In life, people assume you have gone through school, completed college, secured a job, married, bought a house, and started a family, et cetera, et cetera. In running, people have the same preconceived notions. If you have run a marathon, a 50K, a 50 miler, and a 100k, well then surely you have done a 100 miler. Let’s face it, life isn’t always that simple. I was following that typical progression until I ran into some challenges trying to get past the 100K milestone. Two failed attempts at Hellgate 100K (2009&2010) had me seriously doubting my ability to complete 100 miles. I stepped away for a year then returned in 2012 and finally got that Hellgate finish!
Instead of boosting my confidence, finishing Hellgate actually had the opposite effect. I did a good bit of suffering during those 100K attempts, and if 66.6 miles wasn’t fun, then how could I possibly enjoy running 100 miles? I decided that I was fine sticking to the shorter stuff! I could still live a full, happy life without experiencing trailside hallucinations or having a shiny belt buckle to prove it☺
Change of Heart:
During a fun training run this past summer, a couple of friends were debating signing up for Umstead, and I started my typical anti-100-mile speech, swearing them off forever! Especially Umstead! I mean how much worse can it get??? Running around the same 12.5 mile loop, eight times, with barely any elevation change, and no trails? Then voices kept echoing in my head, advice over the years from 100-mile veterans who I admire and have great respect and I began to feel deep down that if they promised it was an amazing experience, I would be crazy not to try it at least once. I mean, they wouldn’t lie to me, would they?
Wanting to have a good first-time experience, I decided that Umstead might not be such a bad way to test the waters. The logistics are simple: You do not have to worry about drop bags, carrying a pack, getting lost, technical terrain, and it is fairly close to home, so I would not have to fly or worry about getting pacers or crew to help there. Deciding to run a 100 miler was the first hurdle, but getting in most 100s is another giant hurdle! Everything fills up so fast these days it’s a miracle if you can even get registered once you have mentally made the commitment. Umstead fills up in minutes and I did not make the online registration, so I had to talk myself into filling out the paper entry. I secretly prayed I would not get in and it would be a sign that it just was not meant to be! Then my name was added to the entrants list and I had to take it as a sign that it WAS meant to be and figure out a plan!
I had a good run at Masochist and that gave me a bit more confidence, but I knew my typical training regimen would not be enough to get me to the finish line at Umstead. I barely hit 40 miles most weeks and have never followed a training plan, so I decided to look into coaching. After searching several sites, I realized that hiring a coach did not fit into my budget, so I borrowed Hal Koerner’s book from a friend and copied the 100-mile training plan, deciding to use that as a rough guideline. I recovered fairly quickly after Masochist and began to pick up the miles.
In January, I finished two quality long training runs. First, I ran our traditional Over the Top-New Year’s Day Fun Run and then two weeks later the Sultan 50K. In February, I decided at the last minute to travel down to Fort Mill, South Carolina with Doug for the Mill Stone 50K. It was a flat loop course, so I thought that would be a perfect Umstead practice and a great chance to catch up with some friends. I ended up first female at the finish, which was a nice bonus and I recovered quickly which helped to add another little bit of confidence. The Mount Mitchell Challenge was my last and longest run before Umstead, and while it did not exactly unfold the way I wanted, I was very thankful to come out of it uninjured and learned some valuable lessons there.
I was also fortunate to have my local Wolf Hills Brewery Run Club, the Wolf Pack, to help get me through the winter. I did not really think about that when choosing Umstead, but if you work full time, you end up having to log a lot of miles on those dark, freezing cold winter nights. I have a hard time getting motivated after 5 pm for an 8-mile run when it is dark and cold, but the support of the “Pack” really helped pull me through the winter months.
Even though I was running more than I ever had, I was still worried that it was not going to be enough. Every week I was falling short of the training plan, adding rest days, cutting runs short, going out instead, but then I would remember my trusted motto: LESS IS MORE! If I was tired, then I should rest. Quality over quantity!
I was extremely lucky to have my friend Laura Duffy offer to crew for me. Then Alan Needle and Bill Gentry jumped on board to pace me, so I knew I was in good hands there. No worries about being well taken care of! And knowing that Rick and Tammy would be there also gave me much peace of mind. Those two have helped me through so many rough patches! I planned on staying there in a cabin with Rick and Tammy to eliminate the stress of having to drive back and forth to a hotel and we were able to park right along the course which was perfect! We could just leave everything in the back of the car; open the hatch, and Voila! Instant aid station!
The Day Before:
I took Friday off, and enjoyed a short two mile run before cooking Laura and I breakfast. It was a nice leisurely start to the day before hitting the road. I did not feel stressed getting packed and we had a nice drive down to Raleigh. We got to Umstead, picked up my packet, set up our beds in the cabin, enjoyed catching up with everyone as they arrived, and headed to the pre-race meeting. It was cold in the lodge, but I enjoyed a little pep talk given by Greg Burch who was chosen to wear special bib #100 and the pre-race briefing did not go too long before we began rearranging the large room in the lodge for the dinner.
