Sunday, April 27, 2008

Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run (Part 1)

The Big Chill

Tongues of yellow and orange flame leap from a large stack of crackling wood in the massive rock fireplace at the end of the headquarters lodge. It is 4 a.m. and I am shivering uncontrollably. My kids look slightly freaked out as they sit me on a bench in front of the fire, as close as I can get without bursting into flames myself, and drape a blanket over me. I have completed 87.5 miles of the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Race. After hours of running through the night in rain and fog, the temperature slowly dipping into the 40s, I have gotten a touch hypothermic. On top of the shivers, my heart is racing unevenly in atrial fibrillation, somewhere around 160 beats per minute, even though I've been stopped for five, maybe ten, minutes. This has me slightly freaked out. The shivers pretty much subside 15 minutes later, but my heart rate doesn't. How in the hell can I finish this thing, I wonder, if I can't get my heart to stop racing?

Getting There

I'm not sure exactly how I ended up at the starting line of the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. Back in February, 2007, I was thinking about long runs to try, maybe the 70.5 Mile Laurel Highlands Ultra in June, maybe a 100 miler. I researched the various 100 mile ultras scheduled for 2008 and tried to identify a race that would be the most reasonable for a first-time attempt. The Umstead 100 seemed to fit the bill. It is reasonably close to home, a half-day's drive south. From all descriptions, it looked like a great event, especially for a first-timer -- a course that traverses rolling hills but is definitely not mountainous -- a trail-type course, but run on dirt carriage trail instead of rocky single-track of harder courses -- and, a reputation as a well-organized event run by friendly, encouraging people dedicated to helping the runners finish. I emailed the director, Blake Norwood, and asked to be put on the email list for registration information.

I signed up to do Laurel Highlands first, a beautiful point-to-point race across the mountains of western Pennsylvania (already noted in this blog). Well, the ordeal of running that long, rocky trail had me about persuaded to drop the idea of a doing a 100. The race is beautiful, yes -- but easy, no. It was the longest run I had even done and it made a real impression on me. Declaring it "the stupidest thing I have ever done," I told myself and my family that I would never run something that long again. No Umstead, or any other 100 miler. Somehow, though, as the memories of the pain faded through the summer, I felt better and better about the accomplishment of conquering that 70 miles. And somehow, as the memory of those tough miles seemed less punishing, the challenge of trying a 100 mile race became more and more attractive. So, on August 31, less than three months after swearing off long ultras, I received Blake Norwood's email announcement that Umstead registration was open -- and promptly registered the same day. Good thing, too (assuming I really wanted to do it), because the race slots filled in just a few days.

A 100 mile race is a big commitment, in my book. It requires -- for my level of running ability, anyhow -- a pretty serious level of training. Lots of long weekend runs, extra mileage during the week, a definite step up from the 25-to-30 mile weeks I was accustomed to running. The time commitment for higher mileage means more time away from the family. Sometimes I feel selfish, leaving for entire weekend days for long runs in the mountains, getting dinner started late on weekdays because of evening runs (I am usually the cook in our household). I count myself as very lucky to have a supportive family -- most of all, a supportive wife. Some spouses resent the time their partner is gone, hassle them about being away, about chores put-off or parenting duties needing to be covered. Not mine -- Jennifer is amazingly supportive and encourages me to achieve my running goals. My kids, my parents, my sisters, they all think my running hobby is great (well, maybe Mom worries some) -- I am healthier, happier, more relaxed than when I was overweight and stressed in my pre-running years. I try to do what I can to compensate for the absences, catching up on family time and chores in the later evening, scheduling around the kids' activities as much as possible. However, regardless, I know my running absences are a sacrifice for everyone in the house -- which makes me so grateful for all their support.

So, through the fall and into the winter, I ramped up my mileage, changing from a 4-day to 5-day-per-week running schedule. I did a lot of long weekend training runs with my great pals from the Trail Dawgs -- a series of runs on the Horse-Shoe Trail, a couple of trips to parts of the Mason-Dixon Trail along the Susquehanna River, the loop around Blue Marsh Lake near Reading, several great training runs at Fair Hill, all good for 15 mile, 25 mile, or even longer outings. I began to get in high quality runs during the week. I tried to do Coach Jim Fischer's Tuesday track workouts at the University of Delaware for speedwork as often as possible, probably averaging 2 to 3 times a month leading up to the race. Thursday night 6-mile tempo runs from Starbucks on Main Street in Newark became a regular habit. My speedy friend Greg Forgang was a great running partner for these -- sometimes we'd have a group, sometimes it would just be the two of us, me getting in an uptempo workout (8-1/2 minute miles), him getting in an easy run at the same pace (he's a quite bit faster than me). I also managed to squeeze in extra mileage during the week, running to the track or Starbucks from home or the office and running back afterwards. I got in a few good long races, including the JFK 50 miler in late November and the PHUNT 50K Fat-Ass Race at Fair Hill in January (as well as a crash-and-burn at the Hashawha Hills 50K -- no, make that 25K for me). By January, my mileage was up to 200 or more miles per month, well above my average mileage a year ago.

