Burning River 100 Miler

2015 has been a year filled with a lot of changes in my life, but there is one thing that remains the same; running is my therapy.  Almost everyone that I encounter regularly thinks that running 100 miles in one shot is simply insane.  Be that as it may, it has not deterred me from wanting to take on the immense challenge yet again.  This time it would be south of the border in the state of Ohio at a race called the Burning River 100

The reason I picked this race over any other is simple.  In order to enter into the lottery for the Western States 100 Endurance Run (for non-ultra runners, this race is the equivalent to the Boston Marathon for 100 milers), you must first qualify by completing or running a qualifying time at least one of the races they have listed on their website, which is a list of about a hundred of the toughest and most popular ultras you can find on the planet.  Burning River was a my top pick due to being one of the closest, cheapest and it seemed to fit well into my calendar.  After the online credit card transaction was approved, a co-worker who I had been discussing about the race with pointed out that I only had about 6 weeks of training until race day.  This was a simple fact that I should have considered before registering and it made me a little bit nervous, but I soon let it go, having more pressing things to be concerned about. 

The lead up to the race was not at all your typical training, or even a taper, which is a planned decrease in mileage in the week or two before a big race.  It consisted of an 18-day vacation to Europe to visit family and friends.  Quickly, a clean diet and disciplined training was replaced by countless espressos, Dutch cheese sandwiches, plenty of beer, frites, and mayonnaise on just about everything you can deep fry.  I managed to fit two runs in during my holiday.  I jogged around the lake near my cousin, Hans’ place, a short run which I had done a few years ago.  The second was a leisurely tourist-jog through Brussels, a city with so much to see around every corner. 

Upon coming home from Europe, it was time for me to get serious.  I cleaned up my diet (no caffeine and lots of vegan-powermeals) along with yoga and a long, low intensity jog each day, between 45-75minutes.  I fit one 25km run in with the group from Runner’s Choice in London on the Sunday before the race.  I didn’t want to over do it with mileage since the race would be more about mental strength than anything else. 

As usual, I packed my bags only minutes before departing from Strathroy, on Friday, July 24th.  To my credit, I DID have my entire collection of Gels, Chews, ClifBars, first-aid gear and enough running gear to last a whole season laid out all over the floor in my mom’s basement the night before, so I was at least thinking ahead, if not actually physically packing.  I was quite impressed that I was pulling out of the driveway at precisely the same time I had planned to leave when I wrote down a schedule earlier in the week (Again, lots of thinking ahead).  Aside from a 45minute wait at the border in Port Huron and the worst service ever at Einstein Bros. Bagels during my pit stop off the Turnpike, it didn’t take long until I was at the Sheraton in Cuyahoga Falls, OH to pick up my race kit. 

The race package included a really warm race sweater, my bib, a poster and a pasta dinner ticket.  I had a few bites of the pasta dinner before deciding against it.  I also had to make a decision at the last minute to include an extra pair of shoes in one of my drop bags, just incase the “Bog of Despair” noted in the course description was as bad as it sounded by the comments by local runners on the race’s Facebook group.  With my bib in hand and the drop-bags delivered to the volunteers, I was off in my car, heading north towards my hosts for the night, who live closer to the start of the race in Eastlake. 

I was put in touch with Maggie Beatie and her husband Shawn through my ultra-inspiration and facebook friend, Dennene Huntley.  I met Dennene years ago while on the bus ride to the start of the Niagara Falls Marathon and she has been inspiring me with her running accomplishments ever since.  I think it’s become somewhat of a symbiotic relationship at this point with all that I’ve been able to accomplish since 2008 as well.  Maggie would be running Leg 7 of the 8-person relay at Burning River. 

Maggie had dinner ready when I arrived and we all made sure we had enough fuel to last us during the run.  I didn’t want to eat too much in the evening since the race started at 4am and I wouldn’t have time to really get it through my system.  After dinner, I laid out everything I needed for the next day so all I needed to do when I woke up was get dressed and go. 

Once all my things were organized, I decided to just chill and visit with Shawn and Maggie over a beer, which helped to take the edge off the looming challenge.  Before I knew it, it was 11:30pm and I thought I better get at least some sleep.  Luckily, just as I had in Europe, I slept like a baby until my “Chariots of Fire” alarm (reserved only for race mornings) sounded and I was up and ready to go.  I grabbed a couple of my homemade “Awesome bars” and a can of V8 from the fridge and we were out the door by 3am. 

