I used to be a normal guy. I liked watching TV. I exercised in moderation. I ran in the same attire other runners utilized. I wore shoes. Then I caught the ultramarathon bug. Shortly after, I also caught the barefoot running bug. The last five years of my life have been spent learning how to intertwine these two passions. For the last five years, I have been working towards a goal of running a 100 mile race without shoes. Completely barefoot.
Most people were skeptical. Even dedicated barefoot runners expressed some hesitation. I was determined to prove them wrong.
I started with a 50 miler in aqua socks. Next was a barefoot 50 miler. In 2008, I thought I was ready for the barefoot 100 miler, so I signed up for Burning River. I made it to about mile 23, then ran into some of the most rocky trails I had ever encountered. I happened to be carrying a pair of Vibram Five Fingers in the unlikely (so I thought) event I would need them. i ended up swapping between barefoot and the VFFs for approximately 64 miles before DNFing. I was the first race I did not finish.
I regrouped and decided to put the barefoot 100 miler on hold. I had to learn how to conquer the 100 mile beast first before attempting it without some protection on my feet.
In 2009, I ran and finished the Hallucination 100 mile run in Pinckney, Michigan. This race taught me many things about running this distance. Most importantly, it gave me the confidence that I CAN finish a race of this distance.
After perusing the ultra calendars, I decided on the next race... the 2010 Burning River. Not only would I have the opportunity to finally reach this goal, but I would get some redemption for my failures in 2008. I could get this monkey off my back.
The next ten months would be spent planning and preparing to take another stab at my longstanding goal of running a barefoot 100 mile race.
Early on, I had my doubts. I remembered the bitter taste of failure from 2008. I remembered being alone in the dark on the trails of Northeast Ohio... feeling completely helpless as my body refused to move down the trail. I remembered the feeling of mentally giving up shortly after. When you set out to test your limits, most of us probably expect to surpass them. I found out what it was like to find your limit. It was not pleasant. Did I really want to do this again?
In the fall of last year, while contemplating my future, I had the opportunity to meet my ultrarunning hero- Scott Jurek. He was in the area to talk at a local running store. The store had organized a group run prior to the talk, so I had the opportunity to actually run with him, too. During the run, I was able to participate in discussions with Scott regarding all aspects of ultrarunning. One of the topics he discussed was the difficulty to ultras. He candidly revealed that the elites go through the exact same feelings of self-doubt; they go through the same internal struggle to quit or continue on. Jurek's discussions renewed my enthusiasm to continue chasing this goal.
Over the winter, I maintained a fairly ambitious workout routine. I ran once or twice a week on snow-covered trails to maintain my endurance base. I continued crosstraining two or three days per week. The goal was to simply maintain fitness. By the time spring rolled around, I was in better shape than I had been in years following my winter offseason.
The training took a significant upturn when my wife Shelly (spoiler alert: read her race report here) and friends Mark Robillard and Jesse Scott traveled to Rochester, New York in May to run the Mind the Ducks 12 Hour ultramarathon. I managed to run approximately 54 miles barefoot, though the mileage was split between relatively smooth asphalt and grass.
Over the next few months I would continue to test and train. I would continually work out methods to deal with the looming challenge that lie ahead... the brutal gravel that forced me to DNF Burning River in 2008.
I spent many hours training on the most technical trails in the area. I ran up and down sand dunes. I ran on hot asphalt. There were significant setbacks; I developed blisters that forced me to take a week off. My schedule, which revolves around my three young children, made it difficult to coordinate training runs. Luckily, Shelly is wonderful about working out plans that allow me to train.
I found many allies in this journey, starting with Shelly. She is an excellent training partner as she has the ability to push me when I am down. I also had Mark and Jesse as occasional training partners; they allowed me to push for longer, faster training runs. I had a few others, also. Some of my occasional training partners included Jeremiah Cataldo, who was also running Burning River, Phil Stapert, a two-time finisher of Burning River, Andy Grosvenor, a local barefoot/minimalist ultrarunner and frequent participant in my favorite running communities, Pete Kemme, my crosstraining partner, and a host of others including Roger Bonga, Brandon Mulnix, Dave Wier, and Shannon Mitchell. My Crossfit trainers John DeVries and Brandon Armstrong also helped build my strength and endurance. All played some role in making me a better runner; all played a role in preparing me for this adventure.
The Forming of the Crew
As the race neared, I began the process of forming my crew. For me, ultras are essentially adventures. I try to wrangle as many people as possible to share the adventure with me.
