The Burning River 100 Pre-Race
After nearly 8 months of training and 2 DNF’s , after a lot of pain and even more fun it was time to put it all together and make this dream of running the Burning River 100 happen. I arrived in Cuyahoga Falls Friday afternoon and after checking in to the hotel and dropping my stuff off I went down to packet pickup where I promptly grabbed my things and put them up in the room. Upon returning to the pickup area I ran into Clare, Lou, and Wesley from the Philly set. I had known Lou and Clare through Runderful and was happy to finally meet them in real life. Then it was off to the pre-race dinner.
I loaded a plate with penne, mushroom ravioli, salad, and bread and asked if it I could sit with a group who obliged. It turns out I had sat down with Paul, the course creator and marker, who proceeded to give the few of us sitting there some excellent advice. First, he said, if you feel like you are going too slow on the first 11 road miles then slow it down more! Many people run far too hard costing themselves the finish later. Secondly, start eating real food as soon as possible. Don’t wait until mile 15 or 20 to start fueling. He told us a little about the course, particularly the end and what to expect. I took it all in and as I finished my meal I got a message that Don and Paul, my crew, arrived.
Don mentioned he was hungry so as our first order of business we walked around the town looking for eats, but everything we found was closed. When we did find a bar that had food there was a sign on the door saying proper attire was required, no men’s tank tops. Don was in a running singlet. Fortunately I had the Modest Mouse shirt Lou gave me slung over my shoulder. Don put it on and we went inside. The feel of the place was a bit pretentious and no one had approached us to offer service for a few minutes so we left and got my car opting for a Bob Evans instead. Well fed we headed to the hotel to prep.
After going over everything it was time to catch some z’s. I slept on the couch. In the middle of the night I got cold and reached around for something to cover up with. When I awoke at 1:30 AM I found what I used as a blanket was Don’s pair of jeans! I had a good laugh at myself and quickly got read. I made a cup of coffee and a container of chocolate Hammer Perpetuem for my pre-race fuel and was out the door. The shuttle to the start area was leaving at 2:30 AM. Clare and I chatted on the ride up. I used the bathroom and lined up with just a few minutes to spare until race start. In that short time I saw Scott, Connie K. , Tom and a few other friendly faces.
The Front 50
I took Paul R’s advice from the dinner to heart. If I am running slow then slow it down more. Instead of running a 9:30-10:15 pace I had planned for I slowed it up and ran 11:00-12:00 paces. Early into the start my beard brother Steve caught up to me and we ran together for much of those first 11 road miles. The slower pace put me in 197th place at Polo Fields. From here I would continue to run conservatively and climb the ranks for the rest of the race ending in 89th.
The next stretch to Shadow Lake was about 10 miles with one aid station in between at Harper Ridge. This section was almost entirely bridle trail which made for easy miles. Bridle trails are wide. Wide enough for a vehicle in most cases and, as one might guess, have a whole lot of horse poop on them! I walked any hills with an appreciable grade and slowly and happily plodded along the rest chatting with other runners. Leaving Shadow Lake it was less than 5 miles back to my crew of Don and Paul at Egbert Aid Station.
There was a short section of sidewalk and road and as I walked up a hill a car went by with people yelling and cheering. I smiled to myself thinking about how amazing and supportive people are. All along the course almost every person I passed gave a word of encouragement. And I am not talking about just the runners and their crews either, who were also incredibly supportive.
Finally there was singletrack! A grin spread across my face as I hit the trail and let out a little woop! of excitement. Coming through a tight section with tall grasses I heard footsteps right on my back. I loudly said just let me know if you want to get by. No response. After getting to a wider section I stopped and moved off the trail and two 50 mile runners blazed by grunting and breathing heavy. I was happy to slow my pace a little and fall back into my own revelry of the forest and soft footfalls. At mile 26 I came into Egbert feeling great and I could see Don and Paul and hear people cheering. As I got closer I saw that Lou and Wesley were there and found out they were the ones cheering from the car. I can not say just how much of a boost it is to see friendly faces during an event like this. Egbert was my favorite Aid Station last year in the 50 miler and was one of my favorites this year as well. Again they had the big blue tub of ice water and sponges to clean off and cool off with. I washed the salt from my face and let the cold water cascade over me before hitting the aid station foods hard. Then I spent a few minutes with Don and Paul getting my bottles filled and chatting.
