by Deborah Sexton
March 31, 2007
For a first-time 100 miler, Umstead offers one of the most runner-friendly courses available. It’s not really a trail run, but a dirt road run. The surface is finely crushed granite, which looks like white dirt. The race is scheduled the weekend of a full moon, and because the whiteness of the road, you really don’t need a flashlight. It’s still 100 miles, but you literally can’t get lost, you have no terrain to negotiate so you don’t have to worry about tripping, and the course itself is designed in such a way that you see people throughout most of the race. So even back of the packers don’t feel lonely until the final loop. It is also fun to watch the leaders jockey for position during the day as most of them lap you at least five or six times.
There’s a ½ mile out and back from race headquarters to a main road. From there, you have a ¾ mile out and back called the airport spur, to allow the course to total 100 miles. From there, you get on “the loop” and you follow this until you return to the ½ mile out and back for a total of 12.5 miles. Every mile of the course is marked, which is always nice.
The runner’s packet this year included a Montrail water bottle and a short-sleeve Dri-Release T-shirt or an embroidered cap, your choice. The pre-race meeting started at 5 and afterwards we all were served a delicious angel hair pasta dinner with vegetarian tomato sauce or sauce with meatballs, a tossed salad with rolls, and cheesecake or birthday cake with ice cream for dessert. It was good.
The race start is only about 15 minutes from the airport and on a main road with tons of hotels, fast food, Wal-Mart, etc. So it’s very convenient to get to your hotel, do your shopping, and get to the race site. The race headquarters hotel (The Hampton Inn Crabtree) even has a shuttle to and from the airport and the race start. The Hampton Inn provides a sack breakfast in the morning or when you get to the race, there was a generous selection of baked goods including bagels, muffins, Danishes, etc. along with coffee and juice.
This year there were two fully stocked aid stations (one at the start/finish and one halfway) and two other water stations. So you never went far without water. Aid stations were fully stocked with a generous selection of foods with two hot soups at night, hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza during the day. Ice was also available all day long.
Volunteers were experienced, happy, and falling over themselves to help you. You felt loved at every aid station. The scenery is nice with lots of trees, bridges, and forest to look at. The dogwoods and red buds (which for some reason are purple not red) were just starting to come out in bloom adding color to the forest. In one stretch, beautiful purple wisteria draped from trees and even at night you knew you were going through that section because you could smell the perfume.
The race had a pacer coordinator. If you wanted a pacer, you could ask for one when you completed your fourth loop (50 miles) and if one was available, one was assigned. Many of the volunteer pacers were road runners but they were generally good for one loop or more of company.
The weather was great. One eight-time participant, Tom Adair, commented it was the best he’d ever seen. It was perfect by my standards; however some thought the mid-70s was a bit too warm. It was low 40s at the start and through Saturday night I don’t believe it dropped below the mid-50s. The night was mostly clear allowing the moon to light up the white road during the night casting tree shadows across the trail. Very pretty.
During the night there were little baby snakes and toads on the road. Some even spotted deer.
The lodge headquarters is huge with lots of tables and benches to store your drop bags or you could pick a spot along the out and back to set up a personal mini aid station. There is one small field area you run through and many crews set up tents or trucks to tend to their runners as they came through. Cabins dotted the nearby area so it was very convenient if you flew in but wanted to camp. Each cabin had wood bunk beds with mattresses.
Everything about this race is totally designed to help the first-time 100 miler have a successful experience. And if you finish at least 50 miles, you still get listed and credit in the race results that get published. You also receive your splits upon request at the end of the race.
For the past year, I have struggled with getting slower and slower. I timed out at Western States in June 2006 and dropped at Lean Horse in August 2006 due to drinking Gatorade for about 18 hours. I even timed out at Palo Duro 50 miler in October, a real wakeup call that I needed to change my training.
