May 28, 2021

Umstead 2021: DNF

 I posted this to the ultralist back in April but I'm only just now remembering to copy it here


1000 words about why I DNF'd umstead

This past weekend I returned to Umstead, a little heavier, and a little bit less trained. Umstead is .. well, umstead. I look forward to it every year, seeing all the faces that I've grown to love, and over the years I've developed a sentimental attachment to the race. In normal years, I'd bring my family, meet up with a couple dozen friends, and especially fred. And in normal years, Fred and I would at least run the first few laps together, as we have done "literally many times." Yeah, Fred. Who I knew wasn't coming but messaged me as I was entering the park on Friday to inform me that he was back in the hospital dealing with post-COVID complications. Still there today.


In retrospect, I had no business showing up to the start line of a 100. I have not taken a DNF at umstead since 2011, and have accumulated six finishes at Umstead since then. In fact, it was at umstead in 2019 where I recognized in myself a sort of internalization of the notion that you don't quit in 100s (that's Fred's influence right there). I remember where I was, in 2019, near the Brain Tree, when I was running the course and I just knew that I was in for a tough day but that I would finish. Nothing was going to keep me from continuing. And I noticed that I had already internalized it, probably at some previous race, and here for the first time, it was already there.

It was a combination of many factors - self-identity of that never-quit characteristic, the extra hour they were giving us this year, and Fred himself, who was vicariously running the race with me, that I refused to believe that I was incapable of running 100 miles in 31 hours. And with Fred back in the hospital I had a sense of purpose: I need to do this, for Fred. But I also knew - by the numbers - weight 320lbs, total running in the previous 3 months <250 miles, that this would take more lift than an extra hour. I ignored that and pretended I could somehow power through it and run the race. For Fred.

And at the end of the first lap, which I completed in about 2 hours 50, I honestly thought I was getting away with it! Shortly after the start, I met up with Mary, a friend from brooklyn, experienced ultrarunner and generally extraordinary person, and our plan was to have a party barge where we'd RFM our way through the 100 as slowly as we can get away with. Many of you know Gentry, who texted me before the race to remind me that it's impossible to start too slow. And I took it to heart. 3 hours for 12.5 miles seemed slow enough to me, while still allowing plenty of time to slow down later.

Going out on lap 2, I felt pretty good. We were slowing down a bit, but for the first few miles it seemed that we could keep that lap around 3 hours. A six-hour 25-mile split would set us up for, perhaps a 13-14 hour 50 mile split, which at worst would mean a 17-hour second 50, and I knew I could deathmarch that if I had to. But at the mile-long hill at mile 5 in this lap, I hit a wall and then knew that this would not be a 3-hour lap. And Mary wasn't feeling great either. I don't remember what our time ended up being in lap 2, but it was so slow that I considered throwing in the towel right there. I can easily reach 50, but what's the point in that, there would be no 100 today. (The way to dispense that kind of nonsense is to go out on lap 3.)

Lap 3 was more or less a continuation of the second half of lap 2. I started off a little better, but before we got to the bridge at mile 4 I was back to walking slowly. In fact I don't think Mary and I ran a single step after mile 20. We would take turns going through dark spots, pulling the other along. (In fairness, Mary pulled me along more than I pulled her). 

Meanwhile, weather was happening. It was in lap 3 when we got drenched. The forecast was for sun and warmth. For me, a guy who prefers shade and cold, this wasn't great but I can deal with it. I wore sun protection from the very beginning. But the predawn conditions were cool fog. I sweated through my shirt pretty much immediately, and the fog hadn't lifted before completing the lap. Still believing the forecast, I figured that during lap 2 the sun would come out and dry out my now-heavy sweat laden shirt. But when it was still cool and misty at the end of lap 2 I said fine, the fog wins, put on a tech t-shirt. It turns out we had maybe a few minutes of sun before we could start to hear thunder. And that initial storm that finally hit us while we were on top of cemetery hill - it soaked us to our bones. People elsewhere on the course reported hail. I heard about tornado watches. It was that kind of intense storm, and we were in a clearing at the highest point of the course with a mile or two to go before shelter. And Mary had other issues that manifested during this lap; we agreed that it was necessary to have medical check her out and possibly pull her from the race. We both knew this would take time so I would go out on lap 4 alone. 

