Now that I've sufficiently dried out from the weekend, I'm ready to log my race report. For those of you unfamiliar with my reports, they tend to be pretty long and detailed - The purpose of this being to give as much helpful info to folks new to the 100 miler world. Still being new to this distance myself (this was only my 2nd one), I still search high and low for detailed race reports to learn as much as I can before a race. Since this race is run in 8 loops (12.5 miles each), I'll break the report down loop by loop - once I get through the appropriately named "Preamble", of course. Enjoy!
I loaded up the X-Terra on Friday morning and headed south on the 3.5 hour drive from DC to the race site in the Raleigh/Durham area of NC. Since I was running this race without a crew, the car could conveniently serve as my sleeping spot as well as my mode of transportation - like I always say, it's the cheapest and most convenient hotel in the world. All week I watched helplessly as the forecast for race day went from bad to worse. Thunderstorms were expected to roll in on Friday evening and continue throughout the entire race on Saturday. Not the best news for 250 runners who would be spending all day outside. They say running 100 miles is 50% mental, and in this case the mental stress was starting even before the race began.
The ride down was uneventful, and I pulled into the William B. Umstead State Park around 1:30pm. The quality of the race organization was apparent right away as volunteers greet you and hand you a detailed map of the race headquarters when you pull in. Since I was early, I quickly found a great parking spot right on the course (just down the hill from the Start/Finish area) and dropped anchor there. I planned on using my tailgate as my aid station during the race to avoid the congestion of the main headquarters station just up the hill. This turned out to be a great decision.
At 5pm the Race Director, Blake Norwood, began his Runners' Briefing at the headquarters building. All the usual info was given, and the theme of "It's going to rain all day, so be prepared" continued throughout. After the briefing, the race staff served up the pre-race dinner for runners and their crews. I usually skip on the pre-race meal, and this day was no different as I returned to the X-Terra Inn and relaxed in the back with some snacks and a magazine. Around 7pm I decided to go for a little walk on the course to check out the terrain (thankfully, it hadn't started to rain yet). Aside from the muddy 1/2 mile spur trail between the main course loop and the Start/Finish area (which was muddy even before the rain started), the terrain was mostly the type of hard-packed dirt road similar to a good portion of the Vermont 100 miler: Overall, it's a great surface for running.
On the way back to my car I passed by defending champ Serge Arbona who was getting ready to call it a night as well. The predicted heavy rain was clearly on his mind as the first thing he said was this would be the only race he's ever run where he wouldn't need to take a shower after he finished. I added that I might just run the last lap with a bar of soap and lather up then. It was nice to have the opportunity to meet Serge then, because I knew his speed meant I wouldn't be running and chatting with him during the race.
Back in the car I did the usual pre-race toss-n-turn for a couple hours before falling asleep around 10:30pm. My last thought before I drifted off was "Hey, it's not raining yet. Maybe we'll luck out and the storms will miss us!". About an hour later I was awoken by some of the brightest lightning and hardest rain I've ever seen/heard. All of this, of course, was enhanced by sleeping in an SUV with plenty of windows and a metal roof that enhanced the sound of each drop considerably. The next morning you could have told me it rained marbles all night and I would have believed you.
The passing storms notwithstanding, I slept well most of the night. Thankfully this race has a 6am start (as opposed to the 4am gun at Vermont), so I took full advantage of those extra 2 hours. When I got up at 5am, the lack of noise outside was music to my ears. We were in between storms, and I thought "If we can just get this race started before the next wave comes though, I'll be happy". There's something about starting off in the rain that seems far worse to me than having it storm later on. That wish came true as I made my way up the hill to the starting area with the clouds holding back their weapons. Of course there was a trade off for this rain-reprieve: The 100% humidity in the air was clearly the price we all had to pay this morning.
As I toed the line moments before the starting gun, a very-fit looking lady next to me (Missy) asked if she could run with me for the first stretch to use the light from my headlamp. It would only be about 20 minutes before the sun came up, so it's common for lots of runners to just bum off the light of the pack in the first mile or two of a race like this. Since Missy was clearly there to run fast, I welcomed her company. Nearby, the favorites in the race, Serge Arbona (defending champ), Matt Kirk (2004 winner), and Jamie Donaldson (defending women's champ and course record holder) were all present and accounted for.
