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Rock/Creek racer John Brower’s report from the Umstead 100-miler

I love to run, and I really love a good long run in the park; therefore, the Umstead 100 miler, located at Umstead State Park in Raleigh, NC, seemed like a great idea! Coming off the heels of my recent slip-and-fall DNF, I was really excited to be a part of this race. The RD, Blake Norwood, is known for making the Umstead run one to be remembered, with extraordinary aid stations, a plethora of volunteers, and a course that lends itself to a good finish.

I had been on the periphery of this race the year before when my wife made it 80+ miles before succumbing to the elements and low blood sugar levels (which reduced her to a zombie), so I knew first-hand of the excitement that I was to experience throughout the day, and was more than excited to get another 100 mile finish, and maybe a PR.

The course is basically a crushed gravel road, in the fashion of a 12.5 mile loop. The total elevation is said to be 8000 feet, so I knew that the climbing would be minimal, and nothing like the enduring rope-climbs of the Double Top, which I had DNF’d at a month before. The weather set up to be wild throughout the day, with showers expected early, and sunshine throughout the day.

I knew that hydration, especially early, would be crucial to my success, so I tanked up the 100ozer several times the day before. Following the pre-race meeting and a plate of spaghetti ‘n’ meatballs, it was time to hit the hotel for some sleep.

So the alarm hit at 4am, and it was time to get to work! I ate my pre-race breakfast of a snickers bar, guzzled two cups of coffee, and my wife and I headed for the Park, arriving in plenty of time to get a prime parking place that would make it easy for our crew to spot us coming and going from the start/finish spur. At 5:55, the electricity was evident within all those gathered, and Blake took his position on the top of a stump and announced “5 minutes!”

All of the participants gathered together in the light rain that had begun to fall, ready for whatever the day might bring. “One minute!” was the announcement, and I waited patiently for the gun to fire…looking around, I recognized a few folks, but one stood out in particular…Mike Morton. I had just read a great article on his “comeback” to the sport, and I was excited to toe the line with such an awesome, but humble runner. Mike would go on to set the course record in 13:11.

The gun sounded, and we were off, into the darkness and the rain. The front runners were gone in an instant, while the rest of us began to feel for a pace that would get us to where we needed to be. My strategy for the day was this: seeing that it was raining at the start, I wanted to run the first few loops faster than would be appropriate for me. This would allow for me to slow down in the middle laps when the sun was going to come out, and thus be prepared to fight it out at the end of the day for a possible PR.

So off I went. Lap one in 1:49, and lap two in 1:50, and lap three in 2:06. Each visit to the aid station at mile 7 brought with it half of a PBJ, and I filled up my hand-held at every water stop (5 per loop). At each S/F spur, my buddy would hand me a pre-labeled baggie containing an appropriate number of GU’s, and I would request 2 generic oreo cookies. This was my pattern for fueling throughout the entire day…I never deviated from it. I used the PBJ’s and the cookies for sustainable fuel, and used the GU every 45 minutes for supplemental fuel. Every other lap, I was taking two Metasalt pills just to be sure that my electrolyte levels were where they needed to be.

Lap four brought the sun out for the first time, and also brought out a bit of a re-evaluation. Up to this point, I had not really been enjoying myself. I was certainly pumping out some splits, and I felt fine in terms of energy, but my head was in the wrong spot. The Umstead course lends itself to seeing large numbers of participants due to an out-and-back spur near the start, and a few overlaps in the loop.

I began to notice the other participant’s faces, and how much most of them were enjoying themselves, giving cheers of encouragement to me as I passed…and what was I doing for them? Nothing…just giving a bit of a head nod in acknowledgment. And that is not me, and that is not the sport that I know. The accomplishment of being on your feet for 100 miles, no matter the pace, place, or time, is the driving factor of everybody out there, and shame on me for not giving the other participants the same amount of encouragement, if not more! While I was on pace to be done at a reasonable time, there were many out there that would be persevering through the whole of the night, and into the morning sunrise, expending much more energy and showing much more perseverance than I would be.

So I pulled up on my pace, and decided to be me again. I began encouraging most all of the runners that I passed by, and for the first time that day I felt the camaraderie that makes ultrarunning contagious. And I began smiling, and loving the run, and loving being out there, and soon enough, I came up on my wife who was finishing up her third lap. I decided to run in the rest of the loop with her, and experience at least a part of the day together. I finished up lap four in 2:22.

Heading out on lap five, with an all new perspective on this thing, I felt great, and knew that I only had 50 miles left to run. The sun was out full-blast at this point, and the humidity was rising steadily, making for more of a jungle-like feel to the afternoon. While much of the course is shaded, the foliage does serve to hold the moisture, so staying well hydrated was the only option there was. I drank a ton this lap, both water and Gatorade, and managed to stay on top of it.

NOTE TO ALL FUTURE UMSTEAD RUNNERS: WEAR GAITERS! I did NOT wear any gaiters, and my poor feet were beginning to pay for my lack of foresight. At both the start/finish and at the aid station, I would have to sit down and empty the accumulated quarry of rock that was in my shoes. By the end of the day, I had a few mean blood blisters, but oh well, what are you gonna do, but keep moving forward. Lap five split was a 2:32.