Soon I was off on the 11.5 mile section to Meadows where I’d see those guys again. In between was the Alexander Rd Aid station and one unmanned water station at Frazee just before hitting the towpath.
The towpath was something that stood out in my mind from the 50 miler the previous year. I remembered it as being 6 or more miles cooking under the hot sun. Turns out it is more like 2.5 miles of cooking. I met Suzanne’s friend, Aimee, here and we chatted for a mile or so before parting.
Back on bridle trails I was moving along when a runner in front of me started waving his hands and kicking his feet. I couldn’t figure out what was going on until a wasp stung my face. I turned around and ran like hell doing the same dance. In the end I was stung 3 times and had a nasty welt on my face, but nothing worse. A few of us stopped runners approaching pointing out the wasp’s nest and we made our way around through the woods. F*&king wasps!
I took some extra time at the Meadows Aid Station. Scott was there with my crew and gave me something to clean my feet off with. I opted to lose the shirt, re-apply body glide, and get some fresh socks before grazing at the food table for a few minutes. When it came to food I ate whatever was appealing to my taste at the time with the goal of getting at least a handful of food or more.
The next two aid stations at Ottawa Point and Snowville did not allow crew. These stretches went fairly quick for me. At mile 40 there was a
water station and as I refilled I heard someone calling my name. Looking around I spotted a familiar face, but stumbled on the name. “It’s me , Kim” Of course! Kim had run a leg of the relay , showered and was back out here cheering her team on. We hugged and talked for a moment. Onward to the Bog of Despair! The bog was dry and easily navigable. From the Snowville AS it was all new terrain. Within 1/8 mile of leaving there was a giant set of stairs. I slowly plodded up them and made my way through almost 4 more miles of hills and stairs. All those stair climb city training runs paid dividends as I had no real trouble with any of the terrain on the course. Coming down the descent to Boston Mills I could hear the raucous excitement of the 50 mile finish area. I was energized. As I came across the timing mat I saw Nahum , Kim, the Sarahs, and my crew. I’ll say it 1000 times. Friendly faces will give you a big boost on an event of this duration. Again I took a little extra time at this stop to eat and change shorts and underwear. I was feeling fresher with clean, dry clothes.
I had finished the front 50 in 11:51:24, over an hour faster than last year and this time I was moving at what felt like a very slow and comfortable pace. Looks like training was paying off. This is not to say I wasn’t in a ton of pain. I was. My quads were shot early making down hills a chore. Overall I had great energy levels and once moving could roll along.
The Back 50
My first pacer, Suzanne, and I headed off. We had 16.5 miles back to the crew at Ledges. I opted to not take a headlamp as I thought I’d be there before dark. I was wrong. Over this stretch I had some minor stomach issues and stopped frequently to urinate and a couple of times for other purposes. This was likely how I ended up with post-race poison ivy on my right ankle and lower leg. Even with these troubles we moved along well. A few sections were road, which allowed me to bank time. Suzanne kept my mind occupied as we chatted away and as she took a ton of pictures. Suzanne gets her interval work in on group runs simply from all the sprinting ahead to get photos of the runners!
Back to not taking a headlamp with me. Fortunately, there was enough light to get through most of the technical stuff as we neared the Ledges aid station. I stuck close to Suzanne and we made it through unscathed. Once it became too dark to see she did a great job of leading me through the area and pointing out rocks and hazards.
For a while now it was getting harder to stomach food and an insatiable craving for ramen noodles was upon me. I was feeling rough to say
the least. The miles were wearing on me. I’m certain Suzanne was sick of hearing about how much I wanted ramen. So when I came into Ledges AS and a volunteer asked what I needed I immediately asked if there was ramen and there was!!! I had a cup of oriental and a piece of pizza and laid down on the ground shortly talking with Don and Paul as they gave me supplies I needed. The food really hit the spot and I was feeling better. Don helped me up off the ground and looking around I wondered where my pacer was. We found Suzanne shortly thereafter sending some messages out. Off we went! Only 6 miles to next AS with crew, Pine Hollow.
There was a fair bit of woodsy and hilly trail for the first 3/4 of this leg and grassy field running for the rest. The ramen and pizza did me wonders and soon I was running. And I mean running, not shuffling. We were running up the hills and flying through the forest. I am not certain of the pace, but it felt fast. Coming around a corner I heard a noise and looking back Suzanne had wiped out. I went back to help her up and she gave me a stern “no, you are not helping me!” We were again on our way and moving quickly still. The pace slowed a little in the grassy sections approaching the AS. I saw a hill looming off to my left and a line of headlamps slowly moving up it. I am pretty sure I let out an expletive or two. As we made our ascent I realized the climb was not so bad. The very end felt a little taxing and that was it. Suzanne was awed by what we saw and so was I. I took it in and appreciated it, but kept moving.