So we split up at the completion of lap 3. She went into medical and I went to my drop bag to take care of a few things (put on dry clothes). I felt like I could have a strong lap 4. And if I had a strong lap 4, I thought maybe I could attempt a lap 5 and see what happens. So I got my stuff together and headed out. Made it about 100 meters when I realized my headphones were dead. Considering live headphones to be a critical component of a strong lap, I decided to turn around and get a backup pair. About to head out again, I saw the medical area and thought, "I really ought to check on Mary." Turns out my timing was perfect, she was sitting up in a chair and was just given the go-ahead for lap 4. "We can go out together if you don't mind going slow", she said. I briefly thought about my strong lap 4 idea, realized I was only fooling myself, and agreed. So, thanks to a dead pair of headphones, Mary and I would do the entire 50 miles together. 

My idea of a strong lap 4 seemed like a joke in retrospect. Lap 4 can only be described as a deathmarch for me. Mary was clearly stronger but she was graciously hanging out with me. I felt good for a couple of miles but it didn't last. It got dark, it rained on and off, and we trudged through it, finally finishing 50 miles in something like 16:30 (!!). That lap 4 was the hardest lap 8 I ever had. And it was also lonely. We went through the entire 3-mile sawtooth section without seeing anyone - we figured, correctly, that the weather had taken its toll on others. At the end of the lap, there was no decision to make. Someone said you can go out and get 100k. Nah. 3 laps or 5, 2 laps or 6, it's all a DNF. No sense in trying to sweeten it. I took a shower and went to sleep.

Umstead has and always will be special to me, and there will never be a time when I'm unwilling to go there. But whatever makes umstead special to me was different this year. At packet pickup, it was quiet. Nobody was around. People got their stuff and left. Same for Sunday. Finishers would come in, hang out for a minute, and leave to take care of themselves. So the finish line was just volunteers, busy volunteering. It had to be this way, this year. But next year I'd really like things to be back to normal.

Postscript: There we were, moving along the course, clearly struggling, and, like in all ultras, people would call out "great job!" and "you're doing awesome!" Everyone likes Mary. She has that sense of humor that makes her a pleasure to be around. So her response was always, "that's a lie but thank you!" and everyone would chuckle. But after the tenth time this happened, something occurred to me: They weren't lying. Mary and I were so happy to be there. We were having an absolutely wonderful time despite the discomfort, and it's impossible to hide that. So when people said we're doing great, they weren't referring to our glacial pace, rather the smiles we were wearing. I wish I had finished, it really bums me out that I didn't, especially considering Fred. But I still had a great time, and even though the day proved I had no business being on that starting line, I would totally do it again.

Oct 22, 2019

2019 Badger 100 - Southwest Wisconsin

The same group of folks that I joined in Chicago last year to run the World's Longest Turkey Trot are now full-fledged legit proper race directors, and I was happy to join them for their inaugural race, the Badger 100, held in Southwest Wisconsin.

This Wisconsin Race actually starts in Illinois

Race Director Scott has specifically asked me to write a report on the race, presumably because he think that since I've run a dozen 100s, I know what makes a race good and a race bad.

So I'm going to come right out and say that my easy-to-please ass has nothing critical to say about the race, which must be frustrating to a guy who is looking for areas to improve (I get it, man, I really do) but, unfortunately for Scott and his co-RD Adam, I have to blow them for putting on an outstanding race.

That's not to say there aren't petty annoyances that bothered me, some avoidable, most not. But from an organization and production standpoint the race had no issues, which is no small task for an inaugural race.

the course features a ¼-mile dark spooky railroad tunnel - which 100-milers pass through thrice

Me - on the other hand - I was totally fucked, and it's my own fault. I went out too fast. I didn't drink enough water. I was undertrained, I was overfat, I wasn't prepared for the heat, whatever.

It is interesting that I went out too fast, because even though I know I have nothing to prove, I still run as though I do. My strategy by the numbers wasn't irrational. It was a credible walk/run strategy. Kept it up for a full marathon. And the numbers were not too fast .. in the neighborhood of 12-13 minutes per mile. Yet I wasn't up for even those speeds due to training or heat or whatever, and I knew it.

