I’m an ultra-runner. I’ve never considered myself to be fast, and I’m certainly never in the elite crowd unless I accidentally get too close to the front of the starting line before a race begins. My best 100-mile finish previously has been at the 100 Miles of Boulder, running the Boulder Reservoir a crazy number of times before finishing in just a little under 27 hours. I’ve also finished Rocky Raccoon and the Javelina Jundred. I came really close to finishing Leadville, and will finally get that finish this August. My point is that I’m not a super-studette when it comes to running, and have never expected to be. My main abilities as an ultra-runner come from usually being able to just power on until the end, staying awake while running through the night, never puking during a race (although I’ll admit to trying once or twice), and never coming down with a black toenail. Otherwise, I’m pretty ordinary. Oh, except that I have arthritis in my knees that I treat with a twice-monthly shot of Humira. I ran and finished the Javelina Jundred with this condition untreated, and have only had it diagnosed and treated for about the past year. Nah, I’m not looking for sympathy. Instead, I’m mentioning this just in case any other runners out there have been diagnosed with arthritis, and think that their running days are over. Depending on the severity, they are NOT. Get on a medicine that works for you, work with a doctor who understands your need to run, and keep going for as long as you can. Many doctors these days are finding that running keeps the joints lubricated, and actually helps reduce the severity of the disease. I was unable to find many stories of runners online with this condition, so perhaps there’s a small chance someone similar will find this posting and gain some comfort. Also, for anyone shaking their heads and saying “Well, running 100 miles is what gave you this problem,” my rheumatologist told me that I did not do this to myself. I was born with a genetic predisposition to the condition. If I’d stayed fat and sedentary, I likely would have developed it anyway.
On to the subject of Umstead. I’m kind of a runner nerd who likes to read blogs and race reports of other ultra-runners. It’s one way of finding out about different races, and which ones I’d like to put on my radar. I read several really positive reports about Umstead, and heard that it was possibly one of the best-supported 100s out there. It was very popular because of the following reasons: it was at sea-level, it was on a trail that was very well-groomed (very few rocks and roots), the aid stations were apparently second-to-none, the cost was relatively low, and despite rolling hills many people said the course was fast. All of this made the race popular for people attempting their first 100, and for elites wanting to get a smoking-fast PR. I decided that I wanted to run this race. The only hitch was that it was limited to about 250 racers, and I’d heard that it filled up within minutes of registration opening.
The morning of registration for the 2014 race, I cut my usual Saturday long run short and raced home to be online. I was there when registration was supposed to start, but it was late in opening by about 10-15 minutes. I think that I, and several hundred other people, wore out the refresh button that day. I was very lucky to get in. As predicted, the race sold out VERY quickly, and the race’s Facebook page reflected the disappointed comments of many people who didn’t get in. I felt bad for the race staff having to deal with that. I don’t know what the solution should be, since they mentioned they don’t want to go to a lottery system.
Fast forward through several months of training. I kept trying to find trails in Colorado that I thought might mimic what I would be running on at Umstead. No roots or rocks, but rolling hills? Okay. I trained quite a bit on the Bluffs near Highlands Ranch, the gravel/dirt road through Waterton Canyon, and on the Big Dry Creek trail closer to home north of Denver. I did the usual Saturday/Sunday sandwich runs, and topped out at 90 miles for my longest training week. I was just sad that my friend Julie wasn’t training with me, as our original idea had been for both of us to enter and run the race. However, her new work schedule prohibited that. Julie, that awesome person that she was, did put me into contact with a friend of hers in the Raleigh area, named Sondra. She and I hit it off pretty well just communicating on Facebook, and I quickly found myself with an amazing person sponsoring me in her home, driving me around, and willing to pace me for a few miles at the race. My friend, Joseph, who I also only knew from Facebook, volunteered to drive several hours from Tennessee to pace me. Wow! It was almost as if I were MEANT to run this race!
