Tuesday, February 03, 2015

New 100-Mile PR at the 2015 Rocky Raccoon 100m/USATF Championships

“Oh my God, I think I’m going to be sick,” said the runner next to me in the starting chute of the 2015 Rocky Raccoon 100-Mile Run (RR100) last Saturday morning. Thirty seconds to start…it’s the last time your brain allows you to absorb the entirety of the next 30 hours, and the sheer insanity of a sport and race that annually draws 500+ runners here to Hunstville, TX. We are all fidgeting – the fast runners bouncing like hungry greyhounds, the vets finding solace and strength in the moment – but the newbies have it the worst.

“No worries, mate,” said a veteran RR100 runner right behind us with an assuring hand on the dizzy mans shoulder, “there’s plenty of time for that later.” We all chuckled, and several more supportive arms came out of the darkness with reassuring pats and fist bumps for our nervous recruit. He was stoked into a smile, then lowered his head down to his watch, his thumb on a start button he won’t touch again for two more sunrises. With one last collective exhale, Race Director Joe Prusaitis released us from our mental cages. The 2015 USATF 100-Mile Trail National Championship had begun.

(Here we go! Photo courtesy of Victor Ballesteros
(T-minus 30 seconds, photo courtesy of Jason Bryant)
(And we're off!!!)
I settled into an easy rhythm in the snake of streaking headlamps lighting up the fir trees and rolling hills of Huntsville State Park. We had five well-marked loops of 20 miles ahead of us, so no need to do anything in the first few miles except find your place in the flow and don’t step too far off the trail. The first sign when you enter the park says “Caution - Alligators Exist In Park”…you don’t need to tell me twice!

My Dad, Dr. Larry Dunlap, was my trusty crew once again, and I let him know I was just going to run the first lap comfortably and see where that put me. I had secret desires to improve my 100-mile PR of 18:12 and secure another USATF national title, but the only way that was going to happen was showing the discipline to pace from the first step. Historically I have not been great at that, and have done my fair share of death marches in the final miles of these hundos. But for this race the chips were stacked in my favor - my fitness and health were good, I was spiritually centered and calm, the weather was forecasted to be an optimal 53 degrees with slight showers, and the loop format made pacing much easier. The excuse drawer was empty, basically, so time to put it in diesel mode.

(Steve Speirs smiles as the sun greats us)
(My early mile pace mates, Steve Speir and Shaheen Sattar)
The sun peeked over the horizon just as we arrived at the “Dam Nation” aid station (mile 7), and I found myself pacing with Team Injinji teammate Steve Speirs (4th here last year, 15:43) and Shaheen Sattar (3rd female here last year, 16:45). It was great to have a couple of RR100 experts give me the lay of the land as we took the “Dam Loop”, the longest stretch between aid stations on the course. We chatted about the front runners we had meet at the race briefing – Ian Sharman (CR holder of 12:44, looking very fit), Paul Terranova (Texas local who just took 2nd at Bandera 100k three weeks ago), 2-time Women’s winners Nicole Studer and Liza Howard, Texas local Melanie Fryar, Master’s defending champion Joshua Finger, 78-year-old Peter Fish attemping to be the oldest runner to ever finish a 100-miler, and a dozen more that could be making history. There was a stacked field in every category, and the loop format meant we could watch it all unfold in real time.

(Steve catches up to Melanie Fryar as we hit one of the many footbridges along the water)
(Henrik Westerlin sets a fast pace and heads into loop #2)
We did a quick refuel, then took on some long roads before finding the familiar single track and wooden footbridges along the reservoir. Steve’s pacing logic was absurdly straight forward – just under 9 minute miles (including rest stops) gets you 15 hours – a tactic that has worked well for him. Shaheen had paced with Steve last year, and knew that it was a good way to get rolling on her sub-16 goal. Around mile 18 we were already seeing the leaders coming back, with Boulder’s David Kilgore (on a 6:50 min/mile pace!), Italian Marco Bonfiglio, Ian Sharman, Jean Pommier, David James, and Nicole and Liza all looking strong. Steve had paced us in to a perfect 2:50 first lap, right on track for his 15-hour goal. One lap done!

