Winter in the Piedmont, Umstead State Park

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I escaped for a rare “late” (8 am) morning run on Wednesday, through snowy woods on the Sycamore Trail at Umstead. I like how the fog brings depth, warmth, and context to the photo.

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Sycamore today

Leaves whipping past my face
Rocks and roots, water and mud
Climbing uphill, careening down
Woods blurring around me
While I see only the next 10 feet.

My breath comes now in ragged gasps
Air goes in, every thought pushes out
Every worry, every doubt, every fear–
Until all I can hear is one voice
Urging, “forward, forward, forward!”

Slowing now, heart pounding, gulping air
Exhausted from the effort
To get out of my head.
This is the gift
That running brings me.

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2016 Umstead Trail Marathon: Running for fun

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Megan, Heiko and I hamming it up on Mile 1 of the 2016 Umstead Trail Marathon. Photo by Shannon Johnstone.

Set the right goals and you’ll win every time.

Umstead marathon is my favorite marathon. I say that having only run 7 marathons; 4 of them Umstead. Umstead was my 1st, 3rd, 4th, and this my 7th, marathon (2nd was NYC, 5th was Richmond, 6th was Blue Ridge). However many marathons I run in my lifetime, I hope that half of them will be at Umstead.

A few reasons why I love the Umstead Trail Marathon:

  • Umstead State Park is my favorite local place to run.
  • It’s hard. People don’t sign up for that reason. My point is, marathons are hard. There are no easy marathons!
  • Top-notch organization by Carolina Godiva and awesome volunteers.
  • Each year a different mascot is chosen and it’s a secret until the day before the race.
  • $70 entry fee includes a great t-shirt, finisher’s pint glass, SmartWool socks, Honey Stinger samples, chocolate, Moe’s burrito, and a door prize. Seriously!
  • Great hometown flavor and small, friendly feel with just 200 runners.

Lots of folks who are doing the Umstead 100 run Umstead marathon as a final run before starting their taper, so that was an easy decision. In the past, I’ve had trouble racing two long races a season (Uwharrie+Umstead, Uwharrie+Blue Ridge, etc.), ending up with nagging injuries during or following the second race. So my focus for Umstead was on a last long training run. No racing!

That doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have a few race goals. When you’re not trying for a PR, these are fun to play with, and you can learn a lot. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Run a personal slowest time. My previous Umstead times were 4:21, 4:14, and 4:16.
  2. Run a negative split. I tried this last time but Cedar Ridge had other ideas.
  3. Feel good after the race, as measured by my ability to eat the free Moe’s burrito post-race. I have never been able to do this.
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Definitely the best I’ve ever felt at mile 21-something, at the top of the Corkscrew and about to head down the dreaded Cedar Ridge Trail. Photo by Arvind Balaraman.

Having fun is always one of my race goals, so I didn’t list it here. Because I run for fun!

I’ll cut to the chase with some numbers.

I made all three of my goals, finishing in 4:23 (I was planning 4:30) with a 10:03 pace–averaging a 10:08 pace for the first 14 miles, then 9:55 for the back half. I ran a 9:30 pace for the last 10K, something I did not think was possible since it includes the Corkscrew, Cedar Ridge, and Cemetery Hill (see elevation profile below). Unfortunately, I forgot to record my mile splits, which would have been fun to have. Instead I had to average out my splits for miles 4, 14, 21, and 25 to add the data to my Umstead marathon chart*.

 

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2012, 2013, and 2016 Umstead Marathon splits. Wish I had all the splits for 2016. *Yes, I did this in Excel with splits from my Timex watch. I’m a dork.

The story that the numbers don’t tell is that I had a great time. The beautiful course and camaraderie among all the participants, organizers, and volunteers are what will keep me coming back!

 

LEAP!

give it a tryPssssst! I’ve been training for a big race this winter—the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. I’ll start at 6:00 am on April 2 and have 30 hours to finish the distance.

You better believe I’m nervous. This is twice the longest distance I’ve ever run!

Like any big goal, this one will be achieved in a Zen-like series of small steps. The run itself will be completed one mile at a time. There will be miles where I may have to focus on every step that takes me forward. As in: I can’t think about running 100 miles, but I can rock these next 100 feet, Yo.

