By Seth Baird
The night before departure, and I'm sitting here running through the checklist over and over in my head. "Did I pack everything?" I was so meticulous laying everything out, but now I feel the sudden urge to unpack and start again. "Stop it," I mutter to myself. "Trust your gut; you're ready." Truthfully, I had been ready for days now, but with the event before us, the internal pressure was mounting.
I'll begin by saying that I'm not a professional runner, but I take running a bit more seriously than a true amateur. Three years ago, I couldn't be paid to run around the block. I considered most distance runners nut cases, running from or towards some unseen demon or obstacle. Most probably had some mental challenge that gave them the innate ability to master monotony. How else could a human cover such great distances on foot? Now here I sat, preparing to help crew and pace one of my dear friends as she takes on a 100-mile race.
Off To Run 100 Miles In Northeastern Ohio
By definition, an ultramarathon is any race distance greater than the traditional 26.2 miles. This, however, doesn't do ultramarathoning justice as lengths often reach triple digits and involve running over rugged terrain. Some of the most grueling races last for days with thousands of feet of elevation changes, and we have yet to mention the possibility of running in extreme weather conditions. But the fact of the matter is that this is precisely the type of racing that lights a fire in Dr. Sophie that has her determined to finish the 15th annual Burning River Endurance Run in 24 hours.
I've known Sophie for almost a year now, and she's quickly become a friend and mentor for all things running. With her calm, almost shy demeanor, you would never guess that she's an absolute force on the trails. She's had success at the 50k and 50-mile distance, and with the helpful guidance and coaching from ultrarunner Hillary Allen, this race is stacking up to be her most memorable yet.
The crew consists of Sophie's wife Jaime, whose an experienced ultramarathoner in her own right. She's crewed and raced numerous times and has been a guiding inspiration for those of us all attempting to tackle the ultra-distance. My neighbor and running partner, Ruben who made his way to running late in the game. Now in his 40s, he's continued to beat personal bests and is gearing up for his first marathon this fall. And then there's me, the wild card, tornado that likes to laugh and then run himself into the ground. A well-rounded group or a band of misfits? Although half of the team lacks much experience at ultra-marathons, our common ground is that we each will do whatever it takes to ensure that Sophie arrives ready, on time, and prepared to finish the race with a sense of accomplishment.
Thursday morning, departure. Seven and a half hours of rolling hills, tunnels, and small industrial towns to follow. Conversations bounced from T-tops to religion, from hillbillies to rednecks, from crimes of passion to politics, and enough laughter to spur multiple pitstops. This trip was the first time the four of us had spent this length of time together. But our common link through running made it feel as if we'd grown up together—something I cherish about our community.
Dinner By The Numbers
We arrived at the air B&B a bit before 7 pm, made quick work of unpacking the car, and settled into dinner. Jaime reveled a pristine, three-ring-binder with sleeved pages full of race details. Each step of the race was calculated to the mile. As Jaime went through the numbers, Sophie sat calm and focused. Ruben, documenting the event from behind the lens, and there I was, filled with butterflies. See, I had never run more than a 50k thus far, and there was the possibility of pacing 25 – 40 miles. Reassurance came in that Ruben would be able to jump in if I couldn't tolerate the mileage. But I knew I needed to show up, so I strapped on a poker face and swallowed the nerves.
The plan was to provide crew support at aid stations throughout the race. Drinks, fuel, gear changes following predetermined estimates would propel Sophie to the finish. Off to bed. Shake-out runs for the crew in the morning, followed by the prerace meeting held in downtown Cuyahoga Falls.
The race director was a boisterous man. He didn't sugarcoat at the prerace meeting, nor did he beat around the bush, which I came to appreciate later. One hundred miles is not an easy distance to complete, no matter how well trained you are.
We sat at a table with a mother and son and his three-year-old son, a rambunctious little boy that was oblivious to the challenge his father was taking on. Mom was well aware and made it known that she didn't believe this was an event for any sane individual to be attempting. The shock on her face, as I gestured to Sophie, was frame worthy when I mentioned that she would be completing the entire race.
Our crew chief, Jaime, already did a thorough job discussing the necessities. To stay calm and shake the nerves, I allowed myself to get caught up in the spectacle of watching the director repeatedly chase windblown papers across his podium.
