I knew I was in for a long, long day. That’s the nature of relay racing. And the longer the race, the longer the wait.
This was the longest relay race I’d ever taken part in: a 100-mile trail race through three park systems in Northeast Ohio. I was running the last leg of the Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Race and Relay on an eight-person team.
My leg would be about 10 miles, and most likely in the dark, through deep woods, on towpath, roads and hiking trails.
I woke up 7 a.m. Saturday and went to a coffee shop for breakfast. I texted the other team members: “Kind of strange to be sitting at Brueggers in the Merriman Valley, sipping coffee, reading the paper, trying not to get too antsy. I’m not on deck for 12+ hours.”
Tracy, our team captain who would run the seventh leg (and hand off to me) responded: “I feel the same way!”
Little did I know it would have to wait another fifteen hours before I would actually hit the trails.
But I was not complaining. This was going to be a wonderful day. For the first time ever, I would watch the crazy, extreme, wild and wooly world of 100-mile trail running.
Nearly 300 brave souls would be running the entire distance as a solo endurance event, starting at 5 a.m. on Saturday and running through sundown and another sunrise before the finish line closed at 11 a.m Sunday.
The solo runners were there for guts and glory and survival. The relay runners (some 30 teams of two, four or eight runners) were there for fun and a chance to cheer on the full-distance runners. We would run along the same trails at the same time.
The icing on the cake: the race was taking place on my beloved trails in the Northeast Ohio, which was my playground a decade ago, before I moved to Indianapolis. During my eight years in Akron, I logged thousands of miles on these trails and made wonderful running friends.
After breakfast, I decided to head up to my old neighborhood near Forest Lodge Park. I parked the car and spent an hour hiking the streets. Most of the houses were still very well kept up and the streets were still very pretty and inviting, although I was surprised how many had For Sale signs in the yard.
During this time, I thought about our first runners, who were out on the course. I looked forward to my run, and tried not to worry about letting the team down. A dozen bad things could happen. My IT band could flare up at the worst possible time. My car could break down. I could trip over something in the dark during my run and hit my head on a rock. I could take four hours to run 10 miles.
Plus, I had never run with anyone else on my team, and they had never run with me. I met the team captain on the message board a couple months ago and more or less begged to join. She took me on and I was grateful.
For the weekend, we would all be depending on each other, yet some of us hardly knew each other. Some of us were friends. Some of us were strangers. And that is what we decided to name the team: Burning River Friends and Strangers.
Now, finally, it was race weekend. We were all together for a long, wacky day. But I was pretty sure we would have a good outcome, with lots of fun along the way.
And in addition to our own relay, a big part of the fun would be watch the full-distance runners.
I’ve never run 100 miles and probably never will. I’m 55, a midpacker, and am trying to come back from a leg injury. I am way past my running peak, if I ever had one. My longest race was a 50K, and that was five years ago. I’ve run 10 marathons, but the thought of running 100 miles — basically four marathons in a row — is breathtaking, to say the least.
Still, I’ve been fascinated by these extreme distances for years and years. And finally, this weekend, I could watch from the sidelines for a bit.
I wrapped up my neighborhood hike and drove around a few old favorite places: Highland Square, downtown Akron, a few west side parks.
Then, fearful I was overdoing it on my legs, I returned to the house where I was staying. (I was a guest of old friends who were on vacation and kindly opened their doors to me. Their house was located near Merriman Road and Memorial Parkway, just a few minutes from the race course.)
I passed a few hours by playing the piano. My hosts had had lots of fun sheet music. I played it all very badly and had a great time.
I also did push-ups and knee-bends and lots of leg stretches. And every 10 minutes or so, I would check Facebook or my phone for updates.
By this time, we got confirmation that our first three runners were done and our fourth had started out. I didn’t know the northern part of the course at all, and couldn’t picture where Bryan, Jason and Cory were running.
