Date: August 2-3, 2014
Location: Cleveland, OH (Willoughby Hills, OH to Cuyahoga Falls, OH)
Results: Steve (Crew) - better than 1st, Nathan - 30th (23:55:11)
Results: Steve (Crew) - better than 1st, Nathan - 30th (23:55:11)
Of Note: Realized the importance of brushing teeth every 17 or so hours
Somewhere around mile 84, I found myself in the middle of a hazy glowing bubble. Unfortunately, I was not having an exhaustion-induced hallucination, though exhaustion was no innocent party. The bubble of light emitting from our headlamps, the beams hazy with humidity in the wooded single track, barely revealed more than 15 feet of trail at a time. How is Steve putting up with me? I thought as I woke from microsleep, thankfully managing to stay upright while power hiking. Heading into these woods two miles previously, we had decided I should lead so that Steve could ensure I stay awake and moving--by no means was I leading the two of us because of my vast energy reserves and speed, which found their way out of me around mile 29, an intangibly long time ago. His foot is busted with blisters, I’m talking to myself and barely making forward progress…What keeps them crewing and pacing for so many hours? I haven’t crewed for someone yet, but I suspect one does so for the same reasons as the one running the thing.
|Before the race...when we all had muscles|
Early that morning, following ice cream sandwich creation and two hours of sedulous sleep, the group of 8 (consisting of my sisters Eva and Claire, Steve, his brothers Michael and Matthew, my parents, and me) descended upon the Burning River 100, a skeleton of a castle silhouetting the startline. While going through the pre-race checklist (bathroom, vaseline on feet, water bottle in hand, saying my goodbyes etc), a fellow runner overheard Claire and me discussing at which aid station to break out the ice cream sandwiches. He stopped at our crew truck and said he’ll keep an eye out for our crew later in the race. We didn’t end up seeing him again, but had he gone through a late-in-the-race aid station calling out, “Ice cream sandwich! Ice cream sandwich!” as we said he should, he would have gotten one.
We runners ran on deserted roads for an hour or so of darkness and the first hour of daylight, meeting each other and carefully reigning in our excitement. I met Mosi Smith, a fellow ninja runner (we both ran sans headlamp at the beginning), and a few other folks, but turned inwardly pretty quickly. The sun never really rose. Instead, a thick mist over the roadways steadily revealed itself. Claire got us all to call this mist dementoids, and like a mix of dementors and altoids, it was both frightening and refreshing. I knew I would love seeing the crew at the nine crew-accessible aid stations throughout the course, but I did not foresee how much I would look forward to them getting my mind off of the all-encompassing silence of the race. While that silence is part of what drives me to do such a ridiculous thing as run 100 miles, it can at times become too heavy a thing to deal with by yourself.
|Chased by dementoids in the first 13 miles|
The first 30 miles went by smoothly, the road section followed by easy, rolling trail. It was humid, but the canopy blocked the harshest of the sunlight, so only the picturesque spilled-light seeped in. Running this unknown distance, I was often in check-up mode. How am I feeling? Am I eating enough? Are my legs going to have enough for the last quarter or third of the race? I was drinking the right amount and eating just enough, but not as much as I probably should have been. At mile 21, the Shadow Lake aid station was pumping music--a nice deviation as I was running unplugged. The crew met me there. While they ensured i wasn’t dying, I made sure they had played a sufficient number of Clubbin’ Baby Seals games. I wasn’t and they were. Even trade.
The beauty of Burning River 100 is surely the variety of local and national parks runners get to see. One moment, I’m running on a dirt path around this small, pretty lake, and the next, I’m powering up rolling bridle trails. I grew up in Cleveland, but before this race I did not realize the wealth of trails that exists in the area. Some sections I met like an old friend, having run other races on them, as was the case on sections of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park from about mile 50 to mile 80, where I ran my first trail marathon, Running With Scissors, and my first ultra, Fools 50K. Others, such as the Bedford Reservation section just after mile 30, I recall from running there with my dog, Kato, back in 2009 when the idea of trail running was just taking root in my mind. At this point in the race, or endurance run, as I came to think of it, a dull soreness crept into my legs and remained for the next 70 miles. I think the inordinate amount of quad soreness was a remnant of Manitou’s Revenge, because never before had my legs been so thoroughly conked so early in a race. I love living in Columbus, but I really gotta spend a part of my life somewhere where there are true hills and mountains.
