I relish in the logistics involved in planning for a 100 mile race. I’d almost go so far as to say that I’ve grown to love the build-up so much that it negates any nerves I might have leading up to race day. That was definitely the case this time around as I spent the week prior forcing myself to fully taper with short, comfortable runs to keep the #chasing42streak going. After the trials and tribulations of Grindstone last fall, both the epicurean and I were due for a relaxed, pleasant race experience, and Umstead delivered in spades! The location was wonderful, the weather was gorgeous, the day ran smoothly, and the volunteers and race staff were fabulous. I truly couldn’t have asked for a better race experience 🙂
We packed up the car on Thursday after work, dropped Baxter off at daycare, and piled into the car with Looper. I knew we’d hit some rush hour traffic heading south on 95, but we wanted to tackle a portion of the drive that night so that our trip down to Raleigh the next day would be relaxed. We made our way down to Fredericksburg, VA and settled into a hotel for the night. It was pouring rain when we woke up the next morning, and I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to my water-logged trek at Grindstone. However, I stayed positive and we headed down the interstate and made our way to Raleigh, NC and to Umstead State Park. We arrived around 1pm, checked in, and found our way to the cabin I had reserved. It’s rustic charm was bolstered by the fact that it was literally steps from the race course. Having the indoor space to spread out everything and get settled made the evening that much more relaxing. We found a late lunch in town that afternoon, and then made our way back for the pre-race meeting. Afterwards, we made our way back to the cabin and sat out on the porch, watched the sun set, and then settled in for an early bedtime. I was quite pleased to be able to get a full night of sleep before the race!
The alarm went off at 4:30AM the next morning, and I quietly got out of bed so as not to wake the beautiful epicurean. I began to get my pack squared away via the light of the headlamp, ate a small breakfast. We made our way up to the starting area around 5:45AM and the the camp was buzzing with pre-dawn excitement! My training block leading up to this race had been the strongest I had ever had, and I was filled with the excitement of possibility. After a brief moment, the RD sent us on our way into the darkness for the first of eight 12.5 mile loops. The shorter distance meant I’d be returning to see the epicurean regularly and she could relaxing at the cabin with Looper in the interim.
Loops 1 & 2
Going out too fast has always been my achilles heel, but I was committed to being patient and getting a sense of the course. I rode the slight rolling hills and let my breathing guide my pace as I ticked off the early miles. I was able to switch off my headlamp after 30 minutes or so, and watching the sun rise over the wooded landscape was a breath of fresh air. The entire course is made up of relatively wide biking and running dirt paths and my fears of the previous days rain creating a muddy mess were quickly alleviated. the first decent climb popped up around mile 4, and I was happy to power hike up it, and was greeting to a small lake near the top of the rise. There were several unmanned aid stations sprinkled throughout the course, which meant I only had to carry my hydration vest with one 500mL soft-flask. It was refreshing to not be weighed down by a full bladder and I knew I’d appreciate it even more later on. The mid-loop aid station emerged at around mile 6.85, and the full spread of food and drink that greeted me was a beautiful sight, as were the wonderfully helpful volunteers. After my first visit, I left with added confidence and a smile on my face. Several smaller but steeper climbs followed along the rolling path, and I forced myself to walk them and saved my energy for the downhills and flats. This strategy served me well and I was making the final climb up Cemetery Hill before I knew it. I made the turn down into the camp, and the epicurean’s smiling face greeted me. She quickly refilled my water bottle with Tailwind, tossed me another pack of honey stinger chews, and collected my headlamp. Efficiency was the name of the game, and she was on her game! I rolled up to the start/finish area and logged my first loop in 2:06, which felt well within my ability for the 12.5 mile loop (1000 feet elevation gain).
The second loop was more of the same as the cool forest air whispered through the trees. I was focusing on keeping a calm and relaxed demeanor and really enjoying my time out on the trail. I had been training for this race for the last 3+ months, and this was the reward. This loop sent us back out of camp the way we came, and down and out-and-back flat spur for the first 3 miles or so. This would be the route we would take for the rest of the race so I had plenty of time to bond with the nuances of the trail. Ironically, I would come to resent this flat section and wish for the rolling landscape that would follow. Who am I, and what did I do with the flatlander?! The remainder of the loop flew by without incident, and I felt like I was out for any other Saturday morning run. I rolled into the start/finish at 4:12 elapsed and feeling great with 1/4 of the race in the bag. I stopped to visit the epicurean and she topped off my water while another nice spectator randomly offered to help me apply some sunscreen. It was a reminder of just how much of a family the ultra community truly is, and I rolled out for my third loop with high spirits!
Loops 3 & 4
The relatively groomed trails on the course meant full-blown trail shoes were overkill of a sort. So, I went with a lightweight, comfortable pair of Hoka Clifton 2s. Once I added my trusty dirty girl gaiters, my feet were quite happy. Luckily, this happiness persisted for the entirety of the race, and my feet were blister-free by the end. What a pleasant surprise! The temps did begin to rise a bit towards the end of the 3rd loop, and during the 4th loop, and the sun added some heat in the low 70s, but it was far from uncomfortable. I was focusing quite a bit on hydrating and made the decision early on to drink at every aid station, as well as cool my wrists and head if need be. This proved to be an excellent strategy, and the ice cold water at each of the aid stations was a treat I looked forward to every time. The volunteers were clearly refilling the coolers with ice pretty frequently, and I was thankful for their dedication. Aside from the heat, everything was firing on all cylinders, and the next two loops flew by rather smoothly. I arrived at the half-way point in 9:01, and my legs were still feeling really good. I was alert, had plenty of energy, and wasn’t feeling overly hungry or thirsty. In other words, I was in a best-case scenario at the half-way point, and was doing my best not to get too excited or get my hopes up. I still had 50 more miles to go, and a lot could happen in that time!
