Thursday, April 11, 2013

Umstead 100 Race Report- Perseverance, Grit, and Tenacity- "I get by with a little help from my friends."

My last 100 mile attempt was at Pinhoti in November. It ended in a DNF. I hadn't trained the whole month of October after the birth of my awesome little girl, Denali, and near mile 70 I began to suffer from dizziness, "brain fog", and extreme fatigue. I didn't deliberate too long before bailing on the endeavor. After mile 60, my placement in the top 5 was slipping away with each passing mile and I quit before I had a chance to recover and see what I could pull out.

April 6, 2013 marked the 19th annual running of the Umstead 100. It would be my third "Umstead". I planned on improving upon my 15:27 time from the previous year. I have always run well at Umstead despite it always being my third Ultra in as many months. My form was stronger than ever and results from my first two races of 2013 were improvements on already stellar performances from the previous year.

The forecast looked perfect for a total assault en route to my first sub-15 hour hundred mile run. That was my goal. The weather was supposed to be similar to last year, in the upper 60's, with sun this year as opposed to rain.

After a nonchalant start I ran what I felt was a fine pace. My first lap was about 1:47 which was similar to last year. 

Laps 2 and 3 were normal, just plugging along soaking up miles. I felt good but my times weren't reflecting how I felt. I was slow. I was pacing myself by feel first, and heart rate second. Last year my heart rate governor of 149 beats per minute enabled me to run a second 50 mile split only 26 minutes slower than my first 50 miles. I was ecstatic with that spread. I didn't want to blow on my second 50 this year, so although I wasn't hitting my time goals, I knew what pace I could manage for the 100, so I paced myself and just plugged away.  

I enjoyed good camaraderie running with Chris Fisher, Serge Arbona, and Sung Ho Choi. Sung Ho is an Asian dude who was giving Serge crap for being sick because he kisses too many girls. It helped pass the time to listen to our Asian comrade ramble on about which chicks he planned on kissing at Boston next week. Apparently he likes to steal cheeks for mid-race pick-me-ups.

My subsequent laps trailed off quite a bit, and by lap four I had slowed steadily to be right on pace with last year, rolling into mile 50 about five to ten minutes slower than the 2012 version. 

Rolling into the halfway point I was mentally crumbling and collapsing. I had no energy and it felt like my whole world was crashing down. I could barely speak or enunciate, and the act of even standing was too much to manage. I can't recall sitting in any race for even a minute for many years, but upon entering the aid station headquarters at that half way point I dropped my bottle of water, escaped my friends and crew to deal with my emotions, and stumbled over to an unoccupied chair. My body felt good in terms legs, joints, etc., but my energy was non-existent. My body felt incredible the whole day. It was my energy and deep fatigue that was the demon. 

I had a choice to forget about the past, and the future, and accept reality. I wasn't running the race I wanted, and the race I felt I was capable of, but I wanted to finish regardless. I had DNF'd Pinhoti and I didn't want another DNF on my record. Although, in all honesty, DNF's don't go on "records" which is another point I plan to get into later in this report: How runners can bolster their perceived strength by all too frequently DNF'ing races when they aren't on their A game.

My crew and friends had been an incredible source of support and joy, however I wasn't ready to explain what was happening to all of them during my meltdown. I was about to break down and cry when I caught a glimpse of everyone. I gathered my composure and pulled my visor over my eyes to seal myself off in my own world and hash out the situation in my head.

For the first time ever in a race I ripped off my heart rate monitor, and even more importantly, my watch. I tossed them to Stephanie who was probably praying to God I didn't start talking about a DNF. She hasn't seen me melt like this before, but although I looked like hell physically, my body and mind were strong. I would never DNF this race. I knew I had to redefine my goals. I ditched my watch. I wanted to exist completely in the now with no thoughts of the past or the present. Living in the now would get me to the finish line.

This wasn't just another race. I altered my entire season to peak for this race. Last year my 15:27 was one of the top 25 100 mile performances in the country. This year I planned on breaking 15 hours and entering a new plateau. I tried to plan accordingly and things were right on track for a breakthrough performance but I was falling apart and needed to regroup. 

