Monday, February 16, 2015

Rouge-Orleans 2015

The Rouge-Orleans is a race I have been having on my bucket list since it's inception in 2011.  It is run on the levee of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, covering 126.2 miles.   For one reason or another, I always put it off until "next year".  I nearly did that again in 2015,  but my wife convinced me that I should sign up, since I was already in pretty decent ultra shape.  So after completing a few "test" 30 milers on the road, which is a distance I usually reserve for trails, I decided to enter.  I had little time to organize a strategy and crew.  As always, my wife Erica would be my primary crew person.  I also enlisted two pacers, Eric de Ronde and Heather Schilling, to pace me for the last 45 miles.

My race day began quite early.  I started in the second wave, which began at 3am on Saturday, February 14.  The Running Gods blessed us with clear and moderate temperatures for the race, and no rain.  My only concern would be the temps getting into the 70s on Saturday.

So, at 3am, on Valentine's Day, about 10-12 runners stood next to the USS Kidd waiting for their race to begin.  Before we started, the race director informed us that 3 solo runners, who began in the first wave the night before, had already dropped.  That is not the type of story you want to hear before you even start.  All the same, our race began in the dark, to little fanfare.  A few family members and friends, a 10 second countdown and the sound of the starting air horn.

My goal time for this race was 30 hours.  Starting in the second wave gave me 35 hours to finish.  My first priority was not to go out too fast.  I started at an 11:00 pace and I intended to run that pace for as long as possible.  The first 15 miles or so I shared with 3 other runners, Dan Smith, Geoff Landry and Seth Jones.  I knew Dan and Geoff from other races, and they had both run this race multiple times, so, it was good to feed of their experience.  They stopped for a bathroom break about 15 miles in and we lost sight of each other.  I came across a woman named, Rebecca around mile 20, and we ran together to the first aid station at mile 26.  After talking to her, I learned we had run a lot of the same races in Texas.  She was running a solid 11:00 pace, and quickly left Aid Station #1.  After I organized myself and returned to the levee, I watched as she got smaller and smaller, before finally disappearing.  This is the point the real race began.

Although I have a few 100 mile races under my belt, this race added several more difficult mental and physical barriers to itself that I had never encountered.  There was the distance (obviously), the flatness of the course, and the loneliness.  The loneliness came first.  After parting ways with Rebecca, I saw only one runner for the next 45 miles.  I could literally see miles in front and behind myself, and see no one in sight.  In a race like this, the contact of another runner can literally pull you out of a slump, just with a little conversation.  This, I did not have.  It was just me and the levee.  The one runner I saw was the only relay team that started in our wave.  After he passed me, I was alone again.  All the other relay teams started in later waves, and as I reached each relay exchange point, they were empty.  Erica met me at certain exchange points to refill my hydration pack and give me hot food.  She was my only human contact for a long time.

This picture says it isolation!!!
By 9am, the sun was well above the horizon and it began to get hot.  By 11am, it was over 70 degrees and the sun began to drain my energy, way to early in the race.  There was not an ounce of shade on the levee.  I was totally exposed.  By mile 40, the sun was really taking it's toll on me, and my pace had slowed substantially.  I had to take many more walk breaks than I should have at that point and negativity began to creep in.  I did get some motivating texts from some of my running buds back home, but that did little to lift my spirits with what I knew to be ahead of me.  It was early in the race, I was overheated, and I had about 80 miles left to cover.  It seemed hopeless, and I wondered if I had what it took to finish this race.  In a 100 mile race, mile 50 is a mental barrier crossed, because you know you are on the downhill side of the race.  As I hit mile 50 at Rouge-Orleans, I my heart sank into despair as I realized I was still 13 miles from even being halfway done.

When I made it to Aid Station #2 (Mile 55), I got some food from Erica and popped a couple of Aleve and a Red Bull.  This definitely gave me the jolt I needed.  After about 45 minutes from leaving the aid station, I began to feel the effects and started running stronger.  It was between 2-3pm and the sun was beginning to go down, taking the high temps with it.  Finally after 60 miles, my mental game kicked in.  I rolled past mile 75 feeling rejuvenated and confident.  I knew at this point, I was going to finish.

