Friday, April 02, 2010

Crewing and Pacing at Umstead 100

I had never been to North Carolina let alone Umstead state park. I regret that after four days I still didn't know much about the state but at least I now know one part really well. It all went like clockwork for us. I had a runner who was in peak physical condition, had his pacing and nutrition plan nailed down and executed perfectly. The advertised rainy weather didn't arrive until the day after and after a cold start we had cool weather with sunny clear skies and no wind. Great conditions for running.

Hanging out with Tony and some of the other kids from New York after the race briefing.

Cold, cold, cold. My incredible sense of direction got us lost and we ended up in the wrong parking lot. Tony was tense but the overall mood was of excitement and eagerness from our little band of runners and crew folk.

Crew and pacer briefing at the lodge after the runners took off. First time I've been on a race where they specifically addressed the concerns of new crews and pacers.

Warming up at the lodge with fellow bay area runner Steve Holman, the big dude in black.

I am oversimplifying this, with your left hand hold up two fingers. If you are like most people that will be your index finger (the one you use to point) and your middle finger. Those fingers with the rest of your clenched hand is the 12.5-mile course. The fingers represent two down-and-back sections one of which is the start/finish. The tip of your middle finger is the start/finish at the lodge. Runners head out from there, turn right and head into the second down-and-back portion before heading out to complete the rest of the loop ending back at the top of the middle finger. A quarter of the way out there is an unmanned aid station, halfway through a manned aid station and another unmanned station three quarters of the way out before you return to the start/finish. The plan was for Tony to give me his empty hydration bottle on his way in to the start/finish and on his way back out pick up a fresh one filled with Perpeteum energy drink and an energy gel. I also had his bag filled with all his gear and nutrition. The trail is pretty much all fire road, easy to run on. Many runners during the night ran without flashlights despite the dark shadows cast on the road by the tall trees. I didn't think it was very hilly but with enough rolling hills to make it fun.

I have no idea who this is but I like the shot. I was prone on the ground, firing away with my camera. This is on the trail heading back to the start/finish area.

Some people set up camp on the trail leading up to the start/finish area.

LOOPS 1-4 (Miles 0-50)
His goal was to finish under 20 hours and he calculated that he needed to hit around 2:15 for each loop on the first half for a 9:15 50-mile split. My main concern and I kept drilling the point since I landed on Friday morning was for him to watch his pace. I told him to back off if hitting 2:15 loops forced him to go too hard too early. As Steve Holman said, "If you don't feel the urge to go faster in the early miles you are going too fast" and "You don't bank time, you bank energy". Steve summed up in two quick sentences what took me paragraphs to explain to Tony, stuff he already knows anyway I just kept reminding him of it.

Despite what the recorded splits on the website stated, which was not acccurate, Tony running with his buddy Doug Vaughan hit the first 5-loops pretty much in the vicinity of 2:15. Doug ran a 21:05 to Tony's 21:40 at last years event and was also targeting sub-20. They agreed to pace each other on the first half and they were like clockwork for the first three loops. On the fourth loop they slowed down a bit but not by much.

In front of the lodge. To my right and your left is the aid station and timing tent. Notice that despite the sun we still had jackets on. Cool weather but great for running.

This menu was also available for pacers. I snagged a couple of cheeseburgers before I started running. I had planned on leaving the premises for a healthier meal but got too busy. I don't know how some of the runners were able to eat burgers and keep running. Their stomach is stronger than mine's, I made sure I had a couple of hours of digestion time.

Tireless volunteers in the back, flipping burgers and grilling hot dogs.

Pacers were allowed from 50 miles onward. We relocated to the lodge and the second mistake of the day was again by yours truly. I had miscalculated the time he was coming in and was not around when he came through. Karen, a friend in our party, came rushing in the lodge to tell me. Fortunately I had just finished suiting up and was ready to go, didn't take long for me to catch him and Doug. My entry into the race split the two as I took control of Tony's race and changed the routine they had been following the last 50 miles. Tony's excitement for reaching the halfway mark and my presence caused him to up his pace and I helped keep him on track. It doesn't seem right to tell a runner to slow down in a race, seems counterintuitive but sometimes you have to go slower to finish faster. My fear was that he would burn himself out before the finish. At this time Tony was starting to pass runners with more regularity. By the 7th loop Tony started slowing down but not by a lot. We were slower hitting the different aid station points and he had also switched to eating solid food which meant longer stops at the manned aid stations. We still mixed an energy gel into his water but nixed the Perpeteum entirely. I warned him that the last two loops was where we were going to put it all on the line and leave nothing on the course. I pushed him harder to minimize the time loss. He lived on soda and chicken soup for the rest of the run on top of the gel infused water he was drinking. We kept things moving, most of the eating done while walking and not standing around at the aid stations.

