Bobby Aswell, Jr., DARTer and veteran of 174 marathons
Val Wrenholt, DARTer and marathoner/ultrarunner
Barefoot Josh, fellow minimalist runner and blogger
Mr. Nathan Vest, an unnamed runner in a Nathan vest
Brandon and Nicholas Teague, a father and son
And Me, Chas
Opossum, rattlesnake, white-tailed deer…what was it going to be this year? Every year, the Umstead Trail Marathon race directors choose a different animal to be the race mascot . This “critter” goes on the race T-shirts and becomes the shape for the winners’ plaques that go to the 1st 15 male and female finishers. This mascot is a closely guarded secret until packet pick-up. Upon arriving at Great Outdoor Provision Company in Raleigh on the eve of the race, I was happy to see that 2012 was to be the Year of the Bat. Awesome! To paraphrase fellow DART member Bobby Aswell, we were going to be running like a bat out of hell!
I chose UTM for my Spring marathon for 4 reasons: It was close; the field was limited to a small size; it was on trails; and it was notoriously difficult. The rainy weather and overnight thunderstorms played a key role in determining my goals for the day. First and foremost, I was out to set a PR. Despite unforgiving reputation of this race, I was in a lot better shape than when I ran Thunder Road 4 months earlier, and I still believed I performed well within my limits in Charlotte. I figured I could power through the trails and truly test myself at Umstead. On a clear, cool day, I would have shot for 3:40, but given the conditions, I would have been very happy with anything close to 3:45.
I showed up at William B. Umstead State Park in plenty of time to get a good parking spot next to the race HQ and get my gear in order. Then I relaxed next to the cozy fireplace while the other 175 racers trickled in and got ready. It looked like the day was going to be overcast and cool, with intermittent light rain—great weather for running, if only the footing wasn’t so mucky. As the HQ became more and more crowded, I stashed my jacket and stepped out for a half-mile jog to get the blood moving. Everything felt great that morning. I was extremely happy with my training, and I was itching to race. Bobby Aswell showed up 30 minutes before the race, and I joined him for a little more of leg-stretching jog.
As the field gathered around the starting area, I saw quite a few race shirts with previous Umstead critters on them: flying squirrels, horseflies, frogs, turtles, and many of 2011’s ticks. There were a lot of UTM veterans who were coming back for more. I recognized one of the “ticks” as Barefoot Josh, an entertaining runner/blogger with whom I share similar sensibilities when it comes to minimalist running. I introduced myself and had a brief conversation about the course, footwear, and other runners we might both know, and then settled next to him to wait for the start.
The race began with a few hoots and hollers, but then the sound quickly blended into splashy footfalls and steady breathing. Barefoot Josh and about 40 other runners shot out ahead of me. I took advantage of the gently hilled, open bridle trail to set a quick and comfortable 8-minute pace, and I let anyone and everyone faster than that blow right by me. The nature of this course allowed for several out-and-back portions, so I would see everyone in the field again at least once or twice.
Shortly after the 1st mile marker, the course took us into the 1st of 3 single track sections. It felt great to jump into the trees and hop around over roots and rocks. I passed several runners in the 1st few hundred yards of single track, and continued to reel in runners for the next few miles. I dug into the ascents and shot for equal effort, but I rode the downhills like a roller coaster and moved further and further up in the field. After about 3 miles, I slinked around a runner wearing a Nathan gear vest, but I continued to hear his breathing for the remainder of that leg of the race. As soon as we broke out onto the bridle trails, I angled to the side to catch the 1st water stop. Mr. Nathan Vest had a handheld bottle, so he shot past me and sped down the long hill ahead. I kept him in my sights. Running downhill had been a training focus of mine over the past few weeks. Rather than leaning back and letting my legs absorb the shock of the descent, I leaned my chest forward and kept my forefeet landing directly beneath my hips to maintain a fast turnover. Nathan Vest shot into the next single track leg at the bottom of the hill. I was 10 seconds behind him. As soon as I hit the trees, I locked on to Nathan Vest and started closing. I shot past him around a tree in the middle of the path. “Alright!” he exclaimed, clearly happy to have a footrace going on between us. “Let’s not do this all day,” I jested.