My training went well, with a few hitches. There are always hitches, aren’t there? I did break from routine and ran a few technical trails. On one of these in November, I somehow injured my ankle and developed peroneal tendonitis. I was still dealing with this up to the race in April. I’d also fallen during an icy run in Boulder, bruising my tailbone. Oh, and there was the arthritis thing, but I pretty much knew how to deal with that by then. The tailbone issue healed up (although as I’m writing this now, I’ve fallen on it again and perhaps earned a new bruise), so my main concern was the tendonitis. My sports doctor and I treated it quite aggressively, with physical therapy, wrapping, and dry needling. I could get through a run of around 20 miles before the tendonitis made itself known, but the question was how painful would it get, and would I be able to run through it? Would I have agonizing pain during a 100 mile race? My doctor encouraged me to try, but even though he treated many ultra-runners, I could tell by his expression that he thought I was nuts.
Sure, I’m nuts. I run 100 mile races. Next?
Race weekend finally arrived. I flew in on Thursday without any issues, and was picked up by Sondra. We went to the store to pick up a few final things for the race, and then her family very kindly fed me dinner. Getting along with the humans in the family was great, but I also made fast friends with their dog and two cats. One of the kitties even slept with me that night. The next day, I spent off my feet. I luxuriated in having time to read a very good book, and I kept snacking to do a sort of slow carb-load for the race the next day. Sondra and I went out to packet pickup later that day, and we stayed for the ceremonial transition of the race from Blake Norwood to Rhonda Hampton. This was to be Blake’s last year of directing the race. He, and several other long-time volunteers, were having 2014 be their last year of serving major duties at the race. I didn’t know who most of these people were, but it felt important to be a part of this. I was also glad to be a part of Blake’s last official Umstead. We ate the race-provided spaghetti dinner (which was REALLY good), and then went back to Sondra’s home.
I slept pretty well that night, despite the usual waking every couple of hours to see how much time I had left before my alarm went off. When it did finally go off, I got up onto my feet and…ohhhhhhh, shit. I felt two sharp pains come from my peroneal tendon. That NEVER happened in the morning. I only felt such a thing late into a long run, or after running something really technical. What the hell, anyway? Luckily, no other pain followed, and I resolved to start the race and just see what happened. I remembered when I first developed my arthritis (although I didn’t know what it was at the time), and the issue was quite bad as the 2012 Leadville Silver Rush (50-mile) race came along. I nearly didn’t start the race, but I found my resolve and decided to run and see what would happen. I wound up finishing. Perhaps I could still finish this 100 mile race.
Since Sondra was volunteering at the timing table for a while, she was able to get an extremely choice parking spot. With all of my gear, it was certainly nice to not have to walk very far to the start. There was a large, heated lodge at the start/finish, where I was going to have my main drop bag. I was quickly advised against this, as there were many places to sit down, and the lodge would be comfortably warm in the evening. I needed to have my crewing spot NOT be in such a cozy place. The idea was to quickly get what I needed and get going again. Sondra helped me find a spot that I would run by as I finished and started each loop. This wound up being by Team Rachel (their runner was another person I’d friended on Facebook), and Tim from that team sort of adopted me and helped crew for me throughout the day. Between him, Sondra, and (later) Joseph, I was certainly well looked-after!
What could I expect from the course? It was 12.5 miles, and I’d have to repeat it 8 times. There was an out/back section called the Airport Spur that I at first called our punishment section, since it kind of seemed excruciating at first. However, you got to see other runners here, and this was one of the few places where I got to see my friend from Colorado, Samantha. She was running a faster pace that day, so it really was good to see her. The rest of the course consisted of rolling hills, most of which were quite runnable for a long time. There were only three hills after the second main aid station that I walked each time, and this was in the Sawtooth Section. One of these hills was very steep, and I actually got some charley-horse cramps the third time ascending it. From then on, I took shorter strides on that hill and was fine. For someone coming from Colorado, the hills really weren’t terribly remarkable. I actually enjoyed them, and learned that a ‘gently’ rolling course at low altitude was perfect for me.
We started in the dark, and I had a headlamp on for the first loop (although I only needed it for less than an hour). The temps were cool, but the running quickly warmed me up enough that I stuffed my light gloves into my bag, and rolled down my arm sleeves. I wound up running in the same shorts and short-sleeved tech shirt the entire race, not needed any of the long-sleeved shirts or jackets that I’d brought. The arm sleeves went back on for the last loop, but they were shrugged down most of the time even then.
