Disclaimers: This race report is very late, over a month – not bad in the academic world, but not so good in the blog and running world. And it’s very long-winded as well (perhaps, again, correlated with being an academic?). But better late than never, right?
I love Uwharrie
, perhaps more than one should. Uwharrie was my first trail race, in 2007. I did the 8 mile. My first daughter was exactly one month old, and leaving her to run race was the longest I’d been away from her at that point. I remember a fun drive to the race with my friend Wendy, a tough romp in the woods in my first-ever, brand new pair of trail shoes, and fabulous cookies at the end of the race.
In 2008, I did my first ultra – the 40 miler --- at Uwharrie. I was in decent shape, having run a marathon a few months before; but I also was terrified. I was intimidated by the runners at the pre-race dinner who seemed to know one another, to be wearing their various belt buckles, and to be completely relaxed about the whole undertaking. But I had the great fortune of running about 35 miles of that race with Trailhead Gumbi, who pulled me through; and my husband and daughter were there to say hi at miles 20, 29, 32, 35, 38; and I got to run right into my husband’s arms at the finish line. I was thrilled that I finished – and shocked that I managed to finish as the second woman. It definitely was the athletic accomplishment of which I was proudest. Finishing the ultra felt so empowering: for at least the next couple weeks, I felt (irrationally) invincible at home and at work.
And it was just before that first Uwharrie that another of the Trailheads (Snally), in response to my anxiety about the race, offered this race strategy:
“When you crest the first big hill at mile 1, look to the east and you'll see the sun just starting to rise up over the hills. It will probably be sort of cloudy so there will be some nice color. You'll have that mixture of excitement, anxiety, wonder, etc. Think about settling into a pace and just focus on letting the time pass by as you keep moving from aid station to aid station.
Run 38 miles.
Then, when you're finishing the run, you'll come back along that same ridge and look to the west and you'll see that same sun settling low into the sky. Take a minute then to reflect on the fact that you had the privilege of spending an entire winter's day out in the woods running and walking through some beautifully rugged terrain. Feel pride and satisfaction that you accomplished this and that you were lucky/fortunate enough to have this opportunity. And realize that you're almost finished and that there is delicious hot soup and Uwharrie cookies waiting for you at the bottom of the mountain. Also, step lively because Taz or Squonk will appear from behind some rock to snap your picture...”
Wonderful advice, which I’ve since shared – especially the “look east, run 38 miles, look west” part – with other first timers.
I missed Uwharrie in 2009 -- pregnant again, with a due date a few days before Uwharrie. Friends kindly made sure to get me a race T-shirt, delivering it the day after the race – when I happened to be at home, but in labor. I managed to get a quick race report from Plank and Gumbi before telling them that I should get going, since I was supposed to be en route to Labor & Delivery. I still associate that year’s Uwharrie shirt with my younger daughter’s arrival.
2010 brought a different sort of race: I was excited to see if I could improve on my 2008 time (7:47), and I was in decent shape. I figured I could run 7:30, and perhaps 7:20 if I had a good day. I was excited for the race – nervous, as I always am, but also confident that I’d finish, and more curious about what sort of day I’d have. It didn’t quite turn out as I’d expected: sometime late on Friday night, after a day of torrential rains, the Forest Service told the race directors
that the stream crossings in the last six miles of the trail were too treacherous. The RDs had to decide between canceling the race and changing the course. So, the course was changed: we’d leave the Uwharrie Trail at Mile 14, head onto a fire road, and run that to the turnaround at Mile 20. We ended up with a run that was closer to 37.5 miles, and without some of the toughest climbs, which are on that 12 mile section of single track. I had a great day, finishing as first woman, but with a time that wasn’t at all comparable. Yes, it was much, much faster than the year before, but it also wasn’t at all the same course. But, hey, I’d adopted a new ultra theme song (ABBA’s Super Trouper) in the process, and I had another great piece of pottery to take home, so no point complaining.
Which brings me to 2011. In late October, it didn’t even occur to me to ask myself *whether* I would sign up for Uwharrie, or which distance I would run. I had developed a high hamstring pull just before Western States in June 2010. I’d continued to train through it, although I hadn’t done my usual back to back long runs, and I’d done a good bit less mileage than for 2008 or 2010. I also had been a less-than-star-student when it came to physical therapy-assigned exercises. I hadn’t done a race since Western States (June 2010), which had begun to feel like a very long time. And, with La Sportiva sponsoring the race (although it was the 20 mile, rather than the 40, that had become part of their Mountain Cup series
), I really wanted to be there. But, of course, I also knew that my relative lack of training, plus the almost-constant pain in my hamstring might not make for a fun outing.
After weeks of worrying about this, I decided that, of course, I’d do Uwharrie. I’d try to run it for fun, to worry less about my time and place, to gut it out if I had to, and to treat it as more of a training run. I had the blessing of my physical therapist, who assumed that I wouldn’t hurt my hamstring anymore. And I had my husband reminding me that, if I decided to sit the race out, I’d be insufferable at home.
So, on Friday evening, I found myself at the pre-race dinner in Asheboro. It was great to meet Ian, from La Sportiva’s US headquarters in Boulder, and I loved this year’s Uwharrie shirt (both the regular one, and the special Greenlayer
“Going the Distance” shirt). But dinner wasn’t as fun as in the past, because I knew that my daughters were sick at home and that their father had received some negative and unexpected news at work that afternoon. I was very aware of the imbalances, and I wasn’t sure what to do – I could skip the race and head home to try to take care of everyone there, or I could try to enjoy my day in the woods, knowing I could deal with home once the race was over. On Saturday morning, even as I rode to the race with a friend, I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to choose the latter. The downpour didn’t help. But, hey, I was out in the middle of nowhere in central North Carolina, there were lots of Trailheads around, working at the aid stations and tending the fire at the start line, and there were some first-timers there, looking forward to the full Uwharrie experience. Time to enjoy the present, and to worry about everything else later.
