Baseball legend Babe Ruth once said "I swing big, with everything I've got. I hit big or I miss big." Well, you could say that I took that approach going into this past weekend's innagural Graveyard 100 mile ultramarathon in the Outer Banks. I definitely went out swinging for the fences, and while I won't quite say I missed big, it was like hitting a glancing foul ball that barely made it out of the infield.
Going into the run I knew I had some monuMENTAL challenges infront of me. Though my winter running mileage was indeed adequate for a 100 miler, most of my running was done on mountain trails and gravel roads. I am not a road runner. I knew that whatever conditioning base I needed for endless miles of pavement really wasn't there. Yet, I readily accepted that as part of the challenge for this event, as well as knowing crewed runners were likely to benefit from logistics of the course far better than lone rangers like myself (can you pluralize the term lone rangers?). The aid stations were spread out every 18 to 25 miles, which required runners to carry 3-8 hours worth of food and gear. Finally, as such the case with any first year event, we were sort of guinnea pigs who didn't have any results, or race reports to go by. Part of the reason I am writing this is to help runners who would like to participate in this event in future years.
On paper the course looks fairly benign. It is a 102.2 miles of, paved, flat, and fast road. This format drew in a variety of folks like myself looking to set a 100 mile PR, perhaps have an "easier" shot at getting a silver sub 24 hour buckle, or a minimal course to complete their first 100 miler. None of the above turned out to be true, and even for seasoned ultra runners, this was a very tough event. The event website states this, and the details should not be overlooked.
The alarm buzzed at 2:22am. A few shuttle rides, and a couple hours later it was 4:45am and we were on a cool windy beach at the north end of Currituck. 72 runners shivered under the nearly full moon eagerly awaiting the start. At 5:10am we began our 102.2 mile odyssey down the well traveled shoreline road, route 12.
I took the pace out hard from the start, fully knowing the risks of a major blowup later. The morning was cool, and the sunrise was inspiring to watch as it rose over the Atlantic ocean. I passed through the first aid station in 2:45, a mere 19.9 miles into the race. I ended up ditching my headphones, because I partially think the music was causing me to run faster than planned, but it also meant I would have no music the remaining 80+ miles. I knew the pace was way too hot early, so I tried backing off a bit, but the truth is that the road was running so fast that even when I felt like I was going "slow", I was probably running a good minute per mile faster than where I wanted to be. The perceived slow down still wasn't enough as I passed through the marathon mark in 3:42, 4:22 for 50k, and arrived at the 32.7 mile water stop in an overly brisk 4:35. This was an 8:24 minute mile pace through the first third of a 100 miler, which put me on a very unrealistic 14 hour projected finish pace. At this point I knew I was playing with fire, and if I wanted to avoid an embarassing early DNF I had to smarten up a bit. Time for some built in walk breaks and major slow down.
By mile 40, my body was already feeling the burn from the pavement. My feet had developed several hot spots and my quads were really started to throb. It reminded me of the times I felt so much more beat up after a road marathon, than say a trail 50 miler through the mountains. The road was taking it's toll, and this time it was taxing my legs (like the clever puns I used there?). At this point, Brenda Carawan comes frolicking by me like she's out for a run in neighborhood. To give credit where credit is due, Brenda did what I could not. She went out on a mission, held it together, and ended up setting a massive personal best. By the way, she won the event overall. Women ended up humbling us guys and took a clean sweep of the 100 mile and 100k races. No men were even close. Great job ladies! Meanwhile, back at the Mike Bailey walkathon, I was trying to avoid being "that guy" who leads a race for 40 miles, only to crap out with a pathetic 60 mile zombie walk to the finish.
My quivering mess for leg muscles crawled into the scenic Bodie Lighthouse aid station, mile 45, and I knew I was in for a loooong day. I was at the aid for about 10 minutes, couldn't figure clothing, so I grabbed everything and said adios. With the bright sun it was hot one moment, and then with the wind and walking, it was cold the next. C'mon body, make up your mind about being hot, or cold, this is getting a bit silly. At the race's halfway point I somewhat broke out of my funk and enjoyed the splendid view from the course's 2.5 mile Bonner Bridge. With that little pick me up I arrived at the 50.8 mile water stop in 7:57. While this was a nice split for around the halfway point of the race, I knew all too well that my legs did not have anywhere near enough to "run" the second half like I had hoped.
The miles rolled along and the wind swirled the sand from the dunes over the smooth asphalt. It was actually quite a beautiful sight, though I also felt the conditions were perfect for a chapstick commercial. I was practically ready to see Ben Stein hop out from behind a dune to suggest Clear Eyes accompanied by a Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen stand. On the arrid straight aways you could see for miles and miles where you were headed. At several points in the race you could see your destination about 10 miles off in the distance and knew that you weren't going to get there for another two hours. Sheesh, what a mind job. Spray painted mile markers on the ground signaled the completion of 55 miles, then 60. I reached the Rodanthe aid station a few hours before sunset and grabbed my night gear. I will say that 100 milers, as far as being a physical and mental test, really begins after the 100k mark. They said that the night stretch of 24.4 miles between aid 3 and 4 would be the hardest, and I am pleased to say that it did not disappoint. I reached 70 miles in 12:20, and then the sunset drew in the chilly night breeze, accompanied by a colorful spectrum of colors off the western skyline.
