“Is it beautiful?”

I chuckled at Old Tear Britches question to the National Parks Service ranger. It was a point to point trail run along a historic river, it had to be beautiful. Right?..... Right? The park ranger reassured us that it would be a beautiful day (or two) as we winded into the national park on our 100 mile journey.

The ranger had just finished giving an awesomely detailed and articulate description of some of the geographic features of the course at the Burning River packet pickup. Afterwards I had bugged her for answers about the course and life with the national parks. The packet pickup was taking place at surely the swankiest place for a pre-race dinner, a wine bar with an executive chef, $20 entrees, and limited seating. Standing in contrast to the luxury and red wine was the giant pile of sugar and clothes that made up the drop bag pickups outside the restaurant. Athletic, strong chinned men in visors had given us our numbers.

This eatery, and the neighboring town of Hudson, were some of the nicest sites we’d see on our expedition. A spackling of gentrification in the empty grass that stood in the shadow of old industry. Our hotel was a sight to be seen. The check-in process occurred through iron bars and the smell of suppressed smoke lingered on our clothes long after check-out. The owner was incredibly kind, and the apparent kennel it sat adjacent to was incredibly loud.

We had arrived hours earlier and stuffed ourselves on mexican food and margaritas. The consumption of alcoholic beverages a sign of my comfort going into this race. It felt as routine as a 100 could be, this being the 5th ultra Old TB and I had shared this year. Like a child consuming too much candy the sweetness of the races was being replaced with regret for consuming so many. And in retrospect, it did feel like I “consumed” this race. Much like Beast of Burden it happened, it was miserable physically, and suddenly I was home and trashed without too much gained. Too much time not spent enjoying the present and giving into a negative view of the event.

A recent hot topic of conversation has been rationale for spending time on these races. In discussions with our small band of leg churners at VT100 Old TB had put it succinctly. “To us, these are events, not races.” I know I don’t put in specific and directed enough training to work towards fast times. Signing up for these events is a chance to travel, see some new trails, and enjoy the painful and emotional experience of riding the edges of one’s physical and mental endurance. This was a fast course, and I actually felt really good for most of it, but I am not bothered by a pretty slow time. With that mentality it wasn’t too hard to be relaxed before the start.

The start involved getting on a school bus at 3 AM. The weather was comfortable and I wore a tank, arm warmers, and shorts. In an effort to get in a good amount of calories in the AM I consumed two bottles of ensure which I think helped a lot, they always digest easily for me. I chatted up some other runners on the bus. Directly in front of us was the youngest male to start the race, at 21. I give him a ton of credit as I wouldn’t have had my shit together to run that far at that age. Adjacent to us was the youngest person overall, a 20 year old female who had DNF’ed the race last year.

Our school bus ride was otherwise uneventful. This was in a way my first real point to point race. Zion did some weird circles but we stayed in the same general area. Burning River had a different feel that really accented just how far the distance was. A long bus ride in the morning further developed that feeling. It came to a stop in a traditional looking public park with a stone castle in it for reasons unknown to me.

We unloaded and milled about waiting for the race to start. I don’t know if they had porta potties at this location, I couldn’t find them, so it spared me the effort of trying to take a shit. As we gathered in the chute the race director said something to 2 or 3 people about the race logistics but I couldn’t hear it. The only thing I would have really like to have known at that point is what the trail markings looked like but I figured it would become apparent.

I started really conservatively and within the first few miles I just wanted to go home. I didn’t know it at the time but I would spend the entire race (No exaggeration) with someone within a few hundred feet of me. The first 10 miles or so were very clogged and I was very cranky. The lack of sleep the night before combined with the fact I really had not recovered sleep wise from crewing at VT100 made me feel less than social after the race started. I stopped a few times and stood on the side of the trail to try and put distance between me and other folks but there was a never ending line behind me. I enjoy the social aspects of running but I also like being alone in the middle of nowhere in a new place.

I didn’t carry a watch with me and had almost no idea how far apart the aids were. I knew I had drop bags at around the 40, 60 and 80 mile marks but didn’t bother reading the course guide to see where the others were. When we hit the castle again as sunlight was coming in through the trees it was a surprise because I had no idea we’d head back that way.

