December training went well, including a new 50K PR at the Seashore Nature Trail and a relatively relaxing recovery week over Christmas to ensure I was ready to ramp up the miles and intensity in January. I logged almost 400 miles in the first month of 2014, including lots of doubles and two or three 30+ mile training runs, and before I knew it, it was time to taper.
Goals and expectations:
As stated above, my main goal was to break the 15:59:35 record for 47 year olds. However, training had gone so well that I’d started to dream about something a little bit special. The 2014 Rocky Raccoon 100 had been chosen as the venue for the USA 100mi Trail Championships, meaning that a field of quality Ultra Runners would be extremely likely. Also, Rocky had been included in the 2014 Montrail Ultra Cup – a prestigious Ultra Running race series that offers an automatic entry into Western States to the top three male & female overall finishers of each race. Knowing so many quality runners would be at Rocky, I knew chances of a podium finish like last year would be slim to nothing, but in all honesty, it didn’t stop me fantasizing on training runs about earning a coveted slot. Anything can happen in a 100, right?
The week leading up to the race saw a couple of online race previews published – one on iRunFar.com and the other on EnduranceBuzz.com. I was really touched to get a mention in the latter, but the previews mainly served as a reminder of the extremely talented field that would be lining up. To quote pre-race favorite Ian Sharman – “The men’s field had a lot of top runners who could run sub 14 hrs on paper.”
Travel to Texas went without a hitch, despite potential flight cancellations due to the snowy conditions at Virginia Beach and Norfolk. Packet pickup was quick and easy, and it was cool to see many of the “elites” at the pre-race brief on Friday afternoon. Dinner was enjoyable with wife/supercrew Ally and good friend Andy O’Brien who would also be toeing the line the following morning. Back at the hotel, last minute gear was laid out and it was soon time for bed. Sleep came quickly and easily.
Race morning was warm and humid, even at 4am. We drove to Huntsville State Park, snagged a prime parking spot and that was that – nothing else to do except count down the minutes to the start, and relax. After one last bathroom visit and carrying gear/supplies to the PRS FIT tent, it was time to take my place on the start line behind many of the elite runners I only ever get to read about – Ian Sharman, Pam Smith, Michele Yates to name just a few. It was all quite surreal and definitely a very special moment. There was just time to wish Facebook friend Jeff Miller good luck and remind him of his stellar training cycle, before Race Director Joe Prusaitis counted down the seconds to start the race. We were finally off and running with 5 x 20 mile loops ahead of us.
My plan was to run 9:00 minute mile pace for the opening loops and basically see what happened later on in the race when fatigue hits and nutrition/hydration becomes more of an issue. In 2013 I
probably definitely ran the opening 40 miles too fast (2:45 and 2:50), and paid the price in the remaining 3 x 20 mile loops – not just physically, but from a nutrition standpoint too. Right from the gun I settled in to goal pace and watched what seemed like 50 runners all take off ahead of me. “Run your own race, Steve” I told myself. “Run your own race.” Actually it was rather nice running pretty much alone. Despite the early morning darkness I was able to see the trail really well, and the many roots and twists and turns were no problem at all. The 60 degree temperature felt great, and as the miles rolled by I was able to happily sip on Sustained Energy and water.
The first 5 miles passed quickly. My pace was a little slow (9:19/mile), but it was early days and I’d probably been extra cautious on the rooty sections to make sure I didn’t fall. Nothing to worry about this early in the race. I arrived at the Damnation aid station in good spirits where one of the volunteers refilled my 10oz water bottle whilst I consumed a Blueberry-Pomegranate Island Boost. I set off for the first of five Damnation loops and looked forward to returning to the aid station about an hour later. It was soon light enough that I no longer needed the headlamp, which I promptly removed and wrapped around my wrist. The temperature felt great, but with the high humidity, I was already sweating profusely. Thankfully, I’d remembered my supply of Salt Stick capsules and had set my Garmin to beep every 45 minutes as a reminder to take one. I had a feeling this would be more important as the day rolled on.
