Panoramic of the start.
Photos by Shannon Johnstone
Photos by Shannon Johnstone
This was the fourth time Shannon and I have run The Umstead Marathon, and once again we had a great time. I cannot thank the Godiva folks and volunteers enough for putting on the best race there is. It starts with the goody bag with Smart Wool socks and a the best designed race shirts. Sandra Cookie has a good run down of this.
For location, Umstead is the perfect race. Held in a beautiful park, there is not an inch of concrete in sight and with a race cap of 200, there are no crowds. But unlike other trail races which can sometimes be a solitary experience, Umstead is a social event. There are lots of cheering spectators and volunteers at the aid stations, and the bridle path is wide enough to run along side and chat with people. And of course, they have the best finishers awards, the beautiful pint glasses. My only complaint is that the glass comes empty (yeah, I know, park rules).
Some photos of the 2009 race by Martin McGaha, Erin Douglas, and Shannon Johnstone
Here is a run down of my 2009 race experience. My apologies in advance for it being so long. I never did a report for last year, so I thought I would include 2008 too so that I could share my learning experience of how NOT to run a marathon.
|Race strategy 2008:|
Go out fast to get in front of the pack. I think I can run the single track trails pretty fast, but because of the rain, there might be a bottle neck there. I don’t want to get caught behind a lot of people moving slowly through the mud and puddles. After Company Mill and Sycamore, try to hold on to a 7:45 pace the rest of the way.
|Race strategy 2009:|
“No headphones are allowed”, said the announcer, at least that’s what I think he said. It was raining so hard it was like standing in a waterfall. If you held out your water bottle, it would have filled instantly. “And no baby strollers”. Any baby in stroller would need to be wearing a snorkel. Shannon was next to me, panicking because her GPS watch had no signal.
It was a perfect day, just a little on the cool side as the sun was just rising over the trees. Shannon was taking pictures of course, and Mandy, Bubbles and I posed for a few shots.
|Mile 1, 2008:|
Finally he let us go and we surge ahead through the torrent, splashing through puddles up to our ankles. After about a mile the rain tapered off, and I saw people coming back from the turn around on reedy creek. There was about 30 or 40 people ahead of me so I picked up the pace to a 7:00 minute mile, weaving in and out passing people, trying to get towards the front before we hit the Company mill single track trail.
|Mile 1, 2009|
At 9am we were off, and for the first mile I chatted with Mandy about her super fast 1:30 half marathon at Myrtle Beach. After the pack broke up, I settled into my own easy pace going down Reedy Creek. I had trained all year with a heart rate monitor, but I decided to ditch it that morning because I realized I had no idea what the numbers meant.
I saw people coming back from the turn around, and it looked like there were about 50 people ahead of me. I took a long deep breath, and relaxed. It didn’t matter, because I wasn’t racing them. I was only competing against myself from last year; let’s call him “Anthony ’08”.
|Mile 3, 2008|
I ran past the first aid station without stopping to save a few seconds and turned down Company Mill. I felt I had an advantage here, so I flew down the hills, skidding around each twist and turn. “On your left”, I called out as I raced past a woman picking her way more carefully, “Nobody can run these trails like me”, I thought to myself.
About 4 steps after that, I hit a patch of mud and went sliding down a hill uncontrollably, “whooaaaaaa”, my arms flapping helplessly in the air like some bad slapstick comedian. Finally I hit a rock and flopped face first into the trail.
My knees went numb, and for a moment I thought my day was over. But when I got up, I was more embarrassed and muddy than hurt, and instead of taking this as a hint to slow down, I starting running again at the same hard pace. I got to the uphill section where tree roots formed a natural staircase, leaned forward and pumped my arms, charging up them.
|Mile 3, 2009|
It was already starting to get warm as I stopped at the aid station and drank a full cup of water and thanked the volunteers. I then turned onto Company Mill behind a few people who slowed down a little. Again, I just relaxed, and waited until there was ample room to pass. When I got the rooted staircase, I took it easy and walked up it. I was already more than 2 minutes behind “Anthony ‘08”, and falling farther behind.
|Mile 5, 2008 |
“Are you OK?”, the volunteers at the next aid station where concerned about my bloody knees. “I’m OK, thanks”. I ran fast down the hill on Graylyn, and turned into Sycamore trail, which was one long mud pit. I had to really slow down and pick my way through there, anxious about falling behind the leaders.
