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Oak Island marathon race report

Saturday, I ran the Oak Island marathon along the southeastern coast of North Carolina. When I arbitrarily came up with my silly idea of running a marathon or ultra every month of 2017, I was a bit worried that February would involve some travel, a blizzard, or fighting polar bears, and initially, I hadn’t found anything that fit particularly well into my schedule. Then, the universe did me a solid: the race company that puts on a series of beach half marathons in the area decided to add a full marathon JUST to their Oak Island race. I could check February off my to-do list! AND, bonus: the weather this weekend was more mid-spring than mid-winter, so we got to enjoy a beautiful day at the beach after the race.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The ensuing weeks between Frosty Fifty and Oak Island have been some of the best I’ve had in a few years, despite each week having at least one, sometimes two, very easy days. I’m seeing Stiner regularly again, and that is making a HUGE difference in recovery time and how my legs feel day-to-day overall. I’m a few pounds lighter than I was back in January and almost twenty pounds down from when I was setting powerlifting PRs in December, so that helps with, well, everything. The past week or so, I’ve actually been eating somewhat better (which is not saying very much) and sleeping closer to 7-8 hours a night (which is saying A LOT). All this to say that heading in to this race, I was feeling optimistic that it would go reasonably alright and confident that I wouldn’t find myself at mile 18 wishing I had gone out for that run on a random Thursday night after work instead of sitting on my couch with a pint of Ben n Jerry’s (because I HAVE dragged myself out every single time this year).

The day before the race, we had to drive down from Durham and needed every second and then some to make it to packet pick up just in time. We got our race bibs as they were packing up and then spent longer than we’d have liked getting a burger and fries from a decent-enough restaurant down the block. Serendipitously, our AirBnB was located a little over a half mile from where the race started and finished. We made our way there after dinner and were greeted by a lovely host and her adorable pugs. If you have never been greeted at a door by four tiny, affectionate pugs, you have not really lived. After getting our stuff in and settled, I went out for a short shakeout down to the beach and back. I spent a good minute or two by the water just staring up at the pitch-black sky, sending Ari snaps of blackness that was supposed to be beach and taking in the stars that you don’t get to admire near a city. Once back, it was my pre-race ritual of shaving my head and then a reasonably early bedtime, as the race started crazy early.

With a race that started at 6 am, that meant wake-up was somewhere around 4:30. Unlike many times in the past, I was up before the alarm and felt mostly awake and ready to go (thanks Amy for having the most luxurious bed to sleep on of any AirBnB we’ve stayed at!). I went to the bathroom, downed a Boost shake and most of a Quest bar, went to the bathroom, got dressed, went to the bathroom, got my shoes laced, went to the bathroom, got our stuff ready to go, went to the bathroom, and was off to the park. Even though it was only a short jaunt from where we stayed, we opted to park right next to the start so that Ari could chill out during the hour between when my race started and when hers did and so that after the race we could grab whatever we wanted immediately. It was still extremely dark with nothing but a few headlamps and the neon from the timing stuff at the start/finish lighting up the area. This meant that as I made my way to the start, with about three minutes to go, I had unlimited options for one last bathroom stop. With about a minute to go, I heard Brad Smythe yell for me to make my way up to the line, which at first surprised me (how did someone know my name?!) and then amused me. I gave Ari a quick kiss, she wished me luck and told to do it and go for the Olympics, and with that, we were off.

Right away, some guy blasted out and had gapped all of us jamokes by the time we had to make a left about 200 m into the race. I settled in to what felt like a comfortable uptempo pace and ultimately watched another three guys pull on ahead of me at a much less rapid pace. For the sake of this report, I will name them tri-guy (because he was wearing a triathlon-looking outfit), beard guy (because he had a solid beard and kinda looked like Jesus), and bad dog (because, shockingly, he had a singlet that said bad dog on it). With a dearth of street lights on the first four or so mile stretch of residential roads, I opted not to glance at my watch every few moments to see if I was “on pace” mostly because I didn’t have a specific pace in mind. Given how the 50k went and that training was going about as well as could be hoped for, I figured a 3:20ish would be a reasonable result, and if I had a good day, maybe I could stretch for a 3:15 (it WAS a flat course after all).

Comfortably in fifth, feeling relaxed, the first four seeming to continue to pull away, and with a few glances back on some of the turns noticing nobody really close, I was in a no man’s land that I actually relished in the early miles. I stopped to pee around mile 3.5, and in the thirty or so seconds that took, I didn’t see anyone coming up from behind. I was glad about this notsomuch because I cared about my placing but because I didn’t want to run with anyone. As the course turned out of the residential section near mile five, we hit the first of two bridges we’d be running over and back, this one the steeper and longer of the two (get it out of the way early, I suppose). As I made my way up, it was impossible not to notice the absolutely picturesque sunrise starting to take place to the east. So, silver lining on the bridge… perfect vantage point for maximum sunrise gawking. Alas, the gawking was kept to a minimum as there were miles to be run. Coming down from the bridge, I could barely see the leader, who was already almost a mile up, and the other three guys were strung out somewhere from a minute or so to several minutes ahead; the next guy back from me was a few minutes in arrears.

Only twenty miles to go, yippee. It was finally light enough to see my watch. Apparently I had been running just over 7:00 pace so far. So… not 3:20 pace. I had a brief but ultimately pointless mental conversation where I thought maybe we should ease back to which I rebutted myself figuring, hey, this feels alright, and worst case, I blow up later and jog it in, having gotten a decent workout out of the whole mess. The next few miles twisted through more residential areas and next to a golf course. Coming out, we made a left and ran toward one of the uglier lighthouses that dots the North Carolina coast (as Ari would later describe it, it looks like a cigarette. The three colors that comprise it are grey, other grey, and darker grey). This was a somewhat sad, lonely, and kind of monotonous out & back, but such is the nature of running near the beach.  Some people were waking up and out on their porches, but most “spectators” here were just construction crews getting to their site. As soon as I turned around right before mile 9, I realized something I hadn’t yet considered… the last two miles I was running felt pretty comfortable despite the quicker-than-planned speed…oh, right, maybe because we had a tailwind. I was immediately greeted by the headwind I hadn’t considered, and it was a little more jarring than it probably ought to have been. It knocked me out of rhythm and focus for a few minutes, and part of my mind again was like, “well, that inevitable slowdown happened sooner than anticipated, huh?” Fortunately, my legs were not part of this conversation and carried on, re-establishing a rhythm and maintaining a pretty consistent speed.

As I closed in on halfway, I felt better than I really had any business feeling, but I wasn’t going to fight it and had made up my mind to just hold on. There was a bet-hedging part of me that was attempting (with limited degrees of success) to do the mental math on what I would run if I slowed to 7:30 miles, or 8:00 miles. I passed through halfway in about 1:32:20 (there was no mat or marker so that’s my best guesstimate) and allowed myself to entertain the idea that I was very likely going to get that 3:15 and possibly even 3:10. I really didn’t consider the possibility that I wouldn’t slow down some. I figured that was inevitable, and my only goal was to do effective damage control when it started, hopefully close enough to the finish that I wouldn’t have to death march for very long.

Right after half way, the course ran back close to the start/finish, and here was the only clusterfuck of the day. You see, the second half of the marathon course was just the entire half marathon course and covered a portion of the accompanying 5k as well. The half started an hour after we did, but the 5k… didn’t? I still honestly don’t know when it started nor exactly what the course SHOULD have been. It seems that there was supposed to be a turnaround point and that they were then supposed to make a left, or something, but none of it was well marked. I just know that it seemed like no one actually knew where to run. It was just a mess of people, some walking, some running, strollers, children, in all directions, all across the entire roadway. For about a mile or so, I did my best Frogger impression. Fortunately, I was able to navigate the sea of people relatively unscathed (I think I rubbed into someone as I was going past, but in my defense, agility has never been my strong suit). I did have to miss an aid station which, boo-freaking-hoo. At some point in this, I passed Bad Dog and I guess pulled away, as I never saw him again. Hopefully he was not swallowed by the tide of lost soles.

Once the crowds started to clear, I was feeling a bit re-energized knowing it was just down to the end of the island and back, more of less (more, actually, because there was another bridge detour). And now, despite being toward the front of the marathon, I was working my way through the back end of the half, so I never felt lonely again and had targets to key in on, work up to, pass, rinse, repeat, instead of just ruminating on having to run another 5 miles in a straight line. The sun was very much out now, but it fortunately didn’t heat up much, and that headwind that had shocked me earlier now felt more like a refreshing breeze as I chugged along. At sixteen, I actually stopped at the aid station long enough to get two full cups of water and some Sport Legs down; when I started running again only a few seconds later, I felt like I was shot out of a cannon.

Three miles later, I could finally make out the end of the line where we’d turn and head back for home, another mental boost. It was cool hearing all the encouragement from the half marathoners when they realized I was running the full, and it was nice having the energy (for the most part) to give some back. I hit 20 miles in just a hair over 2:20 and finally allowed myself to figure 3:10 was probably a lock and now maybe, juuuuuust maybe, a 3:05 was possible. I also allowed for the possibility that with 10k still to go, it was possible I’d still have that slowdown; I told myself I would be ok with missing 3:05 if that were the case, but that was probably a lie, and at any rate, I was feeling about as strong as I had all race.

