Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Redemption at the River: BR100 Race Report

The report is long but I found it impossible to shorten it when I knew so many people along the way, knew the trail so well, and the memory of it all remains so vivid. So, it is all published here instead of in parts so you may find yourself making a few visits here to cover it all. I hope you enjoy it!

The report really starts one year ago when I signed up for the 2nd Annual Burning River 100. I trained well, felt ready, and tackled the event but thanks to a bad ankle sprain at around mile 38, on the Carriage Trail, my day ended early at mile 55 when the pain became too much to bear. Technically, that’s called a DNF, or “did not finish” and was the first I had ever had in any running event. It’s also commonly referred to as “do nothing fatal.” Knowing when to say when and pull the plug is a very difficult decision to make but after being treated by the podiatrist, I knew I had made the correct decision. Within hours of that event and a flood of emotions, both positive for my fellow runners who crossed the finish line and not-so-positive towards myself, I swore that in 2009, I’d have my revenge at this course. A chance for redemption, you might say.

This time around, I felt much better prepared, better trained, and thanks to the Kettle 100 eight short weeks ago, I knew what it was like to head into the dark of night and push through it all. Speaking of the Kettle 100, this experience was nothing like it. I won’t say it was a better or worse experience but instead, just completely different from start to finish. Two completely unique, one-of-a-kind experiences. Plus, unlike a marathon that has it’s ups and downs throughout the event but all-in-all, won’t vary too much from the expected, a 100-miler simply has so much time to pass where virtually anything can happen. You can think you have it all together and have covered every possibility, but don’t be surprised when reality takes a turn very much unexpected.

Race morning, 155 of us gathered in the front lawn of Squire’s Castle in Willoughby Hills, OH, part of the Chagrin Reservation. It is located east of Cleveland. Before that, I helped check in fellow runners at the finish line in Cuyahoga Falls where two school busses shuttled us to the start. Just like last year, our bus drivers got lost once we got close to the Castle, blaming it on her malfunctioning GPS. Luckily, she found her way and got us there on time. After milling around saying a great many “good luck’s” to friends watching the countdown clock tick down, 5am rolled in and we were off. The first 13 miles are on road, some hilly sections, and some flat stretches. It’s very easy in this area to go out way too fast. I ran as easily as I could and focused on good, easy breathing and a clean stride. Arriving at the first major aid station at the Polo Fields, I popped some salt tabs, had a PB&J, a Coke, filled up my bottles, and I was off. The next 17-20 miles went pretty well and compared to the 2nd half of the course, are pretty easy and boring. Lots of non-technical bridle trails, grassy areas, and the occasional hill thrown in. With that said, it’s easy for someone to think they are going to have a record-breaking event because if you’re not smart and you run this portion faster than you should, the course will chew you up and spit you out before you get to Cuyahoga Falls. As I passed the 50K spot, approaching the 1/3 complete point of the race, I was feeling really good still. I was eating well, the day hadn’t yet gotten too hot, and I was still hydrated by all signs that I could observe (still going to the bathroom, sweating, hairs on arm not standing up).

Around mile 34, we enter the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on the Towpath Trail for a miserable 2.5 mile stretch to the Station Road aid station which is the first major double aid station since we get there once, do a loop and arrive back again at mile 42. Those 2.5 miles are miserable because you hit it when the sun is directly above you and the day is really warming up with no coverage provided by any trees. The one bright spot along here was Jenny Chow catching me. If you read my Kettle 100 report, Jenny is the runner I was running with around mile 15 when I lost the picture of my family. She went on to WIN the Kettle 100! Two weeks later, she won the Mohican 100 and then ran well at the Vermont 100 a few weeks later. Now, she was back for the 2nd time at Burning River. As soon as I saw her and her always-on smile, I said “It’s about time! It took you 34 miles to catch me instead of 14 at the Kettle! We shared a few moments together but in true, steady, Jenny fashion, she was off. Jenny, you are soooo inspiring! You rock!!! Once at Station Rd., I made a brief stop and headed out for that loop and probably ingesting 30 ounces of water. Back at mile 42, I was surprised to see my parents who I had no idea were coming down. I also stuck to my plan and utilized everything in my drop-bag and changed into trail shoes, changed my socks, and put a fresh shirt on. The only thing missing from my bag was a massage therapist…that would’ve been nice. On the way out, fresh pizza had just been delivered so I grabbed a piece and headed on out en route to Ottawa Point. At this point, I felt pretty good…tired, but no real physical issues like blisters or anything. The pace had slowed as the mercury reached into the upper 80s but overall, I was still moving along well.