Above us was a pitch black sky full of stars, the air still and cool. Across on the next hilltop the colorful lights of the Pine Hollow aid station with a line of headlamps tracing the valley between . It was magic and it is permanently etched into my mind and heart.
Coming into the AS the crew was there and my next pacer, Tim, as well. Only 50k left in the race! It started to seem doable. And from here out at each AS that feeling grew stronger. I threw on a shirt and Suzanne and I headed out for a 4 mile loop. I can’t say a lot stands out in my mind about this section, but soon enough we were back and Tim and I were walking off towards the forest forging towards mile 82 and Julien’s Covered Bridge AS. A marathon left , just a marathon.
It was taking me longer and longer to get running after a stop, but still I was always moving forward. My pacer, Tim, is a seasoned trailrunner who himself would be running his first 100 miler just a week later at Eastern States. We chatted about trailrunners and races and the time passed by quickly. The dark of night was comfortable and the temperature was dropping. My GPS died somewhere along the way, but I wasn’t concerned. I hadn’t used the watch during the race more than at an occasional glance and simply asked my pacers when I wanted to know how close we were to the next AS. I was still urinating frequently and happy enough to know I was well hydrated.
As we came in to the Covered Bridge AS a tall man in a sombrero jumped out shaking maracas! I laughed and exclaimed, “bonjour Julien!” I think I gave him a hug, or I may be making that up. He replied this is a Spanish theme and the other volunteers let out a Hola! Suzanne was there too. She opted to volunteer after pacing me and was a welcome sight. I grabbed some more ramen and other foods and enjoyed the atmosphere briefly. Before we got there I talked with Tim about how I wanted to get out of aid stations quickly and though I dallied a little we were soon back on trail for a 4 mile loop. This was possibly the toughest point in the latter half of the race for me. There were big hills to climb, I sunk my foot to the ankle in mud, and ran maybe half of the 4 miles. Knowing we would return back to the fiesta at the Covered Bridge made the journey a little easier as did the company from Tim. Once we reached the AS again it was a brief moment to eat and a quick departure.
I knew the next 5 miles were mostly road and looked forward to it. I quickly regretted that as the hard road surface really pounded on my feet. Though I was moving slowly I was still running most of it and was still moving forward and that is the name of the game in an endurance race. I asked Tim to tell me a story or something interesting. He obliged with a tale from the World’s End 100k he had recently run.
In the last few miles of the race he was chatting with a friend and they had missed the turn off on the course. They had some time , but not much extra and the panic hit. They finally decided to backtrack and fortunately were only a 1/2 mile away from the turn. So after adding one extra mile on they were back on course and finished.
The outcome could have been much less favorable. The lesson is pay attention!
At mile 92 I saw Don and Paul again and picked up Jamie to pace for the last 10 miles. Ten miles. The last ten miles! I had plenty of time, at least 3 hours. I wouldn’t allow myself to believe I had it in the bag though. Mistakes could still be made as Tim’s story illustrated. I kept focused on moving ahead and Jamie and I chatted. Miles 92 to 97 were road and rails to trails terrain. Easy to run though I was beginning to walk more and more. The sun was rising and I felt a rush of excitement. Two sunrises. I witnessed two sunrises and the end was near enough I could comprehend it.
Arriving at mile 97, the Memorial Parkway AS we all looked tired, but happy. I grabbed some more food and quickly was back on the way
towards the finish. I yelled back to Don to bring a bulldozer to move a hill out of my way. We all laughed.
There was a short road section and then back to trail. There were a few climbs, none too large, and a set of stairs to contend with around mile 99. Jamie suggested a memory game which we made it through a few rounds of before my brain was entirely mush. We were at the staircase now and this is where things got a little funky. As I started to climb the stairs I asked Jamie if they were moving. I could see and feel the whole staircase was loose and poorly made as it shifted under my weight. Plus looking at the steps ahead the whole thing was moving like an escalator. No, Jamie assured me. It was of solid construction. Upon reaching the top I stopped to pee. The foreground trees were normal, but those in the background were constantly moving away from me. The exhaustion and the heat of the sun had mixed into quite the potent formula inebriating me thoroughly. After that I tried to keep running and soon I could see a bridge over the lake. That bridge was going to be my road to the finish. I was sure of it and this time I as right. We climbed a good size hill on the road. At the top there was Paul and Suzanne waiting to cover the last mile in!
