I didn’t feel quite right warming up, and by mile 35, I was really struggling.
But as I pulled into Lockport, New York, I didn’t know this was going to happen. I was here to take on Beast of Burden, a 100-mile race held along a section of the Erie Canal a few miles east of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. The event is held twice per year, and in January, I had finished in 19 hours 23 minutes, setting a personal record for the distance and placing third overall. Now here it was in August, a time of year that could be hot and humid, but the forecast was calling for temperatures in the 70s with a light cloud cover. In other words, perfect conditions. I was in an optimistic state of mind and looking to run the race even faster than before.
Another positive: instead of a dreary motel, this time I was staying with Jim and Beth Pease, who are wonderful, friendly hosts. Also in their care was Phil McCarthy, a legend within the New York ultra-running community for his American 48-hour record of 257 miles. Over dinner, Phil talked about pacing, and I listened carefully. Start out at a reasonably aggressive pace for the first twenty-five miles, he counseled, because if you leave time on the table early on, you’ll never recoup it later. Stay consistent for the next fifty miles, and then hold on as best you can for the last twenty-five.
Jim often runs in Beast of Burden, but this time he’d be volunteering, and as we were turning in, he asked if there was anything special I would need. Typically self-sufficient, I was about to shake my head, but then paused. Did Jim have any Ibuprofen?
Now to be clear, I rarely taken painkillers and consider it an especially bad practice during a race. But on occasion they’ve helped clear up what otherwise would have been a frustrating ailment. And right now, my left foot was bothering me. I had been doing some barefoot running recently and found this required flexing the toes more than when running with shoes. Tendons had started aching after a recent run.
The next morning, Beth rustled up some great eggs and sausage, and a couple of hours later, as the 10:00 AM start was looming, I did some easy warm-up strides. My left foot seemed OK. But it was taking an unusual amount of effort to run even at a slow pace. Something didn’t feel right.
The clock struck ten and we were off, with “Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones blaring from the speakers. I was soon running at a 9:00 minute pace, which was aggressive enough for me. For the first few miles I hung out with a group of friendly runners, including Kevin from Binghamton, a thin young man with a bushy beard and colorful tatoos. Like me and Jim, he was a member of Team Red White & Blue (a veterans’ organization) and told me he was a former Navy SWCC pilot (Special Warfare Combatant Craft), whose job it was to insert SEAL teams into and extract them from undisclosed beach and river locations. Then I ran with Mary Harvey, a Brooklyn native, with whom I had many friends in common. She was racing in the 50-mile division, and as we parted ways around mile five, she made a cryptic comment about fetching a special sun hat at the turn-around.
The course goes out 12.5 miles along a towpath on the north side of the Erie Canal and then returns to the start. 100-mile racers complete this twenty-five mile out-and-back circuit four times. Constructed during 1817-26, the Erie Canal originally reached 363 miles from Buffalo on the shores of Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River. By making it possible to ship grain and other commodities from the Great Lakes region, the canal helped New York surpass Philadelphia as the main center of trade on the east coast. Barges were towed along the canal by teams of mules. It was for these beasts of burden that the race was named.
The canal passed under a number of bridges, gently curved from time to time, and was lined with trees including cottonwood and cherry. We passed occasional homes, a water filtration station, marinas, a golf course. In the distance a boat was drifting slowly in the water. I tried to catch it, but after a few minutes it started its engine and disappeared around a bend.
On the way back to the start/finish, I ran for a little bit with John from Buffalo, another Team Red White & Blue member and an air force vet. He admitted he hadn’t had much time to train, and while he demonstrated an upbeat and confident attitude, he was taking salt tablets to stave off cramping. Cramps so early in the race didn’t bode well for a successful completion, I thought to myself, and that was a shame. But I didn’t say anything except to warn him that too much salt can irritate the stomach. A moment later, he dropped by the side of the trail and was sick, but caught up a little while later feeling better. But then he jerked to a halt, fighting off another cramp.
With the start-finish in sight and twenty-five miles down, it was so far, so good. But as I turned around and headed out on the second lap, my pace was slowing. I stuck to 10-minute miles through mile 30 and 11-minute miles through mile 35. I had hoped to do better. But my legs were starting to hurt. Not a specific sensation in any particular area, but more a general ache.
I wasn’t ready to accept such a dismal pace, and I pushed harder — and promptly tripped and fell. At least I had the presence of mind to execute a combat role and was immediately back on my feet (scoring a compliment from a nearby runner). But you can push too hard, and tripping on a smooth surface is a pretty reliable indicator. By mile 40, I had slowed to a 14-minute pace, in other words, barely jogging.