My favorite thing to do is go to ultras, not only for the running aspects, but also for the social. I’ve made many friends across the country over the past four years and it’s great to reunite at these events. The downside to this is I have averaged an ultra a month for the past several years. So most of the time I am either recovering or tapering for a race. This was pointed out to me by my good friend and pacer Damon Lease, who has been trying to help me do better. The result is I’ve gotten slower and slower through lack of speed work and lack of proper recovery.
Leading up to Umstead, I ran the Bandera 50K in 8:15, a very slow and disappointing time, in January. At the East Texas Ultra Runners 50K in Tyler, Texas, I did another disappointing 8 hours in mid-February, and I attempted 50 miles at Cross Timbers at Lake Texoma the last weekend in February. Within the 12-hour time limit, I only made it 39 miles. With these poor performances as my indicator, I was dreading Umstead and very concerned that I would not make the cutoff.
On the bright side, I had a larger than normal group of running friends who were coming. I was rooming with Janet Duncan and her husband Tom, whom I had met at Western States Training Camp in May 2006. Michael Chiozzi was coming, who I had ran about 30 miles with at Old Pueblo in 2006. Mary Vish, a long-time running friend from New Jersey who I had paced at Arkansas Traveler and Rocky Raccoon, was coming, Karen Riddle a member of my club (North Texas Trail Runners), was coming who I was also sharing a room with. Plus Joe Pringle from Atlanta who I had run many miles with at Lean Horse in August 2006. So even without a pacer, I had an excellent chance of having someone to run with, which is always a huge factor in how much fun I have. I do not enjoy running alone.
Through the ultra list, I had met someone from Charlotte a few months earlier who was interested in pacing me at Umstead. I checked in with him the Monday the week of the race and family commitments were going to prevent him from coming. So I posted to the list and got several offers of wonderful people who were willing to help me out. One of them was Damon. I was scheduled to pace him at Massanutten in May, and he was able to get a free ticket using miles and he booked a flight to come.
Damon had paced me to my first 100 finish in Vermont and I was thrilled he could come. He knew me well and I felt I had the absolute best chance of finishing with him by my side. So I started feeling more excited again about the race.
So the race started at 6 a.m. and I immediately began running with Mary Vish and Joe Pringle. Janet took off early and I had no hope of keeping up with her. During the first loop, Mary also pulled ahead and I let her go as I had been instructed by Damon to run loops in the 3 hour to 3:15 range. I ran the first loop in about 2:45 so I was ahead of pace. Joe and I enjoyed catching up again and ran at a comfortable speed.
Lesson No. 1: Listen to your coach. J I went out too fast (for me) and paid for it later. While I was running with Joe, he told me about the famous Rob Apple who I hear is close to reaching the 500 ultras in a lifetime mark. Joe was telling me that he sees Rob at a lot of races and he always passes Joe between the halfway and two-thirds mark to finish the race. He starts out at a very slow easy pace that he is able to maintain throughout the distance. After the race, I heard that at Umstead, he was actually running with three first-timers and they all finished. Now I wished I had been one of them. Next race I’ll be looking for Rob. By the way, he passed me and Damon in the sixth loop.
My first concern of the race was my feet. I had had great luck with my New Balance 807s, which are now discontinued. I had put off buying new shoes too long and I had developed some plantar in my left foot. I had been rolling it on a frozen soda bottle and it seems to be improving but it had not completely healed. When I went to buy new shoes, I was forced to change to a newer model of New Balance, the 809, and this was not the same shoe. I could tell it had much less cushioning, which is always the most important to me. My plantar had not been bothering me while running on trails at home but from the first hour, it bothered me at Umstead. In fact, very early in the race, my feet felt much more “pounded” than normal and I attribute this to a less-cushioned shoe combined with the hard-packed dirt, which I am not used to running on. Also the lack of terrain, meant a lot more pure running than walking or negotiating rocks and roots.
