by Michael Arnstein
The 2011 Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Ultra Marathon
I’ve had this race on my radar for a number of years for a few reasons.
- First, it’s not a hot weather race, and I do best in cool temps.
- It would force me to get out of the ‘off season’ sooner than normal and help me get in better shape for the rest of the year.
- The race is also relatively ‘easy’ and flat (if you can call 4250 ft of total elevation gain flat!) if compared to other trail 100 courses.
- Really fantastic fast runners that I greatly admire have set PR’s on the course.
- The course record is held by Eric Clifton. In 2009 I ran a very strong race chasing his 12 year old JFK 50 mile course record, I missed it by a few minutes. I see him as one of the all time great ultra runners of the last 15 years. I like to gauge my own performances on the same courses as these great runners. Other incredible runners have done well at Rocky Raccoon as well: Jorge Pacheco ran low 13 hours, Anton Krupika ran mid 13 hours and Greg Crowther who I also admire greatly also tried hard at Rocky Raccoon.I honestly put in 3 weeks of training leading up to the race. I knew I was undertrained, but certainly well rested. I felt like I could run a decent 100km time, but further than that I knew I was at risk of seriously crashing. Two weeks prior to this race I ran around Manhattan twice (64 mile run), and it went well, I felt strong the entire day, so I had reasonable confidence that I could at least finish a 100 miler. Lol, I wasn’t going to run shirtless with the extra 5lbs from the off season still on my stomach. Rocky Raccoon was going to be a season opener! I decided to keep the race ‘no frills’. I didn’t talk about my entry to the event with my regular fan base, nor did I set up any pacers or crewing to join me at the race. I was going solo, and hoping for a lucky day and a respectable time.I flew into Houston which is about 1 hour south of Huntsville, TX where the race is held. I landed at 2:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday (the race is on a Sat.). When I landed I was told I was ‘the last’ plane that was given clearance to land. Apparently there was some freak ice and snow storm that was going to start momentarily. It turns out that all the airports in Houston, Dallas and even the main highways were completely shut down. A 1/2 inch of ice and upwards of 6 inches of snow was falling in Texas! A massive amount of runners never made it to the start, lucky for me I wasn’t one of them. I had to wait until late friday afternoon for the highways to open up so I could drive to Huntsville for the race. There was ice covering everything, it was pretty amazing (and dagerous driving).
Game Time! I get up at the cheery time of 4:30AM sat. morning. Each time the alarm goes off in the middle of the night before one of these crazy ultra races I really consider staying in bed, and I question my sanity as to why I am about to take on this extreme challenge. Why can’t I just be like everyone else and relax, ‘take it easy’… It’s 25F at the start. It’s dark, we all have headlamps on. The air is very damp and humid, it’s a bone chilling cold. I line up at the start and say hello to the allstar group that has assembled for the race. I chat with Scott Jurek, Hal Korner, Anton Krupika, Elizabeth Howard and others. A few of my fruitarian diet fans run up and say hello and ask to take pictures. 5 minutes of pre race excitement!
Then the fun starts. We run off into the darkness, it’s friggin freezing!!! I’ve got a slight beard that I’ve been growing for the last few weeks, it’s filling up with frost from my breath. Soon I’ve got a nice white frosty layer of ice all over my face (so much for going south to Texas for a temperate climate!) I’m running with ease, I feel really steady and comfortable. The trails are covered with frost, ice, and snow dusting. The footing is way more technical than I had anticipated. I don’t like technical trail running! I train on bike paths and roads in and around New York City! I don’t do well on these mountain technical trails and find it quite annoying to constantly scan the ground, especially when each breath creates a cloud of icy mist and your running with a headlamp in the dark! I’m a ‘roadie’ what was I doing on this trail stuff again…Oh, well I just keep going. The highlight of the race was running with the elite bunch of guys (and Elizabeth Howard, 2010 Leadville Champ who I really admire and consider a friend). We’re running about 7:20-7:45 pace, it’s very comfortable, yet I’m wondering if it’s wise to go sub 8 minute pace anytime in a 100 miler. We’re all chatting a bit, I ask some advice on various 100 mile distance questions. The guys I’m running with all agree that there is almost no way to avoid slowing down after 100km/80 miles, so the general thinking is just run whatever pace feels ‘comfortable’ and completely aerobic and conversational. So we go on, mile after mile, chatting and taking turns running off behind tree’s to drop yesterday’s meal back into nature.
