“The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper, and I suppose that if gifted with a full quiver, (s)he also writes like a journalist.” E.O. Wilson
One of the hats I wear is that of a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State. I earned my Ph.D. in forestry from State and love teaching there. Although I’m trained as a forest ecologist, most of my teaching is in professional development. My career has taken many twists and turns and I have lots to say about it, some of which helps students. It’s rewarding and fun.
But I miss ecology and teaching science, which is why I continue to teach field classes at the NC Botanical Garden and elsewhere. When a long-time professor retired and his study abroad class to the Galapagos was left open, I immediately emailed my department head to tell him that he needed a co-instructor and that I would be great for the job. Sometimes you have to be direct. So I was.
I’ve wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands for a very long time. When I was a kid, I eagerly awaited my monthly National Geographic World magazine. My dream was to travel the world and write for National Geographic. I was 12 or 13 when I entered an essay contest sponsored by World. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but you could choose one of a dozen destinations to write about, and the grand prize was a trip to your destination. I wanted it enough to remember that the kid who won wrote about ancient Egypt using a clever newspaper layout and style. I wrote about the Galapagos. I was already an ecologist in the making, though I didn’t discover it as a field of study until my junior year of college.
Ecologists want to understand how plants and animals respond to and within their environments. Why ecology? First, I’m insatiably curious, a skeptic, and I find asking questions infinitely more interesting than knowing the answers. Second, I’m a big-picture person who sometimes struggles with details. Working like a bookkeeper is the hardest part of the scientist’s triangle for me. Third, the natural world never ceases to amaze me, whether it is my back yard or the Galapagos Islands. The mysteries are what make it so compelling.
Ecology asks the big-picture questions that continually inspire me. While the concepts are intuitive, ecology demands that you draw together all the knowledge you have to explain something you’re witnessing in nature.
It’s that intuitiveness about ecology that makes it so much fun to share with others. There’s nothing like an octopus video to get everyone in the room squealing–indeed, this happened two weeks ago in Science Olympiad, with the kids AND the parents. Yet, science is undergoing a crisis because of our inability to communicate (a future post and something I’ve ranted about for years). I’m trained as a scientist, but my ability to communicate has landed me most of my opportunities.
The complexity of nature and ecology bogs people down. We seek the simplest explanation, which is not always the best or most complete one. However, I find that stories and tidbits of information get us all thinking about bigger ideas. When I posted a compelling photograph of the Table Rock fire and a short explanation about fire ecology on Facebook, I received many positive comments from friends of all ages and backgrounds, that they had learned something new and interesting.
Following the Table Mountain fire in Linville Gorge. The photos look scary (and beautiful), but the montane pine forest and woodland that rims the gorge is adapted for stand-replacing fires like this one. I’ve been up here several times in the last few years and from an ecological perspective, this fire is just what Linville Gorge desperately needs for species like Table Mountain and pitch pine and rare species like Greenland sandwort and mountain golden heather. In fact, the USFS has a proposal on the table to use prescribed fire in Linville Gorge for this very reason. How this fire plays out–both from a PR perspective as well as ecologically–is going to dictate this conversation, and future conversations, on burning in this wilderness area. I hope that it burns and that the public will see the benefits.
To that end, I’m planning a similar exercise, one I’ve used over the years in the classroom and for fun, with friends. While in the Galapagos, I hope to post a daily photo with a caption–a great photo and a fun fact that will pique your curiosity, but one that leads you to bigger ideas and questions. I’m going where Charles Darwin noted astonishing differences in species between islands, which gave rise to his theory of evolution. The theory of evolution and understanding where species come from underpins ecology as a science. Wow!
Who is it for? Everyone: my NC State students, my colleagues, my family, my kids, my Science Olympiad team, and my friends. Stay tuned!
My students have also started a website, where they plan to post a daily blog, field guide, and video: http://ncsugalapagos2014.wordpress.com/. We’re looking forward to sharing what we’re leaning. Join us on our adventure!
On the eve of the 11th Umstead Trail Marathon, I thought I’d post my race report from 2009, my first marathon. It was fun to re-read and remember how I felt as a newbie at my first marathon (I’ve now completed 5–3 of them at Umstead). [Wow, I seemed so much more serious back then.]
