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 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.
Saturday morning I did something I haven’t done in almost three years. I ran an official marathon, the Umstead Trail Marathon. Since doing the National Marathon back in March of 2009, I’ve run the marathon distance or more plenty of times, most of those times coming in the past year or so, but have not actually run in an actual marathon race. I actually hadn’t planned on running THIS race either, but earlier this year the opportunity presented itself, as Bull City Running had some entries available. I figured that I would likely be doing a long run at Umstead anyway, so why not have some fun and make part of it a race.
Fast forward to this week. After the 10 miler last Sunday and the ensuing drive back to NC, I started the week off exhausted, which is why I slept for 13 hours from Monday evening to Tuesday morning. I spent the week acting like I wasn’t racing by doing back-to-back long runs Tuesday and Wednesday (29 at Umstead Tuesday, 21 on the Duke XC trail Wednesday) and followed that up with a track workout Thursday night. My “taper” consisted of running 5 easy miles Friday morning. The forecast for Saturday was somewhere between biblical rain and The End of the World. I woke up around 4am Saturday to the sounds of the promised rains. Rolling over, I briefly considered canceling my alarm for 6:45 and just sleeping in. But, I seem to have developed an affinity for suffering and misery so at a quarter to seven I was swinging my legs out of bed and going about the process of getting ready. This was actually the first race I’d be doing IN the Triangle area since moving here, and it was real nice not to have to either 1- travel hours the night before to someplace or 2- wake up REALLY early to drive an hour or so to the race site. This was basically in my backyard. Cereal, bathroom, dressed, supplies, bathroom, out the door around 8ish. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the rain seemed to have mostly abated and while still overcast and threatening looking, it seemed like a pretty nice morning for running.
I drove to my usual spot on Old Reedy Creek Rd, put on my Pure Grits, grabbed the handheld full of Perpetuem, and started to jog up to the start. It’s about 2.5 miles from the car to Camp Lapihio where the race start/finish was (and also where the 100 will start/finish, conveniently enough). I got there around 8:45 and immediately saw John Stiner. It was nice seeing a familiar face and we chatted before I realized I needed to go into the lodge and check in. As I was waiting the few minutes before the start, John asked me what my race plan was. I hadn’t really thought of anything specific, my two big goals were to not get injured (VERY big goal, especially with the early miles on wet, muddy singletrack and how much of a clutz I usually am) and to get a good long run in, everything else in my mind would be a bonus. I told John I was going to go pretty hard until I blew up and then suffer to the end. Most of my long runs at Umstead have been pretty comfortable and I feel relatively fine at the end, I wanted to suffer some today, because I’m sure I will at some point over the course of 100 miles.
I had to check in at the timing tent and then I ambled over to the right side of the starting line. As is often the case at races, it seemed to me like there were dozens of people who looked super fast and I figured if I ran about what I figured I would (3:15-3:20), I’d be happy with top 5-10 or so. Considering the week I’d had, I didn’t expect to be particularly competitive, or have my legs be able to hold on for 3+ hours at a hard effort. I said hi to Alicia and Alisha and then lined up about a row behind the front. There was a countdown and then we were off.
The start went up the road into camp, slightly uphill before turning onto the bridle trail for an abbreviated out and back on the airport overlook spur. Right away some guy in a yellow Fleet Feet singlet blasted out to the lead, well ahead of everyone else. Somehow I found myself in 2nd a few steps behind a group of guys. I could hear them chatting and I thought briefly that I should hang back. But then I remembered my goal — run hard — and just went with it. As we turned toward the bridle trail, one of the volunteers cheered out that she hopes we look as happy on the way back in (at the end of the race) as we do now. As we ran the airport spur out & back, it was hard to remember I was in a race. It was Saturday morning, I was running the bridle trail at Umstead, welcome to every. single. weekend. So I was saying hi and good morning to people as I passed them and instead of just saying hi back, or ignoring me which is much more typical, they were cheering and saying good job. It was a bit weird at first. At the turnaround right by mile one the leader already had a sizable lead and I was a few seconds alone in second. As I ran back up toward Company Mill, I began to pass the rest of the field. It’s kinda neat being up in the front of a race on an out & back because everyone starts cheering. Often I feel pretty bad because usually I’m too tired or focused to saying anything back but it was early so I was able to cheer for everyone else too.
Another mile or so and I was turning onto the Company Mill trail, the first stretch of single track. I couldn’t even see the leader anymore by the time I reached it. Instead of my usual caution and slow approach to running the hiking-only trails, especially the downhills, I let loose a little.The trail was a mess from the rain. It was very muddy and slippery in spots, especially the bridges (FORESHADOWING!) and I had to occasionally reign it in to avoid turning slips into outright spills. As I came off of Company Mill back on the bridle, the first aid station was there. I think this was the first time someone cheered for me by name. I didn’t see who it was but that was a lot cooler than “Go 221!” or “Good job runner!” There was a considerable downhill to the bridge on Graylyn and I again just ran hard. Especially on the bridle trails, all downhills basically meant sprint. At the bottom the course turned back onto single track, this time the Sycamore trail. This is the only stretch of the race I haven’t run on yet. It was basically the same as the rest of the single track I’ve run here, some roots, some rocks, rolling up and down, and it was very wet and muddy.
Coming off the trail and turning to go down a hill to the next aid station, I was about 5 miles into the race and at that point had no idea what time I was at (I wrapped my Garmin in seran wrap to keep it dry. I didn’t really care about pace or whatever, I just wanted it to keep track of time, mostly for the running I’d do AFTER the race, and I left my regular Timex which CAN handle rain at school over the weekend). Because it wasn’t really raining, I peeled off some of the wrap so I could see the face. I was apparently running right around 7:00s or just a bit slower apparently. I saw the leader motoring up the hill as I was coming down. At this point, I figured he already had about a 2-3 minute lead! I grabbed some water and took off up the hill. There was a line of runners coming into the aid station as I was leaving, probably only 20-30 seconds back. That was a bit depressing, to have been running relatively hard and everyone else was still right there. On the next stretch of the Sycamore trail, I was just hoping the shirtless guy who had been right behind me would hurry up and pass me already so I didn’t have to wonder when it would happen. I hit 7 miles in about 49:30 and a few moments later, I came to a bridge with some steps. I apparently took the first step too fast because my foot slid forward and I slammed my left shin into the step above. There was loud expletives being yelled for a few seconds. I hobbled off the bridge, checked my shin, decided it probably wasn’t broken, started jogging, stopped and checked it again, cursed at myself for being a careless dumbass, and then kept going.
By the time I was back on Graylyn I was saying to myself that I didn’t want to see anymore goddamn single track (and fortunately for me, I wouldn’t the rest of the race). I was now heading up the same hill I had run down a few miles earlier, my shin was a non-issue. This time at the aid station at the top, I grabbed a water and a honey stinger Ginsting gel. It tasted pretty good and I figured Honey Stinger products have been pretty good to my stomach. To that point I had just been sipping my Perpetuem every so often, and I had a package of honey stinger chews in my pocket for later. This portion of the race course, the Reedy Creek to Turkey Creek bridle trail, is the part of the park I am definitely most familiar with, having run it dozens of times over the past few weeks. The course ran down what is apparently called Corkscrew Hill, which makes sense as it winds around. Again, I was running hard down the hill. I was 9 miles in and I think the watch said something around 64 minutes, which seemed about right. I hit the bridge at the bottom and the long, gradual uphill began. Sort of like last weekend at Club Challenge, this hill didn’t feel particularly bad. In running the 100 course so much, I’ve come to actually enjoy this section, the uphill is never THAT steep, so I can just grind and not slow down all that much. I got to the top which is apparently the Trenton Rd aid station and everyone was cheering and again calling me by name. I did what I had started doing at pretty much every aid station (and would do at pretty much every aid station til the end), stopped to grab a cup (or two) of water and an orange slice. Tasty. I turned and started running the gently rolling Turkey Hill section.
Because this stretch is such a long out & back, on the left side of the trail I could see mile markers all the way up to mile 21. It helped break things up, first I’d come to the mile marker I was actually at, then some time later I’d see one in the opposite direction, always narrowing the gap. For the next 2ish miles from the aid station, down to the two paved bridges, I was just cruising. Around mile 11 I noticed I was right about 84 minutes which meant right on 7:00 pace. I knew that meant if I somehow held that, I’d run about 3:03, much better than I anticipated. I also figured I’d blow up at some point, probably on the next section. The next section is, on the Umstead 100 website, known as the sawtooth 79 because it’s about 2-2.5 miles of fairly steep ups and downs. I was going to treat it just like the rest of the race so far, plod along up the hills as hard as I could and bomb the downhills harder while catching my breath. Somehow, today the hills didn’t seem as bad as they normally do. I definitely slowed some on the ups but I think I made up for it on the downs. And while my legs were definitely a bit tired, they didn’t seem to be getting worse and cardiovascularly I was completely fine. There was an aid station around mile 13 and it was here that people started telling me how far back I was. I wanted to tell them I didn’t care at all, because I had no inclination on going any faster to try and catch someone so far ahead. Although I WAS surprised to learn I was only 4-5 minutes back, I figured the gap would have widened considerably more.
I hit the mile 13 marker right at 1:31. I was just about halfway but for some reason, mentally, I felt even closer to the finish then that. Back onto Graylyn and back down the hill toward the same aid station I was at about 9 miles ago. As I was turning to go down, the leader was heading back up Graylyn, so year, I figured about 4-5 minutes was accurate. I still didn’t care. I stopped again to grab another honey stinger gel and some water and an orange and was off. Before I got back to Graylyn I saw the same line of guys in roughly the same order coming back down. Again I was a little demoralized that while I was slightly further ahead this time, it was only by about 80 seconds. I didn’t take into account that I was feeling the same, if not better, than I had the last time I saw them. Actually, definitely better. In fact, as I turned back onto Turkey Creek trail, I was feeling better than I had at any point yet. And I was going slightly faster. The long back portion allowed me to see most of the field which was really cool. I was a little less vocal but tried to give some thumbs up and smile. It took me a little over 20 minutes to go from 13 to 16, which surprised me quite a bit. As I went hard down the last sharp downhill and came back to the narrow stretch, I realized I was almost back to the bridges and a lot further along than I realized. Cool.
