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One #FindYourStrong Marathon, Two Voices: Burning River Race Report

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As they prepare for the Wineglass Marathon on October 4 using the AMR #FindYourStrong Marathon Challenge, Heather and Marianne, two long-distance BRFs taking on their first marathon, are sharing their experiences--and miles--weekly. Find all their posts here

Last week, I - Heather - ran the Burning River 100 relay as part of an 8-woman team. The Burning River Endurance Run & Relay is a 100- and 50-mile solo run and 100-mile relay, mostly on trails, in Northeast Ohio.

Spoiler alert: My team came in dead last.

Now I'm going to explain why that's awesome.

A few months ago, the chapter leader of Cleveland Moms Run This Town asked if anyone would be interested in putting together an MRTT relay team. The response was so overwhelming we eventually ended up with 36 women running, divided into four 8-person teams and one 4-person team.

Flat Heather all ready to go.
Flat Heather all ready to go.

On the day of the race, I arrive at the start of my leg (number 2), unsure what to expect. I walk into a sea of boisterous runners and crew standing around a large pavilion in the middle of a grassy field. Pop music is blaring and whenever a bibbed runner makes their way across the green, the crowd erupts. Red bibs for hundred milers, yellow for 50, white for relay. Intimidated, I scan the crowd trying to look like I know what I am doing when really I am looking for women I'd never met and am sure could outrun me. Not knowing what to do or where to go, I figure peeing is always a good choice and head toward the bathroom. In line, I check my cell phone and discover I have no coverage on what is supposed to be our only means of communication. Thankfully, by the time I use the facilities and make it back to the exchange point, I spot matching shirts and head toward them.

At 100 miles, this race involves headlamps for all but the very fastest runners. The course - technical trails winding up and down steep hills - is marked but not lit. Runners race throughout the night in dense forest, relying only on the lights they carry to find their way. A number of our women are understandably nervous about this aspect of the run, and we decide we will leave no woman behind, especially at night.

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If Prince doesn't motivate you, I don't know what will.

Back at the pavilion, we pin “Relay” onto our backs so, as one runner explains, "the 100-milers will understand why we're so happy." After a short wait, our first-leggers arrive. We introduce ourselves, congratulate them on a done run, take selfies, and get moving.

We pair off by pace. My new running partner, Leigh, and I settle into an easy cruise and begin the singular process of getting to know one another over 15.69 miles. We start with the basics: “How’s this feel? Let me know if I’m slowing you down.” “I’m really glad I took that pee break before we started.”

With eight marathons under her belt, including a squeaker BQ, Leigh is a calm, reassuring presence throughout the entire race. Our paces are well matched, and we chat easily, as mother runners do. She has an encouraging word for every single runner we pass, and doles out easy, uplifting advice as we tick off the miles.

Yes, this was pre-single-track
Yes, this was pre-single-track

The run itself is mostly delightful. The scenery is lovely, and my early leg means almost everyone is feeling good and in a great mood. When we hit single track with just three miles to go, I feel only excitement...which quickly morphs into exhaustion. As it turns out, single track is not for the faint of heart. The course had already been hillier than anything I'd trained on over the past six months and, adding in twists, turns, rocks, roots, and hot sun, I deteriorate quickly. Leigh sticks with me, walking when I need to, verbally pulling me up the steep grades.

We see a hand-written sign proclaiming 1/4 mile left, and I want to kiss it. I hear the cowbell before I see the crowd, and run up the final incline toward the park shelter and our leg 3 team members, with cheering and clapping all around. Our other two teammates come in not far behind us, and we pose for a group photo. I am dirty, exhausted, and happy.

Shangri-La
Shangri-La, AKA Pine Hollow Aid Station

Having gotten a hall pass for the day from my husband, I bop on and off the course all afternoon cheering. At 10:00 p.m., I head to the MRTT aid station. We are situated at the top of what is nicknamed the "Sound of Music Hill," a giant grassy incline in the national park. For those running the distance, we are a double aid station at mile 71 and mile 75 with a loop in between, and we are a big fat party. Tents are strung with multi-colored Christmas lights, dance music is pumping out of speakers, the crowd is cheering in each runner, and the mood is electric. I tell myself I am going to stay for 45 minutes. But then I am handing water and ice to people who have run 71 miles, and everyone’s smiling and joking, and they're saying how our tent looks like Shangri-La up here on the hill, and I want to hug every single person who walks by. At that moment, I am high on running in a way only runners understand, and I don't want the night to ever end.

Eventually I drag myself away. I can feel my 15 miles catching up with me, and I know if I want to see our girls cross the finish line in the morning, I'd need some sleep. As I drive through the valley, I look off to my right and see a jagged line of headlamps bobbing through woods. I feel a tug in my gut as I wish more than anything to be there with them.

The gang at the finish line
The gang at the finish line

The next morning, I creep out of the house while my family sleeps. I arrive at the finish line and greet women who, despite knowing them less than a year, are rapidly becoming my second family. A couple of us run the course backward until we see our teams, then turn around to run them in. There are high-fives and hugs and photos and maybe contraband mimosas, I don't know.

Over the course of 100 miles, our women had some problems. The heat got to some, the terrain to others. Legs took longer than expected, and at times people got frustrated. That is unsurprising and unremarkable, particularly when you're talking about what was essentially a team of 32. So yeah, we came in last, but who cares? Here's what I know: At the starting line, 4 women began running together, kicking off a day of pushed boundaries and epic teamwork. Eight legs and more than 24 hours later, four women crossed the finish line together with the spirit of 28 team members pushing them forward. And that, my friends, is awesome.

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5 responses to “One #FindYourStrong Marathon, Two Voices: Burning River Race Report

  1. Love the name- I started my love of running in Ohio. Still love to go back there and experience the green and humidity in the summer! I KNOW what the burning river is/means as I grew up playing in and near the Cuyahoga! Congrats to your team!

  2. Great JOB! I also ran as part of an 8-person team. I had leg 4 and it was killer, but I will happily do this race again, it was so much fun. Every 100 miler I chatted up was incredible. Good luck with the rest of your marathon training- you’re off to a great start!

  3. Heather – I also ran the Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Race and Relay as part of a 8 person relay team. I did the first leg, which was all on the road but hilly. I grew up in the area and now live in Columbus, Ohio. The race really brought back memories of running and biking in the area as a kid and reminding me of why I love running. The course was beautiful and the people were inspiring.

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