I was excited to finally get to Blue Hen Falls which is around mile 54.5 because at the top of the hill coming out of that area is the spot that I had Marjie pick me up last year before I reported my DNF to the Boston Store Aid Station captain. Inside, I was throwing a party for passing that point. Shortly after that, though, I came upon the numerically biggest stair climb of the event, the Piano Keys…named so because there are 88 steps…the number of keys on a piano. Ugh…that was a tough climb at Mile 55. The icing on the cake was my favorite downhill in all the park right afterwards, the ½ mile descent on the Rollercoaster Hill. After emerging from the woods at the bottom, I saw my brother, Jim, on the corner and then his wife, Bekah, crossing the bridge from the Boston Store. Arriving at the aid station, there was Marjie volunteering and stepping up and above her volunteer duties with a kiss. (hey, it pays to be connected to some folks, don’t you think??) Kellie T. was also there who was planning to pace me the final 40 miles. Since I was only at mile 56, she’d have to wait for me to do the Brandywine Falls loop (4.6 miles) before running with me. I grabbed a freshly made beef burrito and headed on out towards the Falls. Outside of the pizza, that was the first “real” food of the day…a very welcome change.

In order to get to the Falls, you must go up. Up is a very good way to describe the first half of this loop. After a short stretch of towpath, you get out in the sun on the blacktop. Let me describe it this way: the tar on the road was so hot that it was bubbling and as I went by, I could hear pops here and there…from those bubbles popping. Oh yea, it was uphill, too. After a steep downhill following the uphill, a very quick jaunt through the woods, and crossing the boulders over the stream downstream of the Brandywine Falls, yet another long, very rocky climb presents itself that ends above the waterfall itself and also besides the Inn at Brandywine Falls (a bed-n-breakfast I highly recommend, by the way). After passing by and entering the boardwalk above the Falls, I decided that I needed a “moment.” With no one around, I finished one set of steps on the boardwalk but stopped one step shy of the top, turned around and laid down. I just laid there…motionless…and stared at the clear blue sky, surrounding trees, and listened to the falling water of Brandywine Falls. I could have laid there forever. However, after about a minute of peace and truly soaking in the moment, I was up and cruising again. That little “moment” worked wonders for me. I think it helped reset things in my head and bring me back down to reality. I enjoyed the mostly downhill stretch back to the Boston Store and once back, changed my socks, downed a Starbucks DoubleShot, picked up Kellie T., my pacer, and I was off and running to mile 65, the Pine Lane Aid Station.