It was a very gradual, mostly uphill stretch back to the Trenton Rd aid station. The whole time I was thinking mostly about the guys right behind me and figuring if they were running as well as they looked and I was running as slow as I felt, it was a matter of minutes before I got caught. I kept the hammer down and as I came back to the aid station, I could hear a trumpet playing Gonna Fly Now from Rocky. At mile 9ish of the Broad Street run I found the actual song exceedingly annoying. But I was feeling like crap and worried about not meeting my goal at that point. Here, I was in a great mood, I was feeling good, I felt very close to the finish even though I had another 7ish miles to go, and I noticed it was a young boy doing the playing. Kind of reminded me of a young Scott, so after grabbing another orange and a water I gave him a thumbs up and a wink as I departed. The next mile or so were downhill, and (SURPRISE SURPRISE) I was running hard. I kept waiting for the inevitable blow up and the longer I ran, the less likely said blow up seemed. I caught a quick split of about 6:30 on this downhill. I noticed I was at 2:18 at mile 20, so I had actually sped up in general somehow. I started to think that if I managed NOT to blow up, maybe I could hold off the rest (as I figured no one else would be going much faster than 6:40-6:50s at this point) and hang on to second place. I got back to the bridge that signified the start of Corkscrew Hill and there was a guy who mentioned I was about 8-9 minutes behind the leader now. This seemed far more likely to me and helped me relax; I WAS running for 2nd place, now I probably wouldn’t even be reminded about the leader anymore.
As the hill leveled out toward the top I could see the aid station and someone was standing with an orange slice, as if they read my mind. I grabbed it and a quick water and was off on the Cedar Ridge out & back. This being a fairly brief out & back, I figured I would see the leader coming toward me any second. It was mostly downhill on the way out and I felt like I was absolutely flying. There were moments on some steeper spots where I was actually going, ‘WHEEEEEEEE” out loud and throwing my arms up like I was on a roller coaster. I can’t remember ever being that happy at either of the other two marathons I’ve done, especially not so late into it. But then I didn’t see him right away. Where the hell was the leader?. I briefly worried I had gone the wrong way until I came to the mile 22 sign. But still no leader. And then, finally I saw him. And for the first time all race he did not look too strong, or like a running robot. He actually looked human, and unhappy. The biker who was escorting him looked up and let out an audible gasp off surprise when he saw me. That made me laugh as I ran by. Only maybe a minute later I came to the turnaround. Already? Cool. I went around the cone and began the climb back up, glancing at my watch. One minute went by, still no one coming toward me. Two minutes. Three minutes. Four minutes. What is going on? Where the hell is everyone? Finally about four and a half minutes after starting my way back I saw 3rd place. And he said something to the effect that the leader was just up ahead and looking bad and to go get him. That was NOT what I wanted to hear really. I could just picture it in my head, catching up to this guy and then having him start feeling better and making me actually race all the way to the finish and still losing. Not exactly what I wanted to do today. I had spent almost three hours accepting the fact that I was going to run pretty well and finish in 2nd, so this was throwing me off. A few guys later, I see Ronnie Weed coming at me telling me the same thing and that I’m gonna catch him on Cemetary Hill. I realize that no one else knew that I wasn’t TRYING to catch this guy and I was not about to try to go harder now because I was closer. I was in the middle of re-lowering expectations in my mind when I came to the powerline cut again and sure enough, there was the leader in the yellow singlet, walking next to the bike and not looking to hot. Balls. I guess I AM going to catch him. As I went by him, I asked if he was ok and patted him on the back. I didn’t know what to do, I’ve definitely felt like crap in a race before (see: Triple Lakes 40 miler last year) and if someone had caught me late in that race (like I was expecting), I’d probably want something similar. I hope I didn’t come off as condescending.
Anyway, now I had this surreal moment where everything hit me. With about three miles to go, I had just blown right passed the machine who had been leading the race and now I was in first and the closest person behind either of us was at least eight or so minutes back. It was very likely I’d win. WHAT?! SERIOUSLY?! SHUT UP! KEEP RUNNING! That’s something like what happened in rapid succession in my head at that moment. I think some people at the aid station were a little surprrised when they saw me, now with a fancy-pants bike escort coming out of Cedar Ridge first. I didn’t take anything at the aid station but I did thank them (at least I hope I did, in my head I did) and kept rolling. I’ve run the stretch from the Graylyn trail junction to Camp Lapihio dozens of times, this is part of my long run loop, there was not much more left to go at all. I kept the throttle down, this was the only stretch of the race, from here to the finish, that I was absolutely all out on. I also realized that I would very probably come close but not quite break 3 hours. I was ok with that. The guy on the bike asked me if I wanted anything, water, gel, etc. I said no thanks. People on the trail I passed were cheering, which now just felt cool. I wondered how surprised John would be to see me coming through first. I hit Cemetary Hill (which until last week I didn’t realize had a name) and made myself treat it like the end off a long run, which meant push hard. I actually caught up to the biker before the top, at which point he mentioned no one had done that before. I think he was just being nice. At the top I knew the rest was mostly downhill. The turnoff finally came into view, I made the right and headed for the finish stretch. As I went back onto the camp road I remembered what the volunteer had said at the beginning of the race and I made it a point to smile and thank the volunteers here. I wasn’t feeling as good as I had at the beginning, I was feeling BETTER. As I barreled down the final downhill stretch, I could see mile 26 and a volunteer was talking into a walkie talkie, probably mentioning my imminent arrival. The road rounded and the finish came into view and I could hear people clapping and cheering and all I can remember is feeling really pleased and smiling. I crossed the line first in 3:00:36 and got my pint glass (seriously, I love getting beer-related race things) and my bat plaque that said “1st Place Male”. Baller.
John found me and we talked for a little bit. People were asking me how I felt. The honest answer, pretty good. I just ran a 9 minute PR on a fairly hilly course and won the race and I didn’t hurt myself, so yeah, I’m feeling pretty damn good. We waited around for the next runner to come in. The guy in the yellow singlet must have rallied as he came in about ten minutes later for second. Apparently he had started cramping, ugh, been there, sucks. I grabbed some food and then headed out for a few more miles. I decided not to run quite as much as previously planned, the effort made up for the lower volume in my mind. And I wanted to get back and eat a free Moe’s burrito and have John work on me a little bit and see everyone else finish. I’m happy I got to see Alicia turn for home as first female (WOOT! REPEAT CHAMPION!),making it a very good day for the Bull City Track Club. I know I had to run the race myself, but without people like John (who keeps my legs from falling off), or Kim and Jason and the folks at Bull City Running (who run the greatest running store in the world, by far), or the countless volunteers who were always so friendly and helpful, I doubt I would’ve run nearly as well. It was so cool hanging out after the race, seeing everyone else come in, talking with a bunch of other runners, like Alicia and Alisha, Josh, and Shannon (who is also running the Umstead 100) and is practically my neighbor. They wanted to know about my plans for running the 100 (which I still have only the bare minimum of an idea about, aside from ‘I’m going to run it and hopefully finish before April 1st’). After everyone had finished, I helped John pack up his car and walked the 2.5 miles back to mine. I stopped to sit on the bench that overlooks Lake Crabtree for a few minutes, just relaxing and taking in what turned out to be a nice afternoon. I decided that it had totally been worth it getting out of bed this morning.
I’ve never been a fan of February really. I don’t particularly like winter and by the time February rolls around most years, the lack of sunlight and cold and all that have usually been compounded enough to make me pretty miserable. February has also not been a particularly good month for training. Just by it’s nature it’s set up to be a down month, as most years you only get four full weeks and nothing extra. I had decent January this year, just a bit over 300 miles, an ok performance at the 100k in the middle of the month, sort of a return to consistency. But in general, it was a little disappointing to me to start the year off like I did. With a 100 mile race and some other big goals on the horizon, I felt a little behind where I thought I needed to be. I knew February needed to be better but I had NO idea what I was in store for.
By any of the metrics I’ve been using to keep track of my training since I actually started considering myself a runner a few years ago, February was by far the best month I’ve ever had. For starters, there’s the numbers (which make me double check at first glance, but my legs remember every. single. step.): 546 miles (~18.8 miles/day or slightly less than 132/week), probably over 76 hours. I also ran that 10 mile race that I’m quite pleased with. I’ve never done anything quite like that. And the awesome thing is that my legs feel pretty good, not destroyed or any more tired than what I would consider normal. I have random aches and pains that go and come but all seem to have identifiable causes and solutions. The massages have been a huge help obviously, but I’m also eating better (read: not good, I’m still a fatty, but better) and sleeping more. I’m also running A LOT on softer surfaces which I think is a big contributor to my (knock on wood) consistency and health. I feel like February went a long way toward setting me up for success in the coming months of this year and beyond, but it is just one month, just a start.