Back at Damnation I topped up the water bottle and took another Island Boost. One of the volunteers remarked how fast I’d consumed “the gel”. I tried to explain it was actually liquid and not a gel, but as you can imagine I was in rather a hurry to get going. I thanked everyone for their help and set off for the next leg of the loop. I breezed through the Park Road aid station several miles later, and looked forward to the closing miles of the loop where I’d get to see the race leaders making their way out on Loop 2. Peter Hogg and Ian Sharman were the first two guys I saw, with a steady stream of racers all tearing it up behind – Ryan Ghelfi, John Cash, Neal Gorman, Jason Lantz, Michele Yates, Joshua Finger, Gary Gellin, Pam Smith, Nicole Studer… Wow. In all the excitement I lost count of how many were ahead of me, but guessed I was in about 25th position as I cruised in to the start/finish area for my first pitstop – slightly faster than planned (8:47/mile pace), but feeling great.
Ally was patiently waiting with camera in hand, but more importantly a bottle of Perpetuem, bottle of water, SaltStick capsules and Island Boost. After a quick supplies exchange, I was off and running.
First loop – 2:48:39. 26th Overall. 23rd Male.
Loop 2 was more of the same, except this time I stopped at the Nature Trail aid station to grab water. I already felt the humidity was sapping my strength, and knew staying on top of hydration could be key later on in the race. I also slowed things down on this loop and was pleased with my 5 mile splits of 45:05, 44:47, 44:51, 45:27 – much more consistent. I also enjoyed some brief conversation with former Houston Dynamo defender, Wade Barrett. Wade remembered me from the Seashore Nature Trail 50K in Virginia Beach a few years ago, and I recognised his name as the winner of last year’s Rocky Raccoon 50 in an impressive 6 hours 57 minutes. We traded places several times during the loop; Wade was running faster, whereas I was slightly quicker through the aid stations. Cool to see how different race strategies play out.
As the miles rolled on I took the opportunity to pass several runners at various points on the course, and coupled with several of the front runners dropping surprisingly early, by the time I finished the loop I’d moved up an astonishing 11 places. Thanks to Ally I didn’t need to hang around the start/finish area very long either (always a prime spot to waste valuable time), and with a swiftly replenished Ultimate Direction vest, I was soon ready to run again.
Update: I just remembered my left glute had tightened up a bit during this loop, so, rightly or wrongly, took a couple of Tylenol capsules before setting off.
Second loop – 2:51:26. 15th Overall. 14th Male.
I’m not sure why, but I struggled early on in the third loop. My average pace for the first 5 miles was a disappointing 10:16/mile and I felt like I was dragging. I hadn’t wavered from my nutrition/hydration strategy, so felt a bit despondent that things appeared to be going south. At Damnation I chugged down another Island Boost, downed a couple of cups of coke and asked one of the volunteers to dump icy water over my head. I also stuffed ice down the back of shirt and set off feeling nicely refreshed for the monotonous Damnation loop. Things slowly improved and a mile or so later I caught eventual Women’s winner Nicole Studer and super-talented male Ultra Runner, Gary Gellin. Gary informed me I was 10th place Male, and at that point Nicole was 2nd place Female. I asked Nicole if she was trying to chase down Michele Yates, and she replied that she was just running her own race and having fun. I enjoyed the chatter with Nicole but felt the pace was a bit quick for me at that stage of the race. Truth be told, I was struggling to keep up and just looking forward to getting back to Damnation. I wished her well and watched her run off into the distance.
Despite feeling fairly flat I was still maintaining good pace, and pleased that my 5 mile splits were levelling out again – 49:25, 47:41, 47:42. After more ice and iced water at Damnation, I set off for Park Road on my way to closing out the third loop. I know I passed a couple more runners in the closing miles, but there must have been a few more drops up front, as when I approached the start/finish area, Kim Wrinkle, who was reporting for iRunFar.com, announced I was 6th place Male. “What? Really?” I replied. “I can’t be…”
I finished off the loop with a renewed energy, but probably confused Ally a bit with my desperate request for Tailwind Nutrition instead of Perpetuem, and my iPod Shuffle. After a brief scramble and stowing enough fuel to keep me going for another 20 miles, I set off wondering how far ahead the guys were.
Third loop – 3:04:58. 7th Overall. 6th Male.