Anyway, I paid dearly for my early enthusiasm. My finish time - north of 33 hours, is by far the slowest 100 I've ever finished. I walked the second half of the race. I was told I had the ultra-lean. My pace had dropped below 24 minutes per mile. I had to be "un-fucked" by Holly when I came into her aid station with apparent heat exhaustion. I was in bad enough shape that she said she'd not object to me requesting a drop - at mile 93. I had a similar sentiment from a different volunteer at mile 60 - where came in to the aid station so fucked up he assumed I was dropping, and seemed surprised when I got up to go back out on the course to what we both knew would essentially be a 40 mile death march.

Outside of the tunnel, the entire course is like this - railroad easement

Holly sufficiently unfucked me (thanks!) and I was able to continue and finish the race. Scott hugged me and gave me a buckle. I wasn't special, he gave hugs and buckles to everyone who finished. Yet in that moment the thing I appreciated most was Scott's friendship, not my own grit or tenacity. Then I sat down and talked with Joe P, who walked with me for about 25 miles overnight until I couldn't keep up with him anymore. Having just finished, the moment was all about me, but again what I really appreciated was the privilege of spending time with him.

Bringing this full circle, that might be the disappointing lesson of a dozen 100-mile ultra finishes. I don't think I'm any smarter or wiser. What is true is that with less experience I would have quit a lot sooner. Also, with less experience I might have found something about the race to complain about. It was too hot, too exposed, there was too long a gap before that one aid station. But I feel none of those thoughts, rather all I feel is that it was awesome that holly was there to unfuck me, and also the unnamed guy at mile 60, and rachel too at mile 67/74, and of course joe, scott, adam, juli, and everyone else including the stranger I encountered on the trail who said, "Are you Steve Tursi? I heard you are a total savage!" These people are the reason I love doing this.

I finish these things on my own two feet, but in no way am I alone. And while swag and awards are nice, what I really appreciate is a race with a strong and vibrant community of people - which is what the Badger offers.

Apr 17, 2019

Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run - 2019

Melissa and I shortly after Aid#2 on lap 3 (I think). Photograph by "Someone"
Two weekends ago we all once again headed down to Raleigh to run Umstead. I am a 5-time finisher. My friends Fred and Bill, both of whom I talk to every day, are both in the 1000 mile club (Bill has 15 finishes). And there are at least two dozen other people who I look forward to seeing every spring as we all return to my favorite race on the calendar - among them, Melissa, who has been my running buddy for hundreds of miles, including pacing each other at other 100s, and would be attempting the 100.

The buildup to the race in my case was characterized by my heavier-than-normal out-of-shapeness. Weight is something I've always struggled with, and it has been especially bad the last few years - one lesson I've learned over this period was it's exceedingly difficult to lose weight - or even maintain it - when other things are on my mind. But the vicissitudes of my anxieties are a topic of another time - the point is that I showed up at the starting line up above 310lbs - 15lbs heavier than I was in 2018 when I ran 28 and change - and at least 30lbs heavier than my sub-24 run at Umstead in 2015. On paper, I was doomed.

Melissa, also feeling undertrained, listened to my concerns and resolved to run with me the entire race. We might both die out there, but at least we'll die together. Moreover, she would generously share her crew with me, promising to have them attend to my needs as much as they'd attend to her. I insisted that I don't need anything except maybe a ride to the race in the morning, but appreciated the gesture, and sure- if someone wanted to give me a 5-hour-energy I'd take that. 

And that brought us to 5:59am - Fred, Melissa and I standing behind a pack of 250 runners in the dark, nervously anticipating the gun.

For those who don't know, Umstead consists of eight 12.5 mile loops on gently rolling crushed gravel.

Melissa might have saved my race. Without her I could have pushed myself to run in the 2:30's on lap 1. An easily-run sub-2:30 lap 1 would indicate a level of fitness I didn't possess, and left to my own devices I might have pushed myself just to achieve the number while sabotaging the next 7 laps. Melissa tempered that destructive mindset. As it turns out we ran about 2:50 - nervously long for me - even out of shape I should be well under 3 hours, and be running sub-3s for at least the first three laps, and I knew I'd slow down in lap 2. But Melissa was confident we were fine, and intellectually I knew it too. A fast start ensures against running out of time should I death march laps 7 and 8. A slow start reduces the odds of the death march. I've done enough of these to know better. But occupying my mind was the notion that, at my weight, is a death march unavoidable? "Better run fast, just in case."