My right foot also was having problems. There was something sticking into my foot. Especially on the downhills, I could feel it gouging into the top of my foot below my toes. I was dealing with it but it was uncomfortable and annoying. During the day, after the first two loops, I loosened the laces and completely pulled the tongue out of the shoe hoping that would solve the problem, but it didn’t help at all. The gouge point was further up in the shoe. So finally at the 50-mile mark when I was picking up Damon, I took the whole shoe off and tried to identify what it was sticking into me. I could see a deep red mark on my foot. Not knowing what else to do about it, I grabbed my foot care kit and found a corn cushion. I taped this cushion over the spot. I wished for two things:
Another pair of shoes and a lighter pair of socks. I had on my favorites: Wrights Runner Extra, double padded socks. I think a lighter pair of socks also would have helped.
Lesson No. 2. Bring more than one pair of shoes. Bring more than one thickness of sock. At Umstead, you really don’t need trail shoes. A road shoe is probably more suitable and in hindsight, I really wished I had brought my road shoes. My other mistake was not testing the new New Balance 809s longer. I had done a five hour run in them with no problems, however, it was on a softer, more technical trail.
At the end of the third loop, which Joe and I ran between noon and 3 p.m., the heat started taking its toll on Joe. Most of us have not had any heat training yet this year as it’s just starting to warm up again, and his hands were puffy, his stomach sloshing and upset. He kept telling me to go on, but I wanted to finish the third loop with him. I was ahead of the time Damon had told me to run anyway. Joe decided to sit down a bit and see if he could get his electrolytes balanced and calm his stomach. I set out for my fourth loop. I love the heat and frankly, didn’t think it was hot at all. I still had on a running top and a short sleeve shirt over that.
Through most of the course, there are some gradual up and downhills. There is one section, called the Sawtooth section, that you have three steep climbs and then downhills to do. I was running all the downhills, most of the flats, and walking the uphills. I felt good except for my feet, which felt the worst I’d ever experienced in any race. For the first 50 miles I was downing two packages of Clip II for each 12 miles and supplementing that with water at the in-between water stations. I really wasn’t eating much as I thought I was getting enough calories from the Succeed. I did have one hot dog during the day. And, yes, now that I think about it, that was it. Unfortunately, I didn’t think about it during the day.
Lesson No. 3. Eat or drink at least 250 calories per hour. This is the single biggest mistake I made in this race. I totally underestimated how much I should be eating. It’s hard to remember to eat when you’re not hungry and frankly nothing looks good.
I ran most of the fourth loop alone and I was so glad to know that I would be picking up Damon for the rest of the race. I came in at 50 miles at around 12:31. This was faster than Damon had recommended but I was very concerned about timing out and I wanted to have more cushion to slow down on the second half. I grabbed a Boost. I did what I could to my feet, grabbed my head lamp which I wear around my waist and we set out for the second half of the race, which I knew was going to be the true test.
Despite having Damon, which greatly lifted my spirits, I slowed down on the fifth loop dramatically, which is very typical of me. I continued to run all the downhills but ran less and less on the straight-aways. I started crawling up the hills. Damon estimated my overall pace was about 19 minutes a mile. I also started to feel really fatigued and exhausted. It was taking a lot of effort to run and although I didn’t have an upset stomach, I did not feel very good at all. (I attribute the lack of stomach problems to my switch from Gatorade to Clip II and Amino. Thanks Karl!)
By this time, I had switched to Amino and I was consuming three packets a loop, but since the loops were now taking four plus hours, in hindsight, I realized this was not enough. I was eating soup at both the stocked aid stations, but soup does not have that many calories and I just wasn’t getting enough. I started supplementing with gels as well as this was something else I could get down, but I just couldn’t seem to get my energy level back.
My sixth loop I held my 19-minute pace running downhills and crawling up the hills. But I was feeling like crap. Damon did a great job of talking to me keeping me distracted but warned me I was going to have to maintain my current pace to make the cutoff. In my heart, I knew I was going to get slower. I was running out of gas.
