Last Saturday my mom and I ran the Umstead Trail Marathon in Raleigh, NC. It was a challenging course but a very well-run event. My goals and finish time reflect my inadequate training, but I still had plenty of fun.
I had a few goals for the race, in order of importance:
1. Don’t fall, especially on the single track section, and don’t develop any lasting injuries
2. Run smart and happy even when it gets hard
3. Finish in the top 15 women (top 15 men and top 15 women each get hand-crafted wooden plaques)
4. Break 4 hours
To address the “run smart and happy” goal (and hopefully goals 3 and 4 in the process), I planned to run 9 minute miles for as long as possible and then start walking a minute and running 9 minutes after that. My long training runs had averaged 8:30-8:45 pace, so this pace seemed reasonable. I suspect I’ll turn to some sort of walk/run plan for the Ironman marathon, so I may as well start getting used to it now, imposing some sort of structure instead of walking indefinitely.
I achieved goals 1 and 2, and finished as the 16th woman with a time of 4:17. Honestly, goals 3 and 4 would have just been icing on the cake. I wanted to run around in the woods for a few hours and practice walk/jogging, and if I could get a plaque for doing so, that’d be great.
This race has about 200 runners, and we all gathered in and around the small wooden lodge before the 9am start. There were some real trail/ultra runners, with trail shoes, gaitors (keep rocks and debris from getting in your shoes), and t-shirts from 50 and 100 milers. One day I hope to run enough trail races to justify purchasing trail shoes, but I’m not there yet. Many people seemed to be locals who’d run the race before or regularly trained on the trails. They warned us that it would be very hilly but worth it. Great. Just before 9am, we clustered behind the starting line.
Trail shoes + gaitors. These are not my feet. Source.
The first thing I noticed: no matter how far back from the start line people were, everyone started their watches when the race director said, “Start.” I’m used to chip-timed road races where it can take a while to actually cross the start line so people wait to start their watches. Apparently I’d forgotten that trail races are much more laid back. Also, the race had announced it would not use disposable cups at the aid stations, so everyone received a small collapsible plastic cup. Many people opted to run with hand-held bottles (including me), water bottle belts, or hydration backpacks.
The first two miles were on pretty flat crushed gravel roads. The crowd moved forward casually, and I let them keep me from going out too fast. I tried to remind myself we had a lot of miles ahead of us. I settled into a smooth and easy pace, and both miles clicked by in just under 9 minutes each. Perfect.
This picture is from early in the race and get I still couldn’t manage to keep my eyes open for a good photo. Also I was overdressed for the weather.
The next six miles were on single track trails. Thankfully it hadn’t rained much the week before, so the trail was dry except for a few small muddy patches. A few times I got caught in line behind some runners going slower than I might like, but again, I let them slow me down. 26 miles is a long way to go, and single track trails in the first half of the race were not where I needed to push the pace. Each mile was marked, even in the thick forest, which was great. I was holding steady with the 9 minute miles and happy to be running in the woods.
Around mile 6, we turned onto the gravel roads for about 200 yards to go past an aid station. I took a Gu Roctane with water at this point and suffered from stomach pain the rest of the race. So I probably won’t be using Gu Roctane again.
After 6 miles of the single track trail, we turned onto the gravel roads for the rest of the race. The road surface was smooth enough, but the route was constantly up and down. At the aid station at mile 10, one volunteer had a list of everyone’s name and race number, so they cheered for you by name as you ran through. That was a fun boost of energy that kept me smiling for a while. I was feeling great and keeping up with my planned pace. Throughout the race, I tried to think of it as a casual Saturday long run in the woods. I generally do my long runs in the Duke Forest, so this wasn’t so different. There were a few spectators in places, and I appreciated them, but I don’t mind running alone in quiet woods. In fact, I much prefer staying in my thoughts in silence to huge crowded races. Some people get energy from the constant noise, but I’m not sure I do.
Around mile 15 we went through a turnaround and I counted how many women were ahead of me. I was the 8th place woman, but there were plenty of women not far behind me, and I could feel my quads were getting tired of the downhills. Mile 18 or 19 I started to really suffer on each descent. Every tentative step made my quads hurt, and I knew I was slowing down. I saw people walking the uphills, and maybe I should’ve followed suit, but sometimes I’m stubborn. One or two women passed me here.
