As you may have guessed if you are one of the three people who semi-regularly check this blog (which is more than I even do and I write on it), things have been a little light in the britches lately. Well fear no more, I'm alive and ready to thrill you with a wonderful crafted or awful (you decide), entry about what might have turned out to be a journey for the mountaintop.
Since this has now turned into a vision quest, I might as well take you back in time for a moment. (Or a marathon, possibly an ultra if I get really long-winded.)
If you remember from the latter half of last year, I attempted my first 100 miler in July at Viaduct and that included an epic 10+ hour break at mile 90. You know when I hit 13 1/2 hours and sat down at a road cross because I did not think I could make it 3 miles to the aid station so I got a ride to the start/finish. And then around dawn with race director permission went back out for the finish. That was quite the experience because I succeeded but failed at the same time in a really tough way that I didn't really consider what I did finishing a 100 mile. However, what came out of that experience were friendships and connections that definitely bound to impact me.
After taking pride but struggling with Viaduct, I toyed a bit with the idea of finding another 100 on a fast flatter course. Eventually I shelved that idea until around the time of registration for the Umstead 100. It was not even on my radar as a thought. And this is where some of the connections from Viaduct started to kick in......
Following Viaduct, I joined up with a group you may have heard by now called Trail WhippAss through my friend Maggie along with Dylan and KenTom (both of whom helped me with the 100 mile finish at Viaduct without even knowing me). A fellow member of the group, Jacqueline started talking about the race and how it sells out so quickly and alerting everyone interested in registration. She started planting a seed since I had not considered Umstead. And in fact, general registration opened and closed before I moved towards signing up. Yet, you could say I was getting caught up in the joy of others registering that I explored if I had options. Amazingly, I did. The race offered extended registration for 10 competitive entry slots. Opting to roll the dice, I contacted the race director Rhonda Hampton asking them to take a chance on me. The folks at Umstead agreed to let me in as one of the competitive slots. At this point.....it just got real.
Unlike my previous 100 experience and actually for the first time in my ultra career, I was going to bring a crew. And I was going to bring the best crew possible which led to Maggie and KenTom. KenTom was Maggie's crew chief at Viaduct and highly experienced in steering ships. Maggie is a great friend and agreed to come aboard to not only crew but pace. Rounding out the team, eventually referred to as Team Peggatom was my partner, Peg. She literally was putting the Peg in Peggatom. In the 7+ years, we have been together, Peg has witnessed a lot of my running successes and failures. She knows me the best and could provide a level of knowledge that is crucial for KenTom and Maggie.
Everything was in place....I had an early 2015 schedule lining up with Phunt, Batona, Black Canyon and some other small races all primed to be progressive steps towards Umstead. And then the calendar rolled....
I'll put it this way, much of 2015 has felt like a miserable sh*tshow. For what seemed reason after reason, the year was not going well for me. All the 2015 stuff through Black Canyon you have been able to read here. Following Black Canyon, I signed up for a local trail race called the Ugly Mudder which had several inches of snow fall on it a few nights beforehand. Despite leading most of the race, thus breaking trail for the giant single file, on the last hill I lost some traction and wound up in third place. It felt like a dagger in the heart. Then following, I had a 5K race that felt just horrible from organization and time perspectives. Other races were being canceled and scheduled. Not helpful when I needed something to right the ship. February and March in Philadelphia have been absolutely full of below average temps.
Around this time, I just needed to kind of go dark. I stopped talking about my racing and really Umstead at all. Basically, I put my nose to the grindstone. I cranked out mileage and increased intensity in late Feb and early March to bring my conditioning up. The bronchitis really took a huge toll on my base and legspeed.
However, ready or not, Umstead was coming. Two weeks prior, I crafted a long specific as I could make it email covering all sorts of needs to my crew. That was helpful in starting to put together the items necessary for race day. A week out from the race, I packed 98% of the items for Umstead. The missing components were the matzo ball soup and grits which I was going to make mid-week.
Come the day before the race, Peg and drove out to Maggie's house where we loaded up KenTom's Suburu for the long drive. Weather was not ideal on Friday so it took longer to get to Raleigh, NC than expected. So much so we almost missed bib pick-up on Friday. Thankfully, we did not and I was able to grab my bib before going to the Embassy Suites. Originally, the plan was to stay in some of the cabins but with how winter was I booked a hotel room just in case. And based on lows in the 30's for Friday/20's for Saturday and the moisture in the air, I'm happy to have had a good back-up plan.
Since I checked-in online, it was a breeze to get up to our room. At this point, I was left to my own devices as Peg, Maggie and KenTom went to meet Jacqueline at a local eatery for dinner. My meal for the evening was Saag Paneer with rice. Eating in the room, allowed me to not be out forcing me to rest a bit. Never a bad thing, I say. Eventually, the crew returned and I went over some or my bag organization before we all hit the hay until our 4am rise and shine. I was up a bit before 4 but I got a relatively good sleep not waking up to think about the race whereas with Black Canyon I did.
