Old River-Winfree Founders Day is very proud of Bob and is very honored to have him as our Race Manager of the 5K Run/Walk Benefitting the WWP in Memory of Pfc Wesley R. Riggs.  Reading this article will give you insight into his endurance, dedication, and heart!

Rocky (Horror) Raccoon 100 Mile Shoe Sucking Mud Race

Huntsville State Park

February 4th/5th, 2012

Bob Botto

As late January turned over to February I was more and more excited about this year’s Rocky Raccoon 100 mile race. It would be my 9th finish if I could complete it – bringing me just 100 miles away from my ultimate goal, my 1000 mile jacket. I had six wonderful pacers lined up to keep me company for the entire race. For the first time ever I would not have to drive myself to or from the race as my first pacer Diana Houston had offered to drive me up, stay for the entire race and take whatever was left of me home afterward.  My training leading up to the race had been good too. In October I ran the Palo Duro Canyon 50k and just two weeks later ran the extremely rugged Cactus Rose 50 mile in Bandera. In January, four weeks before Rocky, I completed the Bandera 100k with a respectable time of 17:50. Despite the tough races with lots of climbing I was not injured, and even completed a 50k training run in December. I was running stronger than in 2010, part of which I attributed to the use of Cytomax rather than Gatorade and other sports drinks. After Cactus Rose and Bandera, Race Director Joe Prusaitis remarked at how strong I looked. He has seen me pretty wiped out in some of his easier races. I felt as good as I looked at Bandera.  I was relaxed and confident about Rocky.

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Unfortunately, Mother Nature decided that a typical Rocky year (cool to cold and bone dry) was too easy for me. A few days before the race it looked like it might rain. I began to get nervous. As race day approached the forecast got worse and worse until on February 2nd and 3rd flash flood warnings were being issued as it became  clear that a huge line of strong thunderstorms was due just about the time the race would start.  After the heavy stuff passed more rain was still likely followed by cold blustery winds overnight.  I’m scared of lightning and I don’t like heavy rain while running.  Wet increases the hazards and the effort. Lightning striking all around me, heavy shoes caked in mud, slipping and sliding on muddy hills, cold wet clothing – Oh golly my imagination was running way out ahead of me!

To go along with my foreboding about the weather, my body was full of aches and pains due to a couple hard workouts I had done about 10 days before. I have sciatic back problems from time to time. Certain workouts aggravate it. Pain shoots down my legs from my lower back and makes it feel like I’ve pulled a hamstring. I was having pain in my left hip that I could feel while walking or running. Just to cap it off I did a measly 2.5 mile treadmill work out on Thursday, two days before the race and almost had to limp away from the dang machine. What a way to instill confidence! Oh gee I only have to run another 97.5 miles – how bad can that get (insert obvious answer)?  I was scared to death of Rocky.

On Friday 3rd Diana picked me up just after noon and we drove up to Huntsville to check into the La Quinta (Spanish for “next to Denny’s”). Shannon Smith, my 20-40 mile pacer met us up there. Shannon was my only male pacer. My other five pacers were ladies. Shannon and I roomed together and Diana had a room for two nights. We then checked in at the Race Headquarters in the park. Rain was threatening but we were able to head out for dinner before a major shower. I picked a fine dining restaurant in Huntsville. They had a good jazz ensemble and the atmosphere was so relaxing. I took in the camaraderie of friendship as well as a hefty dose of calories. From that point on I decided to just relax and take it as it came.  

When the alarm went off at 4:00am Saturday the first thing I did was check the weather on my i-pad. I could see the line of severe storms (radar reds) was only few miles to the west and would be upon us in minutes.  At 5:00am we headed out to the starting line in a torrential downpour.  My worst fears were being realized. I was starting an hour before dawn in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. I was calm though.  Diana seemed calm.  I was wearing my Gortex shoes and my light rain gear. Shannon would be setting up my tent during my first loop with Diana and arranging my drop bags and gear. I’d have a dry place to change.  The rain would end at some point.  At the Start/Finish everyone was huddled together under a large tent.  The wait was short and at precisely 6:00am Joe signaled the start. 376 100 mile hopefuls trotted out into the pouring rain to start a journey with as many different endings as there were timing chips crossing the electronic tracking pad.

Lightning flashed all around us as we took to the trails. I was soaked instantly on the outside but dry and comfortable underneath. My hat kept the rain off my face and the special coating I had applied to my glasses allowed me to see by my headlamp and hand light. My feet stayed dry even when I ran through ankle deep water. Despite all the worry, the storm was just a distraction. We were on pace and dealing with the water and mud as we encountered it. Even better – we were having fun! Diana is a good talker and companion. I was really enjoying her company. The whole run through the rain and mud thing was bringing out the kid in me!  I can remember running through mud puddles as a kid. Heck I’m only 62.