With the sun out I was able to soak in some nature and enjoy the birds, streams and trees. I cruised along and gel was going down well. There were definitely hills in the course but they were very brief and I began to see how it could be a fast day. After some trail sections we spilled out onto a road section that would take us (eventually) to the next aid station. I remembered reading that 75% of the course was trails and after the day was done I realize those were loaded into the middle and latter ends of the trip back to Akron.

We hit the next aid station which I thought was 6 miles in, but was informed it was actually a little over 12 in. That is how bad I am at knowing my own pace and how much time has passed.

I chippered up immediately. There was a lack of a restroom at that station and it was a puckerfest till we hit the next one. A long road section followed that brought us through some spectacular home fronts. My memory kept snippets of information about this section. Everyone along this particular road had multiple and huge farm houses on their property with immaculately kept lawns. Cyclists whizzed by us on their training rides. I stopped briefly to watch a Heron that had landed for a splash in the pond that sat in someone’s front lawn. We ran alongside a wide, shallow and rocky river that was not the race’s namesake river. I saw another Heron flying down the road with its colossal wingspan making it look like a prehistoric creature. At one point we passed a forest that had only clovers for vegetation. The clearness of the forest floor and the spread out nature of the trees gave it a magic quality.

The next major aid station we pulled into was James Bond themed and full of people’s crews. Though it was less than a marathon in the race a runner behind me jokingly threw his water bottles 15 feet at his crew and shouted “I QUIT, THIS SUCK.” I chuckled as I stuffed my face and performed a quick pit stop.

We bounced down a small trail section and entered some areas that are blurring into one type in my mind. We would travel in the woods for a bit over hilly terrain and then have to run through wet grass along a major road, run across, and head back into the woods. Somewhere between here and 45 miles it began to rain. The temperature was cool with the rain but I was warm as long as I was moving. Despite this I still took ice in my hat at each aid station to help keep me cool. My quads were getting seriously trashed and I took some time at the aids to stretch them out.

I continued eating solid food and mixing in gels between aids. The race had Hammer products and their Vanilla tastes like the inside of Killian’s shorts. Alternatively the apple cinnamon tastes like the disgusting fake apple filling of those flaky little entenmann's cake things. I grew up on them so I dig it. In each of my drop bags I had left some Cliff Shot Blocks, Gu Brew powder and Gu. This worked out really well and I think the powder helped a lot in filling calorie gaps when something else wasn’t going down.

One constant thing on my mind throughout this race was the color of Sir Speedy’s urine in that specimen jar last weekend. I kept thinking my quads were far more sore than normal and I was heading down that path. Because of this I might have overdone it on the hydration after the rain started because I peed about 30 times during the race. Perfectly clear and long streams. It would have been interesting to have seen my weight mid-race. Scales are something more ultras should do.

It was also around this time that I realized I felt the effect the tent was having on my body. All the sleepless nights of coughing and feeling like I was suffocating had forced my body to adapt. The balance of chemicals inside my system had shifted enough to enable the use of extra genetic code to increase the presence of oxygen in my bloodstream when I was under duress. Since there were a lot of hills it was easy to notice that I could hike them hard and not even feel the slightest bit winded at the top. A quick breath and I was off running as soon as I crested them. My energy levels felt more consistent too. I didn’t have a single “bonk” or really low point in the first 45 miles. It was criminal that I felt so good. My time was still pretty conservative but I felt fantastic.

And then it didn’t feel so good. The rain of the day had started to transmute the course into the TARC100 course. It got sufficiently muddy to slow me down a good amount. Where TARC had no elevation, this was scrambling up and down hills of slick wet mud. It slowed everyone down universally but I lost some places because I was crawling more so down the hills.

