Monday, March 7, 2016

2016 Umstead Marathon

I told someone recently that I wasn’t doing any races in March.
“You’re not doing Umstead Marathon?” They asked.
I rolled my eyes. “Of course I’m doing Umstead. That’s doesn’t count as a race.”

For Shannon and I, Umstead isn’t simply a race, it’s our favorite event of the year. The first Saturday in March is permanently blocked off on our calendar, and there is no need for discussion. We will be there one way or another, running it if we can.
Umstead is a family reunion.
Photo by Dennis Geiser
We simply cannot thank the organizers and volunteers enough for putting it on every year. It’s like Christmas, New Year's day and our birthdays combined. It’s a party, a family reunion, a celebration of friends and running and the overlap between the two. We use it to mark the passing of years. “What year did we get married? Let’s see The Rabbit was the mascot, so it must have been 2010.”

Unfortunately, for us, there was no excitement for it this year..
Four weeks ago our dog and my running partner, Dudley Dooright, was diagnosed with an aggressive, inoperable cancer (see previous post). Helpless, we had to watch him slowly decline, being robbed of life and everything he loved to do.  Every day we had to ask him, “Is today the day?”

So it was really hard to care about anything else.
Running especially was no longer enjoyable. If I left the house to go run, he still came to the door, ready to come with me, in denial of his ravaged body. So I would try to sneak out. I would run off alone down the greenway, a knife plunged deep into in the middle of my chest.  

Still he had good moments. He could still play ball, or walk, or swim for a few minutes at a time. So we had hoped to bring him to the Umstead Marathon to spend the day. He would have loved meeting new people and hanging out in the park (as long as he didn’t see everyone run off).

But Friday before the race he wouldn’t eat his breakfast. Not even the steak we had bought him. He was struggling. We had to admit we were keeping him around for us. We called a vet who made a home visit that morning (Lap of Love)

The last ball.
I threw him one last ball, and he ran after it and caught it. Depleted, he laid in the yard and cradled it in his mouth. When the vet came over, he came up to her and wagged his tail. We put him to sleep on the back deck. I sobbed so hard my stomach cramped up and the muscles at my temples ached.  After he was gone I wrote his eulogy, which helped some.

“I don’t know if I can run”, I told Shannon that evening.
“Yeah, me neither.”
As much as we love Umstead, it was hard to muster any energy or enthusiasm. Running a trail race the day after losing my 11 year running partner seemed hollow.

But then I got the idea to dedicate the run to Dudley. As hokey as that sounds, it motivated me. “I’ll run it the way Dooright would!”, I declared. And the way he would run it would be to go out as hard and fast as he could, staying near the front until he finished or until he collapsed.

The 13th annual Umstead Marathon was “The Year of The Fox”. Just before the race, Dennis, a senior member of the conclave (race committee), showed me the beautiful fox shaped plaques to be awarded to the top 15 or each gender. When I saw them, instead of a fox, I saw a dog.

Now I had a mission. Getting in the top 15 was seemed beyond my current abilities. And I was supposed to be saving myself for the Umstead 100 coming up in four weeks. But dammit all. I would get a Dooright plaque, or more likely, I would collapse trying.
Pack is off.
Photo by Dennis Geiser

Before the race I pinned Dudley’s tags with my bib on my shorts. At 9:00 am the pack was off.
Dooright would have taken the lead, but he also would have collapsed at mile 5. So I had to be realistic and not run it exactly like he would have. Instead I settled into the 15th place, counting the men ahead of me several times during the first mile to be sure (not to counting the amazing Lorraine Young, of course). Despite the perfect day, the pace was surprisingly slower than usual, and I felt good and relaxed. Suddenly it seemed plausible I could take home a Dudley memorial.

Around mile 6 on the Sycamore single track I was running alone and I could hear the jingling of the tags on my leg. I imagined Dooright just behind me, or just around the next turn. We were flying on the trail together again.
The day before, the race seemed like the last thing I wanted to do. But quite the opposite, it was the most cathartic thing I could have done, and best way to honor my running partner.
photo by Cathy Stokes

Staying true to the spirit of my running soul-mate, I collapsed at mile 16. Specifically my calves started cramping up. I stopped to stretch them but it didn’t help. The guy who had been on my heels the whole day passed me, dropping me to 16th place. I tried chasing, but couldn’t. After a few steps the muscles started to spasm and threatened to seize up completely. Another guy passed me… and another. I was now in 18th place with 10 miles to go, and I could barely move.  I accepted my failure, but had hoped to collapse from exhaustion instead of simply being immobilized.

Then a miracle happened. As I stood against a tree stretching a women came by, “Do you need salt?” she asked.
“Yes! I think I do!”
“Hold out your hand”, she filled my palm with it.
“Thank you!”, I called as she disappeared over the hills of Turkey Creek. After the race I tried to find her, but never saw her again. Some suggested it was an angel in human form sent from a canine after life.

I licked the teaspoon of salt from my hand, and it was just what I needed. It allowed the 60oz of water sloshing in my stomach to diffuse down into my calves, and I started to jog tentatively. By mile 19, I was running full speed, faster than I ran the first half. I blew by the aid station at South Turkey Creek, and could see three other men in the distance straight down Reedy Creek.

With my tongue hanging out, a bit of drool flying, and tags rattling, I channeled Dooright. Down to the lake and up corkscrew. With my heart pounding at it’s maximum, and my tender quads screaming with every step, it felt so good. Not even the depths of Cedar Ridge slowed me. I passed seven guys, and was passed by one. Dudley would have been proud.

Crossing the finish, Dennis handed me my wooden fox, which will always be a dog to me.

Thank you Umstead Marathon, thank you Conclave, and thank you volunteers, for holding this annual family reunion of friends. Thanks for giving Shannon and I a way to sooth our grief through a day of running in the park. And many thanks to all of those friends who comforted us on what would have otherwise been a rough day.

Goodbye Dooright. We had 11 great years together on the trails. Your pure and unabashed love of running will always be a part of me.

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