By mid February, my training was peaking. I built up to a 38 mile long run. I had done quality runs. I felt ready. I knew I was capable of finishing the race and running reasonably well. My thinking was... Primary Mission: finish the race -- Best Case: beat 24 hours -- Most Likely: 27, maybe 28 hours. My buddy Scott Hodukavich from the Trail Dawgs was kind enough to volunteer to pace me in the later part of the run, so I knew I would have the company of of an experienced, strong runner I enjoy talking with to help keep me going during the tough night-time hours. I also did another one of my ridiculously detailed race plans to make sure I had all my bases covered, this time putting it in a binder as a "race manual" (I don't understand why Jennifer thinks I'm obsessive-compulsive). I made lists of everything I would need to pack, what my crew would need to give me at various times during the race. I included a description of the kind of physical and psychological unravelling they might expect to see me undergo during the race, which was most disconcerting to my crew/kids. I also included a list of "motivational statements" they were instructed to use on me if I ever uttered the "Q-word" (as in "quit") -- they were really amused at having permission to say these kinds of things to their dad -- like, "you can't quit unless you need to be hospitalized -- and I don't see protruding bones or uncontrollable bleeding or loss of all bowel function -- so keep your candy ass moving!"

Now, about my crew... my kids are awesome. Katie (our 20 year old) was the first to express interest in coming down to the race. It was scheduled for the end of her spring break, so it would not present a conflict with her classes at UD. Megan (our 23 year old) soon decided to come along, too, once it was clear she was also free over spring break. So, the support crew was in place -- hey, if Dean Karnazes (world's greatest living ultrarunner) can have Team Dean, then I can have my own: Team Pete ("The Only Team that Matters"). A couple weeks beforehand, Team Pete was beefed up even more when my sister Tery decided she wanted to come along to see what her crazy brother was up to. Jennifer and Joe, very sensibly, stayed home, away from the crazy ultrarunners, so Joe could go to soccer games and Jennifer get ready for a business trip. So, with the roster for our family road trip complete, I booked a hotel room near the race and lined up our plans to head down Friday morning.

A little over a week before we left, Katie came to me with a question -- her friend Steve Slacum has run some marathons (as fund-raisers for African orphans) and was interested in seeing an ultra... could he come with us? Sure, I said. Then, a couple of days later, she told me Steve was reading the race website and saw that some runners had pacers, but it was probably too late for him to sign up to pace me for maybe a lap. No, not a problem, I told her, he can do a lap with me if he wants. So, I'd likely have two pacers willing to help, Scott and Steve -- cool.

Tapering was, in some ways, pretty frustrating. The week of the race, I really backed off my running. I got a hard time, via email, from Greg for not showing up for our Thursday night Starbucks run. He questioned my hardcoreness, suggesting I should be reassigned to Team Pansy, wondering if I was sitting at home eating bon-bons and getting a pedicure. I couldn't believe it -- how did he know? Yes, it was a major violation of The Hardcore Manifesto, but I needed to pamper myself before a run that long.

Friday at 10 am, Team Pete was on the road. Steve had just flown in at 9 am from a spring break trip to Florida and was brought by Katie directly from the airport to our house. I'd never met Steve before. He is not a shy guy, so we had great ride to Raleigh, the car essentially a rolling, nearly continuous, six-hour, four-way conversation (one of many things I learned -- he loves Dean, world's greatest living ultrarunner). Reaching the park just after 4 pm, we were directed to our assigned parking area a couple hundred yards from the race headquarters at Camp Lapihio.

The registration area was bustling, and a few familiar faces were in the crowd -- fellow Dawg Scott, who (besides pacing) was volunteering to help clean up after the dinner... John Straub, who I got to know while running my first 50K with him a couple of years ago... Carl Camp, tough veteran of many 100s... fellow Delmarva Sluggos Derek Hills, Amanda Bundek (aka Pokey Slug), and her friend Lisa, race director of Delaware's World Famous Team Slug Russell B Cheney 50K. Race orientation started at 5 pm in the lodge, with about 30 minutes of useful information on what we could expect in the race, and warnings about the expected bad (rainy, cool) weather. The orientation meeting concluded with the newbies (like me) being assigned the task of moving tables into place for the race dinner. The expected rain held off through the afternoon and into the evening, so we were able to enjoy the race pasta dinner at the picnic tables by the lodge. After dinner, we checked into our hotel (the Sleep Inn at the Airport -- pretty decent hotel for the price) and went to a nearby Target for a few last minute provisions for me and "the crew." I also had a few text messages and calls during the afternoon and evening from fellow Dawgs wishing me luck, which really helped keep me fired up for the run (thanks all!).

That night I got about the best sleep I have ever gotten the night before a race -- almost 6 hours! We had a roomful, four of us, and everyone was a bit wound up. I did my usual routine of getting all my race clothes laid out and gear packed so I wouldn't have to think in the morning. I managed to get to bed before 10, dozing off as the crew played cards. When the alarm went off at 4 am, I was quickly out of bed, excited about the day to come. I changed into the race clothes I had laid out and double-checked my pre-packed gear bags. Stepping outside into the the early-morning darkness, I was happy to see that the forecasted downpours hadn't (yet) materialized. The ground was wet and the air heavy with humidity, but the temperatures were comfortable, probably around 60.

We arrived at the park around 5 am, joining a long conga line of headlights snaking along the dirt roads to Camp Lapihio. At HQ, I hit the very nice breakfast spread, wolfing down some bagels and muffins and trying to stay as well hydrated as I could. As the start approached, I hung out with my kids/crew just off to the side of the crowd of runners congregating behind the starting line. Then -- BOOM -- a gunshot, and we were off!

to be continued (with race details)...

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