Chicago Marathon-bound—and I need your help!

My best friend Ann helped me start running again, back when we were 20-something neighbors living on the bucolic Trusty Trail (nothing bad can happen on Trusty Trail—maybe we should have stayed). It was a great way to carve out time together. The upcoming Chicago Marathon will be Ann’s fifth marathon, my eighth. Although we ran our first half marathon together (2006?), we have never run a marathon together. Don’t think we haven’t tried!

I told her when she and Nancy ran the ING Marathon in DC in 2008, their first, that I’d never run that far (I’m still eating crow for that line). A year later (haha), I was at the starting line for my first of four Umstead Trail Marathons (I have yet to convince Ann how great this race is). Three weeks prior, she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. I bought a pink shirt and ran the race with her on my mind. Even though she was feeling crappy, she came out to Umstead to see me finish. We hugged and vowed we’d run the next one together.

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Blue Ridge Marathon and Half Marathon, 2014.

Ann, Nancy and I threw our names into the hat for the NYC Marathon the following year—it was their second attempt at the lottery, my first. It never once occurred to me that I might get in and they might not. But, that’s what happened! I ran NYC in 2010 and Ann and Nancy finally had the chance to run NYC in 2013. Then I ran the Blue Ridge Marathon in 2014, while Ann—wisely—opted for the half marathon option after all the training she did for NYC the previous fall (we did, at least, run the first part of the race together).

Last year, only a few weeks before she was re-diagnosed, this time with metastatic breast cancer, Ann ran the Asheville Marathon—but it was only 2 weeks before another race I had planned, so I decided to pass.

Ann has chosen Chicago as her last marathon, and hell if I’m going to miss out this time!

I have the opportunity to earn a slot and contribute through fundraising for the American Cancer Society as part of Ann and Nancy’s DetermiNation team, down-not-out. I committed to raising $1500 by the end of September. I am happy to invest my time toward achieving this goal, because the number of people with metastatic cancer is growing, and we need better answers, better treatments, and better outcomes.

A recent analysis of people with metastatic cancer projects that 11% of the younger patients will survive beyond the 10 year mark—and that’s supposed to be good news. We need to do better.

I am wary of lotteries now (see NYC Marathon, above), but I would bet on Ann any day of the week to defy those odds and lead that group of survivors. Just this morning, she pulled out half mile splits at a sub-10 minute pace—despite the July humidity and the many side effects of what I call “invisible chemo” –because she’s still on chemo, but that’s not evident to most of the world.

She may be down, but she is not out! I want to run 26.2 miles with Ann and her team, and see her achieve her Chicago Marathon goal. To read more of my story, make a donation, or cheer us on, please visit my page. You can read more about Ann, her story, and my other teammates on our team page. I’ll see you in Chicago!

Warm wishes and many thanks,
Steph

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Sunset Beach Half Marathon in May with our Peep friends. You can see the humidity!

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URE Marathon. Spoiler alert: I won!

I WON A RACE! First female! Woo hooooo! The end.

OK, two weeks later I am still SO! EXCITED! Because I’ve never won a race before! Not a big race, not a fast race, although it was a gnarly race. It’s on Ultrasignup, so it’s legit!

I went into the inaugural URE Marathon with curiosity rather than expectations. I signed up because I wasn’t running the Umstead Marathon and I wanted an excuse to check out the Uwharrie 100K/100Mile course, which is 3 or 5 loops that are described as “Simply Unrelenting.” Was the figure 8 loop harder than the Uwharrie Mountain Run (UMR) on the Uwharrie Trail? I had to find out.

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URE Marathon elevation profile. 4200 ft. of elevation gain. Like a T. rex with poor dental hygiene.

I haven’t followed a training plan since last spring and was surprised to run better than expected at Uwharrie 20. Then I pulled off my point-to-point marathon (aka the “No Steph, That Does Not Sound Like Fun” Marathon), running from Creedmor Rd. to the Falls Lake Dam on the MST one Saturday with my buddy John (I placed 2nd out of 2). I found myself at the starting line with a good base, though undertrained for hills (a discovery made at UMR).

Brandy and I talked Megan into signing up with us and we drove 2 hours to the start (which I now know is Mile 20 on the UMR). They had both done the Umstead Marathon the week before, so they were planning a fun and easy day in the woods, with their primary focus on a post-run brewery stop in Asheboro. Clearly I need to spend more time around these fun adventure peeps!

The race was set up as a free Fat Ass style, so everyone contributed snacks for the aid stations, which were divvied up and distributed by wonderful volunteers. After a quick race briefing, we started with a 5.7 mile out-and-back on a dirt road before jumping onto the 20.5 mi single-track loop. I ran easy, but noticed that there were only 2 women ahead of me when we started the single track. After a couple miles, I caught up with Jenna—I recognized her face and her name immediately, since we’ve done many of the same races, but had never put them together. She’s had a big early season with some ultra-distance races and had run Umstead last weekend. She’d run the course before, so she gave me some idea that the nice easy running we were doing at the moment was not going to last.

