A Pickle:
The Rocky Racoon 100

By John Prohira

"I stand before you a pickle. Like a cucumber that has been soaked in salt brine, I can never return, even if I wished to my original state. I have changed. Now and forever I am something different". I heard this expression used as analogy describing a different type of transformation but I'll apply it here at the beginning of a Texas running tale.

"Bill, how long have you known John?" This was a question that Linda White asked her husband over our dinner that first Friday in February. I had flown into Houston's George Bush Airport, escaping the ice and snow of Rochester that morning. Bill met me there and bought me to his home. After introducing me to his lovely wife and showing me to their guest room I was told the rules of the house - "treat it as if it were mine." Then he and I headed by car southwest, away from the sprawling city. It was a 60-mile trip to Huntsville State Park and the Rocky Racoon 100 Mile Trail Run's pre race briefing. Having checked in with the race director, stepped on the scale for the mandatory weighing and chatted with trail buddies we returned for Linda and then out to eat. Bill's response to his wife's question about the length of our acquaintance didn't seem to faze her a bit. "I've known John for about 7 hours now," If this lady was wondering or worrying about the stranger sitting across from her, who or what might be sleeping in her house that night she didn't let on. I wasn't surprised but still gracious behavior like this always warms the cockles of my heart. They being ex-Rochesterians helped. But the bottom line was that we were runners. That was sufficient. That was the connection. We knew so much of and about one another from that one important piece of information.

Huntsville State Park where this adventure takes place is a 2100-acre park in Walker County. The dam that was constructed there in the early 1900's where the Big and Little Chiquapin Creeks meet created Raven Lake and the Huntsville recreational area was build around it. The lake was stocked with black bass, crappie and bream. One can fish for them from shore or from any boat less than 19 feet in length. This region of the southern US lies near the western edge of the Southern Pine Belt and is woodland dominated by short leaf pines and loblolly. It's a different type of forest than I'm familiar with. Although the conscious winter wildlife in the park is quite benign, alligators live here as well as rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins and coral snakes. Nothing more exotic than opossums and raccoon were seen that weekend. I was a little disappointed in not stumbling upon an armadillo. We were never far from the water and early Sunday morning I was reminded of Mother Nature's brutal side. I heard signs of duck dinner being served. There was a combination of feline fury and waterfowl frenzy coming from across the lake. I figured that a wild cat of some form had just found a nesting area and was now enjoying his meal under the waning moonlight. Noise of that struggle was disturbing but the hooting sounds of owls had the opposite effect on me, reassuring and soothing. So did approaching lights worn on my fellow runner's heads or held in their hands.

At the trail briefing, Mickey Rollins our race director lectured us on the dos and don'ts of his event. This stuff is ritual. Yellow ribbons mark the course, there will be some glow sticks in the forest at night, no muling (pacers acting as pack animals), wander off the course and the unfortunate runner must return to the point of deviation on his own and continue from there. We would be weighed every 20 miles and so on. With his ever gruff and grouchy demeanor Mick described the nuances of Rocky Racoon (BTW, not a misspelling here, the word using just one - c is acceptable). This Texan with a big heart seemed exhausted before the race even began, yet he'd remain awake and at the helm for the next 48 hours. He is the driving force here and by Friday evening had already been living in the park for a week, working out the details involved in staging an event such as this. So we all respectfully listen to him restate the obvious, it's the father instinct in him I think. We love him.

The day began at 3:30 AM at the White home. Both my hosts awoke at that ungodly hour and visited with me over a breakfast of chocolate Ensure and bananas. Friends of theirs also running the race stopped by an hour later and took me with them to the start at 6AM. Before dawn our adventure began and as always apprehension coupled with excitement filled my being. For me it's always a bit scary at the beginning of something like this. No matter how many times it's been done before every race is a new experience. But there in lies the rub doesn't it? If the outcome were known then what would be the point?

This was not a lonely race as many long trail runs can be. The park is relatively small; if 100 miles is your desire then you must repeat a 20.15-mile loop five times (5 X 20.15 = 100 in Texas). The course is a mixture of sandy red dirt road and single-track trail littered with tree roots protruding at times 4 inches from the ground. These obstacles can be stepped over and around if attention is paid. I fell twice and that was during the daylight hours when I was running faster. I slowed down and remained vertical after dark, a very good thing. The loose sandy footing proved taxing on my lower legs but the lay of the land constantly changed giving reprieve from any hint of boredom and repetitive stress. When Mickey told us to begin on Saturday we moved as a herd, soon thinning out and flowing effortlessly by the time we reached the first trail section.

