Sunday, March 4, 2012

Umstead Marathon 2012: View From the Sideline

This was my second year volunteering at the Umstead Marathon. I have never run the event, but it is on my bucket list of races I need to do someday.

I was at the Reedy Creek aid station (miles 4, 9, 21, and 24) this year, which meant I was able to watch the race unfold nearly from start to finish, which turned out to be interesting on this particular day. Getting water/gatorade to 150+ runners on a deceptively humid day was my main job and that kept me pretty busy, so I didn't get many pictures.

With the potential for some torrential rain, I had no idea how to dress for standing outside; first I was burning up and my jacket was off, then it started raining and the temperature dropped a few degrees, so I put my jacket back on and another layer... and was still cold. If the weather was messing with me, I'm sure it was far worse for the runners thrashing their quads on the rolling hills of Turkey Creek...

improvising the park signs as coat hangers... these were all back on soon

At our first set up at mile 4, we eagerly awaited the first runner, who turned out to be David Nash of Chapel Hill... and he was flying. No one else was even close, with the second guy coming a few minutes later, followed by a wave of other solid local runners, including fellow Godivans and Wednesday track training partners Ken Becker and Ronnie Weed.

a few of the lead runners coming through mile 4


Nash had built an even more significant lead coming up the hill at Greylyn at 9. I think I had him crossing around this point around 9:57 AM, or probably about 6:15-6:20 mile pace assuming the race started on time. I could be wrong, but I'm not sure he grabbed a drink at either the 4 or 9 mile stop (did I mention it was humid?). By this point, a solid top 8 had emerged, and then a 'no man's land' which is where I likely would have found myself eventually had I 1) actually signed up for the race, 2) not gotten injured, and 3) given the race a solid effort. Lots of hypotheticals there, so wasn't worth dwelling on too much.

Bart Bechard coming up Greylyn at mile 9
Bart finished 5th overall and was top men's masters finisher, edging Ken Becker

We moved 200 yards up the trail to Cedar Ridge to set up at the top of the 'black hole'. Only a sadistic mind could decide to put these 3 miles in toward the end of a course like this. These are the types of sections that can make or break a race for a runner shooting for a certain goal, with a steep downhill and then a 180 degree turnaround that goes up the same hill. Most veterans of the course entered the 21 mile mark with a sense of impending doom and resignation, but most runners exited with a sense of quiet confidence, knowing the worst was surely behind them. One woman questioned why she had to run this 3 mile stretch and why she couldn't just DNF at this aid station, but we convinced her to give it a try. Ultimately the explanation that she wouldn't get her pint glass was enough to win her over. Thankfully she did not kill us upon exiting. In fact, only one runner DNF'd at 21.

It took the leader a little longer than expected to hit the 21 mark, and he wasn't looking too great. He shuffled through the water stop and grabbed a coke and then headed down into the abyss. 8 minutes passed before the 2nd guy in the black singlet (Mark Manz) came through. He was looking much stronger at this point and we all quickly did the math in our heads on when or if he would take the lead. The general prediction was that the leader would probably hang on and win unless he completely fell apart. 8 minutes was a lot of ground to make up in just 5 miles.

But this was Umstead... and sure enough it was the runner in the black singlet who came out of Cedar Ridge first, smiling ear to ear and incredibly picking up his pace coming out of the hill. 2 minutes passed before David came back through, which meant that Mark put 10 minutes on him over those 3 miles. Looking at the final results, he ended up at 3:00:36 or a 10 minute victory.

The times were overall quite a bit slower this year. Last year there were a few guys under 3 hours, but only 8 cracked 3:25 today.

Quite a few runners in the mid-back of the pack had mentioned this was their first marathon, and I couldn't imagine choosing Umstead to be a first, just because of the difficulty of the course, but it is a great/unique race for many reasons that I'm sure have been thoroughly reported by the blogging masses:

1) It is a small, well organized race and the flagship race of the Carolina Godiva club. The folks who put on Umstead have run many races and know what it takes to put on a top notch event. Thanks to Karen Murphy for helping coordinate the aid stations, which also included running Moe's burritos down to each station. My stomach thanked you immensely. Thanks to countless others who helped us set up and monitor the course. Volunteering at a poorly organized event can be a train wreck; this was a well oiled machine.

2) In Chinese zodiac fashion, each year has a unique animal mascot native to the park, with this year being the 'year of the bat'. The top 15 in each gender receive a wooden award featuring the animal of the year. Unlike the zodiac, I'm sure the clever individuals will try to come up with a new animal each year rather than repeat after 12. By 2025 hopefully some new species will have migrated to NC, or else the race directors may be coming up with some 'creative' solutions (reports of fictitious koala sightings in Umstead Park? But who would really argue with the Year of the Koala?)

3) Along those lines, Umstead has great race shirts and pint glasses for finishers that feature the animal of the year.

I would usually have a policy against wearing shirts for races I don't actually run (much like a concert I never attended), but these are too great to pass up. I was glad to see the electric blue, which is the 'right shade' of blue for me. Too bad my Devils couldn't show up against the team in the other shade of blue last night...

Will this shirt supplant the neon green Year of the 8-Legged Tick...?

4) The first weekend of March is effectively the end of winter here in NC, and beginning of spring. If anything, Umstead weekend is now a reminder to me that spring is around the corner, but it is also nice just to be out in the park in winter and see the dramatic terrain of the forest beds, which are generally obscured in the summer months. It was a quiet day today in the park other than the marathon, which is so unobtrusive that someone could probably visit another part of Umstead the day of the race and not have any awareness that such an event was taking place.

It's been one thing after another for me this winter keeping me from training -- first my foot, then my knee (from biking too much too soon)... but I think I'm on the road to recovery. I've been slack this week, and haven't had much time for training as work seems to get busier each week. Being out today and watching all the runners (particularly the people just coming through before the cut off) gave me new inspiration to make the time to gear up for a good fall marathon race, hopefully something small, but on a faster course than Umstead.

I hope to also be back next year, in pursuit of a wooden animal of some variety (a fox, an opposum, a coyote, a wombat?). But if I don't make it as a runner, I will certainly as a volunteer. Volunteering has given me a new appreciation for all the work that goes into an event, that I won't take for granted anymore.

Last year, "King of Limbs" came out around this time of year. It is great background music for a walk or drive through Umstead Park just as winter is transitioning to spring.


  1. Great post! I've wondered what sort of experience volunteering at Umstead might be.

  2. Hey Brian! I loved reading this! It sounds like an amazing marathon, and I laughed out loud when you described the woman wanting to DNF at 21 rather than run what sounds like a brutal 21-24. I laughed because I've totally been that woman, and I wish there had been a pint glass to motivate me through it - that argument would have worked on me! I'm now daydreaming of going to run this one :-)