Lockport, New York
January 25, 2016
The Beast of Burden has three distance options: 100, 50, or 25 miles. You run it on the towpath alongside the Erie Canal through Lockport, NY. It’s very flat. The catch is that the winter version is in January in western New York. Everything is frozen. There’s snow, ice, wind, and no good way to predict what it will actually do come race day. In a rare moment of clarity, I chose the shortest option for this year.
The plan is to use this race as a stepping stone toward ultra distances. Next month we’re (wife and I) running the Olde Girdled Grit 50k in Ohio and then the Black Mountain Monster 24 hour race (N. Carolina) in May. For a base I built my regular weekly mileage up to 40mpw throughout October up to 50mpw from November until now. Over the past ten weeks I used the 50k plan from Santa Clarita Runners website. I honestly did a shit job following the plan closely, but went over in mileage almost every week. I definitely skimped on the back-to-back long runs, and almost all of my weekday miles have been on a treadmill. All told I’ve averaged over 50mpw for the past couple of months, I’ve had a run streak since November 9th, and I felt ready to run this 25 miles.
- Hope that there’s no snow around Buffalo in January and aim for 8:30 pace, with a 3:35-3:40 finish.
- Deal with snow, ice, and wind chill. Keep time under 4 hours no matter what.
The race is an hour and a half from our house, so we load the family up at 7:30am to get there with enough time to sign in, figure out whatever needs figuring out, and make sure I will be warm enough for the day: it is 18°F with a 16mph breeze. The wind makes it feel like it’s 5°F, but I’m dressed warm enough to run. The plan is for my wife and our boys to see me start, then they head to the Buffalo Science Museum for the day. If all goes right, they will get back just in time to see me finish. This part of the day all goes smoothly.
The first mile of this race is run through a small park on a paved trail. It’s slippery under the thin layer of snow, but I’m confident, strong, and ready to run. “This won’t be bad!” I think. I stay comfortably close to the person in front of me, start wondering what the aid stations will look like, and fantasize about hitting my A goal. The course crosses the canal here taking us over to the rest of the course, which is a 12 mile stretch running parallel to the canal. All of a sudden the paved, snow free path vanishes. There’s just snow. It’s frozen, crunchy, and deep enough to make sure you never land with a level foot. This side of the canal isn’t plowed or maintained like it was in all of my daydreams. It’s just there, frozen over and merciless in the Buffalo winter. The group around me doesn’t seem to notice this absurd change in footing and we all just keep going. My Brooks road running shoes slip on every other step. I almost fall a couple times, but I stick with the pack I’m in, trying to anticipate when the footing might change or when my ankle might roll without warning. Our pace varies from 10:00 miles to 9:00 minute miles depending on whether the snow is 3” deep or just 1” deep. I can’t settle in at all here and am feeling a bit claustrophobic with all the other runners around me. This is decidedly not how I anticipated running this race.
Around mile 3 there’s a place that a bridge crosses over the canal with a small area for crew/support. Up until now there had been three guys running side-by-side-by-side with little room to pass them without getting into even deeper snow. At this bridge one of these guys veers left to give his girlfriend something he doesn’t need. I take it as my chance and get past everyone. As if magic, the path clears up, I can see crushed cinder for the first time, and I can actually run. Shit yeah! I smile as I get into my targeted 8:30 pace and forget all about the snow I just left behind.
That lasts for all of about a mile. I quickly find that I can do 8:30 where the snow has blown away, but have to drop down to around 9:30 when I find the snowy areas. The thing with snow is that even when it blows away, it’s just collecting somewhere else. Either way I have a good pace, I’m passing a person now and then, and I can’t see anyone over my shoulder. Maybe I’m going to fast? …Nah! It’s a race!
At mile 6 there’s an aid station, so I top off my water, swallow some almost-frozen gel, and keep going. The next stretch is almost perfect: the snow isn’t as deep and I zone out until I start getting close to the turn around. At mile 8 I pass someone’s supporter near a parking area and they cheer me on. I try to say something but my tongue doesn’t work, so I just kinda mumble vowels at them. There’s not enough time to be embarrassed, so I just keep going. At mile ten I catch up to a guy running with a goofy I-might-be-wearing-clown-shoes lope. I stay a bit back and use him as a pacer wondering about his gait until the half-way point. I also get to see the leaders as they head back to the start. There’s only about seven of them that pass me. “I’m not this fast,” I think. “Where’s everyone else?” I hit the half way point at 1:52:00 feeling pretty good knowing that I’m ahead of the majority of the people running this thing.
