At 4am, when Paul knocked on the car window I congratulated him on doing something very few others would have, gutting out almost 50 miles of a one hundred mile run having been forced to stop for over two and a half hours mid-race. The second thing I said to him was something I'd been thinking about for the entire second half of my own race, that 100 milers are a completely different sport to the rest of ultra running.
Rocky raccoon has gained a bigger profile in racing terms over the last few years, thanks mostly to the exploits of my friend and co-centurion running coach Ian Sharman, who blazed the north American trail 100 mile record in 2011, 12hrs 44mins. I keep coming back to it for the same reasons: Texas in February is like the UK in the summer, sunny (sometimes!!!), warm (mostly) and hence like a little holiday. Second, I love trail 100s best out of all distances/ environments/ terrain types and the rocky trail is majority just great sweeping single track and fire road topped with a cushion of pine needles. Last, united fly to Houston direct from London, just an hours drive from the state park race location, and do so for a great price making this probably all round the best value US trail 100 option. Lastly and most importantly, however, my love for 100 milers has been tempered by a succession of bad races, where things have seemed to go wrong to an almost cataclysmic level each time. Shortened version: 11 goes, plenty excuses, yet to have the 100 mile race I've always wanted.
I think the best and worst thing about hundreds is that if and when something goes wrong, it's magnified 10 fold vs any other distance. With a 50km, a 50 mile or even a 100km, you can usually get by on 'fumes'. That is, if your nutrition goes out the window, you can grind it out at a reasonable albeit slower pace. If you get chaffing it is usually relatively earlier on and you can tough it out a little better because the end is that much nearer. If you're dehydrated or have muscle pain, or feel tired or something hurts, you can put your head down and just grind it out, it will end within a 'reasonable' amount of time. In a hundred, if you suffer any of the above it can often be from 30 or 40 miles in, that means you still have 60 or 70 miles on your feet ahead. At times it is so incredibly hard to stay in, to keep fighting, to not give up, to not look for those excuses which make it ok to stop when you know you could carry on. You have to dig so much deeper to finish a hundred, you will go through the highs and the lows, just when you think it can't get any worse it will and just when you think you've dropped below rock bottom you suddenly pull out in to this massive high that brings you close to tears. Good day, bad day, anybody who finishes a 100 has a massive amount of spirit, drive, fight and determination. If anyone ever doubts the depth of human spirit and endeavour they should spend a little time at the finish line of a 100 miler. Right from the first person to the last person to cross the finish line, every one has made sacrifices necessary to finish. Watching people cross the finish line is the best part of organising, running and being a part of ultras.
(Paul and I on a typically root littered section of trail. Photo c/o Matt Hagen).
Paul and I travelled out to Texas together with high hopes and with good solid winter training behind us. Our plan was to run our own races, but we knew we'd be running some of it together I think, given where we both were in our relative training. After two years of bad weather, the 2013 event was blessed with blue skies and moderate if slightly higher than average temperatures, about 22 degrees. The day before the event we went out and covered a few miles on the course which was in great condition, dry, fast and just massive amounts of fun to run. Race morning we got up about 0330 packed our things and made our way to the park nice and early to park up near the startline.
Gear and Nutrition for the race:
The Texan flag flying at the avenue of trees start/ finish:
At 545 we walked to the drop bag area, left our start finish line stuff in position and joined the front of the line up for the race. I knew people would go off quick and that we didn't want to be right out front, but with single track from 300 yards in, it's really important to get in a good fast moving line rather than be held up too much from running freely at your own pace. As we started, mike Morton the US 24hr record hold (172 miles) and two other guys went off of the front and were quickly out of sight. We the led out the rest of the field. I felt we were being pushed on a bit quick so tucked in behind Paul and offered the few behind us to come through, but nobody took us up on the offer so we just got on with the job. At mile 2, Paul hit the first of many huge protuding roots and commando rolled along the ground. He was ok, thank goodness. At mile 4 he repeated, at mile 5 it was my turn. These were all big crashes and were at this point pretty inevitable in the pitch darkness of the woods on winding trail. At mile 5 we emerged on to the fire road leading to the second checkpoint and saw Mike Morton and the other two leaders running back towards us, lost. I shouted for them to continue ahead and also took the time to look behind seeing just two americans and a Welshman, Steve spiers, still with us. Or of the americans was Jack Pilla, previous Vermont 100 champ. I admit I was a little concerned at being out front of a 100 miler with 6 other guys of that calibre ahead and 315 others behind, but Paul and I kept checking with each other that the pace felt ok and it did, so we went with it. Comfy pace, eating often and feeling good, we rolled around the first 20 mile loop in 2:44. We went straight out on to loop 2 with less than a minute in the aid station to gather some gels and water and ran on through the marathon mark in a cruisy 3:34, still holding a pace just over 8:15 a mile. I had told Paul before hand my pacing strategy and it went like this:
Loop 1: 3:00
Loop 2: 3:00
Loop 3: 3:20
Loop 4: 3:40
Loop 5: 3:59
Total time: 16:59
The heat was definitely evident on loop 2 eventually reaching 22 degrees with 50% humidity so I was drinking way more than I thought I would have to. Over the back 'damnation loop' between miles 26 and 32, the elastic holding Paul and I together started to stretch as he edged away on the hills. He never got out of sight but I knew it was right to sit back and run by myself here, that margin of a few percentage points is a huge one in a 100. As I entered the start finish of loop 3 I saw Paul exiting the aid station, we'd held onto 5th and 6th and left 40 miles with about 5:45 on the clock.