Lap six began with the knowledge that I only had 37.5 miles to go…not that far! My plan was to stay conservative here, while the late afternoon sun was out and the heat was up. I stuck with my plan of being present, in the here-and-now of the race, continuing to dispense encouragement to my fellow runners, and just to enjoy the day. I began to formulate a plan for the last two loops, as I knew that finishing would not be an issue, but a PR was in reach. I put the ipod shuffle on, and immersed myself in some killer tunes, dissociating from song to song, but always staying cognizant enough to be in the moment, with the course, and with my comrades. I came to the start/finish area, changed into a dry Patagonia shirt, got the headlamp, got my GU’s, ate my cookies, dumped out the rocks from my shoes, and headed back out. Lap six split was 2:44.

I began to do a bit of calculating in my brain, and figured out that if I ran smart and conservative for loop seven, I could try and “blast out” (a relative term on stiff legs) loop 8 and beat my PR, set at Rocky Raccoon, of 19:12. As darkness set in, the figures that were once my fellow racing participants became dark shadows with beams of light…kinda like Cyclops, I guess.

There were now but a few moments of encouragement from all of us to one another, as we knew that with the dark came the real challenges of the race. I continued to keep a very conservative pace throughout this loop, taking my time and waiting for loop 8. The ipod was not letting me down, pumping out hit after hit, working in combination with the maximum levels of caffeine that I was ingesting from my GU Roctane, keeping my energy level up and my enthusiasm high. The finish was near; all I had to do was get there.

I have found that in each 100 miler I do, I always learn something about running long distances, and this time was no different. I began to realize that, if I just had the courage to run, that I could. Following a walk break or an uphill section, it is always a challenge to get the stiff legs to turn over once again, and in past runs, I have seemed to be more hesitant about starting back running. But this time, I knew that if I just had the courage to start back, that I could, and when I did start back, the stiffness and discomfort goes away, and before you know it, you are moving at a good clip. This became my mantra for the rest of the run…”just have the courage, JB…strong and courageous”.

I finished up loop seven in 2:50, my slowest loop of the day, but the great part of it was that I had gone that slowly purposefully. The course, nor the fatigue, made me go that slow, but the discipline and the desire of a PR had me going slow…and now it was time to get the job done!

I headed back out on my final loop with the clock reading 16:18. I knew I had this PR if I just stayed on track and was disciplined. I continued eating GU every 45 minutes, right up to the end, to insure that there was fuel in the tank. Lightning began to light up the sky, and what was in the distance came right on top of us in a hurry. The wind picked up, and the thunder was clapping much louder than the beats on my ipod.

Soon enough, I was running in a full-fledged thunderstorm, in all its power, and I was feeding off the fury. I cruised into the aid station, dumped out my shoes, grabbed my last half of a PBJ for the day, thanked the volunteers for taking care of me, and headed back into the woods, determined to break my PR. I glanced down at my watch, and it read 17:29…but it had read 17:29 at my last glance…so I realized that my battery was dead, and that I really didn’t know what the time was…but one thing I knew was that if I gave it all I had from this point on, all the way to the finish, I would be golden, and I would have a new PR.

So I hit it, and ran as much of the “sawtooth” section of the course as I could, but walked what I had to. I cruised down the hill at mile 10, opening up my gait, determined that I would finish with everything I had. Up the hill to about mile 10.5, and then I determined to be courageous, and run every last step of this thing, as fast as I could. I began making some really weird sounds, kind of a cross between a grunt and a growl, and with each step it became louder and louder. I passed mile mark 11…courageous…pounded up and over “widowmaker”…strong and courageous…I was looking for the turn-off now that would take me to the finish line, and before I knew it, there it was…now it’s time to let it all go.

I hit that last half mile as hard as I have ever run, riding the momentum of the downhill and the adrenaline of the moment into the uphill steps to the finish, guiding my steps with reckless abandon, and hitting the finish line…but what was my time? My watch was dead…the finish clock was temporarily down…had I done it? My effort said “surely”, but I really had no idea.

My wife’s friend was there at the finish giving me a big congrats…”What was my time?” I asked. “18:57” she replied. I released a big, big sigh…I did it! 13th OA and a new PR! And the excitement of the day wasn’t even over! My wife had come back for revenge on the course that had defeated her the previous year, and she meticulously made her way towards redemption, one step at a time, and came through in 23:30. Awesome job! I am so proud of her perseverance, and even though right after finishing she swore that she wouldn’t do another hundred miler, I know she is already plotting out her next one!

I love running, and I love running a long ways, through the woods, or wherever the path may take me. I am so thankful for each step that I get to take, and am thankful and grateful for the experiences and the people and the camaraderie that ultrarunning gives to me. Thanks to the RD Blake Norwood for allowing me to participate in this great event, and thanks to Rock/Creek for letting me pimp the logo for 18+ hours in the best running apparel out there. Congrats to all finishers and a big “thank you” to all of the participants for allowing me to be a part of something that is bigger than all of us. I can’t wait to get back out there and toe the line once again, and I hope that you can’t either! See you out there!!!! LONG LIVE THE RUN!!!