It was only about a 20-minute drive to the start of the race at Squire’s Castle, in the North Chagrin Reservation.  It was buzzing with activity, which is rare so early in the morning.  I was pleased with how pleasant the air felt and decided to forego wearing my light rain jacket, starting off in just a t-shirt.  Maggie took the required starting line selfie pics and we commenced lining up for the start.  With such a large crowd for a 100 miler (200-300) I wasn’t sure where to seed myself in the crowd.  The race began promptly at 4am and I reminded myself I only needed to run my race, and nobody else’s. 

There was a large group of guys that took off very fast from the beginning, while I hung back, quickly making friends with a pretty hardcore looking guy from Colorado.  I knew he was a serious athlete as soon as he mentioned his biggest concern was that the whole course was “so flat and runable” that he wouldn’t know when to take walk breaks.  That was his opinion, not mine, to be sure.  In just a few minutes of chatting, I verified my suspicions when he started talking about how most of the 100 mile races he’s done, he usually makes it a multiday event, including a 100 mile mountain bike or some other type of insane activity in the days prior to the run.  I also learned that Larry, the super athlete from Colorado, was brought out to Ohio as part of a fundraiser he was doing for his friend’s teenage son, who has been going through cancer treatment and was planning to run the last mile with him.  Larry was a huge inspiration to the kid while going through treatment and Larry was pleased to come out to Ohio for the run and support him.

It wasn’t long before we came across the first aid station; the time seemed to fly by while chatting in the dark.  We passed through the stop without much delay, as we were still fresh and yet to get onto any trail surface.  About a mile or two later, I started to wish I had used the toilets at the first stop.  My dinner from the night before was starting to make its presence known and so I held on to the next aid station.  Still in a small group of guys, chatting away about various running topics and strategy, we made it to the second aid station at Polo Fields Park and I quickly ran to the restrooms to find that the park had yet to open them to the public for the day.  It was about 6am and now my “situation” was becoming a little more concerning.  It would be over 7miles to the next stop where I was assured there would be toilets available so I continued on and tried to hold myself together. 

The course finally turned onto the Buckeye Trail into the woods near the Chagrin River.  I was getting really nervous after a couple close calls with my bowels and made the executive decision to peel off the path in order to deal with my problem.  Lucky for myself, I had stuffed a travel pack of Kleenex into my CamelBak (for non-runners, a CamelBak is like a backpack with a bladder in it that can hold about 3L of water as well as a bunch of pockets for food and other small items) for just such an occasion and I was up and going in a matter of a few short minutes.  It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but keeping yourself clean and tidy makes an incredible difference later on when it comes to chaffing and other such issues. 

Feeling a million times better, I hurried on to the next station at Harper Ridge.  I spent another few minutes in the restroom there, just to be sure I was emptied out before filling myself back up with as much water, ClifBars (a running staple of mine) and Gels (packets of mostly liquid sugar that help to fuel your muscles during endurance activities) as my stomach would tolerate.  The next couple stages had some more sun exposure but it was still early in the morning and the heat hadn’t quite set in yet.   

By 8am, I thought it was about time to start my Garmin GPS so that I had enough battery to last at least until dark, after which, I wouldn’t be able to see the screen anyways.  The next few sections were a combination of road, multi-use paths and some trails; I just kept moving along, now solo, trying to keep my heart rate in the range of 120-145bpm.  I used the toilets that were available a couple more times, just as insurance that I would have no more surprises out in the woods and just kept eating and drinking as much as I could.   

Everything was going well and the temperature was warming up, especially during the stretches through full sun on the roads and along the canal.  I was so relieved when we turned off into the forest and onto the more technical single-track trails.  Starting from the next aid station at Oak Grove, where I had my first drop-bag, I was getting my CamelBak filled with ice at every chance I had.  In hindsight, this might have been one of the key reasons for my success in the race.  I also changed into a dry shirt and hat and reloaded my pockets with more bars and gels, including one of my new favourites, an Endurance Tap.  These are made with just maple syrup, sea salt and ginger and go down super smooth. 

I was loving the simple joy of running through the beautiful trails but after about 8 hours, I figured a little treat to help endure the heat of the afternoon would be to turn on my music.  I had been running mostly by myself since mid-morning and it would help pass the time as I logged some miles.  The afternoon continued smoothly, drinking plenty of water and taking in many more gels than I typically have in past races.  I was also still keeping a close eye on my heart rate and avoiding letting it get much above 140bpm.  All the volunteers at every aid station were incredibly helpful, taking care of filling my CamelBak, finding my drop-bags for me, and offering to get anything else I needed.  It was indeed a full-service experience.  The only foods I was using from the ultra-buffet they had set out was the potatoes with salt.  They are simple, go down easy and keep you fueled up for a long time.  I was also really enjoying the Peanutbutter flavour Hammergels that they had on hand and started to grab at least a couple at each stop. 

