Whatever It Takes! Burning River 100 Report

I WAS DONE. Game over. Toast.

And not the $14.95 entitled millennial kind, with avocado, poached egg and pickled onions. Oh, no. This was the Waffle House special, burned-to-order type of toast.

Or something akin to this.

I was at mile 77 of the Burning River 100, slumped in a chair at the Oak Hill aid station around an hour before midnight, with a stomachache and feeling miserable after a long afternoon sweltering under the sun and humidity. Even back in the woods, after sunset, I felt overheated. And my feet hurt like hell. And a thunderstorm was due in an hour.

I had only to tell one of the wonderful volunteers that I was quitting, and could I get a ride back to the hotel. A long sleep, real food, and good coffee was just one sentence away.

And then someone with blood all over his neck plopped down in the chair next to me.

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I should have realized early on that Burning River would be an unusual race. Not that there’s such a thing as an “ordinary” 100-miler, but this one in particular had signs of hidden angels nearly from the start. At several key points I was saved from disaster, or at least a long backtrack, and, late in the race, from failing altogether.

Rain began five minutes into our 4 a.m. start out of Cuyahoga Falls Saturday morning. It hadn’t been forecast until Sunday, but here it was, and no passing shower, either. It continued steadily for about four hours. And yet no one seemed to mind. It was actually refreshing, keeping the sun away and the temperature comfortable.

I still have trouble believing I got up at 3:15 to do this.

We took paved roads out of town onto the Ohio and Erie Canal towpath. On long flat stretches in twilight it’s easy to zone out and miss turn markers. And I did – twice – on that stretch, by following people ahead of me. Both times someone behind us called out, “Wrong way!” and we were soon back on course. “Thank you, random stranger!” I called out. “Trail angel,” someone else said. He was right.

Once we hit the singletrack, I knew my feet were in for a rough day. Along with the sheer distance, we’d be climbing and descending wet, slippery trails, running through patches of sticky mud, and hopscotching over creeks swelled by the rain. My Hoka Bondi shoes with their max cushioning helped, but the first creek crossing could have wrecked me just eight miles in.

I’m pretty good at hopping from rock to rock over creeks. But on the last one my right foot slipped, my shoe went flying into the creek, and I banged my heel hard, causing a bruise I still have a week later. However, the pain faded away after a bit, merging into the background body noise that comes with an ultra.

Among the good parts – themed aid stations. Welcome to the prom!

I’d targeted a 24-hour finish, as that’s what I’d done at Lighthouse back in 2017, even after a bad second half. I aimed for ten hours on the first 50 miles, giving me 14 hours to come back. I didn’t quite make that, completing the journey to Silver Springs Park in just over 11 hours, but I still had a shot at my goal.

But there was trouble in (Burning) River City.

The sun had come out late that morning, and as the runners emerged from the woods and onto the paved path that ran eight miles to the turnaround, it began to take its toll. The temperature rose quickly into the eighties, and with high humidity it was nearly impossible to keep cool. At the Silver Springs station I sat on a bench and mopped my head and neck with a sponge soaked in ice water. (Bless the race staff for providing them, and for having plenty of ice for drinks, too.)

I still didn’t feel quite right when I got up, but I had to head back. Time was a’ wasting! And I lost more time when something told me to check my bib, and it wasn’t there! Fortunately, it had fallen off only a few hundred yards back. I could well have gone miles before noticing it was missing. Another angel to the rescue.

I pushed the pace back along the path into the woods, and for a while thereafter. At the Pine Hollow station (mile 65) I still felt well enough to joke with the volunteers. When one asked, “Can I get you anything else?” I said, “Yes. Tell me why the hell I’m out here doing this.”

She turned to another volunteer. “He wants to know why the hell he’s out here doing this.”

“Because you are a badass,” she said.

This is encouragement?

Badass or not, as the sun went down, my body and mood went with it as the trail dragged on. Out of nowhere I began to wonder if quitting wasn’t a bad idea. I’d never considered it an option, and yet the idea kept getting stronger. At mile 73 I made a decision. I’d walk – no running – the next section to Oak Hill. If I didn’t feel better by then, I’d quit.

During those four miles one continuous monologue looped in my head. Yes, I’m definitely quitting. Enough already. Just a little longer and I can stop. God, do my feet hurt. No way can I possibly finish. At the Lighthouse 100 I’d felt the same at mile 65. I’d even sat in a runner’s crew car and told them I was done. And yet I’d recovered just enough to go on and finish the race. Could I do that here? Not a chance. I was so done.

I reached the aid station and collapsed into a chair. Across from me was another runner. “How are you doing?” I asked. Maybe, just maybe, he could inspire me.

“Oh, I’m done,” he said. “I’ve had enough.” He asked a volunteer to call in that he was quitting.

