I decided I wanted to run the Burning River 100 early this year but I couldn’t get myself to sign up for it. I knew it was what I wanted and needed to do but I couldn’t get myself to commit to running a 100 mile race. I went 116 miles during a backyard ultra in 2018 thanks to the forced pacing and crew access of the backyard format. Since then, I tried to run 100 miles 3 different times and failed each time. Almost every time I tried to go over 50 miles I ended up disappointed. As much as I wanted to and thought I could be a long distance ultra guy, I just couldn’t get the pieces to come together, and I was getting more anxious to try.
At the beginning of the year I ran a couple strong 50ks. Next up was the Last Sole Standing Backyard Ultra, which was supposed to be my chance to get back over 100 and hopefully go a lot further. I felt great throughout my race but misheard a whistle and missed the start of the 13th loop. I went home after 50 miles knowing I could have gone a lot further. I quickly signed up for a 10 hour race a few weeks later. I showed up to the hottest day of the year and some crazy thunderstorms during the race. I had a decent race considering the conditions, but I once again left feeling disappointed after missing my goal by 10 miles.
I finally signed up for Burning River with the understanding that I was going in without any pressure or expectations. I just wanted to finish the race and clear the mental baggage I was carrying around after my last few failed attempts. I decided my main goal besides finishing was to move up in the second half of the race. I wanted to force myself to take it easy early and give myself something to work towards in the second half. As the race got closer the idea of running sub 24 or 20 started to enter my mind, I guess I can’t turn off all of my competitiveness.
The pre-race nerves really got going the few weeks before the race. Training had gone great, I ran my highest mileage month ever and then beat it the next month. I was running ultra distance most weekends and despite the disappointment of the backyard ultra and 10 hour, they were still 50 and 65 mile runs. But as I was working to finish a 32 mile run a few weeks before the race I started to wonder where the other 68 miles were supposed to come from. I wasn’t even running 100 miles in a week. I felt like I had trained as much as I could have and I was probably over doing the long runs, but I couldn’t see how the training could lead to doing 100 miles in a day.
Finally, I made it to race day. At 4 AM, we ventured off into the dark streets of Cuyahoga Falls, OH. The anxiety didn’t disappear like it does in shorter races but it felt great to be started. As we wandered through the sleepy streets, I saw fellow rabbitELITEtrail team member Drew Miller. We started chatting and he seemed confident and experienced. I hoped we would be able to stay together for a while, being with someone that knows what they’re doing made me feel better and having a friend would be a nice distraction.
We made it through the first aid station and the course started bouncing back and forth between towpaths and trails. As we were running along the trails, it started to rain. I had read online that in dry years many people run this race in road shoes because of the significant amounts of road/ towpath and I assumed the trails were pretty gentle. I watched the forecast obsessively the week before the race. It looked like it had been dry before the race and there was just a tiny chance of rain on race day. I decided to wear a pair of Pegasus Turbo’s; they fit my feet the best and I’ve never had any issues with them. I had backup shoes if I needed them but I was hoping I could stick with those for the whole race. It turns out the trails were a bit more rocky and rooty than I expected and after the small chance of rain turned into a few hours of rain, the trails became pretty slippery too. I was slipping and sliding all over the place. Luckily I was able to stay up besides a couple grassy downhills where my foot slid out from under me and I gently slid down the hill. I had definitely made the wrong shoe choice.
I really enjoyed spending these early miles running with Drew and other runners in the race. I love getting to chat with different people as we’re all working through the same crazy event. It’s awesome in ultrarunning how friendly everyone is despite being in competition with each other. I met a lot of cool people and I was lucky to be able to tag along with them for little parts of the race to help pass the time. Drew and I would split every now and then at an aid station or when I decided to walk up a small hill but we kept ending up back together. I was running a bit faster than I had wanted to and we started moving up in the field sooner than planned but, I was still feeling good and wanted to stick with Drew.
We hit 40 miles and I checked in on myself. I felt remarkably good for having run 40 miles but did I feel like I had 60 more in me? I was still battling the doubts and inexperience that I had been struggling with for months. The race was going better than expected and I had quite a bit of time banked for 20 hours. I wasn’t sure what places we were in but we had been moving up and I figured we were in the top 5 or 10. I wasn’t making the move up in the second half goal easy but when I made that goal I didn’t think I would be anywhere near the podium. I was ok not moving up if I placed near the front.
Shortly after 40, Drew and I were catching up to another runner as someone coming the other way told us that we were in 4th, 5th and 6th but that 1st and 2nd were way ahead. We moved into 4th and 5th and started wondering what exactly “way ahead” actually meant. It seemed like we were going too fast, how much faster could 2 other people be going? I knew I shouldn’t be getting competitive, especially with people that were way ahead of me but I couldn’t help it.
Around 43 we popped out of the trail and followed a paved bike path the rest of the way to the turnaround. I love trails but I’m definitely better on roads and my poor shoe choice finally seemed somewhat validated. We held a solid pace despite a slight uphill and soon we moved into 3rd and 4th place. I wanted to be top 3 at this point but didn’t like my chances against Drew, I was back to wondering how far “way ahead” actually was. I found out much sooner than I would have liked.