If I could draw a dividing line in this event, it would most likely be here. Things had definitely take a turn for me in a couple of areas sometime in the previous 5-10 miles. For one, my energy levels had certainly gone down even though I was eating and drinking well. This really should have been no surprise. The other more pressing problem was my breathing. You’d think I was asthmatic or something because I couldn’t take full breaths…instead, half breaths. This made it really hard to run for obvious reasons. So, on a stretch of trail I know better than any other and one that I love to run hard, I walked for most of it. I probably added ½ hour to my normal transit time on that section to Pine Lane. I felt like I needed to already start apologizing to Kellie due to my pathetic performance but she remained positive and upbeat and just kept encouraging me. About a mile from Pine Lane, we could hear loud cheers and Kellie asked “What IS that?” “That’s Red and her SARC (Summit Athletic Running Club) crew at Pine Lane welcoming a runner,” I said. No doubt, each and every aid station became more and more of a blessing to arrive at and see familiar, smiling, and cheery faces. Just as we came around the bend about to emerge from the Buckeye Trail, Red’s crew erupted in cheering and applause. [insert grin from ear to ear] I spotted a chair, sat down, and within a few moments, I was enjoying pierogies with onions. They were sooooo good! It really was great to not only take a seat for a brief few moments but also to see familiar faces like Red, Debi, and Bob and hear their encouragement. They are a good example of the “why” I am out there…to share the trails, the experiences, the pureness of it all. Thanks, guys!

Pierogies finished, I hopped out of the chair and we were off on the Valley Bridle Trail en route to mile 70.3, the Happy Days Aid Station, and also where Maria awaited with her homemade snowball cookies. This stretch was over 5 miles which at this point was a long way. As we dipped out of sight of Red and her crew, once again they erupted in cheer and sent us on our way. I have to wonder what a lot of aid station volunteers thought as I left each aid station as far as their finish/non-finish prediction for the event. We runners feel one way but it would be interesting to know how we’re actually perceived. I was told many times “You look strong! You’re doing great!” which was great to hear…but I certainly didn’t feel that way! Anyway, we spent a mile or less on the Valley Bridle and then it was asphalt for several miles until just over a mile from Happy Days when we dipped back onto trail on the Boston Run Trail. Before we got there, Kellie texted Marjie and found out that Marjie, Bekah (my sister-in-law), and now my dad were all there waiting for me. Night also fell in this section and the headlamps came on for the first time and the bats were everywhere. We emerged from the Boston Run Trail, ran across the grassy field, and said hello. Within moments, a cup full of snowballs were in my hand and I was one happy runner. The volunteers at Happy Days were sporting a Woodstock theme, all wearing tie-dye shirts and peace signs hanging everywhere. There were also a few runners catching a nap nearby. Refueled and ready, I grabbed one last kiss and hug from Marjie, said my goodbyes and thanks to everyone, and we hit the trail for Pine Hollow via the gorgeous Ledges Trail and eventually, the monstrous Sound of Music Hills.

The Ledges are a brilliant example of nature at its finest. For the faster runners, they saw this section before nightfall. For us after the sun set, it was a very slow trek through a heavy rock/boulder trail to keep from falling/tripping. Past mile 70, more of a conscious effort has to be put forward to lift those feet enough to clear obstacles. As we made our way past the Ice Box Cave, where we paused to soak in the ice cold air, we eventually made our way to the Overlook. This is the high point where you can see for miles during the day across treetops. I asked Kellie for a “moment” just to relax and I found a large, flat boulder and took a seat. I turned off my light and laid down. Total darkness, silence, the cool rock boulder on my back. Ahhhh….almost as comfy as my pillow-top mattress at home. Turns out that Kellie found her own boulder and loved the moment as well. No doubt, I could’ve fallen asleep within a minute. It appears that the DoubleShot I took at Boston wasn’t doing anything for me at all like it did at the Kettle 100. I was getting very sleepy. The good news was that I was able to breathe again.