At about 2 p.m., I saw through the windows that the sky was beginning to darken and winds were picking up. Then it began to rain heavily for about an hour. I checked our schedule and saw that Carrie, our fourth runner, was probably in the middle of her 15-mile leg, a winding series of loops and connectors from Oak Grove to Boston Store. I hoped she wasn’t getting soaked.
At about 3 p.m., I stretched out on the couch, put down my phone and closed my eyes, and tried to get a little rest. I knew I would be up late, and didn’t want to be wiped out.
I didn’t actually fall asleep, but I spent a nice 30 minutes or so getting calm. The breeze through the back windows felt good.
Then I heard my phone ding again, and sat up and checked it. Carrie said she had finished her leg and handed off to Jeanine at Boston Store. She would later tell me she had not gotten wet after all, as she was deep in the woods.
About this time, it dawned on me that if I wanted to see the 100-milers in all their glory and cheer them on, I should head out to an aid station somewhere in the middle of the course.
I drove to Pine Hollow and spent about an hour watching the runners come through. Most seemed to be holding up strong, at least the ones I saw. They stopped for only a couple of minutes, sometimes to change socks and grab something to eat. I waved as they came by and wished them the best.
Over the next few hours, I kept tabs on the chatter, and noticed that Jeanine had handed off to Marta, our sixth runner, at the Ledges.
Finally, at about 7 p.m., I changed into my running stuff and pinned my number to my shirt. Then I drove out to Freshway market in the valley to buy a few sandwiches and soft drinks for dinner. From there, I headed out to Botzum Trailhead aid station, where I was due to report as a volunteer for the 8 p.m. to midnight shift.
When I arrived, I met the aid station captain, a woman named Anastasia. She had no frills or airs about her, a real workhorse with a big heart. She and a few others had already set up two tents, chairs, drop-bag area, lights and food.
I really didn’t have a whole lot to do. It was still very early in the race. I chatted with Anastasia and learned she had volunteered at this race since it was established eight years ago. She had staffed aid stations at the Covered Bridge and Pine Hollow. One year, she even led the runners out from the starting line or her bicycle.
This was Anastasia’s first year as an aid-station captain. In the ultra world, I guess that’s something of an honor, overseeing all the planning and logistics and supervising a dozen or so volunteers. Aid stations also have friendly competitions as to which will be the most creatively decorated. Ours didn’t appear to have a theme, but everything was set up and brightly illuminated and open for business.
During this time, the early relay runners came through. The runners stopped quickly for a drink, and dashed out again. I actually missed the first eight-man relay team that went through, the Master Blasters, led by Jim Chaney, who ran the first leg and spent the rest of the day chauffeuring his team around.
After about an hour or so, the first solo runner came through. We all gave him a big cheer. He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and very nice to all the volunteers, asking politely for food and water, and not looking the least bit tired after 91 miles.
His pacer, a young, fit girl with extremely hard abs, stocked up his fanny pack with gels and other supplies. His crew helper, who had been waiting for him in a lawn chair, gave him a drink and salt tablets. Then in two minutes, he was gone. He would go on to win the race by a wide margin, with a time of 17 hours and something.
There were about six volunteers at the aid station at this time, with all kinds of duties, from checking in runners to serving food to pulling drop bags to tending sore feet. But this early in the race, we had very little to do. Everything was set up and ready. We were just waiting for the runners to show up.
Anastasia said most of them would probably arrive hours from now, some even after sunrise. The cutoff time at this aid station was about 8 a.m. for solos and relay runners alike. Then they had three hours to get to the finish line, 10 miles away.
But now, most of them were still miles north of us, navigating God-knows-what trails deep in the valley.
“They’re out there,” Anastasia said. “They’re heading our way, like a freight train.”
We hung glow sticks in the trees for a few hundred feet leading up to our aid station, so runners could see the approach in the dark.
Every 15 minutes or so, we would see the beam of a headlamp bouncing up the trail, heading our way. We would all stand up and applaud and cheer like crazy. When they got into clearing, we would write down their number, get them refreshments, wish them well, and send them off again.
