My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. This is it, I thought.
Even with all the advance planning I had done in an effort to make absolutely certain I got a full night’s sleep, a fitful four hours was all I had managed, tossing nervously and with a distinct feeling of guilt for three hours before actually drifting off.
That’s right, guilt. A friend who has done many ultras had warned me that 70 or 80 miles into a 100-miler, a feeling of guilt for abusing your crew is not uncommon, one of the brain’s many tricks for convincing your body to quit. But the night before the race?
It seemed my brain was getting a head start, trying to undermine the whole effort before it even got underway. I felt badly about how much time I had spent training since we had our daughter less than three months ago, how much of the workload my wife had shouldered to pick up my slack.
I worried that something would go wrong in the race, that kidney failure or hyponatremia would result in a trip to the hospital (or worse) and cause my family a lot of hardship. But more than that, I worried that I would quit, and have to tell them that for all the work and sacrifice that had gone into training to complete a 100-miler, I hadn’t yet achieved what I had set out to.
My parents had come along to crew, too, driving six or eight hours each to get to Cleveland. A friend whom I met through No Meat Athlete had driven four hours from Cincinnati to come pace me for the last 35 miles — it would be his first ultra, running through the night and putting up with whatever foul mood I would surely be in, and all of it without even a medal to commemorate his effort.
All of these people were here for the sole purpose of helping me. I hadn’t realized how difficult accepting that would be until it was actually happening.
But somehow I fell asleep, and suprisingly, woke up feeling fresh. Ninety minutes later, I was running through the dark by the light of my headlamp, knowing that I’d very likely still be out here at 5 a.m. the next morning.
I was right. But never once in the next 28 hours and 40 minutes — spanning 101 miles total — did I reach a low that even approached what I had felt the night before.
My Burning River 100 Recap
This long post is divided into two sections. The first is the play-by-play, which I’ll keep pretty brief as the vast majority of the miles were uneventful. There were some incredible (and incredibly painful) moments, so I’ll highlight those, but the second section will be more practical info about fueling and preparations and pacing so that you (yep, you!) will have a few more tools to help you understand how a pretty normal guy or girl can do something like this, should you ever want to try. And based on my experience, I’d recommend it if you’re into this sort of thing.
Here’s how it all went down. If you’d like more details, Doug and I recorded the next NMA podcast episode last night with many more of them; that should be published on Friday, so subscribe to that if you’d like.
The First Marathon: Ease
The big story of the morning, at least in my mind, was the weather. Expecting the worst (and not given much choice in the summer), I had trained for 95-degree heat, so I was elated to find out the projected high was a mere 69 degrees.
With that bit of good luck, the first 26.2 miles of the race were about ease — I stayed pretty close to a 13-minute per mile pace, which was pretty easy to do if I walked every hill and for 5 minutes after every 25 minutes of running. The point here was to cover as much ground as possible before feeling any fatigue at all, to “shorten” the race, in a way. These comfortable, relaxed miles flew by, especially after I ditched my headlamp and hat at mile 6.2 … and when I reached the crew access aid station at mile 26.2, I couldn’t believe I had been running for 5 hours and 45 minutes already.
No iPod necessary, yet. I just enjoyed the trails and roads in the early morning, sticking as close as possible to my eating schedule (see the Food section below), and munching away on sunflower seeds in the shell — a boredom-killer I picked up riding the bench in high school baseball (look at me with high school sports mentions in two consecutive posts!). The sunflower seeds provided a lot of salt, too, and figured that my best chance of avoiding hydration/electrolyte issues was to go pretty heavy on the sodium and only drink to thirst (again, see the Food section for more details).
The Second Marathon: Mud and Moisture
The conditions of the morning were too good to last. The cold front had brought some rain with it, and though it helped to keep everybody cool, the steady precipitation eventually soaked my shoes and the trails. Otherwise things continued to go well — at mile 35, I thought to myself how incredibly easy this day would be if I were only running a 50 miler and had just 15 miles to go.
But at the mile 41 aid station, when I took off my shoes to change socks, my feet were wrinkled from moisture and had a few hot spots, which I covered with athletic tape to prevent from turning into blisters. It was here that I made a simple mistake that would ultimately become my biggest of the race: I forgot to bring along an extra pair of socks for the next leg, when I knew I wouldn’t see my crew again for 23 miles.
Leaving the aid station, with my stomach full from a bowl of rice with avocado and soy sauce, I felt great. In nine miles I’d hit the halfway point, and I was exactly on target to do so at 11 hours, so that I could hope for a 13-hour second half to finish in 24.