If the dearth of hill training is the contributing factor in my improvable performances at Manitou’s Revenge and eventually Burning River, my crew is the sole factor in my eventual success in completing the latter. My demeanor went downhill from mile 30-50. Often, excited to see the crew, I would speed up as I approached an aid station, only for my mood to dip as I got food in me and tried to walk/jog out to the trail. I began looking longingly toward picking up a running partner at the Boston aid station at mile 55. The first person to pace with me would have to do about 12 miles. I knew Steve was having serious blister problems before the race, and was thinking about waiting ‘til later in the race to pace, so at the aid stations leading up to Boston, I tried not to put pressure on him by saying how much I needed someone to run with. When I ran into Boston, 9 hours and 49 minutes into the race, I found out that they had decided to condemn, I mean choose, Michael to pace those 12 miles with me. This guy really stepped up. He had never done longer than a 9 mile run in the past, so he was basically running his first half marathon with a sourpuss he couldn’t sprint-finish away from.
My family seriously cheered me up at Boston. In the months leading up to the race, I made a booklet complete with directions, my predicted thoughts at each section of the race, my race strategy, and the occasional personalized MadLib and wordsearch to keep the crew entertained. When they read some of the material back to me and showed me some of their artwork (apparently I had to be on the lookout for a 35 mile large dementoid in the final third of the race), my mood improved and the running became less of a burden. I got some laughs, soup, and coffee in me before Michael and I headed out for a just under 3 hour ramble to the Ledges aid station. We talked a lot and discovered the art of slingshotting, whereby we would catch up to a runner going through a rough patch, cheer him or her up with our often ridiculous conversation, let them latch onto us with our blisteringly restrained pace, and then watch them gain their mojo back and head off into the sunset (theoretical sunset, as the real thing was still a few hours off). We had some long road sections and finally hit upon my favorite section of trail in Northeast Ohio--the Ledges. This gorgeous bit of real estate consists of sandstone cliffs spilling and spitting rocks out onto the trail. I race best when the trails narrow and begin to squiggle. The Ledges, with the memories of speed I associate with my first two Running With Scissors Marathons, served as a reprieve from the heaviness of the race. We caught up with Mosi, Green Shirt, and Leading Female and latched onto them until they slungshot us into the Ledges aid station. Michael did an incredible job getting me through some tough spots, but there were more of those to come. Oh, and this Mosi guy who we passed at mile 66? He ended up finishing third in the race!
Slowly, Matthew and I were off. I gave him the low down of how I was managing the race. We walk up hills, jog the flats, walk down steep hills, and if we’ve been running a flat for a while, we throw in a short walk to make sure I get to the finish in one piece. After an easing-out-of-the-aid-station period, we started a little something, as I had come to pseudonymously refer to running. Matthew is a conversationalist for the ages. He knew when to listen when I choked up the energy to spit a few words out, and knew when (the majority of the time) to ease the race for me by talking about anything and everything. That is what got me through to mile 72, the boundary to the most difficult portion of the race.
|Gorgeous mile 72 in Cuyahoga Valley National Park|
Eva and I crossed a country street, bounded up a small bump, and began crossing the parking lot to get to the aid station. This was only mile 75 but there was a tunnel of people around the course and at the corner of my eye, just to the left in front of the aid station was my crew swaying into the first bars of O-o-h Child by the Five Stairsteps, singing as though no one else was there and we were all just enjoying a relaxing Saturday.
Things are gonna get easier
Things'll get brighter
Things are gonna get easier
Things'll get brighter
Some day, yeah
We'll get it together and we'll get it all done
When your head is much lighter
Some day, yeah
We'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
When the world is much brighter
I was floored, and for a second, I believed that things would indeed get easier. And for that second, things did: it was mile 75 and time for some ice cream sandwiches! We determined this was the sweet spot of the race--I could use the dreams of these delectables to drive me this far, but if we waited any longer the diminishing returns would be too great and it would no longer be a motivating force. After finishing the jaunt through the woods with Eva, I crunched into a macaron ensconced disk of roasted red pepper-basil ice cream with a blueberry sauce core. All homemade. All heartwarmingly amazing. My favorite part? A crew/runner that smashes food together stays together--this dang team waited 15 hours and 45 minutes with a cooler full of these things. I don’t know where they found the control.
