Adventures in marathoning; The 2013 Umstead Trail Marathon, North Carolina

Done with Finisher's pint glass at the Umstead trail marathon 03, 02, 12

Done with Finisher’s pint glass at the Umstead trail marathon 03, 02, 12

Carolina Pines at the William B. Umstead National Park, Raleigh, NC

Carolina Pines at the William B. Umstead National Park, Raleigh, NC

(Editor’s note-This story was started over a month ago now just prior to my running the Barcelona marathon on March 17th 2013, hence the time gaps.)

Hey gang. I’m writing this from my hotel room in Zaragoza, Spain. In less than two days I will be hopping on the train to head to Barcelona, Spain to attempt to complete the third marathon in what will hopefully end up being 4 Marathons in 4 Months to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

My wife asked me the other night if I was nervous about my upcoming race?

Simply I replied, “No.”

 I am in a foreign place where I have no idea of where I am or going and speak little of the native tongue. I am nervous about getting my race package picked up and to the start line.  If I can get those two things accomplished THEN! I can be nervous about the race!

Just about a month ago now I celebrated my 40th birthday two days after it  by finishing the second leg of my journey the extremely challenging Umstead Trail Marathon in the William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, North Carolina. This by far was the toughest of the 11 marathons that I have completed. Not only was I still not recovered from the Ground Hog Day Marathon in the snow and icy cold conditions in Grand Rapids, Michigan a month earlier but this was also by far the toughest course that I’ve faced. This was a not for wimps event!

I ended up 109th out of 179 finishers in a time of 4:31:37 but that is only a smidgen of the story. Out of a field of 225 entries only 179 were able to finish in the 6 hour time limit. That means there were 46 “Did Not Finishes” or just over 20% of the field (1 in 5) couldn’t complete the course. If you were wondering that number is extremely high as in, “I’ve never been involved in a marathon close to that difficult.” My time was over 1 hour and 15 minutes slower than my personal best time and was only my second finish out of 11 where I’ve exceeded 4 hours. During parts of this race I couldn’t help but laugh at how much I was getting my butt whipped!

This was an “Old School,” race put on by a local North Carolina (NC) running club (The Godiva Track Club). There was no fancy timing equipment just a clock and hand timers as well as trackers on the course. There was no pretense. There was no one there that looked like this was new to them. It was simply a test of human versus trail and not all of the humans won.  In one of the greater understatements I’ve come across in this lifetime on the event website the course is described as, “scenic and hilly.” I’ll say. The hills started at the start line and they went all the way up…and up…then they turned…and then they went up again!

Morning started at a reasonable time. The evening before I had driven into the Raleigh, North Carolina area with my brother riding shot gun and sharing the driving duties. We had left early in the morning from my family’s home in Michigan so that we would be able to arrive at a comfortable time after making the 12 hour drive. We avoided any sort of dodgy spring weather through the mountains and I was able to pick up my race packet and instructions at a reasonable time in the niche community of Cameron, NC. Afterwards I drove cross town to drop my co-pilot off at friends where he was spending the night and then I drove back to the side of town where I had originally been. This all took a couple of hours and as the sun was going down I finally arrived, 15-16 hours after leaving home, at my hotel for the night. I settled in for the night and participated in my favorite out of town pre marathon activity, laying in bed watching some professional basketball on TV. I had only one concern now. It wasn’t prerace jitters or worrying about my performance the next morning. It was getting to the start line. Being a trail run in a sensitive environmental area we had specific instructions of when we could enter the park and from where. Since I had only a notion of my surrounding area and we could only enter the park within a certain time frame I was a little concerned. After all I had come all this way and committed myself to this event as part of my 4 marathons in 4 months initiative. The Raleigh area is a maze of highways and by-ways and it would really suck to get lost on my way to the race and not be able to find my way back in time.

As it so happened I made it into the park early enough and to my assigned parking area (which consisted of spaces where you could find them amongst the roots and rocks in between the Carolina Pines). I hadn’t expected what came next but looking back it is certainly what I should have expected. The staging point for the race was a large communal log cabin in the woods. At one end was a giant hearth that contained a fireplace. A fire had been lit in it and a group of would be runners gathered around it. The morning air was chilly especially for the locals who were more used to warmer climes than I. The fire was a reassuring sight for sure.

In the cool Carolina air the open cabin was the perfect backdrop for this affair. I was there a good hour plus before the race and also in good humor, after all this was my idea of celebrating turning 40. What better way to celebrate a milestone birthday than to enjoy the opportunity and ability to do something special. As I had nothing better to do I took in the scene. Soon the greens and browns of the forest cove started to fill with runners in their neon yellows, oranges, pinks and my favorite color, something I like to refer to as old tracksuit faded grey (if you see that on a Crayola remember you saw it here first). The organizers (locals from the Godiva Running Club) were registering runners and setting up what little there was of a start finish area. The whole feel of everything was rather laissez faire.

