Crewing at Burning River 100 Miler

Back in late July I spent a weekend in Northeastern Ohio, in and around Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I went up there to be part of the Burning River Endurance Run race weekend. Burning River consists of a 100 Miler, two separate 50 Milers, and a 100 Mile Relay. It's a pretty big deal for ultra and trail running in Ohio. I wasn't planning to run any of the events, but I wanted to be involved somehow. When I learned that three of my running community friends were registered for the 100 Miler, that sealed the deal. I would spend my weekend helping out. This is a long read, but hopefully an interesting one for anyone who wants to know what it's like to spectate or crew at an ultra-marathon.

In the week leading up to the race, I started to plan out how I could be of service. My friend Tony had his own dedicated crew, so he didn't really need my help, but said he would appreciate seeing me at the aid stations. Both Dan and Aaron were planning to run without official crew, and said they'd also be happy to have me at the aid stations. I made a plan to volunteer at packet pick-up on the Friday before the race, and then hit as many of the crew-access aid stations as possible and do whatever I could for my friends. I stored the GPS coordinates for each aid station in my phone and printed out hard copies of the 100 Miler segment information and cut-off times. I packed a bag of basic supplies like sunscreen, bug spray, wet wipes, paper towels and simple snacks. I loaded my car with my camp chair, sun umbrella and a change of clothes for myself. I booked a cheap hotel room so I would have a warm, safe place to nap and to shower, and then I started my journey up to Cuyahoga Falls.

Packet Pick-Up - Sheraton Cuyahoga Falls

When I arrived at the Sheraton in Cuyahoga Falls, they were just setting up for packet pick-up. I was a bit early, so I went to the hotel lobby to check email and Facebook on my phone. Aaron found me in the lobby and we chatted for a bit before my shift started. I was stationed at the 50 Miler table, handing out bibs and shirts. There were two 50 Mile races. Runners were either registered for the front half, which started at the same place as the 100 mile runners, or the back half, which started at the 100 mile halfway point. I'd heard that the back half was the more challenging run, if not because of the course, then because these guys started in the afternoon and would be running overnight. It was a pleasure to check in the 50 mile runners and wish them good luck. I was able to take breaks to greet my friends as they picked up their 100 Mile packets, and I got to attend the pasta dinner with Aaron. After my shift was up, I decided to add to my collection of Ohio breweries. I found my way to Kent to visit Madcap Brew Co., which was good. After my beer flight, I called it an early night and drove up to my hotel, which was about halfway between the start and finish of the 100 Miler. 


Packet pick-up volunteer, reporting for duty
Before bed, I did some thinking about my game plan for the next day - what time would I get up, what should I wear/bring to the start and the early aid stations, when would I have a nap break, and other concerns. Even though I have several friends who run ultra-marathons, I had never really been part of one. I had never crewed or volunteered at anything longer than a marathon. I had an understanding of what ultra runners needed, having talked to many friends, and having read their race reports. And as a runner myself, I certainly knew what not to do in my attempt to support my friends. I had only done a little bit of trail running (one marathon, one half, various shorter trail runs), so I had a good idea what types of conditions they might encounter. But I had never run more than a short distance on trails in the dark, and I had not experienced the level of physical exhaustion and mental/emotional fatigue that my friends would be faced with. I hoped that I had enough tools to help them.

Mile 0 - Start Line/Squire's Castle

My wake-up came early. The race started at 4:00 AM and was about a 30 minute drive from my hotel. I got out the door in plenty of time, awake and alert because I didn't want to miss anyone. The drive was twisty-turny with little in the way of lighting. I relied on my high beams and my abundance of caution to get me to Squire's Castle in Willoughby. The castle was a neat venue; an outdoor-only shell of a medieval castle that some millionaire wanted to build, then abandoned partway into the project. But it was on beautiful property and made for a memorable starting area for the race.


