126.9 miles raced in 2012
Race: Graveyard 100
Place: Outer Banks, NC
Miles from home: 2313 miles
Weather: 40s, sunny, windy
It's been quite some time since I felt that good to be done with a race.
Ideally, I would like about a week to sit back and take in the experience that was the Graveyard 100. Soak in the gentle nuances of the race. Mix stories with my one-person best friend crew, Alli. Swap tales with the other runners. But I know I have to get this recap out of the way and begin preparing for what is my biggest challenge of 2012 - running 350 miles up the coast of Oregon in less than three weeks. That said, nothing will take away how wonderful this past weekend was to me.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, this was my third attempt at completing the 100 mile distance. No pressure anyone can put on you can compete with the pressure you put on yourself and I was pressuring myself a great deal. At the pre-race briefing when the Race Director asked for projected finish times and got to the “16 hours? 17 hours?” portion, I raised my hand. I was hoping to sneak in right under 17 hours if things went right. Perhaps it was too lofty of a goal but if one sets easily reachable goals, what is the point? I have no desire to go through my entire life as just a finisher. One can sit all day on a couch, die of a heart attack and still be a finisher.
As the briefing wrapped up and we left the Kitty Hawk Pier House most thoughts were on the weather. This race would run, for all intents and purposes, due south, completely open to whatever the weather may have in store for us. The usual concerns about the actual distance were a distant second in many minds. Forecasts called for a prevailing tailwind and mostly sunny skies but until you are actually running, never trust a single forecast.
A 5 AM race start is bad enough for a night owl like myself. But when you must be assembled no later than 4:30 AM to be shuttled to the start, it is worse. Couple that with staying about 40 minutes away in a hotel and having one of the most fitful nights of sleep ever and it is horrific. I did my absolute best to try and go to bed early, actually falling asleep shortly at 9 PM. But one hour later I was up and tossing and turning until around 1:30 AM. When my alarm went off at 2:45 AM I was quite tired. However, as I loaded everything into the car, I felt surprisingly chipper. I was simply ready to get this bad boy underway.
Standing at the starting line with about 80 other people, our feet were literally in the sand. The race starts where the road begins in Corolla and ends when you run out of islands 100 miles later. Here, with the ocean crashing not 50 yards away, and a swirling cold wind nipping at our backs, we waited for the starting gun (figuratively, of course.) Some runners, like the gentleman I met named Mike Smith, would be completing their 55th 100 miler. Some would be attempting their first. But everyone in between would be different by the end of the day regardless.
First 20 miles: 3 Hours
This first section comprised the most diverse section of running for the whole day. From the pitch-black windiness of the beach to the beautiful sunrise to the varying lush neighborhoods of tourist trap Duck, North Carolina, at no point in the rest of the race would so much change happen so quickly.
I started off with a warmer jacket to brace against the wind but within a mile or so knew I would not need it any longer. As with all longer distance races, one has “plans” but they should simply be called “guidelines”. I knew there would be water available every 6 miles or so and food every 20 miles or so. My one person crew, Alli (I was supposed to have two people but unfortunately some last minute circumstances with another crew member’s family meant some changes – luckily all is well now) was going to have her hands full. I had ridiculously overpacked supplies of PowerBar products, Beef Jerky, clothing and everything else because the last thing I wanted was to be wanting for something I did not have. My preparation helped not only me but other runners as well.
During these first 20 miles, I found myself in roughly 5th place or so for the vast majority of the time. Two runners took off like a shot and I let them disappear into the night. Let them run their own race. A few miles in a woman passed me and we shared a few pleasantries. Her name was Brenda and I would see her on and off for the next few miles. I made a wardrobe change with Alli, which took a little bit longer than I would have liked but 8 miles in and I was already sweating. In addition, I was ahead of my goal pace for the race so I knew I needed to take a break. I had been carrying two handheld water bottles but decided I no longer wanted to do that and switched to my UltrAspire Omega pack. This would be the first of many changes throughout the day as I went with the whims of my own mind and desires and simply tried to do what made me most happy.
As I approached the first aid station around mile 20, I thought about what I had been doing with my hydration and fueling. Everything felt just fine. I stopped briefly and ate a PB&J sandwich. Well, half of one. OK, half of half of one. I just wasn’t hungry. But Alli noticed my shirt was drenched and I needed to change it. Here at 8 AM, while it was hardly a hot day (temperature in the low 40s at this point) I was already a sweaty mess.
I refueled me Omega pack, changed shirts and set off on the heels of a few runners who jetted out in front of me.
