Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Burning River Part 1: Best Laid Plans...

Northeast Ohio and the Cuyahoga Valley have come a long way since the summer of ’69 when the Cuyahoga River famously caught fire. At the time the river was an ecological disaster. The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration stated that, "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes." Since that time great efforts have been made to literally clean up our act, so much so that in the fall of 2000 the Cuyahoga Valley was named a National Park. Burning River is a celebration of the regions rebirth and chance for the great running community of Northeast Ohio to showcase their diverse park system and their world-class hospitality. The event and the trails that make up it’s course are so well regarded that it was chosen to host the 2010 USA Track & Field 100 Mile National Championship. The Burning River 100 is a fine event indeed and at 5:00 am on July 31st I was lucky enough to be one of the 275 individuals that were standing at the starting line, ready to embark on a great adventure.

Spirits were high at the starting line. Temperatures were projected to be ideal, after weeks of brutally hot and humid weather. My plan was to stick with Star and her 24 hour train for as long as possible; with the hopes of running a sub-24 hour time myself. I stood there second guessing a few pre-race strategic decisions, cautiously optimistic that my plan would pay off. Number one, I chose to start the race in Nike Free racing flats. If we’re so concerned with shaving ounces in 5k’s and 10k’s why not 100’s? I had tested their trail mettle a week prior and they were awesome; soft like a pillow, light as a feather, but offered no protection against rocks and roots. The other thought floating around my head was my decision to not work up a pace chart or leave drop bags. I wanted to run based on feel, not be overly concerned with pace, but I was concerned it would leave me inexperienced crew unsure when to be at each check point. Luckily these thoughts were interrupted as we neared start time. We sang Happy Birthday to race director Joe Jurczyk and stood in silence at the singing of the National Anthem. At 5:00 am sharp we were off, into the darkness.

I was not wearing a headlamp since the first 10 miles were along Chagrin River Rd, and navigation wasn’t a concern. What I didn’t consider is that I would have a hard time finding my friends in the dark. As I hit Chagrin River Rd I looked around and the Star 24 Hour Express was nowhere to be found. I gave a holler to see if they were nearby but didn’t get a response. I didn’t know if they were in front or behind me. I decided to settle into a comfortable pace and hoped we’d cross paths soon enough. In a 100 you tend to yo-yo with runners near you dozens of times of the course of a day so I figured we’d cross paths very soon. I settled in with my good friends Rob and Michelle from Mansfield for the first 5 miles in the dark, on our way to Gates Mills. I’m not typically a fan or road sections in an ultra but this is one picturesque stretch of road. Chagrin River Rd is littered with mansions and horse farms and was just beautiful at sunrise. I believe we were averaging 10 minute miles along this stretch which was about as slow as I could manage to hold myself back. As we came through Gates Mills 5 miles into the race we had caught up with Dave Peterman and we were off on leg 2 towards the Polo Fields.

Dave and I pulled away from Rob and Michelle a bit during this section and had a chance to run with some true legends in Dan Brenden and Phil Rosenstein. These guys have resumes that would blow you away – just this year Dan is in route to his 7th consecutive Grand Slam and Phil at one stretch this spring had run 4 100’s in a span of 6 weeks. These guys are machines and I knew I’d be smart to draft off them for a while. I also had the pleasure of making a new friend in Bo, who I would run with countless miles.

As is typically the case early in the race nature calls for most runners and I had to go bad. I picked up the pace a little bit with 2 miles to Polo Fields so that I could enjoy the comforts of a bathroom as opposed to squatting along the side of the road. I made it just in time but had to run into the women’s restroom because the men’s was occupied. After a couple minutes none other than Michelle was banging on the door yelling at me for occupying the women’s stall. I hurried out of there, washed my hands (of course), grabbed a granola bar and banana, and headed back out on course.

I was still stalking Peterman and Dan Brenden as we left the Polo Fields. Since I missed the Star 24 Hour Express the next most reliable way to a sub-24 hour finish was to follow Dan Brenden. I would ride that train the majority of the day. The next section of trails is a relatively flat section of bridle trails with several water crossings. Luckily the water was low and we were able to keep our feet dry by tip-toeing across the rocks.

