Texan Francesca Bissman, finished her first 100 at Rocky Raccoon as fourth female in a time of 20:10:11!
Enjoy as Francesca shares her five loop adventure at Huntsville State Park.
For me, the Rocky Raccoon 100 mile race was a race about surprises, friendship, and rediscovering my own strength. It was my first hundred mile race so I went in deliberately with no expectations. I was simply hoping to finish the race and that was all I thought about until a couple days before the race when I found my name on a Rocky Raccoon watchlist for top finishers. My last fifty mile race was in March of last year and since that time I had only raced a 50 km where I placed third in the women’s race so looking at my name on the list almost felt like a mistake that I needed to report or that I needed to remind people that I wasn’t as strong or in as good of shape as I was then so they wouldn’t be disappointed. I felt good and had no injuries leading up to the race but I didn’t feel like I had put in enough mileage to earn a top spot.
I went down to Huntsville State Park the day before the race with my friend and pacer Katherine who had just arrived back in the states from England and was full of stories she was waiting to tell for when my 80th mile would come and I needed to forget that I was still running. We went to the trail briefing behind Dogwood lodge and I listened carefully to any directives regarding trail markings because my worst fear out there was getting lost, especially after dark. While everyone was standing and listening I also looked around and either smiled at or greeted any Dallas runner’s I knew. I knew a handful of Dallas runners in either the hundred or the fifty mile and seeing them all out on the course was one of the things I was looking forward to the most.
After the briefing I went to get my bib number and Katherine volunteered to mark my aid station drop bag and take it to the pile of other bags waiting to go out to an aid station midway through the course called Dam Nation. When we reconvened Katherine informed me that she ran into Nicole Studer who was one of the top women to watch going into this race and told her that she was there to pace me. Katherine then mentioned to me that she thought I had a good chance to take a top place in the race but I dismissed it and laughed that I was just going for a finish. I thanked Katherine for having so much faith in me but I didn’t think I was up to fulfilling that sort of expectation.
That night Katherine and I went to the local college hangout and great carb loading station called “The Potato Shack”. I ate there the year before with my friend and training partner, Tina, the night before her first hundred mile attempt. That year I was her pacer for Rocky Raccoon and so the moment had come full circle with me being there the night before with one of mine.
The next morning I awoke at 4:20AM along with Katherine and the rest of our gang for the race that had arrived after I fell asleep the night before. The new additions were my training partner Tina, her pacer Jason and my friend Chris who rode down from Dallas with Tina to watch the race and help crew. After getting our things, we took off from our hotel room and arrived at the race site around 5:00AM in order to secure one of the coveted parking spots. The parking situation for the race was so bad the year before that people were parking in undesignated spots and getting their cars towed while they were racing. Even the eventual hundred mile winner last year, Hal Koerner, finished only to be told that his rental car was towed while he was in the race. With that knowledge I wanted to get there as early as I could.
Just before the start of the race, Tina and I put our start/finish line drop bags in their spots and posed for some pictures. We all kept the conversation light and it was only when we entered the aid station tent to gather with all of the other hundred milers at the start that the gravity of the moment sunk in for me.
After Tina and I gave each other one last hug and we finished chatting with the racers we knew, I tried to calm myself and remind myself that I’m doing this for fun and to not put too much pressure on myself to perform. I saw some of the other top women in the tent and tried to convince myself that they were different than me, that I was just there for a finish and that I wasn’t going to throw myself in the mix of top runners this time.
After the start, Tina and I ran together through the first few miles of single track trail. The mood of those miles was jubilant with everyone around me full of energy and good expectations. We ran through the dark while cracking jokes and catching up with runners we knew as they either passed by or fell back. Everyone was cruising at a conversational pace and it wasn’t until thirty minutes into the race when I needed to have my first GU gel that I was even reminded that I was in a race and not some rowdy group run with a bunch of friends and strangers.
Not long after, Tina fell back a bit to talk to a friend and feeling good I let myself surge a bit down the trail. After passing a couple groups ahead I faced a stretch where I was alone and took in the feel of the cold air on my arms and the sunlight beginning to stream through trees. The weather and conditions felt perfect and I tried to enjoy every minute of it.
I caught up with a group of runners around the second aid station and ran with them around the back stretch of the first loop to the south side of Lake Raven. Running along the lake at sunrise was a truly awe inspiring experience. The lake was shimmering with steam rising from the waters under a clear blue sky. It was so beautiful that many runners were stopping their race to take a moment and to take photos. You couldn’t help but think that this was the setup for an amazing day to come after viewing something so beautiful while feeling so great.
