by Eva Basehart
“Runner discretion. Please use runner discretion. You will face adverse weather conditions; please use your discretion and keep yourself safe.” That’s how the race directors start each pre-race meeting. What they fail to realize is that the discretion of many of these runners should be questioned…thoroughly.
The Beast of Burden is really two races, held both in winter and summer north of Buffalo, New York. All of the stereotypes about Buffalo weather hold true. We get snow and bitter cold. We get melting summers. To earn the coveted “Double Buckle” you must run both races, in that order, in the same year. There are no exceptions. The Beast doesn’t want to know your sob stories or excuses.
It sounds easy enough: the course is pancake-flat with only one road crossing. The only other obstacle you will encounter is a lift bridge used to cross over the Erie Canal. In the summer, this bridge may cost you a few minutes when a boat requires it to be raised. When you hear the alarm, use your discretion to hurry and cross, or take a quick rest break.
The Erie Canal is on one side of the gravel path, and civilization is on the other. But the Beast lies in those 6-10 feet in between. There is no shade. In the summer, you will have no cover from the relentless heat. In the winter the snow will swirl around the frozen canal, and attack. The wind will find you in both seasons. It has no discretion.
The Beast also boasts the worst two miles of ultrarunning. The course runs on one side of the canal, where a runner can see the start/finish on the other. Runners must run a mile, cross the bridge (hopefully without an extra wait period) and return on the other side of the canal. Music from the lively aid station can be heard the entire time. You are so close to where you want to be, but the Beast will get in your head before it allows you to get there.
I have run over 800 miles on this course. I possess two “Double Buckles.” I have PR-ed and I have finished at the back of the pack. I took first place in a 24-hour division, when such a thing existed, and I have DNF’ed twice. The Beast doesn’t care. Sometimes it lets you win; other times it fights you with all it’s got.
The Beast boasts of the challenges it will set before you. Every starting line will be filled with stories of “adverse weather” the Beast has concocted. The first year there was a blizzard that closed schools for several days. Here in Buffalo schools don’t close often. This past running in August, temperatures were in the high 90s with a heat index of 110. As the race directors say, “We have never cancelled a Beast, and this will not be the first time.”
There have been windstorms, ice storms, hail, blinding heat, dry lightning, and thunderstorms. I think if you listen closely, at around 2 a.m., you can hear the Beast laugh. I know I’ve heard it.
In the winter there are snowmobilers; in the summer, boaters, all carrying on with life and enjoying the elements. You will be forced to watch as you slog along the 12.5 mile path, do an about-face, and repeat until you have completed four loops.
While the Beast will attack you with the elements, it does allow for some relief. There is a pirate ship playground a homeowner has serendipitously parked on the racecourse. It has become an unofficial requirement to grace the slide. Aid stations are not only stocked with the kindest, most-helpful perennial volunteers in the business, but in the summer they offer you a snooze; in the winter a warm fire pit.
Many fail to cross the Beast’s finish line. Some choose to run in only one season, stating that the other is “too hard.” Some try, time and time again, only to fall victim to the Beast’s warped sense of entitlement. Some take it on every time, facing the challenges with vigor. No matter the circumstances that lead to the end of your race, be it DNF or finish line, the Beast will challenge you, and it doesn’t care about runner discretion.