Sometimes you race ultras and you feel invincible and pull off a performance that exceeds all your expectations. Sometimes you complete ultras where you have to slog out every step for a sub standard finish. RR100k wasn’t either of those types of races. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be ‘satisfactory’. Which sounds like a disappointment. It wasn’t. At RR100k, ‘satisfactory’ was simply a good day out on the trails!
I wasn’t meant to be on the start line for RR100k. In fact I wasn’t even meant to be in America. We were meant to be in Hong Kong running the HK100 in January. However a couple of months before the race, the organisers announced that whilst they would be doing everything to put the race on, with all the protests over there and a lot of other races being cancelled, they couldn’t guarantee it would take place, so gave runners the option to cancel. As HK100 was only intended to be a fun race in a different country to kick off the year, we decided to give it a miss, and therefore needed an alternative fun race at a similar time of year which we could combine with some winter sun (because as a runner there’s really no point on going on holiday if you don’t combine it with a race!). Rocky Raccoon in Texas on 1st February fitted perfectly into our race calendar and it meant we could tag a holiday on in Mexico afterwards.
RR offers a 100 mile and a 100k option and I opted for the 100k for a couple of reasons. For me, I find if I want to be at my best racing then I don’t like to do more than two ‘long’ races a year (I define ‘long’ as 100 miles and longer) and my main races this year are Tooting 24 hours and Desert Solstice 100. Also in the first half of the year I want to hopefully run a marathon PB and a good Comrades and I didn’t want to start the year off with a 100 mile race in my legs which would compromise training for those. Also if I’m being honest, when your last ultra was 153 miles, 62 miles does sound quite civilised in comparison, and the thought of being finished in time for tea and a good night’s sleep was quite appealing!
As it turned out choosing the 100k was the right decision. My training was quite patchy throughout December with a tight glute/sore SI joint and it was only just before Christmas that I was back running my normal six days a week. Then over Christmas/New Year my running was shocking as my iron levels had got really low and I was struggling to run 15 miles (not ideal when you need to be running four times that in a race!). I knew Ian would get me in the best possible shape in the month until race day, so I was in a race to get my iron levels back to normal, and about two and a half weeks before RR, running started to feel easy again and I started to feel reasonably confident that I could give the race a decent innings.
As RR100k was never intended to be an A race, my goals were simply to enjoy it (this is always my most important goal with any race); to run every step of the 100k; and to finish without needing my head torch (it gets dark around 6:30pm in Texas so this would mean finishing in under 11:30 hours which based on previous years’ results would be a decent result).
Lap 1 – Getting into my 100k groove
Ultras in the States are a much more laid-back affair than any ultras I’ve run in the UK and Europe. There’s no mandatory kit or serious race briefing. As someone who is anally organised and early for everything, it took all my willpower to arrive at the start line at (a very casual for me) 6:50am (for the 7am start), and yet I was still the first runner there! With less than two minutes to go, a surge of runners appeared and we were off.
Rocky Raccoon 100 used to be 5 x 20 mile laps of Huntsville State Park and was considered one of the fastest 100 milers in the country. However in 2017 Hurricane Harvey destroyed large parts of the park and, in order for the 2018 race to go ahead, a new course had to be designed, which is the current course, and is now 4 x 25 mile loops (and a 100k which is 2 x 25 mile loops and a half loop). This newer course isn’t as fast (more elevation, more single tracks and a lot more tree roots), however it is still very much a runners’ course which is why I chose it. The course certainly isn’t flat (the 100 miler has around 7,000 feet of elevation so I was working to around 70 feet per mile for my 100k), however every step of it is runnable. The main reason why this would never be a fast course for me is all the tree roots. Apart from wide smooth jeep tracks at the start and up to the second aid station, the rest of the course is on single track trails where you have to watch your every step for the seemingly thousands of tree roots waiting to trip you up. With the out and back nature of the course you’re not only looking out for tree roots, but also fellow runners coming the other way, so a lot of the time you’re weaving and not taking the best racing line. As someone who has been absolutely loving their road running over the last 18 months (and has done less than ten runs on trail since last July!) this was a bit of a shock to my legs which have got very used to smooth tarmac! I saw a lot of trips and falls, but somehow I managed to stay upright for the full 100k, although my poor feet definitely took a bit of a bashing!