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Race Director Dan Paige gives us some last-minute instructions.

I’d never been on Dutchman’s Creek before, so I was curious about the terrain.
As many friends had promised, the first part was super-runnable, so I cruised along. There were many Scout groups out on the trail and I ran into the first one while slogging up the first big hill, with a slope far steeper than the opening mile of the Uwharrie Mountain Run. They generously allowed me to pass as they carried their heavy, external frame packs. One scout had a ginormous cookpot banging against the outside of his pack, which dwarfed his young frame.

I followed a young woman who was running strong and easy for several miles before closing the gap and introducing myself. Her name was Emily and we chatted for a few minutes. She comes from a triathlon background and had recently gotten into trail running—yeah! She trains with the RWB team near Clayton. We had a chance to talk more after the race and planned to meet up in Umstead for some training.

I was just wishing I’d paid better attention to where the aid stations were located when I came upon the one at the intersection of the two loops, mile almost-12. Clearly I did not stay there long enough, because for the rest of the race I had to listen to other runners rave about the bacon-wrapped pickles, which had vanished by the time I came back through.

I kept thinking that with each foot of elevation loss, I would pay on the return journey of potential energy gain. [Happily, I couldn’t remember the exact equation.] The URE Marathon promises a brutal 4200 ft of elevation gain. Soon I stopped at a clearing where the path was not altogether clear. Two hikers were there and called, “look up to the right.” I looked up—as in, I had to tilt my head back—and saw the yellow flagging above my head on what looked like a pile of rocks (the “confidence markers” yellow flagging were exactly as described and much appreciated—seems like I saw one every time I started thinking, “geez, I sure hope I’m still on the right track.” Thank you organizers!). A sign informed me that I had reached the famous Sasquatch Summit. It did not disappoint—a hands-on-knees slog, including a few places where I used my arms to pull myself up.

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This dead mouse on Sasquatch Summit may have been trying to tell me something.

Not long after that, I saw a sign for the Soul Crusher. It seemed pretty tame at first, until it WASN’T. It went on and on, up and up. The only reason my soul wasn’t completely crushed was knowing that I would not have to run it again.

Because here’s the thing—I was running one loop of this gnarly course today and thinking about what it would be like to run 3 (100K) or 5 (100 mi) of them in October. How in the world would you navigate the course in the dark, and how would you keep yourself moving forward on these brutal loops? There were quite a few Uwharrie 100K/100 mi veterans running, so I asked them. Allen said that the toughest mental decision is whether to stop at 100K, knowing you were finished and not have to run TWO MORE LOOPS (40+ miles) to finish the 100 miles.

I don’t know. During the race, there was not a moment when I thought, “gosh, I could totally see running this course all day and night!” But now that the race is over…maybe it’s doable. Maybe? The nighttime adventure would be something to remember!

At some point Kris from North Augusta caught up to me but declined to pass, though I offered several times. He hadn’t run Uwharrie before so we had a great time talking about trail running and racing as we trucked along.

Kris and I made the left turn onto the Uwharrie Trail. On the Uwharrie 20, that point would be around 12 miles—here, it was close to mile 17. Five miles makes a difference in Uwharrie, although this section isn’t bad. We ran out to mile 17.4 and Kelly’s Kitchen, where I knew my friend Juliet was volunteering. It was great to see her and Jeannie (both ultra-women extraordinaire!). We chatted for a few minutes about the prescribed burn that had been done recently (no, it wasn’t me) and the Uwharrie cookies I brought. Then she said, “you know you’re first female, right?” and I think I said, “Aaaah! No pressure!” I didn’t want Emily to catch me stuffing my face at an aid station, so I grabbed a pb&j and headed back down the trail.

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Perusing the PB&Js at Kelly’s Kitchen. [After seeing this photo, I cut the Wacky Professor Hair back into submission.]

The half mile out-and-back gave us a chance to high-five a few folks. Just 9 miles to go. Now it seemed like a disadvantage to know the course—miles 11-14 on the Uwharrie 20 weren’t bad, but 14-17 are brutal. I told Kris that we had a big climb coming up but the rest wasn’t too bad. He bought it.

Dennis Mountain at mile 22 (instead of 16) was not awesome. But the next section wasn’t as hard as it usually is on the UMR because we only had 1-way traffic. We reached a sign that said we had a mile to go. Before the race, I’d looked at my Uwharrie pacing and, although I didn’t know all of this course, I thought that if I had an amazing day, I might squeak in under 5 hours. My watch said 4:56. “hey Kris, if you can pull off a 4 minute mile, you can break 5 hours. You should totally go for it. I’ll be right behind you.”