My idea was to run the first lap with just under an 11:00 minute/mile pace. I wound up doing it in 11:13 pace, although that was a bit skewed. My crew and bag were before the start/finish line, so I took a few minutes to change stuff out before officially finishing the loop. We wound up changing this later on, to where I ran up to the scorers, recorded my time, and my crew met me at the aid station to get me taken care of. Still, I wasn’t too far off my time. I felt that I’d run this loop well, and even met some interesting people. There was Ray who was just a bundle of energy, talking to everyone, whooping and hollering as he ran. He was very proud of earning a 5k PR early in the race. I asked him if he was okay keeping that pace in a 100 mile event, and he seemed fine with it (oy, vey!). There was a girl out there running her first race. Ever. She’d chosen a 100 as her first race. I wish I’d caught her name, as I don’t know if she finished or not. Wow, that took either a lack of common sense, or a ton of courage, or maybe some of both.
I was feeling quite good as I started Lap 2. My foot wasn’t hurting, I was enjoying myself, and was just going along with the flow. It was as I began approaching Aid 2 (there were two main aid stations, along with a scattering of smaller and unmanned aid stations) that I began to feel some fatigue. I would say this was at about mile 19 or 20. I started to worry that perhaps I was running the first two loops of the race too fast (I wound up averaging 11:37 for those two loops). My pacing strategy was to finish overall with a PR and go under 26 hours. Was this going to be too much for me, and maybe I should slow down? I decided to keep the pace I was running, get some food in me at Aid 2, and hope that walking the usual 3 hills would give me the chance to recover a bit. That started working out fine until my tendon decided to wake up.
I hate you tendon. If I could beat you to death and replace you with something better, I would. I’d like to rip you out and throw you against the wall. Okay, how bad would this get? Would it just be the ache that it was at that moment, or would it get to be acute? I’d brought trekking poles just in case I wound up in serious pain. I meant to finish the race, and I would. I popped an Extra-Strength Tylenol and prayed for the best. I also took a page out of Marshall Ulrich’s book “Running on Empty” and disowned my foot. I told it that it was no longer a part of my body. It simply was – not – my – foot!
I finished the loop, complained slightly to Samantha as we crossed paths that my ankle hurt, and started loop 3. My reward for starting this loop, after having already run 25 miles, was to pick up my MP3 player. Yay, I got to have some music to take my mind off what my ankle might become (except that it was no longer my foot, so I really shouldn’t be worrying about it). This, along with the pain-killer, did remarkable things for me. I felt awesome! I found my happy place, kept smiling at the people around me, and enjoyed what I was doing. It did get a little warm for a time during this loop, but I reminded myself that I’d been in (and finished) much hotter races. We had some kind of cloud cover for most of the race, and there was an awesome breeze. Considering that this was in North Carolina, and they experienced rain most years holding this race, I felt quite blessed with what Mother Nature was giving us.
I started lap 4, still vaguely wondering how the ankle would continue to do. I’ll confess that I took some Ibuprofen here, as much as I knew how such a thing could mess a runner up during a race. Yes, I dodged a bullet by not getting sick from the NSAID. Some runners have wound up with renal failure by doing such a thing. It really helped my ankle out even more, though. I tried to shut my lecturing coaches out of my mind and continued to listen to my music. I think it was during this loop where I ran briefly next to a guy whose legs looks a little beat up. I asked him if he’d fallen.
“No, I got hit by a deer early on.”
Uhhhh…what? It turned out he got hit in the first few miles of the race during the out/back airport spur, when a deer jumped across the trail and hit this poor guy. He then proceeded to fall backward and step on the ankle of Rachel (she of Team Rachel). I think he wound up dropping at 50 miles, but Rachel did finish the entire 100. The good thing was that this race still awarded 50 mile finishers. Hal Koerner, a well-known and respected ultra-runner who was leading the race from the beginning, had to drop to the 50-mile finish due to stomach issues. I’ll admit that Hal has one of the most fantastic smiles ever seen on a human being (my husband tops him, though).
As I began to finish lap 4 and was about to hit the 50-mile mark, I realized that I was about to PR my 50-mile time. I don’t consider something a ‘true’ PR unless that’s the final distance of the race you’re running. Still, it was good to know that this was the fastest time I’d ever run 50 miles (10:05:54). I’d almost dipped below ten hours, which was amazing for me! This meant that I was doing something right. Funny, I went from that high to a small worry of knowing that I still had 50 miles to go. I knew that I was picking up Sondra as my first pacer, however, and let that flush all other anxiety out of my mind. After just over 10 hours of running mostly on my own, I’d finally get to run with a friend! I also saw Joseph for the first time here, as he’d arrived from Tennessee just in time to see me finish up lap 4. That got lots of smiles from me!