I was excited for the bridge section because, one, it would break up the monotony a bit, and two, I figured I would get to see how far up Ari was. I thought that if I didn’t see her until the bridge, that would mean she was having a good race. And that’s just when I did see her – right as we both crested the top of the bridge, her coming back in toward the island, me on my way out. I also noticed that tri-guy had moved into third, probably 2-3 minutes up on me, and beard guy was now only seconds ahead. As I turned around to head back, I saw him continue to come back to me until, with about 5k to go, I went by. Encouragements were exchanged. I pulled away, not so much because I didn’t want a race to the finish but because I wanted to see if I could catch Ari before she finished. Turning on to what I knew would be a long, straight stretch to the end, it was nice to have something else to occupy my mind.

With maybe a mile or so to go, I finally caught sight of her LOUD and oh-so-short shorts (pot, kettle, nice to meet you). Doing that had allowed me to actually pick up the pace ever-so-slightly. By the time I went by her (after briefly considering a butt slap and opting for just shouting, “GO ARI!” because slapping her butt would involve veering across the road some, and I didn’t trust my legs to run in anything but a straight line), I was pretty sure that I was no longer going to blow up, or even slow down, that I had enough in the tank to finish, and that, barring a sea bird swooping down and attacking, I was going to run under 3:05. I could make out the finish line from over half a mile away, and it just sat there, taunting me; I logically knew every step brought me closer, yet my eyes told me it was just going to sit there in the distance forever. Fortunately, it did not, and I hit the last block and did what passed for a kick at that point. The last mile of the race was my fastest. I crossed in 3:03:38, good for 3rd place overall and a Boston qualifying time that will almost certainly not be far enough under. I had just enough time to down a water and jog back out to see Ari cross in a time that was only a minute off her PR. So that was awesome!

Action shot. Still look a bit linebacker-ish. Courtesy of Freedom Photography NC

So there is my report that took about as long to write as it did to run the race. Good ratio. I went in figuring I was in somewhat better shape than, like, October, when I was a fat flump “running”/trudging/hiking around Medoc Mountain State Park and probably a teensy bit better than January, but to run a 3:03 off basically seven weeks of some easy runs is pretty damn surprising…and encouraging. How did that happen? I guess all the stuff I mentioned before about training and eating and not being a fat powerlifter actually have some sort of effect. I have a bit shorter turnaround time for March’s marathon, yet another date with the Umstead Trail Marathon. As anyone who knows me knows, this race holds a special place in my heart. I seem to follow up pretty good runs there with pretty terrible runs. Fortunately, I’m coming off my worst run ever there last year, so that hopefully bodes well for two weeks from now. In the meantime, it’s time to nom a burrito.

And here’s a prize for making it all the way to the end. Sorry it’s not a cookie:

and Shortest Shorts Relative to Leg Length Award!

Post-race, 3rd overall running, 1st overall beard

Mark, out.

February 21, 2017 at 12:18 am Leave a comment

Salem Lakeshore Frosty 50k race report

::tap tap:: Hello…. hello? Is, is this thing still on? Mic check. Hello? ::tap tap::

I think it’s been said that the journey of 1,000 words begins with a single letter. Or something to that effect. Now that we have my corny dad joke out of the way, perhaps I can get started…

It’s been quite a while since I wrote anything of substance on here. And there have been more than a few times, often around the turn of a new year, when I have gotten on this blog and wrote some sort of impassioned proclamation that this time, THIS TIME(!), will be different. That things have been… less than spectacular, and I intend to change that and I have a plan and I intend to write and record how this masterful plan is going and all the success along the way. Then I get like, maybe a month or two, if that, and everything goes awry. I get busy, I get lazy, and this gets put aside.

What does this have to do with a race? Not much, and everything. Things have decidedly NOT been great, for far longer than I would really like to ruminate on. And a dream without a plan is just a wish, and if wishes were fishes, I’d have a witty sounding end to this incredibly pointless sentence. I intend to write here, possibly often, but who knows. I am loathe to talk about myself, but I enjoy writing, and I like to write down some mental notes from races I’ve done; so, I’m stuck with this. I suppose I could just write them privately, but what would the handful of you who read this do then?! So, hello again dear readers. I am not going to talk about past failures and successes (well, not much at least). For now, I’m going to recap a race I ran and then take it from there.

So, a few weeks ago, Ari and I traveled to Winston-Salem to run the Salem Lakeshore Frosty 50k (well, she ran the 25k, but you get the idea). It was my first long (read: marathon or longer) race in months and the first race I didn’t completely dread in a lot more than just a few months. Fortunately, the weather cooperated (this had been rescheduled from two week’s prior thanks to NC’s one winter storm of the season), and heading to the race, I was more thinking about how humid it was than how cold I was.

In typical Mark fashion, we had to hustle from the parking lot to the starting line and got there with mere minutes to spare. Just enough time to use the port-a-potty, put our bags by the bag check tent, and get to the start line, where I saw Shannon and Kelly Bruno. I gave Ari a good luck kiss and got ready to maybe not suck so much this time. When we finally started, I kept mentally telling myself to relax and run easy. The 50k consists of four 7.75 mile loops of Salem Lake, mostly flat with some easy undulations, and almost all of it hard-packed gravel surface, much like the Umstead bridle trails I love so much. In the first mile, it felt like a lot of people just blitzed out by me and were gone. My competitive instincts were easy to quell, as the thought of blowing up and having to trundle around the lake for hours and hours did not strike me as any sort of fun, so that first mile I was content to let people literally run away from me and settle in to what felt like a sustainable rhythm. I was a bit surprised when I saw the first split was right around 8:00, followed by another. My effort felt more in line with what I’d been running of late, which was decidedly closer to 9:00 or slower.

Not one to argue with my body, I decided that if it truly felt comfortable, I was going to stick with it. The lake on the first lap was pretty cool. With the humidity, there was a fairly dense fog lingering on the surface and making it sort of spooky. The loop had a lot of twists and turns and you could see runners ahead and behind you at various junctures which was cool, although I was somewhat disappointed that I never managed to spy Ari through the trees. At the end of the loop, there’s a fairly steep, but short, uphill leading to one last significantish downhill. At the top of the hill, I pulled off to the side and peed, which would be the only time I needed to do that all race. As a result of that pit stop, I came in just over an hour, happy and still running well.

The second lap is a bit of a wash mentally. I ran. I think I caught some people who had been ahead of me. I continued to click off pretty consistent miles. My legs felt good, and I was grateful for that. I was sweating more than usual for this time of year, but I think I was doing a good job of staying hydrated to counteract it. I hit halfway at just over two hours, thinking to myself that even if the wheels totally fell off at this point, I wouldn’t have to suffer too too long. The third loop, I expected things to thin out some as the 25k runners would be finishing, but a decent amount of traffic remained on the trail. I enjoyed it because it gave me a short-term focus pretty much the entire way around, which helped distract me from the accumulating fatigue. As I came toward the end of the third lap, I was excited because I figured I would get to see Ari and then only have one loop to go. I tried my best to be in and out efficiently, but I couldn’t find some stuff that I had, in my infinite brilliance, left in the car. In the parking lot. A half mile away. It took me a good thirty seconds for this to sink in before I said fuck it and got on with more important stuff, like ya know, finishing the race.

As I started the last loop, I allowed myself to feel some degree of excitement, as I was fairly certain that I was going to 1) finish the race and 2) finish the race significantly better than I had anticipated or hoped. Hitting the marathon mark a few miles into the loop in a time I haven’t seen in a marathon in almost a year and a time that just a month or so ago seemed about as attainable as time travel was a nice boost. I was certainly feeling a bit more tired, but my early restraint was paying off in the form of legs that still felt like they had some juice. I definitely didn’t (and couldn’t) pick it up or kick it in or anything, but I was able to maintain and grind out the last few miles. Coming down the hill for the last time, crossing the finish line, I was certainly ready to be done with this nonsense, but I was not DONE, if that makes any sense. More importantly than finishing place or time (which I was quite pleased with) was how I managed to not fall apart and run almost the entire race evenly. But if you’re the type of person who needs to know, feel free to peruse the results here. My splits for all four laps were within two minutes of one another (one minute, if you factor out the minute I spent watering trees before the end of the first loop). That level of consistency over such a long distance leads me to believe I had a bit more in the tank and that with some actual training, I might not suck at this stuff in the not-so-far-off future.

Post-script: Ari ran a strong 25k and carried on to finish her first 20 mile run and thusly missed me finishing. I appreciate a girlfriend who skips me finishing my race so she can get her shit done. I appreciate more that she didn’t make a big deal out of it, because, ultimately, it’s not. It’s a baby step in the right direction. Check back say in August and see if there have been several more steps that way. I’ve got a busy year planned out, ambitious too. But back to wishes and fishes and all that crap, and now it’s time for bed.

Mark, out.


