I can’t write it.
I just can’t write it.
This is what I keep coming up with. I keep sitting down to write about my experience at Rocky Raccoon 100. I even sat down just to write an outline, just a bare skeleton of events. I just couldn’t bring myself to bring pen to paper to create anything of substance. Every word, every single thought, and every sentence which comes to mind has seemed hollow and weak.
So here’s the solution: It can’t be written like a normal race report.
I could go into detail about exactly what happened in every 5 mile segment, but for each detail shared the message would be diminished. This was so much more than a race. It was a journey. It was an ambitious adventure undertaken with all of the apprehension, excitement, and determination which such a goal deserves. During the 23+ hours we were out there, we spent a good deal of time in our own minds, and were changed. To even have a glimmer of a hope of sharing the experience, details must for the most part be forsaken and you will (for better or worse) spend a small period of time glimpsing into my head and heart as they were during the Rocky Raccoon 100.
The training leading up to it had been brutally invigorating. We had built mileage upon mileage, race upon race upon race until our bodies became accustomed to the level of pure volume they were expected to churn out, ever staying just this side of provoking injury. All of those trials of miles were etched into each ridge and ripple of our poor, weathered legs. Just as the years of a hard life are manifested in the leathery wrinkles of an old man’s face, so the passage of miles had transformed my “vehicle” in ways I had not expected. My body responded to the increased mileage by adjusting its idea of normal. I began to ache when I didn’t run, and when I did it always seemed to feel awkward and discombobulated for the first 10-15 miles, which is a bit irksome in a 7 mile run.
The good part was that when I was able to get out for long runs, a feeling of comfortable numbness would overtake me as more ground passed underfoot. At a certain point, my legs felt increasingly comfortable as the run went on. Of course, there was never really much of a chance for them to rest during much of the training schedule, but in the three week taper I felt everything heal up and become strong. I felt solid going into Rocky Raccoon, and a fire was growing in my belly. An all-inclusive sense of gratitude hovered over my life. I was grateful for a body which could be pushed, for a life which allowed me the freedom to push it, for a family who offers unconditional support, and for a wife with whom to share and chase this passion of ours.
As much as the training cycle leading up to RR100 was consumed with numbers, details, and race logistics, the race weekend was completely the opposite. As soon as we got to Huntsville with our amazing parental crew and started seeing friends, the whole thing became less about fretting over preparation details and much more about plunging into the adventure and reaping what unknown amount of endurance had grown from the seeds of our training.
As DW and I began our run on Saturday morning, it was a relief to finally be doing it. As always, any nerves that were present beforehand vanished as we headed into the forest. This was something comfortable. This was something familiar. This was something we loved. We just moved forward, resolving to run until we couldn’t, or until the finish, whichever came first.
One thing I am grateful for is that DW and I share a philosophy about running. If it’s possible to keep going, keep going and don’t whine. We’ve toiled in the same races and experienced the same hardships, both physical and mental (the latter is more dangerous in a long race). It was intimidating to take on a distance which doubled any single run we had ever done, but I felt confident that as long as nothing went seriously wrong, we’d make it. I don’t think you can approach running 100 miles any other way. Of course it will hurt. Of course it will break you down. You’re running one hundred freaking miles!
Our falls came at around mile 10, when the sun had come up to greet us and we were no longer paranoid about tripping over roots in the dark. We were in fact thinking about the 50 mile runners who had started an hour after us, imagining what part of the course they were enjoying. Within a couple miles, we had both gone down twice. Laura fell once on her right knee and after joking about not being symmetrical, fell on her left. She fell badly on her left knee. On a protruding root. She immediately jumped up and kept running, ignoring the shock and insisting that the gash was not nearly as bad as it looked. I had turned my ankle a bit, but it was minimally bothersome. I wrote it off as something I could run through. In a goal race I group things into things that will stop me and things that will not. We finished the first loop in a state of awe. We were running our first 100 miler and feeling good!
It was a relief when we both finally warmed up and started to sink into a rhythm. DW and I had scoped the course the first time, so we chatted and joked through the second loop. We kept an occasional eye on time and pace, but mostly soaked in the experience. It’s strange how much the mind can control how the body feels. When the context is that of a 50 mile race, getting to 40 feels rough because you’re almost done. When the context is that of a 100 mile race, you have to think of 40 as being warmed up for the next 60. I only thought of this every time we passed through the start/finish area. Otherwise I was supremely focused on getting to the next aid station. I began to realize the enormity of what we were doing around this point in the race. Night was coming and we both knew it was going to get bad at some time during the night. We were both prepared for it and welcomed it.
