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Beast of Burden Winter 50 Mile Race–January 26, 2013 by Aubrey Blanda

I think of myself as a marathoner, not an ultra runner.  But for a few years, the Beast of Burden Winter Ultra has intrigued me.  Run in late January in Lockport, NY, about 45 minutes drive from Buffalo, it at least promised an absence of heat and humidity, so in September I decided to scratch this ultra itch and register for the fifty mile race (a 100 mile option is also offered).  The challenge, obviously, is the weather; there is zero elevation gain, but you could be running in a blizzard.  Personally, I was hoping for the weather they had last year, about 30*, no wind.  I ran the New York 60K (formerly the Knickerbocker) in November to remind me of the distance.  When I first ran the 60K in ’09, I didn’t train for it specifically, I rode off my marathon training, and that worked pretty well; this time I thought I was doing the same thing as last time, but it didn’t work at all.  I felt much more beaten up this time around, and started to regret registering for the Beast. Then along came Boston training in December, and I immersed myself in that.  It went really well, my training runs were great, and I really didn’t want to think about the Beast.  I followed a Pete Pfitzinger program closely, and decided to just budget a few days to taper before the 50, and five full rest days after the 50 to recover.  I wanted to get back to Pfitzing as soon as I could, but I had no idea how the 50 would go.  I never did a long run over 20 miles, but as per Pfitz, I was doing 11 to 14 mile runs during the week and sometimes twice during the week as well. 

The course consists of 12.5 miles out along the historic Erie Canal, starting in Lockport, then back, and repeat.  After a month of unusually mild temperatures, the first burst of frigid air arrived the week of the race.  My luck.  I arrived at 9 am for the 10 am start to find the canal frozen solid and the temperature steady at 14* fahrenheit. The high that day reached 22*, and dropped back to the low teens by the time I finished.  I wore a thin Under Armor tank top, a long-sleeved Smart Wool shirt, and a wind-resistant running jacket lined with a light fleece on top; calf-panties, fleece running tights, and snow gaiters on the bottom; Smart Wool socks, thermal mittens, a wool neck gaiter, and a wool hat; my usual New Balance running shoes; and a water belt with a 20 oz. bottle.  I had a drawstring backpack for a drop bag, which showed my inexperience since every other runner except Jen (it was also her first 50) seemed to have huge duffles and even big plastic crates for drop bags, but I did pack a second wool shirt, pants, and a change of socks and shoes.  I left my safety gear in the drop bag to pick up on the second loop. I picked up the race bag and bib.  Goodies included a cool black tech shirt (long-sleeved, of course), a pair of good wool socks, Hammer protein drink, and one of those long polyester tube things that you can pull over your head and use as a hood or face mask or whatever.

The race started right on time, after a few words by the Mayor of Lockport– for whom this event, with 120 runners, is probably the biggest event ever held in this tiny town since the advent of the railroad led to the end of shipping by barge and mule.  We ran about a mile down an asphalt sidewalk, crossed an icy bridge (the only elevation gain of about 4 feet, heh), and then it was a straight 11.5 mile shot down along the canal. Semi-packed snow, but no ice.  Footing wasn’t exactly difficult, but because of the divots in the snow my ankles would be quite sore by the end.  At mile 7, we came to the middle aid station, a heated tent, and stopped briefly to fill our bottles and warm our fingertips.  I was surprised at how warm the rest of me felt though, I was sweating a lot and my shirt felt soaked already.  Then we crossed the only street crossing in the entire race.  I think Lockport’s entire police force was out there to assist us. We reached the next aid station at the 12.5 mile turn around right on schedule, about 2.5 hours.  The aid station was set up in a little store in the small town there.  All the aid stations were very well stocked, with broth, lentil soup, grilled cheese and PB sandwiches, assorted candy and chips, pizza, soda, coffee, water, Heed, Hammer gels and bars, and other good stuff.  I scored some chemical hand warmers from Awesome Adam, who has to be the best, most amazing ultra volunteer in the entire freaking world, to replace the ones I’d brought with me, and we went back out.  Right outside the aid station I felt something cold banging against my face, and reached up to find what can only be called ice dreadlocks hanging from my hat.  All the sweat that had run down my face into my hair had frozen into long hairsicles!  We had to take a photo. The Honey Stinger Waffles I had tucked in my water belt were frozen solid, so Adam gave me some gels that wouldn’t freeze.  

