Tag Archives: ultramarathon

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.

**********

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.

Maniac on Singletrack

I HAVE THREE TAKEAWAYS from last weekend’s Singletrack Maniac 50K:

  1. Never assume a water jug is full
  2. You never really know what you’re capable of until you do it
  3. Ultrarunners are the best f**king people on the planet. (I knew that already, so this race was just another confirmation.)

There’s the TL;DR version. For those of you inclined to read on after lists like these, here’s the rest of the story.

Singletrack Maniac takes place in Williamsburg, Virginia, on the trails of beautiful Freedom Park, with start and finish at a nearby middle school. It was a pretty standard atmosphere – well-stocked aid stations, enthusiastic volunteers cheering us on, and runners and families hanging out on the lawn afterward. Which made it all the more remarkable, given we’re still in pandemic mode. (From my perspective, people were protecting themselves appropriately.)

The wisest advice you can give an ultrarunner!

I started out fast to establish a place on the singletrack where I could run at my chosen pace. This meant I was somewhere in the front 20 or so. I decided to push myself a little and ran harder than my standard 50K pace. This meant I was uncomfortable much of the time, but sustainably so. During my time out there I passed a few people and a few passed me, so overall I felt I was in the right place.

The course is a little unusual in that it’s two different trail loops, each run twice. My strategy was to learn from the first time through each loop, and adjust for the second loop accordingly. The first part, held on the A trail system, went well, and I felt strong as I entered the second half of the race on the D&E trails. And as I’d heard from others, this is where things got interesting.

The back loop does not have short, steep climbs and descents like the Potawatomi Trail back home, but it makes up for it with  long, gradual climbs and a lot of gentle rolling terrain with sharp turns, all of which sap your energy without you really feeling it for awhile. It became evident the second time through, when areas I’d run through the first time became walk/run or power hike.

And then came my kick-my-rear-end moment. On this part there’s a creek crossing, and just over the bridge were two tables with water jugs. I was low on water and looking forward to it. I opened my bottle and dumped the remaining contents over my head, as I was warm from the effort and rising temps, even as a little voice in my head warned me not to trust a water jug. Sure enough, it was empty. I had a bad moment or two before I tried the other jug, which fortunately had a little left in it.

Following that episode, I got a second wind and was able to resume fulltime running pace again. Funny how quickly a race “low” can switch to a “high” (and vice versa) but that’s ultrarunning for you. I was a little bummed when two guys I’d seen off and on throughout the race passed me for what I assumed was the last time. They looked way too comfortable.

And yet, as I emerged from the trail at the mile 30 aid station, there they were. I’d caught up somehow! Just one mile to go. But the path back to the road was a long uphill. Staring ahead, I realized how gassed I was.

“See you guys after the finish,” I told them.

They were having none of it. “Come on, man!” they said. “Match pace to the finish!” And we took off together. I kept up with them until one final checkpoint exiting the park. We stopped to show our bibs, and I didn’t have the heart to start running again, so I began walking. They waved at me from ahead. “Come on, man!” they said again. Where else but trail ultras does this happen?

Well, that did it. Turn down a second challenge? Might as well turn in my card. So I dug deep and took off after them. It was godawful hard, but as we reached the top of the hill, I caught up. Still, I figured it wouldn’t be long before they took off Roadrunner style and left me in the dust with my tongue hanging out.

So I redlined it, going all out. Man, did it hurt, but I was not going to jog it in, dammit. I’ll go this hard until I can’t, I told myself. The approach to the finish is a U-shape – run on the road, turn into the school driveway, and run back through the parking lot. This prolonged the agony, but somehow I held it together. Across the line I sprinted, well ahead of the two guys who’d given me the motivation to finish strong.

I went to the refreshment tent and lay down gratefully in the shade. The race director approached. “You won second Masters,” she said, placing my prize down next to me. Second in the 40-and-over age division. How about that? And I’d finished in the top 20 overall. I made sure to thank my colleagues for pushing me.

Me with some fellow top finishers, with our award growlers. Me second from left, my motivators the rightmost two.

Was it worth the ten-hour drive there? Absolutely. And I recommend it for anyone who would like to try out a trail ultra. Gorgeous park, not too many rocks and roots, and great support. And who knows, you just might discover you’re capable of more than you thought, even if you’re an experienced trail runner. Happened to me!

Grandmaster of Disaster

After running the Grandmaster 100K last month in the Arizona desert, I now share one characteristic with legendary ultrarunner Jim Walmsley, who has now twice set the course record at the Western States 100.

No, I did not win Western States. I haven’t even tried to qualify for it (yet). But we do indeed share one type of experience. I shall explain.

My usual plan with an ultra is to run it once, enjoy the experience, and move on. The Grandmaster Ultra is one of the select few I chose to go back to. The stark beauty of the desert, the challenge of the course, and the camaraderie of fellow 50+ runners was too strong a call to ignore. And it was among the few ultra choices available in early 2021.

I’d run the 50-miler in 2020 (just prior to Covid and all that), so I signed up for the 100K this year. A way different beast. In addition to the extra 12 miles, the last few hours would be run in the dark. I looked forward to the challenge.

Check out the incredible scenery below. Believe me, these photos don’t come close to full vision, wide-angle experience.

The footing’s even more fun in the dark!

I arrived with lowered expectations, due to pandemic-related necessities. But aside from mandatory mask-wearing and slightly fewer food options, it was the same as last year, including bonfires at the aid stations after dark. The weather was perfect for running – in the high 30s at start, rising to around 60 degrees in the afternoon, then dropping fast after sunset. Good preparation was key. I made several checklists and packed my drop bag carefully.

