Umstead 100 (April 7, 2018)
“Sorry I’m moving so slowly,” I told the valet, as I rolled myself out of the driver’s seat of my rented Nissan Rogue, stopped in front of the luxury Umstead Hotel in Cary, North Carolina, shortly before 8am on Sunday morning. “I just ran 100 miles.”
“Oh!” The young man smiled. “You ran the Rock & Roll!”
I scowled as I opened the back door to retrieve my drop bags, my mind flashing to the radio ads I’d heard for Rock & Roll Raleigh, happening the same day thirty minutes away. “Um, no. Rock & Roll is a half marathon. Thirteen point one miles. I ran a hundred. A hundred miles.”
The valet was non-responsive. In his defense, I sort of snapped at him in a way that suggested I might have ended the sentence with, “you stupid idiot.” In his defense, most people can’t fathom it.
I’d run the Umstead in 2016, my only other 100 miler. I was back again, not to prove anything, but simply as an opportunity to test my fitness as I ramp to my main 2018 running goal, the Bigfoot 200 in August. In so doing, I’d hoped to better my 2016 time of 25:46 and, just maybe, break the 24 hour mark, a milestone at the 100 mile distance.
On Thursday, luggage and yoga mat in tow, I touched down in North Carolina to 60 degree temperatures and sunny skies. A cruel teaser, I knew, as the forecast for Saturday’s race had hardened into the undeniable: rain all day. Followed by rain.
(This forecast would also cause me to callously lose all sympathy for Boston Marathon runners who, just eight days later, would face the identical conditions. In a moment of selfish frustration, I may have posted on one friend’s Facebook page who was lamenting the weather: “If I can run in it for 24 hours, you can run in it for 3.” She “liked” my comment, but ultimately chose not to start.)
Umstead is a “loop course.” Twelve point five miles, run 8 times around. At the start/finish is Race Headquarters (above), with an accompanying outdoor aid station. A second aid station is located at the 7 mile mark on the course. While such repetitive running can be tedious, it is a logistically simple blessing for runners like myself, on our own without crew. Like most others, I set up an area for myself at the corner of one of the HQ tables, including a large duffel bag full of the clothes I would need for the duration, and a pilfered, plush bathrobe embroidered with “The Umstead Hotel” that I would use as a cover-up while changing clothes in this very public area later in the race. (I also remember wearing the bathrobe at 2:45am, over my dry clothes, standing in front of the fire while my volunteer pacer, Stacie, spooned potato soup into my mouth from a styrofoam cup. I had just 12.5 miles to go. I might be making up the bathrobe part; but I’m confident the rest of it happened).
I’d packed every last running and hiking jacket I owned; every pair of gloves and mittens; and had multiple shirts, pants, shoes and socks. Still, with a forecast that called for unrelenting rain from 6am until 2am, and temperatures that would peak in the high 50s midday, before dropping steadily to settle in the 30s overnight, my goal became quite simple: finish without hypothermia. Before I even set foot on the course, time no longer mattered.
I’d set out hoping I could make the first three laps, possibly four, without needing to enter Race HQ to change clothes. But by the time I’d finished my third lap, comfortably running at a 24-hour pace with a small buffer, the rain was coming down so hard I thought it better to get in front of any threat of hypothermia and change into a dry shirt and leggings, as well as a fully waterproof coat and pants.
I would run in these clothes for the next 12 hours, while day turned to dusk turned to night, and the field got smaller and smaller. The challenge of cold rain is staying warm. For most, bundling up too much means sweating; and sweat turns frigid in a heartbeat. And therein lies one small benefit of being an incessantly cold person — despite being covered head to toe in waterproof hiking gear that doesn’t breathe, I would never once break a sweat.
But my hands. Two pairs of gloves, three pairs of mittens (one waterproof), handwarmers, zip lock bags… and I couldn’t prevent my hands from freezing into claws, making them completely useless to me. One might think, “What do you need your hands for? You’re running with your feet.” Yes, but… It would take me 2 hours over three laps to make basic clothing changes. At 3:00am, the rain and snow finally stopping for the night and time to make one last warm clothing change before the finish, it would take three people 45 minutes to change my pants, socks, shoes and bra, to zip up my various jackets, and to put on my final pair of mittens as I was incapable of moving any of my 10 fingers on my own. It was in this 45 minutes that I would abandon any hope of a sub-24 hour finish.
In fact, I would finish in 24:43:09, as part of an elite and hearty group. Despite a race known for being “beginner friendly,” only 43% of starters actually finished, the lowest finishing percentage in the race’s 24 year history. (Around Mile 70, I would step up to Aid Station 2 for some ginger snaps and, seeing bodies strewn about under the long, heated tent, think that this is what a refugee camp must look like). I was the 8th woman overall.
I have used words like, “awesome,” and “amazing” and “fantastic” to describe my race. Nonrunners have trouble grasping this, given the weather and the distance. Had I the option, I would have preferred 60 degrees and sunny. But then maybe I would not feel so entitled to the brags. There will be plenty of sunny races.