By Miriam Díaz-Gilbert
The Burning River 50 Mile was my second “race-cation.” My husband, Jon, and I combined it with four days of short, easy hiking at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio before the ultra on July 28. The event has two 50-mile races (a 5 a.m. and a 6 p.m. start), a 100-mile, and relay races.
I ran the 50-mile that starts at Squires Castle in Willoughby, Ohio and ends in Boston Mills in Cuyahoga Valley NP. It rained Friday night and the Saturday 5 a.m. race start was wet and misty but cool. The first segment of this point-to-point ultra is a pretty flat 11.7 miles on paved roads. I was on target pace at the end of that segment at the first full aid station at Polo Fields.
The sky was now blue, the sun was shining, and I was feeling good. The next 5.5 miles were a flat, muddy bridle trail peppered with seven flooded creeks – not two as advertised. Naturally, my feet and shoes got wet.
I met Jon at the Shadow Lake aid station at mile 20.7. He wrapped fresh duct tape around each of my toes and I changed my wet socks. I ate half a banana and took a few swigs of ice-cold Pepsi, in addition to hydrating all day with Nuun.
On the way to Egbert aid station at mile 25.5, I ran through more flooded creeks and leap-frogged with fellow runners Tim and his 68-year-old father, Brad. We were now in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I changed my wet shoes and socks and enjoyed Coke at the aid station.
During the next 4.4 miles I was alone on rolling single track in the woods, worried that I was off course. I was relieved to see Tim and his father – in their matching red shirts – appear from the forest behind me. We then stayed together, leap frogging along the towpath. I thanked them for being my angels. It was nice not to be alone in our often solitary sport of ultrarunning.
Pushing through the next two miles in the woods, I made it to mile 37.4 and the Meadows aid station where I spent 10 minutes chatting with the volunteers, eating watermelon, peanut butter wrap, and potato chips. I downed ice-cold Pepsi from our cooler while Jon fed me a thick slice of avocado. I thanked the volunteers as they sent me off with words of encouragement: “Looking good. Carry on. Stay Strong.”
With 12.7 miles to go, the real challenge began. I came upon a runner who was walking. We stayed together for about a mile chatting about the course, our families and God. This was Jan’s first ultra and my 23rd ultra and ninth 50-miler.
We navigated the challenging single-track terrain of rocks, tree roots, tiny creeks, and more ascents and descents. I told her she was my third angel. She got a surge of energy and disappeared down the trail. I quietly recited the prayer I’d been meditating on since the start: “God, I offer up my suffering for Jon’s healing. Amen.”
I made it to the two remaining aid stations (Oak Grove and then Snowville), now on the Buckeye Trail. These 5.6- and 5-mile segments are brutally technical with big ascents and descents, rocks, massive tree roots, rocky creeks, and super-steep stairs.
The last five miles to the finish were pure hell. First, we had to climb steep foot-wide stairs. A runner wearing a purple pleated skort climbed past me as I crawled my way to the top. I whispered my prayer again: “God, I offer up my suffering for Jon’s healing. Amen.” The runner in the purple skort and I exchanged names. Sarah had run this course before. We continued walking a 17-minute pace on this single track trail from hell, chatting about this, that, and the other, and God. Sarah held my hand to help me down some steep, rocky terrain. “We’ve got plenty of time to get to the finish,” she reassured me. I told her she was my fourth angel. With a mile left to the finish, we climbed up the super-steep 88 stairs from hell that reach for the heavens.
As we walked out of the woods onto a paved road, a group of passersby cheered us on telling us we had a quarter mile to the finish. Soon I heard a loud, piercing whistle. “That’s my husband Jon,” I told Sarah as she tiptoed ahead of me down a rocky, root-infested slope. “We can hear you! We’re coming down.” We quickened our pace, excited the finish line was near.
Any suffering that I endured the last grueling 12.7 miles melted away the instant I saw the race directors, Jon, who is battling cancer with chemo and radiation, and others waiting for their ultrarunners. They were all cheering us on with about a tenth of a mile to the parking lot finish. Euphoria took over. While ultrarunning is a solitary sport, it takes the spirit of community to finish.
Sarah and I had made a pact to finish together and to make it look like it was really easy. And we did. Our bodies finished like we were front-pack runners! Sarah finished in 14:34:27. I finished in 14:34:26.
Although the 25-page Burning River participant race information packet is very detailed, it fails to describe the terrain and elevation the last 12.7 miles, simply stating, “Get ready to now go up and away as the trails get hillier and more technical.” Many runners, including myself, felt the terrain was deceptively treacherous.
However, the race is very well organized and very well marked except for the time I thought I went off course. The aid station volunteers were fabulous. The Black Girls Run volunteers at the Snowville aid station at mile 39.5 were amazing. With loud pick-me-up music, they met runners with motivational quotes such as “You Got This” chalked on the pavement. I even got two ice-cold sponges squeezed onto my neck, chest, and arms. That felt so good!
The swag is a super-cool technical shirt, Buff, and a ginormous finisher’s medal. I treasure my Burning River 50 journey because it was my slowest trail ultra, because four angels helped get me to the finish, and because it was a prayer for my husband’s healing.
Watch Jon’s video capturing the essence of an ultra from the start to the finish.