Lap 2, with the light out but clouds keeping the sun away, was uneventful and we managed to stay under 3 hours here too - but not by much. I was nervous. Lap 3 was pretty bad - but lap 3 at Umstead is always a low point for me - I've come to expect it. It was over 3 hours. Lap 4 didn't improve, and Melissa was struggling. I suspected that she wanted to drop; take the 50. I wasn't going to let her. And we stuck together, until the hills of miles 7-9. I jogged down a stretch and looked over my shoulder and she was gone. And after walking - slowly - it was clear she wasn't catching up. She was going to drop. I knew it, she knew it. And sure enough, I got a message from her saying that she's giving her crew to me for pacing lap 5. This was unacceptable to me - I was not going to take her crew from her when she needed them the most. My own condition had not improved after my loop 3 malaise however I knew I could do lap 5 on my own and be fine. Afterwards I'll take a volunteer pacer if they had one, and keep going otherwise. 

However, the matter was settled. Melissa made it clear to her crew that she would be dropping and wanted to lie down - there was nothing they could do, and frankly she preferred to be alone. Bill, half her crew, who was also a reserve Navy medic and cross-fitter who had never run more than 8 miles in his life, was going out on lap 5 with me and there was nothing I could do about it. I accepted this. And Bill was great. We weren't running much at this point, and what I needed in the lap where the sun went down was a companion, someone to talk to. Bill was not an experienced pacer but he was good at conversation and had no issues hiking 12.5 miles. Lap 5 was when I started to recover.

When we came back, Melissa was ready to go back to the hotel and her crew would go with her (I obviously had no problem with this.) I asked at the pacer desk for a volunteer and .. someone came out. Someone ("Someone" shall be his name, for in my stupor had forgotten it, and I think I embarrassingly forgot it soon after we started and called him Bill the whole time. I don't think his name is bill. He never corrected me. Sincere apologies, Someone.) Someone was a more experienced pacer and Umstead vet (and photographer) and was good at keeping me moving at a good speed - lap 6 was well under 3:30 - faster than the previous laps. We had a great conversation and I was rallying. We had caught and passed Fred. We passed 15-finish-Bill too. We finished lap 6 ahead of all my friends and Someone joined me on lap 7 as well. We ran the entire airport spur at 2am (necessary for a running streak) and finished the lap in the neighborhood of 3:30, still ahead of all my friends, and shortly after 5am, ensuring that I would finish under the cutoff even in the case a disastrous lap 8. Thanks Someone, you rocked.

I sat down after lap 7 for 10-15 minutes to change shoes, shirt, and just get a little more comfortable in preparation for the final 12.5 miles. I was not concerned about my friends (who deserved to beat me anyway). There were no volunteer pacers available, so I said my goodbyes to Someone, grabbed headphones for the first time in the race, and hit the road. 

The first half of lap 8 was ok. I was moving pretty well, not running much but walking purposefully. In the last five miles, however, I was reduced to sub-22 minute miles. I put on some hardcore punk rock and made the best of it. With two miles to go, my 15-year-old son joined me and walked me in. I finished in 28 hours 17 minutes 14 seconds - faster than last year, when I was lighter and better trained.

So, what got me through it? I guess there's more to running than weight and training. Last year had crummy weather - but that crummy weather is ok with me. But having done a bunch of these - this is my sixth finish at Umstead alone - I suppose I have internalized the values of "just keep going" and don't waste time. Most of my stops at aid stations were minimal - less than 30 seconds. And there was never a notion at all of quitting. There was a desire to quit - I suppose that never goes away. But there was no serious thought given to quitting. No indulgence on heaven or earth would have gotten me to stop. It was work for sure, but I wasn't going to stop until the work was done. And that attitude didn't come to me naturally - I learned it over many years. So I would say experience got me through it. And I'm sure luck had a lot to do with it too.

I don't know how to finish race reports. Bye.