I thought it was really neat that they asked everyone who was going for their first 100-mile finish to come to the front and move the tables out then everyone in the back grabbed benches and worked really well together to turn the room into a dining hall! The volunteers at Umstead are top notch and the whole thing runs like a well-oiled machine. They moved everyone in and out of the kitchen in record time, serving spaghetti, rolls, salad, and cake. When we got back to our tables they had placed a bottle of salad dressing, butter, and parmesan cheese on each one. We all enjoyed our last meal together before attempting one last sleep!
I was frozen already just sitting at the pre-race meeting/dinner, fully bundled in my jacket, beanie, and gloves. The walk to the cabin only made it worse, and I quickly got ready for bed in fleece pants, knee socks, long sleeve shirt, jacket, beanie, and gloves. We all got a good chuckle as Laura dressed for bed, only to transform into what looked like a mini sherpa! I was wondering if staying in a cabin with no electricity, water, nor insulation for that matter was the best idea the night before attempting to run 100 miles??? Seriously, you could see through the walls, ha ha ha hmmmmm.
I eventually did warm up and actually slept pretty well considering the accommodations and the quest that lay ahead! The morning was a blur of getting dressed and attempting to eat something at 4:30 am. It was sort of an out of body experience. I remember Tammy asking me how I felt and I really could not come up with the words. I was not nervous or super excited. I was just ready to get started! All of the months of training and prepping and worrying about all the incessant what ifs! I just needed to get out there and put one foot in front of the other, simple right?
Standing in the kitchen of the lodge soaking up the last bit of heat, I saw my friend Glen walk around the corner! He and his wife Helen had come to volunteer. These two are special and I knew their enthusiasm would help me along the way! We made our way towards the starting area and grabbed a quick group photo. I was so happy to be surrounded by friends: Rick, Netta, Lisa, Phyllis, and we jumped in line with Bill Warner and his son-in-law Billy, while Tammy, Laura, Glen &Helen, and Netta’s family stood by to cheer us on. We had been warned multiple times! DO NOT GO OUT TOO FAST!!! So we set off in the dark with our number one goal that for our first lap, we would go slow….
With a 6 a.m. start we would be in the dark for a while, so intentionally not wearing a headlamp prevented us from going out too fast. It felt really slow, but I tried to be patient knowing this was what had to be done to maintain my progress and not fall apart over the course of 100 miles. I wanted to be able to run as long as possible! Rick gave us a play by play of where we were and land marks along the way. As we ran along the airport spur my stomach was sending signals of distress and I decided to pull off at the first latrine, not the way I wanted to start the day! My stomach is usually the thing I do not have to worry about in a race and it concerned me greatly for having these issues so early. Was this a bad sign? Luckily the stop seemed to do the trick and I felt much better and hoped that would be the end of that!
Lisa, Rick, and I stuck together, and I felt safe with them. At least if I did not know what I was doing, they did. This 100-mile distance was messing with my head, the pacing and effort was so different than what I was used to that I just did not know quite what to do with myself?? I could hear my friend Dennis advising, “Just try and stay relaxed.” When questions and doubt would float into my mind, I would just focus on those words of advice. It felt good to get the first lap done and see everyone’s smiling faces at the turn around. It was like one big party that I knew I could not be a part of, ha ha! We each grabbed what we needed, regrouped, and headed back out!
Loops Two, Three, and Four:
The following loops just melted together in my mind. Here are some things I remember: Lisa, Rick, and I continued to work together and picked up a couple of fun buddies along the way. My legs felt way worse than I thought they should so early. I ate an entire veggie burger at the end of Loop Two and that did not work out so well at all. I had to make another pit stop and decided to stick to liquid calories and gels for a while. Much to my surprise, my friend Rob French showed up on the scene and that made me super happy! I went through the 50-mile mark at 8:49. Almost a 50-minute PR!!! It was so uplifting to see so many familiar faces out on the course. Everyone was smiling and having a good time!
Our crews were amazing at the turn around! Laura always had my bottle ready, helped me change shoes, put on sunscreen, wash my face, and was always remembering to ask questions trying to jog my memory for what I might need on the next loop.
The other runners were so encouraging! I do not know how many times we exchanged well wishes as we passed others coming and going. The energy and support was contagious!
Loop Five and Six:
I picked up my pacer Alan and the miles passed quickly as we chatted about everything under the sun. I was shocked that I still felt like running and had not grown tired of the course! I was clueless as far as distance and time. I was completely focused only on completing each lap and making it to the finish. I did not wear a watch and could not even do basic math at this point, so when we would discuss how things were going, it was just enough to keep me positive and moving forward. Basically all I needed to hear was, “You are well within the cutoff!” I think Alan did a great job at making sure I was moving well but would have enough gas left in the tank to make it to the finish.