February 13, 2017 at 10:45 pm Leave a comment

Umstead 100(sortakinda) race report

A few Saturdays ago, I had the pleasure of lacing up my shoes and once again toeing the line at the Umstead 100 mile endurance run. Having done this back in 2012 (to very happy results) and last year (to somewhat less happy but still pretty positive results), and with a good few months of training in my legs, I was optimistic that my experience and fitness would carry me to a PR and maybe more. Umstead holds a special place in my heart (both the park and the race) as it was basically the first thing I fell in love with when I moved here five years ago (well, that and Fullsteam). And having done so well at both the marathon and the 100 in 2012, the memories of both those races fuel many a run where I’m feeling less than my best. It’s also a bit of a gathering of ultrarunner friends both near and far that I may not have seen in a while, which this year was both an exciting and an annoying thing. Friday’s pasta dinner allowed me to catch up with one of the legends of this sport and race, and one of my personal heroes, Serge Arbona. The two of us and his son had spaghetti and meatballs and talked about training and life and that was nice. I also had to see my terrible, awful, no good, very bad ex-girlfriend but fortunately was able to avoid her.
I got a pretty good night’s sleep Friday night. Almost too good. The race starts at 6 am Saturday. I set a few alarms on my phone to go off between 4:37 and 4:48 (I’m weird with alarms, whatever). UNFORTUNATELY, I forgot that I had set them all to go off ONLY Monday through Friday. Whoops. Fortunately I awoke from some weird dream involving sand castles, Chargrill milkshakes, and Mario Kart at 4:40 on my own. Damn that blue shell! I am not very organized and of course didn’t bother to get everything together BEFORE I went to sleep so I set about groggily getting all my stuff together and getting out the door. I ate “breakfast” on my way over which consisted of some almonds and a honey stinger waffle. When I got there, with about twenty minutes to spare (early by my usual standards), I downed a black coffee and did my business. Melissa found me at my car and asked me how I was doing. “Well, I have about ten minutes before the race and I’m looking for something to pin my bib with,” was my kinda snarky answer. Sorry Melis, it was early! I DID manage to get all my crap somewhere closeish to the start area, and get my water bottle filled, shoes tied, number pinned, etc etc and get to the start line with about a minute to spare. Val, who selflessly offered to crew me for the race, met me around there and fortunately she said she’d move all my stuff somewhere closer to the course and have stuff ready for me after the loop. Cool. I said hi to Serge, saw Dan Lenz who gave me a big bro-hug, and basically we were off.
It wasn’t raining like the weather people had promised. Instead, it was actually kinda warmish and very humid. I was wishing it would just drizzle actually. The start is exactly like the marathon start, climbing up the gravel road out of Camp Lapihio. Two guys “blasted” off to the front… I use air quotes because unless you are a handful of people (none of whom were at this race) there is no real “blast mode” happening at the start of a 100 mile race. Serge and I settled in a few steps behind them. And that’s basically how it stayed for the first few miles. The beginning of a race of this length is always kinda weird. I was sorta tired but fighting off the adrenaline surge that comes with finally doing something I’ve been training for and thinking about for months. So I was very glad to have Serge’s company early on. We ran along the bridle trail at what felt like an easy jog and I could sense some runners maybe pacing off us as they were just a few steps behind us with seemingly no desire to go by. We slowed at the unmanned aid station and I grabbed a gel and the guys behind us absolutely slowed down too. It was kind of amusing to me, no one wanted to go by Serge because his reputation preceded him. At the first aid station, about 7 miles in, Serge ducked off to go to the bathroom and I was now on my own.
The Turkey Creek section was next and I was feeling spry so I actively had to hold back and not bound up the inclines. I had myself sorta powerhiking up them and then taking the downhills a little faster than otherwise. It felt great, I was nailing my plan. I came in from the first loop in about 1:51ish,in 3rd place, within striking distance of two guys I didn’t think were about to run sub-15, right as planned , feeling fine. I swapped out water bottles, grabbed some watermelon and two salt pills and was on my way. Unfortunately I shoved everything in my mouth at once and as I went to bite into the watermelon I chomped the salt pills and they ruptured and I instinctively spit them out. Whoops. Ugh. I had some coconut water so electrolytes weren’t too much of a concern. Oh but to think I was so full of confidence and excitement.
The first chink in the armor came as I was going around the airport turnaround. I burped and all I tasted was the spaghetti sauce from last night’s dinner. Hmm. Ok, weird but whatever. My stomach felt a little sloshy but I didn’t think much of it. That is until we got to the first unmanned aid station, whereupon I ducked into a portapotty and proceeded to spend 5 minutes in there throwing up and… other stuff. I was kind of annoyed but also hopeful that that would be the end of it and I didn’t lose THAT much time, considering the race was still young. Ha! In the ensuing 2-3 miles to the far aid station I threw up another half dozen or so times. Yup. All of a sudden the act of running was causing an all out rebellion in my stomach. I got to the far aid station and didn’t really know what to do. I think I took a salt pill, I know I asked for some stomach stuff but all they had were Tums. I downed some knowing it wouldn’t do much if anything. It didn’t. Right before the big bad hill on Turkey Creek I lost it again. It seemed to be a pattern — I would run for about ten minutes and then my stomach gave up and emptied whatever was left (mostly the water and gatorade I had just put in it). It sucked. My legs were like ‘WTF dude let’s GOOOOOOO’ and I just… couldn’t. We’ve all been there I’m sure. But I had about 80 miles staring me in the face. I knew that I had ZERO desire to spend the next 80 miles following this pattern so when I came in at the end of my second loop, mentally I was done. At some point on this loop it started pouring so I was also soaked and my feet were sloshing in my Launches but that didn’t matter much to me. I got done with the loop and told Val that I would probably be a while up there. Mentally, I was already checked out. I went into the lodge and undressed, put on dry stuff, but I didn’t go back out. Instead I waited for my friends who were coming in about an hour. I waited for Serge to come in at the end of his 3rd lap. I was done.
And really, we can end this here. I ran two loops at Umstead, much MUCH slower than many two loops I’ve done in training. I threw up more than I have in any race ever. I quit and took a four hour break. Four hours (and like 6 hot dogs) later I decided I felt ok enough to get some more running in. I was planning on being there til my friends finished, I might as well get some miles in. So I set out on lap number 3, and the pressure of competing for the win off, I just enjoyed it. Said hi to most people. Toward the end of the loop, coming up Graylyn I came upon another friend of mine from Brooklyn, Mary, and ran/walked the rest of the way in with her. She was struggling so I decided to do my fourth loop with her and her pacer. It was much more entertaining than doing it by myself. And then, for good measure, I did a 5th loop with her. So I finished up my “failure” with 62.5 miles, the slowest 62.5 miles I’ve ever run, and lots of laughs.
Lots of people were like, “You have soooo much time to do your last three loops, get out there!” To which I chuckled and responded, “yeah, I’m good.” I dunno. I don’t have that suffer gene that most ultrarunners do I guess. The thought of spending another 6-7 hours “running”, in the dark and the cold overnight just to say I finished 100 miles held absolutely zero appeal to me. There were plenty of people who did just that and I applaud them, they are mentally tougher than I. And I am 100% ok with that. For me, having been there twice and knowing what it entailed, I had nothing to prove to anyone, myself in particular, and was perfectly content with my 100k training run. There will be more down the road. I don’t even know why I wrote this up, except that some people asked about it and now I don’t have to repeat myself over and over. I COULD talk about how it’s been an exceptionally stressful start to the year, how I while the running and lifting and whatever people qualify as “training” has gone well, my personal life has been kind of shambles (more than just partially self-inflicted mind you). I’ve been suffering really badly with anxiety and panic attacks, my mind racing when I lay down to go to sleep with thoughts about things I could have and should have done differently in certain situations, it all snowballing into more than a few sleepless nights and lots of tears. I’m a work in progress on all fronts. We all are. This is starting to sound A LOT like excuses, and it’s not. My personal, romantic, etc mistakes and sadnesses did not ruin my race at Umstead. Missing a particular person did not cause my stomach to repeatedly empty its contents two and a half hours into a race I otherwise felt really great at. Nope. Just a crappy day, literally and figuratively. As I have learned, in life and in running, there are days like this. And fortunately I have experience days that are diametrically opposite of these, filled with the sort of feelings you know even in that moment you want to lock away inside and never forget how it feels, both in running and in life. Life goes on, it’s just a race. If you read this drivel, I owe you a beer.
Mark, out.

April 25, 2016 at 8:46 pm 2 comments

Umstead trail marathon disaster report

This is, ostensibly, a running blog but clearly I have curated it lately. Or really, I’ve razed the fucking thing to the ground. This blog started back when I thought I was someone worth reading about. I have since learned that self importance is bullshit.  Ego is bullshit. That most of what I do is bullshit that only a handful of people care about and I am no great shakes. That is quite alright with me.

So what is the point of this? Well I ran a marathon this past Saturday and it was the worst marathon I’ve ever run and a bunch of people have asked me about it so I’m writing this so that I can point them here instead of talking about it. And also I’m writing this because aside from my therapist and my journal I have no outlet for this sort of shit.

I ran Umstead because Kim and Jason Page are wonderful, kind, generous human beings and allowed me to. Much like most times I’ve run the Umstead marathon, which happens to be my favorite race on earth, I was gifted an entry by the kindness of Bull City Running Company. I have been training for the Umstead 100 mile run and so my marathon legs are… lacking. However, I certainly possess the ability to cover 26.2 miles and have more than a few times in the past few months and thus felt good going into Saturday. What a fool!