(I get by with a little help from my friends - sticking with Steve Speirs on the first loop, photo courtesy of Ally Speirs)
(Women's leaders Nicole Studer and Liza Howard share a few strides, photo courtesy of Victor Ballesteros)
I took a pit stop, so Steve and Shaheen headed out ahead for Lap 2 without me. Honestly, not sure what I was thinking pacing with a 15-hour guy! Given the roots and twists I had just seen, I suspected I could do between 16:30 and 18 hours if I could hold it together. Just keep moving, right?

(Hey, I know that guy! Jean Pommier setting a wicked fast pace)
(Cruising the footbridges)
(Only allowed on the left, photo courtesy of Victor Ballesteros)
At the next aid station (mile 23), Shaheen was already on the side of the trail clutching her bloodied hip, a victim to a fall on the sharp roots. A good reminder that anything can happen to even the best of runners, so stay in the moment. I slurped my Vitargo and listened to the birdsong in the trees, singing to myself to keep the momentum going (the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack mostly). The front runners were already headed back, with David Kilgore clearing the first 26.2 miles in ~2:50. Wow! That is definitely a world record pace!

(WR or bust, David Kilgore goes out hard)
(Nearly impossible to get lost with the great course markings)
(Liza Howard moving fast, photo courtesy of Dominic Grossman)
I checked my watch at the marathon mark (3:55) and promptly caught a toe and went sprawling into the dirt. Texas trail trolls don’t allow for daydreaming! The Dam Nation aid station (mile 29) cleaned me up in a jiffy, and I was back at it in just a few minutes, picking up David James as company as he worked his way through some back spasms. We kept the pace around a 9 min/mile, and it seemed like Dave knew everyone on a first name basis. He took another walk break (too much cheering!), as we high-fived a huge conga line of runners before I leaned into the long fire roads again.

(The hearty volunteer team at the Dam Nation aid station has no worries about rain)
(This guy said "I think you dropped the skin from your elbow on the trail"..ha, ha!)
(Matthew Urbanski gets some tree cover)
I charged in for a 2:58 second lap (mile 40), which still seemed fast. My Dad let me know a few more had dropped – Steve Speirs, Shaheen, and a dozen others, most of them citing injury – so to be careful as my tired legs started to shuffle among the roots. Sure enough, I took another digger just a minute after leaving him and bloodied my nose. Grrrr…this course looked much easier on paper!!! (ha, ha)

(19-year-old Carlos Rodriguez and Peter Goldring are looking good)
(Jason Bahumundi and his friend Jeff Irvin always had a smile for us!)
(72-year-old David Blaylock gets his tunes rolling)
A few rain sprinkles visited as I hit the halfway point (mile 50, 7:50), and I found a good groove to get through the third lap in 3:18 (mile 60). Ian Sharman had moved up a few places, with Marco Bonfiglio now leading once David Kilgore dropped. Paul Terranova, Sam Skeels, Henrik Westerlin, and Peter Hogg were all within 10 minutes, and Nicole Studer and Liza Howard also moving fast about five minutes off each other.

I had switched to eating broth/ramen and pumpkin pie slices at the aid stations, a good complement to my drink calories as the lunch hour arrived. Sure is easier to manage the stomach when it’s not 100+ degrees out…I was easily staying on my hydration and calories, with a little Vespa to balance it out.

(Ian Sharman looks amazing, natch) 
(Paul Terranova keeps the pressure on)
(Liza Howard is so fast! And still smiling)
My Dad and I agreed he should meet me at the last aid station on the fourth loop (mile 75) to hand off a light, since I quite wasn’t going to make the full loop in time. Not like Ian Sharman, who told me “you only have about 30 minutes of dark at the end when you’re on a 13 hour pace”. Wha? That guy is amazing. He and Rob Krar should have a #noflashlight hashtag club or something.

Speaking of which, Ian had moved his way into second place and had gapped Paul Terranova by a few minutes. Nicole Studer was right on Paul’s tail, well on a 14:30 pace. They inspired me to run a bit faster, particularly when I realized I had gained a few minutes on Joshua Finger in the last lap, but as soon as I did, I was face down in the dirt again. One of the fast runners stopped to pick me up, and it was none other than Joshua Finger! He wasn’t leaving until he knew I was okay. Love that guy.

