Rocky Raccoon 100 – Tanya Espalin
100 Miles…in one day??
My first ultra marathon was the Sunmart 50K in December 2007 at the Huntsville State Park. A year later I ran my first 50 mile in the same park. It seemed only fitting that I run my first 100 mile in the park where it all began. The Rocky Raccoon 100 consists of five 20 mile loops with a 30 hour cut-off.
Soon after my first 50K, race distances got longer and many people asked not “if” but “when” I would run my first 100 mile. At the time I had absolutely no desire to run 100 miles. I had paced a few friends in their 100 mile endeavors and after watching them struggle, I really had no desire to torture myself that way.
When I decided to run the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile, the only person who knew was my husband, Jason. Registering for the race brought much anxiety. I had Jason on the phone and my fingers nervously fidgeted on the mouse hovering over the “submit” button. When I finally clicked the button I said to Jason “what have I done?”
The week leading up to the race, I was well rested, and had a written plan. My pacer and good friend Amanda A. had encouraged me to write out a plan. It helped me, better organize my food drop bags and set clear expectation for my crew (Jason).
Race day I was nervous. Jason and I got to the park at 4:45 am, one hour and 15 minutes before the 6:00 am start. We left the car 15 minutes before 6:00 am and tried to enjoy being with all the runners. I was pleasantly surprised when Mom and Dad arrived to see the race start. Mom had her giant camera in my face snapping pictures and Dad had the camcorder narrating the start scene. Both parents were very concerned about this 100 mile journey. The week before the race Dad called to notify me that he had just bought me a race day head light. “Tanya, I got you this head light for your race. It has 5 lights and if only use 3, the batteries will last for 20 hours” Good Lord, I thought. The battery pack must be huge. “Wow Dad, I’ll be running in a bubble of light”. “That’s the point Tanya. I need you to have a lot of light! I can’t have you falling in the dark. Do you need anything else?? What about socks??…You want us to get you some socks?? They’re so cute and I’m very grateful to have such supporting parents.
At 6:00 AM the race started and any anxiety I had about running 100 miles was quickly gone. Loops one and two (miles 0-40) were AWESOME! The weather reports had called for a high of 72 degrees. Cloud cover and breeze made the day feel like it was 65 degrees. My nutrition plan was working well. I had decided not to rely on aide station food opting to carry all my nutrition. My plan was to eat every 20 – 30 minutes, alternating gels, lunch meat, bars and Pringles chips. I was taking in plenty of water which helped prevent any nausea. I was taking frequent bathroom breaks, but I figured, better to have multiple bathroom breaks than to stop and vomit multiple times.
Loop three (miles 40-60) was a good run. I had started to get a little tired, my left hip was cramping and my calves were starting to feel a little sore so decided to slow the pace. Still, I was having a great time, being out in the sun, wind blowing through my hair, and the smell of nature. I felt as if I could run all night and love every minute of this experience.
I came in from loop 3 about 30 minutes a head of schedule. My hip was still cramping, calves were sore and now my feet were staring to hurt. Jason was there ready with my drop bag and change of clothes. By this time we had a system in place. He handed me a change of clothes along with my recovery drink and I gave him my pack to reload with food and water. I was excited to start loop 4 (miles 60-80). Beginning at mile 60, runners are allowed a pacer. Someone to keep you company, keep you motivated and to share in your misery. Chris Russell was ready to serve as my pacer and comic relief for 20 miles. We left at about 6:00 pm head lamps ready for the approaching night.
Chris is a wonderful friend, who I’ve had the privilege of pacing in the past. He’s got the best stories and since he’s a father to two daughters, I knew he’d be a good shoulder to cry on. As we headed out for loop 4 Chris asked me: “How are you feeling Tanya?”
In a moment of weakness to took the opportunity to complain a little. “Well Chris, My hip is really cramping, my feet are sore, and I’m highly annoyed with all the bathroom breaks. As a matter of fact I’ve discovered why it is the men finish way ahead of the women. You see, when I have to go to the bathroom, first I have to find a suitable tree or bush and track through the forest to get to that tree or bush. Then I have to pull my pants down, squat and pray I can get back up unassisted from that squatting position. Where as men simply turn away from the trail and go about their business. They don’t even get off the trail!!”
To this Chris replied “Oh….so you think men have an unfair advantage?” Me: “Yes Chris. No one told me I was suppose to learn how to pee standing up” As we started the loop I was able to run/ walk the first 6 miles, without too much difficulty. Mile 67 is when the race got hard. I was so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that I had strayed from my nutrition strategy. I was soon behind on calories and my energy levels were rapidly declining. The temperature was dropping and now I was stopping every 1.25 miles for a potty break.
