Thursday, March 14, 2013

I am NOT becoming an ultrarunner (maybe): A recap of my 38 miles at the Graveyard 100

When my running buddy Chad Randolph told me he was planning on running the Graveyard 100-miler this year, I figured it might be a good opportunity for me to make my first trip ever to North Carolina's Outer Banks; I volunteered to crew him for the race.

"Well, my wife Laurie is already planning on crewing," Chad said.

"Fine, then I'll pace you for the last 25 miles," I said.

That sounded good to Chad, so we made plans to hit the dunes on the second weekend in March. Soon after, our friend Dave Moore also decided to join us for the ride—and to run the entire 100-mile race. Now Laurie and I would have crew responsibilities for two runners, in addition to my pacing Chad for what had now escalated to 35 miles. I figured as long as I was making the 7-hour drive to the Outer Banks, I might as well get my longest-ever run as part of the package.

After a seemingly interminable drive, we arrived at the race headquarters at 4:30 Friday afternoon and walked out onto a rickety dock to pick up Chad and Dave's race packets. Although the course is nearly completely flat, the runner's race materials had warned us not to take it lightly:
Remember this race was designed to create the most difficult race possible out of seemingly easy terrain. The rating of 1 (surface) & 1 (terrain) is a little misleading.  Weather in the Outer banks in March is wildly unpredictable. Everything from 70-degree days, to snow to nor’easters has happened, and can & will happen. This year during the GY100 Staff run we were greeted with snow, sleet, rain, sub-freezing temperatures and 35mph sustained wind. Unpredictable weather is a hallmark of the Outer Banks in March. This event will not be cancelled for foul weather. The only reason it could be cancelled or delayed is in the event of a road closure.
Almost on cue, we were blasted with a strong north wind, and absolutely massive waves crashed around us so hard that the foam from the whitecaps was forced up through the cracks in the dock.

This photo of Chad and Dave pre-race makes the surf look deceptively small — trust me, it wasn't.

Chad and Dave are also cleverly standing on the lee side of the dock, away from the 25-mph winds.

This photo may give you a better sense of what the weather was like:

I wasn't kidding about the foam coming up through the dock!

At the pre-race briefing later that night, the Race Director dropped another bombshell: The road  on Hatteras Island around Mile 60 of the race was flooded at high tide on Friday morning; if it was as bad on Saturday during the race, he'd have to modify the course: Instead of getting that tail-wind for the whole race, we'd be running into a 25-mph wind for the last half of the race! Even worse, the decision about whether to change the race course would be made at 9 a.m., four hours after the race will have started. He also noted that some sections of the course, though not closed, were flooded with several inches of water. Runners should prepare accordingly. With the entire pier literally shuddering with each breaking wave outside, we didn't doubt that the weather was going to be a big factor in the race.

Fast-forward to 3:30 a.m. Dave and I wake up and quickly get ready. By 3:45 we meet Chad and Laurie in the lobby and drive to the race start, 25 minutes away in Corolla, NC, near the north end of the outer banks. The wind is still roaring around us. After checking in at the start, I snap a quick pre-race photo of Chad and Dave:

Nervous excitement is the order of the moment. We stay warm in the van for 30 minutes or so, then make the 200-yard walk to the starting line. After the starter car blows a fuse and disables the sound system, the group sings the national anthem a capella, and then the runners are off!

The first 20 miles or so are uneventful; Chad and Dave are running comfortably and seem to be in good spirits when we meet them at the aid stations. But Laurie and I hear that conditions are worsening ahead on the course. The race director has indicated that it's okay to find alternate routes, as long as they don't decrease the total distance run. There's little danger of that since the main route is basically a straight line heading south, so we drive a few miles ahead and have a look at the roadway. This is what we see:

Yep, those are hunks of wood with nails in them, littering the "street"!

The road quickly worsens, but on this stretch there is a sidestreet a block away from the highway. We head over there and see that it's completely dry for two miles! We drive back and let Chad and Dave know how to avoid the mucky road. In places the road is completely flooded, so we're glad we figured out an alternate route:

We hear later that some runners just ran straight through the puddles, getting their feet soaked. Others tried running on the beach, but sank calf-deep in the muck. We pat ourselves on the back for being a good crew!

