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Burning River 100 Race Report
This Burning River race report first appeared on WickedTrailRunning.com on August 2, 2018. I’ve refreshed it and posted it here for all those looking to run their first 100 mile races. May it impress upon you some wisdom.
My 2018 Burning River 100 race report may not read like other race reports. I’m not actually sure how those who provide detailed race reports do so. My memory is foggy, the race went by so fast, and it still doesn’t seem real.
So, while this article will miss some terrain reporting and neglect technical tips and tricks for the race, this is what the 2018 Burning River 100 was for me…
My First 100 Mile Race
My first 100 mile ultra marathon took place in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, where I grew up, at a faux medieval castle known as Squires Castle. Despite stubborn blue skies the week before, I checked the weather every 30 minutes leading up to race day to see if typical “Cleveland weather” would prevail.
Leading up to the race I had a calm confidence that, if all else failed, I could cover 100 miles at the necessary walking pace. I’d only run one other ultra marathon, the Umstead 50 miler. Some quick math after that race led to me signing up for Burning River. While my training for this 100 mile race had been subpar, I had committed myself to loads of stretching and a heavy dose of leg strengthening. In other words, I thought that showing up healthy and gutting it out would give me the opportunity for success, contrary to getting my allotted mileage in and being “ready” in the traditional sense.
How dangerous a thought this turned out to be.
The rains never came over the long weekend. Some thunder shook the skies around us during the night, but no rain.
Smooth Sailing At Burning River 100
The first 11.7 miles to Polo Fields Aid Station was uneventful; I arrived in 2 hours 8 minutes and 56 seconds, an 11:01/mile pace. This first section was all road and most runners were tightly packed through Polo Fields. I felt great here and only changed from my favorite long sleeve running shirt to short sleeves.
While the terrain changed from all roads to mostly single-track and bridle trail, the next leg was also flat and non-technical. A few stream crossings left my socks and shoes soaked and when I reached my crew at mile 20.7, the Shadow Lake Aid Station, I opted for a sock and shoe change.
The next time I would see my crew was at mile 37.4, the Meadows Aid Station. Up to this point, the run felt uneventful, very “smooth-sailing,” and I was feeling great. The terrain became more technical as the morning went on, but it was still flat enough to feel easy. It felt like a midwestern state. An easy 2.1 mile section from Meadows to a non-crew access aid station, Oak Grove, put me at 8 hours and 43 minutes; my pace thus far had averaged 13:20/mile.
With my legs feeling healthy, my feet in great shape (thanks to Trail Toes), and with no real expectations coming into the race, I was certainly pleased with my time.
Let’s talk about expectations for a minute.
My First 100 Mile Race: Expectations
When training, expectations are bars we construct for ourselves, bars that we place over the windows of opportunity. We build these obstacles, these bars, out of our past experiences, our past workouts. For example, you know what you’ve been able to do in previous training sessions, so ‘expect’ something similar. ‘Expect’ distance or speed or strength or endurance to be somewhat like yesterday, the day before, or last week.
Smart training is important for ultra runners, so we needn’t smash through cinder blocks each time we lace our shoes. However, the 100 mile race will demand something about you to become new, and so each time we lace our shoes for speed work, strength training, or long and slow runs, we must strive for something about ourselves to become new.
We shouldn’t let expectations direct our training, because expectations (as I’ll soon demonstrate with my own story) are silly things during immense challenges like 100 mile runs.
Perhaps, in training, expectations are self-limiting thoughts. They give us a way out, a time to quit. “I expected to do this much, and I’ve done it.” Ah! But try not to kick your shoes off and sink into the routine of your day with the same, unaltered brain of the day before.
Imagine if we always went beyond our own expectations, or completely abandoned them.
Rather than building worlds of expectations in training, I offer two options.
1. Ambush Your Expectations
Option number one is acknowledging the expectation when it comes, setting your eyes on it, and planning an ambush. Thoughts like “I could probably do…” or “Today let’s see if I can…” are expectations bubbling up in our consciousness, preparing for the trials of 100 mile training.
Think ahead to the time in your workout when the expectation will be fulfilled. Is it after the eighth interval? The fifth mile or hundredth squat?
Identify that moment of expectation.