It dawned about the time we reached the DamNation Aid Station at mile 6. I had a drop bag there so I left my lights and picked up a dry top. It was still raining but not as intensely. The course now took a 6 mile out and back loop through the “wilderness” and returned to DamNation at mile 12. By the time we returned the rain had pretty much stopped. I chucked the rain gear for a light running shirt as it was in the mid 60’s. Although the rain had stopped, the damage to the course had been done. Paths flowed like little creeks and water was pooling in every low spot. All those feet were churning it up into thick molasses. The next 3 mile section was the worst. It took us through the “Big Muddy” as I called it. In one area there was a pool of mud about 100 yards long that was impossible to get around. The mud was over the ankles and threatened to pull off your shoes! Yup! Shoe sucking mud! The only good thing about that section was that it ended at the Park Road Aid Station sponsored by my running club Houston Trail Runners Extreme (HTRex). I saw familiar faces there and they had the best chow on the course.  I had instructed Diana to hold me to just 1-2 minutes per aid station. With 5 aid stations per loop the time you spend can add up to a lot.

My original goal for this first loop had been 4:30. We got a bit behind that pace in the darkness and heavy rain but made up some time in the second half of the loop. We arrived at the Dogwood Aid Station (Start/Finish) in 4:45 which was encouraging. I had planned the 20-40 mile loop at 5:00 adding another half hour to each loop after that. Shannon was there and he ushered me into my tent. Now it was like a pit stop in a car race. Off came the wheels (shoes). Shannon and Diana washed my feet and wiped them dry. Clean socks and a fresh pair of trail shoes followed. I ate a snack from my bag and changed my shirt again. Then it was “bye Diana” and I was off down the trail with Shannon. Shannon plays guitar and likes to sing. I like to sing too. We started singing and we sang for miles on that loop. We sang lots of old country songs and songs my grandfather used to sing to me. When we weren’t singing I was telling him old Rocky Raccoon stories.  We both tripped and fell on that loop. Shannon did a spectacular three flip landing for which I gave him a score of “9.0”. At one point about mile 30 we passed a group of women. One of them noted that I had a pacer. The race rules state that pacers are not allowed before dark unless the runner is 60 or older. She called out with a twinge of jealousy in her voice “How come you have a pacer?” I answered “Because I’m past 60.” She said “Past 60 miles?” I was just speechless!

The rain returned for a while and the second loop ended painfully, taking about a half hour longer than I had planned. I had noticed the back and hip pains from the beginning. I was hoping they would just go away but they didn’t. Now I could feel a little jolt of pain with every step and my lower back was one big ache. I was slowing down by walking more and the mud was exhausting me. However – my next pacer was Angela Jones. She is a tiny young mother with a big faith in God.  She had never run past the half marathon point (13.1 miles) and had never even run trails, but was willing to run 20 with me. I picked her for the 40-60 mile loop because I knew it was critical, and that it would go into the dark hours of the race. Angela had that infectious “can do” spirit that I needed to keep me motivated. It was 4:00pm when we left Dogwood.  I was aware that I would be pushing the 80 mile cutoff time on the next loop if I slowed much more on this loop. Thirty hours seems like a long time but I did not want to box myself in by not allowing enough time late in the race in case I just had to walk it out.

Angela seemed to be talking to herself as she ran along ahead of me. When I caught up to her I could hear that she was praying for me out loud! Every now and then she would turn around and yell at me “Say you receive it Bob!” and I would yell “I receive it!” What was I receiving? It was healing from God! As I ran, the pain began to ease until it went away entirely! By mile 46 my back was fine, my legs felt good and I was picking up the pace.  At DamNation we picked up our lights. Shortly after resuming the trail a guy called out to me “You have a lovely pacer!” I answered “Yes, I know, Thanks!” Angela just smiled.  By mile 50 it was almost dark. The halfway point gave another lift to my spirit. I told Angela that this loop was my best yet. After dark we picked sections to run more carefully but we made great time. Mariela’s homemade apple pie awaited me at the Park Road Aid Station at mile 55. It was so good! Angela used her phone to text my wife Kat at mile 56 and to tell Michelle Bitterly, my 4th loop pacer, that I was an hour from the 60 mile mark.  Angela was plumb tuckered when we got to the end of the loop but she made it just fine. On arrival Michelle saw that I was tired but not in pain, in good spirits, and still running well.  It was close to 10:00pm when we left for the 60-80 mile loop.

