Saturday, April 13, 2013


April 3, 2011, 10:23 a.m. 

I staggered across the finish line of my first 100 mile run. I had completed the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run after 28 hours and 23 minutes and two sunrises.  I was glad that I finished, but I was broken.  I just wanted to be done, to rest, and, in that moment, to never run again.  I went home and collapsed.  I wasn’t able to walk normally until the following Wednesday.  I didn’t run for weeks and often thought of quitting altogether during that time. 
I signed up for the 2013 Umstead 100 for several reasons.  It is an amazing race, the organization and support is unparalleled, and the volunteers are second to none.  I love the park and run there almost every weekend, as it is just a few miles from my home.  After my DNF at Leadville last August, I hired Scott Weber as my coach for this year’s Leadville Trail 100 Run.  He recommended completing a 100 mile event as part of my preparation for Leadville.  I could think of no better event.  All of those factors had me glued to my high speed internet connection at the moment registration opened.  I was one of the lucky ones who was able to secure a slot in the race before it filled up almost instantaneously. 
In the weeks leading up to the race, I knew I was in good shape and felt that I was stronger than I had ever been but still had no idea how that would translate to a 100 mile foot race.  I knew I would finish. It was just a question of how long it would take and how much it would hurt.  When I finished in 2011, I received a brass belt buckle that read 100 MILES FINISHER to signify I had completed the distance in less than 30 hours.  Those who complete the race in less than 24 hours get a silver belt buckle that reads 100 MILES – ONE DAY.  I really wanted to run this year’s race in under 24 hours so  I could earn that silver buckle.   
I talked with my coach about split times, pacing strategies, and a nutrition plan.  I knew exactly what to do, but I didn’t know how I was going to feel after 50 miles . . . or 75.  In 2011 I fell apart after mile 60 and walked (OK, well trudged may be more appropriate) the last 40 miles.  I didn’t want that to happen again.  I had a plan.  But, as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit.”  I just didn’t know when I would get hit or how hard.
The park gates opened a 4:45 a.m.   I awoke at 4:00 a.m.,  ate, dressed, and headed to the park.  I got there early and waited in line with everyone else and slowly wound my way into the depths of the park to my assigned parking area.

Waiting at the gate to Umstead State Park.

I was planning on flying solo for the first 50 miles with no crew.  I had pacers lined up, but they wouldn’t be there until after the first 50.  I lugged all my extra clothes, nutrition, medical kit, etc. from the car and set it up under a tree alongside the trail, not too far from the start/finish.  Umstead consists of 8 loops of 12.5 miles each with 1,000 feet of elevation gain and 1,000 feet of elevation loss for each lap.  My plan was to grab fresh bottles and energy gels at the start of each lap. 
I finished setting up and wandered into the lodge.  I still had 30 minutes until start time.  There was a lot of energy in the air, punctuated by nervous laughter.  People all around stood quietly or talked too loudly, depending on how they dealt with the excitement and stress that exists moments before you set off in the dark to run for 100 miles.  Everyone was friendly and supportive, as is common at these events. I told one of my pacers that there are only about 10 people here for a race.  Everyone else is here for an experience.  That is certainly why I was there. Before I knew it, the race director shouted go and several gunshots went off, and we were on our way.  I clicked on my iPod, which I had set to shuffle, and was very pleasantly surprised to start my run with The Beatles singing Good Day Sunshine, one of my all time favorites.  I couldn’t suppress a smile as I slowly jogged away from the start.  My headlamp illuminated a small puddle of ground in front of me as we glided up the service road to the main trail.  The sky was crystal clear, and a sliver of a crescent moon hung in the inky blackness, seeming at times to nestle itself in the branches of trees overhead.  I felt strong and happy.  Happy to be running.  Happy to be injury free.  Happy to have this opportunity. 
Lap 1  Mile 0-12.5

I was shooting for just under a 24 hour finish.  I knew I would slow down as the day progressed.  The plan was not to slow down too much.  I wanted to spend about 45% of my time in the first 50 miles and 55% in the last 50.  That would shake out to 11 hours for the first half and 13 for the second.  In order to do that I needed to make sure not to go out too fast.  Any fool can blister the first lap, but that is suicide for all but the most gifted runner.  According to my plan, I needed to run the first 4 laps at about 2hrs and 42 minutes per lap.  Well, that was the plan I had on paper and the plan I had told everyone about.  For some reason I had it in my head that I should be able to finish in closer to 22 hours.  I just didn't want to admit that out loud to anyone other than Wendy.  So I ran the first lap with two goal times in mind.  2:42 and 2:30.  2:30 would set me up for a 10 hour 50 mile time and a 22 hour finish.  I kept cruising past the mile markers and checking my split times with my watch.  I was running too fast.  I just didn't feel like I could physically run any slower.  I finished the first lap in 2 hours and 15 minutes, faster than I wanted, but feeling great.  I had kept up with my nutrition plan, just as my coach had instructed, and was ready to go.  I got fresh Hammer Gels, two new bottles of Perpetuem, and headed off.  By this time the sun had risen, and it was a cool, clear morning.  About 500 yards after I headed back out, I realized I had forgotten to take off my head lamp.  No big deal because it didn't weigh very much.  I would just look stupid for the next two and a half hours or so.   I told myself that, if that was the worst mistake I made, I was in great shape.  