The latter parts of that first of five loops went by in a flash as I continued to pass aid stations and rely on my water belt and GU gels for fuel. As I finished the last couple miles of the loop, I saw the top girls coming back from the aid station. Some greeted me and others had their game faces on already. I knew I was coming in way under any time I had in mind before the race but I had no idea what place I was really in. I just knew that I felt great and was going to slow as my feelings changed. In the start/finish aid station I topped up my water bottles, grabbed some more GU gels, took a clif bar for the road, and went back out for the second loop.
The second loop felt just as good as the first. I passed my friend Nick and asked if he was still on his 22 hour pace plan that he planned out. It was only after he laughed at me and told me he needed to slow down that I realized that I was going at a relatively fast pace. I told him that I was just going to see how long I could keep my current pace up and continued down the trail. Just past 30 miles I passed a woman who had greeted me at the start of her second loop. She was already showing signs of pain and starting to slow. It was a harsh reminder to me that I was already at what most people consider an ultra-marathon distance and that if I didn’t watch my pace for the next 70 miles that I could be in her place very quickly. I tried not to let that stress me too much though and put my headphones on to relax my stride to some of my favorite running songs.
When I came into the start/finish aid station for the second time, the temperatures were already starting to heat up. Katherine and Chris were waiting for me this time at the finish area and helped me get everything I needed as quick as they could. I downed some table salt, which I had never done before in a race but I was sweating so much already that I new I needed more than just sports drinks if I was going to keep running through the day. I also told Katherine that I needed her to contact my 60-80 mile pacer, Ruben, and tell him to come early since I was going much quicker than I thought I would. She told me that she already contacted him after the first lap (as if I should have doubted her faith in me).
For the third lap I stopped at every aid station to top up on my water belt bottles and then grabbed extra cups of fluids from the tables to stay hydrated. My main concern at this point was cramping due to the heat and a loss of electrolytes. It had been my downfall before in races and I knew that if I just made it into the evening without a muscle cramp that I would likely finish. I didn’t pass any women on that lap and none passed me so I just focused on taking care of my needs in the heat and not pushing too hard. It did strike me when I passed fifty miles that I was in uncharted territory with regard to my physical limits. I had never run more than fifty miles before even in training for this hundred mile race so I really had no idea how my body was going to react to what I was going to push it to through the rest of the day and into the night.
When I arrived at the start/finish line after my third loop, my 60-80 mile pacer, Ruben, was waiting for me along with Katherine and Chris. I met Ruben at the Wild Hare trail race back in November where we both raced in the 50 km race. We got to talking after the race and he told me that he raced a 50 km at Huntsville state park earlier in the year and took second. From that I knew that he both knew the trail and could stay with me through the 20 miles making him a great pacer. After he agreed to pace I told him that I would need him around 7:30PM or so thinking that I would be slower than I was. I was thankful that he had his phone on him and could get to the site early because by 4:30PM I was back and ready to head out again.
The tone also changed when I was getting ready to head back out. When I was just in the presence of other runners on the trail I didn’t have much awareness of how fast or slow I was and what place I was in. But now with my pacers excited and with the event staff watching I could feel the pressure of what I had built up in the early miles. I still had 40 miles to go and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I still had 40 miles where something could go wrong.
After chatting about our 20 something lives while figuring out how to pass runners as a pair on the trail, I told Ruben that my plan for the 60-80 mile loop was to just keep running at a steady pace and not much faster than I was going at the moment. I was happy that he accepted this response and didn’t mention the fact that I had no idea what pace I was going or what “steady pace” might mean in the future.
When we passed the second aid station it was time to turn on our headlamps and flashlights to see in the dark. It didn’t hit me at that point that I had been running all day long. My guess is because the day was so unnatural up until that point compared to a normal day that I just accepted running into the night as a normal event. After running in the dark for a couple miles, Ruben and I came upon a small pack of runners with a woman running with them. She decided to break away from the men to run with us for a while. We got to talking with her and learned that she was from Vermont and that she had traveled here with a group of Vermont hundred milers. Apparently her day wasn’t going great due to the heat but she was doing what she could to finish strong. She also told me that I was lucky to have a pacer since she didn’t have one with her this time. After a mile or so of running together she mentioned that she thought I was in fourth place or so but I didn’t understand why that mattered in our chat. It was only after she fell back a couple miles later that I realized that what just happened wasn’t a normal runner interaction. It was third place meeting fourth place and I had just pulled away into third.
