25th Rocky Raccoon 100 & USATF 100 Mile Trail Championships – February 4th, 2017
Finished 2nd overall and 1st in the Championship Race: 13:44:28 *PR
Leading up to Race Day:
I had planned to run Rocky Raccoon 100 for a while as it’s a special race to me. I ran in 2015 which was my first hundred and finished third that year in the championship race (report). This would be my third one hundred miler which would allow me to meet the qualifying standards to apply for Badwater 135. Unfortunately, this year the application process closed two days before this race. I waited until Friday afternoon before the pre-race meeting to register in person. The main reason for that is I didn’t want to be on the radar and felt an advantage going into the race if my competition wasn’t aware I was running. I laid low for a couple weeks prior and went stealth on Strava and quiet on social media. Since I’m active on Strava and keep a blog with race reports someone could easily see my fitness and learn about my racing tactics. Not sure if it made a difference or not, but I didn’t want to put any pressure on myself and it was nice to keep my focus on other things. The week of the race I heard from a couple friends that Zach Bitter and Mario Mendoza were running. Then on Thursday I found out both Paul Terranova and Mario Macias were running. I confirmed on Friday that all four guys were signed up.
Following Brazos Bend 100 in December I managed to get in some decent training. I would have preferred a couple higher volume weeks, but I wanted to make sure I allowed my body a chance to recover. I was dealing with a few aches and pains so I wanted to make sure I didn’t overdo it. For the most part I was able to manage it with frequent visits to my sports doctor, Dr. Clouthier at Alternative Health Center of The Woodlands (http://stephenclouthier.com). I had some really good runs leading up to the taper so I was getting my confidence back about my overall fitness. Things were shaping up nicely for race day. The weather was looking more favorable each day leading up to race day. About ten days out the forecast was showing temperatures in the mid to high 70’s so we were blessed with the conditions we had. It was mid-40’s at the start and mid-50’s for the high with an overcast. I chose to wear my Salomon EXO S-lab twinskin shorts and matching half zip shirt, arm warmers, gloves, toboggan (beanie), and Hoka Challenger ATR 3 shoes.
Loop 1: 2:33:26
The race began at 6 a.m. and I positioned myself to front of the starting line and off to the side. It was a chill start for about five seconds and then Zach Bitter bolts off the front with an immediate reaction by Mario Macias in a hot pursuit. It was very similar to the start at Brazos Bend and these two were on a mission to run it fast. A few others took off into the dark, but I wasn’t able to recognize who they were. I held back at a comfortable pace with a plan to run 7:40 – 8 minute miles per loop. In this first section the trails are covered in roots as you run through the forest. I was most comfortable at a low 8-minute pace and able to choose the best part of the trails to run on. I wasn’t chasing the American Record so I held back hoping to run with a few people and relax for the first half of the race. There were a couple guys 10 meters up on me and maybe one or two behind me. I caught up with those two around the fifth mile and ran close enough to hear them talking. I heard one of the guys, Matt Urbanski, talk about taking a more conservative approach this year and running even splits. That was a similar plan I had so I made a mental note of that and saved it for later.
I started to pull away on the jeep road leading to Dam Nation (mile 6). On the out and back section I could see a headlamp and eventually caught up with the female leader Sabrina Little. We chatted for a bit and were both wondering where Paul Terranova was as we were expecting him to be running this pace. By the time I got back to Dam Nation (mile 12) I ditched my headlamp with Kyle and traded my water for a bottle of Tailwind. Kyle stated that Mario Mendoza was ahead about a minute and I was in sixth place overall. I wasn’t expecting to see Mario this soon as I figured he would be running a lot faster. For him to back off the lead pack meant he was running a smart race and planning to conserve energy early on. I never met Mario before or raced against him, but I knew he was running the race and was aware of his abilities. He has quite a few podium finishes at these USATF championship races. However, this is his longest race ever so I felt comfortable racing him with my experience. I opened up my stride on the jeep road and ran a few miles at 7 flat which felt really good and a nice change of pace. This section is a smoother with very few roots and has a mix of sand and some compact surfaces. Mario was also running a similar pace. If I got too close to him I backed off or stopped to use the bathroom and stretch a little to allow him to stay further ahead. I didn’t want to run with him which allowed me to remain calm and focus on my race. I ended up getting another bottle of Tailwind from Peter at Park Rd. aid station (mile 16). This last four miles of the loop has a lot of roots and the last two miles of it is the same trails as the first part of the course. I focused on my footing and backed off the pace to 8 minute miles. The leaders came blazing through as we were approaching a mile remaining to the start/finish area and they were up by 10 minutes. It was Zach Bitter, followed by Mario Macias, and James Stewart. During this time, I stopped focusing on the trails as much and jabbed my left foot into a decent size root which resulted in a quick blow to the ground. My toe took a beating on that and it lit me up. I was upset with myself as I was limping a bit and hoping the pain would wear off. In a minute or two I didn’t notice it as much and was in the start/finish area for a quick transition.
