2010 Rocky Raccoon 100: A First-Timer Account

When Ashley Arnold of Trail Runner Mag offered to share the experience of her first attempt at 100 miles with iRunFar’s readers, we jumped at the chance. Below is her account of her run at the 2010 Rocky Raccoon 100 mile run.

I’d checked the weather for Huntsville, TX at least twice a week for the past month and a half, afraid that with the unseasonal weather we’d be having around the country we’d surly either be drenched in freezing rain the whole day or be trudging through at least three inches of snow… something I’m not sure has ever happened in Southern Texas. But almost every year since 1993 (the year Rocky Raccoon started) the course has seen little precipitation and a lot of sunshine. After a few solid weeks of non-stop rain, somehow, the skies cleared up this Saturday and gave directors, volunteers and runners the perfect 57 degree cloudless day we were all hoping for.

As we toed the start-line in the 6 a.m. darkness, it was still relatively chilly, but warm enough I didn’t need to keep on my tights. I was nervous. I was going into a 100-mile race having only run 2 other ultras, neither of which I had trained for. But I had for this one… a lot. I’d been itching to run a 100 since I moved to Colorado last winter and had been training since June (aside from a month and a half break for an IT band issue that miraculously vanished one day and hasn’t come back since). My legs were ready. I knew I would have no problem running 100 miles. What I didn’t know that morning, is how a few seemingly minor “novice” mistakes in the first few laps would send my awesome day into a plummeting black hole.

I started off with a slow warm-up, as Peter Defty of VESPA had cautioned me over and over. I watched as the leaders sprinted off into the darkness while I sat back at a comfortable pace, just over 9-minute miles, and let my body get into fat-burning mode. I got to the Nature Center Aid Station
in just under 29 minutes and right on track. With energetic waves and “Good mornings,” I passed my technical pull-over on to a volunteer and rolled out without stopping. At the hour mark, I took two Salt-Stick capsules and a few bites of a peanut butter and jelly roll-up I had stored in my pocket
and began to pick-up the pace, just a little. It still felt easy and effortless. I took Salt-Stick capsules every hour and nibbled on my PB&J every 30 minutes or so and, carrying 1.5 liters of water in my Nathan Pack, I didn’t have to stop at any of the 4 aid stations on my way back to the start. After almost taking a wrong turn over a bridge, I met up with a couple of guys going about the same pace as me and I hung with them back to Dogwood. We rolled in at 2:55. A little faster than I’d anticipated my first 20, but I hadn’t pushed the pace. I’d stayed relaxed and my legs still felt fresh.

I didn’t stop at Dogwood as Jeremy (my boyfriend) was waiting for me 5k further up the trail at the Nature Center Aid Station. It took me 28 minutes to arrive. I noticed my hands were a little puffy, so I decided to lay off the Salt-Stick capsules for a while, convinced I’d taken too much. Even though I was sweating and the sun was already up at this point, I was preoccupied with the negative effects of too much salt, that I decided to try and flush it out by not taking anything for the next two hours. Mistake #1.

But I still felt okay, my legs were fresh so I kept plodding ahead at the same speed. When I got to the backside of the 20-mile loop a volunteer at the Dam Road Aid Station asked me if I needed anything out of my drop bag. I told him “no thank you” and barged ahead. It wasn’t even 100 yards after I’d left that aid station when I reached into my pocket and realized I only had one bite left of my sandwich. I could easily go back and get another out of my drop-bag. But my beginner-status got the best of me. I decided to keep going. This was a long lonely stretch of the course and I had no food. My fingers were still a little sausage-like, so I laid off the salt and just drank more water. This of course, was mistake #2.

My stomach was growling when I returned to Dam Road a little over an hour later. Still in a hurry and unwilling to take the time to evaluate the situation, I grabbed a PB&J quarter and took off down the dirt road. Within 45 minutes, my stomach was growling and I was starting to get a head-ache. My feet hurt so bad I wanted to rip off my shoes and run barefoot. (I should have started the race in my Newton Racers, but for some reason opted for a pair of Patagonias I’d never run in for more than 16 miles.)

