In October 2015, Mother Runner Heather wrote about running her first marathon. In 2016, she hit the 50K milestone and ran her first ultra. Not one to rest on her laurels, Heather stepped it up another notch and just finished the Burning River 50 Mile Endurance Run. We caught up with her a few days after she crossed the finish line.

All smiles at mile 39. (photo courtesy Pat Dooley Race Photography)

Why did you want to run 50 miles? 

I like hitting new milestones. So after my first marathon, a milestone would necessarily mean either further or faster. And honestly, I was a little burnt out on training for fast. So I went after my first 50k last summer. I immediately fell in love with trail running and ultrarunning and started daydreaming about doing a longer distance. Right now, my kids are small enough that we’re not into the afterschool activity rat race yet and I have a job with a pretty flexible schedule, so it seemed more doable this summer than it might be for a long time.

How did you pick this race? And how long was your training?

I adore everything about Burning River. This was my 3rd consecutive year running it, previously as part of a relay team. It is incredibly well-organized, has great aid stations and support, and a gorgeous course through our metroparks and Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And it’s practically in my backyard! So there was never really any question that BR50 would be my choice. My biggest dilemma was “front 50” or “back 50.” Burning River has multiple races taking place on the same day: 100 miles, front 50, back 50, a 4-person relay, and an 8-person relay. The front 50 is less technical but takes place in the heat of the day. The back 50 starts at 6pm and runs through the night over pretty technical trails. I’d done much of the back stretch as part of the relay teams and love night running, but I was concerned about sleep deprivation for my first 50. So, front it was.

What did you prepare the night before?

My husband John and my BRF Abbie were going to crew me for the event. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for them (plus, I may have a teeny bit of a type-A streak in me) so I packed all my supplies (everything from lip balm and Bodyglide to Nuun and Pringles) into carefully labeled totes and cinch sacks. I also made up a checklist of what I wanted them to ask me (and later, expecting my ability to make decision to deteriorate, to tell me) at each crew station. Of course I overpacked. I never needed my ibuprofen, never made it through my stash of gels or waffles. But two unexpected wins were peppermint oil and iced coffee. Both provided a much-appreciated jolt of fresh energy at mile 39. Please note: use separately.

Ice bandana vs. John

Were there any moments when you thought you wouldn’t make it? How did you get through them?

I had two training races – Mohican Trail Marathon and Buckeye Trail 50k – leading up to Burning River. Both are known for their difficulty, showcasing technical, hilly terrain in the worst heat of summer. Mohican Marathon, for added punishment, decided to test out a noon start time this year. In both races, there were absolutely moments when I didn’t think I was going to make it through them, let alone the upcoming 50-miler. During BT50k I moved in and set up camp in the very darkest part of my brain. It was so bad that while crawling along, I was mentally composing the article I would write about being ok with my future 50-miler DNF. I knew I was being ridiculous, but couldn’t shake the miserable headspace I was in. I eventually finished out of pure stubbornness, but was left with serious doubts about my ability to run 50 miles. For a couple days I even considered dropping out, but I knew I’d regret it forever if I didn’t at least try. Plus, my kids knew I was training for a huge race; I didn’t want them to see me give up before I’d even started.

Abbie points the way.

Were there any moments when you were having the best time ever?

Race day brought with it the best weather of the summer. Temperatures topped out in the upper 70s and humidity was low – basically unheard of for Ohio in July. For the first time ever, I raced without my GPS. I kept it on my wrist, set to plain ol’ time, and only checked mileage sporadically. I never once looked at my pace. I’m certain this is one of the things that kept me in a positive headspace. There was no questioning whether I was running fast enough, or too fast – I was simply running.

So many friends wove through my head throughout the run: My coach, Connie, telling me to “run relaxed and easy.” My friend Danielle, cheering me on to “just run super slowly once you powerwalk to the top of the hill! Even if you don’t feel like it, just real slow!” My friend Emily: “Remember to smile. It’s such a great release.” As it happens, Emily’s advice was superfluous. I felt like smiling the entire 13 hours. I spent at least 12 of those hours marveling at what a lucky girl I am to be able to undertake a challenge like this, with overwhelming support from my family and friends.

A Heather-sized dot in the big woods.

Two moments stand out:

1. At around mile 31, the farthest I’d ever run previously, my parents told me I was running 40 minutes ahead of what I’d predicted. I was feeling great, and that was the moment I knew without a doubt I’d finish.

2. Leaving an aid station around mile 43, I had this moment of clarity, that this was what I’d been training so hard and so long for. I’d been working so hard all summer, and I only had 7 miles left. I’m historically terrible at living in the moment but I was able to sit with that, take it in, and feel so happy and grateful to be there. I hope I never forget that feeling.

What did you think about? Or did you really think about anything at all?

I really did spend loads of time thinking about the wonderful people in my life, and thanking my lucky stars for them. My crew was made up of two of my favorite people: My husband, who picked up so much of my slack during training and yet still somehow remains my biggest cheerleader, and Abbie, one of my very best friends and my BRF. I loved coming into a crew station knowing I’d get to see them.

I also listened to a lot of music, including the new girl-power mix from AMR & Rock My Run. I’ve never listened to music on the trails, so I was surprised how much I loved powering up hills lip-syncing to Fight Song.

How did you feel when you crossed the finish line?

After a final steep ascent up the “piano keys,” the last half mile is all downhill. I could hear the cheers and cowbells a quarter mile away as I wove my way down, and got incredibly choked up knowing I was almost there. Burning River front 50 ends with one of my favorite sections of the Buckeye Trail, so I’d run that stretch a lot in training, always imagining this moment. It was every bit as sweet as I’d imagined, and more. I burst out of the woods totally teary, seeing not only my parents and beloved crew, but also an unexpected bunch of my MRTT tribe and their kids, all holding handmade signs and shouting my name.

Heather with her hard-earned bling.

I’m still riding the high. The next day my quads were on fire, but within 24 hours the physical pain had almost completely receded. I’m enjoying the break from intense training, but am already daydreaming about my next ultra.

One thing I’d like to make clear: The fact that I had a total blast for almost all 50 miles does not mean I was not physically hurting. My hip flexors, which never once gave me trouble in training, started complaining loudly around mile 5, and hurt for most of the race. A weird cramp manifested itself in my foot around mile 15 and also hung out for the remainder of the day. By mile 35, everything hurt, including new and interesting muscles you’d think are mostly unrelated to running (in my back, for example.) But it was just muscle soreness, and temporary. After this experience, I’m convinced that the keys to a successful ultra are a great support system, a positive attitude, and a willingness to be uncomfortable. Which, when you think about it, may also be the keys to a happy life.