With the meeting over, Jaime and Ruben made a quick run for ice and other last-minute essentials while I learned about the allure of Swedish Fish, a sweet treat that's common among endurance athletes. Sophie and I huddled around the dining table packing Swedish Fish, cookies, salt tabs, and dried pineapples into small baggies for easy access during the race. The only rift in the team arose when the great debate ensued of crunchy vs. creamy peanut butter. A discussion left without a conclusion. Fortunately, because of the Olympics, we all came together in harmony to settle in for the night.
Ready, Set, Go
2:45 am, an ungodly time to wake up. The only way I’ll be worth much is to shower, and have multiple cups of coffee. The rest of the house was already awake, and the energy was mounting. At 4 am, the gun goes off.
Pitch dark when we pulled into the parking lot—suiting up by flashlight and last-minute gear checks before making our way to the starting line. Rave or race? Every brand of flashing strobe and headlamp imaginable. The only difference being the assortment of hydration vests. This year's race set records for attendance, with 390 participants lining up for the 100 miler. A few short strides and mobility work to warm up, and Sophie was ready. The goal was simple, to finish and to finish well. One last team meeting and Ruben jetted off to the front of the race to capture the moment as Jaime and I positioned ourselves at the starting line to watch Sophie pass by. "3, 2, 1…." I stood on my tiptoes to ensure I could locate the bright yellow tank Sophie had on under her hydration vest. And just like that, they were off--a mass of people running into the dark.
Ultramarathons draw all types of people. Tall, short, heavy, thin, young, and old. Watching the racers pass by, you couldn't help but picture yourself in their shoes. With the relatively few barriers to entry, anyone can pursue these long-distance races with a some guidance. Briefly caught up in the moment, I forgot that we needed to haul ass to get to the car so we'd get prime parking for the first aid station approximately 17 miles from the start line.
First Aid Station
The weather called for rain. It wasn't cold, but the rain would have an effect on the racers later in the day. We parked within the line of sight of the runners' location to emerge from the trailhead. The trunk of the Forrester (aka headquarters) was carefully organized; clear, labeled bins made it easy to locate items, and a large cooler kept drinks and fuel chilled. We expected a high in the '80s, but you would never guess that in these early waking hours.
The rain was steady and heavy at times as we waited for Sophie. As runners began to emerge, you couldn't help but notice that many were covered in mud. Concerned about the condition Sophie might arrive in, I made my way closer to the trailhead to keep an eye for that bright yellow tank. "Where do I go?!" A gentleman shouted at me. Blinded by his headlamp, I couldn't recognize him as a volunteer or a racer. Squinting, I caught a glimpse of his hydration vest and redirected him out of the parking lot and back onto the course. This was going to be a long day.
Sophie arrived soaked, cold, but looking strong. We ushered her to the back of the headquarters, gave her a rain jacket, extra fuel, and just like that, she was off. We had joked before that it would be much like a NASCAR pitstop, and in total, I believe she was in and out in less than 3 minutes. In an ultramarathon, time adds up fast. This is why the initial prep can mean the difference between hitting a time goal and missing the mark by minutes. We hardly watched her disappear down the trail before we were packed and back on the road, tracking her movements via GPS.
Second Aid Station
Daylight. This aid station was more open than the first. Like before, we were one of the first to arrive and got a prime parking location. The rain continued, but with the sun coming up, the conditions seemed less daunting. Our prep was the same as the first aid station, ready to quickly make any changes necessary and send Sophie on her way.
We took turns standing under the trunk flap of the Forrester to avoid getting thoroughly soaked. Being a northerner by nature, Ruben had no complaints of cold while I shivered in my pants over shorts, long sleeves under a jacket, and a hat to keep in the warmth. Jaime was on her A-game, scouring over the numbers in the master binder. Casual conversation and laugher ensued as we waited for Sophie. According to the GPS, she was in 8th place and moving well. The first-place female arrived looking strong. You could tell she was a seasoned vet, and later in the day, we confirmed that she already had an impressive resume.
