Umstead 100 Race Report

I have heard the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. While prepping for my next great challenge, people often replied with “that’s insane” when I explained what I wanted to accomplish. Keep in mind, most of these people weren’t endurance runners, but I realized they actually knew what they were talking about. I’ll explain…

It has been almost two years to the day since I dipped my toe in the ultra-running waters with my first 50K. I have since been captivated by the ultra community, and continued to push myself to not only go faster, but also further. During my research on different races and events, I read countless stories about people pushing the limits and running 100 miles (or more). Not knowing this was even possible for the non-elite athletes, I just knew you had to be a special kind of crazy to attempt it. Fast forward 18 months and I found myself in front of a computer, counting down the seconds for the registration for Umstead 100 to open.

The Umstead 100 is a 100-mile endurance run that takes place in the William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, North Carolina. With a 30-hour time limit, and a tame 8,000 total feet of climbing, Umstead is a great event for first time 100-mile runners. The terrain is mostly hard packed and gravel roads, and you really have to not be paying ANY attention to get lost. The event consists of eight loops total, each loop measuring 12.5 miles. I know what you are thinking… easy, right?!

I have been nervous for most of my running events, especially when I am taking the plunge into a longer distance race. However, nothing has even come close to the anxiety I experienced leading up to Umstead. I was about to attempt to run twice as far as I have ever run before; I honestly felt like I had no clue what I was doing. Instead of thinking rationally, I concentrated on all the things that could possibly go wrong… and boy are there a lot of things that can go wrong! When fellow runners asked about my goals for the event, I often went with the “survive” reply because I really had no idea what to expect. Fortunately, I have some great friends that have completed the event in the past, and they provided great information that helped lower my anxiety a little. The best event prep was when my good friend Brian ( invited me down to run four of the Umstead loops. He used this training run to point out where the headquarters is, where crew members can be, and the locations of the aid stations/bathrooms. Without that training run, I would have been lost on race day!

The day prior to the event, my amazing wife (who happens to be the best crew a runner could ask for, and I challenge anyone who thinks their crew is better), and I made the four-hour drive to Raleigh. We opted for a nearby hotel with hopes of getting quality sleep before and after the race. After checking in to the hotel, we made the short trip to the park for packet pickup and our runner safety briefing. Although parking can be a little crazy, packet pickup went pretty flawless. We picked up our stuff, listened to the instructions from the race director and other staff members, then departed to get some much needed calories before heading off to bed.

Race Breifing

The alarm began screaming around 3:30am; the day had come. My OCD requires me to lay everything out the night before, so my race mornings are actually quite simple. I ate some food, spent some time in the bathroom, threw some stuff in the car, and we were on our way. The event is at the mercy of the state park rules, so they couldn’t open the gates to the park until 4:45am. With a 6:00am start time, I’m sure you can imagine the line of cars that build at the park gates. Getting into the gates is half the battle, you then have to make the drive to the parking area, which took us about 20 minutes. Here’s a tip; if you don’t feel like driving, you can rent a primitive cabin (might as well call it a wooden tent) and sleep a hundred yards from the start/finish.

Once parked, we unloaded our stuff and found an empty spot along the route to establish our crew camp. We then headed to the HQ where we met up with some fellow runners, to include Brian. Brian and I had planned to run together for most of the day. Although our marathon times differ drastically, this type of event is right in Brian’s wheelhouse. This was his third 100 miler, and I was going to learn as much as I possibly could from the guy. Our plan was to feed off each other’s strengths; he was going to keep the reins on me to prevent me from blowing up early, while I was going to push the pace a bit with hopes of leading him to a new Umstead PR. We briefly discussed our race strategy, filed outside to the starting line with the other 200+ runners, and began moving at the sound of the airhorn.

Me and Brian. (“10K In Training” shirt at a 100 mile race… now that’s funny!)

The sun was still sound asleep, and only a line of bouncing headlamps could be seen. Brian and I chatted a bit more about how we planned to attack the day, which went a little something like this:

  • Conservative goal is sub 24 hours, real goal is to beat 22:54 (Brian’s current PR).
  • Sub 2 hour 30 minute loops for the first 50 miles, sub 3 hour loops for the second 50 miles.
  • Don’t try to bank time, but if you do, save it for when you need it.
  • NASCAR style pitstops (fast… very fast)
  • Live by the three rules:
    • Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink
    • Don’t wait until you are hungry to eat
    • Don’t wait until you are tired to walk

The 12.5 mile loop at Umstead consists of two small out-and-backs, and one large loop. As the runners exit the HQ (which serves as the start/finish), they run a 1.8 mile out-and-back on the “Airport Spur”. This is a great section because it gives you time to see old friends, and to motivate new ones. You continue past the HQ turn and spill onto the loop at around mile 3.5; this is also where you will find the first unmanned water/food/porto-potty stop. When I read the stop consisted of water, Gatorade, and a “food box”, I didn’t think much about it. However, this quickly became my favorite stop! Not only could I get in and out very fast, but they had tons of snacks and CANDY! I may or may not have eaten my weight in M&Ms that day, but that’s another story.

