Sunday, July 31, 2011

Burning River 100 Mile...

Mary Gorski's Race Report...  

You know that weird sensation of thinking that you are about to drink one thing and as soon as the beverage hits your tongue, you realize that what you have is something entirely different?  Without looking, you grab a glass from the table, thinking it's orange juice, bring it to your lips while listening to Aunt Martha on the phone drone on about her latest malady, and then "Whoa! What's this milk doing in my mouth?!?"

That's the Burning River 100 mile running race for me.  Two years ago, reading that the race started in the Cleveland Metro Park System and used park trails from a variety of municipalities all the way down to Cuyahoga Falls, I thought that much of the course was primarily "urban green."  I had visions of running on bike trails past playgrounds and soccer fields, eventually joining a few scenic but sedate hiking paths in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  When I saw that there was an aid station at "Boston Store," I pictured a mall –– the sort of place where those of us in the upper Midwest and East Coast typically find the department store (for those not in the know, Boston Store is similar to a Macy's).  Imagine my surprise (and that of my husband who crewed for me) when I found out on race day that "Boston Store" was actually the historic "Boston Company Store," now converted into use as a park building in the tiny town of Boston Mills, Ohio.  The only clothing department found in the store was the tee shirt section, along with a few Tilley hat knock-offs.

Rugged single track?  River crossings? Shoe-sucking mud?  Somehow this part of the course description totally missed my radar.  And boy was I surprised –– pleasantly so –– at the beauty of Cleveland's park system, along with other municipalities to the south, and the Cuyahoga Valley.  Gorgeous.  It was nothing reminiscent of the oil and debris-induced 1969 Cuyahoga River fire (where the name "Burning River" comes from), a fire that brought national attention to the pollution of urban waters not only in Ohio but around the country.

I loved the Burning River 100 and talked it up to my friends.  This past spring, one of those friends, Beth Simpson Hall, contacted me and urged me to sign up.  She was going to do it and thought that it would be fun to encourage a few friends to join her.  I plunked my plastic down and registered.  In the weeks prior to the race, I answered Beth's questions about the course, telling her that much of the first half was on small town roads and then tame bridle and towpath trails.  It got rugged, but not until well into the race.  Mainly, I remembered, it was a fairly tame course with a few significantly challenging sections tossed in the last third of the race.  I told Beth as much.  And I must have said the same to our mutual friend Bill Thom, since he decided to sign up as well.  The former grand slammer was looking for a "nice little 100-miler" to toss into his summer schedule.  

The day before the Li'l Mister and I were to head to Ohio for the race I got an email from Beth.  Due to a vicious vacuuming injury (complete with photos of one of the nastiest housework related bruises that I had ever seen), Beth wouldn't be able to do the race.  

Yet another reason to avoid housework.  

So I toed the line with Bill and about 280 other runners.  Since it was the USATF National 100 Mile Championship, the line up included some of ultrarunning's top dogs.  

At 5 a.m. race director Joe Jurczyk sent us on our way into a thick, humid fog.  Temps actually weren't too bad compared to the 90s the area had during recent days  The fog stayed until mid-morning, keeping the rising sun off of the runners in the early hours. The first 10 miles were much as I remembered –– calm, pastoral roads through quiet townships.  We moved onto some easy bridle paths.  In my head I remembered that much of daylight would be spent on docile towpaths and the sort.  

But a few miles after the initial road section came the stream crossings and sharp descents.  This wasn't the race that I thought that I signed up for.  I caught up to Juli Aistars, who had also done the race in 2009.  "Do you remember the stream crossings from our first time here?"  

"Nope."  We decided that either the course had changed in the past two years, or we both had selective amnesia.  It turns out that it was a bit of both.  Juli and I each thought that we were grabbing a glass of orange juice and after the first swallow realized with surprise that we instead took a glass of milk.

Orange juice and milk; easy bike paths and tough single track hiking trails.  I love them all so retuned my head for a course much different than what I remembered.

The fog lifted and the sun came out to bake runners in near-90-degree temps.  Luckily, much of the course was in the shade. It was a pleasant part of the unexpected –– instead of open bike paths we were constantly in canopied forests. 

Many runners –– including me –– went out fast (relative description in my case).  It seemed to catch up with several of us in our guts.  At about the halfway mark my previously happy tummy was starting to rebel.  Several of those with whom I ran were experiencing similar rebellions.  C'est la vie –– a few tossed cookies doesn't necessarily end a race.  And so I tossed mine in hopes of finding another mix of cookies more to my belly's liking.

Problems always crop up in long events.  That's part of the appeal of doing them –– you're tossed a conflict and you figure out away to overcome it.  

Before the nausea, one of my first problems was shoe-related.  Like many runners, I have a closet filled with running shoes.  Imelda Marcos would be proud. I agonized over which foot ponies from the stable I would bring to the race.  I did test runs, starting with one pair and then switching to another. I thought that I had found the perfect combo.

Unfortunately, about two miles after changing into what I thought would be my primary shoes for the race I realized that all the planning in the world gets tossed out the window when things just don't work.  My favorite shoes were hurting my arches.  I thought that I was grabbing a glass of OJ and instead got castor oil.  Thankfully, I had a back-up plan and my "emergency shoes" did the trick.  

The next challenge was headlamps.  At dusk I grabbed what I considered to be my "prime" lamp.  The best and brightest in my illuminated arsenal.  HUGE battery life.  I'd be able to run all night with my recently replaced Duracells.  

About a mile out of the aid station I got the silly notion to turn on the light just to make sure everything was in working order before nightfall.  Click.  Nothing.  Click.  Nothing.  I repeated the process about a dozen times before realizing that the sun was quickly setting and I was quickly screwed with just a tiny thumb light as a backup.

But again, the race tosses you a conflict and you find a way to address it.  I saw a well-illuminated runner just ahead, caught up and asked if she'd mind if I stuck near her and sponged a bit of her light.  Susie from Annapolis couldn't have been more gracious.  She not only allowed me to sponge her beam, but offered me use of her handheld as well.  

You meet the gosh-darn nicest people in ultrarunning and I owe a big public thank you to Susie for not only her help, but her fantastic company.

I could have used her a few hours later when headlamp No. 2 bit the dust on one of the most challenging loops of the course, just after 70 miles.  As soon as I lost a shoe to  a vortex of knee-deep mud I was without a lamp to find it.  Out came the thumb light.  That little $1.99 green light, the size of my thumbnail, was the must dependable illumination in my four-light arsenal.  

Up and down mud-slicked trails.  High-knee stepping over intricately woven root systems.  Up and down staircases sized for no human gait pattern.  A four-foot-high river bank that was best descended on one's rear-end.  Part of the only out-and-back section of the trail, the ascent was a tougher move requiring me to throw my torso up on the bank and swing my legs up.  What's a little more mud when you are already covered head to toe in various shades of muck?  I always remind myself that many people pay good money for mud wraps.  Mine was included in my race entry.  

As I was navigating the river bank the top runners were already nearing the finish.  David James won with an incredible time of 15:57.  Connie Gardner took the women's top spot in just over 19 hours.  

Meanwhile, the bulk of the runners trudged on.  Many decided that they'd had enough trudging well before hitting the finish line in Cuyahoga Falls.  Just over 280 people are listed as having started the race.  Only 143 showed up on the finisher's list on the webcast.  It is not an official posting of the results but the nearly 50% drop rate reflected the challenge of the course and of the conditions.  It wasn't a brutal Wastch or Hardrock, but it wasn't a cake walk through a few city parks trails either.  

I'll admit that when things were going south, I wrestled with the DNF demon.  Always, that DNF is ready to lure you away to a seemingly better place.  "You're tired, you're sick, your lights refuse to stay lighted... can't you see the signs?  It's okay to call it a day.  You've run 100s.  You have nothing to prove.  Wouldn't it be nice to go back to the hotel, take a shower and sleep in a nice bed?  That discomfort you feel?  It might be a disabling injury in the making.  Bite it in the bud and stop.  Come with me, come with me, I'll take you to a better place."  The DNF sirens are so seducing.

But I muddled on.  After about 75 miles I didn't make much of an effort to muddle too quickly.  I walked and chatted with other race participants who were also doing their best to ignore the sirens' call.  Misery loves company and there was some wonderful company to be had even as people politely excused themselves now and then for a brief tummy hurl on the trail, 

Burning River 100 continues to be a fantastic event.  Perhaps the next time I sign up I'll remember that course a bit more thoroughly.  But if not, it just doesn't matter. Orange juice, milk... whatever.  I like them both.  


  1. Great job! It was awesome seeing you finish. We never met, but I was there at the finish line cheering you in!

  2. Mary, you are one of my ultra-heroes. Way to hang in there for the finish!