Even before I could see the lights glowing across the field from the Happy Days aid station, I knew I was done. I’d known it for hours already. It was nearly 1:30am, I’d been in some kind of forward motion for 20 hours and thirty minutes, I’d covered more than 70 miles, and the blisters on the bottom of both my feet made each step an excruciating event.
Two hours and forty minutes had rolled off the clock while I trudged and whimpered through the last 5.5 miles – 28 minutes for every mile. I was still almost 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff, but that didn’t matter. I was done and I knew it.
My sister, Heather, was waiting nervously for me at Happy Days. I’d called ahead, 2 miles back, to let her know that I was okay, but moving really slowly. Another hour passed before I emerged from the tree line a couple of hundred yards away from the station. I know she was worried because she hadn’t seen me since I left Boston Store Aid Station the second time. That was at Mile 60.6, ten miles back. Four hours and twenty minutes had passed since then, easily the longest amount of time I’d been out of contact with her all day. What was she thinking? What would she say when I finally limped in?
Heather was a newbie at all of this. She’d only ever seen me run twice, at a 5K Turkey Trot near her home outside Pittsburgh. She’d never even come close to an Ultra before, let alone a 100-miler with a weary and potentially cranky older brother. But when I called to ask her if she might be able to come crew me for the Burning River, she said yes without hesitation.
I didn’t tell her at the time, but if she had said no, I don’t think I would have gone either. The event was penciled into my calendar for months, but my work commitments were heavy and it wasn’t until four days before the race that I knew I’d be able to get out of town for three days to run it. By that time, there was so much last minute planning to take care of, I don’t know if I could have managed it all by myself.
With Heather coming though, I didn’t have to worry about drop bags, or plotting out when I might need certain equipment. All I had to do was throw everything I might need for the race into one duffle bag, and then toss that bag into the trunk of her car. There were 14 crew accessible aid stations on the course, so I’d be seeing her plenty, and I could just carry my cell phone and call her about anything I thought of between pit stops.
It was an easy trip for Heather. The Burning River 100 runs between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. That’s only a quick two-hour drive west from Pittsburgh for her. It would be more than six hours for me from Chicago. I found us a hotel, confirmed with the race director that I would still be able to sign up in person on Friday night before the race, and packed my car.
So, we were set. I was going. We were – both of us – going to take a crack at it.
After we found each other in Cuyahoga Falls (the staging area and Finish line for the event) and were settled at our hotel, I started my own little briefing session with my sister. I gave her a run down on all the equipment I had in my bag, headlamps, extra running clothes, Vaseline, all my socks, hip packs and such. We talked about when I might need it and what I might need it for. We went through all the race food I had brought along, Gatorade powder, gel packs, trail mix, and bottles of Ensure. I tried to give her an idea of when she should heed my requests (or denials) and when she should ignore me and force me to take or change things.
I said she didn’t need to worry about speeding me through the aid stations. I wouldn’t be lingering, but I was fine with taking a few minutes, catching my breath, reloading supplies and making sure I had everything I needed. I reminded her – and myself – that my time goals were very modest and if I could keep a 15 minute per mile pace most of the event, that would be ideal. She could guesstimate my aid station arrivals based on that pace.
Mostly, I let her know that blind or false enthusiasm wouldn’t help me. Scolding or fussing at me wouldn’t help either (not that I thought she’d do that). I forget exactly how I phrased it, but I told her that what I’d really need was a, sort of, “practical optimism”, and always the hard truth. No blowing smoke up my ass or white lies to egg me on.
The next morning in the car on the way up to the start line, she was giddy and nervous and excited – more so even than I was. At least I had a good idea what I was getting into! We arrived at the Start area later than we’d hoped and had to scramble a bit to get me checked in and geared up. A couple of small flood lights lit the check-in tents. The air was cool but not chilly. We could see a hint of Squire’s Castle standing over us in the dark behind the start line. And then after a hug, a kiss, and a quick snapshot, I was off! It was going to be 2 or 3 hours before I saw Heather again.
The early miles flew by. A course change due to bridge construction, had added a few miles to the course before the first aid station. The first 13 miles were now all on paved roads – and largely flat roads, at that. My 15 minute goal pace fell quickly. Even when I walked the hills, and took other walk breaks I didn’t feel I needed, I was still covering the miles at an 11 minute pace!
On paper, that doesn’t look so good. Too fast! Too fast! Every runner I talked to worried about it out loud, but we all agreed, semi-pros and newbies alike, that in spite of the numbers, it felt super easy. That’s the real point in an Ultra, right? To keep the effort light and easy for the first 20 to 30 miles.
The easy terrain had another rare effect: the packs of runners stayed thick and populated for miles and miles at the start. There were only 150 of us in the race, but, even 10 miles in, there were still large packs of us moving together along the course and in eye-sight of each other. That’s something that’s never happened in any of the trail-based ultras I’ve run.
By the first Aid Station, 8.1 miles in (Old Mill & Chagrin River Roads), I was way ahead of schedule and had to call Heather to tell her to look for me early at Polo Field AS (the first crew accessible station, at the 12.9 Mile mark). When I pulled in, it was good to see her waiting in the parking lot. It turned out she had packed a little dry erase board and had written a message on it for me. I think that first one read: “Remember the Tortoise, He beat the Hare!”
After greeting her, I went straight for the food tables under the picnic pavilion. I took my first chunks of juicy watermelon, a habit I would keep to for the rest of the day. I’m not usually a watermelon guy, but they were sweet, watery (duh), easy to eat, and cool in my mouth. Ideal all around.
