Umstead 100 – Graveyard 100k – JFK 50 – Comparing Ultras


Last year was an epic running year for me.  I achieved a lot of firsts and added a lot of awesome races to my running resume.  On top of 10 other races, I ran my first 100k at the Graveyard, my first 100 miler at Umstead and my first JFK 50.  When all was said and done, and as I had time to sit back, kick my feet up and reflect on each “first” I realized each race offered it’s own unique and very personal challenge.  Each had it’s own personality.   There were parts of each race that I liked, I hated and parts that exposed portions of my running soul.  Since a bunch of you have asked about each race I thought I would take some time, to write a short comparison of each.

In order of when they were run.

GRAVEYARD 100k – a 63 mile point to point race run along the Outer Banks of the Eastern Shore, North Carolina.  I ran this race as a training run as preparations for the Umstead 100.  This was the first point to point race I’ve run of any significant length.

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Finishing time : 14 hours 36 minutes 16 seconds

The course is fairly flat traveling along the paved highway on Bodie Island and Hatteras Island covering much of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore via historic Hwy 12.  There is only one true change in elevation, when crossing the 2.5 mi. long Bonner Bridge (49 ft.) spanning Oregon Inlet between Bodie Island and Hatteras Island.  From the stand point of elevation it was fairly easy.  Being a point to point race there was no issues/challenge of running repetitive laps, you simply ran until you reached the finish line at the end of Hwy 12 and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.  This made parts of the run fun and difficult all at the same time.  During the course of the run I said numerous times, “I’ll never have to see that gas station, sand dune or house again” and I also wondered to myself out loud, “is that the last gas station, sand dune or house or do I have 100 more of them still in front of me.”  In the middle of the night the seemingly endless features lining the infinite route haunted you.

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I choose to run this race solo.  Without a support crew I would only have access to the race provided support at the aid stations spaced roughly 20 miles apart. This offered up a big logistics challenge, anything I needed in-between would have to carried in my race vest.  The aid stations were well stocked, supported and up lifting….they were a true oasis in the middle of the run if not in the middle of the night.

The most challenging part of this run was the lonely miles in the middle of the night.  With the long open road stretching out in front like an unbroken ribbon, at times I wondered if I was getting closer to the finish…or was I one of the last lone runners on the face of the planet.

You can read my race report here:

UMSTEAD 100 Miler – a 100 mile race held on a looped course within Umstead State Park in the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina.  This would be my first attempt at the 100 mile milestone, and my main goal for the year, everything I did in the early months of 2014 focused on success at this race.

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Finishing time : 22 hours 51 minutes 05 seconds

The course covers a rolling 12.5 mile loop around Umstead State Park, which you run eight times.  Many find a “repetitive” type course a mental challenge which can become mind numbing.   Myself I don’t mind them, and liked the loop course for my first attempt at this distance.  The loop course helped me countdown to my goal, it helped me maintain my pace and it helped me stay focused.  The eight laps were comforting in a weird kind of way.  Although at times I did get tired of seeing the same old rocks, trees, bridges and hills over and over again.  The 100 mile course offers if not steep, some truly challenging climbs….they might not be challenging on lap one, two or three…but they will surly add up.  Each lap provides a change in elevation of 1000 feet, which after eight laps offers up a pretty respectable 8000 feet. If these hills were not a challenge early on, by lap eight you’ll be happy to never see them again.  Running eight times around the course you had 40 climbs to conquer.  In the middle of the night on lap seven I came up with the most appropriate question related to the hills at Umstead.  Would you rather get punched once or twice by Mike Tyson or 40 times by the local tough guy?  That’s how I some up the hills at Umstead.

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With the looped course you were never far from aid or the emotional up lifting energy of a smiling face.  For my 100 mile race my wife was crewing for me.  She set up camp on the Headquarters spur which provided two opportunities to see her and take on any needed hydration/food or adjust any gear.  The two manned and one unmanned race provided aid stations were awesome.  The food tables were well stocked, and the volunteers extremely supportive. I got the feeling that each volunteer wanted to personality ensure my success during this race.

The most challenging part of this run was the hills…after eight cycles around this course I hated each and every hill with a passion.  On my last lap I called them out by name..”Hill number 1…I’ll never see you again!”  “Hill number 2…go suck an egg.”  You get the idea.  It was kind of fun to count down the hills on the last lap and I’m sure I offered up some late night entertainment.

You can read my race report here:

JFK 50 –  The Granddaddy of all ultra marathons and the countries longest running ultra, the JFK 50 is more than a race it’s a happening.

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Finishing time : 10 hours 06 minutes 27 seconds

Although another point to point race this 50 mile challenge offers up three different race conditions in one outing.  Beginning in downtown Boonsboro, the race starts off with a bang and a climb.  The first challenge of the day was the nearly 1200 foot climb to the highest part of the race at the start of the AT section (5 miles).  The next 10 miles are spent on a rather difficult single track trail section that offers up some of the more technical trails along the AT.  This section provides a constant hammering on the quads as runners spring from one rock section to another.  This AT section runs along the ridge of south mountain and ends on a series of rapidly descending switchbacks (1000 foot) that lead the runners to Weaverton and the beginning of the tow path.  The flat and endless C&O canal tow path (26.3 miles) strolls the crowd thru the towns of Harpers Ferry, Antietam, Shepherdstown,  and Taylor’s Landing, Maryland.  At the end of the C&O section the race course joins the paved roads at dam#4 following the rolling country roads (8 miles) that bring the race towards the town of Williamsport, Maryland and the finish line.  Each section of this point to point run…was different and challenging in its own right.

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Running solo, I carried extra food and hydration items in my race vest.  In fact I did not need to carry any extra items, the race provided aid stations were plentiful and never further then 6 miles apart.  These aid stations were sponsored by local running clubs and each one attempted to out do the previous.  This paid off for us runners as there was plenty of food, drinks and positive energy at each aid station.

The most challenging part of this race was the start of the race to the very beginning of the AT section.  I normally start all of my runs with easy opening miles, allowing my heart rate to increase gradually.  The JFK opening miles had my heart rate rising from the first step.  The climb out of town and the technical trails took a lot of life out of my legs.  Upon exiting the AT I felt like I had just run 30 miles and completed 10,000 squats.  My legs were trashed and I had 35 miles to go.

You can read my race report here:

IN CONCLUSION, each race is uniquely its own.  Each course offers up its own brand of challenges.  I’ve been asked many times and If I had to rate which one was harder I would list them in this order, JFK 50, Umstead 100 and Graveyard 100k.  No matter which race you decide to run, all are well worth the entry fees, training time and the logistics effort to get there.


  • John Flynn

    Nice! I might have to take a shot at the Graveyard. I’m volunteering (pacing) at Umstead again this year, and running Umstead 100 2016 is my goal for next year.

    • Brian Burk

      Umstead is a great first 100 and great 10th 100.

      Brian