Lap 2 Mile 12.5-25

I had two main goals for this lap.  Slow down and stick with my nutrition plan.  I allowed myself to walk some of the smaller hills on this lap but still ran a comfortable pace on the downhills and flats.  As far as nutrition went, I was planning on trying to get through the whole race with no solid food.  That would require one 20 oz bottle of water with one scoop of Perpetuem every hour, along with a Hammer Gel and a salt tab every 30 minutes, for a total of 300 calories and 20 oz every hour.  Not the best tasting stuff in the world, but I've had worse.  I stayed right on schedule with my nutrition and felt pretty good. This lap is where the mental math started in earnest.  I kept telling myself that I wouldn't have a good idea about how things were going until I had finished the first 30 miles.  I just couldn't stop myself from calculating and recalculating my pace and potential finish times.  I knew that I had to pace myself this early on, or I would make a huge mistake and push too hard too soon.  I managed to slow down on this lap, but not as much as I thought I needed to.  I finished the loop in 2:25, had an aid station worker refill my bottles with water, and headed to my stuff to mix my bottles and grab some more Hammer Gels.

Lap 3 Mile 25-37.5

This was the first lap where I began to not feel great.  I wasn't too worried about it, as I knew that I would have both good and bad stretches.  I was keeping up with my nutrition, but it was becoming less and less appetizing, and I was starting to get a headache.   There were two ways to look at it.  One, I could ignore it and realize that sometimes your body does weird stuff; or two, I could convince myself that I had a headache because there was some terrible biological black magic going on inside me, which would soon lead to me collapsing on the trail in a sputtering pile of drool . . . and who knows what else.  I waffled back and forth between the two extremes for a few minutes before settling on the first option.  Sure enough, once I decided there was nothing to it, my headache began to shrink and eventually went away altogether. I passed the runner below and was inspired by the simple message on his shirt. 

It's hard to argue with that logic. 
I came into the start/finish in 2:32 and still felt very fresh and positive about the day.  As I came up the final hill, I heard someone shout my name and was thrilled to find my friend Jonas there waiting for me. He had been on a work trip all week and didn't get back until 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning.  He had taken a quick nap and headed out to the park to support me for a few hours.  He helped me fill my bottles and replace my empty Hammer Gel packets and got me back out on the course with lots of encouragement.  

Lap 4 Mile 37.5-50

Having a friend there to support me gave me a huge lift. I felt totally fresh as I headed out to start my 4th lap. On this lap I began to get sleepy.  Not tired of running, but sleepy.  It was strange to just want to stop and take a nap when I was otherwise feeling great.  Up to this point I had no aches pains, and my legs still felt very fresh. I just felt like I needed a nap.  This sensation continued for a couple of miles and eventually went away.  By this point I had been running for 40 miles and a little less than 8 hours.  I was pleased with my progress, and the thought of a sub 24 hour finish seemed very achievable.  However, I was getting pretty sick of eating a Hammer Gel every 30 minutes.  As I was descending the south side of Turkey Creek, around mile 42 or 43, I ate another gel and washed it down with some Perpetuem.  I fished a salt tab out of my belt and popped it into my mouth and attempted to swallow it.  It went down wrong and caused me to gag. I spit it out, but it was too late. I ended up emptying the contents of my stomach onto the side of the trail with considerable force.  As I was bent over, projectile vomiting into the dirt, I told myself that this was not a big deal.  Puking is very often a part of ultra running. I was a little bummed it was so early in the race, but  I knew it was not the end of the world. I finished as quickly as I could and kept moving.  Much to my surprise, within a minute of that episode, I felt great.  My energy came back, and I was able to pick up my pace comfortably.  