We rolled into Umstead State Park as part of a giant caravan of cars found our parking spot and proceeded to haul my gear up for a spot to set-up. I asked a volunteer were I could set up and was pointed over towards a spot near the bathroom along the start line. Perfect, I thought. Note: Thought. (You'll understand why in a few.) Hit the bathroom, prepped my first round of bottles filled with Tailwind and went over one final time specifics with the crew. As I also set up a chair, I told Maggie, don't let me sit in it. Since we had 20-30 minutes still, we all went inside the race HQs building where I sat next to the fire all nervous. Like really nervous. Despite having some serious time goals, the 100 mile distance scared me because of what happened at Viaduct. Was 100 going to be too much for my body to handle? I got pretty quiet. The competitors I knew of before the race were Mark Manz and Hal Koerner. A couple of minutes before 6am, everyone lined up for the start to go off in the darkness.
...And we went.
One runner took off like he was shot out of a cannon! I knew better than chase him especially so early on. I have no idea who he was but he had a bib of 10 which told me, he had been to this dance before. As we rolled through the hills of the park, the sun started to rise. Some conversation was shared but eventually for me turned into silence. In a park with lots of users and a couple of hundred people running a race, I was isolated. I'm used to it. Early on with energy it doesn't feel too bad. That energy lasted about 3 laps. However, prior to then something major happened. Apparently, I had not set up in a good spot. (This is why I mentioned 'thought' earlier.) My crew had to move my gear so when I came in to finish the first lap and start my second, I was thrown really off. I planned on hitting my bag. Instead I was in and out after nothing more than a bottle swap. One in which I did not realize I drank less than I thought. I did manage to strip a shirt layer, headlamp and gloves on the u-turn and pass them off.
Lap 2 felt almost identical to the first lap. I was hitting pace, feeling good. Only difference was the sun was out and I was one layer lighter. I did pause this loop to pee. Color was like lemonade so all was good. Or so I thought. I still was not drinking enough as I would be told over and over. Motto of the day became 'You need to drink more. You need to eat more.' I did manage to eat this time on the transition of lap 2 to lap 3. Last time, I was so thrown off I did not grab the PB&J I required opting to not stop and turn back. But this time it was ready and so was I. I thought to myself, at least I got that right this time.
Lap 3 is really were my race changed. It was here that my pee break was darker. Like coke with water. I knew something was going to need to change or my day would be done. This woke me up to drinking more and more. It became finish more of my bottle. Heck, try to finish all of the bottle. My crew was reinforcing that increasingly as the day went on. But what really broke me was the sight of people walking up hills in groups. It was not bad they were. Heck, I probably should have done that earlier and even now. But the Umstead course is far from flat. It is constantly rolling so I did not want to sacrifice at that point. So I started to think and mentally crack a little. I was not beginning to enjoy this much. In fact, a clear sign was when my crew asked me as I was about to head out for lap 4, how I was feeling. My reply: 'This sucks'. In fact, I think it might have been on this lap, I cursed how much I did not like things and apologized to some other people cheering.
It was on lap 4, Hal strode up aside me and asked if I knew who the first person was. I told him I had no idea but said 'Maybe he is just doing 50'. And like that Hal cruised away as I could not go. I had to walk. I had been broken. This lap was filled with lots of little walk breaks. Despite being on target pace for the first 3 laps, I knew the plan was now, get through 50 and take it from there. Towards the end of the fourth lap, I told myself if the leader and Hal went out, I was going to drop and just accept a 50 mile time. This too went out the window as on the way in, a terrific older man who was so supportive even using Mike, told me that John dropped at 50. My only thought: F*ck.
During the transition, I told my crew, do not expect anymore sub 2 hour laps. My last one in fact had been over 2 hours. Now, in addition to the PB&J's, I was consuming Matzo Balls and Veggie Broth. But here on out, my crew was stepping up big time. Maggie told me the plan was now to meet me at AS2 since I could now pick up pacers. She was going to pace me the back half of the loop. What this did was make me want to not let down my crew and have them waiting for me. I moved as best I did. It was this single aspect that likely saved my entire race. Eventually, I got to the aid station where they were waiting. I told Maggie it was going to be slower than we originally discussed. I was going to be walking some of the hills. I did tell her my pee was back to lemonade. Because this is one of those things you discuss. Her company was helpful and got me through the lap. On the repeated portion of the course, I didn't see Hal so I figured he was well up on me at the 100K mark. He's incredibly experienced and this is in only my second go at this distance. And then this happened.....
After dropping Maggie off, eating more food and starting the climb out of the spectatory start/finish area, I got news I had moved into first. Hal apparently had come in only 10 minutes before me with some issues and not gone out yet. But this was Hal and I was suffering. More or less, I did not believe it. Yet, it gave me a little jolt...