To mile 45: 7 hours
In the first few miles out of the first food station, I felt wonderful. I passed a member of the military named Scott Raegan who was attempting his first 100. It ends up he is originally from Portland, OR which is one of my favorite cities. I thanked him for his service and moved forward. Right around mile 25 I was just a few yards behind a gentleman named Andrei Nana for what I was pretty sure was fourth place overall. I met Andrei the night before and found out he had run a 100 miler just two weeks prior. Simply amazing what you hear from other athletes at these races. However, that was the closest I would get to fourth place the rest of the day. I hit the 25th mile at 3:52 and considered that to be right where I wanted to be. Even though that was far ahead of the “pace” for 16-17 hours for 100 miles, I know the day would have lots of surprises and the inevitable attrition later. I was not putting time in the bank, per se (that never works) but running when and where I had the energy.
Over the next 5 miles, as one long lonesome stretch of South Virginia Dare Trail in Kitty Hawk opened in front of us, there were two constants: sand on our left and the sun over head. Even with the seemingly cool temperatures of around 45 degrees, I had shed all jackets and was down to a light Zensah compression shirt and my wicking Altra running t-shirt. This area also marked the last time I would wear my hydration pack for the rest of the race.
From this point on I would tell Alli how far ahead I wanted her to drive based on how I felt or where the other aid stations were. I was a little bummed to be calling this audible this early in the race but one does what one must. At one of my stops to refuel, a runner named Kelley passed me. A half of a mile down the road, as she ducked into a restaurant to either use the restroom or fill her bottles, I passed her. Over the next few miles, whenever I would pull over to grab a drink from Alli, there was Kelley not too much further behind me.
One of the interesting things about running an ultra is how you become completely immodest in every way shape or form. Need to use the bathroom? Well, even the shortest dying shrub will provide enough cover. I found myself using this immodesty to not only relieve myself but check on my dehydration levels. For the most part, not only was I hydrated enough to need to go quite frequently but I could tell all systems were go simply by the color. This is information which may be too much for some but any runner who has gone longer than ten miles probably didn’t even bat an eye at that description. That said, it was at the end of one of these breaks when I surprisingly heard some footsteps and thought for sure I had just embarrassed both myself and Kelley. But instead, another runner named Greg was the culprit. It ends up that not only does Greg live in the greater DC area just a few blocks from where I did but we have mutual friends as well in the running community.
Greg was employing a run walk method that I thought sounded like a good idea. Unfortunately, his run was faster than I cared to be running so after a few miles of running together I had to bid him adieu. Fortunately, my slower shuffle allowed me to at least catch him and sometimes pass him when he stopped for the walk portion of his plan. Greg and I would stay in this two-man lockstep all the way down the road out of Kill Devil Hills. Meanwhile, I noticed my stomach simply did not want to process any food. No Gels, no Gel Blasts, nothing. Then I realized I hadn’t taken in any real protein all day long. I dipped into my bag of Jack Links Beef Jerky, began chewing and instantly felt better. Oh sweet meat and salt!
Crossing the Cape Hatteras Road I could see the only real elevation change on the whole course, the Bonner Bridge, up ahead. However, I knew that there were many miles to go before we got there. One of the many problems with an extremely flat course, besides the pounding it can put on your quads from the same relentless muscle-usage, is seeing landmarks literally miles and miles away.
I stumbled into a chair at the Bodie Island Lighthouse and begged for a cheeseburger.
To mile 65: 11:10
Munching on my burger at Bodie, Greg and I shared some of the concerns about the course. He had now officially gone further than he had ever run on pavement before and was mentioning how his quads were definitely feeling it. I said that while I felt the stiffness, the sun was what was getting to me. Alli asked how my shoes were doing and if I needed a change. As tired as I was, as much as my stomach was a little grumbly, I hadn’t thought once about my feet. Forty-five miles of running in my zero-drop Altra Instincts and my feet felt fine. Still ahead of my planned pace for the day, I said I was taking a quick nap in the shade to try and rejuvenate myself.
Twenty minutes later, when Alli revived me, I felt like a new man. During my snooze, Greg had departed and Kelley had come in and back out of the aid station. As I too got my legs under me and head back out the long road from the lighthouse to join the long south-facing road which was 99% of our race course, I could not believe how much better I felt. Now my focus was on tipping myself over the halfway point at Bonner Bridge and seeing what the second half of the race had in store for me.
