2014 Umstead Marathon race report
Another race report! This one hopefully a bit more timely. (ed. note: I had written out a pretty long (of course) report and WordPress decided it didn’t like it and deleted it. GrumpyMark is going to write a super quick one now and whatever, grrr)
The Umstead marathon holds a special place in my heart. Two years ago I was a fledgling ultrarunner who was trying to do everything I could to get ready for the Umstead 100 and was offered an opportunity to run the marathon. I figured at the time that I was going to do a long run in the park anyway so I might as well have some fun with it. I ended up winning it and setting a big (still-standing) PR, running just over 3 hours. That run gave me the confidence I needed to do so well in the 100 miler a month later. Last year was the opposite story. In the three months leading up to the marathon, I ran a total of less than 120 miles. I showed up to the race having JUST got over a knee and hamstring issue (the issue being that when I ran, it felt like fire knives were stabbing me in those places), I was fat, and totally out of shape. I gutted out an almost personal worst and somehow managed to run just fast enough to ‘get wood’ (the cool little wooden trophy given to the top-15 in each gender). I am pretty sure that was the least fun I have ever had in a race, ever. The fact that I did so poorly with a big bullseye in the form of Bib #1 on my chest definitely didn’t help matters.
This year HAD to be better than that. This year has already been better than last so it would stand to reason. I initially hadn’t planned on running the race but I was fortunate to get one of Bull City Track Club’s spots again (THANKS JASON AND KIM!) so I figured I might as well try to redeem myself. The week before, the 10 mile performance gave me reason for cautious optimism that I would at least be competitive. Of course I then went and promptly re-aggravated my tight, painful left calf by pushing it too hard on a 23 miler Tuesday and then again Wednesday even more. By Thursday I was wondering if I’d be able to run at all. Friday I managed two very painful, very slow miles and then had an emergency session with John Stiner which made things feel somewhat better but definitely not nearly 100%. He also strongly advised me not to race, something my parents, who had come down to watch me do improv Thursday and go to the race Saturday, echoed. I decided I would at least go to the race and get my shirt and if I felt up to it, I would start and bail if it got real bad.
My parents, Shuriah, and I got to the race right around 8am, I got my bib and started getting ready. Saw John again and he reiterated not to be stupid and I tried to convince myself that I wouldn’t. If I were being honest with myself, which I was trying to do, the calf was still very tight and kinda hurt even just walking. I was not quite sure how this would go but I wasn’t that optimistic. I put a compression sleeve on it but didn’t really expect that to make much of a difference. About ten minutes before the start I jogged into the woods a little to go to the bathroom one last time. I could certainly FEEL the calf but it wasn’t VERY painful so I knew I could at least start.
For some reason I still lined up near the front, right next to Ronnie Weed and Matt Hirschey. I saw Wayne Crews and Lorraine Young, last year’s winners, up front again too. We got started right around 9am and for the first time in the three years I’ve run this marathon, I didn’t start and almost immediately feel like I was working hard. I actually took that first uphill out of the camp area relaxed, chatting with Ronnie and Matt and perfectly content to let quite a few runners go by. My big goal for the race was to maybe finish without setting myself back significantly. After that, I figured it would be nice to be top-15 male again and ‘get wood’ which was a cool insect this year (although not as cool as an oppossum)! As we got near the first mile turnaround on the airport overlook I counted who was ahead of me and figured I was sitting in about 11th place or so. Ok.
We were running quickly but not pressing and while I was definitely AWARE of my calf, it wasn’t hurting. Yet. We turned onto the single track and the thought occurred to me that it might have been a good idea to run ANY single track in the months leading up to the race. I honestly couldn’t remember off the top of my head the last time I did, I guess when I was helping out at that race at Eno River SP in October. My goal for the single track became ‘don’t hurt yourself worse.’ Ronnie and I were still pretty close together and Matt had pulled slightly ahead and so did Anthony. I decided to let go a little on the downhill on Graylyn and that was probably a mistake. My calf tightened up considerably and when I got back on the single track I was feeling it. Blah blah we ran up hills and down some hills and came to an aid station and I think it was around there that I may have caught Matt and gone briefly by him. I was in ~6-7th at this point and figured I was running a pace I could manage the whole way. We came out of the woods and Matt had once again gone by. I couldn’t quite see Ronnie behind me anymore but figured he was close, as were a whole bunch of other people. At mile 8, we were done with the single track and I was happy about that. Heading back up Graylyn, my calf hurt some more. At some point between then and when I got to the next aid station where Reedy Creek and Turkey Creek meet, I had to stop and stretch it out a little. I pressed my finger into the lateral head of the gastroc and tried to do a little self-active release. It worked moderately enough to get me running again.