Just five miles later, those hopes were dashed, when three miles (44-46, or so) took me an hour and 45 minutes to cover. Why? Mud, mainly. The steady morning rain had soaked the trails, and 100 runners ahead of me had already been through this section, making the footing even worse. Hills were so slick that it took some creativity to even climb up them without slipping down, and the downhills were essentially muddy ski slopes which could be navigated only by sliding down and hoping to grab hold of a tree to stop. Somehow I messed up my elbow in this process, which didn’t slow me down but certainly added to mounting mental fatigue.
Even the flat sections of the trail were hard to navigate. The single-track paths through the woods were pure mud, four inches deep in spots, and tall brush along the sides often made going straight through the mud the only choice. My feet got heavy as my shoes became caked with mud, my socks were saturated with moisture, and my heart rate soared as I had to quickly react to slips to avoid falling entirely (which of course, I still did, several times).
Things were slipping out of control. Those three miles destroyed my 24-hour plans, but worse, the mud threatened to prevent me from finishing at all. What if the rest of the course is like this? Even if I didn’t fatigue any more, I’d never be able to manage even 20-minute miles in mud like this. Worse, the difficulty of the past three miles had consumed all the mental focus I had, and I felt my head game starting to fall apart.
My feet were beginning to hurt as the moisture led to blistering. Without dry socks to change into, and more than 15 miles to go until I’d see my crew again, I thought I was done for. Blisters don’t sound like enough to ruin a 100-miler, but when every step hurts in a race that will take a few hundred thousand of them, blisters matter.
My only hope was to take a break and care for my feet. I sat on a stump in the woods, depressed and annoyed at mosquitos that wouldn’t relent, and sloppily taped every single one of my toes. It hurt to jam my feet back into my shoes with all the added thickness of the tape, but I knew that I had 15 miles of running this way ahead of me, so I did my best to forget about my feet.
It was here that I thought about quitting, for the only time in the entire race. And in doing so, I experienced a moment so valuable that it made the entire experience worthwhile.
For just a few seconds, I debated dropping out. I could make my way slowly to the mile 50 aid station and tell everyone there how bad the last five miles had been, and they’d understand.
That was about as far as that thought went. Immediately, I thought about what dropping would mean. For me, for my crew and pacer, for so many friends and family who were following my progress. And, just like that, it hit me:
Absolutely nothing hurts more than quitting would. Barring an injury that physically prevents me from making forward progress, I’m not going to stop until I finish this race.
That was all it took.
Once I made this decision — or really, once I came to understand this, for it certainly didn’t feel like I had any say in the matter — there was never again a doubt in my mind. In that moment, with over 50 miles to go, I knew I would finish the race.
The physical pain increased, but the urge to quit never did. The blisters got worse, and as I sit here writing this, I can find (and feel) one on no less than eight of my ten toes. But mentally and emotionally, I turned a corner at that point. In the race, sure, but I think maybe in a larger sense, too. It wasn’t just the decision, “I can keep going, for now.” It was, “I can keep going for now, and no matter what else happens or how much it hurts, I’ll keep going then, too.” I’ve never felt something like that, and honestly I didn’t know I had that in me. I’m still in awe of how it felt.
The Second Half
Though I would run for another 16 hours after crossing the halfway point in around 12 hours, there’s not a whole lot to say. “The moment” at the end of the first half kinda sucked the thrill out of the rest of the race, but I suppose that’s not a bad thing.
It was a struggle to reach mile 65, where a change of socks and a re-taping of my feet awaited. But even in that tough stretch, there were some high points where the pain in my feet let up and I ran at what felt like a good pace for two or three miles at a time.
Finally, I hit the crew access station, where I had some soup, got my feet re-taped and shoes dried, and picked up Greg Watkins, my pacer. It had just gotten dark to the point of needing a headlamp or flashlight, and having someone with me as I headed back into the woods made a tremendous difference.
Running with Greg was motivating in a way that’s beyond just a “keep you company” sort of way. Greg first reached out to me early this year, when he sent me a long letter about changes he had made in his life, losing over a hundred pounds from a high of 330, and this after a battle with addiction. He said that reading No Meat Athlete had helped him find the inspiration to run, and that he had completed a few marathons and was now considering an ultra. Seeing that Greg lived in Ohio, where this race was, I asked him if he’d consider pacing me for 30 or so miles of the second half of this race. That way, he’d have a partner to help him run his first ultra (unofficial as it may be), and I’d have his help in conquering a huge goal of my own.
His help was absolutely essential; I can’t imagine how tough it would be to run through the night on your own in the second half of a 100. Being able to help each other out in that way was extremely rewarding for me, and I hope for Greg as well.