My run a few miles earlier was now reduced to a hike. My hip had progressively gotten worse and the bones in my feet now started to feel like they were splintering apart. Chris did a great job distracting me from the pain with his stories. Around mile 69 I was so far behind on nutrition, I started to feel light headed and dizzy. We would stop let the feeling pass and then continue on. At mile 72, I was still very light headed and dizzy. Chris suggested I lay down for a few minutes in the pine needles. I was willing to try anything if it meant I could get rid of the dizzying feeling. I was surprised by how comfortable and warm the pine needles were. Part of me wanted to roll on to my side and snuggle up to an armful of warm pine needles. Looking up, the night sky was bright, lit by the moon and stars. The large pine trees arched far above my head, like a canopy. I knew that I could very easily fall asleep in this splendid place. I still had 28 miles left. So after only a few minutes lying down, I reluctantly got up and returned to the race. At the next aide station Chris suggested I sit down and try to take in some calories. I sat in the chair and asked the kind volunteers for some soup. While I was slurping down soup, Chris is eating a pancake taco (sausage wrapped in a pancake). I looked at him eating that pancake taco, looked at my soup and then whined “Hey Chris! I want one of those.” He was happy to oblige and didn’t complain when I asked for another.
Soon we were finishing loop 4 and every inch of my body begged me to stop. I couldn’t decide what hurt more, my hip, feet, hamstrings, neck or my back. Jason was there with all my new supplies ready. He saw that I wasn’t doing so well and ushered me over to sit with Rich and his sweet wife Jean. Rich had just finished his 50 mile race and was warming up by the heater. I sat by the heater and let Rich and Jean rub my feet for a few minutes. I changed from shorts to pants, put on a dry sweater and new beanie. Physically I was ready to go, but mentally and emotionally, I was spent. I looked up into Jason’s face and fighting back tears said “I don’t want to go back out there, I’m so scared.” Jason’s face was full of sympathy and concern. It was hard for him to see the pain in my face knowing there was nothing he could do to make the suffering stop. Amanda A., my dear friend and pacer for miles 80-100, saw that I was having a difficult time and since she had the run this race the year before she was able to motivate me out of the chair. Amanda is a focused goal oriented runner and I knew she wouldn’t let me quit.
Amanda and I started loop 5 at 12:00 am. She encouraged me through the whole loop, saying things like: “you’re one step closer Tanya”, “I know you can run this section”, “remember your reason for running”. I had to stop frequently to stretch the hip and the potty breaks were not going away. At mile 86 I decided I was too tired to be modest. No longer would I track trough the woods for a potty break. I pulled over to the side of the trail, with no bush to cover my behind and said to Amanda “I don’t care anymore. If they wanna look, they can look.” Since we were stopped Amanda, seized the opportunity to also relieve herself. She also didn’t see the point in finding a bush to hide behind. Just our luck we see a runner coming our way. As the runner (female) approached she yelled “Ahhh, oh my gosh!!” To this Amanda yelled back, “Well then don’t look!!!!” I briefly wondered if there was anything in the rule book about being disqualified for fighting with another runner. That would have made a good story.
As the night dragged on my body was in immense pain, my eyes were getting mighty heavy and I wanted this to be over. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes, and a small whimper escaped my mouth. Amanda, who was a few paces ahead of me, stopped and said “What was that?” She looked back and saw the tears, pain and frustration in my face. Amanda’s look of determination quickly turned to empathy and she said, “Do you need a hug?” It was at that moment, I lost control of the tears and cried and then sobbed. When I was cried out, Amanda resumed her focus and on we went. At mile 92 (4:55 am), I decided to try running. To my surprise the legs warmed quickly and though I was running 16 min/ mile, I was running!! When we reached the last 2.5 miles I was again walking. Amanda looked at her watch and said “Ok, we’re gonna walk for .5 miles and then we’re running the last 2 miles.” I protested but Amanda wouldn’t hear of it saying “Tanya we can quickly knock these 2 miles out or this can be long, slow and cold….and I’m cold”. I laughed and nervously said “let’s get this done”. The last two miles were the longest and most difficult. I had trouble breathing, legs were screaming and when I thought I had run almost two miles I asked Amanda “how many miles left?” When she told me I still had 1 mile, I pulled back the pace and exclaimed “Oh come on!!! It’s too far!!!” Amanda looked back at me with determined eyes and sternly said “Tanya, you’ve already run 99 miles, come on!! Keep up with me!!” She ran ahead and ushered me to the finishing shoot “Come on, there it is, there it is!!” I could hear my family at the finish cheering loudly. Tears started fill my eyes and I couldn’t wait to see Jason and get my buckle. I crossed the finish line in 24 hours and 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe I had just run 100 miles!!
The days after running 100 miles haven’t been a little challenging. My feet are equal in size to the Incredible Hulk and I’m still having a difficult time walking. Thinking back on my 100 mile experience I still get a little weepy. Not because of the physical pain but because of the overwhelming support from family, friends and co-workers. Thank you so much for your kind words, phone calls and Facebook posts. Ya’ll are the best.