When that moment comes, when you’ve met your initial expectation, attack it. Keep going. Push your mind beyond your perceived limits and prove the expectation silly (as your upcoming race certainly will). This attitude is a revolution of thought that will drive your weary legs forward when a future race falls apart, when your expectations are stomped about on a lonely trail.
Remember just what you’re training for. 100 miles is no walk in the park.
2. Let Go of Expectations
The hardest, most exciting things are full of unknowns.
Writing your first book? Getting married? Running your first 100 mile race?
You might abandon expectations.
It’s a bit free-spirited, isn’t it?
At Burning River, I abandoned expectations. I didn’t plan an ambush, I didn’t seek the inevitable moment of quit and set a trap. Instead, I decided to simply experience.
It’s an odd thing, to release control and allow experiences to just happen.
Why shouldn’t we evaluate our paths and seek the one that ends at the desired result?
Any adventure in vast and unfamiliar territory provides so much challenge and change. We aren’t meant to know every twisting turn and every root we’ll stumble over. If we did, the turns wouldn’t be so enticing and the roots might as well flatten and give us smooth ground.
But we don’t sign up for 100 mile races because they’re smooth rides. 100 mile races are frightening and rough. Perhaps it’s the uncertainty of the moments to come that gives us the most opportunity to become that which ultra runners seek to become, and that’s not such a simple thing.
At Burning River, I knew nothing about 100 mile races (and I still don’t). My thoughts might have been: “Why didn’t I reach mile 80 as fast as expected?” or “Why are my feet in such bad shape?” or “I didn’t expect all these trails in Ohio!”
Take a step back. You’ve never been here before. Why did you expect anything? Focus on the end, the actual goal, rather than stewing on expectations for something so unknown and mysterious as a 100 mile race. Be present and attentive to the goal rather than the thoughts, hopes, and fears that plagued you before starting.
And Then Burning River Became A Race
Around mile 45 there was some hilly single-track which, for the most part, I hadn’t dealt with much. A quick selfie sent to family who couldn’t attend, expressing a healthy mind and body, and I neared the back half of the race.
I came into mile 50.1, the Boston Mills Aid Station of the Burning River 100, after running for 11 hours 33 minutes and 20 seconds. This time put my pace at 13:57/mile.
When I ran my first 50 mile race 16 weeks prior, I finished at an average pace of 12:49/mile. Generally speaking, I was pleased with my time when I reached Boston Mills because I really did feel healthy and was taking it easy.
In other words, I could ride this pace to the end, with a good bit of slow-down, and still finish strong.
Coming out of Boston Mills, I had my first low point of real frustration due to the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail.
The Dread of Towpath
It didn’t take too many miles on the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath to learn that towpath isn’t well-loved in the ultra running scene. Perhaps the monotony of the terrain, or the sun exposure, or the visual distortion make it so dreadful. It’s hard to tell whether towpath is going uphill or staying flat, and how much longer is stretches its impermeable arm into the distance. I walked a bit more than necessary on this stretch of towpath.
It felt like it dragged on for miles and miles.
I wouldn’t see my crew from Boston Mills (the halfway point) until Ledges Aid Station at mile 66 of the Burning River 100. My average pace gradually decreased over this time period from 13:57/mile to 15:21/mile. I think I remember the terrain being quite monotonous during this time and I felt slowed by mental fatigue. I was ready to see my crew.
Up to this point the thought of a DNF (did not finish) had not crossed my mind. I was still calmly confident. The terrain had been Ohio-like with a few minor climbs, but nothing to deter my will and mindset. Even with the slow pace, I was rooted in the mission with a firm mindset.
Slow Rolling on the Back Half
I texted my Crew Chief (thanks, mom) at 7:19 PM while I stopped for water at mile 61.2, over 15 hours into the race, and told her it would be “slow rolling” and that it would likely take me two hours to reach them at mile 66.
Just over an hour and a half later I saw my crew again at Ledges Aid Station at mile 66. My average pace was a slow 15:21/mile when I arrived.
“Don’t Do The Math.”
Ledges Aid Station of the Burning River 100 was the last time I felt confident in finishing. It was when the course changed for me; I would race the clock for nearly 30 miles, fighting frustration and pain the entire way.
My ‘expectations’ for the state of Ohio were shattered after mile 66. Funny how expectations about yourself and the environment need to be considered when ridding them from your mind, or when planning an ambush.
