Beast of Burden

Lockport, New York, a small town 18 miles east of Niagra Falls is the host to a bi-annual race along the historic Erie Canal. When I heard the name of this race, the Beast of Burden, I knew this was one I had to run. When I saw it was 100 miles through the snow, in February, I was sold.

Winter training did not go as smoothly as I had anticipated – a minor IT band injury in December, a two week flu at the peak of my training followed by some hamstring/hip flexor strains two weeks before the race. But, as Dave would tell me during the race, “No pain, no gain. No guts, no glory.” And hey, as all you ultra runners know, this is just par for the course.

Now, the crazy thing about most of these 100 mile runs, besides running 100 miles, is that they typically start at some ridiculous hour like 5 AM. Sure, 5 in the morning is not THAT early, but it’s early enough when you have to get up around 3 to get dressed, eat, take a dump and get to the starting line without forgetting anything. If you are like me and don’t get up at 3 AM normally, then add in the nerves before race day, you can expect to get about 2-3 hours of sleep before the race. But, the Beast of Burden is not your typical race – it has a 10 AM start which allowed for almost a full night of rest!

My Dad graciously offered to crew for the race and make the drive home afterward. Dave also kindly accepted my request for a pacer thinking that this would be a fun adventure.

We awoke on race day in the Comfort Inn in downtown Lockport feeling pretty refreshed after the meet-and-greet packet pickup the night before. We had the privilege to talk with last year’s winner, Richard Cook, mingle a bit with some other runners and meet Laurie Colón the other 100 mile runner from Ohio (who I had only had a chance to chat with a bit on Facebook before the race).

The Comfort Inn had a continental breakfast, and we were pleasantly surprised to meet a few other runners who were there sampling the cereals and waffles as well. Eman and Jennifer were two runners from Toronto who had decided to come south for a “warmer” weather race. Of course, we all had high hopes for the day and nobody talked much of the forecasted 20-30 mi/hr winds. I figured at least we would get our money’s worth.

After some well wishes, some dancing to keep warm and lots of photos at the starting line, we were off and running. The course began with a nicely groomed section of trail that wound its way through some trees and a fitness challenge course (pull-up bars and the like). As we crossed a bridge to the other side of the canal, the footing quickly became much more challenging. Again, I figured that I was just getting my money’s worth. After all, I didn’t want the course to be too easy. I chatted with a couple of runners for a while and eventually settled into listening to an audio book, “World Without End”. I had loaded up this 40+ hour book since I figured it should last through the race. I made decent time through the first 12.5 miles and met Dave and my Dad in about 2:15 in Middleport (the turnaround point).

I had decided to try an all liquid diet this race since I’ve had some trouble with nausea and vomiting at my previous two 100’s. The plan was to drink water (with just a little heed mixed in) and eat 2-3 gels per hour with a rice ball thrown in from time to time. Leigh made up a bunch of rice balls for me before the race and I was set with plenty of hammer gels to get me through. I felt pretty good at the turnaround and headed out into the crazy wind. I really didn’t anticipate how much the wind would slow me down on the way back and ended up doing the return 12.5 miles in around 2:40. I got a chance to catch up with Eman a little bit along the way although we could hardly talk as the wind was so crazy. The wind had ripped my race number most of the way off at this point, so I reattached that, fueled up and headed out for round two.

It felt amazing to have the wind at my back again and I decided to take things nice and easy for this next section. Eman and I yo-yoed back and forth a bit until he slowed down due to a bit of nausea. I felt really bad for him that it was hitting this early and then I started to feel it to. I began to really slow up and pay close attention to really regulate my calories and liquid intake. The nausea was manageable but getting worse despite my efforts. At Middleport, I said a quick hello to my crew, grabbed my headlamp and headed out into the ever darkening sky. I puked twice in the next few miles and felt a lot better. Somewhere in there, Laurie passed me, but I was able to stay focused to get to the 50 mile mark back in Lockport.

Dad and Dave arrived in perfect timing just as I was heading out for a third loop. Dave had decided that he would run the last 50 miles with me (crazy!), so he pulled a quick change as I added another layer for warmth. Nighttime had fallen and so had the temperatures. They were down in the teens after being in the low 30s for most of the day. After another pukage, we were ready to go. I apologized to Dave after two more puking episodes shortly thereafter. He reminded me of “no guts, no glory” – literally. We decided to stop at Gasport to fuel up on more drink and some chips. It was nighttime and hard to see, so we asked the guy out stoking the fire where the entrance to the tent was. He didn’t respond, so we followed his trail of beer cans and entered the cozy tent.

