Just Another Run in the Woods!
Strange things can happen when you sit down to enjoy a few beers with good friends. For some it may be a time to relax, have good conversation and reminisce of past experiences. For myself and my core group of friends it is always an opportunity to plan out our next big adventure. Back in 2008, our good friend Ben traveled to Connecticut from Boston for a weekend visit. After a full day of playing with the kids, we all retired to the deck for a campfire, some s’mores for the kids, and beers for the adults. Of course, after the beers started flowing, the conversation started getting interesting and the topic of ultra-marathoning came up. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, an ultra-marathon is any running event over 26.2 miles. For Ben (an experienced marathoner) and myself, this is a topic that has come up before but never acted upon. From my wife Jen (another experienced marathoner), I just received “the look”, but Jen who has always been very supportive, let Ben and I continue our conversation. I believe that this night planted the seed for what became reality on March 27, 2010.
After a few more visits from Ben and many more empty beer bottles, we had decided that our first ultra marathon would be the Umstead 50 mile trail race held every March in Raleigh, North Carolina. For those of you who may think that running 50 miles is for crazy people, you may be right. However, as one of those crazy people, it is always nice to know you are in good company. This race with 250 slots for the 100 mile or 50 mile race options sold out in 5 minutes after registration had opened. Lucky for Ben and I, we were fortunate enough to secure one of those elusive 250 spots before the race was sold out.
Next came the hard part, training for a 50 mile trail race. With 16 marathons under my belt I had become accustom to training for the 26.2 mile race. The ultra-marathon training plans called for a similar structure only with a lot more miles and some really long runs. The core of my training came through the winter and that added a bit more of a challenge to get in the necessary miles. Many of the ultra training plans called for back to back long runs. To accomplish this I would run the 16 mile journey into work on Friday morning, work a full day, head home in the evening and wake up at the crack of dawn on Saturday to run another 30+ miles. The first few months of training were going great, I felt good and remained healthy and injury free. The last couple of months were a bit more of a struggle, as the miles, sleep deprivation and other life commitments started to wear me down. In total I peaked at running 90 miles in one 6 day week and capped my long run at 36 miles. Taper time (3 weeks prior to the race) could not come soon enough as I was battling fatigue and I felt like an injury was around the corner. Thankfully, I made it to the taper and eventually to race day. In the days leading up to the race Jen cooked about 30 pounds of pasta for me to make sure I was nice and plump for race day.
On March 26, 2010, I met Ben at the airport in Raleigh and we proceeded to race registration. We entered Umstead State Park on the fringes of Raleigh and were surprised with the number of hills that we encountered; little did we know that those same hills would be compounded to following day as the miles proceeded through the race. Ben and I picked up our numbers and tried to get a lay of the land to be prepared for race day. The trail race was run entirely within the park and consisted of a 12.5 mile loop that was run 4 times for the 50 mile racers and 8 times for the 100 mile racers. The trail surface was nearly perfect for runners as most was hard packed carriage trails or dirt road. The topographical profile seemed a bit cruel to the runners but fair as it was a loop course and there were as many down as up hill sections. Before leaving the park, Ben and I looked around to see where we could stash our gear to access during each lap of the race the following day. For those of you who know me well, you know that I am very competitive and I always look for advantages to give me an edge, whether it be in training or race strategy. This race was no different, I knew that I would be looping around to the starting area another three times after the race started. I also knew that I was going to be carrying a water bottle with me the whole race to stay hydrated. Most people had the same strategy but planned to take the extra minute (each lap) to refill their empty water bottle. I decided to save those extra 3 minutes and pre-fill four water bottles so I could just dump the empty water bottle and grab a full one. It may seem silly to worry about loosing those three minutes at the aid station, but as you read on you will clearly see that those three minutes could come in handy later in the race.
March 27, 2010 – It is race morning and Ben and I up at 3am. The day is finally here which was a relief for both of us. We arrive at Umstead park shortly after 5am to pitch darkness and temperatures in the high 30’s. The temperature never got beyond the 50’s that day and we were treated to nearly perfect running conditions. We were very fortunate to get the weather we had since only days before temperatures soared into the 80’s and the days after the race saw torrential down pours. After getting ourselves settled in, we were called to the start line and the gun sounded. Everything seemed to have been in slow motion from what I was accustomed to with the shorter races. After only a couple of miles I found myself in no-mans land as there was one runner way in front of me and the rest of the field behind me. Now because the race started at 6am, the first hour or so was run in darkness, many of the runners had head lamps to see where they were going and to follow the signs that outlined the course. This was the first of a few rookie mistakes that I made. Since the guy in first place was long gone, I really had to concentrate to see the shadows of the course directional signs. Once a bright pink sign was spotted, I literally had to put my face about 1 foot from the sign so see which way the arrow was pointed. Thankfully I stayed on course until the sun rose approximately 45 minutes into the race. About 10 miles into the race I caught up to the guy who was in first place. We ran together for a few miles, nice guy who I found out was running the 100 mile race that day and had lots of experience under his belt. Along the way he provided lots of pointers and encouragement to me as we ran. I later found out that the runner was Zach Gingerich, one of the countries elite ultra-marathoners who placed 3rd at the Badwater Ultra a couple of years ago. Not sure I really had any business running with him, except for the fact that I was only running the 50 mile and he was running the full 100 mile race. About the 13 mile mark, Zach put in a serious surge and dropped me again, not sure how fast he was running but for the 5 miles between mile 13 and 18 I was averaging 6:50 pace and he was long gone. Around mile 22 I caught back up to Zach and we ran together for a couple of more miles until he had to make a pit stop and I continued.