After our brief rest, we finished the Ledges, Pine Grove Trail, crested the Sound of Music Hills, and arrived at Pine Hollow, the mile 75 aid station…about one marathon to go! I had some soup because nothing else sounded too good, grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich, and sat down on the moist grass. I was pooped! I ended up spitting out the grilled cheese because chewing it made me feel nauseous. This had me getting worried because I knew I needed calories to fuel myself and that soup wasn’t going to do much. While Kellie fixed her headlamp, I told her to take her time and found a piece of cement near the bathrooms, took a seat, and buried my head in my hands wishing for sleep. A few extremely brief minutes later, I heard Kellie looking for me and we were off across the grassy meadow down to the arduous, hilly, technical Salt Run Trail, one of my favorites in all the Valley. I call this next section a death march. It is a L O N G six miles to mile 81, the infamous Covered Bridge Aid Station. After a little less than 2 miles, we exited Salt Run and entered the Wetmore Trail which has a swampy section (ie: MUD!), one really tough climb, then a section connecting us to Robinson Field before entering a weaving section of Bridle Trail through fields eventually ending besides a cornfield…literally. We found the worst mud of the day only inches from the cornstalks as we approached the Bolanz trailhead. We used the bathrooms at Bolanz (really surprised they were unlocked after midnight) then completed the 6 mile march to the Covered Bridge.

The Covered Bridge was decorated with Christmas lights and full of very supportive, cheery volunteers led fearlessly by Tanya Cady, a veteran ultra runner and 100 mile runner. I was immediately greeted by Mike Keller who checked me in and Tom Jennings who filled my bottle with Heed. Tom is the race director of the inaugural Oil Creek trail races in November…100 mile, 50 mile, and 50K distances. To be honest, I’d been secretly pondering the thought of a 3rd 100-miler this year at Oil Creek but I think now that enough is enough. I’ve been watching Tom and his incredible organization of this new event and would love to run it, but just not this year. I wish all the OC100 participants the best of luck! After seeing a few other familiar faces at the Covered Bridge, I had a cup of fresh, cold pasta salad (YUM!), and a hot, melting grilled cheese ½ sandwich. This time, that baby went down really well. It was soooo good. My stomach was finally cooperating with me. As we departed Mile 81, it was time for the unavoidable. The nastiest, muddiest section of the BR100 is the Perkins Trail. It is a bridle trail, very steep, and used often by horses which really chews it up. Add water and it’s a mud-fest. Kellie had been joking for the last 20 miles “Wouldn’t it be ironic if it started raining when we got to Perkins?” Thanks, Kellie! As soon as we stepped on Perkins, the downpour started. At a distance of around 4.5 miles, this section seemed to go on and on. Steep climb after steep climb…they seemed to never end. Mixed in were some very steep downhills as well which I found out quickly I’d better slow down on or I was going to be eating mud real quick. I was actually starting to feel a bit of life in that section and wanted to quicken the pace…just when I shouldn’t. Eventually, we were back at Covered Bridge at Mile 85. Shoes totally covered in mud, I did my planned shoe change into a heavily cushioned pair of Brooks Glycerins, new socks, another piece of grilled cheese and some grapes for the road, and we were off. Oh yea, my 2nd can of Starbucks DoubleShot, too. Maybe this one will do something for me. Here’s hoping.

The next two miles are asphalt along Hale Farm Village. We kept our headlamps off for most of it and instead navigated by the silhouette of the road…kind of freaky at times, I must admit. At this point with so much darkness and the surprising lack of effect of the infusion of caffeine into my bloodstream (via ShotBloks every 45min plus the Starbucks), I was really getting tired and my eyes were getting heavier by the minute. After 2 miles on road, we entered O’Neill Woods, an easy, rolling, non-technical section of trail and arrived at Mile 89, the O’Neill Woods Aid Station. Suzanne, the BR100 volunteer coordinator, was there offering her never-ending support. I was getting really chilled from the rain and just wanted to lay down. She actually offered me a blanket and a spot beneath the aid station table but although tempting, that would’ve been “lights out!” for me. Instead, I spotted a vacant picnic table a few short steps away. I could hear the aid station workers asking where I was going but I’m sure Kellie explained that I just needed a “moment.” I laid down on the soaking wet, cold bench and attempted a few moments of shut-eye. Unfortunately, the heavy, cold, piercing rain drops on my eyelids prevented that and I was maybe there for 2 minutes and figured since nothing was being accomplished, it was time to get moving again. Off to Merriman Road…