A number of thoughts went through my mind. At this rate, it would take a long time to finish. And while I was in principal prepared to gut it out, there would be consequences. A lot was going on at work; a late finish to the race Sunday afternoon followed by a six hour drive home was not an appealing prospect, especially with early conference calls Monday morning and then business travel. Finishing was a questionable priority.
But then I thought about the special award I’d receive for completing both the winter and summer race in the same year. A trinket, for sure, but also a tangible mark of accomplishment. And next year my schedule wouldn’t allow me to run both races.
My thoughts shifted again. My body was trying to tell me something. I had some kind of strain. Continuing to run would make it worse. I might end up sidelined for months.
You don’t become an ultra-runner by quitting easily, but sometimes it’s the right call. I gave myself permission to drop from the race, and after another slow mile felt good about the decision and at ease with myself.
But what about Jim’s Ibuprofen? I’d see him at the start-finish, in just another seven or eight miles. Maybe it would help loosen things up. If not, I’d complete a final circuit and call it quits at seventy-five.
As I reached the aid station at mile forty three, an even better idea occurred. If someone had Ibuprofen here, I could give it a try, and if it didn’t help, why then I’d drop at mile fifty — sparing myself twenty-five painful and unnecessary miles.
For a number of reasons, taking painkillers during a race is a not a best practice. But sometimes you break the rules and see what happens.
Another runner provided me a couple of pills, and I ate a little food before resuming my slow and painful jog. By the time I got back to the start finish, I had loosened up and was now running steadily, if not quickly.
As I turned around and headed back out, I passed a mild-mannered Texan named Jody whom I’d met at dinner the night before. This was his first 100-mile race, and as he approached the start-finish, his 12-year old son ran out to escort him. His kids had already run marathon distances, Jody had told us. His son looked like a natural, and Jody was all smiles.
I ran steadily and reached the turn-around point as it was getting dark. The temperature was dropping, and mist was forming on the water. Cars drove along the side of the canal with engines racing, people hung out around their houses talking and enjoying the mild evening. Then it got quiet. Later on a crescent moon rose above the horizon but cast little light. My headlamp began to sputter, and as I reached the start-finish, Jim came to the rescue with a spare.
And now it was time for the final twenty-five. It started out well, but gradually my legs began to feel tense and painful again. With 12.5 miles to go, I would have liked to pick up the pace and start racing, but that wasn’t happening. My hip flexors and groin ached with every step; now my left knee began to hurt. I’d run 100 steps, then take a short walking break, then run again. Glancing at my GPS watch, I found that 100 steps covered only 0.1 mile. The walking breaks got longer. With three miles to the last aid station and ten to the finish, I noticed the sky lightening behind me. I’d be lucky to break twenty-three hours, I muttered to myself, disgusted. Well, it didn’t matter.
As I trudged along, I glanced through a break in the trees and caught sight of rolling hills covered with trellises, stretching off into the distance. Then there were rows of apple trees. Mist hung over the ground, and a low-lying bank of clouds was tinged red by the rising sun.
With two miles to go, I gritted my teeth and began to run a little faster, but not fast enough to avoid getting passed by another racer. I gave chase for a half mile, then fell apart. He vanished. I did catch up to a recreational jogger and startled him as I passed (wearing headphones, he hadn’t heard my approach).
I trotted dutifully along the last mile and rolled into the finish with determination if not speed. The finisher’s buckle and the special award for finishing both winter and summer were presented to me as the speakers played the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.”
I’ll never be your beast of burden
I’ve walked for miles my feet are hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me
My time was 21:37, good for seventh place out of roughly eighty starters. For all the sturm und drang, I came in only 2 hours behind my January time.
I hung around at the finish for an hour, talking with Jim and some of the other finishers. Someone lent me a towel to take a shower. And then it was time to say goodbye and begin the long drive home.
Phil McCarthy had won the race in 15:27. It had gone smoothly for him, and every time we crossed paths, we muttered “good job” to each other. It was inspiring to witness his swift and steady performance.
But for many people, it was a surprisingly difficult event, despite the flat course and mild conditions. Almost half the field dropped out. I think the flat course is deceivingly difficult, because there’s little to distract the runner from the burden of constant movement.
Kevin finished in 26 hours, Jody in 27, and to my surprise John made it, too, in around 29 — a testament to mind over matter. Mary completed the 50 mile race in 10 hours. I had seen her once more on the course wearing a bright pink sun hat. It was magnificent.
Back at home, I diagnosed my problem as an inflamed piriformis muscle, which irritates the sciatic nerve, leading to aches, pain, and tension across the groin and leg. I think some squat jumps earlier in the week might have triggered the condition. It’s bothered me in the past, although it hasn’t had as severe an effect on my running as it did at Beast of Burden. I’ve found it responds well to anti-inflammatories and expect to be back in good form in a week or two.