Rocky Raccoon 100

Rocky Raccoon 100 (and 100k now) is hosted by Tejas Trails and takes place the first weekend of February every year at Huntsville State Park. Despite the name that was taken from an old trail name in the park, it is not rocky. It is very, very rooty. There’s not much in terms of elevation, the volunteers have plenty of experience running and supporting runners, and the cutoff is 30 hours, so it’s a great race for first-timers and PR hunters.

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So flat! Easy!

In 2015, I paced a friend for her last 17 of 50 miles at Brazos. The trails were a muddy mess and it was a humid night. She finished, we celebrated, and then I came back out to volunteer at the race for the 4am – noon shift.  The crew I relieved was a big, rowdy group and when they left, it was only me and the aid station captain who had been volunteering since early the morning before and was clearly exhausted. Only 35 runners finished the 100 mile race that year and most of them were still on the course. Our AS was 9 miles from the finish and was fairly quiet until sunrise. Racers and their pacers came through maybe once an hour until about 9am. Soon after, a good, old fashioned blue norther came through and the temperature dropped 20 degrees in the same number of minutes. Runners came through desperate for more clothing and resorted to digging through drop bags to find anything to keep them warm for the final couple of hours it would take to finish. We went from hoping we would have enough ice to not being able to make ramen fast enough. Soon after the cold front came through, our cutoff time passed. We helped take down the AS then headed over to the finish line. It was amazing to see the runners fight through the wind and rain to finish. I was inspired to run the 50 miles at Brazos the next year and after that, maybe a 100?

Just over two years later in 2018, I was at the start line for Rocky. I had finished Bandera 3 weeks before. I had such a huge blister under my big toenail that I could only run 7 miles the week after Bandera. I guess to make up for it, my coach built the miles up for the next two weeks so I ended up with 24 miles 2 weeks out and 40 miles the week before the race, then another 15 in the days leading up to Saturday morning. I arrived at the park Friday for the briefing sore and nervous. At packet pickup, we saw a couple of celebrities. Gordy hadn’t finished Bandera within the required cutoff for WS100, so was in Texas again trying for a WS qualifying finish. Catra Corbett was also present and would be pacing a 14 year old the next day. We all waited for any insights from Chris at the briefing. This would be the first year in many for a new course. A hurricane the previous fall had seriously damaged most of the park but many dedicated volunteers had cleaned up the trails enough that Joe and Chris were able to come up with a 25 mile loop. We would it run 4 times. In contrast to the old loop, this one was two-way for the entire course. I stared at the course map until the sequence (ABCDEDBA) were burned into my brain. Given the amount of time I’d spent obsessing over the new course, the briefing didn’t provide anything new but it was nice to see some familiar faces. We headed over to my parents’ campsite for a visit before heading back to the hotel Friday night.

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The 2020 course (now with 100k) was introduced in 2018.

As at Bandera, I’d been able to persuade my parents to camp at the park. Because the persuading took place late, the best campsite we were able to get them was in the Raven Hill campground. This was before the days of being able to reserve a specific campsite, so we came up with a list of options that would allow me to leave the course and walk to their RV at almost the halfway point of the race so I could change in comfort if necessary. Race day morning we were able to bypass the longer line at the gate because we had the camping permit and we headed straight to the parking lots near the start line.

Race report: Several other Rockhoppers were running and it was the first attempt at 100 for four of us. Rich had set up the tent near the start and we all gathered in the cold, dark morning for reassurance and quick pictures. After the countdown, we were off. My goal on the first loop was to stay relaxed and take it slow as I saw what the course looked like. As usual, I’d created spreadsheets with a couple of time scenarios. I knew that the pace to beat cutoffs was faster than at Bandera, but the elevation was also much more forgiving. I stayed to the back at the start and tried not to be unnerved that I felt more sore than I had ever felt at any start line for any race.