I saw Mr. Aswell through the trees 15 seconds ahead of me, and I was closing on him. Something had to be wrong; either I was running to fast, or Bobby was not having his best day on the trails. If there was one runner with whom I knew better to compete, it was Bobby, so I was content to stay in his shadow all day if I needed to. Bobby continued to fade back to me, and I spent the better part of a mile just a couple strides behind him. At mile 5, he moved aside for me to pass, and I took the opening. After all, how many times will I get to pass Bobby Aswell? The next aid station turned the runners around, so I got a glimpse of the pack leaders. Barefoot Josh gave me a thumbs-up as he passed me going the other direction. 10 minutes later, we were out in the open on the bridle trails, and I heard familiar footfalls closing in behind me. As Bobby passed me, I remember thinking, “eh, it was fun while it lasted.” After mile 6 lay the entrance to the last leg of single track. “Here we go again with the trails,” Bobby said without all that much enthusiasm. I followed Bobby onto the treacherous downhill path. Bobby chose his steps very deliberately, and I was forced to slow down to stay behind him. He waved me ahead of him once again, and I let it rip down the steep hill. I passed a few more runners within the next couple of minutes, but then I settled into a long stretch of single track along a quickly flowing creek where I saw no other runners, volunteers, or human beings. This was my favorite part of the race. I was almost saddened when I saw the volunteers near mile 8 direct me out of the single track and back onto the wide bridle trails.
Miles 9 and 10 took the course down a long, steady hill, and then up an even longer one. Another runner passed me strongly on the uphill. Lo and behold, it was Mr. Nathan Vest. “This is my favorite hill,” he pronounced as he ran on ahead. With the mile count still in the single digits, I was content to let him go and keep an equal effort on the climb. He stayed within sight for the next few miles. At mile 10, the humidity prompted me to roll down my arm sleeves and take off my hat. No sooner did I do so than it started raining. Great. Luckily, the downpour was light and short-lived. The aid station after the 10th mile marker had an excited host of volunteers, and an adolescent trumpet player squeaking out the theme to Rocky and other inspirational melodies.
This long stretch of miles included several noteworthy rolling hills. Having studied the route map a few times, I would be traversing this path backwards on the back end of the race as well, so I made note of what I was in for. I did my best to maintain a slower-but-equal effort on the climbs, and I leaned into the drops to grab some extra speed where I could while preserving my quads. At mile 12, I passed Nathan Vest for the last time. I feel bad for not asking his name if only to see how he finished the race.
Save for an enthusiastic group of children at the mile 12 aid station, the next couple of miles were hilly and quiet. The trailblazers and lead runner passed me on the return leg a couple minutes before I reached mile 14. I estimated the leader was about 2½ miles ahead of me. As more runners came towards me, I counted them out loud to keep track of where I was in the field and the give them a clue of their positions. Barefoot Josh was 10 minutes ahead of me in 9th place (a position he would maintain until the end of the race). When I reached the turnaround, I had counted 21 men and 1 woman ahead of me. As I headed back uphill towards the long return through the rolling hills, I continued to count for a while. I thumbs-up’d Bobby, who was the 25th overall male at that time. 15 miles down.
The return leg through the rolling hills kept me a little more on my toes because I was passing by almost the entire racing field. Many had encouraging words, and all of them wore smiles. This just speaks to the higher level of camaraderie one finds at these lower key trail races compared to some of the big crowd road races. The hills were still there, no matter how much I had hoped they would erode with the rain. The downhills were shakier, but still fast, and the uphills were a little less forgiving this time around. By mile 18, I still had plenty of energy, but my legs were starting to feel a little worked. I motored on and started thinking of the next aid station, ignoring the fact that I had 8 miles left to run.
At 19.5 miles, I returned to the same aid station from mile 10, and the young trumpeter was still tooting out the hits. The hip abductors were talking to me now. In the past, my knees, quads, and feet were my pain pockets after a long run, but all of those pieces felt reassuringly good. Now I was getting a pain in my butt. My calves, well, they were shredded. After all, it is a hilly, hilly course. Here lay the aforementioned long downhill followed by a long uphill, but in reverse. I struggled to keep my form clean and lean into the descent to grab some momentum, but it took me nearly the length of the hill to crack a solid 8 minute pace. Going up the long hill offered the cruelest reward of all: a right turn onto the infamous Cedar Ridge portion of the course. Like most of the route, this 3 mile out-and-back section was a decently wide bridle trail, but instead of fine gravel and hard-packed dirt, the surface consisted of small rocks and pebbles—no good for pace or comfort. Cedar Ridge trail rolled up and down gently, and I saw the leaders pass by me again looking a bit worn out. I did not bother to count this time. The climb up to the aid station at the beginning of Cedar Ridge depleted me. Now I was bonked out, hurting, and demoralized. With 4 miles remaining, I looked down the course’s most notorious hill (Graveyard Hill), dreading the fact that after I descend it, I would have to climb it once again. Some of the leaders were walking slowly up the hill, and I knew I could not fathom the idea of running up it. As I plodded my way down the hill and trudged to the turnaround, I remembered Bobby’s remark about the race mascot. If we truly were bats out of hell, this certainly was hell, and I had to fly out of it.
