This year’s Rocky Raccoon would mark the 3rd year in a row making a trip to the Huntsville area. I’ve really come to enjoy my trips down to the area, despite it being Texas and all. Usually we Philly boys like to distance ourselves from Texas, owing to the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry in the NFL. But, this was Houston area, not Dallas, and I have a couple new ties to the area, or at least I will in the coming year. First off, I have mixed emotions about Bill O’Brien moving to the NFL to coach the Houston Texans. Being a Penn State Alum, I’ve really come to enjoy the changes that he has made to the football program in Happy Valley. That being said, I was somewhat disappointed that he made the decision to move from college to professional football coaching. But, you gotta do, what ya gotta do. However, I am excited to see what he can do. Secondly, around the June 2014 time frame, a good friend of mine and dedicated training partner, Jason Wiley, will be uprooting his family from the northeast and heading to the lovely Woodlands area. Jason and I go back a long way, starting from being pledge brothers at the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity back in 1992 at Penn State. Our pledge class started out as the “Six Pack”, but after one member couldn’t hack it, we became “The High Five”, a name likely giving to us because of the mental/physical state that we usually were in. Anyway, I am getting off-track. Jason and I reconnected after I moved back from California and we’ve been training ever since, about 7-8 years now. I guess this means I have a place to stay, a local crew/cheering section, and possible “safety-runners” for the 2015 edition of Rocky Raccoon. Joe Prusaitis, I’m coming back.
So, I came into the 2014 Rocky Raccoon with some high expectations. After a dismal performance last year when I tried to break away from Mike Morton, I came back with a smarter race plan. My main goal was to win the 2014 100 Mile Masters National Championship. In addition, Rocky Raccoon was chosen to be one of the Montrail Ultracup races with 3 spots available for 2014 Western States. I had no preconceived notions about grabbing a spot and actually wasn’t interested in getting one anyway, as I have my sights set on the Vermont 100 in July. On top of all that, I was hopeful that I might be able to run a smart enough race to try and break the masters course record of 14:12:20. It would take a perfect day and spot on nutrition if that were going to happen, but as I said I had high expectations.
This year’s Rocky was also going to be interesting from the standpoint that I was going completely solo: no crew, no pacer, no problem. In previous races, I had always lined up pacers or even last year, flew one down. But this year, I would take a page out of Karl Meltzer’s book and go it alone.
I arrived in Houston on Thursday afternoon and was supposed to share a ride with Neal Gorman. Due to a winter storm in the south, flights were canceled and Neal couldn’t make it down until Friday. I made the trip solo up to Huntsville and enjoyed a quick little 5 mile run on the course, in order to shake out the legs. I felt pretty good and was excited for what was to come in a measly 36 hours. On Friday, I spent most of my day, preparing my Vitargo S2, drop bags, clothing, etc. I definitely overpacked them which would come to haunt me later. As the day carried on, I headed over to packet pick-up and met up with Neal, Jason (Lantz), and Jeremy (Pade). After the race briefing, where I was more interested in hearing Neal and Ian (Sharman) discuss Ian’s record setting Grand Slam from 2013, the 4 of us headed over to eat at the “Farmhouse” in Huntsville. Well, 3 of us ate real southern cooking, while Neal enjoyed 2 Clif Bars. I had some Chicken Fried steak…yum…with fried ocra, and sweet potato fries. Unfortunately, they were BYOB and we didn’t have any. Probably good for me, as I know Jason likes to drink a couple the night before a race. Just look at his Vermont 100 win from last year. He was doing shots of Tequila during the race!!!