It did not go so well. I showed up ready to run. I have had a solid stretch of training that I will not bore anyone with but suffice it to say I have been running, both long and hard (obligatory that’s what she said) for the last few months. So 9 am Saturday rolled around and I was on the front line next to superwoman, err, Lorraine, and as we got the start command, I ran. The first few miles were completely uneventful. We went up the same way we will at the 100 miler, we turned, we went onto the Company Mill single track. I held back because I felt ok and I didn’t want to hurt myself. Jay was there and we were chatting like it was just some regular old Saturday morning long run.

So far so good. But then I came upon mile twelve-ish. Right around the first time I came upon the wonderful paradise aid station, my quads decided they had had enough of the day. Somewhere on Graylyn I remember Ronnie telling me he saw a hitch in my giddyup. This was not inaccurate. There was a hitch in my giddyup. And it just got worse. By the halfway point my quads started cramping like a mofo. And it just got worse from there. At times, I was crumpled up on the side of the trail, beating on my vastus medialus like it had done something seriously offensive to me. It cramped like it had not cramped in years, since the first time I attempted to run 50k in DC. It cramped like it did on the side of the George Washington Parkway in 2009, total lock up.

Anyway, the important stuff is that I “ran” ok for about 12-13 miles, and even at 16 miles, I was still on pace for a 3:30 finish. And then the wheels came off and everything went to shit. I first noticed a cramp-y feeling near the paradise aid station on the way out. I don’t know specifically what mile that was but it was earlier than it should be in a marathon. I grabbed a lei to help me remember that things should be fun but it didn’t help; nothing was fun. I walked the uphills not because I was tired but because if I attempted to run them, my quads seized up and would not relent. Hell, the flats and downhills were bad enough. Everything sucked and I just wanted to be done. And eventually, I was. Three hours and fifty-four minutes after I started I ran through the finish line. By several minutes, a personal worst.

Blah, blah, blah something about building character or something noble. Guys, here’s a secret, there is NOTHING remotely character-building about this run. I did not learn a goddamn thing about myself from suffering for almost four hours. Sure, I had to dig deep into my well of suck it up to not say fuck it and be done but to be honest, the way the course is set up, it would have been pretty inconvenient to quit early, so part of the reason I finished was just that it made sense… my car was at the finish so I was going to have to go there anyway. There is absolutely nothing impressive or noteworthy about this and I feel kind of silly even spending this many words writing about it. Ultimately, I ran a race and I finished and it was one of the worst race performances I’ve ever had and, hey, what do you know, life goes on.

And that’s the thing of it… life has a way of putting things in perspective. I can handle the marathon going poorly because there is plenty in my life right now that this race pales in comparison too. Running is nice, I like it, I do it, I will continue to do it, and I have some big-ish goals even. But it’s not an all encompassing thing to me, it does not define me, it is not where I derive my self-worth from. I have enough outside of running to stress the fuck out about; last week I got to have a nice, longer-than-expected jog in the woods.

Mark, out.


March 11, 2016 at 12:57 pm Leave a comment

Hinson Lake guest post

Hi there! This is Katie, Mark’s crew chief extraordinaire. Mark gave me permission to guest post about our experience at the Hinson Lake 24 hour.

We had been planning on arriving late because Mark had to work Saturday morning and I had gotten drafted as a volunteer  Fortunately his event got canceled very last minute due to rain and we got to pick up our other crew member, Shuriah, and head down hours earlier than expected. We arrived just before 11 AM, Mark grabbed a number and started running.  Because of the schedule conflict and other things Mark hadn’t actually trained for a 24 hour and was planning to use this more as a long run.

Shuriah and I set up towards the end of the loop, before the rotary building and the check in/aid station.  It had the benefit of being very close to the car.  For an ultra I really liked the set up here: a 1.52 mile loop around the lake, with some nice views and a mix of sand, hard pack trail, and boardwalk.  The aid station was setup after a bridge and one of the lake and was also near the rotary building with indoor bathrooms.

The good part of the short loop is you see your runner often, there’s much less suspense in between visits then a longer loop or point-to-point.  This could probably work against a fast runner like Mark in some cases but it ended up working out pretty well here.  He stopped almost every loop for a swig of coconut water and a bite to eat.  Mark has a tendency to underfuel so fueling has been one thing we’re trying to work on, but he did great here taking almost everything I offered for the first few hours.  I was happy about that because it meant a lot less stress than worrying if he was eating enough and if he was going to crash.

Mark has been running shorter but faster runs lately so he went out really quickly.  Much too quickly for an ultra, maybe even if you’re not doing 24 hours. We kept telling him to slow down and he said he was trying to listen but he busted out almost 32 miles in 4.5 hours (all times super approximate, I don’t keep super strict track during the event).  He stopped to use the bathroom at this point and then we walked a lap while discussing strategy.  At that point we agreed 90 miles would be a good upper limit.

I did enjoy the ability to walk a couple laps with him.  The trail was nice in the daylight.  It was perhaps a little narrow for the number of runners present, crew and what not.  All places were sufficient for a runner to pass a walker provided the walker was paying attention.  Which we tried! Its really just wide enough for two people in many spots so it does require some mindfulness to let the fast people pass.  Also the sand was annoying at a walking pace, gaiters are a good idea for this race.  It seems like it would still be good in the rain if the sand drained ok too.

At the end of the lap we walked he went out and started cruising even more, stopping to see us less.  The walking lap made him feel a lot more energized.  Shuriah and I passed the time very companionably. We hadn’t met previous so we got to know each other and I told her pretty much everything I know about the fine art of crewing for an ultrarunner.  I’m still learning but it was probably an astounding amount of information nonetheless.   She’s a non-runner so we had to cover fueling, hydration, temperature control, and how to tell when things are starting to go downhill.

We also chatted with runners coming in, offering a little encouragement but mostly laughing and joking.  The entire race was very personable and this was a fun environment.  I was glad to have company, so Shuriah, the runners, and Mark’s fast laps made the hours pass very quickly. We were quite fortunate that it didn’t rain the entire time we were there, although we did have a tornado watch and some distant lightening.

Around 68 miles Mark and Shuriah walked a lap, it was already dark.  We had been able to see his form tightening up, after 55 miles or so it suddenly looked a lot less smooth.  The second walk loop didn’t have the impact that the first did, and after some more running he walked his final two laps for a grand total of 80.56 in about 12.5 hours since we had arrived.  We endorsed his decision not to press on a bit further given his form.  The point of this race was to get some miles and not wreck him so bad he needed weeks to recover.  Anything over 60 miles has generally resulted it a longer recovery time.

Overall it was a very enjoyable race.  Mark did struggle not to get caught up in the competition and excitement of racing, but overall I think this experience will fit in very nicely for his next A race.  It was nice to see him having fun at a race for once too, often as a competitive ultrarunner the last miles are a grim sort of determination.  I know he really appreciate all the shout outs from you blog readers that were there too, he often gets caught up in the task and focusing so please don’t mind if he’s not super cheerful at the next race you see him at – he’ll still appreciate it and make an attempt to catch up with you after.  I was proud of his performance, but then I always am.

I think I prefer a distance race to a 24 hour race, I like the whole being done when you’re done and not just counting the hours.  Still, I did really enjoy this particular race and I’d be happy to crew there again.

Mark will probably post his own version of this race report later.  Meanwhile, if you do ultras, tell me what your crews pack to eat while they wait on you.  I get so sick of sandwiches and since I’m generally traveling to his races its whatever we can buy the night before.  I also hate leaving to run and grab something so I like to pack and settle in for the duration.  Any ideas?

Thanks for reading!

Katie, CCE

September 30, 2012 at 6:59 pm 3 comments

2012 3 Days at the Fair 12 Hour Race Report

This past weekend I ran the 12 hour race at Three Days at the Fair. The race is one of many races held at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in northwestern NJ. There are also 72, 48, 24, and 6 hour options that start as early as Thursday morning. Last year, Phil McCarthy set the American record for 48 hours at the race and it seemed like he was coming back this year to do it again. I decided to do the race for a few reasons. It was six weeks after Umstead so hypothetically I’d have enough time to recover and see what sort of shape I was in. It was held at night (9pm Saturday to 9am Sunday) and I’ve never run through the night before so I figured it would be good to get some experience with that prior to the 24 hour races I’ll be attempting later this year. And it was in NJ, which meant I culd go home for Mother’s Day weekend and my family could actually come see me run an ultra.

This won’t be as long as some of the tomes I’ve written about other similarly long races. There’s really not THAT much to say and I don’t feel like rehashing every one of the 98 laps I completed. If you’re the kind of person who likes to read the spoilers, I ran a lot. 84.06 miles to be exact. And I won. By about 21 miles. For that, I got a cool ceramic trophy thing that I had to leave at my parents house because there was no room in my bag to fly home with. I also got pretty tired. And sore.

