt had scrambled and put together a "runner's mix" for me on my IPod. Even though I haven't used an IPod for over a year on a run, in fact since the last Rocky Raccoon, I was going to try to use it to put the pain out of my mind. Some of the content I would have never picked in a million years, but he knows my taste, and most of it hit the spot (mentally) for a while.
I pulled into the Jeep Road Aid Station where Frank and Paige Krekeler reside, and had a little coke and a couple of saltines. I took a PB & J sandwich piece with me, but I couldn't get it all down. Now my mind was set on arriving at my first pass of the Dam Road aid station. I kept playing leap-frog back and forth with Beth Simpson-Hall and also with Catra Corbett throughout the entire race day. Beth, of course, is tough as nails and many times takes the 1st place Masters female honors. Catra, AKA Dirt Diva, always amazes me by her incredibly fast walk. When she's not running, she can walk at 4-1/2 miles an hour! Catra is the only person that I know that can text people on her cell phone, while listening to music, and talking to passing runners at the same time! Catra is one of the most unique and nice people I've ever met. And she has tons of focus and toughness.
As I approached Dam Road Aid Station, I saw Randy Albrecht (from Kansas), already an hour ahead of me, cruising the other way. I got to the Dam Road aid station, slathered some more vaseline on my legs, and made my way toward the Far Side aid station again. As much as I hate this long out and back, I love to see all of the faces coming my way, and it's also a good way to gauge how I'm doing in comparison to them.
After reaching Far Side aid station and heading back, I really started to hurt. The chafing was getting unbearable, but also my left foot had swollen enough that I had to loosen the laces to the point of going down a whole set of lacing holes on my shoe. I didn't want to take the shoe off and look at it, my ankles told the tale...for now I had Cankles; there was no discerable ankle bone, because my foot had swollen so much. When running on it, it felt less like a foot, and more like a large, over-ripe canteloupe that I was stepping on. Squish, squish, plod, plod, is what it felt like, only with lots of pain involved in the "squish" zone. Within 1/2 mile of the Dam Road Aid Station, I saw Kyle and Tony when they passed going toward Far Side, still running together, and I knew there was a fair chance that they would lap me before I reached mile 80. Way to go, guys!
After reaching Dam Road aid station, I had one of the kind volunteers use a roller on my aching calves to loosen them up. My various maladies had given me a new "compensative" running style, and my calves were suffering because of it. I left the aid station and realized just how much my chafing hurt. I took a peek with my flashlight, and about got sick at the sight. There was basically no skin left (for about 4 inches by 2 inches), on the inside of each leg.
I made a mental assessment of my situation. I knew that my injuries weren't permanent, but would be very painful for me to get through, for the next twenty-seven miles. Instead of running, which had become unbearable at this point, I decided to try walking bow-legged for a while, and it helped, slightly. The music had become a distraction at this point, but more of a pissing-me-off-more-than-usual kind of distraction. I left it on, but took out my ear-buds and tucked them under my bandana. I was glad I did. The sound of the frogs, coyotes, and other fauna kept my interest. Nothing like a spooky night in the woods with a lot of natural sounds, to keep my mind wandering elsewhere; anywhere, other than being focused on my constant pain.
In what seemed like forever, I got to within a mile of the 80-mile mark. At this point, Kyle Amos and Tony Clark zoomed on by, chatting loudly and still having a blast as they lapped me. They were both on track for 100-mile PR's and maybe a top-ten finish!
I blew by the Matt-Stacy mini aid station, and barked some order at Matt, and headed for the Main Aid Station. There, I got to talk to Kyle and Tony a little. They had finished in 18:14, and had placed in eighth and ninth places. Woo-hoo! At the Main aid station, Kyle was a chatterbox of excitement, but I cut him off and said, "I've gotta get out of here and finish my race; I'll never leave this place if I have time to think about my pain." I grabbed some nice, salty potato soup, and headed back toward the Matt-Stacy station right next to the trail.