Runners congregating outside Squire's Castle 
I found Aaron and Tony in the dark and was able to get some pre-race photos and chat with them as they made their final preparations, which were mostly mental. I never did see Dan. In one of the castle rooms a Franciscan monk was preparing to give a Mass; he was also running the 50 Miler; I'd seen him the night before, picking up his packet in his traditional brown robe with rope belt. In other rooms, runners adjusted their gear and ate their breakfasts. Outside, others gathered, waiting for the National Anthem, which was sung by the woman who worked packet pick-up with me. There was little fanfare...no gun, no air horn, no music...pretty much just a "ready, set, go!" and then the runners were off. It happened so quickly that I wasn't ready with my camera. And then, they were gone. There was nothing left to do unless I wanted to stick around for the 50 Miler start in another hour. I didn't.


With Tony before the start
With Aaron before the start 
Runners about to take off into the pitch black pre-dawn darkness

Mile 11.5 - Polo Fields

Most of us who went to the start for our 100 mile runners left as soon as they took off. It was still dark, so there was little point in staying. I pulled up the coordinates for the Polo Fields aid station, which was at Mile 11.5. It would be the runners' second aid station, but the first one with crew access. There was plenty of parking, and the food and drinks were set up under a picnic shelter. Crew members and spectators set up chairs and blankets on the other side of the course from the shelter, behind plastic "police tape". It was dark and I was cold. I had brought all kinds of layers with me, but it was unseasonably cold for the end of July. I was kicking myself for not taking a blanket. The people on my left were sympathetic and let me borrow one of theirs. I struck up a conversation with the woman on my right, whose name I forget; I would see her throughout the day and night as she was crewing for her husband. We were all tracking our runners on the Race Joy mobile app, which was awesome. It was almost perfect in real-time. We could see where each of our runners was on the course map and get alerts as they crossed timing mats. A little bit after sunrise my first runner came through, and it was Dan. He admitted that he went out a little fast in the early miles, which were mostly on road. But he was looking strong and in great spirits, and didn't need much of anything at this aid station, so I gave him some encouragement and saw him off. Next up was Aaron, who was also doing well early on. And then Tony came through. His crew team tended to him and I gave him hugs and took photographs.


Race Joy app showed the runners approaching Polo Fields; they're traveling south, so Dan was leading here
At Polo Fields: Dan-O looking strong
At Polo Fields: Aaron looking surprised when I caught him off-guard
At Polo Fields: Tony taking a nutrition break

Mile 21.7 - Shadow Lake

I returned my borrowed blanket to its owners a bit before my runners arrived, so when they were all through the aid station, I was still a little cold and ready to move on. The sun was up, but the temperature was still spring-like...and odd for late July. This part of Ohio bordering the national park is full of smaller towns and villages, and has a rural feel to it. There are not a lot of larger shopping centers, and so I had trouble finding coffee. I thought I might see a Starbucks between Polo Fields and the next aid station, but I didn't. I also didn't see any independent coffee shops that were open. I was tired and was hoping to settle for gas station coffee, but the only gas station I found was of questionable cleanliness. I aborted my coffee search and drove on to Shadow Lake, the fourth aid station, but only the second one with crew access. This was at Mile 21.7. 

Everyone set up their chairs along a large field just outside the woods. There was no warning that a runner was coming until he or she popped out from the trees and the brush into the open field. Of course, the Race Joy app helped me to know when to expect my friends. Now, Aaron was in the lead (of my friends) and was doing well with his ambitious goal. My crewing skills were used a little more here. I helped Aaron out in finding his drop bag. I may or may not have helped refill water bottles; I can't remember. But this is where I remember starting to anticipate the needs of the runners at the aid stations. I talked with Aaron as he changed shoes and socks, and took care of his nutritional needs. Once Aaron was off, Dan came through. I did the same for Dan, finding his bag, helping him unpack and then repack it, going on runs for water or food, as needed. I was so busy helping Dan that I forgot to take a photo of him. He had slowed down but was still feeling well, and making good time. When Tony came through, I hung with his crew as they got him in and out of the aid station.


At Shadow Lake: Aaron mid-shoe change
At Shadow Lake: Aaron post-shoe change
At Shadow Lake: Dan's drop bag
At Shadow Lake: Tony runs out of the woods and into the field
At Shadow Lake: Tony charging his phone

I feel undeserving to complain that I was dead tired at this point, given what the runners were going through. But I was. I hadn't slept well or much leading up to this event, and I had also gotten up super early. I was not too far from my hotel, so I decided to go back there for a brief nap and maybe to change some clothes. I would skip the Meadows aid station, but I would definitely be there at Boston Mills, the halfway (-ish) point. I hoped that my friends would be OK and not upset that I wasn't there. They all seemed to be doing great and had everything they needed in their drop bags, so I figured it would be OK.