|Only four more miles til ice cream sandwiches?!|
That part came after we passed through a Covered Bridge. This is my favorite aid station on the Burning River course. I volunteered with Dan Bellinger during the 2011 race, and recall thinking, I can do a race like this. I was woefully underinformed regarding ultramarathons, but thankfully received some knowledge from Dan, who suggested I start with 50Ks. Dan and I had the duty of restocking aid stations in the latter stages, and we made a long stopover at Covered Bridge aid station in the middle of the night where a veritable party ensued on the ancient bridge. Lights were strung, a campfire raged, runners were strewn across the slats of the bridge searching for the motivation to go on, and pacers readied themselves for the most difficult legs of the race. This year, during my race, the aid station was a bit more tame. I was still somewhere in the top 15 or so, though my mind and place were constantly slipping. After the aid station, we headed into a four and a half mile segment of moonscape, if the moon had trees. Our bubbles of light didn’t help my nagging mental exhaustion. Steve forced me to go through a checklist of my system and concluded that I was in good enough shape to finish in a respectable 24 hours. I don’t know if he noticed me slip into a microsleep as I started explaining how my earlobes were in great physical shape… We continued our fast walk over hill and endless hill, and when I started to slow, Steve would say, We’re doing about a 3 or 4 out of 10 right now. Can we bump it up to a 5 or 6? I tried not to complain about the obvious tiredness, as it would help neither of us, but I couldn’t help eyeing comfortable-looking parts of the trail for sleeping spots. That is to say, if Steve had not been there with me, I would have chosen absolutely any section of the trail to take a nap on. Each patch of gravelly trail called to me as a feathery pillow, every hill a recliner. At one point, I leaned up against a cozy looking tree thinking Steve won’t notice this at all. Of course, he did. Though a 5 or 6 felt like a dead sprint to me, we weren’t hiking quickly enough for Steve to mysteriously not notice my antics. How is Steve putting up with me?
|By this point, running was an unattainable dream|
Somehow, though I am not sure how, we made it to mile 91. Nine miles left. In a normal world, that would be but a quick hour-and-a-bit canter around Columbus. In this world, it was three hours and twenty minutes of staggered steps and slurred speech. I’ve run a few marathons faster than the amount of time these nine miles took. I don’t remember much from the aid station here, but I recall arriving and giving Eva a big hug, and trying to put a smile on. Mostly I remember the faces of my family, Claire and Mom, checking to make sure I was OK. Steve let me sit down for a hot minute as someone went to the truck for some aleve for my aching knee. My eyes were closed, because I was meditating on our mortality of course!
Michael joined me for the next five miles of crushed limestone trails. We decided that it was easier for me to stay awake, though no more of a reality, if we turned off the headlamps and walked gentle through that good night. Perhaps Dylan Thomas knew something of 100 mile races and how important a high powered headlamp is. If he did, it was more than I knew prior to this race. Michael and I ran like that, he, forcing me to finish my sentences in attempt to ward off sleep, and me, listening captivatingly to his stories about an imminent ambush from soldiers lying in wait in the dense foliage on the side of the trail.
Finally. Finally, we reached mile 96, the aid station introduced with small solar powered lamps staked into the ground next to the trail. My family, the crew of the ages, met us there with their ever present smiles and good humor. I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t know if in my life presence had greater meaning. Their presence. My presence. This race’s. All of it thrown together. There wasn’t really anything else besides finishing. The crew had decided that Matthew would round out the pacing. I’m glad Eva got a break--although she could’ve done another couple miles, I didn’t want her to aggravate an injury...not to say I had the presence of mind to comprehend that sentence at the time. Michael had put in probably more than he bargained for, though he never let it show. Steve dealt with me at my worst and kept me going through the longest section (time-, distance-, mental-, and emotional-wise). Mom and Claire kept me alive when I didn’t want another calorie and Dad would eventually get me into the truck at the end of it all. But this was not yet the end. Although a finish felt inevitable, it still took every corner of my being to get my feet over those four miles.
|What's that off in the distance?|
What better way to finish a race of this distance and time? Speed walking with four of your favorite people, with three more of your favorite people waiting at the finish line. After cresting the last hill, with about three quarters of a mile left, I said to hell with my knee and useless legs and jogged it in. We took to the middle of the deserted 5 lane street, and I could see the clocktower and finish line.