Soon it was time for those gathered around the hearth, to join those in line at the “port a potty”, to join those stretching under the trees, to join those like myself who were just wandering around aimlessly and all of those other lucky hippies who had gained entry into the race at the start staging area. I had actually gotten into the race on a second chance entry when someone else dropped out. Spots to run the Umstead trail were limited to preserve its environmental integrity and the parks sensitive environment. It was a privilege to be amongst the les than 200 few who gathered behind the start line.

Then without pomp or circumstance we were off…straight up hill and around the bend which led to more straight uphill!

The first half of the course took you up hill into the tall Carolina Pines leading to a long winding single track portion (true trails one runner wide) through forest beds of pine needles, tree roots over rocks and across rivers. It was up and down and up and around and up and down again. Despite lack of local knowledge and in spite of common sense I attacked early. Prudence will say, “the longer the race the more you need to lay back and conserve your energy.” Prudence is very wise. Still I like to press and I tend to force my body to do work early in races. This method has allowed me to excel at times even if it might bring the pain later. As we age we often lose our will to compete. We fear failure. Going for it might mean lack of success. It may bring down the median but not going for it can mean that you’ve lost the will to compete. Somewhere deep down within my fire still burns and when the circumstances are right I still want to know what I’m made of. It is true that often times the only thing to fear is fear in itself. If you are afraid of competing against yourself than that fear must be overcome.

Up the bridle gravel trails we went. I soon found out what I had in store for me and where my body was at for this race. The first mile went well but I didn’t have what it would take to keep the front runners in sight. My legs were a bit sluggish and the Carolina air was a little different than what I was used to up North and my lungs were working to adapt. If you asked me to sum up endurance running in one word I would have to say oxygen. Aerobic activity requires oxygen as a fuel substrate. Without ti everything falls apart. Your ability to absorb and process as efficiently as possible huge volumes of oxygen is a key component in your body’s ability to move at pace. After about a mile and a half I settled into a groove where I felt that I was working hard but also not to the point where I was burning my lungs and setting my feet into quick sand.

There were a number bandits amongst our crew. Bandits are runners that either don’t register for a race or race with another athlete’s bib. It’s a running thing and it is mostly frowned upon. The pre-race mail outs were strident about warning that this activity would not be tolerated and sure enough as we rounded the first few check points these non registered runners were taken off course. It was about that time the pack started to slot itself out.

We continued upward along the groomed gravel and hard packed forest road. In most areas the road was about a pick-up truck wide with room for another half vehicle to pull to the side. The road was closed to traffic (vehicular that is) and we ran mostly in small groups or singled out in a small rows. Running companions chatted and complete strangers shared the spirit of competition. We were still running mostly up (up means down…eventually I hoped) with some dips but there was a definite trend to the course elevation. I would soon discover why.

With one swoop and a dip we turned. The trail changed and down we went. We had left the park road and now descended on a trail of pine needles littering the forest floor. Out poked a tree root or was it a jagged quartz like rock outcropping. My eyes needed to focus on the trail beneath my feet as opposed to the adventure ahead. I had worn my trail shoes in expectation of the unexpected. They have extra deep treads to grip with and a reinforced sole and toe box which has in the past I am sure saved me from more than one broken toe. We live in the city and I seldom if hardly at all have an opportunity to run trails. Instead I would be considered an almost exclusive road runner. My muscles and joints aren’t used to the jarring and jabbing that this kind of running commands, the total body effort involved or the combination of muscles used to participate in this kind of activity. In a word it was fun.

I coaxed, jarred, accelerated and edged my way up and down the switch back trails. We wound up around the trees and down amongst the rocks. By bridge and stones we crossed rivers and on earthen trail and muddy lane we traversed their banks. Multiple times I half leaped half braced my way down steep slopes or off of bridge exits. After a spell I grew more comfortable and started to stretch my legs. A risk this I knew it would be but quick glances at my watch throughout showed I was slowing in pace. The time for a risk was now. My strength was the flat forest trails where I picked up ground on those around me passing where I could and my reckless competitive spirit kept me in touch on the descents but my lack of experience failed me on the climbs where I would often lose ground again. I began to pound as hard as I could and eventually my pace evened out even if it was also wearing me out.

Then just as I was getting used to things, just as I was really grooving with the glory, mystique and mysticism of the trail we exited back on to the hard packed sand and gravel bridle path again. Back on comfortable footing again I let my legs do my talking as I rolled through the halfway mark by my estimates in pretty good shape, upper middle of the pack and on pace to run 3:30-3:45. I should have done just a little bit more homework!

It was about the halfway mark that my legs began to collapse. I think that all of those up and down switchbacks on the trail had wore me down. If it wasn’t that I am sure that running my second tough marathon (the other being in a snowy blizzard a month before) and all of the travel were making huge impacts on my performance. Oh and the lack of training wasn’t helping either, I am sure! My hips hurt and my lower half was rubber. It was about this time that we started going straight up hill again…without the benefit of any elevation equalization.

My legs grew more and more weary and my dreams of an age group award were diminishing faster than seconds click off the clock. Were we going straight up hill? Why was there no descent? Was I delirious? I stopped checking my watch and began to Chi my way ahead. I simply tilted, leaned forward and began to fall flatfooted forward with each step. By the time the down hills did come my forward quadriceps ached so much I dreaded each step. It was a shocking case of be careful what you wish for.

