Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mud Struck & Swept up at Burning River 2013

Mile 49: I am doubled over, expelling the liquid contents of my stomach from my mouth upon the grass lining the trail in the Bog of Despair, the world around me spinning. The slick, wet mud that covers the right side of my lower body is sliding down my leg, and, despite having wiped furiously at the clean side of my shorts and shirt, it still covers both palms. The scrapes are now stinging, and the sharp pain radiating from the welt on my right arm where a wasp had stung me less than 10 minutes before was distracting and intense. I sucked in a mouthful of water from my hydration pack and spit it hard onto the muddy grass, squeezed my eyes shut, heaved an exhausted sigh, and tried to pull myself together. I still had more than 50 miles ahead of me, and at this rate, I wasn't going to survive to see the next five.

Again vertical, I began to make my way toward the Snowville aid station like an 8-bit video game character stuck in an endless loop of slipping on the same banana peel. In hindsight, I think someone should have taped runners passing through this section and synced it with Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger'. At the time, however, I would have rather sashayed through poison ivy if it meant escaping more mud. I was cranking out 23 minute miles on this segment, I realized, as I finally rolled into the mile 50.4 aid station in 11 hours and 58 minutes-- nearly a half hour slower than I'd done in 2012. Resembling Swamp Thing and staggering into the sight of the crew manning the station, I croaked in a monstrous voice, "lemmesitdowwwwn!" and proceeded to cock my head back, mouth agape, and wail with my right arm extended "got. stung...by a WASP...yowwww!"

I'll pause here, first, to point out that I genuinely feel sorry for the people who have the great dishonor of having to wait on me, talk to me, or otherwise assist me in any way, shape, or form in races longer than 50 miles. I am the kind of runner folks talk about in the dark hours of a long run, the kind about whom the cool kids of ultra running make funny internet memes. I am anything but cool on the trail, slogging through mud and creaks bellowing vulgarities, begging to quit as soon as I graze the 100k mark, sitting smack in the middle of dirt on mile 68 after having declared like a two year-old, "2.6 miles? that's too far!" Granted, it doesn't exactly play out precisely like that, but it isn't too much of a stretch, either.

And, the 2013 installment of Burning River 100 didn't exactly start out in any particularly memorable way. While the trip to the race would have been much more interesting if my sexy black stiletto clad foot slipped from the break sending me careening into the gate at the ticket window as I entered the turnpike like I'd nearly done a week before, it didn't happen. And aside from being stuck in a caravan of cars trapped behind some asshole who insisted on driving 60 mph in the passing lane, I arrived in Cuyahoga Falls eager, a little late, but in one piece. I was cautious but confident, never doubting I would finish the race.

Weather conditions at the start were ideal: in the 60's and somewhat dry. I still had a bit of indigestion from the night before after having eaten a cheeseburger the size of a small child and enough beer to  put me in Clown Mode, but figured, "what the hell? I have 101 miles to feel better". I ran the first 6.2 mile trail loop in a slow, comfortable 1:08, even with a rather lengthy stop to poop behind a tree. Midway through the next 6.2 mile segment, we broke onto the road, and I picked up the pace just a little and tried without much success to enjoy the ride. I struggled more than I'd like to admit on the road miles, I think because I felt like the entire world was watching me, something I only really enjoy at the end of a challenging race. By the time I exited the Polo Fields aid station at mile 17, I could have done the cha-cha when I skipped onto the horse trail and into the blanketed safety of the woods. I felt alright on this segment, just a little more tired than I'd remembered feeling the year before-- probably because I'd basically spent the past 4 months in a perpetual taper for all the races I'd failed to conquer, and had gotten admittedly fatter and less fit than I'd been in recent history. But, I was pleasantly surprised to reach the Harper Ridge mile 23 aid station in 4:23, roughly the same time as I'd reached it in 2012, and it served as a reassurance that apparently I hadn't let things get too out of hand.

The Shadow Lake aid station at the marathon point, 26.2 miles, marked the beginning of the mental baddies. I stormed the grass in a rain-drenched, soggy fury in 4:58, desperately scanning the rows of automobiles for my brown Chevy blazer and sister who was driving it. Sixty seconds of gawking indicated she was nowhere in sight, and my heart grabbed my brain like a ball on a chain and yanked it into my gut. This was not good. I'd carefully mapped out the points at which I'd wanted to be met, and this was one of them for this very reason: I was, as I feared I would be, wet; and I had an insatiable hankering for Korean meatballs . Now, I had neither a single meatball nor fresh socks and shoes. I sauntered, dazed and bewildered, toward the aid station where I bird-pecked with my fingers at a bowl of chex mix and a hunk of banana, and carried on toward the 50k aid station at Egbert Shelter.