I cruised into Aid Station #2 and stopped for the first time to grab a small cup of ginger ale. I figured the ginger might help settle my stomach, and I love soda and really wanted some.  As I was leaving, I heard my name and looked up to see Wendy and the kids coming toward me. All three of them had made signs and seemed really excited to be there.  They walked with me for a hundred yards or so before the trail headed back into the woods. I got lots of hugs and kisses before we parted ways, and I left them feeling happy and inspired.  I knew by this time that I was on track for a 10 hour split for the first half of race, which was where I wanted to be for a 22 hour finish.  

I cruised into the start/finish in 9 hours and 57 minutes, still feeling really fresh.  Jonas met me at my cooler to help me get my bottles ready.  He was supportive and full of energy and enthusiasm.  
At this point I decided to check a small hot spot I felt on the side of my big toe.  I sat down and pulled off my shoe and peeled back the sock to find the beginning of a tiny blister on the side of my toe.  I should have lanced it and taped it right then, but I made the decision to leave it alone, figuring that it was on the side and not bottom of my foot and wasn't bothering me and wasn't likely to, even if it grew.  I pulled my sock and shoe back on and got ready to head out.  

It was then that Jonas asked where my pacer was.  Well, here's the thing.  I had recruited 4 different pacers and had sent them all an email with my proposed 24 hour schedule.  At this point in the race I was an hour ahead of where I had told my first pacer I would be, and she was nowhere to be seen.  On the way in I had done the math and realized that was a very real possibility and was fully prepared to run the 5th lap without a pacer if I had to.  When I explained this to Jonas, he was way more upset than I was.  It was nice that he was so involved in my race effort.  I assured him that I would be just fine and thanked him for all his help, as he had to leave during my next lap.  I then headed out to run the second half of my race, hoping to do it in about 12 hours.

Lap 5 Mile 50-62.5

As I was running up the service road to the Reedy Creek Trail, I passed my pacer, Sam, who was riding in on her bike.  She saw me and told me to go on and she would catch up.  I clicked off the iPod, took out the ear buds and put the whole shebang into my pocket.  Shortly after the first mile marker I heard foot steps coming up fast behind me.  I knew I was either going to get lapped or that Sam had arrived.  Sure enough, I looked to my left, and there she was.  

Sam's son and my kids both take Tae Kwon Do together.  She has done a couple of the same triathlons that Wendy and I have.  She had no experience with ultra running, other than passing runners in the park from year to year while she was out for a training run.  Having just completed her first marathon last month, I figured this was a perfect time to make the introduction.   I asked her to pace, and she agreed and did a fantastic job.  

We ran and talked about kids, spouses, work, Tae Kwon Do, triathlon, cycling, running, and how insane this event is generally.   I told her my nutrition plan, and she helped me keep track of the mile splits and time my gels.  As we got farther and farther into the lap, I noticed that we were running much faster than I planned for that lap.  I had been excited to start lap 5 because my schedule, even my secret ambitious one, allowed me to slow my pace for the second half of the race.  As it turned out, Sam pushed the pace for me and kept me distracted and entertained, so I didn't realize until much later that we ended up running the 5th lap faster than I had run the 4th lap.  

I told her that her last duty as my pacer was to pose for a picture with me.  Not surprisingly, she was a great sport for that too.  

Lap 6 Mile 62.5-75

Pacer #2, Andy, had eagerly volunteered to pace for me when he first heard I was running this year.  I have done several training runs and bike rides with him over the last couple of years and know how strong and dedicated an athlete he is.  I knew I could count on him to be there and to take his responsibilities as my pacer seriously.  Sure enough, there he was, early and ready.  He took my bottles and filled them with water and met me at my cooler.  I quickly explained my nutrition and pacing plan.  We topped off and headed out.  About 50 yards from my stuff, I realized I didn't have enough salt tabs for the lap, so he went back to get them.  I decided to put as much distance between the two of us as I could.  He caught me somewhere around the one mile mark and insisted on carrying bottles for me.  For the first time in 13 hours, I was able to run with two free hands.  I won't lie - it felt good. He set his watch to beep every 15 minutes, and we settled into our rhythm.  We made good time around the course as night fell around us.  Once the sun went down, the temperature dropped, and I put on a jacket shortly before Aid Station #2.  

We passed the time by talking about work and running and training.  He is training for his first Ironman race this August in Louisville, the weekend after the Leadville Trail 100 Run.  Wendy is doing the same race, so we had plenty to discuss.  

Andy did a fantastic job of keeping track of split times and nutrition requirements for me.  As time wears on in these events, it is very easy for the head to get fuzzy and to start to make mistakes and forget things.   He was also really good about going with the flow.  When his watch beeped, there were times I felt I couldn't stomach a gel, and he offered but didn't push.  He offered to run the 7th lap with me if my next pacer didn't show up.  I thanked him, but I was as certain that my pacer would be there as I was that I was going to finish.  We finished the lap, still feeling strong, and found my next pacer, Tim, early and ready to go.  