Sophie came in just as she did the first looking strong. She grabbed a coke, stripped her rain jacket, and mentioned that she needed Trail Toes because the rain had taken its toll, washing away the barrier cream. We refueled her, and she was off—another successful stop.
A Beautifully Confusing Overlook
Logistically, this was one of the most confusing aid stops of the day. The parking lot sat on an overlook with a fantastic view of the mountains and various portions of the trail. The trail deceivingly looped runners in and out of sight multiple times before making their way to our location, and this made it challenging to pinpoint arrival time and direction. Some runners arrived looking less than ideal. Some were limping, favoring one side or another. Some were walking, and this one gentleman came in full of exuberance, hooting and hollering his way into the stop. "Beautiful day to run!" he shouted as he met with his crew. I've never seen anyone down a Monster energy drink that fast in my life. Just watching that alone made my stomach turn. But to each their own.
As usual, Sophie arrived with a smile on her face. "How you guys doing?" Sophie asked. You really couldn't tell how she was feeling from the look, but I knew better than to ask that question. Jaime swept her into our makeshift headquarters and went to work, setting her up for success as she headed off for the midway point of the race.
I was instructed to sleep before Sophie arrived at the halfway point. There was the possibility she would call me in to play then or soon after, and I needed to be rested and coherent for the early morning hours we were expected to finish. No missed trail signs or wrong turns was task A. Task B was to keep Sophie moving and in good spirits.
A quick stop at McDonald's juiced the team up for the back half of the race, and it was just what I needed to settle in for a two-hour nap.
I awoke to overwhelming heat in the back of the car. As they had called it, the high did indeed reach the mid-80s, but fortunately, there was much less humidity than our training conditions down south. Ruben and Jaime quickly filled me in on which runners had reached the halfway point, and that our friend from the race meeting with the “wonderfully supportive” mother arrived with horrendous, cringe-worthy chaffing on his inner thigh. See, it rained just enough to wash away any remnants of barrier cream, leaving skin exposed to rub. Those runners that didn't take the time to reapply once the rain stopped found their legs rubbing with the fierceness of 60 grit sandpaper. I immediately felt my gut sink imagining the sensation.
The runners arriving at the halfway point were strung out as if they were running different races, each with their own version of limp. We all were very concerned about Sophie's arrival and followed the tracker closely. At 2:30 in the afternoon, ten and a half hours after the race began we finally saw that familiar bright yellow tank appear around the bend. She was moving! There wasn't nearly as much bounce to her step as her previous arrivals, but still, she was running.
"I'll take Seth at the next stop," Sophie said.
This was it. My mind scrambled, instantly thinking about everything I needed to do while simultaneously forgetting that everything was already set, organized, and ready to go. I started jumping and stretching as if the coach pointed down to the end of the bench to tell the senior who hardly played that he would get a few minutes on senior night. To say I was excited was an understatement, and I also forgot that this still meant that I wouldn't be running for approximately three hours. No need for plyometrics. Right now, we needed to refuel Sophie and get her back on the road, which Jaime had already assumed control over while I was in a panic state.
Fifty miles in and still cruising. My amazement of this athlete continues to grow. After watching Sophie disappear down the path, we jumped in the car to meet her down the road.
"Can we fire up some tunes?" I asked the crew chief. "Sure!" Jaime replied. I needed to get out of my head, and music seemed to do the trick. As a team, we danced, laughed, joked, and missed a turn. Oops. Fortunately for us, though not for Sophie, she had 15 miles to run before reaching the next aid station. In the car, time was on our side.
Pick A Pacer
I had run in the Naked Innovations hydration vest a handful of times before today. Much like other occasions, confidence was high that it would perform seamlessly, possibly even outlasting my efforts to pace Sophie to the finish.
Starting with the two 500ml soft flasks up front, one with water and the other with a mixture of Tailwind. The bladder on my back would hold water alone. With the increasing temperatures, I preferred to drink warm water as opposed to the lukewarm tart mixture.
Four gel packets, two fruit leathers, one pack of M&Ms, a pack of Skittles, and 12 salt tabs would be in the rotation for the two-hour blocks of time expected between stops. Maybe I overpacked. I had tendencies to burn through fuel like gasoline, so I decided to err on the side of caution. To top off the tank, I finished a PB&J before Sophie's arrival.