Shelly was definitely in and would serve a crew chief and partial pacer. She knew what to expect based on her experiences crewing for the Hallucination 100 the previous fall. Jesse Scott needed little persuasion to join the party. As a frequent training partner and strong ultrarunner, Jesse would pace me throughout the night. A few other individuals tried to make the necessary accommodations, but were unable to sync the dates with their schedules. Our final member of the crew was Barefoot Art, a friend we had met at our barefoot running meetup in May of this year. The crew was set.
Shelly and I knew Jesse well as he was one of our traveling companions on our Mind the Ducks road trip earlier in the year. Jesse shares our juvenile sense of humor and is not easily offended... two critically-important prerequisites for my crew. We did not know Art well, but had a feeling he would at least tolerate our silliness.
Mark Robillard, our good friend, training partner, Hallucination pacer/crew member, and traveling companion to Mind the Ducks would not be joining us as he made a commitment to run a trail Marathon on Grand Isle in the middle of Lake Superior. Mark would be sorely missed, so Shelly created a stand-in... a "Ken" doll that made it into a frightening number of pictures.
The Trip to Ohio
The trip began at about 8:15am Friday morning. Once Jesse arrived, we dropped off our youngest son and hit the road. Art lived about two hours away. During those two hours, the conversation jumped from various topics. Jesse told a story that would become one of our running jokes throughout the weekend.
The drive to Ann Arbor was pretty uneventful... lots of catching up. We picked up Art and headed to our hotel near the start line. We stopped once to use the restroom, then again five minutes later to get something to eat. Yes, that was my idea. No, I am not always a "fast" traveler.
While dining at a local Panera Bread, Jesse was approached by a stranger attracted to his US Triathlon sticker on his car. The stranger sold athletic supplements and asked Jesse many questions. Being a good sport, Jesse humored the man and agreed to sit down with him. As the conversation progressed, the man was part of a group (still unknown) that was developing a special water for athletes. The gentleman described the water as having tiny molecules that were easily absorbed by the body. Being an exercise science major, Jesse questioned the science. The response became our oft-repeated phrase throughout the weekend:
"I'm not a sciencey sort of guy, but imagine if you threw a bucket of water at a chain link fence. The smaller molecules would go through, and that's what we sell."
It was clearly pseudo-scientific BS as anyone with even an elementary understanding of molecular properties would know... but it made for some VERY funny comments at 3am Sunday morning out on the dark trails!
[Warning- off-topic rant] As it turns out, the gentleman was an Amway tool. For those that are not familiar with Amway, it's a huge network of independent salespeople trying to sell crap products to their friends and family, such as water with tiny molecules, amid promises of great wealth and power. Those same friends and family are also recruited so the recruiter will get a chunk of their profits. They refer to the pyramid scheme as "multi-level marketing", and the profits all flow to a local family that uses the money to push their ultra-conservative political/religious agenda. This pretty much sums up the company: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ot31XhgE_XE. I digress. [End of rant]
We arrived at our hotel, checked in, brought our gear up to the rooms, and relaxed for a few minutes before heading out. This was the point where I told Art he'd be rooming with Jesse after meeting him only a few hours earlier. I must have forgotten to mention that. Regardless, Art took it in stride.
We stopped at the start line to see Squire's Castle, a very cool building near the start line. I knew it would be dark when we arrived in the morning, so I wanted the crew to see this before heading to the packet pick-up at the finish line.
The drive to the finish line seemed very long. It was a subtle reminder that I'd be running even longer as twisting trails meandered through the countryside. After what felt like several hours, we arrived at the Cuyahoga Falls Natatorium to pick up our packets. Here we met Phil Stapert, Ben Eggers, and Rachel Sterk. Ben and Phil were crewing for Rachel on her quest for her first 100 mile finish. We talked for a few minutes, then headed out to Max McQ's, a local bar/restaurant.
We arrived at the restaurant, ordered some beer and food, and awaited the arrival of our friends. Ben, Phil, Rachel, and my crew discussed running in general while sipping their respective beers. Shortly after, our friends Shelley and Jim Viggiano (Shelley is the race director of Mind the Ducks) arrived with their crew Theresa and Patty, along with Matt Chaffin and Andy Carney. Jim, Matt, and Andy would be running in tomorrow's race. It was at this point that I casually noticed my 22 ounce glass was empty, whereas the rest of my crew barely touched theirs. Hmmm.... nerves maybe?
We caught up with our friends from New York and were soon joined by Tony and Jane Lindsey. Tony was a relatively new barefoot runner that lived near the course. He also recommended the restaurant. We were also joined by John Onder (Barefoot Johnny O), another local barefoot runner. I was happy all three made it to the restaurant; they were able to give us valuable insight to the course. It's also fun connecting with other barefoot runners.
