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Extra Miles, Mud, and Smiles - Gina's Rabid Raccoon Race 2024


Written by Gina Siffri

March 16th, 2024 - Beaver County, PA


 

Over St. Patty’s weekend, I participated in the Rabid Raccoon 100-mile Relay. The race takes place on a 12.5-mile loop through the trails of Brady’s Run Park, about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. For the relay, a team of up to eight people alternates running to complete the loop eight times, finishing the 100 miles as a team. Other racers, who surely either REALLY love running or REALLY love pain (or, I suppose, both) choose to cover the 100 miles on their own. The race weekend also includes a 100k race (62 miles), a morning and a midnight half marathon, as well as a 5k. This was a new adventure for me and I really enjoyed myself, so I thought I’d share a bit about my experience.


I wanted to run this race for a couple of reasons—the first being the camaraderie of a “team” race. After high school track and cross country ended, running has largely been a solo endeavor for me, and I really wanted to meet and have an experience like this with fellow runners. When I moved to PA a couple years ago, I joined an organization called Trail Sisters, whose mission is “To increase women’s participation and opportunity in trail running and hiking through inspiration, education and empowerment”. When I saw that one of the local Trail Sisters chapters was putting together a relay team for an epic-sounding trail race, it sounded like something I didn’t want to miss out on.


The other reason I wanted to participate? It sounded like a pretty exciting adventure to take on! I’ve been a fan of trail and ultra running for years, and I love watching YouTube documentaries of people’s experiences on the trails (seriously, I have watched so. many. hours. of ultra running YouTube videos…so many!). However, injuries, excuses, and general laziness have kept me from having many of my own trail adventures. With the relay option, I would be able to get a taste of the trail ultramarathon experience while still completing a do-able distance for me, since our team planned to have each runner complete one 12.5-mile loop.


After signing up in the fall…winter happened, and I found many reasons not to train like I should’ve been: the obvious cold weather/darkness, sickness, work—you name it, I can use it as an excuse to sit on the couch watching trail running YouTube videos instead of actually, you know…running. On top of that, a few months out from the race, I had a couple relatively minor injuries pop up that made me nervous to ramp up my training. I actually tried to back out with a little over a month to go, asking my relay-mates if they knew anyone who would want to sub in for me. However, after talking to them about the generous cut-off, I decided I could probably speed-hike it and still be able to finish within our allotted time, so I decided to stick with the plan—no more excuses.


The day before the race, I felt surprisingly ready. My injuries had improved and I’d been able to train a semi-decent amount. I prepped my gear, which included a brand-spankin’-new headlamp from GBM Running Co., since I’d volunteered to run my relay leg at night. I also set up a sleeping bag and air mattress in my car so I could attempt to take naps throughout the weekend. That night, I was too wired to sleep much, and I woke up before my 4am alarm. I hopped into the car and set off into the dark morning—off on my adventure! I arrived at the race in time to see the relay race start, and then, since I had so much time before I would be running, I went to check in for the shift I’d volunteered for at one of the aid stations for the race, which was managed by Trail Sisters Pittsburgh. Volunteering at the aid station was a great experience—I got to meet and chat with other Trail Sisters who were volunteering while helping runners of all race distances. We restocked snacks and drinks while checking in with runners to see what they needed. It was a great way to hear about the course and feel more involved and invested in the race. Since it’s a looped course, I would continue to see many of the same runners as they completed each loop. After my shift ended, I spent the rest of the day getting to know my teammates while cheering for them as they started/finished their relay leg, as well as trying (with little success) to sneak in a car-nap here and there.


Finally, nighttime came, and my relay leg was up next. I saw a message pop up on my phone—unfortunately my teammate who was currently out on the course had hurt her knee, and she couldn’t continue—she needed someone to take over early. Welp, I guess I was up! I quickly drove over to the aid station where she was, made sure that she was okay, and then set off into the night. (I may or may not have been as empathetic about her injury as I should’ve been; I was PUMPED to get going after seeing runners out on the course all day—sorry, friend!).


A wave of exhilaration washed over me: I was finally doing it! I was out there adventuring on the trail. And if I took it slow and hiked when I needed to, I felt pretty confident that I could finish the last part of my teammate’s loop and also complete my own. Right after starting, I came to the creek crossing on the course and plunged into the icy water, which came almost up to my knees in some parts. This would surely be an adventure!


One of the aspects of the race I had been excited about was getting to run in the woods at night—a first for me. I thought there would be plenty of runners on the course, so I wouldn’t really be “alone.” Come to find out, that wasn’t quite the case. By that time, many racers had already finished (or dropped out), and the ones still on the course were very spread out, so I was definitely by myself…at night…in the woods. Yikes! Thoughts of axe murderers definitely crossed my mind. I tried to picture what this same forest would look like on a sunny spring day and imagine myself running through THOSE woods, instead of the spooky dark woods that I was actually running in.


Another “helpful” distraction was the mud—oh my goodness—the mud. THE MUD! I had been hearing about the mud on the course from runners all day. Shortly after my run started, it began to rain. This did not help the mud situation. It was thick, sloppy, unrelenting mud. I later heard someone compare it to running through peanut butter. This was the kind of mud where you could easily lose your shoes along with your footing, and it lasted for almost the entire trail. This meant I had to constantly focus on my next step to stay upright. Luckily I’d brought some cheap hiking poles because, as a relatively inexperienced trail runner, I feel like they help me keep my balance when I’m running through rocks/roots/etc. Y’all, those suckers SAVED me in the mud. I think I would’ve fallen 800 times and/or been even SLOWER than I already was without those guys (and I was moving very, very slowly already).


One bright spot (figuratively and literally) in the dark night was the aid stations. Catching a glimpse of LIGHT (sweet, sweet light) from an upcoming aid station gave me new life after being alone in the dark. At the aid stations, I chatted with the volunteers while grabbing some chips or twizzlers to keep me going. Let me remind you that this was in the dead of night; these people CHOSE to be awake at 3:30am on a Sunday morning so us runners could eat junk food while running circles around a park. Obviously saints!


Despite the darkness and the mud, and with the help of aid station snacks and volunteers, I was finally able to finish the last part of my teammate’s relay leg, along with my own leg. 17 miles! (Or was it 16? I didn’t track the distance to conserve my phone’s battery life—you know, in case I needed to call for help while in the woods alone at night—so I don’t know the mileage for sure.) Either way, it was my longest run ever! And I did indeed tell anyone who would listen that I had just done the longest run of my life. Maybe that wasn’t quite so impressive since many of the other runners were out there doing 62-100 miles, but hey, it’s all relative!


After my leg was done, I took the best shower of my life and had the best free latte of my life (a couple of the race perks!) and then headed out to “help” again at the aid station (I can assure you I was essentially useless due to lack of sleep). I ended the weekend by cheering on my team as our last runner crossed the finish line.


To many, this experience probably sounds…like an odd choice of ways to spend a weekend. But to me, it was incredible. I had met new friends (both on my relay team and volunteering at the Trail Sisters aid station), finally had an exciting trail adventure of my own after watching so many others’ adventures, and ran further than I thought I might ever be able to run, having struggled with injuries for years.


So now my only question is…what’s next??

Photo by race photographer Max Petrosky.

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