The first mile brought a downhill from the start, a couple of road crossings, signs and balloons at one to commemorate a runner’s birthday, roots and pine needles, and a series of low, wooden bridges. We then turned right on to a lite version of powerlines for less than a mile before another right that took us to Chinquapin Trail that was rocky with chunks of asphalt. My first mile was almost a minute slower than I had projected. I tried not to freak out. Just over two miles later, my awesome boyfriend was waiting for me at the first AS (Nature). I handed over my headlight and reassured him I was fine for the rest of the first loop so he could go back and nap, then check us out of the hotel. There was a light, intermittent mist by now but nothing too concerning.

The next section took us across the road to Chinquapin Trail again with plenty of roots. At about 5.25 miles, the trail dead ends into Triple C trail, a wide, not at all rooty gravel road. We turned left towards the Gate aid station. For most of the rest of the race, there would now be two way traffic, so we were rarely alone on the trails. The volunteers at Gate had gone with a Talladega Nights theme and were full of energy. They sent us back out for the 3 miles to Damnation.

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One of few pictures taken.

Just past the T intersection that we had turned left on, we veered right from the gravel road back on to Chinquapin Trail. After a mile or so of rooty trail, we took a left to the spillway service road, then a right at the bulldozer (seriously, it became a favorite landmark) down to Damnation. The next section from Damnation to the unmanned Far Side was the longest without aid at almost 5 miles.

After Damnation, we stayed along the park fence line before taking a right, left, left, then right to skip a small section that I think was heavily damaged when we ran. This section brought wooden bridges over creeks, a wooden bridge that had been moved by the storm, downed trees, a section of bamboo that also had a developing mudhole thanks to the steadier mist, and a section that seemed desolate that first morning and would only get worse throughout the race (this is called foreshadowing).  Far Side finally appeared and to our surprise, there were a few Boy Scouts hanging out to cheer us on.

From Far Side, it was back through the same trails to Damnation, then a left at the T intersection back towards Nature. My parents were waiting for me just past Nature. I was already behind my worst pace scenario and freaking out which is what I shouted to them as I went past. I made it back to the start line, traded out trash for snacks, worried aloud, and went back out.

I was not in a good state mentally as I headed back out and I made an effort to keep up with an entertaining group of 3 runners who were also starting the second loop. I learned that some of the elites eat frosting (“straight from the can!”) and one of these brave runners was trying that strategy. Another planned to run the 100 this weekend and the 50 the next. They lifted my spirits and I was able to pick up the pace a little and wasn’t quite so sore. In terms of the course, the second loop was more of the same, but with more drizzle and therefore more mud along that nice smooth jeep road section out to the Gate. The long section from Damnation to Far Side and back was not any more fun the second time around and slightly more muddy. This section made me think twice about having a pacer. I had not planned to have a pacer at all. The majority of my training runs were alone and I’d done ok at Bandera alone for all but the last 5 miles. I figured I’d be ok at Rocky, especially with the two way traffic. But that section was just kind of creepy to me and I started to wish I’d had someone to keep me company. I also regretted not having thought to leave a headlamp at Damnation because I was slower than expected and trying to beat dusk.

My awesome crew/boyfriend and I had planned for him to meet me at the “bench,” in the Coloneh campgroup about 1/4 mile from the T intersection on Chinquapin. Several spectators had gathered there during the day around a bench that sat just off the course.  On a previous trip, we figured out a route partly along a powerline that was just over half a mile round trip from the trail to my parents’ campsite to the race course. I would take the side trip to their camper, eat, change, and get to use a nice clean, flushing toilet. I failed to realize I would need a headlight earlier if I were running behind and I also failed to account for the time taken at the stop in my planning spreadsheets. I made it to the bench just as it was dark and my awesome boyfriend led the way to the camper. I stripped, ate, dressed in warm and wonderfully dry clothes, and headed back out as fast as I could. We made it back to the bench about 30 minutes later.

rocky 18 map_LI
The circled area in light blue shows the 0.56 mile out & back to Raven Hill campground from the bench for clean clothes and a flush toilet.