“You didn’t tell me that the last part of the race is another climb,” said Kris, no longer buying my marketing. “I wanted to keep it a surprise. Where is that finish line???” There it was, and there were lots of smiles and “good jobs.” We finished in 5:09! First female! I was thrilled!

I spent the next little while hanging out in a chair, making frequent trips to the snack tables, enjoying the beautiful day, and cheering in fellow trail runners. Brandy, Megan and I then headed to the Asheboro brewery with Aline and a few others, where we ordered a large, plain pizza, got a pepperoni, shrugged and wolfed down the whole thing.

Dan Paige’s URE Marathon site promises, “…if you are looking for a race over some gnarly trails with some good people, this might just be what you are looking for.” Delivered. What a fantastic race, great volunteers, and top-notch organization and direction. If you think that the only thing better than Uwharrie is More Uwharrie, this race might be for you!

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Awesome Peep volunteers Juliet and Aline! Also 2 State students recognized me at the finish with the help of my shirt, though they claimed they were not in my class.

2016 Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run

12376298_10207376662188186_1881369676864077756_nTruth: there’s no way to make running 100 miles a cohesive story (I knew that while I was running it). You have been warned.

PRE-RACE

For my thoughts leading up to the race, check out this post and my Umstead marathon race report. I have more to say about what I learned, but that will have to wait until a later post (or rot in my head).

A family crisis the day after the Umstead marathon kept my mind off the 100 for the entire taper period. Andrew and I were making frequent trips to Charleston to tag-team with family members while also juggling work and family at home. I lost a few pounds in the three weeks before the race, in addition to recurring sleeplessness due to stress. Note: not recommended. I knew I would have to consciously put the stress aside so I could focus on getting through one hundred miles.

I wasn’t super-successful with sleeping or eating all week, but slept like a woman without care on Thursday night. Refreshed, I headed to Camp Lapiho to get my packet and attend the race meeting Friday afternoon, finding my Peep friends Megan and Juliet to sit with during the briefing.

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“Pee before you wet your pants.”

Back in December, I saw race director Rhonda Hampton one Saturday in Umstead. I was surprised and honored when she asked if I was willing to wear bib #100 to represent the first-time hundred mile runners. One of my duties as #100 was to recite the 3 golden rules of ultrarunning at the pre-race meeting, as well as offer encouragement to those running. I spent many training miles thinking about what I might say.

I kept it short and simple, feeling self-conscious around the ultra-running giants in the room, many of whom had generously offered their wisdom during my training. It was up to each of us, I said, to run the 100 miles before us. But what makes Umstead special is the amazing community of support. So while each of us must cover every mile on our own feet, lean on that positive energy when the going gets tough. Everyone—the race organizers, volunteers, friends, families, and other runners—would be pulling for us to achieve our goals. I also asked each runner to offer encouragement to others on the course, because helping others reach goals they didn’t think were possible brings out the best in yourself. I tossed in a joke before I recited the three rules. “My running buddy said the first one is to pee before you wet your pants. But I didn’t see that anywhere on the website.”

Lap 1

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Megan and I, lap 1, AS2.

The start. Oh boy! We’re finally running this. I sent a final text to my crew advising them I was turning off my phone, so they could feel free to start the trash talk. Megan and I ran to AS 2 together. We were both relieved to be running, after months of training. Training was hard, tapering was hard, but THIS we could do. We talked about the confidence our 2:00 am, 39 mile crazy run had given us. I felt excitement as I wondered about the day and night ahead, having put aside my family stress for a little while. “All I have to do this weekend is run? Bring it!”

We were greeted at AS 2 by my co-crew chiefs, Steve and Danny, who were volunteering (possibly to low-key AS captain Chris Squire’s chagrin), Ken, Jeff, and Cheryl. Jeff and Cheryl joined me for some miles on the back half of Lap 1. I wore my Suzie shirt, knowing that Suzie would have appreciated the level of the challenge, even as she would assuredly have grilled me about balance.

Lap 1 split: 2:33 (each lap is 12.5 miles). 8:33 am. 12.5 miles finished!

Lap 2

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Wet rats on Lap 2, AS2.

It was humid already, and I refilled my Nathan pack with ~1.5 L of water. Since I’m lousy tracking time, I had landmarks along each 12.5 mi loop: Stretch at the bridge at the bottom of the Corkscrew. Stretch on the stone bridge at the bottom of Graylin. Drink a 10 oz water with half a Nuun tablet every lap, twice that if it’s hot. Eat at every aid station, especially the two main aid stations. These tips came from Danny and Jon, both U100 finishers, and they worked great. There was an unmanned aid station at miles 4 and 10, but it was mostly stocked with sweets that didn’t appeal.

Jeff continued with me awhile, and it poured rain. We saw some Peep friends out training for Boston—Sarah, Gray and Kerry, as well as Anne and Jeff.

