There are 3 different types of people who are going to read this post. The first are people who are thinking about signing up for this race. The second are those that have signed up and want to know more about it. The third group are those that are interested in how I did personally. The detailed race report below will satisfy the latter two, but let me get right to it for the undecided. If you live on the east coast and are thinking of running 100 miles, you should run Umstead. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never run the distance or have done plenty, this is a race worth doing. Umstead bills itself as a good race for first timers and while it’s definitely doable, the elevation gain (8000 feet gross) and temperatures (75 in early April) make it more of a challenge than it appears at first blush. That said, here is what makes Umstead different than other 100-milers:
- Eight lap format lets you get familiar with the course without getting bored.
- Multiuse trails are extremely non-technical and it’s virtually impossible to get lost.
- Plenty of aid stations – between the 2 fully stocked and 3 water only you are never more than 3 miles from an aid station and typically much shorter.
- Texting service – 3 splits per lap sent to your friends and family while you’re out on the course.
- Lap splits handed to you literally seconds after you finish.
- Lunch/dinner during race for your crew.
- Cabins within short walking distance from the start/finish.
- Official certificate (name, finish time, place) mailed to your house about 2 weeks after the race along with 5 color race photos of you on the course.
For the long version, here’s my experience of this classic race.
Is this too easy?
I kept waffling back and forth on whether or not to wear a headlamp to start the race since the 6am start means you’re running in the dark for the first thirty minutes or so. I decided to go without and this ended up being an OK decision since most others had one. I missed this elsewhere, but during the first lap only they send you down the road to the Airport Spur and not the little trail used all other times. Everyone lined up and I somehow accidentally got positioned towards the front. They started the race right on time and off we went. The first bit is uphill and despite my best efforts to start conservatively, I was literally running with the crowd. Sigh.
Let me back up. I have a history of going out too fast so coming into this race my focus was running a sustainable 100-mile pace. Not a good marathon pace or 50k pace or even 50 mile pace. I’ve run easy before, however this hasn’t been sustainable over the full 100 miles so I needed to find my “too easy” pace. I asked myself repeatedly over the course of the run whether it was “too easy” and this helped keep my effort under control. My mantra actually started cracking me up later on though because – I mean, 100 miles, people. There is no “too easy” at 1am.
I got back to the start/finish (Aid #1) with a split of 2:19 or about 11 minutes faster than the 12 minute per mile pace I had planned on running. I thought I was screwing up my race already, but in hindsight this wasn’t as fast as it appeared since it was weather-enhanced with temperatures in the low to mid 50s. I grabbed my Ensure Plus, said a couple quick works to my wife who was out crewing for me, and off I went for Lap 2. I knew I had time in the bank already at this point so focused intently on “too easy” all this loop. I was surprised by the hill at mile 5. I have no idea how I missed this the first lap, but it seemed to go on forever. Luckily, it wasn’t all that steep so a brisk walk allowed me to recover a bit, while still covering decent ground.
I got to the full aid station at mile 7 (Aid #2) and immediately asked for salt tablets. I had planned to get them there the prior lap (forget) and at the end of lap 1 (forgot again) and desperately needed to start replacing my electrolytes. My goal was to take 2 per lap, which I did up until lap 5 or 6 when I upped it to 4. It wasn’t a huge error to have started on lap 2 since it was still relatively cool. The bigger mistake was not to take more earlier on. In the future, I’ll probably try and target one every 30 minutes when the temperatures are 75 or more.
When I returned to the start/finish line, I was surprise to see my split of 2:27 was still under a 12 minute pace. I grabbed another Ensure Plus from my drop bag (one before each lap) and drank it while talking about my race with my wife as I walked up the hill leading out onto the course. The only recollection of my third trip around the course is that I started getting lapped. And it happened in the first mile. It always amazes me how long these guys can run 8 minute miles, while I’m so much slower than them. The rest of the loop went pretty much exactly as the prior including my shock in seeing another split under 12 minute pace (2:29) at the end of it.
I remember thinking at some point in lap 3 that I never seem to run with anyone for any extended period of time. That would change quickly as I ran all of the next loop with Stephen from NC. He was running a bit quicker than I was, but slowed his pace to match mine. I had a great time chatting with him about a wide range of topics – running histories, philosophies, music preferences, least favorite parts of the course, you name it. This was the hottest portion of the day and while I was trying to slow down, I also wanted to hang with my new running buddy. So my attempts to run “too easy” really fell apart on this lap. My 2:34 split was far too fast. The good news is that with a sub-10 hour 50 mile time I now had oodles of time in the bank.
And lap 5 (2:51 split) is when I started really using it. I knew I had a great chance of hitting my sub-24 hour goal now and slowed way down. I was walking even more of the hills and whenever I really felt like I was even remotely pushing things. I noticed I was getting dehydrated as I stopped needing to take pit stops so upped both my water intake and my salt tablets. It finally started to cool down towards the end of this loop, however I was still in recovery mode. My pace was slower overall, but I was still running pretty much everything that I had the prior lap. To finish this one inside 24 hour pace was a huge boost mentally as now all I had to do was average 3 hours 45 minutes three more times.