It really was good running with Sondra, although we both thought I’d be slowing down more by this point. Sondra had two races coming up the next weekend, and I’d told her early on that she was to do nothing to endanger her own races simply because she was trying to help me out. I took a couple more walking breaks the first half of loop 5, partially because I was starting to leave Sondra behind by running a lot of the hills, and partially because I thought easing back a little now would probably help me later in the ‘grind’ portion of the race (laps 7 & 8). Sondra was fantastic company, and we stayed together until Aid 2 about halfway through the loop. She had me run on ahead of her, since I was running the hills so strong. I still walked the usual three hills, but ran most of the rest of it. Sondra wound up not being too far behind me, however, as she was there taking pictures of me and Joseph as we ran out on the Airport Spur for loop 6. Sondra, thank you for getting me through loop 5!
I’d told both Sondra and Joseph that I appreciated a chatty pacer, and they both took that to heart. This was great, as I’ve found that conversation often helps me forget about the miles (even though every mile on this course had a mile marker sign – this wasn’t as brutal to the psyche as I thought it would be). Joseph and I chatted about lots of things, including his upcoming marriage, and his running of the Vol State 314-mile race the previous year. Hearing about that race helped me realize that any discomfort I was feeling in my own race was NOTHING. My foot was aching, but behaving. My other foot, which was starting to hurt where the shinbone met the ankle, was also tolerable. I had no other issues other than some recurring asthma. Well, I did tell Joseph to stop talking about squishing bugs (there were apparently a few slugs on the course), because my tummy warned me that it could go south in a hurry if I kept hearing about icky splatty bug things.
I ran so well during loops 6 and 7! I ran my fastest-ever 100k time (13:00:03), and it was during one of these loops where I almost lost Joseph because I just kept running without taking many walking breaks. Whenever I felt extra-amazing, I just went with it milked it for all it was worth. Taking the advice of some of my friends, I was running in the moment and trying not to think about what was still ahead of me. Thankfully, Joseph was strong and rebounded. He even decided to run the last loop with me, when I thought I’d be alone. I never expected him to run 37.5 miles with me, but he did. What an amazing, awesome person! He even got me to ease back on the pace a bit on the second half of lap 7, which was fantastic advice. I felt tired on lap 8, and likely would have felt even worse (perhaps to the point of nearly bonking), if I hadn’t followed his advice.
Near the end of lap 7, Joseph said something that I’d been privately thinking, but had refused to say out loud up until this point. It was insane. It was something that I had never even come close to considering in my other 100-mile races. Joseph said that I could probably finish sub-24 if I kept up the way I was going. I took a few moments to truly consider this, opening myself emotionally to this actually being something that could happen. I responded:
“Okay, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. I’m going to do this!”
We were then decided to race for a sub-24. Oh, holy shit! Could I really do this? Yes! Finishing 100 miles in under 24 hours was high on my bucket list, but was so far up there that I never really thought it was within reach. I’d only ever run these races just to finish. I’d never run one for bad-ass status before! Only in my private dreams and imagination had I ever seen myself crossing the finish line of a 100 in less than a day. Hey, they were my dreams, and I could do what I wanted in them, right? I’d even taken it a silly step further one day while driving home in terrible traffic. I’d thought of myself magically finishing in under 23 hours. Lol, it was fun to daydream of such things.
I started lap 8, the last 12.5 miles, and I kept myself moving as much as possible. Joseph got me started running again a few times when the incline on hills was pretty easy (even at that point), and I felt pretty good. Sure, I was tired, but I never really hit the wall a single time during the entire race. I’d felt an energy shortage the second loop, and I was extra-tired now, but nothing like I’d felt in other 100s. The bottoms of my feet didn’t even start hurting until this loop, and I decided not to take extra time to switch out to my Hokas. My other ankle (which hadn’t hurt until this race) was starting to become a problem, but I knew I only had to put up with it for a few more miles. I pushed on. After Aid 2, Joseph told me I could probably walk it in from there and still finish in under 24. I just couldn’t believe the runner I’d become in this race! I was so happy. Tired and hurting, but happy.
We got through the sawtooth section on the second half and began running the last 3.5 miles. This was when Joseph dropped another bomb on me. One that had only been the craziest of fantasies up to this point:
“I think you could finish in under 23 hours. I really think you can do it!”
I thought he was crazy, I thought I was crazy. I was half-convinced I’d entered Bizarro-World where I had somehow become the ultra-running studette that I’d always dreamed of becoming. In no normal world would I ever conceive of such a finishing time being reality, yet here it was. I slammed on the gas pedal, and Joseph had to hold me back a little again. We were still on some hills, and I still needed to finish. I kept looking for the final turn-off that meant we were running the trail up to the start/finish. This was the only rocky section of the entire course, and sweet Joseph steered me on this as best as possible. The bottoms of my feet were finally hurting, and every rock was like a little dagger stabbing into me. I nearly cried when we saw the 12 mile sign appear, meaning that I only had half a mile left. I resolved to keep the tears for the end, since I’d been struggling a bit with exercise-enduced asthma for most of the race, and crying would really wreck my ability to breathe.
This was when we had a car come up the trail, blinding us with its headlights. This was the only section of the course where we shared the trail with cars, and it was really only a problem at night. This was the reason why we took a wrong turn with less than half a mile to go. We figured it out because the trail was suddenly much rockier, and there were no people around. Joseph got upset, trying to figure out where we went wrong. This was the only time I completely lost my cool, dropping f-bombs and shouting at the top of my lungs. No, I wasn’t shouting at Joseph (other than asking him where we were), just shouting vaguely at the race, wanting to know where the course markings were. Thankfully, there was a cabin nearby where someone who knew about the race came out and told us where we needed to go.
I broke back into a run, tearing away uphill at mile 99.5 (plus), with Joseph telling me to slow down because I would still be under 23 hours. Poor guy, I could tell he was really tired, but I would have NO MORE WALKING. I was running with whatever I had left in me (thank you, Runner’s Edge of the Rockies hilly speedwork), and Joseph stayed with me. We got back on track, and I plowed on up to the finish line. #170 had just finished in 22:51:10. Under 24 hours, under 23 hours, with a 4-hour 100 mile PR. I had just done something that I’d nearly thought impossible for myself.
I broke into hysterical tears and accepted my “100 Miles in One Day” buckle, and posed for a picture with the race director. I thanked him again for an amazing race (he and the new race director had been out on the course several times throughout the day, taking pictures and encouraging runners), and hobbled inside the warm cabin nearby with Joseph and Sondra. They watched over me as I finally relaxed (sitting down for the first time all race, except for a few port-a-potty spots), and my body started shutting down. I sat next to some cots, one of which was occupied by a fellow in a kilt who’d passed out after finishing, and another of which was occupied by a girl saying she wasn’t finished, and would get up to run some more (I don’t know if she did).
The Umstead 100 Mile Race was amazing. The volunteers were fantastic, I loved the course, and it will forever be remembered by myself as the race where I found out what I was truly capable of. I was amazed and humbled, and I hope to take this experience into the Leadville 100 in August. I want to thank Sondra for sponsoring me in her home, and crewing for me and pacing me at the race. I want to thank Joseph for driving multiple hours to pace me through the night, then driving multiple hours to get back home not long after the race (thankfully he made it safely). Thanks also to Tim from Team Rachel for helping crew me. Last, but not least, I want to thank both of my coaches, David Manthey and Ben Reeves. Their advice and encouragement was part of my success. If you live in the Denver Metro Area and would be interested in a running group, please do yourself a favor and look up Runner’s Edge of the Rockies.
Some extra awesome things from this race: They had a ladies-only port-a-potty at Aid 2, which remained one of the cleanest-looking potties I’d ever seen at an ultra. Lentil soup was my new best friend – I can only hope more races offer this. Vanilla EFS Liquid Shot is ultra-running crack! Finally…sometimes losing your split pace time chart is for the best. I lost mine after mile 50 and just ran by feel.
I recommend this race to all of my ultra-running friends, both those who have run 100s before, and those who are considering moving up to the distance. Just be warned to be on your computer, ready to sign up the second registration opens!