The next morning we awoke at about 3:45a.m. and were ready to meet Neal outside at 4:30 for the drive to the park. We got there in pretty good time and beat most of the traffic into the park. We luckily also got a pretty good parking spot not too far from the start/finish line. It soon enough was go time and the 4 of us lined up at the front. Vitargo S2 (from Genr8) was well represented with Dave James and myself stealing center stage. The countdown begun and within 5 seconds Dave was off the front like it was a 10K. I’ve become accustomed to seeing/hearing Dave do this at many a race with the usual outcome being a DNF. It would be no different this day. In fact, many of the projected frontrunners fell victim to the flat, rooty miles. Unfortunately, the weather was not optimal with temperatures starting in the mid 60’s with 90+% humidity. I adjusted my race plan and knew the heat and humidity would be a struggle with lots of carnage as the race progressed.
I settled into a grove during the first 20 miles with a strong group, somewhere back in the top 20 or so. The group consisted of Neal, Jason, Michelle (Yates), Nicole (Studer), Ford (Smith), Gary (Gellin), and others. I chatted a bit with Nicole and spent miles 10-20 chatting with Ford. Ford has a future ahead of him, considering he is 17 and still in HIGH SCHOOL!!! We were betting on who would be in first after the first loop. He thought Dave, I though Ian. About 1 mile from the start/finish, Ian would come blazing by with Peter Hogg in close tow. Dave was about 15 seconds back and would later drop around mile 23. We hit the end of the first loop in rather conservative 2:43. This was where I wanted to be. I made a fairly conservative pit stop making sure to refill my bottles with Vitargo and grab some more S-caps. The humidity was extremely noticeable, coming from the cold northeast.
During this 2nd loop where I started to have stomach issues. I was drinking a ton of Vitargo, as I can usually get away with it as my sole fuel source, however, with the weather I wasn’t able to digest properly. I started to feel some major bloating and tried to empty my stomach was some regurgitation. Unfortunately, nothing would come up. I finally made it around to the end of the 2nd loop with a slow 3:01. I was well off the pace that I know I can handle for a long period of time. I spent some time in the aid station trying to regroup and get ready for the toughest loop of the day, loop #3.
Every year, this is the loop where I have the most difficulty. In 2012, I left mile 40 and had major issues heading to the nature center at mile 43. After recooperating in the aid station for 10-15 minutes, I continued on my way and finished rather well in 16:13. In 2013, I had the same issues, but this time dropped at mile 43. I felt the same way this year. As I left dogwood at mile 40, my bloating issues continued. I had made no changes to my nutrition plan, which wasn’t the smart thing to do. I stopped a couple times trying to puke, but nothing would come up. I finally made it to mile 43 and stopped for about 10 minutes. I ate solid food, drank some water, and just rested my stomach a bit. I waved at the camera, to the chagrin of my friends of family sitting there back home yelling at me to continue. As I finally left the aid station, I started to feel better. I stopped drinking from my bottle and found that helped. For some reason this day, I wasn’t able to handle Vitargo. I was drinking 4-scoopers and that might have been the issue. My stomach wasn’t able to handle that much. At DamNation and I emptied my bottle and took only water. The rest of the day would be aid station solids (pickles, PBJ, chips, etc) and water + S-caps. I didn’t feel great about taking in gels, considering my stomach didn’t seem to be doing well with those sugary calories. Soon enough my energy came back and my bloating went away. My legs were in terrific shape as I was still able to pound out 8:00-8:15 miles all along the Damnation loop. I made it back from to mile 46 at DamNation, in under 50 minutes. I was cruising along nicely. But, I found that since I wasn’t eating and running that I was taking too long in the aid stations. As it turned out, I was wasting about 5-10 minutes at each aid station and giving back all that time I was making up in between. Again, I left DamNation and rolled off some 8:00 miles and even some sub8’s on the jeep road section. I would make my way back around to Dogwood (start/finish) without giving away too much time, in 3:11. Still under a 9 minute overall pace, but not where I wanted to be.