Physically I was feeling great early on. But mentally the thought of all the miles ahead of me was starting to wear on me. When I’d be alone for stretches I’d start to doubt myself and my ability to stay strong over the course of 100 miles. To say that you have to keep your head in the game, in the world of 100’s is a gross understatement. A negative thought can infect you psyche and before you know it your race is going downhill in a hurry. I wasn’t as focused as I needed to be early on and I decided that I had to consciously avoid yo-yoing with friends, but stick by their side because I always to better when running with friends. This was the magic pill that kept me going all day.

As we entered Shadow Lake at mile 18.5 my dad was waiting for me as my morning crew. I knew this was the last time I would see him all day, as he was off to West Virginia for a wedding. I had planned to switch into trail shoes at Shadow Lake but decided I could manage to go a little further in my Nike Free flats. I tend to be a little lighter on my feet in my Free’s and that, combined with all the weight I was saving with each step, convinces me I could put off the change to trail shoes until the next crew access point – Station Road Bridge at mile 33. Luckily the miles seemed to go by a bit quicker at this point and I made it through Egbert Shelter (mile 23), Alexander Rd (mile 28), and onto Station Rd (mile 33) with relative ease. The heat was starting to bear down on us, especially on some exposed sections of towpath but I was feeling relaxed through 30 and had a positive outlook on the day.

I came into Station Rd at 11:00 am sharp, which means I covered 33 miles in 6 hours. A little fast but I felt good and didn’t feel like I over-did it. I was looking forward to seeing my wife Jen and my crew Scott & Rob who were waiting with my change of shoes. As I came into the aid station my crew was no-where to be found. I thought about the time, 11:00 am and realized that I was so far ahead of pace that I told them they didn’t have to be their until 11:30. I had literally outrun my crew. I would have to run another 6 miles in these road flats, which at this point was not really exciting. It turns out that my crew was actually running early but followed the directions in the Runners Packet that directed them East on Rt-82 from I-270, when they should have gone West. I tried to put this minor hiccup behind me and focus on what I could control and that was running. I pushed onto Ottowa Point, a little behind on calories, but still feeling pretty good.

As I entered Ottowa Point I was happy to see Dave and Leigh there, waiting to support Steve and the Star 24 Hour Express. I asked Dave to call Jen and tell her I’m ahead of pace and in desperate need of a shoe change. If she was on her way I would wait, if she was no-where near I would have to push on. I took my time and downed some calories. I was told I’d have to push on in my road flats and change shoes at mile 50. As I was exiting the aid station, beating myself up on my stupid decision to wear racing flats in a 100, the Star 24 Hour Express entered the station. It was awesome to see all my friends still looking strong at mile 39. I told them to hurry it up and catch up because I couldn’t hang at the aid station any longer - I was off to Snowville Rd.

The trails get a little more technical here and I was being cautious in my Nike Free flats. I probably lost some time here but I know first hand that a fall here is bad news, 4 weeks earlier I took a spill during this stretch and put a nice gash in my leg. Aside from my feet, that were starting to get sore, I was still feeling great but was trying to hold back and not over-exert myself in the heat. It was still early in the day and I was still afraid of what night would bring. I made it through Snowville and on to Boston Store, the ½ way point, in 10:00 hours. I was over-joyed to see my crew, my wife, and my pacer Mike Barga waiting for me.

I changed my shoes and was a little concerned because they didn’t fit. My feet were swollen and were at least a ½ size bigger. There was nothing I could do about it. I grabbed some food and headed out on the Brandywine Loop. 5 more miles and I could pick up my pacer. I struggled with this loop. My swollen feet were killing me in shoes that were too small. I was beginning to doubt the prospect of a strong 2nd half. I just kept telling myself to run as much as I could and get back to the Boston Store. About a ½ mile from the aid station none other than the Star 24 Hour Express pulled up along side me. Star was still leading a nice sized group that included Darrin Bright and his brother Adam, Steve Zeidner, and Bo. I hopped on the train on the way into Boston Store. I was boosted by the fact that I was amongst my friends again and that we could tackle the last ½ of the race together. That and I had an eager pacer in Mike Barga who was there to help me though whatever obstacles I encountered. Regardless of the pain my sore feet were causing me I was back in a good mental place and optimistic that I’d have a strong 2nd ½.

To be continued...

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