2017 Umstead Trail Marathon race report
Last Saturday, I ran the Umstead Trail Marathon.This was my fifth time running this race, the only race I’ve run every year since moving down to NC (2015 was cancelled) and, by far, the race I’ve run the most. Obviously, this race holds a special place in my heart (see: 2012), and as I’ve joked with some people, every other time I run it, I have a pretty alright race. 2012 – pretty good, 2013 – pretty not good, 2014 – pretty alright, 2016 – unmitigated disaster. Of course, as Ari so compassionately put it earlier this week, “It hasn’t been your year since 2012.” I digress… In the two weeks since I ran Oak Island, I’ve managed to both recover well from that effort and maintain a good deal of training volume. I’ve had two decent track workouts, one encouraging M-pace run, and a good long run at Umstead last weekend that covered about 85% of the marathon course.
My parents were in town this weekend, and it was also Ari’s first marathon ever, so there was some added stressors but nothing too bad.The night before, we got our packets, and then it was a fiasco trying to find some dinner before eventually ending up at my favorite pizza place, Treforni, where I devoured a meatball sub. Got things set out and myself to bed reasonably early, and as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was asleep like a rock. I was up before the alarm, too. The nice thing about a 9 am race start is that my body is used to getting up at 5:30, so there is no rush to get up and out the door. I actually felt like I was sleeping in. We headed downtown to get some last-minute things and saw them setting up for Florence Forth; we were glad we were out of there before being trapped. We got to the park about an hour before race start, which, for me, is unheard of.
This race is like a big running family reunion and has some really cool quirks that have cemented its place permanently on my yearly racing calendar. Carolina Godiva does an absolutely top-notch job putting on this race, down to the last detail. The volunteers go to great lengths to make sure everything runs smoothly (pun decidedly intended), so it was fun to get into the lodge before the race and say hi to some friends. As I alluded to above, last year, I was undertrained (really, not trained at all), and the entire race was an abject catastrophe pretty much from the beginning. As a result, it was my first time running the race that I failed to get wood. This year, I had three main goals (four if you count “don’t break an ankle on the single track”)… I wanted to get back at least to the top 15. But really, I wanted to see if I was in better shape than 2014, the year I ran 3:11:44. I figured, if I could beat that time, it would mean that I’m ahead of where I was at that year and would bode well for a PR attempt on an easier course down the line. I figured, if I could manage that time, it would also put me close to a respectable top-5 showing.
If Ari was nervous, she hid it well. We were ready and moseyed our way to the start area with a few minutes to go. I gave her a kiss and told her to kick ass and then walked up to the front. With about a minute to go, I ducked into a port-a-potty for a final bathroom trip, and as I returned, perfectly timed, we were off.
The course is almost constantly either going up or down in a fairly unrelenting fashion. The first two miles are pretty much the easiest of the race, and a good opportunity to get things in gear before getting on the single track. Immediately from the start, a group of four guys went out and separated themselves from the rest of the pack. I was content to cruise up the hill right on the back of this pack. I recognized one guy as last year’s winner of the Umstead 100, Jason Tischer, and knew he would probably have the endurance to hold a decent pace. The other guys (white singlet, blue singlet, capri tights) I did not recognize, but they looked speedy enough to be up there. I hopped on the first bit of Company Mill single track at mile 2, solidly in 5th, and immediately began closing the few-second gap that the four guys had on me. I descended pretty recklessly, rolling my ankle a few times, and at one point, misjudging my speed and careening left forearm- and knee-first into a tree, but nothing too concerning.
By the first single-track climb, I had regained contact with the back of the group. They seemed to be going much more cautiously, but I was content to just maintain contact, allow them to set the pace, and recharge for the inevitable bridle trail push. Four miles in, we hit the short, steep Graylyn descent, and I passed two guys, moving into third before returning to the single track on Sycamore. We loped along the flattish, mostly non-technical section by the creek before ascending the steep, rugged uphill toward the Sycamore parking lot aid station near mile 6. On the downhill to that aid station, I briefly took the lead, mostly because I just wasn’t going to hold back on any downhills and knew I would (and did) get immediately re-passed on the ups. Heading down the final mile and a half of Sycamore single track, I found myself thinking something I never would have considered I would be — I was lamenting the fact that the single-track portion of the race was about to be over. I was actually wishing there would be more because I felt that would be the only way I had a chance on the other four; it seemed that I had clearly been the best (or at least most aggressive) on it and that they were stronger and quicker on the bridle trail.
Alas, right before mile 8, the single track ended, and we turned to run back up the Graylyn hill. The rest of the 18+ miles remaining would all be on wide, crushed gravel bridle trail, but that doesn’t mean they are any easier. As soon as we hit the hill, the four guys pulled away. Two (Tischer and blue singlet) ran way away and had a good 10-15 seconds by the top of the hill and gaining, and the other two (white singlet and capris) ran together slightly less far from me but were nevertheless pulling away. A quick glance behind, and I saw nary a soul; I was officially in 5th and also in no-man’s-land. I was actually ok with this development, as it mentally became just a more intense than normal long run in my favorite park. Running down corkscrew hill, I went hard but within myself and then continued to press but making sure to avoid approaching the red line on the longish, gradual climb up from Reedy Creek Lake to mile 10. By the time I got to the top, I could see the pair of 3rd/4th ahead and not really gaining much more on me. The first two guys were way out of sight already.
