Four weeks ago I ventured out to a trail I had never visited before. I was late getting there compared to my much faster colleagues (because I do this thing called SLEEP in the mornings), so I decided to spend the day running by myself. My goal? 24 spectacular miles of…something.
I had no map. I had no plan. The only thing I had was the number ’24’ etched into my mind.
7 hours later, after running out of food and water due to my amazing planning skills, I arrived at the desired number of miles. I was cold, exhausted, and ready for bed. I finished when the sun was beginning to set for the night.
Meaning; I had spent my entire Saturday doing nothing but quite literally running*.
The experience was its own reward, but the mileage was also part of the plan. Knowing that two weeks after that day I would be strapping up for one of the
dumbest most amazing experiences of my life.
The ultra marathon.
To understand this, we first need to identify a few key terms:
Marathon: 26.2 miles in distance; where a good chunk of the population ventures to in order to see if they truly can run far enough to die (as legend would hold it).
Trail Running: Dancing through the woods with a pace in mind (along with a watch, and a hydration vest, and a water bottle, and a hat, and BodyGlide, and a gel, and waffle, and a…).
Ultra Marathon: …anything past 26.2 miles worth of running. YOU NEED A MEDICAL OPINION FROM A PSYCHIATRIST IF YOU ENJOY LIVING IN THIS REALM OF YOUR OWN FALSE REALITY. THERE IS NOT ENOUGH HOLY WATER TO SAVE YOU.
Feeling good after eight months of snapped ankles, busted heads, and more chaffing then a high school football player in the August heat, I had made up my mind months ago that I dreamed of the world of the ‘ultra’. After all, in my running group, all the cool kids were doing it. Thankfully, as crazy as they are, they were still kind enough to recommend an easy…“easy”…first** ultra marathon: the Rocky Raccoon 50K by Tejas Trails and Altra.
The race was in February, it was in Texas, and the course was as flat as a trail race in the woods of Texas was going to get. The weather, on average, tended to be nice and the people were even friendlier. It was held in conjunction with a 50 mile event also; meaning that the cut-off time was reflective of the 50 mile, not the 50K. Translation; slow people like myself had a chance at being able to complete something on our bucket list with time to spare.
Two days prior to the race I took off for south Texas with a seasoned runner, my wife, and a car full of Tailwind, socks, and this weird stuff called Trail Toes. Gross.
As it turns out this race is so long that they start it in the morning. Not 7:00 AM in the morning, not even 6:30 AM, this crazy thing kicks off at 5:45 AM. But wait! If you want to find an ideal parking spot in the park, you’ll need to arrive near 4:30 AM on race day.
Having horrible flashbacks of waking up in the dark to go deer hunting as a child, realizing that I will truly never be a morning running I stumbled out of the car near 5:00 AM. Our experienced runner friend, also running the 50K, suggested that I place Trail Toes on my feet prior to putting on my socks and shoes. Meaning, take this weird cream stuff in this small container, and rub it on your feet…making it sticky…prior to putting on ones socks. I added the goo, used this BodyGlide stuff as a deodorant stick for my crotch (because that is normal), kissed my wife one final time prior to meeting again in front of St. Peter, and roamed to the start line.
With 30 seconds left prior to the start of this race, my first attempt at an ultra, I noticed something strange within my body. Remember that time you were on a roller coaster, you climbed to the top of the tallest hill, and the car stopped before plummeting you into the depths of physics induced hell? That same mental sensa…dread…overtook my body as the race director gleefully smiled, as Lucifer himself, counting down…
3, 2, 1…GO!
At this point the dice had already been cast, I had wagered my life on the ability to finish, and laughing in a way to prevent myself from puking at the start line I shuffled into the tropical darkness of Rocky Raccoon.
Within the first half mile the theme had been set for me: sand. Sand everywhere. I don’t know if Egypt owed Texas something from back in the day, but they must have repaid the former republic in sand. I spun my tires like an archaic 4×4 for the first hour. The benefit was that it felt great on the knees. The downfall was that it lit up the muscles in my legs like a Christmas tree almost immediately. Sand equals suffering in a very special way.
By mile 6 there I was beginning to see shadows in front of me, by mile 7 I could make out the pine trees along the horizon, by mile 8…if I hadn’t already been exhausted…I would have danced in joy as I turned off my headlamp. Daylight had blessed us all.
With that said though; daylight is a double edged sword in the Lone Star state. Along with the daylight came the sun, and with the sun came the heat. A week prior the Rocky Raccoon 100K/100 Mile (how are these even things?) started at 30 degrees in the morning. Forecasted high a week later for my maiden voyage? 85 degrees and sunny. I would have panicked at this reminiscing the sensation of Psycho Summer so many months ago, but at mile 9 I began to remember, “At the next aid station in one mile, my crew will be there with my supplies.”
At mile 10 my crew was nowhere to be found.
I had to keep moving. At mile 14 I had made it back to the start/finish line. I surveyed the campus to find my crew, only to find them sitting in a chair. We didn’t bring a chair. With their leg propped up. They weren’t running. With bandages wrapped around their knee. They weren’t traversing through the woods.
Their only words?
