Umstead 100 Race Report
I stood in the aisle of the sporting goods looking at knee braces. In only 3 days I was supposed to run 100 miles on one of the fastest courses in the country, Umstead. Looking at knee braces is not what a runner wants to be doing a few days out from an Ultramarathon.
The usual excitement of race week was toned down due to my knee "situation". I was rather anxious and stressed about the likelihood of potentially having to drop out of my first race ever. A few years ago I damaged my right knee in a snowboarding accident, and it took almost a year to heal, and it is still weak when pressure is applied laterally, (side to side). This injury doesn't usually affect my running, cycling, swimming, etc. The week after the 50 miler at Land Between the Lakes, (which was three weeks prior to the Umstead), I was doing massive amounts of hard labor in my new home and I injured my knee. It had continued to pop and swell and feel very distorted and misaligned every day thereafter.
It was recovering slowly but surely, but running 100 miles is no small feat. I knew that if I wasn't 100% for this race, the chance of finishing would be minimal. I could run through an injury in a 50 miler, and have good results- a 50 is usually around 7 hours- 100 though, is a long time, and the body starts to shut down and refuse eventually.
My first 100 miler was the Mohican 100 in which I finished in more pain than I ever imagined possible. I have run enough races now to not do that again. If I encountered any injury causing situation in the race, I decided I would DNF, rather than finish and do damage to my body in the process. I had nothing to prove. Running Ultras is mostly mental, and if you have the wrong attitude about the race, you have lost before you've even started.
About a day or two before the race I was talking to my friend Stephanie about my concerns regarding my knee. She reminded me of all the concerns I have had in prior races on race week, whether it was an injured shin I was nursing back to health, a head cold I thought would impede race performance, etc. This abated my fears and I felt a calm about the race. I would simply not stress anymore and I would just go down and have a blast and run my own race. What would worrying get me? Sure the odds were stacked against me, but they been in the past too!
Maybe not this strongly, but regardless, worrying does nothing.
I know that I peaked a little early for this race. Since I am leaving for a Thru-Hike of the Pacific Crest Trail on April 27, I will not be racing for a period of 5 or 6 months. This works out nicely as the PCT can be considered base training. I did want to squeeze in as many races as possible though, and Umstead would be my 5th Ultra in 6 months, (Pinhoti in November, Lookout Mountain in December, Lovin' the Hills in February, LBL in March, and Umstead in April). My knee issue prevented me from running much for three weeks prior to Umstead, and honestly, I was a little cooked from running a 6:29 at LBL and I was on a downward decline anyways. I guess I didn't quite play my cards flawlessly, as LBL was supposed to be a training race only for Umstead, and it ended up doing me in!
I met my crew at 5pm on Thursday night at Rhonda's house. Our crew consisted of Rhonda and Jeremy, two good friends from the exploding tri scene here in Louisville. We loaded up the Prius and were on our way to Umstead! We stopped in Pigeon Forge Thursday night and got a nice room for only $35, a great price!
I'm usually pretty consistent about my diet on the day before a race. I like to forego most complex carbs/ whole grains/ fruits veggies and anything else with large amounts of fiber. I've squatted in the woods enough during race day to learn that emptying my colon before race day is the best option! Cracker Barrel was a yummy option in the AM for breakfast, and some pancakes fit the bill for carbs and not much fiber! Double bonus, eating Cracker Barrel in Pigeon Forge, hahaha...
The rest of the drive down to Raleigh, (Umstead Park is right outside of Raleigh), was gorgeous. Our route took us outside of Asheville. We were in the mountains, the sun was out, and it was one of the first warm days of the year. Perfect!
We arrived at the race earlier than expected and our Team Medical Director, Rhonda, (an OT), had a great idea to try taping my knee with Kiniseo Tape. We stopped into a sporting goods shop and the picked up some tape and headed to the hotel.
I was taken aback once I stepped foot into the Hampton. I didn't realize it was a Hilton Hotel. They informed me about a special runner’s breakfast since the full breakfast bar wouldn't be open at 4:30 in the morn when we'd be heading to the race. There was a race table set up with loads of info and maps pertaining to the race. We had a blast talking and enjoying the ride down but it was now nap time and then off to Umstead, (only 10 minutes away), for the packet pick up and Pre-Race meeting!
Driving into Umstead I felt immediate excitement and knew that race day would be great. Tall pines covered the forest floor and the small rolling hills would provide entertainment while running all day. We took a gravel road in about 10 minutes and were greeted by volunteers who gave us our assigned parking number.