|Mile 5, 2009|
It wasn’t even 10am, and I was already sweating buckets. It would eventually reach 81 degrees, which is really hot for a marathon. Successfully running long distances in the heat can be really complicated. You need to consume the correct quantity and balance of water, sugar, and salt or else you can end up cramping, puking, convulsing, spinning, sloshing, seizing and/or general bonking. Everybody needs to find their own formula, and after a lot of trial and error and more error, I think I finally found my mine when I ran the Chicago Marathon last October. Part of this formula is dumping water on my head at each water stop, which may seem overly dramatic, but you have to stick with what works. At the second aid station I took a sip of energy goo, gulped 2 cups water and dumped a third on my head. A soaking wet t-shirt can inflict third degree chafing, so I ditched my shirt, which just happened to be my Chicago Marathon shirt. I didn’t mind losing it because it was a contender for the ugliest race shirt ever, featuring a giant “Bank of America” Logo over a vomity beige Chicago skyline on a white background.
|Mile 7, 2008 |
Coming back out onto Graylyn, I caught up to guy and struck up a conversation. “First year running Umstead?”. “Yeah”, he didn’t talk much, maybe because he was struggling, so I passed him. Looking back now, it’s more likely he was ambivalent talking to a mud covered lunatic with bloody knees.
|Mile 7, 2009|
I then took a pleasant jog up Sycamore, which is a very scenic trail along Sycamore Creek, then up to the next aid station on Graylyn. In the middle of my pit stop procedure of sip, gulp, gulp, and dump I realized I had just taken a cup of Gatorade from my new friend Melissa. Not wanting to dump it on my head, and already having a mouth full of water, I had to hand it back to her without saying anything. Sorry Melissa, for rejecting your cup, and not properly saying hi!
|Mile 9, 2008 |
I cruised down Graylyn and Corkscrew, and just as I was starting to feel winded, a spectator waved to me, “Great Job! You’re in 15th place!”
I could not believe it. My goal in life was to finish in 15th place, to get a wooden plaque, and all I had to do was not let anyone pass me. Any fatigue I felt was suddenly erased, and I was propelled up the mile long hill on Reedy Creek, and down South Turkey Creek.
|Mile 9, 2009|
Next was a cruise down Graylyn behind a small group of people that resisted passing, then grabbing some water from a pair of adorable little kids, followed by the roll down corkscrew. On Reedy creek I saw what might have been the same guy as last year, calling out what place each runner was in. I thought I heard something like “seventeen, eighteen” to the runners in front of me, but I tried to ignore it and not think about what place I was in. Then I saw our fried Rima who had come out to cheer us on, which was very nice of her. Thanks Rima!
|Mile 13, 2008|
There was no one in sight as I pushed through the rolling hills of North Turkey Creek until, “Wooooo! Anthony!” I came around a turn and saw a huge group of people shouting my name. I was excited that I had just run into all of my close friends in the middle of the woods, until I realized that my name was on my bib. Still, I got a needed boost from the enthusiasm at this aid station. “You're in 15th place!”
Soon after, I saw the leaders coming back, Paul Potorti followed by Ironman Chris Eschbach. I exchanged waves with Chris, who I had met when I volunteered for an experiment at the Meredith Human Performance Lab.
Shannon works at Meredith and had encouraged Chris to run the marathon.
“Oh, great, that’s one more plaque I’m not getting”, I joked before the race.
“He might not get a plaque”, Shannon wasn’t impressed with Ironman races and thought he would struggle on the hills of Umstead, “I don’t think he’s ever done a trail race”.
I thought this was ridiculous. “Shannon, he runs marathons as a cool down. He directs a Human Performance Lab. He wont break a sweat” So I felt a touch of glee seeing Chris in second place, proving me right.
|Mile 13, 2009|
I took it easy through here, even stopping to walk up one steep hill that Bubbles calls “The BMF”. I was now about a half of mile behind “Anthony ‘08”.
|Mile 16, 2008|
At the turn around on Graylyn I saw the people that I had passed early were not far behind, and I was running out of gas. Forgetting that I still had 10 miles to go, I pushed myself to the maximum trying to maintain the 7:45 pace, and my 15th spot. Going back down Turkey Creek, I saw Shannon coming up, “Oh my God! You’re in 15th place! You’re doing so good!” But I wasn’t.
