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