By Mike Campbell
Trail running in Texas, full moon and about all you could hear were the frogs. This year was the 17th annual running of Rocky, and my 5th attempt that turned out to be quite interesting. The course is a 20-mile loop on jeep roads and dirt trails, with a lot of stumps and roots along the way. The day started at 6 a.m. with the temp in the 50’s, which later got up to the high 70’s. This took its toll on a lot of runners because the finishing rate this year was only 68 percent.
My son Michael writes for a boxing magazine, Undefeated Combat Sports, and hooked me up with Alfonso “El Tigre” Lopez as a pacer this year. Never in my life did I think I’d run with a boxer … let alone a professional with an undefeated record of “11-0”. Turned out Alfonso’s match the Thursday before the race was cancelled, so he was able to get some good training miles in running with me instead. He regularly trains on these trails during the day, so running at night was a bit more challenging, but he jumped in on lap four and kept me motivated to push through my toughest lap of the course (physically and mentally). At 160 lbs and a little over 6’ he didn’t seem to fade even though the furthest distance he had run prior was 14 miles. He pushed it with me to the end of lap four keeping me motivated with good conversation that distracted me from the pain in my feet. When it’s dark, you really have to do the shuffle and dance around the tree roots, so I guess you can say trail running and boxing aren’t much different! (More on Alfonso)
This year we stayed in a brand new hotel (La Quinta) that conveniently went up less than a mile from my son’s house with my wife Aleka, daughter Andrea and her boyfriend James. On race morning we (Michael, Andrea, James and I) got up and left around 3:30 a.m. to drive 70 miles to Huntsville. Without any problems we arrived just after 4:30 a.m., got my packet, and checked in a little after 5 a.m. Previous years we would rush to get there to check in the Friday before, but since there is no required weigh-in and the course is marked extremely well, race morning check in was perfect.
Before the race I was able to wish Frank Probst and Jeff Holdaway luck and at 6 a.m. we were off. Had to start the race with a headlamp since it was still dark and it was warm enough for just a T-shirt and shorts. I pushed it pretty hard at the beginning and my first 20-mile time was 2:54:16 (just under 9 minute-mile pace). Finished two laps in 6:05:25 (just 11 minutes slower than the first) living on Gatorade, Ensure and V8. After the first lap, I got rid of my T-shirt and ran the rest of the race shirtless. I never stopped sweating and the occasional breeze actually felt good.
I felt myself slow down on the third lap and my stomach wasn’t feeling too good. I ate some pieces of Powerbar that agreed with me and only had to carry one bottle since there were aid stations every three or four miles. There were seven aid stations every lap, spaced out at 3.10, 3.09, 6.01, 3.41, 4.39, 3.10 and 3.09 miles, and crew at three of them. My time at the 50-mile mark was around 7:55. Even though the aid stations were fully stocked with all sorts of goodies, I had to pass and stick with my Ensure. That is what I’ve learned to use to pull me through because if I eat just about anything else, my stomach won’t hold up.
I got close to the 60-mile mark at 9:57:16 with a lap time of 3 hours 52 minutes. This was about 11 minute miles and I had slowed up by 47 minutes from the last lap. At that aid station I was able to get my Icy Hot stick and rub down my legs and hamstrings to ease some of the cramps. This stop was a special welcome since my wife, granddaughter (Lauren) and daughter-in-law (Abby) were there. Lauren wore a special T-shirt in my campaign (Team Campbell) that lifted my feelings and spirits so I could actually continue on this journey. I made it in and out of this aid station within two minutes and my actual down time so far was probably less than four minutes. I chugged another Ensure, took and full bottle of Gatorade and was good to go.
Pacers weren’t allowed before the 4th lap (mile 60), so I continue down this road by myself. Since this year 239 started the 100 and 197 for the 50, there were people all over the trails going at different paces. Note: The first 100-miler that I lapped was just after I started the third loop and I caught a few more after that. This was a mini highlight—kinda like catching a wheel chair during a marathon that started 10-15 minutes ahead of you. This year I opted not to run with an iPod or radio. Maybe it would have helped but I didn’t feel like bothering with it.
By mile 60 I was at the lowest point of my run. I needed new shoes and some heat for my legs and back. The time at this lap was 14:39:42 (4 hours 36 minutes/13.8 minute mile pace). I came into the Park Road Aid Station and Andrea was ready to rumble and run with me. My other shoes were still in the car so I just drank half a bottle of Ensure and decided we would cover the next 3.1 miles to the Nature Center Aid Station and take a break there. Andrea got me going and it was good to have conversation again and take my mind off the trail running a bit.