Mile 60 is where pacers are allowed if you’re not competing in the USA Trail Championships. This year I decided to risk going it alone and use music for company instead. Typically, I NEVER race with music, but thought some old school 80s songs and some more recent dance tunes might ease the pain of the last 40 miles. The volume was low enough that I was aware of my surroundings, but loud enough so I could enjoy the music. It worked well. Most of this loop is fairly fuzzy, but I do remember lots of ice down the back of my shirt and lots of water-pouring over my head to keep me cool. Again, nutrition, hydration and electrolytes seemed to be working their magic and I was able to keep moving fairly consistently. The first half of the loop I ran strongly at 9:30/mile pace, but struggled a bit on the way back with my second slowest 5 mile split of the whole race – 55:53.
One sad moment was spotting Michele Yates walking up towards the Damnation aid station (Mile 72?). Michele had set off at a blazing pace in the hope of beating the existing female course record of 14:57:18. As a jogged by up the hill I asked if she needed anything, but she said she was okay so I headed on for my now familiar ice treatment. This time I rubbed ice on my legs, not because I was cramping, but because it felt so good. I chugged down some more coke, swallowed another Island Boost and walked briskly out of the aid station.
Somewhere on this loop I passed the 17 year old Florida runner, Ford Smith (I think he was taking a break at Damnation on the way out), and last year’s Vermont 100 winner, Jason Lantz, but still wasn’t 100% sure of my position. I hoped that Kim Wrinkle (iRunFar) was still in place near the end of the loop and would be able to give me an update. He was (at least I *think* it was Kim), and he confirmed that I’d moved up to 4th place overall. Oh my word!
I’ve already mentioned Western States slots being awarded to the top three male and female runners. Well, going into the race I knew Ian Sharman (currently holding firm in 2nd place) already had a Western States entry based on his 2013 Top Ten finish. Montrail Ultra Trail rules state:
“The top three male and female winners of each event, 50 Miles and over, receive an automatic entry invitation to Western States. If either the first, second, or third place finisher is already entered in Western States, then the fourth place finisher will receive the automatic entry invitation. The automatic entry will not slide down further than fourth place.”
Knowing pretty much what this meant, I said to myself, “Okay, Steve. You’re in 4th place. You HAVE to stay strong, and you can’t allow anyone to pass you.” I jogged in to the start/finish area feeling very tired. As I switched out my fuel bottles and grabbed more Island Boost and my Petzl Nao headlamp, I said to Ally “My legs are sore. This could be a long loop. Go and take a nap if you need to. Also, I’m not sure, but think I’m in 4th!” Let me tell you, having 20 miles still left to run is not the ideal time to get emotional, so as I felt myself welling up a bit, I turned around and headed out for the final loop.
Fourth loop – 3:10:00. 4th Overall. 4th Male.
As I set off for the final loop, I hoped to catch sight of the 5th place guy on the out and back. I was definitely concerned about Jason Lantz and Joshua Finger being close behind, but had no idea former Grand Slam of Ultrarunning™ record holder Neal Gorman was mounting a very strong comeback after walking much of Loop 2. Apparently, Neal started the loop 22 minutes behind, but the guy I saw first was Jason Lantz just a couple of minutes along the trail. I figured he might take a minute or two at the aid station, but knew he’d be chasing hard after he’d refueled. In all honesty, the way I was feeling, I expected to be caught just a few miles down the trail.
Frustratingly, my pace had slowed into the 10:00/mile and above range. Tailwind was hitting the spot, but the humidity was sucking the life out of me. At Nature Trail I stuffed ice down my shirt, doused myself with water and rubbed ice on my legs. Coke was the aid station fuel of choice, and just like at last year’s 24 The Hard Way, it really hit the spot. Amazingly, I made it to Damnation still in 4th slot, where I performed the ice/water ritual as quickly as possible before reluctantly setting off on the final Damnation loop. This is definitely the toughest section of the course and I really looked forward to getting back to Damnation about six miles later.
