2014 Graveyard 100

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The Graveyard 100, taken by Frank Lilley, used with permission.

With the kinder, gentler weather in 2014, the graveyard 100 went well for me. I started at a gentle pace, and was in 10th place by the first aid station at mile 21. By this point I knew that two of the top runners in the race were way ahead of me, so I continued on at a conservative pace. By the second aid station at mile 42, I was in fifth place and feeling strong, but the leader was now nearly an hour ahead. What the half-way point my pace started to slow a little and while I was feeling strong, I didn't have the ability to speed up. The second half of the race is generally made up of long, featureless, barren and inhospitable stretches of straight road. I generally love the solitude of ultrarunning, but these sections will mentally corrosive and deeply lonely. In many ways this part of the race was remarkably like treadmill running, with no sense of progress or change. I was still in fifth place at the fourth aid station, but I unknowingly passed the fourth-place male, Jan-Erick Olson, in the fifth aid station at Cape Hatteras lighthouse. I learned later that he was hypothermic, though I don't know if this was because he'd slowed up and become chilled, or if he'd overdressed, becoming chilled when he sweated through the extra clothing. I passed the lead female, Connie Gardner, in the last few miles. I finished in fourth place in 16:48:30, which was okay, though I was two hours behind the winner!

1 What Worked and What Failed

As always, I like to document the successes and failures of each major race. This time around I am combining the successes and failures into a single list, as there were no major problems, just a few caveats to the successes.

  • Pace. Overall I think I paced the race reasonably well, and finished strong. The first third of the race was run at an effortless pace; almost of the same effort level is sitting on the couch. It is possible that a more aggressive start would have given me a better overall time, but it's also possible that it would have cause a meltdown and a much poorer time.
  • Fuel. For this race I used Ensure Plus as my primary source of calories rather than my usual Go Juice. This was partly to experiment with a higher fat intake, and partly to reduce the stress on my wife who was crewing. Mixing the drinks is a real pain for the crew, and the Ensure Plus seemed to work quite well. I ended up drinking more than I expected, getting through 16 bottles, which gave me 5,600 Calories, 176g fat, 800g carbs, and 208g protein. The Ensure Plus remained palatable right to the end, and I might have had more of them if I brought a sufficient supply. Other than the Ensure Plus, I had a couple of soft, chewy cookies, but nothing else solid. I did fill a cup with Coke at aid station 3 (65 miles) and found myself cradling the bottle like a mother with a newborn baby, repeated filling and emptying the cup until I'd consumed a good portion of the 2 liters.
  • Fluid. I drank nearly 2 gallons of my DIY Electrolyte Drink, and this kept the well hydrated.
  • Morton Stretch. The Morton Stretch worked amazingly well, and every time I did it, I felt stronger and smoother afterwards. The effects seemed to last for 30-60 minutes before I could feel the soreness and tightness return, though this is such a slow change and things are degrading as the race progresses so it's hard to put a timeline on how frequently to repeat.
  • Downhill Training. It may seem bizarre to do Downhill Training to prepare for a completely flat race, but I'm convinced that this is the reason why my quads remained stronger and pain-free throughout the race. In fact I had no quad pain or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness after the race. Downhill Training is so effective for a flat race because it builds up resistance to the eccentric stresses involved in the running, even running on the flat course.
  • Mental tricks. 100 mile race is always an immense mental challenge, and the longer barren stretches of the graveyard exacerbate this. I found a number of mental tricks that I've used on other races became particularly valuable.
    • To overcome the sense of not making progress, I would pick a landmark and run to it, then pick the next landmark. Sometimes these landmarks would be anything from a sign to a piece of trash by the road. This worked most of the time, but some stretches are so desolate that there is nothing to fix your eyes on other than the horizon. At these points in the race, all you can do is keep your head down and avoid looking at how far you have to go.
    • Like any ultra, I find it's important not to think about the overall distance, but to run to the next aid station/crew access point.
    • I usually listen to music when I run, but on this ultra I found myself focusing more on the music and really listening to it.
    • Having read books on willpower, I was more aware on this race of conserving my mental energy. While I normally do most of my creative thinking while running, on this ultra I focused more on Stillness in Motion, I'm letting my mind rest.
  • Digestion. I had no digestive problems on this race at all, which with my history of nausea was truly pleasant.
  • Mood state. Early on in the race I was chatting to another runner and joking about that point in an ultra where you start longing for a broken leg so you'd have a good excuse to stop. Although I did encounter some mild depression midway through the race, it was nowhere near as bad as I've had on other longer races. To my surprise, I didn't even have the usual angst that occurs as it gets dark and deep instinct cuts in that tells you that you should be safely indoors instead of out running.
  • Sunburn. In last year's race I sunburned my arms rather badly, so this year I wore my long sleeved UnderArmour HeatGear Top. This thin white top protected me from the sun and helped keep my temperature stable. In addition to the well-known long-term health risks and short term pain of sunburn, there are more immediate consequences for a runner. The redness of sunburn prevent your body from conserving heat when it's cold, and the skin damage limits sweating when it's hot. This means that sunburn makes it much harder to control your body's temperature. Sadly, I didn't think to put on my sun cap that would have shaded my neck and face, so these areas did get sunburned.
  • Heart Rate Monitoring. I think I finally cracked the problem of my heart rate monitor strapped chafing during longer ultras, so it was nice to be able to have that information available. Sadly my, and Garmin 310XT ran out of power about mile 95, probably because I've not been using it for the last few months as I've been testing other devices. This meant that for the last hour of the race my subconscious was continually asking "are we nearly there yet", which was like running with an attention deficit three-year-old in your head.
  • Shoes. Overall, my feet did well, with no blisters or serious problems. However, my feet were the worst source of pain, from muscular fatigue, plantar fascia stress, general overuse and pounding. This is normal for me in an ultra, and I may need to focus more training and massage on my feet. I ran the first 50 miles in the Altra Olympus, which worked well. At the half way point I changed into Hoka Bondi to see if the change would make my feet feel better. I was surprised by just how radically different the shoes felt, and I had trouble running for the first quarter mile. The change did seem to move the pain in my feet around a bit, and as they say 'a change is as good as a rest'. I would have swapped back to the Olympus as I prefer them now and another change would be good, but by that point the idea of sitting down to change shoes was unappealing.

