On April 6, 2013, I had a DNF (Did Not Finish) at the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run when I dropped out of the race at Mile 37.5 due to Achilles injuries.
Photo courtesy of Ashby Spratly
The Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run consists of a 12.5-mile course that participants must complete eight times to earn the finisher’s buckle, and the terrain of finely packed gravel roads up and down rolling hills through the beautiful forests of William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, North Carolina is a long-distance runner’s dream come true. After completing my first 100-mile race on the rugged single-track trails of the Pinhoti 100 in Alabama this past November, I was eager to experience this course on luxuriously smooth roads where the technical trail obstacles that normally reduce me to a frayed mental state would not be a concern. This Umstead event, which includes two elaborate aid stations and a handful of smaller unmanned water stops along the course, offers the ideal conditions for a race of this distance, and the dedicated volunteers actually outnumber the runners so that the needs of every participant are addressed with the utmost care.
A 100-mile race under ideal conditions is still a 100-mile race, though, and the distance demands a level of training and respect that I did not properly acknowledge in the months leading to this event. After completing Pinhoti 100 and the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run less than a month apart at the end of 2012, I was stopped in my tracks with an IT band injury that left me unable to complete any run longer than 10 miles for almost two months. During this down time, I gave in to burnout and a loss of motivation, and I even broke from the Paleo eating lifestyle that had served me so well through the previous racing season. I fortunately bounced back from my lull with new personal course records at the Mount Cheaha 50K in late February and at the Publix Georgia Marathon in March, but these improvements were too little and too late in the big picture of my Umstead 100 training. On the morning of April 6, I showed up to a gunfight with a knife.
I woke up two and half hours before the 6:00 AM race start after a surprisingly refreshing sleep in one of the historic four-bunk cabins less than a half mile from the start area. The cabin, which lacked any heat or electricity, was cold in the 39-degree overnight weather, but my warm sleeping bag was comfortable, and, since none of the other three reserved roommates showed up, I enjoyed the dark solitude and the pleasant experience of dressing for the race without having to worry about waking others. I could not have asked for better pre-race circumstances, and I was confident that my good luck would continue for the remainder of the weekend. After catching up with friends inside the large main headquarters camp building, I walked out into the predawn darkness with my headlamp and made my way to the back of the pack of runners.
I was in no hurry when the gunshot sounded to start the race, because I had planned for a conservative pace of three hours for each 12.5-mile lap from the beginning, with the intent of holding this pace as long as possible with enough flexibility to allow for slowing down even more after the first few laps and still making the 30-hour time limit. Although Umstead 100 was billed as a much easier course than Pinhoti 100, I was cognizant of my less-than-stellar training this time around, and, as such, was adopting the same basic strategy that had led to my success at Pinhoti. Run the first marathon in less than six hours, run the second marathon in less than seven hours, run the third marathon in less than eight hours, and finish the rest of the distance in less than nine hours. After walking steadily up the first gradual hill, I settled into an easy plodding jog that would mark my fastest pace of the entire event.
After leaving the half-mile road from the race headquarters, the course followed a 0.75-mile out-and-back Airport Spur side route with gentle gradual elevations and a view of the Raleigh airport in the distance. Despite the easy topography, I reminded myself to take short walk breaks every couple of minutes to ensure a relaxed pace. I was considerably more relaxed and cheerful along the first couple of miles of this course than I usually feel at the beginning of long races on more technical trails, and I enjoyed conversing with other runners around me as the morning sunlight appeared. After turning around on the Airport Spur out-and-back and passing by the headquarters road, the route continued on the main Headquarters Spur for another mile and half before starting a counter-clockwise loop.
Shortly after the beginning of the loop, I enjoyed a beautiful nonstop downhill run for one mile before I reached the bottom of a valley and crossed a creek bridge. The smooth gravel road then climbed for a gradual one-mile ascent that was relentless enough to force everyone ahead of me to a walking pace. I knew that there were a great many previous Umstead finishers competing in this race, so wisdom dictated that I should take walk breaks on the course whenever I saw everyone else start to walk. I have never met a hill that I cannot walk, so I enjoyed the opportunity to hike along while meeting new friends. I caught up with a couple of friends from previous races and enjoyed their company as we crested the hill and maintained alternating runs and walks on several subsequent lesser descents and climbs.
A massive aid station on a bridge greeted us at the bottom of a hill just before Mile 7, and I was surprised to see every type of food imaginable underneath the series of tents. I grabbed a couple of orange slices to supplement the Sport Beans that I had been eating at every half hour mark on my stopwatch and continued on.