Moments later, the sound of the gun sent us off on our journey.
Right from the gun Serge took off ahead of the pack. With no interest from anyone else up front trying to keep pace, we let him go. Having won the race so many times before, clearly he knew the plan that worked for him on this course. As it turned out he ran alone at the front all day. With the suspenseful outcome of the race just about decided at the 1 mile mark, there were 99 more miles to see how the other 249 of us would finish.
With Serge out of the conversation, I ran in the "lead" pack with Missy, Matt Kirk, and 2 other men. We all chatted for the first 3 or 4 miles as we got a feel for the day. Missy was planning on just running 50 miles, so she took off at that point looking very strong and confident in her pace. I was content with my pace (didn't look at my watch yet, but it felt comfortable) as I did some early fuel-planning in my head. Sensing the incredibly high humidity as being a potential problem, I decided to up my S-Cap electrolyte intake from once an hour to once every 45 minutes. I also made sure I drank more frequently than usual right from the start to stay ahead of things. I knew it would be very easy to fall behind on hydration and electrolytes in this weather, so I stayed on top of both right from the start. Sadly for Missy, the next time I saw her was at mile 38 - she was sitting on the side of the trail, too sick to continue. Most likely a result of dehydration and/or electrolyte depletion.
As we ran further into the course, the terrain proved to be just as advertised: Rolling hills on the packed dirt road. The surface was wet from the night's rain, but 95% of it was still solid at this point and provided great footing. The course had two main aid stations - the Start/Finish area and another one just before the mile 7 marker. There were also three unmanned water stops along the way. I started out with two bottles in my fuel belt and a hand-bottle with the plan of not stopping at all in the first two loops (25 miles). The humidity had me alter this slightly as I pulled off at an unmanned stop to fill my hand-bottle at one point in my 2nd lap. That was only about a 30 second delay, so essentially I was able to stick to the plan.
The part of my plan that did change a bit was the speed of my pace in the first two laps. As it turned out, I ran most of the first lap with elite runner Matt Kirk. We talked about running shoes, the new job he's starting in West Virginia (good luck, man!), and a bunch of other random things as we found our legs on the course. He pulled away at about mile 10 or so and I wished him well. He is, of course, a much better runner than I am, so I was just happy/privileged to have such company early on.
At this point I checked my watch and realized I was well ahead of my planned pace for the first lap. My goal heading into the race was to keep a steady 9 minute pace for the first 50-60 miles. Since this time included aid-station stops, it meant I would be actually running an 8:45 pace or so over those miles. This pace meant I should be finishing each lap in about 1 hour and 53 minutes. As it turned out, I finished Lap #1 in 1:43. I wasn't too worried about being fast just yet since I figured I might as well bank some "bonus time" on the good running surface before the rain started.
The final hill leading up to the Start/Finish area was muddy and awkward to run (a couple wooden beams/steps were mixed in to keep the hill from completely eroding), but it was no match for the energy burst I always feel when approaching a major aid station in a race. I ran quickly up the hill, shouted out my race number to the timers, and turned right around without breaking stride to start Lap #2.
As I headed back down the spur trail to the main loop, I was able to see how the race was stacking up behind me. A couple guys were about 4 or 5 minutes behind me, but since it was still early on, I didn't worry about my placement yet (although I knew I was running in third place behind Serge and Matt). Matt, who stopped briefly at the main aid station, had about a 30 second lead on me as we ran in the early part of the 2nd loop. Just before finishing the spur trail section, a runner coming toward me said "That's it buddy, don't you worry about him (referring to Matt). You just keep running your smart race." Now, I had no idea who this guy was, but those words were exactly what I needed to hear. Sure, I felt good and could have tried to hang with Matt, but I most certainly would have paid for it later on. Seeing that my only other 100 miler was a "Just take it easy and finish under 24 hours" run, this was the first time I was actually "racing" a race this long. I did all the training, I calculated all the numbers, and if I heeded this guy's words and stuck to my own race plan, I knew I'd have the best chance for success. With that, Matt was gone and I cruised through Lap #2 comfortably.