The night was really when Rocky Raccoon became an intense experience for me. Because of the darkness and roots, we planned to mostly power hike and run when we could safely. DW’s fall had changed her stride and her Achilles was exhibiting some lovely stabbing pains. We had both iced our trouble spots while our crew had refilled our packs, but we were still flirting with the edge of bad injury and didn’t want to risk more falls. That meant we could expect to spend 6+ hours on the next 20. We headed out, resolved to make use of the remaining daylight and do our best to stay positive as night fell.
We spent miles talking about our friends and family. We were grateful for parents who would travel across half the country to freeze their butts off and fill our hydration packs. We were energized from seeing our fellow Racooners throughout the day. Garbo and Mo had been wonderful to come across, although their aid station pine cones might be poisonous. Gumbo looked like a superhero every time we saw her. Jenster and Linnea had snuck up on us TWICE, looking fresh and having a ton of fun out there. John was steadily pushing ahead, and Sass was his ever-enthusiastic self. We thought about everyone who would be running Surf City and wished them all the luck in the world. You guys helped us pass a lot of the third loop. I thank you for that. As darkness descended, I became excited. We were entering new territory, running farther and for longer than we ever had before. This was the unknown; this is why we were there.
We got a booster shot for the spirit when we stopped in to our crew tent. I got a bad blister problem patched up and we got to hang out with the Loop crew while being tended to by our skilled pit crew. It was incredibly revitalizing to see our loved ones, and we rode that high for many miles.
What goes up must come down. Late in the night, the downturn we knew would eventually come did just that. As the shine of friendly faces and laughter faded, our hearts became heavy with the task at hand. As always happens in hard times, the goal became to simply move forward. We rarely spoke, only sharing a mutually understood common state.
I admitted, “I’m in a bad place, babe.”
She replied, “Me too.”
And that was it. No more needed to be said. We marched on through the dark, one foot at a time. Just hanging on.
As we made our way through Huntsville State Park, our world shrunk to the five foot diameter of our headlamps, I felt an intense respect for those who do this alone. I had DW there to hold me up, to laugh with, to commiserate with. Ultrarunning is a different experience, and it has always been one that we’ve shared. Out there, surrounded by nature, we’ve been euphoric together and we’ve been miserable together. For me, it enhances the good times and lightens the dark. Life has thrown a great deal of adversity at us and we’re still defiantly moving forward. Endurance is who we are now and that woman is what keeps me strong. Of all the things that could have been going on in my head at 2am in the dark forest after 70 miles, one thing welled up and consumed me like a fire: I love my wife. I don’t think I have ever felt something so strongly as in that moment, in that place. I belonged there, and I belonged there with her.
It was about then that our race crumbled. The injury DW had sustained at mile 10, the one that had caused an Achilles problem by mile 40, the one that had caused her knee to throb and ache more severely through the next 30 miles, finally dealt a deathblow at 77 with a horrendous calf strain. There was no running on it. There was no walking on it. There was no standing on it. The words exchanged out in the woods between a husband and wife that night are too personal to share here, but for this to happen when we were both broken down forced us to deal with a raw, unpleasant truth: we were not going to finish RR100. DW urged me to go on, but it didn’t feel right. This is our thing. We do it together.
We limped it in for the next 2 hours, stopping often when pain demanded it. It was the hardest conclusion to the hardest thing we have ever done. When we slowly arrived at the finish, the people we love were waiting with warm hugs and encouraging smiles.
It was an unbelievably bittersweet feeling
We had traveled 80 miles on foot, much further than ever before.
We had fallen short of the finish, a heartbreaking thing to accept.
Usually I have no problem letting go of a letdown. If I miss a run, I miss it. If I DNF, it was for a damn good reason and I have no regrets. I don’t carry guilt and I don’t look back.
This one won’t let me go. I simply cannot shake it. I tell myself that 80 miles is a huge accomplishment, and it is. I know it is. I just don’t feel it is. No matter how much my brain mulls it over and reasons through how proud I should be of covering the distance we did, I just don’t seem to be able to make my heart feel it.
I’m trying to look forward, to find the next target. It’s not helping, at least so far. I feel different and it will take a while to fully realize how. Writing this has helped a lot with working through it. I apologize if it is much too long.
The good part, the part that really fills me with gratitude and happiness, is that all throughout this journey we had parents there to care for us. We had friends there to share in the joy and pain. We had Loop friends sending us warm messages. I am humbled by the life that I lead and the people who are in it. I’ve made lifelong friends through this place, and I continually strive to be the kind of person who deserves such love and kindness.