It was 3:15am on August 2nd: Burning River 100. And, I wasn't wearing deodorant.
There have been times when I've showed up to run an ultra not wearing socks. I've forgotten a band and had to run with loose hair. And, I've even admittedly raced 50k without underwear. These things happen when you race after being up all night working third shift. But, this?
I closed my eyes for a minute on the bus, hoping four tampons would be enough, because I wasn't prepared for that curveball either. It was going to be a good day, even if I stunk before everyone else did, and even if I had to wait in line for the bathroom every time I found one. I'd trained hard for this-- really hard. And, I was convinced nothing was going to rain on my parade.
Course changes moved our 10k romp around Squire's Castle to the road, and I was incredibly grateful to see Polo Fields aid station come into view after another half dozen plus paved miles o' misery. I had no idea what kind of time I was making, and promised myself I wouldn't sneak a peek until Snowville at the halfway point, but it felt like I was traveling at a conservative enough pace that I wouldn't blow up later. Aid station crew were friendly and well-prepared, and as always, the fanfare that erupted from spectators and crew was overwhelming but pleasant. But, it was early-- 13.5 miles early, and I just wanted to hit the trail.
After you've jumped into the deep end more than a few times, you get a feel for the water. And, in the case of running 100 miles, you learn that it's ok to walk early if your body tells you it needs it, and to tend to your feet before hot spots and blisters get out of control. I'd meticulously planned my drop bags, having raced BR100 twice already, and having trained on most segments of the course countless times over the past couple years. My first shoe change was slated at Oak Grove around mile 39, but my shoes and socks were soaked by the time I reached Shadow Lake (~mile 24), and I was forced to dry and Vaseline my feet there and return them to the wet shoes and socks. Blisters began to boil shortly thereafter. I also broke my vow and checked the time a few miles later. Five hours and thirty-nine minutes for 29 miles and change? Not bad. I was moving well, and felt fine, even though it took more than 20 miles to find my race legs.
Checking time once tends to lead to a domino effect of constant checks, and for someone who refuses to wear a watch, this means frequent shuffles into the pocket of a handheld water bottle that, on this occasion, more closely resembled a clown car than a 3 x 5 inch pocket that was only meant to carry a phone or a packet of gel. In my case, it was holding the phone I planned to power on to check the time, toilet paper, batteries, a flashlight, tampons, and a Justin's nut butter. As I neared Oak Grove, I was powering the phone on and off so frequently I'm surprised someone didn't take notice and ask if I was ok. I was hoping to hit 40 miles under 8 hours and 50 in 10.5, and somehow seemed to believe if I checked my phone often enough it would propel me to the aid station faster. The course was relatively tame between Egbert and Oak Grove with Alexander road in between, and easy miles on the Towpath where scary clouds and gusts of wind threatened my chi with the fear of lightning and other unspeakable terrors. I made it to Oak Grove unscathed and lightning scare-free, albeit in 8:07-- a few minutes behind schedule. Still, I took my ability to stay reasonable close to my target time a sign that I'd done my job in training, and that I'd planned well.
Getting to Snowville in 10.5 hours wasn't going to be an easy task, and I knew I'd set the bar a bit high. In the past, I'd reached this aid station in 11:31 and 11:58, respectively, and even though it came a mile earlier than in years past (49.6 miles this year), I knew this was an ambitious goal. The Oak Grove loop was harder than I remembered, but I ran when I could and walked when running wasn't in the cards. There were a couple long climbs that put my already labored hill-climb breathing into full fledged Darth Vader mode, and I was grateful to be done with it when I left Oak Grove again, this time for Snowville. I'd been prepared for the worst, but the Bog of Despair was so dry I barely batted an eye as I navigated it. This was a huge mental boost for me, and I began running fast upon leaving what used to be the muddiest soul-sucking part of the entire course. I reached Snowville in 10:45. I was still a few minutes behind, but I'd also spent a little longer than anticipated at Oak Grove. So far, the day was turning out as well as I could have hoped. The weather was holding up despite the clouds, and although I had blisters in the making, nothing catastrophic had happened yet.
I zoned out every negative feeling I'd harbored in the past toward the Snowville to Boston segment, running it reasonably well, arriving at the aid station feeling more like I'd run 54 kilometers than 54 miles. This was a hard section, in my opinion, with a lot of hills, and the next segment wouldn't be as challenging. After that, I just had to focus on getting to the Ledges-- preferably in daylight, where my pacer, Terri Lemke, would be waiting for me.
