|Pain is a gift.|
Ambitious, stubborn, crazy...these are all things I've been called in the past few months. And, they are all necessary qualities of a successful ultra runner. I needed all of them this past weekend at the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. I was crazy to sign up for Umstead, stubborn to follow through with the training, and ambitious to set a lofty first-time goal of completing the distance in 24 hours (and earning a coveted silver "One Day" finisher's belt buckle). However, as race director Blake Norwood stated at the Friday evening pre-race briefing, the long months of training and hard work would get me to the starting line, but will would get me to the finish.
|Ambitions, stubborn, and crazy.|
The Umstead Endurance Run course consists of a certified 12.5 mile lollipop loop with an out-and-back thrown in after the first half mile of rocky gravel road. The Airport Spur out-and-back section (comprising about 2 total miles) is the flattest and least exciting part of the course, and late in the race, it is a deceivingly mentally difficult stretch. After passing by the gate that lead to and from the start/finish, one begins the loop proper. On the Reedy Creek bridle trail, there are 3 miles of long, rolling hills--including an especially long uphill after passing a scenic lake overlook. Following a left turn, there are a couple miles of shorter rollers before a couple of sharp drops leading into Aid Station 2, where the bridle trail parallels Ebeneezer Church Rd. After AS2, one gets a flat quarter mile to eat some food or send a text message before cutting left into the infamous "Sawtooth 79" section. "Sawthooth," because the elevation profile goes up and down like, well, sawteeth; and "79" because it goes from mile marker 7 to a bit past mile marker 9. So after those steep climbs and jarring downhills, one climbs to a left turn onto Graylyn bridle trail, and the longest sustained downhill of the course (my favorite). It's referred to as the "Power Line" section because the hill S-curves around a large power line in a clearing. Then it's a half-mile climb before a right turn on Reedy Creek, which takes one back from whence he or she came, sans Airport Spur. On that last 1.5 miles, there are a couple of stinky climbs, including Cemetery Hill, which is well known by veterans of Umstead 100 and Umstead Marathon alike. Right turn at the gate, charge into start/finish/AS1, and repeat 7 more times. Got it? Good.
|The excitement of Camp Lapihio just before the start.|
We started at 6am, about an hour before dawn. I settled in with what I though were the front-of-the-middle-packers. The pace, while slow for any other foot race, seemed a bit quick to me for the start of a 100 miler, so I let folks pass me by and kept pace with the majority of those around me. I settled in with DARTer Jeff McGonnell (who has run 5 Umsteads and dozens of 100s) and his close friends, Daniel and Steven Pieroni. We shared several miles together during the first lap, even though I had to drop and catch up with them a few times while I was dealing with some early GI and over-hydration issues. We had gone 4 or 5 miles before Jeff realized exactly how fast we were going, which was too fast. Eventually, we backed off and settled into a groove before hitting AS2. I dropped off my cotton gloves and head lamp and filled a plastic bag with a 1/4 PBJ sandwich, some pretzel sticks, and a small boiled potato. I had been eating gels, but I was determined to mix in real food early on. This particular combination would serve me well for 50+ miles to come. The Sawtooth was a bit cool, but the varied terrain was not unwelcome. I rocked the power line hill and hiked up the last few hills before heading into HQ/AS1 and finishing my first lap in 2:04:xx. Considering my initial stomach issues, I was happy with this initial pace.
Lap 2 was a thing of beauty. I had a pace dialed in, and my GI issues were under control, so I just focused on sticking to the plan and enjoying the run. It was still early on, so there was no fatigue or discomfort yet. I ate according to my pre-ordained schedule, walked according to the terrain and perceived effort, and relished the company of my fellow runners. I even ran a few more miles with Steven Pieroni, who was not running as fast as me, but would make up for it by out-walking me. At AS2, I spent a total of 15 seconds. Without stopping, I just scooped the food I wanted into my zip-lock bag as I walked by. I waited until the first real uphill on the Sawtooth to eat most of it. While I continued to play to the terrain, I saw many runners stubbornly running every hill. I would catch up to them or leave them behind on the next flat or downhill, so I let them do their thing. Many of them I would not see again after lap 3 or 4. After climbing Graylyn and turning inbound on Reedy Creek, I really enjoyed the multitude of runners going each direction. There certainly was a big sense of camaraderie in this race. Lap 2 was a 2:06, almost an even split with lap 1. To boot, my wife Heidi was waiting at HQ to greet me and snap a photo or two.