One of the things Ian has installed into me over the last few years is to run entirely to feel, so I never use my watch for pacing or use any gadgets like heart rate monitors. For a race like RR, the tree cover and umpteen twists and turns meant my watch was going to be pretty useless anyway. I always do lots of running at race effort when I’m training for ultras, and this meant it was easy to settle into my 100k groove despite my watch flitting between telling me I was moving at 6 minute mile and 16 minute mile pace when I knew I was doing neither! Because the GPS was all over the place, I had no idea of my true pace or how many miles I’d run, the only thing my watch was telling me was to eat every 30 minutes, so I was using my tried and tested mix of Mountain Fuel drinks and jelly’s and Longhaul Ultra Fuels.
The temperature had been just above freezing at the start so I’d started in gloves, but within a couple of hours the temperature was more akin to an early summers day in the UK and the miles were flying by. The park is absolutely gorgeous to run around, the trails were lovely and mud-free, I had my favourite music on, and after all the endless rain this winter back home, it was just so lovely to run in sunshine again – all the volunteers were laughing at how happy and smiley I was, but after a not so great build-up, it was already shaping up as a good day.
Lap 2 – Topping up the Vitamin D
By the time I finished lap one, it was already feeling really warm (not massively hot, just in the low 20s, but for someone coming from a UK winter it felt like the height of summer). I even wished I’d worn a vest, and had actually left one in the car and not my drop bag, when Tom had told me a vest was being a bit optimistic as the temperature was struggling to reach 2 degrees a few hours earlier when we’d left the hotel! I quickly got fresh bottles of Mountain Fuel and replenished my jelly’s and Longhaul and headed out onto lap two. Because there were both 100 mile and 100k runners on the course I had no idea of my position, but I felt like I must be holding a decent position as since about my second mile no runners had overtaken me.
On the first lap I’d run through every aid station, much to the disappointment of the volunteers who can’t do enough for you and the Americans love an aid station party. However I stopped at virtually every aid station on the second lap which is unheard of for me, but I was drinking a lot more in the warm weather and I also discovered ginger beer at the aid stations which was going down a treat.
Because of the out and back nature of the course I’d seen Tom a couple of times who was running the 100 miler and was having a great race, but when I hadn’t seen him when I was expecting to on my second lap, wife’s intuition told me something had gone wrong and he wasn’t yet on his third lap.. When I ran in at the end of lap two he was there and quickly told me he’d tripped and twisted his ankle on one of the tree roots and done something to his SI joint. A race physio had treated his SI joint but his ankle felt too sore to continue so he had made the decision to stop as it wasn’t worth making his ankle worse for a 50 mile death march and jeopardising his main races this year. Tom’s very laidback about such things and knows it’s only running at the day, so he took on crewing duties for me, quickly filling my water bottles and checking I had enough nutrition, and I set off with a spring in my step and an incentive to get back on my final half lap quicker to see Tom.
Lap 3 – Chasing sunset
If I wanted to finish before sunset and not needing my head torch, I had about 2:30 hours to do the final 12.5 miles. Pre-race and with not having done as many long runs as I would normally before an ultra, I wondered if my endurance would be lacking a bit but I actually felt my final 12ish miles were my strongest of the day. I’d consciously kept the first two lops at an easy effort as I knew I wasn’t at my best fitness-wise, but this meant I had lots of running in my legs for the final miles and I continued to run every step of the course. The temperature had dropped a bit and the final half lap took in my favourite part of the course (ie less tree roots!) and with a few miles to go I knew my head torch wouldn’t be needed. I’d had such a fun day of running, I’d run the entire 100k, and I wasn’t going to have to get my Petzl Reactik out my Salomon pack – all three race objectives had been met!
I crossed the finish line in 11:14 and 2nd female/6th overall out of about 120 starters. It had been a satisfactory and most of all really happy day of running. If I graded my races I’d give it a solid B-.
I always love the process of training even more than the race itself, which is why I love nothing more than an uninterrupted perfect 3-4 month training block leading up to a race. However, RR proved, and is something Ian always tells me, that for ultras, it’s the years and years of previous consistent training which count almost as much in ultras, than the 3-4 months leading up to a race.
Apart from feeling a bit tired, my legs came away pretty unscathed, in fact the main thing that ached were my feet! think they’ve spent so much of the last year on tarmac and being protected in lovely Vaporflys and Carbon Xs, that they need toughening up again! However, with virtually all my races on road or track for the rest of the year, I might have to accept they are going to have to wait to be toughened up!
There was nothing spectacular about my racing at RR, but it was a solid start to 2020, and a fair reflection of where I am. I think it’s impossible to peak for all your races, and for a B race I couldn’t have asked for anything more from RR100k. If you finish a race happy and knowing you were the best you could be on the day, then that’s a successful race in my book.