June 26th, 2019
Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run
Saturday July 30th, 2011
5th Annual Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run
(click "View Photos" above for gallery of images)
Way back in May, when the Midwest was not yet trapped under its 2011 "dome of heat" I had the opportunity to share a few miles with Mary Gorski during her successful makeup Ice Age Trail 50 mile solo run. While bouncing along the trail I asked of her top-picks for a summer 100 mile run.
"Within driving range?" she wondered.
She reminded me that she ran the Burning River 100 in 2009, liked it and had already signed up for the 2011 edition.
Sounded like a winner to me... met with good reception from (wife) Michelle when I sweetened, "Hey, the course actually runs through a national park - Cuyahoga Valley National Park!" Being big fans of our national parks we made our arrangements, trained properly, and on Thursday before the race found ourselves heading east across tollways of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio bound for Cuyahoga Falls.
Friday morning Michelle spoke "Everett Road Covered Bridge" into her smart phone. We navigated its directions from our hotel to the 80-mile checkpoint of the race course. It was easy to follow the already set trail markings along a loop of muddy ruts, slippery slopes and streams on a relaxed 4+ mile survey run. Afterward, dripping with sweat we tried to soothe our concerns, "this must be a difficult stretch of the trail."
That evening we met the Gorski's, Mary and Dave for early pasta dinner at the Cuyahoga Falls Natatorium. By nine o'clock I was under the covers but tossed 'til 11:59 nervously watching the digits turn over.
Early morning acoustic styling's played on XM radio's, "The Coffee House" as Dave chauffeured Mary and me the 40 miles toward Cleveland to our race start in Willoughby Hills. We walked past porta-potty lines up to runner check-in where volunteers hunched over laptops recorded our presence. Glow bands were offered and adorned... we took a few pictures by the small Squire's Castle. An amplified race director Joe Jurczyk gave last minute instructions before setting those present of the 312 registered runners on our 100 mile adventure. It was precisely 5:00:00 on my GPS watch... still no sign of sunrise.
As in past years of BR100... if you're an American citizen and registered with the USA Track & Field Association you could opt for the additional challenge of participation in the 2011 USA 100 Mile Trail Championships. This would put you in the running for extra awards, including cash prizes for top finishers and age group champions. However, USATF rules prohibit use of pacers and GPS devices. I've grown fond of the tracings and stats that my Garmin watch generates and decided it would be too much to forgo by leaving it behind... in addition, Michelle wanted to run as my pacer for a few miles in the national park... thus, no USATF competition for me.
Mary was participating in the USATF competition and in compliance had her name and age pinned on her back... uh, in her case on the back of her shorts. During our first mile the ultra-unstoppable, Chicagoland native Juli Aistars quipped, "Mary, your butt is showing your age."
We glided the predawn blacktop past stately mansions, white spire churches, wooded farmland, and pulsing traffic lights. The occasional footbridge carried us over the Chagrin River as we paralleled south, making the second aid station, "Polo Fields" at 9.6 miles. It was 6:42 when I arrived, Mary was trailing by just a couple minutes. Now serving as her crew Dave reported that the leaders were moving quickly, perhaps recklessly. That didn't seem unreasonable as those early miles were easy running on pretty tame roads, and a heavy fog was delaying the onset of full morning solar heat. Still, Dave's warning was clear... it's way too early for us to be on "race pace." We binged and filled our bottles before disappearing into the mist.
Roads had given way to the Buckeye Trail with its gentle terrain and infrequent stream crossings... none more than ankle deep. Cutting through woods we were never far from sounds and sights of urbanity. Yellow plastic plates with red arrows staked along the course pointed proper turns... red plastic plates warned of potential wrong turns... orange and silver ribbons and flags assured we were on course. My pace quickened approaching "Shadow Lake" at 18.6 miles knowing that I'd see Michelle... she was now on duty, serving as my crewmate. And to make the party complete, Dave was at this checkpoint in anticipation of Mary's imminent arrival. We chatted briefly... just long enough to confirm our synchronicity. With the clock ticking to 8:30 the morning fog was dissipating and the heat was soon / sure to take over.
Choppier trails were taking over too... not extremely technical yet, but some were more of the "hike up" and "brake down" variety. Michelle met me for the third time at 28.4 miles - "Alexander Road". We were surprised to find this station perched atop a bluff with views of the river rushing 150 feet directly below. Welcome to Cuyahoga Valley National Park... have a freeze-pop, enjoy the view but heed this vista as a harbinger of the trail to come.
By this time the sun was out in full force... heat and humidity waxing. More towpaths, trails, and road crossings led us to "Brecksville Station", a tranquil setting for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, the 33.3 mile checkpoint, and a quick photo-op with Michelle.
The day unfolded and miles were passing agreeably along the scenic trail. Trouble struck around 46½ miles when I tried to hop out of a steep stream crossing and slipped back down its 3-foot river bank. The clumsy fall sent a jolt through my perpetually delicate hamstring. In an attempt to recover I chopped my stride length and limped along the single-track trail pointing my right hip forward, which must've looked silly but helped mitigate the pain.
