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.

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