Umstead is still my favorite marathon and I’m excited for my friends who are doing it this year, especially Will because it’s his first. I’m taking a break between Uwharrie 40 and the Blue Ridge Marathon and volunteering this year, and can’t wait.
[About the PS: Two weeks before the race, Ann was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. I immediately freaked out and lost 10 lbs., while she rationally considered her treatment options (I did eventually get a grip). Today she is just months away from that magical "5 years cancer-free" mark. Woohoo! And, in hindsight, what she went through for treatment was far tougher than I ever could have imagined.]
Many people told me I was crazy when I signed up for the Umstead marathon as my first marathon. I think Steve’s exact words were “Umstead – stark raving bonkers.” It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. I love running at Umstead, I’d run most of the course at one time or another, and it seemed like a good challenge, something you can’t “fake.” And I reasoned that if I was only going to do one marathon, Umstead would be the one I’d like to tackle.
So after all the snow, I was happy that Saturday promised to be nice. As the week wore on, many experienced marathoners asked me if I was worried about the heat. All my training was in sub-35 degrees, but I didn’t think it would be that bad.
Andrew and some of my awesome friends volunteered for the race, including parking duty, the mile 2.5 water stop, and mountain bike people to monitor the course. Seeing them out on the course really helped, especially after mile 18. THANK YOU to Andrew, Nancy, Pat, Melina, Amanda, Dan, Bruce, Steve, Tom, Diane, Lisa, Rebecca, and Ben!
The race started and I was running too fast, trying to pace with Audrey. I think our first two miles were at an 8.5 minute pace. We chucked our long-sleeved shirts at the Y water table amid huzzahs and kept running. The first section was easy and flat. Everyone spaced out nicely by the time we hit the single track, part of Company Mill Trail, around mile 4. Audrey quickly disappeared down the trails as I decided no way was I going to break my leg so soon into the race! The guy in front of me went down flat on his hands and pushed himself straight back up, almost without losing cadence. Nice save! I still say the steep switchback up the Sycamore Trail is far better than the gruesome Graylin powerline hill. No spring wildflowers were out yet, but I looked.
Hit the Graylin gate for the first time feeling great, and whizzed down the hill back to Reedy Creek Rd. This first section was deceptively easy—lots of flats and downhills. But I knew Turkey Creek was looming ahead—twice. South Turkey Creek wasn’t too bad and I finally caught up with Audrey on the North Turkey Creek section. She was feeling dizzy and her hamstring—which she’d pulled last week—was hurting. We agreed we would have smoked this race if it had been a half marathon—we hit the half at almost exactly 2 hours. Audrey assured me she’d be OK and I kept trucking along. I have run Turkey Creek enough that I know exactly where the last big hill is (the hairpin turn after the bridge) and it was fantastic to see the sign for Graylin Rd. telling me I’d finished my first of two legs on Turkey Creek. I grabbed water at the gate before turning around—at this point it was hot and I was drinking 2 cups of water at every aid station. It was neat to double back several times during the race—everyone on the course, whether they were behind you or in front of you, managed a smile, wave, or a “good job.” Even the leaders at the front were encouraging everyone else along, and that told me I was in a good race with good folks.
The trip back down Turkey Creek is when I really started feeling pooped, and that’s when I was passed by several women. I was happy to see Ben on the bridge at North Turkey Creek, who has surely run more miles in Umstead Park than anyone. By the time I hit the old roadbed of Ebenezer Church Rd., I was running into the sun and feeling hot, thirsty and nauseous. I think miles 18 and 19 were the worst of my race, climbing up the hills of South Turkey Creek. When I hit the aid station at Trenton Rd., I was really feeling sick and knew I’d have a hard time finishing if I actually threw up. They were out of pretzels but still had Fritos. I hate Fritos. But they were the best d*mn Fritos I’d ever eaten. They were like Fritos from heaven. Bring on the Fritos! They made my stomach feel much better and I managed to eat a Gu with some caffeine and refill my water bottles. Then I pushed on. I remembered Diane telling me how excited she was when she passed mile 20 at Richmond, because it was the longest she’d ever run. I spent the next stretch tag-teaming with a couple of guys and one who was doing his second marathon, and it was Umstead again (see—I’m not crazy!). Every time we passed a mile marker I’d shout “This is the farthest I’ve ever run!” They surely thought that heat stroke was imminent.
