On January 18th, 2014, I ran the Winter Beast of Burden 50 mile race in Lockport, NY. This is a race on the Erie Canal towpath with a 50 mile and 100 mile option. If you’re here on my blog trying to decide whether or not to run it in 2015, read on. This race is fantastic, and flawlessly run, and the camaraderie amongst the participants was among the best I’ve experienced. But the cold and the exposure were much more intense than I had anticipated.
I had a decent base coming into the Beast of Burden. I’m not a particularly high mileage runner, nor am I competitive, but I got in some quality long runs and ran about 210 miles in December. I was healthy and injury-free.
I made the six hour drive with my neighbor Deron, and we stayed at the Lockport Inn and Suites. It’s the official race hotel; I always like staying at the race hotel whenever possible, since I know the people in the next room are on the same schedule I am. I also have to plug the place I went for dinner - DeFlippos – best pasta of my entire life, and if you’re ever in Lockport, you MUST go there. Since Deron wasn’t feeling well, I thought I would have to dine by myself. However, while I was waiting for my “table for one”, a fit looking guy walked in. I’d never met him before, but I guessed he might be running the 50, and I asked him if he’d like to join me for dinner. I was right! And I really hit the jackpot with a dinner companion – he’s from my area, works in the same industry that I do, and has kids the same age as mine. Thanks for a wonderful dinner, Vasilis! It turns out that this was the unofficial pre-race pasta dinner place, too, and the waitress was telling the people at the next table over that all the people in the restaurant today were going to run fifty or a hundred miles in the morning! People can run 100 miles? Apparently.
This race starts at 10AM, which is late, and odd. But why not make that part of a race strategy? At 6:45 in the morning, Deron and I, and another Trail Animal named Justin went to Tim Horton for Donuts and coffee. Then back to our rooms, where we could read the paper in our heated bathrooms while the coffee worked some magic. It also left me plenty of time to get dressed, which…. Was going to take a while.
Here’s what I planned on wearing to the start of the race:
And what I actually wore:
1. VivoBarefoot NeoTrails
2. Smartwool ski socks
3. Sugoi fleece lined tights
4. One Target C9 short sleeved Tshirt
5. One Hind spandex long-sleeved shirt
6. One red turtleneck thermal shirt
7. One Duofold thermal shirt
8. One bright orange softshell fleece top
9. A Sierus ski mask
10. A polarfleece hat
11. Swix cross country ski gloves
If you’re counting, that’s five shirts. I couldn’t put my arms down! I also had parkas, more pants, and a couple of fleeces in each of my drop bags.
We arrived at the starting line at around 9AM, with plenty of time to get our business taken care of. I got some great unsolicited course advice from a volunteer. He informed me that the previous year, his wife had tried to crap into the canal, and the wind almost blew her into the icy water. So don’t do that. I told him that I would keep that in mind, and if I wanted drop a load on the course, I would look for some playground equipment and take a dump under the slide. Then he and another runner informed me that there WAS indeed some playground equipment – there was a pirate ship with a slide that was in a backyard, really close to the towpath. I told them I probably wouldn’t have to use the poop deck, but I definitely intended to go down the slide during my run.
General Course description.
A bit about this course. Since it runs along the Erie Canal, the course is flat flat flat, and straight. There’s not much pavement, just crushed cinder and clay. It’s not plowed, so it’s usually covered in snow and ice. But not this year; on race day it the clay was frozen and rutted with footprints. The surface was unforgiving without the snow on top.
We were moderately lucky with the weather. It wasn’t supposed to snow much, and the temperature would be on the warm side, in the 20s for most of the day, and dropping into the teens. However, it was blustery and the course offered no shelter from the wind.
The course is a 12.5 mile out-and-back, with a medium-sized heated tent for an aid station at the start/finish, a small heated tent (Gasport) for an aid station at around mile 7, and a cafeteria of an office building providing aid at the turn-around at 12.5.
0 to 12.5 – OUT!
The race got off to a lovely start, with light lake-effect snow and the wind at our back. I got into a nice groove running with Justin, a guy named Keith from Texas who was doing the 100 and was slightly impressed with the weather, and a woman named Sam. Sam’s 23 and was doing her first 50 mile, with a goal time of 15 hours. We all agreed that we were going out a bit fast, but the wind was at our backs and we were having a good time.
I saw the pirate ship, ran ahead of my little pack, and went down the slide. Whee!
We arrived at the 12.5 aid station at just over 2 hours, which was too fast for all of us, I think. I knew more walk breaks needed to be in my future. I spent a bit long at the aid station. My wool sock was starting to give me a hotspot on my little toe, and I needed to fix that. Many more miles to go!
12.5 to 25- BACK!
Remember the wind that was at our back on the way out? Well, now it was in our faces. The race “requires” participants to have a face mask, and I can say that they were pretty popular on the course. I ran most of the next section by myself since I lost track of Sam, Keith, and Justin.
Just after hitting the Gasport aid station, I ran into my first difficulty with frozen water. I must have forgotten to blow air back into the tube. It was too far to the next aid station (start/finish, 6 miles). I tried shoving my entire pack under my top layer. It was awkward running like that, and, after a half a mile, it wasn’t working anyway. I yanked the bladder out of the pack, tucked my shirts in, and shoved the bladder down my front somewhere in the middle of my layers, then put the pack on normally. It wasn’t comfortable because the hose was riding up on my throat, but after a couple of miles, it thawed the bladder.