Brian and I pressed on with a handful of other runners, chatting about race strategy, life, kids, dogs, and odd bodily functions (it’s a runner thing I guess). The course is mostly rolling hills up to mile 4, which gives you a nice occasional walking break. However, just after mile 4 starts the longest hill on the course. Those that were looking to be as efficient as possible took their time walking up the entire thing, which can take some time. I tried to use this time wisely; eating, drinking, communicating with friends/family (fairly good cell service on the course), etc. Once you hit the top, you follow the very visible and well placed signs which lead you to the left. This is where you hit your second unmanned water station. Unlike the first station, this one only has water. However, they did a fantastic job of ensuring it was always stocked with nice COLD water!

Continuing on down the packed dirt roads, you pass the infamous “Butt Tree” near mile 6.5. Before you ask, yes, it looks like a butt (if you use a little imagination). A quick jaunt down the steep hill and you hit the third aid station, which is also the first manned aid station (mile 7). They should probably change the name to Golden Corral because they had just about everything you could think of, and it was hard not to just sit there and graze all day. Fruit, gels, cookies, crackers, chips, pickles, soda, and sandwiches are about 1/16th of what they actually had available. Later in the day, they had broth, soup, pizza, chicken, rice, and who knows what else. I’m sure I didn’t see half the stuff they had, I made it a point to get in and out as fast as I could. My usual grab was refill of water/gatorade, quick gulp of Mountain Dew, half a PB&J sandwhich, 1/4 banana, and some random gels and chews for my pockets. Oh, the best thing they had at this stop was energy! Their smiles never quit, and even at 2am I felt a boost of energy when I went through there. Kudos to all the folks at Aid Station 2!!!!

There is a small flat section as you leave the aid station, but Brian and I decided to walk this to give our bodies a chance to work the food down before we started running again. Once you pass this flat section, you get into the steeper climbs. Although they are only 1/8 to 1/4 mile long, these rolling hills can really start kicking your butt as the day wears on. There are about 6 of them between mile 7 and mile 9. I quickly learned to dislike the area between mile 7 and mile 9. Oh, before I forget, there is another unmanned “water only” stop just before mile 9. Again, nothing but COLD water all day!!!

Just after mile 9.5, you make another left and hit what felt like the longest “runnable” section. I use the term “runnable” because it is mostly downhill, and our strategy was to powerwalk anything that looked, smelled, or tasted like a hill. I enjoyed this section early in the day, but found myself exhausted at the end of the segment later in the race. Another powerwalk up a long hill, and you are back to the first aid station (mile 10.75)… you know, the one with the CANDY!!! I used this area to text back to the crew to let them know we were inbound, which gave them plenty of time to get things ready. A quick mile over the rollers we had run on the way out, a right turn back towards camp, and we had completed one of eight loops of the Umstead 100. Once you pass through the finish chute, you come across the HQ aid station that is equally stocked as the previous manned aid station… to include hamburgers and hot dogs (I’m not sure how people can eat a hamburger and still run, I sure wish I could!).

Now that you have a lay of the land, let’s discuss Brian and his NASCAR pitstop strategy. If you want to see something impressive, you should see this guy get through a crew stop! He had his handheld bottle mixed/filled, shoes emptied of debris, and even an occasional wardrobe change… all within a minute or two. I’m no slow poke, but by the time I was ready to head out, he was already out of sight. My crew stop consisted of a bottle swap (GU Roctane), some food for the pockets, individual serving of pickles (brilliant!), a piece of gum, and a kiss from the most amazing support crew anyone could ask for, my wife. I did swap out a hat and a shirt once, but stuck with the same clothes I started with for the most part.

My amazing wife (and crew), Jennifer.

The next few laps were uneventful. Brian and I established landmarks at the bottoms and tops of hills as signals to walk or run. We didn’t push the pace too hard, but we weren’t exactly on a Sunday stroll either. As the morning passed, the heat began to rise… and rise… and rise some more. Before we knew it, it was HOT. Not the Mojave Desert kind of hot, but the “it’s too dang hot to run 100 miles today” kind of hot. I wore arm coolers most of the day, and would soak them down with the cold aid station water, which really helped; it was like air conditioning for your arms. Brian continually dumped water on his head, but I could tell the heat was starting to get to him a little more with each passing hour. We pressed on, running in the shade when possible, and staying as hydrated as possible.