Filled with anticipation, the wait felt like ages. I warmed up, cooled down, and warmed up again. Three trips to the porta-potty to calm the nerves, and I was ready.
We were meeting Sophie at the overlook. The runners would be passing through in the opposite direction this time. Still, the confusing network of trails we could see from our vantage point lead to some amusing conversation with our neighboring crews. Once we settled on a direction, Ruben positioned himself at the top of the hill. Slowly, runners began to emerge down below. I was vested and ready, so I joined him waiting for our friend to take on the climb.
Not once did we see a runner appear from the woods and take on the hill full steam. Most, you could feel the dread from the look on their face looking up the slope. And then she emerged. Careful, short, choppy steps, arms pumping, working the hill. I knew this was one part of the game in which Sophie excelled. She was a hill nut and so rhythmic when it comes to running. Some people are born with that internal clock keeping them even keel in the most challenging conditions. Sophie has this gift.
While Ruben snapped photos with a lens the size of General Lee's canon, I jogged midway down the hill to meet her. Her smile appeared a bit forced—no surprise after running 65 miles. I was still in shock at how well she was moving. Not that I doubted her abilities, but I had never seen anyone, in person, in a moment like this. I wasn't sure what I expected.
Jaime waved her over to headquarters to begin prep for the most challenging portion of the race. Just imagine, you've run 65 miles starting in the cold rain to midday heat, and now your muscles and mental capacity are rapidly fatiguing. Runners around you are dropping from the grueling effort, and you and your team have high expectations to forge ahead to finish what you started. The team is everything, doing the best they can to quiet any doubt while simultaneously silently assessing for any weakness that may spell disaster. None found, go!
Just A Run In The Woods
From reading various excerpts to hearing first-hand accounts from pacers before me, I understood that there's a subtle art to pacing effectively, and techniques vary based on the individual runner being paced. Some prefer to be driven like a mule, whip cracking, profanity flinging motivators, pushing them to the finish. While others prefer collected guidance, perhaps distracting the athlete from the task at hand, and as I've come to know Sophie, this seemed like the best approach.
Sophie is already an experienced runner. She ran cross country and track throughout college and continued training following graduation. She's got plenty of miles on her legs to cover the distance, so I knew she wanted to make the time goal. However, this didn't mean I would spout constant time and distance updates but that instead, I would be approaching this like two friends going for a long run in the woods. Flowing conversations with tidbits of run talk seemed like the best bet to get the job done.
Less than a mile down the road, and we were deep in conversation. Over the next two hours, we talked of current events, spoke of training techniques for youth, and spoke about our nation's poor health literacy. We chatted about childhood troubles, wedding proposals, and the possibility of traveling to fantastic race destinations. No topic was off-limits, but I was always mindful of our location, time, and pace while ensuring we stayed on course.
Rounding a bend in the trail, we spotted a fellow competitor moving slowly. He looked gassed as if he was close to throwing in the towel. Sophie's steady effort was enough to overtake him while attempting a creek crossing. I slowed a bit to give her room to navigate the obstacle without my interference. Her experience showed as she surged forward, decisively passing the runner on the sharp incline at the far bank of the creek. A soft "hello," was all she said as she ran by him on his left. Mentally, I celebrated. Passing anyone in a one-hundred-mile race is a big deal.
What I've learned recently, something that Sophie's known all along, is that when you pass someone in a race, you do it with intent. The idea that they can push to catch up shouldn't cross their mind. I had no idea how strung out the racers were by this point in the race, but secretly, I was hoping we would get the opportunity to chase down a few more before it was all said and done.
Corn Fields And Pea Gravel Pathways
The sunset and high corn stalks were enough to distract from the mud and cow pies below.
I had never been in a cornfield, and here I was in the hills of Ohio running by ears of corn as tall as me. I ran ahead to take pictures and videos of Sophie running through the field. I'm not sure if this was pacer protocol, but I was not going to miss an opportunity like this. Fridge photography at its finest, and Sophie was totally game for my antics. Mile 73, and she was cruising.