I enjoyed the back half of lap 2 with some other U100 runners, and spent some time admiring the creamy yellow buckeye that was in full flower all over the park, but especially Turkey Creek.

Lap 2 split: 2:38. 11:13 am. 25 miles finished!

Lap 3

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Danny and Steve bossed, teased, and looked out for me for 100 crazy miles.

I was over my wet shorts, and reasoned that even if it rained again, I had extra pairs to change into. A Trailhead friend Galoot happened to be in the lodge and he and another volunteer refilled my water pack and helped me get another bottle of Nuun ready to go while I changed. I wanted dry shoes, but word at Lapiho was that we had one remaining cell with rain, so I compromised by drying off my feet, recoating them generously with Vaseline, putting on dry socks and stepping back into my wet shoes. Worth it! I’m off!

As I came down the Corkscrew, I saw my friend Diane, who accompanied me to AS 2. Throughout the race, my #100 bib is getting me many grins, thumbs-up, high-fives, and cheers. I’m excited by all the positive energy and this time, I’m part of it as a bona fide Umstead 100 runner.

I caught back up with Megan at AS2, and she and I headed back to Camp Lapiho with Karla and Danny. Brandy and some other friends met us on Graylin for a bit. Megan was having some trouble with blisters, but she was super-efficient at the aid stations and Camp Lapiho. She posted rock-solid, consistent sub-3 hour splits all day, eventually finishing in 23 hours and change for her first! 100! Woo hooo! What a run she had.

Lap 3 split: 2:49. 2:02 pm. 37.5 miles finished!

Lap 4

My big treat to start this lap is a dry sports bra, tank top, and dry, brand-new shoes and socks. It’s the little things!

I’ve run more miles with my friend Danny than anyone else, and he’s seen me at my best and worst on many runs and races. He tells me that it is past lunchtime and I should eat something substantial. Wait, what? Lunchtime already? I balk. He talks me into some grilled chicken. Eating is one of my few strengths, so I’m a little puzzled why nothing at the huge smorgasbord seems very appealing. Umstead aid stations are legendary and besides chicken, there were hot dogs, hamburgers, and veggie burgers, plus any snack you could want. Karla and Danny head out with me after another refill of my pack. The rain has dropped the humidity and washed some of the pollen and dust out of the air, which is excellent, especially now that I’m wearing dry shoes. We see Vanita and she joins me for a few miles of her afternoon run.

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Simon joins me for a few miles as a surprise!

I get to Trinity Road and Andrew and Simon are there to surprise me! Andrew drops Simon off to run, then meets us at AS2. Simon runs by my side and checks to make sure I’m walking the hills—very serious about his pacing duties. Ann and Audrey are at AS 2 with big cheers. My other crew leader and great friend Steve jumps in for the back half of lap 3 with a long and entertaining story about nearly poisoning himself with an unknown fruit while on vacation (manchineel tree) and taking some silly photos. The sun is out and it’s hot.

Lap 4 split: 3:09. 5:13 pm. 50 miles done!

Lap 5

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Kellie and Gordy ready for Lap 5!

I was expecting to feel like I did when I finished Old Glory at 50 miles. That is, cooked. But my race has barely started and I’m excited to see my first official pacers and start gearing up for nighttime running. Luckily, I seem to be able to focus on the end goal, and I don’t think about my aches and pains because I’m not finished yet. My friends Kellie and Gordy are waiting, and Danny picks Steve up to grab dinner and go get his car. I try to get in too but they lock the doors. Guess I’ll run another 50 miles instead.

Gordy asked for Lap 5 because he is filling the role of paparazzi. He’s the official videographer for the 12 Things of Christmas, our Blue Ridge Relay team, and he wants to take some photos and videos while it’s still light. He does. Many. And then he gets everyone else’s photos and puts together this great video. I am especially happy about the video because there is actual proof that I was running. I remember walking a lot.

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Off to see the Wizard! Lap 5.

My friend Kim appears on Reedy Creek Road and joins us for a few miles! As we turn onto Turkey Creek and roll past the Butt Tree, I start asking myself what I want to eat. We come down the hill into AS2. “I can’t think of anything I want to eat…hey, PIZZA!” I head out with 3 small pieces. We pick up my son Stephen and I am so excited and proud that he’ll run a full lap with me. He’d come out with me for a run in the dark one Friday night and we had a great time. The flow of running and conversation works on teenagers and their parents, too, and I really love that. Steve and Danny are there again! but they won’t share their coffee.

Lap 5 split: 3:20. 8:34 pm. 62.5 miles done!

Lap 6

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Goofing off at Camp Lapiho with Stephen and Danny, between laps 5 and 6. No blisters, pinky promise.

