Buckeye Buster: 52 miles through a tangle of hills, roots, and just enough grass and pavement to make you think, "oh, this can't be so bad". I was prepared for a date with a lively pack of mutant deerflies, and a fairly stiff cutoff, given the difficulty of the course and the mileage to be run. Eleven hours isn't a lot of time on a road 50, if one is having a bad day. On trails in the heat of summer with two bonus miles and a heck of a lot more elevation change? It was unrealistic. Even the modified 12 hour limit was unrealistic, in my opinion. But, I was blindly optimistic, and as well-trained as I could have hoped. Armed with a 50 mile PR of 9:37, a fast 100k under my belt already this year, and weekly training that had recently peaked at 84 miles, I toed the line like I was fighting for Sparta.
I can count the number of times I haven't totally f$^&ed up a race over 50 miles on one hand, but my many and myriad mishaps somehow never wormed their way into my psyche, even after some of the most bizarre events of my running history unfolded as the miles progressed. I started probably a little too fast, covering the first of the five 10.4 mile loops in 1:57, but didn't seem to feel fatigued by the effort. I'd planned to run the first loop in about 2:00, the second around 2:10, and then try to hang on for dear life. I know myself well, and know this course well having run 50k on it in December 2012 and June 2013. I knew I'd slow to 2:25-2:30 or more by the fourth loop simply because the temperature was going to rise and I'm incredibly bad at maintaining an even pace for more than 15 miles or so. So, I expected to finish somewhere in the ballpark of 11:30.
training for Burning River 100 in 2012. I finished the 100, but it was a struggle.
Anyway, this event consisted of three races this year: the 52 mile race that I was running, the 50k I'd previously run, and a 10.4 mile trail challenge. The staggered start meant that while the 50k runners started an hour after me, the shorter distance started two hours later-- or about two minutes after I finished my first loop. The result was a stampede of people sprinting after me onto the trail, lots of passing over the course of the next few miles both by me and by other runners, and a lot of checking over my shoulder to see if I ought to let someone pass. This loop was easily my least favorite.
Four miles into it, or around mile 15, there was a bed of mud that really didn't have any feasible way around it. I didn't remember it posing a problem the first time around, and feeling a little overly ambitious, made the mistake of trying to jump it. My right foot got stuck in the mud, and when I pulled at it, my foot pulled free from my shoe-- the first time this has ever happened to me in 17 years. It was one of those really vulnerable, pivotal moments in a race, I think, where you're faced with something that just really f*&%s with your chi, and you've got to figure out how to get yourself together again. So, there I was, sitting in the mud, runners literally stepping over me like a busted down tree, as I pulled at a shoe that didn't want to come out of the mud. Finally, with the help of another runner who pulled at one arm while I pulled at the shoe with the other, it emerged coated in a layer of mud so thick it didn't even resemble a shoe.
I wasted about 1/2 mile hobbling along the trail in my remaining shoe, hoping I might find a spot close enough to the lake that I could rinse it off. However, after a while I grew anxious and realized that chance wasn't going to come, and I was going to blow myself out of the water and out of the running in the worst kind of way if I didn't start running again soon. So, filthy bottom and hands, I plopped on the side of the trail, beat as much mud off the shoe as possible, slid my foot into its slimy interior, and then laced up. I'd driven 2.5 hours to run, not to piss and moan about getting dirty.
Unfortunately, my little rendezvous with the mud and subsequent half mile of walking cost me more time than I'd anticipated, and I crossed the timing mat at the 20.8 mile mark in 4:14. I'd just lost my lead less than a half mile ago, but otherwise felt reasonably confident and optimistic. The next closest woman appeared to be at least 5 minutes behind, and I felt like I still had plenty of strength left. I'd secretly hoped for a top 3 finish, and knew this depended on not stopping at 50k, which was going to be incredibly tempting given the rising temperature and the row of medals glimmering under the sun.
I felt fast heading into the third loop. The sun was blasting the open portions of the course like a heat lamp and I suspected it was nearing 80 degrees, but most of the course is pleasantly shaded, especially during the early and late miles of the loop. I could tell my walking pace was stalling on many of the uphill sections, and that I wasn't running quite as fast as I had been running earlier, but was shocked when I checked the time at the 27 mile mark and discovered nearly 5:45 had passed. I knew it would take me about an hour to cover the last 4.2 miles thanks to a series of sun-exposed, deerfly infested grassy hills that spanned the greater part of a mile. Upon ascending the last of the hills, I tried to pick up the pace, and found that my running pace had improved considerably from the first half of the loop. I was a bit concerned I might be nipping at the heels of 7 hours again like I did last summer when it was blazing hot and humid, and had resolved to stop at 50k, knowing I wouldn't have enough time to finish within 12 hours. I came through the 50k mark in 6:47, still in second place amongst female runners, and incredibly frantic and frustrated-- not so much as a result of fatigue, but more or less panic and disappointment. I really wanted to go the full distance. As good fortune would have it, two of my friends, Dawn and Gale, detained me at the timing tent where I'd just motioned to chop off my head and pull the plug on my race. "You're not quitting". After explaining I didn't have time to finish within the 12 hour limit, a lady at the timing tent insisted the timing crew from Western Reserve Racing wasn't going anywhere. I was free to continue.