All that time spent running can certainly drag on me, and it has from time to time. I’ve managed to get together with some runners here and there to do some runs or part of some runs together but the vast majority of those 546 miles were run by myself. I was talking to my mom last night about how things are going here. It struck me as I was telling her about my awesome Sunday how a day like that can put the rest of the days in a different light. Most days are not like last Sunday, not even close. Most days are get up early, drag my ass out of bed, run, work all day, run pretty much immediately after work, often until well past dark, come home and eat something, maybe veg for an hour or so, go to sleep. Limited to no human contact outside of work. Limited to no time for anything other than running and the essentials outside of work. Like I said, it can drag. I have the luxury of living like this right now because I don’t have a family, or anyone really who I am obligated to give my time to, and so I don’t. I realize I’m not going to be in this situation forever, and I’m not going to be 26 and in good health forever, so as I was explaining to my mom (who worries considerably about my happiness and all that nonsense parents have to kvetch about), no I’m not what I’d consider “happy” most days, but I think what I’m doing will pay off later. Running good races, being somewhat competitive, testing my limits, exceeding expectations, those are things that will make me happy. A day like Sunday, that’s enough to keep me going, enough to put my head back down and keep trucking along step after step after step. Most of the time I’m just uncomfortable and awkward in social situations anyway, so my time is clearly better spent alone running through the woods. Sometimes it depresses me that running by myself for a few hours a day feels more normal than talking with people, even other runners, out at a bar or whatnot but it does.
The main thing I wanted to put down in this month’s recap is that I had a good month. I finished it in better shape than I started. And I finished it with my desire to keep working the way I’ve been working still burning. Thirty-one days from now I’ll be running my first 100 mile race. I’ve got a couple other things, races and even (hopefully) non-running related things, to look forward to before the end of the month. Maybe when I write my March recap, I can say that I’m in better shape than I was right now AND I’m even a little happier. If you’re gonna dream, dream big, right?
Even though I pass this time alone
Somewhere so unknown
It heals the soul
For the past few weeks, pretty much every morning I find myself doing the same thing — slowly jogging three or four miles on the cross country trail that encircles the Duke golf course (which has an entrance conveniently located directly across the street from where I work). Two or so weeks ago, there were men out doing some tree work along a stretch of the trail. Chainsaws. The smell of gasoline and sawdust and pine needles. Every morning since then I have meant to get back and blog about it and then I get caught up in work and put it off. But I have a longer-than-usual break so here I am.
Every morning when I run by that stretch, particularly when the tree work was actually taking place, but even now when there’s less gasoline and sawdust and more just pine and a scent I can best describe as ‘the woods’, the same memories and emotions hit me. I immediately remember the fun parts about working in Maryland state parks. I remember all the chainsaw work I got to do, how I loved the smell when I was felling a tree, how exhausting it could be, how awesome it was. I remember running out my front door and being in the woods immediately, often without another human being for a few miles (save my roommates), and forcing myself to realize just how lucky I was to be where I was at that moment and how most people would love the opportunity to have what I have available to me. Part of me really misses working in the park. There was a lot that I don’t miss, and I love where I’m at now and what I’m doing and, for the most part, my life is as I want it to be (for now), but there are few things more fun (and exhausting) than starting a chainsaw and cutting down a tree and doing it well and then cutting it into logs and hauling them into the woods.
Every morning, now, I run along the west end of the golf course loop and that’s what I think about for a few minutes. It’s peaceful, it’s a trifle wistful, it’s a nice break to the monotony. I’ve often preferred trails to roads, running along any surface that’s not paved, through trees, birds chirping, squirrels scampering, the woodpeckers going to town, an occasional fox scurrying along; it’s nice to get that so regularly. And I always take a moment to breathe it in and ruminate on how lucky I am.
Til next time, RUN HAPPY everyone
Saturday I ran the Weymouth Woods 100k down in Southern Pines, NC. I had targeted this race for a number of reasons. For one, Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve, where the race was held, is only about an hour south of me so I wouldn’t have to worry much about travel. It also worked out in the lead-up to Umstead. While it was a race and of course I want to do well in races, I viewed it as more important as a an opportunity to test equipment, fueling, etc and get a really well-supported long run in with plenty of time to recover before the goal race. The 100k consisted of fourteen ~4.5 mile loops on the trails through the park, which at first seems horribly boring but I didn’t really mind and it made logistics a lot simpler. A big bonus was the fact that the always amazing Ashley was flying in from Boston and my brother Scott and his best friend Pete were coming in from LI, specifically to come to the race for me. Add to that my cousins who live in Raleigh were planning on coming down with their little boys who know I run but have never actually SEEN me run a race, and I was pretty stoked. I was also feeling slightly bad that all these people were going to see me and I wasn’t exactly expecting that good a performance. My training hasn’t exactly been stellar since Stone Cat. I’ve had some nagging issues that have prevented me from training the way I’d have liked to and I am not in the sort of shape I hope to be in a few months from now.
Still, a race is a race and when the race starts all the outside issues and excuses get put out of mind and the goal is to run smart, hard, and well. The week leading up to the race I actually started feeling particularly good. Fresh. It probably helped that I took Tuesday and Wednesday off. An easy “8” miles showing Ashley one of my favorite routes (the loop around Lake Crabtree) Thursday evening and a quicker-than-it-felt shakeout Friday night led me to believe that my legs were definitely ready for the race. Mentally, I was also in a much better place than usual before such a long race. I think a big part of this had to do with my lowered expectations. I was looking forward to just being out there running, not trying to make months of hard work and training culminate in something that would make it all worth it.
Friday night we all got pizzas at Bella Mia, got my stuff together, and got to bed a bit later than I probably should have. But I slept like a rock, another departure from usual pre-race happenings. Saturday morning we were all up and on the road shortly after 5am, saw maybe a dozen cars on the way down, and made it to the park a little after 6am which meant we were able to snag a parking spot right near where the course runs along the sidewalk in front of the visitors center. Getting to the race almost two hours before the start afforded me some downtime. First there was some vegging, the typical pre-race bathroom trips, having oatmeal squares and blueberries for breakfast, the process of getting everything organized, waking up the crew and shepherding them into the warm visitor’s center, going over the plan a few more times, making sure the watch was charged, going to the pre-race meeting, then going back into the visitor’s center for final preparations with about fifteen minutes to go. I finally got my pinky toe taped up in hopes that it would help prevent he usual blister forming there, put on my Brooks Pure Grits, got my water bottle and watch and the big warm gloves and headed out to the start line with about two minutes to go. I got to the start line and didn’t have much time to think before the countdown started. Ashley wished me good luck, I shook out my legs, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO!
As we crossed the start and ran about a tenth of a mile on the park road toward the trail, I settled in behind a group of about six guys, running very comfortably. Two guys had immediately shot off the front and quickly put some distance on everyone. For once I felt no temptation to run hard and get up there with them, reminding myself over and over that it was a VERY long race and it was quite probably I’d be seeing them again. As we turned onto the trail I was very happy I had made the trip down to run the course a few times the previous Saturday, knowing what to expect helped a great deal to mentally prepare for the many different things the it would throw at me. The way it worked, the first mile or so of the loop was a pretty rooty, mostly downhill winding stretch. Then we’d hit some wooden bridges, things would roll and then gradually climb for another mile or so before coming to the only aid station about halfway through the loop. From there it would be a relatively flat, immensely runnable stretch before a short climb, a short, steepish descent, some more winding, and the last mile or so to the finish would be mostly uphill, with what felt like the most arduous part coming at the very end when the trail came out behind the visitors center and wound around to the front. After each loop, we’d run along the sidewalk and make our way back onto the start of the trail. Rinse, repeat fourteen times and that’s all there was to it!
Early in the first loop I settled in with a group of three other guys, one being a fellow Brooks IDer who had run the race the previous two years (this was the third year), John, as well as a young army guy, Dan, and another dude with a sweet mustache. I recognized Ray K early in the loop, an extremely accomplished ultrarunner and someone who I’ve learned a lot from by mostly lurking on the Ultra List. That was a pretty cool moment, recognizing him. For most of this first loop we chatted idly about previous races, the weather, whatever really. I was feeling fantastic and didn’t look much at the Garmin (which I wore mostly so I could keep myself in check in the early stages), opting to go with the flow, considering no one was pressing anything. I think I led the group for most of the first loop, not necessarily by choice but because everyone else seemed a bit deferent.
We all came through within seconds of each other, 37:54, and Ashley had a fresh gel ready. I didn’t need to swap out my water bottle because I’d only had half. The plan was to eat a gel every half hour, just like I had done on my 47 mile Christmas run, and swap out the water bottles every loop so I wouldn’t have to waste time refilling. I had mostly GUs with some Hammer gels, and a few Cliff shot blocks. In the water bottle was primarily coconut water which has worked extremely well for me, on some loops I asked them to add some pineapple juice. I also brought a 2L of flat Coca Cola for later and in case my stomach got upset. Finally, I had a 5 hour energy shot for the halfway point. My goal was to run about 40 minutes/loop which would give me a 9:20 finish. That was honestly what I figured I could do if everything went right and I had a great day. Considering the winner ran 9:23 the year before, I figured that would also make me competitive at the front.
I wasn’t concerned that the first loop was a bit faster than the plan as I almost felt like I’d cheated and gotten through it without any real effort. I remember one of my early running mentors talking about a 5k and saying you want to get through that first kilometer feeling like you haven’t been racing at all yet. I just sort of extrapolated that to the first few loops here. Loop two was pretty much identical to the first. No really. I ran almost EXACTLY the same time (37:54.75 vs 37:54.05). After this second loop, I ditched the really big warm gloves as my hands were actually feeling too hot and the gloves made handling the gels and all that almost impossible. Instead I got Ashley’s pink ones. Awesome. I opted to keep the MacArthur wrestling hat and my long sleeve Brooks shirt on a little longer. I also had on clear safety glasses, the reasoning being that my previous experience with my eyes ‘fogging up’ during my last few ultras and long runs was probably related to the cold air and wind so hopefully the safety glasses would help prevent that. But the kept developing condensation and so about twice per loop early on I had to wipe them off. They were also scratched up pretty bad but it was better than the alternative (being blind with 30ish miles to go). As I came out of the woods at the end of every loop someone from the crew would be standing behind the visitors center and I could hear the cheering, “GO MARK!” as I climbed the hill. That was one of the best parts of the race. Every 4.5 miles I got to see Pete, Scott, and Ashley and there enthusiasm was noticeable and appreciated. I started the third loop in much the same frame of mind, feeling great, definitely wanting to push the pace but realizing that it was waaaay too early. I bargained with myself that around 40 miles would be ok to start running hard if I still had it in my legs, and if I didn’t, that would be the time to really dig in.