Much of the same would occur on the 4th loop. My legs felt fantastic, I would continue running 8-8:30 pace for all miles and give the time back in the aid stations. As it turned out, the weather was taking its toll on the leaders. I rolled into the aid station at mile 72 and saw Michele Yates sitting there. She withdrew after a very aggressive first 60 miles. After another long aid station break, I cruised along again at low 8 minute pace and reached the mile 76 aid station. Ford Smith was dealing with issues and he informed me that Jason Lantz was only a few minutes up. I headed out after another wasted 5 minutes and continued to pound out 8-8:30 miles. As I approached the end of loop 4, Steve Speirs was running in 4th and Jason Lantz was a few minutes back in 5th. I entered the aid station only 2 minutes behind Jason, then proceeded to waste another 10 minutes refueling!!! What was wrong with me….where was the drive.
Loop 5, it had now become dark which slowed me down as I didn’t want to take a header with all the roots on the course. I was still running relatively good, but had slowed to about 9:30-10 pace, as I was starting to tire and the darkness was taking its toll. It was at mile 83, where Neal Gorman came flying by me in the aid station. I tried to hang on, but he quickly dropped me in the darkness. I had almost forgot about Neal and him making a resurgence after a rather abysmal 2nd lap. As I left DamNation at mile 86, I got the word that Neal was 5 minutes up (in 3 miles) and Jason Lantz was another 10 minutes up. I kept trying to plug away, but in the darkness it becomes rather difficult to stay strong. Heading back to DamNation I was able to share some miles with Kaci Lickteig and her pacer Miguel. We had a rather enjoyable conversation which made those 2 miles or so pass by quickly. We finally made it back to DamNation for the last time and she was quickly through the aid station. Like clockwork, I spent the next few minutes wasting time. A lightswitch went on, I started to press hard, afraid of what was behind me. On the open jeep road I started clicking off low 9 minute miles and came around to the aid station. Finally a quick stop of only 1-2 minutes, I made my way over the last 4 miles to the finish. It’s always nice being able to count down those final miles in a hundo. 97 to go, I kept clicking along and caught site of a runner in front of me. I couldn’t see who it was and wasn’t interested either. As I passed, I heard, “Josh is that you”. It was Jason, he was struggling to keep a strong pace. I tried to will him to join me and break 16 hours. After he tried to stay for a minute, I started to drop the hammer, thinking to myself, “this is a race, let’s go”. 2 miles to go, I pushed even harder. 1 mile to go, I think I can get under 15:50. Down the final half mile, I was in an all out race against the clock. There was no tiredness in my legs. I sprinted across the line in 15:49:46. A new PR for me at the 100 mile distance. Jason would come in over 5 minutes later.
All in all, I am pleased with the way that I handled the weather conditions and the competition. I didn’t go out too hard, I dealt with adversity in the form of stomach bloating, and I was able to run a really nice pace for most of the race. I was disappointed to see that my garmin didn’t record the 100 miles (I think I know what I did wrong), but I estimate that I spent at least 20 minutes in aid stations/loop!!! A total of over 1hr 40 min and even probably closer to 2 hours. I definitely need to learn how to manage my race better and figure out how I can reduce those aid station times. A crew would definitely help with that. In the end, a better managed race would have gotten me back into Western States, but I am happy to see that Steve Speirs earned that spot and will be representing the east coast in Squaw Valley. (Steve, if you need a pacer, don’t hesitate to ask!!!) I am happy to see that I survived well enough to take home my 2nd consecutive USATF Masters National Championship (50 mile road at Tussey was the first). It pays to be old.
I want to thank, first and foremost, my wife and children for putting up with me during my crazy training cycles. I also want to thank my coach, Todd Braje, for making me a stronger and better ultrarunner than I could have been on my own. I want to think my training partners, Jason Wiley and Matt Wilson, for helping me train through the brutal winters, especially Jason, since he meets me for 5am track workouts! I want to thank my sponsors, Vitargo S2 and Chester County Running Store for all their support. And last, but not least, I want to thank Joe Prusaitis and the rest of the race staff and volunteers for putting on such a great race. I will see y’all in 2015!