Once I approached the steep incline of Graveyard Hill, I automatically settled into a walk, pushing down on my legs with my arms as I went. The 2 minute climb to the top offered some respite, but my body was reluctant to settle back into a running stride. Shortly after mile 24, I made it once again to the Cedar Ridge aid station—the last aid station before the finish line. “Water or Gatorade?” asked the volunteer. “Yes,” I replied. I grabbed both cups and halted to a standstill to enjoy the fluid. Fellow DARTer Val Wrenholt arrived at the aid stop just after me and helped herself to a couple of Gatorades as well. I had never met Val, so she introduced herself. The last couple miles of a grueling race are a great place to meet a fellow member of your local running club. I ate my last gel of the day, more to keep myself busy than to benefit from the energy. After enough of prolonging the inevitable, I beckoned to Val, “you ready?” We eased into a slow run and headed down the trail towards where it all began.
At mile 25.5 was the sickest joke of all. I gazed up 600 meters of incline where 3 runners ahead in the distance were reduced to a walk. At the base of the hill was a modest sign that read “Welcome to Cemetery Hill.” I ran all of 10 steps and walked the rest of it. Val summoned the will to run the last half of Cemetery Hill and leave me in the dust (err…mud). Val went on to finish 3 minutes ahead of me and placed 2nd for females. Awesome! Way to go, Val! A right turn at the top of Cemetery Hill led me to the final stretch. When I saw mile marker 26 and glimpsed the finish line through the trees, I opened up into a full stride, ignoring the pain in my legs. I pumped one fist in the air as I crossed the finish line at 3 hours, 48 minutes, and 3 seconds. I was 21st overall (19th male) out of 169 finishers, and I had set a new marathon PR by over 4 minutes—on a MUCH more difficult course, I might add. I hobbled into the HQ to grab my camera phone in an attempt to catch Bobby’s finish, but the darn thing would not start up in time. Bobby had turned an ankle 6 miles into the race, but he still managed to take 25th place overall.
My body went into shutdown mode. I was getting hypothermic, so I grabbed a complementary veggie burrito provided my Moe’s and sat by the fireplace for a good long while. After 15 minutes of therapeutic massage from the specialists at Raleigh-based Stiner Massage, I felt like I could move again. I was in no hurry, so I hung around the finish area until every last finisher crossed the line. Everyone was so supportive of me, and I owed nothing less than to support them as well. Among the more notable finishers were a father and son named Brandon and Nicholas Teague. This was Nicholas’s 1st marathon (what a choice!), and he was only 13 years old! Perhaps he is the next Anton Krupicka in the making.
Umstead Trail Marathon easily was the most difficult race I’ve ever experienced. There was no doubt that I truly had tested myself on these grounds. After the upcoming Long Cane 50K in May, I might spend a little more time on the roads, but I will return to Umstead eventually. Perhaps it will be to see what next year’s critter will be, or maybe to run the Umstead 50 miler next year. But for now, I’m only concerned about food and sleep.
Things I learned at Umstead Trail Marathon:
1) The Wall is real, and it will humble you.
2) 5 gels is the maximum my stomach can handle for 26.2 miles.
3) Running single track is my strong suit.
4) There is absolutely no shame in taking a walk break.
5) No matter how hard you train, your trail pace never will be as fast as your road pace.
6) CAUTION, PERSONAL INFO: I have mastered the art of urinating while running. I won’t get into the mechanics of it, but it’s efficient and not messy.
New Balance MT 110: very tough for a semi-minimalist trail racing shoe.
Inov-8 Debris Gaiters: kept my feet grit-free all day.
2XU Compression Calf Sleeves: felt good to wear all race, and even better to take off!
RaceReady LD shorts: 7 pockets, need I say more?
Powerbar gels: nice, thin consistency, lots of electrolytes, good balance of fast and slow carbs, and I liked the taste.
Zensah full length compression socks: lifesaving to put on after the race!
Next on my race calendar:
3/17/12: Leprechaun Loop 8K. Davidson, NC
5/6/12: Long Cane 50K, Abbeville, SC
9/7-8/12: Blue Ridge Relay (maybe), Boone/Asheville, NC
9/29-30/12: Hinson Lake 24 Hour Classic, Rockingham, NC