At some point early in this loop, our little group of four became fractured. Dan and I got a little ahead of the other two and ran most of this loop by ourselves. At one point we passed a guy, who looking at the splits and results I realize must have been James Brennan, and with that there were only two runners ahead of us, albeit way ahead and out of sight already. We chatted a bit and I learned that he was from upstate NY and his previous longest race was the Marine Corps marathon last fall. He was anticipating it hurting pretty bad later but said he was tough. I was impressed. The two of us came through the third loop together but I as I kept moving through quickly, I was on my fourth a little ahead of him. That was the last I ran with any other racer all day. I was 13+ miles in with a long way to go and I just settled in for the long haul.
The next few loops are mostly uneventful and kind of blended together. I was doing a very good job of eating every half hour, sipping from my water bottle every few minutes, and generally relaxing into the run. I’d check my watch every mile or so and was pleased to note how consistently I was running and how good I felt. I took it easier on the uphills and was cautious on the downhills. I wiped out once early, I think it was the third loop, landing on my knee, then rolling to my hip, and finally smacking the side of my head. There were two or three stubbed toes which hurt and I paid for after the race but other than that, I remained upright and moving forward. After the fourth loop I took off my long sleeve. After the sixth loop (almost mile 27), I took off my wool hat in favor of a baseball cap as I was definitely warm enough. This helped cut down on the condensation forming on my glasses, win-win! I also noted right before that that I had passed through a marathon in about 3:41, as opposed to ~3:19 at Stone Cat. Much smarter! I hit halfway in 4:22:36, feeling great still. I took off the t-shirt I had underneath my singlet. It was on this seventh loop that I caught and passed the guy who had been running in 2nd, though I didn’t realize it until I was done with the loop and my crew told me there was only one person ahead of me. Of course, at that point Tomasz had about a ten minute lead and was apparently running strong. I recognized the name from other race results and figured he’d have to have a really rough second half for me to have any chance of catching him.
I got through loops eight and nine in much the same fashion. Pretty sure I stopped to pee during loop nine which is reflected in it being a trifle slower than the first eight. After nine I was just over 40 miles but I was beginning to feel it a bit. I was approaching uncharted territory but I was also running a good, smart race and I was confident I could keep it up. I slowed a bit early on the tenth loop but once I got to the halfway aid station, I felt a bit better and picked it up, even dropping one of my only sub-8 miles of the race. As I crossed a bridge I saw Ray K sitting there and he told me to “keep hammering” and so I began repeating that to myself when I started feeling sorry for myself or particularly low. As I came through at the end of the loop, Ashley was there ready to run some with me and after taking a big swig of Coke, we were off. My cousins and their little boys had also arrived at some point around here and that was a HUGE mental boost. The next three loops were basically a minute slower than the previous. Considering I was beginning to feel exponentially worse, I’m pretty happy with how well I kept it together here. Ashley was very encouraging and helped warn runners we were coming by, something I didn’t really have much energy for. I found it a little amusing when we would pass people and they said something about how good I looked, because I sure didn’t feel like it anymore. After the eleventh loop, there was a slight mix-up now that Scott was in charge of the crew and there was no water bottle filled and waiting for me. I didn’t want to stop moving so I just kept going with whatever was left in the one I had. This is one of the only (small) mistakes made the whole day and probably didn’t mean much in the big picture. At some point I noted that I passed 50 miles and, according to the watch, had done it quicker than at Stone Cat. Baller.
The penultimate loop was definitely the hardest, quite similar to how the third lap of a mile race on the track is always the toughest (to me at least). You’re so close to being done but you know that when you finish that loop, you still have a bit more running to go. I didn’t stop and walk any but there were definitely some slow stretches. My feet were beginning to hurt in spots; I could tell there was the familiar blister/callous combo on my left little toe, my big toe felt like it had rubbed and the top of it hurt like it had in previous weeks. My left Achilles had been sore off and on all day. I was feeling kind of drained. But I pressed on mostly for want of being finished, and out of my shoes and so I could finally stop moving and just lie down.
Ashley had to peel off because her calf was starting to hurt and I would be on my own for those last 4.5 miles, which somewhere in my head I kind of wanted anyway so no biggie there. I took off the glasses here, which had worked extremely well. As I passed people they asked me if this was my last and they began congratulating me. I appreciated it but in my head had to remind myself that I hadn’t yet done anything worthy of congratulations. I was running with a little more abandon, determined not to leave any energy left in reserves by the end. I blew through the halfway aid station, ran as hard as I could up the short uphill and bombed (or what felt like bombing at least) downhill. With about a mile and a half to go, my watch died. I was surprised it lasted as long as it had. No matter, didn’t need it at this point. As I crossed the wood bridge by the swamp I knew I had about a mile to go and I put the hammer down. Despite it basically all being uphill to the end I ran, harder than I had in hours. I saw Scott at one of the last trail junctions, about a half mile from the end and I almost broke down there, but instead he just started running and I made it my goal to try to catch him. It felt like I was sprinting. I came to the very last climb up and out of the trail and I pushed and pushed. My legs were on fire, like they feel in the last reps of the last set of heavy heavy squats. I could hear everyone cheering from the top of the hill and as I came out and rounded the visitor’s center I could see everyone standing there looking extremely excited for me. I ran right through the line and into Ashley’s arms for one of the best hugs ever. I finished 2nd overall in 9:05:27, about eight minutes behind the winner (and the fourth fastest time in the race’s brief history).
I congratulated Tomasz on his victory. I ended up making up nearly five minutes on him over the last nine miles, but he was clearly better all day. As I staggered the twenty or so meters to the chairs where we had set up camp, lots of random people congratulated me and I was kind of in a daze so I hoped I thanked them. Everyone wanted to know what I needed. I downed a Boost immediately and took off my singlet. I wanted a shirt and I wanted to get my shoes off, but I also had to pee. About three minutes later, Dan finished up in third place. It would be over an hour until the next finisher would come in, the three of us had lapped the rest of the field. Cool. The two of us talked a bit, congratulated each other and then I went inside the visitors center to take off my shoes and prop my legs up for a bit. Eventually we left for my cousin’s in-laws place where I had one of the most delicious burgers and sausages ever (hunger is really the best sauce).
The damage wasn’t as bad as I imagined it to be, and a few days later it’s even better (although I definitely wasn’t walking normally until Tuesday). The plan is to be smart about recovering so as not to experience any unnecessary setbacks before Umstead. I won’t be doing much of anything this week, and then I’ll be slowly getting back to normal over the next two. The confidence I gained from this race will definitely be a help. I finally managed to race smart AND hard and the result was much better than I anticipated it would be. I am eternally grateful for the wonderful people I was lucky to have there with me, and super thankful for all the race staff and volunteers who did such a fantastic job putting on the race. People have expressed disbelief that I actually ENJOY doing something like that, racing for 9+ hours over 62+ miles. At times during the race I have to remind myself I do it willingly, but the fact is, I really DO enjoy this, and thinking back a few days later, most of my thoughts are positive. It was a very fun day. Hopefully next year I’ll be back in better shape and with a slightly better result.
My splits (Katie texted me on Sunday to tell me they were ‘beautiful’):
|Lap #||Lap Time||Lap Pace||Cumulative Distance||Cumulative Time|
This past Saturday I ran the Stone Cat 50 mile trail race. This was my first 50 mile race and, by four miles, the longest distance I’ve ever run. To be brief, this was one hell of an experience. But I’m not good at brevity so here’s my report:
The flight to Boston was the first first of the weekend: my first time traveling solo on an airplane. Anyone who knows me knows how much irrationally afraid of air travel I am, so fortunately the plan ride was uneventful (and because you’re reading this, obviously the flight home was too) and quick. My awesome friend and the one responsible for me getting into this mess in the first place, Ashley, picked me up from Logan International and we headed to her apartment in Cambridge. An easy shakeout along the Charles River and some catching up and that was it for the night. We got plenty of sleep and took our time getting up and out the door. There wasn’t much on the agenda for the day before the race. We had to pick up our numbers from the New England Running Company in Beverly. Then we drove over to the Doyon School where the race would start/finish the next day and ran the first ~2 miles of the course out and back. I’m glad we did that as I knew to expect some wet conditions. After that it was a short drive to Gloucester to meet up with Katie. While Ashley drove back to Logan to pick up Tyler who was flying in from Buffalo, Katie and I stocked up on some supplies and took a tour of the cute little fishing town. We went out to eat at Maria’s Pizza which was a delightful find with delicious food that on almost any other night I would have seriously overindulged in. My brother Scott arrived; making it just in time for food after having fought through traffic driving up from Long Island, and our little crew, which we named Team Awesome, was finally complete. Back at Katie’s I was making last minute preparations and getting everything ready for race day which would arrive extra early. I was in bed by about 10:30 and despite a somewhat racing head and heart, managed to sleep reasonably well.