The set up at Umstead is awesome. It is at Camp Lapihio, which consists of a main lodge and many smaller cabins. These were all built by the Civilian Conservation Corps around 1940 I think. The buildings were in need of maintenance earlier this year and the hard working rangers were awarded a grant to refinish and repair the structures. They were in great need of manpower and the Umstead race organizers stepped in and saved the day putting in many long hard hours to finish the project in record time.
Blake is the race director and boy is he punctual. The Pre-Race meeting was set to start at 6pm, and the Atomic clock on the big stone mantle in the lodge saw the meeting start at exactly 5:00.00 pm, and finish at 6:00.00 pm. Blake gave an informative pre-race chat, but also an inspiring one. He awarded the # 100 bib number to a person from last years race whom he felt deserved the award for perseverance and who hopefully would finish this race and motivate other first timers. I couldn't believe how many first timers were at this race! It looked like hundreds had stood up when Blake asked the first timers to identify themselves! Awesome!
The pre-race dinner started at exactly 6pm, and I thought there was no way that we'd get fed by 8pm judging by the sheer numbers. We were all fed by 7:30 and headed back to the hotel by 8 pm after walking some of the race course after dinner! The Umstead 100 race is one finely tuned machine. Umstead is an impressive operation to say the least. The course for the Umstead 100 is one of the most stellar running surfaces I have ever encountered. It is crushed granite, all filtered through 1/16" screening. 1/16 is the smaller line of measurement on a standard ruler. There are no stones, pebbles, roots, etc. This crushed granite doesn't create a lot of dust either, even though it is powder consistency almost, and the footing is sure and sound. I can't imagine a more perfect surface conducive to a fast Ultra.
We ran by Target to get some snacks for Rhonda and Jeremy for race day and then were back at the Hotel before 8:45. As I got my race bag ready and got organized we talked about how the race would probably unfold and I gave Jeremy the bib numbers for racers I wanted him to keep splits on as the day unfolded. As much as I preach about running your own race, it is nice to know where the competition is! That being said, I have never really even asked or cared where my competition is in a 100 mielr before. I'll go out and race a 50, wanting splits, etc., but not in a 100. At this point, I run 100, and that's how I race 100, by going out and doing my own thing.
It was nice to see some familiar faces at the starting line at 6am. Jay Smithberger, a great runner from Ohio met me at the starting line and it was awesome to chat and pass the time for the first few laps of 12.5 miles each. He enlightened me at the end of the first lap, once it was light out, that I even forgot to take off my headlamp! Man, that was a few extra ounces, haha, oh well...
The course is a modified loop, which enables runners to run in opposing directions for several miles at the very end and begining of each loop. It is really refreshing to see so many smiling and encouraging faces as you end and begin each lap! The reason I chose Umstead for my last race was mainly due to the community of ultra runners in this race. I loved the concept of a loop course, that was flat and not singletrack. I LOVE singletrack, and I don't love loop courses and so I don't usually do them, but they have a lot to offer and it was time for me to branch out and do something new. I wanted to see other runners the whole race, and Umstead offered that possibility regardless if I was first or last.
The community at Umstead did not disappoint! I think I exchanged pleasantries with almost every runner on the course. It holds a great vibe and is a very positive environment. The weather further fostered the great spirits of the runners. It was nearly perfect, in the 60's and breezy!
The lead pack I was running with was on record pace. We turned in our first laps in less than 1 hour 45 minutes. The second and third laps were the same. I ran 1 hour 43 minutes the first few laps. It was amazing to see such a close race. The first seven or so of us were all only minutes apart, and we were keeping perfect pace with one another. At the start finish line where the out and back is, I could see we were at the same spots each lap, meaning we were all holding similar paces.
Serge Arbona is an amazing runner who finished the 100 miles of Umstead last year in just over 14 hours. I was shocked to see that I was keeping pace with him, and knew that it was time for me to slow down!
At the 37.5 mile mark as I completed my third lap I was literally astonished at how fast the race was unfolding! Not really any knee pain yet, but it was still a long way to go. It was going by so quickly that I decided to skip listening to my iPod until I needed it later. Only one more lap and I would be at the 50 mile mark, halfway! My kiniseo tape began to fall off, and so Rhonda jumped to fixing my knee before I departed, but that tape came off also amongst the salt and sweat, and so I tore it all off and run with no pain and no injury. This would be the second race where I have run an injury out of me! It's nuts to start with an ailment and then it "goes away" mid-race. As a medical professional this makes no sense at all, but hey, I'll take it, right?