Photo by Ben Dillon

Umstead allows the use of pacers after 5pm or mile 50, whichever comes first. We hit the halfway point around 3:45pm (right on schedule), and picked up our pacers. Joshua, aka “Dewey”, promised to not leave me on the side of the road in the middle of the night, so I figured he was perfect for the job. We have run numerous races together, but neither one of us had broken the 50 mile distance. Since we have probably logged over 100 training runs together, he knows how I run, and when something isn’t right; I couldn’t have asked for a better pacer. Dewey was in it for the long haul, he would be with me through the last 50 miles, no matter how long it took me to drag my slowly decaying body around the course. I was excited for him to join me, but the excitement ended rather quickly. I’m not sure if anyone else has experienced this, but running with someone who has fresh legs after you have already run 50 miles can play with your mind. It’s almost as if it amplified the body aches and pain in the bottoms of my feet. Fortunately, this eventually passed after a few miles, and we continued to push on.

Photo by Dennis Geiser

I had experienced extreme stomach issues at the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico two weeks earlier, and I was praying the issues would not return. Although I did have some periods of discomfort throughout the day, I’m happy to report no major issues. During those periods of discomfort, I found it very difficult to eat solid food. I had no appetite, and nothing sounded appealing (even candy). But, I could take in liquids like nobody’s business, so I stuck with liquid calories during these times. Roctane has 250 calories per serving, and I think this is one of a few things that kept my body moving. I’m usually quite horrible when it comes to hydration, but I was peeing every 2.5 hours (or more) which made me very happy considering the high temperature.

Dewey fell right into the role of the pacer; keeping my mind occupied, sporadically asking about my physical and mental health, and running ahead to fill cups and grab things from stations. He let me run the pace I needed to run, and quickly learned the landmarks that Brian and I had laid out during the first 50 miles. Even better, he put up with my constant complaining about how the bottoms of my feet “felt like they were giving birth”, and how absolutely exhausted I was. Lastly, and best of all, he didn’t let me quit.

Round and round we went, loops 5 and 6 were in the books. We grabbed our headlamps as we were headed out for loop 7; things were about to get interesting. By this time (6:15pm, 12 hours and 15 minutes into the race), I had just run 25 miles further than I had ever run before, and we were about to remove the ability to see many of the course landmarks we had been using throughout the day. Knowing I still had two loops left started to mess with my mind a little. My legs were throbbing, the bottoms of my feet were screaming, and I was getting the occasional “electrical shock” in my right calf. I had come so far, but had so far to go. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I still needed to run the distance of a marathon, when I didn’t even want to walk another mile. The demons were starting to set in. I kept telling myself it would get better as I neared the finish, but I didn’t quite understand the logic behind my motivation. Remember when I mentioned the definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results)? Was I really expecting this to get any better? With every loop came more pain, more exhaustion, and more willingness to lay down on the side of the road and take a nap. Was I foolish to think the next mile, hour, or loop was going to be any different?

Compared to the first 6 laps, I really don’t remember many details from the last two laps. I am assuming it is my brain’s way of blocking out that painful portion of my life! I do remember a few things; I remember losing my balance a couple times like I had a few too many drinks; I remember exercising my right to blow my train whistle as much as possible (yes, a train whistle), I remember stepping on random small rocks and feeling like a hot railroad spike had just been driven into the bottom of my foot, I remember getting a cup of cold water from an aid station then realizing later that I didn’t fill my bottle (FAIL), I remember the sounds of the poor guy behind us calling the dinosaurs (vomiting violently), and I remember the moment I felt I let my friend down. I had told Brian at mile 90 “we made it this far together, we are crossing that finish line together.” However, I didn’t know what kind of shape he was in, and before I knew it, he had slowed enough to drop out of sight. I knew I was going to finish well under the 24 hour mark, but I didn’t know how far back he was, or how fast he was moving. My body was absolutely exhausted and I had to make a very difficult decision… Dewey and I pressed on.

As we neared the finish, I had more emotions than I knew what to do with. I was frustrated that I left Brian, I was more exhausted than I had ever been in my life, I was ecstatic to be near the end of an amazing challenge, and I was relieved that the day was almost over. As I climbed the stairs to the HQs one last time, I shouted out my race number to the officials, and gave one last blast on the train whistle. 21 hours, 19 minutes, and 22 seconds after I began, I was done.

I know what you are thinking… “what about Brian?!” Well, Brian finished 17 minutes behind me absolutely crushing his old Umstead PR! Great job, brother! I need to also mention and thank Brian’s crew and pacers, Andrea and Elisa. They not only helped me when they could, but also kept my wife company for 2.5-3 hours between stops. You ladies are amazing, thank you!

I couldn’t have picked a better race for my first 100 miler. The course is great and the staff/volunteers were amazing. I highly recommend this as a first 100, especially if you live in an area that doesn’t have a lot of altitude or climbs to train on. Will I be back? Possibly… but I will have to work my butt off to get a new PR!

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