The 100 mile distance has intrigued me for years. I only had to decide when the right time would be to toe the line. Up until the start of the 2018 Umstead 100, and even during some moments of the race, I could not quite wrap my head around running 100 miles. Biking 100 miles seems hard enough!
But, any concerns I may have had about the uncertainty of the distance were outweighed by my desire to accomplish the unimaginable, to dig deeper than I ever had before. I always say, “If you can run 100 miles, you can do ANYTHING!”
Race Week Preparations: Operation “Don’t Freak Out”
In the week leading up to the race, the weather forecast looked ominous with cool temps and rain through the day, and then snow and cold at night. Awesome.
I had faith it would change. I figured if I obsessively checked the weather numerous times per day, I could will the sunshine to come. The day before the race looked beautiful, as did the day after, so I figured if it just shifted a bit, we get some good weather. (Spoiler alert: this obsessive-checking method doesn’t work.)
In the days leading to the race, I texted with my friend and fellow racer, John Pierz. We plotted out plans for cold, wet weather gear and tried to keep each other from freaking out. We had a bit more luck with the support-each-other-through-the-crazy-voices method.
I spent the 6 hour drive heading down to Raleigh listening to both Trail Runner Nation and Ultrarunner podcasts, getting in the right mental state. This is a treat for me, as I never have the time to listen to these podcasts in my daily life as a mom and coach.
On Friday before the race, I spent most of the day with John and his wife Kerri. We shared breakfast, lunch and dinner together and helped keep each other’s pre-race nerves in check. We were becoming quite the team.
When we checked in at the race site, we realized we were assigned to different parking areas, which was a bummer since we were sharing crew (Kerri and No Limits Owners and Coaches Maria & John). But, Kerri was determined and she got us switched to the same lot. It’s amazing how something small like that can help to calm nerves.
We ate the traditional pre-race spaghetti dinner and headed back to the hotel to do some final organization of our race bags. Maria (who coaches John P. & I) and her husband John Jenkins (John J.) arrived when we were at dinner, so we chatted with them for a while before heading to bed.
It’s Go Time for the Umstead 100
At 6 a.m. on Saturday, we started off with our headlamps in the drizzling rain. The temps were in the 50’s, so it was pretty nice running weather for the first two loops.
The Umstead 100 course is eight 12.5 mile loops with 1000 ft elevation on each loop (8000 ft for the race). This elevation comes in mostly short and rolling hills that don’t get terribly steep or take too long to climb. Of course, by the final lap or two, they begin to feel a bit like mountains.
The loops traverse gravel roads, which are easy to navigate through the day and night. This course is a great first time course because it’s not very technical.
The only trick comes at the end of each loop, with a set of irregular steps heading back into Headquarters. John P’s face in the photo captures our feelings of the steps, which became muddier through the day, and really hard to see well at night.
I ran with John P. for a good part of the first loop along with some other racers, some first timers, some veterans. I noticed my heart rate was really high (going into zone 3) for the pace, and the effort felt a little too hard on the first loop, so I hung back on some of the climbs and let John go. I convinced myself it was okay and my HR would come down and I’d feel better later on. I ditched my rain jacket after the first loop because I was getting overheated.
Managing the Circumstances of the Day
My heart rate remained high on the second loop. I came into the race with some fatigue which wasn’t ideal. My youngest son had a stomach bug all week, which I caught a touch of. So, I had some lousy nights of sleep leading up to the race. As a mom of two young sons there’s not much I can do about these things, just do my best and be thankful I’m able to still be out there. I remembered Maria’s words of sometimes feeling the worst in the first 20 miles of 100’s. I focused on my best effort.
After the second loop I changed into a light long sleeved tech shirt and did a sock and shoe change (key to avoiding trench foot and blisters). Maria asked if I wanted my rain coat or a poncho and I said, “no” thinking about how overheated I got on the first loop.
During the third loop, the temps dropped about 15 degrees, the wind started to swirl, and the skies opened up to downpour on us.
I got SO. COLD. I shivered while moving as fast as I could, so I could generate as much body heat as possible. I was soaked.
Before I reached the aid station that sits at the halfway point of the loop, a fellow racer ran past me and commented on the cold. I replied, “I’m freezing!” He asked if I had gear in a drop bag at the aid station and I said, “no” (is it obvious this is my first time?). He told me he had a shirt at the aid station I could use if I needed it and gave me his bib number. I was blown away by his kindness.
But I passed up the shirt and took a plastic trashbag instead – I cut a hole in it for my head and kept it on for several miles until I couldn’t stand how constricted my arm swing was in it. One guy ran past me and said, “Haha, you’re bagging it!” Not funny.