In fact, my 6th lap was my 4th fastest of the day. This was in due part to getting an extra pacer for about 4.5 - 5 miles. Oddly enough, a runner strode up near me and asked if I could use the company. I did. Turns out it was a small world experience. His name was Mike too. Also attended Rutgers, is from NJ and lived in Philly! Furthermore, he was at the race to pace Hal. Sadly, this meant Hal's day was done. Now with my position confirmed, it was now, wanting to finish this lap in the lead. Mike's presence really helped. We motored and chatted away. Our pace was quick enough KenTom had to help Maggie strip quickly for the transition. Thankfully, Peg being able to see me coming down the hill to announce it helped move that along. Having them there really was pushing me through. At this point, I thanked Mike for the help. KenTom tried to offer me a bottle swap which I declined. I knew if I stayed with the same bottle that I knew what I was drinking. My aim was to finish a bottle a lap. The back half with Maggie was much of the same as our last lap. But it was steady as she goes and we were going. I told her, I wanted to finish this lap at least in the lead. That goal was done but now I was going to be alone for a full lap.
See originally, the goal was to have a pacer lap 6 and 8. Maggie was going to be the closer since she too has a huge race coming up. Something little like being a member of Team USA at the 24 hour World Championships. I tried to get a local pacer for lap 6 and that did not work out as hoped. So I was going to be alone for lap 7 all along. Yet, I did plan to be headed into the lap a little earlier and feeling better. Neither being the actuality.
Lap 7 was hard. I was going to see everyone at AS2 but I was doing this solo. At least knowing they were there made me do my best to get to them which kept me from not walking. I also knew I had to move as the same older gent from before told me Dan, who was in second with the most fabulous beard ever (sorry Rob Krar), was a good closer. I did not want to find that out the hard way. One of the most memorable things about the race occurred going into AS2. On the approach there is a chair, which at times had someone present. This was one of those times. And the woman sitting informed me 'my fan club was waiting for me'. I did do an extra bottle swap this time but I did turn down a Veggie Burger from KenTom. My thought was, 'Is he crazy?'. Instead I took more Matzo Ball and broth. As I moved onto my nemesis. Being on the back half of the course, which I hated and I am sure hated me alone was not as bad for this lap. I moved on some of the hills a little better than my walk the prior few laps. Lap 7 was in the bag.
Leading the race now moved from, I am leading this to, I might win this damn thing. Picking up Maggie, I consumed my last bit of Matzo and veggie broth. KenTom and Peg were ready to leave for AS2 but I stopped them. I said they would not see my finish if they did that. I was going to finish after 8pm when the gate only is open for 15 minutes on the hour. They had forgotten that. Yet, somehow I managed to.
For the start of the final loop, it was still light out but darkness was approaching. With darkness meant cold, which told me to finish this damn thing. On the Airport Spur, I was on the lookout for Dan. If I saw him before I the 2 mile marker, I was going to be really worried. However, that was not the case. I had what I estimated around 20 minutes up on him. (In reality it may have been more but when you are told someone is a good closer, you crap your pants and think about the smallest gap possible.) The lead made me think I had a shot but not to let up. Maggie and I went as hard as I could doing my best to put more damage in. After the 3 mile point, I did mention that it was now officially the farthest I went without stopping referencing the Viaduct experience. Maggie also was now going to see the other part of the course since she was pacing me all of eight. In my head, I was going mile by mile trying to hit each one under 10. After that horrible 4th lap, despite telling the team expect no laps under 2 again, all of them had been. Yet, now, I was just holding on. My tank was empty and I was running on guts really beginning to want the win. We got through 9.5 mile of the loop before it got truly dark. But it also meant we got through the hardest part. And in my head I am thinking, hold 10's and you win this. While it felt like I may have been moving faster I wasn't. My body really was out of gas. Eventually, we hit the last major hill on the course (all the hills were major at this point but this was the longest one.) I had Maggie turn back to see if the headlamp behind us was catching up thinking it was possibly Dan. She said no. Whew. I really thought it was. You could say I was thinking how I lost Ugly Mudder at the last moment 100ft from the finish. Not the case this time.
I came up that final stretch to the finish full of emotion. I really was about to win a major 100 mile race in a pretty good time. Not my intended time but a good enough one.
As I approached the line, I was asked for my number and I said 'your winner, 89'. And like that I crossed screamed in excitement (it was either that or I cry) victorious at the 2015 Umstead 100.
Two days later and I am still in disbelief about the turnout of the race.
As a funny note, because of the time I finished, my crew grabbed my gear so we could catch the 9pm gate opening. I would have loved to stay but I needed a hot tub at the hotel before it closed. (Only knock on the room was it had a shower only.) Thankfully, I got to spend 10 minutes or so before leaving.
My success at Umstead would not have been accomplished without a lot of support. In addition to all my friends that constantly have my back, there are a few that need some extra love today. First on that list is Peg for who words can do no amount of justice. Maggie for her belief in me and being just a great friend. KenTom, you are the crew chief of all crew chiefs. Jacqueline for planting the seed. Carl & Dave from Viaduct, you two started me on this ultra path by allowing me into the 50 mile back in 2012 and for having a 100 mile that I learned so much from. Trail WhippAss for being one big crazy family. And lastly the organizers at Umstead for their willingness to give me one of the competitive slots. I hope I did you all proud.