I was alone in the front again but feeling ok this point. Before I knew it I rolled past the marathon (26.2 mile) mark in 3 hours and 8 minutes. Faster than I was planning on with all of the hills but I was still feeling confident at that point. As with any long distance race you can be feeling great one minute and not so great the next. A few miles later at about mile 31 I started to get tired and thought to myself, “only another lap and a half”, then I started to do some calculations in my head and said out loud, “crap, I still have 19 miles to go!” Shortly after that I rolled up to an aid station and grabbed a turkey sandwich that was pretty difficult to get down. At this point I really started to feel the hills that didn’t seem to be much of an issue the first couple of laps. For the last 15 miles my legs were cramping with nearly every step, they were not cramping to the point where the muscle locked up but I felt they were on the verge of locking at any moment. I got a little surge of energy when I saw Ben out there on the course; he was looking good and running well. Finally I rolled up to the race starting area again and completed my third lap. Only one more lap to go!!!!, but it sure was not going to be easy. As I rolled through the starting area there was a big aid station with every drink imaginable, hamburgers, hotdogs, cookies and everything else you could imagine. I should have stopped for a moment and refueled, but I didn’t (another rookie mistake). I did save another minute by grabbing my pre-filled water bottle and not having to stop at the aid station for fluids – I was on my way. With 12.5 miles to go I knew I was hurting but was doing my best to keep my head in the game (once your mind goes the body is quick to follow). At the start of the last lap there was an out and back section where I saw Zach (the second place runner – who I need to remind you was running the full 100 miles that day). He was about 8 minutes behind me with 11 miles to go. He provided lots of encouragement to me but looked much better than I felt. I wanted to hold him off for that final lap and also had the time of 6 hours and 19 minutes in the back of my mind that I was pushing for (you will see the significance of that later). That goal time was still attainable but with the way I felt I had to push my body WAY beyond the comfort level. The first few miles of that final lap were uneventful, my running form was long gone, it was more a matter of forcing one leg in front of the other. At mile 41 I hit a long (mile and a half) uphill section that really took the wind out of my sails. Struggled to the top but managed to run the whole hill and was rewarded with a nice downhill section, gravity is a beautiful thing! This brought me to the last aid station which I just ran past. Not sure if that was a mistake but all I really wanted to see was the finish line. The last 5 miles of the loop were the most difficult; you were either running straight up hill or straight downhill. Before I knew it, I turned the corner and hit a really steep section of the course. My mind was saying just run it slow, but my body did not get that signal. I physically could not run that steep section and had to resort to walking, I attempted to speed walk but I am guessing that I looked pretty foolish out there. Legs were cramping and screaming at me, I had never had so little energy in my life but made it through the next couple of miles while walking the very steep uphill sections. Walking actually felt worse as I would become very light headed. At mile ten there was a nice long downhill section which I tried to run fast, I really think I was just thrusting my legs forward and letting gravity do its job. I was feeling a little better about myself at the bottom of that long downhill but then once I started going up again I literally felt like I hit a brick wall. I have hit the wall before in marathons but this was different. I managed to grit my teeth and let my mind take over my body to get up that last hill before the finish. A short reprieve from the hills, before the final 100 yards to the finish (of course the last 100 yards were up hill). I crossed the finish line in 1st place with not even enough energy to raise my arms. Reported my number to the scoring table and basically collapsed into the arms of some volunteers. They brought me inside and laid me down on a mattress in front of a huge fireplace to warm me up. I started eating and drinking anything they could throw my way (cheeseburgers, yogurt, chips, etc). This is the point were Jen always takes good care of me but unfortunately she had to stay home with the kids. Ben’s childhood friends Sarah helped me out after the race and kept Jen updated on my status throughout the race. About 45 minutes later I was feeling human again and one of the race committee members came over and said congratulations on the win and you also broke the course record. As I mentioned before, going into that last lap I was hoping to finish at 6 hours and 19 minutes eclipsing the 15 year old course record of 6 hours and 20 minutes. I finished at 6 hours and 18 minutes (avg. 7:34 per mile) for the new records (remember those three minutes I saved by pre-filling my own water bottles – they came in very handy). Reviewing the results later I saw that I barley held off Zach for my final lap by only 40 seconds (he continued on to smash the 100 mile record by over an hour). Ben had a great race, especially after battling injuries; he finished 40 minutes ahead of his goal pace and ran to a top ten finish. Just to put this whole 50 mile adventure into perspective, for those who have run a 5K race, just consider that 50 miles is sixteen 5K races back to back. On a larger scale, if you started on the Connecticut shore in New Haven and started running due north, you would hit the 50 mile mark at the Massachusetts border.
Great trip and race over all for Ben and I. Hats off for the race Director and his team of volunteers (there must have been one volunteer for every runner!). I know the reason this race sells out in 5 minutes. I made some pretty big rookie mistakes which were mostly around fueling and hydration. Jen and Ben’s finance Julie may never let the two of drink beers together again…….on the ride back to the airport in Raleigh we were already starting preliminary talks about the next adventure!