Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ribbon of Asphalt and Sand: 2013 Graveyard 100 Race Report

"The sea was angry that day, my friend; like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli" -- George Costanza

Friday evening before race day, I pulled up to the pier house behind the Hilton in Kitty Hawk to turn over my drop bags and catch the mandatory prerace briefing.   The sky had been clear on the drive over and the weather forecast for the weekend looked promising.  So it was a bit of a shock to step out on to the beach into the full force of the wind.   A chaotic surf pounded away at the pier.  Whitecaps were visible miles from the shore.   Gathered with other runners inside the pier house, I could feel the wooden framework rocking and swaying underfoot like a tethered boat about to snap free.

Although the weather system behind all this activity had struck far to the north, its back-end produced coastal surges that flooded and reshaped roads along the 100-mile route.  Race Director Brandon Wilson informed us that there was about a 50/50 chance that instead of running straight to Hatteras Lighthouse supported by a tailwind all the way, we would be turning back before the bridge to face 50 miles of headwinds.

In any case, we wouldn't have an answer, one way or the other, until about 9AM--4 hours into the race.

With this sobering uncertainty, I headed back to my hotel in Corolla for more last minute fussing with my gear, half an hour of "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" on the Food Network (food porn for a vegan non-cable-subscriber like myself), and a few fitful hours of sleep.

Cold Morning and Bright Stars: Currituck Heritage Park to Kitty Hawk

Out of my room in time to catch the 3:30 AM shuttle out to the park, I grabbed a few of the bagged breakfasts-to-go the Hampton Inn had prepared for race participants.  This wouldn't be the last instance of Outer Banks hospitality I was to experience.  Although the 2013 race was just its second annual iteration, the Gravestone 100 seems to have been adopted by residents as their own.  I see a mid-Atlantic ultramarathon tradition in the making.

Among the folks with whom I shared my early shuttle ride was a West Point Cadet who had come into town late the previous evening.  Not only was he running uncrewed, but had brought no drop bags.  Everything he needed had been meticulously placed into a tightly fitted Solomon pack.  "Keep it simple," he said.   I didn't mention my own five overly stuffed drop bags.  Later that day, I would come to appreciate the wisdom of his approach.

The start was typical ultra low key stuff.  We sang the national anthem (some of us more in key than others) then ambled off into the dark morning.  The Currituck Lighthouse sent a few long slow flashes through the trees before we hit the road and headed south under a sky of stars which, for someone who lives ten minutes from the DC beltway, were jaw-droppingly bright.  Not since my 2007 trip to Australia had I seen the dramatic shape of Scorpius so clearly and completely, undimmed by the perpetual glow on our southern horizon here in the Maryland suburbs of DC.

Corolla went by quickly in the cool dark moring.  When the sun came up, I took off my jacket, stowed the headlamp, donned my sunglasses.   Setting a pattern for most of the rest of the day, I was alternately too hot or too cold--and sometimes both at the same time.

As always, this was the chattiest portion of the race.  There seemed to be a surprising number of "first timers" at this race, more than I have met in other hundred milers.  Among them was Drew Coombes, one of a contingent of runners from Wilmington.  A little further on, I ran for a bit with Jordan Dornan, a triathalete from Colorado, who was also running his first hundred, along with his father, an experienced ultramarathoner, and his brother.   (Checking the results a little later, I saw that Jordan and his father finished together!)

AS 1 to AS2: Kitty Hawk to Nags Head

Check the route of the Graveyard 100 on Google or Mapquest, and the fat highlighted line of road makes it look as if you're running across the sea.   As in truth you are.  Despite the illusion of mainland normality created by touristy shops, hotels, restaurants, and endless beachhouses, the Outer Banks has many ways to remind those who live here that they are surrounded by sea.  Runners were appraised of this fact soon after leaving Aid Station 1.

Parts of the road through Kitty Hawk had become essentially a sand dune, interspersed with small ponds and an occasional runnable stretch of pavement.  The photo gives you some sense of what we faced.  Sucking dark sand lay thickly around the edges of the water.  I found myself at one point crawling desperately up the side of a sandbar to get to a more runnable surface at the top.

In the end, I found the best strategy was to accept getting wet and run straight through the little road lakes.   I could deal with blisters or wet clothes later.

