The mix of tradition, big elevation gain, close proximity to a good friend, newly implemented technologies, and of course the distance made the Umstead 100 a very attractive event for me. While the knee injury I sustained two weeks before this 100-mile race gave me a lot about which to worry, I conquered the race held April 6-7 at Umstead State Park in Raleigh, N.C., in a triumphant 23:48.
I had never participated in a 100-miler before. Sure, I’d done 24-hour events at which I’d gone over 100 twice, but those have a different mindset. At the end of a day, the race ends and the laps get added. Whatever distance, the miles count. With this set distance, the runners either go all the way to 100 or get nothing. Also, the 8,000 feet of total gain was probably triple what I’d faced before. Still, if I could run at all with this knee, I was shooting for the higher-end belt buckle, the “100 Miles – One Day” version.
Race Director Blake Norwood and his crew have been hosting this race for almost 20 years, and one could tell they really knew what they were doing. The pre-race meeting Friday night was both funny and serious. The 260 or so entrants got our customized orange hats, and those new to 100s had to rise and recite a pledge together, “Eat before you’re hungry; drink before you’re thirsty; walk before you’re tired.” Blake also displayed the walking sticks slated for the last male and female finishers. The last person to finish also receives the “Persistence Rock.” Blake told us, “When all else fails, persistence prevails” or something close to that. I turned to Elana, my ol’ buddy from high school who, along with her family, was hosting me for the weekend, and said, “I don’t want those sticks or that rock, but I’ll take ‘em if it means I get to finish.”
While I didn’t have a crew on site, I knew I had my wife, Ilene, my extended family, my running club, friends, and co-workers pulling for me from afar. The electronic ankle bands the race committee used for the first time this year allowed everyone to track my progress, so I didn’t have to report in. That was a huge plus because it meant I didn’t have to weave my way through the main cabin at the start-finish area to get to my cell phone after each of the 12½-mile laps.
One of the great upsides to ultras is meeting and actually spending a good amount of time talking to other runners while in the race. I don’t remember some of the real names, but “Cowboy” wore a full-size Stetson and had been a dance champion, “Kentucky” was running her first 100 and had a good group of friends waiting to run with her, Dave (?) was thinking about doing a 200 after this race, and Trevor (?) had lived everywhere. They knew me as “Orangeman” because I was wearing my typical orange from my hat to the laces on my shoes. I even had orange drop bags thanks to ERC’s dynamic duo, Phil and Laura. I also saw friends from other races – Meredith, Susan, and John — who were always encouraging when we passed by each other.
I even had a chance to run for a few miles with the race leader. He was finishing lap 7 as I was finishing lap 5, but Jim was as friendly as could be. He was obviously a big-time runner, but he didn’t “big-time” me.
Even the crews for other runners wanted to help me. I realize there is a good amount of sitting while waiting for their runner to come around, but I can’t remember how many times someone asked if they could get anything for me.
I ran OK through lap 6, the 75-mile mark, thanks in part to the well-stocked aid stations. By that 10:22 p.m. stop, I’d been moving forward just about constantly for almost 16 ½ hours, so along the way I probably ate six burgers, a dozen eggs, numerous potatoes, many cups of soup, etc., etc. to keep up my energy. But I started to struggle a good deal at the start of lap 7. My race-provided pacer for that lap, nicknamed “Z,” shepherded me through the hills and the darkness and got me back to HQ with 3:54 left until the 24-hour mark.
I probably asked my final pacer “Woody” how fast we were trudging 50 times, as my watch had died hours before and I couldn’t judge speed too well in the darkness. I had to average just under 19-minute miles, and I wasn’t sure if we were moving that fast, especially going downhill. My hip and knee were screaming at me by then. I was even cheering for uphills at mile 96. When we got to the top of Graveyard Hill, a long hill that may or may not have a graveyard full of runners who didn’t finish the race located on it, Woody assured me that we were going to make it. We did, and I was never more proud of an athletic achievement than I was when I crossed the line and I received that fancy belt buckle.
I am probably feeling better than I deserve to be. Just a few days after Umstead, I’m already looking forward to my next ultra, to which a friend asked, “Why aren’t you suffering from Hundee Post Partum, that commonly misunderstood psychological state immediately following a hundred mile ‘fun run,’ in which the afflicted wants to kick kittens while swearing off running for eternity?” I think it’s because I expected nothing good and found everything turned out more wonderfully than I could have honestly hoped.