Meandering Thoughts of a Wandering Strider
It has been a while since I have written anything about my adventures. It also has been a while since I have had success in running a 100-mile race. I tried to run the Mohican 100 in Ohio last summer, but was forced to withdraw early due to a swollen right knee. Very disappointing, but in hindsight, it was probably a good thing to do. Attempting to continue could have put me on the shelf for a very long time. So I was very amped to be trying to complete another 100-mile run.
Running 100 miles, for me, has been a mostly warm weather test. But running 100 miles in cold weather turned out to be a different animal or beast in this case, the Beast of Burden 100/50-mile races. The race is held in Lockport, NY, which is located about 5 miles east of Buffalo. I left on Friday morning with the ride there taking about 8 hours and I arrived early enough to be able to get plenty of rest, especially since the race did not start until 10 am on Saturday. Since I did not really know what to expect as far as weather, I brought pretty much all of my cold weather gear and two gym bags to divide it equally into.
The racecourse is run entirely alongside the Erie Canal, on a loop course. There are three aid stations, one on each end of the course and another at about the halfway mark. It is 12.5 miles out and 12.5 back, meaning that as a 100-mile runner, I had to do the loop 4 times. I would be leaving one of the gym bags at the start/finish and sending the other bag out to the turn around site. The forecast called for temperatures in the low 20’s during the day and single digits overnight. So each bag had multiple winter shirts, running jackets, clean socks, shorts and even wind-briefs. Piling everything up on the couch in my hotel room Friday night, I wondered if I would even need most of the gear that was in each bag.
Sleeping the night before one of these races has always been a trial for me, with my mind going over everything that might happen once the race starts. This time was different; possibly because of the starting time being later in the morning. I slept pretty good, sleeping until about 7 am, leaving me plenty of time to get dressed and put everything into the car for the short trip to the starting line. I have been trying a new way of consuming my daily food, eating only for 8-hours during the day and fasting for 16-hours. In order to eat with my wife in the evenings, I do not eat until 10 am most everyday and have my last caloric intake sometime around 6 pm. This is supposed to help train the body to process fat better and prevent getting things such as diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. I am not sure about the prevention part and I do know that it can be a trial sometimes, mostly in the morning, but one thing I have noticed is that I have been losing weight at a greater rate than I normally do while training for something like this. So one of the things on Saturday morning that I had to do was make two peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches that I could take with me so that I could eat one when we started.
Pulling into a parking space just before 9 am, I took in the misleading bright sunshine and hoping that it planned on sticking around for the better part of the day. Temperatures were about 10°F with a light wind out of the north. People were milling around the tent that was set up next to the restrooms, with volunteers waiting for runners to sign in, get their numbers and receive the swag that they get just for signing up. Once most runners got their numbers, they disappeared back into their vehicles to absorb the warmth provided by their car heaters in anticipation of the cold times ahead. Of course, this is also what I did. I had my last minute gear to put on and then I took my bags from the truck, depositing one in the tent and the other one into the open trunk of a car for transport to the far aid station. Then it was back into my truck for about 15 minutes of warmth.
The 50-miler and the 100-miler both start at the same time. I was told that that approximately 130 people were at the start for both races. We started on the south side of the canal, headed west for about 1 mile, crossed a bridge over the canal and headed east along side the canal on the tow path. Description of the course: FLAT! There is some very gentle undulations along the course, but it does not make any difference in the altitude gain or loss. There was about 3” of snow on the path, most of which was smoothed out by snowmobilers who were illegally driving their machines on the path. For us runners, it help out quite a bit, smoothing out the irregular surface left by cross-country skis and footprints left by people walking themselves or their dogs on the path.
I started out toward the back of the pack, figuring that the 50-mile people would be running at a quicker pace than what I would be. Turns out that I was wrong, as I ran with a couple of 50-milers for quite a bit of the first loop. My pace actually quickened, which was commented on by one of the guys, Ed, who was running the 50 as a way of getting in a marathon in New York (this was to be his 31st state to run a marathon in). He was wondering if I planned on running the whole 100 miles at the pace we were going. My reply was that it was a beautiful day, I love to run and I was just enjoying the opportunity to do so, but that I would most likely be slowing down later on.
The aid stations and the volunteers that were working them were fantastic. Although in hindsight I spent way too much time in each one, the helpfulness of the volunteers, the food that was available and, dare I say it, the warmth that washed over us once inside, made for good reasons to tarry a bit each time. I probably could have cut off well over an hour from my time if I had shortened my stays to five minutes instead of the 15 or so at each turnaround and the 10 minutes or so at the middle station. But the race volunteers and all those people who work very hard to put this race on did a fantastic job to ensure that the runners would safely be able to circumvent the distance. Entering each aid station, the first thing I reached for was a cup of Mountain Dew. I do not normally drink soda (at all), but during a race like this, the caffeine and the sugar work in tandem with the solid foods that I also ingested to allow me to continue to run. Next, it was one half of a PB&J, a cup or two of chicken broth, chicken noodle soup or lentil soup, water and a cup of HEED (replacement drink). At the far turn around, they were also able to provide dill pickles! Love it! Later on, they all provided hot grilled cheese sandwiches and pizza. I decided not to attempt the pizza, but everything else worked out great. All the while I was absorbing the warmth provided by the heavy-duty heaters and the volunteers concern for my and every other runner’s well being.
The first loop was my best and worst of the four. I ran the whole thing, stopping only at the aid stations. I had worn two polypropylene shirts, with a Camel Back designed to sit next to the skin outside the first shirt (can’t have the water freeze up-it worked great), a light wind jacket, a dickie, hat, shorts, wind briefs, tights, light pair of gloves and a pair of Gore-Tex mittens with hand warmers stuffed into them. The major problem that I had on the first loop was that the tights were not heavy enough to prevent the muscles in my legs from getting tight and sore. I also realized that I would not be able to sustain running the entire loop each time, so I had to consider working in walk breaks. I completed the first loop of 25-miles in about 4 ½ hours, which if I could have sustained that would give me a PR for the distance. I did not even contemplate that at the time, knowing how I was feeling after the first 25 miles.
The race officials insist that each runner take his or her headlamp with them when they start their second loop and that they have a full-face ski mask to lessen the chance of getting frostbite in the cold. I wore a different Camel Back pack without the bladder on the outside of my coat, which held my headlamps, Gu packets, extra batteries for the headlamps, cell phone and my camera (only for a little while). I changed my shirts at the start/finish turnaround, but kept the same jacket since it was still daylight (we lost the bright sunshine early in the day, with it making brief appearances over the course of the day) and I was comfortable. I also put on a pair of wind pants over the tights (what an incredible difference, making the difference between finishing comfortably and finishing in pain). Off I went on the second loop, running between bridges or running between mile markers and then walking for two minutes. The 50-milers that I had been running with fell back (very surprised about that) and from this point until the end, I ran pretty much by myself. I wore sunglasses during the day with no problems and by the time I reached the turnaround, the darkness was beginning to creep in, necessitating a change to clear-lens glasses. I also exchanged the light jacket for a jacket with a liner and put on the full-faced mask as the temperature was dropping and my face felt uncomfortable at times. The best part of this turnaround was the full moon that was rising with the coming night. If you have never had the pleasure of running trails during a full moon, try it someday. There is something so primal and enchanting about running in the full moon light, even on a groomed trail such as the towpath, away from the lights of the cities and towns.
I never removed my headlamp from my backpack, preferring to run just by the moonlight. Clouds moved in during the night, but there was so much light provided by the moon that the clouds did not diminish it much. It got irritating meeting other runners coming from the other direction who did not share my enjoyment of the night and were using their sometimes (painfully) bright lights to see the trail. But the number of runners was not that great and was diminishing as the night wore on. As I worked my way toward the end of the second loop, I passed a lady who was running the 50-miler and in turn, the lead runner in the 100-miler, who was completing his third loop, passed me! He looked like it was a run around the block, not showing any kind of strain from maintaining his pace. I let the lady whom I had passed go in front of me and hung back to allow her to get due recognition for completing the fifty. Once I got in, I changed shirts again, dawdled over the food and drink, got warm and then headed back out. About halfway down to the bridge, I was once again passed by the lead runner, who commented that he was stiff from sitting. He took the time to sit, spending more time in the tent than I did and even with that, he still ended up finishing in record time!
My third and fourth loops were much the same as the second loop. It became easier to walk and to extend the walks, so on the fourth loop, I concentrated on keeping the walking period to two minutes or less, especially on the return. I was looking forward to finishing. Going into the turnaround, there was a noticeable light on the horizon and starting back to the finish from the turnaround, the sky was beginning to lighten all over. By now I was wearing my heaviest jacket and had changed into the last two dry shirts that I had left. Surprisingly, I had had no desire nor any need to change my shoes or socks. The trail through the snow was very well marked, with everyone pretty much staying to the same path through the snow. Even though I was anxious to be done, that still did not force me to move any quicker through the middle aid station when I came to it. Everything had worked so well up to this point that I did not want to vary the routine, afraid that I would bonk trying to finish well. Completing each loop was difficult as you could see the tent on the other side of the canal, but you still had to run approximately one mile to the bridge to cross to that side and then run back to the tent. The last time was especially difficult, with me looking at the ice covering the canal and wondering if I could scramble down the side, if the ice would hold me and if I would be able to make my way to the top of the embankment to cut off the final 2 miles. But I kept on chugging, finishing my run in 23 hours, 24 minutes, and completing my goal of finishing in less than 24 hours.
Normally the story would end here, after receiving my well-earned belt buckle from the race director. But unfortunately, this one does not. I returned to my hotel after stopping off to get some well-deserved beer and picking up a pizza that I was longing for, hopped into (okay, I gingerly stepped into) the tub to wash off the accumulated salt from my body so that I could take a shower without screaming in pain (chaffing is such a nasty thing). Before I could take that shower, my body decided that enough was enough and I barely made it to the bed, where I slept for 3 ½ hours, tried to get up and fell back into bed for another hour, at which time I was able to start moving around, eat some pizza, sip some beer and climb into the shower. I stayed the night and left about 7 am on Monday morning. About 2” of snow fell overnight and the roads were slushy, but not bad. I felt good, stopping about every hour and a half to two hours to move around, but the weather continued to be crappy. I entered Massachusetts on the Mass Pike, still traveling well, but I made one mistake: I had shut off the 4-wheel drive to save money on gas. On an uphill in the Berkshires, the truck hit a slick spot (probably ice, not sure), fishtailed a bit and headed straight for a bridge abutment, hitting it head on, catching a dry spot and flipping the truck on its’ side, sliding to a stop facing traffic. No injury for me, but the truck was totaled. Beating myself up has been my favorite pastime this week, but there is no changing what happened.
So an awesome high in finishing the 100-miler within my goal (I do not believe that I will be doing anything in the cold like that again) and a below the belt low in losing my truck. My wife has told me that there will be no more adventures for me, although she needs to realize that the accident with the truck could have happened at anytime. I guess I will have to work on her, although I probably will not be doing anything for a bit anyway.