A slightly more elaborated version of events:

Friday night I got back to LI late-ish, after working almost 10 hours. I jogged around the neighborhood with Scott and went to bed much later than planned. Saturday was weird, I didn’t really know how to prepare for running all night. So I slept as late as I could, which turned out to be about 10:30am. I figured maybe I could nap later (never happened). Getting out the door with my family is ALWAYS an adventure and this was no different. The four of us were on the road for NJ shortly after 2 and arrive around 4-4:30. It was pretty warm at the fairgrounds and I saw only a few runners trucking away. I tried to guess which ones were doing which races based on how fresh they looked. Check in, get a really sweet jacket, head to a nearby diner around 5 for my ‘last meal’ and then Walmart for some last minute supplies (pepto and Boost, both of which would come in handy later… FORESHADOWING!!!). We got back to the fairgrounds around 7 and I just relaxed, in the car, then by the race, going to the bathroom, going over my stuff, whatever to kill some time. With about a half hour to go before the start I began getting ready in earnest, changing into my race gear, going to the bathroom, A&Ding (yes, I turned it into a verb), shoes (I was wearing a brand new pair of Brooks Green Silences, not exactly the first shoe that comes to mind when thinking about running for 12 hours but I wanted to go fast for the first few hours and I knew that was a good shoe to do that in), going over the plan with my family, etc. With three minutes to go I went over to the start area where the other dozen or so 12 hour racers were assembled. One last pee and check on my laces and I got ready to go.

At 9pm sharp, we were off and running. To fully describe how the race went, and in what context I’m evaluating it after the fact, I suppose it would be helpful to know what my goals and expectations were going into it. I was less concerned about actually running the 12 hour race than I was about hitting certain intermediate distances. What I REALLY wanted to do was run a fastish 50 mile split, and hopefully hold on for 100k. After that, I was hoping I’d have about 4 hours left and I’d just relax and do whatever I could for the remaining time, enjoying myself and experiencing what it’s like to run overnight AND be pretty wrecked (as I was sure I would be after the early push). With that in mind, I bolted off the line like I was running a marathon. Within seconds I could tell I was waaaay out ahead of everyone, and I’m sure I was getting more than a few curious and WTF looks from everyone, runners and spectators alike.

All the races are run on the same ~0.86 mile loop around part of the fairgrounds. There’s minimal elevation change (a slight incline near the start/finish and a slight decline right after, the rest is essentially flat). Most people find the prospect of running in tiny circles horrifying but I actually like it, primarily because it makes logistics simple and I didn’t need to run while holding anything. Anyway, on the first loop, I was cruising along and then I promptly got myself lost. Yes, I got lost. On a 0.86 mile, well lit loop. That’s actually probably the most impressive thing I did the entire race! I realized my folly when I looked at the Garmin and saw I had almost run a mile. With no lights or finish area or runners in sight. Whoops! Angrily I backtracked, looking for another human being or sign of where to go. Initially I couldn’t see any. Finally I saw where I had missed the turn and went the right way. I finished the first loop behind a few runners who were probably pretty surprised to see me passing them after one lap, as clearly I wasn’t going THAT fast.

There’s really not that much else to write about. For the next few hours I was cruising along right around 7:00 pace. Early on, the whole family stayed up and helped out. They’d hand me water or coconut water or a gel or whatever I asked for and pick it up on the other side of the bathrooms that we lollipopped around. It went pretty smoothly for the most part. I split about 3:15-16 for the first marathon+ and at that point I’m sure most people assumed I was an idiot who had no idea what he was doing and would blow up. Even my mom told me I was going too fast at one point. I felt pretty good, and I was moving well, and I knew it would suck later but that wasn’t the main issue. On the other hand, there IS something exhilarating and motivating about knowing that everyone is just waiting for you to explode. It’s a feeling I’ve gotten familiar with the past few months, trying to push myself to prove these hypothetical doubters wrong. It’s a racing style I know Pre would approve of. It’s some kind of fun.

Anyway, I had one bathroom trip a little before 50 miles, but I downed some Pepto and it didn’t seem to become a bigger issue like in Georgia. I think I split around 6:30 for 50 miles, a little slower than planned but it was also a little over 50 miles and I had run some bonus distance on that first lap. So, right on. A little before I got there though, I started having the familiar top of left foot, left ankle pain/soreness and that was annoying. Everything else felt pretty good but the pain was persistent without ever escalating to the point where I needed to stop. It was after 3am and I was experiencing a sort of getting tired that I don’t really think is completely attributable to running. I was getting tired like I do nowadays when sitting on the recliner watching tv at 1am on the weekends. A more full body tired. Running at night is tough. Of course, I had forgotten any 5 hour energy or other caffeine product. Oh well. I held things together pretty well through 100kish, which I hit around 8:20-8:30 (?). I think. Close enough. I had slowed but I hadn’t blown up completely. The pain in my foot/ankle had actually subsided some. People were still being very encouraging as I went by, which is a really cool aspect of races like this. Everyone is out there doing their thing and truckin away and everyone is SO encouraging and friendly and supportive. I just hope I didn’t come across as a bit of a cold jerk as all I really mustered most of the time was a thumbs up and/or a thanks. I get a little single-mindedly focused and spaced out sometimes running. Some people were actually calling out my name as I passed, which was neat, as I didn’t really recognize anyone so they either 1)knew who I was already which is cool or 2) asked about me at the start/finish. Or my mom went around telling everyone how awesome her son was, but she and my brother went to sleep in the car fairly early on so I figured that unlikely.

Dad was a freakin rockstar. He stayed up THE ENTIRE TIME, every loop having something ready for me, bearing the full brunt of my increasingly decreasing enjoyment of what I was doing and the rising level of overall surliness I was beginning to display. The last 4ish hours were… well, they happened. And that’s about all I can really say about them. I continued to move and complete laps. I had another, longer, bathroom stop and kinda cramped up a bit. I wasn’t going as fast as I had been, nor was I going as fast as I probably COULD have been, but I didn’t care. The sun came out and I was ready to be finished. I began doing some sketchy mental math to figure out the bare minimum effort I’d need to put forth to complete 80ish miles. My mom woke up and she was cheering and I felt bad that she was wasting that energy on me. Dad began asking me what I wanted on the next laps and I kept responding, “to be finished.” It wasn’t even worth a chuckle. With a little less than an hour left I told my dad I’d do two more laps to get to 80.something and then walk a lap or two and be done. That happened. And then I kinda powerwalked/jogged a lap and it wasn’t much slower than the previous few. I had about 29 minutes left and Rick, the AWESOME RD, told me three more laps. Well, balls. In my head, I didn’t really have a choice. So I picked it up a bit. And then at the end of THAT lap, two of the 72 hour runners started BOOKING! Like, FAST. And Rick told me to chase them. So I did. And wouldn’t you know it, I could still RUN. I ran the last two laps and finished with about 6:30 remaining on the clock. Mom told me to go do another and I knew that would be impossible. I was done. 84.06 miles.

I got out of my shoes and assessed the damage — swollen left ankle obviously, some blisters, some chafing, but ultimately nothing too bad. I got this really sweet ceramic trophy for winning. I met a lot of cool people at the awards and after. Sat next to Steve Tursi who also did Umstead and we talked for a bit. He was one of the ones who had been SUPER encouraging throughout the night and I told him how much I appreciated it. Melissa grabbed me before we left and we talked about how we’re doing some of the same races coming up (Finger Lakes and 20in24). My family had also made friends with Bill, the boyfriend of the women’s 12 hour winner, an Irish lass named Aoife who was also super impressive all day (and probably much nicer in general than I was toward the end of the race). She’s a bad ass who is doing Badwater, and I’m of course jealous about that. It’s funny how I had JUST wrote in my last post about loneliness and meeting people at ultras and all that semi-maudlin sounding nonsense and here I go making some friends. ME! Making friends! Miracles DO happen. I’m still as socially inept and shy as I always am, but ultrarunners are a much friendlier, welcoming group than the majority of people I see in public. It does feel more and more like this is a niche I might actually be able to fit in to, at least somewhat.

I know I mentioned it already but I just have to devote a paragraph to pointing out how ABSOLUTELY AMAZING my family was in this whole endeavor (and this is not just because I know you’re going to read this mom!). It was Mother’s Day weekend and they all drove out with me to NJ and helped me run around in circles for 12 hours overnight and brought such an enthusiasm the whole time. AND mom cooked my favorite, ravioli, Sunday evening. HER day and she cooked ME my favorite meal ‘to celebrate my victory’ or something like that. Dad, who is not a young man anymore, and who routinely goes to bed earliest of the four of us, and who is capable of falling asleep milliseconds after sitting in a chair, stayed up THE ENTIRE NIGHT. And not once looked annoyed or grumpy or anything negative. He was the biggest reason I was able to have as good a race as I did. I was SO HAPPY to have them there to see me do this, much moreso than I was about how I ran or anything like that. They’ve seen me race before, but not in a way that I feel suits me, and not in anywhere near the kind of shape I’m in now. Hopefully I can continue to put on a good show for them in the next few years, give mom something bigger to brag every single person in her phone’s contact list about. Thank you family, we may all be a bit insane but we are my favorite nonetheless.

Mark, out.