We hit the trail again and before long, we were on a short (but felt long) section of road that connected us to the Towpath Trail…our home until mile 96 at Memorial Parkway. I remember vividly during this part being very cold and crossing my arms trying to garner some body heat. I also remember thinking I needed to throw up. I wasn’t feeling very well, again. As we set foot on the Towpath, I told Kellie to go ahead and I was going to try to induce myself to throw up but I couldn’t do it so instead, I caught up with her and we continued on. Within a few minutes, we could “smell” what was ahead, the wastewater treatment plant which notoriously is the stinkiest part of the course. The Towpath runs right along it’s nasty concrete walls. Here’s where my “dead man walking” impersonation took full effect. Easily from this section until daylight, Kellie would turn around and see my eyes shut, but still moving forward. Every bench or horizontal surface passed looked more inviting than ever as a makeshift bed. I’d weave like the letter “S” across the Towpath behind Kellie trying not to fall over but still keep forward movement. It was certainly the toughest thing I’d ever encountered in ultra-running. Two Starbucks DoubleShots, several cups of Coke at aid stations, caffeine-infused Clif ShotBloks, solid foods, plenty of protein…but alas, none of it was enough to keep me awake. I just wanted it to end. However, there was NEVER a thought to quitting. I wanted it to be over but nothing was going to keep me from that finish line in under 30 hours. I was determined to run across that finish line with my girls’ hands embraced.

As day broke and the dream of finishing in under 24 hours passed, I came alive again. It was also good to meet up with Melissa C. here, as well. The last time I saw her, I was about 4 miles ahead of her around mile 41. Since then, she closed that gap and was clearly battling her own battle within herself. After a quick hug (thanks a ton for that, Melissa…that meant a lot), we spent some time on the Towpath together before eventually drifting apart. The sun rising (although not visible due to heavy cloud-cover) and the rain tapering off breathed new life into me. I started running much more with fewer breaks and charged into the last aid station at Memorial Parkway at Mile 96.4. Maria was there once again with her snowballs and even the Inca Princess was there! I quickly refueled, used the bathroom, and we were off. I was charged and ready to conquer this last section through the Gorge area of Cuyahoga Falls. We climbed the old brick road and quickly passed through a not-so-good neighborhood before entering the Chuckery and eventually the Highbridge Trail. This trail is mostly wide and grassy. We passed the famed Signal Tree and I was mostly running now and passing a runner every once in awhile. We climbed the tortuous stone steps and another set of harder wooden steps before covering the last section of Highbridge Trail besides the Gorge Dam and finally, we arrived on Front St. We crossed the bridge, running, and look who’s there…Mr. Vince Rucci himself. I started walking (due to a hill) and here he is yelling at me to get running! “Hey, man, I’ve covered 99 miles since 5am yesterday…give me a break!!!” He shouted a few other “motivating words” and we dipped onto the Glen’s Trail, the last trail before the finish. I told Kellie “Let’s run all the flats, walk the hills, and walk around/over the big rocks/boulders. I don’t want to slip or make any stupid mistakes at this stage.” We did just that and before we knew it, we made the last dog-leg turn out of the woods and onto Front St. There were my girls and Marjie jumping up and down!!! I turned to my right and looked at the big “S” logo on the Sheraton hotel, an image I had imagined countless times at this very moment, a clear indicator that victory was at hand. I grabbed a hand of each of my girls and we began running along Front St. en route to the finish. As we turned the corner, THEY were getting winded so I gave them a little rest break, then we set our sights on the brick clock tower at Falls River Square and pushed through to the end, crossing the finish line hand-in-hand in 27 hours, 11 minutes. Redemption at the River has been accomplished! It was like paparazzi at the finish line with cameras flashing all around. It seemed like an endless supply of handshakes from fellow runners, hugs from family and from Kellie, my awesome pacer.

