100 Miles of Fun: What I learned Volunteering at an Ultramarathon
What kind of person decides to go out and run ONE HUNDRED continuous miles?
I got to find out last weekend when I volunteered at the Umstead 100-Mile Endurance Run, an ultramarathon in Raleigh, North Carolina.
From 6am Saturday until 10am Sunday, I and other volunteers prepped food, gave snacks, provided medical aid, and cheered on 250 runners completing a 50- or 100-mile run. And let me tell you:
It. Was. Lit.
Today I’m writing about my experience volunteering at the Umstead 100, which has got to be one of the funnest races ever. I’ll be talking race details and what it was like working with all of the dedicated volunteers and seemingly crazy runners. In true Toni fashion, I’ll also be talking about representation, possibilities, and big goals.
Thanks for coming, I hope you enjoy. Be sure to let me know some of your favorite races or any big goals you’ve got coming up in the comments section below. We love to hear it.
Without further ado, let’s go.
It was a perfect day for a run in the park
How Did I Get Here?
You might be wondering how this Rhode Islander ended up randomly volunteering at an ultramarathon in Raleigh, NC.
Well, through marriage, of course.
My bestie Rachel (remember her?) married JT last fall, who hails from North Carolina, and whose father is a SERIOUS runner. Mr. JT Senior is one of the founders of the Umstead 100 Miler ,now in its 27th year, and he has run many an ultramarathon in his lifetime. This man in his 70s can give a seemingly healthy 30-something some serious fitness envy.
JT has been working this race with his dad since he was a kid. He has more than 20 years of memories being there, seeing the runners pass by, cheering them on, and helping with whatever they needed. He remembers his first time seeing one of the female runners take her shirt off—right out in the open—to change, a memory that sticks with you when you’re a high-school aged boy. He also ran the 50-mile race once.
Since they are hitched now, Rachel is officially invited and required to volunteer at the Umstead race each year. And since I’m her bestie and also a runner, I am now married in as well.
They told me the dates, asked me to come volunteer, and I said yes.
And so it was.
About The Race
“Just a run in the park.”
The Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run is an ultramarathon that takes place each year in Umstead Park, just outside of Raleigh North Carolina. There is a 50-mile or a 100-mile option, and it is run in 12.5 mile loops—lots of them. I’ve been told if you’ve never run a 50 before, they don’t allow you to sign up for the 100-mile run. Fair enough.
The race takes place around this time every year, in late March or early April, and it’s a lovely time to attempt a 100-mile jog in the park. It’s also kind of exclusive. Only 250 spots open up for runners, and apparently they sell out within minutes of going on sale. On the weekend of the race, it starts at 6am Saturday morning and ends around 10am on Sunday. Yes, that is 30 hours! (You’re allowed to finish the race if you need more time, but it will be on your own and you won’t be recorded as an official finisher.)
A woman won this year, which anyone who follows running will understand is a huge deal. And she finished in 14 hours and 23 minutes. YOWZA. By my calculations that is an 8.63-minute mile.
For those of you who are not runners, this time is crazy. An 8-minute mile might not sound particularly impressive, but to hold that pace for ONE HUNDRED MILES is wildly, astoundingly, heroically impressive.
Photo of the WINNER crossing the finish line. #WhoRunTheWorld
The race winds through Umstead Park, which is basically a forest with trails interwoven throughout. I’ve gone hiking and trail running at this park before when I’ve visited Raleigh. It’s not only a great place to envelop yourself in nature, but proximity to the airport means it is also super convenient.
There are two aid stations, one at the start/finish line, and another at the halfway point. This second aid station was where I volunteered last weekend. Don’t get it twisted, though, this was way more than bagels, bananas, and bandaids.
“Never Ending Footsteps”
(Where we worked!)
I distinctly remember the feeling of not wanting to eat while I ran my marathon in 2019. I think all in all I consumed 1.5 bananas, half of one on three different points in my 4 hour and 20-minute race. Being full is obviously not ideal when running, but even the thought of a whole piece of fruit made me worry I would slow myself down. I wasn’t concerned about my time, but I was concerned about feeling sluggish and heavy and making this feat of 26.2 miles even harder.
One hundred miles is a lot, it requires far more fuel than a shorter race would. Not only are you rapidly burning calories (fuel), but just the sheer amount of time you’re out on the course means you’ll need to eat. Think about how much you eat on a normal day in a 12-hour or 24-hour span. And that is while sitting around at work, running some errands, Netflixing. Hell, we sleep for eight of those hours, presumably. Maybe your job requires physical labor or you’re a fitness buff who loves to work out, but running for 14-30 hours straight is just pure fucking insanity.
As such, we volunteers make sure these folks are fed, and fed well.
Everything you could want and things you wouldn’t have thought of. Peanut butter & jelly, turkey, ham and roast beef sandwiches, bagels, crackers, cookies, candy, chips, pickles, olives (salt is good for runners!) and SO much fruit. Watermelon, grapes, strawberries, oranges, pineapple, cantaloupe, and of course, bananas. We had people grilling up hot food, too—hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, grilled chicken, lentil soup, chicken soup, hot broth. There was Gatorade, coffee, cocoa, soda, and lots and LOTS of water. It was a whole restaurant under a bridge on the side of a race course in the woods.
Each aid station has chairs for runners to take a load off and cots in case they needed a nap or medical attention. Medical supplies were stocked and someone with more professional experience than I have was charged with taking care of runners who needed it. We had their bags, organized, so they could change for the night portion or re-apply sunblock or whatever they wanted to do. And, of course, there were porta potties.