One of the things I found quite challenging about this race was getting out of the aid stations. Of course, it was necessary to keep the tents warm so the volunteers and the food didn’t freeze. However, after warming up for even a minute or two in the tent, it was really not easy to go back out in the cold. But, as Dave told me, you can be asleep in a warm bed any night – how often do you get to run all night in weather like this? As crazy as it may sound, he was absolutely right! So, we got back out on the trail.

The path to Middleport is pretty exposed to the elements, but by this time the wind had mostly died down and we were getting a nice light snow. I think both of us were getting cold at this point, but other than that, things were pretty manageable considering that I was 62 miles into the race. We stepped inside the Freemason Lodge (the aid station) and I immediately began having trouble breathing. Now, there is a point in every race where you are faced with the decision to continue on despite the fact that it seems impossible to keep moving…no less finish the whole race. This was the point for me. After running outside and back in a few times thinking I was going to vomit, I began to get frustrated and started panicking about my situation. I said that I didn’t think I could go on. Dad felt really bad for me and was trying to get me warmed up realizing that I had been freezing out there. Dave told me that I was going to hate him tomorrow if he didn’t make me finish this thing and I understood. But, my chest was so tight and I couldn’t get in enough air to start running again. I’m not sure exactly how to describe the feeling. Just then, Nancey, a massage therapist came over and asked if she could work with me a little bit to get me warmed up. I was reluctant to say the least (since, I’m not really a big fan of people I don’t know touching me), but she asked me if I still had a desire to finish and I said yes. So, she got me calmed down and began working on some pressure points in my hands and legs to relieve the nausea and begin to warm up my core. It was working…slowly but surely! Eman and Jennifer both came through the aid station sometime during this point. Those Canadians were the most upbeat runners I have seen for how they were both feeling – I’ve got a lot to learn! Finally, I got some solid food in me (pizza!) and Dad helped me put on a few more layers of clothes as I headed for the door. He said he would meet us back at Lockport (and no, he would not be catching any sleep in between). So, Dave and I headed back into the snowy night, knowing now for sure that we were going to make it to the finish line.

The journey back was a slower run/walk, and as we approached mile 75, Valmir Nunes snuck up behind us like a ninja. We whooped and hollered for him as he came in for a first place finish (his 4th and final lap) in just over 18 hours. Valmir is a very accomplished runner from Brazil who holds the course record for Badwater. He had never seen snow in his life until he touched down in Buffalo a couple of days before the race (and yet he still managed to secure a win and a new course record). After my meager attempt to congratulate him (he doesn’t speak much English and I probably wasn’t speaking any language fluently at that time), we went back out for the final lap.

There is another point in the race where time slows down considerably. This happened somewhere in these last 25 miles. And I too slowed down considerably. Dave did so well to keep me moving and make me run when I just wanted to walk. My Dad stayed awake through it all and even caught some pictures and video at various points along the way. In the final 12.5 miles, my left leg knee and hip flexor were screaming in pain with every step. I complained and walked way more than I should have considering that I was the one who signed up for this. I had lost my will to finish strong, but Dave’s patient prodding eventually got me to start running a little more with a 100 mile PR in sight.

As we approached the final couple of miles, Dad met up with us with his camera and made sure that we were doing alright. Dave took me through the last mile by debating which challenges were safe to do on the fitness challenge course and which ones might leave you in danger of slipping and breaking your neck. And then…finally…the Beast was laid to rest. Dave and I crossed the finish line together as Sam Pasceri, race director, greeted me with a 100 mile buckle and awarded Dave with a 24-hour buckle for being the first pacer to go 50 miles with his runner…awesome! And a 25:43:13 finish (due in large part to Dave making me run) gave me a 15-minute PR…no matter how small the victory, I will take it. I am once again humbled by the experience and so thankful to the family and friends that sacrificed to help me through it.

6 thoughts on “Beast of Burden

  1. Way to go Steve! I am just now starting to recover so cannot imagine how you are faring. So grateful that the Lord gave the strength and determination to see you through. It was quite the adventure as you note and I was glad to have been part of it. Also glad not to be doing it again this weekend. 🙂

    love, dad

  2. Impressive Steve! Can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to run 100 miles in such conditions – though you have given a very good glimpse into the experience. Congratulations!!

  3. Great job, Steve! I realized upon reading this that, although I converted World Without End for you, I think that I neglected to ever upload it! Stupid me! Did you just end up buying it?

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