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At the Races

Beast of Burden 100 Mile Race Report by Aubrey Blanda

Completing a 100 mile race had been in the back of my mind for years.  I ran the New York Knickerbocker 60K in 2009 to get a feel for going past the marathon distance, a 12-hour race (52 miles in 11:38) in 2010, crewed for a Badwater runner in 2010 just so I could scope out the run, ran the Knick 60K again in 2012, and the Beast of Burden 50 miler in January, 2013.  There is a summer Beast in August and a winter Beast in January, consisting of 25 mile out-and-back loops along the Erie Canal towpath in Upstate New York.  You couldn’t pay me enough to run any race longer than a 5K in July!  Since I’m an arctic chill kind of woman, I loved the winter 50!

Last June, I bought a book on ultra training, Relentless Forward Motion, and was surprised to learn that to “just to finish” a 100 miler, the amount of weekly mileage was virtually the same as in marathon training; however, the miles were spread out differently over the course of a week.  I started running back-to-back double digit long runs on weekends, mostly 10 on Saturday and 20 on Sunday, at times increasing the second run. My weekly mileage was usually low, around 40 to 50, since I required more recovery time from the stressful weekends.

Once I registered for the Beast of Burden 100 miler in January ’14 , training became more structured.  I planned marathons to run as training runs (no 50 mile races coincided with my schedule), and actively started to seek advice from ultra-running friends.  One great piece of advice was to run at a pace that I felt I could maintain forever.  That forced me constantly to gauge my effort, and it also had a calming effect; when I felt panicky, that I couldn’t finish, all I had to do was slow down until it felt like I could go forever, again, and I stopped panicking. I recalled this advice frequently during the 100, especially during the first 65 miles, which I actually did run with no walking (but there were stops at aid stations).  Another piece of valuable advice came from the RFM book: “Beware the Chair.”  This refers to the dangers of cramping or falling asleep if you sit down to rest at the aid stations.  I took this advice to heart throughout the race, though it wasn’t hard since the idea of bending my quads enough to sit, and then having to get out of the chair, was terrifying.

Lockport, NY, was a hoppin’ place about 200 years ago, when it was the western terminal of the Erie Canal.  Mules and other beasts (of burden) went along the towpaths and pulled the freight barges from Albany to Lockport.  Then the railroads came and the canal business mostly disappeared, and not much happened in Lockport after that.   The most awesome Genie Temmler, my pacer and crew, and I made the 7 1/2 hour drive up the Friday before the race.  When we went to take a look at the course, I was shocked to see absolutely no snow or ice, in spite of temps in the 20s.  I guess the thaw the week before  took care of the remains of Western New York’s big blizzard of two weeks ago.

The forecast for the start, which had changed three times in the previous 48 hours, called for 21°F with a wind chill of 6°F (winds at about 24 mph), very light blowing snow.  Practically a heat wave! So I laid out my race clothes: Polartech fleece tights, Smart Wool long-sleeved shirt and socks, thermal running jacket with a very light fleece lining, a vest, thermal mittens and those air-activated hand-warmers, facemask, wool hat, sunglasses, running shoes.  I had a pair of ski goggles, two complete extra changes of clothes, and extra outerwear in my bags if the snow or wind became worse, and I did use the goggles about 25 miles at one point. I knew from the 50 that the key to a successful finish at this race was staying dry on the course; wet clothes in these temps are a sure ticket to a DNF.

On Saturday morning, we arrived at the race early, scored a great parking spot steps from the staging tent, and picked up my bib and swag, a brown fuzzy hat with horns, like a bison– a buffalo, ha– with matching mittens, and a thick hoodie. All the runners were snapping photos of each other in their buffalo hats. I stashed my drop bag– a huge plastic storage bin– and waited in the car until right before the start.  After a quick meeting with the race director, my group of about 110 runners (half of whom were 50 milers) took off at 10 am to the sounds of the Rolling Stones Beast of Burden. Of course.