Then we all sat back down and waited for the next runner. Sometimes we had 15-20 minutes of dead time. In the meantime, someone started a generator so Anastasia could cook noodles for anyone needing a warm pick-me-up. Up at the Covered Bridge aid station, a few miles upstream, I heard they were handing out grilled cheese sandwiches.
At 9:15 p.m., Marta (our sixth runner), texted me to say she had finished up and Tracy had taken the handoff, and I should plan accordingly. Tracy had predicted about three hours to cover her 15 miles, so I knew I was in for a wait – probably until midnight or so.
At about 10 p.m., Jeanine (our fifth runner) showed up to say hi. She was cleaned up and changed into comfortable clothes. She said she had enjoyed her 12-mile run from Boston Store to the Ledges and wanted to greet Tracy when she came in.
At midnight, some of the aid-station volunteers were done with their four-hour shift and said goodbye. A few new ones trickled in. Anastasia was staying for the duration, from set-up to break-down, probably about 16 hours. “You do what you have to do,” she said with a laugh. I guessed that the race organizers loved volunteers like Anastasia, who got paid nothing, but loved spending a whole weekend in the woods helping out.
I looked at my watch and waited for Tracy, and hoped the rain hadn’t made the hills too muddy on her leg. In meantime, I stayed fueled with a banana, a ClifBar and some Heed energy drink.
At 12:30, I started yawning. “Oh no, you can’t do that,” Anastasia said. “You’d better get some caffeine.” I chuckled but declined.
About this time, I saw a familiar face. It was Darris Blackford, an old journalism friend from Ohio, now an ultrarunner and race director of the Columbus Marathon. He was sitting by the side of the trail, tending to his wife, Star, a runner who had arrived a few minutes before. Darris and Star were running as a two-person relay team. Darris had run the first half and Star was running the second half.
“Hi Darris. Are you guys hanging in there? Do you need anything?” I asked. But they had everything under control, and Darris was being extremely attentive to Star, trying to see how she felt. (Both are extremely strong ultrarunners, and have done multiple 100-mile solos.)
I went back to my chair and said to another volunteer: “Do you know who that is? It’s Darris Blackford. He’s an ultrarunner.”
As soon as I said it, I knew how stupid it sounded. At that moment, the woods were crawling with ultrarunners. This was a Woodstock of ultrarunning. What was the big deal about one more ultrarunner?
I chuckled to myself and thought it would make a funny story later, when I told Mrs. Trail Boy. (She thinks all ultrarunners are as nutty as fruitcakes, but she loves to take hikes, and tolerates my trail running with good humor.)
Finally, at 1:15 a.m., Tracy came trotting in, covered with sweat and muddy legs. Now, it was my time to go!
I pulled off my volunteer shirt, revealing my tech tee and bib underneath. I asked Jeanine to take my gym bag, with dry clothes and sandals, to the finish line.
Then I snapped on my headlamp and trotted down the trailhead by the edge of the parking lot. I crossed Riverview Road, and began my 10-mile leg. Hopefully, I would survive the dark woods and make it in one piece to the finish line.
The weather was beautiful, mid-60s, clear sky with a big moon. The trail was mostly dark, and I knew I was in for an adventure.
I remembered what an old running friend had often told me: Just enjoy the experience and run your own race. I smiled and promised myself I would.
I pushed along at a 9-minute pace, careful not to go too fast. There was no rush. Our time all agreed this was just for fun, and no one was going to be clock-watching. Well, not much, anyway.
My unofficial goal was to finish under two hours, which sounded reasonable for 10 miles of trail. But wild card would be the darkness and the weather. I would have to stay flexible.
Still, a goal of two hours meant I should arrive at the Memorial Parkway aid station (about five miles away) in under an hour and then to the finish line 50-60 minutes after that.