Andy took a moment to pose for a picture before filling up my bottles and explaining the process to Tim while I had a quick cup of Mountain Dew and an orange slice.  I thanked Andy for everything, and Tim and I headed off into the dark for Lap 7.  

Lap 7 Mile 75-87.5

I knew Tim would be there, because he always is and always has been.  You see, Tim has been my training partner for the better part of a decade.  I've lost track of how many marathons we've run together.  He introduced me to Umstead State Park and the Umstead Trail Marathon, which he's run every year since it started a decade ago.  We did our first ultra together.  We did our first Ironman together.  He is the only person I know who is foolish enough meet me at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning for a two to five hour run, no matter how hot or how cold or how dark or how stupid.   He paced me in 2011 from the half way point of lap 6 to the halfway point of lap 7.  During that time, I was reduced to a slow walk(stagger) and was falling asleep on my feet.  I hallucinated and walked backwards down hills because my quads were so shot.  It was not pretty. 

Leading up to this race, we had joked about looking forward to some more drug-free hallucinations.  This year was very different.  I was there to run.  I was wide awake and fired up.  Sure, there were walk breaks, but there was also lots of running.  We quickly fell into our familiar rhythm of running and talking.  We have a lot in common.  We're in the same profession, are same age, and both have two kids that are close in age.  We never seem to run out of things to talk about, and this night was no exception. 

I was getting pretty excited as the miles counted down.  I knew I only had one lap left.   I knew I was way ahead of my 24 hour schedule, and I knew I still felt pretty good.  Don't get me wrong - I was tired, and my legs hurt like hell, but it was a pain that I knew meant that they were still working and would still continue to work.  They were stiff and heavy and liked to either walk or run but not transition between the two.  I could still feel how I had allowed that pain to get the better of me in 2011, and I didn't want that feeling again.  During the times when I started to run after a walk break or a steep hill, my legs would hurt intensely.  Instead of giving into the pain like I did in 2011, I focused on it and concentrated on really analyzing the sensation as I continued to run.  Without fail, the rhythm of the run would take over, the stride would lengthen, and the pain would surrender and retreat to the periphery of my consciousness.  I may have waxed rhapsodic about this experience during this lap.  

We headed into the turn around, and I was still running and feeling relatively fresh.  I was supposed to meet my final pacer, Rob, for my last lap.  We got to the turnaround, and there was no sign of him.  I knew he was there because he had spent the evening volunteering at Aid Station #2, and we had spoken as I passed.  He knew my schedule and said he would be there in plenty of time.  I had Tim pose for the obligatory pacer picture and then sent him into the lodge to look for Rob.  

I headed down to my cooler to blow my nose.  Tim arrived shortly after and said he couldn't find Rob but that he would run with me.  I suggested that he go back and check one more time while I headed out.  If he found him he could send him on; if not, he could catch up with me.  He agreed, and I started out for my last lap.

Lap 8 Mile 87.5-100

I hadn't gotten very far when I heard Tim and Rob coming up behind me.  Rob had been there, but Tim had just missed him the first time he checked.  I was relieved for Tim that he didn't have to do another loop.  He said he might take a nap in his car and wait to see me finish.  I thanked him, and he headed back to the turn around.

Rob is my neighbor and was the first person I every knew who had run 50 or 100 miles.  So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that this is all his fault.  He made it seem easy and fun.  He paced me after Tim in 2011 as well.  I chose Rob and Tim as my last two pacers because I knew that I could be completely at ease with them.  They are both good friends, and we have run many, many miles together.  I knew that Rob knows what it is like to be in the last 12 miles of a 100 mile run and that experience would be invaluable.  I wasn't wrong.  

I ran the better part of the first two miles before running out of gas.  I walked most of the next four miles.  It wasn't that my legs were holding me back, nor was any sort of pain.  I simply was too tired to go any faster.  If I tried to, I became nauseous.  By the time we got to Aid Station #2, I was really cold.  I asked Rob to get my second jacket and some gloves from my drop bag while I had a cup of chicken broth and sat in front of a propane heater. This was the only real break that I allowed myself.  I set some rules before I started.  I was not going to waste time in the aid stations.  I was not, under any circumstances, going into the lodge at the Start/Finish, and I wouldn't sit down for the first 50 miles and would only do so after that if absolutely necessary.  This felt necessary.  