Perhaps I could have ambushed this final 30 miles had I expected and trained for it, but I digress. With shed expectations I had 30 miles and many hours to go over rough terrain.
Of course the trails weren’t mountain trails with advanced technical terrain, but for my first 100 mile experience and only my third run of marathon distance or greater, the hills destroyed me. They knew I was coming. The hills knew my downhill technical skills were weak. Those steep climbs and wicked descents saw their opportunity when darkness fell.
My girlfriend (now wife!) paced me from miles 66 to 71.8 and I lost about 53 seconds on my pace. Add one minute on your pace every 6 miles with 30 miles to finish and you might be in trouble.
I was in trouble.
My friend Alex paced me for a ‘quick’ 3.8 mile loop and we added only four seconds to my pace. He kept me moving over some dark and technical terrain at a decent speed and, as a result, I felt strong upon our arrival back at Pine Hollow Aid Station. Unfortunately, here I started to do math.
“Don’t do the math,” my mom said.
Ultra marathon math is a dangerous game. It always tells you you’re not moving fast enough, that there’s not enough time. Don’t do math. Just keep moving.
But I couldn’t help it. The terrain became rougher and rougher. I took inventory of my body and knew my right ankle was getting bludgeoned by the downhills and my hamstring strained on the climbs. Where did this technical terrain come from? Stopping for even a moment sent my teeth chattering in the cool, summer night and muscle stiffness set in quickly.
I’ll take some towpath now, please.
This was one of the lowest points. Mile 75.6: 20 hours and 49 minutes. Estimated time of finishing (if pace was maintained): 28 hours.
If I maintained the pace Alex and I had just ‘crushed’ on that short loop, I would finish two hours ahead of cutoff. My mom later told me that the crew was getting nervous about the time at this point.
The people I dragged into this didn’t think I was going to make it.
Neither did I.
I wouldn’t see my crew again for 16.1 miles. My girlfriend, who (at that time) had never run more than 8 or so miles in her life, walked with me during this period. It took us a dark, painful, and hilly 6 hours and 25 minutes of power hiking the uphills and limping the downhills, exhaling through gritted teeth, to see my crew again. She found two sticks that I picked up and used as supports on the downs. My ankle was in bad shape.
6 hours and 25 minutes to cover 16.1 miles. Yikes.
I remember the Covered Bridge Loop (another loop that shot off the course to cover the full 100 miles) well. It was exhausting and technical. The hills of that mentally daunting loop behind me, I asked an aid station volunteer the distance to the next station. He must have seen me looking at my watch because he said “You’ve come this far; you’ll get there.”
Another lady chimed in: “The hardest part is behind you. Except for a few sections, the terrain ahead is smooth and mostly flat.”
Aid station volunteers really can save a race for an ultra runner. I get chills when I think of strangers standing out in the dark, pulling for me. Always thank the volunteers.
We left the pirate-themed aid station of Covered Bridge, abandoned my primal hiking poles, and immediately were on roads, heading away from mile 85. My girlfriend encouraged me to run, but the distance ahead seemed too insurmountable. The pain was too real in the early morning darkness. Frustrated tears in my eyes, I continued shuffling along a rural road, wondering where all the other 100-mile runners were.
Low points are worth mentioning.
My Lowest Point
A long run, an ultra marathon, parallels life. The struggles of an ultra marathon are indistinguishable from the struggles of life.
My Burning River 100 experience paralleled life.
The physical pain and mental torment experienced when you run fifty miles or one hundred miles or more is, while most don’t realize it, familiar to many people because life prescribes these things on its own. They are a part of life! Tears, sweat, blood, frowns, arguments, anger, regret, frustration, pain; this is life.
Life’s pain can be summarized in an ultra, this long run.
The difference is running an ultra marathon beats life to the punch. Life didn’t prescribe the pain, THE RUNNER did. And life doesn’t pull the pain away and deliver the pleasure of success; THE RUNNER does!
The runner prescribes the pain. Why?
When one lives with an understanding of life’s mischief-–the roller-coaster of its pains and joys–-you become mentally prepared for the lows: the pain, tears, blood, sweat, and falls. These are even a part of the strategy. To understand and strategize around the mischief of life, you must experience it with an open mind. In other words, you must beat life to the punch.
A failure to anticipate adversity leads to steep crashes into anxiety and despair, when adversity does inevitably arrive. Emotional stability is a byproduct of understanding life’s mischief.