Bring on the night
Darkness would overtake me the next trip around the course so I spent a little extra time making sure I was adequately prepared. I put on a long sleeve shirt, tossed on my headlamp, restocked my fluids, and off I went. I had grabbed my MP3 player the prior stop, which kept me going the rest of the race. I was continuing to slow down, however my pace wasn’t falling of precipitously like in prior 100s. At Aid #2, I asked for chicken broth to go into one of my water bottles. This has worked well for me in prior 100s and I thought this would be a good way to help me fully recover from my dehydration. Unfortunately, what they put in my bottle wasn’t chicken broth. It didn’t taste right, but 14 hours into a run does weird things to you so I figured it was just me. I took 4 or 5 sips over the next hour and it just didn’t taste right. Finally, I decided to take a salt tablet as I reached the Headquarters’ Spur. My stomach rejected this and decided to empty its contents. Immediately, I felt like a new man. It was like the quick purge (really, I may have thrown up all of 4 mouthfuls of fluid) hit a reset on my system. And away I went. I ran the last 2 miles in great spirits and was pleasantly surprised (have you noticed a trend yet?) to see that it wasn’t even 10pm yet.
This was the last time I would see my wife before the finish as she was going to get some sleep for the ride home the next day. I grabbed a pair of gloves and some coffee and was on my way. The last 2 loops were pretty magical for me. I had always gotten slower and weaker in prior races, however now I felt stronger. I was running sections that I hadn’t in the prior couple loops. Heck, I was even running uphill! Typically, I would only be able run gentle downhills at this point, but that was not the case. I never even needed the coffee to stay awake and made due with water alone (had been 50/50 water/Gatorade up until this point). You can’t even imagine my shock at the end of lap 7 in seeing my split only a minute slower than the prior one.
I took an extra couple minutes to swap out the batteries in my headlamp and was out of Aid #1 after only about 5 minutes. I was blazing fast through all of the aid stations during the race and probably saved myself 30-40 minutes overall compared to prior races. It wasn’t so much that I was pushing to be super fast, however I just didn’t need to spend any extra time. I was fully in control from start to end. It wasn’t until the last loop that I really started to think about my finishing time. I rolled into Aid #2 needing to cover the last 5.5 miles in 86 minutes to break 22 hours. I decided not to think about this in the moment. I topped up my water, grabbed a banana (switched over to these from gels on lap 6), and started for home. At this point I was counting down the half miles as my watch was out of sync with the mile markers, yet I wasn’t in my normal mentally state where every step seems like an eternity. My head was in a great place.
And then came the blister incident of mile 95.5. I had just done the math that a couple 15 minute miles and a hard push could net me a sub-22 hour finish when my right foot exploded in agony. More specifically, my pinky toe. I went from running strong to a slow walk in about 2 steps. I get blisters all the time when I do these races, but they’ve never bothered me much before. It took me no time at all to realize that this was different. I looked for some place to sit down to fix the situation, but couldn’t find anything suitable. So I just sat down in the middle of the trail. I took my shoe and sock off and saw a blister about the size of a peanut M&M. Oooffff. I popped it (ouch), put my sock back on (ARRRGGGG!!!!), then my shoe (ouch again). I started walking and my toe didn’t feel any better, which was a little discouraging to put it mildly. I didn’t have any other options besides going forward so I started trying new walking gaits to alleviate the pain: foot outward, shorter strides, longer strides, little waddle motions, and finally settled on a shuffle/hop combination that felt a smidgeon better. My running form must have looked absolutely ridiculous (not that there was anyone around at 3am to see it) and was putting a lot of stress on my left leg, but it was working. After a mile or so the pain receded down to a very manageable level and I was able to run again in a semi-normal fashion. Or at least normal for 90+ miles. Everything is relative at this point.
And then I was across the finish line in 22 hours and 7 minutes with a PR of over 4 hours.
I’m a dreamer. Anyone who starts a 100 mile race has to be one. Those with their feet firmly planted in reality would never undertake the training required to tackle something like this. As a dreamer though, I’ve tended to believe at times in the past that I’m capable of more than I am. During my long runs leading up to Umstead, my dream time was 21 hours forty minutes or a 13 minute pace (I do like my round numbers after all). This wasn’t a goal, but what I thought a perfect race might look like. My last conditioning test though indicated I would only break 24 hours with a much smarter race execution that I had in the past. As I started lap 6 and realized I had 24 hours in the bag, I began wondering how low I could go. Twenty three hours seemed possible until I was still cruising along on lap 7. I live my life based on numbers, but they can’t tell you when you achieve your dreams. That’s what your heart is for. And when I passed mile marker 12 for the final time and the tears started to flow, my heart spoke to me of a dream accomplished. And not the one of finishing under 24 hours, but one much bigger than that. Last weekend I went out and ran the best race I was capable of. This wasn’t a perfect race and I may run faster ones in the future, but it’s unlikely I will ever be able to capture a moment quite like that again. Dreams may come and go, but no one can ever take 2017 Umstead away from me.