At the start/finish aid station, Deron was sitting in a chair there, looking spectacular, and informed me that he was going to the hospital. What? I didn’t even understand what he was saying because he looked great there in that chair. He’d been pulled for medical reasons, and they were taking him to the ER. He didn’t want me to go with him. I would have insisted on dropping and accompanying him if he appeared to be in distress, but he assured me he felt fine so I continued on.
At the aid station, I needed to grab a headlamp and grab more layers because the sun would be going down before I hit the turn around. I pulled a pair of fleece pants on over my tights. I would need another top layer for the way back, but the parka I had in my bag at the turn around wasn’t nearly as nice as the one at the start finish. I opted to take this parka with me and tie it around my waist until I needed it.
25 to 37.5 - OUT
I felt fantastic during this part! I got into a great rhythm with a walk/run strategy. My legs were getting stiff from the monotonous terrain, and were appreciative of some long, fast, walking strides. I ran a good portion of this with Sam again. My water kept freezing, and I thawed it in front of the rocket stove at the Gasport aid station. But I was much less worried now because I was guzzling when I got aid, and not relying as much on what I was carrying.
The sun set behind us during this leg.
Not really sure when I hit the turn around, but I spent a fair amount of time there. I needed to drink a bunch, thaw my water, use the restroom, attend to a blister. As attractive as it was to skip the foot care, 12.5 miles isn’t a short distance, and if I had to hobble, I might end up hypothermic.
37.5 to 50 - BACK
Wow, it was dark now, and COLD, and the wind was in my face. I leapfrogged and ran with Sam again between 37.5 to 43, and even passed a few people. My water froze again almost immediately after I left the turn around. Ah, hell. That again?
I was all by myself when I saw the pirate ship. Someone was coming from the other direction when I climbed on. I yelled, “ARRRGH, MATEY!” and went down the slide. He looked at me like I was insane. As if he wasn’t. The slide was one of those bumpy ones, and gave me a great glute massage. I though about going down again, but then had this vision of getting pulled from the course hours later, on the ship, muttering something about Jack Sparrow.
I rolled into the tiny, midpoint aid station at mile 43 with a huge agenda. Thaw the water, rehydrate, eat, put the pack back on, and FINALLY put that parka on over the pack. While I was guzzling water, Sam and Justin rolled into the aid station, and I got a text from Deron saying he was doing great and was back at the hotel. Sam’s friend Hideki Kinoshita was there, and informed us that we were in 5th and 6th place out of 18! Since Sam’s goal was 15 hours, and we were easily on pace for a sub-12 finish, that’s fantastic! Here’s how happy Sam and I were at this aid station:
|Thanks for the picture, Hideki Kinoshita!|
Sam and Justin blasted out of Gasport a few minutes before me, because I was still struggling with my water. Sam was off and I didn’t see her again. I honestly never thought I’d catch Justin. I couldn’t run much faster than a 13:45 pace without getting exhausted. Oh well, run on run on.
I eventually did catch up with Justin, and he was looking rough. He said that he was feeling fatigued, and I offered him some Gummy Bears. He said, “Sure, if it’s not too much trouble.” I assured him that indeed it WAS trouble – everything is so much more difficult in a snowsuit – but I wanted them too so perhaps we could work together to get my gummy bears. Justin stripped off my parka. I handed him my gloves. I took off my pack and dug around in it, grabbed the gummy bears. Getting me dressed again, while moving, of course, and not dropping gummy bears, was like that problem where you have one boat with two seats and you have to get a fox, a chicken, and a bag of corn across the river.
I rolled on ahead of Justin – it really wasn’t far now! But after a few minutes, he caught up to me, yelled, “Thanks for the gummy bears!”… and he was gone!
But the finish wasn’t long afterwards – I came in at 11:27, feeling great aside from the breathlessness.
As soon as I hit the tent, every volunteer sprinted up and asked me what I needed. Major props for the BoB volunteers – they were amazing. I didn’t need much, I felt fine, and was plenty warm in my two pair of fleece pants, ski mask, and six layers on top. But I soon noticed why they were so attentive.
The tent was madness and carnage. Keith was sitting in a chair steeling himself to go back out in the cold, and really, he looked the best of anyone in there. In the 20 minutes I spent in the tent post-race, three runners came in so hypothermic they were delirious, one of whom almost fell down coming in.
The course looks easy, and I thought it would BE easy. Nutrition and eating is one of the big challenges of running beyond the marathon, and it’s a level up to manage nutrition while having to fight with layers and a facemask. I couldn’t just absently cram snacks in my mouth. I had to find them…. in which pocket? And where was that pocket? Then pull down the facemask to cram it in…. But don’t drop the gloves!
I needed to stay on top of my comfort with the temperature, and I managed that quite well. I was never cold and was never too hot. Can’t stop- I’d freeze. Can’t get too warm or I’d sweat and then freeze. I know the drill, but for 11 hours, it took more mental energy than I was expecting.
Aid stations were fantastic, but again, this again is a struggle like it isn’t in the summer. I was acutely aware that “winning” the aid station battle could mean a brutal DNF. It’s get in, and strip to take a pee, strip so I wouldn’t end up sweating up, strip to adjust a layer, and then carefully pile it all back on again, and for the love of the ice, DO NOT forget a layer or a glove or a facemask. And everyone at the aid station is doing the same, so grab a Little Debbie while dodging a flailing arm from someone trying to squeeze into a snowsuit.
To sum up, this was a great event and I had a blast! I’m definitely looking forward to running this one again! And I would recommend it to a friend, but they’ve gotta wear everything they have in their closet!