I saw Diane as I headed, run/walking and actually feeling better, up the Corkscrew. I’ll admit that I was a little frustrated walking these hills that I’d pushed myself on week after week. Running them so many times before and to have to walk them now!!! But I was still thirsty and feeling sick again. Diane checked to make sure I had enough water on me and asked if I’d needed any salt tablets. Sadly, she didn’t have any Fritos. I pushed on, knowing that Cedar Ridge was still ahead. I had told Nancy that if I didn’t show up after 5 hours to come look for me on the Cedar Ridge Trail, a long, cruel, rocky, downhill stretch to the turnaround at the creek and then a long slog back uphill. I managed to drink ALL of my water again between Trenton Rd. and Cedar Ridge. No matter—Andrew and the boys and Amanda, Nancy and Dan were there! What a smile that gave me! I asked for 2 water bottles to be filled, grabbed another cup of Fritos, and headed for the creek. Everyone coming back out was walking, and I was no different. I did run to the creek but did not have the energy to run back up that hill. But Andrew met me with a hug (and that’s true love, folks—I was utterly disgusting at that point) and walked with me on the last stretch out of that awful place. Of all the race reports I read later on, everyone seemed to agree that that stretch, at miles 22-24, clearly falls in the “insult to injury” category.
I finished the uphill slog, grabbed a last cup of Fritos (which were no longer the magical food they were at mile 20) and more water, and made the right turn onto Reedy Creek Road. My friends and family escorted me the whole way. That was so awesome. I’m afraid I was out of witty commentary at that point (and snapped at Nancy a few times—sorry, Nancy) so I just jogged along. I tried visualization at Cemetery Hill—I’d done the hill so many times from the Tile Shop (and even once consciously tried to put away a memory of me gliding over it for this exact moment), but still had to walk it. Rats.
The turn at the water fountain finally came and it was all downhill. This was the only really confusing part of the race, as there were many turnoff roads and I was certainly too loopy to figure out where I was supposed to go. Nancy helped me keep my bearings, things started looking familiar, the 26 mile marker came into view, and I actually started running hard, and ran across the finish line in a respectable 4 hours 21 minutes. That works out to a 9:58 average and it will tell you something about the difficulty of the course and the heat that my time was good enough to place 9th overall female! I was surprised and thrilled to make the top 10! I received an awesome, hand-carved, wooden frog plaque for my prize. And at the finish line, the whole Camden/Gottbrath family was waiting for me along with my family and other pacer friends. What a wonderful end to a great race.
Maybe it’s the post-race euphoria, but I highly recommend the Umstead marathon. Great support crew, awesome goodies, and you can train every mile of the course. There’s nothing better than running in the park on the fire roads. The trails were fun. The other runners were great, too. I might even do it again, and see if I can run the Corkscrew next time around. But having so many friends out there, along with Andrew and the boys, really made it a wonderful experience.
The crazy thing is that I’m trying to figure out if I could go on just a short little run this weekend. Not far. Not fast. Just to get out a bit. I guess I’m a runner now!
Thanks for reading.
It has taken years, but Andrew has finally convinced me that training with friends is key to achieving your running goals and a lot of fun besides. Not being as extroverted as Andrew (well really, who is?), I hated feeling over-scheduled each week, and as a result, I’d miss many workouts. It wasn’t until I began running with my friend Ann that I started actually looking forward to long weekend runs. It was a way for us to carve out time to catch up each week. Soon afterward Nancy joined us and we have run many a mile and shared many a laugh together.
Many thanks are due to the Umstead girls—Audrey, Diane, AnaRita, and Julie—plus others who joined here and there—for weekly runs in subfreezing temperatures starting from the Tile Shop. They carried me along and helped me discover that I was faster than I thought I could be. Likewise, the 5:45 a.m. Tuesday crew at the Y reliably busted my chops every week and made me a better runner.
I didn’t run with Bruce too much this training season, but I will not forget him getting me started on my first—and only—20 miler when it was 17 degrees when we started from the Tile Shop. Thanks Bruce!
Nancy has been a tremendous comfort to me recently as well as a running buddy. She is level-headed and a great listener and she picked me up several times when I was wallowing in uncertainty and self-doubt. She rode by my side to the finish, cheerfully rebuffing my grumpiness.