(Nicole Studer leads the women...no watch! Photo courtesy of Jason Bryant)
(I'm still hanging in there! Photo courtesy of Jason Bryant)
(Nathan Leehman takes a break, then digs deep for a Top 10 finish, photo courtesy of Victor Ballesteros)
I really started slowing down once the darkness settled (~12 min/mile), mostly out of fear of falling again now that I was bleeding from every limb. There was going to be some serious bed sheet jerky tonight! Everything else seemed to be going pretty well though, and I came in the fourth lap in 3:38 (mile 80), meaning I was in sub-17 territory and in the Top 20 overall. Jean Pommier (dropped after a crazy sub-8 minute first two laps) and Victor Ballesteros (manning the ultrasportlive.tv microphone and camera) mentioned there were a few Masters well ahead of me, but they weren’t sure about my age group. The sprinkles of rain had gotten a bit heavier, so I grabbed my inov-8 Race Elite 70 Windshell and wool t-shirt before heading out for the last lap. My Dad joined me for a mile jog he had done on previous loops, but missed his turn this time and accidentally got 4 miles of night running in (and one face plant). Way to go, Pops! We’ll have matching bed sheet jerky for sure...big tip for the hotel maid!

(Snapping a quick pic with Victor Ballesteros and Jean Pommier before loop #4, photo courtesy of Victor Ballesteros
(Amos Desjardins stays under a 20-hour pace)
(Tony Nguyen ain't stopping! Photo courtesy of Victor Ballesteros
I shuffled into the night, thrilled to see where everyone was in their respective races. You really get to know your fellow runners when you see them five times, and many of them were holding strong! Tony Nguyen was killing it, well on track to his first Western States qualifier ever. Kurt Dusterhoff was moving well, with a sub-24 well in his sights. The unstoppable Roy Pirrung was, well, unstoppable! Anytime a runner asked “what loop?”, and I replied “last one”, there were huge sighs and cheers (and the occasional “oh, you bastard!”), and I felt instantly grateful. Some of these warriors would be out here until noon tomorrow…sooo impressive. Having done both fast 100's and all-day 100's, I honestly don’t know which is harder.

Despite a thought-to-be-fully-charged headlamp, my Petzl Nao started to give that oh-shit-just-about-out-of-power blink a few miles into the Dam Loop (mile 88). As it dimmed, I reached for my backup handheld, only to find the back up light dimming as well (I think I left it on). Oh, no…it’s that worst case night running scenario! By mile 90, I was at a dead stop in the rainy blackness, and I cursed myself a bit for being so lazy in the headlight planning. But as my ears and eyes settled in the expanse of the darkness and heard the light rain, it felt amazing, and I was completely lost in the moment. When you hear nothing but footsteps and breathing for a dozen plus hours, a moment of infinite silence and darkness has a vertigo-like intensity. So….wicked….COOL! My runner’s high was off the charts at this point (obviously), and nature’s symphony was almost too much for my wide open soul. I could see some runners headed my way, so I just sat down and enjoyed the tranquility, fueling up the best I could and letting the tears of joy run down my dirty cheeks.

(Wow...the forest sure is pretty at night. ;-) )
My savior was Gerardo “Jerry” Ramirez from Fort Worth, TX, a veteran of 20+ 100-milers who was cranking out his fourth loop at a solid pace. He loaned me his extra light to get to the next aid station, but five minutes later, that one went out too! Bad lighting karma, everyone, keep your distance!!! I couldn’t believe it. I jogged in behind Jerry, and traded my expensive-but-worth-nothing-now handheld light for a $6 Wal-Mart special that someone had stashed at the aid station (mile 91). Thanks, Jerry and thoughtful volunteers!

I was seriously shuffling at this point, but still running everything. I found energy in my gratitude for Jerry’s help, so I sang a version of The Beatles' "Let It Be" in his honor:

When I find myself in times of trouble 
Brother Jerry comes for me 
Sharing grace and headlamps – let Scott see 

And in my hour of darkness 
There is still a light that shines for me 
Shines right through tomorrow – it’s Jerry! 