I made it back to headquarters without hypothermia (success!) and did a complete outfit change. I put warm running tights on top of my shorts, put on a long sleeved tee and my rain jacket.
Ahhh, much better.
I was chugging along but counting down the loops until I had Maria as a pacer. My feet were already aching pretty badly which had me worried. My legs were tired, but my feet caused me the most pain through the race. Maria had planned to pace me the last 3 loops, but said she could do the last 4 if I was struggling.
We Get By With A Little Help From Our Ultra Friends
At this point, the rain continued steadily, and the cold pervaded, but almost every racer I encountered had a friendly smile, and cheered each other on in passing. This is a tough and positive group! From the volunteers to the fellow racers, everyone wants you to succeed.
After the fourth loop, I did another sock change, shirt change, and switched to my heavier rain coat that kept all water out (the rain just never stopped!).
Maria asked if I needed her, and I said only if she was ready but I could be ok for another loop on my own. (I was hoping she would come!). She said, “Screw it, I’m going.” So I had Maria for the fifth loop which was wonderful. It was like a first date, she was asking me anything and everything to keep my mind distracted from the pain: “What’s your favorite food? If you could go anywhere, where would you go?” And so on.
It worked! That loop flew by.
The sixth loop I experienced some low spots, and had trouble talking, so I just focused on breathing. I had some nausea and had trouble getting down my clif bloks. The darkness had fallen during this loop, and the cold rain continued. I got through it with more power hiking than I would’ve liked, but I was moving as fast as I could.
One of the toughest parts of ultrarunning is that you always have the option to quit, especially on a looped course like this. I was presented with that option every 12.5 miles. I had to completely delete quitting as an option for me, and just continue moving forward, even if it was slow.
After the 6th loop, Maria experienced some vertigo and dizziness (we guessed from low sleep and also the head lamp with the rain and our breath, and maybe the drop in temps, but who knows). She was forced to sit the 7th loop out, so I picked up one of the volunteer pacers the race provides. Her name was “Tricity” (like Electricity).
She was quiet and pretty easy on me. But, I mainly just needed someone with me, and I think I recovered a bit that loop and my stomach came back. Tricity was a D1 runner and 3:11 marathoner, but had not done an ultra yet. I asked her a few times during the loop what time it was, wondering if I still had a chance for sub 24 hours. It was a pretty slow loop, so I thought my chances for the one-day buckle were gone. When we finished the loop I asked if she was going to do the last loop with me, not knowing if Maria had recovered. Tricity said no because she hadn’t run over 13 miles in a while. I had just assumed that pacers would be ready to do several loops, but I had completely forgotten that 2 loops was 25 miles. 🙂
Luckily when I got back, Maria was dressed and ready to rock and run. I did one final sock and shoe change. We took off and Maria commented that I seemed a lot better than I did during the 6th loop.
We were chatting away (Maria and I now know everything there is to know about each other!) and the miles ticked by quickly. When we reached the aid station at halfway, I casually asked Maria what time it was (my watch had died at 78 miles).
She replied, “4:51 am…we can do this. We can freaking do this!”
She was referring to breaking 24 hours. For those of you who are new to the ultra world, breaking 24 hours at 100’s awards a “special” belt buckle, so it’s kind of a big deal and a formidable goal.
I downed a pepsi (my magic elixir in the last few loops) and a chicken broth, and we took off. We ran up hills we had walked on every other loop, and let go on downhills. I could not believe I could run that hard in the final miles.
Maria stayed a few steps ahead to pace me, and never stopped cheering me on and keeping me focused and motivated. I never would have been able to push those last miles that hard without her.
Her best and funniest mantras were, “SHAKE AND BAKE!” “TURN AND BURN!” and singing my favorite Imagine Dragons song, “Thunder” while cursing every other word as she cheered me on and as we blew by other racers.
It was SO. FUN.
We finished in 23:55, and I received the coveted sub-24 hour belt buckle. Finished!!! You can see how bloated my face is…the rest of my body is the same from too much sodium.
It takes a team to do these types of epic adventures; it is far from an individual sport.
HUGE thank you to my crew and pacers, John Jenkins, Maria Simone, Kerri Pierz, and Tricity. I could not have done this without you!!!
And an extra thanks to Maria for coaching me through the training to even get to the start line!
Also thank you to my parents’ endless support and cheerleading in all my races, even in the ones you don’t really want me to do like this one. And thank you for babysitting!
Thank you to my husband, James Leigh, for staying home with the kids during this weekend, and for staying with the kids during all the long training runs, and thanks to my in-laws for babysitting over the weekend! Thank you to all my awesome training buddies who showed me some gnarly trails and kept it fun out there! I am so grateful to be able to do this crazy sport which makes me feel alive!