May 16, 2012 at 8:55 pm Leave a comment

2012 Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run Race Report

On Saturday I ran the Umstead 100 mile Endurance Run. It was my first 100 mile race ever.  But to accurately and fully write a recap of this race, I need to go back some beyond four days ago. Back to last June when I went to a Baltimore Road Runners Club picnic. It was there that I talked some with Serge Arbona, mostly about the races he’d done and the ones he had coming up. For those who don’t know, Serge is one of the most accomplished ultrarunners around (and a REALLY nice guy to boot!). I was only a few weeks away from moving to North Carolina and he joked that I should come pace him at Umstead next year, as I was going to be living close by. At the time I had never run more than 31 miles but somehow a seed had been planted. Fast forward to September 7th, the day registration was opening up for this year’s race. Umstead tends to fill up very fast, like five minutes fast. I happened to have a bit of a break at work at noon when registration was set to open. I decided that I would try to register. Whether I got in or not I would take as a sign from the universe on how to proceed going forward. As luck would have it, right around 12:02pm, I was officially registered to run. At that point I had still hadn’t run an ultra since the 50k disaster in DC in November of 2009. But if I didn’t want to waste my money, I was going to run my first 100 miler in a few months.

Fast forward a bit. I ran some longer races last year, to mixed results. I got some experience and miles on my legs. I got a little fat and out of shape by the time I ran Weymouth Woods in January. Fortunately, something clicked after that race. Despite being sorta fat and out of shape I ran reasonably well and reasonably even splits and recovered quicker than I probably ought to have. I guess I made up my mind there to get my shit together and train seriously and maybe I’d be able to survive the whole ordeal.

I had some pretty good, encouraging results leading up to Umstead. But in the few down weeks leading up to the race, I was consistently more looking forward to seeing my friends and some runners that I admire than I was about actually running it. The race was more an excuse for everything else. I remember telling someone only a few days before that I was a little nervous that I wasn’t really feeling nervous or anxious at all. For once I felt like I had done everything right, or as right as I could manage making things up as I go along. By Wednesday of race week my legs felt better than they have ever felt. Ever. I was starting to get a little excited.

Thursday night Katie, my amazing crew chief, flew in from Boston. Despite having extremely limited ultra experience (as in, she crewed for me at Stone Cat and that was it), I was confident that my life was in the best hands possible. Friday morning Johnny showed up and Team Awesome was fully assembled. But the fun was just beginning. Part of why I was so excited about this race was who else was coming down to RUN it. In addition to Serge, Christian was coming down to crew/pace him. As was Dave Ploskonka, another very accomplished ultrarunner from Baltimore who I met when we both paced the 10 miler there last June and then I crewed him at Hellgate last December. Those two I knew, and look up to a great deal as both have run some incredible races and have a ton of knowledge and experience and bad-ass-ness to their credit. In addition to them, last year’s race winner, John Dennis, was running. So were a couple other guys who ran very fast times last year. And Mike Morton, who had already run 13:18 in Florida in January and almost broke the American 24 hour record last September (running 163+ miles). In short, there were A LOT of really good runners there and with a course that is entirely runnable, I was pretty excited to see what would happen.

Friday was a bit of an adventure. Dave’s car got towed in Baltimore so he was having a rough start to the weekend but DID manage to get down here in time to suffer through what was apparently not the most enthralling pre-race briefing ever. We all missed that briefing because we had to drive out to Chapel Hill and pick up Serge and Christian from a mechanic. Apparently Serge’s car was shot. We got to the park a little after 6 and I got my race bib and after Serge and Christian got their stuff out of Johnny’s trunk, the three of us headed to my pre-race pizza place, Bella Mia. Dave joined us and we had a pretty relaxing, delicious dinner. A quick trip to Target and then it was home to get things prepped and get to sleep. Only hours away from the race and I still wasn’t very keyed up. Instead Dave and I were sitting around joking about all sorts of stuff and I was feeling extremely loose and relaxed. I even managed to sleep relatively well.

4 am my alarm went off and I got up easily. Thanks to Katie’s packing the night before, all I really had to do was eat a small bowl of cereal, go to the bathroom, get dressed, and gather my belongings to get out the door. We were all in Johnny’s car and headed to the park around 5am and probably arrived around 5:30. It was drizzling a little but not obnoxiously so. It actually felt a lot like the morning of the Umstead marathon, so I took it as a good sign. I got my Brooks Pureflows on, grabbed my duffel bag and headed up the hill to the start/finish area. It was a pretty crazy scene up there. With 280-some people registered, the start area was extremely crowded with runners and volunteers and crew. I was more than a little overwhelmed and for the first time, feeling some nerves about what I was about to attempt. Instead of trying to digest the magnitude of running 100 miles, I focused on the steps I needed to take to get to the start. I got to the bathroom and applied my A&D ointment (which I FINALLY remembered to thank Dave for giving me that advice, LIFESAVER!), and got my singlet on. I found a spot in the woods to take care of some business. With about three minutes to go I was at the start line, with Johnny and Katie around me. I tied my shoes and then with about 30seconds I worked my way toward the front where I found everyone I expected – Serge, David, Mike, John, and a couple other people I didn’t immediately recognize but who looked fast. This was it. I looked around and spent a moment just enjoying the calm before things got started. I switched my headlamp on and heard them count down. GO!

The race

The nice thing about Umstead (or the awful thing depending on your perspective) is that the 100 miler consists of eight 12.5 mile loops, all of it on the bridle trail, except for the half mile or so stretch that runs between race headquarters and the bridle trail that is run at the start and end of every loop. The bridle trail is made up of extremely well packed gravel (I described it to Johnny early in the week as ‘NCR trail with some hills’) and every step of the course is runnable. Most of the first few miles are flattish, some downhill, some uphill, nothing too intense. There’s a brief section from a little after mile 7 to a little after mile 9 that has some short, steepish ups and downs, and that’s it. I don’t know exactly how much I’ve run the course but I was certain that no one in the field had run more miles on it than I have in the past few months. While knowing what to expect isn’t as important as being in good shape, it definitely was a mental help to know what was coming and when. Doing my first 100 miler, the less surprises, the better as far as I was concerned.

So the race. Yes. We started by running up the park road that led out of camp. Because it was dark I couldn’t quite make out who was who but someone I figured correctly to be Morton darted out quickly ahead, followed closely by Serge and John Dennis. I was briefly up there and I know I said something to Dave before he pulled away too. By the time we hit the bridle trail I was probably in 6th and I was also already sick of my hat which I took off and hung on the gate. Another one or two guys went by me on the airport spur out and back. It also started raining a little harder, enough that as I passed the gate, I ran over and got my hat off it and put it back on, this time ON TOP of my headlamp. The next forty or so minutes were pretty uneventful. I got passed by a few more guys. I think by the time I hit mile 3, I was in 8th or 9th. I had no idea how fast I was running; I was wearing my regular old watch because the rain would mess with the garmin (in retrospect, I think this might have been a good thing). All I knew was I was running what felt pretty relaxed (and if I was being honest with myself, maybe a touch faster than planned). I also felt pretty flat which was initially disappointing. My legs didn’t feel that peppy, and I felt a little sleepy actually. I decided it wasn’t worth worrying about and that when the sun came up I’d probably feel better. As I ran down corkscrew hill, someone I recognized as Jonathan Savage ran by me and as we made our way up the hill on the other side of the bridge, I went by him again. I could say lights waaaaay up ahead already and thought to myself that I should mention to Katie when I got back that somebody was probably gonna crash and burn later.

About 6 miles in, it got light enough to take my headlamp off, FINALLY. I hate that thing. I left it at the aid station just before 7 miles and was off. The first time through the Turkey Creek hills was uneventful. I saw three guys who were waaaay ahead earlier in the loop already starting to come back to me. This whole stretch I was constantly reminding myself NOT to push it on the hills, just relax and take them easy as it was VERY early. By the time I got back out onto Graylyn Road and the lovely mile-ish downhill stretch, I might have gone by another guy. On Graylyn I caught up to another runner who I think was Troy Shellhamer (who I knew had run almost under 16 last year and was probably looking to run even faster this year). We chatted very briefly about how fast some of the guys went out and he mentioned there was some really good runners this year and advised me not to get sucked up in going out too fast with them. It was a good reminder. After that I pulled away a little and continued on. I think the first time I noticed a mile marker was at mile 10 and I noticed I was right around 8:00 pace. Whoa. Not sustainable. BUT! I had exchanged some emails with Ray K about a week earlier and he advised me to go out right about how I was, shoot for a 6:40-7 hour 50 mile split and then try not to die too hard. Maybe not the BEST strategy for someone for their first 100 miler, but I wasn’t really interested in trying to ‘just finish’, I wanted to see how fast I could actually go. I promised myself that I was going to actually race this one. So things were either going to go awesomely, or they were going to get really ugly and be fucking miserable for a long, long time. I didn’t want any in between. I didn’t want mediocre.

Coming back in at the end of loop one, I felt fine. I had wanted to get done with the first loop and feel like I hadn’t really done anything yet and that was pretty much what happened. I had my nutrition plan working (coconut water, honey stinger chews and assorted gels every half hourish, supplement with water and salt at aid stations) so far. I saw a few guys coming out on their second loops as I was coming down the hill at the end of my first. Said hi to Dave who was probably a half mile ahead, and then met Katie and Johnny at the start/finish. I gave them my singlet and hat (both were too wet and would only get wetter and I worried about chafing). By my watch, the first loop took 1:41:47, a little fast but well within reason.