The next two miles of the course, affectionately known as the Sawtooth Section, followed the smooth road up and down several steep climbs and descents through some scenic countryside above winding creeks and old trees that were still bare from the winter season. Countless runners had advised me before this race to walk every single hill along the Sawtooth Section, and I quickly understood why. Even at my brisk hiking pace, these short hills demanded respect.
Photo courtesy of Mary Shannon Johnstone
Even along this toughest section of the course, I was overjoyed at how different the Umstead terrain was from any other ultramarathon that I had participated in to date. Instead of constantly negotiating rocks or tree roots on narrow trails, I was able to turn my brain off and simply move forward on the smooth gravel roads that were wide enough to allow me to run alongside friends.
The ease of the running terrain and my happiness at sharing the weekend with friends old and new kept me from being concerned when the Sawtooth section of the course summoned the initial warning signs from both of my Achilles tendons. After finishing the Publix Georgia Marathon with my fastest time on that pavement course three weeks before, I had exercised lightly for a few days before enjoying a solo Saturday morning training run in the cold pouring rain, and returned home to discover an unusual tightness around my Achilles tendons on both legs. The tightness in my left Achilles and lower leg had resulted in a mild heel pain similar to plantar fasciitis symptoms, while my right Achilles had swollen to a noticeable lump. Knowing that my extended recovery from my IT band injury over the winter had reduced my fitness and slowed my recovery rate from long distances, I had taken advantage of the remaining two weeks before Umstead to massage both of my Achilles tendons with a foam roller on a daily basis while icing both legs at least twice a day. The tightness in both of my lower legs gradually subsided as the race date drew closer, and I decided that I would be fine for a 100-mile attempt as long as I wore my compression sleeves. The initial signs of Achilles tightness in my right leg and an increasing pain in my left heel as I approached the Mile 10 mark of this race did not go unnoticed, but I was confident that I would be okay as long as I kept my pace in check. I looked down at my stopwatch and decided to slow my already-relaxed pace, since my stopwatch indicated that I was approaching a first lap time of two and half hours, faster than my preplanned three-hour lap times.
After enjoying another extended gradual descent along the loop to a clear power line stretch at the bottom of a valley, I slowed to a walking pace to the hill climb that took me to the end of the loop and back to the Headquarters Spur that would take me back to the main aid station at the start/finish point of each loop. After proceeding with a series of short run intervals and one-minute walk breaks on the rolling hills of the Headquarters Spur, I arrived at the end of the first lap in roughly two hours and 35 minutes. I felt great at the end of this first 12.5-mile lap, but promised myself nonetheless to take my pace down another notch so that I would finish my second lap in roughly three hours. I sat down at the main aid station for less than a minute to remove a small pebble from inside one shoe, and then continued down a hill from the headquarters while I greeted runners behind me on the out-and-back with smiles and high-fives.
I returned to the Airport Spur out-and-back section mindful of the need to slow down even more, so I made sure to take walk breaks with increasing frequency. Even at my reduced speed, I was still leapfrogging several friends on the course, and we all congratulated one another on great progress so far. The temperature was steadily rising even during these morning hours, but I was still comfortable in my white long sleeved shirt.
As I made my way back to the main loop and enjoyed the one-mile downhill stretch to the creek bridge once again, I caught up with two unfamiliar runners and soon found out that they had both finished Umstead a few times in previous years. I stayed with these runners for the next couple of miles at a seemingly effortless pace, although the slight aches in my lower legs were noticeably worsening. I assured myself that I was well on track for my plan of finishing the first marathon distance in six hours, and that I would then be able to relax my pace even more to stay on track for a strong finish. I continued to take Sport Beans out of my vest pocket every half hour, and I soon decided to supplement this nutrition with a half-and-half mixture of Gatorade and water in my water bottle when I arrived at the halfway point aid station once again.
My second trip through the Sawtooth section was more cautious, but no less optimistic, as I leapfrogged one friend by passing her on the hill climbs only to be passed again on the descents. The weather was warming up, but I enjoyed the clear skies and beautiful scenery all the more as I turned out of the Sawtooth climbs and enjoyed the long downhill stretch to the open power line clearing. I reminded myself that I needed to apply sunscreen before my third lap to protect myself in the open areas.
During the final miles of the second loop, fatigue started to get the better of me, but I remembered that this was a routine lull for races of this distance and that, after all, I was about to reach a marathon distance. The pain in my left heel had become more pronounced, and my right ankle was becoming uncomfortably tight, so I slowed occasionally to stretch the Achilles on both legs. I finished my second loop in roughly two hours and 50 minutes, pleased that I had successfully slowed down as planned. I was also starting to feel slightly dazed, though, and knew that my choice to slow down even more would not be a choice at all.