2 Course Overview

For those of you who are thinking about running the graveyard 100 I thought I'd include my perspective on the course.

  • Currituck to Southern Shores (0-21 miles). This is some of the most pleasant on the graveyard 100, running through the lovely town of Duck, with low trees some sidewalks to get you away from traffic (most of the course is on the shoulder of the road).
  • Southern Shores to South Nags Head (21-42 miles). This section with runs through an unending sequence of beach houses, and seems interminable at the time. However, you look back with fondness at this section when you're going through the later sections.
  • South Nags Head to Hatteras Lighthouse (42-87 miles). Mostly this is empty and barren, with long straight, featureless straights, and more exposed to the wind than other sections. There are a few small towns you go through, but mostly it's empty. There is also one long bridge where you run on a narrow shoulder, but the race has a police car warning drivers approaching the bridge and all the vehicles a saw were gracious, polite and gave me lots of room. For the last 6 miles before the lighthouse, you can see the flashing beacon, so it's easy to feel like you're not making progress. This is made worse when you take the turn to go on the out and back to the lighthouse, which is much longer than you'd expect and feels like it's going the wrong way.
  • Hatteras Lighthouse to Hatteras (87-100 miles). After the wilderness, this section seemed relatively friendly, with only a few stretches of emptiness. Even in the dark, the sight of houses and trees seemed a welcoming sight.
The route of the Graveyard 100, starting near Corolla in the north and finishing in Hatteras in the south.

3 The Graveyard Challenge

As with many ultras the weather is a variable that can make the race easier or tougher. However, the Outer Banks is notorious for changeable, violent weather, especially at this time of the year. I feel it's worth enumerating the issues you may face with the weather on this race, as they are more significant than other events.

  • Wind. The wind is the most obvious factor, and a mild tailwind can make the race far easier. On the other hand, you could easily face strong headwinds that could make running hard or even impossible. Wind speeds of 20-30 MPH are common, and the difficulty of running into a headwind generally varies with the square of the wind speed. It is possible that the headwinds could dramatically reduce the amount of running that a participant could manage, requiring a lot more walking than anticipated.
  • Cold & Rain. The day before the 2014 race had high winds and near freezing rain that felt viciously cold. Running the full race under these conditions would create a high risk of Hypothermia, especially for anyone who is running and has to slow to a walk, when their temperature could plummet.
  • Sand. The Outer Banks is sandy, and the high wind can create a sandstorm that would make the race tremendously unpleasant, both for the runner and the crew. Sand also becomes an issue as an abrasive, getting into shoes and clothing.
  • Flooding. The rain and storms can create flooding, and the 2013 race had to be an out and back due to the resulting road closure. Even minor flooding can make progress harder, especially when the flooding involves deeper water over thick sand. Trying to make progress over deep sand is tough, especially as you can't see what you're stepping on. Also, small areas of flooding that cover part of the road will create a one way area for cars, and the runners have to contend for that narrow area.
  • Heat. You are unlikely to face hot temperatures at the Graveyard, but a mild tailwind and full sun means the perceived temperature is higher. In 2014 there were times when the tailwind was about the same as my running pace, so I was travelling in a small pocket of stagnant, warm air.
  • Sun. Because the temperatures are generally cool it's easy to forget how strong the Carolina sun is this time of the year. Sunburn creates the immediate damage to the skin that limits sweating in the heat and reddening that can cause excessive heat loss in cold conditions. There are also the longer term problems of the pain and possible cancer.