Kyle and Tony Finish!
Tony (left) and Kyle, right after finishing.
Me eating my soup, walking out of main aid station.
Matt gave me some words of encouragement. As much fun as Matt can be, he has a maturity beyond his 25 years, and can be deadpan serious, when the situation calls for it. He gave me one of those looks like he knew how much I was hurting, and it helped give me the resolve to conquer this race, which had become such a pain-wielding beast on this fine Texas night.
On the way out, I was passed by Hans Dieter-Weisshaar. He explained that he had taken a long, seven-hour nap, and still had 40 miles to go. He was determined to finish in under the 30-hour time limit. (He would). I set my mind on just reaching the next aid station. The pain was incredible. Raw nerves rubbing on raw nerves, with a bum foot, to boot. The next eight or nine miles was a horific blur of pain. I still don't even want to think about it. I managed some running on the soft and sandy jeep road, but on any trail section, I walked.
After what seemed like a week or more, I got to the Far Side aid Station, with just 10 miles to go. I knew I wouldn't finish in under 24 hours...heck...I just wanted to finish, at this point. Or did I? On the 3-mile walk back toward Dam Road aid station, I became so worn-down and exhausted from the constant pain, that I started falling asleep on my feet. I couldn't focus. I hooked up with a nice guy in my haze, and he said, "looks like you're about out on your feet." I mustered an "uh-huh," to which he said that he had a Red Bull-type drink in his drop bag that he'd let me drink, to help wake me up. I thanked him in advance.
I got to the Dam Road aid station, and an aid station worker handed it to me. I downed about 10 ounces of it, and the sugar and caffeine bolted to my brain like greased lightning. I perked-up, and then really noticed my pain. An aid station worker told me to get going, so I did. I still had a hard time thinking about doing that last 7 miles. The next 2 miles were really tough. I got over and past the dam and was all alone. The chafing pain was so unbearable, I decided to take off all of my lower clothes and see if I could find another combination that would work. I was willing to run with my shirt around my waist, if that's what it took to relieve the pain.
I all of a sudden realized the cause of my pain. My inner "tight" shorts had partially blown-out their inseam, and there was a series of finger-ring-sized holes along the seam. It was like having a saw strapped tightly to my crotch! Prisoners in the "State Pen" over in Huntsville have used less that that to try to saw through iron bars to escape. And the vaseline! Any machinist or carpenter knows that if you lubricate a saw or drill bit, it will cut deeper and more efficiently. Holy crap...I wish I'd figured this out 36 miles ago. I took off the offending shorts, and put back on my outer shorts. It really made no difference at this point (pain-wise), but it was the point of the whole thing. I threw them into the trash can at the Site 174 aid station.
I left the aid station without filling my water bottle or eating anything. I just wanted to get through the last 2.7 miles, any way I could. The sun was coming up, and I found renewed strength in that fact. I passed a couple of people, and a couple of groups of people passed me. I got to the last half-mile, and mustered a shuffle-run. My crew saw me coming, and started to yell. I cruised to the finish line with on-lookers cheering for me.
I don't think I've ever been so happy to finish anything so much in my life. And now I've finished 6 out of 6 Rocky's in a row; and this year's race I finished in 26 hours and change. Not fast, but still a respectable time. The pain I had endured had been tortuous and horrific. The only thing that got me through it, was thinking of my loved ones during the race. My crew and the wonderful aid station help, and of course the other tough runners of this race helped get me through, too. Yes, it's people that make the difference. The people that you know and love help you get through the tough times, in hundred-milers, and in life.
Me, finishing...FINALLY the pain can end!
Me (grimacing), with the tired Race Director (Joe), while receiving my buckle.
John King finishes.
Matt catches some winks.
Stacy finally rests.
The Kansas - Missouri group, after the race.
Da Brews Brothers, driving back.
There's gotta be a story behind this.
Spotted in Gainesville, Texas.