Every step of the first 25 miles of this race went smoothly as I let the terrain tell me how fast I should move my legs. My long strides absolutely ate up the downhills (one of them was nearly a mile long), and while the "Saw Tooth" section had some steep-ish climbs, they were all short enough to run without too much exhaustion. As I finished up the 2nd loop I looked at my split and saw I ran that loop even faster than #1. Not really my plan, but then again, there was STILL NO RAIN, so I was happy to bank the time since I didn't feel I was pushing too hard.
After climbing the hill and checking in to finish my 2nd lap, I headed right back down for the first stop at my car/aid station to refuel. I refilled both bottles in my belt (one with Hammer Perpetuem, one with water) and loaded up with 3 more gels for the next loop. I did my best to eat three gels each loop as I had no plans to eat any other food during the race. My stomach issues from past races convinced me to try and see how I feel with a minimalist plan: gels, the Perpetuem drink, and electrolyte pills. I had worked this plan to perfection on all of my long training runs, so I felt confident it would work for most/all of the race. As it turned out, this plan worked brilliantly. Before heading back out I also changed my shirt (which stayed dry for about a minute in the crazy humid air). The total time for the pit-stop was about 3 minutes which made me happy as I quickly set off on Lap #3.
At this point I saw Matt (looking strong) had about a mile lead on me, and the 4th place runner was about 1 mile behind me. I still wasn't worried about my place this early on, but it was nice to know how the field was shaping up. I don't really recall too much else about Lap #3 aside from that fact that I started lapping lots of people who were clearly planning on "enjoying the course" a little longer than me. With the wide trail there was plenty of room for everyone to move at their own pace. I really liked this course for that reason.
Having said that, I should point out there was one bit of 'excitement' on Lap #3. A lady was walking her black lab at one point where the road was easily 15 feet wide. She was coming toward me, but clearly not paying attention to her what her dog was doing. Since the dog was on a retractable leash, this proved to be a problem when she let it walk on the complete opposite side of the road from where she stood. This left a lovely trip-wire across the entire width of the road. My yell of "Hey! Look out!" was useless so I had to jump over the leash before finally hearing the lady snap out of her fog and say "Oh..." as I ran by. Oh, indeed.
Other than that, I don't recall much about Lap #3 - the good thing about that is it meant it STILL WASN'T RAINING. That was a very good thing. As I cruised back to the Start/Finish area, I saw my time had nicely settled back to my predicted pace. I was happy to have banked all the time early on, but found comfort in knowing that I was feeling strong and relaxed at my pre-planned pace now. A quick swap of my bottles and a re-fill of gels was all I needed from the car, and I was back out for Lap #4 in no time.
Here's where things got a little tough. The loop started off just fine, but somewhere around mile 40 it finally started to rain. Up to that point I had pretty much convinced myself that we were all going to luck out and not get drenched. As it turned out, I couldn't have been more wrong if I voted for Mondale in '84. With a few gusts of wind and bit of thunder in the distance (or maybe that was just the collective sound of 249 other runners groaning), the clouds opened up and down came the rain. While it was a nice cool rain at first, that novelty wore off quickly as everything I had on became immediately saturated. The last 5 or 6 miles of this loop were completely miserable. Some parts of the trail couldn't drain all the water quickly enough, so running through puddles and muddy sections became an occasional necessity (particularly in the area immediately after the 2nd aid station - I'm not sure what type of dirt/clay that was, but the muck in that stretch tried to pull my shoe off more than once).
Since the cushioning was all but gone in my shoes at this point, I had already decided this would be the last lap for my New Balance 800s - the deluge of rain only convinced me more that I'd be swapping my heavy and wet footwear before the next loop. Despite all the rain, however, I was still running pretty well. It was certainly more of an effort to keep my stride going during the harder downpours, but since there were some periods of lighter rain/mist mixed in, it wasn't too bad. By time I slogged up the muddy hill to check in at the Start/Finish, I was feeling a little beaten and tired, but happy to take a few minutes to change out of my wet stuff back at the car.