Still I pushed. What else could I do?

Despite my predicament I continued to run with a smile on my face. I couldn’t let any of the odd spectators or my infrequent fellow participants know how I felt could I? After all it couldn’t possibly be obvious! The aid stations were well stocked with gels, electrolyte replacement drink, snacks and orange wedges. They were staffed by the most awesome volunteers. Of course they were awesome; they were keeping me alive after all. I made sure to stop and thank each one of them at every stop and even talked to one little dog that was helping out. It wasn’t hard to do (stop that is). I wasn’t moving that fast anyways. Now that I think about it, was there really a dog there? Maybe I was hallucinating?

Still I rambled on. At one point I had slipped to a pace that would get me home in about 5 hours. In my own head I found this a little embarrassing but not as embarrassing as giving up would be. People that I  knew shouldn’t have been were passing me. Not having a clue where I was and too stubborn to give in I kept going. Then I hit a hill so named, “The Corkscrew!”

The corkscrew was a gift from hell’s fury itself! It wound up and up and up. Making matters worse its long winding trail lay visible in front of you so that you knew with each step just how long, how up and how far you had to go…sort of. The only thing not exposed was the next bend or was that the last bend or is that the next to last bend? I sucked it up, sucked it in, took a deep breath and hit it hard…and exceedingly slow. I made every effort to continue running, if what I was doing could still be called running? I climbed and climbed and climbed for what seemed a very long time. And then all of a sudden, there was no more cork screw. I had done it. And though I was finished, I wasn’t really. Somehow I decided I was going to finish this event if I had to crawl the rest of the way. With more than a few miles remaining this (crawling) would be a very real possibility.

Somewhere soon after around mile 20/21 there was an aid station. I stopped and fueled up real good for what would be my final effort. There was a sign just up ahead on the side of the trail that said, “welcome to {such and such trail}.” I thanked everyone very graciously for their support and headed off to see what this such and such trail was about.

Unnecessarily I still fretted over some of the runners that had passed and were still passing me but that was all ego and I needed to set that stuff aside to finish this thing. This was an out and back trailhead and as I glance over my shoulder, going the other way I spied the 23 mile marker. “Okay,” I thought, “Get to the trail head turn and get to that marker.”

About a half mile later I began to feel better, in waves. There would be a wave of okay then a wave of, “Oh not so good!” The trail began to wind downhill and I began to dig a little deeper. I began to run a bit harder again wondering if this was a last gasp or if I would fail to make it back up the hill. At the bottom of the gully stood a river, could this be a water crossing? No, it was the turnaround. I had made it. I don’t know if it was all the orange wedges I had consumed, adrenaline or just good vibrations but as we headed uphill I began to feel better and so did my legs. Somehow the rubber that had filled them before was steeling up and where as all of my efforts before could only muster up a stumbling lurch forward I was beginning to actually run again. As I climbed the hill many of my competitors were now falling. I began to pass the weary that just moments before also included me. I passed mile 23 and was feeling better by the moment and as I hit the aid station again I made sure to not be a fool and took the time to load up on fuel. I again thanked everyone and took off.

Amazing as it is this late race spurt is a trademark of mine. To foreshadow my next marathon story to be told later it doesn’t always happen but it has happened often enough. Somewhere from the depths of I don’t know where like a miracle at sea the fire that burns inside produces what I need for a final flourish. As bad as it seemed in the middle of the race over the last few miles it seemed like I could do nearly what I wanted. I ran hard and finally discovered where the down hills were…at the end of the race. I continued to pass my way in and to make up time. I remember one particular unfriendly soul that I definitely felt should not finish ahead of me, he didn’t. As I drew close to the finish line I came up upon one more individual that was failing and I encouraged her to sprint in with me but alas I sprinted home alone feeling good that it was over and feeling proud that I had conquered the Umstead Trail in celebration of my first 40 years and just as importantly what will come in the next forty.

Afterwards I traded barbs and stories over a spread that included the best burritos ever. If you want to taste some really good food then deplete your body’s energy reserves to zero by doing an excessive amount of cardio aerobic activity, like running a tough marathon.

For some it may seem that doing something liking running the Umstead TRAIL Marathon to celebrate a milestone birthday is an odd celebratory dance. To me though I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate how far I’ve come in life, to appreciate the opportunities I have to do physically and mentally challenging tasks and to look forward to what lies ahead for me.

Being an introspective soul I look back now nearly two months later and retrospectively ask myself, “Why does it feel good to do something so hard?”  Maybe that’s just it, that it is hard. How often do we challenge ourselves as we age? How often do we leave our comfort zones? What happened to the dreams of our youth, the adventures we were to have and the accomplishments we would achieve? Why can’t we stay young right up until whatever comes next?

My original celebratory wish was to climb Mount McKinley (Denali) North America’s highest peak in Alaska. Finances and time restraints made that dream undoable this time but that doesn’t mean the dream is over. Who knows maybe I’ll need an adventure to celebrate turning 50 with.

Never give up or give in

Peace and love all.


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