Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lost in the Graveyard: Race Report on the 2014 Graveyard 100

Road to Hatteras

Roiling surf the Friday before race day seemed to auger a repeat of last year's event.   In the 2013, second annual, running of the Graveyard 100, coastal flooding forced a reroute, turning runners back just at the threshhold of Hatteras for a return trip to Corolla.

Conditions seemed worse this year.  Steady winds pushed a lashing cold rain in from the north and east.   Little hurricanos formed in random gusts.  The thought of running in this was appalling.  I struggled just to walk from my car to the hotel lobby.

But weather reports assured us Saturday would be different.  Race director Brandon Wilson sounded confident at the 3PM briefing (one of two provided on Friday), giving us a 95% chance of safe crossing into Hatteras.   I had run the out-and-back alternate before and felt comfortable with either outcome.

I was intensely curious to cross the bridge into Hatteras and I fell asleep that night hoping I'd have a chance to experience the "true" point-to-point journey.

Careful what you wish for, I might have reminded myself.

Currituck to Bonner Bridge

Skies had cleared by the 5AM starting time.  We began as we did last year, on a cold morning in Currituck Park under a slew of stars.   Jupiter in Gemini glowed steadily white.  Blood-red Antares boiled in the southern sky.  Cold light seemed to blow about in the wind around us.

Then we were moving.  The usual emotions of release, unreality, even hilarity.  The first hours, as always, were full of multiple adjustments, little annoyances, calls of nature.  Too warm one moment, too cold the next.  Hydration pack too tight or too loose.   I helped another runner with his cap, which had flopped off and dangling off the back of his pack.

Coming out of Corolla, we ran through first through the shadow of enormous hedges, dividing sea and sound.  I thought of the Great Hedge marking the outer frontier of the Shire in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.   Once past the hedge, it felt as if we were well and truly underway.

And then the sun was up.  We ran through dune-swell, golden brown grasses.

Into the town of Duck, then onward towards Kitty Hawk.  I won't say the first 20 miles were uneventful.  But they were pleasant, clicking along like clockwork, almost without my noticing their passing.

I was keeping to my plan: run 10 minutes, walk 30 seconds.   Keep to a heartrate of 130 (roughly 75% of max for me).   Easy.  

I should have said, and would learn by the end of the day: not easy enough.

Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, and Beyond the Bridge

Between Aid Station 1 and Aid Station 2, I remained way ahead of where (in retrospect) I should have been, but for now, the pace felt comfortable, manageable, and I still felt I was reining myself in rather than pushing.

The commercial strips of Kitty Hawk and Nags Head were mentally wearying.  In the self-similarilty of the strip, there seemed to be endless variations on the same theme: hotels like the "Cavalier Motel," with a 17th Century English pirate, or restaurants with names like "the Froggy Dog."

Absurdly, I felt moments of panic that I was going in a circle.  But there was the ocean on my left.  The sun in the south.  No possible way to be lost here, right?

(Photo courtesy of Outer Banks Connection)

Now I was closing in on 50 miles.   I texted Kathy, my wife: "feeling fine."

Running over the spectacular, if pedestrian-unfriendly, Bonner Bridge is one of the highlights of the point-to-point Graveyard 100 journey.  From Bodie Island and the Oregon Inlet, you run up over a magnificent panorama--scenic stretches of marshes, the Oregon Inlet, and Pamlico Sound.  At the end of the 2.7 mile bridge, there is the only true hill on this course, a whale-back "hump" that cuts off your vision and makes it seem you are running into a blue void.

An Experiment of One

After a successful 50k last December in which I kept up a steady pace of 150 bpm minutes (or 85% of max pulse rate), I figured that I could maintain, at best, 130 bpm (or 75% of max). Figuring that 150 works for 50k, then 140 should work for 50 miles, and 130 (or 75%) for a hundred miles.  Or something like that.

Another beautiful theory slain by ugly facts.

The problem with being an "experiment of one" is that negative results can really hurt.

What I discovered, in retrospect, was my ideal pace for 100km (62 mile).   Some time after I crossed Bonner Bridge (I'm finding it impossible to recall now: 1 hour?  3 hours?)  Mike Bailey pulled up along side the road to inform me that I would see a town, then would have another 1.5 miles to the aid station.

I couldn't at that point see any town.  Just sand and sky.  Dunes going everywhere, including right across the road.   I was alone on the road.   Although I could see far, I couldn't see another runner ahead or behind me.

