The Never-Ending Reindeer Run (#NERR) Part 3: Lessons

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.

Covering ground like water flowing over rocks.

Covering ground like water flowing over rocks.

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The Never-Ending Reindeer Run (#NERR) Part 2: The Journey

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Uwharrie shirts, check! Ready to start!

Friday, December 13
It’s an old sailors’ superstition that voyages should never start on Friday, much less Friday the 13th, but we are rational types, not swayed by old sailors. We were, however, swayed by unglamorous rush hour traffic, though we started on our 3.5 mi leg reasonably close to on time.

We had a great crew of Andrew and our boys, Jon, Will, Marcus and Suzanne to start our 50 mile journey as the shadows of the golden December afternoon grew long. We took it easy, admiring familiar views, joking and laughing.

I was a little quieter than usual—going through my mental checklist—trying to think of what we might need for Saturday, feeling out my feet, and wondering what I would forget or wish I had on the long day ahead. I can be highly organized when needed, but find the effort of managing details exhausting. The forecast for Saturday looked dismal, with rain, heavy at times, starting late morning and continuing through the day. However, Joanna and I both felt confident about covering the distance.

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Andrew and our younger son, Simon, helped us kick off our adventure. Simon’s first point-to-point run!

Dusk fell and we had not quite reached the cars. It was one of Simon’s first point-to-point runs and after we explained that we were only running one way, he enjoyed the journey and worried less about the distance. We wrapped it up and reconvened at Milton’s Pizza and Pasta with Audrey and Carolyn to carb-load for Saturday.

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We had a great crew for Day 1!

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Because it’s the hunting season and we were running through state gamelands, we chose our 2013 Umstead marathon shirts. We also removed our antlers prior to takeoff.

Saturday, December 14th
Joanna and I met at Rolling View in Durham at 7:00 am. You know it’s going to be a long run when it takes this much time to drive shuttle. We left my car there, dropped off supplies at Creedmor Rd, and parked where we’d finished the previous night, at Raven’s Ridge Rd.

We actually arrived at the start at 7:30, but we’d told friends we were starting at 8:00. Inexplicably, we did not head down the street for a quick cup of coffee. A great crew joined us for the first few miles: Diane, Gordy, and AnaRita had started earlier then turned around and ran back with us; Melina, Mimi, Bubba, and Missy set up a shuttle and went one way with us, and Audrey and Lisa saw us off before they took their pooches for a walk.

We fell behind our estimated time early and significantly, and I’m not sure how. Our friends knew that we had a long day ahead and let us dictate the pace, and we stopped frequently for photographs and walk breaks. We guesstimated our total finish time for 32.2 miles would be 6-8 hours, though we knew 6 hours was unlikely.

We said goodbye to our peeps at Possum Track Rd., and Joanna and I were on our own for a few miles. It finally felt like we were doing a long-distance run. We were quiet and grew more focused. The section between Possum Track Rd. and Blue Jay Point County Park has beautiful beech and holly forests, and some large swaths of mountain laurel that will flower come May–definitely worth a return visit. Today it was overcast and the rain started pattering. Our banter about gunfire was no joke—we passed through state gamelands and it was peak hunting season. We passed one guy with a long bow and could hear intermittent gunfire, fortunately a ways off.

One of my favorite photos of the NERR. Joanna covering some distance on the MST through a beautiful beech forest in winter.

One of my favorite shots. Joanna covering some distance on the MST through a beautiful beech forest in winter.

We met Carolyn and Jon on Six Forks Rd. just outside Blue Jay Point County Park, about 10 miles into our trip, and Jon joined us for the rest of the day. Jon is always upbeat and it was great to have his company. Never once did he complain about our slow pace or the lousy weather we would have most of the day.

It started raining in earnest soon thereafter, maybe around 11:00. Time slipped by without me really noticing, something that has happened to me in previous long run experiences. We switched off leading and following, without really discussing it, just getting into the groove of moving across the terrain. These are moments that ebb and flow and you’re covering ground like water flowing over rocks, almost without effort. When I reach this place I feel like I could keep running forever.

We stopped at Blue Jay Point County Park for restrooms and water, had I been smart enough to refill my pack there, rather than just my small bottle. The pull of the warm Visitor’s Center was hard to leave, and I felt some fatigue as we emerged into cold rain to hop back on the trail.

The section from Blue Jay Point to Shinleaf seemed endless. None of us had run that section in its entirety, and Shinleaf was supposed to be our halfway mark at 15.5 miles. So you can imagine our dismay as we ran on…and on…and on…with no sign of Shinleaf. It was past 18 miles on Joanna’s Garmin when we finally pulled up to the restrooms, only to find them locked and the water turned off.