There were some low points in the night, but nothing unexpected. A lot of the miles were on hilly trails, so there was a lot of hiking, which was a welcome break from running but painfully slow at times. Between miles 80 and 85 (after I had gotten some work done on my blisters by some Kent State podiatry students at an aid station), we hit a lot of mud on the steepest, hilliest portion of the course. That was a cranky point for me, mentally, as even the thought of 15 remaining miles was overwhelming. But we made our way through it, and thankfully, that was about all the mud there was on the second half of the course.
As we left the mile 85 crew access aid station, the sun was beginning to rise. It was 6 a.m.; I’d been running for 25 hours, and it sure felt like it. Aid stops where I could see my wife, kids, and mom and dad were wonderful breaks, and truly the incentive to keep moving when things felt hopeless, and so I lingered at them, relishing the 10 or 15 minutes of food, love, and comfort. But when I left, the contrast of having to get back out there, combined with stiffness in my muscles and the painful shock as my blisters felt my weight once again, made these some of the toughest moments.
But as day broke, and the course turned back to roads, hope was restored. Gradually, as we knocked off 15-minute miles or even the occasional 13-minute mile (it felt like we were really moving then!), I came to understand that the 30-hour cutoff time wouldn’t be a factor, so long as the wheels didn’t fall off.
From there, the last 12 or 15 miles felt a bit like a ceremonial procession, a simple formality to complete the race. The hard work had been done — a brisk walk would get me across the finish line if that’s what it came to (and for the most part, it didn’t). The frequency of crew access stations increased, so I was able to run several miles without my backpack or even a handheld bottle, and getting to look forward to seeing my family every 3 or 5 miles.
We left the final aid station at mile 96, now in the town of Cuyahoga Falls where the finish line would be. With the exception of several flights of maybe 60 stairs at mile 98 (really!), the course at this point was flat and on gravel or paved roads, and the people walking or running by in town had lots of encouraging things to say.
Finally, 28 hours and 35 minutes after I started running the previous day, a quarter-mile ahead I saw my wife carrying our daughter, along with my son and my mom, all of whom had come to walk/run the last several hundred yards with us (my dad was at the finish taking pictures).
We ran together, my son almost tripping me as he ran excitedly along in front, and the finish line came into focus. We crossed it, all at once, and we were done. I’d run 101 miles — why they made that the official length of the course is beyond me — and had earned a buckle to show for it. And finally, I could rest.
And rest I did, falling asleep on the concrete sidewalk not 20 minutes later, at which point we decided it was time to go.
My finish time of 28:40:33 was good for 122nd place, out of 263 starters. Less than 58 percent (152) of the starters finished the race — apparently the mud made it a tough day for everyone.
The biggest surprise for me was that running 100 miles (at least, running this 100 miles) was easier than I expected it to be. I never hit a point of serious depression, despair, crying, guilt, or even an overwhelming urge to quit. In fact, judging by how I handled the stairs at mile 98, I think I could have kept running for many more miles if I had to (granted, with a lot of walking too), especially if not for the pain of the blisters.
But speaking of blisters, I think in some small way they were a blessing. The pain they caused me prevented me from running my projected pace after mile 45. If not for the blisters, I’m pretty certain I’d have been able to keep up that 24-hour pace for a long time. The question is, though, would I have crashed bigtime as a result, long before the race was over? I had assumed my pace would slow to 15-minute miles in the second half, but had I kept up the 13-minute pace for 60 or more miles — which I think I may have if not for all the mud and the resulting blisters — the next 40 may have become unbearably difficult.
My crew (and this includes Greg, my pacer) was unbelievably helpful. I’m floored by the amount of effort they put forth to make this race a success for me, and I’m in absolute awe of anyone who can complete a race of this distance by themselves, without support — logistical and emotional — from a crew. It was so nice to know, when I reached a crew access aid station, that my every need would be taken care of and every important question would be asked (more on the details of our preparations in the Crew section below). So to every member of my crew — Erin, Greg, Mom, Dad, and the kids — thank you, from the bottom of my heart. This would not have happened without you there.
The Technical Stuff (For Those Who Want to Run a 100 One Day)
What follows is a breakdown of most of the details that went into the planning and execution of my first 100-miler. I don’t expect most people to read this, but figured for a few people who have their sights set on a 100, it might be really useful to see how a very average ultrarunner (and above-average crew!) made it work.
Here’s a list of everything I ate during the race (some are estimates, but pretty close ones, I think). I’ll explain my general approach below.