Beat life to the punch. Do not be a victim to life. Jump off the precarious cliff. Run into the dark forest. Do not sit idly as life robs you of comfort.
When you run an ultra marathon, you feel the nature of life in all its mischief, packed into a trail. This experience, the physical exhaustion and mental torment alongside the elation and laughs, gives one a clear understanding of life’s mischief. You must deal with broken blisters, twisted ankles, sickness, severe weather, loneliness. The bad carries you forward to the good, and the good gets you back on the trail until you reach the goal.
Life is an ultra marathon.
My lowest point, the epitome of life’s mischief, came upon hearing it was only about another 1.5 miles to the next aid station, where my crew waited. This aid station was past mile 91; the end would be in sight.
45 minutes later, my pacer and I were still shuffling down dark trails and dodging roots and rocks. Every twist and turn teased my imagination and played with my emotions. Finally, at mile 91.7 and with 2 hours 45 minutes and 38 seconds until the final cutoff, I reached Botzum Parking Aid Station.
I remember stopping multiple times during this 45 minutes and putting my hands on my knees, breathing in the frustration and the pain; I was in disbelief of my time and how far I had come, but still had to go.
I changed into a short sleeve shirt; the sun was now beaming bright on a warm Ohio morning. I looked at my next-up pacer, Alex. He said, “Let’s go. We are moving at a 16-something per mile pace. That is what we have to do. You will finish.”
We had about 10 miles to go; I had reached this aid station 5 minutes before its official closure and a kind volunteer told me to blow by the next one and just keep moving. “Don’t stop. You don’t have time.”
I was in bad shape, a pale shadow of the runner who started over 27 hours ago.
We set off down a smooth, asphalt trail.
Alex, I’d like to point out, is not a runner. He’s strong and in great shape, but something about him moving me for the next 10 miles made me a bit nervous. In reality, I had nothing to be nervous about. He should have been, and probably was, nervous for me.
Pain at Burning River 100
My projected finish time when I reached Botzum Parking at mile 91.7 was 30 hours 7 minutes 37 seconds.
Seven minutes after the 100-mile cutoff time. Seven minutes. How many aid station visits could I have cut short? I think about the times running was possible, but mental fatigue wore on me, like on the towpath after the halfway point. How many short pauses to rest, or stretch, or let someone pass me could I have skipped?
We kept moving. I did not want this day to end in the realm of “What if?” or “What could I have done?”
The next ten miles defined the weekend for me. We ran sections of it at near a 9:00/mile pace. Something switched in my mind. It may have been the sun coming up, those fig bars some lady gave me at Botzum Parking, or the way I was talking to myself.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I decided anything less than everything was not enough.
“Mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. George, do you mind?”
“Do you mind the pain? Will it get worse? Or last forever? Can you do anything about it?”
“Can you finish this race?”
“Keep running. Run now. Faster. Good. Keep going.”
This self-talk, this real conversation I repeated in my head, made me run when I didn’t know if I could, when I didn’t even think I would make the cutoff.
Our average pace from Botzum Parking at mile 91.7 to Memorial Parkway at mile 97.1 was 14:22/mile with a maximum mile split of 12:15/mile according to an app Alex turned on.
Those short distances of actual running, something I never thought possible, followed by power walking behind him paid off big. 2 hours and 35 minutes to cover the last ~10 miles put our needed pace at just over a 16-minute mile.
I hadn’t come anywhere close to this number for 30 miles.
Daniela encouraged me to move faster, but I couldn’t; my thoughts were controlling my actions then, just as they were now. “My ankle hurts too bad. There’s still so far to go. I may not make it.”
Only now, I decided I did not mind, and it did not matter.
Pain, fatigue, fear; these all vanish with decisions.
“Do you mind the pain? Will it get worse? Or last forever? Can you do anything about it?”
I was the last finisher across the line in 29 hours 50 minutes and 43 seconds.
Only 9 minutes and 17 seconds to spare.
In a moment, I decided to run.
Discipline and decisions in small moments can make or break a goal. I didn’t think, over the course of one hundred miles, that a minute here or two minutes there would mean much. They meant the world. They meant completion.
A minute here or two minutes there could have just as easily meant a DNF. It is always your decision. If you don’t decide promptly, however, you may not get to decide at all.