Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Rocky Raccoon 100 Crew Report

Aut viam inveniam aut faciam -- "I shall either find a way or make one." 

A proper title for a crew report about Rocky Raccoon 100 in 2012.

"Rocky Raccoon is a flat and fast course...." Fast and flat my ass.

More like hilly trails with seemingly endless stretches, switchbacks that make you scream ("Where the FUCK is that turn-around?!") and muddy bogs that would rival any tough mudder.

Apparently this was the first time in 15 years that it rained during the race. Rain is an understatement. The area, Huntsville, was under a flood watch and in the end approximately 2 1/4 inches pummeled us in one day (the equivalent of a month in Colorado). The humidity was stifling. This was the tail end of a massive storm that also dumped over 18 inches of snow in Denver. We were lucky to make it out of Denver at all. Over 600 flights were cancelled. 

This was a hell of a race made even more memorable by the fact that I paced Andy for the last 20 mile loop. What is it they say... "these moments define us"? Those 20 miles together will stand out as some of our best times. No shit.

After arriving in Houston, we connected with the rest of the COS crew: Amy, Amanda and Mark, Dan and Karen (we met up with Brooks, Holly and Eric later). We made pit stops for food and supplies on the way to the house we were sharing, courtesy of Amy's coordination. There was no time to attend the race briefing.

From a crewing perspective, I should have packed large trash bags, large zip lock bags and baby wipes, hand sanitizer and lots more towels all for wet and muddy clothes and feet. But this was the first race I crewed where it rained and so I only sortof understood what awaited us. Other things we purchased: a camping chair, a five foot table, Gatorade and water, breakfast bars, coffee and creamer, a case of mountain dew. Oh, and lots of vodka. The necessities. 

Downtime was virtually non-existent that evening and we crashed around 9. We actually got about 6 hours of sleep. It had been a stressful week at home and work, not to mention a stressful day of travel, so we were exhausted. While it was tempting to nap on the flight down, it would have sabotaged getting to sleep early. Prior to shutting down for the night, we laid out race clothing, attached his race number to his shorts and packed supplies. We always do this the night before. In retrospect, we think that all of the stress leading up to the race made it more difficult for Andy to get his head in the game so to speak. 

We were out the door by 4:30am. I was literally hunched over the steering wheel like a little old lady trying to see where the hell we were going. At one point Andy said to me, "Honey, I would feel much better if you slowed down." "Sure thing. Absolutely." Amy commented from the backseat, "I love the way you two communicate with each other." Auw. The silver lining begins to emerge. We waited in the car for as long as possible and then headed out into the torrent. 

Eric had set up a huge tent close to the start/finish for our group on Friday night and I don't think it is possible to accurately convey our gratitude. It became a home away from home. Andy said at one point that it was an amazing comfort to come in after each lap knowing, "just get to the tent where it's dry and you can sit down and change your socks...just get to the tent and it will be okay..." 

One of my challenges as crew was to keep our stuff dry and together in one place. It can be challenging when 10 people are sharing a tent but for the most part I think we all did a good job of keeping track of our gear as well as sharing supplies. I'm just glad that I remembered to bring one lonesome towel. The towel became very popular... and very ugly. 

So, here's the deal about crewing 100 mile races: it's a lot of hurry up and wait. Especially with Rocky where you are stationary as a crew team. At least with Leadville you get to drive around. While you are waiting it can be hard to make yourself relax. You are on edge. When is my runner coming in next? Where is the split chart? Okay, he came in at this time, so I need to re-calculate... What do I need to prepare? He might need more of this and this. Where can I get some of that pizza? Why the fuck don't they have hand-sanitizer inside the port-o-potties and who has some I can use? And then closer to the time you expect them....why aren't they here yet? Fuck. What's happening out there? Fuck. Is he/she hurt? Fuck. They should have been here by now. Fuck. Pacing ensues. Fuck. What do I say to help? Fuck. I need to stop eating so many Oreos. Fuck. OMG... Is that him? My heart rate jumps and nerves kick in. No. It's another bald guy with rippling pecs that are all wet and sweaty and pumped and holy shit look at those quads... I mean... Where the hell is he??

Just when you are about to sit down again you see him! He was looking really good the first lap. I think that was the consensus among most of the runners; the first lap was fun and went well. Shit went downhill fast from there. You can read more about it in Andy's blog. 

I just knew that sitting him down, drying his feet, applying Hydropel and changing socks and shoes would save him. Or at least keep him going for as long as his strength would carry him. So that's what we did. In retrospect (again, 20/20 hindsight and so much of this is about shooting from the hip), I should have included extra ibuprofen and extra stay awake pills in his pack. Later on, during laps 4 and 5, we should have packed more Hammer gel. But who knew it would take more time to finish the last 20 than it did to finish the first 50? 

The goal was to pace himself. Maintain 10 minute miles for the first 60. We had heard from others how easy it was to go out too fast on the first loop and Andy was determined to stay consistent. Come mile 60 and loop #4 that concept needed serious revision. 

It was actually a funny/sad moment when Amy, as pacer, excitedly started running beside him until he said, "We're walking..." It was like watching a movie in slow-motion. A heart-wrenching movie at that. I have never seen Andy in so much physical pain. Sometimes I laugh when I'm exhausted or feeling incredibly dejected because I would much rather laugh than cry. What's the point in crying? There would be a lot of laughing soon enough.