Mile 50.7 - Boston Mills

I was feeling very refreshed after my nap and a snack. I put on some slightly fresher clothes and made my way to Boston Mills. This was a crowded aid station, as it was the finish line for the front half 50 Miler, the halfway point for the 100 Miler and the starting line for the back half 50 Miler. There were all kinds of spectators and crew here. I found parking, but had to walk a bit. When I got to the aid station I found other crew members I recognized and sat with them for a bit. Then I saw Tony's crew and additional friends and moved over to their spot. It was nice to hang out and chat with Tony's friends, who gave me a Burning River Pale Ale from Great Lakes Brewing. The energy and spirit of ultra running were well-represented as we camped out at Boston Mills. We celebrated many 50 mile finishes and saw weary 100 milers come through. It was at this aid station that I saw Darris Blackford, the Columbus Marathon race director, as his wife tended to him. I didn't see Darris again this day, but he went on to finish the race with a very respectable time.


At Boston Mills: Drinking a Burning River with Tony's crew

Aaron was still in the lead among my friends. I had his drop bag ready for him and lended him my chair as he changed shoes again. Aaron had been stung by some wasps on the last segment and though he wasn't allergic, there were a couple welts on his leg. He was still doing great on time, but had a touch of nausea and wasn't eating much, though he needed to eat. I helped him find some ginger ale at the aid station and one of the volunteers made him a peanut butter sandwich without jelly. We asked if they had anything for insect stings or allergies, but they didn't. I saw Aaron off and hoped he'd be able to keep some food down soon.


At Boston Mills: Not yet to his drop bag, Aaron wastes no time transitioning his gear
At Boston Mills: another shoe change for Aaron

Next up was Dan. Still making decent time, he had some back pain now. I sat him down in my chair as he tended to his feet, fetched some water for his bottles and some sports drink for him to drink while he was sitting. This was the first aid station where 100 mile runners could pick up a pacer. Dan's first pacer Christy met him here, and I wished them luck as they headed out. 


At Boston Mills: Dan comes into the aid station with some back pain
At Boston Mills: After another shoe and shirt change, Dan is still in good spirits 
At Boston Mills: Dan with pacer Christy 
At Boston Mills: Dan and Christy are off

Finally, Tony came though Boston Mills. He had slowed significantly and was looking tired. I helped out as everyone got him what he needed to eat and drink. I learned from Tony about eating avocado as ultra fuel, and he had hummus too. Those sounded like great foods to fuel a run like this. Tony rested a little more at this aid station than at the previous ones. We saw him off, and then I said goodbye to his crew and friends. Meanwhile, in the distance we saw the back half 50 Milers begin their race. I went back to my car and mapped my way to the next aid station. As I was driving, there were Burning River runners along the side of the road. I saw Tony, opened my window, and cheered and honked.


At Boston Mills: Tony comes into the aid station 
At Boston Mills: Tony eats avocado and hummus to fuel up

Mile 66.9 - Ledges

I got to the next aid station, Ledges, as the sun was beginning to set. It was directly in my view of the runners coming through the aid station, so I attached my umbrella to my chair. I watched runners, who were now more spaced out. But now, some of them had pacers. It had been a long day, and it was starting to get cooler. These guys had a long night ahead of them. While sitting there at Ledges I did some time calculations and realized I wouldn't be able to see any of my runners here. I had to drive back to Cuyahoga Falls to pick up Alisa, one of Dan's pacers, and drive her to meet up with him at Pine Hollow. In order to get to Alisa in time, I would miss seeing everyone come through Ledges. Once I realized that, I packed up. I was only at Ledges for about 30 minutes.

