Umstead Ultra-Marathon Loses Its Leader - But the Race Goes On

By Teri Saylor

At the City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh last month, the race was officially over. The finish line was dismantled, and the finishers' medals packed up.

I had grabbed a handful of medals before the boxes were sealed, and along with two other volunteers - Meri Kotlas and Francesca Winkler waited for the final runners who had been out on the course for seven hours.

The final finisher finally made it all 26.2 miles. She was shaky, ill and very hungry. A medical condition prevented her body from processing fructose and her blood sugar had dropped.

We quickly got her some food and water, and we walked her to her car. By the time she got behind the wheel, she was feeling much better and drove herself home.

Several people congratulated us on our efforts to go the extra mile to make sure that last runner made it safely to her car.

This little gesture simply falls under the category of "what would Blake do?"

Tributes to Blake Norwood were posted all over social media the day after his sudden and untimely death on October 29. He collapsed while walking his dog, Bucky, on a beautiful North Carolina autumn day at one of Raleigh's most beautiful recreation areas - Falls Lake, a paradise for boaters, fishermen and hikers. The Mountains to Sea Trail passes through the basin.

I could not imagine many places Blake would rather be, unless it was William B. Umstead State Park, site of the annual Umstead 100 Endurance Run. "Just a run in the park," its slogan reads.

And what a run it is.

Entering its 21st year, the Umstead 100 is famous among ultra-marathoners. Boasting a hilly, looping course, the bridle trail surfaces are easy-on-the-knees packed gravel. Runners strive to complete eight loops, 12.5 miles each.

Designed to indoctrinate beginning ultra-runners, both first timers and long timers have grown to love that race.

The Umstead 100 has long been known for its wonderful spread of tasty food, fully stocked aid stations, a host of friendly volunteers, and an environment that would make you feel like you were attending a family reunion when you showed up for the event weekend.

The race has also become famous for a registration process that sells out its slots within minutes of opening. It is a process that causes runners to plot elaborate strategies involving multiple computers, smart phones, iPads and even accomplices to get in. Runners who successfully navigate their way onto the event roster are almost as excited about successfully registering as they are about actually running.

The race attracts runners of all ages from every corner of the United States and many foreign countries. Blake was 100 percent focused on doing whatever it would take to help each runner succeed, and under his kind and caring leadership, many did. He treated his race volunteers like kings and queens and welcomed everyone who participated into his family.

On a rainy, blustery Saturday afternoon, the Bay Leaf Baptist Church was packed with members of Blake's extended family, from all walks of life - lifelong friends from Blake's childhood, former co-workers with the N.C. Department of Transportation, loved ones in the church, and 50 volunteers and runners who made up Blake's running family.

Over the course of the hour-long service and the visitation in the fellowship hall afterwards we sang, we laughed, we cried, and we swapped stories about Blake and running.

Charlie Barnes, Tom Newnam and Jerry Dudek are among Blake's best friends and running buddies for well over 20 years. They worked together at the Department of Transportation and would meet up at the Salvation Army in downtown Raleigh to run on their lunch breaks, Charlie said in a eulogy for Blake.

Laughing, and at times choking back tears, Charlie recalled a few of the group's most storied outings, as if their adventures together were like scenes out of the best buddy movie ever.

He recounted a hair raising but hilarious ultra-cycling tour they took from Pittsburgh, Pa. to Washington, D.C.

"We boxed up our bikes and flew to Pittsburgh, only taking with us what we could carry on our bikes," Charlie said. "Once we got our bikes reassembled, we left the airport with Blake leading the way. Our first couple of miles was on the freeway. Unfortunately for us, they had the shoulder closed and barricaded, so we had to ride on the edge of the freeway. That was one of the most frightening times of my life as vehicles zipped by at 65-70 miles per hour, only inches away from us. My mantra as I fervently prayed for our safety was 'hold your line, hold your line, do not swerve.'"

While the freeway excitement seemed to last an eternity for Charlie, he reported that his group of intrepid adventurers continued the rest of the trip safely. They averaged 60 miles a day for six days straight until they reached their destination.

"With all of the riding experience Blake had, he couldn't understand why I was so nervous," Charlie said.

Charlie said Blake never got lost. He hated to stop for stop signs when cycling. He was a great leader, and he was a friend to all.

He loved Umstead Park and gave back through volunteering - spending weeks sprucing up cabins, cleaning up trails, and leaving the park better than he found it.

Blake and ultra-marathoner Joe Lugiano secured a grant from REI and wrangled a number of volunteers to shore up and refurbish 120 campground buildings in the park.