The next hill I slowed to a crawl and a guy passed, dropping me to 16th. The only thing I had left was gravity and desperation, so I started taking the downhills as fast I could. I went careening down barely under control, in a desperate and futile attempt to hold onto that 15th spot.
|Mile 16, 2009|
Here it was a year later, and I saw Shannon in the same spot, coming up Turkey Creek as I was going back. “Oh my God! You’re in 12th place! You’re doing so good!”.
“Shhhhh! Don’t say that!”, I got her to stop taking pictures long enough to give her a kiss, “Good luck!”
|Mile 18, 2008|
Turning on to South Turkey Creek about mile 18, I had used the last drop of gas and reality finally hit me. I moved in slow motion; my body had been filled with concrete that was starting to harden. My dream of a plaque was swept away in the steady stream of runners passing me, dropping me to 17, 18, 19…. Suddenly a side cramp doubled me over. I had taken a lot of Gu, but not much water and my stomach was protesting. At the next aid station I stopped for a minute, drank, and reevaluated my goal. My marathon PR was a 3:52, and I could still beat it. I only had to finish the last 7 miles in an hour and a half. The next mile on Reedy Creek was a gentle downhill; the easiest on the whole course. But as I set out with new hope, I found my wheels had fallen off.
My quads had been pummeled into hamburger, and my left one simply no longer functioned. My quivering overworked calves finally seized up, and I couldn’t move.
|Mile 18, 2009|
The heat was starting to get to me, as I felt little twinges in my calves, “Oh, no”, it was the warning sign the muscles were close to cramping. At the aid station I drank a bunch of Gatorade hoping to hold off the dehydration, and they kindly refilled my bottle with it as well.
|Mile 20, 2008|
After stretching a bit, I managed limp forward, hunched over like Marty Feldman playing Igor in Young Frankenstein. I could jog a few yards at a time until my gut and my legs protested and forced me back to a gimpy walk. My new goal was simply reach the finish line, but I wasn’t sure I could even hobble that far.
|Mile 20, 2009|
It was here that I finally caught up to and passed “Anthony ‘08” as he shuffled down Reedy creek in pain. I saw Rima again; who after completing her own training run that morning was still there cheering us on.
When Shannon hit mile 20 shortly after, the heat was really getting to her, and she considered dropping out. But Rima was there to save the day, and ran with Shannon the next 4 miles.
|Mile 22, 2008|
“Are you OK? Can I help you?” a nice guy on a bike was very concerned about my health. He gave me a bottle of water and I downed the whole thing, “Gu?” he asked. I clutched my stomach at the thought, “No. Thanks a lot. I think I’m OK.”
Literally standing at the crossroads, I was now forced to make a choice. Go down the dreaded Cedar Ridge, or end the agony, take a DNF (did not finish) and go straight the end. The volunteers at the aid station were encouraging, “You can do it!”
“Ah, what’s another 2 or 3 miles?”, I turned and lumbered slowly down Cedar Ridge.
|Mile 22, 2008|
It was close to noon, and the sun was scorching as I climbed Corkscrew. I regretted taking my shirt off now, because my pasty white skin was burning. My calves were getting tighter, and the twinges had become a regular pinging like two ticking time bombs. There was nothing I could do but hope they would not explode into cramps in the next 4 miles. At the next aid station I drenched myself again, and headed down cedar ridge. When I got to the bottom and turned around, I saw that there was no one behind me. So stopped and walked slowly up the steep “Wheels Fall Off” hill, hoping to not antagonize my volatile claves.
|Mile 24, 2008|
Trudging up “Graveyard Hill”, a nice couple ran past, and tried to encourage me. “Come on you're doing great, come on, run with us”. I waved them on, “I wish I could.”
|Mile 24, 2009|
I couldn’t believe it. I kept expecting about 20 people to race by but at the top of “Graveyard Hill”, I turned to look down and still no one was behind me. It was here that I finally let myself think of getting that plaque and after the 24 mile warm up, my race finally started and I took off to the finish line.
|Mile 26, 2008|
I trotted to the finish in 3:48, and 29th place. This was still a marathon PR for me, but I didn’t really care about that. I had run a stupid race by starting out way to fast, but I learned my lesson: Relax.
|Mile 26, 2009|
Seeing the clock at 3:25, I raced to the finish line, hoping to come under 3:27, which was my PR. About 5 steps before the finish, my ticking calves finally went off and seized up, but it didn’t matter. I gimped across the line, and received my frog. My quest completed.