The silver lining to the arrival of these rain clouds was I noticed my time for 50 miles was 7:30. That time broke my PR for 50 miles, so running that split in a 100 mile race either meant
1) I was really going to finish with a great time or
2) I'd be crashing and burning very soon.
I convinced myself the former was true, and I took the time to change just about everything I had on: Shoes, gaiters, shorts, shirt...everything but my Drymax socks. One bit of luck I had was it actually stopped raining for a few minutes while I changed, so I had the pleasure of feeling warm and dry for a good 2 miles or so before the next wave of weather hit. Sure, it went by quickly, but I really appreciated those two miles. In total, the big pit stop took 10 minutes, but every second was worth it. I was now in new shoes -Brooks Radius 7s- (loved the extra cushioning at this point) and felt about 10 pounds lighter in my new clothing. I also left my fuel belt at the car and continued on with just the hand bottle. To keep the same amount of fuel coming in, I filled up my bottle with extra Perpetuem powder knowing that if I refilled when it was half-way empty I'd still get a steady supply of that fuel during the whole loop.
Everyone has a "down" period in a 100 miler, and lap 5 was about as down as I've ever been. Shortly after starting out on the loop, the sky opened up and I was once again soaked. I felt miserable, and the novelty of telling myself "I'm tough! I'm running in the rain!" stopped being a point of pride and became a pointless exercise in torture.
With about 45 more miles to go, I didn't want to run any more. Sure, I kept moving along, but I wanted to quit. Over the first few miles of the loop, I told myself I was just going to finish up this lap and call it a day. I tried to tell myself I'd probably be named the 50 mile champ (this race has that award for the fastest person to 50 miles who doesn't finish the 100), so it wouldn't be a total loss. Furthermore, I pleaded w/ myself, I should just listen to my now slightly-tweaked hamstring (made worse by the cold rain tightening it up) and not risk any further injury. These were just a couple of the MANY reasons for quitting that I tried to sell to myself as the rain poured down and soaked my spirits. I really really really wanted to find an acceptable excuse to stop.
Then, to make matters even worse, I looked over my shoulder and saw Jamie Donaldson (returning female champ) coming up on me for the first time all day. She was cruising along and clearly ready to blow by me. I thought, "Great, not only do I feel horrible, but in about 2 minutes I'm going to feel horrible in 4th place." I'm not sure what kind of ribbon 4th place gets, but I'm assuming it's roughly the color of the mud I was running through at that point...and I certainly wanted no part of that. I was definitely quitting. I told myself I would shuffle through the next few miles, take a hot shower, and drive home by midnight. Oh how nice my warm soft bed would feel. I couldn't wait.
As Jamie came up next to me I told her she was looking good and gave her an update on where the 2nd female was running as I had seen her on one of the spurs in the last loop. We talked for a bit about her next race (Badwater - I have her picked as the favorite to win it this year) and mine (Massanutten) and whatever other random things runners talk about while running at mile 56 in the rain. One thing I noticed was Jamie's leg turn-over was about twice as fast as mine. She's clearly found the rhythm that works for her in these long races (she's much shorter than me). My long loping strides served as an example of a complete contrast of running styles as we ran next to each other. It was those same long strides of mine that naturally pulled me ahead of her on the steep downhill leading into the 2nd aid station, and even though I blew through without stopping, I knew she'd catch up to me again (and pass me for good) before long. She was moving like a machine, clearly an elite runner in her comfort zone. It was very impressive to see up close.