The meltdown at halfway point lasted about 10 minutes. Although I didn't want my pacer to pick me up until mile 62.5, I took her out at mile 50, when I needed her. I helped to vacate the aid station knowing my pacer was with me.

Traci Falbo won the previous year and was pacing me this year, so I was in good hands. I told her what I needed from her was to keep an eye on her watch and force food down my hatch until I crawled out of the crypt I was stumbling through. We set up planned intervals of thirty minutes per gel and I forced down the calories. It was the typical nauseating cycle so common in Ultras. Right when I would begin to feel OK, it would be time for another gel. I would choke it down, feel sick and nauseated, and then when I started feeling good again, I would have to slam another gel down into my gut. I was able to keep getting in calories this way at least. 

Traci did a great job keeping me entertained on the fifth and sixth laps. She was chatty and sung and helped get me out of my physical funk. We even managed to have fun on the seventh lap and both sang out loud and goofed off. My pace didn't slow. It remained sluggish but steady and I could maintain what we were doing. Unfortunately at the end of every lap I would feel so bad that I had to sit for about five minutes to regain composure but after some chicken noodle soup I could force myself out of the chair and Traci and I would forge on for yet another lap. Whenever I would take a break the aid station staff would offer incredible service and help me on my way. Umstead has the BEST volunteers and anyone contemplating running an ultra should make Umstead a priority. I was laughing when I would have to sit, because the volunteers would offer encouragement and say, "You're doing great!". I heard one volunteer ask if this was my first 100 which was humorous to me. I'm not great but it's not my first rodeo! I have only one race on my resume which isn't a top 10, so I was trying to forget about placement. I didn't care about the "first 100?" comments though...I was running like shit and I was doing everything I could. This was a good dose of humility. 

Traci was only supposed to run 37.5 miles but I knew I wanted for her the whole last 50 and she was game for that idea. We have run quite a bit together in the last year and we know how the other one operates mentally. I needed positive encouragement and she provided it. To keep spurring me on she provided a lot of positive encourage and some cheesy bogus mantras that I ate up. I was laughing at her ability to spew out so much positive crap as she doesn't respond to it in the same way. She needs someone to crack the whip. She did well in adapting as a pacer! 

Never in a million years would I have thought that the final 50 miles would have taken me 10 hours to complete but that's just how it went down. I was able to finish, but several people even passed me on the last lap. I wasn't concerned though. I honestly didn't care what happened. As long as I was pushing as hard as I could then I couldn't ask for more. I was surprised how much strength it required to just keep my eyes open, stand upright, and not vomit, so the fact I was still running was enough to keep me satisfied. I didn't give a shit about placement. 

I crossed the line in 17:45, BUT- I finished! I completed many long distance endurance races, and nothing is as challenging as finishing a 100 mile run. Pushing through some amazingly deep lows is a great feeling, however I am still very disappointed in my race. I think I forgot how hard running 100 miles can be! 

My first ultramarathon was in February of 2007 and since then I've raced in and completed nearly 30 ultramarathons not including stage races and triathlons. Over the years I've managed to always improve my previous time on every course I have ever raced on. That was an impressive feat to which I attribute constant  analysis. Unfortunately that trend is now over, but I also didn't rack up another DNF, which is an equally important statistic. 