We had already agreed that I would serve as pacer during loop 5 but the lingering question was... how much? Initially, we planned 4 miles. The longest I had ever run up to that point was a 10K. But if he was basically walking that last 20 mile loop then I too could put one foot in front of another for 20 miles. I was going to see him through this and he would know that I was with him all the way. He wasn't going to quit. I can't imagine going out there in the dark by yourself for a final 20 miles and dealing with the loneliness and solitude.  

We set out on the last loop at 1:00am. We had until noon to finish. 

As it turns out, we would need all of it. 

Early on in our trek, a runner passed us and said to me, "Are you crewing?" I responded with a yes. "Wow. I wish my wife would pace me..." Andy being the smart-ass piped up, "Me too!" (We are engaged). I knew at that point that we were going to make it. As long as Andy has a smart ass comment still in him there is a fighting chance. I think he was quite excited and delighted by the idea of showing me the muddy mess that he had to endure the past 80 miles. 

His feet were in such bad shape that every time he would land on a root the wrong way he would literally sway as if he was about to pass out from the pain. He would grind his teeth, close his eyes, breathe deeply and then keep going. It was pretty frickin' amazing. Only once, with Amy, did he throw his bottle down Super Bowl style and curse when he stubbed his toe. 

Someone asked him whether he was ever an asshole to me while we were out there. The answer is no. Anything but. As a novice pacer, I kept finding myself in front of him and he reminded me several times, "Sweetheart, I really need you to stay behind me. When you pass me like that it just crushes..." FUCK. "I'm so sorry!" I eventually learned to stay behind and keep my head down so as not to blind him with my headlight. 

I learned that saying, "Good job. You are doing awesome. I am so proud of you" every five minutes really loses its impact and validity. It was much more effective for me to stay back, keep quiet and every once in a while offer praise. Andy was also really great about indicating when he wanted me to shut up. "I could use some silence right now" worked really well because I was able to respect and honor what he wanted and not take it personally. 

At some point, I started hurting too. 

A bit of backstory: I recently learned that I have an 8mm leg length discrepancy. Anything over 1 inch is significant and requires special shoes. While inserts helped me, I was still heel striking too much. Andy encouraged me to wear my New Balance MT101s more regularly and work on proper form by running predominantly on my forefoot. Voila! When I ran, I did not experience any pain. Unfortunately, because we were walking RR100, I was wearing the wrong shoes. I should have been wearing my shoes with the insert. My hip began protesting quite painfully. What a bitch.

Picture two runners limping in unison. One runner passed us and congratulated both of us on getting through it. I guess we both looked like we had run 90+ miles at that point. We were among the dead and dying. It looked like a horror movie, like Night of the Living Dead, where all I could see behind me were lights bobbing up and down, like zombies shuffling to catch us. I thought I kept hearing the sound of people cheering, as if an aid station was right around the corner. But it was just the howling of the wind teasing and taunting. I wanted it to be daylight so badly at that point. 

Despite the pain, I had to remind myself that I was there to support him and be positive and encouraging. Along the way, I could not help but laugh about our condition and situation. A runner passed us and said, "You look like you're limping. That's not good." Once they were out of earshot Andy started making faces and joking, "Really? No Shit? How observant of you! Hey, honey, I'm limping. Did you know that?" I almost pissed my pants laughing so hard. 

Another time, a runner passed us and said, "we're gonna make it!" and all I could think was, "Speak for yourself. You're going a hell of a lot faster than we are, you know!" Ungrateful, I know, but we were reveling in our misery at that point. On another occasion, a runner passed us and he was literally running with both grace and speed. Andy's jaw dropped and he made this expression with his hand like, WTF?!?! I was nearly rolling on the ground laughing, which made him laugh, which made me laugh harder. He joked, "I'm gonna get that buckle and shove it up the RD's ass." 

Our pace for the last 4+ miles after DamNation was 30 minutes per mile. And this was a guy who did Leadville 100 in 27:58. Ian Sharman, course record holder, said in his blog, "Joe Prusaitis and his team put on a great event with fantastic volunteers and I can't fathom the effort it takes for the runners out there for up to 30 hours of rain and mud (I've still not done more than two thirds of a day on my feet!). I'm happy that I went for the record but learned that maybe less than perfect conditions on the trail should have made me adjust the goal." Yup. 

After the last aid station, I was done. Done. I looked forward to the moments when I would squat to pee because it relieved my hamstrings and calves. I would bend over and stretch every 5 minutes. I started mimicking the hunched over look that I see so often among runners where your lower back hurts so much that you can barely stand up straight. I was losing my patience. How much further? This is where Andy's selflessness emerged. He would offer praise and say he was incredibly proud of me and what I was doing. Ours was a give and take of support and encouragement. 

With about an hour to spare, we hit that last stretch and could see the finish. I heard the cheers from our friends and nearly lost it. I felt tears well up and struggled to hold it together for just a little bit longer. There was no warming tent. There was very little left of the aid station. But it didn't matter. Andy finished in 29 hours, 15 minutes with a smile on his face and another 100 under his belt.