The aid station at the turn around point is actually inside of a building. It’s warm, full of people and drop bags, and I can’t see a damn thing. Seriously. I‘ve been staring at snow for almost two hours and being inside is a shock my eyeballs are not ready for. Rubbing my eyes helps a bit, but I decide I have to get out of here right away. I again top off my water and head out the door. This is when I realize my beard is frozen. It feels like chunks of hail under my chin. The buff around my neck is also frozen solid. “Well that’s kinda cool,” I think. I might look like a lunatic, but for some reason that’s okay at this point in my life. The only thing left to do is run back to where I started. I try to think of it as being downhill and get moving again. At this point you’re running back toward the start, so you get to see everyone else in the race. Nearly everyone says “hello,” “good job,” or nods. I smile through my frozen face hair and grunt “hi” and “hello” as well. At this point I’m still maintaining between 9:00-9:30 minute miles and I’m content with my relentless, quick-enough shuffle, slowly freezing water bottle, and the endless crunching snow under my shoes. “This is fun! This is what we came for!” I make up some goofy songs about running and sing to myself a bit. I hit the middle aid station at 2:41:00, take my last gel, and top off my water. It’s only a little over six miles to the finish line now. I have forgotten that the thickest snow is still between me and the end of this thing.
“I’m good,” I foolishly think to myself. “There’s only like ten people ahead of me out of over 100 runners,” I smirk. My ego, full of shit as usual, is supremely confident and wants me to push it for the last little bit. I try, and I hold fairy steady until about mile 20. Then the little aches and pains become throbs, clicks, and cramps. First my hip acts up. The snow has been wreaking havoc on feet and ankles, but it’s my hips that were being twisted side to side on each of those steps. I slow down and start thinking about walking in the thicker areas. Then the snow gets thick and I keep going. Every book I’ve read about long distance running talks about the importance of walking breaks. I, of course, ignore it. Walking is for suckers. Then I almost fall and my leg twists hard. I swear out loud. Walking immediately becomes a good plan. I decide I’ll walk through the snow and jog the more clear areas. ‘Goal A’ never really existed because of weather. Goal B is still possible as long as I can run most of what’s left.
From here on out I shuffle for a half mile at a time. My walking breaks are for a minute or two while I hold my hand over my left hip as if that will magically heal the popping. Then I shuffle more and try to ignore the lingering cramps in my hamstrings. The race leaders for the longer distances start passing me on their second laps. I mutter encouragement to them as I force myself to fake good running form. I’m dying and they’re running at least double what I’m doing. I’m impressed, humbled, and wounded at the same time. They’re amazing and I want to be like them…what a bunch of assholes…I’m not ready to even think about competing on their level yet.
Two miles to go and I can see the finish line on the other side of the canal. “My family is over there,” I think. “I can run there,” I tell myself. I start jogging again and daydreaming about sitting down. Sitting down anywhere would be amazing. Pretty much anything other than running through snow would be pretty fantastic. Suddenly I hear footsteps behind me. “Oh no!” One red-haired kid passes me, and I can see another guy gaining. My walking breaks have cost me my solitude and my lead. I’m determined to not let the next guy get by me. I pick it up a bit, ignore the pain, and cross the bridge back to the finish side with the beautifully plowed pathways. I start gaining on the kid that just passed me. “Maybe I can catch him!” I try, but he’s just too damn fast and my left leg doesn’t want to swing forward anymore. Then I see the finish line. My family is there and cheering. I shuffle faster, pretending I’ve been feeling great all day. I check in with the volunteers and it’s suddenly over. My watch, when it occurs to me to stop it, says 3:54:51.
Post Race & Aftermath
It’s so good to see my family! Our 3 year old is raising his mitten-covered fist shouting “Go Daddy!” at random intervals, our 8 year old is asking questions about my beard ice, everyone is smiling, and I don’t have to run anymore. I get my bad ass Beast of Burden 25 mile coin, have a picture taken with the RD, and change out of my frozen clothing. I am supremely happy I only signed up for the 25 miles this year but definitely want to tackle the 50 next year. Why? Because it’s there and I want to beat it. No matter what. That’s why.
Sunday my left hip is still popping, both hip flexors ache, my hamstrings burn, and my feet are swollen. My recovery jog is pretty painful. Monday the official results get posted. I find out that I was the second male finisher for the 25 mile race and third overall. My 3:54:38 official time is also good enough to list my name 5th for the 25 mile “Top Performances” on the UltraSignup race page! I was happy to finish and somewhat content with my time. Now though? Now I’m fired up. There’s one month left before my first 50k… I only wish it were sooner.
Strava data if that’s your thing.
Official results via UltraSignup.com if that’s your thing.