This section was interesting. With a relatively small shoulder, no pedestrian walk path and a short railing, it could definitely give some runners pause. Fortunately, there was construction going on midway through the bridge which slowed most of the traffic to a crawl, making it much safer for runners to traverse. That said, runners had the option to run a different section and then be transported over the bridge. I appreciate the race director’s desire to do this but declined the option. To me, that is not the same race course and anyone choosing that option should not be in consideration for the same overall finishing time without some sort of an asterisk. But right then, all I wanted to do was get over the hump.
With the wind at our back most of the day, the biggest exposure we would have to it from the side was over the next twenty some miles. The bridge put us right into the winds teeth with a swirling gusting wind wicking any sweat you had off of your body. I hit 50 miles right around 8 hours and 20 minutes. I knew I had taken a longer than expected break at the last aid station but this put me right on pace for what I hope to have for the day. My legs felt fine, my stride was loose and my energy level high. Looking back I saw no runners anywhere close to me and up ahead I could see both Kelley and Greg. I thought perhaps I might negative split the course. Then came the sand dunes.
I took this picture from those taken of Brenda, the woman I mentioned earlier, because, well, it is awesome. It also shows exactly what runners faced in the middle of the day here in what I called the North Carolina Sahara. For the next 10 or so miles, this is what runners had to look forward to. It almost broke me. I look back at my food and drink log and I think I simply over-sugared myself in the first twenty miles. I simply wanted nothing to do with anything that wasn’t salty or substantial. Through this entire section the only thing I took in was water, the occasional swig on some sports drink or Mountain Dew and beef jerky. All I wanted to do was get to the aid station at mile 65 and get some food in me.
But that section never came. It was a long slog with sand biting at our skin and sun baking us from overhead. I will say something about the drivers on this section – 90% of them went far out of their way to make sure the runners had a wide berth. I gave every one of them the one hand-thank you and head nod to let them know their efforts were appreciated and please keep doing it for the runners behind me. Kudos to you drivers in North Carolina.
My energy continued to ebb. I was under the impression that the main aid station was at mile 63 but the mile came and went. It is amazing what two small miles can do to one’s psyche and energy level this far into the race. Finally the town of Rodanthe, which I could see for miles, was finally sucking me into its center and I knew the aid was near.
To mile 87:
The minute I walked into this aid station Kelley told me what an awesome crew I had in Alli. Apparently, Alli had helped her with some fluids or something along the course where Kelley, uncrewed, had needed it most. I told her I knew she was awesome which is why I had her onboard. And now I needed her to get me another cheeseburger.
In almost an exact repeat of 20 miles earlier, I scarfed down the burger, swigged some soda pops and promptly crashed in a cool place to try and recoup from the sun. Salt collected on my shirt and exposed skin, lips were cracked from the wind and sand and I was wondering if the burger would do the trick again. Greg was at the aid station as well sitting right next to me here in the easternmost point in North Carolina. He was definitely feeling the strain of the day as well.
When I finally got on my feet and moving, I had been passed by one runner who I had met at the Cowtown Marathon a few years back named Claude. But as I got my legs under me again and began moving, the waning sunlight provided me with the perfect backdrop to begin running again. No more sun on my back and I felt wonderful.
Mile after mile, Alli would give me updates on Claude, Greg and Kelly. These three were duking it out while I tried to catch up from behind. A thirty minutes lead shrunk to 18 minutes. Then it was narrowed down to 8 minutes. The sun had now set and we were in darkness. A quick chill fell over the land and the stars, oh so bright and plentiful, unobscured by lights of any town or city, appeared above. I swear I could see the blinking lights of runners off in the distance and it rejuvenated me. Then it happened.
I got cranky. I got annoyed. I started walking even though I wasn’t even really all that tired, relatively speaking. I had been listening to music most of the day but now it bothered me to even have headphones in. I knew I was being irrational but that didn’t stop me. The lead of the other runners began to grow again and I couldn’t do anything about it. After what seemed like eons I made it to the 82 mile and stopped at my car with Alli. I crawled in the back and lay down. Even all the other cars in the area with crews and runners and noise did not keep me from falling asleep. I don’t know how long I slept but when I got up I wasn’t any happier about running. I simply wanted to be done. I told Alli that I would meet her in a few miles and took off. Apparently, the wrong way.
Not far mind you but enough for another runner to grab me on the shoulder and tell me, and I quote “Hey buddy. This race goes south, remember?” How after 80 something miles of running in one direction I had convinced myself that I needed to go north is beyond me. I have no idea which runner this was but thank you. The next 5 miles were the longest of the entire course for me, and I think, virtually everyone else. Another lighthouse served as the marker for an aid station, just like at mile 45. This one, however, we could see for miles and miles and it never seemed to get any closer.
