The 21st annual Umstead 100 was special to me for so many reasons. I ran this race in 2014 (http://ultrarunnerjen.blogspot.com/2014/04/umstead-100-or-salt-stains-and-short.html), had a fantastic experience, and couldn't wait to go back. There is something special about this race. The volunteers and race director... the camaraderie along the course... the friends I have in the area... all of these things stuck in my mind from 2014 and made me eager to return. Although my legs forgave me long ago from the beating I dished out, my mind still struggles to wrap itself around the experience.
My 2014 experience at Umstead was a big part of why I wanted to run the race again but it wasn't the entire reason. In late October 2014, Blake Norwood, the race director for the first 20 years of the race, passed away. His dedication to our sport was incredible. Umstead has become a race that draws both speedy elite ultra runners as well as newbie first time 100 mile runners. We all bond on the same course and encourage each other throughout the race. Blake cultivated this atmosphere and made this event what it is today. Last year he was there to congratulate me at the finish as I collapsed on him and tried to pass it off as a hug. His contribution to our sport is something I cherish and I wanted to return to his race to show respect. Along the course there is a tree Blake planted. Every lap I looked over at the tree and thought of how Blake made this event what it is today.
Umstead is a loop course with 8 laps. As I gather my thoughts about the race it is no coincidence that they fit nicely into 8 distinct memories.
Lap 1. I'm not much of a planner when it comes to races. I typically like to let the day/race unfold and not get myself set on specific targets. This race was my first attempt to develop a plan, including lap goals and eating strategies for each lap. This was largely because I had a crew for the whole race, and I would have access to the crew every lap. I needed to tell them what I wanted and when so this meant a plan. I didn't want to get too caught up in the plan but I knew I needed to stick to the plan. I started easy and put the brain on autopilot. As the Beastie Boys say, slow and low... that is the tempo. I was happy the pains I'd experienced in the weeks leading up to the race weren't rearing their ugly heads yet. Two thumbs up for the plan and sticking to it. Will this turn me into a meticulous planner for races now? I wouldn't bet on that.
Lap 2. I log a lot of miles by myself. And although I love this part about our sport I also love my good friends and family who support me along the way. This race, more than any other, brought out the importance of good support. So many people helped get me here and carried me through the race. My gratitude is beyond words. I am incredibly lucky to have friends and support that allow me to follow my passion. Many of you played a huge role for Umstead - my PT, Robert, who puts me back together after runs and races with never-wavering support and encouragement, his expertise and my faith in his ability is unmatched. My boys - who may not understand what it is I do yet but still hoped I came home with a trophy. My parents - who drove up from Atlanta to cheer me on and have always been my biggest fans. Shawn - who lights me up everyday and makes me a better and happier person; your support means the world to me and I feel so lucky. Beth and Doug - who opened their house to me again this year (not sure how after last year!) and tolerated the craziness with class and charm. Gene - my local friend who has been there in style for me through 4 of my 100s. Jordan - pacer extraordinaire who "got" me without ever meeting me. Rachel - the happiest crew girl you could ever ask for and who graciously gave up her time to crew for me again this year. Bill - the most connected guy on the course who knew everyone and still kept a great pace. And lastly, friends - trail and otherwise - around the country who follow my progress, and who listen to my running stories with a smile.
Lap 3. Behind every great race is a great race director. Rhonda Hampton leads a great crew putting on Umstead. What makes a race director great is their investment in the race. Rhonda is fully present and engaged all day. She spends the day riding a bike around the course, taking pictures and cheering on runners. By nightfall she is using the same bike to put out glow sticks to help guide the runners. Umstead also sends out a post-race mailing to all the finishers. This includes a certificate of finish, a print out of your laps and actual photographs taken during the race. It’s a great reminder of your accomplishment after the legs have forgiven you. These personal touches make Umstead one of the greats.
Lap 4. Having a crew for this race was amazing. I don’t normally have a crew – much less the ability to see them so often. Shawn had never witnessed an ultra before and he took the lead as my crew. Rachel helped crew for me last year and graciously offered to devote her time again this year to helping me. I felt very lucky to have two people in my corner all day! I didn’t give Shawn much instruction before the race, just a general idea of what I would want each lap. He’s a natural. He totally got it and was completely focused on getting me what I needed all day. I felt bad for telling them what to do on each lap for the next lap but if they were upset they didn’t show it. Instead they gave me what I needed with formula-one-like precision and that gentle shove to get me out on the next lap. And they did it all with a smile. I am sincerely thankful for their time and dedication to my goal.
Lap 5. Little pains can become big pains in races. I’d dealt with several issues leading up to the race and they started to rear their ugly heads this lap. I’d done a spectacular superman-style fall on the trail a month before the race and hurt my shoulder pretty badly. My back had been bothering me for a few months. In a race, these niggles become pains and those pains can eat you alive. When things start to hurt, I always hope I will have the mental fortitude to not let it eat me alive. This is easier in some races and much harder in others. Knowing this course, I’d worked on techniques ahead of time to prepare myself for these demons. Thankfully, my techniques worked. It was easy that day to stay focused and in the zone and push the pain away.
Lap 6. This lap everything seemed to click. My body and mind were working together and my legs were responding to the requests that I was making. When things click in a run or a race it is a marvelous thing. Speed is a relative thing when you are 65-70 miles into a 100, but on this lap it felt like my feet weren’t touching the ground. Jordan ran laps 5 & 6 with me and we really had our groove going on this lap. He was fantastic at keeping me in the moment and we ticked off many sub 9 miles this lap. Looking back it was my favorite lap of the whole race. And although I didn’t know Jordan before the race, I really hope he will pace me again someday! The picture below shows Jordan and me coming through mile 7 of the 12.5 mile lap. I love this picture because it shows the tree Blake planted on the middle of the left side of the picture.
Lap 7. Bill graciously offered to run with me the later laps of the race. He’s the course captain for the race and knew just about everyone along the way. Things started to get challenging this lap as the high from lap 6 wore off quite quickly. I started this lap in the daylight but knew darkness would fall during the lap. I played a game with myself to see how far I could make it before needing a headlamp. When darkness fell it was good Bill was there – my headlamp didn’t work! Bill helped get to me to the end of the lap with his light and did it all with a smile. Bill and I share a mutual friend, Gene, who we saw out along the back-side of the course pacing another runner. My parents were stationed near the 2nd aid station on the course and it was a huge uplift to see them this lap. People along the course, fellow runners included, really carried me through this lap.
Lap 8. This lap was all about gutting it out. I knew I had a lead on this lap and that probably didn’t help. That said, I didn’t think about where I was and whether I would win during this lap – I just willed my body to continue moving forward and get myself to the finish. I ran when I could and walked when I had to, but progress seemed slow. You know the feeling, you’re ready to be done. It was a tough lap and one that I would like to go back and do again.
When I saw the lights of the finish, I was overcome. I’d done it. I’d accomplished a goal I’ve had since I ran my first 100 in 2011. Even today I shake my head in disbelief when I think about it.
Shawn, Gene, Rachel and Rhonda were all there when I finished. This time I gave Rhonda a real hug. New traditions and friends were made at this year’s race and Umstead has secured a special place in my heart.
My competitive spirit is already looking forward to the next challenge…