Not long after this episode we finally find out from the race's Facebook page that the event will be an out-and-back. The runners will have to return to the start, straight into the strong wind that has been at their backs all day. We tell Chad and Dave as soon as we can, and they each independently respond with the same four-letter word starting with "S." But of course, there's nothing to do but keep running.

Everything's going well until we get a text from Chad around Mile 35. His knee is hurting and he wants to change shoes. Laurie and I figure out where he is and drive back to meet him with the new shoes. It's not like Chad to complain much during a race, so this seems serious. We encourage him to walk as much as possible, just to see if he can work through the pain. We're surprised to see him running into the next water stop:

He seems to be doing better, telling us he'd like to try to at least hit 50 miles. We tell him we'll see him at the aid station at Mile 42 and head out. Unfortunately, when he gets there it's a different story. The knee is bothering him too much -- tendinitis -- and he's going to have to drop out. We know that Chad doesn't take dropping out lightly, so clearly the pain must have been excruciating.

Chad had been as far as 30 minutes ahead of Dave, but Dave makes it to this aid station just a few minutes behind Chad. We tell him the bad news -- but also the good news for him. Since I won't be pacing for Chad, I'm available to pace for him for the last 37 miles of the race. He's happy to accept the offer, and we keep on going, with Chad now in the van.

Dave is looking great at every water stop, seems happy, and arrives ahead of when we expect him every time.

Lookin' good!

Finally he arrives at the water stop at Mile 64, and it's time for me to join him. It's now 6 pm and on the verge of getting dark. We're running into the wind, so we bundle up and add reflective gear:

Lookin' goofy!

I'm excited to hit the road, and we head out at a nice clip. Dave is ahead of his goal pace, and I've determined that in order to finish in under 24 hours and receive a silver buckle (instead of the gold finisher's buckle that all finishers get), all he needs to do is keep a 17-minute pace. We're walk-running, but we're averaging closer to a 13-minute pace. I can tell Dave is fatigued, but he's doing well. Even better, the wind finally seems to be dying down. Things are looking up -- all I have to do now is run farther than I've ever run!

Around Mile 72 we're told by a race official that the road ahead -- the same stretch that Laurie and I had scouted earlier in the day -- was even worse now and that we should probably try an alternate route. Fortunately, I knew the route we had scouted earlier, so I figure we'll be just fine.

Then we arrive at the first flooded section, about two miles before I expect to see it. I don't know a good way around this. Looking on my phone, I can see that the sidestreets don't go all the way through in this section. Our options are to run through the cold water on an increasingly chilly night, or run a half-mile away to an extremely busy highway. We choose the highway. This road has tons of traffic, despite the fact that it is now around 10 pm. The speed limit is 55, and drivers clearly don't expect to be seeing pedestrians, let alone runners with headlamps and reflective gear. The shoulder is about 2 feet wide, and cars don't slow down or move over at all as they pass us. Eventually we are so spooked by the traffic that we start walking in the sand next to the shoulder. Our pace slows considerably.

Finally we reach the point where I had previously found a dry way through, and try to cut back towards the ocean. The first thing we see are two runners coming the opposite direction. "Are you going that way?" one of them asks. "We're trying to get away from this!"

"We're going to give it a shot," I say. Then I turn down the street that had been completely dry in the morning. As I strain to see in the darkness, I notice that streetlights and porch lights are being reflected in the roadway -- and the reflections stretch as far as I can see. The road is completely flooded. We are either going to get soaked, or we'll have to head back out on the highway. Given that my mittened fingers are already numb from the cold, adding cold, wet feet to the equation doesn't seem like a good idea. I suggest to Dave that we head back to the highway. We follow the other runners back to the main road and spend the next two and a half miles dodging traffic, doing an awful lot of walking, and getting awfully cold.

As we approach the streetlight that we hope indicates our turn (for real!) off the main highway, Dave suggests that "we should probably stop at a gas station to get some coffee and warm up. We're pretty cold." Actually I have finally warmed up, but clearly Dave is getting cold, so I agree. We reach the streetlight, and we see a gas station, along with a course marker -- we're back on the official route, and it's dry and there's little traffic! We head into the gas station where the attendant greets us as if he's seen a lot of skinny aliens like us this evening. Dave buys coffee, uses the restroom, and we both warm up. There's only about 23 miles to go from here!

