Shortly before 5 a.m., Richard McKnight wanders into the aid tent, cold, exhausted, disoriented. He’s been running for 23 hours straight and has 95 miles behind him. Somehow, he still needs to run another 5. More than 300 people will do everything they can to make that happen.
McKnight is one of 251 ultra runners participating in the 17th running of the Umstead 100. At 6 a.m. the previous morning — Saturday, April 2 — they started running a 12.5-mile course on Umstead State Park’s bike and bridle trails. A few stopped after four laps — 50 miles. Most, McKnight included are doing the full ultra enchilada, eight laps for 100 miles earning them a western-style belt buckle commemorating the feat. An elite few have already finished, packed and headed home: Winner John Dennis crossed the finish around sunset the previous evening, finishing in 14 hours and 7 minutes, an 8-hour and 28-minute pace that would make most 5K runners (that’s 3.1 miles, 3/100s of the Umstead 100) happy. Most of the rest have spent a long, cold night battling a variety of demons, real and imagined. They’ll tell you they wouldn’t have made it without the army of volunteers pulling four- to eight-hour shifts to attend to their needs.
The Umstead 100, like every other run, triathlon, road bike ride, mountain bike race, adventure race — whatever kind of amateur competition you can think of — wouldn’t happen without volunteers. They hand out water, they offer split times, they give orange slices and PBJs at rest stops, they handle your registration, they take the timing belt off your sweaty ankle. Perhaps most important, they offer encouragement when, more than water or a banana or a Fig Newton, what you really need is a, “Keep Going! You can do it!”
“These are the best volunteers that can be found,” says Blake Norwood, race director and founder. “We are second to none and we live up to that.”
In the case of Richard McKnight, the volunteers have their work cut out for them. His last and final lap has been his worse. By his own admission, he likely wouldn’t have made it to the mid-course Aid Station II (ominously dubbed “Tom & Jerry’s Ptomaine Tavern) without the help of Heiko Rath, one of 70 pacers who have volunteered to accompany runners once they hit the 50-mile mark.
Roth helps McKnight to a camp chair inside the propane-heated aid station tent. At 5 a.m., the tent is staffed by eight volunteers, many of whom are nearing the end of their graveyard shift. John Thompson and John Gozjack are the first to greet the incoming runners, offering just about anything they could want. The tent is overstocked with oranges, muffins, cinnamon rolls, animal, crackers, apples, cookies, Chex mix, hard-boiled eggs, Pop Tarts, fruit, hard candies and cookies. Hot dogs, hamburgers and ribs are on the grill. There’s coffee and hot chocolate. The early morning’s big sellers: potato soup and chicken rice soup.
“People need everything,” says Gozjack, which sparks a conversation with Thompson, both veterans of such events, about what “everything” constitutes.
“They won’t let us do beer here,” Thompson, says in reference to the Pabst Blue Ribbon served in Dixie Cups at a local marathon.
McKnight is wrapped in a blanket and quickly attended to by Dr. Laurie Cameron, who’s come up from Charlotte to help. She begins a casual conversation with McKnight, in part to assess his physical condition but also to determine his mental state. This initial chat will serve as his baseline assessment; if his mental facilities don’t show improvement in a half hour or so, regardless of his physical condition, he won’t be continuing on.
“People usually come to their own conclusion” about whether to keep going, Cameron says. “If they’re too confused, their pallor is bad, they’re cold and shivering and they’re not coming around with food and blankets, then we’ll send them to the hospital and warm them up with IV fluids.”
Cold is a particular concern with dawn an hour away: The thermometer outside the aid station reads 30.
A steady stream of volunteers checks on McKnight and a handful of other runners who have settled in the triage area around him. Most stay 10 to 15 minutes, just long enough to thaw under a blanket and down a Styrofoam cup of coffee.
McKnight appears to have turned a corner mentally. He’s suddenly conversant, concerned now with finishing rather than simply surviving. Cameron, like many of the volunteers, is a runner. She took up running a few years ago after gaining 100 pounds following a divorce. She’s now into ultras, having completed 86 miles of recent 24-hour Freedom Park Run in Morganton. She supplements her medical advice with running advice.
“It can be easier to run at a 4.5- to 5-mile-per-hour pace than to walk at a 3-mile-per-hour pace,” Cameron tells McKnight.
“I’d rather shuffle a mile in 15 minutes than do what I’ve been doing,” he replies, adding, “I don’t want to push it too early and have the last five miles be miserable.”
J.T. Newnam has been checking in on McKnight’s progress. Newnam is currently in charge of Aid Station II while his dad, Tom, one of the race founders, takes a catnap. The younger Newnam has volunteered at most of the 17 Umstead 100s and understands the ultra runner psyche. He knows they need encouragement. He also knows that a dose of reality and a little humor help, too.
“It’s gonna be a miserable five miles anyway,” he says.
Photo: Dr. Laurie Cameron, in orange fleece, and Heiko Rath, in black wearing a headlamp, work to get Richard McKnight back in the race.