The trail was surprisingly empty. I passed one or two relay runners and a couple of solo runners in the first half-hour. But for the most part, I was completely alone in the night woods. I could see little else than my light beam on the trail ahead of me, and black shadows all around me.
I was surprised how fun it was to run alone in the dark. Every once in a while I would see a familiar outline of a fence or a stone wall, or the moon sparkling off the river. I splashed through rain puddles and enjoyed the night air.
I heard lots of nocturnal wildlife noises: crickets and frogs and maybe even an owl. I’m not an expert in animal sounds or the woods. But it was very fun and pleasing and made me feel happy all the way down to my damp Mizuno running shoes.
After 20 minutes or so, I trotted up a mild slope behind Brueggers and came out to a short stretch of asphalt through the retail district along Merriman Road. This part felt weird, running with a headlamp down an asphalt trail near the road in the wee hours of the night, as cars and a few pedestrians went by.
As I swung down behind the Parkwood Plaza on Portage Path, I saw some teenagers on skateboards in the bank parking lot. One looked at me: “What is this guy doing, running here,” he asked in a loud voice. “I know! It’s crazy!” his friend said.
I waved and kept going. Near the back of the Merriman car wash, I came upon a vagrant (I think) sitting on a fence, with a pack of stuff at his feet. I slowed down to see if he was OK. “Keep running!” he ordered. I did so and tried to hide a smile.
I swung under the bridge, up the other side of Portage Path and then took a left back into the woods on the towpath near the Big Indian statue.
Within a minute or two, civilization was behind me again. It got very dark and quiet. I embraced the solitude, trotting along. This used to one of my favorite stretches of the towpath, especially in the late spring, with lots of flowering trees, with a slightly European countryside look.
But now it was too dark to see anything except for the reflective course markings (little flags) every hundred feet or so, and the bouncing beam of my headlamp on the trail, and a few rain puddles.
I ran past the Big Bend driveway, over the boardwalk and over to the lookout. During this stretch, I heard the chirping of thousands of frogs in the marshes. It was amazing.
I was feeling strong, and keep a steady trot, making the turn up along stretch to Memorial Parkway. I recognized a few more landmarks, including the hot, open field I used to call “Death Valley” (now nice and cool in the dark).
Soon, I saw a set of lights set low alongside the trail. I could hear voices a few hundred feet up the trail, shouting “runner!” and clapping, just as our volunteer team had done at Botzum.
As I approached the Memorial Parkway aid station, the volunteers were going nuts, screaming and cheering and clapping.
“I’m just a relay runner,” I tried to explain. “I’ve only run five miles! Save your cheers for the real heroes.”
But they didn’t seem to care. Apparently, I was as awesome as someone who had started at 5 a.m. with the full-distance crowd and had covered 95 miles. “Way to go!!” one volunteer said.
I grabbed a cup of Coke from the aid table and gulped it down. Then I sent a text message to my team, telling them I had hit the halfway mark. I got a response from Marta: “Awesome, John! We are here [at the finish line] waiting for you.”
I glanced at my watch and saw I had run for 51 minutes. So I had met my first goal: to get to Memorial in under an hour.
I left the food table and trotted over to the outhouse to tend to nature; in 60 seconds I was back outside, where I nearly ran into Darris Blackford, who somehow had managed to get over to this aid station from Botzum (in a car, doubtlessly) and was again waiting for Star.
“I didn’t know you were running too!” Darris exclaimed.
“Just 10 miles. But I’m having a blast,” I said, and hurried off, up the side of the hill to the road. Then I began a one-mile paved section, including a steep climb up Ulher Drive, a brick road.
No one was in sight behind me. But at the top, ahead of me, I saw two people walking slowly. I continued trotting toward them. I noticed they were runners, with Burning River bibs and headlamps. Apparently these two were a solo 100-miler and his pacer. They didn’t look all that tired, chattering back and forth, but they didn’t seem interested in running either. I said hi and kept going. I never saw them again.