Just before the final Damnation aid station last year, I was overtaken by the eventual 2nd place guy, Nathan Leehman. Nathan blew by me like I was standing still, and I was convinced the same thing was going to happen this year. However, it didn’t happen, and I jogged up the hill to the aid station to be met by the EnduranceBuzz guy with his trusty camera – capturing my surprisingly cheery water bottle top up on film. He asked how I was doing, and all I could mutter was the mantra I’d been repeating to myself for miles. “I got to hold on. I got to hold on.” [Hope my English Language teacher isn’t reading this…]
Also captured on film is me scanning the aid station table for the miracle fuel that will transport me painlessly to the finish line. I was hoping for an IPA or at least some kind of beer, but alas, there was none. [Foolishly], I settled instead for a small cup of Red Bull, which I gulped down before jogging out of the aid station. 5 steps away from the tent, I was forced to stop and threw up. 10 more steps and more vomiting. “No. I don’t need this right now.” A lady asked if I was okay. I stammered something in reply and set off again, stopping several more times to throw up the last of the Red Bull/Coke/Island Boost cocktail. Finally I got myself together, wondered if I’d been overtaken and started running again.
I managed to pick up the pace just a little bit on the way to Park Road. Both little toes felt battered and blistered but there was no point being concerned about that now. I’d considered a shoe change at Damnation, but knew there was no time to spare and it was just a question of keep on running to the finish line. I picked up the pace again on the never-ending jeep road section of the course, but couldn’t stop myself from looking behind for the headlamp of whoever was chasing me down. There were plenty of lights, but of course I had no idea if they were runners on their 3rd or 4th loop, or the all important final 20 miles.
I made it to Park Road without being passed and just 4ish miles to go. I downed more Coke as quickly as possible and did the old ice-down-the-shirt trick. The aid station lady asked what loop I was on, and she seemed surprised when I replied “Ugh, the last one.” She wished me well, and I set off as fast as my legs would carry me.
By this time I’d switched off the music. If anyone was going to pass, I needed to hear him coming. I thought about slowing down the pace so that if I was indeed overtaken, I could speed up and respond to the move. Probably not a wise move with the state my legs were in, so I just kept running as quickly as possible. The section by the lake went quickly and with a quick glance at the Garmin I knew there was just over a mile left to run. I allowed myself to think back to last year’s Old Dominion 100 where good friend Olivier Leblond was beaten out into 3rd place in the closing meters of the race – a 100 mile race with 2nd and 3rd place being separated by just 12 seconds. Please don’t let that happen to me. I forced my legs to move faster and picked up the pace again.
Finally I reached the path crossing and the final left turn towards the finish line. I literally sprinted down the path and knew that 4th place was mine. I crossed the line with a “Yes! Yes! Yes!” – so much relief, so much excitement. The 4th place trophy and Sub-24 Hour buckle were handed to me as Ally came over to congratulate me, and Kim Wrinkle came over to take a photo for his race report. I kept shaking my head in disbelief and to be honest am still having a hard time processing my thoughts.
Fifth loop – 3:31:00. 4th Overall. 4th Male. Finish time – 15:26:25
I managed to hold off Neal by just 5 minutes, with the two lead females finishing about 11 and 14 minutes later, followed closely by Joshua and Jason. My Western States slot was confirmed, and a highlight of the day was when Ian Sharman came over to chat as I attempted to get myself together in a comfy aid station chair. In my delirious post-race state, I’m not sure I made any sense, but it was cool to chat to Ian all the same. What a great guy!
- Saucony Kinvara 2
- Balega Enduro Quarter Socks
- Zensah Calf Sleeves
- Saxx Kinetic Brief Fly
- Pearl Izumi Ultra Short Tight
- Salomon Exo S-Lab Zip Short Sleeve Tee
- Garmin Forerunner 910XT
- iPod Shuffle
- Ultimate Direction Signature Series AK Vest
- Ultimate Direction 10oz Bottle x2
- Black Diamond ReVolt Headlamp (Loop 1)
- Petzl Nao Headlamp (Loop 5)
- Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem
- Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy
- Tailwind Nutrition
- Island Boost
- SaltStick Caps & Caps Plus
To close, I’ll repeat what I posted on Facebook just the day before the race. There are many people to acknowledge, but a special shout out to Ally for supporting me 100% in my crazy endeavors and crewing like a pro. Thanks also to everyone who gave up some of their precious weekend to track me, watch online, and post comments/words of encouragement. It really means a lot to know that so many people were following, and it definitely helped me keep running when the going got tough.
Finally, massive thanks to Joe & Joyce Prusaitis and the whole Rocky Raccoon support team for putting on an outstanding event. Rocky III, anyone?