Sunday, August 15, 2010

2010 Burning River 100 Ultramarathon Race Report

So what does it take to run 100 miles in one day? I recently discovered the answer, and learned some lessons in the process. The following is my experience in training for and running the Burning River 100 Ultra-marathon, this year’s USATF 100 mile trail national championship, which took place on July 31 and August 1, 2010, in eastern Ohio.

From Idea to Race Day

Sometime last winter the idea to run a 100-miler became stuck in my head. Having already run the Tussey mOUTaiNBACK 50 mile race twice, I knew what it was like to run fifty miles, finishing in about 8 hours both times. Fifty miles was hard, but I was looking for a new challenge. I enjoy training better if I have something interesting to train for.

My training this spring was not much different from my regular marathon training, with the exception that I put in more long runs on the weekends than I normally do. My weekly mileage was in the 40-50 mile range. I did run four marathons between the end of March and beginning of May, with the goal to become more efficient at longer distances (I didn’t attempt to run any of them very fast).

I wanted to do two runs longer than 30 miles in May and June. The first was a six-hour run in Rothrock State Forest, mostly on trails, that got me to 32 miles. The second long training run I planned was actually a race, the Laurel Highlands Trail Ultra-marathon, a 77-miler in Western Pennsylvania. This race was the key for my success in the 100-miler, even though I failed to finish the race. It was a very hot and humid day and I made many mistakes involving nutrition, hydration and logistics, which caused me to drop out at 52 miles for fear of passing out.

As I finished preparation for the 100-miler, I put together all of the lessons I learned from the Laurel Highlands race, along with a lot of Internet research on ultra-marathon strategies, and formulated a plan. I also did some late night runs during the last six weeks and tried out different foods while running to see what worked well and what didn’t. The two weeks before the race I made sure to get plenty of sleep, ate well and tapered my running similarly to a marathon, although I didn’t cut my mileage down quite as much.

A final and very important piece of my plan was my crew and pacers. I’m not used to having a crew but I made as much use of them as I could. I packed food and drink to eat during the run, changes of clothes and shoes, and a medical kit. There was not going to be crew access at every aid station but they would see me fairly often. The most important thing that I told my crew was to make me eat at every aid station and make me drink at least 20 ounces an hour, whether I wanted to or not.

The race allows pacers after the 54-mile aid station so I had my nephew set to pace me from 54-70 miles, my daughter would pace me from 70-74 miles, and my brother from 74-101 miles (through the night).

The night before the race I felt well rested and ready, although a little apprehensive at this thing that I was attempting. That apprehensiveness was only heightened when my crew broke out the shirts they had made, which already had “100 Miles” checked off on the back of them. My immediate thought was “What if I fail, what will we do with the shirts?” I went to sleep believing I had to finish.

Race Day

After a somewhat restless night, I woke up before 3:00am in order to get the 3:30am bus to the starting line (the Burning River course is point-to-point). After an hour bus ride we disembarked in a park with lots of little headlamps dancing around in the night. At 5:00am, the race director said “go” and 360 runners with questionable judgment started running into the night.

The first nine miles were on road and I settled into a comfortable 9:00 minute pace. My intent was to not go any faster than that and I figured I would gradually slow down, especially after we started hitting aid stations, hills and single-track. My goal was to walk every significant hill (I figured that what passed for “significant” would probably change as I went along). I started chatting with another runner whose pace matched mine and discovered that he had done a training run in Rothrock State Forest this summer with a few members of the Nittany Valley Running Club when he was in town for an event. While we were chatting the topic of salt tablets came up and I told him I didn’t have any and wasn’t planning on taking any during the run. He told me I would need some or I wouldn’t finish. I had researched salt and electrolytes in the weeks leading up to the race and determined that I would probably not need anything more than what Gatorade would provide, although there was some doubt in my mind.

The first nine miles were on roads and then we started running on horse trails, which were well groomed. I first saw my crew at 18 miles and downed some cheerios and turkey and cheese sandwiches, in my effort to eat well early. The trails continued to be well groomed until I next saw my crew at mile 32. Here I changed shoes, ate more cheerios and drank chocolate milk. It was starting to get hot, but not too bad yet. I felt good in body and spirit.

The trails now turned to mostly single-track, with a lot of climbs and descents. I found some other people to run with much of the time and this helped the miles go by. Eventually I was alone again and started to look forward to mile 54 when my nephew Jason would be able to join me as a pacer. Unfortunately, I ran into some difficulty before then.