I was now running with people who I had been seeing after my turnarounds most of the day. One of those runners was a guy who was having a really bad day. We talked most of the way from the powerlines after Nature back to the start. He was ready to drop after having a really frustrating training season that had been underwhelming thanks to a rough divorce. On the bright side he loved talking about his two daughters and we focused on them through the end of the loop. Unfortunately, he decided not to continue but offered me his pacer who was waiting back at Nature. I wasn’t sure this was how these things were done, but he reassured me that the pacer was looking forward to running and he was definitely not going to be running. I accepted gratefully and shared the news with my awesome crew when we reached the start line at the end of my second loop. My boyfriend decided he would check out the pacer and be ready to introduce us when I returned to Nature.

At the start of loop three, I was in unexpectedly good spirits, moving quicker than I had anticipated, and looking forward to having someone in front of me to catch those damn roots that were really growing bigger as we had been warned would happen. My awesome boyfriend had reworked out the pace I had to keep from here on out to make cutoffs. I was pleased that I had picked up 6 spare minutes between the start and Nature. He kindly explained that no, I was only two minutes ahead of schedule when I made it to Nature. Maybe I’d spent 4 minutes in that portapotty? I was confused. At any rate, I now had a pacer to help keep me on track. As we left Nature, my cheerful and friendly pacer asked what he could do to help. I told him the approximate pace I’d been running and what I needed to maintain to beat the cutoffs. He reassured me that I had plenty of time and we didn’t need to worry about cutoffs. I know pacers lie, so I disregarded that. We talked a little and I nervously asked if he’d done a 100 before? (I wanted to be sure he had been in my shoes before and could handle my expected freak out in the middle of the night.) He reassured me he had at Snowdrop, a 55 hour timed race, not long ago. He went on to explain that he had run until dark, went back to his hotel for a nap, and came back to finish the next day. For some reason, this concerned me. I asked if he’d run in Huntsville before? No, this was his first time. This conversation took place in our first mile together as we gingerly our way through the roots in the dark on the trail after Nature. We arrived at the bench after a 22(!) minute mile where my boyfriend encouraged us to pick up the pace. My cheerful pacer again reassured me that I was fine on the cutoffs – the cutoff to get back to Nature wasn’t until 11am Sunday. What? No. I said I had to be back OUT of Nature, starting my fourth loop by 5:45am. Now I was really freaking out. I wasn’t worried about the roots along the rocky and now muddy road, so I set the pace. I appreciated that he offered to stock up on whatever I needed from Gate and we quickly headed back out. The miles back to Damnation passed quickly, and then we were on the creepy section out to Far Side. I was especially grateful for his company there and I think others were too as he chatted at them passing. He put on some music to take us through the miles and somewhere in that section I learned that Strava miles and Garmin miles are not measured the same. My watch had us consistently at 20 minute miles but Strava was telling him 16. We picked up the pace again on the way back to Damnation. Then we were back past the bulldozer, turning left at the T, seeing my awesome boyfriend at the bench (had not slept as instructed), then back at Nature, then going even faster over those damned wooden bridges towards the start line. My pacer informed me I was doing fine and he didn’t want to slow me down any so he headed back to Nature to finish his shift. Thanks to his help, I ended the 3rd loop feeling good (except for that one spot on my knee and that one calf that was so tight). My awesome boyfriend traded out trash for new supplies again, I took a Tylenol for the soreness, and requested a grilled cheese sandwich from the camper, to be picked up in a few miles.

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More foreshadowing.

I head out, with renewed vigor and enthusiasm, in the continuing darkness and drizzle for loop four. I have strict instructions that every mile MUST be under 19 minutes so that I can make the cutoffs. I focus on collecting seconds (math is a good diversion) and am irritated when I have to stop to pee seemingly immediately at Nature. I say hi to my pacer then get out of the AS as fast as possible and hop back down the rooty section to the jeep road. I “turn and burn” as the Talladega Nights volunteers at Gate describe it and head on to Damnation without picking up anything. My awesome boyfriend surprises me at the T intersection and, as at Bandera, holds out a hand so I can semi-squat and pee. Almost to Damnation and the sun is finally creeping out but it’s still cloudy and somehow my eyes are still seeing those teeny drops of rain that had looked like a cloud of bugs in front of my headlight all night. I see the bulldozer, the lights of Damnation up ahead, pass Catra and the young runner, and I have collected almost 7 minutes to spare when I hit Damnation at 7am, 30 minutes before the cutoff. I am feeling surprisingly good – as my pacer predicted I would with the sunrise. I make it through the mudhole in the bamboo section, take the right at the downed bridge and just before mile 86, trip on the millionth damned root of the night. As I trip, I feel a sharp, stabbing pain in my calf and then a cramp that will not release. I am in a hurry but I can’t go on until I get this pain to somehow subside. I stretch it (does NOT help), try to walk, massage it, nothing is working. Catra passes me and asks am I ok? I explain about the cramp and she suggests the stretch, so I try again. I limp along and as my watch buzzes, I have lost almost all of my banked minutes. I work out a limping scurry and debate the wisdom of effectively starting a half marathon unable to walk properly. This is no time for rational thought, so I take a Tylenol, and keep moving forward.