There really is nothing to write about this section that is positive from my experience. I was cold, but then hot from putting on layers. I was starving but dry heaving so I couldn’t eat. I wanted to run as I felt I had the energy but the desire to move forward simply didn’t exist. These are the lows that one knows exists in long distance ultras. These are the lows you try to prepare for. These are the lows that you simply must suffer through sometimes. And suffer I did. Suffice it to say that the road from the main course to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Aid station was seemingly the longest road in the history of time.
To the finish of 100.7 miles
As I sat in a chair, wrapped in an army blanked perched perilously close to a heating unit trying to somehow stay warm in the brisk night air, I was trying to figure out how long the last half-marathon of running would take. I couldn’t even fathom walking to the car, let alone 13.1 more miles. I could barely chew the cheeseburger I had in my mouth and swallowing somehow was a work requiring assistance from the Gods. I shuffled over to the car where Alli helped me clamor in the back for what was hopefully the final rest.
And like twice before, even when I was completely bereft of energy, drained to my last step and couldn’t move forward, one cheeseburger, and one small nap was all it took to revive me. Hopping out of the car, I looked at Alli and said “I’ve got this.”
Over the next 13 miles I passed no less than four people. I felt fantastic. Of course, “fantastic” is a very relative term but when you are passing runners who still look pretty strong, that is the only word to describe it. One of my favorite moments of this entire race was, maybe 1 mile from the finish, at what had to be close to 2 AM, when I was running down the middle of the street. My eyes are fervently searching for any sight of the finish line. A banner, some lights, anything. I suddenly hear the tell-tale signs of a bicycle approaching. Taken aback I step to the side and see a girl on a BMX type bike, maybe the age of 18 or so.
“Hi there,” she says completely not ashamed to be out in the middle of the night on a bicycle for no apparent reason.
“Howdy, “ I say back completely not ashamed to look like death, smell like a garbage dumb and be running in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. “Any idea how far until the Museum?”
“I think about a mile or so,” was her reply. Then she pedaled off. Not a single question did she ask as to why I might be out here running at night. A few minutes later, I didn’t even need to know why myself as I was done. Not in the time I was necessarily hoping for but in the time I got. Twenty-one hours and fifty-five minutes after I started I gave poor Alli a disgusting hug, pointed to the sky to thank my father for helping me through the toughest parts of this day. I collected my belt buckle and realized while it was nice, no memento was going to be needed to remind me of conquering 100 straight miles.
This was a first-time event for these race directors but not the first event they put together. There were definitely small tweaks here and there that are needed but I think that overall it was a wonderful race. My biggest complaint was the finish line. After traipsing 100 miles I want at least a white line to cross or some sort of barrier to run under. Not much but something. Other than that, I have no real problems.
Brenda would go on to win the entire race by an astounding 3 hours. She set a new personal best by 3 plus hours as well. Andrei and Claude battled to the end with Andrei pulling out second place by less two minutes. Kelley just barely missed breaking 21 hours. Not bad for a mother (of four, I think.) Greg powered through hypothermic conditions (with the help of one of my Zensah shirts!) sore quads and the tough day to finish strong at the end. All told, forty-four people finished the race with a DNF rate of 39%. What I find amusing is listening to those who never stepped on the course talking about, given how flat it is, it is a piece of cake course. I guess people like Scott, who serve in the military, and other multiple ultra finishers, who did not finish, must not be made of strong enough stuff. Ah, those who sit on the sideline and bitch. I hope you have a comfortable chair.
I want to thank Brandon, his wife and others for holding this race. I want to thank the countless volunteers that were constantly on hand to get runners whatever they needed at the major aid stations. They were cheerful, helpful, speedy and resolute in their mostly thankless duties (like listening to me sing Britney Spears). I also want to thank all the runners I met on the course that day, all who were inspiring, polite, friendly and helpful. I know some were able to help me here and there with an encouraging word and I hope I was able to return the favor.
Mostly, thank you to my best friend Alli for keeping me moving forward. You had very difficult job, staying awake as long as I did while also needing to tend to my needs as a runner, walker, sleeper and whiner. I absolutely could not have done this without your support.
I do not know when the next 100 mile attempt will be. I do know I will be running 50 miles a day for seven straight days in Oregon in just a few weeks. But for now, when I grimace as I attempt to stand up, I will smile at the end of it all.