Our race system of refueling was working flawlessly. There was a fully stocked aid station at the start finish and at the halfway point on the loop, basically giving runners nutrition and hydration every 6.75 miles. It was challenging for crew members to access the halfway aid station, and so Rhonda and Jeremy stayed at the start finish Aid Station and helped me refuel etc only at the start finish. Since the laps were so fast, it made things go by very quickly, since I would only see them every 12.5 miles. This was their first crewing experience and they did amazing, total naturals, they knew exactly what to do! It's hard to explain to someone when you ask them to crew, how important they are. Having friends help you run 100 miles is an awesome experience. Knowing that I have that kind of support helps me complete a race.
Jay Smithberger and I came into the Start Finish line completing mile 50 together in almost exactly 7 hours. For me, that was probably a bit too fast as my fourth lap out of the eight needed to complete the 100 was a bit slower than the first 3 laps. I generally try to pride myself on stong finishes. I usually pace myself well, but apparently I got a little caught up in the speed of Umstead and ran the first 50 about 20 minutes or maybe even 30 minutes faster than I should have. I was honestly trying to race Umstead, and felt well enough to do so, and hindsight is always 20/20!
You are allowed to pick up a pacer beginning on your fifth lap at Umstead, but Jeremy and I decided to wait until lap 6. I was still very fresh after running the first 50 in 7 hours, and I was entertained by my iPod too, so I tried to stretch out picking up my pacer for a little while.
I was ready for Jeremy by lap 6. I had run 62.5 miles in about 9 hours, and was starting to feel it a bit. The good news was that it was typical muscle fatigue and general tiredness, and no weird musculoskeletal issues slowing me down, the knee was great and the aches and pains were all just par for the course!
Jeremy's enthusiasm to get out on the course was refreshing. He looked so fresh and ready to fly, and I needed time to chill and relax! It was probably painful to run so slow with me after watching people run by him all day, but he stayed just a few ahead of me the first lap, as we chatted about the race. We discussed the events unfolding and Jeremy learned the course well after his first lap.
It is relatively flat the first half of the loop, with most of each lap’s 1000' of elevation gain coming in the second half of each lap. The hills to me were welcome however, as they break the monotony of the beautiful course, and allow different muscle groups to propel you forward for a few miles each lap. The hills were short, but steep enough that walking occasionally for a few seconds was a wise option.
During my last 100 miler, I crashed around mile 55 until mile 75 but then recovered for the last 25 miles to finish very strong and with energy. I could feel my energy seriously waning around mile 70 and I noticed I was slurring my speech. Jeremy and I developed a nutrition plan, and it helped out with the energy and as soon as I would start slurring again I knew it was time for a gel. I tried to stay on top of the energy input with gels every 20 minutes. Jeremy would keep track on his watch and remind me. Usually at that point in a race my stomach can’t handle much of anything without seriously revolting, but it can usually handle gels well.
Forward motion was slow coming and my pace was dropping by the minute. I concentrated on the next aid station and didn’t contemplate the mileage still ahead. It would seem easy to say, I’ve done 80 miles, only 20 left, but I’m a runner. I do a lot of 20 mile runs. I know 20 is a long way to go, it doesn’t matter if you’ve already done 80! I concentrated on living in the moment and focused on the next aid station whatever it was. Time went by quicker that way. The parts are always easier to handle than the whole. We got to the start finish line and I knew that I had to grab my headlamp as it was mile 87.5, I had one lap left, and it would probably be dark midway through this lap. I drank a little cup of Coca-Cola for the quick carbs and the caffeine. My stomach didn’t detest much to the coke. I had also been having success as usually at the aid stations with boiled salted potatoes, a staple in most ultramarathons.
I had a little business to tend to before leaving the aid station at the start finish line and beginning my last lap.
I call it “Bubble-Toe”. I tend to get these blisters, filled with blood, on the end of my toes sometimes. Usually it is the entire tip of my toe, including the toenail. It usually protrudes a great deal from my normal toe shape, giving it the appearance of a giant red lollipop- point being, it’s a huge blood blister. I grabbed my knife out of my race bag and made haste. Within milliseconds I had stabbed the bubble-toe, relieving all pressure. The fun-filled blood/pus sack erupted like Mt Saint Helens all over my faithful running shoes that had carried me. The shot was impressive, probably several inches shooting out of my big toe. The big toe nail had NO chance.
