Think back to college. Perhaps you had this experience: there’s a party on campus, and you and your friends plan to go. But, for some reason or another – maybe you have some reading to finish or a paper to write for Monday, or maybe you’re arriving back late from a cross country meet, or your parents are in town and want to take you to dinner – your friends leave for the party without you. You eventually make your way there, a couple hours later. In that time, your friends have been somewhere or another in that frat house, doing shots of tequila or playing quarters. And so, when you walk in, you’re the only sober person around. It’s not pretty, seeing everyone in their various states of intoxication. They think they look ok – or even good – but they don’t. They think that they’re moving well, maybe dancing a bit, walking in a straight line, but they’re not. They think they’re making sense, talking coherently, but they’re not making much sense at all. And all you can think to yourself is “carnage.”
That scene – turning up once the party is underway, and almost unable to comprehend how ugly it looks – was my first experience at the Umstead 100, in March 2008. I had run one ultra, a 40 miler, and I’d never been anywhere near a 100 mile race. Sure, I’d heard a few of the Trailheads talk about them, but I didn’t really have any sense of what was involved. But I had decided to volunteer as a pacer for Umstead (one of the great things that Umstead does is to provide volunteer pacers to runners who request one). The race had begun at 6am, but my pacing shift was to start around 10pm. I arrived in the dark, slowly made my way to Camp Lapihio, the race headquarters and site of the main aid station, and I walked into the main lodge. I couldn’t quite comprehend the scene in front of me: a huge fire in the fireplace, and runners in various states of alertness (or not) and distress (quite often). They had family and friends taking care of them, but they often were unable to stand, or they weren’t making sense, or they just seemed dazed. Welcome to the party. Carnage.
As it turned out, that night, I bumped into a friend who was – unbeknownst to most of us – attempting his first 100 miler, and I paced him for one 12.5 mile lap. Out on the course, it was a similar scene – pitch dark, some runners walking, others managing a jog, some headlamps moving in a straight line, others weaving from side to side. Pacers attempting to keep their runners fed, warm and motivated. My friend, aka Trailhead Gumbi, went on to a great finish and has since done many more 100 milers. I left wondering why anyone would do such a thing. Then again, by that stage, I had already sent in my entry for the Cascade Crest 100, so it was only a matter of time before I’d find out for myself.
The Umstead 100 attracts many first-time 100 milers. It has excellent and loyal volunteers. It’s run as a 12.5 mile loop, repeated 8 times, on the wide trails of Umstead State Park, in Raleigh. There’s no single track to navigate and, from the point of view of family and friends, it’s so very easy – just hang out at the main aid station and wait for your runner to come through. If you get cold, go into the lodge, where there’s yummy food in the kitchen and a warm fire at the back.
Given the layout of the course (which includes an out and back spur), runners see each other over and over. The weather is often perfect, cool temperatures at the start, mid-60s during the day, not too cold at night. There are some hills on the back side of the loop, but nothing too big (maybe 1000 feet of elevation gain over the 12.5 mile loop). Of course, there’s the boredom factor, eight times around the same route. But many people use Umstead as their first 100 miler.
And the setup of the course means that one has an experience that one doesn’t get in point to point or single loop 100 milers: you see people from across the spectrum, from the front of the pack to the back. As the day goes on, the runners at the front of the pack finish (this year’s men’s winner was done around 4pm); and so one is more likely to see people who are, perhaps, struggling through the race. It’s both inspiring and – back to the party analogy above – a little frightening.
Last year, I did the 50 mile race at Umstead, which starts with the 100 milers and just involves 4 loops. I was happy to be done, since I was getting bored with the course (and wondering how people could do 4 more laps of it!). Several friends did the 100, some as their first 100 mile finish, but I was glad to be at home and relaxing while they ran into the night.
This year, I had the opportunity to pace a friend, who was attempting to complete his first 100 miler. He’s a lifelong runner, someone who used to focus on things like 10Ks and road marathons (and someone whose marathon PR, set at the age of 45, is 2:49…not too shabby). He’s done many 50Ks and 50 milers, and he’d attempted Umstead a couple years ago, but dropped out with a nasty case of plantar fasciitis. He was in great shape this year. A friend of his had hoped to come in from out of town to pace, but couldn’t make it, so I offered to do the last 50 miles. We talked a bit about time goals and race strategy, and we decided to save any other conversations for race day, when we’d spend lots of time together.
The short version: my runner finished in 23:12, a bit slower than he had hoped, but comfortably under 24 hours. I like to think that I helped get him there, although he was certainly very well trained and prepared. Had he not had a tough time with nausea (and therefore with getting calories down), he would have been a bit faster. One of my primary jobs was to figure out what he was willing to eat, and to collect it for him while he sat down. And to then stand nearby, subtly tapping my foot, reminding him to get up and get moving again (see the photo below, from our 7th lap, at aid station 2). It was great fun to be out – I got to start running just before 4pm, when it was a beautiful, if windy, spring day.
It was nice to start early enough to be able to see runners from across the spectrum, including some folks familiar from various races. And, as night descended, I saw more familiar faces – several Trailheads who had volunteered for pacing duty, other Trailheads who had come to hang out at the main aid station to see if they could lend help with anything, and other folks from the NC running scene, both those doing the race (congrats, Sultan!) and those volunteering out on the course (thanks for the photo, Shannon!). But most importantly, it was really nice to pace someone. I can only begin to describe how wonderful it was to have a pacer and crew, all there just for me, at Western States in 2010. So nice to be able to offer a tiny fraction of that to someone else.
Unrelated: earlier this week was the funeral for my colleague George Rabinowitz, who died very unexpectedly. He was 67 years old, on sabbatical in Oslo this semester, waiting to catch the bus one Friday morning, and suffered a massive heart attack. His death came as a shock to all of us; his wife is also a colleague, making it all the more upsetting. At his graveside service, many wonderful things were said. George was the nicest man one could imagine, welcoming each new faculty member and graduate student into the department, and always genuinely interested in how one’s life was going. And he was also a tough critic and a very sharp mind, with high standards, someone who was always ready with tough questions about papers and presentations. What was wonderful was the way in which he combined these things.
Of the many beautiful things said, I was struck most by something from his younger son: that George was happy, and that he found happiness in all sorts of everyday things. He loved his wife, his children and his grandchild dearly. He loved going to work, working on papers, teaching class, meeting with graduate students. The night before he died, he went to the opera with his wife. That morning, there was fresh snow on the ground, and he took the dog for a walk before heading to the bus. And so, his son hoped, he was, even at the moment of his death, happy. Finding happiness in the small, everyday things that are part of the fabric of life – something to remember to do.