I woke up before my alarm went off, right around 4:30 am. I was the first one up, with Katie not far behind. Despite how early it was, I was feeling awake and alert and ready to go. The rest of the group began stirring shortly after. I was dressed and eating breakfast in minutes and began packing my bag. We got on the road right around 5am and were at the school by 5:30. It was amusing driving there not seeing a single car on the road and then all of a sudden we were met with this hub of activity. Ashley and I walked into the school’s gym to check in. The volunteer there gave me a little crap about my Yankees sweatpants (as well she should have — I was in Red Sox country after all). There were runners everywhere, all over the gym stretching, dressing, applying Body Glide, and doing all the sorts of things you typically see runners do in the minutes before a race. The line for the bathroom seemed too long so I opted for the woods. By the time I was done with all that we walked over to the basketball courts where the race would finish. As I walked from the woods over to where the rest of the group was standing, my first moments alone in a while, I looked up at the crystal clear sky and just spent a second or two admiring it, lost and detached from what was about to happen. It was almost 6am but nothing really seemed set up and most people were still inside. I figured, correctly, that they decided to push the start back a bit to allow slightly sooner running in daylight on the first loop. I waited until I saw everyone coming out of the school and walking toward the start and then I took off my jacket and sweatpants, put on my gloves, get my headlamp ready and grab my water bottle. Ashley and I walked over to the start and gave each other a “good luck, kick ass” as I left her to get towards the front. We lined up on the edge of the field and the race director said some stuff that I don’t remember. Then he yelled,” 3, 2, 1 GO!” and like that, the race I have been training for since July had finally started.
The Stone Cat course is set up to be a good race for first-timers but I can see how experienced ultrarunners could still be challenged. The course is a 12.5 mile loopthat starts at the school, runs across the field, turns onto some trails, winds through Willowdale State Forest before coming back out to the field. Repeat four times and that’s it. From a logistical standpoint, it makes life easy because I only needed to bring with you enough stuff for 12.5 miles and could leave everything else at the start/finish where the crew would have everything prepped and ready to go when I got in. At any point I was only about 5 miles from an aid station. The course itself is relatively easy, inasmuch as there are no serious, steep hills that force you to walk. Every inch of it can be run, and therein lies the difficulty. While there are SOME hills there’s no obvious spot to take it easy and running the whole thing can (and likely will) catch up with you later. As for how the actual race went…
It was a surreal experience to actually be doing the race I had spent so long thinking about and training with my focus specifically on. And for the first few steps, I wasn’t really. There’s a marathon that is run simultaneously with the 50 miler. They run an extra bit at the start around the school fields before doing two laps and calling it a day. Apparently the 50 milers were supposed to line up on the left side of the field because we were not going to do the extra field bit. Fortunately I realized this minor foible early and was able to cut across the field before we made the turn onto the actual trail.
As we hit the trail, three guys had very clearly moved well in front of everyone else already. Then there was a fourth guy a bit behind them and I fell in next to someone else in 5th/6th position. Thanks to our brief bit of course recon, I knew to expect some decent puddles early on here and to stay on the left side to avoid most of them. It was strange running through the woods with it being so dark, illuminated by all the lights ahead and behind me. As the trail turned I moved up past the guy I had been with briefly and another guy, just cruising along at a very relaxed effort and was all alone in 4th. The trio ahead of me probably already had about 100m and I quickly put out of my head any thoughts on trying to bridge the gap so early. I kept reminding myself that the first lap was like a long warm-up. I couldn’t do much good here but I could do a whole lot of awful if I ran stupidly.
I was not a fan of this first part in the dark. The course had a number of twists and turns and in the dark, even with my headlamp, there were sections where I got off-trail a few steps. Because of the winding nature of the trail, I would see the three lights ahead of me and get a bit confused when I ran in a different direction than it seemed they were moving. Worse than the navigation though, my hands were FREEZING. I knew to expect this beforehand but didn’t know what to do about it. My strategy was to run with one hand balled up in my glove while the other held the handheld bottle and then switch off when I needed. The problem was that even with the gloves on, the bottle chilled my hands so quickly it became a real issue. At times I had to run with it tucked under my arm like a football, which was not exactly comfortable. I definitely got a little whiny about the cold and the dark in my head here. At some point early in this loop I was running down a short hill, managed to get off trail and as I was attempting to correct myself, punched a tree with my right hand. OUCH! It jolted me for a second but I shook it off and kept going. I tried being cautious on the particularly winding sections, tried to stretch my legs a bit on the flatter stretches. About 3.5 miles in, the sun was finally starting to make its appearance and I was actually able to see more than just what was right in front of my face. And what I came to pretty soon was the “small creek crossing” mentioned on the race website. Thanks to the rains the previous weekend, the “small creek crossing” was decidedly not that small. It stretched on for probably a few hundred feet. Initially I thought maybe I could avoid getting my feet completely soaked by running along the edge. Nope. Not a chance. I quickly realized the folly of my attempt and plowed right through, the water occasionally reaching up to my shins. It was FREEZING cold, obviously, and my feet went instantly numb. This would be the best test yet for both my Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes and my Drymax socks. I hoped they were up to the task.
Shortly after that, right before I came to the first aid station, I wiped out on a little root. Nothing major, just scraped up my hands. Everyone here was extremely encouraging and helpful. Every aid station I came to throughout the day, someone immediately volunteered to take my bottle and refill it, but I had to continue to politely decline their offer. I decided to go with just water at the aid stations and sip from my coconut water bottle throughout the loops. I also ate three Clif shot blocks here (which had hardened up much like the Gu chomps did at the 40 miler and made it tougher to chew). I was in and out pretty quickly and back on the trail. The section between the first and second aid stations is only about 3.5 miles but it felt longer. At some point in this stretch, I turned off my headlamp. I also got caught and passed by Dave Herr (though I had no idea who it was at the time), who looked very strong. In and out of the second aid station, I ate a Gu Roctane (blueberry pomegranate) and was feeling very good, though my hands were still frozen. The volunteer who had given me crap about my Yankees sweats before the race was there and told me it’s a two minute penalty which made me chuckle. My feet, I was happy to note, seemed dry and had no hot spots forming. At some point about 1:15 in, I stopped to pee. I had no qualms about stopping to pee throughout the entire race because I took it as a good sign that my stomach was cooperating and I was drinking enough. The last ~mile of the loop is the same as the first part of the loop so I’d have a chance to see where the leaders were. I was probably about two minutes from finishing my loop when I saw the three guys ahead of me coming back out, so I figured they already had a 5 or so minute advantage. Crazy. As I turned back onto the field I saw Dave running out so he was up by about a minute or two as well.
As I crossed the line and rounded past the aid station, Katie, Scott, and Tyler greeted me. Tyler took my bottle and re-filled it. I complained about my hands, and went to take off my gloves because they felt wet and cold. It was here that I first noticed that my right hand was covered in blood from when I hit the tree. Cool. Scott got my orange gloves, as I figured they’d be a bit warmer. I also took off my long sleeve Brooks shirt, now wearing just a neon green Brooks t-shirt on top of my Brooks ID singlet. I also took off the headlamp but opted to keep the ear warmers at least for another lap. They said I was looking good and that the leaders came through in about 1:25. Tyler said to just run my race and don’t worry about them, I was thinking the same thing. I was happy with where I was at and the effort I had expended so far and I set off. First loop – 1:35:36
I saw some guys coming in as I was going out. I actually don’t remember much of the second loop except that it felt much better than the first. The sun was out now and it was almost like starting a completely different race. My hands were still cold which was annoying but aside from that everything felt strong. I went through the first section quicker than the first lap which didn’t surprise me considering I could SEE where I was going now. I stopped to pee before crossing the water this time and I got to the aid station a minute or two early. Another nice bit of running to the second aid station and as I got through there a guy named Chad caught up with me, as did the two marathon leaders. The guy who would win the marathon went on ahead and out of sight quickly while Chad, the second place guy, and I pretty much stayed together for the rest of the loop. Toward the end of the loop I was feeling good and pulled a little bit ahead of the other two. We had been passing people on their first loop for some time now but it was never an issue. This time the leaders were a bit more strung out instead of the pack that looked so strong when I passed them at the end of my first loop. I got through the s/f and once again, Katie and Tyler sprang expertly to action. I lingered maybe a little bit longer here this time and also took an espresso hammer gel because I realized I was down a gel on this loop. (My strategy was one Gu Roctane and either a regular Gu or a package of Clif shots each loop plus some aid station grazing and water). I switched to my hat and once again was off, now running in 6th place. Second loop – 1:36:39 (3:12:15 cumulative)
As I started the third loop I was beginning to feel the collective fatigue from running so much begin to catch up with me. It never felt daunting that I was only halfway done and still had some 25 miles to run but I was definitely approaching a mental low. As I began the first hilly part of the loop I powerwalked instead of running this time. About now I also noticed my eyes were starting to do the same thing they had done at the 40 mile race – fog up. It was a slow process but now that it was light out, I definitely noticed my vision was getting cloudier, not exactly ideal for running on a trail. At some point before the first aid station I tripped over a root and fell again, my right knee going straight onto a rock. It was split open and bleeding immediately but I was more concerned with any potential damage that had done. After a few exploratory steps I decided it was going to bruise and I was fine. Onward. First aid station and I munched down some pringles and more shot blocks and more waters and continued on. It was here in between the first and second aid stations on the third loop that I hit the lowest point of my race. All of a sudden I was starting to feel sluggish. I remember wondering to myself where the hills I was encountering had been on the previous two loops. I was starting to feel some discomfort in my right ankle from all the times I had landed awkwardly or kicked a rock or root, and the two falls. I still had about twenty miles to go and I was not feeling so great.
