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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.