So much for that. All I had to do was say, “Me too. Could I hitch a ride with you back to the hotel?” So easy. And yet I didn’t. “I’m this close to quitting, too,” I told the volunteer, explaining I had gut issues and felt overheated.

“Take your time,” he said. “You have lots of time. You can walk it in from here.”

Walk twenty-three more miles? That sounded even worse than trying to run them. But I still held off. I lay down on the grass for ten minutes and felt somewhat better. I put on a dry shirt and sipped some broth, and improved a little more. Still, I just couldn’t fathom trudging the rest of the course in the rain. Everything hurt. I had zero motivation. Nothing was going to make me get up out of that chair and back on the trail.

And then someone even worse off sat down next to me.

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His name was Howard, and he was a high school student. He too had a stomachache, he was feeling chilled, and had just suffered a bad bloody nose. If anyone had justification to stop, it was him. But he wasn’t about to.

“I can’t quit,” he told me. “I’m in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, and my friends and I are making a documentary of it. I just have to finish. Whatever it takes.”

I gave him a light jacket from my drop bag and my hand towel to clean up with, and we talked some more. We got confirmation that more rain was on the way, which guaranteed the remaining singletrack would become sticky, slippery, nearly un-navigable glop. I admired his determination, but said I was still this close to quitting.

“Don’t quit now,” he said. “Whatever it takes. Let’s go together.”

And I got up out of that chair. To hell with my suffering and self-justified self-pity. I couldn’t let someone in that condition go out there alone. “I look forward to seeing your names in the finishers list,” the volunteer said as we walked away. So were we.

Everything happened as predicted. The rain came, and the singletrack became sticky, slippery, nearly un-navigable glop. And while I soon felt better again, Howard got sicker. But not for a moment did he consider quitting. On we went, one dark, endless mile after another, one sloppy step at a time.

And then the rain stopped, and we exited the mud back onto smooth, flat towpath, and the sky lightened with a new morning. And just after 8 a.m. Sunday, sun shining and spectators cheering us on, we made our way down Front Street toward the big white tent, hearing the music and the gathered crowd, and sprinted the last fifty yards across the finish line. We’d done it. Twenty-eight hours, not twenty-four, but that didn’t matter anymore. We were finishers.

Finishers! Hurts so good.

As it turned out, conditions had been hard on just about everyone. Of the 340 registered runners for the 100-miler, only half finished, and half of them in the final two hours. I’d expected us to be among the final runners; instead we were right in the middle of the pack. Not bad for walking the last quarter of the race.

Howard left with his friends shortly afterward, but we exchanged numbers and agreed to stay in touch. I feel I owe him my finish. Without him there, at that moment, in that condition, it’s highly likely this post is about a DNF. Yet once again, when I was sure I’d reached my physical and mental limits, a way appeared to teach me I was capable of more. Maybe that’s a better answer to why the hell I was out there, and why I continue to run ultras.

But I’ll settle for being called a badass.

Getting Ready to Burn that River!

The Burning River 100 starts dark and early (4:00 a.m.) Saturday morning. And I’m ready to get my body on the trails.

Do I feel like I’m optimally trained for it? Depends. It’s been three years since I last ran a 100+ mile race – the Veterans Memorial 150 in 2018 – but it doesn’t feel all that long ago. And I’ve run two ultras already this year, a 100K and 50K.

Main issue is I’m coming off some strained lower abs that just would not get better, which reduced my running volume a lot. But I kept at in the gym and substituted bike rides, and right now I’m feeling better physically than I have in many months.

As for preparation, I’ve probably overthought it. All I really need to run the silly race is a good pair of shoes and a socially acceptable minimum of clothing. The aid stations are close enough together that I don’t need a crew or to carry a lot of gear. Temps promise to be warm, too, so there’s little risk of going hypothermic like I did at the Grandmaster 100K, even if it rains all night. Which it might. But I have two drop bags with dry clothes, first aid basics, and extra salt tablets JIC.

Below you can see what I’m planning to wear at race start. I prefer triathlon shorts for long events because their compression fit reduces chafing, and they dry quickly when wet. Calf sleeves help with circulation and protection against thorny shrubs and the like. I’m trying out the Injinji individual toe socks instead of taping my toes. They’ve felt fine in test runs, and should reduce blistering. The towel can be soaked in cold water and worn under my hat when it gets warm in the afternoon.

As for shoes? A toss-up. I’m planning to go with my New Balance 880s, which are more for roads, and see how it goes. Mainly for comfort reasons, and that there isn’t a crazy amount of elevation gain. I have actual trail shoes in my drop bags in case the trail conditions need them.

If anyone reads this in time and is interested in my real-time progress, you can find me on the RaceJoy app. Look up Burning River (in Ohio), and select bib #136 to track. Cutoff is 30 hours, but I hope to be done well before then.