In 2012, I reached Pine Lane in daylight that quickly faded to darkness along the Bike and Hike path, and in 2013 I made it there at twilight, so getting there over an hour and a half before sunset was another boost. Unfortunately, a thread had started to unravel upon leaving this aid station that was threatening to rip out of control, and before I knew it, I was on the Bike & Hike unable to bring myself to run-- even on the flattest portions. And, while I was marching as fast as my legs could carry me, passing a number of people along the way, I was incredibly eager to find Terri. This segment seemingly took forever. There were signs along the trail once we entered it again advertising that Ledges shelter was only 1/2 mile to the right, taunting me each time I passed one. I power walked my way into the sight of cheering spectators, my sister, and Terri, just before darkness set in, realizing for the first time that my pacer was a pacer and not a savior, and all this hope of reaching her wasn't going to take away the obvious fact that I still had to cover another 35 miles. The first twitches of panic took hold as we left together for Pine Hollow.
I knew I'd lost sight of a sub-24 hour finish, but reasoned that 25-26 hours was definitely still a possibility. I'm known to spend miles doing calculations, even late in races when nothing else seems to make sense, and I was fairly confident that even if Pine Hollow to Pine Hollow and Oneill Woods got the best of me, I should still be able to finish well under 27 hours-- not the kind of finish that gets written about in magazines, but respectable nonetheless, and a hill of beans better than the 29:42 finish I scraped up in 2012.
By now, I was tired, it was getting dark, and I had blisters. Terri, an ultra running legend, was impressed by my walking pace, and I humbly told her it was really all I could see myself doing for the foreseeable future of our trek together. We made our way to Pine Hollow, discussing a number of running-related topics, and arrived to a chaotic scene of people, bags, food, and tape. I was eager to get out of my Inov8 X-talon 212's and into my 190's-- and also fresh socks and a shirt of my own, having borrowed one of Terri's en route to the aid station, but my bag was missing. Granted, the aid station was jam-packed, but I've never had a drop bag disappear, especially one that was as clearly labeled as mine was. While I realize one or two of my bags didn't have my bib # marked, all of them had my first and last name printed in reasonably large, bold letters. After nearly 10 minutes of searching, only the ziplock bag containing my X-talon 190's was located-- a bag that had been taken out of my drop bag. Why someone would do something like that is still a disappointing mystery, but thankfully ultra runner and BR100 volunteer Hugh Patton offered to lend me a pair of his own socks.
The Pine Hollow to Pine Hollow loop was described as 3.7 miles, and I knew from training on it that it wasn't going to be a picnic, but the amount of time we spent slogging along this trail was nothing short of an eon, and the ground we covered easily approached or surpassed 5 miles. It was the first time I experienced true frustration in the 17 hours I'd spent on the course. Had we missed a turn? Were we on our way to Covered Bridge by mistake? No, that wasn't possible. I knew that segment, and we were heading in the wrong direction. When we finally made our way back into the aid station, I knew I'd lost a lot of time, and it wasn't going to be made up on any of the next three segments.
Along the 6.2 mile hike to Covered Bridge, mental fatigue finally dug its talons into my brain, within minutes of the start of approximately 47 (and it may have been more) pee stops, and the start of the worst butt chafing episode I've ever experienced in my 31 years on this planet. While I knew I'd finish, and probably under 29 hours, all other goals became secondary concerns to finding something to wake me up beside the horrendous burning on and between my butt cheeks. I'd heard tales of butt-chafing that had forced people out of races, but had chalked it up to weakness on the part of the chafee. This discomfort was in a galaxy of its own, and the terrain we covered during those 6.2 miles rivaled the 2013 Bog of Despair at times. I repeatedly lost my footing, sunk my shoes in deceptively deep mud, and generally fell into a funk. I was dizzy and aching by the time we made our way into Covered Bridge, and downed a cocktail of Ibuprofin, S-caps, and Pepsi. I smeared a quarter tube of Desitin on my inner thighs and on my butt, shoved a wad of toilet paper between the cheeks, followed by eating potatoes, banana, and grilled cheese-- the most palatable foods for me at this point.
