Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Burning River 100 Part 3: Going the Distance

It was just after 9pm at night and I had been running going on 16 hours. Yet as I left Pine Hollow Aid station at mile 75 of the Burning River 100 I was energized. Everything seemed to be clicking. I had no major aches and pains, I seemed to be keeping up with my fluids and food and I only had a marathon to go. By this point in my previous 100s I had already entered survival mode. Today I had a breakthrough and was still running. In fact after holding back all day, trying to conserve energy, I finally let loose and was flat out racing and it was a thrill.

The next section of trail covers 6.8 miles as we wind our way towards the Everett Rd Covered Bridge. Long stretches like this can be challenging late in a 100 because it’s very difficult to consume enough calories at an aid station to get you through that long of a stretch without getting bloated and possibly sick. I ate as much as I thought I could and my pacer and I headed back out on the trail as the sun was beginning to set over the Cuyahoga Valley.

We started out slow, wanting to give me stomach some time to digest all the food I just ate. I had that feeling that I over-ate and needed a good burp but I just couldn’t seem to. My stomach was starting to turn on me and just seemed to be shutting down. I told my pacer Mike to be patient with me and that I’d work my way through this but it might take an hour. We were still moving at about 16 min/mile which is actually ok late in a race, especially when you’re working through stomach issues. I told Mike no more solid foods – with less than a marathon to go I could survive on fluids and chicken broth. Even though our pace had slowed down we were still keeping pace with the runners near us and had not gotten passed by a single runner. I stayed encouraged and knew that I was still well on pace to achieve my initial goal of 24 hours.

As Mike and I exited the Wetmore Trail and crossed Akron Peninsula Rd I was starting to get my stomach back and we were again running more than we were walking. It was now pitch black outside and I was doing my best to not let the night slow me down as we entered the Covered Bridge aid station at mile 80.

Even though my stomach had slowed me down considerably on the previous section of trail – as much as an hour by my calculations – I came into the Covered Bridge with an appetite. I didn’t want solid foods but Tanya Cady was serving up mashed potatoes and I put in an order for a cup mixed with chicken broth. I’m sure it looked awful but it was delicious and my stomach perked up immediately. I again ate more than I probably should have but I told Mike that I wasn’t going to cover this next section of trail real fast anyways. I wanted to get some food in me so that I had energy to make a final push AFTER the Perkins Loop was out of our way. As we exited the aid station I got some final words of encouragement from my crew Scott and Rob and we headed off into the night.

Perkins Trail has the reputation of being one of the most challenging sections of trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I had never struggled with this trail in the past and wasn’t intimidated by it as we started the loop. I might also mention that I had never run the trail with 80 miles on my legs. Well now I know what all the fuss is about. Perkins Trail was a bear. I fought to keep up a good pace the whole way, which I think I did, but we weren’t moving as fast as I would have liked to. We passed a couple runners who had moved a bit ahead of us on the previous section so I felt good that I was still keeping pace with people and even passing some. I just wanted to get through the Perkins Trail in good shape so that I’d have something left for the final push to the finish. At this point in the race I was just putting my head down, shutting my mind off, and running. We exited the trail and we were back at the Covered Bridge. I was excited to have the Perkins Trail behind me. I had another cup of mashed potato mush along with a can of Red Bull and Mike and I headed back on course.

The next section of course was 3 miles, mostly along road, to O’Neil Woods. Mike and I set a comfortable pace and ran towards the headlamps ahead of us. Less than a mile onto the roads and our comfortable pace had picked up considerably. I wasn’t wearing a Garmin but I’m sure it was at or near 8 minute pace. We weren’t just gaining ground on people we were blowing by them. I think it was a combination of the roads, the psychological boost of passing people, and the fast that I only had about a ½ marathon to go, that was fueling this surge. I told Mike that I felt so good that I honestly think I can maintain this pace to the finish…after all it’s only 14 miles. We entered the trail leading to O’Neil woods and I was really flying. I ran the whole section, up hills and all and was at the aid station before I knew it. Mike entered the aid station about a minute behind me and I wondered whether the miles were starting to get to him a bit.