Scott Jurek asks me about my race nutrition and I tell the group that I’m at the race solo with no crew. I tell them what I’d normally fuel on if I had support with me, but being solo I had limited high end fuel options as it’s just not logistically possible. They’re all kinda shocked when I tell them I’m fueling with gels (and dates). I found it entertaining that these guys all seemed to know my ‘deal’ with my diet. I guess even in the elite ultra running circles my fruit based diet is becoming well known. Most of my fans will be upset to hear that I would fuel with anything but what I so emphatically promote (raw fruits + veggies). I should remind everyone that my first priority in eating a fruitarian diet relates to my goal of elitism. Of course I like the fact that a fruitarian diet is ethically good, and it’s environmental. But my primary goals are to feel my best, be injury free, I want to experience peak life at all times. Eating nothing but raw fruits and vegetables gives me these benefits. At the same time I try not to get too tied down to dogma or unbreakable rules. Nothing I do is perfect (yet the goal is perfection none the less). I wish I could eat only organic local produce, yet that is almost never the case. I wish I could always breath super clean air, but that never happens running down 5th Avenue in New York where I train. I wish I could always bathe in super clean water that is chemical free, but that doesn’t exist in New York either. I wish I could always have my prefered fuel options in 100 mile ultra races, but it’s not easy to do in reality. For 100 mile ultra marathon races there are some serious logistical issues that can be difficult to overcome when it comes to your race day nutrition options. I was at this race by myself with no outside support at all. I had a good stock of fresh dates with me, and that was going to be my primary option for calories. But I had no idea if I’d have access to my 2 drop bags at various aid stations. Having to physically stop running and find drop bags (if I could find them) and rummage through to find what I needed was plan A, but plan B was highly plausible and I needed to plan for that. I wasn’t going to carry 6lbs of dates in a backpack and the only option at the aid stations that I would consider eating were the hammer gels or boiled potatoes. I would never consider processed type foods outside of situations like this where I really don’t have any other options. In an ideal world I would have someone pressing fresh tangerine juice at aid stations, fresh coconut water and loads of soaked date juice/paste (without the fiber to weigh me down), yet that wasn’t happening at this event. I packed lots of sodium pills in my waste pack as I know from experience there is zero chance of completing a 100 mile run without a ton of supplemental salt. So yes folks, in 100 mile ultra races, I am not the purest-walk-on-water fruitarian that some of you want me to be. It’s a reality that I’ve grown to accept, especially under the no-crew circumstances of this race. But what matters is how I live 99.99% of the time outside of races.
The Race Goes On: The sun finally comes up and it starts to warm up. My white beard turns to dripping water running down my face and I can start to feel my fingers again. Before I know we’re done with the first of 5 loops, 20 miles is covered in about 2 1/2 hours. I’m feeling steady, I’m eating dates, a few gels and just trying to focus on my own race. The lead group breaks up, I hang back and try to keep a pace that feels really ‘easy’. The miles go by, I’m feeling pretty zen. I remind myself why I love ultra running and how lucky I am to be out of the concrete jungles for a change. I’m in ‘zombie runner’ mode and finding myself drifting in and out of awareness. It’s pretty scary ‘waking up’ when I hear my GPS watch beep after I cover another mile. I literally find myself in a dream-like state at times, completely on auto-pilot during these very long runs. It’s a primal state of existence where your body, mind and spirit are in some strange symmetry, time doesn’t really exist. It’s a bit frightening when it happens, but it’s also very intriguing. The hours go by…I look at my watch, I’m at 60 miles in about 9 hours, a bit slower than I was hoping for. My dream day of running under 14 hours is out the window. I realize there is no way I’m going to finally have a break through 100 mile performance when I haven’t done the training. I hold onto the thought of running somewhere in the 14 1/2 hour range. I tell myself that a 14 1/2 hour 100 mile time would be very respectable, especially for a guy that’s only put in 3 weeks of solid training and is still 5lbs over weight! I keep my mind set on ‘keep-moving’ and the finish will come to me. At 80 miles I’m at 12 hours and 5 minutes. I feel like it’s a decent accomplishment based on my limited training (and running on these awful root infested technical trails). I had a few moments of hyponatremia between 65 and 75 miles and some potato soup with a ton of salt fixed the problem as it did in my Leadville race last summer. I’m starting to get fatigued, I know I have to eat, eat, eat! I know I can rebound and finish in the mid 14 hour range if I just get the calories in. Experience goes a long long way in these races. I force a lot of dates over the next hour even though eating anything is repulsive. The sun goes down, the temperature drops fast. It’s dark, I’m running for 13 hours now. The ‘ultra’ running is starting. I want to stop and walk, I want to sit down and rest. My quads aren’t just fatigued, the muscle is starting to break down. The feeling is very different and I know it’s not a good sign. I realize that I’m not trained enough to gut out a 14 1/2 hour race. Mentally I let the pressure go of breaking 15 hours and focus on keeping damage to a minimum. I want to do a 10k tempo run with my training partner Oz Pearlman in 3 days and this race is not that important in the big picture. So I press on but with a more relaxed attitude. Then at 90 miles I go through a bad bought of root kicking and falling hard on my face. I yell out a tirade of expletives and inspect my shoes for blood coming from my toes. I say to myself, ‘I fucking hate this technical trail shit!’ Like it wasn’t enough that I had just run 90 miles as fast as I could, and now I have to run in the dark with a headlamp kicking the endless ‘serpents’ that lay everywhere in my way to the finish. My stride shortens as the elasticity of my muscles shrinks. I don’t step as high and the roots keep tripping me up. If I could only ‘shuffle’ to the finish I could get there so much faster, but these damn roots are everywhere! Mile 95 comes and I can sense the finish line is near, yet it’s still so far away at this pathetic pace! I accept that I’m under trained and have now thoroughly destroyed myself, that 10k tempo run with Oz later this week is not going to happen now! I was sure I’d run under 16 hours, but now the last 5 miles might take over an hour… ugh, this sucks. I keep saying ‘god, this sport is brutal, just brutal!’ Why couldn’t I take up something like bowling or ping pong… ugh, just 5 more miles… I start to have these irrational thoughts. I start to think about how crappy my time is going to be on this ‘easy’ course. I start to think about what a joke trail runner I am, that I can’t hang with the top guys in the sport and that I should give up on the 100 mile distance. I’m being a cry baby and making stupid excuses about my situation. I need a good slap in the face, but I’ve been running completely alone for the last 13 hours and it’s showing. I shuffle, frankenstein walk, and generally try to keep a 12 minute mile pace. My toes are badly bruised, yet I’m thankful I didn’t break a leg like another runner in the race. I pass a few people that say they are still on their 3rd loop and are worried about making the 30 hour cut off. I pass someone else that is waiting for medical help and visibly hypothermic, another runner is at an aid station throwing up and shaking. I don’t wait around, I just keep moving, I have to survive, I have to finish this damn race. I’ve had enough, I’m even starting with the mind games that come up late in these races. I’m inside my head questioning why I am doing this sport. I try to push through the mental challenges that always come up when you’ve been running from sun up to sun down and into the night. Finally I’m a mile to the finish. I cannot wait to get back to my hotel room. I say to myself, ‘Mike, you could make the best commercial for the hotel chain ‘Holiday Inn Express’ after this race!’ (you have to know about the Holiday Inn express commercials to understand this comment) I tell myself over and over, I’ll be back at the hotel before I know it. I think about how awful it would be to stay out on the course for another 10 hours like most of the other runners, wow would that suck! The slower runners are tougher in a lot of ways, they have to put up with the hell mental challenges for so much longer, they are tougher than me, I really mean that. Oh god I can’t wait for a hot shower, I’m gonna make love to that nice warm bed, with clean sheets and a soft cozy pillow, and all by 11:30pm! Damn it Mike, run faster! I run the last 1/2 mile to the finish. I go from 13 minute miles to 8 minute miles and feel like I’m running 6 minute pace. I ask myself if I was just being lazy over the last 10 miles if I was just able to run in a comfortable stride so suddenly? It goes to show that mind over matter is real. I finish in 16:34.44, which is 9:56 per mile average. I guess that is a real ‘run’ pace for a full 100 miles. 7th overall is decent, but not the results to bring long lasting satisfaction. I like to place top 3 or I feel like I did something wrong, in this case I just haven’t done the training. I’m not ashamed to tell people about my 100 mile goals. I’m a competitive athlete, I eat, train and live a life that is geared towards self improvement. In the end, the only person I’m trying to beat is myself. I have the endless desire to always ‘improve’. I want to win a 100 mile race in a good time with decent competition. I still haven’t figured out how to do well in the distance, but if I keep trying I know I’ll figure it out. 100 mile runs distill your brain like nothing else that I’ve ever experienced. You get a serious ‘reformatting’ of your thinking, it’s a ‘re-instal’ of your operational systems, the software that governs your life gets tweaked a little bit each time I do one of these races. 100 milers are damn tough, and that’s what makes them so so intriguing.
I climbed into bed at the Holiday Inn, I REALLY appreciated those warm clean sheets and soft pillow. I was in a lot of pain, my poor toenails were cracked and internally I was beat up badly. I thought hard about giving up on the ultra runs and going back to marathons and 50 mile races where I’ve had much more success. Yet when I woke up in the morning. I had deep deep satisfaction in completing the challenge the day before. I look in the mirror at myself with slightly different eyes. I kind of tilt my head and stare a bit off into space, the way I see life is just a bit different from the way it was the day before. I’m still not ready to ‘retire’ from ultra running. There is still unfinished business in achieving my full potential in these massive distances. I get out of bed, it’s a new day. I turn on my computer. I log on to Badwater.com I fill out the application for the 2011 135 mile race through Death Valley, and hit the ‘submit’ key with great apprehension. I fully realize what I am about to undertake, and it frightens me, but I don’t know how to live life any other way. I eat an ultra pure diet and run ultra distances because I want to experience ‘ultra life’. I am an explorer, I want to live life to the fullest. That’s who I am, I can’t deny these truths. God help me in Death Valley in July….
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