Thursday, February 11, 2010

2010 Rocky Raccoon 100: My Experience Pacing and Sort of Crewing

In the days leading up to the Rocky Raccoon 100 mile trail race I was a ball of nerves. I read everything I could get my hands on about ultra running, the course, pacing and crewing. Not knowing what to expect was my greatest aggravator. My purpose was to pace ultra runner Shannon Farar-Griefer from miles 80 to 100 and ensure she finishes.
Thursday afternoon I landed in Houston and met up with Shannon and her Moeben ultra running team. Among them would be 50 mile winner Dominic Grossman and third place 100 mile female Connie Gardner. I was in awe of Connie has she showed up toting all her USAT gear bags, I knew I was in the presence of a great runner. Our group consisted of both ultra babies and ultra pros.

Once settled in our accommodations at the La Quinta Inn in Huntsville we headed to Chili’s for some eats. I mention this because I learned that ultra runners is they like to eat… A LOT! It was all about taking in calories for the challenge that lay ahead.

Thursday night I got to share a room with elite runner Connie. She had recently come back from representing the USA in Belgium in the 100k. I was so super excited about rooming with her and wanted to pick her brain about everything running related and otherwise. Connie turned out to be such a humble and gracious person who is genuinely in love with the sport of ultra running. I could hear that love and excitement in her voice as we talked. It didn’t take long for her to start to compile a list of potential ultra races for me to run. In fact, as I crossed the finish line of the RR 100 Sunday morning the first thing she asked me, big smile on her face, was if I liked it and would do a 100 miler next?
Besides discussing running and only scratching the surface of Connie’s accomplishments, we also talked about our families and lives outside of running. Connie is a devoted mother of two girls. Her older daughter was at a dive meet and her younger one was in constant contact via texting. On top of working, she also coaches a trail running group for the youth in her area whose success has spread through word of mouth.

Friday brunch at IHOP only confirmed my observations of ultra runners liking to eat a lot. Shannon pleasantly greeted and was greeted by fellow ultra runners left and right. Everyone knew Shannon. This was her attempt at getting the coveted 500 mile jacket, indicating that the runner has successfully completed 5 RRs within the allotted time limit. It turns out that the RR 100 was also Shannon’s very first 100 miler, so it held special significance.

Back at hotel, Shannon, who is owner of Moeben ultra clothing, outfitted all of us in her cool threads. Some were not even on the market yet, for us to test and give our feedback on. Shannon likes to test all her wears during ultras before making them available to runners. That’s some kind of service! Connie and I had fun trying on the cheetah print dresses, fleece pants, hats and neck gaiters.

That afternoon, Shannon’s other pacer, Cat Greenleaf, flew in from Brooklyn. She came into our hotel room feeling like the new contestant in a reality show she said. Funny, because although it had only been a day, I did feel connected to my new friends. Cat is a super cool NYC girl with oodles of talent. The girl is famous for her achievements.

Cat’s pacing assignment was from miles 60 to 80. She mentioned that she was considering running from 60 to 100. She had run a couple marathons but 40 would be the furthest she had ever gone in one shot. Honestly I didn’t think she would go on after mile 80. Why on earth would she?

We all huddled in Shannon’s room and went through a quick tutorial on what to expect and what Shannon was packing in her two drop bags. Each of these drop bags probably weighed 30 lbs. This is no exaggeration. Drop bags come in many sizes. Some just small with the bare essentials. Not Shannon! She packed every possible need she could have and then some. Calling her well prepared is an understatement.

The major points I walked away with, from our prerace session, were as follows. The chair is evil. Don’t let your runner sit for too long or linger at an aid station. Make sure your runner is getting in their calories and hydrating. Not always easy when stomach issues arise. Salt intake was also a big deal. When they want to quit, you don’t let them. Lying to your runner is acceptable. They have usually dwindled down to a mental marshmallow by the time lying is really important anyway.

The Moeben group drove to the Walker County Storm Center (which is next to their famed Prison Museum) to pick up packets, drop one of the bags and get briefed by the RD. I heaved Shannon’s bag over my shoulder and carried it to the proper location, starting to assume some responsibilities now. Shannon was kind enough to get me a RR 100 fleece. And thank goodness for it because I ended up wearing it as an additional layer the entire night of the race.