After a few minutes (I would guess about 5, but my clock was probably screwed up,) I got up and headed away from the heater and out of the tent.  As soon as I hit the cold air outside, I began to shiver.  When I say shiver, I mean SHIVER.  My hands and arms were shaking uncontrollably, my teeth were chattering, and my legs were starting to tremble.  I knew if I didn't warm up fast, I was going to be in trouble.  I figured the best way to do that was to run.  So that's what I started to do.  

It was a very halted, stiff-legged gait, but I was moving faster than a hike.  I began to get pissed at my legs.  I felt they were holding me back.  At one point I yelled at my legs that I was tired of it and they were going to have to get with the program.  I may have used more colorful language than that, but you get the point. Hearing this outburst, Rob enthusiastically yelled his own words of encouragement, and we were off - slowly and stiffly at first, and then gradually faster and smoother.  I still walked the uphills, but I ran the flats and the down hills.  As the miles wound down, I began to get excited.  I knew I was way under 24 hours and was surprised to see that I was going to be under 23 hours as well.  

For the last two laps I had been passing lots of people.  This made up for any frustration that may have been present for the first few laps, when I was passed by many people. I had managed to run a smart race and save plenty of energy for the second half.  By the time we hit the turn off for the final half mile stretch to the finish, I was at a full run.  Rob kept reminding me to watch my footing. I guess he had visions of me tripping and knocking myself silly in the last few hundred yards.  I didn't trip. I ran.  I ran up the final hill and crossed the finish line with my arms in the air.  I felt amazing.  My legs were tired but nothing hurt.  I still had lots of energy and was on an amazing high.  One of the Race Directors came up and handed me my silver buckle, and I couldn't wipe the giant, maniacal grin off my face.  I made sure to have my picture made with my final pacer.  To top it all off,  Tim had taken a quick nap in his car and stayed to see me finish. 


I crossed the line in 22 hours 13 minutes and 4 seconds.  44th place out of 263 starters.  Over 6 hours faster than I had in 2011. 


Running 100 miles is not a solo event. I could not have accomplished it without a lot of help.  I owe my race to these people.  Wendy, Sutherland and Kettler - you were always supportive of my long runs and even encouraged me to go when I may have had transient motivational issues.  I spent a lot of my day with you all in my head.  My pacers - Sam, Andy, Tim, and Rob.  Best pacing crew ever.  You did your job of keeping me moving and distracted better than I could have ever hoped.  I owe all of you.  Let me know when you need a pacer, and I'm your man.  Jonas - thanks for coming out to cheer me on.  My coach, Scott Weber - wow.  Since I started working with you last September, my running has improved dramatically, and I've set multiple new PRs.  You have a believer in me.  Last, but certainly not least, thanks to Jim and the folks at Raleigh Running Outfitters for their continued support.    


Lap 1  2hrs 15min  Avg. Pace  10:51 per mile
Lap 2  2hrs 25min  Avg. Pace  11:38 per mile
Lap 3  2hrs 32min  Avg. Pace  12:14 per mile
Lap 4  2hrs 44min  Avg. Pace  13:07 per mile
Lap 5  2hrs 42min  Avg. Pace  13:00 per mile
Lap 6  2hrs 52min  Avg. Pace  13:50 per mile
Lap 7  2hrs 56min  Avg. Pace  14:09 per mile
Lap 8  3hrs 42min  Avg. Pace  17:50 per mile
100 miles 22 hours 13 minutes 4 seconds  Avg. Pace 13:20 per mile


I went home and slept for a few hours and was surprised to find the energy and desire to get up and move around.  I was on my feet and moving on and off for the rest of the day.  My recovery is coming along rapidly with about 20 miles for the first post race week.  I will be back up to lots of miles in the next couple of weeks.  I did learn a few lessons.  I slacked off on the nutrition towards the end of lap 6 and was totally off plan by the end of lap 7.  I think that explains why I was so out of gas in the final lap.  I'm convinced that, if I had stayed with the plan, I could have shaved a considerable chunk of time off my final lap.  I also should have taken care of that small blister when I first examined it.  While my feet didn't slow me down at all during the race, I did end up with a couple of blisters and three toenails that are destined to turn black and fall off.  I first noticed them on the drive home after the finish.

All of the things I have read and been told over the years about ultra running finally clicked into place.  It was an epiphany.  I finally got it.  Train hard.  Race smart.  Start slow.  Eat, but not solid food.  (The only solid food I had for 22 hours was three orange slices and 1/4 of a bagel at mile 82.)  I am more excited about training for and running Leadville this August than ever before.  Lots of miles still to go.  I'll keep you posted.

The morning after.  Nice, huh?

1 comment:

  1. Ashby- well done. Nice meeting you down there. good luck training for Leadville.