Monday, March 30, 2015

The Umstead 100 Story: Playing with fire for the win!

Pre-race with Marc and Christian

My 2015 Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run has two stories--68 miles of executing my plan for a 24 hour finish almost to the letter, and then breaking a cardinal rule when things turned ugly to get my finish.  Yes, I went into the lodge and sat by the fire.  And then I went back out to finish my race.  Of course I didn't win the race, but finishing was a personal victory.

As I've previously outlined in this blog, my Umstead plan was to run the first of 8 12.5 mile loops in 2:25 (as long as it came easy), and every loop after that 10 minutes slower to account for fatigue and more time required at aid stations for maintenance and to address minor problems.  This would put me right at 24 hours.  Major problems that might come up would take more time and if that happened I'd reset my goal to finishing in the allotted 30 hours.

One loop down
Right from the start I saw I was on correct pace, letting many others drift ahead of me.  Amazingly, and without artificially altering my pace to meet the goal, I came in at 2:25:19.  And it continued as loop 2 (2:35 goal) came in at 2:35:17, loop 3 (2:45 goal) at 2:41:59, loop 4 (2:55) at 2:55:36, and loop 5 (3:05) a bit fast at 2:58:39, even with a 10 minute blister-fixing aid stop.  Not only was I banging out these laps like clockwork, but after getting over some minor nausea early in the race from over eating, I felt fantastic.  That 5th loop with pacer Christian Dahlhausen was fun as I ventured longer than I'd ever run before.  I stayed focused on a bite sized 12.5 mile loop at a time, but a couple times I couldn't help thinking about how on track I was to break 24 hours.

I'd grab a banana and half a roast beef sandwich for each loop.  When I saw the camera I did the old banana phone gag.  Everybody should want to run with me, I'm so funny!

The "fun" loop with Christian, half a day into the race
It all came crashing down in the middle of lap 6, as darkness fell.  My stomach was feeling a bit sour as I came into the far side aid station.  As soon as I downed a Pepcid AC pill, I felt the bile rising and I rushed away from the food tables to a railing and deposited the contents of my stomach into Crabtree Creek below.  This didn't faze me, because I'd rather have a reset than trouble staying in my stomach.  I started to head on down the trail but a terrible chill struck me even though at ~38 degrees it was just a few degrees off the high for the day, and I had just put on another layer. I felt like curling up on the ground in a ball but I kept moving to try to warm up. Christian caught up to me after resupplying my bag.  We first tried tucking hand warmers against my upper arms, then he wrapped a space blanket around me.  That stopped the extreme shivering, but I was still cold.  A mile or two later, just when I was about try eating, I started heaving again. Back on the move, but not walking very fast.  As I fell 30 minutes off pace, I knew I had to take time to refuel.  Ultra runners know that you need to stay away from the fire, lest it suck you in for good, but I had to get some hot soup in and sitting out in the now freezing night was not going to work.  Christian and I discussed it, and much as I hated to do it, I had to go to the fire. We agreed that he and Marc Griffin, my other crew/pacer, would try to pull me out after 10 minutes, and at 15 I had to leave.  I slowly finished the loop in a walk and went into the large and crowded lodge at 11:30.

There was carnage by the fire, and the night was still young.  Most of the fireside cots were occupied by blanketed runners.  But I wasn't looking for medical help; I just wanted to sit and eat.  I couldn't get too near the fire, which was good and bad.  I wasn't warming up quickly, but I think back now that the fire really didn't lock on to me.  A med staffer named Pancho (sp?) noticed me shivering and looking pale, and came to see how I was.  He saw my haphazard layering as I had been adding jackets in the cold and got me to put my wind jacket on an outer layer, just under the ski jacket I was about to add.  I had some chicken noodle soup and stumbled around re-layering jackets and pulling warmup pants over my tights.  I staggered toward the door, determined to get back on the course.  I found out later that Marc went back to Pancho and asked him to take another look at me before I could get out the door.  Usually you want your crew to get you in and out as quickly as possible, but even more important is that they look after your well-being. Pancho stopped me and said I really needed to sit longer and get a good amount of food in.  He rationalized that a few more minutes spent here would pay off on the course.  I still had well over 11 hours to do the final 2 loops.  He also felt my pulse and found it strong and not rapid, else he would've mandated I sit and perhaps even pull me from the race.  I took his advice and sat, away from the fire, slurping warm soup, and when I got up again I felt decent. I had nearly an hour downtime but I was back in the game.

