By Phil Holdcroft
“Sorry for the long wait, but I can now offer you an entry spot into our race.” These magical words confirmed I had secured a “competitive entrant” slot, just eight weeks prior to the 25th edition of the Umstead 100.
My motivation for entering stems from a cruel twist of fate which saw my youngest daughter, Isla, suffer with Leukaemia. Thankfully, she is now doing remarkably well, and is entering her third year of remission. As her father, the experience has been truly life changing, including having a profound effect on my relationship with endurance sports.
After five years in remission, Isla will be considered cured. I’ve pledged to mark each year with an endurance challenge which helps raise awareness and allows me to connect with those who are going through suffering and uncertainty. The only rule is that the challenge needs to get tougher each year!
The first year was a gruelling 3-day triple marathon. The second year included the UK’s largest 100K (Race to the Stones). And this year, I’ll be running Umstead – my first 100-miler.
My plan was to throw caution to the wind and set myself a race schedule right on the very limits of what I felt was possible. For Umstead, this translated to sub 16 hours and a top 5 finish – bold, verging on suicidal for somebody who averages well under 50 miles per week.
On the outskirts of Raleigh, NC, Umstead is a stunning race location. The forested park is teaming with trails and wildlife. On race weekend, it’s home to a rare breed: the Umstead Family. It’s difficult to convey the warmth, sincerity and selflessness of these incredible volunteers. The atmosphere was infectious – genuinely like nothing I’ve experienced at a race before.
At 6 a.m. the next morning, we set off into the dark with near perfect race conditions. Knowing the race was stacked with previous winners and podium finishers (including the American 48 hour record holder), I forced myself to be disciplined early on. The first lap felt very comfortable (1hr 47min), but I realized there were some cheeky climbs in the back half which would start to bite.
The out and back portions were great for camaraderie and sizing up the competition. I was sitting around eighth place, which felt right. I still felt smooth through 25 miles (3hr 37min) and 37.5 miles (5hr 27min). However, the sharp inclines were getting cheekier each lap. My initial plan to avoid any walking until lap six was going to need to be revisited.
Lap four shook my confidence. The two sharpest hills, in the appropriately named “Sawtooth” section, caused me to break into my power walk mode. A rising sense of fatigue had begun to surface. I panicked – my dreams of sub-16 were starting to unfold – was this the beginning of my demise?
I hit 50 miles in 7hrs 25min (5 minutes down on my schedule) and in serious need of a power-up. It arrived in the form of my first pacer – a lap earlier than expected. Like a guardian angel, he swooped in, steeled my determination and guided me through the 25 miles I feared most.
Heading out for lap six I caught a glimpse of heaven. There they were—my life, my inspiration: my wife and my girls had made it to Umstead! “Go Daddy” cheers from my girls were the wind at my back as I charged around lap six, winning back precious minutes from my schedule and hitting 75 miles in 11 hours and 27 minutes. Sub-16 still looked bleak, but not impossible.
The purgatory of laps was now replaced with the thought of getting back to my girls. Like a magnet, they pulled me through the now Himalayan second half of lap seven, hitting 87.5 miles in 13 hours and 35 minutes. Before I knew it, the sound of the finish area grew louder, my pace quickened and the agony of 100 miles evaporated. Hand-in-hand with my two girls, we ran through the line, in doing so completing the proudest sporting moment of my life. My first buckle, a top 5 finish and a time of 15:49.
Thank you Umstead; thank you Isla, you gave me a day beyond my wildest dreams. Now it’s time to recover and to think about next year’s even bigger challenge.