My chat with Jamie definitely helped pick up my spirits a bit, but I was still fighting the urge to quit with every step. Just before entering the Saw Tooth section again, I found myself reaching back to rub/warm my hamstring before every little hill. The cold rain was getting to that muscle and tightening it up enough to where it felt increasingly more uncomfortable on every climb. Just when I was REALLY ready to call it quits and walk it in, I came around a bend and saw what appeared to be Matt Kirk shuffling along ahead of me. He was clearly hurting, so I pulled long side him and asked what was wrong. He said his legs just weren't there anymore, and I knew from his tone that he too was probably going to drop after this lap. I certainly understood his pain, that's for sure. Elite runner or not, we're all human out there.
After I passed Matt and started my slow-but-steady climbs through the Saw Tooth section, not only had I convinced myself that I was going to quit after finishing the loop, but I was even going over what my phone call to Elizabeth would sound like when I got back to the car. I went through the various scenarios, the best one being: "Hey Sweetie, the weather was horrible and I had to drop, but at least I'm safe...and I was named the 50 mile champ!"...even though that was the best option, I wasn't even buying it. I felt like I was letting not only myself but everyone else down too. I was completely and utterly miserable.
Then Jamie caught up to me again. It was just after the last of the Saw Tooth hills with about 3 miles to go in the loop. I saw her coming and said "Did you notice we passed Matt back there?". She said she did and then, without a second to spare to save my race, she said "So you're in 2nd place now, right?". I quickly said "No, YOU'RE in second once you pass me here. You look great, keep it up!".
As she pulled away, I thought - "Hey, this was the absolute worst lap I could have imagined, but I'm still going to finish it in 3rd place just like I started it. That's not so bad." Not every race can be run in record time on a perfect day. Then I remembered a quote that I like to repeat to myself on long runs in tough conditions just like this:
"This is not Churchill Downs. This is not Hollywood Park.
When the field is wide open, I'll take the horse that's got the biggest heart."
With that thought, things started looking up for me. I know I don't have the talent of a Jamie Donaldson or Matt Kirk, not even close, but I do have heart. ...and I've been through much worse before. Heck, the reason I was out there running to begin with was to get in shape for the 'Run 192' adventure in July. The people I'm running that race for are the ones really fighting, not some silly runners like me out in the woods. THOSE people have heart. Folks like my honorary pacer for the race, Max Thomas, don't have the luxury of saying, "I'm going to quit, take a shower, and go home." What was I thinking? I couldn't quit. Even if it meant walking the last 40 miles, I couldn't stop.
After that awakening, things started to come together in an amazing way. About a mile or so before finishing the loop, a runner heading toward me yelled out "Hey, Run 192! I read your blog!" - Wait, WHAT? Talk about a perfectly timed and completely unexpected motivational comment. Wow! I figured only my mom and creepy jerks trying to post links to porno sites in my 'comments' section looked at my blog. So please know, Mr. Nice Runner Man, you helped convince me to keep fighting out there in the race. Thank you!
With my spirits looking up again I cruised up the hill to the Start/Finish area and then back to my car for re-fuel. A look at my split time showed I actually didn't run THAT poorly on that loop. Sure, I slowed down a bit, but the mental struggle definitely made it seem like I was moving much slower. Everything was starting to look up at this point, and then I made the best decision of the entire day: When Jamie passed me I noticed she had her iPod cranking, and even though my plan was to wait until mile 75 to pick up mine, I figured I could use the added motivation of grabbing it a lap early here at mile 62.5. So back on went the fuel belt, two bottles, and my new motivational friend.
My transformation from "I want to quit" to "I'm gonna kick some ass" was complete as soon as I pushed play on the iPod. I named my 177 song playlist for this race "17HR100" in reference to my goal of finishing somewhere in the 17 hour range. Surely the weather had beaten me down, but regardless of the rain, I was ready to fight to save that goal. AC/DC's 'Money Talks' was the first song up, and as soon as Brian Johnson belted out the line "Money talks, B.S. walks" I let out a primal scream and took off up the hill heading back to the main loop (I'm sure I scared the few runners I was lapping at that point). I wasn't walking and I wasn't quitting, I was running the rest of this race as hard as I could.
With the iPod safely protected from the rain in my fuel belt pouch, and the raucous playlist keeping my motor running on high, I blew through Lap #6 as easily as #1. I finished the loop, cruised up the hill to the Start/Finish area, and back to my car before I knew what was happening. With 75 miles in the bag now, only two loops were left. I took a few minutes to swap out my shoes again (again, well worth it), and off I went...