I ran downhill for a few blocks and made the right turn into the Chuckery area of the Cascade Valley Park. The course was all very well marked. I had no trouble figuring out where to go.
But from here, I knew I would be facing the unfamiliar. I had never run this section of the Chuckery Trail, which the race director just added/changed in a few days ago.
I slowed down a bit and made myself think of one goal: Stay upright, get through the woods and make it to Front Street, about three miles away, in one piece.
I turned right onto the trail immediately saw a monster hill towering above me. At least, that’s what it looked like in the dark. I pointed my headlamp as high as I could, but I couldn’t see the top, just a line of reflective flags that went up, up, up and out of view.
I took a deep breath and began a slow trot upward. About 30 seconds later, I still couldn’t see the top through the gloom, and I could feel my heart speeding up. I decided to play it safe (or wimp out, not sure which is more accurate) and downgrade to a brisk hike.
Up I went. The trail turned a corner, and I could finally see the top, in the distance. I keep climbing.
Finally, at the top, I took a 30-second breather and checked my watch. I was still doing fine. Then I began running again. The next 15-20 minutes would be the most fun and exhilarating of the whole run. The trail surface was unremarkable (a weedy, overgrown Jeep road), but it was a very cool experience to run in the dark on an unfamiliar path.
The trail turned here and there in the dark, in and out of the woods, up a few stairs, down a slight hill and around a corner. I could only follow it with blind faith.
A few minutes later, I began to hear the faint sounds of a waterfall. I remembered that I was running toward the hydraulic dam on the Cuyahoga River below, and sure enough, with every passing minute, the sound got louder.
I tried to peer over the left side of the trail to see the waterfall somewhere below, but it way too dark to see farther than a foot or two into the woods. But what I did see gave me a small shiver: a steep hillside, with no fence or rail.
I had no idea how steep the embankment was, or how far down it was to the bottom. But I vowed to stay on the far right side of the trail, away from the hillside, even if it meant running through puddles and tall grass.
Eventually, I came to a long, wooden staircase. I knew what was ahead. I was back on familiar ground. This staircase, I knew, had 155 steps. I had counted them last month, when I ran part of this trail during a familiarization run.
Halfway up the stairs, I stopped for a moment to text my team, letting them know where I was, and that I was about three-quarters of the way done.
“You got it, John,” Jason texted back. “Bring it home!!!”
The stairs were not that bad. But I felt terrible for the full-distance 100-milers. I was sure that many of them would be dead on their feet by the time they hit these steps (roughly at mile 98) and would have to limp up, slowly and painfully.
A few moments later, I got to the top. I turned left, and immediately saw one of the biggest landmarks of this stretch of trail, the massive Main Street bridge over the trail. I looked up at this impressive piece of engineering, shining by the light of the moon. Yet it was too dark to take a picture, or I might have been tempted to do so.
It was strange to be alone in the middle of the dark woods, not another soul anywhere in sight. Crickets were chirping and the stars twinkled above. It was a solitary, nearly religious experience. Yet, at the finish line, people were waiting for me, and a clock was ticking. I almost had to remind myself I was in a race.
A few hundred feet down the trail, to the left, I saw two rangers (or officers of some kind). “You’re almost there,” one said. I mumbled my thanks, and stopped myself from saying that I knew I had at least two more miles, including a long road climb, and that I wasn’t really close at all.
I trotted down the trail, following a row of high-powered electricity towers that seemed to be every few hundred feet. This section of trail was a little longer than I expected. Several times, I thought I was almost to the road, but it seemed to never appear.
In the meantime, the sound of the waterfall was nearly deafening, compared to the silence of the night I was used to hearing.
Finally, I hit the road and turned left. I was now on the home stretch.
I ran along a sidewalk up a half-mile hill. I could still see no one ahead or behind me; I hadn’t seen another runner in about 20 or 30 minutes, since the brick road before this trail started.
I passed lots of nondescript buildings and parking lots. I kept going, kept going, and finally, in the distance, saw the glowing red sign of the Sheraton Suites hotel, which I knew was just a block from the finish line.