Race morning, 4 am, my alarm went off. I quickly dressed and went to knock on Shannon’s door to make sure she was awake. No wake up was needed. She answered the door, fully dressed in racing attire and her number pined right in the middle of her black Moeben dress. Wide eyed she said she’d been awake since 3:30 or so because of a fight going on outside.

By 5am we were on the 10 minute drive to the Huntsville State Park. Passing through the front gate of the park sent an urgent surge through me. This was really happening. Crew Captain, Kate Freeman was an amazingly organized person who was in charge of crewing several runners in both the 50 and the 100. She secured us a picnic table and even made a bed of sorts with hotel borrowed blankets and pillows on the ground. What looked like total chaos to me worked like a well oiled machine.

6 am and the 300 or so 100-milers were off. It was dark and most were carrying flashlights or headlamps to light their way. An hour later about 400 50-milers would also be on the course. The next spot I would see our runners would be around mile 15 at the Mardi Gras aid station off the main road. It was freezing outside so I opted to divide my wait time between the actual station and my heated car.

It was fun to see everyone coming through, feeling good so early on. The sun had come up by this point and people were in good spirits. Shannon came through having already fallen at mile 2! She was told that her finger may be broken and she lost some sking from her knee. Everyone pretty much took a tumble on the course at some point. Shannon just decided to get it out of the way early.

Much of the day was spent waiting, eating and trying to stay relaxed for Cat and I. Finally around 7pm we were all geared up and ready for Cat to take Shannon on loop number 4. 60 to 80 miles on the dark trails. Shannon showed up happy and alert, got changed, ate some pizza and headed back out with Cat.

Standing and sitting in cold weather was not fun. It was freezing. Sometime in the car with the heater on helped. Shannon had been slowing a bit, but I was fearful of being in the car and missing them for the final loop. So I headed outside and sat at our table from about midnight on. Luckily my new friend Alvin stayed with me to keep me company. You can find out a lot about a person in the wee hours of the night, or morning as it was.

At about 3:15 (6 hour 4th loop I think it was) I found Cat staring at me through the darkness. I didn’t even recognize her! I grabbed the latte that was requested and headed to the tent. Shannon was O-U-T! Slumped over in a folding chair with her face covered by her hat. Cat said she had requested a 20 minute nap. I set my stop watch to time the rest. Alvin, Cat and I got her some soup and upon waking tried to get her to drink some of it. Not an easy task when your runner is falling asleep between mouthfuls.

After some coaxing, Shannon, Cat and I were off for the final loop. Cat looked amazing and wanted to continue on. I was thrilled that she was there. Shannon was chattering with cold. Her teeth loudly clanking together. We took a blanket to give her some extra warmth and I hoped that once we got moving she would warm up. We also gave her some ‘no dose’, coffee as walked a bit. I tried to encourage her to run the flats and down hills (that were not too rooted) and walk the hills and more technical terrain.

Only a few minutes into this last loop I could see Shannon was having a rough time. She was hacking up the remnants of her flu and fatigued to the core. She was not walking/ running straight, like her alignment was off. I wrapped my arm around hers to ensure she stayed on the path. My biggest fear was her fallen and not bracing herself. Sometimes she would rest her head on my shoulder as we moved forward.

Shannon was actually falling asleep as she was walking. She’d be moving along fine and all of a sudden be a zombie. At other times she would suddenly stop, flop down to the ground, curl into a fetal position and beg for a nap. It was heart wrenching to make her get back up. The mom in me, my heart, wanted to give her a blanket and let her sleep. But I knew she would be so upset. I used my instincts to determine if she could go on and it seemed that she could. Plus I had prepared myself for her wanting to drop and I was prepared to get her to the finish line.