- Heed sports drink (about eighteen 20-ounce bottles)
- 1.5 cups sunflower seeds in shell, cracked in mouth, shells discarded
- 3 medium potatoes
- 16 fresh dates
- 20 Newman O’s
- 3 CLIF Bars
- Bowl of white rice with soy sauce
- 1/4 avocado
- Can of Amy’s No Chicken Noodle Soup with soy sauce
- Boca burger on bun with BBQ sauce and pickle
- 1 onion pita with hummus + salt
- 1 white pita with almond butter + salt
- 1/2 Amy’s dairy-free bean burrito
- 5 corn tortillas spread with refried beans
- 3/4 cup of Snyder’s Veggie Sticks
- 1/4 cup pita chips
- 15 slices watermelon
- 10 ounces black coffee (Counter Culture!)
- 3 Nuun tabs (added to Heed)
- 16 ounces soda
Through experimenting in long training runs, I decided that I felt best when I ate/drank 300-350 calories per hour for as long as I could manage. A reliable way for me to get near this range and also take in some salt was to aim for eating, each hour: one date, a small-medium boiled potato dipped in salt, half a pita spread with hummus or almond butter and sprinkled with salt, and 20 ounces of Heed.
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep eating the same things each hour for very long before I got sick of them, but I decided to do this for as long as I felt good about it (which was about 5 hours, as I recall). After that, my approach was to eat whatever I was in the mood for, making sure that I never went more than 90 minutes or so without eating something. But once I was off my initial schedule, I decided, I would eat anything that sounded good (if it was vegan and I had it with me, of course).
I discovered through testing that I lose about 30 ounces of fluid per hour through sweat in hot weather. But (thanks to some comments from readers) I learned about this iRunFar.com article about the book Waterlogged, which posits that drinking only to thirst is a safer and smarter idea than following a hydration schedule. By drinking only to thirst during this race, I drank far less than 30 ounces per hour, and never had any dehydration symptoms (granted, it was a cool day).
The Waterlogged author also argues that taking in sodium is unnecessary during an ultramarathon, but I was unwilling to take that risk. Deciding that the risk of having too much sodium was far outweighed by the danger of not having enough (which could lead to hyponatremia), I decided to err on the side of excess sodium. However, I decided not to take in any sodium via capsules (though I carried them with me in case of emergency), because I didn’t want any sodium to bypass the built-in “Does salt taste good?” feedback system. Basically, I ate salty foods whenever my body told me (through my cravings) that it wanted them.
I really loved drinking Heed. Prior to this, I had always chosen Gatorade, but several readers (thank you!) suggested that I try Heed, because I suspected that Gatorade was causing my stomach to not want any food after a few hours or so on training runs. I tested it on a few training runs, and found in this race that I was able to drink Heed all day long (in assorted flavors provided by the race) and not get sick of it or experience stomach upset.
After the race, my wife Erin mentioned to me that she and Greg had had a discussion about whether Heed was vegan-friendly, since it contains L-carnosine. Hammer’s webpage says that Heed is vegan, as does the packaging, so I’m assuming that the carnosine in Heed is somehow lab-synthesized (in nature, it is only synthesized in animals, not plants). If anyone can confirm this or provide more info, I’d be grateful!
I’m not very good at making advance plans, so my wife was more than a bit concerned about the quality of instructions (or lack thereof) I’d be providing for the crew. I think I did a pretty good job of it, mainly to prove her wrong.
For each of the 10 crew access stations, I printed up and filled out a sheet about what I’d probably want/need at that point in the race, as well as what questions they should ask me and any other important notes. I’ve included a sample sheet in this post. Obviously, the instructions for later aid stations had a lot of wiggle room since I didn’t know what I’d want or how I’d be feeling.
At the last minute I wrote up a list of questions the crew should ask me at most aid stations, to help make sure we didn’t forget anything and also to keep an eye out for signs of dehydration or hyponatremia. You can see those questions (rain-smeared) here. I also gave each crew member a printout of common symptoms of different combinations of hydration and electrolyte levels.
I wore Hoka One One Bondi B’s for all but about 15 miles of the race (miles 26.3-41.7). They were incredible — I’m amazed at how much cushioning they provide and how great my feet felt, considering the major blister issues I had. Had I thought about the mud in advance, I might have bought a trail model of Hokas instead of the Bondi B, which are for roads and smooth trails.
Best of all would have been to have a waterproof, mudproof shoe to use for certain sections. I actually own a pair of New Balance shoes that are perfect for this, but it didn’t occur to me to bring them since I need to wear them so rarely (and they’re technically for winter).
