Friday, May 11, 2012

OBX Ultramarathon Recap - Revenge of the Soft Sand

Great weather, great setting, great volunteers, great small group of participants, great race director, great T-shirt, great finisher ‘medal’, great experience.

And yet, I find myself conflicted as to whether I would recommend this race to someone without making sure they know what they are getting into.  I suppose that’s true of most any distance race.  Running a distance race on a beach is challenging.  Running a distance race on the beaches of the Outer Banks is a mental and physical rollercoaster.  Soft sand makes for a very interesting day of running.  However, when this is what you’re looking at around an hour into the race, even soft sand doesn’t seem so bad.

The race started at 5AM, and despite waking up just after 2AM, I still managed to roll into the parking lot with only 15 minutes to spare before the start.  Made a quick trip to the bathroom – yes, a real bathroom with running water and everything … huge plus for this race, and got to the starting line with 7 minutes to spare.  Temperatures were already in the 60s, but there was scattered fog and it felt pretty good for running.  A couple quick pictures of the 27 folks that made it to the start, and we were off.

The first couple of miles take you North along the beach road until you literally reach the end of the road and end up on the beach in a stretch known for a population of wild horses.  Sadly we saw no horses, continued North for a little while longer, then made a turn and headed South down the beach where we would continue to head for the next 29ish miles.  It was just starting to get light at this point, and there was patchy fog on the beach with an unusual stillness to the air.  The houses in this area are out on the beach and are very large, and in the early morning light and fog they looked like something out of a movie.  Pictures didn’t quite capture the moment, but I tried anyhow while I ran.
 The beach at this point was very wide, flat, and well-packed, boosting my confidence that this wouldn’t be as difficult as I thought.  Silly, silly me.

Miles 1-14:  “The sand is my friend”

The first 2 miles were on the road, and the next 12 were on sand that was generally flat and well packed.  I was aiming to settle into around a 9:30 pace, and was generally on that pace, just a little faster.  Although a little warm, the morning couldn’t have been any nicer.  The seas were very calm, and small pods of dolphins could be seen just a few hundred yards offshore at several points during the run.  The sand makes for a little more effort when running, and really rewards a midfoot strike versus sinking your heels into the sand.  My legs felt good throughout this stretch.

We had to stop at each of the three aid stations, so I took my time at the first station around mile 8, topping off the fuel belt, getting a couple pictures taken, and even taking pictures of the volunteers, including the race director.  Life was good, and my confidence was high.  Running without a time goal is very freeing.

Race director Zach on the left - awesome guy
Miles 12 through 22 are through sections with only private beach access, so no spectators/crews were allowed in this stretch.  The last crew option was at mile 11.4.  This meant if someone was going to meet me it would be around 6:45 in the morning.  In the interest of marital harmony, rather than ask my wife, I asked my dad to meet me at this stop with some drink refills and shoes and socks in case I needed a change (we were staying with my parents for the race).  With no porto-johns allowed on the beach, this was also the last public restroom option available until around mile 23.  I may or may not have already taken care of my internal fluid levels a little earlier on the dunes, so I didn’t need the restrooms or the change of clothes.  A couple more pictures, a change of drink bottles, and I was back on my way.

The going stayed good until right around mile 14.  High tide was around 7AM.  Soon after 7AM I hit the 14 mile mark.  Right around the 14 mile mark the sand took a cruel, cruel turn towards soft.  The kind of soft where you’re battling for traction.  The kind of soft where you wonder if walking would be faster than running.  The kind of soft that makes you question your choice in races.

Miles 15-31: “Who the hell put all this sand here?”

The second half of this race was mentally and physically tough.  The sand turned soft and stayed soft from miles 14 to around 27.  After that it got a little better, but my legs were so tired that I was having to mix in some stretches of walking.  There were times when the sand got so soft that I switched to walking because it really was faster than trying to run and just drilling holes with your feet.  I knew there would be some soft sand in the back half of the race based on my run about a month ago, but this was much worse than I expected.  Through mile 15 my slowest moving pace was 9:45/mile.  After that nothing was under 10:24, with a slowest mile at 14:16.  It was frustrating and mentally taxing.  Eventually I fell in with another runner and we commiserated and tried to encourage each other.