The next interesting thing that happened was getting lei’d near halfway. That helped me remember not to take this so seriously.I hit the halfway mark in about 1:38 which was much smarter than 1:31 last year. I had had to stop a few more times to stretch and massage the calf out and around mile 12 it occurred to me that maybe I should call it quits. I figured I’d wait until I get back to Graylyn to decide one way or the other. It was an increasingly frustrating situation I was finding myself in. Aerobically, I felt great. I wasn’t taxed at all. My legs also felt really good. There was no creeping soreness, no lack of ‘pop’ but there was the calf holding me back. If I thought about, or foolishly tried to run a bit faster, it tightened and threatened to just give up altogether. So I tried to be smart. Between 12 and about 20, there were periodic stops to stretch/massage and also brief 15 second ‘walk on my heels to try to stretch my calves’ stretches. Ugh. Matt was long gone, as were the people ahead of him. I caught a brief glance back during one of my massage breaks and didn’t notice anyone coming up behind. Odd. I was running ~7-7:30 miles but didn’t think that was enough to put so much distance on anyone behind me.
Right around mile 15 we come back down to that aid station off Graylyn and I could see that I was well behind Wayne, Michael, and Lorraine. I saw Matt coming up the hill out of the aid station as I was going down. It looked like he had at least a few minutes on me. I began to see how far ahead I was from everyone behind me on my way back up. It wasn’t much. Maybe a minute or two? I was counting men to see where #15 was and how much cushion I had. It was like almost 15 or so minutes. I figured that if my calf didn’t relax, or, more likely, got worse, I might still have enough cushion to get that coveted wooden bug.
Last year I remember the Turkey Creek section on the way back sucked. There was a lot of walking, partly because I was in pain bu mostly because I was waaaaaay out of shape. That wasn’t the case this year. I took the hills, especially the downhills, conservatively because my calf didn’t like them, but I was able to move pretty consistently. It was a very weird mix of thoughts in my head. My competitive side continued to be frustrated because, hey, this is a race and I want to do well and I didn’t want to get caught and passed and I wanted to push more than I could. I was also happy that aerobically I was feeling ok still, 2 or so hours in.
As I made my way back to the end of the Turkey Creek section something awesome happened — I started to feel better. Maybe it was a bit of adrenaline from knowing I was only about 10k away from being done and, hey, I’ve run a bunch of 6-7 mile runs this year, no problem. Maybe it was the fact that the calf was finally getting some more blood and all the easy running and massaging had actually helped loosen it up a bit. Whatever it was, as I approached that aid station where I turn back to Reedy Creek, I was feeling the best I’d felt all race. I took this downhill a bit quicker. I didn’t think I was going to catch anyone ahead but I also was starting to feel more and more confident that I was going to successfully maintain my position. As I started working my way up corkscrew hill, I noticed a guy ahead of me that I was pretty sure was in the race. I quickly closed on him and, yep, he was. Looked like he was having a tough go of it. Pangs of last year hit me, I was there, it sucks. I kept on trucking and turned onto Cedar Ridge for the long downhill. I noticed that I had actually picked up the pace a bit this last stretch and hadn’t even slowed much going up corkscrew.
Cedar Ridge. Man. Two years ago I honestly didn’t notice how difficult it was. So late in a marathon, so long of an uphill immediately after a long downhill. That year I felt like I flew up. That’s where I caught and passed the leader and just kept building steam. Last year, it’s where I really fell apart, mentally and physically. I walked a lot of it. I got passed by a bunch of people. I sucked. This year I was braced for it to actually be hard. It was. But I was ready. I noticed I was not THAT far behind Matt anymore, maybe two minutes. I also noticed I was well ahead of the next runner. Hmmm. I made the decision as I turned to head uphill that I was going to push it, calf be damned. I was too close and had been so patient and I can survive 3 or so miles.
I put my head down and tried to find some extra bit of strength to climb back up. It was definitely significantly less unpleasant than last year but it certainly wasn’t an easy float like the first time. I think people at the aid station were telling me I looked strong, and maybe that I was pretty close to 4th place. I didn’t really understand why they said because I was definitely in 5th at best but whatever. This was the best I felt all day, by far. I was finally able to really push down on the throttle and my leg cooperated. I had plenty of energy for Cemetery Hill and at that point I had caught sight of Matt. By my estimation he was up by about exactly one minute at the top of Cemetery Hill. Part of me thought that was probably too much with not enough left to run. Then I took another estimation at a tree and it was down to 26 seconds. And I was clearly gaining. I caught up to him before the water fountains and just kept on. Making the turn off the bridle trail, it struck me I was going to finish and I was going to do it successfully and respectably. The downhill last couple hundred meters were fun again, not quite as fun as the first time but close. I rounded the bend and could see the finish. I heard mom and Shuriah screaming for me, I heard the announcer say something like, “Here comes Mark Manz, our 2012 winner” and then I was done. 3:11:44. 4th place overall, 3rd place male (apparently someone else had cramps and slowed down or something without me noticing). And while my calf was not super happy, it felt no worse than earlier in the day, maybe even a bit better. As far as I was concerned, a very successful run.
Writing this so long after the fact, I have the benefit of perspective. At the time it may have seemed a little dumb but I’ve managed to continue training, taking a needed easier week after. My calf is fine now. I will always wonder “what if” — what if my calf was not an issue. I hate making excuses, and I doubt I had another 3:00-3:01 performance in me, but maybe a 3:04-3:05. Wouldn’t have changed my placement but it would have made things more interesting. Ah well. This year was pretty good, next year will be much better.