I re-stocked my gels, took a fresh handheld, and was off on number two in seventh place. There were a couple guys pretty close to me on the way in as I was going out. The second lap was fairly uneventful. The sun had come up but it was very overcast and still sort of drizzling. It actually felt really good to me and I kept hoping it would stay like this all day. Around 2 miles in, I came up on 6th place, who I recognized as Darian. He had also run the Triple Lakes 40 miler back in October. We chatted for a few miles before I pulled away around mile 4 (he went on to have a stellar first 100, running 18:25 for 10th place!). And that was really the only excitement for this lap. I couldn’t really see anyone else ahead of me, I was still running about the same effort, and was incredibly relaxed and calm. I think it was this lap (or maybe the third) that I saw Jessica, a teacher at my school who also runs and does Ironmans, at the far aid station. That was a nice surprise. As I came back in at the end of the lap, I noticed how much further along the three leaders, Morton, Dennis, and Serge, were, easily already a half hourish up on me. I said hi to Dave in about the same spot as I was coming in. I asked Johnny and Katie to move down to the bottom of the hill so I could tell them what I wanted coming in and grab it going back out. I think after this loop I had some candied ginger. My stomach wasn’t bothering me (and thankfully really didn’t all day) but I kept taking a couple pieces each lap as a preventative measure. Second lap took 1:40:12, and that wasn’t surprising because I had more pep now that it was daylight.

The third lap was my fastest somehow, but again, it was pretty even. I had no interest in trying to chase down the leaders. I was sticking to the plan and it was still very early (which makes me chuckle to write, I had already run a marathon, at essentially the same pace as my very first one four years ago, and it was EARLY). I DID realize a few miles in that I didn’t have enough gels to stick to my fueling plan, because I should have taken one when I came in. I didn’t really sweat it, just knew I needed to eat something more at the far aid station. I got in and out of that, forcing down some pretzels because it sounded like a good idea, and a banana (so I could tell Katie I was eating solid foods). I tried to stretch the gels and chews I had as far as they’d go on this lap and I relaxed on the hilly section. Despite that taking it easy, I came upon the guy in 4th place (I say 4th because unbeknownst to me, I had passed Dave at the aid station, he had been in the bathroom with stomach issues that unfortunately ended up torpedoing his race). At this point we were starting to encounter runners on their second laps too, but I recognized the guy in the green shorts as having been way ahead earlier. I was actually a little surprised because someone earlier had specifically mentioned that green shorts was fast and I also remembered right near the start hearing him talking with someone else that he was 2nd (?) at Uwharrie 40 this year. As I slowly went by up one of the early steep inclines I had a brief moment where I thought maybe I’ve actually been running a really stupid race all along because, really, do I have any business being this far up and passing people like that? It was a brief moment, because then I shut myself the hell up and continued on, at what felt almost like dawdling pace.

The rest of the loop was the same as the previous three. I noticed my legs felt eversoslightly heavier or tighter or something, but not alarmingly so. When I came down the hill I quickly told the Katie that I needed more of everything. Double it.  I hit my watch at 1:39:29 and headed out again. I chugged a Boost shake here, on Katie’s orders. It was a good idea, the calories definitely helped. I set off loaded up with two gels and two bags of honey stinger chews. They informed me that the only three ahead of me were the three leaders. I was incredulous, but didn’t bother staying around arguing. Right around 4.5 miles in, I heard footsteps coming quickly. One of the guys I had been seeing fairly close behind every lap had caught up and he was looking really strong. I’d later learn his name was Jim and he was from Albany. He mentioned running together for a little, to break up the monotony. I welcomed it, but also worried that he looked A LOT better and stronger than me right then and I didn’t want to burn myself out keeping up. The next few miles to the aid station were pretty pleasant as the conversation was a welcome distraction. I mentioned that it was my first 100 and he had previously done Vermont and when he asked what time I was shooting for I honestly had no idea anymore how to answer. I was nearly 44 miles in and if I kept up the pace, we’d break the previous course record. I was honest and said I figured I’d like to hang on enough to break 15 at this point and he had similar designs. Only about 6 hours in, we had ourselves a long day ahead still.

We got into the aid station together. I started dipping a boiled potato in salt and eating it which seemed like a good idea. He stopped for the bathroom and I continued on, figuring he’d catch up pretty quickly (I was right). We ran together for a good bit of the back section hills before he gradually pulled ahead. I was right that he must have been feeling better than me at that point and it would have been stupid trying to chase him down not even halfway into the race. I came in at just about 1:45 for a 6:46 50 mile split, which is a HALF HOUR PR (unless one counts the 7:00 50ish mile split at the 12 hour, in which case it’s only a 14 minute PR). I was really happy that I had managed to perfectly execute Ray K’s advice to go out between 6:40-7:00 for the first 50. The second part of that advice was essentially to hold on for dear life and try not to blow up TOO much. I was definitely starting to get a little tired but not as badly as I imagined. Johnny also surprised me by jumping in to pace me here, which was definitely welcome.

Johnny was great to run with. I was quickly starting to not enjoy running. This probably had a lot to do with the rain stopping and the sun actually coming out. Things warmed up quickly and the humidity seemed to linger. My comfort level quickly dropped. He kept reminding me to drink, and made sure I was eating. I wasn’t very talkative but that was alright. He also reminded me to relax into the hills, and not get too excited yet. I started cramping some, particularly my calves and some weird tendon-y thing on the front of my ankle (where it connects to the top of my foot). When we came into the aid station I was wondering how far back I had fallen from Jim. But as we left, I ran into him (he had changed from a neon green to a black New Balance singlet) and we ran together a little bit before he again pulled away.  I don’t recall anything much else extraordinary from this loop except I was starting to wish I could just call it a day after the loop and get credit for a 50 mile finish. Of course, neither Johnny nor Katie would allow that to happen. Neither would I but still, it’s nice to know your friends won’t let you back out of the stupid thing you started. We came in around 1:46 (~8:32 total), so even though I felt a good deal worse, I had managed not to slow considerably and Johnny deserves a lot of that credit.

Three laps to go. The mental math had started in earnest. If I ran 2:00 laps the rest of the way, I’d still have a 14:32 finish which would be pretty good, and if I slowed even more I could probably hold it together to break 15. Johnny went out with me on the 6th lap too. We had gained on Jim on the back half of the fifth lap, he seemed to be struggling with the heat some too. I noticed as we ran along Reedy Creek trail that we had gained a considerable distance on the guys I assumed were immediately behind me, standings-wise. I also noticed that I hadn’t seen Serge or John Dennis as I was coming in from the last lap, wondering if they had slowed some. Morton, however, was continuing to hammer it. As for my lap, there were a few moments where I had to walk and shake out a cramp. Johnny was good about not letting me take too much time, only a few seconds. It was now legit hot out and I was going through A LOT more fluids. Aside from the main aid station before mile 7, there were a few unmanned water stops set up every few miles and I was now stopping to take a cup or two of water there. And I refilled my bottle at least once, possibly twice. I also stopped to pee around mile 3, the third time I had done so during the race. I was happy that while my urine was yellow, it was not dangerously neon or anything. Another buoying thought: while I was definitely gassy, burping and farting quite a bit, my stomach was cooperating and there were no warning signs that I was in imminent bathroom emergency territory. And that was mainly the story of lap 6. At some point I went past Jim (maybe it was at the aid station?) and didn’t seem him for the rest of the lap. It was hot and miserable, possibly the least fun of the whole race. The whole time I knew even when I finished, I’d still have almost a marathon left. As we came to the end, Johnny mentioned that he was stopping after this one. Apparently he was feeling kind of off too. If HE’S feeling off after TWO laps, shit, what’s gonna happen to me?! was probably a thought I had around then. We finished the lap in 1:54ish, I was in about a minute before Jim but needed a little time at the aid station and then I came back down the hill and saw my cousins and their kids. A big old group there just for me. According to Katie, this was the only time I smiled all race. It’s kind of blurry, I just remember coming down the hill and stopping. My cousin Bryan asked me how I was feeling. I replied honestly, “I’ve felt better.” Just a tiny understatement. My 3 year old cousin Greg was holding the bag with the orange slices and I remember grabbing into the bag for some while muttering to myself, out loud, “Fuck, fucking fuck, fuck fuck fucking fuck—“ And then an “oh shit” when I realized what I was doing within earshot of my 3 and 6 year old cousins. Someone told me that the only two ahead of me were Morton and Serge, that Dennis had dropped after 5 laps for some reason. That put me in 3rd.  On top of that, apparently Serge looked like he was starting to really struggle and I could maybe catch him. What. The. Fuck!? Was this real life? Was all this actually happening? And on that note, I chugged a 5 hour energy and was off again.