My mood ebbed and flowed through a series of highs and lows on this segment- from fear for my feet and the awful realization I was not at the same fitness level as I'd been even four months ago to optimism as the trail was runnable here and I was making good progress. I reached the aid station in 6:09, and left with a blue popsicle and Vaseline smeared on my inner thighs. There were only 4.5 miles to the next aid station, I reassured myself, and then I was on my way to Oak Grove where I would finally get my meatballs and socks. I felt tired and out of shape on the way to Alexander Road, and realized I was going to have to eat more than a hunk of banana and a couple pieces of chex mix if I wanted to keep afoot at a pace better than a delirious hobble.  At the aid station, I took one look at my choices and nearly threw my hands into the air in desperation: dry ramen noodles, cookies, candy. I grabbed a jar of Vaseline and hovered in the corner with it like a lion guarding her cub.

                    running on the Towpath, approximately mile 40

During the 6.3 miles between Alexander Road and Oak Grove, I fell into a funk. After spending about a mile on the trail, a road crossing led me to the Towpath where I struggled to run for more than a couple minutes at a time. I walked more than I'd normally ever want to admit, and felt anxious. My sister had made it abundantly clear that she was not on the scene, and the texts she continued to send indicated she probably was not going to be at Oak Grove when I got there. The mileage my feet had suffered in these wet shoes and socks was now nearing 40, and I knew that after the immediate segment leading to Ottawa Point at mile 46, I would be entering the Bog of Despair where many runners were going to be reduced to crawling, scooting, and caterwauling down hills, the mud sucking at their shoes and confidence at the same time. I spent entirely too long here, and left in a bad mood. I'd tried to eat, but everything looked bad, and my stomach had started to feel a bit queasy. My pace was slower on this segment than those leading up to it despite all the Towpath, and I was trying to shake the doubt that was starting to sneak into my psyche. While I was still moving at a pace that nearly matched the previous year's pace, I was tired and drenched.

The path to Ottawa Point seemed endless, but in reality, I was still making reasonably good time. I found that a run-walk alternation worked in keeping me moving forward at a reasonable clip, and when I reached the aid station in 10:23, I still felt confident I could salvage a decent finish from the wreckage of the past months' injuries, even though that was the time in which I'd hoped to have reached 50 miles rather than 46.5. The queasiness I'd first noticed a few miles earlier had started to gain momentum, however, and I spent my time at the aid station downing cups of ginger ale, crunching Tums, and chewing ginger in a desperate attempt to ward off an ugly storm with which I truly did not want to be faced. Well, especially, considering I knew from having run it two weeks prior at the BT50k, having realized I was heading into the stretch to Snowville where souls are traded in exchange for a pass over muddy, sloppy hills. Dubbed the 'Bog of Despair' by a fellow runner, leaving the aid station at the 10.5 hour mark, I hoped to clear this mere 4 mile section that separated me from the halfway point aid station in a painfully slow hour and thirty minutes.

The nausea I'd been experiencing for miles now was like a cancer that was spreading out of control. Where it had once been an annoying lack of appetite teemed with a mild discomfort in my stomach, it was now, a couple miles into the bog, like a hurricane of motion sickness. I walked. I continued to walk. I paused to squat along the side of the murky, muddy trail with my hands cradling my face. And then, I walked some more. Walked, of course, when I wasn't sliding, skidding, and flailing my arms and legs out lickety split as I grasped for a rock or tree to keep me vertical. I bellowed at the trees and animals witnessing this sordid wonder, "get me out of this f%$&ing place!" as I swung around a tree like a figure skater around her partner. After dancing this way along the trail for what felt like hours upon hours, I had started to wonder if I was actually moving this slow, or if everyone else was suffering as much as I was here.

    from the Bog of Despair (Ottawa to Snowville), courtesy of Cyrus Taylor

The wasp sting took me completely by surprise. I hadn't seen many bees or bugs despite the rain, and didn't realize I'd been followed until it was literally latched to my forearm as I screamed and shouted and swung violently. The shock of the sting tipped me over the edge momentarily and I lost my breath in a brief but frantic crying spell. Peering at the welt on my arm as I exhaled a pained, nauseated breath, I didn't realize until I was pouring down like a muddy, shrieking avalanche that I'd missed my step; and, down I went on my right side, hands grasping at the slimy brown mess that surrounded me. At the bottom, now in a state of near hyperventilation, I was met with the pain of the sting, pain of the scrapes, and a completely overwhelming feeling of nausea. I had no time to react; I was doubled over on the side of the muddy trail, expelling the liquid contents of my stomach from my mouth, the world around me spinning.