“Time to up the pace and finish strong,” I thought to myself. I shifted into third gear and tore for the finish line.
In the distance, I could hear cheering. “Runner!” people were shouting, just like at Memorial Parkway, as they got a glimpse of my headlamp beam bouncing nearer and nearer.
When I got to within a block or so, I saw a volunteer walk out into the road and prepare to block traffic and let me through. I wasn’t sure that was necessary. There was only one car coming and I could definitely wait five seconds for it to pass. But the volunteer stood in the middle of the road and held both hands up. The driver didn’t like it and laid down a mean blast from his horn. I stopped for a minute, let the car by, and then ran another 50 feet to the finish line.
My team was there waiting for me – all of them except for Cory, who had run the third leg.
I was greeted by the other six runners. Jason gave me a warm handshake. Bryan, who had started the race as the first leg of the relay 20 hours earlier, clapped me on the back.
“Wow, Bryan, you’ve had a long day,” was all I could think to say.
“That’s OK,” he answered. “I went home and had some rest.”
Marta came over to me with a paper cup filled with beer. I asked her what kind it was. “Great Lakes Burning River, of course!” she said with a smile. And it was delicious.
We stood around, got our relay medals, and posed while someone took a few group photo. Then I changed out of my sweaty shirt and muddy shoes. (Jeanine had made good on her promise to get my gym bag to the finish line.)
It was a few minutes after 3 a.m., and we were all smiles. I looked at my watch. I had run my 10-mile leg in an hour and 49 minutes, beating my goal by 11 minutes. I hadn’t let anyone down.
We were all a bit tired, but happy, and in the case of the later runners, endorphined to one degree or another.
We spent a half-hour trading war stories.
Jason and I had a nice talk. He had grown up in Cuyahoga Falls, not that far from the Chuckery area. Back then, it wasn’t a park at all. It was private property, apparently owned by the electric company near the dam. But Jason and his friends used to hike and play on the trails and hillsides all the time. He said he still ran those trails every few weeks.
As we talked, other runners were coming in – a few solo runners, but mostly relay runners. I saw Star Blackford crossing the finish line, with Darris running alongside her. We clapped for them.
I also wandered over to say hi to Vince Rucci, a partner at Vertical Runner, who was manning the finish line. He looked tired, having been up before dawn, and presumably had many hours ahead of him yet. But he was friendly, as always, and it was good to catch up. I asked him why my leg of the course had been changed at the last minute, and he said it was to steer runners away from a long climb on slippery stone steps.
After another 15 or 20 minutes, the team and I agreed it was time to call it a day. Marta kindly offered me a ride back to Botzum to get my car and my lawn chair.
I thanked her and made the 15-minute drive back to the valley. Once there, I walked over to the aid station to get my volunteer stuff. “Looks who’s back,” said a couple of other volunteers. I grinned and flashed my medal.
Then I packed up the car and drove 15 minutes back to the house, pulled off my shoes and lay back on the couch. I could feel myself drifting to sleep, so I dragged myself upstairs, cleaned and fell into bed.
I sent Mrs. Trail Boy a short message about the race, letting her know it was over and successful. It was now about 4:30 a.m., and I fell asleep within minutes.
When I woke up at 9 a.m., most of the solo runners would still be pushing and stumbling their way to the finish. The lucky ones, that is. About half of the field would eventually drop out. The others would go through the worst agony imaginable: severe blisters, chafing, gastrointestinal distress, pulled muscles, vomiting, etc.
I know that because I would spend the rest of the next day and a half reading messages on Facebook and the race message board from runners and crew members, posting all the gory details.
I read it all with a strange fascination. I wondered if all the agony was worth the medal and the war stories. To a few hundred people, I guessed it was.
I didn’t run a 100-mile race. But I got a little taste of it and loved it.
And our team was no longer Friends and Strangers. I hoped we were now all friends.