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I truly have no control over my life. Or my toenails.

My attentive boyfriend who is tracking my phone has seen me slow and checks in – am I ok? No, I have a bad cramp, but I can continue. I am trying to keep up the pace. I find that I can make up time on the downhills, and when it hurts, I remind myself that every one of us out here right now is in pain, we knew we would be, and it will be over soon. I keep moving forward. I pass a woman who is begging her pacer for a cookie but isn’t allowed one unless she runs a few steps. There are volunteers now at Far Side. They take my picture (truly awful), kindly massage my calf a little, and I head back out. There are more of us out here than I expected and we are all looking rough but everyone is encouraging. I’m grateful that no one is nearby when I have a sudden urge to pee and barely get my pants down before leaning on a tree at the side of the trail, with my now cold but still delicious grilled cheese sandwich hanging out of my mouth. I am in pain but the adrenaline has hit because in my mind I am now finally heading home. There is no more out and back on these trails, only back. I make it back to Damnation 20 minutes before the cutoff and stop for nothing. Just over a mile later, my awesome boyfriend is waiting at the bench. He is concerned by my obviously awkward gait and I reassure him I’m fine. He will meet me at Nature in just over a mile and pace me to the finish. I am ecstatic about this because I am really, really tired and would like maybe just a little nap. Moving forward is confusing and the mud is irritating. People are flying past me now, including the frosting eater, ready to be finished. I wish I could move that fast.

My parents are waiting along the road we cross at Nature and I wish my mother Happy Birthday. She is confused, she has forgotten after the long night that it’s her birthday today. I have beaten the cutoff at Nature by 25 minutes and my new awesome boyfriend/pacer is waiting and thinks he will be able to motivate me to run today. I explain how I have this cramp and running really does not seem to be an option just now. He lets it go but is able to help me pick up the pace some. I’m excited to show him the sights along the trail. “Here’s where the guy this morning was yelling at his crew about not giving him headphones.” Not long after, “This is the powerlines. We hate this section because we thought we were next to the lake all that time before but now we realize we were not. It’s worse because we also realize that what we thought was the party at the start line is just the party at Nature which is somehow just around the corner 2 miles later.” He urges me forward, though the mud, to the left turn at the end of the powerlines. We now have just over a mile to go and about 45 minutes to the cutoff to finish which kind of makes my cry because I see that I might be able to do it but between here and there are ALL THOSE DAMN LITTLE BRIDGES. I walk around as many of them as I can, and then we’re at the playground, then the birthday party, and I know the finish line is at the top of the hill and I’m really crying now because I know I am going to finish, and I do.

I finish with just over 20 minutes before the cutoff. My parents are waiting, my dad is recording us crossing the finish, my mom is hugging me, my cheerful pacer and the runner who loaned him to me, and one of the other first-timer Rockhoppers are all waiting to greet me. I am exhausted and exhilarated and I am proud. I have known since somewhere in the last loop that this is without question the hardest thing I have ever done and this is one of the few times I have felt this kind of pride. I am also a little delirious, but not so much that I don’t forget to order my finisher’s jacket.

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Off trail:

The very nice guy who dropped that year after a bad season of training apparently met and got engaged to another ultrarunner. He paced her though the 100k in 2020 and they got married at the finish line two hours after the race ended.

 

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