The struggle did not subside upon leaving Snowville. The trails were not much easier to cover, and, although less severe, the nausea never completely passed. I knew it had taken me a long time to get to the mile 55 aid station in 2012, although I could not remember why, and tried to focus on getting to Boston Store by 13.5 hours. Unfortunately, when you're moving so slowly that your ascents up some hills have literally been reduced to a crawl, the miles pass so slowly that after a while you begin to feel like maybe the aid station isn't actually at 55.5 miles but 555, and it's probably better to either start hitchhiking or start clearing some space to make a landmark for aliens to see from outer space. I was a wreck, a slow-moving one. I approached the road leading to Boston Store to the sound of very, very enthusiastic cheering. And, while it should have been the angel's wings that sent me flying with a smile, hands out to smack some high-fives, it was actually the 'ding-ding-ding' and flashing lights of an approaching train on the tracks 10 yards ahead that set off a canon behind my step.

At the Boston aid station, I found my first pacer, Michael Dacar, waiting for me. I apologized for how late I was (nearly 14 hours had passed, and I'd told him I should arrive in 12-13 hours), and admitted I was in pretty bad shape, but I would make it to the next aid station with him. From there, I'd reassess the situation. I sat down and ate a bit of sausage and potato soup, refilled the bladder to my hydration pack, and then prepared for the next 4 miles. I'd been warned by Kurt Osadchuk a few miles before that the gravel Highway to Hell was, like the BT50k, a part of the race this year, so I warned Mike who hadn't had the pleasure of ascending it during his Burning River experience in 2011. It took much longer than I'd expected to reach Pine Lane, mostly because the nausea, which had subsided temporarily, had hit me like a truck again about a mile before we reached the aid station. It didn't help that my feet were hurting pretty bad, too. I couldn't motivate myself to run, and Mike seemed content to keep walking with me, so the 20+ minute miles were boiling into a stew of disaster.

At Pine Lane, the faces that met me were a combination of disenchanted runner, and sincere but mostly oblivious volunteer. The winner had finished the entire 101 miles over an hour ago, and it was now dusk as I tapped the 60 mile mark. I truly felt miserable. I had long since tired of the constant questioning of what I wanted to eat, and when someone-- Pam Pickel, Allison Jeric-Carroll, or perhaps my sister, asked the dreaded question again, it was like someone was asking me whether I wanted to sacrifice my right leg or my left, and I started crying. Fuck. I didn't want to eat at all-- or had I failed to clarify that when I said, "no, get it away from me!" when someone whisked a cookie under my nose? A pair of hands began reaching for my shoes, and I let out the cry of a wounded animal. Was this happening NOW, after 60 miles in the same wet, muddy socks? I spent over 30 minutes in this aid station, watching other runners come and go, my blanket on the cut off raveling by the minute. By the time Mike and I were back up, my headlamp was on and we were heading into a dark trail. A half hour changed the entire world from daylight to darkness.

              this was taken after I'd driven home wearing slippers

After the initial shake out walk in new kicks and fresh socks, I started to run again, to the surprise of Mike and myself-- both of whom were, without a shred of doubt, already resigned to a full night of slogging through the sticks, stones, and mud. It continued off and on for about a mile before I was slammed again with another overwhelming wave of nausea. I was burping up liquid, and could taste the bile collecting in my mouth, and in a dizzy, faint moment, dropped to my hands and knees along the side of the Bike and Hike trail, absolutely certain I was about to empty my stomach for the second time. Instead, a slurred stream of profanity erupted, and I curled into fetal position and closed my eyes for a minute. I have no idea what my pacer must have been thinking then, but eventually I peeled myself from the ground and we proceeded to start walking along the paved path. With the exception of one other dizzy stop, we managed to pick up the pace a bit and walk at a faster clip for the remainder of the Bike and Hike section until it dumped me back onto the trail and immediately I was reduced to near-turtle status.

