(Note: I wanted to write this up for any new trail runners who are considering doing Uwharrie, or who signed up for it and are wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s very long and kind of rambling, but it’s the kind of thing I would have found pretty helpful.)
There are several ways you could react to coming in 200th (ish) in a field of 220 finishers. Some might choose to react with horror at being so low in the pile. Some might choose to laugh it off the way my friend does when he signs up to run a race, doesn’t train, and then comes in last in his age group. Some might take it as a lesson for tomorrow. I’m not really sure what my reaction is, except, “well, I guess that’s a little disappointing.”
Apparently what my reaction should be is that only crazy ultrarunners run the Uwharrie 20-miler and normal people who think it sounds “fun” do not. After reading a few race reports written by other 20-mile runners about the difficult terrain and treacherous rocks and general insanity of making this your first 20-miler or your first long distance trail race, I choose to believe I have confirmed this. (Also, a guy at the finish line told me we picked a really tough race for our first long distance trail race. Which made me feel badass. I did not mention that we came in 200th-ish.) So what you are reading is not the race report of an ultra-runner, but rather the race report of a normal 26 year old runner who runs standard road races at a 10 minute mile pace. Let’s start with how we trained for this race. We is me, my friend S., and my crazy ultrarunner friend E who talked us into this race and then took charge of training us up for it and making sure we bought good shoes.
Training: S. and I run almost all of our long runs together for training. Since we were marathon training and 20-miler training, we alternated long runs on road and long runs on trail, and did a few combination runs at a local trail that has a 4.5 trail loop and then a 9-12 mile flat road loop. The furthest either of us ran on a trail was about 13.5 to 14 miles, the furthest either of us ran at one time was 14.5 miles. That being said, we did somewhere between 6 and 8 runs that were 10+ miles long. I’ve been running 10+ miles every week or every other week since Thanksgiving, I think. E., who came with us while she trained for the 40-miler, says that the most important part is spending a lot of time on your feet, and you shouldn’t stress too much about the mileage. After this weekend, I believe she is right.
Race Weekend: We had to drive down to North Carolina and did so the day before the race. Ideally, make a four day weekend of any race you have to drive more than 7 hours to. 7 hours is a LONG time, especially in a Subaru Outback, which is a remarkably uncomfortable car. We stayed at a Days Inn in Troy, NC. It was okay. It was not particularly clean (hair in the shower, soda can top on the floor), but the sheets were clean and the beds were pretty comfortable. We stayed in Chapel Hill afterwards at a Hampton Inn. Definitely stay in a nice hotel after the race, one with a good hearty breakfast and an ice machine. We paid twice as much for the Hampton Inn and it was money well spent.
The Race Organization: This is a REALLY well organized race. Apparently this has not been the case in the past, but they had well organized bag drop (you got handed a bag to put everything in) that you left at the start, not a half hour before the start and not before getting on the shuttle. So we stood around in our warm clothes and then at 10 of 8, when we were starting, we took off our warm layers and checked our bags, then stood by the fire. When we finished, we were immediately handed our bags by volunteers who had checked our bibs and gone to get our bags. A field of 220 people apparently means you get really good service. The aid stations were also fantastic, although after all of the 40-milers had come through and the 200ish 20-milers ahead of us, well, there wasn’t much food left (but I ate a lot at the 40-mile finish as we waited for our friend to finish).
The Race Itself: I’m going to break this down in between the aid stations, because that’s how I organize things in my memory. Aid stations start at Mile 5, and are every 3 miles. This was pretty much perfect. I carried my camelbak, but because I filled it at the hotel and the water tasted gross, I didn’t drink much from it. (Tip: fill camelbak with filtered water at home, even if it is the day before, it will be better than hotel sink water.)
Miles 1-5: Mile 1 is straight uphill, and it’s 200 people getting onto a singletrack trail. We walked for about half a mile, and then we finally were able to run along the ridge and admire the views and let the fast people who’d gotten stuck at the back pass us. Eventually we went down the hill and then back up another hill. Other than the uphills that were too steep to run, we were moving pretty well. S. found she was more comfortably running slowly uphills, I found I could powerwalk at the same speed. Contrary to our training, she stayed in front of me for most of the first half, and I struggled to pace myself with her, although I mostly kept up. We hit the first aid station, grabbed water and some fruit, and then rolled onward, saying things like, “It’s only 9:00! We’re a quarter of the way done!” I stopped to put some body glide on my neck, where my CamelBak was chafing, and my feet, where my new shoes were starting to cause a couple hot spots.
