On Sunday morning just before 5:30 am, I finished my second hundred mile race. Unlike Zion, which ended up being a few miles short due to weather and trail conditions, Burning River was, as advertised, actually 102.2 miles, so I have a genuine no even small buts about it hundred mile finish now.
This race was completely different from my last hundred, in terrain, weather, organization of support, and psychological experience. I had originally signed up for Burning River because I planned to postpone Zion until next year, and this was a doable looking, driveable, Western States-qualifying hundred miler that took place before my 30th birthday. I also knew that Tony and some other Runderful friends would be out there. The course had around 9,000 feet of elevation gain - a little less than Zion and spread fairly evenly throughout the course in the form of small hills rather than portioned into several monster climbs. The terrain, I figured, would be fairly comparable to the trails I train on near Philadelphia. Although August near Cleveland can be hot, the fact that the race took place late in the summer meant that I should have time for adequate heat acclimation training. For what was supposed to be my first hundred, this race made a lot of sense. But it didn’t quite captured my imagination the way Zion had (a big part of why I ended up running that race anyway). I had good enough reasons for running, but looking back I definitely didn’t have the right kind of motivation.
Crew & Tony at packet pickup
I did, again, have a pretty great crew. In “exchange” for my pacing our friend Raelynn at Grindstone in October, my friend Wesley got suckered into pacing, crewing and driving us out there, as neither Lou nor I have a car. Lou joined the team to crew and pace as well, and help Wes drive our tired asses safely after the race. The race started Saturday at 4:00 am, with shuttles leaving for the race start at 2:15 am. After packet pickup, where we saw Tony, we were lucky enough to find really delicious Thai food near our crappy hotel (cigarette burns through the top blankets crappy): green beans, brown rice, and tofu in a mild curry sauce made for a pretty great pre-race meal. After watching a few baffling commercials, I fell asleep during the Olympics opening ceremonies and slept pretty well for about four hours. Breakfast was comical. I had brought Starbucks instant coffee, and the hotel had a microwave, but I forgot to bring a mug, so I made coffee with hot tap water in a flimsy hotel plastic cup, drank it, and ate a pancake from a ziplock bag in the bathroom so the boys could sleep a few more minutes.
Breakfast of Champions
Feeling ready! Little did I know :P
I sat with Tony on the shuttle, which got us to the start in good time for the race, but not quite enough time to stand in line for the too-few bathrooms. The race started promptly at 4:00 am. I started in my fairly old Brooks Pure Grits, as the first 11 miles of the race were on road, and those are my trail shoes that feel least weird on roads. They were a bit dead and not well cushioned, so I had my Nike Wildhorses in my first drop bag at mile 22. The Brooks were probably a mistake though. They weren’t awful on the roads, but they were kind of dead, and for the first time wearing them they felt narrower than I like. There was some traffic on the road I think mainly from other runners’ crews, but a good portion of that section went through a wooded area or park where there were no cars at all. By the time we got to the bridle trail, I was so glad to be off the pavement. However, in the first half of the race there were about a zillion road crossings, which made me irrationally furious, even though all the drivers I encountered were polite and the roads for the most part were not very busy, even once the sun came up. Changing shoes at mile 22 helped, as did seeing Don, a Runderful friend and member of Tony’s crew. But the road crossings (several per mile) continued to irk me. I know this a necessary feature of most urban trail systems, but for whatever reason it was just a big mental struggle for me.
Shortly before mile 26 aid, I caught up with Keith Straw, a local Philly-area very badass ultra runner, and I ran in to next aid with him and a couple other guys. Lou and Wes were there, even though I wasn’t expecting them till mile 50, and on the way in there was a sign advertising popsicles. Better shoes, crew, boyfriend, trail friends, and popsicles made this a high point for me. The only low here was a #notvegan moment where I mistook a turkey and cheese sandwich for PB&J.
I ran a marathon! I see FRANDS!
In the next sections, I caught back up with Keith, and it was great to have company on a long, exposed towpath segment. We were supremely grateful it wasn’t hotter - temperatures stayed in the low to mid 80s I think, and humidity wasn’t disgusting. We made time here, and came into mile 38 aid, where I saw my crew again, ahead of my projected pace for a sub 24 hour finish. The next section was much slower though. We got into about 10 miles of legit hilly single track, which in many ways was preferable to road/towpath/gravel, but was definitely much slower, and the steep downhills didn’t let me make up time I’d lost on the climbs. Around mile 45 I was feeling a bit hot so filled up the ice bandana my friend Beth had loaned me. A few minutes later I realized it was dripping on my hydration pack where my phone was not in a ziplock bag, but I caught it in time to save the phone from waterlog. I arrived at mile 50 right on pace according to my spreadsheet, but by this point my head already had lost the motivation to push for that time goal.