I eased into "Boston Store", the 49.1 mile checkpoint at 3:00 pm. Michelle gave me two advil tablets as a last-ditch effort to numb my strained hammie. Always leery of pain-killers during ultras this was a first-time-ever desperate measure for the desperate times in which I found myself. As I swallowed Michelle introduced me to Greg Smith, who had earlier contacted me via email to offer his pacing & crewing services. Originally from Cuyahoga Valley, Greg now lives and runs in the Chicago area... the homeboy looked sharp in his "Des Plaines River Trail Races" shirt.
Leaving the checkpoint I took inventory... blisters, but just under the balls of my feet (mild nuisance)... mangled toenails on my middle toes (annoyance on the most severe downhill's, otherwise tolerable)... strained right hamstring (red alert - tread lightly and give it whatever it needs to loosen, contract and relax)... energy reserves, high (keep eating)... attitude, b positive (just like my blood type :-).
The course led out on a mild 4½ mile loop and returned back to the "Boston Store" station. Coincidentally, Mary had just arrived on her first pass through and we shared a high-five. A friendly volunteer, Jim Burns sponged the back of my neck with cold water... ahhh, that's good. Now at 53.5 miles, non-USATF participants were allowed to run with a pacer - Michelle stood ready. It was just past 4:00 in the afternoon.
I followed Michelle out of the station, through lush green fields along the Cuyahoga River, under two towering structures of interstate highways and back into the forest where the narrow trail was punctuated with spiky pine roots. She was amazed at the efficiency of the aid stations. She observed that each runner was met with a guide upon entry, led to the food tables, had their bottles and packs refilled, all requests met, and had the upcoming trail segment verbally detailed at the exit. Volunteers were easy to identify in their yellow shirts and name tags. "Have you ever seen aid stations with this much coordination?"
"They are top notch," I replied, "each station has been consistently fantastic with the most attentive volunteers."
Michelle considered, "They must put in a lot of practice time to be this good."
In six (of my thirteen) prior 100 mile races Michelle has served as my pacer... steadfast, unfaltering, dialed in. That's why a sudden fall on the trail left us both stunned. Her four-point landing rendered scraped wrists and bloodied knees. But a moment to calm and assess reassured that she had suffered no serious injury. We pressed on. Through the forest a vuvuzela bellowed us into the "Pine Lane" station. While Michelle received first aid for her knees I sat in the shade and sipped on hot soup, coke, and ginger ale. A mile down single-track trail spit us onto lazy evening roads and more towpaths... our pace stiffened. We rolled into "Happy Days" checkpoint, mile 63.8 at 6:43 in the evening. Michelle had skillfully escorted me 10+ miles in great shape and eager for more.
I fell into a seat and received orders from Greg, "You have a 6.8 mile segment to cover solo. It gets dark around 8:45 so carry your headlamp. We'll meet you at the next station and I'll run you to the finish from there."
I followed the trail as it butted up against and encircled 70-foot massive stacks of bedrock slabs. The going was scenic but slow with hazardous footing on the boulder-strewn path, which for my comfort ran too close to the cliff walls. Irrationality gnawed at me... I was certain that the vibrations of my footfalls could unhinge the slabs and down upon the trail they would slide, leaving me an unwitting and permanent fragment of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Relief came as the trail finally sloped into the forest away from the "ledges." Passing the small opening at Kendall Lake a race official asked, "Are the trail markings okay?"
"Could not be better!" I ran by... the sun dipping on the horizon.
Two miles later the forest opened to a magnificent green clearing known as the "Sound of Music." Appropriately named for its appearance, and its two 70-foot hills that were alive with the efforts of runners. Crested on its second hill was aid station "Pine Hollow" at 70.6 miles. I sipped on noodle soup, coke and ginger ale. Greg helped me into a new pair of socks. Two salt tablets refused to "stay down" but no points were deducted for my crude behavior (puke). After a few too many minutes in the chair Michelle threatened to report recent "debt ceiling negotiation developments" were I not to get moving. That "stick" spurred me to stand, wobble and regain balance... she handed me an extra flashlight. I chased Greg down the hill, into the darkening forest.
It was our first time together and I liked Greg immediately. He led, pointed out trail trappings, ducked and swatted away bats, and patiently waited when I would fall behind. We talked about runners and races that we have in common. A year earlier he'd made it through 70 miles of the 2010 Burning River Endurance Run before succumbing to heat exhaustion. He reckoned that once we got past 85 miles, the course would mellow back into more runable towpaths and road surfaces.
It was easy for Michelle to navigate back to the Everett Road Covered Bridge in the middle of the night. After all, it was from this checkpoint that we did our pre-race "survey run." Greg led me into the aid station at 11:30 pm. There was bustle all around. Crews tried to penetrate the thousand-mile stare to instruct, persuade, and cajole their runners. Station volunteers sprang-forth with food, beverages, and first aid requests. Michelle produced an iced mocha frappacino, which somewhat surprisingly went down easy, and more importantly, settled in my stomach. Greg and I lit out for the next rugged trail section, of which I was familiar, determined and aware that it could set the stage for a possible sub-24 hour finish.