"Bang…Bang!" Shots rang out. Close enough to startle and give you an uneasy feeling that you're way too close to its origins. Growing up in a rough neighborhood, gunshots echoed with just enough frequency that you learned to loop it into background city noise. But running through cornfields, this was not the place I particularly liked hearing those sounds. We had just made our way out onto the road, and although I felt exposed, I still had a job to do. Running with traffic, I positioned myself just off Sophie's left shoulder, and we pressed forward until the route wove us back into the woods and a sense of security. Relaxed once again, we drifted back into conversation.
With our backgrounds in the medical field, topics of conversation often looped back to talk of past injuries, ailments, and what it's like to run into your later years. Sophie's mother is a seasoned ultrarunner, and at 65, she continues to fill her time with hiking, paddle boarding and kayaking, something I too hope to accomplish later in life.
The trail opened up into a wide pea gravel pathway. It was a runnable section, and with perfect evening weather, we found ourselves sharing the space with leisure runners, walkers, and cyclists. Their passing energy gave us a bit of a lift that seemed to make the stretch pass with ease. Off in the distance, I noticed an older gentleman walking with a companion. Being a therapist by trade, I quickly analyzed his movements. "Slow gait, favoring his right leg, using a pole to steady himself, maybe he's had a stroke?" I thought to myself. As we approached, I noticed a white wrap or brace on his right lower leg. "Possibly an AFO?" I continued to analyze. I mentioned to Sophie how excited I get when I see people late in age being so active, but I realized I had made a big mistake fifty yards out. No, this was not an elderly gentleman out for an afternoon stroll. My case study was, in fact, the youngest competitor of the race—a 17-year-old that had torn through ad stations earlier in the day. I remember him coming through almost an hour ahead of Sophie at one point, and here he was, limping while using a stick as a makeshift cane. I felt terrible for him, but I knew he had many years left of racing coming his way, so instead, we turned this into another notch on the belt.
Ultrarunning is a funny sport. The camaraderie goes unmatched to any other event you can imagine. Everyone is hurting, and everyone will do whatever they can to help someone in need, but the spirit to compete is still alive and well. You'll only begin to understand this if you position yourself at the finish line of one of these long races. The emotion is raw, and the love is real among those that compete.
Fighting Off The Wall
Around mile 80, Sophie mentioned that she felt as if a blister was forming on the bottom of her right foot. The agony in her expression wasn't to be ignored. Knowing better than to ask if it was something that should be addressed, I simply asked, "you good?" She nodded, and we continued.
I had been resetting my watch at each aid station, so I knew exactly how far we needed to run to reach the next. I'm not number savvy by nature, and Sophie was beginning to become mentally and physically exhausted, so this information proved vital. A few times, before reaching an aid station, I would text the crew ahead with bits of information to make the stop more seamless. As the race went on, the distance between aid stations grew shorter and shorter. It was a wonderful twist by the race directors, as I'm sure they could imagine how vital the closing stops would be.
Sophie was having trouble taking in fuel, so I began setting a timer for 30-minute intervals. In a race of this magnitude, it's common to lose your appetite, but you cannot allow yourself to fall victim to depletion. We were getting too close to the finish to let in the possibility of hitting the wall. The Swedish fish no longer were appetizing, so a switch was made to fruit leathers and cookies. Whatever it takes to get the job done.
Rain And Messy Trails
It rained to begin the race, and it looked as if the rain would welcome the runners home.
Fully geared up with headlamps and handled flashlights, I was amped up! Swinging around a bed on the path, just off a parking lot, I spotted Ruben. "It's go time!" I shouted as we trotted up to headquarters. Like our previous stops, we were a well-oiled machine making all of the necessary changes and refueling. I switched out one of my front bottles for some extra Tailwind, dumped our trash, and snagged a few sweet treats to propel me into the night.
While Jaime quickly refueled Sophie, I jumped off the trail to piss. With a flash, the woods surrounding me lit up bright as day. Ruben and Jaime told us storms were headed our way, but I thought we still had time before it reached us. Then I heard the laughter. Ruben had caught me with my pants down. Burned in memory, there's now a picture floating around of me, in my vulnerable state, draining the tank. I love our crew. Now set and ready, we made our way around the parking lot and hopped back onto the trail.
It didn't take long for the storm to catch up. Other than the light from our headlamps, the woods were pitch black. Lighting would light the area every two minutes, but it wasn't enough to gauge any sense of direction. It was dark, and the rain had begun to fall, so I focused on making sure Sophie's path was sufficiently lit and that we didn't miss any trail markings.
We had reached one of the most technical portions of the trail, and it was late. My headlamp was positioned to stream light over Sophie's head. In one hand, I held a flashlight to mark the portion of the trail that had the steep drop, and the other hand light I used to increase lighting a yard or two in front of her feet. Trail running is a series of continuous calculations, and your feet are always one step behind in the decision-making process. The saying, "your feet will go where your eyes go," is true, so ensuring the area was well lit increased safety and efficiency.
With the rain falling heavy at times, we navigated steep, slippery climbs and unpleasantly slick descents. Mud had begun to cake on the bottom of our shoes and the puddles we ran through swallowed our feet whole. Conditions were brutal, but we were making substantial progress. Our conversations become choppy as our focus increased to avoid disaster. Occasionally we would get passed by a runner, but these were participants running the relay race with fresh legs. We held our lines and let them do the extra work to navigate around us. No wasted energy was the name of the game, and Sophie is unbelievable at maintaining a steady effort. After what felt like an eternity, we finally emerged from the trail to an empty parking lot with a gentleman standing before us, his headlight obscuring any chance of recognizing him as a runner or volunteer.
"Where's the trail?" He asked as we approached. With my headlamp already reflecting off the white flag ten feet behind him, I said, "It's right there," pointing to it on the ground. "This must be that state of delirium I've heard about," I thought to myself. We would go on to trade places with this man three times in the closing miles of the race.
I'm In The Pain Cave
Smooth greenways with wooden bridges overlooking portions of the Cuyahoga River made for a perfect shakeout run the day before, but the loop back was viewless, and littered with frogs--scurrying about trying to avoid our feet. The light from our flashlights would catch the green in their eyes, and when they jumped, all you could do was pray that they didn't land in your path.
Maybe I hadn't set my watch right, or perhaps I misjudged the distance to the final aid stop. Whatever the reason, this stretch felt much longer than what it had the day before. Twice, I commented that we're almost there, words you should shy away from when pacing a long race. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was already well within the pain cave. Our steps were nearly in sync because of pain in Sophie's right foot and my discomfort in my right hip. We were now officially pulling each other along. Walking when needed, jogging in shorter and shorter intervals, consuming whatever calories we could.
I kept telling myself, "it's just around that next bend." Then that bend would come and go, and I'd convince myself the next would be it. If you stare long enough at a spot in the dark, it'll begin to appear lighter. An aid station? Pizza, soda, warm bath? No. Physically, your body can push much further than your mental capacity, and I was learning this in real-time. But this race wasn't about me. It was about Sophie. I need to get my shit together and make sure she keeps moving.
Finally, around three in the morning, we see the glorious lights of the aid station. The final aid station. As expected, our family, Jaime, and Ruben are waiting with smiles on their faces. At this point, we all knew the race was complete. Less than five miles to the finish, and Sophie would be a one hundred miler. I can't remember if we refueled at this aid station or not. Seeing Jaime and Ruben was enough to lift all spirits and shake heavy fatigue. The only reservation was that the final miles were on paved sidewalks and roads. A brutal pounding for the legs to welcome the runners’ home. We quickly said goodbye and ran through the parking lot and out onto the main road.
The stretch began on an uphill cobblestone street. If you've run on a Woodway treadmill with its individually grooved strips, the road felt much like this, but slightly less forgiving. As we trotted up the hill, the sense of accomplishment started to grow. But neither of us planned for what lay before us. This stretch would be the hardest-pressed portion of the race. The way any strong race effort should finish, like a bat out of hell.
A few more relay runners passed us. We paid them no mind. Most of them were moving swiftly on tired but fresh legs in comparison. We focused solely on our efforts to stay in rhythm. To say I was hurting is a grave understatement. Every part of my body wanted to quit. Thirty-two miles is the most I have ever run. This race took me three miles beyond that, but the additional four hours on my feet is what took its toll. My legs throbbed, quads screaming, and my lower back wondered if this was some undeserved punishment. This race would be an unbelievable accomplishment for me, and I owe it all to the crew and the bite-sized ball of fire running beside me.
