Friday, August 4, 2017

Burning River 100 2017: Bringing home the buckle

The smell of victory.
Two straight DNFs will mess with one’s brain and wreck one’s body. Humbled but uninjured after Burning River last year, Jordan convinced me that my racing year wasn’t over; that I should count the 72 miles I ran as a training run, and maintain my level of fitness after a short recovery. The Tunnel Hill 100 in November seemed like a good second try at a buckle; a double out-and-back course on a flat, fine-gravel recreation trail in Vienna, Illinois. After having a support crew and pacers at Burning River, I went solo for this attempt; camping overnight at the start and utilizing aid stations. The first 50 miles went well; I stuck to my run/walk plan and kept up with food (even grabbing a whole ‘lunch’ around noon), reaching the halfway point in 10:30. I stopped long enough to put on warmer clothes and started back out as the temperatures dropped. I had planned my clothes on the assumption that I’d be running, but a recent knee injury restricted me to walking, and I couldn’t generate enough heat to stay warm. I told the aid station worker at mile 65 I was done and curled up next to the fire pit. I got a ride back to the start with another runner’s crew and crawled underneath two sleeping bags before driving home the next morning.

After some soul searching, I realized the Burning River DNF bothered me most, so Jordan encourage me to target it again this year. I made a training plan to address my shortcomings from last year; I raced two 50ks and a 50 miler, incorporated speedwork, hit the weights at the gym, and introduced myself to that special torture which is the stair climber. I ended up running fewer miles total in the run-up to this year’s race, but was convinced that quality would trump quantity.

The days before the race were relaxed. My parents came to Cincinnati to watch Fuller, and I hitched a ride up to Akron with a fellow runner whose accomplishments and experience were inspiring and educational. Jordan joined me later that evening, and I was in bed by 9:15.

The 1:30 alarm to catch the bus went off after a good 4 hours of sleep; I sat around at the start to save energy, and felt calm as the seconds ticked down to the start. Committing to not make the same mistakes as I had last year, I made a point to walk across the starting line so as not to go out too fast and to set a conservative tone for the day. I deliberately kept to the back of the pack during those first 11 road miles, walking even the slightest hint of an uphill. I wore a GPS watch for the first half and obsessively checked that my pace never went faster than 10 minute miles. And through it all I felt awful… Every injury I’d dealt with this year made itself known, and I felt under-trained and out of shape. I finally started to loosen up after 20 miles when I first saw Jordan at Shadow Lake. I picked up more shot bloks, decided against carrying solid food (the aid stations had great options), filled up all three water bottles, and got back on the trail. The weather was still cool and the trails lush, and I made a point to take it all in and thoroughly enjoy myself.

All business at the Meadows.
Photo credit Pat Dooley
As I was familiar with this section of the course from last year, the next few sections flew by. I felt like I sprang to life when we finally hit some proper single track on the Buckeye Trail. The mix of trail surfaces would turn out to be a good thing; about the time I’d get tired of pavement, we’d be back on a bridle trail or single track. Around mile 36 I encountered my first real challenge: my right leg began to seize up and I had searing pain in my hip joint. I was pretty sure it was a bad cramp in my quad, so I decided to hobble as best I could to the Meadows aid station at mile 38, see Jordan, address the cramp, get some salt and Advil, and get back on the trail. Jordan could probably tell I was struggling as I came into the aid station, and she got right to work with the marathon stick on the very obvious knot in my right leg while I lay back gritting my teeth and trying not to scream. All of a sudden a woman appeared and said, “Is he cramping? I’ve got just the thing.” In a moment she was back with magnesium cream all over her hands. All but elbowing Jordan out of the way, she said, “I’m going in!”, reached her hands up my shorts, and began to mercilessly work on the knot. I have no idea what she looks like because I was squeezing my eyes shut to the pain. After about 30 seconds, I felt the knot disappear, cried “STOP!” to this ultra-angel, and thanked her profusely. Once the Advil took affect 30 minutes later, it was like the cramp had never happened. Whoever she was, crew person or volunteer, she saved my race. I hopped up, got some Nutella, banana, and potato chips wrapped in a tortilla (so good!), and got back on the trail, feeling like I had a new lease on life.

I had crafted much of my training this year to prepare specifically for the next 12 miles. While there aren’t any really long climbs at Burning River, there are a lot of them, and they’re steep and rugged. The time I logged on the YMCA stair climber really began to show on this section as I powered up the climbs, even passing some relay runners when the hills got especially steep. Last year I became demoralized heading into the aid station at Boston Mills when I realized I wasn’t going to break 10 hours, but this year I was pleased to cover the first half in just under 12 hours. I loaded up with more shot bloks, headlamp and flashlight, potato chips and a pickle, and set out with Jordan feeling better than I had all day.

With Jordan there, the race became even more fun. We chatted about the day, and I told her all the stories I’d accumulated so far in the race. My next big issue began to creep up, and would define much of the rest of the race: I could feel blisters forming on the balls of my feet. Learning from last year’s mistakes, I’d come prepared with 4 changes of socks and a crude blister kit. The left foot was the worst, so I found some band aids and medical tape at the Ledges aid station and did my best to reduce the friction. My poor taping job didn’t last long, so at the next aid station (Pine Hollow 1), I covered both feet with Vaseline and put on fresh socks from the drop bag. While dealing with blisters, I was covering the section where my race fell apart last year, and I was combating anxiety by comparing how I felt now to how I remember feeling last year. We passed a bench where I’d laid down during the race and first contemplated dropping; Jordan suggested I stand on top of it and strike a pose. Which I did. I could easily tell I was so far better prepared this year. It gave me encouragement for the way ahead.