Soon, I got word from Chase, who was Dan's second pacer, that he had slowed down and wouldn't be at Pine Hollow as early as expected. By now, I had already left Ledges and it made no sense to go back. So what did I do? I went to a brewery, of course. I checked out R. Shea Brewing in Akron, where I learned about the existence of the Summit Brew Path. Great - now I had to make a plan to visit all 14 of those breweries in addition to the 37 Columbus area breweries on my list. I just had a couple samplers at R. Shea, then found out Dan had slowed his pace even more. I had time now for the most substantial meal I'd had all day - tacos at Chipotle. I also had enough time to stop by Target to buy some leggings (I had not packed any long pants, and it was cold) and a blanket. Somewhere along the way I was tracking my runners and I learned that Tony dropped after Mile 60. I wasn't sure why, and I was sad for him.

Miles 72.7 and 76.5 - Pine Hollow

After my errands and my meal I went to Pine Hollow and see Aaron through the aid station before I had to pick up Alisa. Pine Hollow was two aid stations in one, and in fact there were separate tents for the runners' first time through, and second time through about four miles later. It was dark now, and people were cold. Pine Hollow was lit up and decorated like Halloween night. As soon as I found a place to set up, I saw Aaron. And it was heartbreaking, because he had to make the difficult decision to DNF. Aaron did everything right leading up to and on race day. He was running well and feeling strong. But the venom from the wasp stings was continuing to make him sick and he wasn't able to eat. He was smart enough to know that his chances of finishing the race were not good without proper fuel. Aaron had run all the way to Pine Hollow solo and had planned to pick up his pacer there. But now, there was no need for that. I had to leave soon to pick up Alisa at the Sheraton, so I offered to drive Aaron back there. I'm sure he was disappointed, but he seemed to be OK with his decision and vowed to come back next year and complete the course. He had allergy medicine in his hotel room, so that would help him to counter the wasp stings. And hopefully he'd be able to rest and eat soon too. I said goodbye to Aaron and then went up to Alisa's room to meet her.

Alisa was making last minute wardrobe selections based on the current and predicted temperatures. She was looking forward to pacing Dan to his finish. She had been a pacer at this race before, and earlier that morning she had run part of the course. She knew what she was getting into, and she seemed to know Dan well and had the skills and knowledge to get him to the finish. We got to Pine Hollow and set up the chair. I let Alisa sit since she would be the one running about a marathon distance with Dan to his finish. It was cold and dark and quiet except for the sounds of runners and crew talking, and the occasional cowbell. I was receiving periodic messages from Chase letting us know where he and Dan were. Eventually, they came into the aid station. Dan was tired and had slowed down a little bit. He wasn't feeling the greatest, but who would be after 70+ miles through the forest? We got him some soup and sat with him as he made his final wardrobe change of the race. I could tell that he wanted to sit for longer, but there was no time for that. Alisa got him up and then they left Pine Hollow. I was pretty tired by now, and knew that Dan was in good hands with Alisa as his pacer. I told them that they would probably not see me until the finish.

At Pine Hollow: Chase brought Dan into the aid station
At Pine Hollow: Alisa picked up Dan and was his final pacer

After Dan and Alisa left Pine Hollow, I went back to my hotel. I slept for two and a half hours or so. Then I cleaned up, changed and packed my gear. It was early, but I had to check out, as I wouldn't be back this way in time for the normal check-out. 

Mile 102.2 - Finish Line/HiHO Brewing Co.

I drove from my hotel near Hudson to the finish line in Cuyahoga Falls, but this time I went by way of a coffee shop so I could have a much needed bagel and coffee.  The finish line was at HiHo Brewing Co., less than a block from the Sheraton. It was a great location for a finish line. And you read that last heading correctly; Burning River 100 is actually 102.2 miles. Just a little bonus 2.2, because...why not? I found a spot along the last stretch of sidewalk where the runners finished, and set up my chair. I cheered for everyone who came in for their finish. There were relay runners, back half 50 milers, and of course the 100 milers. I saw the husband of the woman I met at the very first aid station, finishing strong. I had no idea where Dan was because the tracker wasn't tracking him anymore. His cell phone battery must have died a while back. In fact, I had no reading on him after Botzum Parking, the Mile 92.6 aid station. But he was not listed in the race results among the DNFs, so I knew he was still out there. And then, I saw Dan and Alisa coming down the road! I ran out to meet Dan and to cheer him in. I ran a few paces with him to the finish chute, but then let him have his finish.