We came up to mile 63.1 and my whole crew was there with Alfonso geared up to run. I sat for the first time, took off my socks and shoes (careful not to include toe nails) and popped several blisters. My “crew chief” three-year-old Lauren, squatted down right in front of me and helped inspect my feet and get me squared away. I Vaselined up, put on my other pair of Injinji tetratsoks and finally my Hardrock (Montrail shoes). I greased up, downed two cups of regular coke, took a full Gatorade and Alfonso and I were ready to go. Only exception was my feet were still programmed to the other shoes and I did the possum waltz for the first quarter to half mile before they decided to get with the program.
As we pushed through lap four, I learned about the world of boxing first hand from Alfonso—great conversation that took running off my mind a bit. We finished about half of the lap before the dark hit us but we were manned with headlamps and flashlights. Naturally the roots came out in the dark and the trick is to avoid as many as possible. But at this point the beautiful moon was out, the temp back down around 50, and it seemed there wasn’t a better place to be on this night than these Texas trails.
We found each aid station as we ambled on and knowing we were well over halfway finished kept our hopes alive (not to mention our sanity). We came into the aid before the Dog Wood turn-a-round with a little more than four miles to go to finish the lap. Alfonso decided to finish off the lap with me, pushing it to his mileage PR today. I took two no-doze pills since the cokes weren’t cutting it at this point and we were off. As we came into mile 80 and completed the mission with my new friend, I wished him the best in his boxing career and new baby coming later on this year (maybe a little fighter as well). My time at the 80-mile mark was 14:39:42, the last 20 miles took me 4 hours and 39 minutes/13.9 minute mile pace.
At this point James took over for the next 15 or some miles, guiding me past ruts, roots and kept me on the best path from aid station to aid station. This was quite a feat since James had not run on trails before, let alone the challenge it brings at night. We pushed it as fast as possible, passing by far more than the one person that got by us. I was really impressed with his performance on the trails and without his great pacing, I would have not kept at it as long as we did and I would have probably walked a heck of a lot more. Even as the night grew long, the temp held up and it turned out to be a perfect trail running experience. We battled to conserve our light and pooled our headlights when on the jeep trails so we could get by without using the handheld flashlights. Maybe it was the clearing of my head and a little extra caffeine to pull me thru, but the last aid station finally showed up against the night sky.
Andrea was all ready to take me home on the last 4.4 mile leg, pumped up like she has been waiting all day for this (very true for the both of us). I chugged my seventh and final bottle of Ensure for the day and we were off. At this point it was the fifth time doing this loop so you would hope I’d know exactly where we were going. I hit a root or two, just tripped no actual falls, but I had to give Andrea a hard time and mention that “James would have pointed the roots out earlier for me.” But that was life out there and we kept going. We were on a mission, with a few miles to go. Andrea’s flashlight went out but it was OK because I had fresh batteries for mine and it was bright and covered the ground for the both of us. We passed runners like they were standing still, and since it’s a reverse course, they were actually going both ways, some starting their 4th lap and others their 5th, but I regress we had a goal to achieve.
We got within a couple hundred feet of the finish and I could see the clock read 19:36:00. We did a “hot-dog” finish like we were running the 100-meter sprint. It was never any sweeter than that moment finishing an 100-mile trail run with my daughter and beating my fastest time on this course by more than an hour. These last 20 miles took me 4 hours and 58 minutes/pace 14.9 minutes per mile, but cranked the last 4.4 mile leg of this 100 in 37 minutes.
Total consumption: about 25 bottles of Gatorade (500oz), seven bottles of Ensure, two 12 oz cans of V8, 16 E-Caps (electrolytes) and one Oatmeal PowerBar.
In the finishers tent, race director Joe Prusaitis gave me congratulations and checked with the timer at the computer to see how I faired. This year we ran with a timing chip in a Velcro ankle strap. Joe confirmed that I won the masters age group and since we were leaving for Houston right away, he gave me the prize and my under 24-hour finisher belt buckle.
My official time was 19:37:37, 12th place overall. The records for Rocky are recorded for each age and I shattered the course record for 59 year olds by more than three hours.
I couldn’t have accomplished this without the great support of my family members. Michael has been my crew for most of the 100 runs and knows exactly what, where, why and how much to get to me. He also navigates to aid stations, which is not always an easy task on drive-able roads. Andrea has been my inspiration and never gives up on me. Aleka has been my partner for almost 37 years, the best years of my life. James was a spark and exceptional motivator in driving me forward. Abby and Lauren give me a reason to keep going, always bright with their smiling faces. Alfonso was a lively and welcome addition that really lifted my spirits. Someday I hope to repay the favor and I hear there is word that he may try the 50-mile at Rocky next year??
Last but by far not the least is my mom. She has always given me support and has been one of the biggest influences and heroes throughout my life with her church. I love you all.
Hope to see you all on the trails soon . . . thks Mike