I had been anticipating the section known as the “Bog of Despair” in which many runners have had their motivations destroyed while running through in past editions of the race.  I had my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t be that bad after all the hot and sunny days we had had leading up to the race and I was not disappointed.  Instead of a sticky, wet mud which can be a nightmare to run through, it was more of a gummy muck that could be avoided by taking your time and either going around the edges or by choosing your steps carefully.  I figured I had 100 miles to run so taking my time through here would be a benefit in the end. 

When I made it up to the Snowville Road aid station, just before the halfway point, I was starting to feel the heat and decided to just sit down and relax for a few minutes.  I was there with a couple other solo runners who were also feeling the effects of the heat.  I knew most of my rest was meant to be preventative, saving my energy for the 50 miles still yet to tackle, so I was feeling slightly more confident than those beside me looked. 

I arrived at the Standford House aid station with huge cheers from all the spectators and supporters.  I had the option to change my shoes there but since I came out of the bog relatively clean, I chose to keep going without messing around with my feet.  Leaving this aid station brought us into the hottest part of the day and the second half of the course.  There were some long stretches of flat running without much protection from the sun.  My strategy of keeping my CamelBak filled with ice and drinking plenty was now starting to really show its benefits.  I was patiently picking off one runner at a time as they all were feeling the sun and the distance.  I just kept moving slow and steadily, relying on my experience and knowledge that the race was still in its early stages.  The real test was still ahead in the final miles after dark.

The occasional sections of single track, although offering more challenging terrain, were a source of relief from the heat and the monotony of the long, flat stretches in the meadows.  While running through the trails towards the Ledges aid station (mile 60) I started to feel a little “fuzzy” and light headed.  I immediately gulped down an extra gel and hoped that I wasn’t getting behind on my nutrition and hydration.  I had been peeing at least hourly since noon and the colour was fairly clear so I was pretty confident that I was not dehydrated.  I took a few extra minutes to sit down at the aid station before heading out again.

I was feeling better on the next leg, and it was starting to cool down a bit as well.  I was quite amazed that I had yet to experience any sort of muscle cramping in my legs, since this has typically started to set in around 40miles in any other race I’ve done.  Near the end of this leg, I came out into a large grassy meadow.  I looked for the flags that marked the course and paused when I saw that instead of going left, or right, around a monstrous hill, the flags continued directly up the centre of the hill.   I put my head down, along with a gel, and stomped up the hill, hoping that was the worst of that leg.  As I crested the top of the hill, out of breath, I was slightly agitated to see the flags go right down the other side of the hill and straight up an even larger one!  The only redeeming factor to this daunting obstacle was that I could clearly see the Pine Hollow Station perched at the top of the second crest.  Not only was I happy to see the aid station, but I knew this was also where my second drop bag was, filled with more ClifBars, Honey Stinger gels, and a second Endurance Tap, not to mention a dry shirt, hat and some other goodies. 

I was also happy to see Maggie at Pine Hollow as well.  She helped to fill my CamelBak and cool me down a bit with sponges and ice.  There was a shorter loop that followed which would bring me back through the same station for a second time, so I didn’t stay there too long.  The section was almost completely single.  After a few longer stages, it was nice to have a shorter goal and get back to Pine Hollow.   After a second short visit with Maggie, we wished each other well (She would be running her relay stage later in the night) and I took off again into the woods.  I was hoping to make it to the 80mile mark at the Covered Bridge aid Station before the sunset, but under the shelter of the trees, it started to get dark a little before then. 

It was as I was heading into the night that my stomach started to turn on me.  After be so good all day long, the constant processing I was asking it to do was taking its toll.  I had a couple moments where I had to burp, but then almost threw up.  With a little more than 20 miles to go, I did not want my digestion to derail, but I also didn’t want to risk not taking in any more fluids or food and having some major cramping issues before the finish.  I decided to take the figurative middle road and just ease off a little but still taking gels and other food when I could. 

At the Covered Bridge, I was really feeling exhausted and my stomach was still unsettled.  I thought I’d try some ginger ale to help calm things down.  It’s hard to say whether it helped at all.  The next loop was all single track and the sun was now officially set.  With my headlamp on, I loped through the woods, my pace definitely slowing down.  For each stage, I would estimate my time to the next station, purposefully setting a longer expectation, so that when I did get close, I would either be accurate, or possible beat my predicted time.  This kept me more motivated and reduced the chance of a situation where I’d expect an aid station just around the corner, and still have another 15minutes or more of running to actually get there.  These small psychological tricks can make a huge impact at this stage in the race to stay motivated and moving well. 

