On Saturday, I ran (and, spoiler alert, completed) my first-ever marathon – The Umstead Trail Marathon. Now, if you’re familiar, you’re probably wondering why the hell I signed up for Umstead as my first marathon. I asked myself that very same question starting the day I ran my first Umstead long run (a whopping 14 miles, which took forever and involved lots of walking lots of hills) to the night before the race, wherein I was still convinced I was not prepared to do this. [Side note: There were also numerous other Umstead runs, some that were just slogs and some that involved rolled ankles on single-track trails, that elicited the same “wtf was I thinking” response.]
Well, as the story goes, Mark convinced me to sign up, knowing full well that I had not run more than a few miles in a week in a couple…years…and had been focused on powerlifting and other pursuits in that time, by telling me it’s really not so bad and that I would definitely be ready and that he’d coach me. Okay, I say, and pay the small sum of $$ to register; future Ari will worry about the rest.
Flash forward to the week of the race – I’ve officially wavered back and forth from “I’m not running this fucking race” to “Ugh, fine” about ten times, and I’ve settled on the latter. I began to ‘taper’, which to coach Mark meant a 57.5 mile week followed by 6 miles on Monday (plus SQUATS!), 9 on Tuesday (in the form of a track workout), a unplanned day off Wednesday, 3 miles and an appt with Stiner on Thursday, and 2 shake-out miles on Friday. (That’s tapering, right? Right?!)
Packet pickup involved an overly long car ride with Mark’s parents, who visitied for race weekend, followed by a later-than-we-would’ve-liked dinner at Treforni Pizza in Durham, which was the silver lining of the drawn-out night. We finally got home around 9:30 PM. I immediately got in bed, without getting anything ready for the race, did a little bit of work and passed out next to the already-asleep boyfriend.
In the morning, I frantically searched through piles of maybe-dirty-maybe-clean running clothes, because that is how Mark and I live our lives. The weather was…confusing, as it had consistently been in the 60s-70s (even the 80s, whaaat!) the past couple weeks but was starting off at a balmy 30 degrees on race day. Better than 80, but jeez. I settled on some super-cool orange-pink-and-blue shorts, long sleeves and a hat, which all turned out to be a good choice. Once we were both dressed and ready to go, we made a couple quick pit stops and headed to Umstead.
For being rather familiar with Umstead Park itself and the most of the marathon course specifically, I was still filled with anticipation and nerves as we entered the Hwy 70 entrance – I had never come in this way, so it felt all new to me. I came in with the goal of just finishing (and not getting pulled off the course at any of the cut-off points), and even that seemed like a stretch to me as we pulled in. We made it to our lot, parked, and headed over to Camp Lapahio to fit in at least one more bathroom trip before the race began. We got everything we needed together, said hi to lots of people, including Mark’s parents, who had just arrived. Mark wished me good luck and kissed me goodbye before heading up to the front of the pack, and I hung out in back, where I belong (for now ;]).
Looking forward to getting moving and warming up, I was happy when the clock struck 9 and the race began. The course leaves camp and heads immediately uphill for about a half-mile, which was a nice way to get a bit warmer on this surprisingly cold day. The first mile felt good, and I was moving faster than I knew I’d be able to maintain over 26 miles, but I figured I’d enjoy it while I could. As we headed towards the first turnaround, I passed Mark, who didn’t see me because he looked way too determined and focused. I settled into a relatively comfortable pace and mentally prepared myself to be out here for…a while.
About two miles in, we got to the section I had, prior to the race, been dreading more than anything else – the 5 miles of single-track trails. As I alluded to above, I’ve had some solid ankle rolling experiences at Umstead previously, and I was nervous I’d derail my run way too early on. In a weird twist, I felt GREAT on the single track. I passed some people as I bounded up the hills on Company Mill, and I maintained a pretty steady pace through most of it. This helped me build some confidence, because I felt just so much better than I had the last couple times I’d run the same trails. I eventually started slowing down on the single-track hills, mostly to conserve (but also because I just still suck at hills), but I was overall super happy with how this section went. Company Mill was especially good, but the Sycamore section(s) were also uneventful (in a good way!). I used the bit of time I was walking to eat some Honey Stinger chews.
