Sunday, April 28, 2013

My First 100 Miler

by Jason Farr

 I went to Raleigh, NC on April 6, 2013 with the goal of running my first 100 miler in 24 hours. Well, the last part didn’t happen, but I never lost sight of the fact that actually finishing was most important.

The Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run consists of 8 loops; each loop being 12.5 miles with approximately 1,000’ of vertical gain, or 8,000’ over 100 miles. The plan was to run each of the first 4 laps in 2.5 hours and come through 50 miles in 10:30. I went through 50 miles in 10:31, but the first two laps were each around 2:15. Classic rookie mistake; thinking I could “bank” some time by running what felt like such an easy pace early on, only to suffer later!

The course is run on amazingly soft trails through a beautiful state park. Although the course is all “runnable,” it’s definitely not flat. In fact, the “rolling hills” felt like mountains by the last two loops! My nutrition consisted of simple things that I knew I could stomach; mostly Perpetuem, gels, bananas, melons, potatoes, PBJ, and pretzel sticks. As it got later, darker, and colder, I really enjoyed the warm broth and even some some coffee at the Aid Stations.

The weather was great but dramatically different during the day and night. Saturday afternoon temperatures were in the low 70s with what felt like blazing hot sun. I even shed my shirt during the 4th loop! Low 70s don’t seem hot, but in early April, it was by far the warmest day I’ve experienced since before winter. During the night, temps dropped into the mid 30s. Between slowing down and my body’s seeming inability to regulate temperature - or do much of anything after 20 hours of running - I definitely felt the cold.

The first three loops (about 50k) were easy. Although I went out too fast, it never felt hard, and I enjoyed talking with people as we clicked off the early miles. In retrospect, I should have been even more relaxed and worried less about time and pace. Still, what felt so easy early on was faster than the plan I had set for myself. Lesson learned; stick to the plan!

Umstead allows pacers after 50 miles and my wife Lisa joined me for the 5th loop. Since I had started “feeling the miles” during loop 4, her presence was a welcome relief from the emerging aches and pains. But around 57 miles, things started going south. I discovered blisters located in identical places on the inside of each big toe. Lisa ran back to the AS (about 1/4 mile) for band-aids while I drained the blisters using the safety-pins from by bib-number. We carried on, but after that, pretty much everything hurt. I took a little extra time after loop 5 (100k). It was getting dark. My stomach hurt. I had blisters... and more than 50k to go! But after a full change of clothes, a Red Bull and an Alka-Seltzer (miracle drug!), I was ready for the night!

The folks who organize Umstead go out of their way to help people finish 100 miles. For example, volunteer pacers are available for runners who don’t bring their own crews. Although I had Lisa with me for the fifth loop, she (understandably) wanted to sleep a few hours so that she could join me for the last few miles during the early morning hours. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a pacer - particularly a complete stranger - but with fullon darkness and increasing pain, I figured a little company couldn’t hurt. A local runner named Mike Forte joined me through much of the night. He was incredibly patient and encouraging; running when I wanted and walking when needed. We seemed to talk about everything imaginable, which really helped take my mind off the pain and absurdity of running at three o’clock in the morning. Thanks, Mike!

Sometime during the 6th loop, probably around mile 68 or 70, things got really hard. Coming into the 7th - and next to last loop - it was clear that breaking 24 hours wasn’t going to happen. A few thoughts came to mind; one was what my friend (and race volunteer) Charles West told me when I expressed concern about going too fast after lap 2. He said, “you’re not racing, you’re completing.” Pacer Mike echoed that sentiment and reminded me that finishing 100 miles - regardless of time - was still an incredible accomplishment. I realized that I could literally walk the last 30 miles and make the cutoff time of 30 hours. What difference did it make if I was 24:30 or 29:59? I came to finish 100 miles, and I didn’t want to risk that by getting greedy over my finishing time. So I slowed the pace and alternated between 4-5 minutes of easy running and 2-3 minutes of brisk walking. Doing this, I still managed a decent pace, but more importantly, started feeling better!

I headed out for the last loop fully confident that I could finish. With a renewed sense of purpose, I put in my earbuds, got lost in some tunes, and even picked up the pace a little. I met Lisa again after a few miles and her excitement and company was a great boost! She laughed at me as my “running” resembled a drunken stopper, weaving side to side along the trail. She informed me that I was wasting a lot of energy by not going straight. She also made me keep eating as my stomach was in full-on revolt. By that point all I could really digest was broth and coffee from the Aid Station. I did force down one or two gels, but with the finish so close, I mostly just relied on whatever fumes were left in the tank and kept moving forward.

Reflecting on the whole thing, it’s clear that I made a lot of the classic rookie mistakes. Went out too fast. Took too much time through aid stations... especially between each loop. I also had no idea how my body would respond after 14 or 15 hours. Still, I learned a lot of lessons. Some say the golden rules of ultrarunning are “eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty, and walk before you’re tired.”  Well, I followed the first two rules really well. But you can’t “bank” time, in a 100 miler. The extra thirty minutes I gained by doing the first two loops fifteen minutes faster than I planned was completely gone well before the 100k mark. It’s also important to maintain forward progress. I lost large chunks of time between each loop. There’s a fine line between taking care of yourself and wasting time. I’m glad I addressed my feet (blister) issues early, but I know that I could have been quicker between each loop and through the Aid Stations.

Even though I had hoped to finish in the dark, experiencing the second sunrise was surreal. With a mile or two to go it was clear that I would actually accomplish my goal. As I ran down the trail toward the steps leading to the finish line, I choked up a little and was overwhelmed with emotion. I forced myself to run up the steep trail leading to the finish line feeling both ecstatic and obliterated at the same time. The clock said 25:47, but that didn’t matter. I had done it! I had run 100 miles!

Running 100 miles became a journey of curiosity and self-discovery. Could I do it? What would it be like after 100k? All I can say is that strange things happen when moving forward on foot for that long. I don’t know why some of us willingly subject ourselves to such ordeals, but whatever our reasons, and whatever it was that happened to my mind and body out there in the middle of the night, I liked it.