The night brought cold, but also gave me plenty of incentive to keep jogging to stay warm. I would summarize the twenty mile stretch from 63 to 83 miles as a mix of brisk walking and about 60% jogging. I was really laying the hammer down with those blistering 12:30 miles. However, the wind, though at my back for most of day, was really preventing me from staying warm, even with the intervals of running. My feet, which hurt as early as 40 miles earlier, were on fire due to blisters on both feet. Despite attempts at fixing them throughout the day, the repetitive steps were making it tougher to run. Lack of running + dropping temps = very rapidly dropping core temperature. This is an equation many runners fear, and for most Graveyard runners, it was a bad reality. When I reached the final Hatteras Lighthouse aid station (mile 87), I had been slowly fading into a cold induced walk for a couple hours. I knew I absolutely had to find more clothing, because the light coat, t-shirt, and shorts that had sufficed all day weren't going to cut it for the remaining 13+ miles. After about 15 minutes warming up and eating some hot chili an awesome volunteer let me borrow an extra shirt and blue tights. I tossed on a garbage bag for wind protection, and though I looked like love child of Quasimodo and Spider Man, it was time to roll.
Eventhough I was now plenty warm, I knew my running for the day was long over. My feet and quads weren't capable of much, and when I could feel the skin of my blisters sloshing around in my shoe, it was clear running would do more harm than good. This was the first time my feet have blistered in Drymax socks, and they were bad. The last hours were indeed long and lonely, but it was in these times where the road never seemed to end that I reminded myself that THIS is the challenge I came for. I remembered my friends Ian and Bill, whom I lost in the last month, and promised myself I wouldn't complain about the cold, tired legs, and blisters. My thoughts shifted towards the moon rising over my left shoulder, the sound of the crashing waves muffled by the dunes, and the stars above that looked like a Light Bright masterpiece. My mind settled and even with 95 miles of harsh pounding, I was happy and content.
Soon the lights of Hatteras were on the horizon, and though it seemed like it took ages to get there, it meant I was very near the finish. A volunteer van drove by and said I had half a mile to go, but after a half mile I saw nothing. I stood at the intersection for about five minutes where they said to stay left for the finish line, but I looked to the left and didn't see anything set up. Little did I know, I was literally about a hundred yards from the finish, but it wasn't until a crew person walked up to me that I was pointed to the correct spot. A few steps later I was done, and honestly I don't think I've been more happy to be done with a race. Compared to trail races with full aid every 4-10 miles, this one tested my mental game pretty good.
Some closing thoughts. If you think it will be easy to break 24 hours because the course is flat, you are in for a surprise. This is also not really a race for people attempting their first 100, or ultra. If you are a novice runner who really wants to try this event, perhaps invite your friends to crew for you, as races like this can really bond runners and crews. The scenery of the course is very beautiful, though you will be very isolated most of the time. You will run through little coastal towns to break up the monotony, but in March most of the businesses are closed. I probably walked about 30 miles of this race, and everything after mile 83. I'm not sure if the trashed legs were due to the pavement, fast pace early, or combination of both. Either way, it was a lot of walking. I will say that when they shuttled us back home the runners still on the course looked like extras from music video Thriller. Lips were chapped, faces were crusted over from sun and wind burn, and eyes glossed over from sheer fatigue. Yup, you too can experience these aesthetics for only $210 and a signed waiver :-)
Immediately after the run I felt more wrecked than any other race I had ever done. I could barely get out of the shuttle van, and walking up the four steps into the finish line motel was tantamount to ascending the Hilary step on Mount Everest. It is always so ironic how one second we are running distances of mentally managable increments of 10 and 20 miles, and then we find taking a handful of steps to get into a shower nearly mind numbingly impossible. Thankfully, I am writing this post three days after the run, and I am happy to say the blisters are healing, the swelling is gone, and three nights of fitfull sleep served me well. 100 milers also give me carte blanche to eat anything set infront of me that contains a measurable caloric value.
Time: 20:28:16 (4th overall, 3rd male)
Time at aid: something around 50 minutes. Mostly eating, warming up, finding gear so I wouldn't freeze to near death, and making people look at my gross feet.
Finishers: 44 (39% drop rate)...in ideal weather
First time 100 milers: 2 out of 20 finished (90% drop rate)
Sub 24 hour buckles: 21 (29%)
Weather: high 30's to high 40's. Sunny. Wind from the north 10-28 mph.
Thank you to RaceNC (Brandon and Heather Wilson) for their support and for having the crazy notion to put on a 100 mile run down the entire length of the Outer Banks. Thanks to all the volunteers for making this new event happen, and for braving the wind and cold so we would pursue our nutty passion for running stupidly far. This was a worthy challenge, and certainly unlike any ultra I have ever done.