Just like the previous loop, this one went by pretty quickly. More rain came and went, as did a few passing words of encouragement with folks I was lapping...but other than that, I don't remember much at all. I was definitely in the zone and surprising myself with how steadily I was running. There was no real slow-down in my stride over the past two laps, and even my hill climbs were still strong. I definitely smiled in appreciation of my weekly Treadmill Death March session where I climb for an hour straight with the incline maxed out at 15. The point of that is really for Massanutten prep work, but boy was I happy I inserted that workout into my weekly schedule in the months leading up to this race too. The difference in my climbing ability in this race compared to late in the Vermont 100 was immeasurable.
With about 3 miles to go in the loop, the sun had completely set and I needed to put on my headlamp. Things generally slow down for everyone at night, and with lots of fog rolling in on this night, it was tough to tell how hard to attack the hills when I couldn't see more than 30 feet in front of me. Luckily I had run the loop 7 times now, so I knew where most of the biggest hills were and paced myself accordingly.
Just knowing I was ready to start the final lap would have been motivation enough, but as I ran up the hill to the Start/Finish area, I heard the time-keepers say "Hey! We have someone still running up the hill!" - That was all I needed to confirm that I was looking as strong as I was feeling (and not actually passed out on the side of a muddy path hallucinating about all this). With my legs riding a wave of adrenaline, one last quick stop at the car to refuel was the only thing between me and the start of last lap.
My new head lamp worked perfectly (fog notwithstanding) as I made my way through the rougher terrain of the spur trail back to the smoother surface of the main loop. Occasionally the fog made some of the flatter stretches tougher since I couldn't tell what was ahead, but like I said before, with 7 previous loops in the bag, I recalled most of the tougher climbs and ran them accordingly. This time around I paused for a few seconds as I passed people to make sure they were doing OK (I had extra gels and electrolyte tabs ready to give out if needed). With the way I was running, I knew I had put quite a gap between me and the 4th place runner. There was no harm in taking an extra moment to make sure everyone was OK when I knew without the inspiration of other runners earlier I wouldn't be in the great shape I was at that point.
The rain was mostly light at this point, and it wasn't too cold out, but hypothermia is always a risk for folks who were walking at that point and not generating the body heat from running. Just about everyone brave enough to stick it out to this point through all the rain was wearing some sort of jacket to keep the water out and heat in, so I credit both their planning and the Race Director's warnings the night before for keeping them safe. The runners might have been miserable at that point, but at least they were protecting themselves from serious harm. When I passed the 2nd aid station I saw many people drinking cups of soup and coffee to warm up. These people were not only tough to stay out there, but smart as well - and in a 100 mile race, it's always better to be smart than tough.
Before long I made my last pass through the Saw Tooth section and back on the final stretch to the finish. I looked at my watch and realized I could try and kill myself to break 17 hours, but to be quite honest, I didn't really care about my time at this point. I was just happy to have rebounded from my bad lap and run so strongly over the last 40 miles or so. Just as I'd done the previous 7 times, I sprinted up the final hill to the Finish line and yelled out "#206 is DONE!". It felt great (of course) to finish, but even more so it felt great to know I didn't quit on myself.
My finishing time was 17:05, but on this rainy day, I was even more proud of the 3rd place finish. I ended up beating the 4th place runner by 2 hours and 13 minutes. In an almost eerie prediction of what would happen, I posted this as my #1 Goal for the race last week before I had any clue about the weather forecast:
"#1 Goal - Break 17 hours and/or place in the Top 3. If the weather is horrible, time goals get thrown out the window, so I'm giving the alternative Top 3 finish as the #1 goal. If either one happens, I'll be smiling like the Cheshire Cat when I collapse at the finish."
Needless to say, I could have turned off my headlamp and simply used the glow from my smile to find my way back to the car after I finished. ...and after 100 miles I felt I finally earned that hot shower.