I arrive back at Camp Lapiho and it’s now truly dark. My best friend Ann and my buddy Ken are here to pace lap 6! Whatever misgivings they may have had about keeping up were surely quelled; I’m not moving fast. I changed into my bigger shoes, re-lubing my feet. One of my toes is numb and I’m convinced there’s a blister on it. Danny tells me it’s fine and there’s no blister and I head back out with Ann, Ken, and Stephen. We’re barely out of camp when we run into Gordy who is wandering around in the dark looking for his car. He didn’t make the 9:00 gate!

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AWESOME cheering section at AS2 as I reach mile 70. The support was incredible and I later figured out it was nearly 11 pm.

As we’re descending toward AS2 I can hear people whooping it up. It’s pitch dark and I have absolutely NO idea what time it is, but am mildly surprised that AS2 volunteers have this much energy at whatever-time-it-is. I look up and realize it’s a huge crowd of my friends—out to cheer me on. I was actually speechless for a minute. Andrew is there, Jeff and the girls, Will and Margaret, Jean and Bill. I can’t believe it! And my friend Kelly is there to surprise me and jump in for pacing.

Stephen is arguing that he should be allowed to continue on with his pacing. He wants to run back to HQ and hang out with Steve and Danny. He’s been in rare form all evening, talking non-stop in the way that only a 15 year old boy can, but he’s also checking on me continually and making sure I’m walking the hills. He’s been great, but he’s running his first half marathon the following weekend and doesn’t need to be out running 18+ miles, no matter how slow. He’s also asking me about putting in for the Western States lobby, which is not a topic I want to discuss at the moment!

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Barely contained chaos between laps 6 and 7 with my lap 6, 7, and 8 crew.

We continue along in the dark. I love being out at Umstead at night—what a rare treat. I started feeling pretty tired, and got quiet, chugging along and listening to the conversation. I made a poor decision that since it wasn’t hot anymore, I didn’t really need to drink much Nuun, which was not appealing anymore. Kelly had brought me some Fritos, my favorite running treat (salt!!!) and I nibbled a small bag of those between AS2 and Camp Lapiho. Ann and Kelly slowed to encourage a solo runner on Graylin while Ken and I kept trucking. Ann helped me change and get ready for lap 7 and Jon and Carolyn were there and ready to roll for lap 7, along with Kelly. I added another layer and was ready to go.

Lap 6 split: 3:53. 12:28 am. 75 miles done!

Lap 7

Heard outside the porta-potty at Graylin/Reedy Creek at 1:30 am:

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Lap 7 pacers Jon and Carolyn are matching and ready!

“Marco.”

“Marco!”

“MARCO!!!”

“POLO! GEEZ! Go away Jon!”

“OK, she’s alive!”

I remember very little of lap 7. I was told that I demonstrated my owl calls—I know two, barred owl and great horned owl, and can render them with startling volume, especially in a dark forest. I probably needed some coffee. I remember feeling baffled when we got to AS2 and I looked at the huge buffet but couldn’t see anything that looked good. Jon filled a bag with random salty snacks and then coerced me into eating some. Carolyn and Jon told me later that I was still pretty chipper, but definitely loopy. Apparently I cheered on other runners, spectators, volunteers, a few trees and even some cars when we got back toward camp. At least I didn’t forget my own advice!

Lap 7 split: 4:31. 4:59 am. 82.5 miles done!

Lap 8

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Danny telling me I need to eat the rice between laps 6 and 7. Mercifully there are no photos between laps 7 and 8 when my face “looked like a blueberry.”

I am so happy to see my lap 8 crew of Jeff, Steve, and Danny, my runner brothers from other mothers. This is it! Although I never thought about dropping, I know now that I’m getting close to the finish. I’ve run 87.5 miles and have just 12.5 to go. And I know that these friends will get me to the finish. Camp Lapiho is bright after being in the dark woods and I’m squinting. Actually my eyes, and actually my whole face, are swollen, but I didn’t realize that. My legs still feel good, but my chest is tight and it feels like everything I try to swallow gets stuck in my throat. I’m also cold, and I’m wearing a long sleeved shirt, a wool pullover, and I’m trying to pull on a jacket, look for my gloves and hat, and think about what I can eat, not noticing worried looks from my crew.

I hold my hands up and say, “Whooaaa, look how swollen my hands are!” in a voice that probably suggested that I was drunk rather than awake for 24 hours and 87.5 miles into a run. Danny starts taking off my watch. “Hey…whatcha doing?” “Your watch is going to bust off if we don’t loosen it.” “I still think I have a blister.” “You don’t have a blister. Your feet are fine. Leave your pack here and let’s get moving.”

While I’m watching Danny fiddling with my watch, I look up and see Rhonda and two medical staff. Uh-oh. They’re all looking at me—I better get out of here fast. One medical guy says to Steve and Jeff, “She’ll be fine, but she needs salt and no more water.” Is he kidding me? It will take me hours to run the last 12.5 and I don’t get any water? Apparently I have hyponatremia. I started feeling a little sorry for myself.