It was a comfortable start, temps in the high 30's and the company I found myself in was superb. I wore tights, a polypro shirt, jacket, cap and my ever-present waist pack and water bottles the entire race, and I regulated heat by opening and closing my jacket. The dawn would bring with it slightly overcast skies and temperatures near 50 degrees. There was no wind in the forest, a perfect day to run 100 miles. I knew many of the runners personally, some only by reputation. The looped nature of the course with out and back sections allowed all of us to see and acknowledge one another many times. I had the opportunity to witness how the "big dawds" run trails, men and women finishing their journey 8 and 9 hours before me. Words of encouragement were exchanged as we passed one another coming, going and passing by another. I liked that. Surrounded by like-minded souls in pursuit of some intangible reward, running into the dawn, then day and night. Chasing the sublime bordering on the asinine. I like looking into my trail companion' s eyes, during the difficult moments when they are immersed in their own private struggle or I in mine. It helps and I'm again convinced it's worth the effort. It is such a meaningful endeavor. My companions testify through perserervance and persistence. Many were 100-mile virgins in the process of transformation, becoming that which they weren't the day before, forever different.

One would think that these runners had never seen a pair of tights before. My leggins' evoked numerous comments - note to Jester, the tailor, "I've gotten my money's worth. Thank you." As the world around me brightened I waited for my body, my legs in particular to loosen up. It's normal for me during the first 15 miles of these runs to be a bit uncomfortable, it takes that long for me to warm up and hit my stride. Someday I will learn the benefits of stretching. That morning my right hamstring was very tight, it hurt and I had a restricted range of motion. I also had faith that sooner or later the tightness would pass. As mentioned earlier there was a lot of company on the trail, not only runners but also those wishing them well. At one point during my second loop I came upon an attractive young woman walking her dog in these woods. Friendly fellow that I am I couldn't resist the opportunity to comment on her animal and the beauty of the day. This was done while smiling at her and not watching where my feet might land. BOOM! Down I came for a close up and personal view of the Texas dirt. I'm past getting embarrassed over something like this and just had to laugh and I heard a bit of chuckle the lady's voice asking if I were OK. Yep! Just a not so subtle reminder from my Higher Power that instead of flirting with pretty girls perhaps I should watch the trail. Now that He had my attention I was offered a one benefit from this lesson. The contortions I put my body through attempting not to fall on my face had stretched the tight hamstring real good and for the rest of the race I ran free from discomfort in that leg.

As the day went on all was well. Mile and hour piled up on one another. I was pleased to see a friend from Germany on the course as well as those from across our country and Canada. One acquaintance from Virginia, a member of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club and I would break into our club's theme song when we'd pass one another. How many of you know the words to the Roy Roger's and Dale Evan's song "Happy Trails?" I spent the last 25 miles with a fellow from Winnipeg who turned out to be a friend of a friend. This quiet man's almost silent company helped me move through that last most difficult loop.

Running loops offers the chance to gauge distance and position on the course. Some of the sections were more rewarding and looked forward to than others. After the 7.1-mile aid station we moved away on trail for about 2 miles until finding yellow ribbon in a tree and a cardboard sign telling us to run behind the marker and then retrace our steps back from whence we came. So as I moved away from the aid station towards turn around others were coming back and so on. No one was sitting at the secluded turn around point recording runners' passage. The honor system was applied here. I am enamored with those understanding the importance of honesty in endeavors such as this. It would have been so easy, especially in the dark of night to just shortcut this section of the course. But what would have been the point? No one would have been cheated but the cheater. To me this is integrity, doing the right thing when no one is watching. This out and back did become one of the toughest sections for me later in the race. It was a gentle downhill out then up on the return. It was uneven trail with lots of roots and a couple of holes that proved challenging when illuminated only by my headlamp's glow. Seeing the high-tech lights some of my trail companion's wore made me realize my archaic lamp yield more mood than running light.

