Monday, August 5, 2013

2013 Burning River 100 Mile Race Report

Races are an emotional endeavor - I find emotions to be especially amplified at 100 mile races.  The time and energy spent on training, the support and encouragement needed to pull through the actual endeavor, experiencing a shared-struggle with friends, and the outside trust put on race directors and volunteers to provide the necessary arrangements to make a 100 mile race go smoothly are all factors that contribute to this emotion.  Focusing on the self now, we have constant ups and downs, battling the mind and body to conquer numbness and pain, and finally, and hopefully, a felt sense of accomplishment after finishing the run.

I felt these emotions during this years Burning River 100 and harnessed them to have a satisfying race.  I had not raced since November of 2012 and in the eight months since, I took two months off from running while rehabilitating a strained groin, struggled to find the motivation that had always come easy, questioned my reason for running ultras, and questioned whether or not my training was sufficient to do well in a 100 mile race.  It's no wonder I found myself hugging my wife, choking back the tears and outflow of emotion after crossing the finish line after a "sprint finish" in 2nd place, 15hr48min17sec after starting.  This was a journey, and sometimes the journey is as memorable as the ending.

After finishing... sharing with Bobbi.  Photo by Steve Pierce
The morning started cool - low 60's with a bit of humidity laced in the air - rain was in the future.  The weather was polar opposite from when I ran Burning River 100 in 2011, my first 100 and only until this years - 95 degrees and extremely humid was the forecast for that day.  The difference in weather was welcomed by most runners but I knew that many runners might get in over their heads early in the race.  My race tactic remained the same - go out conservative and just wait, be patient.

I found myself running around 6-8th place in the early goings of the race.  My race was comfortably slower than 2011 in the early parts and that was just fine with me.  I was relaxed and content with letting other people spend energy in front of me.  One thing that I kept conscious of was to not let other people dictate the way I raced early in the day.  There were several occasions when I normally would have went with someone who passed me but didn't.  I came through the marathon mark in 3:23:00 in 7th place.  This was 7:44 pace - a pace that I figured would have me at a higher position, but also a pace that was very controlled.

To this point I had ran pretty much the entire race with Zach Bitter, whom I linked up with in the field of the starting area.  It is strange how friendships are formed along the trail - although Zach and I had met once before, we didn't really know much about each other.  We ended up sharing the first 50 miles together at Burning River before he went ahead of me, and during those ~7 hours, we got to know each other pretty well.  This is a characteristic of ultra-running that is unmatched by any other sport - intense competition equaled by intense camaraderie (and this was the "100 mile Trail National Championship"!).  Zach unfortunately got off course around mile 70 and cut a few miles off the course, which led to a disqualification.  I'm convinced he would have finished in front of me by many minutes if the mishap would not have occurred.

So, I had executed the first fourth of the race perfectly... I felt strong and Zach and I only waited for people to start coming back.  We talked about our pace and figured that if we were on course record pace in 5-6th place, that meant the top 4 people were well under course record pace and the odds of 6 people breaking the course record was low in my opinion.  This thought was reassuring - keep moving and people were sure to come back.
Running into an Aid Station with Zach around mile 42.  Rain has started.  Photo by Pat Dooley
The rain started mid-morning.  A light sprinkle turned into a hard rain and back to a light sprinkle again.  This trend continued until the afternoon.  The rain made the trails in the valleys of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park a sloppy mess.  From 40-50, Zach and I basically walked the downhills to prevent falling and half ran/half walked other sections.  I kept good spirits through this section and hoped that the runners in front experienced the same slowness that I was.  I second guessed my decision to lace up road flats (Nike Lunar Racers) as I fell on my butt a couple times.  After the race I learned that the guys who wore trail shoes with bigger lugs were able to get through the muddy sections with a lot more ease.  Nonetheless, I made it through these sections and savored the road/towpath sections more than I normally ever would.

The halfway point came in at 7:03:00 - Zach had just left me for the last time and I prepared to run the next 30 miles of the race alone.  These moments in a 100 miler, when you've crossed over the halfway point, and you know you have 50 more miles to run, knowing most of them will be alone, are a true test.  This is a point where you can be patient just a bit longer before waiting for the carnage.  The first person I saw drop out was Todd Braje at the 55 mile aid station.  More mud, and more miles.... I finally reached The Ledges aid station (mile 65.7) and saw my crew for the first time in 24 miles.  They were awesome all day - my wife, Bobbi, my dad, and my sister - and pretty much took care of keeping my mind in the game from mile 1 to 101.  I looked forward to the aid stations that allowed crew all day as a way to pass the miles.  Here, I learned I was in 4th place, with pretty big gaps in front of me.  Still, I just kept moving and being confident with my game plan.
Coming into the Ledges at 65.7 miles.  Photo by Johnny da Jogger
Talking to people at the aid station, trying to figure out how I moved into 3rd place without realizing it!
The next aid station (70.6 miles) is where I moved into 3rd place without realizing it.  The workers at the aid station asked if I had passed Zach Bitter.  I hadn't and only speculated that he was off the trail using the bath room or off course.  Later I learned about how he had gotten off course only to find trail markings to a different part of the course.  Tough luck on his part but this was another position up for me.  I rolled into Covered Bridge (79.6 miles) and once again was told I was higher up in the race than I realized.  Shaun Pope, who was only 8 minutes up on me at mile 70 had yet to come in but I never passed him.  I later found out he took a wrong turn and tacked on a few extra miles.  This moved me into second place for the first time.

