Rocky Raccoon 100 Course Record
I've had a bit of time to digest the race on Saturday and it still seems very surreal. I'm guessing that my normal blog readership of me and my Mum (actually, I know she doesn't even read it) may be slightly higher for this write up. I've just been blown away by the huge amount of coverage and attention I've received since I finished, from autographing shoes at the finish line (no, really) to having more activity on my Facebook page in a day than in a normal year.
And it seems all that much stranger to me because this wasn't meant to be a big deal. It was just me returning to the place where I tried to run my first 100 last year. I don't like DNFing or having a bad race, so had to come back to retry, even though the reason last year was a December injury that wiped out virtually all running in December and January. I only got back to training again a week before that race, largely thanks to Mark DeJohn (http://www.activebend.com/index.html) in Bend, OR, fixing me very quickly. But virtually no mileage for two months meant I only went to the race because everything was prepaid.
This year I was fit and fairly well rested, but I entered months ago and didn't see any super speedy guys entered at the same time. So my aim had been to train for the Phoenix marathon in mid-January to improve speed and then use this race as a start to the ultra season. That changed about 10 days before the race when a who's who of US ultrarunning (see http://karlmeltzer.com/2011/01/rocky-raccoon-odds/ to get an idea) suddenly signed up to turn it into one of the most competitive looking 100s of the year. Given there's not many chances to race a several famous ultrarunners on the same day, it seemed like a good idea to give it my best shot and see how I could do.
I won't go into too much detail about anything other than the race because Bryon Powell at irunfar interviewed me very thoroughly to give background to anyone who I haven't met and who is interested - http://www.irunfar.com/2011/02/ian-sharman-post-2011-rocky-raccoon-100-interview.html. irunfar also provided great live coverage via Twitter which (to my surprise) kept some of my friends back in the UK up into the wee hours. There's also a great race report for the entire event on irunfar at http://www.irunfar.com/2011/02/ian-sharman-destroys-rocky-raccoon-100-course-record.html and my pacers were lightning quick in writing up their story on there too - http://www.irunfar.com/2011/02/ian-sharmans-pacerscrew-report-on-his-rocky-raccoon-100-win.html.
As I said, it's all been a bit crazy since I finished and everyone suddenly seems to want to know how someone they hadn't heard of beat a 15-year course record. So, here's my take on the race, which was immaculately organized by Joe Prusaitis and his team.
Apart from the buzz about the big names attending the race, the main topic of discussion in the days before the race was the winter storm which was freezing Texas and even parts of Mexico. In the end, I think about 200 runners out of 600-700 across the 50-mile and 100-mile events didn't turn up and many just weren't able to travel thanks to flight delays.
Luckily I flew from San Jose, CA, where it was February heat wave time, but Houston airport was still suffering some delays. I wondered whether the elite field would be thinned out and I think it was for the women, but not the men. And even at the car hire I met a runner who I offered a lift to. We chatted and he mentioned he was doing the 50-mile and eventually we got round to names and I found out he was Todd Braje, a member of the US 100k team who I'd heard of. He also went on to smash the 6h01m CR in 5h41m (according to my memories from after the race) or 5h48m (from an unofficial posting I saw online). I'd like to say we swapped tips for breaking the records, but we mainly chatted about 100ks and how this would be a good opening ultra to start the season.
I met up with a friend from the UK, James Elson, at the Motel 6 in Huntsville. He's running a lot this year (RR, Umstead, Comrades and the Grand Slam) after finishing Badwater last year. Then we headed to packet pick-up, the pre-race meal and a chance for me to meet my Texas-based pacers, Paul and Meredith Terranova. I'd only met Paul once before, at the 50k TNFEC in San Francisco where we raced around each other for 1st and 2nd, so it had been great to get his offer to crew and pace for me at RR. And I'd not met Meredith before, so was pleased to see that she was totally focused and excited about the race. Probably a lot more focused and with more of a plan and strategy than I had.
Meredith told us that the course looked in great shape, although the wooden bridges were icy, then James and I ate and both got early nights while Meredith helped mark the course. I'd tried to gradually adjust my body clock for the previous few days so that a 2am (Pacific Time) alarm for a 6am (Central Time) start wouldn't leave me like a zombie on the start line. I envied the east coasters who'd been able to fly in since that would be almost a lie-in.
Race morning was cold, and was no higher than 25 degrees F even by the time we started, so I had to scrape ice off the hire car and had multiple layers on with hat and gloves. Even Anton Krupicka (the favorite for most people) wouldn't be doing his trademark topless running in this weather. Although I'd have been impressed if he had.
At 5:58am I was at the start line in Huntsville State Park, surrounded by ultra legends (all of whom were taller than me, by a large margin in Scott Jurek's case). They all knew each other well while I was looking forward to jogging with them for, hopefully, a long time and getting a chance to chat to them.