There was some commotion as Rhonda tried to figure out who was actually in charge in my crew and doled out salt tablets with strict instructions that I should have one every 45 minutes. In the end, Jeff got the salt, Steve set the timer, and Danny had Gatorade to wash it down. It takes a flock!

I’d given up on eating. I was feeling lousy but I knew I could make it. After we reached Reedy Creek, I tried to run but felt like I was gasping for breath just walking. I could hear snippets from my crew talking about me in the third person—THIS IS NEVER GOOD—and I could tell I wasn’t walking straight despite trying to seem normal—later, I found out they were debating whether to take me back to HQ if my breathing did not improve. I was also really, really tired.

“Maybe I needed some caffeine.” I swallowed half a coffee-flavored gel and immediately threw up on the side of the trail. Everything that came out besides a tablespoon of Gu was water. No food. I threw up again and was suddenly irritated with myself for getting here. I knew I’d somehow screwed up my food intake and all I had in my stomach was water. Totally preventable and here I was, retching, at mile 89. I was pissed. I handed half a Gu to Steve and tried to make a joke. “Well, I think I’ve had about enough of this.”

I straightened back up and suddenly, I felt monumentally better. I could breathe and the chest tightness was gone. But I was still frustrated. “OK. It’s time to run.” The four of us set off down Reedy Creek. Dawn broke slowly as it does in the woods, sunlight filtering through the still-bare trees, black sky lightening to blue in the east.

A jangling alarm goes off. “Time for salt!” “I think I’m good. I feel much better.” “Nope. Rhonda’s orders.” This builds into a comical routine every 45 minutes, with my feeble attempts to refuse it and the guys telling me I have to take it, somewhat gleefully. Later Stephen said “when I heard an alarm, I didn’t know what it was for, but everybody got really excited and started laughing. Except you, Mom, you looked so miserable that I kind of felt sorry for you.”

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Last lap of Turkey Creek. I’m finally waking up and feeling like my goofy self again.

I was asleep on my feet and kept wandering off to the right until my crew took turns filling the space on my right and steering me back to the road. I’m not sure how much I ran. I expected to feel excitement on this final lap and was disappointed that I wasn’t in any shape to join the banter. I do remember giving Chris a hug at AS2 and thanking him and Hope for being there for all the runners. He smiled, shook his head and said, “Steph, you have quite a crew.” I think my friend Audrey was there too (again! What a pal) to send me to the finish with some good energy.

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Last 2 miles and I’m so excited to see my family and finish this!

I honestly don’t remember seeing any other runners on that lap, though I was told there were many others out there. If you know my three crew members, you know that they kept me entertained, even if you were as tired as I was. There was Little Red Riding Hood, Bob Dylan and flubbed Robert Frost. After AS 2, I was feeling much better. The salt, plus some sips of Gatorade and a little bit of coffee, was helping. I knew where I was headed.

About 2 miles from the finish, I see Andrew and Stephen. I was so excited to have them run me in! Simon is waiting at the finish with Ann and Ken, which means they’ve stayed all night to see me finish. I am finally turning onto Camp Lapiho Road for the last time. I teared up just a little but I was so thrilled to cross that line and get a hug and my finisher’s pendant from Rhonda. Hugs all around! I could not have reached the finish without my awesome crew. I went inside the lodge and had a made-to-order cheese omelet from my friend Keri, which was the best food I’ve ever eaten. I hugged and said goodbye to my tired crew, and tottered to the car with Andrew and the boys, where I instantly fell asleep.

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Finished!

Lap 8 split: 4:15. 100 miles, DONE! Finish time 9:15 am, 27 hours and 14 minutes.

Postscript

I learned so much but that will have to wait for another post. Here’s what I posted on Facebook the day after the race:

To all, I can’t thank you enough for all the support I had last weekend for the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. The race organizers, particularly Rhonda Hampton, put their hearts and souls into the event. Volunteer captains like Ben Dillon, Rebecca Sitton, Jennifer Ennis, John William, Jeannie Armagost, Joe Lugiano and Dana Mathew spend days on their feet before, during, and after the race, taking care of runners’ every need. Other friends (too many to list!) pulled a volunteer shift or three working aid stations, taking photographs, setting up, cleaning up, cooking, timing, etc.

So many friends came out to run a few miles with me during the day or to cheer me at night. Many more of you, near and far, sent words of encouragement via Facebook, email, and text message. And my fun and crazy crew of Andrew Jeffries, Kellie Davis, Gordy Blackwell, Stephen Jeffries, Ann Camden, Ken Taylor, Kelly Cook, Carolyn and Jon Armstrong, Jeff Cobb, Danny Jessup, and Steve Fallaize pulled me through the night and to the finish. Andrew Jeffries brought the boys out to pace me, took care of me before and after the race, got my car home, and did a million other small things to help me achieve my goal.