Here I picked up Wes, who would pace me for the next 26 miles. There were fewer road crossings by this point, but quite a lot of gravel path (which in reality was, a good portion of it, cement) and road, WAY more than I had remembered from the course description’s breakdown of terrain. There were trail segments as well, but I wasn’t really spry enough to appreciate them, especially as, with my legs and feet beat up from pounding the roads, it was getting hard to spring over roots and fallen trees or up stairs. I felt like I “ran” a good amount of those 26 miles, but it still took us about 7 hours. We saw Lou at mile 72 aid, from which we went out for a final, horrendously hilly 3.8 mile loop before picking him up as pacer at mile 76 - those 4 miles were also where we first turned on headlamps. It was in those 4-ish miles that I really started flagging mentally, at one point stamping my feet and cursing at some stairs I didn’t want to climb up. I also started to calculate how long it would take me to finish. Sub 24-hours was pretty much out of the picture. I could have finished within the allowed 30 hours by walking the whole rest of the way, but I REALLY didn’t want to be out there that long. From what I heard other runners saying, however, I thought the final 26 miles would be sustained technical hilly trail, and I wasn't expecting to go fast at all.
Wesley pacing :)
That turned out not to be true. The next segment was 6.5 miles, and a mix of road and easy trail. Poor Lou probably got the wrong idea of how things would go for the rest of the time, because I had an up moment here and was so so happy to be running and making decent time again. We caught up with Keith again near the end of this section, and he confirmed that there were indeed quite a few runnable miles left in the race, which cheered me immensely, even though some of those miles would be road. The mile 82 aid station was awesome - lots of good food, awesome volunteers, and I was on the ball fueling with vegan ramen, oreos, and grapes. The 4.5 mile loop we did from there didn’t go well though. I lost my caffeine high from the last segment, and it was hilly trails again. There were some good runnable bits, but for the most part I just couldn’t run. I was also worried about Lou, as he had fallen and busted his leg open a bit, and though the aid station medics said he could still pace me, it’s really hard to judge what is safe and to keep your mind from worrying when you’re 80+ miles into a race and it’s the middle of the night.
The rest was just a slog. From mile 92 there was a long road/gravel section, and part of it went by a stinky sewage treatment plant, which really pissed me off. I tried to do intervals here, as it was very flat, running for a half mile at a stretch, or however long I could. We passed a shopping center, some crappy hotels, and a couple of drunk guys who were very confused by all the zombie-like runners out.
In the last 4.6 mile section there was supposed to be an interminable flight of stairs. There were sort of some wooden stair thingies, but this was pretty anticlimactic - the hills were worse here. At one point, with about two miles to go, I just stopped in the middle of the trail and sobbed “I just want it to be OVER!” A few minutes later we came to the road, and then about a mile and a quarter later we jogged up to the finish line.
With Lou, a couple minutes after finishing <3 Look at my HUGE buckle!
My finish time of 25:28:52 was over 30 minutes faster than my Zion time on a course that was at least 7 miles longer, maybe more. I fueled pretty well, stayed relatively hydrated, and came away with zero blisters and only a bit of armpit and lower back chafing. But it was so much harder mentally. The switches back and forth between road and trail had me not enjoying either terrain, especially toward the end. I appreciated being able to move faster on the road, but the pounding felt awful. I wanted to enjoy the trail more, but I was just too exhausted to appreciate it. I learned a lot about what I’ll need to do both in terms of training and execution when I do go for a sub-24 finish.
Post-race VEGAN TACOS
It’s a weird thing. You have to be mentally tough to finish a hundred at all, I think, but I was quite upset with myself for my not-great attitude during much of this race, my unwillingness to push for my A-goal, my general grumpiness and pissiness and self-pity, that I didn’t feel very tough while I was racing. I felt a huge sense of relief after, but not a great sense of accomplishment. I look happy in a lot of the pictures, and that wasn’t a farce or a lie, but I felt like it should have been a lot more fun to run trails in great weather with some of my favorite people.
PS, don’t fly across the country shortly after finishing a hundred mile race with lots of pavement pounding. Your feet might swell up for a couple days.
Apart from starting in the Brooks, I wore the same exact clothes and gear as for Zion, just with different INKnBURN designs :)