A pyrrhic victoryFebruary 7, 2010
You could say that my day at the Rocky Raccoon 100 was foreshadowed by the movie I watched on Friday with my aunt and uncle: Avatar. It was really long, had lots of running through the woods, was about a guy whose legs ceased to function and who wished for a new body, and included much pain and suffering followed by a happy ending.
The story of my race could also be told in part by the split times of my 20-mile laps: 2:38, 2:42, 2:50, 3:04 … and 3:45. Most of the last lap was in the dark, but at the rate I was moving then, darkness was hardly an impediment.
I spent much of the first lap running and chatting with Paul Hopwood, who had finished the grueling HURT 100 only three weeks earlier. He was in good spirits and seemed light on his feet until I happened to ask him about the number of 100-milers he had completed. At that instant his toes caught a root and he went down, rolling forward and springing back up again. “Well, this is going to be my last one,” he said. “Thanks for asking, Greg.”
I had known from the beginning that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to approach Eric Clifton’s race record of 13:06:02 (set on a different and perhaps easier course). However, my 20-mile split of 2:38 was right on record pace, and I decided to see whether I could maintain that pace for a while longer. After lap 2, which I ran alone, I knew that the record was indeed out of reach, and I refocused on my original and primary time goal of breaking 14 hours. Lap 3 was a bit slower than I had hoped for but still consistent with a possible sub-14-hour finish. My first pacer, John Reynolds, was waiting for me at mile 60, and I figured that the help from him and Paul Terranova (who would run miles 80 to 100 with me) would minimize further slowdowns.
John and Paul — good names at a race named after a Beatles song — did an excellent job, yet my pace projections for these final laps proved wildly optimistic. There was nothing remarkable about my fatigue — no sudden failures of particular muscle groups — but it deepened gradually and relentlessly.
At my request, John did his best to maintain a one-sided conversation so as to distract me from my deteriorating condition. He told me about his preparation for the upcoming Nueces 50, which I misheard, perhaps tellingly, as the “Oasis 50.” He also handled what I called the “public relations” of the lap: greeting other runners, warning them of our approach from behind, etc. The 50-mile runners did a 16.67-mile loop that was very similar to the 100-milers’ 20-mile loop, and there were multiple segments with two-way traffic, so encounters with other runners were quite frequent. Many of them offered friendly encouragement, and John responded in kind so that I could save my breath without feeling like a jerk.
I arrived at mile 80 knowing that a sub-14-hour time was out of the question but still assuming that something better than 14:30 was likely. Paul took over for John, and off we went.
Having come this far, I dearly wanted to win the race, but I had trouble getting accurate information on the size of my lead. At 83.1 miles, someone told me that I was ahead by only 14 minutes. This seemed unlikely but made me nervous anyway. My strength continued to wane, and I doubted that I could rebuff a challenge from anyone running fast enough to catch up to me. At the JFK 50, I had stolen a victory from Michael Arnstein in the last ten minutes of a nearly six-hour race; was I about to fall victim to a similar act of cruelty? I asked Paul to watch for runners approaching from behind.
Paul continued John’s public relations work while providing me with gentle encouragement and tales of life in Texas. Despite his exceptional companionship, though, my mood worsened with each passing mile. When a volunteer at the Dam Road aid station (mile 92.2) offered me some delicious-looking macaroni and cheese, of which she seemed quite proud, I hesitated. I had grown sick of Gatorade and Shot Bloks hours ago, and it would have been great to sit down and eat some real food for a minute…. But Paul politely declined on my behalf, bringing me back to the reality of the miles ahead. As we trudged onward, he said, “Did you know that some Texas restaurants are so proud of their barbecue meat that they serve it without sauce?”
In that moment I realized just how hard Paul was trying to keep me engaged. I coughed up an involuntary laugh — one of my only vocalizations between miles 86 and 97 that was not a groan or a sigh.
At the Park Road aid station at mile 95.6, I was finally able to confirm that my lead was safe, and my mood lightened slightly. Then we reached a junction that I had determined earlier to be about 2.9 miles from the start/finish area, and I checked my time: 14:32. With a strong kick, I could still slip under 15 hours. I ordered Paul to accelerate and followed him over the wooden footbridges alongside Lake Raven and then up the path away from the lake. I suddenly felt strong and alert again. My flashlight abruptly died, so Paul gave me his and I moved in front of him.
Before long we were sailing along the final straightaway, a couple hundred meters long. “Number 169 is finishing!” I yelled to the race officials. As Paul and I finished in 14:58, I raised his hand in triumph, for the victory belonged to him too — as it did to John and to my uncle Chris, who crewed for me thoughout the day, and to Paul’s wife Meredith, who assisted Chris after placing 2nd in the 50-mile race.
Race director Joe Prusaitis emerged from the darkness. “You ran a great race!” he enthused. “No, YOU ran a great race!” I said, poking him in the chest with my index finger. “That was REALLY well organized!”
I hobbled to the recovery tent, changed into dry clothes, and talked with Paul, Meredith, and Chris. Then Chris and I went to find some macaroni and cheese.
Photos by Chris Eckert