I was also glad to find that Heather had already made a friend. There was another runner at the race from Pittsburgh and his wife was out to crew for him. She and my sister had already struck up a camaraderie.
Heather had a towel out for me to wipe my face dry, I opted not to change my socks yet, grabbed an extra gel pack, and off I went. I’d covered the first 13 miles in less than 2.5 hours, an 11.5 minute per mile pace. I didn’t worry though. They were still “easy effort” miles and I was confident that I hadn’t made a mistake – just like I wouldn’t have worried about a super-slow pace on a section that included a major elevation gain.
The course out of Polo Field, though, finally got us off the roads and put us on real trails for the first time all day. That made it easy to slow down a little, and I covered the next 9 miles to the next crew accessible AS, Shadow Lake (Mile 21.9), in just under 2 hours, a 13 minute per mile pace.
It took me a moment to spy Heather at Shadow Lake, but then I found her at the far end of the picnic area. She had hauled my gear bag over to a table, but the parking lot wasn’t far away and I redirected us over to her car. We had several bits of business to take care of: I needed some bug spray, I was ready to change my socks, and I needed to spread on some Vaseline. That last one, my sister was a little embarrassed to bring up. She was worried about my nipples. But I was also thinking about my armpits and my tender rear end! Luckily, her cell phone rang and distracted her before she noticed me reaching behind my back to apply a small handful of paraffin down my shorts!
But who was on the phone? Our Mom! Don’t ever let anyone tell you that parents (especially Moms) don’t have some kind of telepathic radar. It was only the second time my sister and I had been together all morning, and Mom called at precisely that moment. I talked to her for a minute while Heather handled some gear exchange in the back of the car. Then she took the phone again and told Mom she’d call back in a minute once I was on my way.
Just as I was getting my shoes laced back up again, a Parks Patrolwoman pulled up behind us in her patrol car. “So, uh, what exactly is going on here this morning? This some kind of race?” she asked, but her tone wasn’t really conversational, it was more like what the heck do you people think you’re doing to my park?
I told that yeah, it was a race, a 100-Mile race. Then I told her if she needed to talk to somebody, there were a few race officials working the picnic area behind us. Not only that, one of them would have a direct line of contact to the Race Director. She should go talk to them, I was just a runner. She ignored that suggestion though. Maybe she was too lazy to get up out of her car. She kept asking me questions instead. Where had we started? Where would we finish? How long would we be out there? Would we be following the river most of the way down? I could see her writing down the answers I gave her on a notepad in her lap.
It was kind of weird. I knew the race was being staged with the consent of the Cleveland Metroparks and the Cuyahoga River Valley. How could this parks patrolwomen not be in on the gig? And why was I being interrogated. Despite myself, I was annoyed with her, and finally I just turned my back on her and went back about my own business. I had a race to run. I referred her, one last time, to the aid station tent for a race official.
Heather reminded me that it was going to be 3 more Aid Stations and just under 15 miles before I’d see her again. Did I have everything I’d need? Yep, I was good. I told her I was going to take this next stretch really easy and it would be 3 to 4 hours before I saw her at the next crew spot, Station Road Bridge (Mile 36.6).
I was true to my word. I covered a lot of those 15 miles at a speed-walking pace. Especially as the time of day moved toward noon, and the air temps reached into the 80s. The last mile before the Egbert Shelter AS included a long walk up a sun-exposed highway bridge. That’s where I really felt the heat for the first time and it wasn’t quite 11am, yet. Egbert offered a special treasure, though, once I got there: a cooler full of frozen Icee-Pops! I took an orange one before I left. That was the sweetest thing I tasted all day. Delicious!
The 5 miles to Alexander/Bedford Road wasn’t so bad, but the long section from there to Station Road Bridge was another sun-exposed section of the Tow Path, a mostly paved bike path that was populated with weekend cruisers. Dodging family bike clans wasn’t so bad, but the heat was rough and I speed-walked just about the whole 5 miles. I got tired of the dutiful bikers calling out “on your left” as they rolled past me with ten full feet of path clearance on my left side.
My walking speed slowed my overall pace and it seemed to take too long to get to Station Road Bridge. Twice in that last hour I talked to Heather on the phone to give her and update and try to figure how far away I was from her. The second time, we figured out that the passenger train which had passed by me on the other side of the river minutes before was now passing through the aid station area, so I knew I was close.
Despite the extra time, that long walk was still a good strategy. Overall, I’d covered the last 14.7 miles at about 15.5 minutes per mile. An 18 minute pace from start to finish would get me across all 100 miles in just under the 30 hour cutoff. Anything faster than that pace would be keeping me on schedule. (I think the 30 hour cutoff is just short enough that one cannot walk the entire course and finish on time. A large portion of the course must, at least, be jogged to stay ahead of the cutoff times.)
The course made a right turn off of the Tow Path and carried us across a short suspension bridge to the AS. Heather was waiting there on the other side as I speed-walked my way across. Some spectators were trying to encourage me to run into the AS, but I thought they were just silly. I’d already covered 36.6 miles in 8 hours and 20 minutes. It was no time for a display of vanity.
I walked over to the food tent long enough to get my bottle refilled and grab some more watermelon. Then I walked over to where Heather had set up camp. Apparently, she’d found folding camp chairs at a Target nearby and bought herself one. I plopped down and kicked off my shoes and socks. I needed to change my socks – but I also need to inspect a hot spot that had developed on the bottom of my right foot in the last 90 minutes…
To Be Continued...