The third aid station was at mile 24.3.  My wife and kids were waiting for me at this one, and I’ve never been so happy to see them.  I lingered as long as I could, got doused with cold water, readied myself for the push to the finish, and set off again.

Still able to smile .... who do I think I'm fooling?
My top-notch crew in action

Should have done a lot more of this
At this point the temps were in the 70s, and the sun was in full effect on the beach.  My fueling plan had held up well, so my stomach was holding strong.  I was actually feeling a little dehydrated, and could have used one more aid station.  I got in a pattern of running .9 miles, and walking .1, which helped with the tiredness and dealing with the still squishy sand.  Finally the finish was in sight, and about a quarter mile from the finish my son showed up to run in to the finish line with me.

Some unexpected and much appreciated company for the finish

Me and my boy ... good stuff
 I don’t think I went more than about 10 feet past the finish before I slammed on the brakes.  Stopping was a beautiful thing.

Put a fork in me ... I'm done
Lots more post-race pictures, a quick dip in the ocean to ‘ice’ my legs, and this one was in the books. 

My biggest fan ... the feeling is mutual
The Stallman men
Still cheering for their boy ... still makes me smile
The rest of the day was a quick lunch, a post-race party with some free beers at a local brewery, the infamous fish taco dinner at Mama Kwan’s (heavenly).  And an early bedtime after just 3 hours of sleep the night before the race.

Overall this was a great experience.  The race was extremely well run, and the small size of it gave it an intimate feel that was fun and made things like the post-race party a possibility.  They tried to make everything local.  Instead of finisher medals they gave out drawings of the Currituck Lighthouse (the start of the race) by a local artist that were numbered n of 35, where n was your place in the race.  Here’s the one I got for finishing in 5th place (5:34:49).

They gave awards for the top three finishers, which were duck decoys carved by well-known local artists, along with a writeup on the decoy and the artist.  The shirts and the logo were very cool, and my shirt actually fits, which has been hit-or-miss for me in other races.

Overall I would recommend this event, but would caution that folks know what they’re getting into with the possible sand conditions.  The thing with the beaches here is the conditions could be completely different next year.  They actually could be completely different next week.  All a function of tides and storms.  These beaches are constantly moving and changing, regardless of how much the residents may try to fight it.

My legs felt surprisingly good a couple days out from the race, and the only thing with some lingering discomfort is my right knee, which doesn’t feel any worse than it did in the couple weeks leading up to the race.  Fingers crossed I may have made it through a race without a visit to my orthopedist friend.  Glad to have this one done, and looking forward to whatever may come next.

Maybe time to go even longer???


  1. Great run and beautiful photos. Well done! Looks like a race I would love. Go even longer of course!

  2. well done. I know what you mean about running long distances on the beach...

  3. Awesome report and I'm very intrigued by this! As someone who has gone to the Outer Banks my entire life (and got married there), this looks interesting. Great job to you and I love your new header photo on the blog. Also love the finisher's print and the numbering based on place, great idea!

  4. Hooooooly cow, that is absolutely awesome! No way I could run that far on the sand; I'd be complaining about mile 2 :). Great job and congrats on a stellar placement!!

  5. I cannot believe you ran this kind of distance in the sand - it's crazy! You were so FAST out there, for these conditions - incredible. Well done!

  6. Awesome job Chris! Love the pictures - especially the ones of you and your family :) And how great your son ran the last quarter mile with you - is that the best or what?!

  7. what a beautiful (and tough) race! congrats, definitely something to be very proud of!

  8. It's so nice that your kids were there to support you. I love that your son joined you for that final stretch - that's what family's about. And you don't look like you got sunburnt!

    Well done on such a great result.

  9. Well done. I checked out the deepness of the prints in the sand (picture six) and knew it was a tough run. Kudos to you for sure!

    1. The sad part is that picture was from around mile 11, before the sand turned really soft. I have a great deal of respect now for beach running and beach runners. I think I'll stick to pavement.

  10. That looks like a really tough race! I hope you stay injury free this year too! And while we're begging, me too please!!! Cheers, Drea

  11. Wow Chris, congratulations!!!!! Love how your son ran you to the finish, fantastic job.