‘Twas a crisp morning air that greeted our little band as we first set foot out of Nathan’s house in the early hours to prepare our crew vehicle for the day’s expedition. We knew this was to be an epic undertaking, but the look on every sleep-be-duggared face as I surveyed our crew showed little hint of the excitement that was to come. We had rather foolishly been up fairly late the night before, baking macarons for the ice cream sandwiches we intended to enjoy late in the race, and subsequently, rising after a mere two hours of sleep around 3 am, none of us was feeling particularly sprightly. Shortly, however, our preparations complete, the van pulled down the driveway and headed off to the first of many destinations for the day, Squire’s Castle, the starting point for the Burning River 100.
We were eight embarking on this quest. Of the Szabados’s there were five: the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Szabados, Nathan’s two sisters, Claire and Eva, and of course our esteemed racer himself, Nathan, with three Dobers rounding out the crew: my two brothers Michael & Matthew, and myself. As our van trundled through the thickening pre-dawn mist, there was little conversation. Each of us was occupied with our own thoughts, envisioning what trials and treasures the day had in store, though I’m certain none of us in our pre-race musings even remotely imagined how the day would turn out or how each of us would grow individually and grow together as a team by the time the next 24 hours had played out.
In the dark before the start, the stone structure of Squire’s Castle loomed up out of the mist atop a small incline, woods closing in on either side with a long, narrow expanse of grass stretching away into ghostly obscurity down the hill. As we approached the castle, dramatically lit by a few strong floodlights, the last vestiges of drowsiness that still clung to my senses slipped away and were replaced by a growing feeling of excitement. The base of the castle was a flurry of activity with runners, organizers, and crew bustling about, the whole area punctuated by splashes of color and sound that seemed out of place in a setting that was otherwise still and dark. With glowsticks everywhere, music pumping from speakers, and the ever-present shadow of the castle overhead, the feeling at the start was something between a rave and a cultic ritual. Nestled on top of all this was a strangely subdued, but tangible energy that was the anticipation of hundreds of athletes preparing to push their bodies to the limit for the next 20-30 hours.
There was no starting gun to give that dramatic, staccato burst that typically signifies the beginning of these sorts of contests. Instead, just a spoken word, and a gentle surge down the hill and across the dew-covered grass, the spectators watching for only a handful of moments before the column of runners had faded into the morning mist and disappeared completely. And just like that the energy in that place was gone and the woods around us felt dead. We climbed back into our vehicle and headed to the first of nine crew accessible aid stations to wait.
At this first aid station, there were several basic needs to attend to: breakfast, naps, and visits to the port-a-johns were in order for most of our crew, and with these essentials taken care of we turned to joking around and tossing a frisbee to pass the time. Before we knew it, the first runners began to trickle in, and near the front of the pack was Nathan, bounding into the station looking alive and fresh despite having already covered the equivalent of a half-marathon. We cheered him in, watched him get some aid station sustenance, and he was off again into the melting mist. We wasted no time in making ourselves scarce from that first station, as it had become rather crowded with race crews and spectators.
|Team S.H., Clubbin' it up|
Fortunately for us, our runner was no slouch, and was in and out of these initial stations before the majority of the runners began to arrive. This allowed us to arrive early at the next station to claim a prime parking spot and enjoy a bit of calm. The calm at crew station #2, Shadow Lake, consisted of several rounds of Clubbin’ Baby Seals and some group discussion on our crewing tactics for the remainder of the day. There were a lot of things we covered in our team meeting here that might not seem so obvious at first. Things like How aggressively should we be forcing Nathan to eat? How concerned should we be with his pacing at this early stage? Is he going too fast and heading for a burn-out? How will the changing temperature or humidity affect his running and his mood? Do you think he’s stopped to “visit nature” yet? and many other concerns besides.
Eva, our crew captain, was on top of things and thought of everything almost to the point of obsession. Throughout the day she was constantly checking the time and calculating, then a minute later checking again and re-calculating--When should Nathan be coming in? or He should be here in the next 20-30 minutes. to eventually Where is he? He should have been through 40 minutes ago! as the day progressed and our man fell increasingly off his impressive early pace. For the first half of the race her calculations were astoundingly accurate and her assessments of Nathan’s health and temperament at each aid station were of great use in anticipating his needs at the next station. At this point in the race Nathan was looking strong and everyone was in great spirits.
