Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Battered, Broken, and Beaten," or "A Fun Race at Uwharrie!"

I had never run at Uwharrie before.  I once had aspirations of doing the Uwharrie Mountain Run (UMR) 40-miler, but it always seemed to fill up before I could get in (before they switched to a lottery).  However, since Umstead a couple of years ago, I've been focusing a lot more on sub-ultra distances, particularly when trails are concerned.  I figured the 20-miler would be right in my wheelhouse to provide a nice, competitive challenge.  After last weekend's UMR20, I'm officially thankful I never got into the 40.
Packet pickup.  Photo courtesy of Dave Munger

The day could not have been more perfect for a long trail race.  It had been at least a few days since the last rainfall, and the temperature at the start was slated to be right around freezing.  Dave Munger and I carpooled to Uwharrie National Forest since he was running the 8 mile option, which would start an hour after my race.  The 40-milers would have an hour head start on me.  Having only heard stories about the trails at Uwharrie, my plan was to run fairly conservatively--harder than a leisurely mountain run at Crowders Mountain State Park, but not nearly pushing the pace as much as I would at the Whitewater Center.  I had heard that a good effort for the 20-miler should yield a time fairly close to one's typical road marathon results, so I set a lofty goal of being as close to 3 hours as possible.  That goal would prove to be lofty.
The elevation chart for UMR20.  It appears to be a cartoonish exaggeration, but it feels accurate when actually rinning the course!

Since I had heard that he first mile is something of a bottleneck (understatement), I toed the line fairly close to the front so I wouldn't be caught behind too many people.  At the start, I eased into position somewhere in the top 15 or 20 runners out of about 150.  There were about 50 meters of road before hitting the trail, which went immediately straight up on rocky, technical single-track.  I had to watch every step while maintaining a steady and consistent climbing pace.  I wasn't going to win the race here; I just had to low gear it to the top of this first mountain in the first mile.  Each subsequent switchback gave way to more rocky footing and more steep climbing.  I took my first walk break about 1/2 mile into the race.  The first and second females loped past me, continuing to run all the way up the hill and out of view.  I ignored them and walked for a good 100 or so meters.  Already, I was regretting registering for this race.
When I finally got to the top, about a mile in, I was pleased to find some relatively smooth running trail.  I should stress "relatively," because so much of this entire course is rocky, rutted, or steeply rolling.  I settled into my long-haul pace and ignored the runners that were widening the gap ahead of me.  I convinced myself that I'd probably catch up to at least some of them later in the race.  The initial long climb led to the inevitable long descent, so I tried to relax and not bomb the downhills too hard like I normally would do.  There was a lot of race left, and a lot of ups and downs still to come.
That's how the race continued for a while: a hard, steep climb followed by a treacherous downhill, the occasional upward glance to spot the white blazes on the trees to make sure I was on course, and the occasional trip, toe-stub, or all-out fall.  I didn't tumble on the obtrusive rock outcroppings or the downed trees on the trail; I more often stumbled on the less technical parts due to complacency and lack of concentration.  It took a lot of focus and brain energy to stay on trail and upright for the duration of the race.
About 5 or so miles into the race, I started seeing the back of the pack for the 40-mile racing field.  I didn't envy these tough bastards.  I already was struggling with the terrain, and they had a much longer day ahead of them.  Or perhaps they were smarter for approaching these trails slowly and carefully and I was the dumbass for trying to run hard.  Nonetheless, it was heartening to start seeing other runners on the trail, and trading greetings and encouragement beats staring at an empty trail ahead of you.
A couple hours into the race, as I neared the 13 mile aid station, I came upon my friend Jason Rose, who was running the 40.  He looked very relaxed--he wasn't even breathing through his mouth yet.  I hadn't expected to catch up to Jason at this point, but I later learned that he had been fighting illness in the week prior to the race, so he was running very smartly to have been looking as good as he was.  By this time, I was seeing many 40-milers, and I was gradually advancing through the front of the 20-mile field as well, one by one.  I continued to trip and fall, and I got lost a couple of times, but luckily, I was trading positions back and forth with a more experienced UMR20 racer--also named Jason.  It made me feel better that Jason was as turned around as I was.  Being from Boone, Jason was no stranger to the elevation challenges of the course, so I doubt he walked a single step of the course.  I ran almost the whole thing too, but there was a combined total of probably about a 1/2 mile that I walked over the 20-mile course.  Jason also stopped at all the aid stations, whereas I was self-supported with my gear vest and stopped at none.  So we traded places back and forth all day, using each other as motivators.
Miles 15-16 were the real crux of the 20 mile race.  There were many stream fords throughout the course, but the largest water crossing was three fourths of the way through.  This one was 4-5 strides across, with water up to the knees.  I dashed through it and hoped for some refreshment, but instead I profanely screamed "F*** me, that's cold!"