Mike decided to pace me just a couple days prior to the event and initially intended to split up the pacing duties with another friend, which means he agreed to run about 20 miles with me. At the last minute we got word that my other pacer would be unable to make it. I assumed that Mike would still pace me about 20 miles, since he was only training for a ½ marathon at the time and anything more would be pushing it. As we arrived at O’Neil Mike had already run 30 miles with me and we were just starting to push the pace. He was stepping up the challenge in a big way.

We exited the aid station along a trail that would lead us towards the towpath trail. As we hit the road, and then the towpath we were again moving at an impressive pace. Mike was just off my left shoulder the whole time keeping pace and encouraging me along. We blew by figures in the night and I was having fun. We were at Merriman Rd ahead of schedule. After a quick shot of Red Bull and broth we were back on course. We continued our fast pace along the towpath, passing a few runners here and there. We arrived at Memorial Parkway in no time. Our crew said they had just arrived themselves; barely getting from Merriman to Memorial Pkwy by car in the time it took us to run there. For once our route was more direct than by car. I again had Red Bull and chicken broth and we hit the trail.

Mike and I were doing math in our heads as we left the final aid station. We had 70 minutes to cover these last 5 miles and still finish under 22 hours, which I knew we could manage. The question was how much we could better that mark of 22 hours. As got to the top of the brick road hill we settled back into a run as we snakes through a section of trail that I’m sure is beautiful in daylight. We could hear water along side us almost the whole way and I got the feeling that Cuyahoga Falls got it’s name because of this section of river. As the trail turned away from the river we hit a set of stairs to climb out of the valley. As soon as we finished one set of stairs we hit another set of stairs, and then another set of stairs. It was brutal but I was happy to have all the climbing out of the way in one few swoop and have more run-able sections in between because we were running well. Before we knew it Mike and I were off the trail and onto Front St. We saw a set of runners about 100m ahead of us on the last climb of the course. We pushed on and ran the hill in order to track them down. We continued to push the pace and were soon me by a volunteer on bike. I knew we must be close and gave it everything I had. We passed one final runner along the homestretch. I told Mike that I was going to bust out a final 400m like you’ve never seen as we passed some fire fighters out cheering on the runners. We could see the finishing clock and I was off, flying to the finish. As I came through the finish line the clock read 21:32:00. A 7 HOUR PR!!!

As I finished, I laid down in the grass to savor the moment. My pacer Mike and my crew Scott and Rob offered congratulations and I thanked them for being there with me through the night. Unlike my other 100 mile finishes I didn’t have a wave of emotion come over me. I just felt a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Scott called my wife, who had just closed down the bars in Medina after our 10 year high school reunion. She and her mom were in route to Cuyahoga Falls, thinking they would be there well before I finished. She was disappointed to have missed my finish but excited that I ran so well. Jen arrived about a ½ hour after I finished and we all hung out for a while re-living the highlights of the day. While we waited we got to see a lot of runners that I crossed paths with during the day finish their race, most notably Star and Adam Bright who both had strong finishes.

As I looked back on the days race and how strong I finished, I was torn between two thoughts: excitement for such a huge personal best, truly a break-through performance for me, and the competitive side of me knowing how much I had left in the tank at the end and wondering how fast I could have run if I hadn’t held back as much as I did early in the day. In the end I’m thrilled with my performance on the day and excited to tackle another 100 in the future, perhaps with even loftier goals.

Thanks to everyone who played a part in my race and in my preparation, as well as those who encourage me to chase my dreams and achieve my goals.


  1. Great race Mike! A 7hr PR is quite an accomplishment! Hope to see you soon...

  2. Love the RR! Impressive run and congrats on your amazing finish!