|Coming in strong and feeling good at 25 miles.|
Lap 3 was a bit of a lull. I knew I was planning on a progressively slower pace from here on out, but the warming temperatures of the late morning and mid day were starting to make their presence known. Many of the non-walkers from before were walking now. I was glad I had started walking early. I ate okay, but I was going through water a lot more quickly and voiding it not nearly as often. Lap 3 was 2:21:xx, and it felt a lot harder than it should have. Heidi was there and told me I still looked good, so I took her word for it. I wasn't looking forward to lap 4, but I tried to keep a positive mental outlook. "12.5 more miles, and I will at least be allowed a pacer," was my reasoning. I originally intended on finishing the first 50 miles in 9 hours (by 3pm), but to do that, I would need to run a 2:29 lap 4. There was no need to push it, as my quads already were starting to hurt. So, I ran lap 4 very similarly to lap 3, but I took a couple more walk breaks and relaxed my pace a little. I finished 50 miles in 9:10:58, which was a 50 mile PR by over two hours! Heidi was there, but so was the rest of my crew: Phyllis Tsang and Chad Randolph. At least I would have company for the rest of the race.
|Halfway there! It was pretty hot out by this time.|
I told Phyllis and Chad that I was still able to run the downhills hard, run/walk the flats, and walk all of the uphills, but from here on out, I was going to walk when I felt like it, run while I could, and let the chips fall as they may. Phyllis joined me for lap 5, and the terminally dull Airport Spur seemed to go by rather quickly thanks to her conversation. I walked a lot more on this lap, but I still threw in some running spells on the flats in order to keep the cumulative pace respectable. Phyllis was surprised at how hard I was willing to run the downhills this far in the race. "No wonder your quads hurt," she told me after the first few bomber descents. Much of the field had taken a more conservative approach to the downhills, and they often would part like the Red Sea to the edge of the trail when they heard us charging downward from above like Stuka dive-bombers. My lap with Phyllis was just under 3 hours--a pace with which I was very content. Qualitatively, other than the aches and pains of 62.5 cumulative miles, lap 5 was almost as enjoyable as lap 2. The total race time by the end of the lap was just under 12 hours and 11 minutes, and since I had never raced a 100K before, I decided to take it as my 100K PR. Two PR's so far this race, and I wasn't even finished!
|Phyllis and me after completing lap 5. 100K down!|
At HQ/AS1, I finally retired my sweat-soaked Reckless Running singlet and put on a dry shirt. The sun was getting low in the sky, and my pace would continue to slow, so I didn't want to get caught with wet clothes when the temperature dropped. Phyllis decided to stay at HQ to volunteer and hang out for the rest of the race, but Chad had agreed to run (er...walk) the final three laps with me. Lap 6 was a slow and steady walk, with very little level-terrain running of which to speak. We still ran the downhills, and they continued to hurt, but I found that if I opened up and ran a bit faster, my stride would reach a sweet spot where everything hurt less. I could maintain it for a long descent, but only if I knew there was a nice, walkable uphill afterwards for recovery. That's the beauty of the Umstead course. By the end of the 6th lap, it was fully dark outside and I was wearing three layers. 75 miles down, a little less than a marathon to go...
|Chad and me on the dreaded Airport Spur.|
From here on out, I was content to walk every section of the course that was not downhill. I also was not worried about lingering in the aid stations. Both of these things brought my overall pace to a crawl. I had been experiencing emotional and physical ups and downs for most of the day, but around mile 77 was the first time I truly had doubts about finishing. I had been hurting--really hurting--for many hours, and I was starting to feel not only physically tired, but sleepy as well. This is where the flat monotany of the Airport Spur really began to take its toll on me. I voiced my doubts to Chad and implied that I seriously was considering dropping out. His response was almost nonchalant:
"Nah, you're doing great. It's an ebb and flow. You feel like s***, then you feel great, then you feel like s***. You're still moving forward. You'll finish in one day...or you won't; who cares? I know you'll finish, just like Jeff will finish. Heck, we got until noon."