My shoes had drained of most of the moisture by the time I reached the last long hill--there would be plenty more short climbs--of the 20.  Boone Jason had warned me about this in our ongoing, mid-race banter, as had the Somewhat Legendary Ultra Runner (SLUR) Jeff McGonnell.  I settled into a low gear jog for the long climb.  After 2.5 hours of hard trail running, I knew I would not be able to run the whole hill, so I threw in some brisk hiking.  I passed and greeted SLUR Jeff about halfway up the hill.  Jeff was looking good on the climb.  He informed me that I was in 10th place and not far back from #9.  Later, I would find out from Jeff that a couple of other 20-milers behind me overheard him and started gunning for me after that tidbit so seek a top 10 spot.
I reached the top of the hill at a reasonable pace, but it took a lot out of me, even with the walking breaks.  With the worst of the race behind me, I just had to keep moving forward at a consistent pace.  That consistent pace was taking a lot more energy to maintain than it had a couple of hours prior.  I was feeling the aches and pains of overused stabilizer muscles (from the uneven terrain), bruised feet and joints (from various tumbles), and rubbery quads (from treacherously rapid descents).  I knew that the worst of the pain wouldn't arrive until the following day, so there was no point in dwelling on it presently.  I focused on my form and the trail ahead of me.  I caught a few more 20-milers in the last couple of  miles, but Jason eventually caught me and passed me, leaving me in 8th position.  I sensed the 9th place runner sometime during the last mile, and he steadily was advancing.  I didn't know who could have been behind him, and I wanted to maintain my top 10 ranking, so I surged to a pace I thought I could hold for the remainder of the last mile.
It was enough.  I finished in 8th place, 6 seconds ahead of my pursuer.  Less than a minute separated Jason (7th overall) and the first female (10th overall), so I certainly had people knocking on my door.  I was glad to hold them at bay, but I was even happier to be done!  I finished with a 3:14:03, which I think is very respectable on that terrain.  I was more tired and battered than I had been after any marathon, and after some ultras.  Katie Rose was at the finish (which was that halfway point for her husband Jason) and was able to snap a decent photo of me crossing the line.  She congratulated me and inquired about the race, but I had a hard time conversing with her without being doubled over with my hands on my knees.
An exhausted me crossing the 20-mile finish line.  Photo by Katie Rose.

I had a small collection of scrapes and bruises, and now that my body had stopped running, it didn't really want to start again.  Still, I count myself luckier than most.  Dave took a pretty bad spill in the first mile of his race (after climbing the same initial hill).  When he arrived at the 20-mile finish to pick me up, he already had changed, but he later shared a photo of his bloody knee.  Even worse, he badly pulled a glute muscle that has sidelined his running for the better part of a week.
Dave's bloody knee.  This wound proved to be relatively superficial, but the fall took an unfortunate toll for Dave.

 Jason Rose maintained his steady pace to finish the 40-miler with a smile on his face.  SLUR Jeff finished the 40 in just over 9:50, after a 15-minute loss of time due to some on-the-trail, DIY shoe surgery with a borrowed pocketknife at mile 23.  Ron Garsik, another fellow DARTer, finished the 40 in a fast 8:35--a 40 minute course PR for him.  I have profound respect for these and all of the other 40-milers.  I like to consider myself a decent, slightly competitive ultra runner, but I don't see a UMR40 attempt anytime soon for me.  UMR20 left me battered, broken, and beaten enough for one day.

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