Running the Burning River 100 Mile Ultra Marathon
I survived the Burning River 100 Mile Ultra.
I have asked many pro athletes, “Did you circle this date on your calendar?” after they had been traded and faced their old team.
Most answer it’s just another game and that it’s no big deal.
I am here to confess I had July 28 circled almost a year ago.
Last July I was 74 miles into the grueling Burning River 100 Mile Ultra Marathon. I had been running 22 hours and an official ordered me to give up my number because I missed the cutoff by about 10 minutes.
I was stunned. I had never been removed from any race in more than 30 years of triathlons and trail races. Steaming, I made a vow to come back and get the job done.
Cleveland has a great trail running community and our parks are true jewels. In fact, they form an emerald necklace of sorts around Cleveland. Tons of trails, through creeks and up hills and over boulders and let’s not forget steps in the woods and switchbacks. The variety is what makes Northeast Ohio a hotbed.
So, I trained and focused on getting the belt buckle, given to all who finish in under 30 hours. I ran a double marathon in October to get ready and my Saturday mornings were usually locked in with a long run, followed by another one Sunday.
I dealt with injuries, the most stressful was ankle tendonitis. Great advice from Dr. A.J. Cianflocco got me on the right path after wearing a walking boot for a month in February.
Therapy and exercises strengthened my tendons, which get a lot of abuse on the trails due to the uneven surface. Trail runners land on their midfoot, with the weight more centered. That helps you keep your balance while hopping over logs, or tip-toeing across a creek. I was very pleased with the good doctor and the therapists at the Cleveland Clinic.
So, last Saturday morning, at 5 a.m., at Squires Castle in Willoughby Hills, I began the journey with 354 others. The strategy was simple. Stay roughly two hours ahead of the cutoff until mile 71, then hang on the last 29 miles. I was running with Mike Lewis and Tim Harber.
The course goes through many of our parks. There is about 10 percent spent on asphalt, the rest on trails. There are aid stations roughly every 5 miles. I was blessed to have my sisters, Beth and Mary Jo, crew for me from mile 26. My bride, Jane, took me to the start, saw me off, then had to go teach fitness classes Saturday morning. She joined me at mile 40 for the rest of the way.
The weather was a godsend. Low 80′s and although it rained a bit as we got going, as the day went along things cleared. Last year was 90 plus degrees. This year was heaven.
The miles clicked by very nicely. Mile 5, I tripped over a root and bashed my left knee. Got up and kept going. I was always checking the time and keeping on task. Running an ultra marathon is very taxing on the body, but I think it takes a strong mental approach. Little hurts get magnified. The body sends signals to the mind that this is not a smart idea. “One-hundred miles is insane!” but you block little injuries out and keep moving.
All the folks at the aid stations were fantastic, filling your bottles with ice water, fetching food. This year I was methodical. I spent no more than 5 minutes at each one. Never sat down, just kept moving. My sisters and my bride were amazing, aiding me in switching shoes or socks or clothing. At mile 31, or 50K, I saw my colleague and friend Bill Martin, who came out to cheer me on. What a boost that was.
When day turns to night the doubts can creep in. People can talk themselves out of finishing. Around mile 61, Mike Lewis, who was battling stomach issues all day started to feel dizzy. He told me to surge ahead if I felt strong enough. I did. Luckily we were on a stretch of road on the Hike and Bike trail. I could pick up the pace. With moonlight, I barely needed my headlamp. It was cool and I was in the “zone.” Exceptionally tired, but getting that effortless feeling back, one foot in front of the other, breathing easy, passing other runners. I knew to never take a good feeling in a race for granted. The ibuprofen didn’t hurt either.
Mike had to drop out at mile 65. Tim had a wave of dizziness wash over him. He could not feel better and he had to drop out at mile 71. I would not find any of this out until later.
By mile 65, at the Happy Days aid station, I would pick up my first pace runner, Brooke Kroto. She’s an unbelievably positive person and great friend. She kept me on task as we tackled parts of the course I struggled with. When we hit mile 74, I almost wanted to pop a bottle of champagne, to signal I had pushed past the mark where I was yanked from the race a year ago. Instead, I settled for a cup of black coffee. We surged on, occasionally coming upon other runners in the darkness. Brooke joked how peaceful it was hearing cicadas and deer prancing nearby, while a runner pierced the nighttime quiet while “forcefully evacuating his stomach.”
Brooke got me to the Everett Road Covered Bridge, mile 80. There we were only 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I was constantly doing the math in my head. I wanted to breeze through, but my sisters made me take in noodles, hard-boiled eggs and some peanut butter. My son Patrick took charge and led me through the finals hours of night and into the dawn of day, running right past the Ira Road Cemetery by Hale Farm and Village. At that moment, 15 miles from the finish, I knew I had it. I had blisters on the bottoms of my feet, but I blocked that pain out. I worried all day about my ankles, but they were good soldiers, handling every task.
God gives all of us potential, and I always say my taking on challenges is just my way of getting the most out of that potential. Along the way, maybe I can show others what possibilities are out there.
The race snakes through Northeast Ohio, all the way down to downtown Cuyahoga Falls. The last mile is uphill and truth be told, the distance is actually 100.8 miles, but that’s no concern when you see the orange cones to run through and you see friends and family and everyone is cheering. The pain is screaming, but the adrenaline is powering you. Patrick and I, in our own Field of Dreams “Wanna have a catch, Dad?” moment ran strong to the finish. Unlike the movie, we were not alone. Family and friends, who pushed me through, were there to witness it. The crossing of the finish line was incredibly emotional. I kissed my bride, lifted her in a bear hug, and then I… sat down for the first time. Twenty-nine hours and 22 minutes. We had done it.Submit Your Photo