So, the course goes Company Mill to Sycamore to parking lot (where I took a quick pit stop to try to go to the bathroom) back to Sycamore. As I approached the final section on Sycamore, I began chatting with this very nice runner, Tina, who had run the marathon 4 times before and was training for Umstead 100. I tried not to brag too much about Mark’s performances both in the marathon and in the 100, but it was more fun to talk about his successes than my potential (and probably ~6 hr) first marathon finish (and the associated self-doubt about whether that finish was even doable). Tina and I ran most of this last section together, but she eventually went off ahead of me as I made it back to the bridle trail.
You get to ~8 miles once your off the single-track and onto the bridle trail, with just the Graylyn hill to claim to get back to an aid station. I stopped to refill up my water bottle and ran into Bill, a Godiva Track Club member I had met once over the summer. He remembered me and confirmed that I am, indeed, Mark’s girlfriend. He asked me, “You don’t usually run this much, do you?” to which I replied, “No, this is my first marathon. …Mark is an asshole.” *Cue laughter and a ‘its funny because it’s true’ expression on my face*. I then continued on my way, up the bridle trail, approaching the nice, long descent down corkscrew hill. I tried not to think about how I’d be coming back up this monster soon enough and just enjoyed the break. During this respite from relentless climbing, I got so-fucking-happy as I thought about how well the single-track sections had gone for me. I really exceeded my wildest expectations, and I landed ~1:30 for 8 miles. Not. Bad.
I started to dread the inevitable long, slow climb coming for me once I got down the hill, but I quickly settled into a reasonable pace as I climbed the hill past Reedy Creek Lake. I caught back up with Tina, who was walking much of this hill. Honestly, it made me feel so much better to be surrounded by people who had done this race numerous times already and to not be far off from them. I made it to the top of the hill, at some point seeing the guy in 1st place bounding past me downhill (approaching the 20-mile mark! How…demoralizing…and also impressive). Seeing the guy in 1st told me that Mark should be passing by quite soon.
The thought was encouraging, as I had only just realized, “oh, shit, I’ll get to see everyone ahead of me pass as I run this section of the course”. I took a quick ‘bathroom break’ in the woods (stomach decidedly not super happy with me throughout the race; oh well), and about 5 minutes after being back on my way, A Wild Mark Manz Appeared! I was so happy to see him, and we stopped and kissed in the middle of the race. This was ~12 miles for me, probably ~19 for him (again, how…demoralizing), and it gave me a little burst of energy that I really needed before approaching the Turkey Creek section. I also was approaching the end of the line as far as “mileage I am comfortable with in one run” goes and starting to get nervous about having another whole half to go.
After seeing Mark, I kept on going down the steady downhill section of Reedy Creek and made my way towards Turkey Creek. Knowing what was coming, I walked a bit at mile 12 up a small bump (not quiiite a hill) to eat a Honey Stinger gel, which made me gag real hard. This was the one gel I managed to eat during this race, for fear that I wouldn’t be able to get them down. Gross. I then picked up the pace as I got to the tougher stretch. I ran most of the way up the first, worst hill, but I eventually walked. I’ve run this whole section in training, and I probably could’ve pushed it here, but my worry about getting through the last 8 or so miles of this race led me to be extra conservative here and walk more than I would have really liked. I ran all the downhills in this section and ran a part of each climb. There was a lot of back-and-forth passing of and by the same people during this section, as we all seemed to pick different times to run and walk.
Once I made it through Turkey Creek and down to the Sycamore parking lot, I took another bathroom stop just in case – this is the point in the race where, oh shit, I realized I got my period. I just sat there, laughing in a port-a-potty, because there was really nothing I could do but hope it didn’t get too messy by the finish line (I lucked out in this regard). Accepting that there was not much else to do but keep going, I got back on my feet and heading back up the hill out of the parking lot to go back down Turkey Creek. I found the back way, aside from a couple really long, gradual hills, to be more manageable (not that I ran all of this part, either). At this point, I was looking forward to the eventual long, slow decline down Reedy Creek, and I just had to walk-run my way through Turkey Creek and the gradual uphill part of Reedy Creek before that nice break.