As we head back on the highway we're greeted by another runner. "Is this the right way?" she asks.

"Yep," I say.

"I ran the whole way through the water," she says. I recognize her as a runner who had been well ahead of us, so I'm confident that running—or should I say, walking—on the highway was the right decision. She soon passes us, but clearly the water has taken a major toll on her.

For the next 10 miles we keep run-walking at roughly a 15-minute pace, easily on target for Dave's 24-hour goal. Dave tells me that he's basically running until his stomach gets too upset to continue. Then he recovers during the walk, and starts it over again.

As 2 am approaches, we remember that tonight is going to be Daylight Saving Time. We wonder if our Garmins will automatically adjust for the time change. Sure enough, I watch my Garmin shift from 1:59 to 3:00 am! We keep going.

I'm starting to notice that I'm developing a hot spot on the bottom of my right foot. A blister at this point, with over 10 miles left, would not be pleasant. At the next water stop I remove my shoe and check it out; actually it doesn't look bad, so I add Body Glide and change socks, figuring this will help.

A few miles later, I find that it hasn't helped at all. The new sock seems rougher on my foot -- either because it really is rougher or the blister is just getting worse.

At Mile 98, we pass by the finish line (!). A race official tells us we have to run to the "end of the road," where there will be a cone. We'll run around the cone, then come back to this point, and at that point, we'll finally be finished.

"How far is that," Dave asks.

"Two miles" is the reply. Four miles added to the 34 I'd already run would be 38 miles, or 12 miles farther than I've ever gone in a single run.

It briefly occurs to me that I could just stop now. Surely Dave could handle these last four miles on his own, I'd still have a PR run, and it would be a lot easier on my feet. But the I decide that if Dave can do 100 miles, I can suffer through four more. We continue on.

The road winds on and on, and we see lots of runners coming back in our direction. When will this road end? Finally we reach a bank of sand-dunes, and the promised cone, completely unattended. Although we could easily save a hundred yards and turn around early, we dutifully run all the way around the cone and head back home. By now my blister has become so sore that walking is actually more painful than running. I figure out a way to jog along at Dave's walking pace when he takes walk-breaks.

Finally we see the finish line again in the distance. I let Dave cross the line alone. He's not only broken 24 hours, he's run the race in under 23 hours! Here he is getting his well-earned silver buckle:

Still looking like an alien—but a happy alien!

Moments later, we are all in the van, heading back to the hotel, where we had reserved a room for a 5-hour nap from 5:30 am to checkout. Dave is asleep before we leave the parking lot.

Since I completed a 38-mile run, Chad has declared that I'm officially an ultrarunner, and gave me a really cool shirt from our local ultrarunning group, the League of Ultra-Running Enthusiasts, or LURE.

Want one? You gotta run 31-plus miles first!

I'm not sure I'm a true ultrarunner since I still haven't raced an ultra, and I'm not sure I want to. I've still got a lot of marathon- and shorter-length racing that I want to do. But I do like the idea of participating in a race where just getting to the finish is the primary goal. Maybe I'll try some really intense ultra where it's more of an adventure than just a matter of staying on your feet for 8-plus hours.

Given how beat-up my feet were after just 38 miles and 10 hours of running, I'm truly astonished at the ability of runners like Dave to keep it going for over 20 hours and nearly three times the mileage. What an accomplishment!


  1. I was pacing with the runner you saw emerging from the flooded streets, and it really did take it's toll. His mental state was completely altered after it. I wish we had come to the road sooner, but thanks for providing the advice once we got there--we hadn't heard anything about the race directors advocating use of the highway (and it certainly was dangerous), so we would have been unsure about its use without others to follow.

    A huge congratulations to both you and your friend Dave! Running not only 38 miles, but 13 farther than planned and 10+ on blistered feet is a GREAT accomplishment - I'm glad you were able to help push your friend to a great finish!

  2. Wow you are incredible...sticking with him for the last few miles is a true, true friend! Congratulations- what an awesome accomplishment!