Although the road cleared up in Nags Head, these conditions did not auger well for our continuing on to Hatteras.   So I was not surprised when somewhere around mid-morning, another runner informed me (with what sounded like grim satisfaction, I thought) that we would be turning around before the Hatteras Bridge.  It was to be headwinds, then, and the "alternate course"--whatever that meant--on the second half.

Into the Wind: Nags Head to Bodie and Back Again

After spending an inordinately long time dawdling about in Aid Station 3 (it was very hard not to linger, since the stations in this race are so few and far apart), I got on the road again.  With its wind-swept dunes, this inaugural section of the Hatteras National Seashore was my favorite part of the course.  I was sorry to have to miss most of this section.   We ran to within sight of Hatteras Bridge, but no further.

Among the runners I'd been running off and on with during this first half of the race was Kelly Wells, from South Carolina.   I'd always know when I was coming up on her, because like me she had the Ultraspire Revolution Pack (unlike me, however, she has mastered the leaky top on their oddly shaped water bottle).  Kelly reached the turnaround at 47 miles, several minutes before me, and was taking off just as I arrived.  That would be the last time I saw her.  Although I was no slouch on the second half, her second fifty was incredible.  Kelly finished under 19 hours and second among women--and most likely would have been first, too, had she not managed to talk the amazing Connie Gardner (American record-holder for most miles run in 24 hours) to enter the race.

Turning back into the wind was every bit as hard as I expected.  The thought of battling these headwinds for more than 50 miles was a tad demoralizing.  Oddly enough though, the enforced slowness soon made me feel a bit a better, and seemed to settle my stomach, which had gone a bit queasy between 30 to 40 miles.

After several miles of head-down running through the wind tunnel, we detoured for the first of two Brandon's two "extras" on this alternate course.    The side trip out to Bodie Island Lighthouse was a pleasant respite, sheltered most of the way by pine forest.   During this quite stretch of road, I fell in with Andrei Nana of Florida.  Andrei seemed to know everyone.  He chatted away about having dinner with Mike Morton, and various other elite or sub-elite runners I probably ought to know, but don't.  He also entertained me with details about the tradition and formality of the Spartathalon, an annual race of over 150 miles from Athens to Sparta.

Aid Stations 3 to 4: Luck of the Idiot

After spending distressingly long periods of time rummaging through my overstuffed drop bag, changing shoes, and fueling up, I was off for part 3 of this adventure.  Brandon had warned us the passage from AS3 to 4 would be the toughest.  It was, although not entirely for the same reasons as 2012.   Rather than running the the windswept lonely stretches of Hatteras Island, we would make our way back through Nags Head and Kitty Hawk--right back into the sand-bogs we passed through earlier in the day.

Now, however, the high tide had rendered these roads worse than ever, and in many places impassable.   And now it was dark, and now we were tired, having run more than 60 miles.  Large sand- (rather than snow-) ploughs patrolled the beachside road, rerouting cars, and runners, to side roads or, for portions, the side of the highway.

I wasn't thrilled about running against traffic in the dark, but fortunately the busiest road had a wide grassy shoulder.  I followed what urban planners call "desire lines"--paths of convenience formed by walkers--snaking along the road from shop to shop and gas station to gas station.   In this ultra on the asphalt, I got in some trail running after all, albeit strewn with cigarette butts and trash rather than rocks and tree roots.   The trail goes everywhere, I guess.

As a consequence of running off track, however, I missed more than one water stop, and at around 75 miles (by my best guess) found myself drinking the last of my water.  I didn't know how far off AS4 was, and was afraid I might miss it.   As I stared stupidly at my empty bottle, I heard a gruff voice from overhead asking whether I wanted water.  God??  I looked up and saw a couple on their deck, watching the runners tottering by down below.  Their daughter brought out some water and filled my bottle.   Once again I was impressed with Outer Banks hospitality.

Perhaps a half a mile on, I pulled into a gas station and met some race volunteers, who pointed me in the right direction.  They also told me to look out for the stoplight that marked the Fire Station; because I ended up approaching along a different road than I had come, I surely would have missed AS4 without this vital clue.

