In so many ways, the Burning River 100 mile ultramarathon exceeded my expectations. It was harder than I imagined, of course, but the course through the Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio was exceptionally beautiful. The support from my Salty Running crew (led by Crew Chief Salty) provided the support I needed before, during, and after the race and my amazing pacers kept me moving forward, no matter how slowly, and my mood positive. Finally, finishing the race felt almost transcendent. For the first time in a race, I truly did not know until I actually crossed the finish line that I could do it, and crossing it and hearing my name from the announcer was a deeply emotional experience. From my arrival in Ohio to when I left, the experience was one that I will never forget, and that experience goes beyond the race itself, and is the result of the amazing support and friendship from Salty, Ginger, Jasmine, Pacer Sean, and Kevin. You guys rock!
Now, since that was rather more sappy than I usually am, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty details of the race. For the faint-hearted or squeamish, please be warned that this recap may be more than you wanted to know about me and ultra running. Grandma, this means you might not want to read this.
An ultramarathon is hard, and just because one is running for 30 hours straight, doesn’t mean that the other bodily processes stop plus there are extraordinary things that ultra long distance running *ahem* exacerbates. And frankly, I didn’t come close to some of the uncomfortable, gross or disgusting experiences that other ultra runners have anecdotally told me about. Read more at your own risk.
The race started, as most ultras do, quite early (4 am). Since I was staying super close to the start, I didn’t have to catch a bus to the start at 2:15, so I was able to wake up at 2:30 am (1:30 my time) and did my usual pre-race coffee + soy milk routine. As I mentioned in my training log, I had tried a new pre-race fueling method where I ate way more than I would in a normal day (around 4,000 calories), so I was still feeling full when I arrived at the start. It was dark at 4 am, but I had decided not to bring my headlamp, not wanting to risk not having it for the long stretch overnight. I hoped that the early parts of the race would keep runners fairly close together so I could mooch off of someone else’s headlamp. Shortly after I arrived, the national anthem was sung. Salty gave me a quick hug and wished me luck, and the race began.
As I had hoped, the racers stayed within a pack for the first 10 or so miles, and I did not have trouble despite not having a headlamp. The first 12 or so miles of the course is on tarmac (either roads or trails), and despite some gradual inclines, the pace was pretty fast. I knew the first half of Burning River was “easier” than the second half, and I had to make a decision about how I wanted to pace myself. I didn’t want to go out too hard so that I burned out in the second half of the race, but I also wanted to bank some miles in the easier and cooler parts of the day. I set on a (9:45-10:00 pace) and walked up the steeper inclines, and settled in. Those first miles flew by, with the exception of two exciting and necessary bathroom breaks, bathrooms provided by mother nature. Because I started the race fairly full and wasn’t able to evacuate pre-race because I woke up so early, the jostling from the running meant that I became urgently and uncomfortably in need of a bathroom around mile nine and 15. This experience brings new meaning to the phrase “get some leaves!”
Yes, gross. I warned. I have also vowed to learn to recognize poison ivy/oak before my next ultramarathon.
Otherwise, I felt good and strong. Despite the stomach difficulties and lack of sleep, I felt really strong. I changed out of my road shoes into trail shoes at the Polo Fields aid station, and used trail shoes until the last 10 miles of the race. Although the course began to get a little more technical after Polo Field (mile 11.56), it was still a fairly flat and easy course, and it was hard to keep my pace restrained. I did hold back, however, but still sped through those miles fairly quickly. I was able to fuel fairly well, aided by the deliciousness of Jelly Beans, and kept a pretty sustained pace through the first 45 miles of the course. I had great support from Salty and Jasmine, who made sure I had water, sunscreen and fuel (and offered bug spray, which I declined, a poor choice). It really wasn’t until around mile 45, 8 miles before I would pick up my first pacer, that the course even started to feel hard. The course was beautiful, the aid stations had amazing volunteers, and the inclines and descents weren’t too steep. This was fun!
Of course, the pure fun didn’t last, but I enjoyed those first few miles so much that it was worth it. It was around 45 miles that I started to feel the miles, the terrain started to get more technical (steeper and less stable footing) and I started to realize exactly how much further I would need to go. Because I had exceeded my expected pace at the beginning of the race, I needed my pacer a few hours earlier than I had anticipated, but by the time I arrived at mile 53, when I would pick up my pacer, the heaviness of what I still had left to do was sinking in. I arrived at mile 53 in tears, feeling like I wouldn’t be able to run much more.