The gun went off and Zach Gingerich flew off into the pitch black and out of sight with Norman Decelles (who later dropped at 40 miles). I settled into a pack of about six, which included Scott, Anton, Hal Koerner, Mike Wolfe and Karl Meltzer. For a while it also included the women's winner, Liza Howard, although I think she backed off slightly when she recognized a couple of the guys.
The course involves five 20-mile loops with several sections that have two-way traffic, particularly the first and last few miles of each lap. Aid stations are spaced so it's usually 3-4 miles between them, but with a 6-mile loop out and back to the DamNation station. Each is well stocked with everything you need, so I opted to not really use any of my own food but just force myself to eat and take a gel almost every time I hit a station.
The first time we reached DamNation was 6.2 miles in and it was still dark. The guys around me stopped for a drink then Anton jumped into the bushes for a break while I was left on my own. This wasn't the (rather vague) plan. I'd expected Zach and Anton to probably go off at the front and set the pace, but I was in 3rd on my own and running around 7:45/mile. I purposefully left the Garmin at home so that I wouldn't try to adjust my pace to hit any kind of target. Instead I opted to run purely by how I felt and go at a pace that was comfortable but not too slow. At this point, that meant sub 8-minute miling, which was below CR pace (which was 7:57/mile).
I wasn't too concerned to be on my own but hoped they'd catch up soon since I could hear them around 30 seconds back, talking and occasionally hooting loudly. Instead, it got light and I caught up to Norman and ran with him for a few miles, including a nasty ankle twist that was close to ending my race. I concentrated a bit harder after that since it's well known as a rooty course that can easily trip a runner up. He was in just shorts and T-shirt and his hands were painfully cold, especially holding the block of ice that had been his water supply. My hydration pack had also frozen, so I was reduced to only drinking every few miles at the aid stations. But the forecast had said that it should go above freezing by around 10am, which should be mid-way through loop two...kind of a long time to run with almost no liquids being taken on board. We ran into the last aid station of the loop together, at 15.6 miles but he stayed longer than me and I was on my own again.
Luckily my crew were on the ball at the end of the loop they offered me a handheld water bottle while I asked them to thaw out my backpack in case I wanted it later. It was still too cold to strip down much, but I felt comfortable so was happy to keep wearing multiple layers.
Thanks to the out-and-back section into Dogwood (the start/finish aid station), I saw that Zach was about six minutes ahead (2h23m for his loop) and that a huge pack of maybe eight guys was right behind me by around a minute.
Loop two was uneventful and I was feeling very relaxed. At DamNation it was exactly 26.2 miles and I think my time was around 3h13m. That sounded a bit fast for a 100 miler, but I decided to stay with the same comfortable pace and not judge it on the times or splits (that was the point of not using the Garmin). What did surprise me was that I was told that Zach was about a minute ahead, which meant I'd closed five minutes in six miles. I didn't think I'd sped up that much, so presumed he'd slowed down.
I found out around 50k (31 miles) into the race, when I caught him and ran alongside for a while. Like everyone else in the sport, he was really down-to-earth and I asked him how he thought Umstead (where he ran 13h23m last year) compared to RR. He said it was a little harder, which Hal Koerner contradicted when I spoke to him at the end of the race. Maybe I'll run it one day to find out.
Zach seemed to be struggling slightly and so I gradually pulled away (not intentionally) by around 34 miles to take the lead. It was also starting to warm up a little, but only enough for me to loosen my clothing rather than take off another layer at the end of the loop. This made me think more about hydration and the next time I saw Meredith, at 35.6 miles, I took the 10 oz water bottle she offered me. I'd not really drunk much to this point and hadn't sweated much either due to the cold, but as it warmed up, I wouldn't be able to get away with not drinking more.
I heard later from my crew that Zach was having stomach issues and that showed since he was still in 2nd but was five minutes back at 40 miles, with me going through in 4h54m. Hal and Anton were together 10 minutes behind me, closely followed by several others, but the big pack had broken up.
At this point I was just enjoying the sunny day and the trails were a joy to run on. I didn't think too much about the fact I was leading or that I still had 60 miles to go. All that mattered was getting to the next aid station and making sure I kept drinking and eating. I'd refill the bottle at every opportunity, always with whatever sports drink was on offer. And while it was being refilled by volunteers, I'd eat as much as I could and drink a couple of cups of whatever was lying around.
Lap three was warmer and I felt fine as I went through 50 miles in just under 6h10m. I knew I hadn't slowed down and that my race was going well, but I could only hope that I'd last out the final laps without anything going wrong. And the list of potential problems that could wipe out a huge lead was long: dehydration, overhydration, stomach problems, muscle cramps, tripping on the roots, general fatigue etc. By no means did I feel like I had the race sewn up, even when I went through 60 miles in 7h23m with an increased lead of 18 minutes over Anton and Hal. I wasn't even thinking about anything like that, just about getting to the next aid station feeling ok and repeating.