Magic Night...and Magical Thinking: Mile 78.5 to 95 miles

At AS4, we learned we were at 78.5 miles.  Heading out, I experienced one of those mysteries of the ultra.  I felt better at 80 miles, somehow, than I had at 30.  Although my watch does nothing fancier than tell the time of day, I feel sure that my pace through this stretch of the course--the town of Duck at night--was faster than it had been the previous morning.  One guy I passed asked if I was in the 100K; I thought he seemed just a little dismayed when I said no, I was running the 100 miler.

It was then the magical thinking took hold.

As so often seems to happen, the good periods contain the seeds of their own unravelling.   Unable or unwilling to do the math, I put out of my mind an obvious fact: simply running to Currituck Park would not get me to 100 miles.  Almost certainly, Brandon was hiding some sort of "extra" run up his sleeve.  But I didn't want to think about that.

I was like a drunk convinced he has superhuman powers.  I persuaded myself that I had now run beyond the ordinary need for food or water.   I could just cruise through to the end, feeling as good as I did that moment.  My gut conspired with these addled thoughts: the very idea of solid food--or even worse, gels--had become nauseating.

Endgame and Aftermath

Reality returned in the form of a gaggle of lights and voices, an idling car motor, and a makeshift finish chute of cones set up along the side of the road near the entrance to Currituck Park.  Brandon came out to deliver the news.  This was the finish, but not for me, not just yet.  I still had to run "about 2 miles" up to the beachhead, around a cone, then back.

None of this should have been surprising, but I felt utterly and suddenly deflated.  The way out went well enough, although I had to walk a bit up the hill, but on the way back, I starting coming apart.  Although going downhill, and with the finish a mere mile away, and with the 20-hour barrier within reach...I walked.  I was done, spent, didn't care.  I staggered in at about 1 minute past the 20 hour mark.

You are treated really well at the end, especially as an uncrewed runner.  There was a warm room, a bed to lie down and--if I had been in any condition to condition to take it--food and drink.  Heather Wilson, Brandon's wife and the Assistant Director for this event, took wonderful care of us, particularly those like myself who were running uncrewed.

I shared my "hospital room" with Rrick Karampatsos, at 68 the oldest runner in the race--and like many others that day, attempting his first 100 miler.  Terrible muscle cramps had caused Rrick to drop out, and as we runners tend to do, he was beating himself up over this.  But he certainly wasn't alone.  In the end, something like a third of the runners dropped.  The Graveyard 100 *might* be a good race for the first-time 100-miler, but as we were duly warned, "anything can happen" in early March on the Outer Banks.

A Sickly Sweet Odor

Back in the hotel, I noticed a strange smell coming from my tights, shirt, sweatshirt--from seemingly anything I had touched at the end of race.  This was not the usual funky running smell, but something more like rotting fruit, perhaps with a trace of fishiness.  And it seemed to be inside me, in my breath as well.   Really, really not good.

I had a hunch what it might be, though, and after some Internet searching for similar experiences on turned up my answer.  I was smelling the unmistakable result of ketosis--in the words of Karl King, a metabolic state of fat-burning associated with "profoundly low carbohydrate availability."

By way of antidote, I spent Sunday devouring a 16" large pizza (from Pizza Pizazz in Duck: highly recommended), two enormous pieces of key lime pie, several candy bars, and a variety of high-calorie snacks.  After this binge, and a couple of showers, the smell was gone (from me, although not from my clothes, which required a heavy wash when I got home).

What Worked:

  • Switching off to the Hoka Evo Stinstons at 57 miles.  As a minimalist runner, I've been skeptical of the Hokas, but have to admit: they were amazing.  If I knew how much they would help on the endless road miles, I would have switched into them at the first aid station.
  • Steady electrolytes and steady (but not excessive) water throughout the race.  I did very well managing fluids and elecrolytes.  I can't say there were no periods of queasy stomach or nausea, but these were far more manageable and minor than I've experienced in the last several ultras.
What Didn't:
  • My overstuffed, overwrought, overthought drop bags.  If I do this race again, it will be with a little larger pack, a little more self-sufficient, rather than relying on overfull drop bags.
  • My nutrition strategy for the last 20 miles.  Trying to just "cruise it in" on fat stores for the last 20 was not smart (and turned out to be rather smelly).  Solid food just seemed out of the question, and gels left me wretching, however.  Since I have more luck with liquid calories, for my next ultra, I'm planning to try the "Tailwind" product (noted in the commentary on AJW's Irunfar column on "Dreaded Stomach Issues").