My light fiasco had erased any sub-17 hour possibilities, but I blew through the last aid station anyway to see how close I could get. At 17:06:38, the finish line found me in 22nd place, with Jason Bryant holding up the USATF finisher tape to signal I had won my age group! A PR of 66 minutes, a sub-24, got the USATF AG win, and no line at the massage table. Can’t ask for much more than that! 

(Paul Terranova captures the USATF 100-Mile National Championship, photo courtesy of Jason Bryant)
(Getting a massage at the finish...phew! Photo courtesy of Jason Bryant)
There were stellar finishes all around, with Ian Sharman taking the win (13:38), Marco Bonfiglio taking 2nd (13:57) after being passed in only the last three miles, and Paul Terranova (14:05) taking third and winning the USATF championship with his new Masters course record. Nicole Studer finished in an astounding 14:22, pacing to a new Women’s American Record without ever having a watch on. Yes, a new AMERICAN RECORD by 22 minutes! Liza Howard was second (15:34, Masters champion, on her birthday no less), and Melanie Fryar completed the podium (16:17). Tony Nguyen finished in under 29 hours (getting his States qualifier), and Kurt Dusterhoff went sub-24...Nofal Musfy ran an unthinkable 26:11 at age 72. There were lots of success stories today. (all results)

(Nicole Studer sets an American Record on her way to winning the USATF 100-Mile National Championship)
(72-year-old Nofal Musfy finishes in an outstanding 26:11)
As I laid restlessly in the hotel room, battered and scraped from head to toe and unable to sleep, it would only take a glance at the shiny belt buckle on the table to bring a happy tear to my eye. So much in one day! So many triumphs by my fellow warriors! That moment in the dark I will cherish forever! More Mother Nature than most people see in a year! And best of all, that eternally optimistic clan of ours who organize and stay up through the night to give us an excuse to challenge ourselves at unthinkable levels.

(A little more bling for the wall)
I’m so often asked why we do these things, why we push ourselves like this for “no reason”. But in this moment, when I stare at the buckle and let it reflect that pure light of humility back into my soul, there is no greater pursuit. I actually don’t want to sleep at all. I want to stay in this moment of transcendent joy forever.

My thanks to Joe Prusaitis, Tejas Trails, and the amazing volunteers who put on this fantastic race. A special thanks to my Dad too, not only for being there on this special day, but for giving me the love of trails that never seems to end. I hope this finds you all healthy, happy, and letting adventure pour into every part of your lives. If not, the 2016 Rocky Raccoon 100-Miler will be on February 6, so get registered! - SD


  1. Oh BTW, not a single blister! Thanks, Injinji!!!!

  2. What a great report - thanks for putting it together so quickly! And I am not laughing about how technology was your undoing at night; this makes me want to have two or three headlamps for backup! Congrats on an amazing time - way to get through the trips and lighting issues!

    1. Thanks, Lucas! In retrospect, using the drop bags or having crew at every aid station would have sufficed. I think I just got lazy. ;-)

  3. Scott, David Kilgore was flying, but not quite as fast as you suggest. 2:19 for the first lap and 2:20 for the second is an even 7-min mile pace throughout all that, but 14 mins ahead of CR splits to that stage before he slowed.

  4. Wow amazing! I finished my first 50 miler a few weeks ago in Big Bend. I too cried a few times at the sheer beauty of my surroundings. I am in love with trail running and hope to attempt Rocky next year. Well done and thanks for sharing.

    1. Congrats, Rosa! First 50 is a huge deal! Rocky will be a great follow up, and you'll have a blast.

  5. Great writeup. I love the emotion you put into it and bring the story to life. Congrats on your success!

  6. Congrats. Impressive performance Scott. Sweet PR. Of course now you are gonna be thinking about it starting with a 16 rather than a 17. Well done.

  7. Amazing effort and narrative, Scott... nearly earning a sub-17 while snapping so many pictures along the way boggles the mind. Congrats on a huge day, and way to (literally) leave it all on the trail!

    1. Thanks, Mike! One loop with a GoPro, one loop with the Sony, and lots of generous photographers allowing me to share their great pics! It was super fun.

  8. Dang Scott! Didn't know you did Rocky too until I saw this post after reading Presidio! Great to meet you Sunday and see you in Boston. I made nice with the roots at Rocky too...

  9. Ooohhh, 15 hours and change. You were moving!!!


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