At Finish Line: Here comes Dan-O!
At Finish Line: Dan stops to reflect

It was an amazing thing to see! A runner I'd been tracking and serving as de facto crew member for 29.5 hours...through a strong, fast start to ups and downs along the way, which varied from minor to major aches and pains. If Dan ever thought of dropping, I never saw it. I saw a runner who may have been tired, cold, hungry or in pain at times, but who showed great mental fortitude and determination. He had great pacers guiding him in his last 50 miles too, and they deserve credit for their unwavering support. After his finish, Dan knelt down to reflect on his finish and then laid down on the sidewalk. He needed a few moments, and who could blame him? We gave him cold washcloths to cool him down, and made sure he had any fluids he could take, but he just needed to rest for a few minutes. The podiatrist promised to work on his feet when he got up, but Dan decided he'd rather have a beer!


At HiHo Brewing Co.: Dan-O with his well-earned belt buckle and beer
At HiHo Brewing Co.: OK, I didn't do as much to earn my beer, but I enjoyed it nonetheless

Dan-O, Burning River 100 finisher and I headed into HiHo for a beer each, while Alisa sat with us. Dan had an amber. I had an IPA and got another stamp in my Summit Brew Path book. Dan's beer went down much faster than mine, and soon he and Alisa were off to the hotel to get cleaned up. In another hour or so I would meet them for breakfast at the Sheraton. I enjoyed sitting with Dan and Alisa as they ate the breakfast they deserved. I was still full from my earlier bagel, but I had some coffee and kept them company. Dan left the table first, needing a nap before the trip back to Dayton. Alisa and I had a nice time talking. She would be driving Dan home, which made me feel better than if he was driving. Then eventually, I said goodbye to Alisa.

But my time in Northeastern Ohio was not quite finished. I drove back to Madcap to get my Brew Path stamp, proving I had been there on Friday night with a photo of my beer flight. Now I had 3 of the 14 stamps. I made my way home via Ohio Brewing in Akron, and then Wadsworth Brewing in Wadsworth. Now I had 5 out of 14 stamps, off to a great start. I would find a way to visit the remaining 9 breweries before the end of the year and earn my Summit Brew Path t-shirt.


Burning River got me excited about the ultra community, and also the Akron/Canton area brewery community

Reflections

It's now been a little over a month since Burning River. I may have forgotten some of the finer details of my weekend, though I did include a lot in the above write-up. But what I can offer now are some reflections on that weekend based on a having a little distance and perspective.

A 100 Miler is no joke! Three friends started the race but only one finished. All three were experienced ultra-marathoners and had trained and planned well for Burning River. But race day throws obstacles at you and all the preparation in the world might not be enough on that one day. This race was very well managed by Western Reserve Racing. It runs through beautiful landscapes in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and I was envious of the scenery that the runners got to see. I thoroughly enjoyed traveling to the various aid stations and executing my job as unofficial crew member. I was no one's official crew, but I did my best to anticipate the needs of my friends, get them what they needed at the time, and get them back on course. It was truly an honor to help them on their journeys. 

I would absolutely love another chance to crew or pace at a 100 Miler. However, I'm not sure that running one is in my future. I used to say that I had no desire to run an ultra longer than a 50K (which I also have yet to do), but now I'm not as sure. I can envision the day when I decide to take on a 50 Miler. But it would not be just for the distance. I have no desire to run one of the timed races with multiple loops that allow you to rack up miles upon miles with every identical circuit. No, the only ultra I will run will be about the journey, and I want it to be a unique journey. I want to travel through parks and trails and see something new and peaceful at every turn, not just multiples of the same scenery. 

And I would consider doing it at one of the Western Reserve Racing events. These guys are a class act. From the moment I stepped into the Sheraton as a volunteer, to the moment I left Dan's finish line, I was impressed by this organization. They did a great job with everything I saw. And after the race, I received a hand-written thank-you card in the mail from staff member Kelly, who coordinated the packet pick-up volunteers, and probably multiple other things as well.

In fact, I did go back to a Western Reserve Racing event - just yesterday! I ran the Minnehaha 5 Miler Trail Race in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and I'll cover it in a future blog post. I just had to get the Burning River report up here first. 


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