It was one of the best race aid stations I’ve seen. And I haven’t even told you about the best part yet.
Come hungry, leave happy...and maybe exhausted.
The people who volunteer at this race are Ah-MAZING. Many of them have worked this race year after year after year and know some of the runners. Many of them have run the race themselves. Some people who volunteered at our pop-up restaurant in the morning came back in the night to be pacers.
Each pacer stays with one of the runners to keep them going, and often they come for the overnight portion of the race. Let’s face it; being exhausted and alone in the woods, in the pitch dark, in the middle of the night, after running all damn day could be kind of scary. Or just terrible. The pacers pump up their runners, get them snacks, cheer them on, and keep their pace. It’s like each runner who wants one is granted a personal assistant for a few hours.
The atmosphere at the aid stations was one of pure fun. We listened to music, we danced in place (I suggested we have something choreographed for next year), and we cheered for people when they most needed it. I chopped a shit-ton of fruit, ate a lot of snacks, and basked in the glory of these runners and the goodness of the volunteers. I left feeling like I’d made real friends, ones I can’t wait to see again the next time I’m in town. And, bonus, I got to spend the weekend with my bestie and her new husband.
SO much support for these ultramarathon runners!
The sense of community was so strong, I knew within the first hour of volunteering that I wanted to come back next year. And probably every year after that. I was all in. As the day progressed, as I saw more and more of the runners go by, some looking worn for wear and some looking perfectly cool, like a walk in the park, I started to get a different kind of itch—to run the race.
Takeaways from the Ultramarathon
Those of you who know me well or who have followed this blog from the beginning back in 2019 will know that I’m a runner. When I completed my first full marathon that same year—2019, I crossed off the number one item on my bucket list. Yes, a marathon was first. Before buying a home. Before having kids. It even took precedent over the “publish a book” line item. Perhaps because it felt like something so big, and also instantaneous. I could train, run the marathon, and then voila, I’m a marathoner.
Some other goals seem loftier, less certain, with windier paths. Like, how does one go about getting a book published when you don’t know how to get a book published? How do you go about finding a house you can afford? How does one afford a house? How many people do you have to interview and hire in this home-buying process?
With a physical goal like ‘run a marathon’ the path is clear and simple. You run. 26.2 miles. You run shorter runs first and increase your distance slowly to get your body ready, and, importantly, to prove to your mind that you can do it.
Still running 26.2 miles is not the same as running 100 miles. This feat hardly seems real when I think about the grandness of it.
New Big Goals
The energy at the race was infectious. Contagious. I came away from this weekend thinking I need to set another big goal.
No, wait, that wasn’t right.
I came away from this weekend determined to set and accomplish another big goal. One big enough that it is a little scary to commit to out loud. But I’ve done it before, so why not?
I’m gonna run this bitch next year.
My running buddy has agreed to my demands, and we are going to make it happen.
Y’all, I am thrilled.
Having a big, difficult, tangible goal like this makes me weak in the knees (as an expression, and possibly literally in this case.) I can’t wait to see what my body can do.
100 miles of fun
Representation & Possibility
When people say representation matters, it really freaking matters. Usually this is said in the context of minorities and women holding positions of power or esteem. But it affects everything in our lives. The very way we live.
We don’t know to desire something until we see it exists. Be that a female Vice President, a black woman on the Supreme Court, or running a superhuman distance like 100 miles in a row.
We don’t know to desire something until we see it is possible.
Sure, I’d heard of ultramarathons before, and sure, I knew running an ultramarathon was technically “possible” for a human being. But I had never met anyone who runs like this. And because this world of ultra-long-distance running was not in the solar system of my life, I didn’t give it much thought. It wasn’t on my radar of something I’d ever want to do. And it certainly didn’t feel possible for me.
Being around people who run these things—people of all different ages, backgrounds, and body types—opened up a window of new possibility.
The wheels start turning while you’re mid-conversation.
This person before me, their body has run 100 continuous miles.
And once you know something is possible, have proof that someone can do it, then you think “Maybe I could too.”
Enter my next big goal.
It’s exciting to have a physical goal to work toward, since for the past two years all my goals have been of the creative & brainy type.
It’s great timing too, as I’ve just signed up for my first two races since 2020.
I was already glad to be getting back into the swing of running, but volunteering at the ultramarathon last weekend brought that excitement to a level 10. Not only am I running again, something I love, but now I also have a big, huge, nearly impossible goal to work towards.
It sounds completely crazy. But now that I know it can be done, I also know it can be done by me.
I’m going to run one of these insane ultramarathons. I’m going to push my body to do something I never dreamed it would or could do. And I reeeeally hope it is at this race, the Umstead Endurance Run, that I make my first (and quite possibly only) attempt at 50 miles. The community, support, and the people there are as much a part of my goal as those many, many miles.
married in by proxy
Rachel married JT, and therefore married into this into this race. And now, by extension, I guess I’m married in, too.
I’m looking forward to pushing my body and mind to the limits in 2023 when I attempt to run this ultramarathon. I’m looking forward to seeing these amazing people year after year, whichever side of the aid station table I end up on. And I am looking forward to more adventures & little perks of marriage.
I hope you have a happy weekend, and that every endless possibility lays itself before you. When it does, I hope you’ll remember: You can do it, too.
Hey you. Yes, you! Thanks for stopping by.
I’m Toni and I run the show here at AWheelintheSky.com. Here, we talk all things travel, flight attendant life, and random personal development bits. I hope you enjoyed this post about volunteering at the Umstead 100 Ultramarathon.
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