Spring races mean winter training runs where the cold and wind rips at your face and you plod forward with the hope that with each February step will bring April glory.
When I showed up to the start line of Umstead with my Hello Kitty hydration pack and found myself surrounded by a bunch of experienced, hard-core ultra runners, it dawned on me that I probably had spent the last few months of training deluded myself and I was about to get my butt kicked.
The Pig and Hello Kitty. Yes, my parents are about as proud of me as you would expect.
Umstead is a 100/50 miler in Umstead Park in Raleigh, NC. The park is named after a former governor of NC so if nothing else, most of you will leave reading this post knowing more than you started. Yes, a first for this blog.
This race is small (~270 people) and the 100 miler Western States Qualifier which makes it a very popular (and difficult) race to get in, but last September I was able to sign up for the 50 miler given a fast internet connection (and luck).
The course is hilly by road standards (~1000 ft of climbing per 12.5 mile loop (for my Canadian readers you can convert that to deg C (yes, I am kidding))). Of course by trail standards it considered “flat” and “easy” and is considered a good race for first time 100 milers and the race goes out of their way to take care of 1st timers.
And 50 miler! (half the endurance? Maybe the 50 makes a right triangle)
I drove down to Raleigh Friday, picked up my race packet, attended the race briefing, and being the introverted human I am, skipped the communal dinner and went back to have dinner at my hotel.
For the record, this was not my dinner. Well, not all of it anyway.
Saturday I was up at 3 AM questioning my sanity. Then I remember who I was talking about and proceeded to eat a pre-race breakfast of peanut butter crackers and some sports drink. I got ready (long story) and drove to the Umstead park and parked in my assigned area (which as luck would have it was about 1/4 mile from the start. I then put my drop bag near the start/finish line at race HQ. I decided against a drop bag at the mid-way point since I had The Pig to crew me and my hydration pack has a fair amount of rooms to carry things for minor emergencies (like a stick for toasting marshmallows).
Goals for the Race
- Don’t come in last.
- Don’t die.
- Beat 12 hours
- Beat 11 hours
- Find 20 bucks on the trail
The horn went off promptly at 6 AM and it took a minute to get going but soon we were all charging down the trail with our headlamps blazing. Fortunately I only needed my headlamp for about 40 minutes.
I really didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect from the course. I had seen the elevation profile and seen pictures and video of the course but there is nothing like actually running it. The course is wide (6-10 ft in most place) with some gravel but no roots and very few ankle busting rocks. There is enough gravel I would recommend trail shoes over road shoes, but you could probably survive with road shoes.
After the start you run up to the airport spur and then come back again so you get to see the leaders of the race come by (yup, they are faster than me). My first mile came in around 12:00 and my heart rate was OK, so felt I hadn’t start too, too fast (just too fast which for me is an improvement). My plan was to run the first 3-4 miles to warm up and then walk the hills. Miles 2-3-4 came in at 11:05. 11:09, 11:09. My plan to start walking after mile 4 worked out nicely because after mile 4 there is a hill which I was more than happy to walk (by flat-lander standards, by trail runner standards it was a speed bump). I power hiked the hill but I noticed that my heart rate really wasn’t coming down the way it typically does. Even with the power hike for some of next mile my pace was around 11:50 (don’t worry I am not going to give 50 mile splits). Maybe a tad fast, but I felt reasonable. Then I got to practice my descending. I’m still not very good at descending, but I look slightly less like I am running with the parking brake on. I went through the aid station around mile 6.5 and notice that at that point I had sweated through my shirt (sorry for that image). After the aid station came a series of hills (by my flat-lander status). As I made my way up the hills it started to mist, which actually felt good given that I was pretty warm. I completed the 12.5 mile lap in just under 2:27.
I grabbed a refill of water at the start finish and left out for lap 2. My heart rate was still spiking higher than I would have liked. Just as I finally got to a pace where it was settling in nicely, it started to rain. At first the rain was light enough to feel good, but after the hill at mile 5 it turned into a steady hard rain (enter the slosh pit). I was getting soaked to the bone and as I power hiked the hill, I couldn’t help but think that The Pig was having a better time a HQ than I was. Finally toward the end of the lap, the rain turned back into a mist. I had one pair of spare socks in my drop bag and I decided at the end of the lap I would change into dry socks and apply Trail Toes (a Vaseline like product) and change into a dry shirt.
As I came up to the start finish I noticed that if I picked up the pace up the start/finish incline that I would be able to finish the 2nd lap under 5 hours. Why did that matter to me? No idea, but it did so hoofed my way up and finished the 2nd lap at 4:59:59.999999999.
I call this lap 2.5 because the transition between lap 2 and 3 ended up taking so freaking long. I went into HQ, sat down, took off the wet stuff, put on trail toes, dry socks, and a dry shirt (be happy there are no shirtless pictures and the small children screaming did not bring out the authorities (#progress)). However, by the time I did all this, grabbed a couple of gels from my drop bag and filled a bottle with Skratch Rescue Hydration Mix, I somehow let 15 minutes slip away. Maybe next time I won’t spend time arguing with The Pig that he can’t have all my Jelly Belly Sport Beans.
Soon into lap 3 I was into ultra mileage and to go with it my legs were getting more worn down. Then I ran into a problem at the first water station. I thought I had Tailwind (the drink mix, not code for passing gas) in my pack, but it wasn’t there. So I filled up with Gatorade and went across the trail to the porta potties (once again no pics, #sorrynotsorry). However at this point I noticed I was VERY dehydrated (I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine how I determined this). I sorta freaked out, went back across the trail to the water station and guzzled some water and Gatorade. I knew I needed to take in more fluid, but I started to get into my head (which is easier than you would think given how little is there during an ultra). Then around mile 6.5 after the aid station this panic state got compounded by my Garmin telling me I was walking 25 min/mile. Now, this seemed really slow to me, but I increased my effort and looked about 5 minutes later and it was 42:00 min/min. Despite my serious case of ultrabrain, it did dawn on me that the GPS wasn’t locking. At this point decided I would just run by how I felt and not worry about pace or HR. Due to the troubles on this lap, my motivation was lagging as I returned to the start finish. Lap 3 total time 7:50.
I decided I didn’t want to get sucked into the drop bag vortex again, so I decided to stick with on course fluids supplemented by gels. I headed straight out for lap 4 knowing it was be the last time I would see each hill, each rock, each porta potty, and each runner passing me like I was standing still (though I think I did irk one runner by passing him while I was walking up a hill). Since I couldn’t trust my Garmin, I would take notice of the time at each mile marker and figured out what my finishing time would be if I just walked the rest of the race. Once I figured out that I could break 11 hours (yea!) it lit a fire under me (which given my size really requires a bonfire) to try to run more. The previous lap I had been walking anything that even vaguely resembled a hill, but I tried to run a little more here and there to try to improve my pace. At some point I figured I had a shot at a PR, it motivated me to push on. Finally I figured out I could walk the rest of the way and get a PR. When I got to the final hill I saw the clock and if I hauled butt I could break 10:40 which would be around a five-minute PR. I sprinted to the finish (which after 10+ hours probably is better described as oddly lumbering). It worked and I finished in 10:39:49.
I would like to thank the volunteers and race organizers. This is really well done race and they make everyone feel very welcome. If it weren’t for you I would still be out wandering in the woods or eaten by bears.
After the race, I picked up my drop bag, found The Pig and went back to the hotel for pizza.
In the spirit of the day, The Pig actually shared (some).
All in all it was a pretty good day. Well, until I looked at my Garmin and noticed that I was 6000 steps short of 100,000…