Coming through the 100K mark with another PR was also a wonderful boost to my morale! Hellgate 100K was the longest run I had done previously, so when Alan announced we were getting ready to pass mile 66.6 and enter uncharted territory, I was elated that I could still run and basically felt okay. Umstead and Hellgate are entirely different beasts, but it was still something to celebrate.
I had walked away from the turn around after Loop Five without my headlamp, so Alan graciously ran back to grab it. I continued on and when I got to the airport spur, I figured he would just meet me on the return trip, so for the first time I turned on some tunes. I do not think I had gotten through one song before he came sprinting up from behind. Now that is SERVICE! I still cannot believe that was the only music I listened to over the course of 20 hours! I even bought an extra shuffle so I would have backup. Oh well….
Loops Seven and Eight:
When my buddy Bill Gentry offered to come and pace, I was extremely honored. He has gone to battle with Umstead 17 times, so I consider him quite the expert! We met at Rattlesnake 50K back in 2010, and when I saw he was wearing a crop top I knew we would be fast friends! I was super excited to find out earlier this year we would both be joining the Blue Ridge Outdoors Team! We do not get to run together very often, but when we do, it is always a blast, so I felt sure that if the end got ugly, Bill would be the perfect person to lift me up and make me laugh through any rough patches. Luckily it did not get too rough, and lots of talking, laughing, and general silliness ensued.
The inside of my right knee began hurting and by the time we finished Loop Seven it was really pissing me off. I still felt good and wanted to run, so I asked Alan to take a look. Besides being an awesome pacer, he also has a Ph.D. in Biomechanics and Movement Science! He found the trigger point and I wished I had a stick to bite down on as he worked to relax the muscle. Meanwhile I decided to feast on some delicious mashed potatoes. He taped me up and we prepared to head out on the last lap! I had still been moving pretty well on Lap Seven and had been really warm so I decided not to change clothes as we had previously discussed. I still had an extra long sleeve shirt, jacket, extra gloves, and hand warmers in my pack, so I felt prepared.
Unfortunately my knee did not improve and my ankles began to ache and the running did not come. I think around mile five of the last loop, I decided to put my jacket on and get the hand warmers going. We walked into AS2 (about 7 mi) and I was pretty chilly and my knee was still super cranky. I asked if they possibly had any biofreeze, and much to my surprise, they did! These aid stations at Umstead are amazing! We went into the tent where the super kind volunteer even offered to apply the biofreeze. I believe she was rather relieved when I declined her offer. I took a couple ibuprofen and we made sure not to linger any longer in the warmth of the tent.
As we were walking away another volunteer asked if I would like a pair of pants?? It was so tempting, I could not say no. At that point I was really getting cold so she reached in a Tupperware tote and showed me the options. Basically a blue pair of sweatpants covered in paint or a pair of black and red breakaway pants! I was having a really hard time making a decision. They would both make such a fashion statement. The volunteer felt that the breakaways were my best option, so she and Bill helped me get in them. It was a pretty funny spectacle. I hope someone saw it and got a good laugh!
It had been so nice seeing our friend Dorothy Hunter at AS2 throughout the day, and now she was walking along side us as we left AS2 for the last time! She kept going and going and we kept talking and walking and joked that she should have changed into her running gear so she could have gone on with us! Finally she wished us well and turned back and I knew we were more than half way through the last loop!!!
I kept waiting for the demons to creep up and for the bad attitude to rear its ugly head, but it just never happened. I never wished away the miles, or prayed for it to be over. Even though the last lap was slow, I was still having fun and I guess knowing I was going to finish made it impossible to get down! When we made it back to the crew hangout all was quiet and we checked cars to make sure no one was inside sleeping, but no one was around. I asked Bill if I should take off my breakaway pants. I mean I needed to look good for the last photo, right? We laughed and he said no, that I had to rock them to the finish!
It was cracking me up that I crossed the finish line in those pants! Seeing the confused look on everyone’s faces before they realized that the runner in the breakaways was actually ME was priceless. After 20 hours and 9 minutes, those same friends that wished me well at the start were there at the finish, still smiling, supporting, and cheering me on. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for those friendships. Hugs all around, then we made our way inside to the fire! I did not feel sick, or dead tired, or completely wrecked, or overly emotional. I think I was just in shock that it was over. Did I really just finish 100 miles??? How could it possibly be over?? I did not fall, puke, cry, pop a blister, hallucinate, fall asleep, or swear off running forever?
I promised myself two weeks off from running completely and luckily that is almost over. I miss the trails and running with friends. Other than swollen feet and sore ankles, the recovery has been comparable to shorter races. The aftermath was nothing worse than my first marathon or 50-mile pummeling so that was a nice surprise. I am so thankful for such a wonderful experience, and as sick as it may sound to most, I had a lot of FUN out there!