It’s surreal to me that less than 48 hours ago, I was on a beautiful stretch of single track, trying to keep Leighanna at a good moving pace by singing Drake to her (and making her sing it back to me)
And that about sums up how Burning River went for me-just fucking fun. I left my heart and soul on that trail and with Leighanna as we made our way through my most favorite national park. Yes, parts of it were hard and by Sunday, I felt emotionally hungover. But crewing and pacing for my oldest and closest running friend is always an honor and a privilege and I would do it for her in a heartbeat over and over again.
My day started early; 2:15am to be exact. As is our usual plan for racing, Leighanna met me at my house and we headed out. We arrived at Squires Castle for the 4am start with some time to spare so we sat in my car and laughed at our random inside jokes. At 4am, the runners took off for an 11 mile section of roads and I headed to the first crew access point at the Polo Fields. I had a brief attempt at sleeping in my car but quickly abandoned that idea when the heart palpitations from 2 cups of coffee began to set in.
Leighanna arrived at the Polo fields right on schedule. She changed shoes, peed, ate and was moving in less than five minutes. I then had a few hours of no crew access so I headed to my happy place (Starbucks) for more coffee and breakfast. Around 8am, I crewed Leighanna again at Shadow Lake (mile 20ish) and headed back to my house to kill time as Leighanna tackled the next 18 mile or so stretch on her own (no crew access.) Given how much time I was going to spend away from my family this weekend, it was a no brainer that I was going to try and go home for a little bit which is exactly what I did.
Leaving Shadow Lake
I headed back out around 10am to crew Leighanna at the Meadows (mile 38). She rolled in looking good, feeling a bit shaky but willing to sit and get some calories in.
Chilling at Meadows
We took our annual Meadows Aid Station pic
And she headed out for the next 12 miles. I couldn’t access her again until mile 50, at which point I’d jump in and begin pacing her. Mile 50, Boston Mills aid station was jumping-tons of crew, pacers, relay runners, etc. It’s the end of the front 50 and near the start of the back 50 so there were hundreds of people hanging out. Chris and Liam came to join me
We got a cute family pic (i have so few of just the three of us)
I spent time with my co-crew Jen and Angela who joined at Boston to help us for the duration of the race
Leighanna came rolling in a little after schedule but she felt good and was in good spirits. She visited the podiatric students for some foot loving and we got moving (but not after I dumped her water out for some Starbucks iced tea in her handheld). The first mile was on the crushed limestone towpath. Leighanna was moving steadily and slowly at this point. We ran much of the flats and downhills and walked the uphills which seemed to work well. As we made our way to the Brandywine section of CVNP, the trail got steeper and steeper (including a really ridiculous section of road that Leighanna insisted we’d run before), forcing us to mostly walk. Mile 54 was the Brandywine Aid Station, run by the Cleveland Triathlon club and we were greeted by some amazing volunteers (all volunteers for this race were amazing, including myself who volunteered at packet pickup on the Friday before the race!) Leighanna was craving savory food and fortunately the AS was well stocked with Pizza. I myself grabbed some M&M’s and a slew of nausea remedies as Leighanna had started to complain of that in the last few miles.
My trail fave
The next section was 5.6 miles of trail to the Pine Lane trailhead. We traversed a hard section of the buckeye trail that we were both familiar with and this is kind of where things began to get rough. The nausea that had made itself quietly known earlier was now not so quiet. And the magnitude of how many miles she still had left to cover was becoming more prominent in her head. We slowed way down during this section, clocking mostly 15-20+ minute miles. Leighanna started to say she just wanted to sit. I would respond with “that’s fine, but we need to get to the aid station first.” This tactic worked and we made it to Pine Lane after a steep climb and into the AS. Leighanna sat down and ate, generally looked unhappy but agreed to keep moving.
We then headed out on a 2.2 mile section that neither of us had ever run before (mostly because the trail was washed out until recently and there was a long road stretch which we try to avoid.) This was rough. The road seemed to last forever and Leighanna was complaining more and more of just not feeling good, though nothing specific. We made it to an unmanned water station at the start of a section on the Bike n Hike trail and before I even could stop her, Leighanna just sat down. I got her up and moving slowly, my goal was to get her to run a bit and walk a bit but mostly just keep moving forward. I mostly ran next to and in front of her at this point as she would keep going as long as I was moving for the most part.