It was a long 4.5 miles to get back to the Covered Bridge, and I was a little disoriented when I popped out onto the road, but still happy to be there.  Sitting again for a few minutes, I tried some more ginger ale (this time it was flat and went down a lot better) and just hunched over to try and get my gut moving a bit.  Some energetic relay runners came through around the same time and quickly set back out into the night.  The next stage was mostly asphalt and about 5 miles long.  Still using the ice on my back, I started out after the others; my only indication of where I was going was the flicker of their headlamps way up ahead in the distance. 

Right away, I realized the ice was probably no longer necessary as I started to feel chilled.  The body was approaching the edge of what it wanted to tolerate.  This is when the race becomes real.  The legs are tired, starting to feel a gripping cramp on my right thigh, just above the knee, stomach is in knots, all of the other systems in the body have started to approach their limit, especially the brain.  “One foot in front of the other,” I repeat to myself. 

The selection of music I was listening to became more important in order to keep myself motivated and positive.  I found myself switching songs more often and when I found one I liked, I would turn it up and sometimes even sing along.  I’ve had memories of other races while running through the night where I’ve come across a solo runner singing to himself, thinking they are a bit weird, but now I fully understand it. 

It was a long 5 miles to the Botzum Parking Lot aid station but I was making steady progress.  The uneasiness of my stomach was feeling better and the cramping in my leg wasn’t getting any worse.  There was an older gentleman at Botzum that walked with me to take me back onto the course.  He was very excited to see a Canadian and gave lots of motivating advice to me as I shuffled off.  I wish I remembered his name, but my mind was only processing selected bits of information at the time, another sign I was getting closer to the limit of my abilities.  I can’t remember much about the next 5 miles due to the tunnel vision you tend to get when running in the dark with a headlamp.  I remember there was a very long stretch along a canal and a few parts that went through a small town with sidewalks with streetlights.  It made the finish seem close, but it was still a good chunk of time away. 

I arrived at the last aid station at the Memorial Parkway under the impression it was just a few more miles on the road to the finish.  It was just a few miles, but there were a couple really big hills, (at least they appeared to be really big at that point in time) and at least a couple miles were on single-track trails.  Earlier in the day, I was grateful every time we entered the trails, but at this point, I just wanted to get to the finish line as fast as I could without any more rocks or roots to look out for in the dark.  I already had a pretty good feeling that I’d be loosing a toenail on my big toe, and I didn’t want to damage my feet any more.  The trails require a lot more focus and concentration in the dark and my attention to detail was waning to say the least. 

I was motivated by the fact I had less than 5 miles to go and so that kept me moving, taking less walking breaks than 2 hours earlier when I still had a long ways to go.  I got through the trail, which seemed to go a lot further than they told me at the aid station, and once I came out onto the road, I was unstoppable.  I was so close, I could feel it and just kept going.  There were a couple relay runners, which were up ahead in the distance .  Their entire teams joined in for the last mile or two.  I just kept reeling them in, legs feeling good as long as I kept them moving.  Now with streetlights illuminating my way, I just kept the momentum moving forward.  I recognized the Sheraton Hotel of Cuyahoga Falls at the end of the street from the previous day and knew the finish line was just around the corner.  I kept driving forward, even passing the relay runners.  I think I might have surprised them as I ran by.  Their cheers for each other turned into cheers for me as they realized I was a solo runner.  I turned the corner and found an extra gear that I had been saving for that moment.  Suddenly, I was running a 4:30”/km pace towards the finish line, a couple hundred meters ahead.  I heard the cheers, “Go Brian!!!!!” and turned to see Maggie’s husband, Shawn, and her three kids.  I smiled and waved as I ran past.

My mind seemed to have cleared the fog I’ve been fighting for the past few hours and I felt exhilarated as I passed through the finish line to cheers and cowbells.  At least I’ve added cowbells into my memory of it.  I’m sure that the clarity was more likely an impression that I had, rather than truly being alert, as my body and mind were definitely closing in on their limits.  After getting my medal/buckle (belt-buckles are the traditional prize for completing 100 mile races), I took a look at the food table, paused, and then decided against it and started walking back towards Shawn and the kids.  We met at the traffic lights just before the finish line and he gave me a big congratulatory hug.  The kids were also very excited for me, and I was excited for myself to finally be done.  It really came down to the last few hours in the dark where I had to fight for it and just not give up.  My official time was 21hours and 29minutes and I was the 11th place finisher overall, winning my age group.

I was very grateful with how my body held up through the long day, knowing that I’ve been in much more pain trying to get into a car after previous races.  Since Maggie just started her run about 30 minutes earlier, her team was not expected to finish for several hours so Shawn was going to take me and the kids home and we would see Maggie in the morning.  As tired as I was (only 3 hours of sleep the previous night), I still felt a bit wired on the drive home.  I managed to get my shoes off in the car, and my feet didn’t feel too bad.  There was definitely some blister damage, as to be expected.  Sure enough, the big toe looked black, but wasn’t too painful.  It wouldn’t be until later I could get a full inventory of the damage. 

It was almost 3am by the time I was able to take off the rest of my sweaty gear and have a shower, which is sometimes a more painful experience than the running.  I happened to get lucky on this one, or maybe I’m just used to the whole ordeal, but it was better to feel clean with a few moments of pain than to resist the inevitable.  Once clean, I assessed my feet.  Aside from my right big toe, I only had two major blisters on the ends of both middle toes.  Everything else was pretty minor.  What surprised me was the extent of the chaffing under my arms, on my back and the rashes on my thighs and ankles.  Having to lay in a starfish shape because of the chaffing, I drifted off to sleep almost instantly.

I started to wake up to the sounds of Maggie getting home, around 8am but chose to continue lying in bed for another hour or two.  Once I got up, and started moving around, I was pleased to find that the muscle soreness was pretty minimal, in comparison to past ultras.  I spent a bit of time draining all the fluid from the blisters on my feet, including a massive one on the inside of my big toe that I hadn’t even noticed the night before.  All in all, I was in pretty good shape, although I was walking around with my elbows out to the sides to prevent touching my chaffed underarms. 

Shawn had a delicious breakfast of blueberry pancakes along side scrambled eggs with spinach.  I felt incredibly spoiled to be staying with them and am so grateful for Dennene for hooking us up.  I hope I can someday return the favour.  After gobbling up at least 1000 calories of eggs, pancakes and syrup (a small fraction of the 10,000+ calories expended the day before) I realized I had forgotten to pick up my drop bags at the finish line.  I figured it be best to drive down there and see if I couldn’t locate them since I had some lulu shirts and trail shoes in them.  I drove 45minutes to the finish line only to find that everything was already packed up and gone.  After calling the race director (her husband fielded the call since, I assume, she was sleeping), I prepared to accept that I might never see my stuff again.  I was not overly worried since they were old shoes and I have several of the same shirts.  It would be days before I would find out that they kept the bags with valuables in them and Maggie would arrange to pick them up sometime in the following week.

I returned to Maggie’s to pack up all my stuff and they invited me to go out for lunch before heading home.  We went to a cool Mexican restaurant they liked in Eastlake.  We had plenty more conversation about running trails, as well as political topics such as infrastructure, elections, gun policy and more while enjoying our Quesadillas, Chimichanga, Fajitas, chips and salsa.  Leaving with my belly full again, we said goodbye and I started the drive back home. 

I took short breaks every 1-2hours on the way home, making sure I wasn’t stiffening up in the car.  I was surprised I wasn’t too drowsy, but I suppose maybe the traveling to Europe just a week earlier helped to train me to adjust quickly to the ups and downs of changing a routine.  I made pretty good time on the drive home, but noticed that my car was getting louder and louder the farther I drove.  I knew I needed to get new brakes before heading out west in August, but I was pretty sure I also needed a new ball-joint as well. 

I made it home before 10pm on Sunday night and gave myself permission to have a good sleep-in on Monday morning.  I was glad that I booked the day off teaching so I could just take it easy, but I was feeling so good, I decided to go to a yoga class anyway.  My legs and arms were still sore, but not too bad compared to the Sulphur Springs 50miler I did just a few months ago in Ancaster, ON.  I must have done something right at this race.  As the week went on, I expected more delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS for short), but it was only a bit worse on Tuesday and almost gone by Wednesday.  By Friday, I went out for a quick 4km run and felt great! 

I will try to get a few decent runs in before heading out to BC on August 9th where I will be part of Nick Sunderland’s Crew and a Pacer in the FatDog120 race which is considered to be one of the 10 most challenging single stage races on the planet by Outside Magazine.  It promises to be an adventure at the very least, if not epic, something that I have come to expect from anything that is planned by Nick, a great friend from my Western Triathlon days at UWO.   If there is one thing I could take away from this last race experience, it’s that the farther we push our comfort zone, the more we are able to accomplish and that our limits are confined more by our minds than by our physical abilities. 

© Brian Groot 2020