I was proud to wear the symbolic #100 race bib as a first-time 100 mile finisher. Big congrats to many friends who ran, esp. fellow Peeps Megan Sullivan and Juliet Brundige. Thanks to ALL for making my experience so joyful and memorable. Life is rich!

Dust of Snow, by Robert Frost

The way a crow
[Shook] down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

2016 Umstead Trail Marathon: Running for fun

2016 umstead marathon start

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.
2016 umstead marathon

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*.

 

Umstead marathon chart

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.

Eno

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!

Nature Photography Challenge

Gallery

This gallery contains 7 photos.

I’ve really enjoyed seeing my friends’ posts for the Nature Photography Challenge (‪#‎challengeonnaturephotography‬), and after Julie Tuttle and Dan Pittillo challenged me, I spent a few days thinking about what kind of “theme” might guide my choices. I decided to … Continue reading

Something new: Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock 50K race report

I *love* point-to-point trail races. So when a new 50K opened up that wasn’t too far away, I was excited. Some friends signed up, which only made it more enticing. Unfortunately, I’d spent most of the summer nursing what turned out to be a hip labral tear. While getting the uber-fancy fluorescent MRI, I got a cortisone shot, which seemed to settle the pain enough to finish my early fall training. Once I confirmed that it wouldn’t get worse, I signed up for the 50K distance in the inaugural Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock Ultramarathons.

The trails and course were a complete mystery to me, which was exciting. The race organizers promised some crazy tough single-track, but other sections of the website described trails that sounded like Umstead bridle trails. The elevation change wasn’t horrendous, given the mileage. Much of the race was on the Sauratown Trail, part of the NC Mountains-to-Sea Trail that I’d never hiked. It couldn’t possibly be harder than Uwharrie and I figured that any easy sections would be a welcome surprise. What I discovered was that the course offered a little of everything.

There were only 2 hills on the 50K. No problem!

There were only 2 hills on the 50K. No problem!

Will, Joanna and I caravanned up to Winston-Salem, where we hit packet pickup at By Foot Sports in King, NC. It poured rain all afternoon and evening. Later, I found out that some of the 50 milers dropped down to the 50K. Then, J and I hit some local attractions (read: bakeries) before having dinner and spending the night at her mom’s house.

Carb-loading is an important part of race preparation.

Carb-loading is an important part of race preparation, and impossible to resist when the original Krispy Kreme is in Winston-Salem. Thanks Mr. Sta-Puff!

Joanna’s mom, Isabelle, was a hoot. She watched us scamper around, while having the inane stream-of-consciousness back-and-forth that passes for conversation between runners when packing and prepping for a race. When Joanna went upstairs to get something, Isabelle leaned toward me and asked, “How far is this race tomorrow?” When I told her 31 miles, she shook her head in wonder. “And why do you want to do that?” She didn’t say it in an eye-rolling, exasperated way. She genuinely wanted to know.

I fumbled a bit, as I always do trying to explain why I love running long distances on trails. “Well, I love being out in the woods—and the chance to do that for most of a day, and nothing BUT that, traveling by trail on my own two feet for a long distance, flying along and covering ground, and seeing beauty everywhere—makes me so happy,” I explained, inadequately. She nodded. I couldn’t tell if she meant “I understand,” or “ah, there are others like my daughter. Maybe she is not crazy.”

I woke up the next morning at 4:30 and wondered groggily how this was required, since the race didn’t start until 8. We had to catch the shuttle ride to the start no later than 6, though, and it was an hour drive. We hit the road at 5:00. One wrong turn and some backtracking and we were suddenly behind schedule. Then, we were lost. Part of my problem was that our plan to stop to get coffee was flubbed by the fact that not a single convenience store in Stokes County opened until 6:00. I drove on in quiet desperation. I don’t need a lot of coffee, but no coffee guarantees an all-day caffeine headache.

Fortunately, we got a tiny window of cell service just as Will called, and we found the Green Heron Club, the finish for the race. We were the last people to jump on the bus that took us to the start. On the way, I ate my oatmeal and wished for some of the black juice.

We arrived at the start in a parking lot just outside Pilot Mountain at the Grassy Ridge trailhead. There were volunteers checking people in, and one of them kindly shared some of her coffee from her own thermos. Race volunteers are the best!

We are off! Me, Joanna, and Will are all in this picture. Cross the road and hit the trail. It's going to be a great day!

We are off! Can you spot me, Joanna, and Will? Cross the road and hit the trail. It’s going to be a great day!

The race started without fanfare, and I wished my buddies good luck. Grassy Ridge Trail was a supremely runnable trail that skirts the east side of the mountains section of Pilot Mountain State Park. It was easy running and the 80 or so runners spread out to start the day. Fall color was about a week ahead of Raleigh, so the oak-hickory forest was gorgeously aflame with reds, oranges and golds. For a few miles I ran and chatted with Michelle, whose longest race before #PM2HR was a half marathon. Wow, so gutsy! Love it!