And then I came up on a tall, skinny guy in jeans carrying what looked like my jacket in a bundle in his arms. Scott? Yes, my brother was walking along the trail 5 miles in. He looked back and I just kinda waved at him and said go. He became a pseudo-pacer for a mile or two. I was feeling like shit and he was trying to encourage me but it only helped internally, not physically. I took off my hat and gave it to him, hoping the cool air on my head would help too. He had only seen me running at the beginning of races and at the end of Finger Lakes where I won and was feeling pretty good. This was entirely different. Eventually I began to feel a bit better and was running again and I left Scott, thanking him for being where he was. Right before the aid station I took off my t-shirt and handed it to the Yankee-hating volunteer asking her to give it to a tall guy wearing jeans who would likely be coming through in a bit. I asked someone what mile we were at, because at that point I couldn’t do the simple math of 25+7.5, nor did I have the intelligence to look at the sign that SAID what mile we were at. Someone woman said about mile 20 and being so tired I got kinda grumpy with her and said that I was on my third loop. I felt kinda like an ass but we all have our moments. A cup of M&Ms, water, some more Pringles, a pineapple roctane and I was off. It was a bit lonely on the final stretch of this loop. I was realizing that not only was I now not ahead of 6:40 pace but I was falling behind it and a 7 hour finish would be difficult if not impossible. No 50 milers passed me and I didn’t encounter any ahead of me, just people on their previous loop. Those last 5 miles of the third loop felt like they just dragged on and on. It seemed like I was encountering parts of the course that had just been added for this loop. But I was definitely running the same course, just much slower. I didn’t allow myself to think about the fact that I needed to run an additional loop after.
Finally I got back to the part of the trail that I recognized as only being about a mile from the end. I was angry with myself that I basically had to walk up not-terribly-significant uphill near the end. I just kept telling myself to hike with a purpose, not to dawdle. I saw a few of the guys ahead of me, though the ones at the very front had already come through and exchanged some encouragements. I came out to the field and realized just how cloudy my vision had gotten, especially my left eye. I came through the start/finish again and went straight to the aid station. Tyler and Katie were standing there waiting, Tyler now all ready to run as we was going to be pacing me for my last loop. He grabbed my bottle to fill it, Katie handed me the last GUs and I just shoveled some more potato chips and pretzels down my gullet. I was still standing at the table, a bit out of it when I saw a big container of Morton’s salt. Not really thinking I just picked it up, opened the spout, and poured quite a bit into my mouth. Katie and Tyler just kinda looked at me like I was insane. At that point I’d probably have agreed with them. Water bottle back in hand, hands feeling a little better with it warming up slightly, Tyler and I set off on the last loop with me commenting that I don’t know why I did that with the salt but I feel like it was a good decision. Third loop – 1:56:11 (5:08:26 cumulative)
We headed back onto the trail and I was feeling pretty eh. My ankle had really started hurting; each step was a noticeable lightning bolt of pain and the ones where I had a misstep would also result in an audible expletive. The beginning of this loop was probably the slowest I was moving all day. Tyler was doing a good job of being encouraging without accepting. What I mean is he would tell me we were moving well or going strong but he never said it was ok to just walk it in. After only falling once on the first loop and once on the third loop, this loop I was a mess. I was tiring, I could barely see where I was going, and I kept kicking rocks or roots and a few times I went down. The times I didn’t, I stumbled and ran off trail. There was an embarrassing amount of walking here. I also stopped to pee again (still hydrated at least) and then we came to the water crossing for the last time. I barreled right through this time, and it actually felt great because it numbed up my ankle for a few minutes. We reached the first aid station, I downed my last roctane and some more water, some more M&Ms and Pringles. The first woman, who turned out to be the incredible Aliza Lapierre, came in right behind me and kept going but she went to her car off the trail a bit as I continued onward. I knew she’d pass me again as she looked incredibly strong and I felt like crap but I wanted to see how far I could get before it happened.
This new development reinvigorated me a bit and I was actually doing something that probably resembled running. I was feeling better here than I did on the previous loop, and I was moving quicker, or so it felt. I had lost a lot of time in the first few miles from all the walking and falling and I doubted I’d be able to make it up but I wanted to at least not lose MORE. Despite feeling better I was still running off trail in spots, I had to step a bit gingerly when heading downhill because of the ankle, and I kept kicking rocks, 90% of the time with my right foot. Aliza went by me in between aid stations and I don’t remember much else before getting to that last aid station. I DO remember saying out loud that I wanted to run all the way to the aid station, no more walking. Tyler kept reminding me of this and we did it. It wasn’t fast but I didn’t stop to walk. I got in and don’t remember what I did there but I tried to get out quickly. Five more miles, that was all that was left but it seemed so far away still. I started out of the aid station running, trying to get myself to just get through it as fast as I could, the faster I ran, the sooner I’d be done. After what felt like at least a mile later I mentioned that I was now a Fullsteam loop away, that was nothing. I had also run further, distance-wise, than ever before. I was running now, it felt like we were moving at a decent clip but keep in mind that I was also semi-delirious and semi-blind so my perception was certainly skewed (although Tyler mentioned after that the parts where we were actually running felt close to 8:00 pace). About 2ish miles from the end we came across Aliza’s pacer who was walking by herself, apparently the victim of a twisted ankle. Mentally I empathized, but didn’t have the energy to say anything out loud. Fortunately, the entire loop Tyler had been saying things like “good job” and “looking strong” to anyone we passed and I just kept telling myself it was me he was telling that too.
We got to the last noticeable hill on the course and I had no choice but to powerhike up it, moving as fast as I could. Once it leveled out, it was back to a run and now we were on the part of the trail that doubled as the start part, less than one mile to go! I took off my gloves and handed them to Tyler and also cast aside my hand held. I started running hard, I think. At least it felt like the effort increased. 6:40 had come and gone (sometime around the last aid station). Seven hours had come and gone somewhere about two miles ago. But dammit I was going to finish strong. I didn’t bother avoiding the one big puddle right before the end of the trail this time, tromping right through it.
As I turned off the trail to run out to the field, the second best moment of the entire weekend occurred – Ashley was running right toward me, looking very strong, about to head out on the trail for her fourth loop. She screamed and had the biggest smile on her face. I was beaming and so happy, happy to be just about done but also THRILLED to see my best friend running so well. We high-fived and I tried to say kick ass but I don’t think I got the words out intelligibly. And then I was on the field, just a few hundred meters between me and the end of my 50 mile journey. Tyler peeled off to let me run it in by myself and then yelled at me that if I was going to finish on my own, I better sprint it in. So I dug in. With every ounce of energy left in my legs I ran. I could see just enough to avoid running through the girls soccer game going on. I could see the clock behind the basketball courts. I could hear Katie and Scott cheering for me. I pushed and pushed and crossed the line 7 hours, 13 minutes, 10 seconds after I started (final loop — 2:04:44). That was good for 7th overall (6th male) out of 107 finishers. I took another step or two to slow down and then my hands dropped to my knees. I had run 50 miles. The barn had definitely been burnt to the ground. I was done.
The race I had thought about for months was over. The RD handed me a really awesome finisher’s jacket and later a voucher for a free pair of trail shoes – turns out I won the early number pick-up raffle from the day before. The rest of the moments immediately following the race are foggy. (edited to add: Katie reminded me that most of the guys who had finished ahead of me were standing around the finish talking and were nice enough to congratulate me. That felt good. Chad and I briefly talked about the race and the course and I congratulated him on working his way up to 3rd place.) I think I staggered over to the aid station again. The Team Awesome crew met me and there were hugs and congratulations and there was food stuffed in my face and I was drinking (I remember wanting Coca Cola, and pineapple juice, in that order) and then I remember I just had to walk over to the playground and lie down in the mulch. And that’s what I did. I just collapsed on the ground in a heap. It’s all I had energy for. What always amazes me about races (and some hard long runs and workouts) is how your body seems to know exactly how long it needs to hold on for before giving up and usually it is just long enough to be done and not a step further. Standing up to walk to the bathroom a few minutes later felt nearly impossible. The actual walking to the bathroom part felt more difficult than any loop. My ankle felt AWFUL. A few days later, it is definitely sprained but improving considerably each day. Surprisingly I wasn’t OMGSOHUNGRY but I did eat, and drink.
Probably the BEST part of my day, and the entire weekend, occurred a few hours after I finished. My vision was mostly returned. We were all just hanging out waiting for Ashley. We had literally JUST taken bets on when she would come in. It was about 9:50 into the race. The bets ranged from 10:20 (me) to 10:45ish. About half a minute later, we saw a tiny female runner in pink come out onto the field. WHAT?! I moved as quickly as I could toward the finish and seeing her come in at 9:53, a HUGE PR, made me ridiculously happy and proud. I hugged her so hard. Team Awesome had had a remarkable day.
This is long enough as it is. I have a lot of thoughts about the race in general, about what went well and what didn’t go well, about what I learned going forward, about what I want to do going forward, about my Pure Grits (spoiler alert — they’re AWESOME), and, most importantly, about myself. I also have a lot of pictures from the race. All of this I’ll share in a separate post. This one will serve as just the account of what I did, how I did it, and who I did it with. Considering this took longer to write than it took me to run the actual race, I think that’s enough for now.
Saturday I ran the 40 mile race in the Triple Lakes Trail Races event out in Greensboro, NC. As I mentioned previously, this was my first ultramarathon race since the Potomac Heritage 50k in November of 2009. Going into the race I was feeling pretty good, I hadn’t put a lot of pressure on myself because this was primarily to serve as my last hard long run before the 50 miler next month. The reduced volume in the days leading up to the race helped my legs feel fresher than they have in a while. I didn’t know what to expect except for lots of roots, some beautiful views, and a long day out in the woods.