Having fewer miles on him, Ruben noticed what had happened before I did and soon we were talking race strategy on the course. We agreed that the best thing I could do was to try to just keep running on the final lap at the same ambiguously slow pace I was running on the fourth and that even if I had to walk the final few miles, I could pull away enough before that point, that a final walk may not matter. With the day being so full of surprises up until that point I really wanted my final surprise to be running to the finish without having to walk but I accepted that I may have to face a point where my body couldn’t even take a jog and just hope that Vermont wasn’t feeling much better.
After mile 70 or so I was also dealing with a problem I can only describe as “sugar overload”. My race nutrition plan was to have 100-200 calories every half hour with the majority of those calories being GU energy gels on the trail. I also threw in clif bars, cookies, and peanut butter & jelly squares from the aid stations but now I had been taking in sugary carbs for so long that the idea of more was sickening. Fortunately, this is very common among hundred mile racers so the aid stations were ready with quesadillas, sausage links, and even pizza slices to keep runners eating and moving. After grabbing one quesadilla, I raved to Ruben that it was the best quesadilla I had ever had even though I knew that part of that feeling was relief to be eating something other than my sugary race food.
Ruben and I finished the last few miles of the loop trying to identify forest animals from their calls in the night, which Ruben was far superior at due to his ecology education in college. Most of the calls were different kinds of frog but there were some coyotes out that night to spook any lone runners without a pacer.
When we came into start/finish line aid station, the mood was calm and pedestrian. Runners were crossing the finish line and getting ready to head back out on their final loops with no amount of rushing or excitement involved. I headed into the aid station looking for more quesadillas while Ruben met up with my mile 80-100 pacer, Katherine. While downing my quesadilla, I watched Ruben cover the final loop race strategy with Katherine and found the experience to be surreal. I had come into this race just hoping for a finish and now my pacers were strategizing about how I was going to go for a podium finish at one of the most famous hundred mile races in Texas. With twenty miles to go I tried to just stay calm and not let myself get caught up in the pressure of the moment. After taking a few Aleve to keep my muscles from cramping, topping up on my water belt bottles, and saying goodbye to Chris it was time to head out for the last time.
Katherine and I headed out at a relaxing jog while she updated me on the events of the past day that I missed and the runners that she saw. She told me of the top men’s hundred mile finishes that day and we marveled over the top two women in the race who were way too far ahead for me to think of catching. I also told her of Vermont and how I was hoping to keep my spot but with a humility of also just hoping to finish at all. I once read that ultra-marathoning is a sport that requires a balance of supreme confidence and supreme humility and this race was testing me on both counts. As much as I wanted the triumph of a top finish, I also knew that one bad trip over one of the hundreds of tree roots covering the trail that night could end my race in a non-finish.
We passed many runners on the course who were on their fourth lap and it wasn’t until just past the first aid station, three miles in, when we were spotted for passing by another runners flashlights in the dark. As the lights grew brighter I expected to see a guy on a great final lap and his pacer charging past us into the night. When the passers approached I was shocked to see that it was Vermont and she wasn’t alone this time. She had found a pacer for her final lap and to make her move for a podium finish. I whispered my worries to Katherine as we watched her charge ahead of us. Vermont looked strong and I faced sudden doubt as to whether I had enough in me to catch her. Katherine and I agreed to just keep Vermont in sight and keep a steady pace for the next few miles, but a couple miles later Vermont and her pacer decided to walk up a hill and I took my chance at a counter-move. Despite that Katherine and I pulled away and put some distance on Vermont, she stayed in my thoughts as if she was still just behind me waiting to speed past.
After that scare, Katherine and I re-strategized and decided to push the next few miles as hard as we could to put some more distance on Vermont. It worked as long as my legs could hold which was just past mile 92 when Katherine I stopped at the Damn Nation aid station and I downed some final shots of Mountain Dew to keep awake. We decided to walk the slow but steep incline on the way out from the aid station to save a bit of energy but when it was time to pick up the pace again and break into a run, my legs kept aching me back into a walk. Before the race I had expected this to happen and planned to power walk my way to the finish when I could no longer run but I had expectations to fill now, I had someone to beat, and I was now a sitting duck. The sudden pressure on me and on my legs was almost too great. It took my pacer Katherine to calm me down and help me realize that even if I never ran another step that I would still finish a hundred miles and finish a wonderful day on the trail.