I would be running the 50K loop twice, so I sent a drop bag to the halfway mark of that loop, and had another one in my car at the start/finish. I was all set. Or so I thought.

The first loop went exactly to plan. I finished it around 6 hours 15 minutes, right on schedule, feeling strong, and, unexpectedly, as the lead runner. I checked my feet – nothing serious going on – put on a fresh shirt and socks, drank a lot of Gatorade, and headed back out. At every aid station the volunteers congratulated me on being in the lead. I’d met the couple behind me, Gene and Julie, friends running together, and they congratulated me too. Did I mention how great the camaraderie is with trail runners?

And the aid station volunteers were awesome, too!

Partway through my second loop I put on my headlamp, a new design that promised to be lighter and more comfortable than the standard headlamp. It was great. It’s light and so well balanced on the head I didn’t feel it at all, and its medium setting was plenty to light my way. The only thing missing is a red LED on the back for a rear light. So I clipped a couple bike lights to my belt instead.

In the desert, stuff just kinda shows up outta nowhere.

I got to the halfway aid station still feeling good. It was dark and already noticeably cooler, so first thing was to switch out my sweaty shirt for a fresh, dry one. Only I didn’t have one in my drop bag. Somehow, despite my carefully detailed checklists, I’d overlooked packing one. Not good. My only option was the shirt I’d swapped out on loop one and left to dry in the sun. It was still damp. I put it on anyway, figuring it would be better than no second layer. And I had a wind jacket. It would have to do.

On my way back I encountered Gene and Julie again. “Your lead just keeps getting bigger,” Gene said. I indeed figured I could stick to my current pace. No need to hit the gas just yet. I refueled at the next aid station and began the next stretch, which I knew was the longest and toughest on the loop. And during that stretch, things began to suck.

First, the terrain seemed to have changed; I didn’t remember there being so much uphill. I became convinced that in between my first and second loops, a construction crew had come in, elevated the grade, and strewn extra rocks on the trail. And I was getting cold, due to my slower pace, rapidly falling temps, and wet shirt.

Every ultrarunner knows to expect highs and lows during a race of this length. I’d been marveling that even after 50 miles, I hadn’t hit a low. Now one showed up and gleefully reminded me constantly that I was sore, tired, and cold. And, by the way, there was still a long slog remaining to the finish. Those few miles seemed to go on forever. Finally I heard the noise and saw the lights of the aid station ahead.

The middle of that tough stretch. Easy during the day. At night…not so much.

I got there and stood by the fire a bit, which didn’t help much. I think my clothes were just too wet. So I moved on to the final aid station. It was less than two miles, but I was not in good shape. I was shivering and had to sit down. Fortunately, someone had some toe warmers, which I slid down my shirt. After a few minutes my core felt warm enough that I was ready to push on to the finish. It was nearly five miles, but mainly downhill. All I had to do was hold together a little longer.

Down the wide, gravelly road I went, feeling better from the warmers and a quicker, steady pace. I reached the bottom and the final turn to the finish. Just between one and two miles to go, on a nice soft runnable surface.

And I had a Walmsley moment.

At mile 93 of the 2016 WS 100, Jim was not only the lead runner, he was on pace to break the course record. Per his own account, all was on track – until he made a wrong turn, went two miles off course, and ended up walking the rest of the way.

And on my final turn by that highway I went wrong, ending up on a path that looked sorta right, except there were no ribbons. In daylight I would have figured it out pretty quickly from landmarks and the fence line. But it was dark, and I figured it had to be right. I kept going, getting more and more concerned. Then I saw a woman up ahead.

“Have you seen any ribbons?” she yelled.

Well, if I was lost, at least I had company. We ran on a little longer, not seeing anything familiar. So we decided to turn around and head back to the intersection. I took off hard, pleased to have a reserve to draw on, but frustrated I’d gone so far the wrong way. I estimated I’d gone over a mile off course.

I got back to the crossroads, found the correct path right next to the other one, got on it and continued hard to the finish, crossing the line at around 16 and a half hours. My second loop had taken ten hours.

And I’d finished third. Both Gene and Julie had taken the correct turn and finished well ahead of me. Julie actually won the race overall by about ten minutes. So I was second male finisher and earned a trophy instead of the winner’s belt.

I was bummed, naturally, but also amused at the irony. Last year I’d won the 50-miler by a single second, and the fellow I’d finished with had accepted his second-place trophy with good grace. Now after being unchallenged leader for nearly 61 miles of a 62-mile race, I had to do the same.

I did my best to smile as they took my photo. But I was suffering badly from cold and fatigue, so right after that I got in my car, cranked up the heat, and returned to my lodging. What a relief to get into a warm bed with dry clothes.

And how do I feel about it now? Just fine, thank you. One advantage of being over fifty is learning what’s worth getting upset over, and what isn’t. And a race result is a definite isn’t. Besides, it makes for a good story. And I like the trophy. People think it’s pretty cool. What was I going to do with another belt?

Now I ask you – isn’t that one cool-looking trophy?

And one other thing may change as a result. I’d been thinking this would be my final time at the Grandmaster. There are too many other races that look like fun. But I was not happy with my time, even accounting for the wrong turn. If I’d won, I might just let it go. But now? I’m beginning to think I can do a lot better if I give it another go. Jim Walmsley did.