I’m usually blasé about training. I’m Type B about most things. Through the Peeps, I’ve found that everyone seems to be on a training spectrum. At one end are people who really focus on their goal race. They have a training plan and they follow it to the letter, working hard all the way up to race day. Post-race, they relax and often take a break, sometimes feeling burned out. I’m closer to the other end of that spectrum. I rarely train hard or specifically. I’m usually at the low end of recommended weekly mileage. I sometimes make a plan but then never look at it.

The advantage is that I rarely burn out, because I don’t work that hard to begin with. WELL FOLKS, I’M WORKING HARD THIS TIME.

While I already had a qualifying race (Uwharrie 40), I knew I’d feel more confident if I could run 50 miles in the fall. The Old Glory Ultra was a perfect race, also with an 8-lap format, that helped me get my head around the distance. Maybe. I didn’t run into major problems that I had to troubleshoot, so rather than stressing about everything that went wrong, I agonized that nothing really went wrong (eye roll).

Somehow, I thought that running the additional training miles wasn’t going to be a big issue. I love to run and looked forward to logging extra miles. An aspect of ultras that I really like is the ability to go out any random day and run 15-20 miles if adventure calls.

In December I added yoga twice a week and in January I added strength training too. This is laughably inadequate to serious runners, but I never claimed I was serious, and these small additions were big steps for me. I hoped that they would help me stay healthy, and I do think they have helped.

Adding mileage has been a bit of an issue, as it turns out. I always undertrain the recommended mileage. The late Umstead 100 director, Blake Norwood, recommends 50-60 miles/week minimum. I will only have 2-3 weeks at that distance—my longest week was 67 miles. If you start surfing the web, you’ll very quickly psyche yourself out looking at training plans with 90-100 mile weeks. Of course, I’m not winning races, but for me, that kind of volume is unrealistic. Personally, I could not stay healthy, nor maintain the family/work balance that we need. In January, I ran 188 miles, and February is ending with a new record of 200+. That is a whole lot of miles for me.

With the added mileage, I have run into a few challenges:

  1. My left ankle has been bothering me since December, when I sprained it on a trail run. Of course I didn’t get it x-rayed. Don’t be ridiculous. It still hurts on trails and starts hurting about 3 hours into a fire road Umstead run. I’m sure it will feel great after another 24+ hours of running.
  2. My usually-sturdy calves have been really tight lately, feeling sore and bruised. This has kept me from doing the hill work I had planned.
  3. I’m pretty misaligned, with my entire left side tight from the hips down. This has probably caused most of the nagging hurts that I’ve experienced in the last 5 years: hip labral tear, ITB syndrome, etc.

As I told a friend, it’s always some damn thing. My friend Mimi is working hard to get me feeling good. I went in for what I described as “a little tune-up” and she laughed and told me to come back again next week.

I have had a lot of fun along the way. One Friday evening I took Stephen out to Umstead to run at dusk, and we finished a 12.5 mi Umstead loop just after 9 pm. It was exciting to be out there at night and we even heard coyotes.

I met a new friend, Megan, who is also training for the 100. As a big bonus, our pacing is similar. Not only that, but she was willing to meet me last weekend at 2:00 am for a training run! We ran two steady loops of the course, saw the sunrise, then picked it up the last 15 miles (!), finishing 39 miles just before 10:30 am. [Saturday night I slept for 13.5 hours straight.] It was Megan’s longest-ever run, so we cheered at miles 37, 38, and 39. What might have been a long solo slog turned into a pretty excellent adventure. In addition, my energy was great and I felt good the next day.

This coming weekend I will run my 4th Umstead Trail Marathon, as a “tune-up” race. My challenge will be to focus on running an easy pace and not try to place in the top 15 women to score a plaque (I’m 2 for 3, so the temptation is there). It’s a really fun hometown race and I can’t wait. After that, I’ll cut back my mileage until race day on April 2.