The night before I managed to sleep alright, about 6 or so hours which is very good for a pre-race night. I woke up at 4:30 am not feeling particularly tired, got myself dressed and packed and out the door by 5. I got to Bur-Mil Park just north of Greensboro, where the race would start and finish, at 6:30am. It was a short walk from the parking lot to the picnic tables for packet pick-up, I was one of the first people there it seemed, and I was enjoying the early morning calm and chill. I wasn’t freezing but I would have been uncomfortable without my jacket. The weather, which had been pretty bad all week, reversed course for race day. The high was scheduled to be about 70 and it was probably about twenty degrees cooler right then. I had an hour and a half before the start so I walked back to my car and then drove about a mile back down the road to Harris Teeter where I used the warm bathroom instead of dealing with the port-a-potties. I got back to the park with about a half hour to go and set about getting ready — getting my Brooks Launches on (I didn’t get my Pure Grits yet, and debated between the Launch and the Green Silence, ultimately going with the somewhat more substantial Launch for cushioning with the roots, I didn’t want my feet to get too beat up), vaseline-ing appropriate areas, filling my handheld with Cytomax (this was a last minute decision but one I was pretty confident would be good), and filling my shorts’ pockets with gels. I headed over to the start area wearing a sweatshirt. As I got to the start, they made an announcement that they were starting the half marathon first (there are three races — a half, a full, and the 40) and then the full/40 five minutes later. I milled around waiting, not feeling it would do me any good to warm-up in the way I normally do for races, so I peed in the woods and did some dynamic stretching and eventually ambled my way to the start line.
The course runs along most of Greensboro’s watershed trails around some really pretty lakes, with about about two miles at the start on the paved park road and a greenway and a few road crossings along the way. The marathon and 40 mile races share the same course for the first 11+ miles along the north side of the lakes before it splits, 40 milers doing an out and back while marathoners skip that and head right back to the finish on trails south of the lakes. Going into the race, all I knew about were the roots, I wasn’t sure how hilly things would be but being a trail race I was ready for whatever.
There was a pretty good crowd of people there. I made my way to the front where there were mostly marathoners. I asked a few what their goal time was, hoping someone would say around 3:30 as that was the pace I was looking to run. We were told that the 40 milers would be crossing a bridge on the out and back section that was flooded. Sounded like fun to me. I drained a 5 hour energy and got my mind ready to go, my legs were already there. The RD got in the gator, sounded the airhorn, and we were off.
Right away a few guys moved out in front as the first few hundred meters were climbing up the hill on the park road. I fell in right with a group of four marathoners, feeling very relaxed. That was my goal early on, to run relaxed and steady, not exerting myself too much. By the time we were out of the park, the group had pretty much separated itself from everyone else. There was me, a college guy running his first marathon ever who told me to call him Scotty Mac, a shirtless guy in red shorts, a guy in a blue sleeveless shirt, and a guy in a red Carolina Godiva shirt. Around 2 miles in, Scotty Mac began to fall back a bit, I wish him well and pushed on with the other three. The cool thing about this race is that even though it’s mostly on trails, they actually have almost all of the miles marked (not sure how accurate they are but they were fairly consistent it seemed). We hit the 2 mile sign and I saw we were just over 14 minutes. Hm. I had a choice here — I was feeling GREAT but still had 38 miles to go and was running with the guys leading the much shorter race. Do I pull up and run slower on my own or do I just go with it. Well, considering my plan going in was basically to go out hard and see how long I could hold on and how it felt late in the race, I stuck with the group. I figured if I started feeling fatigued I’d back off some.
We got off the greenway onto some trails finally, a little loop that went around Bur-Mil park, then back onto the greenway and then a bigger loop around the park on trails. We passed mile 3 right at 21 minutes. I was talking with the other guys, not out of breath, not pressing, just cruising. Being out on the trail on a crisp fall morning seemed like the only place I could possibly want to be, I was pretty happy. Around mile 5 we came off the trail and the ran over a bridge which afforded some more gorgeous views of the lake. This was where the first aid station was. The pack was still together and I briefly slowed to down a cup of gatorade. To this point, I was sipping my Cytomax every so often, and figured I’d take a gel around mile 8 where another aid station would be. Back onto some trails we went, I was running second behind the shirtless guy, the other two right behind us.
This is how things went for most of the first 11 miles. I took a blueberry pomegranate GU Roctane as planned right before the next aid station, a little less than an hour in. I still had plenty of Cytomax so I just had a water or two, crossed the road and carried on. The next three miles were also uneventful. There WERE plenty of roots but that was it; no significant ups or downs, just rolling trail with intermittent views of the water. Around mile 11 we briefly came out of the woods to another road, I had a cup of gatorade and we continued on a trail for another little bit. Coming back out of the woods, we finally reached the split-off point. I wished the three marathoners well as they headed along the route that I would be running a little bit later. At this point I was done with my Cytomax and filled my handheld up with mostly Gatorade and some water at the aid station before crossing the street and beginning the next part of the race all alone. I glanced up the road as I entered the trail and didn’t see a soul.
A short ways into this section I passed the mile 12 sign. I was at 1:26:30. 28 miles left, I’ve run 28 miles quite a few times already this summer, I’m feeling good, this is gonna be a great day. This trail seemed a bit more rugged, there were a few larger hills but my legs were still feeling fantastic, I was backing off slightly on the really steep sections but by and large I was running, and quickly. I dunno how off the next two mile signs were but apparently I covered the next two miles in 13:50. I passed the “flooded” bridge and don’t remember getting my feet wet at all on the way out, there was only a few boards that were submerged. Around mile 15 there was another aid station where I downed another cup of Gatorade. Around this point I noticed something concerning going on — as I passed close to the water in a sunnier section, I noted that my vision seemed to be a little foggy. This has happened before, most notably at Pikes Peek and Broad Street in the spring. I hoped it wouldn’t get much worse as I still had a long ways to go but I also knew there was nothing I could do about it now. I remember hitting mile 16 in 1:55ish and it was there that I began thinking about HOW good a day I could possibly have. I knew there were still 24 miles to go and I’d probably slow some but I knew my legs could handle the distance and I’ve run quick long runs before, plus the weather was perfect so I was gaining confidence by the minute.
Then I made my first mistake. Shortly after the mile 16 sign I apparently missed a pretty sharp left. It was entirely my fault, because there were multiple arrows telling you where to go. I didn’t turn. And eventually I ended up at a road. Which I proceeded to run up a bit to see if the trail came back, despite not seeing anyone (all the other roads I crossed had at least a few people) or any pink arrows. Eventually I realized I was off course, cursed loudly and retraced my steps. I was pissed. I ran back until I saw arrows marking an intersection, but I didn’t know which direction I had come from so I guessed. I guessed wrong. Eventually I came BACK to the mile 16 sign, almost 9 minutes after the first time I’d seen it. I basically had just ran an extra mile. I saw a few guys in the distance and cursed again, my stupidity and carelessness had all but erased my lead. I immediately reversed course and began booking it the right way this time. I tried to let the whole incident melt away but I was pretty angry with myself. I was now no longer way out in front and I had wasted a considerable amount of energy and got nowhere for it.
Three rolling miles later I came out of the woods to another aid station. I had been eating a Gu Chomp every few minutes throughout this 40 mile only section and was about halfway through the package of eight. I re-filled my bottle with more gatorade, took a few cups of water, doused myself with one and then asked where to go. They said, back, as this was the turnaround point already. Awesome. I bounded back into the woods, eager to see where exactly the rest of the field was. About 2 minutes later I came across the first person, but I’m pretty sure he was a relay runner. Another minute and I saw a guy with long dreadlocks and a dude in a red shirt. I was pretty sure this was 2nd and 3rd, so I figured I had 5-6 minutes on them still. I gave them a nod and continued on. I was still feeling pretty good and moving pretty quick. I came up to the mile 20 sign in about 2:31. Halfway done with a bonus mile and I was right near the pace needed for a course record which was ~5:03. Not knowing anything about the second half of the course I allowed myself to think maybe it would be possible. If nothing else, the 5:20-5:30 goal was definitely doable it seemed.
And that’s basically when I started a completely different race. The first half of this race went so differently than the second half for me it’s like I ran two different races. Almost immediately after the halfway point, my stomach began to send me warning signals. I was still moving at this point but I could feel the gatorade I was putting in begin to just sit there, sloshing around. I knew I still needed to consume some calories but the chomps stopped appealing to me immediately and I didn’t want to take another gel yet. The Gatorade also became instantly unappealing. And it seemed my energy levels dropped precipitously. It was like a light switch had just been flicked off. I was running still, but I had slowed. I was now powerhiking any signifcant uphill section. I took my first fall around this section, tripping up a hill as some people ran by the other way. I managed to scrape up my knee but nothing worse. I also at some point literally ran into a tree. It wasn’t hidden or anything, it was off the trail, I didn’t trip, I just ran right into it with my right shoulder, bouncing off it like a pinball and continuing on. I was getting my money’s worth.
I came back on the 15/23 mile aid station and forced myself to down another cup of liquid, and also poured a few waters over my head. My stomach was feeling worse and worse. I had hit my first significant low point in the race, and I was not happy. My legs felt fine, they weren’t tired or stressed, but I just didn’t feel very good overall. I needed calories and I needed liquid but it felt like my body wasn’t absorbing what I put in. It was a rough stretch to the point where we had split from the marathoners. I managed to get back to that split about an hour after leaving the turnaround. Still, on the way out I had run in a few minutes faster despite adding an extra mile that way. I was nearly 26 miles in and I had been running for 3:25. The fact that I still had 14 miles to go weighed heavily on me at this point. I took a bit extra time at this aid station, impulse downing a Hammer espresso gel from the table, refilling my handheld again and pouring more water over my head. Back onto the trail I went, for the first time more worried about being caught than about any time I could potentially run.
The stretch to the next aid station was only about 4.5 miles but it felt exceptionally long and arduous. It was in the section that I stopped to walk for the first time, meaning not powerwalking up a hill, just walking, on the trail, in a stretch that was definitely runnable. I was angry again. I was really struggling with my stomach and considerably worried about my ability to run and hold anything down. Every time I started moving I got nauseous. When I stopped I could feel the energy draining. I fell again at some point. I stood with my hands on my knees hunched over, wondering how the hell I was going to even FINISH the race. In my head I kept repeating the mantra “relentless forward progress” and I forced myself to do just that. I figured walking (more like stumbling) was better and more productive than hunching over. I would hit good stretches and I would force myself to run some but for the most part this must have looked pretty ugly to an outside observer. I figured it was just a matter of when, not if I would be caught and passed.