When I passed the mile 19 sign, I took my first one minute walk break, in keeping with my plan. After nine minutes of running, I passed the mile 20 sign. I thought maybe this wouldn’t be so bad if I can keep 10 minute miles for the rest of the race. Wishful thinking. My calves and hamstrings started doing that annoying thing that happens towards the end of marathons where they threaten to seize up by sending little warning cramps. I changed my approach to “walk when you get to a hill or after 9 minutes of running.” Over the last few miles, I managed to walk the uphills and hobble the flat and downhill sections. It wasn’t pretty, my quads were in plenty of pain, and I was ready to be done. As more women passed me, I envied their smiles and smooth strides.
At some point I started having trouble breathing, probably because my body was so tense from the pain of each step and I wasn’t letting air into my lungs. I’ve hyperventilated a few times before, and I was surprised to be having breathing problems when I wasn’t running very fast/hard. I did not have the presence of mind to focus on deep breaths, so I’ll need to keep my yoga breaths in mind when this happens again. While I wish I could’ve finished stronger and controlled my breathing, I’m proud of myself that I only took one unscheduled (meaning not uphill or after 9 minutes of running) walk break.
One sad thing happened: I’d been drinking from my water bottle (refilled at one aid station), but the later aid stations also had Coke, and that sounded great. I ran/shuffled up to the volunteer and then realized that they didn’t have cups (none of the aid stations did), I didn’t have the small portable cup they gave me with my race packet, and I wasn’t about to dump out my water bottle. So I sighed upon my realization and continued on my way without any delicious sugar and caffeine. In hindsight, I could’ve stashed the cup they gave me in my water bottle pouch in case I wanted a sip of Gatorade or Coke without emptying my water bottle, or I could’ve dumped the water, gotten some Coke, and then refilled my bottle with water.
The last mile or so is gently downhill. I tried to convince myself this made it easier, but I couldn’t move any faster. Again I envied the runners passing me – how had they not trashed their quads as I had?? I slowly shuffled to the finish line where a volunteer handed me the finisher’s pint glass of water. As I tried unsuccessfully to catch my breath, the volunteer and a medical staff person came over to try to help me. I knew I’d be ok, so I thanked them, walked around for a bit, and changed into warm dry clothes to wait for my mom.
Overall, I’m pleased with how my race went. I hadn’t fully trained for a marathon, and this was a particularly challenging course. I’m not sure what you can do once your quads get that sore. I kept to my race plan pretty well, with no lingering pains or injuries, so I got what I wanted from the experience. I stayed positive for most of the race, even when it hurt, and I adapted my race plan as things changed. Maybe I should’ve gone slower on the single track section, and maybe I should’ve started walking the uphills sooner. Regardless, it was fun and made me almost sign up for another marathon in two weeks. So far, I’ve restrained myself – gotta get some cycling in.
About the Race
If you want to run an early spring marathon in North Carolina and don’t care if you PR, choose this one! The race organizers are top notch, and the trails are lovely. The volunteers were amazingly helpful and kind. Communication from the race was clear and helpful in the weeks leading up to the race. Race morning packet pick-up was smooth –each person got a short sleeve technical shirt, a pair of Smart Wool socks, two Burt’s Bees chapsticks (my favorite), and a Honey Stingers Waffle. The lodge had a fire, coffee, bagels, and fruit before the race, and all that plus burritos, cookies, chips, hot chocolate, and more after the race. Finishers get the pint glass and a random prize (you draw slips of paper as you finish). My mom got a technical t-shirt, and I got a box of cookies made with Durham-based Big Spoon Roasters Peanut Pecan Butter (and the recipe!). So so good.
The race fills up within a day or two when registration opens (in November, I think), but they allow people to withdraw in January, and then those spots are offered up again. I registered in February using one of those spots.
I love trail running because of the people it attracts and because of the time spent in nature. I hope I can integrate more of it into my future. My mom and I thoroughly enjoyed the race despite our inadequate preparation. I can definitely see why people drive to Umstead for their long runs while training for Boston!