To Kellie: THANK YOU for your support, your encouragement, and your occasional “cattle prodding” that was necessary at times. Your continuous upbeat attitude helped keep my spirits from diving into the negative. You most certainly kept me from taking a very long nap out there. Who knows…I may still be out there somewhere if it weren’t for you! You are truly a great friend and I am forever appreciative for your willingness to accompany me on this journey.

To Marjie: THANK YOU for enduring a year of craziness in training for and completing two 100 mile endurance races. I am so thankful for your never-ending support and very happy you could experience this one both as a volunteer at the Boston Store and as a spectator. Your unwavering support for me and my “addiction” does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. If family and running were not in balance, none of this would be worth it. Thank you and I love you.


Mark Carroll said...

Awesome report and terrific job!! I saw you coming back to Station Road from the Carriage Trail Loop as I was heading out. You looked great then and obviously finished strong. What a great summer you have had! Thanks for the inspiration : ).

Anonymous said...

I agree...what a great report. I got goose bumps near the end. Top notch Nick...you better believe it!

Inca Princess said...

Great job Nick! You looked really sleepy at mile 96.4 but when you told me in depth about how you defrost the snowball cookies, I knew you were fine! AWESOME RACE!

Anonymous said...

How amazing.

Congratulations again and what can anyone say? (I see a book in the future!) Well done!

Jerry Williamson said...


Great report and great job with sleep-running! It was nice to see you at the aid stations looking strong each time.

Congrats and enjoy your recovery!

Anonymous said...

Nick, I really enjoyed your report. We had some similar experiences - that long stretch getting into the Covered Bridge for the first time, and trying to keep moving consistently on the bike paths late were the hardest sections for me. I was looking for anything to distract me - at one point I was watching the leaves on the ground, like the pattern would have some kind of meaning. That helped for a while, I have no idea why! Michael was a remarkable pacer, he seemed to know exactly what to do without any word from me. I do think it throws you off, however, when you first pick up your pacer - it's easy to lose your momentum for a while and that may be why you struggled a bit at that point.

Anyway, I'm so happy for you. Two 100-mile finishes in a short span of time. You sure we can't convince you to come to Oil Creek...?


Anonymous said...

I loved reading this Nick. Got teary at the end, as you talked about being determined to cross the finish line with your girls. You story even makes me consider that 100 mile finish, almost, but not quite!

Mark Swanson said...

Great report, Nick! I struggled off and on from 50-85, but felt great the last 16 miles. It sure seemed longer than 16 miles though! Congratulations!

Dan Horvath said...

great story. congrats and nice job!

Nick Billock said...

Mark: Thank you! And, congratulations to you as well. It was a pleasure to share the trails with you at both of my 100 milers this year. Recover well!

Mike: thanks so much for your volunteer efforts at the Covered Bridge. It was refreshing to see you and so many other cheery faces after emerging from 6mi of darkness in the middle of the night. THANK YOU!

Inca: Red told me Thursday that you volunteer at Memorial regularly but I had no idea you'd be there...what an awesome surprise! Thanks so much for being out there!


Jerry: it was really nice to see you the couple of times that I did...always great to see people I know and especially those who have experienced it themselves. Thanks for the support!

Jenny: what can I say? You are phenomenal! Maybe I should have a long-term goal: BEAT JENNY! But really, you are an awesome person and long-distance runner...so dang consistent and happy all along the way. The very best to you for the rest of the year and I suppose...at Oil Creek!

Beth: thanks for your continuing support. Don't worry, you've already been bit by the 50K but, the rest is inevitable. :-)

UltraPastor: it was good to finally meet you Mark and I'm so thankful you had such a successful event and met all your goals. You see, NE Ohio DOES have something to compete with your mountains! :-) The best recovery to you!

Dan: thanks, Dan! I never knew you had been to my blog before. BR100 was an awesome experience. Good luck on your continuing plans at the Northcoast 24!