Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Umstead Marathon Race Report (3/7/09)

In the weeks leading up to the Umstead Marathon, I was doubtful. I second guessed my health, my interest in running a marathon, my egos ability to withstand another poor marathon effort. As I was bemoaning my track record with marathons, my wife reminded me that my last marathon was the Black Mountain Marathon in 2006 where I finished 4th in 3:32. That marked a very good run on a very mountainous course. My memory was more negative, forgetting the good and reliving the bad, October 2005, Chicago Marathon where my hopes were so set on breaking three hours on a fast road course. Instead I dropped out at mile 19, defeated and broken in body and spirit, happy only to see the faces of my wife and newborn Kathryn who was then only three months old, and made the trip with mom and dad.

Where I have failed to some extent at road marathons, I have faired better on trails. My first successful day running a trail marathon was 1999 in Breckenridge, Colorado. High above 10,000 feet I ran what was called a marathon, the Crest Mountain Marathon (24.5 miles) in 4 hrs 15 minutes. I remember a banjo player at about 18 miles into the race who plukced for the runners with what to me was a hearkening back to Appalachia. I felt at home in the Rockies and scampered down the mountain, near Peak 7 of the 10 mile range that connects Breckenridge to Frisco, Colorado (where I met Sallie the wonder dog). That was a great day, yet I was slow to be fully converted. Still, the heart of trail runner who could do with less and less road running and racing was beginning to beat louder and slower. The following years brought squandered efforts on the roads when it came time to race the marathon. Someday, I’ll realize those dreams, or maybe not.

The day of Umstead arrived and pain had gone away from my legs in the week before. I was prioritizing a Lenten fast over the marathon, no question that it is more important, but I suspended my fasting routine on the Saturday morning of the race. If I was going to run 26 miles, I did need to eat breakfast and take more than water throughout the race.

It felt like summer by the time of the 9am start. Everyone seemed to wonder why we were starting so late, but it is still officially wintertime and even in Carolina it could have just as easily been below freezing. I ran early on the Wednesday morning before, and the weather channel announced that it was 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Water was nowhere to be found on MLK Parkway, even the bog like creek near Durham Public Works and Kroger could have doubled as an ice skating rink. Seventy six hours later at the start of a marathon and it must have already been in the mid 60s on the way to the high 70s. The temperature was just another reason to go out very conservatively with my friends Quincey and Ronnie. The other reason for a patient strategy was the undulations that would come in the middle and late miles of this tour of Umstead State Park. The three of us chatted away the early miles which was kind of fun. I never do this. I subdue my normally extroverted self in races. I am always running at a pace where talking is the last thing I would want to do. Conversation really did pass the time. It probably annoyed other runners around us, but their choice to run nearby. The three of us were probably around 15th place after three miles of running. We were way behind the leader and he looked strong at a turnaround at two miles. We passed some runners on the single track and the three of us were working well together.

I didn't really pick it up until I saw 3rd and 4th place on the way up from Corkscrew Hill (mile 9-10) and one of them pulled me along to a couple of 6:30 miles. He got in a hurry when he heard me coming and we put in a substantial surge from the roughly 7:15 pace we had been running. Ronnie and Quincey were not going with me as I picked it up and I was thinking I needed to go ahead and start picking off a few runners if I wanted a chance at seeing the guys in first and second place later in the race. I pulled away from Ben from Florida about mile 13 and later passed the 2nd place runner at about mile 21 after two great cheering encounters with my friends Tweak and Knocker and their kids. I even got some high fives from at least two of the little ones when I passed by the first time at about mile 12. This really gave me a boost.

All through the really nasty hills on the backside of the park I was feeling really good (miles 11-20), but as the third hour of running commenced there was no escaping the heat. At every aid station I would drink Gatorade and or water. I would dump water over my head and face, but it was just hot, hot, hot. My legs were slowly starting to cramp. I tried to really stretch my legs out going down toward the lake and the bottom of Corkscrew Hill, because I knew that hill was going to take a toll on my pacing. I kept it going up Corkscrew, counting five miles to go, four miles to go. As I approached the 22 mile aid station there was George IV on the right with a cup of Gatorade. He had mastered the hand off of liquids as well as any adult volunteer. I tried not to cry, either from fatigue or the sheer joy of having my son hand me a drink that I so desperately needed. Kathryn and William were in the stroller to the left, smiling and cheering. I knew I had to keep moving, or the temptation to stop and embrace my loved ones would be too much. I walked while I drank and then I got moving, down Wheel Fell Off Hill. This is an appropriate name. The race leader looked like his wheels were falling off and he was totally dominating the field, probably ten minutes ahead of me at that point. We passed each other on his way back up the hill and when he did not utter a “good job” or “keep going” I knew it was because this hill left no opportunity for extra expenditures of oxygen.

Coming back up Wheel Fell Off Hill on Cedar Ridge (mile 22-23) I was in a death march, but it was still running. Ben from Florida was not more than a couple of minutes behind and moving faster than me, I was certain. I had 2.5 miles to get to the finish line. Would I come second or third? Doubt and worry was creeping in. Oh, how I wanted to stop, but the fastest way to stop the pain was to get to the finish line sooner rather than later. I took two walk breaks up the inclines in mile 24 and 25. Each time was disciplined to a count of 50 and then back to running. It felt like the fastest way to get to the finish, but I knew third place was on his way.

Managed to hold it together and not cry at mile 25 when the wheels really were coming off and Ben from Florida was getting closer in my rearview mirror, and there at the top of the hill were Kristen, George IV, Kathryn, and William cheering their brains out for dad. George rode his bike alongside me for almost half of mile 26 and it was, without question, the only thing that kept me from no more walk breaks and a second place finish.

I managed to sneak in for second place (3:13) and not totally blow up in the heat. It was a well executed race plan.

I sent out an abbreviated version of this race report and here are the names of friends who added their specific congratulations in the couple of days after. One of the best parts about running is that we share the stories with one another and amazingly even some non-runners seem to want to know about these stories.

The entire REI staff, Hyjak, Ram, Mike Broome, Flame, Zap, Tweety, Bobcat, Willow, Freeq, Spinz, Gumbi, XXX, Pinto, Tweak, Knocker, Weez, Zbow, Wayne Crews, Squonk, Balto, Wort, Syren, Meredith Leight, Grynz, Flush, Raven, Zu, Paul Potorti, Proulx, Haggis.

Doesn’t this list make you want a trail name? Come out and run with us—

Monk, aka George
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