An hour and twenty minutes later we reappeared at the "Covered Bridge" station. Michelle had cordoned off a seat near the exit... strategically with the minimum amount of distance to cover. I flopped down, tried small sips of soup, and promptly threw up for the second time of the race. It had been a long hot day... two puke episodes were no cause for alarm. I was excited to hear the station attendant's confirmation of the course to come, "Eleven of the last fifteen miles will be on roads and towpaths." Her story checked out with Greg's. We ventured through the exit.
"Too bad there's no moon tonight."
"Yeah, that would be nice." Greg answered as we cruised the starlit, desolate, wide-open Oak Hill Road. Michelle happened by and through her rolled-down window gave us a "woo-hoo!" shout out.
Back on the Buckeye Trail we slowed on the jagged climb up to the "O'Neil Woods" checkpoint. A quick stop for drinks before pushing down a technical trail-mile where we found ourselves back on roads, which handed us off to the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. "Brace yourself," Greg warned, "we're about to pass by the Sludge Composting Facility."
Whoa... the smell was nauseating. We sped up in an effort to reenter a breathable atmosphere. When the air cleared we maintained our quicker pace calculating that the finish was only 10 miles away. I chased Greg along the towpath up to the wide Merriman Road, crossed the intersection of Weathervane Lane where the late night bars were letting out and a party girl slurred from her driver's seat, "You guys run like old men!"
Suppose it was meant as a insult but technically she was correct, and at least she said "run" instead of "jog". Besides, Greg was running interference with his palms out to traffic as I trailed, not quite making the intersection in time for its green light but pushing through anyway. Moments later we met Michelle at "Merriman Road", the penultimate aid station, 93 miles into the race. A digital clock's red numbers glowed 2:48 am. Serving up cups of iced soda a knowledgeable station attendant offered counsel, "Are you guys trying for a sub-24 hour finish?"
He assessed our response, glanced at the clock and did quick mental calculations, "You can do it. You must be sure to run all of the remaining roads and towpaths. That will leave you extra time for the steep climb out of the valley should you have to walk. Get going and good luck!"
Greg and I made for the exit. Michelle would skip the next station and meet us at the finish line. As we disappeared into shadows the attendant called out, "Remember... no walking on the roads and towpaths!"
Onward we pushed... occasionally catching and passing others... the mission for everyone out that night was simple, urgent, unambiguous, completely understood, and yet became clearer with each step... get to the finish. The briefest of stops, one minute at the final checkpoint "Memorial Parkway" permitted one last coke. There were 4.8 miles remaining. We climbed up a road hill, enjoyed a brief one-car motorcade escort to its top, rolled down its backside, and darted back into the woods. The final hill with its undulations and random strings of steep steps sloped 250 feet out of the valley. The trail hair-pinned, pointing north up the streets of Cuyahoga Falls. A four-lane bridge carried us over the Cuyahoga River, on which not once during our adventure did I detect any flames. Greg and I launched into our finishing kick... pace computed based upon 99 miles covered - your results may vary... chased up Front Street for 1½ miles... gleefully accepted a smattering of applause by those in attendance... hit the finish line hand-in-hand with arms raised... 23:28:32!
Race director Joe Jurczyk welcomed us and handed me an official finishers "Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run" buckle / medal. While listing left, then right, trying to keep balance I got a handshake and "way to go" from NorthCoast 24 Hour race director Dan Horvath too. Ironically Michelle, who spent the day leapfrogging in front, missed our finish but was soon on the scene for hugs and pictures. We hung out watching fellow finishers for 45 minutes before yielding to fatigue. A much needed shower and deep sleep waited just across the river at our hotel.
5½ hours later Michelle and I were back at the finish area for breakfast and presentation of awards. RDs Joe and Dan emceed while world-class ultra runner Howard Nippert dealt out USATF overall and age group medals. Congratulations to race champions David James of Phoenix, AZ - 15:57:43, and local favorite Connie Gardner of Medina, OH - 19:01:39.
Thanks to director Joe Jurczyk, his race committee, and the dedicated army of 400 volunteers who produced this wonderful quest of endurance running. "Atta boy & girl" to all who toed the line in Willoughby Hills early Saturday morning. "Excellent job" to ultra friends Mary and Juli and Tom Jennings (RD of the Oil Creek 100 Mile Endurance Run)! My biggest "thank you" to crewmates and pacers Greg and Michelle for their devotion to my burning desire to conquer this 100 mile journey along the Cuyahoga River!
Ode to the Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run
(with apologies to Neil Young)
Ten miles is one-tenth covered
That river burns on its own
This summer I will be running
One hundred in Ohio
Gotta keep plowin' through it
Conditions are wearing me down
Should've passed through long ago
What with the humid and
Oppressive heat of the sun
Can you call this pace a run?
Ten miles, another tenth covered
We're finally in the zone
This summer they're out there running
One hundred in Ohio
< what ? >
One hundred in Ohio
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One hundred in Ohio
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One hundred in Ohio
< cuy .. a .. ho .. ga >
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August 4th, 2011 2:53 pm
June 26th, 2019 7:19 pm
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