At mile 48 my trailing toe caught an unseen root and I went down hard on my side. I slowly got up and did an inventory of all my parts and everything seemed to be okay, except my big toe really hurt. I started walking at first and then went back to running as the pain started to subside. Fortunately, no major damage had been done. At mile 51, however, I started to have stomach issues. A fortuitously placed port-a-pot took care of the immediate problem but stomach issues would continue to haunt me for the next 50 miles.

I picked up my pacer at mile 54 and we were off. I felt renewed in spirit with Jason at my side and we ran well the next 10 miles with stops at each aid station to eat and go to the bathroom. At mile 64, things got worse. I was in a port-a-pot/oven at the aid station too long and came out feeling overheated and generally bad. I tried to eat some cheerios but couldn’t get many down. All food was unappetizing at this point. I sat for a few minutes and just tried to cool off and recover a little. I was struggling some mentally at this point and doubts crept into my mind, as I just felt worse and worse. Finally I decided I needed to get up and start going again. I grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich and walked out of the aid station with Jason.

As we were walking out I was suddenly overcome with nausea and handed my sandwich to Jason and headed for the bushes. As I threw up I was hoping my wife and kids weren’t watching but when I finally got up I saw them out of the corner of my eye. We started walking down the trail again and 30 seconds down the trail it hit me again and I had to kneel by the side of the trail and empty my stomach contents a second time.

At this point I was worried. It was hot enough that dehydration was a concern and I was also concerned about not having enough energy to continue. I was not ready to give it up at this point so Jason and I started walking down the trail. We walked awhile and I gradually started feeling better. When we got to a downhill section I started to run again. This felt okay so I continued to run and felt some hope again.

We got into the mile 70 aid station and I was exhausted. The pictures of me here look pretty bad. I had developed a blister so I had the podiatrist that was there lance it and bandage it. I tried to eat but when I looked at all of my food options I couldn’t imagine actually swallowing anything. I took my time drinking some chocolate milk and got up again to head out. I took a pizza crust with me and promised to try to eat it.

My daughter Marcy was going to be my pacer for the next four-mile loop that would bring me back to the same aid station that I was just at. I had been looking forward to this all day. I had coached her before the race what to tell me and what to do, and she was great. We ran into a glitch just five minutes into the loop, however. I decided I should try to take an electrolyte tablet that I had on me, because I was worried about my nutritional health. Unfortunately I gagged on it and felt like I was going to throw up again. I went down on one knee by the side of the trail, and instead of throwing up, I passed out. I came back to consciousness with my daughter leaning over me and calling my name. I was still grasping onto my pizza crust.

After regaining my sense of where I was, I stood up, brushed off the dirt and started walking again. Marcy started talking and kept me distracted and kept telling me how well I was doing. We started running again, and eventually even started passing some people. I threw the pizza crust into the woods when she wasn’t looking and realized I was done eating for the race. We got through the loop and back to the aid station, where I sat down some more to rest and reapplied Body Glide. Finally I got up, got my headlamp and a handheld flashlight, and walked off into the woods with my brother Jim.

It was now dusk and the light was fading quickly. I was unsure at this point how much running I would be able to do for the last 27 miles. I was physically and mentally tired, as well as being concerned about not eating. It was during this time that I developed the mantras that would carry me to the finish. As we were walking I said, “Well, if I can walk, I can run.” We started running, and it actually felt okay. At about this time we switched on our headlamps and handheld flashlights (I was told that having two lights made it easier to navigate technical trails) and were running into the night. Soon, another thought hit me, “If I can run, I can run a little faster.” I picked up the pace and my legs still felt good.

During this leg we came across a runner who had no light at all. By this time the woods were completely dark, as the clouds were covering the moon, and the trail was technical. He had made the mistake of putting his flashlight in the drop bag at the next aid station, a huge mistake. Jim gave him his handheld flashlight so he wouldn’t die alone in the woods. I soon found my second flashlight annoying and turned it off and we just went with our headlamps.

We came into the mile 80 aid station and I felt okay, although I wasn’t able to get anything solid into my stomach. From this aid station we did a five-mile loop back to the same aid station. The trail was technical and had some stream crossings at a couple of points. I was able to pick up the pace in spots and we passed some more people on this loop. During this loop I switched to plain water from Gatorade and stuck with water the rest of the way. I was tired of Gatorade.