Skeptical but desperate, I headed back out with ice stuffed down my sports bra and bounced back into a run almost immediately. I'd wasted nearly 10 minutes at the aid station, minutes I really didn't have to spare. The leader of the 52 mile race, Jason Howland, passed me approximately 5 miles into the loop, smiling but looking fatigued. Even the fastest runners weren't exempt from feeling the effects of the heat and hills. Rolling into the aid station around mile 37.5, local ultra runner Mark Pancake poured cold water over my shoulders and back, and I ate two pieces of watermelon and tried to suck down 1/2 of a gel. I felt pretty good and told him so, but the gel didn't digest well and I regretted it a mile later. As a low carb runner, my favorite food items are typically fatty and filling rather than sugary and light. Luckily, the stomach discomfort passed relatively quickly, and I didn't have to walk off the nausea for too long. I was surprised to find myself running as strong at 40 miles as I'd been running at 20 miles, but I was still tired and mentally overwhelmed when I came through the timing area at the end of my fourth loop.
At this point, there wasn't a shred of doubt that I was going to continue, it was just a matter of how long that last loop took. I could see a look of concern (or disapproval, disgust, horror?) on local running store owner and race director Vince Rucci's face when it became apparent that I planned to continue. But, having been reminded repeatedly that the course would remain open for me, I was determined to finish what I'd started. Dawn saw me off to the trail where I was left to run with the memory of Western Reserve Racing timing man Jim Christ's picture from the previous day of a boat and a fish and a smile. All I could think was, "Man, am I sorry, but the only thing you're going to be enjoying this evening are crickets and mosquitos and the sound of grass growing because it's going to be a long time before I finish this race".
Luckily, the team at Western Reserve Racing made sure my ass stayed in four-wheel drive heading up the hills by sending out Vince after me, a mile into the last loop. My first thought upon hearing his declaration that he was pacing me was, "Walking talking Jesus, they couldn't find someone else?" This guy leads trail training runs at like an 8-minute pace. "I'm going to take a wild guess here and assume I'm in last place." I blurted out, beyond the point of frustrated and embarrassed. How in the world had THIS happened? "Yep", Vince replied. "Well, there is one guy behind you, but we made it clear he was on his own". Wow. Bloody wow. "What in the heck happened to everyone behind me? I haven't been in last place all day. What happened to the rest of the women?" Pure, unadulterated shock. And horror. "They all dropped", he started, "opted to get that 50k medal". Gee. I was silent for a minute or two, trying to reconcile how 2nd place had become last place, and how a 12 hour 50 mile trail race could be swept into oblivion. I'd run slower at Mohican two years before, and finished mid-pack.
Heading into the middle of the loop where I'd lost my shoe hours earlier, an orange shirt came into view. "We caught one", Vince said. It was another runner, struggling over the mud. "We're the chain gang," Vince said to the guy, but he made no effort to keep up, and heading steadily uphill, we easily passed him. I ran out of water not long after this point, halfway up the longest, steepest hill of the entire loop. Luckily, the aid station had become mobile and was moved to the top of this hill. After refilling my water bottle, Vince announced he was going to wait for the guy we'd passed and perhaps Joe Jurczyk (Burning River 100 race director) would scoop me up down the road and finish the last few miles with me. I passed Joe, but he was still tearing down the original aid station, and pressed on past the deerfly home base and the grassy hills. Into the cool, shaded woods I began to run again, realizing I only had about 3 miles to go. A mile later I found Joe waiting for me, and we ran together toward the finish. Joe was surprised to find me running, but I felt strong and relieved to be nearly finished.
As the last long uphill came into view, I asked him to check the time. Twelve hours and thirty four minutes had passed. Well...it wasn't going to go down in the record book for a fastest 52 mile run, but it was faster than I'd run Mohican, and faster than my 50 mile split at Woodstock. It was going to be a finish.
I crossed the timing mat in 12:39:05, 15th of 18 finishers and the 2nd female to complete the full distance. Those behind me on the course had both elected to take the early start, as had one other person who'd finished before me. I earned a nice hydration pack for the second place effort, and devoured a roast beef and swiss cheese sandwich covered in mayonnaise. In retrospect, I'm still struggling to come to terms with what actually transpired during this race and how I feel about my performance. On the one hand, I made no major mistakes. Granted, I probably should have put on the muddy shoe pronto (and probably shouldn't have tried to jump the muddy bed) and definitely spent too long at the aid station after the third loop. But, I ran a good race. I continue to feel a sense of disappointment in having had someone feel a need to pace me when mentally I was exactly where I needed to be, and planned to finish running and strong. I'm unjustifiably annoyed by the strict cut-off. Unjustifiably, I mean, because I knew what I was getting into when I registered. I knew it was unrealistic. And, the race results kind of confirm this. Out of 40 starters, only 5 people finished under 11 hours, and only 14 beat the modified 12 hour limit. But, I took on the burden of trying to achieve what was not realistic given my ability and track record on this course. I wilt in the heat, and there was nearly 7000 ft of elevation change, and this was no Tussey Mountainback with its well groomed fire roads.
In less than two weeks, however, I'll be at it again. Mohican dialed me for another romp in the woods, and I'm feeling up to the 50 mile challenge. Running into the sunset is passion, and trails are an elixir. Together, the combination is a high unmatchable. I am ready.