Umstead State Park is an amazing place to run so it’s no surprise that the Umstead 100 is one of the most well-regarded ultra races in the country. For years, I’ve wanted to be involved with this race without actually doing it.
I had the opportunity several years ago when my trainer, Chris, ran this race. Chris hasn’t run even 200 yards since then, but I’m so proud of him for doing this race. When he announced his Umstead 100 plan, I promptly told him I was going to be his pacer. Race participants may use a pacer for the 2nd half of the race – the last 4 laps of the 12.5 mile course. I was one of 4 pacers Chris had arranged, but because one dropped out at the last minute, I gladly picked up the extra shift.
I claimed the 2 am time slot so because I wanted to know what it was like to wonder around on a dark trail at that hour. Turns out, it was pretty amazing!
At times, it was just Chris and I on the trail, but other times, we struck up conversations with other race participants. We met some interesting people, including some who run many 100 and even 200 mile (!!!) races. Many had overcome extremely adverse events in their lives and viewed this race as a tribute to their strength (think “I get to run” instead of “I have to run”). During our hours together, there were times Chris wanted to chat, and times when he was silent – I followed his lead. I spent a fair amount of time encouraging him and helping to break down the remaining miles into smaller, attainable chunks (just focus on that tree, let’s just get to that tree). Fortunately, Chris and I had discussions prior to the race about how much I should push him – even if things got ugly.
Pacers get to witness some remarkable perseverance. I’ve also seen some runners hallucinating (“oh, what pretty purple flowers” – no flowers, just rocks) and others who the medical staff forced to nap for 15 minutes before resuming the race.
One of the most surreal parts of the race is in the middle of the night, coming from the completely dark Turkey Creek trail toward Ebenezer Church Road toward Aid Station #2. It’s what I imagine coming up on a random spaceship would be like. The lights are so bright, and what a smorgasbord! They have any kind of food you could have wanted – soup, pizza, burgers, fried chicken, candy, fruit – anything – along with an assortment of pain medications and fluids – Gatorade, Coke – you name it!
Chris and I passed right through it both times, instead opting for the PB&J (like the 12th one) he brought, and I took my Gu chomps, so I completely missed out on this amazing buffet. In the years since, my runners have stopped to graze at this aid station – and I gladly joined them. I mean, who wouldn’t want a pocket full of Reese’s Pieces for the road in the middle of the night?? You’ve gotta get your runner through their 12.5 mile loop and you can’t do that on an empty stomach, am I right??
Chris had developed major blisters on his feet and was walking instead of running – as were most people. Each of my runners since then have alternated running (and by running, I mean shuffling) and walking. If you’re wondering if you can pace in a 100 mile race – you can! You won’t be moving fast.
I know few people as crazy as Chris who want to do this race, so I have signed up as a volunteer pacer each year since. As a volunteer, you can pick a gift from the race gift shop, you meet other volunteers through some planned training runs, you meet some amazing people, and its just all around a great experience! The only downside of volunteer pacing is that you may have to wait a while to get paired with a runner. Last year, I waited for nearly an hour (and it was snowing, so I wouldn’t have been disappointed if I was sent home) before being paired with an Army pilot from Alaska.
Helping my runners stay focused and moving forward and to the finish line – a BHAG that they’ve all worked so hard toward – is incredibly rewarding.
If you want to pace a runner (aka spend 3-4 hours alone in the woods with a stranger at night), here are a few tips:
1) Stay positive! Don’t be over the top positive, but your runner will be fighting through something, so it’s your job to help them through it, whatever it might be.
2) Keep your runner moving forward all the time – even if it’s walking. And don’t let them go anywhere – even the bathroom – alone (follow them!!).
3) Talk to your runner about their goals when you pick them up. How are they feeling, anything bothering them, are they nauseous, etc? Do a quick assessment of their mental state as well. You’re about to take this person into the woods for several hours, so it’s prudent to know what you’re dealing with.
4) Before heading out on the trail, make sure your runner has clean, dry socks, sports bra, and a fresh coat of body glide, etc. Ask them if they’ve done this.
5) Carry a camelback with water, a tube of vaseline, bandaids, advil, some extra Gus, hard candy, batteries – you never know what your runner might need!
6) Dress warm. It’s cold in the woods at night, and you won’t be moving very fast!
7) Don’t be surprised when you’re sore the next day – even if you’re in good shape. First of all, you’ll spend plenty of time on Turkey Creek trail. Second, you’re walking most of it and therefore using different muscles than you do hiking.
8) Eat the pancakes at race HQ when you’re finished. They will be the best Aunt Jemima pancakes you’ll ever eat
If you’re not up for pacing a runner on the 12.5 mile loop, you can still volunteer at this race. My friend, Ashely, often volunteers at an aid station, but there are plenty of other opportunities based on your interest and availability. Join me this year and see for yourself why this race is so special!