My goal was to run the first 50 miles without walking, though I planned on taking breaks at the aid stations.  I 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 winding 11.5 miles down along the canal to the turn-around. There’s an aid/warming station at the start, middle, and a big one at the turn-around (one about every 6 miles), all extremely well stocked and staffed by wonderful volunteers. Basically, you go back and forth along that same towpath, checking in at each aid station, eight times.  The “out” portion of the course was great and I felt no wind, even at my back.  So it was a shock to find myself running into a nasty headwind every time I turned around and headed back toward the start.  The wind was only 20-25 mph at that time, and had I known what was coming, I never would have complained about it.  The first 25-mile loop went well, everything felt good except my shoes.  I felt a hot spot forming on the ball of my foot.  Learning from the fifty miler in 2013, I took the time to change my socks and shoes at the mile 25 aid station, and reapplied anti-blister creams there.  The second loop also went well, I kept a very comfortable jog.  The only slight problem was the cold; my water bottle kept freezing, and I had to thaw the top frequently, until a brilliant volunteer at mile 67 taught me to carry my water bottle in my pocket.  I think the food was typical for ultras: pizza, grilled cheese and PBJ sandwiches, burritos, quesidillas, cookies, candy, Heed, soda, water, hot drinks, poptarts… But it was a treat for me.  So I took the rule, “eat early and eat often,” to heart!  I looked like the Cookie Monster at those aid stations, and always took food with me to eat on the course.  I think I gained weight at this race.

At mile 37, I put on nighttime safety gear and opted for a small flashlight over a headlamp. Genie paced me to mile 50.  She walked a 13:00 mile, while I slogged ahead of her, into the wind.  On this leg of the journey, I discovered that when you buy a flashlight for running in 20 degree weather, metal is just a really bad choice.  The metal flashlight conducted the cold right through my thick mittens, and I thought my fingers were going to fall off.  I had to keep switching the flashlight back and forth, trying to carry it by balancing it on my hand-held water bottle.  It kept falling off.  But I actually exceeded my goal; constantly  assessing my pace and slowing up if I needed to,  I hit the 50 mile mark at 11:08,  just four minutes slower than last year’s 50 mile race.  I changed my shirt and jacket, which were wet, added a middle layer, exchanged the flashlight for a headlamp, and headed out again.  I’d never run more than 52 miles, so I knew if I could just get out the door at mile 50 and back to the other side of the canal, with the wind at my back, I’d get the next loop done.  I still felt good and focused, not at all tired. One great piece of advice I picked up from a volunteer who ran a lot of ultras was to increase caffeine intake around the times when you would normally be going to sleep, and waking up.  So I did take in a lot of caffeinated gels, coffee, and tea with sugar. I kept the next two aid station stops very brief, dashing in to grab handfuls of M&Ms, Oreos, mini-Twix bars, and Fig Newtons and refill my water bottle, and leave. My mantras were “Beware the Chair” and “Relentless Forward Motion.”

At mile 62.5, however, the situation changed. First, for some reason, small pebbles from the cinder towpath started to invade my shoes.  I had no problem for the first 50 miles, but at every aid station from 62.5 on, I stopped, took off my shoes and dumped a tablespoon of tiny, sharp pebbles from each. At one station I had to shake them out of my socks as well. I think all the people going back and forth along the towpath loosened up a lot of gravel over the hours.  Second, the wind that met me head on  for half of each 25 mile loop exhausted me, and it was still only about 20-25 mph.  I stopped at the aid station at the end of the windy portion for longer and longer. Third, I discovered that I have no night vision.  Somewhere between mile 69 and 75, I went flying over a big rock half-embedded in the cinder path and landed hard on my right shoulder.  A runner going in the opposite direction saw me and stopped to make sure I was alright. I felt ok, the legs still moved, and I had no idea that there was a huge (4-5 inches in diameter) bruise under the many layers of clothes I wore.  I kept going, but after the fall I was much more cautious.  There was no more “running,” even at my slogging 13-14 minute pace.  I walked as quickly as I could, using my arms more than I did before.

At mile 75 (roughly 4:30 am) I picked up Genie again.  It was so nice to have company, as you could walk for an hour or two at times and not see anyone on the path (except, when I took a huge tumble there was someone right there, heh).  She is a strong walker.  I am quite sure I would not have been able even to walk as fast as I did without her.  I was also glad to have Genie with me because I fell again.  Twice.  The first time was on another embedded rock that I didn’t see; I went flying and landed on my right knee, which would be swollen the next day.  The second time I slipped on a patch of smooth ice hidden under a thin layer of snow and landed hard on my arse.  I didn’t feel any pain in my knee here, but now my butt hurt.  It felt like a combination of piriformis and a bruise, and made me walk like Quasimodo.  After three bad falls all within 20 miles (and all in the dark, between roughly 11pm and 6am), the fun had gone out of the race; now I was pissed, this course was out to kill me, and I kept thinking that I wanted to finish just as an act of vengeance.