At Aid Station #3 (mile 81), I met with Eric and Heather for pacing duties.  They would take turns running with me until the end, which was a huge pick-me-up, since I had only seen 2 runners since mile 26.  Around mile 90 we ran into a group of juvenile delinquents riding 4 wheelers on the levee.  Normally, this would not be a big deal to me, but there were about 20 of them, they had obviously been drinking and they were riding aggressively and yelling lots of profanities at Heather and myself.  We were totally defenseless against their stupidity.  We had just passed by Rebecca, who I hadn't seen in a really long time, and they were heading her way.  She was alone, and I feared for her safety.  Luckily, they passed her by, just as they did with me and Heather.  I was relieved to see her come back into sight.  Shortly after, Eric took over the pacing duties so Heather could get some sleep.  By now, over 90 miles in, I was exhausted and I started having foot problems.  I ran in my Altra Paradigms for about 45 miles and then switched to Hokas Stinson Tarmacs.  I was still wearing them, but the smaller toe box was jamming my little toe inward and the pain became overwhelming.  I couldn't wait to get to Aid Station #4 to change back to my Altras.  When we hit mile 100, I realized I just achieved a new PR.  I had covered 100 miles in 21:59:18.  Exceeding my best 100 mile time by nearly 2 hours.  I guess the lack of hills helped out after all.  When I hit the 24 hour mark, I had covered nearly 106 miles.  One other uplifting aspect was that the remainder of the race was paved.  No more gravel.

When we hit Aid Station #4, I was in Hell.  I was cold, sleepy, exhausted, my feet hurt, and I still had over 20 miles to go.  Yet another life-sucking mental barrier was knowing that after over 100 miles of running, I was still a marathon away.  Eric and I started again, moving much slower, as my exhaustion had gotten the better of me.  I was very sleepy and I was hallucinating like never before.  Bushes became statues and animals.  The lines of the road seemed to float in front of me.  And the flat road looked like up-hills.  I thought about trying to work in a short nap at the aid station, but then put it out of my mind.  We were about 2 miles from meeting Heather again, and I told Eric I may have to take a brief nap at the next exchange.  Shortly after, my hallucinations got to be too much for me to ignore.  So, for the first time ever, I took a nap during a race.  I laid down on the cold road and told Eric to wake me up in 5 minutes.  That road felt like a tempur-pedic mattress and I fell asleep instantly.  When Eric woke me, I felt like I could have been asleep for hours and not known it.  That short 5 minute nap saved my race.  My mind was clear again and the hallucinations stopped.

About mile 114, Heather joined me again and we continued on.  By now, I would try my best to run, but it was more of a meager shuffle.  I had nothing left.  We finally started to see more runners at this point.  Mostly relay runners, who passed us with vigor.  They were easy to pick out.  They were clean, happy and moving with a purpose.  The solo runners at this point looked like zombies.  I began checking my map distances and doing the math (as best I could in my current state of mind.), and determined the course was long by over 2 miles.  I do prefer a longer course to a short course, but at this point it was a death-blow.  Eric picked me up at the last exchange and paced me the last 4.8 miles.  We walked mostly.  I was totally out of gas, and those last miles seemed as long at the entire race. 

When we got to Audubon Park, Eric turned me loose and I ran to the finish, covering 128.3 miles in  30:42:27.  I was done.  Good enough for 5th place overall and 1st in the 40-45 age group.  I missed my goal time by 42 minutes, but I didn't care.  It was a success story for me.  I was presented with my finishers buckle, finishers medal and a gator head.  I also got the best hug ever from Erica.  She is my strongest supporter of all, and she is as crucial to my races as anything.  After the finish, I thanked Eric and Heather for getting me to the finish line and complimented them on a job well done.  I took a baby wipe bath, changed clothes and went into a near coma-like state as Erica drove us home.

Eric, myself, Heather, and Erica.

This was a great race for me, filled with the usual highs and lows that come with every ultra, but, I think this was my toughest race ever.  The distance, the heat, and the solitude were all huge mental obstacles that I had to overcome in order to finish.  Ultra-running is as much mental as it is physical, and I don't think I could have completed this race, if not for being able to tap into the experience I've gained from previous races.  Rouge-Orleans is not a race to be taken lightly, and it is certainly not for the first-time 100 mile runner.  It is a widow-maker.  A breaker of men (and women), and of spirits, and it is an experience I will never forget.