I knew I was losing time rapidly. But about 90% of my mental faculties were being pumped into the effort to deal with the nausea, it seemed. The other 10% was being fueled by a backup generator merely keeping me from flatlining on the course. After another close call with vomit, words were exchanged between me and the trees/air/Mike: "just make it all end; I can't take this anymore..." It felt like everyone on the course was passing us-- probably because, well, they were; and when I got to the Ledges three hours after arriving at Pine Lane, my only goal was to find a place to lay down. My sister was standing over me with an unhappy expression, and it seemed like too many people were fretting over what to feed me when the last thing I wanted in the hazy fog of nausea was more food. After moving into the shelter in front of the fire, I was assured and reassured that I still had plenty of time on the cutoff, even though it had already dwindled to less than an hour. Sitting in front of the fire, food began to appear in front of me like really bad magic: sandwiches, noodles, candy bars, a cookie. "oh, get it away from me," I was saying, "please, no more..." This terrifying Man vs. Food challenge was what had replaced my Korean meatballs and roast beef & cole slaw; and, honestly, the only thing I could have stomached at that point without wanting to puke up my soul was more sausage and potato soup.

The out of control pace that commenced from the Ledges aid station on the way to mile 71 Pine Hollow could be described as nothing less than a death march, and, by the end, a fight to stay ahead of the sweepers. I knew we were moving slow, but had no idea it was so bad until we climbed the final hill out of the woods and I could see the lights of the Pine Hollow aid station come into view. After telling Mike, "I really don't know how much more I have in me", he replied, "I don't know if they're going to give you a choice", and my heart dropped fifty stories into my stomach. "Five minutes!" Charles Twigg shouted from the aid station as I emerged from the trail. The shock sucked the fear out of my body, and I was left in a dazed state of confusion and sadness. Five minutes? How did this happen? I closed my eyes, sighed, and dropped into a heap on the cold, dewy grass. "I'm done", I said. Seventy-one miles.

   I finished the Burning River 100 in 2012. I finished 71 miles of it in 2013.

I never imagined I'd be swept. Not like this. Not so early in a race that had been tough but well-paced for 50 miles. I'd been more than three hours ahead at the halfway point. And, in a mere 20 miles, I'd lost all three of those hours. Nobody seemed to know what to say to me, which made it worse. I was the white elephant in the room, wearing ripped filthy shorts, laying spread eagle at the top of a grassy hill, light still shining up at the heavens, crushed. And this is where my story ends. There was no sunny run down Front Street for me this year to a cheering crowd with a giant buckle waiting for me at the finish line. There was cold itchy grass, and John Delcalzo, my second pacer slated to pick me up at this aid station, standing in full battle armor for a war that wasn't going to happen.

The disappointment is suffocating. I'd been injured for months, and had suffered through bad race after bad race; but, I genuinely believed I would finish Burning River again. The sense of having let so many people down is stifling. Granted, I do this because I love it, but I've met many people along the way who have gotten whipped up in the excitement of the adventure, and had been following my progress.

My next 100 will be run this year, but I am keeping the date and location under wraps. I cannot stand the thought of hyping up an event for friends and family like I've done so many times this year only to fall short again. But, I will finish. And, you'll know when I do.

About my 71 mile tally, a friend had to say this:

" 71 is the algebraic degree of Conway's constant, a remarkable number arising in the study of look-and-say sequences.

It is the 20th prime number. The next is 73, with which it composes a twin prime. It is also a permutable prime with 17. If we add up the primes less than 71 (2 through 67), we get 568, which is divisible by 71, 8 times. 71 is the largest (15th) supersingular prime, which is also a Chen prime. Also, 712 = 7! + 1, making it part of the last known pair of Brown numbers, as (71, 7). It is an Eisenstein prime with no imaginary part and real part of the form 3n – 1. Since 9! + 1 is divisible by 71 but 71 is not one more than a multiple of 9, 71 is a Pillai prime.

As 71 is the least prime factor of one more than the product of the first twenty-two terms of the Euclid–Mullin sequence, it is the twenty-third term. Also, 71 is the largest number which occurs as a prime factor of an order of a sporadic simple group.

71 is a centered heptagonal number."

There is something magical in everything we do, something beautiful, something that makes it special and meaningful. We simply have to be willing to look for it. And, as long as we rise out of bed and are willing and able to rise to the challenge, there is always another chance to conquer today what we would not conquer yesterday. I love running. I am 30 years old, and I have been running competitively for more than half of my life-- across state lines, for charity, in college, through an entire pregnancy, on roads, trails, gymnasium floors, ice, wind, rain, and baking sun. I hope I have many more opportunities to embrace this passion, and share it with as many people as I can.


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