I sat down for a couple of minutes at the main headquarters to gather myself, and was approached by one of the main helpful volunteers who refilled my water bottle and asked me if I wanted a hamburger from the aid station table. The idea of consuming some protein at this point to alleviate my daze appealed to me, so I gratefully accepted the hamburger and ate it as I walked back out to the course. In retrospect, I believe that I made a mistake eating a whole hamburger at Mile 25 when the noon hour was close at hand and the heat of the day was climbing to its peak, but logic does not always prevail when one has completed the first quarter of a long race while dealing with leg pain. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to stop at my drop bags, which were located at a tree stump alongside the course near my cabin, and change out of my white long sleeved shirt into one of my trademark fluorescent orange short sleeved shirts. Sadly, I neglected to apply sunscreen from my drop bag, and I would later regret this oversight.
I walked the entirety of the Airport Spur out-and-back, since my right Achilles and my left heel were both hurting by this time, but I still summoned the strength to run on a couple of the short descents on the way out to the main loop. When I reached the one-mile downhill, I jogged nonstop, hoping that the Achilles pain would magically go away. I stopped running at the creek bridge which marked the lowest point of this stretch, and realized that my body temperature had shot up from the run. I started the slow hike up the long hill climb, surprised at how hot the temperature seemed to be in the open area of the road, despite the fact that the weather predictions only called for highs in the 60s. Apparently, I was not the only runner who was caught off guard by the early afternoon sun. As I trailed behind two men, I saw one of them walk over to the side of the road and vomit while his friend stopped to make sure that he was okay. Both men soon resumed walking and started reciting military cadences as they climbed the hill. I soon caught up with them and wished them well as I passed by, only to see the two of them pass me minutes later on a subsequent downhill after the pain in my left heel forced me to a walk.
I passed the Mile 31 mark of the course and gave myself a figurative pat on the back for finishing a 50K distance in seven hours. I had completed almost one-third of a 100-mile course in only seven hours, and had 23 hours to complete the rest of the distance, but pessimism still washed over me in waves. My training over the past several months had left me ill-equipped to spend the rest of the day on my feet, and I was realizing that my Achilles problems in both legs were more serious than I had previously imagined. I have soldiered through enough ultramarathons to make a distinction between normal wear-and-tear physical pain and pain of a potentially debilitating nature.
I was wincing with almost every step as I walked into the midpoint aid station, and one of the volunteers led me to a chair. I accepted a chicken sandwich, but only ate a few bites. The volunteer, who seemed to know exactly what I needed before I asked, told me that he was going to leave me alone for a minute or two so that I could simply enjoy sitting down, but that he would be watching in case I needed anything. After a couple of minutes, I staggered up out of the chair to resume my march of pain. The volunteer asked if I were okay, and I replied that I was alright to keep moving, although the last thing on Earth that I wanted to do at the time was leave the chair. The volunteer must have read more into my expression, because he put his hand on my shoulder and asked me once again if I were really okay. I thanked him profusely and told him that I would be fine to continue the rest of the lap.
The ups and downs of the Sawtooth section were murder on my inflamed Achilles tendons and my pace had slowed to a deliberate walk, but those two miles of hilly road were otherwise uneventful. I reached the end of the Sawtooth road and, when I turned out of the trees onto a road under the sun, I knew that this was going to be my final lap of the race. I did not feel any sadness or regret at this epiphany. The situation simply was what it was. I was participating in an event that my poor winter training season had not prepared me to complete, and I was paying the price with my two injured Achilles tendons that had lost their conditioning for keeping me on my feet for this amount of time. Runners have to respect the distance, because the distance does not forgive, and I had shown up for Umstead 100 without respecting the distance. I ascertained that this third loop would take me a little less than four hours to complete, and that I would not make the 26-hour final lap cutoff if I continued to walk the course at that pace. I had never voluntarily dropped out of a fixed-distance race before, but I knew that I would rather spend one month recovering from 37.5 miles than be pulled from the race at 87.5 miles and spend six months to a year recovering with the same end result of a DNF. As if to prove the wisdom of my thoughts, my left heel exploded in pain when I stepped on a stray pebble on the smooth road.
I reached the top of a gradual hill climb that completed the loop section to lead me back along the Headquarters Spur road and sat down for a couple of minutes on a bench next to one of the unmanned aid stations. I felt my right calf underneath my compression sock and was dismayed to find that it had swelled to a golf ball size lump right above the Achilles. My left Achilles was also inflamed, and, although no lump was present, the tendons hurt to the touch. I shrugged, stood up, and continued walking. Despite my pain, I still smiled and waved to encourage the runners who were approaching the main loop in the opposite direction. This race was no longer about me, and I realized that I could at least offer helpful words to other runners.