I've tried to contemplate possible reasons for my major choke-fest at Umstead 2013 and I've come up with the following possible reasons: (yes, I really did blow it. I was slower than my first year even in which I ran a 16:12). Here's what I came up with:
  • I wasn't recovered from my course record attempt at the LBL 60K. I usually run the 50 miler at LBL but in wanting to be fresh for Umstead I decided to try to 60K this year and save my legs from 12 added miles of racing. The problem is that I also wanted the course record and the $500 that went with it, and so I ran an intense pace and a great race that I never recovered from. My workouts the entire last month were hit or miss.
  • Too much speed work. I've had good results with speedwork focus and I attribute improving over the last few years to focusing on speedwork twice yearly. Since I wasn't recovered from LBL I had no business running some of the workouts I was doing. I also shouldn't have been knocking out those mile repeats and tempo runs so soon after LBL. The workouts left me fatigued the entire following day. I wasn't ever able to recover from LBL. I should have made adjustments and cancelled the speedwork even though it's usually advantageous. 
  • I wasn't acclimated to sun and heat. I've been running in 40 degree temps and cloud cover, and race day was sunny and mid sixties. Last year we had cloud cover and sprinkles so maybe it affected me. I had been running in heat for the whole month of March last year in training and this year I had none. 
  • Too many electrolytes early in the race. When I rolled in to mile 50 and had my meltdown, I was suffering from too many electrolytes- bloated and dizzy. I recognize this easily while pacing someone else, and fortunately Traci helped point it out to me. I switched my gels at mile 50 and only used Clif and Gu and had better GI success. Otherwise, I had no diarrhea and nasty typical stomach stuff associated with ultra endurance events.
  • Something in the water. The winner this year ran last year in the low 14 hour range. This year he was over an hour slower and won in 15:21. Usually the winner of this race is in the mid 13's to mid 14's. Most of the usual suspects were back so it goes to show this was a really tough year for SOME reason. I ran most of the race flip flopping with Serge Arbona who stuck it out and finished in over 17 hours. Serge is on the US 24 hour team and usually runs this event in well under 15 hours. Chris, who finished minutes behind me last year, also DNF'd. What was going on this year? We all had performances that didn't represent the conditions we thought we were racing in. 
The final DNF rate was near 40% and among the top 20 bib numbers the DNF rate was closer to 60%. I stuck it out, but sticking it out is NOT the norm anymore in the sport. DNF'ing amongst runners has become too common maybe. There are no negatives or downsides as DNFs don't show up on runners records. What's up with that? Should we encourage DNF's or discourage them? We should be looking at runners DNF rates to gauge success? What about runners who race super frequently though and just aren't feeling it one day? Why should they forge on and continue if they feel like hell? I guess there is not a black and white answer. It depends...It raises interesting points for further discussion. Accepting a DNF is hard but then it goes away forever to be forgotten about. Finishing and accepting a pathetic time that you are capable of doing much better than scars your record forever. I don't know. It's a lot to consider...

Shout Outs

Daniel Delph and Rhonda Curry! I was so happy so share the course with you both! Congrats on pushing hard and giving it your all!

Mary Shannon Johnstone- Thanks for cheering hard out there! People like you make the spirit of this race. Umstead is seriously the front runner for camaraderie on course! Thanks for the pics! 

Guido Ferrari and Charles West- Thanks for your dedicated volunteer efforts out there.

Heidi, Andrew, Erin, Jeremy- You are all awesome friends! We need to travel to more races. Thanks for making the weekend kick ass!

Stephanie- You're the best crew ever. I'm so glad you finally got to experience Umstead. I am going to have to fight off my friends who all want you to crew them now too since they know how awesome you are! 

Traci- I already blabbed about how super duper you are in the article. 




  1. Nice Write-up...way to bear your soul about performances that aren't as you had hoped, as well as your successes!! We all have days that don't go our way. I am proud that you stuck it out and didn't DNF! I respect that highly!

  2. Troy- I was following you all day, watching splits and wondering what was happening. I was glad to see you tough it out. I've DNF-ed and finished some very slow, tough races, and, for me, I'd rather finish than DNF. I think you learn a lot more about yourself and improve and come back stronger when you don't quit just cause it's hard. But, I won't look down on anyone who DNF's- we're all out there for our own reasons, so we don't have to justify to anyone except ourselves what we do.

    Just wondering- with the electrolytes in the first 50 miles, what brand gel were you using? And were you doing extra electrolytes, as well?

  3. Jon- I was using eGels and water. Same as last year. I don't know what happened... I didn't use any other supplements. I may have had one package of clif bloks too...

    I used eGels at Umstead last year which was a great run for I don't know...

  4. Sometimes those days just happen. Can't always explain why. But the toughness you earned never goes away, so you'll be better for it.

  5. I feel your pain, glad to know I wasn't the only one feeling off for an unknown reason. I had the same breakdown at 50 that you did. Great job toughing it out, even though most of us didn't have the race we expected, it's still far better than DNF.

    I enjoyed your company, let me know when you come out this summer.

    Chris Fisher