Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Running My First 100-Miler

In March of 2007, my world got rocked when I found myself suddenly laid off from a job I’d taken only three months earlier. I’d stupidly left the Cleveland Clinic, a world-class organization, to take a new job with a fledgling start-up willing to pay me what I considered at the time to be a very good living. So basically I just chased after more money. And now, because my new employer couldn’t make payroll due to budget mismanagement, three of us were out on the street looking for work. Unfortunately, my old job had already been filled, so there was no going back.

I’d just run a challenging 50K trail race in Maryland the previous weekend and had the Boston Marathon in a few weeks. As we all know, Boston isn't a cheap trip. Fortunately, we had Anne's income to live on while I searched, but I nonetheless felt urgency to get working again.

In times of great stress, running had (and has) always been there for me. But without a job and knowing full well that a layoff after three months would be a red flag on my resume, I could barely get out the door for my daily runs. I spent most of my energy on finding a job and ran a half-hearted Boston held in the midst of an epic nor’easter—rather appropriate given the state of my life at the time. I drew unemployment and applied for scores of jobs, some for which I was overqualified.

Finally, a local hospital system gave me an offer—a part-time, temporary fundraising position with really good potential. With no better alternative, I accepted. I worked Monday through Thursday and had Fridays off. I worked harder than ever, trying to make the case for the hospital to bring me on full-time. During my lunch (as a PRN, I had to punch out for lunch), I often went out to a nearby courtyard and read. During this difficult time in my life, two books really spoke to me: Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air about a tragic Mount Everest expedition, and Kirk Johnson's To the Edge about his experience training for and completing the 1999 Badwater Ultramarathon (Johnson's work remains the best ultrarunning book I've ever read).

One night in April, while checking e-mail, I came across a message promoting a new 100-mile race coming to Cleveland, a point-to-point event called the Burning River 100, named after the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969. As any Clevelander knows, very little has damaged the city's reputation more than the river fires of the 1950s and 1960s. Truth be told, many rivers in the Rust Belt were catching fire. The "problem" was that the Cuyahoga River fire got lots of national attention.

Directed by Joe Jurczyk, a well-known local runner, the Burning River 100 would start in North Chagrin Reservation, not far from my house, and traverse scenic trails, ending in downtown Cuyahoga Falls. From South Chagrin Reservation (where I did most of my training "back in the day") and Bedford Reservation to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Brecksville Reservation and the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath, the Burning River 100 would highlight many of the most beautiful parts of the region and shine a light on once polluted areas that were now lush and home to bald eagles, turtles, fish, deer and other wildlife. The Burning River 100 had a larger purpose, and that's what attracted me to it. I felt I had a larger purpose in life, and I'd yet to find it. Maybe I'd find it while running 100 miles?
The Burning River 100 would be held in a little less than four months--on August 4. I’d heard rumors of this race and felt intrigued by the opportunity to run 100 miles, but hadn’t given it much attention. And honestly, the thought of running 100 miles seemed unfathomable, especially since I was logging only 50-60 miles a week at the time. Still, I couldn’t get the race off my mind after that e-mail came across. I thought about it obsessively for over a week and shared my deliberations about the race with a friend of mine, Bill Wagner, who was involved in the planning.

Then one day, with the click of my mouse, I registered. I was in. There was just one problem: I had no idea how to train for a 100-miler. Still, I've always been a go-getter, so I wasn't about to sit around and think about how to train. No, I was going to talk with folks who'd gone the distance and start getting ready immediately.

I'd begun running a little more with the Cleveland Southeast Running Club, a very serious group of road and trail runners. Within SERC you have many runners with sub-3-hour marathons and a few with marathons in the low 2:30s. You have folks like Mark Godale, Connie Gardner and Tim Clement who have won ultrarunning national championships and many other races. At the time, Godale held the American 24-hour record. You have Kam Lee, a dominant 50K racer and 2:30 marathoner. SERC isn't a group of joy-runners or recreational joggers; this club is for serious athletes who are willing to do what it takes to excel. If you fall short of your potential in a race or in general, you hear about it. The club runs trails on Saturdays, roads on Sundays and track intervals on Tuesdays.

By the time I signed up for Burning River, I'd gotten to know a few members, including a guy named Steve Godale (Mark's older brother), a veteran of many 100s. I asked Steve how to prepare.

“Simple,” he responded. “If you can run 100 miles a week, you can run 100 miles in a race.”

The thought of running 100 miles in a single week jarred me. I’d been running about 60 miles a week. How could I run 40 more miles a week and remain in one piece?

“Build up to it gradually,” Steve suggested.

Looking at the calendar, I had a little less than four months to get in shape for the Burning River race—four months to go from a 60-mile-per-week runner to an endurance machine knocking off triple-digit weeks.