We finished the sixth loop. I restocked up on Amino and ate two soups. My stuff was by a campfire with benches around it. There were a bunch of crew people standing around the fire. Damon had run over to the bathroom to change his shorts and he told me to go and eat the soup so we could get back out. All I wanted to do was lay down. I sat my butt on this long bench and laid down on it. Just at this moment, Damon returned and told me to get my butt off the bench. Just count to 15 I begged. He said, Ok, 5, 10, 15, now get up. I groaned and tried to sit up. Forget that. I was not going to do this without help.
Help I cried weakly. (One doesn’t get much more pathetic than this.) Three of the wonderful crew members rushed to my rescue. One on each side of me pulled on my arms and a third person helped me up from behind.
Let me tell you how much I did not want to go out there. I had two more 12.5-mile loops and a little less than nine hours to do it at a 19-minute per mile pace that I knew was going to get slower. We started trudging out on the ½ mile out and back. I felt the worst I had ever felt in my life in any ultra. I told Damon, I am dying. He said, give a few minutes for the soup to kick in. Then he told me to eat a gel, which I did.
I was walking very slowly out toward the cone at the end of the ¾ spur and all I could think of was there was a chair there. I had to get to that chair. Damon was doing his best to encourage me and tell me I could do it, but I could not. I felt horrible and I could barely stand. In fact, I didn’t realize it but I was weaving all over the road. Damon finally said, you know it’s much more efficient to walk straight down the road. Oh yeah, I said. I struggled down to the cone and sat down. I thought about those three sawtooth hills and knew I’d never get up them. I had nothing left. I dreaded even trying to make it back to the finish.
I finally struggled up and we trudged back to the start. That 1.5 miles took me 70 minutes. I stopped multiple times to bend over and once even sat down. I was so miserable and disappointed that I was going to not finish my third 100 miler in a row.
We got back. I told them I was dropping and I made my way over to our stuff. Karen Riddle had finished 50 miles, went out for the sixth loop and came back after the airport spur. Michael had dropped after 50 miles. Janet, who was way ahead of the rest of us, had dropped at around 50 miles and had already called her husband to pick her up so she was already back at the hotel room. So we called Tom to come get us. It was about 6 a.m. The gate is only open once an hour. So he came at 6 a.m. and then we had to wait until 7 a.m. when the gate would be opened again.
I laid down on the ground feeling awful. I ate a sandwich and drank chocolate milk because if I don’t eat right after I finish, I black out. I laid down again. I started to feel sick and knew the black out was coming so I ate another package of crackers. It was murder forcing this down my throat. I laid down again hoping I had eaten enough. About 10 minutes later, I started feeling sick again and forced another package of peanut butter crackers down. Tom had pulled up the car and I was afraid to get in because I might throw up.
Everyone else (Damon, Karen, Michael) got my stuff in the car and I got in the front seat. We got back to the room and I was too miserable to even shower. I laid down on the bed and passed out. A couple of hours later, I got up again and still felt horrible but I took a shower and we went next door to Fat Daddy’s. Everyone had a beer and I had milk shake. We all analyzed our races and made resolutions to train smarter, eat better, lose weight and try again.
It’s very disheartening to write a report about not finishing. But I made a lot of stupid common mistakes. And I’ve finished two 100 milers. But every course is different and brings with it, its own set of challenges. It’s my hope that some runners will read this and learn from what I did wrong. Eating is critical. Until you pass that 50 mile mark, you may never experience eating issues, but after 50 miles for some people it gets harder and harder to eat. You put the food in your mouth, you chew it and for some reason, you just can’t swallow it. Figure out some way to get the calories in your body, or you’ll end up like me.
Heartfelt thanks to Blake Norwood, the race director, and the many incredible people who make this race one of the top events in the country. Joe Lugiano, Joey Anderson, Sue Norwood, Will Brown, these are just a few of the names I know. There are so many others. I will be back.