Morale stayed up for most of the morning, with our long periods of waiting punctuated by a brief but frantic couple of minutes as Nathan would pass through first one station, then another, at each one looking strong and seemingly enjoying the day and this jog through nature. The aid station volunteers were often perplexed by our very animated runner asking his crew members how their legs were holding up and how they were doing so far, but Nathan made it clear that he thought of this race as a group effort and that it would take contributions from everyone of us to get him to the finish line in one piece. For the first 30 miles, we were little more than cheerleaders for him, as he hardly needed our support, but when his quads started giving him trouble around midday, and his spirits began to flag, we became acutely aware of our responsibilities as his crew.
Due to some fairly severe blisters I had acquired from an un-wise amount of ultimate frisbee playing the two weeks leading up to the race, my pacing abilities were diminished and at the outset of the race I was planning on only doing one of the shorter (5-6 miles) segments with him as opposed to the original plan of me pacing the two longest (25 miles combined) segments. This would leave Nathan to run a good portion of the second half of the race on his own, and we realized as a team after seeing him at a low point at the Oak Grove station that he needed companionship to let him escape the solitude of his own head. This is where the team really stepped up, with everyone agreeing to pace more than they had bargained for in order to ensure that we had someone with Nathan from mile 54 onwards. Michael took the brunt of it, volunteering for the first segment of pacing - a twelve mile stretch that on its own was longer than he’d ever run at one go - as well as a six mile stretch later in the race. I decided that I could push through the longest segment (15 miles), while Matthew and Eva came through in a huge way to carry the remaining mileage.
|Pure _______. Fill in the blank. (Halfway point)|
The next we saw the two of them, they were powering into the Ledges station faster than we had expected, smiling and joking away, and with each subsequent station and pacer, Nathan’s mood seemed to improve, even if his pace was incrementally dropping. When he and Matthew crested the hill to the Pine Hollow aid station some miles later they both stripped off their shirts and ran into the station waving them in the air to the hoots and hollers of the aid station volunteers and bystanders. Nathan took a couple minutes of rest, during which we coaxed some more smiles and laughter from him by reading off the poetry we had composed for him in the crew guide booklet he had created for us. Eva went with him for the next loop, and when they came back in to Pine Hollow there were ice cream sandwiches waiting.
With dusk just around the corner, Nathan and I strapped on headlamps and took off into the fading evening light. The next fifteen miles were to test both of us, but also ended up being several of the most profound and meaningful hours I’ve been privileged to share with this incredible friend. We made it through 6 or 7 miles at a decent pace, walking aggressively or jogging easily around corn fields and through wooded trails as the sun disappeared. At one point, I had him verbally run through a check-up of his body head to toe, and we determined that despite a splashy knee he was in good enough condition to finish the race if we maintained a conservative pace. We bantered lightly as we ran and I reflected on our ease of conversation. It has always been this way between us; we communicate at times so effortlessly that it’s like we are directly accessing each other’s thoughts instead of interpreting each other’s words. I value that about Nathan, but in this case that connection seemed to link our moods as well, which didn’t help when things got tougher.
As the night closed in, and our worlds were reduced to the wan spheres of light provided by our headlamps, Nathan’s emotional fortitude diminished and I could feel my own mood reflecting that negative energy back at him. At this point, he was battling not only against the trail and the thought of the miles yet to come, but also sleep deprivation, which increasingly began to show itself. At one point Nathan stopped moving, nestled himself against a “comfortable” looking tree, and closed his eyes. Realizing this, I pretended to glance up the trail and slyly quipped, “You don’t want to rest here, there’s a much nicer looking tree further on”. With a small chuckle he detached himself and continued moving, but from then on it was a constant struggle to keep us going at a reasonable pace. There was almost no jogging anymore and both of us were limping along, me due to blistered feet, him due to 80 some odd miles and a fed-up patella. I think our mutual suffering brought camaraderie, and in some strange way the fact that I was hurting as well bolstered him more than if I had been healthy, pushing him along and fostering his resentment against a drill-sergeant brutality.
His relief upon seeing his family as we entered the Botzum station was palpable and touching. He collapsed into Eva’s tight hug which lasted for at least a good 40 seconds. As Matthew ran to the van to fetch some aleve, I allowed Nathan a brief respite in a camp chair, and to my surprise he was back on his feet after a minute or two, without me having to prompt him or tip the chair over. My brothers took turns pacing the final two segments from there, and as he and Matthew emerged from the woods for the last time, we were there, Michael, Eva, and I on the bridge waiting to escort him the last mile up the street to the rest of his family and the sweet, sweet finish line.
|Bigfoot is blurry|
It was 4:54:49 am. The night was peaceful and cool. A sound & satisfied sleep was had by all.