So I began a "gradual" build-up, hitting weeks of seventy and eighty miles with some recovery built in just to be on the safe side. I got on the trails on my Fridays off from work and again on the weekends, running parts of the course to familiarize myself with its turns, terrain, hills, nuances and such. I carried a course description and map and marked confusing turns with sticks so I wouldn't get lost on my return trip. Sometimes I got way off course, but that was OK--more miles meant more fun. I loved big out-and-back runs. I didn't have a GPS watch yet, so I estimated my mileage based on the course description, perceived pace and time on my feet. Anne and I hadn't had Noah yet, so I had boatloads of time to train on the course. I often ventured out on long runs of four, five and six hours.
Still surviving the increased mileage, I jumped up to 90 miles in a single week and then made the big leap, hitting 100 miles. If memory serves, I logged four triple-digit weeks, running most of those miles on the course itself. Incredibly, I got through this massive build-up without any overuse injuries. In fact, even as I increased my mileage, a case of tendonitis in the top of my foot cleared up. I attribute my ability to stay healthy throughout that huge build-up to three factors: 1) I ran mostly soft trails, 2) I never went particularly fast, and 3) my body had relatively low mileage on it and could handle the added stress.

By race day, I was healthy and well-trained and I had the huge advantage of knowing every inch of the course. I had also transitioned into a well-paid, full-time communications and fundraising job at the hospital. Life was good. Even as I was now a Monday-to Friday employee, I nonetheless had kept up with my training, even increasing my output. A few weeks prior I'd run the competitive, challenging Buckeye Trail 50K in 4:41, finishing seventh overall and earning greater acceptance in the running club. My seventh-place finish hadn't come easily--I held off three surging runners in the end. Things were looking good.

There was just one problem: I was really scared. The forecasted 90+ degree heat on raceday did nothing to calm my nerves.

The drive to the start of the race that dark Saturday morning was quiet. Anne drove as I attempted to stay calm and focused. I had that excited "holy-crap" feeling you get before a 100. I remembered what a friend of mine, Wayne Vereb, had asked me a while back.

"If you were in a plane crash and 100 miles from the nearest city, could you get there on foot, or would you just give up and die?"

"I'd get there on foot," I replied.

"Okay," he said, "that's how you have to think in 100s. It's a game of survival."

I remembered other rules, such as "beware the chair" and "it never always gets worse."

By today's standards, I had very little gear out on the course--just a few pairs of shoes and socks, some toilet paper, etc. The mystery of what I was about to do prevented me from overthinking my drop bags and instead caused me to focus on getting myself ready. I consider that a good thing.

I had no real goals for Burning River except to finish. If I could finish in under 20 or 21 hours, that would be great. But competitive placement wasn't even in my thought process. The distance was too new to me to really want anything but a finish.

I didn't carry an MP3 player or any elaborate gear like a GPS watch, though I did have a Timex Ironman watch. I ran the entire distance without music or worry about pace and just basically focused on the beautiful nature around me and ways to overcome issues I dealt with, like wicked chest cramping, occasional doubts and hot mid-day temperatures. Coming into Boston Store, which marked the halfway point, the temperature exceeded 90 degrees and the road leading back to the trail was literally melting, causing my shoes to stick to the asphalt. It was hot!

I didn't have fancy trail shoes. I'd done most of my training in a pair of bulky Vasques, but they'd died by raceday. So for the race I wore a pair of pretty basic Saucony Trabuco trail shoes. As for my clothing, I didn't have on $90 shorts or a super-fancy top. I wore New Balance running shorts with extra pockets and a Sugoi tech-tee with glow-in-the-dark panels on the shoulders.

I didn't have any fancy hydration devices--just a fuel belt. My plan was to basically live off whatever was offered at the aid stations, be it water, Gatorade, etc. I did, however, carry Hammer Endurolytes.

I didn't have a sponsor. I was just one of a few hundred squirrels out there trying to get a nut in the world of 100-mile racing.

I didn't have a crew, either. Anne saw me at checkpoints and we talked a few times by mobile phone if I needed anything, but pretty much all of my stuff (which didn't amount to much) was in drop bags at the aid stations. Anne and her parents planned to meet me at the finish and drive me back home. We had no fancy hotel to stay in; I'd finish and then we'd drive home.

Because I wasn't running to beat anyone and didn't have goal splits, I took my time at the aid stations. At the mile-75 checkpoint, I posed for a photo with Anne, feeling more excited than rushed. We were both so jazzed; with three-quarters of the race behind me, we knew I was on the way to finishing my first 100!

What I did have were two excellent pacers. Ted Friedman ran with me from mile 62 to mile 75. And then Kenny McCleary ran with me from mile 75 to the finish. This was their first exposure to ultras of the 100-mile variety. Both guys played a huge role in getting me to the finish. Ted would go on to finish the BR100 in 2011 and 2012. As I write this, Kenny is only a few states from his 50-marathon/50-state quest. I remember leaving the mile-85 aid station (Covered Bridge) with Kenny, totally pumped up. By then I was alternating between power-hiking and running, but I still had loads of energy in me (that would soon dwindle...).