The next two miles trended downhill, and I could see the guys coming back to me a little. It was still relatively early. and the worst hills were yet to come, so I was content to hang back and eat up real estate slowly but surely. I think I saw Jim Clabeusch on a bike here, and that was a nice little break from the monotony. From 12-14.5, the Turkey Creek section is a hilarious stretch of steep, seemingly never-ending uphills and some downhills just short enough to tease you. At what I figured was about halfway, I was at about 1:34:30 on my watch, feeling reasonably good and ready to push the second half if need be. I caught White Singlet at the bottom of a downhill right at mile 14, passing him going up the last of the Turkey Creek hills toward Graylyn and moving into 4th. By the time we hit the aid station turnaround at the bottom of yet another hill near mile 15, I was even with Capris. Heading away from the aid station and re-tracing our steps from 15 to 21 meant I would get a chance to see where everyone else was and thus also get to see Ari. Exciting!
I really made an effort to push the downhills on the way back through Turkey Creek; I wanted to get a little gap on 4th place, figuring that the race for 1st and 2nd was over.
Unfortunately for me, when I got to the aid station before 17, he was right there with me and stayed there all the way to the mile 18 marker, where our next long, gradual climb began. If I had to pick a low point in the race, I guess this would be it. I was still 8 miles from being done, I had been running for a little over 2 hours, I had just pushed the last two miles and instead of getting any separation, capri guy was now going by me as soon as we started the uphill and looking stronger than I felt. I made my best attempt at staying with him, but I was mentally content to let him go and hope he’d come back to me on the next downhill stretch. Somehow I managed to run either side by side, or just a step behind, for a good portion of this climb. Just after mile 19, as we approached a powerline cut, a Wild Ari Appears! coming downhill toward us. Without thinking, I jumped up in the air and yelled her name. I was worried she might be in a bad place or tired, but she looked just as excited as I was to see her. I ran to the other side of the trail, gave her a big hug and kiss and told her to go for the Olympics as we ran our separate ways.
As corny as it may sound, that was seriously one of the BIGGEST highlights of the race for me. And as silly as it may sound, whatever lull I had been experiencing immediately went away. I found an extra gear in my stride, and a half-mile later, as we got to the top of the grind, I was pulling away from 4th place and stretching my legs out on the long, gradual descent ahead. There seemed to be a big group of what I figured were high school runners out running, and they were perfect to key off of. They were running just a little slower than I was, so I could focus on reeling them in and eventually go by. I also saw the guy who was in 2nd place (blue singlet) up ahead and definitely coming back to me. That was… unexpected. I figured maybe he tried to hang with Tischer, and it ended up being too much. By the time we hit the bridge and began a long, steep, winding uphill, I was even and then pulling away from him, too. I heard footsteps for about a minute and then nothing. Cool. I figured the race was now for 2nd, as I doubted Mr. 100 mile champion would fall apart late in a marathon, and I didn’t have any extra wheels to pick it up to try and catch him.
The final gut punch in this race is miles 21.5 to 24, Cedar Ridge. It’s a long downhill that ends very steeply, and then you immediately turn around and run back up it. There is a sign at the bottom as you begin the climb out that says “Welcome to Wheels-Fell-Off Hill.” It is accurately named. Last year, I walked/hobbled almost the entire uphill section, a combination of calf cramps and just being completely gassed. For the first time all race, I allowed myself to go full throttle down the hill. I knew I’d have enough to get out of it, and I wanted to put a cushion on the guys behind me. I saw the leader go by on my way down and when I got to the turnaround I calculated he must be about 3-3:30 up. I knew I wouldn’t have enough real estate to catch him (not to mention he still looked pretty strong), but I also found that I was about 2 minutes up on 3rd place at this point. With that info, I went into grind mode, just trying to get up the hill as best I could. Turning back onto the trail at the top of the hill, all that was left was to run back to camp. Cemetary Hill remained, the short, steep final obstacle literally standing in the way of sweet relief. One of the only nice things about the up & down nature of the course is that the last half mile you run is all downhill back to the finish. Turning onto the camp road, I had a smile on my face and knew I had 2nd place locked up, and, more importantly, barring a car hitting me, I was going to come in under my 2014 time. I ran through the finish line in 3:07:26, second overall, and my second fastest Umstead. Booya!
I got my finisher’s pint glass and collected my wooden 2nd place plaque, put on some warmer clothes, and had a little bit of food (my stomach needed a bit immediately post-race before I could handle much more than a few orange slices and some gummy bears). Then I went back out to run Ari in. I got to the last long hill (Cedar Ridge) where Bill Harris told me she had already started down the hill – awesome. I met her and ran her most of the way in, going on ahead with a mile to go to give her that last stretch for herself and so I could get the camera set up to capture her finish. The feeling of seeing her cross the finish line, a first-time marathoner, at Umstead no less, after training for all of three months, was far and away the most satisfied and elated I felt all day. Neither of us could keep our emotions, or tears, in check. Ultimately, a hugely successful day. We both survived, I did reasonably well, she did amazing, neither of us are injured or really much worse for wear. Win-win-win (well, not quite win).