At some point during this section, people I’d been running with pretty much all day managed to pull away from me, so I knew I was slowing down. Oh well. The first half of this race went about as well as I could’ve possibly imagined, and the second half became about just getting through it to the finish. Fortunately, my mental state was really great this whole time – never did I think, “I never want to run a fucking marathon ever again” or “I don’t think I can finish this race”. I enjoyed the whole day and wasn’t worried about the time, especially having realized I was way ahead of any cut-off points after a quicker first half than expected. The only physical issue that I had was some tightness in my left shin, I assume from all the semi-steep descents, that started getting worse and worse as time passed. Obviously my legs were tired, too, but that felt manageable (and honestly not much different than any other long run). I spent some of this section chatting with another runner, Jonathan from Greensboro, who had done the race a few times before and was very encouraging. He did, however, suggest that I take at least a week off after the race (advice I’ve already ignored).
I saw the mile 20 marker as I ran down Reedy Creek back to the lake, and I passed a couple people here because once I was going downhill again, I felt just fine. This was a milestone for me, as none of my 20-milers have gone particularly well, and here I was, at 20 miles, feeling pretty okay, while others seemed to be hitting the proverbial wall. I ran a bit of the way up corkscrew but couldn’t maintain pace the whole way up. It was not as bad as I had imagined, though, and I again felt like it was a conscious choice not to overdo it here, knowing I’d have to make it up Cedar Ridge in a few miles. (Knowing the course well, I think, goes a long way in this race, so I’m glad I trained there a decent amount. I should’ve been spending far more time there…and I’ll certainly be remedying that in the future).
Once I got to Cedar Ridge, I refilled my water bottle one last time and headed down the mostly downhill, rocky section. Somewhere along the way, Mark met back up with me! I was so happy, again, to see him (which was a nice change from my normal running attitude of “ugh, go away, I want to suffer alone”). We ran together as he asked how I was doing and then told me all about his race (he’d been done for about an hour at this point, siiiighhh). I’ll just say this: Mark had a GOOD race. Am proud.
We made it to the bottom of Cedar Ridge and turned back around to head back up. Holy. Shit. This. Section. Is. Brutal. I walked much of this and tried to run when I could, and that’s the best I could do. We made it back to the aid station and headed towards the finish, with about a mile to go. Mark stayed with me up the last couple hills and then ran off ahead, letting me finish it out alone and him be there at the finish line to see me do it. I ran the last mile and actually managed to pick up the pace for what felt (and apparently looked) like a strong finish. The one non-cruel part of this whole course is that it’s downhill into the finish. Thank you, race directors, for this one, final kindness. I totally lost control of my emotions as I crossed the finish line, knowing before I even crossed that I was going to cry uncontrollably. So, that happened. I ended the race wrapped up in Mark’s arms, both of us crying, him because he was proud, me because…I don’t even know: a combination of proud of myself, happy to be done, and generally feeling totally depleted.
So, I ran my first marathon. It took me 5 hours and 20 minutes. Nothing bad happened, my mind never really went into any sort of dark place, and the whole time, I was just looking forward to getting back out to Umstead, training harder and getting better so that it never takes me 5 hours and 20 minutes to run a marathon Ever. Again. I trained around 50-60 miles per week leading up to the race, and because of this, I really was prepared to cover the 26.2 miles on race day. My recovery has been pretty smooth, and I managed to run 4 miles the next day, making marathon weekend the most miles I’ve ever covered in 2 days. Overall, I’m proud of this milestone but really, really hungry to keep working hard ahead of my upcoming races, including my next marathon in Seattle, where I plan to blow this Umstead Marathon time to the fucking moon.