We got back to the aid station at mile 85 and I changed out of my trail shoes and into regular training shoes, as I was told that the worst of the technical stuff was over. Jim and I ran off into the night for a relatively short four-mile leg. This one started on road but switched to trail halfway through. It was on this trail that I really started to feel better and we picked up the pace. We were passing a lot of runners now. I really started to enjoy the single-track trails on this leg. We would see headlights dancing in the distance, and then catch up to them and pass. This definitely gave me a shot of confidence.

At the mile 88/89 aid station, I went to the bathroom, downed a cup of flat Mountain Dew, refilled my water bottle and kept moving, while Jim got something to eat at the aid station and had to catch up with me. I figured at this point there was no sense in messing around. My confidence was rising, I felt relatively good, even in the stomach, and I was enjoying the run. We had some long flat sections on paved towpath in this leg and we were able to ratchet up the pace. I would run “fast” for 8 minutes or so and then walk for 30 seconds. I was physically tired for being awake so long but the walk breaks helped to keep me going.

At the mile 92 aid station, I did the same routine as the last aid station and took off. My crew was supposed to meet me at this one but they were late. It didn’t matter. I could sense the end by this point and I was inexplicable feeling stronger and stronger.

We flew into the mile 96 aid station, almost beating my crew there. I went to the bathroom one last time and apparently my brother got scolded while I was gone. The aid station chief asked Jim what I wanted to eat so he could get it ready, and when he found out that I hadn’t eaten in 30 miles, he told Jim that it was his duty as a pacer to make sure that I was eating. Jim told him that I was running out of my mind and apparently didn’t need food and that I refused to eat because I couldn’t keep anything down. When I got out of the bathroom, the guy kept trying to give me food but I didn’t want any of it. Finally he mentioned that he had some grapes and they actually kind of appealed to me at that point so I took a bunch and we headed off on the last leg. Jim wondered if we should change batteries in our headlamps but they were in the car and I didn’t want to wait and I thought we would be okay.

The last leg started with a significant uphill so we walked and I ate my little bunch of grapes. At the top, we started to run again. We had less than five miles to go! We were on roads for a little over one mile and then we hit trail again. Our headlamps started to dim by this point and I was kind of wishing we had switched batteries, but it was too late. I felt like I was floating over the trail and was generally invincible. Jim kept kicking roots and I was worried he might go down but I felt good. We passed a bunch of runners on this leg. We finally exited the trail onto road for the last mile and a half and hit an uphill right away. I wasn’t walking anymore. I dashed up the hill and had to slow down at the top to let Jim catch up (he will deny it but that is my story).

We ran sub-8 minute mile pace for that last bit on the road, and even sub-7 for the last quarter mile. I even taunted Jim to keep up with me. The tiredness was gone. I just felt joy. We burst across the finish line in 21:49 at 2:49am, with my crew cheering us in. What a feeling! I was tired but filled with such a sense of accomplishment and excitement that I figured it was going to take awhile to fall asleep.

Post-race Wrap-up and Lessons

I went back to the motel and my wife bought me a milkshake somewhere and I enjoyed it, although I couldn’t drink it all. Eventually I fell asleep before 4am, but couldn’t sleep past 8am. I got up, ate breakfast, and then went to the awards ceremony. I must admit it was somewhat gratifying to see the winners hobbling around as much as I was. Running 100 miles is a difficult thing to do and the body doesn’t exactly like it.

I was sore the next few days, but no worse than after a marathon. I think the slower pace and the softer surface helped to ease the recovery. My feet were more sore than normal but they felt okay after a week.

What did I learn? In a race of this length, nutrition, hydration and general race management are crucial to success. Conditioning is still important but I don’t think it is the most important thing. Perseverance is an extremely important quality. There will be ups and downs during a race this long and you need to be able to outlast the bad spells.

I think the strategies that made me successful this day included: eat early and often, walk all the significant uphills, be disciplined with hydration, don’t run faster than a 9 minute pace per mile (until the end), and have a pacer. My pacers and crew were instrumental in my success. It would be so much more difficult, from a mental and logistical standpoint, to do it alone.

Will I ever do another one? Probably. If I can recapture that feeling I had the last 10 miles, then definitely. I know, however, that there are no guarantees in distance racing. Even in races of marathon length, one race I can feel good and the next race I have to struggle. I certainly don’t have it all figured out yet, and it seems like no one really does.

This was definitely a race that was a journey of six months. The dreaming, preparation, failing, learning, and ultimate triumph were definitely worth it all. I believe it was a journey worth taking, one that challenged and pushed me to discover what I was capable of. There is a Teddy Roosevelt quote that I recently came across and with which I will finish this report.

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

P.S. My brother did a short video on the experience and it is posted at: