Last Updated on January 22, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
overall place: 115/171
marathon difficulty: hardest one YET!
Before I get into the nitty gritty details (no really, that gravel tore the *&%$ out of my feet, I need some gaiters, STAT), here are a few highlights of the race, since I know these race reports are getting out of control long, and some of you just care for the cliff-notes version:
1) The adorable woodland creatures. Every year, (this is year #8) the Umstead Marathon crew has assigned a local critter to become the race mascot and adorn the race t-shirt and finishers pint glass (no medals here). In years past they’ve had a cute bunny rabbit, quaint little tree frog, a turtle and even a fuzzy flying squirrel. We all wondered what 2011 would bring. A deer? Bear? Chipmunk? Beaver?
Nope. It’s a tick. Yes, a disgusting Lyme-disease ridden parasite. I find it hysterically fabulous!
2) The hills. The website describes the course as follows:
Note: This is a challenging race with many hills and some single-track sections consisting of narrow trails with rocks and roots. There is also a six-hour cut off.
Course: Hilly; Some rocky, rooty single-track; Hilly; Mostly wide sand and dirt bridle trails; Hilly.
Guess what? They weren’t kidding. Not in the slightest. Check out my Garmin’s elevation reading from race day. There was reason for them to reiterate “hills” because frankly, I don’t remember ANY part of this race being flat. If you weren’t going up, you were going down.
3) I beat the 6 hour cut-off, by a whole 1:05:13. Take that, trails!
Ok so now for the play-by-play. Local running buddy and kick butt, super fast runner, Julie and I got lost trying to find the park. We committed the ultimate runner-sin and pulled up next to two runners out for their workout, stopped them, and asked for directions, haha. Luckily they were very kind and pointed us in the right direction. Minutes later , we pulled into the William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh NC.
We drove a ways through the park, seeking out our parking assignment, when finally a volunteer welcomed us and directed us to “park among the cabins” in the most calming, zen-like voice ever. Perhaps it was the massive amounts of caffeine we had been ingesting, or maybe just the pre-race nerves, but we found that comment to be absolutely hysterical. Like unicorns and magical woodland creatures would be frolicking, with Julies car, among the cabins and trees. Guess you had to be there. It was funny.
We parked the car and headed to packet pickup in the lodge. It was soooo super cold, and I was kicking myself for not wearing tights or a long sleeve tech shirt, just a cotton throw away. Thank goodness I brought some gloves.
The packets were simple yet usefull. Not full of tons of race fliers that would immediately hit the trash, instead, just a bib, some smartwool socks, and a pen and some ginger-chew candies from Zombierunner.com (where were you when I was pregnant and totally nauseous zombierunner and your ginger candy? hmph!) Oh, and the tick-shirt. Do not forget the awesome tick-shirt!
We made a few trips back and forth to the car, to the toasty warm fireplace in the lodge, to the porta potties, back to the car, back to the lodge, back to the porta potties, as we waited for the 9:00 am start.
Just a few minutes from the start, I decided it was finally warm enough to ditch the long sleeve (thank goodness, I hate being cold!) and we lined up, with about 198 other runners.) There was a countdown, and a “go” and we all took off. I was slightly nervous, but after reading the aforementioned course description, as well as seeing some of the hills when we drove in, I pretty much knew my fate. Here goes nothing.
The first mile was an out and back, and from the start, hilly. I kissed that “zone 2” easy running good bye within a few minutes.
At one point in the first two miles, I overheard two conversations. One, was two guys behind me talking about the race and their running. Guy #1 asked guy #2 how many marathons he’s done. This would be #6 he answered. Guy #1 said this was #10 for him, and he’s done this race before. And then he said “this is a really hard course”. Crap. I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into (kinda late, right?) when those guys passed me and I heard another conversation, coming from a few people next to me. One guy, I kid you not, started quoting Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go”. “You’re off to great places, today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so…get on your way!”. I looked over at him and thought “dude, did you read my blog?” and then realized that was incredibly doubtful, and instead, took the crazy coincidence as a sign from the running gods that today was going to be a good day.
After about 2 miles, we turned. Into the woods. Single track trail for a good 2 or 3 miles. At first, I couldn’t help but worry about a) falling and b) holding up the people behind me. But I soon realized that in the woods, you simply follow the same rule as you do on the escalators on the metro in D.C…stay to the right. If and when someone can pass, they will. I was passed, I did some passing, and I survived, without walking or breaking any limbs (trees or my own)
We exited the woods very briefly, only to head back in. Single track trail again for another 2 or 3 miles. This section kicked my tail. I thought briefly “do I totally max out here, just a few miles in, or do I bow my head and walk, saving energy for later?” As my heart POUNDED while climbing steep hills, I voted to wisely follow plan B, walk when you must.
Sing it with me now, over the river and through the woods, the trail running did go. True trail running is an entirely different animal than road racing. It’s almost like primal instinct the way your body adapts to flying over the trails. Your feet almost never fully make contact with the ground. You HAVE to practically prance like a mountain lion (goat?) over the roots, rocks, divots, and mud puddles; ready to change your footing in an instant if your foot lands on some unstable ground. You use your whole body, legs, arms (believe me on that one, ouch) core, to help maintain your balance . And on the downhills…you fly. Its a heart racing, thrilling feeling.
Eventually, we left the single track trail, and we were on “bridle” trails for the remainder of the race. This is where the real battle of the hills began. Up and down, up and down. Some really steep hills, and some long, loooong hills. Thanks to Julie for taking pictures, I was using up every last ounce of energy trying to navigate those hills that I didn’t even have it in me to reach in the spi-belt, take out my phone, and snap a few photos.
I did a lot of walking. I wasn’t the only one. I walked up the steep hills, knowing my ultimate goal was to just finish, and I wanted to beat that 6 hour cutoff, so rather be safe with an even walk/run pace then to find myself just crawling to the finish line at the end.
I did run/shuffle up the gradual (but long uphills) and I barrelled down the downhills. I remembered Steph (from Steph’s 50 Marathon Challenge)’s advice when I met her last week. She said, don’t do the lean-back-downhill-shuffle-run. (those are my words, not hers, haha!) She told me it would just burn up my quads, and from the beginning I could tell she was right. So I let go of all inhibition and just leaned in and flew down those hills. Too bad I don’t have that courage on my bike, but I digress. I had forgotten that I had set the “too fast” pace alert on my Garmin two weeks earlier at Myrtle Beach Marathon and never turned it off. Garmin would yell at me anytime my pace got below 8:20/mile, which was pretty much EVERY downhill. I tried to reason with Garmin (out loud even, which got me a few funny looks) and tell him that we NEEDED to make up all the time we could get with free speed thanks to gravity, and ignored the beeps.
Around the 10 mile marker, I passed an aide station, and alllllll of the volunteers and spectators failed to tell me I FORGOT TO TAKE THE TURN , and instead followed behind another runner who wasn’t in the race. A few feet past the turn, we hit pavement. It just didn’t seem right. I turned to look over my shoulder a hand full of times and didn’t see anyone behind me. Hmmm. I ran up to the lady in front of me, turned, and saw she didn’t have a race bib on. CRAP. I said to her “was I supposed to turn?” (like she would know) and she said she wasn’t in the race. CRAP CRAP CRAP. I practically sprinted back up that hill to the aide station, and said , almost in tears “thanks for telling me to turn!!!” I added a good 0.33 of a mile and it totally put a damper in my running mo-jo. But, I sucked it up, turned, and kept going on my merry way.
We did another about 8 mile out and back (4 in, 4 out) with the steepest, craziest hills of the course. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the leaders pass by in the other direction when I was at about mile 11 (they were near 18). Much further ahead, I got to see Julie. I let her know she was 5th woman overall, and all she said to me was something along the lines of “dude, this is INSANE”. It was, it was totally kicking my butt.
Around mile 18 I was feeling nauseous and dizzy. I hadn’t been keeping up with my nutrition as well as I should have. It was sort of hard to think about stopping to eat while on the single track trail, and I’ve learned that once you fall behind it’s really hard to get it back. When I got back to the same aide station I got lost at, I asked one of the volunteers if they had anything salty. I had felt my face, and could just feel the salt caking my face. He ran over to a bag and grabbed some salt/electrolyte pills, and gave me two. I’ve never taken them before, and mid race was probably not the best time to start, but I felt desperate. I swallowed them, and shuffled on my way.
About 20 minutes later, I felt good as new. Tired, but my stomach settled down and my head cleared up. Ahhh, electrolytes, how I love thee! Speaking of which, I wanted to add that while the aid stations were anywhere from 2 to almost 4 miles apart at times, there were plenty of volunteers on bikes that were constantly riding the course and offering water and gels. There were plenty of times that I was running alone. I knew there was someone a few hundred yards a head of me, and someone a few hundred yards behind, but besides that, it was a lot of solo running. So it was reassuring to know that if you needed anything, someone would be by shortly.
The last 6 miles were just the marathon death march. I don’t know about you speedsters, but my fellow middle of the packers know what I’m talking about. You’ve got the steady shufflers, and then run-walkers, and you pretty much play a game of back and forth with the same few people for the last 10k, as you all joke around “are we there yet?!” and “when did I think this was a GOOD idea?”. As I said earlier, my ONLY goal was to beat the 6 hour cutoff. Somewhere around mile 22 I realized, if I kept a steady pace, I could not only beat that, but might even get a sub 5 hour time.
If only the last few miles were downhills. Nope, if you refer the elevation map above, you will see that mile 25 was a great big, long, hill, appropriately named “cemetery hill”. And it sucked. I just leaned into it and walked as fast as my legs would take me (my body wasn’t running up that hill). Ironically, I passed a hand full of people on that walk. Gotta love long legs! I found myself singing to pass the time. “Two miles of hills left to go, twooo miles of hilllls, take one down, run it around, one mile of hills left to goooo”. It kept me busy, haha.
Finally…FINALLY we took a sharp right turn at the top of the ridiculous hill, and had a slight downhill for about half a mile into the finish. Oh what a joyous finish line that was, haha, especially with a sub-5 hour marathon on the clock. It was official, 3 races in 3 weeks, marathon maniac status complete.
Julie was waiting for me at the finish line, where I was handed a finishers pint glass (instead of finishers medals), with , of course the big fat tick plastered on both sides. Julie kicked butt and took home second place female finisher. In this race, the goal is to, as they say “get wood”. The first 15 male and first 15 female finishers are given a hand carved wooden award, in the shape of that year’s mascot.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.