I picked Michelle to take me through the “Night of the Living Dead.” She is a pert little blonde marathoner with more life and energy than you could pack into a human being twice her size. She is not a trail runner but I thought she would enjoy this very unique trail experience. Rocky runners slow down at night. Slogging through the mud in the wilderness with the coyotes howling in the wee hours of the morning is so different from blasting out a marathon in broad daylight on the streets. Temperatures were now dropping through the mid 50’s and the wind was blowing hard in the tree tops. I made sure I was dressed warmly enough before heading out with Michelle. Conditions on the trail were improving in some areas, worsening in others. Huntsville State Park has sandy soil which drains quickly in most areas. It had not rained since late afternoon so much of the trail was drying out. Boggy soil areas like the “Big Muddy” drain very slowly. In these areas, foot traffic was making the trail worse and worse. We had to run through the Big Muddy twice each loop. There were also clay jeep roads with steep inclines that became slip n’ slides as the race went on. Many tracks could be seen where runners had slipped backwards down the slope and had to climb up again.

Michelle and I enjoyed the night. The moon was nearly full over Lake Raven. The swamps were filled with night sounds. I walked a lot and ran what seemed “safe”. At this point I did not want to take a chance losing a 60+ mile investment with a sprained ankle or worse. When we saw runners we asked them if they were OK. Many were obviously suffering, some dropping out at the aid stations.  Of course there were stories to be told and food to be eaten. I got another serving of apple pie at Park Road at mile 75. Michelle seemed to enjoy this concept of a “progressive dinner”.  All the while I carefully kept track of the time so as to leave at least 7.5 hours to run the last loop just in case.

My 5th loop pacer, Shauna Frazier had been waiting for a couple hours when we arrived at Dogwood (mile 80) just after 4:00am. Shauna is a young adventure racer and multi-athlete. It’s not easy to get somebody to come out in the woods at 2:00am to run and walk 20 miles. It takes a lot of spunk and Shauna’s got it. The temperature was in the 40’s now and the gusty wind continued making it very cold, especially if you were moving slow. Shauna was bundled up though and I added another layer to my outfit. We were back on the trail by 4:30am, an hour and a half ahead of the cutoff, giving me the time I needed to finish the race – hopefully.  After starting the loop I noticed that the pain on the bottom of my foot that I had thought was due to sand or stones in my shoe, was still there after a foot wash and a change of socks. I knew what that meant. I had blistered the bottom of my foot. I’ve run and walked 20 miles on blistered feet before and I could do it again. It didn’t make for pleasant thoughts or feelings though.  After the excitement of starting with Shauna faded I also realized how tired I was. It was still two hours before dawn and I was trying to fall asleep while running and walking. I’d close my eyes and then open them just in time to see that I was going off the trail or needing to wade a mud hole or negotiate a rooty section of the trail. This process repeated over and over. Bless her soul Shauna tried to keep me alert but it was a losing battle.  

When dawn arrived everything changed. All of a sudden I was awake and alert. Shauna called ahead to let Diana know where we were and that we would reach Park Road by 9:00am. This was a very exciting prospect for me, not just because it was mile 95 and that there might be more apple pie, but that my friend Cathy Sotelo would be waiting for me to take me to the finish line. By 8:00am Diana was waiting at Dogwood for my finish and Cathy was at Park Road. Shauna was having some issues with aches and pains so she asked to be excused at Park Road. I thanked her for a job well done. It was a little before 9:00 when I got there. Cathy had Mexican hot chocolate in a thermos and it tasted so good! Yes I got another helping of apple pie too. Cathy had a friend that drove up with her and the three of us began the final leg of the journey. I had plenty of time to walk it out so I did. A half mile from the finish line I told Cathy that I was going to run into the finish.  It was just past 11:00am. I started running and I was amazed at how easy it felt, other than the pain in my feet. My legs were strong and flexible. Finally I could see the finish line and I began a full sprint crossing the line at 29:17:40 on the race clock!

I ran right into the arms of the volunteer handing out the buckles! What a moment! Cathy and Diana savored it with me for a bit then I went to the tent to change into dry, clean clothes and shoes. Afterward Diana and Cathy took my tent down. By this time I had really stiffened up a lot and was having trouble getting in and out of the car. Diana drove me home and I was there in time to catch an hour nap and go to a Super Bowl Party at my church.  I was proud of my accomplishment but at the same time I knew so much was due to my pacers and friends. If ever you consider running a hundred miles this is certainly the way to do it. 

Postscript: 218 runners finished the Rocky Raccoon 100. This represents a finishing rate of 58%, the lowest figure ever in the 20 year history of the race.