I don’t remember the details of much of the first part of the race, beyond the fact that I ran the early miles with Helix, another Trailhead (who eventually finished seventh overall, in his first ever ultra). The stream crossings were fairly high in places, including water up to my hips on a couple. I was glad that my Crosslites
dried out so quickly (I'd rather run through water than try to get across a creek with dry feet...my lack of balance makes it likely that I'll end up falling in anyway).
Somewhere around mile 10 or so, I found myself on my own, and that was just fine. I had decided that I’d see if I could finish in 8 hours, and that I’d even be OK with hitting the turnaround in 4 hours. It was good that I didn’t have a faster goal, because my legs felt as if I was doing quite enough. Being alone probably wasn’t the best thing, because it gave me a lot of time to think about non-running stresses, and to worry about everyone at home. I was so impressed when the leaders of the 20 mile course passed me (what fast times this year!). And I loved seeing Trailhead Goofus sitting on a rock, playing the banjo, around Mile 19. Not too far from the turnaround, I saw the first two women – Grace, with whom I’d run a few of the early miles; and Shannon, who’s always got her camera in hand, no matter the race.
Just before the turnaround, which I hit around 3:45 in (a guess, as I had accidentally stopped my watch about 5 miles in, and didn’t realize this until several miles later), I tripped on a rock. I caught myself mid-air, but my hamstring screamed at me. By the time I came to the aid station, which was manned by all sorts of fabulous volunteers, I was nearly in tears – worried that I had injured myself further, and also concerned about my girls and husband. I did something I’ve never done before; I borrowed someone’s phone and called home to check in. I didn’t get anything but voicemail, but at least I assuaged my guilt a bit.
As I began the second half of the course, I was treated to seeing both 40 mile runners approaching the turnaround, and 20 mile runners finishing their race. This is one of the great things about Uwharrie – the out and back, plus the large number of Trailheads who run the race, means that one gets lots of distraction from both friends and strangers for several miles. I heard the same report from lots of 20 mile runners – I was third woman, the second place woman was only a few minutes ahead, the first woman was not too far ahead of her. They had mistaken me for someone who was out to win, but I was happy just to be upright.
I knew that too few long runs was going to catch up to me. I started making all sorts of calculations…why bother with sub-8 hours, when I had done that before, when I was in much better shape? How long would it take me to finish if I walked all of the last 15 miles? Would it really be so horrible if I decided to DNF (answer: yes, duh)? Of course, whenever I’d go too far with the negative thoughts, something would happen to jar me back to the task at hand – for instance, I’d trip on a huge rock. I was at my low point, in terms of fatigue and attitude, around the mile 26 aid station. Alicia came past me, looking strong, and I was happy to let her go.
And then, somewhere soon after that (my memory fails me, a month later), I caught up to Shannon. I pointed out that she was having a great race; she agreed, but said that she was starting to tire, and that she was worried that she wasn’t going to hit her secret stretch goal, a sub-8 hour finish. Suddenly, the idea that I could encourage Shannon – whom I knew from the local race circuit and from her great blog, but not much beyond that – gave me a second wind. We moved reasonably well for many miles, talking about all sorts of things, eating Sour Patch Kids, and just generally loving having company. We caught up to Alicia around mile 30, and I managed to lead the three of us across an unnecessary stream crossing (sorry!). I was still tired, but I also was doing the math to figure out whether sub-8 was in range for us (it was, but it meant that we had to maintain a decent pace). Mile 32 provided a big boost, with an aid station staffed by Trailheads (although I declined the whiskey that was on offer). Shannon and I carried on through the Mile 35 aid station, when the climbs began to feel very steep. We took turns leading, until somewhere around Mile 36 or 37. I made a pit stop, while Shannon motored up the hill.
And that was the last I saw of Shannon. Shortly after the Mile 38 aid station, the trail was marked 2.0 miles to the end of the Uwharrie Trail. I checked my watch. It was 2:42pm. I knew we’d started 6 minutes late, so that gave me 24 minutes to do 2 miles, if I wanted to get under 8 hours. I loved the fact that I might still make it, but my legs weren’t particularly cooperative. I didn’t mind the climbing, but the rocky descents in that last part that are no fun. I tried to remember the “run 38 miles and think how lucky you are” advice – to enjoy it. But, mostly, I was annoyed that I had dallied too much in the aid stations (including my mile 20 phone call).
I finally hit the last descent, and sprinted (well, I felt like I sprinted. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty) down the hill across the line, and practically right into Shannon’s arms. She seemed so happy – at the time, I didn’t realize that she had not only managed to meet her sub-8 hour goal; she also had caught the woman ahead of us, giving her the win. I called over to the timers (who, coincidentally, happened to be a graduate student in my department and her husband) to get my official time: 7:59:53. I was thrilled – under 8, by the skin of my teeth, and with a lovely piece of pottery
to take home.
I loved Uwharrie again this year, even though I wasn’t close to the PR I’d wanted in 2010, and even though I never really had a chance of winning. It meant so much to me to see Shannon realize, and exceed, her goal
, and to feel like I had helped her do that. That experience made me appreciate Uwharrie in a whole new way. I also enjoyed seeing other friends finish their first Uwharrie 40 and, in some cases, their first ultra of any sort. (We celebrated the latter by dancing to Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” in the parking area. New theme song, perhaps?) It was good to realize that I don’t have to be perfectly trained to finish respectably; I can sometimes manage to tough it out. And the woods were, as they often are for me, a respite from everything else – time that is selfishly, and wonderfully, just mine. So thanks for another year, Uwharrie.