I had known all along that my chances at Umstead 100 were less than favorable, but I was still mildly annoyed at the degree to which I was falling short of even making a memorable dent in the distance. I reminded myself that, up until a couple of years ago, I would have never imagined myself even completing 37.5 miles, and I was also happy that I would be completing 37.5 miles in roughly nine hours despite injury setbacks.
I arrived at the main headquarters aid station and saw two friends from my local trail running group, Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS) standing by the route waiting to pace some other runners. When they asked me how I felt, I shrugged and told them that I was done. An unwritten rule among friends in my trail running group is that we do everything possible to talk runners out of dropping from races, and my friends encouraged me at least to go back out for one more loop to get credit for a 50-mile Umstead distance, and then see how I felt after that. When I replied that I was dealing with a lot of Achilles pain, one of them helpfully suggested that I visit the massage tent inside the main headquarters building before making the decision to drop out. This idea made good sense to me, and I complied.
I passed through the electronic timers that marked the end of the lap, and walked into the headquarters to see Denise, a massage therapist whom I had known from several previous race events in the Carolinas, waiting with an unoccupied massage table. She took a brief look at both of my lower legs, and expressed concern after I flinched when she touched the Achilles area on my left leg. She called one of the EMT medical volunteers to look at the leg. The EMT briefly inspected both of my inflamed Achilles areas and advised me that I needed to stop the race, ice my legs several times on the spot, and make my way to an Urgent Care Center to treat my left Achilles as soon as possible. I assured her that I had dealt with Achilles tightness injuries a few times before, and that I would probably be fine after icing my legs and letting my legs heal for a couple of weeks. One of the other EMT volunteers offered to take my electronic ankle timing band to the race officials and notify them that I was done. My Umstead 100 race was over.
I kept my lower calves on ice for 20 minutes as recommended by the EMT, then grabbed my headquarters drop bag to limp over to the shower building. Along the way, I spotted Race Director Blake Norwood, thanked him for putting on a brilliantly-organized event, and promised that I would return to Umstead another year to take care of unfinished business when I was better trained for the challenge. The walk to the shower area was not pleasant, but I was all smiles as I encountered friends and acquaintances, because I had an instinctive feeling that I had avoided a brush with a harmful long-term Achilles injury by stopping my race when I did. I showered, dressed in everyday clothes, and returned to the headquarters area, where I spent the rest of the afternoon encouraging various friends who were resting between laps, and offering help wherever needed. During this time, I occasionally made my way inside the main building to ice both of my legs periodically to reduce the inflammation.
As early evening approached, I eventually made my way back to my isolated cabin, slept for nine hours in my sleeping bag as cold seeped between the boards of the cabin windows, and drove the six-hour trip back to Atlanta at the break of dawn the next morning with good music playing from the stereo speakers and mixed emotions wandering through my mind. I resolved to enjoy two weeks of complete rest to see how both of my legs would recover with daily massage and stretching therapy. Right now, six days after the event, my Achilles tendons still do not feel fully recovered, but the improvement is noticeable, I am walking around pain-free at work and during routine errands, and I can even stand and walk on tiptoes without trouble. My next two weekends are going to feel strange without any training runs, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I know that I will feel better after the break. I have no races for two months until my next event at the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race in mid-June, so I have returned to fundamentals by taking time to reboot my Paleo lifestyle and return to optimum fitness over the next few weeks.
My goals and strategies are evolving, and I have decided that I need to focus on slowly building up my endurance running skills through everyday training, instead of signing up for frequent races and using the races themselves as training runs. For a long-distance runner, I have never really done a whole heck of a lot of running during normal non-race weekdays, and I believe that I will do well for myself by simply building up my weekly mileages for longer stretches between events to allow my body to develop its own tolerances to the mileage. This will be a gradual process, and, in fact, it will likely be a lifelong process, but I am excited at the possibilities. I have proven to myself that I can finish long distance races time and time again, but something that is worth doing is worth doing well, and I like the idea of training specifically for fewer key events each year instead of spreading myself thin with frequent events as I have done for the past few years.
I am grateful that I did not back out of my Umstead 100 attempt as I had debated doing for weeks before the race took place, because I would have never known whether or not I was capable of completing the distance if I had not tried. I had a fun vacation weekend at the Umstead State Park, and enjoyed meeting several new friends so that I can enjoy crossing paths with them at future races. Ultrarunning has become a fulfilling activity in my life, and I would not trade the experiences for the world, even when reality drop kicks me to the floor when I show up ill-prepared for a race.
Thanks to Race Director Blake Norwood and all of the Umstead organizers for one of the most fun events that I have had the pleasure of experiencing. Thanks to the countless volunteers who were trained to sense what the runners needed before the runner themselves could. Thanks to my friends old and new, who kept me company on those wide gravel roads.
See you on the trails.