The victory mile. Suzanne asked me how it felt to finish a 100 miler. I replied , “ask me after I cross the line. I’m not counting anything as done until the work is done.” Or something like that. And the work was almost done. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk. I simply hadn’t allowed my mind to accept the job was done until I crossed the line. Little by little the Sheraton Suites logo grew larger and as we rounded a slight bend in the road I could see it, the finish line. I knew I would finish, but I still didn’t believe it. I felt myself picking up speed. Each footstrike was a stab of hot pain, but I couldn’t stop and instead increased pace a little more coming in. I could hear a crowd cheering. It seemed so loud, almost deafening! Of course it wasn’t that loud, but I was emotional and likely a bit delirious. As I crossed that line I was ecstatic. I had finished, but mostly I was happy to stop running. A volunteer handed me a medal and asked Suzanne if she wanted to do the honors.
What Went Right
Is it too much to say everything? I have yet to work out what could have gone better. I could have done with less blisters and sure, if I finished faster that could be viewed as better. Ultimately though, everything went very well.
- Slow, slow pacing. Instead of running the first road section at a 9:30-10:30 pace I slowed down to 11:00s. Far slower than I have ever ran road before. As a result I never felt overly taxed or out of breath. However, running a pace so much slower than normal changed my biomechanics and caused my quads to start hurting by mile 15. They got progressively worse throughout the day making downhills tough.
- Heat management. From Polo Fields on I used an ice bandana until nightfall. The temperatures and humidity were excellent with a high of only 83 degrees.
- Fueling. I had a full 260 calories of Perpetuem before catching the shuttle to the race start. I carried one handheld with 17 oz of water and a 22oz bottle on my waist with Perpetuem for the first 3 hours and Heed for the rest of the race. Roughly every hour I took 1-2 endurolytes extreme electrolyte caps and 1-2 endurance amino caps which help buffer ammonia build up. I carried 1-2 Clif nut butter filled bars at all times and snacked on those throughout the day along with a lot of aid station foods. Some favorites included salted potatoes, chips, pb&j sandwiches, turkey and cheese sandwiches,fruit, ginger ale and late in the night coca-cola, ramen, and pizza. I tried to eat at least a handful or two of food at every aid station and it worked well. I ate what my body craved and kept eating continuously. From mile 20 on I carried a sandwich bag full of m&ms , pretzels, and other foods to snack on between aid stations as needed. I had consistent energy and mental clarity throughout the day which went a long ways towards the next point.
- PMA. Positive Mental Attitude. I kept positive and focused on the beauty of the natural surroundings and my good fortune to be able to do something like this. Gratitude was the attitude. This is not to say I didn’t get a little grumpy at times, but I kept coming back to the positivity.
What Went Wrong
I got nothing for this section. Seriously, it was the hardest and most painful thing I have ever put myself through and I’d do it again (and will do it again) in a heartbeat.
One Salomon Park Hydro Handset , Ultimate Direction Access 20 hip hydration belt, Roosport Plus, Body Glide and Skin
InkNBurn run or die singlet, Nike shorts, Aasics shorts, 1 pair of Darned Tough socks, 1 pair of wool socks, Layer 8 mid length compression underwear, Nike pro combat compression underwear
Hammer Perpetuem, Heed, Endurolytes Extreme, and Endurance Aminos. Clif Food pouches, Clif nut butter filled bars, and aid station foods. Lots of aid station foods. (see above)
A huge thank you and hugs and beers to my crew members, Don and Paul. They did an amazing job having everything I needed to get the job done including providing a few good laughs along the way. That is some kind of friends that will come out and stay awake for 30 hours tending to your every need and only seeing you a total of maybe an hour out of that 30 hours. My pacers; Suzanne, Tim, and Jamie. You were all incredible. Your company made what could have been absolute torment into a joyous memory. I owe you each a huge debt of gratitude. And Tara, for supporting my crazy habit as much as she can and for keeping me well nourished with amazing food.
Lastly, a big thanks to all the volunteers who treated us all like family. They looked out for us and took care of every need. If you’ve lost your faith in the good of humanity come out and volunteer at an ultra and that faith will surely be restored.