I threw on my socks and felt immediate relief. My toe was back to its normal size, from nearly double.
Jeremy was incredible. His longest run was a marathon prior to Umstead and upon leaving mile 87.5 to begin our last lap; he was also embarking into uncharted territory. That lap would bring a total of 37.5 miles for Jeremy and 100 miles for me. Rhonda was able to run a few laps with Deb Shelton, a friend from Louisville. It was awesome that our crew were all able to get in a few laps on the course.
During the laps that we ran together from mile 62.5 to 100, everyone kept shouting at how fresh we look. Jeremy always felt obligated to concede that he was “only” a pacer, but he was shouldering not only the load of running 37.5 miles, but as a pacer, he had to care for my wibbly-wobbly, speech slurring, pathetic tail trying to run the last chunk of a hundred miler. He quickly learned his job as a pacer and perfected it, providing entertaining speech and motivation. A pacer must push their runner, but also feel their runner out, allowing them to slow when necessary. It is a challenging task, with little reward, but without pacers, a lot of runners would not complete their feat.
We made our way around one last lap, and it became increasingly harder and harder to place each foot in front of the other. My pace was growing weaker, but I knew I would finish in good time. We had hoped to break 16 hours but realized that the effort was futile, and I couldn’t gain any placement in the process. Regardless, it was too much to handle. I went my own pace, giving it literally everything I had. I took a sit down break for the first time at aid station 2, (the halfway-on-the-loop aid station), at mile 95. I ate a small piece of pizza hoping the fat content would settle the amount of carbs in my stomach, thereby reducing the possibility of “osmotic-diarrhea”, another unpleasant side effect of ultras a lot of runners encounter. The pizza did the trick and I ran it on home, congratulating the other runners out on the course still who had been so encouraging all throughout the day. It was only 10pm, and many would still be running through the night to complete their awesome task.
I did it. I crossed the finish line in just over 16 hours. Considering the circumstances, I was very happy with my run. You must take each day as they come and maximize what you have. I wasn’t at 100%, and I wanted to be, but I didn’t let it get me down. I went down, and honestly had one of most enjoyable race weekends ever. Rhonda and Jeremy were great. The car ride home even went by quickly. It was mind boggling to get up on a Saturday, and be back in bed on Saturday night after running 100 miles. My first 100 miler lasted nearly 27 or 28 hours. This one was over in 16, Incredible. Since the park was officially closed after 8pm, I didn’t have much time after the race to linger around in the lodge post race. I hung out for a bit and thoroughly enjoyed the roaring fire and warmed up. The gates to the park open on the hour each hour to let runners and crew in and out, and so if we didn’t leave at 11pm on the nose, we would have to hang out for another hour. At the time Rhonda and Jeremy went to get the car, the masseuse came over and told me get on the table to enjoy a post race massage! It would have been pure heaven! Alas, I had to go. Fortunately our team medical director is an OT, and I was lucky enough to still get a massage in the hotel, triggering my knots and my dead muscles from the race! It was a perfect day.
I didn’t quite know what to expect out of Umstead. It surpassed every expectation. I thought a loop course, not on singletrack would be boring. It was the exact opposite. I am amazed how fast the race went by. It went by faster than some 50’s I have done. It was never monotonous and the camaraderie was inspiring and overwhelming. It makes me long to do another flat and fast 100. I loved it. It will definitely be one for the repertoire. I left feeling refreshed and renewed, wanting to sign up again asap. I can’t wait to see what I can accomplish next year. How I can improve my splits, pace better, be more patient, and improve my time.
It was my 5th Ultra in 6 month. The competition was the fiercest I have raced against ever. Out of 15 ultras I’ve run in, I was blessed to run with the strongest field I have ever run with at Umstead this year. It was awesome, and I can’t wait to return.
Now it’s time to focus on the next goal. I did it, I raced my full schedule with good results, and had a blast in the process, but now it’s time to head out west for my next Odyssey, hiking all 2658 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. In 12 days now, I fly out to California, to start a journey requiring about 20-30 miles per day hiking through some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.
Sounds like the PCT will be good base training for fall when I return to racing. In 6 months my ultra season will be back again in full force! Living the dream…I am blessed.