I maintained a pace as best I could but came through the 50.5 in around 10 hours. The next 35 miles or so got painful. My feet howled at me from the road sections earlier. Mixed in those miles were some more road sections that knocked me down mentally. A long stretch of paved bike path and paved river path took me down a few more notches. Another really scenic portion of the course was the gigantic bridges that spanned some of the valleys. Huge monstrous feats of engineering that seemed out of place. There was a laughable concrete climb alongside a major highway coming out of the Boston aid station. Super long and exposed (giggity), it would have been miserable if the sun was out. Some of the stone staircases and paths in the woods were surprisingly intricate and almost felt like a hidden buddhist temple.

At the mile 65 aid I was nauseous and took a long time to change my socks and eat some soup. I stopped taking as many S-Caps because I figured I didn’t need as many in the cooler weather. The mud was wearing on me to the point where I started asking people what the last 20 miles of the course were like. I heard conflicting stories about trail sections and towpaths. I never wanted to be on a towpath so bad. Anything that could offer a consistent pace.

Night began to settle in as I neared mile 70. I was getting passed frequently. The aid at 70 sat atop a large grassy hill in a beautiful clearing. I smiled when I saw the fireflies spread out on the field, looking like Western MA did on the flight home. I consumed too much grilled cheese and ginger ale at this aid station. As I was leaving one of the runners behind me followed along till he started dry heaving. Then not so *dry* heaving. I started salivating and knew I was going to follow suit before too long. I tried to keep my mind off it and climbed two rolling grass hills. A deer sat alongside the path not 10 feet away and I watched him munch away for a spell. In another wildlife close encounter, the bats seemed to be attracted to my headlight. One gave me a pretty close flyby within arms reach.

I threw up a bunch and things got worse. My frustration with the mud mounted and my feet hurt and I tweaked my knee. It still hurts a bit a week later. On the final muddy ascent, I didn’t know it was the last one at the time, I slipped to hands and knees a few time. I screamed and cursed. I decided that if the last 10 miles weren’t actually towpath like some had said I was going to drop from the race. One mudfest is enough for a year. The final muddy descent saw me trip and finally fall into a pile of muck. I reached for a tree on my way down and my hand slipped on it. At first I thought it was mud because I had felt it on other trees but it turned out to be slugs. They slogged over bark everywhere and I had been mushing them up when I grabbed the trees.

When I reached the towpath (Which was about the last 10 miles) I was greeted by another gentleman heaving his guts out. It became apparent that this particular area on the river smelled like raw sewage. Definitely didn’t help the unsettled stomach. I stopped and sat on a bench a few times. Drowsiness was forcing my eyes closed and caffeine was doing nothing. The last aid station was 5 miles from the finish and I stopped to have 2 cups of coke. The aid station worker looked on as I put my head between my hands and muttered quietly to myself for 10 minutes.

From here the course followed a brief road section and dumped us into one final park. The river looked really beautiful here and I wished more of the course had looked like this. We climbed what felt like 100 wooden stairs placed throughout the woods and exited onto the final road section. A long slow climb found its way into Akron. Groups of people came down to meet their runners and run them in the final ½ mile.

I had been looking forward to taking my god damned wet shoes and socks off for hours so I did that immediately after sitting down. They looked like what trench foot starts as. Old TB had finished 6 hours earlier and I texted him that I had finished and that Grindstone 100 would be my last 100 ever. He agreed.

The aid throughout the day was AMAZING. It was astounding how many helpful volunteers they were able to find. I sometimes had 4 people getting stuff for me at one time. Finish line breakfast was good and they had podiatry students at the end to fix up blisters, which I took advantage of so I could put my Luna sandals on.

The course markings were alright and there were definitely a few spots that could have used a marker. It’s a long distance and I was confident 98% of the time that I was going in the right direction.

I tried to make this sound a little positive but overall I wouldn’t really recommend this event. The course isn’t particularly engrossing. It can be super fast though and the support is great. The buckle is about 7 sizes too large and is better suited as a medallion.

Not going to do much before Leadville. I am going to take a nice long break from 100s after Grindstone. My next personal endeavour is going to be conquering some emotional problems that hinder my interpersonal development. Something tells me it’s going to be a lot harder than anything I mentally encountered in this race but I have faith in myself to be a better person. It’s never too late to work on yourself, people!

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