Miles 6-8: We made some friends right around Mile 6 and spent some time leading a pack of runners who warned us about a tricky stream crossing after Mile 9. This was also where we encountered our first stream crossings, which are challenging for S., but she didn’t fall in once. We kept going up and down, and then we started to feel rain drops. There had only been a 30% chance of rain, and it wasn’t supposed to start until noon, so I left my rain jacket in my drop bag. It started to rain heavier, and I was concerned that the course would get really slippery or muddy. The mud wasn’t too bad, and even the wet leaves weren’t slippery. At this point, we realized just how varied the terrain was. We had started in a pretty standard East Coast forest, but by now we were traveling through a beautiful pine area, and then we went through that back into regular trees. This really made the most difference with the trees and how much leaves were on the ground – I’m not a fan of running through leaves, but this trail was mostly leaves. The trail was pretty clearly marked up until about Mile 7, which was when things started to get dicey and the people in front of us had lost us. Around Mile 7, we started to see the first of the 8-Mile runners come tearing through the forest. Our strategy was to yield to everyone on this run, so we jumped out of the way and cheered for the 8-Milers. At the 8-Mile stop was the only bathroom on the race course, along with plenty of food and drink, because it was the 8-Mile finish line. It was raining a lot harder here, so we stopped pretty quickly to hydrate and I decided not to fix my sock at the time because it was raining.
Miles 9-11: The rain started to really come down as we crossed the road (the course crosses the road twice – once at Mile 2 and once at Mile 8) and plunged back into the forest. We were pretty much completely alone here, which freaked S. out about getting lost and made me finally start to feel comfortable and able to have a conversation – for some reason I felt self-conscious when we were surrounded by people. Eventually, we caught up with a couple other runners and let them go ahead so we could follow them. This is where the white marks on the trees really start to blend in with the bark. The white gets covered in a kind of greenish-gray stuff (probably just mildew), and starts to really blend in with the lichen. If you look closely, you can see the paint, and for the most part, if you look up ahead, you can almost always find another tree with a big white mark on it up ahead, even if it is about 100 yards away. We found the tricky stream crossing where you don’t actually cross the stream, but instead make a sharp left and run alongside the stream. There weren’t many steep uphills or downhills here, and we both felt good, and we tried to keep up a decent pace, although S. had to ask me to run a little faster a couple times because she was having trouble running so slowly. (I was trying to conserve because I didn’t know how much we would need for the end.) We didn’t have mile markers, but we were able to tell generally when we would be coming up on the aid station. At the Mile 11 aid station, they were running low on a couple of things and we felt pretty good, so we paused briefly to grab a quarter sandwich and cookie and blow our noses, and then we were off.
Miles 11-14: For the most part, this is the easy stretch. We knew there was a big hill coming at Mile 16, and we knew there was a steep drop before it, so when we started going downhill we wondered how long it would be for. To be honest, the uphills and downhills started to blend together and I tried to count the uphills as we went over them, but I lost track pretty quickly. The terrain kept changing and I think this was where we went through the part where we could hear frogs loudly and as the rain tapered off and the trees continued to drip, it really felt like we were in some kind of rain forest. We both sort of hit a wall around here, nothing as bad as some of our training runs, but more of a generally discouraged feeling. We talked each other through it and reminded each other that we are awesome. Around Mile 13, we started to see the first of the 40-mile runners coming the other way, and we tried to keep our pace up since we knew we would be walking Mile 16. There were a few more stream crossings here, but most of them had pretty big rocks, or were narrow enough to jump over. The course started to get pretty muddy here, from the rain, and the 40 milers who had run through it, and the 20 milers ahead of us who had already run through it. We were going down and I started hoping we would go back up soon and be on higher, and dryer, ground. Eventually it happened, since the 14 mile rest stop is at the top of a hill. Mile 14 was where we really stopped to refuel, ate quite a bit, and I finally took off my sock and tried to get out the tiny stick that I was pretty sure was poking me. There was no stick, but I added some more body glide and had a sandwich. We chatted a little with some of the other runners, including a 40-miler coming back who had decided he was done. (I didn’t realize at the time that he was dropping out, and so tried to be encouraging and tell him that 16 miles really wasn’t that far and he could do it – I felt like a jerk once I realized he was actually dropping out, although I saw him at the finish and he told me he was sitting in the car ready to go and then decided to finish the race instead and was really happy about it.) At this point, I switched into thinking, “all we have left is a 10k. We can TOTALLY do that.” My legs didn’t even feel anywhere near as badly as they did when we ran our last 14 mile run.