Some of the things I have in my favor are:

  1. I have an iron stomach. I can eat a variety of food when I run. On Saturday, for example, I ate a piece of leftover pizza and a carrot cake Clif bar on my [short!] 15 mile run. Honestly, the pizza was just to show off, but it was surprisingly good.
  2. I have no sense of elapsed time. I do feel sore, but I can run for hours and mentally feel like I’ve just started. I sometimes get unfocused, but I never get bored.
  3. I have a lot of positive energy and a good sense of humor that should help me past some lows. I possess a mental stubbornness that won’t let me quit.
  4. I have a wonderful, supportive family and a great pacing crew. My 15 year old son plans to pace a lap—I am looking forward to that as much as anything. Andrew’s support is rock-solid. Good friends will keep me positive and laughing through the night and steer me toward the finish. They give me confidence.

There’s plenty of uncertainty about how the next few weeks will go, how the race day will unfold, how I will feel, and how I will manage pain. I can’t predict what’s coming and what challenges I may encounter.

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My favorite race photo. Trails = joy. Photo by Scott Lynch.

I’ve finished running my longest distances for training. I’ve done my best preparation. At this point, I can only hope that it’s enough.

It’s time to trust my training and see where the path takes me.

It’s time to close my eyes and stand at the edge of possibility.

It’s time to leap!

Seeking beauty in familiar places

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” -Georgia O’Keefe

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I doubt my friends would list “observant” as one of my top 5 personality traits. For example, I don’t know someone’s car unless it has something distinctive or I’ve known them awhile. On a recent run, someone asked if we’d already run through the third tunnel on the House Creek Greenway. Beside her, I thought to myself, “there are three?”

On the other hand, I see things that others miss. When I was little, I could spot navigational aids, birds, seashells, and constellations. My older son can similarly find sharks’ teeth and arrowheads. But what brings me joy is being able to see beauty in everyday places, which may be why I love running the same trails over and over.

My last long run before the Blue Ridge Marathon was late afternoon on Easter Sunday. I parked at Ebenezer Church Rd by the bridge and ran up North Turkey Creek to hop on the Sycamore loop. Third weekend in April is peak wildflower season, so I held my camera in one hand and my water bottle in the other. [It’s risky–I like my camera a lot, I’d hate to smash it, and I’m a little klutzy. But as I tell Andrew, there’s little point in having a camera if you’re afraid to take it anywhere. The scratches on the lens are unfortunate, but part of the price of admission.]

I saw things that afternoon that I’ve never noticed at Umstead–where I run nearly every week. My favorite was a grove of pawpaw between the two bridges next to Ebenezer Church Rd. Slow down when you run by next time and see if you can spot their delicate burgundy blooms dangling over the creek. They’ll only be there another week or two.

Have you noticed these before?

Have you noticed these before? The flowers are only an inch or so across.

 

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Look closer…petals and sepals are in multiples of three.

Closer still...

Closer still…enough to see the fuzziness of the sepals and stems.

Closest!

And O’Keefe-esque…close enough to see the heart and know the essence of the flower.

There are whole websites devoted to spectacular trail scenery (Google “trail porn” – I kid you not) and I too long to visit beautiful new places to run and explore. But there is also something to be said for seeing your favorite places in new ways, and how they change over the seasons. That kind of intimacy takes time, as O’Keefe says…but it is a gift that we all can give ourselves.

Take a run or hike on your favorite trail this weekend to know it better–its rocks, flowers, and trees, and what makes it special. Watch how spring is unfolding there. You’re sure to see something you haven’t noticed before. Below are just a few things I saw on my 7 mile Easter Sunday run.

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Buckeye flowers, which you can see all through the understory along Turkey Creek.

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My love affair with American beech continues.

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North Carolina’s own Easter lily, Atamasco lily.

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Have you seen this slope above Sycamore Creek lately? It’s covered in bluets.

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Christmas fern–I love the geometry of the unfurling fiddleheads.

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Spring beauty tucked into a tree hollow.

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Giant chickweed, which has five split petals, not 10. Look closely!

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Foamflower along Sycamore Creek.

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Bluets, or Quaker ladies, all over Umstead right now.

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Spring beauty all along Sycamore Creek. The flowers are closed on cool mornings.

Closer still...

This is still my favorite…this week.