During the training for this race, my friend Audrey kept me going each week—agreeing to meet me in the cold, often before the sunrise. She laughed when I mapped out the hardest routes possible each week. She reassured me when I felt no confidence about the growing mileage. As a friend and an experienced marathoner, she did much to put me on the starting line in as good shape as possible.
Finally, there are 2 people who were with me every mile of that race:
It is both a blessing and a curse to have your husband as your running coach. There is no faking the weekly assessments of how well you are doing with your training! Andrew’s energy and enthusiasm is perfect for his role as a running coach, though it can be exhausting for his spouse! But, I could not have had more dedicated, enthusiastic support. As I paced off each mile, I kept thinking about the amazing things he did for me week after week, often putting aside his own workouts and plans, to ensure that I could reach my goal. Seeing Andrew out there on the course with Stephen and Simon carried me all the way to the finish line. He is both my husband and my best friend.
And—running a marathon is hard, surely one of the hardest things I’ve done. Yet it pales in comparison to the strength and endurance that my best girlfriend Ann will need for her race this year. During each mile of the race I thought of her vivacity, determination, humor, strength, and friendship. I have no words to describe how I felt when I saw her at the finish line. This run was for her.
Uwharrie is probably my favorite running event of the year—we always have a great crew of Peeps, an awesome place to stay, and plenty of gnarly single-track for whatever distance you care to run. A bunch of us tried to leave Raleigh around noon, but beset by inevitable logistical drag (this year caused by Wake County Schools canceling a 4th day, work, grocery shopping, me forgetting various items, and lunch), we didn’t arrive until nearly 5:30 pm. I cooked our usual huge pasta dinner, others made salad, people arrived and claimed beds, we ate, talked, laughed, and made plans for the morning, and commenced the annual debate about campfire construction (teepee or log cabin).
As I enjoyed the fire and the company that evening, I thought about my training for my first Uwharrie 40 and concluded that either a) the training wasn’t that bad, or b) I was woefully unprepared. I had done the Richmond marathon in November, the NERR 32 mile run (50 mi over 3 days) in December, and one 25+ mi run of most of the Umstead marathon course in January. I did a few back-to-back long runs on the weekends, but not many. My mileage for December was 150 and I was at 135 for January. I was at least coming to Uwharrie feeling strong and healthy. I hoped it was enough.
My alarm went off at 4:45 am after a sleep that I would characterize as not bad. I got up quietly so as to not wake Joanna, who gets up exactly on time and not a minute sooner. Tiptoed downstairs in a surprisingly quiet house for 15 people sleeping in it and spent a few minutes alone getting the coffee going. Nancy had made two giant pots of steel-cut oatmeal and put out a dozen toppings—I went with dried blueberries, brown sugar, walnuts, and half-and-half. Yum. Nancy is an early bird and she came down a few minutes later and we enjoyed coffee together. Soon the 20 milers were up and I was scrambling trying to make sure I had everything. Jon offered to drive me to the start, so after running back in the house for a few items I needed (more coffee, hugs), we were off.
Jon took me to El Dorado and through packet pick-up, and waited patiently as I decided to change shirts after realizing I would freeze before the start. Before I knew it, I was on the bus. I was bummed he wasn’t on the bus with me—his name was in the lottery for the 40, but he didn’t get a slot. The bus filled and we drove off. As we rattled over the bumpy dirt road to the start, two guys in front of me were talking about the sign-up for Bull Run Run and Rocky Raccoon, and behind me, folks were comparing notes on their latest hundred milers. My seatmate casually mentioned the Graveyard 100. I overheard someone else say he logged 250 miles last month.
Meanwhile, my excitement and confidence steadily dripped into a puddle on the floor of the bus, much like my hydration pack was doing for some inexplicable reason. I looked up at the window and wondered if I could escape through it. These were not my people. My people were back in the cabin drinking coffee, eating breakfast and talking smack. My proudest ultra achievement to date was conspiring with Danny to hide a rubber chicken and high heels in Joanna’s and Jon’s drop bags at Triple Lakes 40. What the hell was I doing here?