Sophie, still, was making good time. Onlookers that didn't know her well enough would have said that she hardly looked as if she felt the sting from the 95 miles she had run already. Running beside her for many hours, I could tell that she was pulling her body forward with her arms. Her legs were doing everything they could to follow along. She was heavily leaning into the uphill’s and gingerly easing the downs. She was an extraordinary case of misery on a mission. I honestly couldn't believe she was still upright. Our watches were nothing but fancy pieces of jewelry at this point, and the only solace found was the chance that each turn would reveal the finish line. So, we started to push.
I'll take full credit for leading the charge. See, my exhaustion had reached the point that I thought I would drop. I wanted to push Sophie as far as possible in an attempt to get her time goal. In case I curled up in a ditch, she could manage the last few hundred yards or mile on her own.
The surge began on an uphill. We proved to ourselves time and time again that running uphill was our strong suit. One hundred fifty yards up a dark street set the tone. The pace quickened—short strides working the slope. At 3:15 in the morning, not a soul was in sight, but you could faintly hear the footsteps of runners off in the distance. "Let's go!" I sternly said to Sophie, furiously working beside me. She didn't reply. Maybe she was upset about the pace; perhaps she was focused on tunnel vision. I was nervous she might be pissed, but we were still moving, and if we slowed, I was more concerned that I wouldn't be able to get the engine started again.
A figure appeared at the top of the street. Could this be one of the relay runners who passed us about 15 minutes ago? As the figure grew, we pressed harder, soon over-taking her just before the top of the climb. Yes, it was a relay runner, and passing her provided a pivotal confidence boost. Sophie had traveled over 97 miles, and she was still passing runners this late in the race. We kept pushing. Our pace dipped under 9 minutes per mile at its peak, which felt like an all-out sprint. How long could we hold this effort, and where in God's name is the finish line? All conversation was obsolete other than me spouting two-to-three-word combinations of encouragement. "Let's go. You got this. We can do it!" "We can do it?" I thought to myself. I'm supposed to cheer her on, not the other way around. Then disaster.
My left hamstring began to contract involuntarily. Cramp setting in. I'd done so well managing my fueling throughout, only to throw a cramp in the final mile. "You need to keep going!" I told Sophie. There was no way I'd let my failure squander her hopes of reaching a time goal. Without thought, Sophie pressed on. I was proud, fulfilled, and it was amazing watching her maintain the steady pace, driving towards the finish line. Emotion came over me. She is a fantastic athlete and an even better human being. Five hours earlier, I learned that the reason she came to Charlotte was to help with Running Works, an organization that works to fulfill the needs of the homeless in our community. She completed her doctor of chiropractic in 2019 and practices and co-owns with her wife one of the best clinics in the greater Charlotte area, United Sport Solutions, where we met. She took me on as a patient, and from our first meeting together, it felt like I was chatting with an old friend. And yet, here I was, walking, watching one of my dear friends disappear in the distance to complete one of the most significant accomplishments of her life. I refuse to miss the moment. So, I started to run.
She was not easy to catch but filled with inspiration, I dug deep to reconnect with her. Finally, out of the back neighborhoods, we hit the main drag, with the finish line in sight. The street was hardly filled with spectators, but neither of us cared. A few faint cheers and sleepy faces greeted us, but all that mattered was reaching our crew at the finish line.
One final turn and there it was, a little grass strip, about ten yards wide with large banners on either side reading, "Burning River." Just behind the timing mat was Jaime, grinning from ear to ear. Sophie did it. She ran 100 miles in 23 hours 41 minutes and 16 seconds. Nearly twenty minutes ahead of her goal. Ruben lit up the night, capturing the moment for eternity.
All Photos by Ruben Cosome. Thank you to the amazing support from Jaime for keeping the crew fed, organized and moving in the right direction. Thank you to Sophie for trusting in me to run beside her into the night and the wonderful conversation and laughter. Thank you to Ruben for being a rock and guiding voice in my running life and keeping the unit levelheaded despite his love for creamy over crunchy peanut butter.