Finally, one might wonder why I put myself through all this. I’ve been asked this many times, as you might imagine, and I don’t have a clear, coherent answer yet. But this T-shirt below is as good a reason as any, IMO.

Thinking on Our Feet

One recent Wednesday morning I wrapped up a hot, long early run feeling like indulging myself. I walked to the nearby coffee shop and gazed with longing upon the chocolate pistachio croissant on display there.

But there was a problem. “Sorry,” the manager said. “Our system is down.”

She spent the next few minutes trying to wake it up while I waited and other customers came in. She gave up and looked at us in despair. “I can’t even take your orders. I’m calling the main office now.”

Part of me wanted to point out the prices were posted, the espresso machine was working, and she could take cash. The rest of me, in shameless sang-froid, wanted to see if she could figure this out herself. She did not. So I left, sans coffee and croissant, as did the customers behind me.

If you’re expecting a rant on how we’ve becomes slaves to technology, you’re only partly right. We have, of course. But the root cause here wasn’t a tech fail, it was a process fail. Is the purpose of the coffee shop to keep its ordering system up? No, it’s to sell coffee and food. The manager should have been trained in how to keep selling despite a failure. Something like this:

“Okay, Jane, the computer system has failed. We still need $300 per hour in revenue to stay in business. And customers are waiting. What do you do?” Very similar to what my father experienced in private pilot training, when his instructor shut off the engine mid-flight and said, “Now what?”

Technology is great. It saves time, reduces errors, and lets us do so much more than we could without it. At the cost of some of our independence. I don’t think that the growing interest in “off-the-grid” living, foraging skills, and the like is any coincidence. All of us ought to try at least one activity that requires us to think on our feet, and figure out how to survive when conditions aren’t easy. That’s what we’ve always been best at.

For me, that activity is ultrarunning. In a road race, there’s usually a crowd to follow, the running surface is smooth, and help is plentiful. In a trail ultra the footing is almost never certain, course markings can be missed, and I’m running by myself for most of the race. And the weather can vary a lot during one. So while I can get into a flow, and enjoy the scenery around me, I need to stay attentive to many things, and adjust “on the fly” at times. (*)

Okay, now what?

And yet, even with this awareness, I’m not immune to feeling stressed when I experience a process failure.

At the next Wednesday morning run, we’d just set off when I realized I’d forgotten to put on my Garmin watch. Yikes! No way to track my pace and distance. What to do? Fortunately, it is actually possible to run without a GPS watch, so I got through it, though I kept wanting to tap my wrist at stoplights. Backup plan? Ask someone with a watch how far we’d run.

Afterward, I returned to the coffee shop. Their system was back up, and I got my pastry. The manager even admitted she’d forgotten about their backup system. I tossed out the word, “cash” and she laughed. I wonder if she knows what it is.

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(*) The recent tragedy during an ultra in China has made the need for good preparation and attentiveness to conditions even more visible and important. I’ll express my thoughts on this in a future post.

Update: Writing, Writing About Writing, and More Writing

MAY IS OVER ALREADY, and it’s been quite a month in the RBT world. Much has happened, and I’ll share it all here at some point. But for now, let me bring y’all up to date on the activity that’s taken up the majority of my time this year. And no, it isn’t running!

No, it’s true!

The main reason I haven’t posted much here is that I’ve been busy writing. My debut novel, Keeping the Faith, has been professionally critiqued and deemed worthy of publishing. Hooray! But as any author knows, the book itself is just the start of the process. Now comes the marketing to agents part.

A novel submission package generally consists of a query letter (pitch to the agent), a short synopsis (a brief summary of the book), and the first couple of chapters. The chapters are done, so that part’s easy. But it’s amazing how much work it takes to write a good two-page synopsis and one-page query letter. You try boiling down 160,000 words of prose (my novel’s length) into 1,000, or 500, and in a way that convinces potential agents that I’ve written the Great American Novel. When I get it right, I’ll share some details here.

Then comes finding agents that request submissions that match the book’s genre or category. In my case, this is New Adult, with the protagonist and the bulk of the readership, being roughly college age to early thirties. There are searchable database of agents out there, and I’ve begun going through them.

And then there’s what I call the “fact checking” phase, which is also what I’m doing right now. The novel includes a lacrosse game and a rowing championship race. As I’ve never played lacrosse or crewed, I need help getting the terms correct and the action sequences credible. Fortunately, I have some people helping me there.

And then there’s the STEM part. Marcus, my main character, is pursuing a major in civil engineering, and is living with a retired math professor. The Riemann Hypothesis, a famous unproved math conjecture, plays an important part in the book. So there’s all that to get right as well. (Any readers who have expertise here, please let me know ASAP.)

Regardless of outcome, this has been quite a learning process. And as long as I remember that, I can enjoy the adventure in progress. Maybe I’ll even write a book about it!

More to follow in future posts!