Marc was my pacer now, and we agreed to walk for a good while and let the food settle.  I grabbed trekking poles to help. I had been listening to music since the start of loop 3 but decided it might be better to talk so I stowed the headphones. I dreaded the thought of 25 increasingly cold and slow miles, but the idea of dropping and feeling compelled to go through all this again was even worse. I reminded myself to take a section at a time and the dread passed.  My mantra for the race was, "Finish this and you'll never have to do another one" though I rarely had to use it.

If you're going to walk, walk with a purpose
Surprisingly, my walk was brisk.  Marc confided late in the final loop that he had expected me to drag and be fighting the 30 hour cutoff.  In fact, as bad as I looked in the lodge at one point he thought I was done, if I'm recall correctly what he said.  But once we got moving he was all in with me. We talked about running some, but my quads were sore, and eventually I reasoned that I probably couldn't run enough to really impact the time, and the jarring action of running was more likely to upset my stomach again and put the finish in doubt.

Around mile 98. 
So, walk I did, and on the final loop of 3:43 I was just 8 minutes off my original plan.  As that loop went on I got over my disappointment that I would fall well off my 24 hour goal and with Marc's help, came to appreciate that I had gotten myself back on the tracks (with help) and would finish strong and positive, even as blisters developed on the bottom of both feet on the final loop. I even managed to run up the short final diabolical hill to a 26:23:57 finish time.  I wondered how my emotions would be to complete a journey 7 months in the making after running all day and all night.  It was all jubilation and I pumped my fists and hugged my pacers and a couple friends who were at the finish.  The next order of business was to find Pancho and thank him, and let him know his advice was spot on.  This could've been a very different story had I stumbled back onto the course too early, though I don't think my pacers were going to let that happen.

Does it get any better than this?
Getting my 100 mile belt buckle

So what happened?  I've always had eating issues in 50 milers, and even with my plan to fully stock my own aid station with food I should be willing and able to eat, it's probably not surprising that I would still have issues.  It really blew up in loop 6 shortly after I had both a gel and a banana while walking up a short hill, and immediately started running after the hill before allowing the food to settle.  That's the most likely cause I've come up with.

More puzzling is why it wasn't a simple purge/reset and instead turned me into a stumbling mess.  My guess is that I over compensated on the early overeating and slowly got myself into a deficit and it accelerated after I got sick.  Once I properly refueled, I was back among the living.

What went well?  I reined myself in early and stuck to my plan amazingly well for 5 loops.  Obviously taking time to recover after the loop 6 debacle was the key to not just finishing, but finishing alert and in good spirits.  Absolutely no death marching, and no sleepiness.  I never once felt like I wanted to just lay down and sleep.  No hallucinations--I feel cheated!  Once I got the clothes right, I didn't get cold again even as temps dropped deep into the 20s.  And as I passed mere feet from my car on every loop, I never once had an inclination to just pack it in as I warned would be a challenge in a mulit-loop race.  Even at my lowest point I never thought of quitting.  Finally, I had great support from my pacers and crew, including Christian's wife Jamie, and Jordan Chang who filled in once when my crew was on a breakfast break, and a quick assist from Rachel Kelly with my gaiters.

A day later, I have more perspective.  I gave myself every chance to hit one of my goals of finishing in under 24 hours, and making it 5 loops solidly on plan and feeling great tells me I was capable of doing it.  When I fell off the tracks, it wasn't because I ran beyond my abilities, but rather that I still don't have nutrition nailed down.  Maybe I never will, and this is what may keep me from trying another hundo.  Once I missed my 24 hour goal, I was able to shift into focusing on my next goal, to finish.  I most likely could have finished earlier by running again once I felt better, but I feel fine with my decision not to derail myself again just to get a little better time.  And a day later, I feel pretty darned good.  If I didn't have giant blisters on the balls of my feet I could walk pretty normally. 

Finally, I have to admit that going into the race, I thought it might be a lot of misery to get through, just to be able to say I've run 100 miles.  Obviously it wasn't all puppies and rainbows, but I really enjoyed a lot of the race.  I will always remember this well.


  1. That sounds amazing and awful. Sounds like your pacers did you well. I had no idea the nutrition part was so tetchy - I have never had issues but there was a guy throwing up next to me on my 50K - of course, I've never ran anything longer than that and can't imagine a 100. Congrats on the finish before the deadline and your shiny new buckle.

  2. Many congratulations, Bob. It sounds like an amazing experience -- the sheer immensity of it all, the camaraderie, going to the edge but bouncing back. I suspect that you may remember this as one of the most remarkable events of your life. - Chris McCartney

  3. Congrats Bob, really well done, really impressed with your times on your loops and overall! Well done!