It seemed like no time at all before we reached mile 10.5, where our drop bags were. I really didn’t need anything so early! I might have changed socks if I’d packed them; we had our first stream crossings already and my feet were wet. As it turned out, that would have been pointless, as we splashed across small streams many times. I dropped off my arm warmers, stuffed some extra snacks in my pack, and motored on.

The least-fun section paralleled a road and had several crossings, and there was a 2.5 mile stretch on a road, which seemed harder than the trails. There were some jaw-dropping vistas of Hanging Rock to keep us distracted. One of the landowners along the trail wanted to enjoy the opening weekend of hunting season, which was good enough reason for me to stay on the road without fuss. Great reminder that much of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail passes through right-a-ways on private lands, due to the generosity of many landowners. We need to be good stewards and users of the trails.

The morning started cool and foggy but turned warm and humid. I felt really good, and I was having a great race, maybe my best ever—no one passed me after mile 10, and I caught more than a dozen people on the back half, running steadily. This was the first ultra-distance where I raced—not running as hard as I could, because that would be silly, but pushing myself to run at a steady pace, move quickly through aid stations (OMG the RD’s wife made peanut butter rice krispy treats!), and keep my walk breaks short. I had a touch of nausea but a ginger chew seemed to help.

I ran and chatted with three other guys for awhile and one said he was hoping for a 6 hour finish. That sounded crazy, not that I could do the math, but someone else said if that was the case, he’d better move. I was saying I’d be sure to get a PR since it was my first 50K. Someone commented, “that’s surprising, because you look like an ultra-runner.” I laughed—this is what an ultra-runner looks like? A 43 year old mother of two, with an average build, sturdy legs for climbing, and salt and pepper hair? But it was meant as a compliment and I accepted it with pride. Hell yeah I look like an ultra-runner! I joked that we were about to pay for all this nice runnable trail we’d had. And we did, in spades.

Once past the mile 23 aid station, I saw very few runners. We were spread out. I began the tough climb through Hanging Rock State Park. Some extremely rocky trail on the Moore’s Wall and Magnolia Springs Trail, combined with steep climbs, reduced me to a steady hike. Every once in a while the trail would pop out at an overlook with some amazing views. When the going got tough, I’d admire the forest, noticing that the extreme-loving species like Table Mountain pine were there clinging to the cliffs I was climbing.

After the big climb on Hanging Rock, the trail connected to the Hanging Rock summit trail, below the summit. It was disconcerting to have been alone in the woods for over an hour and suddenly share the trail with oodles of hikers and families ambling toward the summit. They seemed surprised, too, to see a runner come flying (well, it felt like flying) down the mountain. “Excuse me! On your left! On your left, please!”

I climbed a short hill to the aid station in the parking lot, panting a little.
“Thanks for volunteering. Is there a bathroom here? What mile is this, anyway?”
“Bathroom is across the parking lot. You’re at mile 27. Fourth female.”
“What, are you serious? Geez, I can’t go to the bathroom now!”
“Well…3rd female is way ahead. I don’t think you’ll catch her.”
“I’m not worried about that! I’m in the old lady division and don’t want to be passed while I’m in a porta potty! I’ll have to chance it!” They laughed, but I was dead serious. I grabbed a handful of chips and headed across the parking lot.

The last section of trail descended through the crowded picnic area and past the waterfalls. Talk about painful. It was steep, rocky, and wet, and my legs were tired and starting to get shaky. It was also crowded, and I called out (politely, I hope) multiple times as I passed that I was finishing a race, hoping that they would not ask where it started. No time to explain!

After the waterfalls, the trail leveled out and it was smooth and beautiful, easy running. In the last mile, there were four creek crossings, which felt refreshing on my tired feet, though I grumbled, “really?”

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What a tired, dirty, sweaty, happy distance runner looks like.

I came out to the Green Heron Club and crossed the finish line. One of the race directors, Jeff, came over to shake my hand and congratulate me on my finish. I was indeed 4th female, 1st masters, with a finish time of 6:15! I was 19th of 72 runners overall, possibly my best overall placing ever. I was thrilled. I didn’t have any time goal, but that far exceeded what I thought was possible.

“How did you like the race? What did you think of the course?” Jeff asked. “It was totally wicked!” He glanced at my face–I elaborated, beaming. “I loved it.”

I loved this race and would do it again in a heartbeat. The course was fantastic, with plenty of challenge, but it was also very runnable. The medals were a cool horseshoe, and I received a nice zippered jacket as my award. The Green Heron Club was the perfect relaxing venue post-race, with places to change (even showers, if you’d brought a bathing suit), a barbeque meal, and draft beer. Many thanks to Trivium Racing for an excellent race!