During miles 26.4-41.7, I wore a new pair of Brooks PureFlow 2. I changed into them because I thought my feet would enjoy the change from one shoe to another and then back, but that was a mistake. The difference in the amount of impact I felt in the Brooks (which I normally love) compared to the Hokas was significant, so I switched back at the first opportunity.
I’m completely sold — Hokas are incredible shoes. I can’t imagine running another ultra in anything else. For marathons and shorter distances though, I’ll stick with more minimalist shoes like I usually wear.
Important Note: I haven’t confirmed that Hokas are vegan-friendly. I’m so used to buying Brooks shoes (which are all vegan-friendly except for their walking models) that I forgot to even think about the issue when I ordered the Hokas. Michael Arnstein, a vegan, recommends them in this talk on ultrarunning equipment, but I’m not sure if he has thought about this either. Anyone know if they are?
Here’s a list of other stuff I used:
- Nathan HPL-020 pack, bladder removed: I got this idea from Michael Arnstein, and it worked out very well. If not for my vegan diet, I wouldn’t have needed to carry a pack, since the food provided at the aid stations would have sufficed. But besides fruit and potatoes, I didn’t know how much of it would be vegan, so I decided to carry most of my own food and refill at crew access stops. The pack came in handy for carrying spare headlamp, flashlight, batteries, long sleeve shirt, hat, etc.
- Nathan QuickDraw bottle: nice because the pocket is big enough to fit a cell phone.
- Brooks shorts with lots of pockets: I wore one pair of shorts the entire race; the pockets were crucial for carrying foods I wanted to have easy access to
- CEP compression sleeves: I put these on at mile 26.2, after I felt some mild pulling in the side of my left knee. That subsided, but I left them on for the rest of the race.
- Balega socks: good socks are a must for avoiding blisters. It helps if you keep them dry though.
- Headlamp and running flashlight: this was the first time I tried carrying a flashlight instead of wearing a headlamp for some of the miles, and I really enjoyed it. I used a cheapo from Dick’s sports which burned completely through two sets of batteries in just a few hours, so I’ll get a better one soon and use that instead of a headlamp for the most part.
Going into this race, my target was to run it in 24 hours. That wasn’t a goal, per se, because I was far more focused on finishing the race, but I did estimate my paces based on a 24-hour finish. Many experienced ultrarunners told me that you will slow down considerably in the second half of a 100, almost regardless of how careful you are in the first half. Mostly this is because the darkness slows you down, and foot pain (from blisters or simply the pounding) seems to accumulate, whether you’re running fast or slow.
I aimed to run the first half in 11 hours (a little over a 13-minute per mile pace) and the second half in 13 hours (slightly slower than 15-minute per mile pace). These paces need to be adjusted if you plan on stopping for any amount of time at aid stations, of course, so when I was holding a 13-minute pace for most of the first half, I was actually running/walking a 12-minute pace and then stopping for 5-10 minutes at crew access stations.
I walked every steep downhill and every uphill from the very beginning of the race. For most of the first half of the race, I walked 5 minutes after every 25 minutes of running, except when I had recently walked a significant amount of time due to hills.
In hindsight, I think 24 hours was a great initial estimate for pacing purposes. I was feeling great when the mud and blister issues started, so I think I’d have been able to give 24 hours a decent shot had the conditions been perfect (admittedly, a lot to ask!). And as I said above, I think part of the reason I felt so good, aside from the blisters, was that the blisters forced me to run an exceedingly slow pace.
I trained for this race using a six-month, 50 miles-per-week (peak) plan from Bryon Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress. My 50-mile training run was a 12-hour race, and I had to shuffle the schedule quite a bit to make it convenient. I was far from perfect, but probably got in 90 percent of the scheduled runs.
In the year and a half before I started the six-month training plan, my training had been decent but casual, with a few periods of running 40 miles per week or so, but with a fair share of bad months where I didn’t train a whole lot. Almost all of my training during this period was slow mileage, but on a lot of hills. I took most of the second half of summer 2011 off from running, so that fall was a sort of reset point that I now view as the start of the training for this race. I ran a marathon in March 2012, the Blue Ridge Relay in September 2012, the Black Mountain Monster 12-Hour in June 2013, then this race, the Burning River 100, in July 2013.
If you’ve read this far (or even just the first half of this post and then skipped down here), then I owe you a thanks too. A huge part of the reason why quitting was simply out of the question was the huge number of readers that I knew had been following along with my training and were rooting for me during this race.
If you’ve got any questions, ask them in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer them — especially if you’re thinking about doing an ultra!