Miles 15-17: When we left the aid station, we came across a stream crossing pretty quickly. It was a two-part stream crossing, and it was really deep. We made it across the first part, and were staring at the second part when one of the 40s called out to us, “it’s much easier if you cross over here”. When we went over to where he was, we saw that the “stream” was actually an inlet, and you could run around it. Otherwise we would have been ankle deep in water, and I was already getting chilly. This was the biggest obstacle around this section – we were wet and cold, and we kept having to stop and walk the hills, when I just wanted to run and warm up. We knew that somewhere along here, we would see E. coming back, and this was also when we started to see the first female runners from the 40. We saw the three women who we would later see win, and then we saw a few more women and a lot more men, and finally we saw E. We had just come up a pretty steep uphill, and we thought this was the beginning of the mountain at Mile 16. E. was happy to see us, and we stopped for a minute to check in and take a picture. E. told us not to hate her once we finished the mountain, which was good, because otherwise we would have been mighty upset when we realized that what we just climbed wasn’t the mountain. We had a short downhill, and then we started up. The first part was hard, and steep, and we ran up a bit of it and quickly admitted defeat and trekked up it. Then we got to what we thought was the top, and started running. We went downhill for a bit, and suddenly the terrain changed. Instead of being straight up and steep, the course started to twist and turn, and we started to meet up with other runners who were currently being owned by the mountain. We fell into a pattern where we would run a little, then need to stop and walk to get up fairly short, but incredibly steep, sections of trail. They got a little slippery from the mud, so there was no way to get around them. The train turned a lot, and you kept turning around a corner and suddenly needing to go up another hill (best expressed by one runner, who upon finding yet another hill, cried out, “SON OF A B*TCH”, which at least made the rest of us burst out laughing when it echoed across the forest). I think that this was actually somehow the downhill section of the mountain. We finally saw the aid station up ahead, which after being visited by almost all of the other runners in this race, was almost out of everything, but I grabbed some trail mix and water and we scurried onward to make up for lost time, and because if we stopped running for too long, our legs stopped working. S. tried to take her inhaler here, but wasn’t able to get enough medicine in her lungs to actually be helpful.
Miles 17-20: This is where it got fun. I mentioned that early on I was trying to conserve some power in my legs, because I didn’t know how the race would end. It turns out this was the right move for me, because I had plenty of legs left at Mile 17 for the rest of the course. Or I just got some kind of crazy third wind. All I know is that after three miles of walking uphills, I suddenly started running them. It seemed like it was just easier to keep running and I started having fun with it. I was ahead of S. at this point and she was having trouble on the hills. When she saw me tearing over them, she just said “wow!” and I said, “I have no idea where this came from, but I’m going to go with it.” For the most part, she walked the small uphills that were left and then ran and caught up with me, but I kept losing her behind turns and then she would catch back up. I walked a few of the steeper hills here and there, but for the most part, I ran the last three miles and I felt like it was the easiest 5k I’ve ever done. Around mile 19, we saw two 40-milers who told us we were a 15-minute walk from the end. Spurred on, we charged ahead. At some point my husband called to make sure we hadn’t finished already, since he had watched about 200 people finish before us, and I assured him that we hadn’t. Which brings me to another point – Verizon gets pretty decent service along the trail – and the Red Cross called around noon to remind me to come in and give blood. I didn’t answer that one. We started to hear the road, and then we saw a man in an orange jacket up ahead and we knew we were getting close to the finish line. We were walking up a hill and saying, “okay, lets get up this hill and run to the end” and then we focused on the bunting they had at the finish, which was the same as every rest stop, and we knew we were there already, so we both sprinted towards the end. Our final time was about 5:30, which was better than our guestimated time of 6 hours, and could have been far better if we hadn’t stopped for a good 5 minutes at every aid station. However, I think for your first long distance trail race, it’s important to pace yourself well, so I’m pretty happy with how we did. I would also like to point out that we did not fall at all (S. touched her hands down in a mud pit near the end, but in figure skating it wouldn’t be a fall so I decided it didn’t count) and we did not get lost, and I attribute both of these to us taking our time.
Overall, I will definitely want to run this race in the future, but I need to find a new person to do it with because S. decided she can’t run for more than four and a half hours, so I either need a new running buddy for long trail races or we have to get faster. Also running a 50k seems a lot less crazy. I’m not sure what that says about me.