I liked the next segment, the 4.7 mile Perkins/Riding Run loop, and had run it so often I'd nearly memorized ever twist, turn, creek, and hill, but encountering it fatigued, pained, and in the dark was an indescribable, confusing nightmare, especially muddy as it was with a dimming headlamp. I missed familiar landmarks, and didn't even realize I'd reached the big hill until I was nearly halfway down it, and by the time the trail spit us out onto the road, I had no idea what had just happened. We were done with it? Back at the Covered Bridge? This meant we only had 14 miles remaining...well, at least on paper.
Another quarter tube of Desitin and wad of toilet paper later, we began our hike toward Botzum Parking (mile 91) on what turned out to be the second segment that was easily a mile longer than had been listed. The road section was painful on my feet (and everything was painful for my butt), and the O Woods was full of rocks and fallen trees that kept turning into crawling, writhing CGI animals. It was the only time, like 2012, that I experienced any type of visual disturbance, and also struggled to stay awake and retain my peripheral vision. I'm a logically thinking person, but if ever there was a case for the supernatural, I can assure you it's Oneill Woods after dark. Upon exiting the trail, I was sure the aid station would come into view, but it didn't. There was just more pavement. Unlike the long experience in the Pine Hollow loop, however, I knew we were, without a doubt, heading in the right direction.
We finally reached the aid station at about 6:15 am. With 10 miles remaining and a needed refueling and bathroom stop, I was anticipating a 28:00-28:30 finish. It wasn't going to be fast or pretty, but I was going to get it done. Not long after arriving, however, I found myself doubled over, bile filling my mouth, gagging potatoes onto the ground in front of me. I didn't feel well, didn't want to eat even though I was hungry, and my feet and butt hurt. But with one aid station and only 10 miles separating me from the finish line, there really wasn't any other option but to get up, force something down, and get moving. As I've told countless people inquiring about BR100, if you can leave the Covered Bridge, barring medical emergency, you're going to finish. It is the point of no return. The only question is: how long will it take?
On our way to Memorial Parkway, a steady rain began that didn't let up for the next few hours. For the first time in 20 miles, I began to run. And although it was slow, and barely lasted 1/4 mile, it was something. We continued this walk-run, sometimes at Terri's suggestion, sometimes at mine, all the way to the aid station where, minutes before entering, we found Dan Bellinger running toward us with his dog, thrilled to see us and beaming that we had hours to finish 4.5 short miles. It was a good feeling knowing I was heading toward the last segment, and I was happy that he was happy, but exhausted and not happy that I still had 4.5 miles to cover. We arrived at 7:45 and left about 4-5 minutes later, and I estimated it would take an nearly an hour and a half to finish, or about 18 minutes/mile. Even with the fast finish on the road, I knew the first half of the Cascade Valley section wasn't easy, and there was a long stretch uphill on the brick road after leaving the aid station.
The rain picked up momentum as we headed up the behemoth of a hill that waited in the Gorge and Chuckery, a course change for which I had not been prepared. It felt like we were moving at the pace of a turtle, and at one point my breathing became so labored I thought I was going to faint and barrel down the hill backward, over-Rover rolling, but finally, at the top, after a minute or two of hiking, we again picked up a shuffled jog. The rain made what was typically an easy, somewhat boring stretch puddly and muddy, and a number of people passed us. I didn't care. I just wanted to get done. And, by the time the bridge came into view, I was a teary, bawling mess.
We headed over the bridge, through the rain, and up the paved hill on the other side with gusto, passing one runner and pacer team here and another further down the road. My running picked up pace first just a trifle, and then, with less than a half mile to go and the finish line in view, to a pace I didn't think was possible.
I'd done it. After three 100 mile DNF's in 2013, a lot of heartache, and a hell of stretch of high mileage racing and training over the past few months, I'd earned my second 100 mile buckle. I could not have been more pleased with my pacer, my sister being there to support me from Ledges at mile 66 to the finish, or the journey itself. I got to see several friends finish before leaving. It was a great end to a long, challenging adventure.
I'd initially decided 2015 would be spent training for a fast marathon, and to improve my 50 mile time, and that I was done with 100 miles for a while. But, I suspect Burning River will call me back for another go on a course I love with the support of a trail running community like no other. People say racing ultras is addicting, but I think it's the atmosphere that draws me in, again and again. It's like nothing else. Magic.