Again, the powerful sensation of being lost.  But reminding myself: that's impossible, there's the ocean on your left, just keep going.

Hatteras at night

Aid station 3 seemed to take forever to arrive, and, once there, I was loathe to leave.  But having topped off my fluids, ingested a little broth, I had little reason to hang around.  I staggered a bit getting back on to the road.  Sudden sense of fatigue, in the form of intense drowsiness.

Ahead lay essentially a marathon until the final aid station, at mile 87.  Nothing for it but to continue: I took a caffeine pill and started in.

Triggering my drowsiness, no doubt, was the gathering darkness, the falling temperatures.    I was dressed warmly enough, however.  And the cooler temperatures mitigated some unpleasant, though manageable, stomach issues I'd been having.   Darkness, though, has funny effects on the fatigued brain.

No actual hallucinations for me this time, but my brain had become a Doctor Whovian TARDIS generating strange alterations of time and space.   Distances compressed and stretched, as did time.  Ten minutes would drag by, then an hour would vanish with no trace on the memory.

Beacon at Mile 87

The next 20 miles are a bit of a blur.  I kept to my 10 minute increments, and stayed in the moment, kept up nutrition and hydration fairly well--but any pretense of keeping my pace was abandoned.   I had in fact torn off the heart-rate strap in disgust and stuffed it in my pack.   I did what I could to maintain cadence, but my pace was radically slower.

With several miles to go to the final aid station at mile 87, the myopia of night running--you and your little bubble of light, your world reduced to ten-foot circle--was periodically broken by the big looping beam from the lighthouse.  The light swept across the treeline in great circles.

After an interminable approach, I was there, at last, under the tent and eating and drinking.  Eating what, I scarcely recall.   While my final dropbag was equipped with shoes and other gear, I declined to have it brought out and told them to just send it on to the finish.

(Photo credit:  Amaury Laporte,

Lost in the Graveyard of the Atlantic

I ran out of the final aid station with just a half marathon to cover until the finish.

It was all I could do to could keep one simple rule in my head: when in doubt on this course, stay to the left.  Keep the ocean on your left, stay to the left.  All true enough: the road out of the lighthouse does take a left on the main road to the final half marathon.  But just before that left, there's another wee turn in the road.  A right.   I went left.

Several miles later found myself in a cul de sac, facing a dirt road and clearly in the wrong place.

It should have been a devastating feeling to be lost at this stage.  But I felt oddly detatched.  Oh, I'm lost.  I've just run almost 90 miles,  am exhausted, disoriented, and lost.  It seemed amusing.  I even smiled and shook my head.

I turned, tentatively made my way back.   Then I saw a headlight bobbing just ahead.  It was another runner, heading in the direction I just came from--as I learned later, Tim Scott, from Virginia.   Tim told me I was on the right path, must have just missed a turn.  

That didn't sound quite right to me, but I couldn't seem to form a complete thought.  I was stupidly relieved just to follow someone else's lead.

A couple of miles on, we found ourselves stuck in the same cul de sac.  I had gotten lost twice.  The impossible had happened: on the Outer Banks, I had gone in a circle.  We both took out our phones and noodled about on the map, puzzled at what it seemed to be telling us.

We headed back and, finally, saw the little road where we should have taken a right rather than a left.   A little more running, and we were back on the main road.

I had added perhaps 4 or 5 miles to the 102 mile course, for a total of around 106 to 107 miles.  Some consolation, I suppose, in knowing I had run further than I ever have before.


Graveyard 100 has forged a unique identity in the landscape of mid-Atlantic ultras.  Rather than the confined perspectives of trees, rocks, and technical trail, there are the sea, the sky and the open road.   Rather than loops and the comfort of regular aid, there is a point to point course, a true journey.  

Riding back in the shuttle from Hatteras strengthened this impression.  The experience was humbling.  A two-hour drive, looking out the window at the road unspooling in the moonlight, marvelling at the distance we had covered.

The race does this to us finally, if we've been paying attention.   Most of us live our lives out in a bubble of technology that "annihilates" distance and time.  For the time we give ourselves over to running 100 miles on the ribbon of asphalt and sand that make up the Outer Banks, one night and one day are restored to their primeval enormity.  They round out, in themselves, a single, complete little lifetime.

Perhaps that's why we run ultras, over and over again.  For more--more time, more space.  More life.