2013 Umstead Trail Marathon. Me versus My Brain, or How I Conquered Mile 19.

Most Saturday mornings, you can find me out with the Peeps at Umstead State Park, running the bridle paths or single-track trails. There’s a collective groan when we decide to run Turkey Creek—it’s steep and hilly. But here’s what I tell the naysayers: if you train at Umstead, every road race will seem easy.

There is a spot along South Turkey Creek—south of the bridge that parallels Ebenezer Church Rd, past where the trail climbs past the butt tree, but before you reach Loblolly Trail and the junction with Reedy Creek Rd. It looks innocuous enough, and I’ve run by it plenty of times in training, though always with eyes narrowed in fear and loathing. It is at this spot, mile 19, where my will to run drained away in the 2009 and 2012 Umstead marathons (summarized here, with agonizing detail here), my first and 3rd marathons. [Mile 19 at my other marathon, NYC, was in the Bronx, and wasn’t much better.]

It doesn't look so bad, does it? A beautiful stretch of scenic Piedmont woods. Don't be fooled. I have abandoned my soul here.

It looks lovely, doesn’t it? A beautiful stretch of scenic Piedmont woods. Don’t be fooled. I have abandoned my soul here twice (many thanks for finding this photo, Scott Lynch).

Not bonking at Mile 19 sounds like a lame non-goal. But I’ve raced Uwharrie 20 twice without bonking, and I didn’t bonk on my 40 miler either. However, my pace was much slower for these races, because of the terrain and distance. Could I sustain a faster, steady pace for a marathon distance without crashing and burning at mile 19? I needed to know.

My second goal was to run even or negative splits. If I succeeded at these two goals I wondered whether that would lead me to an Umstead PR (sub-4:14). I thought it was possible. I wasn’t in as good shape as I was last year, but I thought I could beat my time if I ran a smarter race. It was going to be me versus my brain. [And those who know me would bet money that my go-for-broke attitude would make me smack that Mile 19 wall like a bug.]

It was a fast start. In past years I’ve managed to scrape into the top 15, earning a handmade wooden plaque of that year’s animal mascot. Both times, I was toward the front of the big pack and in the top 10 women (until mile 19). This year I was well behind that pack, clearly behind a couple dozen women. I wanted to work my way up to the front, but my brain knew that this race was against me and nobody else (not even the uber-fashionable woman who elbowed me—twice—in the first mile. Really?).

I ran with Steve a bit before we hopped on the single-track. He helpfully suggested that I not lose my mind on Company Mill. Next, he chastised me for slowing down too much. I suspect he was worried I’d talk non-stop for 20+ miles. Sure enough, he fled shortly thereafter and I didn’t see him again til Turkey Creek.

It’s a funny thing–running 5+ miles of single track at Umstead, then heading down the Corkscrew to Turkey Creek–to hit mile 9 and think “well, the easy part is done.” But, Turkey Creek lies ahead. Twice.

I passed my buddies Anna and Martin on Reedy Creek Rd., out for a run after they volunteered for morning parking duty. Carolyn was all over the course. Audrey was waiting with the Ladies in Red at the Trinity Rd. aid station, and Candace and Danny were on the Ebenezer Church Bridge. Diane and Richard were riding around the course on bikes, as was Tara. Dennis and Claudia were taking finish line photos. Jon, Steve, Pat, Joanna, and Andrea were all doing the race with me. Fran, Libby, and Robert, and Andrew and the boys were at the finish line. Hometown races rock.

I also recognized and met at least a dozen local folks, many of whom I’ve seen at races and connected with on the blogosphere and Facebook, which was really fun. Even after the race I was connecting names with faces in race photographs and regretting I didn’t meet more people.

Scott and I conquer Round 1 of Turkey Creek.

Scott and I conquer Round 1 of Turkey Creek. Woo hoo! (photo by Audrey)

At the Shamrock Aid Station (yes, I touched the clover for luck–I was on North Turkey Creek, for Pete’s sake), I caught up with Scott Lynch, who patiently waited for me to select a homemade cookie and fill my water bottle. We entertained each other with stories of rash decisions we’ve made while running. We were at 2:07 at the halfway point, a little behind where I’d wanted to be, but close (I was under 2 hrs at the half in 2009 and 2012, and wanted to be closer to 2:05). Sadly, norovirus came out of nowhere and attacked Scott at the bike+bridle aid station and I continued back by myself. I had no idea how bad it was until I read his race report afterward. Way to hang tough, Scott.