Loops 5 & 6
By this point, I had mapped out the route pretty well in my head, and knew the distances between key points on the course, including the aid stations. This made it really easy to set small goals between these points and focus on my running during those intervals. The sun was on it’s downward path by the 5th loop, and the temperatures slowly began to cool. I had definitely settled into a rhythm at this point, and I knew when to walk and when to power hike without really even thinking about it. This would normally be the point where my quads begin to get a bit tight, but my legs were still feeling relaxed, and my feet were quite pleased with my shoe choice. Although my nutrition was still working, I was definitely reaching a saturation point with the honey stinger chews. Ironically, I had moved to using them when I dialed back my sugar intake and GUs and Cliff Shot Blocks began to taste too sweet to me. Now the Honey Stinger chews were beginning to taste too sweet to me as well. Luckily, I had plenty of solid food options at the aid stations, and began to eat more fruit, salted potatoes, and cookies. This, combined with my trusty Ginger Ale, made for a strong nutritional combo. My pace was slowing somewhat, but I was still moving really well and feeling confident. I completed the 6th loop around 8:15PM, just as the sun was setting. The epicurean was in high spirits as she checked in to see what I needed. I claimed my headlamp, along with more Tailwind, and some ginger chews, and set out once more. I was only a hair over 14 hours in, but only had 25 miles left to go. My energy was high, and it became a bit harder not to get overly excited.
Loops 7 & 8
After a mile or so, I flipped on my headlamp and set out into the darkness. This was a far cry from the exhaustion as I set out on the second night at Grindstone, and I was at a loss. At this point, the 250+ runners were spread out pretty well along the 12.5 mile loop, and I found myself mainly running alone. However, I had a very pleasant conversation with a badass blind runner and his guide as they expertly navigated the terrain. We shared some great stories over the course of a few miles, and we arrived at the mid-point aid station together. After a quick refueling, I bid them good luck, and headed back out as they took a moment to rest. This would normally be the point at which the smaller climbs begin to seem more daunting, but I was still climbing swiftly and bombing down the descents at a pace I probably had no business going. I had spent the last few months focusing on training on the downhills and strengthening my quads, and it was quite gratifying to know that the work had paid off. I made my way into the start/finish at 17:20 at the end of the 7th lap, and I let the excitement of the final loop begin to well up inside me.
My legs were definitely tired as I made the climb out of camp for the final time. I resented the flat out-and-back more than I should have, but gave myself permission to walk a few segments, encouraged by the fact that I wouldn’t be returning. I was counting down the miles more now than ever, and allowing myself to enjoy this final victory lap of sorts. I crossed the small bridge at mile 4 to begin the climb, and quickly realized that my headlamp was the only breach in the dark in all directions. I never once felt tired, but I began to hear sounds in the woods, and I sent my headlamp into the darkness where it was met with numerous pairs of glowing orange eyes. I was power-hiking up the long climb and trying not to get too freaked out by whatever was clearly tracking my movements. I didn’t have the energy to move any faster, and I “may” have let out a few screams into the darkness to try and scare away whatever had taken an interest in my movements. I eventually moved past this section, but the irrational fear stayed with me for much longer.
I rolled into the mid-point aid station for the final time and treated myself to some delicious broth, which was equal parts warming and hydrating. Luckily, I was moving quickly enough that I never got cold, and remained comfortable in my short sleeve shirt the entire time. I set out on the final 5+ miles and was energized as I crested the top of each hill and ran down each descent, my quads still feeling strong. I rounded the corner into the final straight-away, stopped briefly at the last aid station, and then pushed on. Plenty of folks were passing me in the opposite direction, heading out for their next loops, and it was nice to see more people again. I reached the camp, and began to slowly run down towards the finish as hearty volunteers cheered me on in the dead of night. The camp was lit up, and the cheers energized me as I made the last small climb and crossed the finish line.
I was all smiles and quickly spotted the epicurean, who reminded me to turn off my headlamp 🙂 The RD came out and handed me my buckle and I was a bit in shock. I crossed the finish line in 20:26, which was well beyond what I had hoped for, and a PR by more than 2 hours! I happily took the opportunity to make my way inside hear a warm fire and it felt glorious to sit down for the first time. The french toast was delicious, and the hot coffee was long overdue. After resting for a bit, the epicurean and I slowly made our way back to the cabin. i gave myself a quick wet-wipe bath, and then curled up in my sleeping bag. It was 3AM, obviously late, but I was lying down to sleep. I had no expectations of being able to do so, and it was an opportunity my tired legs relished!
I was sore the next morning as we loaded the car, and made the 8 hour drive (damn traffic!) back, but “20:26” kept popping into my head and I couldn’t stop smiling. You never know exactly how a race is going to play out, and I’ve come to expect the unexpected, which made this smooth, comfortable, and challenging race that much more special. This was truly what #chasing42 is all about, and I have the buckle to prove it!