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.