Running back along the same path, I started to encounter more runners, and every single time they gave an encouraging “Good job!” or “Looking great!”  And I returned it in kind.  Everyone was so friendly and nice. During the race I chatted with a Canadian woman running the 100 and a young dude in law school, also running the 100, for miles.  By now it was after noon, and the thing about northwestern Upstate New York is that in addition to the lake effect snow, it gets the gloom.  It was sunny in the morning, but by noon it was hazy and overcast.  From noon until dark, you couldn’t really tell what time it is, the sky always looked the same. But I felt great all the way to the 25 mile aid station.  I ran the entire way there– slowly, to be sure, but I felt good so I kept going without taking breaks, as I had originally planned.  And maybe that’s why I started to make mistakes by the time we reached the halfway point.  At this point, my clothes were soaked.  And while I was warm enough while I was running, I would be walking more on the next loop, and hypothermia was a real worry with the dropping temperatures.  I pulled out my extra wool shirt and changed into that, but stupidly decided not to switch shoes and socks, even though mine were wet.  I didn’t bring another outer jacket, also a mistake as mine was wet.  I changed into a facemask and dry hat, grabbed my safety thong, headlamp, and blinkies, and we set off again.  From this point, I wanted to take regular walk breaks, so whenever my garmin hit a mile, I would walk for .10 mile.  I did this until the turn-around point at mile 38.  When I left the aid station at mile 32, I was treated to a gorgeous moon rising over the trees and farm fields to the left of the canal.  The moon was huge and glowing, it seemed so close.  It was a nice touch.

When I reached the aid station at mile 38, I felt ok, but according to the volunteers, I wasn’t looking too good.  They didn’t believe me when I said I always look horrendous without make-up, and gave me a lot of chicken broth.  The volunteers suggested rubbing vaseline or Aquaphor on my face to avoid “moon burn,” the funny name they gave to the whitish red color that the cold turned my cheeks.  But my big problem was that the wet clothes I wore was freezing up, which in turn, was causing me to freeze up and start shivering uncontrollably.  My man Adam the Super Volunteer was there to save me, though.  I decided to play it safe and take the time to wait for Adam to go to his car, where he retrieved a big suitcase full of all kind of winter running clothes.  Amazing!  He gave me a dry wool shirt to pull over the shirt I wore, then gave me a dry light down running jacket.  He also took my wet running jacket, dried it in the laundromat next door, and had it dry and waiting for me at the finish line.  He also gave me a better headlamp to use and took my crappy headlamp for me. How awesome is that?!  Waiting for the clothes was a long delay, but it proved very worthwhile.  As I waited I drank plenty of Heed, soda, and broth, and ate a sandwich.  When Jen and I headed out to bring this thing home, I felt great.  We ran for three miles, walked .10, ran for two miles to the middle aid station, warmed up, then ran most of the entire last seven mile stretch.

We finally crossed back over the bridge we had crossed more than 10.5 hours earlier and headed down the home stretch.  That last mile was interminable.  My nose was running faster than I was.  I really thought we’d accidentally missed the right bridge and crossed over one that was miles farther than the one we should have crossed.  But no, we finally, finally saw the lights and heard the music at the finish line. I ran over the finish line in 11:04:48 to applause and hugs from the RD and volunteers there.  Awesome Adam was there (that guy got around!).  I came in fourth female, only 25 seconds behind third. My time is about an hour faster than last year’s third place female, and it was a lot warmer last year, so I’m pretty happy with it. I got my medal, started my usual uncontrollable shivering, got wrapped in a blanket and got a seat by the big portable heater they had blasting in there.  Other than the shivering and very tight hamstrings, I felt pretty good.  No muscle cramping, no frostbite, no trouble walking down stairs, just very stiff legs.  I was most happy with the fact that there was never a moment when I wanted to quit, or didn’t want to keep going, which I attribute to the great aid stations.  The shower that night never felt so good.  I was even able to resist the urge to sing the Erie Canal song at the top of my lungs in the finish tent, but if you’re interested, the song goes like this:

I’ve got an old mule and her name is Sal

Fifteen years on the Erie Canal

She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
We’ve hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay
And every inch of the way we know
From Albany to Buffalo

Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge for we’re coming to a town
And you’ll always know your neighbor
And you’ll always know your pal
If you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal

Of course, I’ve already gone from saying I would never run this again to “maybe next year.” I learned so much from this race, it seems a shame to miss the chance to apply the knowledge.  The main lesson has to do with the extra gear– always pack at least one extra complete set of clothes from head to toe, including shoes, and change if any article on you is at all wet.  I skipped changing my socks and shoes, and paid for it with blisters and icy toes on the second loop.

This race is top notch and I recommend it anyone looking to get a feel for the distance or for a fast course.  The volunteers were amazing (especially Awesome Adam), the RD was mellow and did everything to give runners a good experience, and the course is fun– not as interesting as a trail for some, but depending on the weather, more enjoyable in many ways.  Now, back to my regularly scheduled Pfitz plan…

Photo Highlights

Photos on flickr

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