Genie left me at mile 87, about 9:30am.  At this point I knew I would make this course my bitch, although I did not know it would go down kicking and screaming.  After clearing the pebbles and grabbing food and caffeinated gels to eat as I walked, as well as downing some tea with sugar, I headed out to get through the last 12.5 miles.  It was Grand Finale time!  Woohoo!  I thanked the wonderful volunteers at the mile 87 station, screaming with joy inside because I wouldn’t see them again.  I started into my last wind tunnel.  At first the weather seemed the same as it had been the entire time: 21°F, wind chill of 6°F, wind speed of 24 mph, very light, sparkly snow. The sky was fully light so I could see clearly, and as I marched, swinging my arms, I saw two cats chasing each other across the now frozen canal.  That made me smile, until I wondered if they might be foxes, and became convinced that they could have rabies and what would I do if they attacked me?  Since those distracting paranoid fears had followed me for hours, most involving wild dogs coming out of the fields along the towpath and me planning ways to fight them off with the twigs along the ground, I knew what to do to refocus.  I fell back on my mantras, repeating relentless forward motion and even left right, left right in my head.

But just when I started to celebrate, feeling confident that I was gaining ground, the course started to fight back. At about mile 88 or 89, the winds picked up to 35 mph and kept increasing, wind chill of 8°F and dropping.  I couldn’t eat anything along the way because I didn’t want to risk losing a mitten in the wind if I took it off to juggle food wrappers.   I arrived at the mile 94 aid station with my face beet red from wind burn.  But none of that mattered, because this mule could smell the barn.  I refilled my water bottle, thanked everyone, and bounced out of there.  Even at this late stage in the race, runners kept encouraging each other as they passed on the path.  Usually you heard a “good job” or “keep going,” but sometimes all a runner could do was grunt.  I always responded with something.

Once outside, I faced even stronger winds than before.  Another runner I left the aid station with estimated the wind at 40+ mph.  The snow was heavier too, and I had to de-stick my eyelashes every so often after they would freeze shut. He was walking faster than I, so I saw him turn around and walk backward into the wind when he was a few hundred yards ahead of me.  I was afraid to turn my back on the course that was trying to kill me, so I bent over, looked down at the ground, and kept marching. That worked until mile 98.5, when, without being too melodramatic, my will to live disappeared.  The course won.  I quit.  I was sure I could just lie down on the path right there, and eventually someone might trip over me or spot my red mittens.  Maybe the RD would ship my frozen body back to NJ.  But wouldn’t you know it, mile 98.5 happened to be just across the canal from the finish area/main aid station.   Before I could lie down on the path, I heard a loud voice shouting “GO AUBREY” and “YOU’VE GOT THIS” over a bullhorn.  I looked over and saw Genie, across the canal, holding a bright pink sign, standing next to a guy with the bullhorn.   There were people watching!  I couldn’t die now, leaving witnesses to my disintigration.  Crap! So with no choice, I focused on the bright orange jacket that the runner ahead of me wore.  He kept moving, I kept moving, trying not to let the distance between us increase.  Finally, I crossed the last bridge to the far side of the canal.  I remember calling it the “Rainbow Bridge” in my mind, as in where pets cross over and die.  Genie was there with my ski jacket and gloves, which I usually would have thought was awesome, but in my addled mental state I kind of snarled something and refused to take it.  I did thank her profusely for the cheering section at 98.5, even though she prevented me from dying when I really wanted to.  Seriously, I don’t think I would have finished if not for that.

We walked together until about 100 yards from the finish, then I started the ceremonial dash over the finish line.  Except there was no finish line.  The winds were so strong at that point that the finish line apparatus and the aid station tent was dismantled.  But there were two brave souls ringing cowbells and blasting sirens for me as I crossed the official finish.  26:39:59, 15th out of 27 finishers, 3rd woman.  And if I may indulge in some snark, the women who finished behind me were all younger.  Actually, I was the oldest woman to finish.  Heh. A few chairs, food, and hot drinks could now be found in the small park building that had been next to the tent.  Now I could sit, yay!  The RD gave me a very cool belt buckle, and I chatted a bit with the runner in orange who finished 7 minutes earlier.  There wasn’t much that didn’t hurt, but most was what you’d expect after being on your feet so long.  My right shoulder, knee, and butt were more painful, from the falls I took.  So it’s not really the distance that got me, it’s the darkness.  After the best hot shower in the world and a nap, I and Genie went to chow down at a local steakhouse.   Life is good!

Beast of Burden – Winter Lockport,NY 100 miles
Saturday, Jan 18, 2014
Place Name        Gender-Place  Time        Rank
15    Aubrey Blanda    3rd          26:39:59  71.98


BeastofBurden Aubrey Beast of Burden Buckle


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Photos on flickr

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