GET A GRIP
I escaped the bus and headed to the port-a-john. Then I shuffled over to the campfire to keep warm before the start. It wasn’t long before I dropped my 20 mile drop bag and walked over to the start. I was relieved to finally see a few familiar faces, including Race Director Kim Page give us the final instructions as the sky grew lighter, along with my spirits. I haven’t run 40 miles here, but I’ve been at this start before and it’s one of my favorite trails to run. Bring it! We started and trotted conservatively down the road to hop onto the stone staircase that is the first mile of the Uwharrie Mountain Run. Despite my earlier uncertainty, I couldn’t help smiling as I watched the sun rise at the top of the first climb. It was beautiful. There seemed to be a lot less chatter among this crowd, but I was going to have fun today. Life is rich!
The first eight miles flew by on a now-familiar course. I felt great, but worried about ITB problems later in the race, so instead of whooping and flying on the downhills, I tried to take short steps and run conservatively. I did whoop a few times. Because running at Uwharrie is fun!
How awesome it was to see Jon, Carolyn and Kathleen as I came into mile 8! It seemed like I’d just started. At some point I looked at my watch and realized I’d already been running for a couple of hours. I have no concept of elapsed time, which turns out to be a real gift for long-distance running. I had broken the 40 mile distance into 12 aid station stops, and this worked well though I had to keep re-counting them in my head.
Long-distance running is remarkably time-consuming. Even though my friends tease me for overstaying my aid station stops, I remembered the last thing Danny said before I left. “Eat and drink as much as you possibly can.” And I did. I ate a pb&j at every aid station up to mile 23. When I hiked the hills, I ate. When I cruised the flats or downhills, I drank water. Every other aid station, I put half Nuun tablets in my small water bottle, then handed it to a volunteer for a refill. I tried not to spend too much time in the aid stations by thinking ahead about what I needed at each stop. By mile 14, it was warm and sunny and a kind volunteer fished out my hat and stuffed my fleece beanie in my pack.
I was amazed at the condition of the Uwharrie Trail—or more accurately, the forest. Other runners and I kept talking about how much damage the forest had sustained in the past year. When the Peeps came out for our annual training run, so many trees had fallen down that it was hard to see the trail in places. Over and over again I felt grateful for the TrailHead volunteer crew that had spent a day clearing the stretch between miles 11 and 17. I mentioned this to a new TrailHead friend I ran with for a while, Grub. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask the origins of his nickname and once he pulled ahead and out of sight, I spent the next couple hours idly wondering whether he’d been named after the larvae or food. Some people say that one of the greatest challenges of distance running is the monotony. But I’ve never been bored. As Dorothy Parker said, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
My efficient passes through the aid stations came to a screeching halt at the turnaround, which I hit just under the 4:30 mark. I hadn’t set a time goal for the half, but it seemed reasonable given my previous 20 mile race times of 3:42 and 3:50. At least I knew it wasn’t too fast. My brain lapsed into complete disarray when I arrived—there were too many things going on and my fragile grip on organization shattered to bits (don’t ask me to remember more than 3 items on a grocery list). A volunteer immediately grabbed my aid bag, dumping its contents on a nearby chair and telling me to sit, then Jon materialized and grabbed my pack to refill it. It was all a little overwhelming, so I stood up and went to find a port-a-john, hoping to collect myself within its blue walls.
I was glad I’d decided to carry my headlamp from the start, because I would certainly have forgotten it. I wanted to take off my warm shirt but couldn’t think of what I might need for the back half. Do I leave the fleece hat? Next, I forgot to think about food. Carolyn was waiting as I came out and I felt good, but surprisingly hot. I fished out the washcloth Nancy had given me and wet it down, wiping the salt and grime from my face. That felt good. The volunteer assigned to me (!) carefully broke my Nuun tablets in half as I requested, and offered to repack my drop bag. Jon got me some flat Coke and chicken soup, and helped me stuff a spare shirt plus my hat and gloves in my pack. I was off. It wasn’t as hard to leave as I thought it might be—I felt good and not too tired, and I was excited about seeing my friends as they finished their 20 mile race.
The first Peep I ran into was Danny, just before the mile 23 aid station. Then I saw Joanna, Will and Ken, finding Ken coming up mile 16 while I barreled (carefully) down mile 24. I stopped and hugged every one of them and it was like getting a Gu packet of happy each time. I knew that seeing them would give me a big mental boost. It was awesome. By that time I realized that I’d left my Nuun tablets at the turnaround, and Ken gave me his last tablet. Besides the Peeps, I recognized numerous TrailHeads and other local trail runners. Some, like Shannon and Tina (who finished 2nd and 3rd overall!), passed me on their way back as I was still heading for the turnaround. Then there were a slew of people whom I recognized but didn’t know. I’d call out something like “I have that shirt!” or “I met you at Medoc!” as we passed each other. A few folks seemed to recognize me too, though I did get the requisite “good job, buddy!” and answered “you too!” in the sweetest voice I could muster. Come on. Guys do not wear capri tights, and I was also wearing my cute swirly ballcap from Ann.
