Tag Archives: 100 miles

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.

**********

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.

Recovery: Fast, Slow, and Hungry

Now that the Lighthouse 100 is in the books, people ask me two questions. The first, naturally enough, is: how does one recover from a 100-mile race?

Group start photo from the website. Oh so young, fresh, and naive!

The TL;DR answer: Carefully.

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. (Feel free to Like this post and move on…J)

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Now for those of you who’d like a little detail – in short, recovery hasn’t been what I expected.

Last year after the Kettle Moraine 100 I was sore for about a week. With Lighthouse I was mostly pain-free in two days. Within a week I was taking short bike rides and even getting in some light work at the gym. This was really surprising as it was a road ultra, and usually road races take me longer to recover than the same distance on trails.

But under the surface reality was lurking. Two weeks after Lighthouse the summer Aikido session started, and I left class that evening pumped up and feeling good. That was easy! When I woke up the next morning I wondered what truck had run me over. And while I’m back to running, and enjoying it, even an easy run takes more out of me than usual. On the bike, all it takes is a hill or two to remind me not to push it.

Yeah, it’s like that.

Even after I feel recovered from an extreme endurance event, it takes more time to really be fully recovered. For a 50K it takes me 2-3 weeks, and for a 50-miler 3-4 weeks, so a 100-miler should take about 6-8 weeks. That means late July at the earliest to resume full training. So Body Specs sessions are maintenance rather than strength-building, and all running is “fun running” until August.

My appetite has been the other surprise. The evening of my Kettle finish last year, I went to a sports bar and polished off a massive cheeseburger and fries, and went back to normal eating quickly after that. This year I had virtually no appetite for nearly a week. Even the pastries I normally lust after weren’t appealing.

I’ll start here with one of everything.

These problems have corrected themselves, to where everything looks good at any time and I’m eating something every couple of hours. I’m not even back to my pre-race weight yet, so I’m letting myself indulge as long as my main diet is the good stuff.

Since I’m used to more rigorous training, part of me can’t help feeling a little guilty about this easy running and constant eating. Well, tough. Both physically and mentally it’s doing me good. Many elite athletes don’t train at all during their off-season. They rest a lot, eat a lot, and enjoy life (imagine that!), knowing they’ll snap back into shape when they resume training.

For years I’ve trained and raced year-round. (Skip at Body Specs has a fancy term for this type of athlete, which I’ve forgotten.)  But since I’ve started “front-loading” races ending in a June 100-miler, July and August have become my off-season, which I am coming to like. I’ve been missing long bike rides, and now I can do them without worrying about how they fit into my training schedule. Enjoying outdoor exercise for its own sake? What a concept!

I’ll be back to regular training soon enough, though. As much as I like some time off, I also continue to enjoy competitive running, and there are events I’m looking forward to this fall and next year. Which leads to the other question people ask me: What’s next?

Well, here are a few I have in mind:

  • The Great New York Running Exposition (my target for a 2018 100-miler)
  • The Burning Man 50K (sold out in less than an hour this year)
  • Pursuit of a sub-90 minute half marathon
  • Be part of an ultra relay
  • Get back into pacing a race or two

But for now, I smile and reply, “I have no idea what’s next.” And you know, that feels really good.

Lighthouse 100 Recap, Part 2: The Long Night of the Sole

When last we left off, I had resumed my attempt to complete the Lighthouse 100 at mile 65 after coming within minutes of dropping out. A wonderful lady named Laura, crewing for another runner, had helped me recover enough to continue and said she’d see me again in 2.5 miles…

I made it the two and a half miles. It was a slog, but I was in good company. The wind was blowing so hard in our faces that running was a futile waste of energy. Laura was waiting for me. “How do you feel?” she asked.

I wasn’t well, but feeling better than I had. The Gatorade had revived me. And the sun and wind, having wreaked their havoc, had high-fived each other and were getting ready to call it a day.

“I think I can do this,” I told her.

“You can do this,” she replied firmly.

And with that, I was on my way again.

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Aid stations 5 and 6 had been pretty quiet, with runners straggling in one or two at a time. AS7 was busy with staff and crew tending to runners taking an extended rest and dealing with injuries and stomach issues. Ultrarunners are generally stoic when asked how they are doing. I heard a couple respond, “Not good,” which meant they were really suffering.

By contrast, I was starting to feel like myself again. I found Laura and thanked her profusely for her assistance, and said I could go on by myself. Then I called my wife to let her know I’d be mostly walking the last thirty miles. I calculated to my surprise that even at walking pace, I still had a shot at finishing in 24 hours. So she could meet me at the lighthouse around 6 a.m., just like we’d originally planned.

Thanks again, Laura!

It was just starting to get dark as I stepped onto the TART trail to begin the remaining ten miles to downtown Traverse City and the turn north up the peninsula.

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When you gotta go, you gotta go. – Common knowledge

It’s amazing how the mind can focus on a single subject, regardless of how one tries to suppress or divert it. Such was my case as I reached the suburbs of Traverse City. I needed to attend to a certain bodily function. Peeing in the woods is standard for ultrarunners, but number two, not so much.

Some runners don’t mind playing “bear in the woods” but I prefer an actual restroom, and I’d forgotten to bring along toilet paper anyway. The race organizers had not arranged for porta-potties because, we’d been told, there were gas stations and other places with toilets along the route. While true, their frequency did not meet expectations. And two factors complicated the issue; it was the middle of the night, and the trail ran along residential and industrial neighborhoods.