Shannon was dealing with some stomach issues and having a hard time eating. I was worried about her calorie intake. At one of the aid stations I was determined to get some food in her. Shannon ate about a quarter of a banana and peanut butter sandwich. She also had about half a cup of soup. Success in my book. I let her rest a few minutes. When it was time to go, she looked at me and said that she didn’t think she would make it. She was ready to quit. Without any hesitation I told her that was not an option. To me she had too much energy still in her voice. Later Shannon tells me if I had only said okay it would have been over.

The night running was a new territory for me. The trail, that looked wide and doable when we surveyed it the other day, looked thin, treacherous and tough to follow. I was trying hard to shine my head lamp so Shannon could see where she was going and not fall. Our way was only defined by the occasional glow stick hanging from a tree or on the ground. Stumbling along became the norm for all of us, but especially Shannon, and it scared the heck out of me. But no one fell on that final loop.

The night was mostly quiet occasionally broken by the howls of coyotes and the laughter of the water birds. Mostly we were alone, us three, running in silence. I wasn’t sure what was appropriate to say as Shannon grunted in pain and fatigue. My only words were little encouragements to get her to jog or off the ground and going again.

About 2 hours or so into the loop Shannon started asking quite often what time it was. She was focused on the sunrise to come at 6:30. That became our unspoken goal. Make it to the sunrise. We plugged on what seemed like days but yet minutes. Hard to define time out there. Cat ran steady behind us now having reached further than she has ever run and experiencing some knee pain. In Cat fashion, she totally sucked it up and cheerfully said she was great whenever we asked.

At Dam Road, Shannon was sure we wouldn’t make the cut off. I don’t recall what time it was, but we were well within the station cutoff and I saw no issue in getting in under the 30 hour time limit. (Although that thought also horrified me). A pancake and some coffee later, we were off to run the 6 miles that would take us back to Dam Road.

The trail varied so much along the way. There were parts that were completely passable and easy. Then there were sections of total mud puddles that you could not avoid. You would just sink right in and try not to slip. The roots in some sections were crazy big. There were holes and divots to watch for. I stepped on a branch which came shooting back to me and left a bruise on my right calf. My knee hit something. I felt like I was in a maze and had to keep my focus down to avoid a face plant.

Shannon complained of having something in her shoe. I had her sit down and I took her shoe off to find ½ a cup of sand and dirt in there! I had to laugh when I told her that she indeed did have “something” in her shoe.

All night long we battled to regulate our body temperature. It was odd to feel so frozen that my fingers were numb and then a few minutes later feel so warm that I needed to shed clothing. My nose became painfully red and raw as I constantly wiped it with gloved hands. In fact the skin on my face seemed to be on fire and my eyes ablaze after the race. Had we been running during the day I would have sworn I was sunburned.

The sun slowly started to break the darkness of the night around 6:30 am and within half an hour the morning had arrived. I cannot tell you what the sunrise did for Shannon, for all of us. We happen to be running right along the edge of Lake Raven, along a flat section, that allowed our gaze to take in the rippling water. As the fog was lifting we all commented on how beautiful it was. That this is what it was all about. With renewed determination, we started running longer and more often.

Once back at Dam Road, we knew we would make the cut off. As the countdown got to 5 miles, the celebrating started in some respects. We knew we would make it. It wouldn’t be a great time for Shannon, but given all the circumstances, she was thrilled and looking forward to her 500 mile jacket.

As we came down the final stretch Cat said, and I quote: “I have never been so happy to see people I don’t know.” I sprinted ahead and took pictures of them crossing the finish line. Friends were waiting and congratulated Shannon on her achievement! The RD handed her the coveted 500 mile jacket, and for a moment the pain left and was replaced with pride and a smile.

I have to give major kudos to Cat who ran her first ultra! 40 miles and about 13 hours of running. Here she is testing the potties. They were still okay the day before. Don’t ask about race day potty conditions though. That was okay as she preferred the trees anyway.

I also have to send strong praise to all the volunteers who were absolutely super! Thank goodness they were there to help us with the heavy drop bags.


Paige said...

Very cool, Christine! Congrats on making it through your first ultra pacer/crew experience! It's tough, and I definitely prefer being the runner, lol :) Great job getting Shannon to the finish line. That was a TOUGH race out there!

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