I have not run any ultra marathons, and yet somehow I find myself attending a few of these races every year. I’ve crewed at two 100 milers and cheered at a 50K. And as of Saturday February 11th, I’ve officially seen a 50 mile trail run! Patrick ran 50 miles through Huntsville State Park in the blistering heat, I cheered him, read a good book, and consumed ample snacks. It’s up for debate on who had the better day.
The Rocky Raccoon 50 consists of two distances: 50K and 50 miles. As you can imagine, there appeared to be more people signed up for the 50K, which is about 31 miles. That’s just 5 more than a marathon! Trail running is very different from the usual road racing in both speed and recovery times. On a trail run, you anticipate that you’ll be walking some of the uphill sections, enjoying some real food (I’ve seen chicken noodle soup, PB&J’s, candy, crackers, bagels, fruits, pretzels…) at the aid stations, and stopping for a bathroom break as often as you’d like. Hitting a specific speedy mile pace is less important when you have 50 miles ahead of you. You’re running to survive. You’ll also be running on trails! Which is a softer surface than cement roads. This makes your body feel way better at the finish line than if you ran on a cement road like most marathons. Or so they tell me.
We arrived bright and early to Huntsville State Park. Capturing the relaxed spirit of ultra running, getting settled took about 5 minutes. Leaving plenty of time for us to sit around in the darkness amidst the flurry of headlamps of other nervous runners.
As I said goodbye to Patrick, I struggled with finding a line of encouragement. I had no idea what he was thinking as he toed up to the start line, the 50 miles weighing heavy on his shoulders. At least with a marathon, a part of me always knew I would be able to finish. But with so many miles, there are even more possibilities for something to go wrong. Surely he had some doubts? Doubts that I would also argue are more legitimate than the standard pre-race nerves? I don’t remember what I said, but I know that it was lame.
At 6:00AM, Patrick was off! The course consists of 3 – 16.67 mile loops, so I planned to see him in roughly 3 hour intervals as he returned from each loop. The sun was starting to rise and the spectators were settling into their tents/chairs/cars to relax until their runners returned. The mood at the start line was filled with calmness and relief. Probably because we weren’t the crazies running a huge distance in this hot and humid weather.
This is the point in my day where it really sunk in that I am basically sitting on a folding chair in a forest for 9 hours. Luckily for me (and Patrick) his friends were driving up from Austin to surprise him at the end of his first loop. That would’ve worked, but before I knew it Patrick was back in way under the planned 3 hours. He was in great spirits! I gave him what he needed and sent him back out for his second loop. Naturally, his friends arrived about 10 minutes later.
Mingling with strangers, I found out there are two other aid stations (mile 3ish and 12ish of each loop) that spectators could get to by car. The benefits of talking to people! Aaron and Dylan caught Patrick at one of these aid stations and we got to see all the bromance love caught on camera. At this point, Patrick had ran about 20 miles and was yelling, “I knew you guys were gonna come!”
Everything was smooth sailings. It looked like Patrick was finishing each leg of the course in perfect timing. His entourage of supporters grew in number of people and dogs. But then Patrick returned from his second loop, 33 miles into the race. His face was pale. He wasn’t smiling. We gave him what he needed and I walked with him briefly to give him more time to drink some cola. He made a few comments about how terrible this (ie. running 50 miles on a hot day in Huntsville, Texas) was. I’d say most people would agree with him. Sending him off, I was a tad worried that this would be an even longer day than anticipated. Not a whole lot. Just a smidge. The miles start to seem shorter when they are contrasted with how far he has ran and how much is left. So I had to remind myself that running one single mile is still a struggle and an accomplishment. He still had 17 to push through.
Whatever was getting him down, he worked through in the next 3 miles, 36 miles into the race. He was a new person! All smiles and laughs. The ups and downs of ultra running and other long distance races are a part of what make the sport so special.
He slowed down a bit to conserve some energy for the last loop, but remained in happy spirits for the rest of the race. Patrick finished the race in 8 hours and 48 minutes.
—1st in Age Group
—10th in Mens
—11th Overall out of 158 total finishers
After all of Patrick’s hard work, we ended the day celebrating with Margaritas and Fajitas back in Houston.
Ultra running is an incredible sport. one that I think you need to see to believe. It sounds like madness until you watch people of all ages and abilities run farther than you’ve ever imagined. You have to be a little crazy to sign-up, but who wants to be normal anyway? I always leave inspired and yearning for the day I take to the trails to run. But for now, you can find me on the sidewalks.