Heading out on loop 3 I quite quickly caught Paul who looked pale and dehydrated. He told me he was feeling rough so I encouraged him to drink, take some salt, slow it up a bit and rally, that it would come around. It was my turn to edge away from him slightly and I rolled on and through to the 50 mile point in about 7:20, still up on schedule but still running every step and feeling great. I was worried about Paul but didn't see him as I came back through the aid station so i took that as a positive sign. I ran strong through to mile 60, slowing just a little but holding a good pace and keeping the Gu gels going in at one every 30 minutes as planned. As I hit 60 miles I saw 8:59 on the clock but also Jack Pilla and the other American in the aid station either dropped or resting and so I headed out on to loop 4 in 4th. Pulling in to mile 66, I passed the guy running in third and promptly found myself running for a podium position through mile 70. I'd run every step to this point but I could feel my stomach starting to go and the inevitable creeping ache of needing to start hiking some of the climbs and finally between 70 and 80 I caved, hiked a few climbs and promptly began puking very hard. I really cleared out my stomach but found the will to keep eating sorely lacking. I made it back to 80 miles in a respectable 12:47, 13 minutes ahead of my pace plan, but having dropped 2 places in that stretch. The darkness had just fallen and I knew loop 5 would hurt but I could also taste a massive pb and the culmination of a lot of hard training finally paying off. I gave everything I had left on that loop, running or rather shuffling every descent and hiking with purpose the remainder under the floodlighting of my Petzl Nao. I knew I was going to have to pull off a miracle to run a 4:12 final loop to break 17 hours but I wasn't going to quit on it. Really it's a bit of a blur going around that final time but i struggled to average under 14:30 miles and right at mile 96 and the final aid station I was passed by two, three and then four guys all bunched together on their final loop. I managed a good run in to the finish for a total time of 17:32, 11th place overall and my third sub-24hr RR100 buckle. Hugely disappointing final loop but overall a 100 mile result I can finally be proud of.
The full results can be found here. Mike Morton ran out winner by a big margin in 14:28. Overall there were 340 starters, 229 finishers for a 67% finish rate. A very good year for the race overall.
As for Paul, well I'd seen him about 12 miles behind me on his loop 4 where he'd told me that he'd been held at the 52 mile aid station of 2 and a half hours due to dehydration. That he was still in the race after that was absolutely huge on the guts and determination scale. Sharing a car, I tried waiting for him at the line but got too cold too quickly so retreated to the car with a pot of mash potatoes to while away the time. At 4am and after 21:53 of running and walking, Paul crossed the line for his finish. To put that in to perspective. He spent 2.5 hours sitting in a cp, walked out the final 30 plus miles and rescued a lost 50 miler, walking her to the next aid station. And still ran a sub 22 hour 100 mile. He didn't have the race he wanted, but he finished and that's everything. When he gets a 100 right, everyone else in the field will need to bring their a game, because he is going to kill it.
The following day we went back to watch the final finishers come in and saw good friends Traviss Wilcox and Rachel Smith finishing their own races, making it a clean sweep of finishes for the British contingent!
So thats it for now. The 100 mile distance has been taunting me for 4 years. I haven't tamed it, I have however finally been allow to pass through in a style I am happy with. This is still just the start of what I think will likely be a life long love for the sport, but more so with this distance.
Next up is Ironman New Zealand on March 2nd, with the 6 Foot Track Marathon in Australia's Blue Mountains the following weekend, hopefully rounding out an incredible month....