I was near to tears when I met Jeremy at Park Road with 4.4 miles till the 40 mile mark. I was still on good time, but the lack of food and electrolytes in my system would now force me to play catch-up, and, for some reason, I still decided to wait and eat until I got back to Dogwood. The hunger pangs were so terrible that I had to walk a little, which slowed me down. I got back to Dogwood dizzy and tired in around 6:30. I plopped into a chair and ate a grilled cheese and drank part of a coke while Jeremy changed my shoes. He then met me at the Nature Center to give me my Amphipod handheld so I could get the pack off my back. I took a short bathroom break, did some stretching, finally took a couple Salt-Stick capsules and with a full belly and my iPod, took off with a smile once again.

My feet no longer hurt in the Newtons, I took another VESPA and had just gotten in some quality calories, so my pace got back up to a normal speed and I barreled into the Dam Road Aid Station all wide-eyed with a huge grin. Even though I’d taken over a half hour at Dogwood and the Nature Center trying to revamp myself, calm down and get some calories in my system, I still made it back to Dogwood in about 4 hours. With the fear of over-salting still weighing heavily on my mind (absolutely idiotic, I’m aware at this point), I cut my Salt-Stick ingestion down to 1 an hour, if that. And I only drink water because I can’t really do many sport drinks…. so I wasn’t getting nearly enough salt. Even though I’d kicked it back in gear with my resurrection at mile 43, I had continued to ignore my needs. And trudged ahead with little concern for what was quickly becoming an electrolyte deficiency.

After having spent at least 30 minutes in the chair heading into the final lap, my overall lap time came out to just over 4 hours, but left me just slightly off pace. If I could repeat two more 4 hour laps, I’d still make it in under 19 hours and I figured that’d be okay for my first go, but still way off my original plan. Jeremy and I started off at a walk out of Dogwood and then didn’t start running for another 15 minutes, the reality of my stiff legs really started to set in. Though I had bursts of good-paced running, overall I was slowing dramatically. And as night crept in, I started to trip and fall a lot on the root covered trail, not only getting extremely aggravated with myself, but having a hard time getting back on my feet.

I had some broth at a couple of aid stations on that lap and somehow decided that because I was taking in salt, I didn’t need the Salt-Stick capsules. I’m not sure how, but I completely forgot about electrolytes and decided if I ate enough salt I wouldn’t need to take them. And as hard as Jeremy tried to get me to swallow them, I was a firm “no” on the subject. Still, after everything, afraid of overdoing it. By the time we reached Dogwood for the fourth time, we’d been out just over 5 hours and I was so cold and wasted, we decided the only way to keep me moving forward would be a change into dry warm clothes and some hot foot. I could still make it in under 24 hours, but this was a thought I’d never considered. Simply finishing the race had never been a goal…I had never expected to have to be faced with “possibly” making it across the finish in under 24 hours. But before we set out for our final lap, I had to sit down to change pants, shirt and socks because bending over was much too difficult. And I was shivering. Uncontrollably. So much I couldn’t get warm.

The thought of going out for a final lap felt impossible. With the state of my legs, running seemed out of the question and with chattering teeth I couldn’t imagine walking for over 5 hours. The first 60 miles had blown by so quickly and yet the simple tasks deemed as necessary to a race of this distance had been forgotten and brought me to this demoralized moment. I had to make a decision. I probably could have walked, but shivering in the cold it didn’t seem possible. I was crying hysterically when I turned in my number and chip at the timing station. I couldn’t help but feel I had failed.

I’d come to Texas physically prepared. My legs were fit to run a 100 miles and I had set an attainable time goal. But with my lack of experience I turned what could have been a fine first 100 miler into an aborted attempt. I still run the days events over and over in my mind. I can’t stop thinking about it. My dad told me I’m crazy anyway. He said he gets tired driving 80 miles. My friends and family tell me that they are proud of me for getting as far as I did. While I’ll acknowledge that 80 miles is a long way, it’s not a 100. I flew to Texas to run a 100 miles and fell short of that goal. But at least I got to spend a full day running through the woods, and I did learn a lot.

So, in a few months when I line up for the Leadville 100, I know it won’t just be an attempt. I’m going to finish.