I remember immediately thinking to myself that I could now run 10 minute miles and still break 15. And also reminding myself that a 15:30 or so would not be anything to be embarrassed about. The first two miles, the airport spur, took about twenty minutes (including the stop for resupply). It was still hot and miserable and I was not happy. This was definitely the time where I thought to myself how I didn’t just never want to run another ultra again, I never wanted to RUN again, period. I just wanted to sit on my ass and do nothing. Jim had put some distance on me again and I was content to just hang on. I came down corkscrew hill and saw Josh and Shannon and maybe said something or maybe just grunted at them at that point. Right after the bridge after mile 4, I saw a group of people, a family, standing by where the trail forks and you could go right over to the lake instead of up the hill that the course goes. They were cheering and then, as I got closer, I recognized the tall blonde guy to be my friend Zane! He had said he was going to come cheer at some point and there he was, with his family in tow. And what’s awesomer, he jumped in and started running with me. PERFECT timing. He asked me how I was doing to which I responded flatly, ‘bad.’ Everything sucked. But we trudged up the incline and he talked and it helped take my mind off things for a bit. n

At the top of the incline the trail levels out and turns right onto Turkey Creek. There was an unmanned water station here, near the water fountains. As we were coming to it, I see a tall, shirtless runner in compression shorts. Christian. Again… what. The. Fuck. All I could manage was, “Christian?!” He looked at me a little downcast and mentioned that Serge was done. That he had never seen someone throw up quite that much. I looked up the trail a few more feet and there was Serge, looking much more miserable than I was feeling. My heart sunk. We were 80+ miles into the race and he was one of the runners I’ve looked up to, the guy who was a big reason why I was even running the race (with a goal of not letting him lap me) and I was about to go past him. It sucked, and I think I managed to say something that wasn’t totally stupid (or maybe it WAS totally stupid, but the intention was good) and Zane and I carried on. We came into the aid station and that’s where Zane said he was gonna turn around and run back to his family. I thanked him for getting me through that rough spell. Truth be told, I WAS feeling some better. As I started to leave the aid station, Jim’s girlfriend (who if I were giving out crew awards obviously Katie and Johnny would be #1, but she would have to be #2, or even 1b. She was a one woman operation and kept driving back and forth from the start/finish out to the second aid station where you have to hike in all day. That one’s a keeper fo sho. I digress) had a granola bar in her hand and looked at me and said, I should just give this to you to give to Jim. I saw him about a hundred meters up ahead and laughed and told her there was no guarantee I’d catch up to him. So we both ran up at him and I told her he’s in second place. She argued with me that he’s in 3rd but I knew I was right this time. She got him the granola bar and we headed onto the trail together. I told him that we were 2 and 3 now, that I had just passed Serge and he must have too without realizing it. This was officially crazytown in my head. Morton was going to win and break the course record, unless a snake got him or something (and even then I wouldn’t bet against him). Everyone else was basically in a race for second place. And by everyone else, I meant Jim and I because it appeared that everyone else had also succumbed to something or other that slowed them down.

Jim pulled ahead on the hills again and I stopped to refill my bottle and walk off another cramp. I was pleased in general that my feet still felt pretty ok. I knew the left little toe had the same blood blister that always occurs after a few hours running. My left ankle was also a little sore but nothing felt broken. I chuckled when I hit 85 miles right about 12 hours. Again. This time though, I HAD to keep running for another 15 miles. I reasoned that even 5 mph would bring me home in 15 hours now, and that thought was slightly mollifying. When I came out to Graylyn Rd, I realized I really had to pee. Rather than stop completely and risk really tightening up this time, I noted that no one else was around so I pulled down the front of my shorts and peed while walking forward. I was actually quite impressed with myself. At that point I also decided that if I had to take a crap, I would just crap my pants and worry about it later. It’s amazing how 12 hours of running and a bit of competitive fire can alter your idea of what is acceptable.

I finally finished up the lap in 1:56ish, right about 12:22 on the clock. I was thrilled to meet one of my primary goals – despite the fact that Morton was about to completely obliterate the course record by running a 13:11, he didn’t lap me! Looking at the results, it appears Jim and I were the only people who DIDN’T get lapped. Sicknasty. One of my only regrets from the race is not being able to tell Mike how bad ass he was and how inspiring it was to see him out there every loop, hauling ass. It was a good reminder that as bad as I felt running as hard as I was, someone was out there running faster and probably didn’t feel all that fantastic either. Digression over, I knew this last lap was make or break. Katie argued with me to take a headlamp. I told her no and stormed off. Jim had left about three minutes before me and really what choice did I have but to try to chase him down for 2nd? Unfortunately the first two miles of the lap were slow again. It was a struggle, a crampy struggle. I just made myself continue moving forward, as slow as necessary, but constantly moving forward. Right after the second mile, things started improving some. I kept muttering to myself, “empty the goddamn tank” and it seemed to be a good reminder.

I kept passing people on earlier laps and some of them would cheer and ask me if this was my last. I honestly didn’t have the energy to formulate recognizable words so I would just give thumbs up and grunt. I sincerely hoped my grunting didn’t come off as rude or anything, I just couldn’t think of words, and if I could, I wasn’t able to get them out. ‘URRNNGHHH’ was about the best I could do. I started making deals with myself, the evil sort I am known to make on training runs – just run to the first water station and you can powerwalk for a minute. Nope, haha, you have to keep running! Just run to the top of the mile 5 hill and then you can back off a moment. HAHA NO! YOU CAN’T! Any sort of downhill or flat I consciously tried to pick up the pace. I couldn’t see Jim up ahead and the thought that I could back off and still comfortably come in 3rd and under 15 started tracking across my mind but I had promised to keep the pedal down and that’s what I did. I was in and out of the far aid station in maybe 30 seconds, faster than the previous two laps. I hit the back hills as hard as I could, running every step this time, imagining all the miles and miles I ran over this very loop the past few months, all that work was for this day, this moment, there was no make-up race. I went right by the water station this time, my bottle nearing empty but adrenaline had me thinking I was fine to make it to the finish at this point. I grabbed the headlamp I had left there on the first lap. 3.5 miles to go. Out onto Graylyn. I ran that downhill as hard as I could, it felt like an all-out sprint, I was redlining. 2.5 miles to go. I hit the uphill hard too. I knew I just had this and cemetery hill and that short one to the finish left. I turned at the top. Maybe 2 miles to go less. 1.5. Cemetery hill. My mind was almost blank. I had run this very loop dozens and dozens of times and occasionally, the times when I was running it late in the evening, I’d imagine it was the last lap of the race and how that would feel. And here I was, ACTUALLY DOING IT! I crested cemetery hill and knew I HAD to put everything I had left into the final mile. I KNEW I wasn’t just going to break 15 hours, I was going to SMASH it. I was going to break 14:30! All the times I tried to imagine what it would be like had failed so miserably it turns out. My mind was just thinking push push PUSHPUSHPUSHGODDAMMITGOPUSHNOWGOOOOOOOOO! I was thinking about Johnny and Katie and how they had been out there all day long and how they’d probably be very happy to see me. I figured I was probably going to come up just short of Jim because if he had ANYTHING left, he was likely doing the same thing I was right now. And I was ok with that. And then I came up on Dave. He was coming in at the end of his sixth loop. He hadn’t been having a fun day but I guess seeing me pepped him up some and he started running with me. It was awesome to have someone to push me that last stretch. We were probably running close to 7:00 miles. It felt like I was flying. Finally, the turn off the trail onto the park road. Then into camp. Now it was just a steep downhill and get up the hill to the finish. People were clapping and cheering. I could SEE the red neon of the finish banner through the trees. Bottom of the hill. I yelled Johnny’s name because it was dark and I wanted them to know I was the one coming in now. I bounded up those steps. I don’t actually rememberfeeling them at all. I got to the top, only a step or two more. I remember throwing my water bottle down in some surge of emotion. I ran through the finish. 14 hours, 16 minutes, 25 seconds later, I was done. I had finished my first 100 miler. I was 3rdplace.

The immediate moments post-race are kind of a surreal dream sequence to me. I know I gave Johnny a big bear hug. And Katie. And Katie got my finisher’s buckle for me. I know I wandered over to the aid station and people were asking me what I needed. I think I grabbed a Gatorade. Someone asked what lap I was on. Katie interjected, HE’S DONE! It felt so good to hear that. Holy shit. Then it hit me. I had done it. I had taken my expectations, which were by most accounts on the ambitious side for someone running his first 100 miler, and I had obliterated them. I ambled toward the cabin and then I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably for a few moments. Johnny took a picture of me around this time that I think perfectly captures the moment, hopefully I can get it up here soon. I thanked the two of them profusely Without them, there’s no way I would have accomplished what I did.

Going into this race, I kept mentioning that I was more excited to see my friends and be around the race atmosphere. Of course once I got out on the course, I also wanted to do well. Sometimes you put in the hard work and sacrifice and suffer and still something happens and you have a bad race. And other times, everything, EVERYTHING comes together and you run one of the best races of your life. I was very fortunate that at Umstead, for my first 100 mile race, the latter happened. This recap is entirely too long as it is, so I will cut it here, at the end of my race; a logical place as any for stopping. I have a bunch more thoughts on everything, and pictures, and random musings as I am want to ramble about. I’m still sort of decompressing and recovering and getting my mind around things.

Mark, out.

April 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm Leave a comment

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