Burning River 100 Race Report: My Wicked Trail
This 2018 Burning River 100 Race Report may not look like some of the other race reports you’ve read. I’m not actually sure how those who provide detailed race reports do so; my memory is fogged, it went by so fast, and it still doesn’t seem real.
So, while my terrain reporting may be slightly off and some details of my experience left out, this is what the 2018 Burning River 100 was for me:
My first 100 mile ultramarathon took place in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, where I grew up, at a faux medieval castle known as Squires Castle. Despite blue skies, I checked the weather every 30 minutes leading up to race day to see if the rains would hold off or if it would be a typical “Cleveland weather” kind of weekend.
Leading up to the race I had a calm confidence that, after only doing one other ultra (the Umstead 50 miler), I could traverse 100 miles easily at the necessary walking pace in the event I ran out of gas and could no longer run. While my training had been subpar, I had committed myself to “practice” stretching and a heavy dose of leg strengthening. In other words, I understood that showing up healthy and gutting it out would provide the opportunity for success, contrary to getting my mileage in and being “ready.”
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
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 all runners were tightly packed through Polo Fields. I felt great here and only changed from a long sleeve shirt to a short sleeve.
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 been 13:20/mile.
With my legs feeling healthy, my feet in great shape (thanks, 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: Expectations
Expectations in training 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. 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.
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.”
Imagine if we always went beyond our own expectations, or completely abandoned them.
Rather than ‘expecting’ and even planning to see a certain result, I offer two options.
Option number one is to acknowledge the expectation when it comes up and plan an ambush for it. You may not realize it, but at some point you will say “I could probably do…” or “Today let’s see if I can…”
When you hear these thoughts, speak these words, or write your plan down in your training journal, the ambush is set. You are prepared to kill, to destroy. Now, think ahead to the time in your workout when the ‘expectation’ will be fulfilled. Is it after the eighth interval? The fifth set or hundredth squat?
Identify the moment of expectation.
The ambush is set and you know when it will take place. When that moment comes, when you’ve met your initial expectation, attack it. Keep going. Go Farther. Push your mind beyond your perceived limits and crush the expectation. This attitude, this ambush on ‘expectation,’ instills a drive to Go Farther in other areas of your life; it is a revolution of thought.
On the other hand, option number two is let go of expectations for unfamiliar terrain and experience. Writing your first book? Starting a new business? Getting married? Participating in your first ultra-endurance event?
This is what I did at Burning River 100. I didn’t plan an ambush, I didn’t identify the moment of quit and set a trap. Instead, I abandoned expectations and decided to experience.
But why not evaluate possibilities and examine traits that may lead to a specific result?
Because any task of great importance, in vast and unfamiliar territory, will provide much challenge and adventure and change. The opportunity to be present in your moment, whether its 100 pages into your new book, two years into a struggling new business, five years into a marriage, or at mile 90 of your first 100 mile race, will provide a plethora of information that can be taken and used elsewhere in life, information that can be used on your next book, your second business, a friend’s struggling marriage, or your next ultra marathon.
For example, had I planned to ambush the moment of quit at Burning River, 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!”
Take a step back. You’ve never been here before. Why did you expect anything? Focus on the end, the actual goal, rather than reminiscing about expectations for something completely unknown and mysterious! Be present and attentive to the goal rather than the thoughts, hopes, and fears that plagued you before starting.
Mental fatigue is real; if you cannot plan to ambush and crush expectations, abandon them and learn. Experience and grow.
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.
I found out over the course of this race that I wasn’t the only one who disliked towpath so much, and I still can’t nail down exactly what is so dreadful about it. Perhaps the monotony of the terrain, or the sun exposure, or the visual distortion (am I the only one that can never tell if towpath is going uphill or is staying flat?). Either way, I walked a bit more than necessary on this stretch of towpath that apparently only lasted for a mile and a half or so.
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 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.
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 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. I shed expectation as my training was subpar and here I was, at the Burning River 100, my first 100 mile race, with 30 miles and many hours to go over rough terrain.
Of course the trails weren’t mountain trails with highly 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; they knew my downhill technical skills were weak. The hills, the steep climbs and wicked descents, saw their opportunity when darkness fell.
My girlfriend 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.
In trouble I was.
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.
I couldn’t help it. The terrain was becoming 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; it was all technical terrain. Stopping for even a moment sent my teeth chattering in the cool 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 has 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 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 marathon runner. I get chills when I think of strangers pulling for me and standing out in the dark for me to test my limits.
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 against the odds; the pain was too real in the early morning darkness. Frustrated tears in my eyes, I continued shuffling along, 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 toils of an ultra marathon are indistinguishable from the toils of life.
My Burning River 100 experience paralleled life.
The physical pain and mental torment experienced when one runs 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 prescribed 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 are expected. They are even a part of the strategy. To understand and strategize the mischief of life, one must experience it with an open mind. In other words, one must beat life to the punch.
A failure to anticipate adversity and treat it equal as victory -with emotional neutrality- results in low depression during the worst of times and peaks of joy, ready to crash down, during the best of times. 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. REJECT 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. It necessitates one strategizing around 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 mile and a half 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, Daniela 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: “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.”
I was in bad shape, a pale shadow of the runner who started over 27 hours ago.
We set off down a smooth, asphalt, Wicked 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 do not decide promptly, however, you may not get to decide at all.