That's pretty much all I needed to hear. I don't remember much of that part of the evening, but those few sentences of casually comforting words stuck with me. I picked up the walking pace a little. A couple miles later, we came upon an unmanned water station that had a veritable myriad of cookies from which to choose. I gobbled down three or four and felt better almost instantly. In retrospect, low blood sugar probably had a lot to do with my earlier bout of despair. I packed some cookies in my plastic to-go baggie and we were on our way.
The rest of lap 7 and most of lap 8 passed by in much the same order over the long, dark hours of Saturday night and Sunday morning. Even my walking pace had slowed down, but I still ran the downhills, gritting my teeth and exhaling loudly. Chad kept the conversation going, and while I wasn't my usually chipper self, my relative outlook was rather positive. There were no more instances where I doubted I would finish. As the miles and the hours ticked by, Chad and I repeatedly calculated what pace I would need to maintain in order to achieve a sub-24 hour finish. Very gradually, we were banking time. The realization began to sink in that not only would I be a finisher, but I would be a single-day finisher. After bidding a final adieu to the Sawtooth, we took off down the Power Line hill for the last bit of sustained running. Hike up Graylyn, turn right, one last climb up Cemetery, walk it in, Chas, walk it in. I even walked down the last little downhill just so I could muster up the energy to run up the last 20 meter hill to the finish line. Boom. 23 hours, 36 minutes, and 5 seconds. One-day finisher, silver buckle, and three PR's in one race. I nearly cried as I was handed my buckle, but I think I was too tired.
|The picture may be blurry, but so was I.|
Done. In every sense of the word, I was done. My body, somehow knowing the race was over, decided to shut down directly. Chad and Phyllis guided me back into the HQ at Camp Lapihio where Jonathan Savage gave me a congratulatory embrace, and he lead me to a warm spot by the hearth before hypothermia set in. I very deliberately stripped off my wet layers and replaced them with dry sweats, marveling at the swollen clubs that once had been my feet. I had a protein shake in my hand, but for some reason, I had no idea what to do with it. Phyllis ran me some hot soup and a couple slices of pizza, and that hit the spot. As I ate, I took in the grim scene around me. Runners were strewn about on cots and benches in various states of slumber. Others had bandages covering both feet. Still others were hunched over with head in hands, looking very unhappy. As much as I was hurting, I thought I was a little better for wear than many of these folks. Then I tried to stand. Bad idea. It was hard to believe that not 15 minutes earlier, I had been running. There was no horizontal space left to lie down and nap, so I sat up and leaned. 5 minutes...30 minutes...I still don't know how long I was sitting there zoning out. I was in a lot of pain, but as a sign three miles from the finish said, "Pain is temporary. Pride is Forever."
Shoes: Hoka Stinson Tarmacs. For me, these shoes have one purpose: long, hilly ultras. They did not disappoint. Naturally, my feet hurt anyway, but I don't think any amount of cushioning is going to prevent that after 100 miles. I did get one nasty blister on my left pinky toe, but I'm not sure if it's from the shoes, my socks, or just Umstead. Also, I had been developing a hot spot on my right first metatarsal over the past couple of months, and I began to feel it the morning of the race, so ten minutes before the gun, I borrowed Blake Norwood's pocket knife and cut open a slot in the upper to relieve the pressure. Problem solved.
Socks: Injinji Original weight with Balega Hidden comfort on top. Inov-8 Debris Gaiters.
Shorts: RaceReady Compression. Pockets and comfort. Period.
Singlet: Reckless Running Cyan Swarm. Lightweight and comfortable, perfect for when the day warmed up.
Hydration: I switched back and forth between a Nathan Minimist Hydration backpack with a Hydropak bladder and a 20oz Ultimate Direction handheld.
Nutrition: No fewer than 20 gels, no fewer than a dozen 1/4 PBJs, several boiled potatoes with salt, dozens of pretzel sticks, 4-5 cups of soup, 2 cups of coffee, about 20 cookies, and no ginger. I was able to eat without getting nauseated for the duration.
|AS1 at mile 25. Eating was not much of a problem.|
Many thanks go to my wife for supporting me throughout the long months of training, and to my pacers: Chad and Phyllis. Anyone wanting to attempt the 100 mile distance, Umstead is the place to do it. The people there do it right!