For several miles I carried on, hope rising when I saw lights ahead only to face disappointment when their source was either not open, or inappropriate (for example, the Burger King drive-thru). Civilization was everywhere, but – let’s just say the famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner quote came to mind.

Finally the trail reached a road with a Speedway station a few hundred yards away. My physical and mental relief belied description.

The salvation station!

And my stop provided an unexpected benefit, for as I rejoined the trail I met up with five other runners. For the next fifteen miles we walked and jogged together, providing support and companionship very welcome on a dark trail late in the race.

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When you’re going through hell, keep going. – Winston Churchill

“Do anybody else’s feet hurt as much as mine do?” Joe asked.

Our group had just left AS8 (Mile 80) and we had turned north at last, up the Old Mission Peninsula. The night hadn’t lowered the temperature much, but at least the wind was now at our backs.

Our unanimous answer to Joe’s question was, of course, yes. In a 100-mile race, every runner has sore feet by this point. Anyone who says otherwise is, to put it politely, a lying bastard. This was Joe’s first 100, so he was forgiven for thinking he was a weakling when in fact he was anything but.

There is Absolutely Nothing that fully prepares you for your first 100-miler. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve trained or how tough you think you are. It will push you physically and mentally well beyond whatever your limits were before. Just finishing, even five seconds before the cutoff, is an accomplishment well worth celebrating. And if you fall short? No shame. Lick your wounds, learn from it, and git ‘er done next time.

I didn’t know it when I took this photo, but I think this refers to the same Joe.

And for many runners it’s the first time they’ve run through the night. This can be intimidating and for some, claustrophobic. It’s hard to see very far, nothing looks familiar, and every noise is amplified (was that a raccoon, or a mountain lion?). Distances stretch out; one mile can seem like five. And even on clearly marked routes, an uneasiness sits in the back of the mind. Am I lost? How come I haven’t seen other runners? Where’s that damn aid station?

I usually enjoy night running, even solo, but I was very grateful for the company this time. I think we all were. For we all kept going, despite the pain, the lack of anything interesting to see, and that we still had many miles to go. We bitched and moaned, but we kept putting one foot in front of the other. Misery not only loves company, it needed company at that point. We broke up as the aid station approached, but we’d given each other the support we needed to get through the worst part.

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All good things must come to an end.  – Wait, how does this apply here?

“You’re flirting with the top 10,” Dave the race director told me as I settled into a chair at the mile 91 aid station.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “I melted down back there.” And so had everyone else, apparently. Only two runners had finished under 20 hours, and only a few more were ahead of me. My energy had returned around mile 85 and I’d been able to start running again. I’d passed a few people and was ahead of the group I’d been walking with.

“To hell with the top ten,” I said. “I’ve been looking forward to this chair for eleven miles, and I’m sitting in it a while.” And I did, chatting with the race staff and sipping iced Vernors. Almost heaven at that point.

When I finally stood up and jogged out of the aid station, an amazing thing had happened. The stomach trouble I’d had since early on was gone, my legs felt good, and I was full of energy. To top it off, there was a long downhill stretch ahead. Go time!

I went from a jog into a full steady run and held it. The course continued on downhill and then onto a gently curving road with hardly any intersections or residences. No one was visible either ahead or behind, adding spookiness to the dark, lonely Smokey Hollow Road – which sounded enough like “Sleepy Hollow” to do the trick.

Light finally appeared in the sky, and I emerged onto an open road and one of the final turns. I was almost home! But oops – the turn-by-turn directions I was carrying were wrong, indicating a right turn where going straight was correct. I spent 10-15 frustrating minutes figuring this out, but finally I saw the mile 95 water jug up ahead and just past that, the final turn onto US 27 leading straight to the lighthouse.

I covered the final miles in good time, and with no one around me, could enjoy them with no competitive pressures. I got to the lighthouse and crossed the finish line in 23 hours 53 minutes. And there was Joe! Sore feet and all, he’d finished the race and beaten me by over a half hour.

Even with the wrong turn mixup, I’d achieved my original goal of under 24 hours, and even won the male Masters division! Of course, the real accomplishment was finishing, given how close I’d come to dropping. Being able to come back from such a low point and finish strong tapped into a reserve I hadn’t known was there. What a great takeaway from the experience.

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I’ll wrap up with a brief race review. Based on my story you might not believe this, but I’m going to recommend the Lighthouse 100 to my fellow ultrarunners. As with the first edition of any race it had challenges, but this event has the potential to become a classic.

The course is well marked and has some beautiful sections. The long stretches on US-31 and Elk Lake Road were hot and miserable, and I hope they can find alternative routes. Aid stations were okay, but did not have as much substantial food as other ultras I’ve run, and that plus the ten-mile separations were tough on the uncrewed runners.

I give the race director and his staff full marks for effort and attitude. They were on the course the entire time we were and remained supportive and upbeat. There was also a lot of communication and opportunities to ask questions before the race. They wanted very much to provide a great experience. The weather threw a monkey wrench into the works, but they had no control over that, of course.

Some changes for next year have already been announced. The biggest is the reversal of the course, a great idea that will allow running the Old Mission Peninsula in daylight and to finish in Petoskey, where it’s a quick trip to your hotel or a restaurant instead of a long shuttle ride back. And by popular demand, porta-potties will be at the aid stations.

I think next year’s Lighthouse races will be much improved and definitely worth considering for ultrarunners who enjoy, or want to check out, northern Michigan..

Thanks for reading!