I passed quite a few people on the back half and kept cautioning myself to slow down. But my ITB wasn’t even whimpering and I only felt a little tight in my hip flexors. A little nausea came and went, but never got too bad. Salty Fritos seemed to settle my stomach better than anything, though I also tried some of the potatoes. I was thrilled to see one of my heroes, Bill Squier, at a confusing water crossing and share the not-obvious path that had taken me a few minutes to remember on my way out. I was hesitating at some of the stream crossings, a few times stepping unsteadily on a log, then stepping back off to regain my balance and try again. My feet stayed dry most of the way.
Before I reached Mile 26, I passed the last 20 mile runner. I didn’t know when it would happen but knew it would be a mental challenge when it did, because the 40 mi field was now well spread out and I would be alone much of the last 14 miles. Peanut butter and jelly had lost its allure, and there was something wrong with the valve on my hydration pack. I found myself walking a stretch I could easily run—and remembered: Walk when you need to, but run when you can. Could I run? Yes. So I did.
I did not see a soul between miles 26-29—coincidentally, when I crossed the marathon mark (there was no sign) into the ultra distance for the second time in a race and the fifth time ever. I had just finished a cup of Fritos and realized (finally) that there wasn’t anything wrong with my valve–I’d run out of water. Crap. At least I had 8 oz of Nuun in my handheld, which of course seemed unappealing.
I saw dark shapes in my peripheral vision and turned my head, squinting to see the runner ahead. It was a blackened stump. This happened several times.
I wondered what my boys were doing.
Wait, this isn’t familiar. Am I off-trail? I wondered what mile it was.
I already turned around, right? Pretty sure I did.
The empty Fritos cup was sooooo heavy. No wonder, it was full of air. I turned it over to empty it and heaved a sigh of relief. Better.
Run if I can. Can I run? Yes.
Study the leaves on the ground. What forest type is this?
Rocks, chestnut oak, blackjack oak. Dry, thin soil. Where are the birds? Shouldn’t there be squirrels?
Whoa, who’s that? Oh, stump.
Grub as in larvae, or grub as in food?
Paper cup. Heavy.
More rocks. Quartz.
Have I really been running for six and a half hours?
After this went on awhile I realized it was going to be a long section and decided to focus on my friend Madison, a little girl in PA with Rett syndrome whom I’d met through Irun4. Every week she has to work hard in physical therapy to strengthen her legs, and I channeled her determination as best as I could to get me to the mile 29 aid station. Finally, it came into sight, and I silenced the voices inside of my head by drowning them with chicken broth while the wonderful volunteers refilled my hydration pack. Thanks, Maddy. You are a rock star!
The aid stations and the volunteers really were wonderful. And I found out that passing people on a long-distance run is not very fun. For one thing, you’re usually passing them because they are not feeling good. You’ve both been out in the woods for hours, so you have to say something. What, I had no idea. I settled on saying something that I hoped was encouraging, then asking if they were OK and did they need anything. I hoped it was the right blend of sympathy and encouragement. I spent some time thinking about my friend Jean and her husband Bill on my way to the 32 mile aid station.
The trail looks different coming back, and I crossed a creek and lost the trail. I was confused for several minutes until I realized it…I could not believe I missed that non-creek-crossing! A guy I’d passed caught back up to me as I realized my error and shrieked aloud with frustration. That of course was followed by the boulder-strewn march uphill where I felt like I was hardly moving forward. My legs were getting tired. Finally, I was past the big boulders at the top and dropping down toward the road at mile 32. The toughest stretch of the race for me was easily miles 27-31.
I saw the flags just before the road and my spirits picked up. “Woo hoo,” I yelled, unconvincingly, as I came out of the woods. And who was there but my buddy Bryan aka Gyro, now my friend after our first meeting at LRTR in 2013. [Funny tangent: he recognized Andrew’s Peep shirt at the Tar Heel 10 miler and told him about meeting a crazy Peep at LRTR. To his credit, Andrew said, “Oh yes...that’s my wife.”] It was so good to see a friendly face. He waved me across the road and then came over to chat for a bit, told me I looked great and was 5th female, and sent me off feeling much happier.
I’m not that competitive. I have the instinct but not the talent. Ahead of me, I glimpsed someone carrying a magenta pullover. I despise the pinkification of women’s running gear, but I was happy to know that one of the few women was just ahead. And yes, I knew that trying to race someone at mile 30 of a 40 mile race is sheer stupidity for someone with my limited experience. Still, I thought I might sneak up on her and see how she looked. I was only 200 feet back and closing when I took a sip from my water bottle. The woman’s head whipped around; she saw me and took off, disappearing over another of Uwharrie’s relentless ridges.
About an hour later, I saw her again. I caught up with her this time. “How’s it going?” I asked. “It was going fine til I bought it just now.” “Are you OK?” “Yeah, I’m OK. I hope you don’t mind if I follow you for awhile. I need to get my rhythm back.” “Sure, let’s do it.” We started running together. Her name is Lisa, and she recently moved to Southern Pines. We chatted about this and that, keeping the conversation light. “I think that the mile 8 aid station is just ahead.” “Mile 8? Are you sure?” “Pretty sure.”
Oh Lisa, you don’t know me at all, because if you did, you’d know that I can’t count.
It was mile 5. I stopped at the table for Fritos and some Coke. Lisa blew straight through the aid station without pausing. I only glimpsed her once after that. She was running super-strong. She finished 3 minutes in front of me. We congratulated each other at the finish and she said that if she had stopped, she knew she wouldn’t be able to start again. Peeking at the results a few days later, I realized that she must have passed me at the mile 20 turnaround as…you guessed it…I ate chicken soup. My picnicking approach to distance running gets me again! I think she may have been the only person who passed me on the back 20, so I can’t complain. She ran one of the strongest second halves of the 40 mile race!
I was pretty excited, though, to discover that I had just 5 miles to go, rather than 8. I was tooling along when I saw someone coming toward me. I had long since passed the last 20 miler so I thought I was hallucinating and seeing stumps again. But it turned out to be Jon out for a training run, despite spending much of the day supporting the Peeps, me especially. Before the race, I’d brushed aside his and Carolyn’s offer to crew for me. I did not expect anyone to spend their day chasing me around the woods. But it made a huge difference and I hope they both know how much I appreciated it.
Apparently he and Carolyn had missed me by only a few minutes at mile 32. He ran behind me for a while with a steady stream of encouragement. I may have done some whining. In Jon’s mind, though, I had already finished, and he was talking about what my next ultra race should be, so I don’t think he minded. I thought to myself that he sounded like a raving lunatic, but I was grateful for the support.
Jon went on and I stopped at the very last aid station for some Coke and Fritos, a little salt and sugar to fuel me to the finish. The hill (the last one, Jon promised) seemed endless, and the rocks were back. I didn’t feel that bad, but I was ready to be finished. Then I passed the split, where the 40 mile finish cuts to the left and down a long, rocky ravine to the end. I saw the flags and could not believe I was finishing 40 miles and feeling so good. 9 hours and 21 minutes, woo hoo! Carolyn was there waiting to give me a hug, and Kim was there to congratulate me by name and hand me my beautiful finisher’s pottery. Wow, I could not believe it. I stood around in a daze for several minutes, then traded congratulations with Lisa and some of the TrailHeads I knew by the campfire. Finished. Forty miles! Wow.
My friends picked me up and took me back to the cabin where most of our crew was waiting. I talked to Andrew, took a long, hot shower, ate amazing homemade food, and enjoyed hanging out with the Peeps and some TrailHeads. I couldn’t stop smiling.
The 40 mile field was small this year. I was 5th of 8 women and 45th of 80 overall finishers. I was thrilled to have only added about 20 minutes onto the back half of my race. Most importantly, I discovered that you can have fun running 40 miles of wicked single-track as an ordinary runner with some good training, a bit of luck, and great support. My second 40 mile race but not my last. I can’t wait for the next adventure.
I’m running Uwharrie 40 for the first time next Saturday, so it’s time to wrap my head around running that distance and what I’ll want to have with me. I’ve also had this list open and in editing mode for awhile, so it’s time to wrap it up.
What we did well:
1. Having an amazing co-conspirator is a must. Not only is Joanna more rational than me, but she had a similar vision. We were all about having fun and enjoying the adventure, but we were both committed to finishing the distance. And, we’re different enough we brought different strengths to the planning and execution of the adventure.
2. Running on Friday seemed silly given that 3.5 mi was a drop in the bucket toward our overall distance. However, it gave us a “shake-down” for the long run on Saturday and helped us prepare for the long day on Saturday.
3. Vaseline is awesome. I’ve fortunately had few problems with chafing and blisters, but dry winter weather will sometimes put deep, and painful, cracks in my feet. I had one on my heel that was mostly healed before the weekend. I generously slathered my feet with Vaseline before putting my socks and shoes on that day. Zero blisters despite running for nearly 10 hours, 7 of them in the rain with wet socks.
4. Extras of everything, or at least two trail maps. I lost mine at dinner on Friday but fortunately bought two and gave Joanna one. Joanna didn’t lose hers.
5. I’m not a big fan of gels–more than 2 guarantees nausea. However, I was glad I had one with caffeine in my pack. I woke up with a migraine on Saturday. I didn’t want to take my big-league meds, but caffeine can help. Running helps as well–all the blood going to my legs eases the dilation of blood vessels in my head, which causes the migraine. My headache never really went away, but the caffeine helped take the edge off and kept the weird visuals (like double-vision) to a minimum. I will always keep a Cliff Shot with caffeine in my pack.
6. My Nathan running hydration pack (70 oz.) was great. Perfect combo to have water in the pack and a small hand-held in the pocket which I used for Nuun. I brought extra tablets and could fill the bottle from my pack. I had plenty of pockets for snacks, my camera, my phone, and a small first aid kit.
I learned a lot while running 50 miles on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail:
1. Always have a headlamp, and check the batteries, especially if you are starting a no-drop run on a Friday evening in December at 4:30. You will inevitably start late because of rush-hour traffic and run slower than you expected. I brought my headlamp but the batteries had died the day before. We definitely should have had them in our drop bags at Creedmor Rd. on Saturday. Without Nancy’s headlamps, we would not have finished 32 miles on Saturday.
2. For long distances on trails, plan time, not distance. I planned and ate snacks as though I was doing a 20 mi run to Creedmor Rd (where more snacks were stashed), not considering that it would take nearly 7 hours to get there. I had more snacks with me but didn’t eat them.
3. Focus on my/our needs. I knew this, but still found myself not wanting to slow others down. I should have stopped sooner than an hour and a half to eat something but didn’t want to interrupt the flow of a fun trail run or fall behind the others. Despite a good breakfast, I think I ran a calorie deficit for the rest of the day—fortunately not enough to bonk, though a calorie deficit definitely contributed to my despairing mood at Shinleaf.
4. Refill water when you have the opportunity. I completely forgot to call Falls Lake to make sure the rec areas were open. When we reached Blue Jay Point, we still had plenty of water and didn’t refill because we planned to refill at Shinleaf. When we arrived, we found the restrooms closed and the water turned off.
5. Be efficient at aid stops. Sure, we weren’t in a hurry, but stopping either too often or stopping too long each time added up. I should have been thinking ahead about what I needed to do during the stop.
6. Walk when you need to, but run when you can. Sometimes I found myself walking for long periods even though I felt fine to run.
7. Looking at other “reasonable distance” stage races, I found that most average 20-25 miles/day. Since this was our ultra run for 2013, we wanted one day with 30+ mile distance, but we probably would have felt better had we done a more even mileage split between Saturday (32.2 mi) and Sunday (14.5 mi).
8. Once again I learned the importance of mentally breaking down a long distance into manageable chunks. The only time I was discouraged during the whole journey was when we reached Shinleaf feeling tired and I realized we were only halfway through our distance. Joanna wrote down the section distances on her arm on Sunday. The smaller sections not only seemed more manageable (focusing on the next 3.5 mile section, not the total mileage), but the road crossings reminded us that we were making progress.
This time next Saturday, I’ll still be out on the Uwharrie Trail, hopefully running. My goal is to experience the deep joy that comes from a long trail run and pushing my limits, accept and appreciate what I can do, and look inside myself to see what I can see.
Must be present to win.