Ted (L), me, and Kenny (R) at the 2008 Mohican 100, where I finished 4th.
They're holding me up because I'd blown up my knee.
I'm wearing my Burning River 100 shirt from the previous summer.

It wasn't until about mile 90, as we entered the Cuyahoga Falls city limits, that it dawned on me that I was now in the top 10 and gaining on lots of dudes in front of me. By then I was super tired and fighting some demons, but I was dialed in and determined. I got a lot of motivation as I passed runners, including Billy "Bonehead" Barnett, who was later featured in Christopher McDougall's best-selling book, "Born to Run." Billy was having some issues and was down for the count.

The last few miles of the course, which many of us ran in the middle of the night, are interesting to say the least. You run along the top of a gulch, of sorts. The trail is super rocky and laced with roots. One bad step and you could go over the cliff. So you have to focus on the task at hand and stay upright (my understanding is that this section has since been removed). After a mile or so on the trail, you take a short spur up to Broad Street, which takes you right to the finish.

When I crossed the finish line at 1:08 a.m. on Sunday morning, I experienced pure, unadulterated happiness. Not only had I just finish my first 100-miler, but I'd done it in 21 hours, 8 minutes and placed sixth overall. I later learned that a little under 50 percent of the starters had actually finished--the heat claimed quite a few. We also later learned that the course was long. Depending on who you talked with, it was between 105-107 miles long!

Standing at the finish of the 2007 Burning River 100 with Anne.
I was so tired!
Mark Godale won the 2007 race with a time of 16 hours, 7 minutes. Tim Clement, who would later become one of my closest friends and an ultrarunning mentor, placed third with a time of 19 hours, 19 minutes. Tim, Ted and I, along with several others, would often train together on Saturday mornings in South Chagrin Reservation.

From then on, I was hooked on ultras and especially 100s. I discovered that I'm an endurance junkie--I love going the distance. I love nature. I love the challenge and camaraderie of it all. I've never returned to Burning River, though I did pace Tim to his win in 2008 and paced him again to a top finish the next year.

Maybe one of these years I'll go back.


  1. Thanks for sharing. Appreciate the background. Good story there.

    No quick itch for me to scratch to get back to the hundred, but I sure enjoy watching guys like you love em.

  2. Thanks, GZ! It was a real highlight and a totally special experience. Right now I'm in this reflective stage--just kind of thinking back to races and trying to figure out how I got here. I'm in the process, I think, of getting my passion back for ultras.

    Anyway, I wish we could get more conversation going on here. This blog gets a ton of readers but so few commenters. Let's get it going!


  3. well, fwiw, I once was a bit of a subscriber to the 100 in a week, 100 in a day mentality. There is some merit to it I guess in that it does help build some level of a base. But I have become more convinced that one can sneak around what is really good preparation even with 100 in a week for a 100 miler. I have often got 100 in a week off of 10 or more runs, with no run longer than 14. Hardly the right stuff for a 100 miler.

  4. Great story and awesome run, well done! I lived through this post, thanks! I'm getting that book as I want to run Badwater "one day when I'm big".

  5. Wyatt,

    Of all the running blogs I read as I build up to the goal of running 100 mile races in the mountains, your blog is the most informative. Sure, like just about everyone else I love to gawk at Tony K's insane climbing numbers and stunning photos which are inspirational, but don't provide much about the nuts and bolts of building to a 100. Thanks for the information. Your blog is a good guide.
    The one aspect of your story that I questioned is the 100 mile per week. My knowledge is only theoretical, but I've read a lot that suggests there is no good correlation between the 100 mile week and success at a 100 mile. I wonder if the risk of injury is worth the additional miles. I'd be interested in what your other readers have to say about this. Perhaps I'll see you on the trail one of these days. I live in Mexico City and run most of my races in the mountains here, but I'll be at the Jemez 50 this year and I remember reading that you might be there as well. Good luck with your preparation for Phoenix.


  6. Guy: I am very appreciative of your feedback. Thank you!

    I should have clarified that I don't think 100-mile weeks are required for a good 100-mile time. I did what a few folks in my running club at the time suggested I do. I did triple-digit weeks for a few years there and they worked well for me in placing at/near the top of the standings, but I've found them to be quite ineffective here in Colorado, where the elevation can really strain the body to the point of severe fatigue and injury. I no longer do 100-mile weeks; my mileage may get into the 90s but by and large I'm in the 80s. I may experiment with a few triple-digit weeks for the 2013 Leadville 100 but not at the expense of my health.


  7. What an amazing post! You make me want to go and run 100 miles ... but I think I'll get a few more marathons in first ..! ;)