When we were still 3.5 miles from the turnaround we saw the guy in first place and he looked great. I didn’t understand how it was possible that someone was 7 miles ahead of us and running so effortlessly. 1st place was definitely out for us, we just hoped it would be a while before we saw second. Eventually, we made it to the turnaround without seeing anyone. I quickly exchanged my hydration vest with my crew and started to make my way back to the start in 2nd place just a little less than 8 hours into the race.
I didn’t want to put much pressure on myself for this race but I wanted to prepare myself as much as I could for future races. One of the things I wanted to emphasize was spending very little time in aid stations. I tried to have everything planned out before and rather than refill bottles, I would trade one handheld or vest (depending on the distance between crew points) for another. In the first half of the race, I spent less than a minute with my crew. They did a great job of getting me everything I needed and then sending me back out quickly.
The flat path that I had been so excited about started to be less enjoyable. A walk break up a hill in the woods was starting to sound really nice. I kept waiting for Drew to catch up to me on the path but eventually I made it back to the woods on my own. With the change in surface, I hit a really high point, everything felt great. I felt like I was flying over the trails and I was getting really excited about how the race was going. Finishing top 3 was starting to seem possible. I was in a great spot and felt like I could race later if I needed to.
The course switched from the nice flowy trails to steep ups and downs and all of the sudden I was limping. There was a weird pain in my ankle/ shin especially on the steep downhills. I hoped it would loosen up but it just got worse. In a matter of minutes I went from dreaming about flying across the finish line in 2nd or 3rd place to wondering how I would make it to the crew point 5 miles away. I tried to problem solve but nothing was working. The high I had been feeling vanished and was replaced by an even larger swing in the opposite direction.
After a few of the slowest miles of my entire race I made it to my crew. I told them what was going on. We switched to a different pair of shoes and I took some ibuprofen. After that, they pretty much kicked me out. Luckily, my friend Zack was coming with me as a pacer. I had someone to distract me and keep me from thinking about having to limp 35 miles to the finish. After a little bit, my shin quieted down a little bit. It did not like going downhill at all, but if we were flat or uphill it wasn’t awful.
We made it to the next aid station and I spent a little extra time here. I was a getting dehydrated at this point so I was having a hard time eating real food. I hung out for a couple minutes trying to get some extra hydration and calories before taking back off. My crew let me know that 3rd place was about 7 minutes back. As we started running again, my shin was completely locked up. I was back to serious limping and a lot of hurting. Over the next mile it slowly started to loosen up to where I could run with a normalish stride. I realized as long as I kept moving it was ok but if I stopped then it would be rough trying to get going again. The only problem was I needed more time at aid stations now. Once the rain went away, it got hot and I was definitely behind on hydration. I was sucking down a lot of fluids but I always felt like I needed more.
With 10 miles to go we learned that 3rd place was only 4 minutes behind and that he was looking strong and flying through aid stations. I was running scared. I still felt really good besides my shin and was trying to run fairly hard. I knew that as we got closer to the finish there would be more towpath and road and less single track. If I could just hold him off until we made it to the road, I liked my chances. I’m only a few years detached from racing marathons and other short stuff, I like to think there’s still a little bit of speed in my legs. Additionally, I wasn’t the one making up time. I could save a bit of energy and be a bit fresher if needed.
Over the next 5 miles there were a few sections where we could look back and see if anyone was coming. We couldn’t see anyone and we were still moving pretty quick. We decided that there was no way he was making up ground. We were still walking up the hills but I didn’t think there was any way he could be going faster on the flats or downs. My shin had accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to stop running and the pain had mellowed out. We quickly went through the last aid station. We had 5.5 miles to go and about 5 of those were on the road. I was really letting myself enjoy it at this point. I was so happy with how the day had gone and amazed that I was just a few easy miles away from running under 16:30 to finish in 2nd place.
Then with 3.5 miles to go, Gerald passed me. I was in 3rd place. Zack and I looked at each other in shock. I locked in right behind him and let him set the pace. We spent a few minutes like this and then Zack told us that he was going to go ahead and let us sort it out on our own. Gerald didn’t have a pacer so it seemed unfair for me to have an advantage at that point. I followed along a little bit longer but soon got antsy and took off up a hill. All of the muscles that had felt fine all day suddenly didn’t. I instantly regretted making my move at the start of a hill but I just kept pushing. I got lucky and was able to easily cross through a traffic light. I looked back a few moments later to see if Gerald had made it through and saw that he was about 100 meters back. I eased up a bit but was determined to not let my lead go again. I kept checking over my shoulder to see if he was coming. Slowly, the finish line came into sight and then I took the last turn into the park and finished the race in 16:13:52 for 2nd place.
I kind of half sat and half fell down on the ground. I lay there for a while amazed at the day I had had. I couldn’t believe how fast I had run or that I had finished 2nd. Neither of those were even considered before the race. I’m excited to take everything I learned and the confidence I gained into my next long ultra.