Luckily, that is where I also picked up Sean, who would pace for the next 37 miles. He had a tough job ahead of him. The role of pacer in an ultramarathon is not only to keep the runner moving, but also to keep their mood positive, anticipate their needs, and, most importantly, to keep them from dropping. The role of pacer got tougher for Sean as moving forward got tougher for me. For the next 15 miles or so, I was able to pick up my speed and jog for flat or downward portions, but as it got closer to nighttime, my pace slowed. Understandable, because I had been moving since 4 am. As it got closer to nighttime, Crew Chief Salty and Jasmine (who had been supporting me all day) were replaced by Kevin, who literally volunteered to help just before he arrived, as the runner he was intending to pace had dropped out. Kevin ran the course last year, and had great insight into what was coming for each leg. Additionally, he was patient, and ready for us at each aid station, which is exactly what is needed, especially in the overnight stages.
At first, running in the dark was a new adventure that I was excited for, but eventually it became frustrated as my fatigued legs found it quite easy to trip over the things I could not see. I did not have the hallucinations that I have heard from other ultra marathoners (although the shadows could definitely look like things they were not), but the hardest thing, especially after midnight, was that my legs hurt so bad. Every step seemed to take a herculean effort, and going into the aid station at Covered Bridge, I was in tears and moving painfully slow because I hurt so much. Sean tried to stay positive and encourage me to keep going, but I told him I was done. This hurt too much, and I was doing the math in my head – if I kept this pace up, I would still be on the course for 10 more hours. That seemed miserable, and I didn’t want to do it. He kept me moving with some “fuzzy math” (we had just one mile to go for five miles), which was exactly what he needed to do, although I treated him horribly for doing it. Sorry.
I arrived at the Covered Bridge aid station around 2 am, and sat immediately in the chair and closed my eyes. Sean had convinced me that I should rest for 15 minutes before I called it quits, which I agreed to do, but I had already decided I was done. I couldn’t face the idea of another 10 hours of this pain. My shins felt like they were disconnecting from my body, and I was tired. The Covered Bridge aid station was where Ginger was, to take over from Kevin, and as I told them I was done, I saw and felt her disappointment. As I sat there with my eyes closed, I heard my crew and pacers talking, most notably Ginger saying, “she told us that she would want to quit and that we shouldn’t let her.”
I wondered how I was going to get myself out of saying that to them before the race. Apparently pre-race Laura knew that I might reach a point during the race where I wanted to quit and tried to preempt myself by telling them not to let me DNF unless I was literally dying. I sat there, and the volunteers at the aid station asked me where it hurt, to ascertain if I had an injury or just normal “I’ve been running for 22 hours” pain. At one point, when the volunteer touched the back of my right calf, it was so tender that I winced. I sat back down, hoping that this pain would convince them that I was done. I think it almost worked. But the another volunteer who must have been watching this go down came over to me and said “This is all in your head.” Around the same time, Ginger said, “I guess I better text Salty,” meaning that she was going to have to tell Salty that I was quitting. The combination of those two things, the idea that I was going to let down everyone who had put in so much time and effort into my run and that this volunteer was suggesting that I was not mentally tough, made me get up, and move forward. I ate a few grilled cheese sandwiches, and resolved that I would keep moving until it killed me or they removed me from the course because I missed a cut-off.
And that’s what I did for the next twenty miles. After massaging my shins a bit, the pain diminished, but it was still there. I was tired, and so ready to be done. I cursed running and myself for thinking that this was a good idea, but I didn’t stop. I wasn’t going to stop now. I never started to think that this was fun again, but my mood improved. I had made it past the lowest point, which is normally the biggest test, and now I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Relentless Forward Progress. Ginger replaced Sean as my pacer with 10 miles left to go, and this portion of the course was on less technical terrain. I felt like I was going incredibly slow, but Ginger’s positive attitude kept me move, as well as the return of Jessica and Salty. Time felt like it was moving slowly and incredibly fast at the same time for the last few hours of the race. As we got close to the finish, Salty joinEd Ginger and me, and we all walked slowly to the finish. As I approached the finish line, they said my name and that I had just run 100 miles. It felt incredible. It took everything in me to keep standing to receive my medal and have the picture taken, and then I collapsed on the grass.
Happy, exhausted, and done.