I lost track of time after finishing another tall beer. The first sign should have been Shelley's crew leaving to get to bed. Then Rachel's crew left. Both were relatively close to the finish line; we had a 45 minute drive. Uh oh.
After finally saying our goodbyes around 7:30 or so, we headed back to our hotel. Again, the drive felt like it took forever. We arrived near the hotel and decided to make a pastry run for tomorrow's breakfast. We stopped at a store called Rick's or Pat's... I don't quite recall.
Upon entering the store, we were immediately met with a wall of aisles. After winding through the labyrinth of tiki torches and grocery store-quality bras, we found our mini donuts and cream cheese danishes. Shelly, Art, and I were impressed with Jesse's intimate knowledge of the caloric density per cent of many foods... it's one of the benefits of being a long distance runner living the college lifestyle. Shelly also picked up a bottle of wine for the hotel. Uh oh number two...
We made our way to the checkout lane, cracked a few jokes about the $80 coffee pot on the "impulse buy" shelf, and paid for our goods. I tried paying with my Visa debit card, but they only accepted Discover. I was a little shocked; even the fruit stand near my home takes Visa these days. I hadn't encountered a "Discover only" store since the mid-90's. Luckily I had cash. Not wanting a ton of change, I gave the eighteen year old cashier an extra 15 cents with my twenty. She stared at me blankly as it was apparent she had no ability to calculate how much change I should receive. I told her twice before a manager arrived and confirmed it for her. Sigh.
Back at our hotel, the four of us congregated in our room. Art brought his home-brewed beer; I was drinking some I brought from home. We talked about our regular nonsense for about an hour before actually getting to race issues. By this time, I was getting slightly drunk. I suspect Shelly was also. Art and Jesse seemed to exercise a little more restraint. As I finished walking everyone through the aid station strategies, I glanced to the table where I set my empty bottles. Four bottles?!? I checked the clock, it was 11:00. I was waking up at 2:30. I really needed sleep.
I remember my cellphone alarm going off and thinking I hit snooze. Then Shelly's alarm went off. I got out of bed to shut it off. I don't remember setting her alarm, but apparently I had the wherewithal to not only set her alarm as a backup, but also set it across the room to force myself out of bed. I have absolutely no memory of this. As I looked around the room, I felt some slight spinning. Damn... I'm still buzzed a little from the beers. This would be the first time I had a vague "I'm really, really stupid" feeling.
Despite my chemical state, I went through my secret morning routine. Why is it a secret? Dramatic effect. The only unique occurrence- an odd encounter with a group of people parked near the hotel. They were parked in the road, had all their lights on and door open, and were listening to loud rap music. I walked around the corner into their headlights. All six people stopped to look at me. My first thought- "What the hell are these people doing here... this is really odd." Of course, I was barefoot and wearing nothing but a kilt and walking with a water bottle at 3:00am. We mutually nodded and went about our business.
We finished getting ready, packed the car, and headed to the start line. The buzz had worn off, I was hydrated, and felt good. I was excited to actually begin the race.
We arrived amid a flurry of activity. Darkness still cascaded over the entire start area. The sound of a loud generator filled the air. A single tent was illuminated; this would serve as the check-in point. I gathered some of my gear and we headed for the tent. After checking in, we milled about for a few minutes.
The entire area was buzzing with nervous but subdued excitement. Headlamps and flashlights would dance around in the darkness as runners and crews made final preparations. We met up with Phil, then Jeremiah Cataldo (one of my training partners from Grand Rapids). A note about Jeremiah- he finished 32nd overall in a little over 22 hours. Jeremiah also wore New Balance MT100s, which are very close to a minimalist shoe. We also met a guy from Pennsylvania named Ben and his wife. I would end up running with him for periods of time throughout the day Saturday. Ben finished in a little over 26 hours for his first 100 mile finish. I was extremely excited to see that he had finished!
Eventually the came for us to move to the start line, which is in the middle of a large grassy field. I had been receiving an occasional glance or comment about my bare feet and kilt all morning, but the questions really flowed as we were waiting for the race to begin. About twenty people asked about one or both. I loved answering the questions as most people seemed genuinely curious. This would be a trend that would last the duration of the race.
We sang happy birthday to another runner (coincidentally named Jason), were treated to an excellent rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner", then waited. As is the case with every ultra I've run, I never hear the actual start. All of a sudden, everybody started moving towards the actual start line marked with glow sticks. I hit "start" on my Garmin and the race began!