When we reached the final aid station, it was only five miles to the finish and Katherine and I were still walking. I was still frustrated with my walking pace and starting to get angry with myself for not being able to finish how I wanted. Luckily the first two of those last five miles were mostly uphill which I probably would have walked anyway but once we reached the final three mile stretch that had become so familiar to me that day I started to fear getting caught once again. While walking, Katherine and I came across Tina and her pacer Jason heading out on the first miles of their final lap. Tina was all smiles and it was encouraging to see her running. As I said, “hi” and wished her well I also wished that I felt good enough to run and smile like she was.
Two miles from the finish, Katherine and I were still hiking back when it happened, but never how I expected. We were hiking over the course’s famous boardwalk bridges next to the main trail when a small fit woman with jet-black hair and jet-black shorts bounded past us. At first Katherine and I debated whether she was someone’s pacer running ahead to get help for a runner or whether she was really a competitor who had passed. Katherine said that she hadn’t seen this woman all day at the start/finish aid station but then again, that’s how one would play a great 100-mile race. Start way back, slowly move up, and pounce on your tired competition in the last 10 miles. I found out after the race that she was also 38 years old but every time I see her in my head she doesn’t look a day over 22, which is another feat I can only hope to mimic one day.
As I watched my passer speed away into the dark, my frustration with my walk came to a breaking point. Katherine suggested that I try but I was convinced that I could no longer run from the pain in my legs. Katherine with her unwavering faith in my performance kept pushing me mentally to just try. After a minute of walking in silence I tried and started up a slow and painful jog. Katherine started to jog with me and soon later she commented that I was picking up speed. I still felt pain but my ability to care about it yielded to my will not to be passed again in the last two miles of a hundred mile race.
I ran the rest of the way into the start/finish line even though I can’t come up with a reason for why I was able to do so. When I crossed the line there were a few cheers and I ran up to the race staff whom I breathlessly told that I had just finished a hundred mile race. With so many other runners coming in to find their pacers I had to declare my finish for anyone to notice. It was also 2:00AM by that point so it was foolish to expect much fan fare at that hour. They told me that I had finished fourth and handed me my awards consisting of a sub-24 hour belt buckle and a little metal crocodile signed with my finishing time and place. After hugging the race director’s wife, which was customary for all finishers that day, I did a slow walk into the aid station where I found Chris and caught up with a few other finishers.
After I took my final fluids in, Katherine, Ruben, Chris and I found each other and drove back to the hotel where I was looking forward to a shower and a few hours of sleep before heading back to Dallas. After saying thanks and goodbye to Ruben for his pacing efforts, I got help from Chris up the stairs to the hotel room. It was odd to go from running 100 miles to not being able to scale one flight of stairs but it was an experience that I got used to over the next couple days.
Later that morning, Tina and I went with Chris and Tina’s pacer, Jason, to IHOP and swapped stories from earlier that morning and the day before. Tina also ran the hundred under 24-hours and I was overjoyed by the news since the year before was a muddy mess at Rocky Raccoon and I was there when Tina had to call it quits around mile 70. I also knew what I had accomplished was something amazing to me but I was too tired to feel pride. I felt like I had just survived more than finished. Like I was thrown onto the course and told that I wasn’t allowed to go home till I had finished a hundred miles.
Over the next few days when I got my energy back I started to look back on what I had done and felt the joy and thankfulness I couldn’t fully feel after the finish. I thought back on the friendly faces of the other Dallas runners and aid station staff that greeted me throughout the race, Ruben and Katherine who both ran 20 miles through the dark while trying to entertain me, Chris who came down on a whim to cheer me on and became a crewman, and Tina who cheered me on to sign up for this race at all as much as she cheered me on the course. Yes I had finished a major accomplishment but it feels illogical to say that I did it alone. It was my feet on the course but my mind would not have been able to push my feet to finish had it not been for everyone around me.
I don’t know if I would recommend a hundred mile race to every runner but I can say that if you do attempt it that your first will probably be one of the most amazing running experiences that you will ever have. It is my hope that if you do attempt one that you have the same great weather, great friends, and great race staff that I did. I hope to run another hundred in the future but trying to recreate as amazing experience as this one will be tough. Life can be random and full of unexpected events but that day my life was full of joyful surprises and reminders that with the help of others, we can each accomplish amazing things and find strength that we never knew we had inside.
- Francesca Bissman