Loop 2: 2:34:24
My goal for the second loop was to try and run a similar pace and effort as the first. I went with feel and didn’t pay too much attention to what my splits were. Mario seemed to be running a little quicker in the first section of trails to the Nature Center aid station (23 miles) so I let him go and stayed a minute or two back. It felt more comfortable to sit back and run my own race. When I came into Dam Nation aid station I dropped off my arm sleeves and gloves with Kyle and switched bottles. I stuck with my nutrition plan of consuming a Huma Gel every 30 minutes and Tailwind as needed to get extra calories. I also took some Klean Electrolyte pills at mile 36 going into Park Rd. aid station. Klean Athlete has an assortment of supplements that are safe and free of banned substances. I started the day with their BCAA +ATP drink which provides a good boost of energy. While at Park Rd. I found out that someone dropped and I figured it was Zach Bitter as I heard he rolled his ankle on a root. I was able to confirm that on the out and back section when I saw the leaders going out on their second loop. It was Mario Macias and James Stewart at the front. This was a smooth second loop for me and my overall time was two seconds faster than my first loop. Mentally I felt great and thought it would be incredible if I could pull this off the entire run. My goal was to keep the difference between loops within 10 minutes. At the start/finish area Mendoza was a minute ahead.
Loop 3: 2:51:20
Going out for the third loop I was 11 minutes up on Urbanski and feeling good. My watch started showing my pace at 3-4 minutes per mile and I couldn’t figure out what was going. I figured it was a weak GPS signal and not sure what to do for it to record accurately. I didn’t have any good splits for a few miles and went off feel. My big toe was starting to hurt from the fall earlier and I was feeling some knee pain. As I approached Dam Nation (mile 46) I got a new bottle with Kyle and told him to have my Hoka Clayton’s ready to change into the next time I came around. I was wearing the Hoka Challenger ATR 3’s which gave me plenty of traction, but I wanted to see if the Claytons would feel different with my toe hurting more. On this out and back section I was losing energy and my mental strength was beginning to fade quickly. The pain really kicked in with my knee and I wasn’t running with an efficient stride or pep in my step as I had before. I was dealing with some low points and was even questioning myself if this is what I want to be doing and trying to make sense of why I choose to run hundred milers.
I had a bracelet on that I wore to bring me strength when I needed it the most. It’s an awareness bracelet for a young boy in our community, Will Herndon, that was diagnosed with Juvenile Batten Disease at the age of six. This is a rare, fatal, inherited disorder of the nervous system that usually begins in childhood. It’s a disease that affects kids and is usually fatal at the teenage years and into their 20’s. Click here for more information. Will just turned 14 and has to fight every day to stay strong and I knew this bracelet would remind me of Will’s fight. It brought me strength to keep pushing when I needed it the most. I was also talking to the man upstairs to keep me safe and strong and praying to get through this rough patch.
