Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run 2019
Updated: Apr 13, 2019
Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run, April 6th, 2019
I'm staring at a 2 foot wide pool of light directly at my feet which is opaque with fog rendering any detail of the trail hazy at best. I might as well have the light off for all the good it's doing me, because my eyes are unfocused anyways and my stare is often several yards ahead of the swirling white patch, focused on the reflective strip of my pacer's sweat pant legs 25 feet in front of me. I'm on lap 8 of the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. It's somewhere around 5 am... I'm somewhere around 90+ miles. My forward progress has been reduced to a plodding stagger of a gait. I'm using my trekking poles less for rhythm, posture and balance as much as to lean into and pull me forward. It's a strange form of sensory deprivation: no vision, the only sounds are my shuffle and the click-click-click of the poles... and pain. Pain in my hips, my glutes, my right ITB causing pain like a sword plunging into my knee with any attempt to run up any grade, big toe blister... and then just global pain from the waist down. I have absolutely NO intention of stopping, but I'm struggling with the knowledge that I still have hours of this ahead of me before I can finally stop.
Two years ago in 2017 I signed up to volunteer at the Umstead 100 after I had run my first Ultramarathon, the Mountains-to-Sea 50k just a week or two earlier. I live only 1.25 miles from the Eastern flank of the course where the huge Aid Station 2 “The Ptomaine Tavern” is located. Umstead is a semi-lollipop loop of 12.5 miles with AS#2 at 6.85 miles in. I brought my kids with me to witness the amazing-ness of a real 100 mile Ultra race in the late evening after most folks were near or beyond 50 miles already! We made PB & Js and marveled at the grit and humor of the runners. I knew that day that I wanted to do that myself. I didn't have any concept of what it would take to get there though! I decided to make 2018 my “training year” for a 2019 effort at Umstead. I volunteered again that year, this time at 4am on a year where there was horrendous rain and cold and even snow! Again I was floored by the toughness and resiliency of the folks battling their way through the adversity. I knew I was with “my people” at that point. I was training smart, choosing races that challenged different parts of my running skills, and connecting more and more with the trail running community. I started letting friends, family, and coworkers know my goal. Most had the response you'd expect: “why would you DO that?”... “How many days do you take to finish?”... “That's gotta be BAD for you!”. Some simply shook their heads. In the fall, registration opened... and as soon as it went live... chaos! The site froze after logging in and I couldn't complete my registration! I had been prepping for over a year and had committed to this, and now... I would not get a spot?! The race is extremely popular because it is a very accessible course, not crazy overall elevation, incredible support and organization, and it is a Western States qualifier. I emailed the Race Director concerned I had been locked out of the registration despite securing an “online spot”, and asking if I should try for the second chance drawing or a separate volunteer lottery. She was reassuring, and thankfully later that night I got an email linking me to a sign-up page and I paid my fees. I was really doing this.
What followed were several months of focused training. I had befriended ultrarunning badass and incredible human Sally McRae through her Tanawha Adventures Trail Camps in Western NC, and most recently in New Mexico. One of the most positive, uplifting, inspiring, and humble people you could ever meet, a Nike sponsored trail runner, and major race crusher. I knew she did coaching... I wondered, would she consider coaching lil' ol' me to my first hundred? I was thrilled she agreed and we set a plan to start the training program in earnest January 1st. Training for my first hundred mile effort was tailored specifically to my needs. I'm 52, I have my kids ½ the time and work 10 hr shifts in the ED the rest of the time. My schedule is erratic: some days, some evenings, some weekends. My workouts needed to be tailored week-to-week. I had a base of several 50ks and my second 50 miler completed in October. Sally emailed and texted me just about every week. The workouts were a mix shorter runs with fartleks and post run strides, long runs had to fall where I could fit them, and there were frequently back to back long run days to avoid just piling up miles on one day. It felt great, and having her guidance and encouragement kept me positive about my ability to reach my goal. I threw in a few training races and organized my own Fatass 50 miler (more on that... as it becomes a pivotal event in building my running community). I got a cold once or twice, but powered through. At one point late in the training I was on a 22 mile run after having worked some late shifts. It was also the first warm weather of spring. I was SO tired and just never could seem to shake it off. By mile 15 my stomach was sloshing and I was hurting everywhere more than I should. I was not doing well tolerating fluids. I slogged the remaining miles to my car, beating myself up for “poor hydration planning, or nutrition planning”, or “oh no! If I start getting GI issues like this I'll be screwed on race day!”. 2 hours later when the fever, chills, nausea and vomiting set in, I was THRILLED to know it was the flu and not just a training failure! (Ultra runner mentality?)