As it had turned out; my crew (aka: my wife that kicked me out of the start/finish line in Omaha back in the fall) had fallen trying to hike to the aid station. Somehow she wound up with a sprained knee and a strained MCL. My crew was done for the day.
I stood there and talked with her for a few minutes; the clock ticking around 3:55:00, and we started to hear cheering as a man came through the line. He crossed, walked away, and found a bottle of water.
The winner of the men’s 50K crossed the finish line with a course record of 3:56:00. I had just finished my first lap. Laughing at a point of hysterics I realized that I had no choice but to take back off into the woods; all while hating the winner for making it look easy, crying about the winner because he looked so freaking cool. While I was on my way out my wife made mention that our other runner was having feet issues around mile 12. I kept that in mind, knowing that I would see them considering how many times you are in 2 way traffic areas throughout the course.
Note: I am a very socially awkward individual. My students try not to cry in my class. Not because I will make fun of them, but because I will panic because I don’t know what to do with them.
By mile 17 the sun was getting toasty. I’m trotting through the jungle, avoiding alligators at all cost, and I finally saw our other running coming from the other way. They did not look happy, they looked distraught. I smiled because positive facial experiences can calm the soul of troubled people. Unless their feet hurt. If their feet hurt, they just start crying right in front of you and you freeze because you do not know what to do, and you forget to freeze your Garmin, so your time and calorie count is off, and your mind is beginning to freak out, and you want to give them a hug, but their the opposite gender and that is awkward, plus you smell like a new batch of BodyGlide and sweat, and what is a hug going to do anyway, and by the time all of this processes through my head…she looked at me and said, almost in a Saving Private Ryan kind of tone:
You need to go on. You need to finish this. This is your ultra.
Knowing that my wife had been hurt by tripping on air, and the seasoned runner was dropping out of the race, I truly started to flashback to weeks prior of running in the woods completely alone. At mile 20 I gave myself time on Facebook as a reward for making it to the next aid station; those motivators I use with my students to get their work done? Works well on a desperate grown man as well.
With 20 miles done, the next stretch of the course consisted of a ‘service road’. I had been informed that it was much better compared to the human sized gravel that it was made of the year prior, but that did not stop me from absolutely hating my life for nearly seven miles. The problem with the service road? It is 100% exposed to the sun. This meant that for several miles I walked/hiked in the direct sun. I found a man who wasn’t quite sure where he was due to the heat, sun, and lack of hydration. I was beginning to suffer because I am pasty white, and where is my sunscreen? With my crew at the start/finish line. I did find time and energy to chuckle when my watched notified me of hitting the 26.2 mile mark. I have never ran an actual marathon before, and my goal is to run everything except a marathon, so that when people ask if I’ve ran a marathon along with the other distances, I can just politely decline. These are the small things I find humorous in my life. Along with the fact that I was passed by the kindest people during this part of the course. Each one of them offering hydration, salt caps, or even pain killers. I politely declined with a smile, I wasn’t sure how I could inform them that what they saw, that’s me running on a normal day. It is a painful experience for everyone around.
The final four miles, more so out of the need for myself, I pulled up next to a runner that was evidently suffering from the heat. Again, being socially awkward, I asked where they were from, if they were alright, etc…They informed me that they were from Denver, they signed up for the 50 mile, and while listening I just gladly gave praise that I had someone to communicate with for the final stretch. The reality; I wasn’t going to speed up anywhere in the near future, so why not just enjoy the ride with someone else.
Along the final stretch of road, crossing a pathway, we began to see the end of our journey. She dropped to the 50K, and with nearly identical times we crossed the finish line. I kept moving, ran past my crew, ignored the medal, and just went to a happy place that had plenty of shade.
It took several hours for the reality of my journey to really set in my heart. I wasn’t necessarily hungry, thirsty, or overly sore beyond reason. I had just went running, I was sweaty, sunburnt, and suffering from horrible heat rash, but I was in good spirits. Overall, Rocky Raccoon was good to me. I went in with a goal of survival, I finished with time to spare, and I was able to comfortably walk the next day.
The best part of your first ultra? Learning about the community that was watching you the whole time, pulling for you for each mile. My Facebook feed lit up louder than my birthday with congratulations, smiley faces, and hearts all around. My Instagram feed went crazy with likes for several hours afterwards. All of these coming from trail runners I had met over the past eight months (and a few spam accounts). I learned two days later, walking into my job (school), that one of my coworkers had stopped into one of the local running stores on Saturday to pick up a new pair of shoes. When they walked in, they noticed the staff huddling around the computer screen. One of the staff members exclaimed, “Shawn only has seven miles left at Rocky!”
This is the kind of community I belong to.
Looking back through the whole process; the emotional response of crying like my first ever trail race wasn’t really there. Instead, the exhaustion, fear, relief was all replaced with something different this time around…just a smile that lasted for days (and two double-doubles from In-N-Out Burger).
The Rocky Raccoon series really is a great ultra to get your feet wet in. Check out Tejas Trails for more exciting adventures that they offer throughout the entire year.
*And dodging gunshots in the woods followed by police sirens…a week later I learned that I was actually running from a woodpecker and an auto accident down the way from the park.
**Can we please rename this race from Rocky Raccoon to Sandy Gator?