I eventually completed that miserable seven miles and made it back to Dam Nation (mile 53) where I was able to change shoes. I told Kyle I needed something for the pain, but to find something other than Advil or Ibuprofen as that messed me up in 2015. He came back with Tylenol and Aleve so I went with Aleve. I was nine minutes behind Mendoza and I asked Kyle to find out how far Urbanski was and to let Peter know so he could pass it on to me. On the jeep road after Dam Nation I was starting to get my second wind again. Jason Bryant who was doing some videos and tracking for USA Trail Running was on this section and did a short interview with me (click to watch video). This was about the time I was running normal again and able to open my stride. The pain went away and I was in good spirits again. At Park Road aid station Peter said I was eight minutes back on Mendoza, and Urbanski was five minutes behind me. I was moving at a solid pace again and hoping I could make up some of the time I lost so I ran through this wooded area with a sense of urgency. I saw Macias come by and he looked fine and had something close to 24 minutes up on me. I somehow missed James when going to the start line. I found out he had changed shirts and that’s how I didn’t notice him. I was gaining on Mendoza and now only six minutes back.
Loop 4: 2:44:41
Click here for footage of my transition and start of fourth loop. I managed to put some time between myself and Urbanski. My lead was now about 11 minutes as he was headed into the start/finish area. I entered the Nature Center aid station (mile 63) and Peter gave me an update on the field. I was 10-1/2 minutes behind James, 4-1/2 minutes behind Mendoza, and Macias dropped. I was shocked and couldn’t believe it as this moved me into third overall. Peter yelled at me “Run Your Race” as I was going into the woods. Apparently, he had been telling me this all day, but this time it stuck and I decided it might be wise to back down a bit as there was still a lot racing to do. I had another conversation with God and it was reassurance to ease the pace and be patient.
Somewhere between the Nature Center and Dam Nation my watch battery died. Fortunately, I was very close to Dam Nation (mile 66) and I met my first Safety Runner, Ken Rieger. He stayed behind me which allowed me to choose the best part of the trail and move around as needed. I was only a couple minutes behind Mendoza so knew it was a matter of time before we would catch him. I enjoy running with Ken because we’ve done a lot of running together over the years, and he always amazes me with being able to identify birds. I learned about the Belly Warbler, Chickadee, and some woodpecker (cannot remember the name). It’s a nice break to get your mind on something else when you have been going at it for this long. We caught up with Mario at mile 68 and I waited for an open area to pass him. I told Ken I was going to make a move and to tell me when it had been five minutes. We surged by Mendoza until we had a comfortable margin ahead of him. I looked back and didn’t see any sign so felt comfortable backing it down to a more sustainable effort. Ken was keeping track of time now so I would remember to take a gel every half hour and not go too long without fuel. After this wooded section my legs were starting to ache again. I told Kyle at Dam Nation (mile 73) to tell Peter to have some Aleve ready for me to take at Park Road. I was also beginning to chafe and knew I needed to do something to prevent some serious problems later. I took a gob of Vaseline and robbed it all in my shorts. It was quite messy and felt disgusting.
Peter told me that we were 9 minutes back on James. I wasn’t really chasing him because my motto all day was “let them come to me”. I had the mindset that if things continued to work out the way they had been that I might be in a good position towards the end to make a move. I was feeling good and quickly moved through the four-mile section to the start/finish area. We saw James blow by us in the opposite direction and he was probably about 7 minutes ahead of me on the final loop. When I was in the start/finish area I found out he took a two-minute break so I was doing the math and figured we were running a similar pace. I had heard earlier in the day about him running 160 miles in 24 hours so I knew he wasn’t going to fade much.
Loop 5: 3:01:37
I picked up a new runner, Michael Young, who has done some crewing for me before. I was trying to run at a comfortable effort for the first few miles to stay safe on this section of trails. A couple miles in I realized I didn’t grab my headlamp. Fortunately, Kyle was meeting me at the Nature Center (mile 83) and he had my headlamp as he would be running with me for the last 16 miles. At Dam Nation (mile 68) I was six minutes back on James so things were headed in the right direction. I felt like I was moving good headed out to the turnaround point, but once it got dark I had to slow it down. Kyle was keeping track of time and it seemed like we had been on this out and back stretch for the longest time. I swear the roots were growing and the trail was getting longer. Knowing that Bitter’s race was ended by a root, I didn’t want to risk too much as I was leading the championship race. I had something get in my shoe so as we approached Dam Nation (mile 93) I told Kyle I was going to stop to take off it off and get the pine straw or whatever it was out. I was also craving real food. I got some Ramen noodles and mashed potatoes and spent the most amount of time at this aid station. I found out I was five minutes behind James, but I wasn’t sure how far back Urbanski was so I wanted to keep moving.