The next section of the course was my downfall from 2011.  The 5 mile section after Covered Bridge forced me to walk and stagger and eventually sit down for 9 minutes.  This year I went into it with vengeance and for the first time all day, started to push.  Even though I thought I was moving well, almost immediately after Covered Bridge, I looked behind me and saw a runner that I hadn't seen all day.  Jim Sweeney caught up to me after running an incredible race, being in 14th place at mile 40.  This was a decisive point in the race for me.  Either let him go by and settle for 3rd or go with him and make a race out of it.  Fortunately as he moved by me on an uphill, I tucked in and ran with him.

After 30 miles of solo running, I was with someone again and it was nice having Jim to push me.  We interchanged leading on the trails and got wrapped up in conversation - once again, competitors showing camaraderie in the heat of battle.  We ran together to Howe Meadow at mile 90.7 and I left before he did.  I thought I escaped but he was back with me at mile 93.  From here, we ran into the last aid station at 96.2 miles and on to the finish.

I never expected to have to "race" the last mile of a 100 miler, but this is just what happened at Burning River.  Jim and I ran across the last trail section together, up the 200 stair steps leading into the town of Cuyahoga Falls, and onto the last little road section.  Side by side we ran, with hardly a word, but a few grunts signifying our shared discomfort.  The pace quickened as the finish line grew closer.  Each turn I expected to see the clock ahead, and each turn a surge was thrown in by one of us until finally the finish line was so close we could feel it.  At this point we were both maxed out on our speed and I was able to get a few steps in front of Jim.  And going what felt like 5 minute pace, I crossed just 14 seconds in front of Jim for second place at 15:48:17
Running as hard as I could at mile 100.9.  Photo by Steve Pierce

Hugging Jim Sweeney after finishing 14 seconds from each other.  Photo by Steve Pierce

Overall, this was an amazing experience and epic last 20 miles.  I was so blessed to have been able to share 50 miles with Zach and the last 20 with Jim.  Both provided great company and energy.  Like I mentioned before, my race plan was to stay consistent and wait.  It did not get me the win, because Peter Hogg ran an incredible course record at 14:25:14 (I was never even in the race for first - congrats to Peter for going for it and getting it done), but at least I stuck to my plan and let the cards play out.  My time was 38 minutes faster than it was two years ago and I finished one position better so I couldn't ask for more.  No super low points physically and only a few sluggish mental sections that I had to work through - and all in all I kept a pretty structured food intake, water intake, etc. plan.  The course was great and all the volunteers were so supportive and helpful.  The work from race directors, volunteers, and everyone who had a part in putting together the race need to be applauded.
Big thanks to my crew for being so helpful.
Here are my splits with time spent at aid stations in parenthesis.  Looking back, I probably spent ~23-25 minutes stopped at the aid station.  Strange to think of the time spent not running, but probably worth it.
Start - 00:00
6.2 - 51:00 (-)
12.4 - 1:36:00 (-)
17.2 - 2:11:00 (< 1)
23 - 2:57:00 (< 1)
26.2 - 3:23:00 (< 1)
31 - 4:06:00 (1)
35.4 - 4:56:00 (1)
41.7 - 5:36:30 (1)
46.4 - 6:19:00 (1)
50.4 - 7:03:00 (1.5)
55.5 - 8:04:00 (2.5)
59.4 - 8:50:00 (2)
65.7 - 9:51:00 (3)
70.6 - 10:49:30 (4)
73.6 - 11:23:30 (< 1)
79.6 - 12:30:00 (2.5)
84.3 - 13:22:30 (< 1)
86.7 - 13:43:30 (1.5)
90.7 - 14:20:30 (-)
93.2 - 14:41:30 (1)
96.2 - 15:08:00 (< 1)
101 - 15:48:17

 Photo by Johnny da Jogger
 Photo by Johnny da Jogger

Below are some pictures of the days following Burning River.  Bobbi and I were able to relax by camping along Lake Erie in Ohio and on up to New York.  A nice little vacation to send off summer as school approaches for both of us!


  1. Nice write up Michael! It was a blast sharing the first 50 with you.

  2. Great report. I've a mate out on the trail as I type this, so it's good to try get a feel of what he's going though.

    Quality writing. Nice stones.

  3. Great report. I've a mate out on the trail as I type this, so it's good to try get a feel of what he's going though.

    Quality writing. Nice stones.