Which brings me back to that Fatass 50. I couldn't find a race nearby or of the the right terrain for what Sally prescribed to me so I just decided to make my own. I mapped out a loop in Umstead that was essentially the same course with minor modifications to allow for an “aid station” at the halfway consisting of a water fountain, a bathroom, and my awesome girlfriend Allison who brought some goodies and roasted potatoes. The start/finish was where our cars were and I had stocked more supplies and water. I posted to several local running groups and the Runners And Pacers of Umstead Facebook group. About 10 people showed up overall... some right at 7am and some for later loops. I made some new friends and began to discover connections in the running community between some people I already knew and others who knew them! One guy, Merritt, (a total stranger to me and everyone else) showed up in the am and ran the entire thing with me. He said he couldn't let me go on the last loop alone, but it was clear he was just having as much fun as me connecting with all these cool guys and passing the Saturday in our favorite way. Merritt would ultimately be asked to pace me for my final two laps, a role he turned out to be absolutely perfect for, and who has now become a friend like several other great guys I met the first time that day. Again... this started a crazy cascade of community building for me that was summed up best one day a couple weeks before race day when I walked into a running store I'd never been in before and the sales guy walked right up to me and said “I know you! You're running Umstead right? Andrew told me about you and that we'd hit it off!”. And again during the race when an out-of-state runner with me stated “I feel like I'm running with the mayor, you seem to know so many people!”.
The last two weeks pre-race... I might have been somewhat preoccupied. My family and Allison were VERY understanding. I began making lists... and schedules... and spreadsheets. I was Umstead crazy. My good buddy from the Sally trail camp, Rob, was flying in to be my Crew Chief. He brought with him tons of experience having run several himself, crewed others, and race directed too. My sister Cindy and my nephew Calum were coming out to manage the AS#2 side and wrangle my kids so they could participate and experience it all too. She'd crewed me for 50 milers before, but we all agreed that Rob would have to give us guidance for this huge unknown 100 mile distance. The time seemed to drag and fly by simultaneously. I tapered, and tried not to compare myself to other’s Strava postings or what my legs said I should be doing. Sally encouraged me and reassured me that I was READY!
April 5th: Rob and Cindy/Calum flew in and we went to packet pickup and the race briefing. It was raining all day and the spaghetti dinner was crowded indoors, so I decided to take everyone out to Lynnwood Grill for dinner and crew meeting. Merritt was there, and he joined us too. It was perfect. We got to socialize and have everyone meet each other, laugh with/at me and discuss strategy and planning/logistics. We did our best to get to bed early, and then it was 3 am and time to get up! Coffee, oatmeal, a quick shower and we were off... slipping into a line of cars and heading into the entrance of the park at 4:45 am.
Pre-race poop time... but nope... never did come... oh well. The runners and crews gathered in the lodge with that fantastic mix of nerves, excitement and camaraderie. There was Wes, Kevin, and Woody (Run club buddies), there was Jillian (my Sally trail camp “cousin” who went to a prior camp but we've bonded over it), there was Lee (running store “I know you!” guy), Emily and Genno who ran the last several Umstead Trail Marathon miles with me recently, and several more folks I recognized and knew. We milled about until RD Rhonda shepherded us outside to start on time. And then... there is that moment... where I'm standing with all my fellow runners... there's no more waiting, no more planning, training is done, preparation is complete. I'm not a 100 miler at this moment, but at this moment I have done the work to get myself to the starting line of a 100 mile footrace. The horn blows. I push start on my Coros Apex watch and we're running!
The Umstead 100 is designed to be an accessible 100 mile race for those wanting to make the leap from 50 miles to 100, and ideal for those looking to improve their 100 mile times or achieve a sub-24 finish. It is almost exclusively run on the multi-use crushed gravel roads in the park and is a 12.5 mile “loop” that is run 8 times. This means very little technical running or chance for getting lost on course. The overall elevation gain is 8000 ft, but none of the steeper hills are longer than a few hundred yards and those that are longer are a gradual incline. The course starts on a relatively flat out-and-back “airport spur” (an area of the park bordering RDU airport), and then continues on a “stem” of the lollipop loop course with rolling hills and the ability to see other runners ahead and behind coming the other way. At an unmanned aid station with fluids and snacks (and 4 critical port-a-potties) ~3 miles in the course starts on the counter-clockwise loop that takes you down a long “corkscrew” hill and back up another long gradual incline to the back side. Here there is a gentle curving and beautiful portion that takes you to Aid Station #2 at the 6.85 mi point. Here the “Ptomaine Tavern” has drop bags, all the food options, a grill making all manner of things, and soups. The “sawtooth” section follows; up-and-down sections that neatly break up run and walk breaks. Eventually the course comes around to Graylyn Trail and a giant carved tree that is now a permanent natural sculpture on the trailside. “Powerline” is a steady downhill allowing for some sustained running after the backside, and then the trail rejoins the “stem of the lollipop” to head back to HQ start/finish where the “Jen & Tonic” aid station has the luxury of an indoor lodge, fireplace, massage services and industrial kitchen.
At the start we are all going faster than we know we should, but there's so much joy and excitement it doesn't matter. It's dark, but with all the headlights in such close proximity at first, the trail is lit up. We exit the HQ spur and take the right towards the out-and-back “Airport Overlook” turnaround. We're pretty quickly strung out and approaching the U-turn I get to see the front runners whiz past followed by the rest of who's in front of me. The turn around is a cone, and the folks manning it are cheerful and wish us well on our journey. I know that after 7 more times past this cone I will likely despise it... but right now that thought actually makes me chuckle. Lap 1 is lovely. I've been training on this course for months and months and it looks so great with runners and signs and port-a-pottys along the way. It's hard to believe I'm actually doing this. I roll into AS#2 a little ahead of schedule but since it's only been 6.85 miles I feel great! Cindy refills my water and Tailwind and I grab a PB & J and roll on through. The backside hills are a joy to hike, and before I know it I'm rolling into HQ right at 2h30m. Snacks, restock pack, and a quick pebble clearing of my left shoe (they were in there already before I started ha ha) and I'm on the way!
Lap 2 brings a little more consistency with who I'm seeing around me. I pass and get passed by the same people over and over. I'm saying “hi” to friends old and new, and the traditional “good job” or “looking good” to everyone I pass going the other way. I get the pleasure of spend some quality miles with Woody (who would likely be faster than me but is nursing a tight calf). It makes the miles roll by, and AS#2 is again seamless and NASCAR quick. Sawtooth hills are still manageable and I'm rolling along fine. Hydration is on-point... so much that I pee twice this loop as I had on the first... nice and clear (not even like beer... more like Zima!). Restocked and fed. Rob orders a shirt change to a dry one and it feels great! Lap time 2h 34m.
Last year the race had some of the worst weather ever, with sideways chilling rain all day and night until it switched to SNOW in the early hours of Sunday before clearing. Many more runners dropped at earlier mileages simply because they ran out of clothing changes! This year as the race approached I watched the weather report closely. I had intentionally been training in whatever weather occurred all winter, knowing it could be as bad again. A pattern emerged and held of: rain Friday before the race, partly cloudy and low in the mid 50s with highs in the low 70s all weekend! It turned out perfectly, with the rain knocking some of the pine pollen down and keeping it from being dusty on the trail, and clouds blocking the sun nearly all day.
Lap 3 starts the 26th mile. I have some discomfort in feet and legs, but no back pain or significant drop in form as far as I can tell (later course photographers will shatter that illusion with proof of my heel-striking and hip dropping). This time I seem to be right on pace with Woody and his buddy Les who I've met only peripherally before. We all enjoy ½ hamburgers at AS#2. The Three Amigos make a pretty decent third loop in 2h 56m and I'm still having tons of fun. Rob shoves food in my mouth and refills the pack. It's more humid now so there's a shirt change and some lube applied (I did that myself... this “crew” thing only goes so far) A slap on the butt and I'm off.
Lap 4 I start out ahead of Woody and Les (I grabbed a baggie of Tailwind for Les because he had forgotten his but I didn't know where his crew was camped). I head out feeling pretty good now 37.5 miles in. Pains are mostly just muscular and my feet. I tell Rob I'll do a shoe change next stop. I hit the course, handing off the Tailwind to Les on the out-and-back when I see him (like a drug drop, hahaha)... and spend the next 3h 3m basically by myself. I do pass and get passed occasionally, but for the most part I don't seem to stay with anyone for more than brief bits. I begin to long for that pacer waiting for me at mile 50. AS #2 goes well and I work my way back... amazed and simultaneously dismayed that I am approaching my maximum distance ever... and I'm only halfway there! I'm also doing calculations on pace and time, something ultrarunners should probably never do. I realize that I have virtually no cushion of time for the second 50 miles if I want to try to break 24 hrs. I think it through alone out there and decide that I'm perfectly happy with a decent finish well under the 30 hour cutoff.
Meanwhile the crew have been talking: They are seeing me moving well, and with virtually no issues. I'm good on hydration and food intake, my splits are slowing slightly but still consistent, and they all feel like 24 hours is within reach IF the next few laps hold true. They are texting back and forth in a huge group chat that includes Sally out in California! When I roll in to HQ, they are all business! Rob spells it out to me and he's already tasked my first pacer Myriam with keeping me on pace as much as possible. I change shoes to my Topo Ultraventures for more cushion and toe room. He changes me to short-sleeve and light jacket... stuffs a headlight in my pack, straps poles to Myriam's pack, re-stocks, pops tylenol into my hand, slaps me on the butt and sends us out!
Lap 5: beyond 50 miles... uncharted territory. Myriam and I head out into the gorgeous evening and setting sun. The light streams through the trees on Turkey Creek trail as we curl around the backside of the loop, and I’m still feeling pretty good. My pace is certainly not fast, but I’m still somewhat consistent. It’s fun having someone to talk to about the race, about the ultra and trail running world and to point out the highlights of the course. As we approach the return portion I’m still feeling good and twilight has arrived enough to turn on the headlight that’ll be sitting on my forehead for the next 11 hours. We finish lap 5 in 3h 9m and I pick up Mike and his wife Stacy as my next pacers. The crew is still 100% positive, and still encouraging me to push for 3 hour laps as I grab food and restock my vest. Silliness and jokes are already flying with Mike and I know I was right to ask him to pace this lap as I know I’m going to be needing that over the next 3 hours as I fatigue more and it gets later.
Lap 6: The struggle begins. It’s now dark, but the air is cool and it feels exciting to be venturing out into it. My legs feel pain… but it’s disconnected, and I’m able to hike strong if not run fast. Still, the Azraks keep me on pace, chatting and guiding me on the trail. Stacy is hands on: “watch that rock”, “is this part of the trail good for you?”, “you can run here”. Mike is more about my form: “think about your breathing Johnny”, “keep your chest up”. I’m reminded and am repeating to myself all day of Sally McRae’s recent post suggesting “Keep Your Heart Up” as a mantra. It applies both physically and spiritually, and is incredible appropriate right now. We do well through all the sections I had previously, but still come in at around 3h 24m. Time… is not on my side.
Lap 7: Fuel, fluids, I mention a blister starting on my big toe but it’s clear that quads and hip hurt more, so there’s no point in addressing it. My final pacer Merritt is geared up and ready to take me the final two laps. Rob tells me “It’s business time baby!”. Here’s where I might find out if I can really make it in 24 hrs. In theory I have just over 6 hours to make it 25 miles. I’m game to try, but it’s suddenly getting VERY hard to motivate the lower half of my body. Nonetheless I can muster a shuffling run on the flats and downhills all the way around to Aid Station 2 where my sister and kids are there to cheer me on still, now well after midnight! “Don’t stop! Keep moving!” they whisk me along grabbing and filling my bottles and handing me food from the table. I feel the urgency but there is also a feeling that this is too little too late. I know I’m not making the pace I need, but I keep trying, until… I stop to pee at one point going into the Sawtooth section, and as I take a step, stabbing pain shoots through my right knee, buckling my quads briefly. I know this pain… it is my tight IT band putting pressure on a small bursa. I felt this last spring and fought through it. I can walk again, but any incline or descent flares it again. And now my glutes and hips are screaming at me too. Every step is agony, and if I stop and try to restart it is only worse. Wise Merritt notes “Well, I know how to fix that… we just won’t stop”. But I have suddenly entered a new realm of pain, and of slowness. My initial reaction is of negativity. I feel like I have let down my crew and my coach. I worry that I am letting my mind weaken to allow my body to call the shots. I try again and again to override the urge to NOT run. I swing my arms holding my poles to try to gain some sort of momentum to start a shuffling run again and again, but soon it’s clear that I’m now walking most of the flats as well. Amazingly our early progress offsets that later slow-down and I finish lap 6 in 3h 24m, but it’s clear that the goal has changed.