We were drenched, cold, and discouraged. Again I learned—don’t wait to eat. I kept thinking I’d grab a snack when I got to Shinleaf—I needed the calories sooner. Joanna sent out an update and we were shocked to realize that it was nearly 2:00—we had thought we’d be there by 11-11:30. My body felt as though I’d already run well over 20 miles. Inwardly, I groaned. All I kept thinking was this: We were only halfway. Half. Way.

I pulled out my phone while I snacked to see a text from our friend Nancy. “Need soup? I’ll be home in 10 min and can bring you some.” Sent at 12:15. I felt bad calling and asking her to bring us stuff. I like to be self-reliant. Our next road crossing was Creedmor and we had snacks stashed there. But we were all soaked and shivering. She DID offer, we reasoned. I called.

She answered right away—she and Jean were at Bull City Running in Durham. “Oh…” I said, trying to hide my disappointment, “never mind, then.” “We’re done shopping, and I think there is a soup place next door. Hang on…” I waited while she assessed the options and conferred with Jean. “We’ll be at Creedmor with chicken noodle soup in 45 minutes.” I looked at Joanna and Jon, nodding. Heck yeah. “Thanks a million. We’ll try to get there within the hour.”

We were still cold and stiff, but we now had a purpose. When we reached Creedmor, about 20 mi according to our map, we not only had hot soup waiting, but encouragement from Nancy and Jean, which warmed us as much as the soup. Nancy’s vehicle was a fully equipped mobile aid station. She had a rain jacket, recycled mylar blankets, spare gloves, and two headlamps. We scarfed down the soup as she and Jean used towels to wring out our gloves. I put on my spare jacket and we broke into my tin full of snacks. In about 10 minutes I had eaten soup, Fritos, Uwharrie cookies, a Luna bar, and a Coke, and stuffed my pockets with extra snacks. It was just after 3:00 and the rain had stopped for a few minutes. “Maybe it’s done,” I said hopefully. Jean shook her head. “I just saw the radar. It’s about to start again, and hard this time.”

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Feeling happier with some additional layers, hot soup, and TLC. Nancy and Jean were the best!

As Joanna noted, we weren’t thinking clearly and took the headlamps only “just in case,” because, I thought, surely we’d finish before dark. But was after 3:00 and we still had 10 miles to go. We thanked our buddies many times, crossed Creedmor Rd, and headed west.

It started raining again, and hard. “So…what do you guys like to do for fun?” I called through the downpour. They chuckled. We were feeling better after our rest stop. And from here on out, we’d be covering trail none of us had seen before. We were intrepid explorers again.

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We actually saw this on Day 3 but passed many other old homestead and outbuildings like it in the rain on Saturday.

Unfortunately, it was raining too hard for photos, but we passed some interesting sights. We squelched through mud for what seemed like a mile on the long section between Creedmor and Boyce Mill Rd, which made running nearly impossible. We passed a few overgrown clearings with old home sites, some beneath the spreading canopies of large oaks that spent their youth in the open. The gloom of the day made them a little spooky.

We grew quiet again as we focused on the task at hand. We had a map but didn’t want to stop long enough to take it out in the rain, so we killed time by speculating how far we had left to go. We came off the trail at the Waterfowl Impoundment Area on Highway 98 and checked the map posted there. It was another 3.7 miles to my car.

Conference time. It was nearly 5 pm and rapidly getting dark, and it was still pouring. It would take us more than an hour to get to Rolling View. Joanna and I looked at each other, trying to guess what the other was thinking. I couldn’t tell whether she was merely willing to keep going, or really WANTED to finish the leg tonight. Personally, I felt kind of ambivalent. We could get out of this mess and just start here at 98 in the morning. We looked at the map again and realized we would have to wait at least 30 minutes for Andrew or Carolyn to drive up to 98 to find us. Forget that—we were moving on. I gave Andrew a quick call to let him know we were doing fine and planning to finish.

Headlamps on! We jogged up 98 and then ducked back on the MST. I wondered what passing drivers must have thought of us. Joanna and Jon took the headlamps but I preferred to run in front and retain as much peripheral and night vision as I could for as long as possible. My greatest concern was that I was steadily getting colder. I wasn’t sure that we could move fast enough to stay warm, and mentioned to Jon that although we were now committed to finishing, that we might have made a mistake. If one of us got hurt or hypothermic, it would be pretty difficult to claim in hindsight that we’d made the right decision. I didn’t dwell on it or worry about it—just made note of it and moved on.