With five miles to go I dropped the hammer and started to chase after first place. I blew through the trails with a sense of urgency and felt really strong. I was pouring water from my bottle all over me to keep my mind alert and body cool. I figured that maybe I could put a minute per mile on him and hopefully catch him for a fight to the finish. We blew through Dam Nation (mile 96) and grabbed another bottle of water from Peter. The water was cold and felt amazing to spray on my head and neck. I was running strong and going faster through this section than I had all day. With a few miles to go we were back on the heavily rooted trails and I took a hard fall. I didn’t get up so quick from that one and it stung. I tried to pick it up again and fell a couple more times. I was now starting to get annoyed by the roots and frustrated. I wasn’t seeing them maybe due to running too fast and apparently not getting my feet high enough off the ground to avoid them. We decided it was best to take it easy and get to the finish line safely. Kyle did a great job calling out the roots and encouraging me to keep going. He knows these trails better than anyone I know so he knew exactly where we were and when there were climbs coming up. It was nice to have him there calling this stuff out to me. With ¾ of a mile to go we looked at each other with the biggest grins on our faces. We did it! Coming into the last stretch to the finish line I changed into a fresh shirt, removed my head lamp, and ran to the finish line holding my kiddos hands. I was tickled and a memory I’ll never forget.
Finish Line videos:
Many thanks to everyone who cheered me on and for all your comments during and after the race. I want to give a special shout out to Peter Bardenhagen and Kyle Rodemacher for being a pivotal part of this special day. Without their support this would not have been possible. We were all pretty beat up about my last race and made sure the outcome of this one would be successful. These guys handled it amazingly and made sure I was taken care of and stuck to my plan. It also helped tremendous amount having pacers (“safety runners”) the last 40 miles with Ken Reiger and Michael Young to give me company and make sure I stayed on top of my nutrition. I love having my wife Stefanie and kiddos out there supporting me and cheering me on. It was a very special moment to be able to cross the finish line holding Miles and Kaitlin’s hands and a dream come true. Kaitlin ran the kids trail race that day as well.
Thank you to my coach, Ian Sharman for all the wisdom going into this and believing in me. Thank you to my teammates at Finish Strong Racing. Thank you, Klean Athlete for amazing product to keep me healthy and strong. Thank you, Dr. Clouthier at Alternative Health Center of the Woodlands for accelerating my recovery and keeping me healthy. Thank you, Huma Gels for my main source of fuel on both training and race days. I had a lovely bagel race morning with cream cheese and a mango gel on top. Yummy! Thank you, Joe Kirk for the Hoka Challenger shoes to try out. Love them!
Thank you to Chris’ team at Tejas Trails and all the volunteers for putting on an excellent race as usual. I thought it was really cool to choose one of the original belt buckles from back in the day.
Race Day Gear:
Shoes: Hoka Challenger ATR 3 & Hoka Claytons
Shorts: Salomon S-Lab EXO twinskin
Shirt: Matching Salomon top
Water Bottle: Handheld Ultimate Direction
Headlamp: Petzl NAO
Arm Sleeves: Nike
Watch: Garmin Fenix 3
Race Reports and Articles:
ATRA Review: http://trailrunner.com/trail-news/usatf-100-mile-trail-championships-results-story/
I Run Far Review: http://www.irunfar.com/2017/02/this-week-in-running-february-6-2017.html
James Stewart Race Report (1st overall male): https://jamesstewart13.com/2017/02/06/race-report-rocky-raccoon-100/
Sabrina Little Race Report (1st overall female): http://sabrinalittleruns.blogspot.com/?m=1