Paul joined me for the fourth loop, which meant I got to run with someone for the first time in about a marathon. For hours I'd been passing people in both directions and it was helpful to have someone fresh to help call out to people, to say hi, to encourage them etc. The lap went smoothly for the most part and I was down to just shorts and T-shirt from the point he joined me. One urgent stomach problem caused a quick jump into the bushes, but it wasn't chronic and I was able to run freely straight away.
I'd told Paul that I didn't want to risk anything by running too hard and that 8-minute miling would be perfect for a 2h40m loop (following splits so far of 2h29m/2h25m/2h29m). That would have left just under three hours for the last loop to break 13 hours and be well under the CR of 13h16m. It seemed possible, but with no guarantees.
For a few miles I told Paul I'd have to talk less, particularly over some of the small inclines. But I came out the other side and finished the loop feeling strong and picking up the pace to hit 80 miles in 9h58m for a 2h35m loop. The first thing I said to Meredith was that I'd just like to take it easy and not risk blowing up or tripping, since I had three hours to break 13, just as I hoped. I think I may also have said that I'd be very happy with it being an 80-mile race and that sub 10 for that was a good achievement for the day. Unfortunately, there're no accolades for running mainly a good race and I still had potentially the hardest bit ahead.
Meredith was so easy to run with, just like Paul, letting me dictate pace and chatting away to take my mind off things. I had to stop and jump in the bushes early on, but felt fine immediately afterwards again. Then she nipped off for a bathroom stop after about four miles and arranged to meet me further along the trail since she knows it so well from racing and pacing at RR many, many times (as I only found out afterwards, Paul and she had paced winners for the past four years at RR).
I was still waiting for something bad to happen and saving my mental energy for dealing with it, but things kept going well. Along the lap, I was able to keep up a good pace and our target was to get to the final aid station at 95.6 miles before it got dark so that we could pick up headlamps from Paul. We easily made it and now I was willing to accept that I'd probably win. All I had to do was not trip on a root in the dark.
So, as we got to maybe three miles from the finish, we decided it was time for the lights. I looked down into my hands to adjust it and put it round my head and immediately tripped at full speed. Luckily I naturally rolled and was up again almost in one fluid motion. That had been a very close one and I became much more alert to avoid ruining everything in the last miles. However, the fall seemed to upset my stomach again and I had to jump into the bushes one last time (I hoped).
My lamp was kind of pathetic and Meredith's floodlight from behind me casted a shadow of my body, even though my lamp was aimed straight at the shadow. We managed to run in a formation so that her lamp lit my path better (as well as most of the forest). Even in the dark, I'd say we were able to keep up some pace, but it's so difficult to tell.
As we went into the final mile, then final half mile, we sped up. I knew it was all easy paths underfoot and the adrenaline was pumping. It wasn't just going to be below 13 hours, but well below and much faster than I would ever have anticipated.
The final straight towards the finish lights was gradual acceleration up to virtually a sprint. This was either flashy and a perfect finish to a day that went flawlessly or the chance to fall head-over-heels at full speed with everyone watching. But I didn't trip this time and crossed the mat in 12:44:33, slicing almost five hours off my best and only 100 mile time.
Meredith and Paul had done such a great job of keeping me going and making sure I had everything I needed to hand. And the volunteers, RD and weather had all made it enjoyable and excellent conditions for people to run their best.
I lay in the finish tent with my feet raised, trying to eat and drink while having people come up to me to congratulate me. I had no appetite, especially for anything sweet, but forced myself to eat and drink, especially the cheeseburger (which was good). It was almost anticlimactic since I'd been bracing myself to deal with issues for hours and nothing major had happened to screw up my race.
Then Anton came in and I remember seeing his face upside down (since I was lying down with elevated feet) and he may have said 'You bastard!' in a friendly way or I may have made that up while the blood was rushing to my head. He'd gone faster than his previous win, but just outside the old CR, getting 13:18:52 (results here - http://www.ultralive.net/rr100/webcast.php). I was just relieved he didn't catch me. Hal came in seven minutes later and I found myself sitting down with those boys plus Scott Jurek at the finish, having a beer. This is when it really seemed surreal - I expected to come in and see them sat there having won and me just being yet another person who finished behind them. It was a lot of fun and an honor to meet them all. Not sure there's been a 100-miler on trails with so many fast times before.
There was some talk of my time being a 100 mile world best, but the magic of Google quickly turned that into a lie, since Jonas Buud of Sweden ran 12:32 in 2010 in a trail race in Sweden. Whether it was an easier course or not is irrelevant, it was still not a road or track course, so at least his record has been better publicized now. I should get a chance to race him at Comrades in June and the 100k World Championships (where he's the current silver medallist) in September.
I went back in the morning to see some of the runners finishing around 28 hours and it just brought home what a great sport this is and how much emotion and camaraderie it brings out in people. I heard there was also some kind of big game down in Dallas a few hours later, but I was on a plane during that and didn't really want to watch the commercials or Christina Aguilera's bad memory anyway.
Congratrulations to all the finishers and those who had to drop too. Hope the injuries and soreness fade to leave memories as good as mine.