Speaking of encouragement: in the weeks and days before the race, Jordan had reached out to family members and old running friends to record messages and videos that she saved to her iPhone. She showed them to me as we were approaching aid stations or when she sensed I needed a pick up. She even read Facebook updates from our Cincinnati based running group. It was an awesome feeling knowing so many good friends were rooting for me to succeed.

As it got full dark, the primary difficulty began to be fatigue. Once I passed Pine Hollow 1 at mile 72, I was in unexplored territory, running further than I ever had before. I was surprised by how bad my feet hurt (blisters and general soreness), how good my legs felt (once the cramp was dealt with, my legs felt great), and how dog-tired I was. So many times, I just wanted to lay down in the trail and go to sleep. Feeling desperately tired, I sat on a stump, and discovered the beauty of cat naps. I put my head on my knees, asked Jordan to get me up in two minutes, and tried to relax. It worked wonders; I felt reset, and once the stiffness of sitting wore off, I could run again. I repeated this a number of times through the night (probably more times than Jordan thought prudent), but it was the only thing I found that really helped the fatigue.

I’d been warned by past finishers that the loops at Pine Hollow and the Covered Bridge were the toughest sections of the course, and they did not disappoint. Both consisted mostly of horse trails, and those fine animals had torn up the trail surface something fierce. With blisters on both feet, every misplaced step was painful (which seemed to be most of them). These trails were also really steep; I got confused trying to decide if the light I saw above me was the moon or the headlamp of a runner further up the trail (it was frequently the latter). Once we reached the Covered Bridge 2 (definitely my favorite aid station; they just seemed to be having the most fun), I knew most of the remaining course was towpath or road. The blisters required more attention; this aid station didn’t have medical tape, but they did have BIG band aids and duct tape, which finally fixed the buggers. I commented to Jordan sometime later that I’d temporarily forgotten I had blisters, such was the magic of the duct tape (it’s going in my pack from now on).

Now I was back in familiar territory, having paced Jordan for the remaining sections when she ran this race in 2011. We tried to make better time now that the running surface was easier; if I couldn’t run, I tried to keep up the ‘ultra shuffle.’ I took another catnap at Botzum (or tried to; helpful volunteers kept checking on me, and I felt bad to see their apologetic faces when I said I was trying to take a nap), got one last dose of solid food, and got serious about getting this thing done. Jordan suggested we run 5 minutes and walk 2 on the long stretch of towpath to the next aid station. Like magic, after 10 reps we were at Memorial Parkway, the last aid station before the finish. I topped off my water, planned to survive on shot bloks til the end, and set out for the last 4.2 miles of my first 100 mile finish.

As we got closer to the finish, the emotions started to hit. I’d fought for this finish for a long time. When I first contemplated running 100 miles, I wanted to earn a place in the ultra community, and to fit in with our running group (we know a lot of very accomplished runners). But after a year and a half of training and two DNFs at the distance, I just wanted this for me. Around mile 99 or 100 (the course measured 102.2 this year), I pulled ahead of Jordan, let the emotions come, and just flew down the trail. The feeling of running that fast with that many miles in my legs was worth every mile of training. I didn’t really believe my body was that capable, but it is, and it was a magnificent feeling. Jordan caught up to me as I slowed down approaching the infamous series of steps (they really weren’t that bad) in the final miles before the road back in to Cuyahoga Falls.

They say don’t celebrate too early, and it’s true; my little life-affirming wild-man trail moment caused my butt to start cramping once we got on the road section into town. Chastised, I walked most of the last mile, running again as I approached the finishers chute with that great big clock that signifies the end of most footraces. Crossing the line, I put my head down for the volunteer to place the buckle around my neck. I found I was laughing and crying at the same time; crying out of happiness, and laughing because I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. This was a long time coming, and I wanted it bad.

Some surprising truths struck me during the race. I realized running 100 miles is not a physical challenge; it’s a mental one. While I think there’s a base level of fitness required to cover the distance, a strong mind is vastly more important. One quote from a recent training article stuck with me and saw me through many miles: it’s not about how you feel; it’s how you feel about how you feel. Many times I’d repeat to myself: my feet hurt, but that’s okay; I’m tired, but that’s okay. Fatigue was a much bigger challenge than I expected; my cat naps seemed to work, but next time, I’ll bring even more coffee.

Some technical stats. I ate at least 20 packets of shot bloks; I’d packed solid foods in drop bags, but went with aid station fair which worked well. I drank 4 servings of Roctane and 3 6oz cans of coffee. I carried 57oz of water at a time (two hard 21oz bottles and a 15oz collapsible flask) and by rough estimation, I probably drank 4 to 5 gallons of water (the thought of drinking water would eventually begin to turn my stomach…). Five days post race, the only lingering issues are the blisters, and I know those will take time.

I haven’t figured out the 100 mile distance, but I’ve got my foot in the door now. I’ve earned the right to contemplate and dream of steeper and higher races, and look forward to getting back to the work of training.

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