Doug Vaughan and Tony Portera, loop 6.

RD Blake Norwood and staff, making their rounds on the course.

On the course with Tony and Tammy Massie.

Tony had stopped looking at his watch from the 7th loop on and I thought it was a good idea. All he wanted to know was if we were still on pace to come under 20 hours. At the start of the 8th loop Tony was in great shape time wise but I didn't tell him. Even at the rate of his slow down he had a small cushion of time. I feared that if he knew how well he was doing he would relax mentally and take his foot of the gas so to speak. I kept the pressure up, wanting to preserve the small cushion of time we had for any possible emergencies or unexpected delays down the line. Those emergencies never materialized thankfully. With about 7.5 miles to go we passed a number of runners and this really revitalized Tony. He was smelling the barn at this point, all pumped up and ready to finish. Eventually he got the itch to know how he was doing and it took a lot of effort not to tell him too soon. I hinted but never gave him the whole truth wanting to save the surprise until he was almost finished. He told me that 19:59:59 would be good enough and a 19:45 would be a dream since our mutual friend Brian Krogmann predicted that finishing time. I told him if he kept running hard he had a chance. I was grinning in the dark but thankfully he couldn't see. With 1.5 miles to go I finally told him, "Tony forget 19:45, you are going to go sub-19:30. He was incredulous and disbelieving at first so I told him to look at his watch. There was hooting and hollering on the trail after that, it was all I could do to refocus him back on the task of actually finishing. We caught up to Doug shortly after that episode and Tony made the decision to finish with him. On gladiator mode I was against it but came around. He would have only finished a minute or two ahead but would have missed sharing the finish line with a good friend who was a tremendous help to his race the first 50 miles. It was the right decision. They crossed together and were awarded the same finishing time and place - 18th overall and third age group for Tony.

Sunset on the trail.

The lodge was packed with people; runners who have finished, runners still in the race, crew, volunteers, family, medical personnel tending to the injured and beat down. The latter was the hardest to see next to the runners who were steeling themselves for yet another loop. There was a guy who said he had a dislocated hip. When we got there he needed to go to the bathroom. He was not a small man, large and muscular, it took two equally large guys to lift him up out of his sleeping bag and carry him to the bathroom, which was a separate building, then back again to his sleeping bag. Then there was a guy who came in mumbling incoherently. I went out to get a burger and when I got back he was on the floor tended by two medical personnel. They bundled him up in a sleeping bag, elevated his legs, kept checking his vitals, picked him up and took him to the kitchen (not sure why), then took him back to the common room where they bundled him up in the sleeping bag once again. Once that guy had recovered and taken out by his crew he was replaced by yet another runner who was also out of it but his problems were less severe because after being wrapped up in a sleeping bag he was left alone. It was kind of crazy watching all this. We were there until 5 pm, another 3.5 hours after we finished, waiting for two other friends to come through.

Umstead 100 never interested me, to be honest it sounded like a real bore; fire roads, not a lot of climbing and 12.5 loops and non-technical trails. I actually enjoyed it, loved it. The course was everything I had heard about and it is easier compared to the races I've done, compared to the other races I've paced Tony in, but it was beautiful and enjoyable nevertheless. 100 miles is still 100 miles as other ultra-marathoners are wont to say. It would be a privilege to run this event, if I could ever get in — the slots filled within 4 minutes last year. It is a great race for beginners just breaking into the distance and veterans wanting to test their speed can fly. An easy race to crew for since it's a loop course.

Zack Gingerich, the champion with a new course record of 13:23:02 - phenomenal!

Jill Perry, the female champion, beating her own course record set last year with a 15:58:16.

For the complete photoset click here.