It's now a running joke that I can be caught snacking at every aid station. Banana?

It’s now a running joke that I can be caught snacking at every aid station. Banana? (photo by Audrey)

I ate another banana to ward off cramps, and started back down Turkey Creek alone and  feeling apprehensive. How great was it to see Joanna and Andrea looking strong and steady! I crossed the Ebenezer Church bridge and left my banana-, snot-, and gu-slimed gloves with understanding friends, who also helped me ditch my long-sleeved shirt. I wasn’t really keeping track of my time, just checking mile times on my Timex at most of the mile markers. I came up on mile 19 and ran strong past it, but didn’t want to jinx myself by blowing a raspberry. I cruised into the Trinity Rd. aid station for a second time feeling very upbeat. And some guy had just said he’d try to hang with me—of course, my ego totally deflated when I found out that this was his taper run for the Graveyard 100 the following weekend (hope it went well, Sultan!).

Now it was just a 10K to go and it’s nice downhill cruising until you hit the Corkscrew. I tried to pick up my pace a bit, knowing the last few hills that were in store and wanting to see if I could even-split the race. I could tell that my legs had other ideas.

There are always a lot of wheels at the bottom of Cedar Ridge.

There are always a lot of wheels at the bottom of Cedar Ridge. It’s not really a fun spot on the Umstead marathon. (photo by Shannon)

As I slogged down Cedar Ridge with my ITB complaining ever more loudly, I decided that a negative split was a tall order for Umstead. Running up the Corkscrew, Cedar Ridge and Cemetery Hill in the last 10K while picking up your pace is a bit much to ask. Just as I reached this conclusion, my spirits picked up when I caught sight of Jon and Steve coming back up the hill, and Candace and Danny at the turnaround.

Diane was waiting for me when I came back out on Reedy Creek Rd. I was feeling whipped. She said nice things and rode along with me as we caught up with my friend Pat and his bike escort Richard. I started slogging up Cemetery Hill. “Tell me a story, Diane,” I begged. “What’s going on with your foot, anyway?” It turned out to be the story of the Second Metatarsal Stress Fracture, a tragedy involving Diane’s foot in the title role. Not recommended at bedtime; it could cause nightmares. Get better soon, my friend.

Finish line ahead!

Yahoo! Finish line ahead! (photo by Diane)

I arrived at the crest and started feeling much better. In fact, I felt great. “Hey Diane,” I said. “What do you need? You’re almost there!” “See that woman up there?” I was starting to grin, a little slyly. “Yes.” “I’m going to reel her in.” Ah, but I’ve been that person so many times. When I came up beside her, just before the last turn, I said “hey, we’re nearly there. Let’s run it in.” I gave it my all on the last half mile in, finishing in a happy and completely done 4:16 (2 minutes behind my Umstead PR, 3rd fastest marathon–out of 4 😉 ).

Stick a fork in me, bro. I'm done.

Stick a fork in me, bro. I’m done. (photo by Claudia)

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I’ll cut to the data. Like any good scientist, I LOVE data, especially visual data. I made this chart comparing my 2012 and 2013 Umstead marathons and overlaying an enlightening piece of data—the elevation chart.

I can't decide which is nerdier--that I made this chart, or that I made it with splits from my Timex and an Excel spreadsheet. Vintage nerd!

I can’t decide which is nerdier–that I made this chart, or that I made it with splits from my Timex and an Excel spreadsheet. Old school geek!

My conclusions from this chart:
1. No bonk! Woo hoo!
2. Umstead is flippin’ hilly. It’s a hard race, even if you do run there every weekend.
3. If the race had been longer, I would have caught my 2012 self. Or died.
4. I might have PR’d if I hadn’t picnicked at every aid station. All my slowest miles included aid stations. On the other hand, see #1.
5. Fastest mile was mile 26, 8:28 pace! Rock and roll!

What you can’t tell from the chart: Best. Marathon. Ever.

Bringing our Peep Andrea home through the Tower of Power. Rock and roll!

Cheering our Peep Andrea across the finish line through the Tower of Power. Hometown races are the best! (photo by Claudia)