In Huntsville State Park many small streams and gulleys can be crossed using simple bridges, 2 by 4 pieces of wood four to eight foot wide and six to twelve foot in length. There were more than a dozen on our course. These wooden structures were for the most part in good repair. One landmark I learned to love and anticipate came 4 miles from the start/finish. At 16, 36, 56, 76 and 96 miles we moved over and across the shallow, mucky and murky edge waters of Lake Raven. The water couldn't have been more than 4 foot deep, black and still. Before reaching this swampy area we climbed up an embankment near the dam and could see base camp across the water six miles away. The next morning I watched runners still out on the course traverse that section, identifying with their fatigue and knowing that they would soon be home. The familiar sight I looked for especially after dark when I grew fatigued was the first of two long bridges over the muck. We weren't more than 6 inches above the water and to make it more interesting a few slats were missing or broken. And these two overpasses were long! Maybe 40 60 feet in length, one bending to the left in 45-degree fashion, no side or handrails here. I knew that I didn't want to trip and fall into the goo that lay beneath, care was taken. But this is the stuff that makes this type of running interesting and once off the second bridge it was a mile to Wayne's World, the last aid station and then back to camp.

Trail running and effort is a relative game. A very personal struggle yet one shared by all involved. I was heading down to the 50 mile point as the race's winner was returning from there, only 20 miles ahead of me. Scott Eppelman hugged his edge of the trail as he approached, making ample room for my efforts as we moved by one another. The first lady finisher, Ann Heaslett who happened to be the third runner overall looped me at my 77-mile mark; make that 97 miles for her. She looked as if she were floating along the trail Saturday before midnight. Three of the first ten finishers were women. 12 runners looped me, all taking time to wish me well. Many more were finishing their 5th loop as I was beginning mine. But that didn't matter; my race was oh so sweet. It was odd completing the 100-mile journey in the dark, before dawn.

I greeted Sunday's dawn in the most special of ways, by witnessing my fellow 100 milers coming in, coming home. I always have trouble describing just what that means to me. It's so big. It's hard wrapping my head around it. It's easier to just feel and accept it. Maybe it's only because my senses are so very near the surface after an effort like this. It's probably a function of sleep deprivation or fatigue and hunger. Maybe. . . but instead of examining these sensations logically I prefer to view them emotionally. I've earned that and it's my prerogative. I enjoy and revel in it! At race's end little things take on immense significance - shaking Mickey's hand, sitting down, holding and drinking a hot cup of coffee, a hug from a finisher and from those whose race ended short of 100 miles. I'll say it again - it's big. It's real, whole and so meaningful.

After daybreak I thought that I would like to lie down a bit before breakfast and asked a race worker if I could pull up a piece of floor in the lodge where later the morning meal would be served. "Of course" was the reply, "but wouldn't you rather crawl into my tent and the sleeping bag there?" He had just awakened and his tent was empty. And because I am no longer that which I was before becoming a runner I could say "Yes, Thank you." Today I can accept offers of help and understand that the offer wouldn't have been made if the giver hadn't wanted it accepted. So I lay down for 45 minutes in that tent cluttered with his personal belongings, his camera, clothing and other items he knew would be there when he returned later. Such faith. Ten years ago I never would have understood behavior like that nor sought it out. Today I know better, it was here on the trails and on my feet that I realized that truth. Some people go to church to understand good things like this, to have those ideals reinforced. I identify with them and I find the same in the woods. Pick your passion, discover it where you will.

I went to Texas a runner, like a pickle something I will forever be. I returned from Rocky Racoon having completed the distance. Two years ago I couldn't make that claim, I didn't reach the finish line. But even then as a spectator I viewed the efforts of those completing their run with runner's eyes. As I move forward in time, getting older, wiser, slower, dumber, sillier, whatever I will always be a runner. I know runners who no longer run yet feel as close and connected to them as those I shared the Rocky Racoon trails with. Whether injury, age, demands of family or career keep us, you and I, away from the active pursuit of our passion the world will always be viewed through eyes knowing the value of struggle and challenge.

All this was shown me nonstop that weekend down south, from the moment Bill met me at the airport until he brought me back there Sunday afternoon for my flight home. The world does indeed look big through the eyes of this runner. I am so very lucky to have been allowed to realize that.


In closing a couple of quotations:

"Succeeding makes you forget the failures." -
Harry Cordellos, blind athlete (2:57 at Boston in 1975)
"Beware the chair!" unknown
"Exercise is for people who can't handle drugs and alcohol." Lily Tomlin

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