June 6th, 2020
Burning River 2009
Saturday August 1st, 2009
"Burning River" -- when I heard it, I immediately thought of the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, a river so filled with toxic sludge that it caught on fire. In fact, it was repulsive enough that not even leeches and sludge worms -- the usual inhabitants of such fixer-upper bodies of water -- would take up residence there.
What kind of running race would want to name itself after such body of yuck? What kind of course would such an event offer? Miles upon miles of odoriferous sludge lined by toxic waste repositories? Carcinogenic air leaving runners coughing the cough of black-lung miners?
But then I looked at my calendar. I wanted to do a 100-miler sometime this summer and the first weekend of August was perfect timing in the midst of other commitments. Ohio is an easy drive from my hometown of Milwaukee. I looked at the website for photos and videos of the course. Surprisingly, there were no pictures of water ablaze or toxic waste dumps. Was the site a PR hoax? Were the photos from some other lovely park system, miles from the Cuyahoga River?
What the heck, might as well sign up and see for myself. On the bright side -- literally -- I figured that if the river did actually catch on fire it would help to illuminate the course for the night section of the event. I have such lousy night vision, this could only be a plus.
And then I talked a few of my peeps into joining me. If you are going to run along a burning river, you might as well do so with friends. I was glad that much of my Badwater crew from last year was going to be there, including Scott Jacaway, who only two weeks earlier did Badwater himself.
Our carload got to Cuyahoga Falls Thursday evening, so we had plenty of time on Friday to check out the race course. In what areas would I need to have a hazardous waste suit? I was thinking of packing a few in my drop bags for the most toxic sections of the course. But then we found the start area in the North Chagrin Reservation near I-271. Beautiful forested land with New England-like towns nestled nearby. Where was the toxic sludge? Where were the one-eyed mutant spawn of the Burning River? But then -- much to my chagrin -- I realized that we were in an area that featured not the Cuyahoga but the Chagrin River. We wouldn't move into the Cuyahoga Valley until later in the race. Certainly, all of those pretty photos and videos that I saw on the website were taken here, in the northern section of the course. The one-eyed mutants would most likely be staffing the aid stations starting midway into the race.
Having errands to run, we decided to skip the rest of the course tour and just be surprised by the Burning River on race day.
And what a surprise it was. Burning River -- the race -- was one BIG surprise for those of us running it for the first time. The course offered everything from bucolic country roads to pancake flat towpaths to gentle bridal trails to rock and root-infested single-track filled with mud, steep hills and stream crossings. There was even a bouldering section with narrow slot passages which many of us got to enjoy in the dark of the night -- without aid of illumination from any burning bodies of water.
We were only a short drive from Cleveland, often within earshot of major interstate roads, yet sometimes I thought that I was in a different place completely. Talking with others, the line "didn't that section remind you of..." and the routes of places other than Ohio quickly ended the sentence. Sometimes I felt like I was at the Vermont 100, other times in my own Kettle Moraine. The boulders reminded me of scrambling around the Superior/Sawtooth course in northern Minnesota. A long valley descent made me think that I was at Western States, while a few stream crossings and muddy hill climbs made me think of the Voyageur route near Duluth.
Cleveland? This is the Cleveland area? And where was all that toxic waste? The one-eyed mutants?
For those running Burning River for the first time, the course is an incredible tease. You start on the easy footing of quiet, country roads and then move to gentle bridal trails. Every once in awhile you stray off the towpath for a run on some single-track, but overall, the first half isn't overly challenging save for the actual distance -- running 50 miles or more is ALWAYS challenging.
Burning River lulls its virgin runners into thinking that perhaps a PR is within easy reach. Then the mood swings of the BR course begin. She goes up, she goes down. She gets slippery when wet. She seems like she has moved back to an even calm and then lashes out again, sending you up dozens upon dozens of forest service steps built for no human gait. She tosses you into a river, apologizes with the calm of a towpath, and then tosses you back again.
And for those of us not up to a speedy sub-20 hour run, she teams up with her sister, Mother Nature, and throws in some rain and pea soup fog to top off the event.
So much of the Burning River race was an incredible surprise to me -- in a good way. The organization was top-notch with armies of volunteers at every aid station. I was treated like rock star. Leaving night time stations I always had a non-mutant volunteer walk out with me, pointing me in the correct direction, giving me a description of what to expect in the miles ahead. Leaving one of the final aid stations I had a police escort ensure my safety up a two-block stretch of busy road. He literally drove alongside me in the pre-dawn hours chatting about the race and reminding me of the next couple of turns.
And anyone who thinks that the Cuyahoga River and surrounding valley is anything like the burning oil-slicked mess of 1969, you think wrong. The hazmat suits were never donned.
As for my race, it was good. Like many, I was lulled by the tease of easy roads and trails in the first half, running under the pace that I originally set for myself. I had a lot of company. At various times our little pack included my Badwater buddies Stephanie, Scott and Nikki, as well as Juli Aistars of Chicago, and several 100-mile virgins. A big congrats to Bo Marchionte who repeated put up with the ever-changing nicknames that a few of us continued to bestow upon him: Bo Bo, Bodacious, Bo Diddley... Even after hearing miles of our mindless chatter he went on to an incredible first-time finish.
Anyhow, lulled by the early ease, I was a bit blown away by the increasing challenges of the Burning River course as the miles accumulated, especially in the last third. But I kept moving along, ever more slowly, but without injury or vomit. I even managed to stay awake through to the finish -- generally one of my toughest challenges in an overnight event. A gosh-darn nice way to spend 25-and-a-half hours.
Many thanks to race organizers, especially RD Joe Jurczyk. Excellent event, even if we didn't have the night-time illumination of a burning river.
Webcast results are at: http://burningriver100.org
Personal photos: http://www.maryg.smugmug.com (Burning River gallery)
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