The last of the twilight faded and we were really in the dark. We tried to switch off the lead but since the headlamp was on Jon’s head, all he could see was rain, so he stayed just behind me while I looked for the next trail blaze in the dim light. Joanna had a lamp behind us and we moved, mostly in silence, through the dark forest. It was easy to tell when we’d taken a few steps off the trail, because the untraveled forest floor was much softer underfoot, so we never went astray for long. When we did, we retraced our steps to the last blaze, then scanned 360 degrees to find the next one. The trail blazes were like little lanterns in the woods, beckoning us forward. Suddenly, I realized that even though I was freezing and exhausted, that THIS was the adventure, and well worth the price of admission. As Andrew loves to say, life is rich!

After a few stumbles, we resigned ourselves to power hiking. We passed a few spur trails and what looked like access roads, but I insisted on continuing to follow the blazes, which I knew would put us right where we parked. I didn’t want to risk a short cut and get lost. We suddenly came to a sign with an arrow that said Parking Lot and hoped it was the right parking lot. Soon thereafter we saw my car. We made it! Shaking with cold, we piled into the car and went to retrieve our vehicles. It was after 6:00.

My desire for a hot shower was starting to trump my desire for food, but Joanna and Jon pointed out that once I’d had that hot shower, I wouldn’t leave my house, but I’d still be hungry, which was 100% true. So we changed clothes at Chow where we met Andrew and the boys and Andrew treated us to a celebratory dinner. Joanna and I felt we’d earned the Flatliner—burgers with a fried egg and bacon. We’d run 32.2 miles in 9 hours and 50 minutes—the longest amount of time I’ve ever been on my feet for a run. Yeah!!!

Sunday, December 15
My shoes didn’t dry overnight, but that was OK, as I had a back-up pair. I never did figure out whether I liked the Cascadias that much better than the Adrenalines or if they just seemed better because they weren’t soaking wet and I hadn’t run 32 miles in them.

9:00 seemed like such a reasonable start time when we were planning, but Joanna and I needed to meet at the finishing point, Red Mill Rd., by 8:00 to drop off a car, so I was out the door and on the road at 7:30. I had to get up early because I was so tired on Saturday night that I couldn’t even think about getting things ready for Sunday. Today we wore the 2012 Uwharrie Mountain run shirts, one of our favorites. It was cold, but the sun was shining. It was going to be a good day.

We dropped off my car and drove to Rolling View, where a great crew of Peeps had joined us for a section or two. I was feeling low on energy so it was awesome to see them and soak up their enthusiasm. Jon was back in his still-wet shoes, and Nancy and Jean were there, as well as Suzette, Marcus, Emily, Ashley, Scott and Steve. We set off in high spirits. I felt pretty good, all things considered, though of course my legs were a little stiff and I had ITB pain throughout the morning.

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Our crew on the footbridge. It was a great day.

The section from Rolling View west is probably my new favorite discovery. We wove in and out of coves and around every corner there was a view of the lake. I had my camera out a lot to snap pictures and at one point, lamented that the view we were admiring was not photographable. “Must be present to win,” said Scott, and that was a great mantra to carry us through the morning.

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Cypress trees near the long footbridge. The day was perfect.

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Our crew on the footbridge. Sharing the morning made it even better!

The section ended with a long footbridge through a beautiful section of the lake, with buttressed cypress trees hugging the shoreline. It was perfect. On the other side, we said goodbye to some of our friends and headed on. Ashley and Scott ran a shuttle and saw us to Cheek Rd. They are both triathletes, and every time we came to a road crossing, they and Jon exclaimed that they’d been there before on a bike ride. Marcus and Jon stayed with us to the finish.

Me, Joanna, Jon and Marcus at Cheek Rd and headed to the end.

Me, Joanna, Jon and Marcus at Cheek Rd with just 5 miles to go.

The route got decidedly less scenic as we approached I-85, and you could tell that this section was put in as a connector, not as a primary recreational trail. It was a bit of an adventure finding the tunnel that went under I-85, as we passed an air field and then ran parallel to the roaring highway, picking our way through standing water and a lot of trash. Finally we found the tunnel and then ran the short section to Red Mill Rd, just a nondescript rural road in Durham County, where we found my car. It took us just over four hours to run the 14.4 mi sections, so we felt good about how our tired bodies loosened up once we got moving.

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Unscenic corridor along I-85 before we found the tunnel.

So that’s a wrap for the Never-Ending Reindeer Run. Joanna’s great re-cap is here. I’ve started a couple of lists of notes, one of what we did well and another with some of the many things that I learned, that I will save for another post. If you’re still reading, thanks for coming along and experiencing our journey. I’m not sure that I can explain any more clearly our multi-modal reasons for doing the run—on the one hand, doing it because it was a fun and unforgettable adventure, on the other, tackling a tough challenge that tested our limits.

I’m sure we’ll plan more adventures like this one, and we’ve had many subsequent conversations that have started with “Next time…”

Afterward, someone mentioned how different our experience would have been, if the weather had been nicer. True enough. But the weather gave us the experience we had, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

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