Finally I came to the marina and the next aid station, where I tried a handful of pretzels as that was the only thing appealing to me. I forced down some water and gatorade, knowing I needed something to keep me moving. People there were really encouraging and said I looked good (LIARS!) and that there was about ten miles left. Someone offered me a bandaid. “For what?” Then I looked at myself quickly and noticed I was bleeding from my shoulder where I ran into the tree and it looked pretty grisly, and also from my knee. I declined and ambled through the marina and back onto the trail. 30 mile sign, and I was at a little over 4 hours. It HAD been a rough 10 miles. At this point, I adjusted my goal to “don’t die” and thought it was about 50/50 on that. I trudged along, trying to break the race down into training runs. 10 miles left, that’s what I did on Monday, no problem. The mile signs were coming slower and seemed to be further apart. My energy levers were really nosedived at this point and it felt like everything I had drank the past two hours was just sitting in my stomach. I forced myself to take another Gu Roctane which didn’t help at all. I was beginning to come up on some of the back of the pack marathoners. I tried to use them as motivation to keep plugging on, encouraging them as I passed and reminding myself that I wasn’t the only one suffering. It made me think of my friends from the beginning of the race and how I was kind of jealous that they were surely done already.
The trails in this stage of the race were more difficult than the early ones. They were all up or down, the hills were a bit bigger, the roots were still bad, it was not pretty. I was actually surprised that I was still leading. There was a lot more powerwalking, or just regular walking, or slow walking. There was also another fall when I was attempting to run, this time I was on flat ground and rolled onto my back so I wouldn’t break anything or twist an ankle and managed to get up pretty quickly and keep going. Both knees were now scraped up, my hands were stinging with dirt in scrapes, my left hip flexor felt strained from the combination of the fall, the downhills, maybe the thigh wrap I had on for my hamstring. It was just another thing to pile on. I found myself questioning what the hell I was doing and why exactly was I subjecting myself to this. And each time I did that, I reminded myself I LIKED this, I WANTED this feeling, I WANTED to scrape the bottom of the barrel, to test myself and my limits. I reminded myself that it’s easy to be tough when things feel good and you’re cruising along. But NOW is the time where actual toughness is proven. I made up my mind to be tough.
FINALLY, I came to the last aid station. Right before mile 35 I came out of the woods again and to a table. There was a woman working there who seemed pretty disinterested and also didn’t attempt to hide how disgusted she was by me. I’m sure it didn’t look pretty, I was bleeding from a few different spots, I was staggering, I could feel gel dried up and probably mixed with snot in my beard, I was a mess. There were cups of Coke and water and Gatorade. At this point I could barely stand the sight of gatorade, let alone the taste. I though maybe some flat Coke would help settle my stomach like when I was a kid. Problem was, this was not flat Coke, not even close. So it made me hiccup and it made my stomach WORSE. I dumped a couple waters over my head. It wasn’t that it ever got particularly hot, and even when it warmed up some, the breeze off the water kept things pretty cool, it was just that the water on my head helped sort of keep me from spacing out too much, and kind of woke me up each time. I had lingered long enough so I set out again, decided that I would walk to the bridge a few meters away and then begin “running” again when I got to the trail on the other side. I left two women at the aid station who were wearing bright pink shirts that said something like ‘Christian Runners’. As soon as I got on the trail, I felt an overwhelming urge to pee. Up to that point I hadn’t even thought about it, and definitely didn’t need to, but it just hit me so I looked up the trail to make sure no one was coming, looked back to see if the women were behind me (they weren’t), pulled to the side and peed for a good minute. I was not in the least surprised to note it was dark dark yellow. Obviously I had been correct in assuming that my body was not absorbing any of the liquids I had been drinking for some time. I was severely dehydrated and didn’t seem to know how to fix the problem. I had a full bottle of Gatorade, the same gatorade that hadn’t been working at all. How the hell was I going to get through another five miles?
I took a few big swigs from my handheld, forcing down the Gatorade. I started running again, slowly. Almost immediately I knew I had finally passed the edge of the cliff. The combination of the carbonation from the Coke and the gatorade and the running was too much. I stopped and hunched over, again. I thought maybe it was another false alarm. It wasn’t. For the next two or three minutes I was bent over on the side of the trail and bright orange Gatorade was being vomited back up. It was awful, it felt awful, it looked like something out of an exorcist movie, it was the lowest point in the race for me. To make matters worse, I basically couldn’t see out of my left eye and my right one was pretty cloudy too. But then something strange happened. As soon as I was sure I was done and there was nothing left in my stomach to throw up, I stood and… felt better. MUCH better. Somehow I felt MORE energetic than I had a minute ago. My stomach felt great. I started moving, much faster than I had the previous 15 miles. I was by no means cruising like I had been early but I was definitely running again. At this point, the fatigue had set in though and my legs were beginning to feel the effort and undernutrition and I was trying to squeeze as much running out of the before allowing myself to walk. I ended up only powerwalking up the steepest hills, as I was now on a pretty up and down mountain bike trail. I also impulse downed my last remaining gel, a pineapple GU roctane, which actually tasted delicious. I had hit the lowest point and I had recovered and now I was less than 5 miles from being done with it all.
I was still running scared of being caught, but with my new found energy, I though maybe I’d be able to hold on long enough to get to the end before someone caught up. Each mile sign I passed I converted into a regular running route back home, which helped make it seem shorter. I counted steps. I had “Edge of Glory” playing on repeat in my head, but mostly just the chorus. I came down another hill and out onto this greenway and there were people there pointing ahead and saying it was just around the pond now. I didn’t know what they meant until I came to the grassy field on the other side of the greenway. I looked left and could see the Finish arch. All I had to do was run (uphill) around this small pond and I would be done. Maybe 1/2 mile left. It was here that I finally felt comfortable that I was going to win, but even still I pushed with whatever energy I had left in my legs. I passed one more marathoner and gave her some encouragement. Around the pond and now just a straight line to the end. I guess some people noticed I was the first 40 mile runner and began clapping and cheering. It was cool but I was kind of out of it and it all sounded like it was going on underwater. Finally I crossed the line and came teetering to a stop long enough to get handed a finisher’s medal. The clock said 5:37:43.
Post-race thoughts and musings
I drank a few cups of water right after, as that was the only thing I could stomach. Then I pounded a can of Coca-Cola and this time it was delicious. I had a banana and just kind of walked around. Eight minutes later the dreadlocks guy, Andy, ran in for 2nd place. A few minutes after him, the guy in the red shirt, Darian, finished third. I congratulated both of them and headed over to wear I saw a massage table. Unfortunately the massage therapist had left shortly before I finished. Damn. I walked the quarter mile or so to my car to get some clothes and my Boost shake to start the recovery process. Walking back up the hill we started on, I was amazed and kind of questioning how the hell I managed to do what I just did, especially considering how impossible running one more step seemed to me at this point. I hung around the finish area for a few hours, cheering people in, talking to other runners, trying to get calories in in the form of chocolate chip cookies, pretzels, and bananas. It’s strange that I had no lingering stomach issues after I finished running, and while I was tired from running, I wasn’t feeling nearly as bad as I did during the bad stretch, nor did I feel much worse than after a long run or hard workout. I foam rolled before getting back in the car for the drive home and rewarded myself with a big dessert and beer from Bella Mia near my apartment.
Some things I learned and took away from the race —
-Ultras are TOUGH! Running a 5k or 10k all out hurts in a special way, a very quick intense sort of way. Running 40 miles on rolling, rooty trails as fast as you can drains in you a completely different, but no less painful way. During this race I felt as good as I ever have, physically and mentally, during any race in my life and I also felt the worst I ever have EVER, also both physically and mentally. The fact that I can experience such high highs and low lows during the same race is part of the allure. Of course, during that bad 15 mile stretch, I was having trouble agreeing with myself that I LIKE this, but looking back now I definitely do. Maybe I’d feel differently if I hadn’t held on and won but I doubt it.
-I’m glad I did this before Stone Cat, so now I know some things I need to work on or at least be aware of and I have a better understanding of what my body will be going through over the course of the race. I think my stomach issues stem from too much sugar in the gatorade primarily. The Cytomax was working really well and in a perfect world I would have had someone at the 11 mile mark and then maybe the turnaround to give me another bottle of it. What I probably should have done was drink primarily water at the aid stations and re-fill my bottle with very dilute gatorade, relying on my gels which have always worked well for me before this. At Stone Cat, it’s going to be 12.5 mile loops so this shouldn’t be as much of an issue, at least logistically.
-I don’t think it was a huge mistake starting off as fast as I did. I don’t think it was a big contributor in my stomach issues. I was feeling very good and even when I was struggling later, my legs weren’t shot, I just didn’t have any energy and I felt nauseous. I ran the race I wanted to run from the onset, and it gave me a slim chance early on to run a very good time. Ultimately I got a chance to practice being tough and the fact that I WAS able to get through the worst of it and finish and win is a huge confidence booster, for next month and just for my running in general.
-The atmosphere at trail races and at ultras is awesome. Everyone was so friendly and laid back. I love it and I’m glad I’m going to be more a part of it going forward. For winning, I got a fleece blanket with the cool skull and crossbones race logo on it. That was more than enough to make me happy.
-It looks like I might be doing an extended taper for next month. My legs aren’t too bad, my quads are pretty beat up and that left hip flexor is definitely strained a bit but other than that, I’m recovering very well. Hard work and dedication DO pay off, usually.
If you actually got through this whole thing, thanks for reading! If you have any comments, input, advice, criticisms, etc I would really appreciate it. I’m still pretty new to this ultrarunning thing and I know there are A LOT of people out there with significantly more talent and experience whom I could learn so much from.