Lap 8: As I come into the Start/Finish AS#1, Allison has the same love and encouragement in her voice. Rob is positive and helps me get some food, headlight batteries and more fluids. We all know that I just have to get through the next 12.5 miles. Nutrition and fluids don’t even really matter at this point. Just keep moving forward. My negative feelings dissipate with the positivity and support I’m surrounded with, and as I leave I get the yellow glow-stick that signifies I am on my LAST LAP and will earn a coveted buckle when I cross the line next! I can power-hike… but any running leaves me wobbling and shuffling and fairly quickly giving up to walk again. Merritt makes like he is running with me when I try, but I know he could probably walk faster than my “run”. Merritt starts pointing out landmarks as we pass: “Last time you’ll have to go around that airport turnaround cone!” (I apply a few well chosen cuss words at said cone), “Last time we start into the loop”, “Last time through Aid Station 2”. Cindy and the kids are there… it’s 5:23 am! They’ve been up all night too. My sweet girls hug me and lie to me about how I look good. A thought had occurred to me while trying to stop grimacing in pain and tensing up my shoulders during one run stretch: I am my mother’s son… the toughest and most courageous person I’ve ever known… I can DO this! I whisper that to my sister as I depart AS#2 and we both briefly fight tears. Keep on shufflin’. My poles keep me upright. The fog enshrouds us. Other runners appear and disappear as fuzzy luminescent blobs of light. Two women slowly pass us chatting busily as if they are on a casual jaunt… I can’t put three words together, but Merritt and I laugh about our non-conversation. The hours crawl by and I intentionally avoid looking at my watch. Owls hoot in the darkness, and eventually… birds. We realize there is the faintest light seeping into our tomb of darkness. It becomes clear that even this far ahead of sunrise proper, we can see better with headlights off to avoid reflecting on the misty fog. The world is a blueish grey, and the trees loom ethereal beside us as we slowly pass each one “for the last time”. A couple more attempts to run flats and downward stretches may or may not have made any serious impact on time, but I can smell the barn now. On the final leg I see others going out on their last lap, congratulating me on the end of mine. I begin to congratulate myself as well, so thankful to nearing the end. I wonder to myself “Will I tear up at the finish? Will I just be so glad to be done? Will I just want a chair?”. I allow a glimpse at my watch, and Merritt and I celebrate the final moment the display changes from 99.99 to 100.00 miles. Now there is only the short section through the crews and up a path to the finish. Merritt takes my poles and with a Herculean effort I launch into what feels practically like a sprint but on later video is just what it is, a joyous, agonized, final push into the finish chute. My kids run alongside me, and my crew Allison, Cindy, and Rob are there beaming and cheering. I cross the finish line in 25h 27m 24s, and my kids hug me… and yes… tears… I practically fall over trying to hug Allison too, almost taking everyone down with me. A race official hands me my coveted buckle, my hand fumbling as I take it out of its velvet pouch and hold it high for all to see. I’m elated! I get a hug and quick photo-op with Race Director Rhonda Hampton, and then it’s time to finally sit. I’m punchy, and giddy, and sooooooo slow-moving. My kids video my gait and later laugh that it looks like an old-guy in a nursing home.
The day moves on. I see friends finish, and there are high-fives from those around. My crew mercifully drives around to pick me up so I don’t have to walk anymore. It’s time to go home and revel in all that went down over the last 27-28 hours. There’s pizza, and beer, ibuprofen, and ice packs. I have ‘lovely’ toes and toenails on the right, a strangely swollen left ankle, and too many different muscular pains in hips, quads and glutes to count. It’s an amazing feeling, and I’m thankful to be feeling ALL of it. I eat everything anyone puts in front of me. I sleep that night like a corpse, not moving at all until I finally have to get up to drive Cindy, Calum and Rob to the airport early Monday morning.
I had struggled for a while with an explanation as to WHY I did these things. Why I’d want to run for hours… for a whole day. Why I’d want to put myself through agony and fatigue and sleeplessness. I look back on my journey that took me to the start line of the 2019 Umstead 100 Endurance Run, realizing that I consciously started it 2 years ago, but that the prior several years before that were the foundation for the decision then. The feeling of running, but specifically in the woods, as it transitioned from “running to be healthy” to “running because I love it”. That process is as fulfilling as the “Life in a Day” (-Billy Yang) I lived on the course. To find out truly who I am… what I am capable of… how I respond to the adversity… where it takes me… how much digging is “digging in”...to KNOW that I alone did that for myself. The “essence of humanity”. I gave myself that gift. It took training for and running 100 miles, and I am so thankful for it.