"Blake put in over a thousand hours assisting me in rejuvenating these camps," Joe said. "We were asked to do one final building - a boathouse in Camp Whispering Pines."

The two men worked on that building together the day before Blake died.

"He and I were removing the bark from the cypress wood we would be using (to refurbish the boathouse)," Joe said.

Longtime ultra-marathon runner and loyal volunteer Chuck Petersen and his wife Carole were heading out of Raleigh, Florida-bound, when they got word of Blake's death and his funeral. They stopped in their tracks, unpacked some dress clothes and delayed their trip a day.

Chuck recalls many days working hard, helping Blake clean up in Umstead Park.

"You could always count on Blake to show up and set the standard for our work effort, and it was a high one," Chuck said. "There were many times Blake would say to me 'Chuck, grab the other end of this log, and we'll carry it down the trail.' He made it look easy while I struggled."

One hot summer day, the two were working hard labor, re-routing a trail along a hillside.

"Blake had his eye on the largest rock available, but it was some distance from the trail," Chuck said. "We were eventually able to load it onto a wheelbarrow. Although we were sweating profusely, we slowly moved it toward its planned destination."

As the two men maneuvered the wheelbarrow to tip it into position, the rock made its move and landed in the exact position where Blake had intended it to rest.

"But the rock had other ideas and continued on down the hill, making its own path on the way," Chuck said. "We watched in disbelief as the rock cascaded down the hill. It eventually crashed into the creek and took the position it retains to this day.

Chuck was exhausted and deflated, but Blake was defiant.

"After he uttered a few choice words, he said 'let's go get another rock,' and so we did," Chuck recounted.

Ask almost anyone who knew Blake, and they will tell you he was a planner. And a pretty darn good one.

Rhonda Hampton, an ultra marathon runner and longtime associate race director for the Umstead 100 will fill Blake's considerable shoes in future Umstead 100 Endurance Runs. But not because of his death. He had hand-picked Rhonda to take over when the time came for him to step down.

That time came last April, when he officially retired from the post on the race's 20th anniversary, passing the torch to Rhonda.

"We worked on the transition for five years," Rhonda said. "He wanted the leadership change to be so smooth, he took five years to pull out of the event."

Over the years, Blake created a gold standard for volunteering. All of the key team leaders were specifically trained in the way Blake believed the race should be managed. From fully stocked aid stations, to the proper way to fill runners' water bottles, no detail was too small, and in Rhonda, he found a worthy associate.

"We were a lot alike in what we thought the race should be like," she said. "We almost always thought the same way. He was such a good mentor. Every year, he gave me more and more responsibility, and I am really lucky to have had a great relationship with him over the last six years."

Blake was all business when it came to the Umstead race, but he was also full of fun. One of his favorite chores on race weekend was to ride his bike all over the course, cheer on the runners, and take photographs, and that is the image Rhonda will miss the most, she said.

He was a familiar figure at the finish line, quick with hugs, kisses, smiles and laughter as he propped up exhausted finishers and presented their buckles as if each runner had won the entire race.

One of Blake's greatest joys as a runner and as founding director of the Umstead 100 Endurance Run was watching "his" beginners succeed in their first hundred miler. On the race website, he posted an 11-page document with detailed instructions on how to train for an ultra-marathon, how to plan the entire run, and a mile-by-mile description of the entire course.

At the beginning of every race, he held court at a spaghetti dinner and preached his annual sermon to the gathered runners, volunteers and their families and friends. Many had heard the same speech over and over for 15 or 20 years, but no one ever got tired of hearing it again - and learning from it.

"All the hard work of training is now behind you and you are poised to begin the adventure of a lifetime," he would say. "Enjoy it."

At the end, he conducted the liturgical call and response like a mantra:

"Eat before you are hungry. Drink before you are thirsty, and walk before you are tired."

On Saturday, March 28, 2015, the starting gun will fire at precisely 6:00 a.m., sending another crop of runners on an adventure of a lifetime.

Those who knew and loved Blake may see him on the course in every nook and cranny. In all of the familiar places - coasting down Powerline Hill, navigating the notorious Sawtooth 79, climbing Cemetery Hill, turning at the final gate before making the last run up the steps to the finish line. And they may see Blake standing at the finish line beaming.

They will experience a roller coaster of emotions, but they will keep going.

After all, that's what Blake would do.

Teri Saylor is an Umstead Endurance Run volunteer and a writer in Raleigh, N.C.
Reach her at