We finally made it to Boston Run and I reminded her how short this section was. Personally I was grateful to get off the road and back on the trail because it had really taken a toll on Leighannas morale – you literally can see for a mile ahead of you on the bike n hike which was not good at this point. All along we’d been passing other runners and being passed by others. During this section we came across a 100 mile women I’d seen all day and who stood out to me because of the huge smile on her face each time she came into an AS-her enthusiasm was notable. As we approached, I noticed she was walking with a really modified gait. It turned out she was hurting bad. I offered her advil and food. We talked for a little bit and she shared that she’d been walking the last ten miles or so. It was tough but that’s the reality of an ultra. I felt compelled to encourage Leighanna to run and I am still wondering if this women finished.
We finally made our way to the Happy Days trail head and eventually to the ledges, an area where we run all the time. I was hoping that the familiarity of the trail would motivate Leighanna to run a little bit more as well as bolster her flagging mood. We alternated silence, and talking and attempting to run what we could through the rocky ledges. Leighanna had been verbalizing for hours that she just felt over it. I kept reminding her that chipotle and new clothes would be waiting for her and we were so close to being there.
We made our way to the Ledges AS (mile 66) with lots of cheers, our waiting crew, Chris and Liam, and most importantly Chipotle. Leighanna sat down and immediately started crying. We got her shoes and socks off and got her to change into dry clothes and start eating. A longtime friend of mine and very seasoned 100 miler talked to her, reminded her that pain is to be expected and the focus is on just getting from one aid station to the next.
Leighanna agreed to start moving about 20 minutes after entering the Ledges AS and she took off with her next pacer, Jen. At this point, I relaxed, snuggled with Liam and got some food in my belly. I also changed and started prep to get to the next AS-Pine Hollow (mile 73)
Once we got to PH, we set up all of Leighanna’s gear, located her next pacer and updated everyone that she was moving, albeit slowly. Unfortunately, I got the “I’m Done” text from her. My response was “Don’t make any decisions, make it to Pine Hollow and we’ll talk.” My plan was to get her eating, get her into warm clothes as the nightfall brought some chilly temps and to get moving with a new pacer.
I could tell when she arrived that she was truly done. Though we had talked prior to the event about reasons to stop running, nausea and exhaustion weren’t one of them. I truly worked to the best of my ability to ensure that if she DNF’ed, she’d be ok with her decision in a day, two days, two weeks etc. I gave Leighanna about an hour to think, sit, eat, and possibly change her mind but her resolve was iron clad and she finally told the aid station captain that she was finished. Several other runners were doing the same by this point (about a 40% DNF rate.) With much happiness and relief on Leighannas part, we made our way back to my car. I could tell this was the right decision, as once it was made, a sense of calm came over her. She was so grateful she didn’t have to keep running. We drove home talking about all of the funny things that happened during the day Examples: Leighanna starting giving the finger to everyone that told her “good job” when they weren’t looking and muttering “fuck off” under her breath-I could not stop laughing at this! And I had a pretty funny “that’s what she said” when a poor relay runner passed us and exclaimed “it sure is easier going down”. We cracked up at that one!
I consider this a successful weekend despite the lack of an epic finish line crossing. We came, we ran, I didn’t fuck up Leighanna’s precise Gatorade needs and we had a ton of laughs. 100 miles is a bitch of a distance and if I learned one thing (and in reality I learned a lot more), you must respect this distance. This is an example where showing up to the starting line does not guarantee you a belt buckle. No matter how ideal your training, 100 miles is unforgiving in a way that no other ultra is. I’m proud of us. I”m proud of our journey, I’m proud of Leighanna for training like a beast. I’m proud of her for running in places where her arch nemesis’ live (snakes). I’m proud of us for another summer spent running, racing, crewing and pacing. Overall, I’m proud to call this ultra running badass my best friend. 100 miles (for both of us) isn’t done yet. We’ll be back (even if we’re 70 when it finally happens)