Monday, February 4, 2013

Hidden Beauty - Uwharrie Mountain Run 40 Miler - Part 1

Absolute panic! I couldn't find the insulated thermal tech shirt I had planned to wear at the start of the Uwharrie Mountain Run 40 mile ultramarathon, my first ultra, and I needed that shirt. The temperature at the race start was forecast to be around 20F. I gutted both my large travel bags, strewing their contents on my hotel bed in the room Jay Spadie and I had split to be near the race start.

"Jay, have you seen my blue thermal shirt?" I asked. "I know I packed it, but it's not here!"

Jay stopped arranging the 200 gel packs on his bed, and reached under a pile of gear to pull out a blue thermal shirt. He held it up to show me.

"That's it!" I exclaimed. "I wonder how it got into your pile?"

Before I could even take a step to claim the shirt, I noticed a small hole near the shoulder.

"Only a small hole" I thought. "No big deal."

But the hole suddenly grew, like a strong acid was eating away at the fabric. Then I saw them - BUGS. Billions and billions of tiny, thermal tech shirt eating bugs swarming over the fabric! In seconds the shirt was a tattered rag.

"Dammit, Spadie! Why did you bring the bugs?!" I shouted.

Jay just looked at me as if to say, "Hey, it's me, Jay. I bring the crazy! You get the bugs for free."

Jay, bringing the crazy, with
underwear headgear.

I woke up in a cold sweat, with my heart racing. This was the third panic dream I had the night before the race. In the first, I had forgotten my running shoes. In the second, someone had stolen all my running clothes. Now, at 2AM, the bugs. I was getting pissed! I could have punched the sandman square in the mouth.

Panic and Paranoia
Panic and paranoia perfectly described my mental state during the couple of weeks leading up to my first ultra marathon. I'm can honestly say that the Uwharrie 40 Miler had me scared. Really scared.

Yes, all my experienced ultra running friends kept telling me I was ready and I would do fine, but I'm a worrier at heart. I get it honest. My Dad is a world champion worrier, according to my Mom anyway. But I knew the real reason for my worry was my mediocre training. I had completed only three runs in excess of 20 miles since late November - 24 miles, 29 miles, and 22 miles, the last one a training run in Uwharrie itself. I hadn't touched 30 miles, much less 40 miles in the soul destroying hills of Uwharrie.

WEEKLY total mileage since late November.
That's right, NO running over the holidays.
That's beer drinking time!

I had run the 20 mile race in Uwharrie the year before. This simply couldn't be enough training for the 40 mile race. I could feel the disapproving eyes of Uncle Uwharrie burning into my very untrained soul, and I dreaded the probable punishment that awaited me in the hard, cold hills of Uwharrie.

Cold Mountains
Jay's car thermometer indicated the outside air was 16F a couple of miles from the checkin and shuttle departure area. Stepping out of the car upon arrival, I believed it. Bone chilling would be a totally appropriate description. The cold seeped in through your clothes, finding even the deepest, most insulated crannies, and obliterated any warmth. I was shivering in seconds.

Luckily, Bull City Running organize a great race, so even after checking in, and missing the "last" shuttle to the starting area due to an unusually slow men's bathroom line, a group of 40 milers still managed to grab another shuttle to the starting area, arriving with just a handful of minutes to spare. I spent the shuttle time talking to experienced ultra marathoner Sean Butler and trying not to puke on my shoes due to nerves.

This was good and bad. Good in that we didn't have to stand around in the frigid air for very long at the starting line. Bad in that there was a total panic in the bag drop area with people trying to decide what clothing to keep on for the race, and what clothing to stuff into drop bags.

Normally, given my panicky nature, I would have made some ridiculously bad decision and either overdressed or underdressed for the conditions. Somehow, I managed to get it absolutely perfect.

Miles 1 through 8 - The Mud Skate
As the race started and we began the climb up the big hill, my decision to wear shorts, 4 layers on my torso, hat, buff, and gloves proved the perfect combination for body temperature regulation. What can I say, even a knuckle-head gets lucky every once in a while!

The sun rising over a distant hill in Uwharrie.
Gorgeous morning!

The ground was frozen and you could feel it through your feet. The dirt was stiff and frigid and unyielding. At least there wasn't any real ice to speak of on the trail. Of course, leave it to me to find the only icy patch in the first 8 miles, and to promptly bust my ass on it.

Around mile 5, trying to pick the safest path down a steep section of trail just before the only real bridge on the entire trail, I chose to run down what appeared to be exposed red dirt, rather than the mysterious leaf covered section immediately next to the dirt. I swear my foot never even made contact with the dirt. I put my foot down, but it seemed to miss the ground entirely. I'm now sure that frozen red mud is the slickest substance on the face of the Earth. According to my ass, it's also the hardest.

Running friend, Gene Meade was directly behind me, and I didn't have any time to warn him before I heard him thump the frozen hillside as well. Luckily, no real damage was done to either of us.

Ice in my beard, mud on my hand (from the fall),
and frozen potato chips. Insanity at mile 8!
Photo by volunteer extraordinaire, Harold "Galoot" Hill.

Miles 8 through 16 - Drinking From The Friendship Canteen
After leaving the 8 mile aid station, I found myself nearly alone. I ran with an older ultra veteran for a couple of miles (I really wish I could remember his name) and we had some good discussions about Uwharrie and ultra running in general. But then he pulled off trail for a nature break and aside from seeing other runners at aid stations, I ran alone for several miles.

There were hours of running like this.
I spent the time thinking about my family (especially my oh so patient and lovely wife, Sherri) and all the friends who had been thoughtful enough to wish me well prior to the race. I ran easy, enjoying the moments when I could.

Miles 16 through 20 - Friends A Plenty!
After power walking up Dennis Mountain (the biggest, nastiest hill in the entire race, just ask anybody who's "run" it!), I reached the summit and saw the first returning 40 miler that I knew, Ronnie Weed, in 3rd place. A shout of encouragement and a fist bump from a smiling Ronnie really lifted my spirits.

The miles leading in to the 20 mile turn-around were full of whoops, hollers, high fives and general awesomeness as I saw friend after friend coming back on the return legs of their 40 mile runs or passing me on their way to a 20 mile finish. Thanks to Ronnie, Bart, Jeff, Doug, Heiko, Jay, Sean, Karen, Kevin, Rebecca, and many others who I can't remember now. Fatigue had made it's first appearance on the stage of my mind, and it looked like he might possibly be attempting a one man show to end all shows. All of you helped to sweep away the doubts and fears in my mind those last few miles before the turnaround.

Strangely, I had not yet heard the first growl from Uncle Uwharrie. That would soon change.

Part 2 of the race report - Turn, Burn and Churn...