Thursday, August 6, 2009

Burning River Report (Part 5)

When a problem comes along
You must whip it…
Get straight
Go forward
Move ahead…

We were now closer to Akron than Cleveland. It just somehow felt like we were into Zips territory. I thought about my wife Jenny and my kids and I figured they would be happy to know that I was still moving. This section of the course mercifully included a couple of miles of paved bike path and road so I took a nap. I didn’t lie down, I just went to sleep. This is a trick I learned by accident and if you have never done it you surely won’t believe me but it is possible to do a controlled sleep walk, and so I did. I kept one eye open and let the rest of my brain sleep. I don’t mean I relaxed and I don’t mean I coasted. I’m not speaking metaphorically. I literally slept. I don’t recommend it because its dangerous but the truth is I can grab a couple of dozen ten second winks on a mile of road and, don’t believe me if you don’t want to, but it helps! I finally woke up when Fred Davis passed me. As he passed he said “I just keep looking at my feet…they are moving forward and so am I”. I tried this but I imagined my feet flipping me the bird and hating my guts so I went back to listening to Neil Young singing about rust and about how it never sleeps. I imagined that I could still show rust a thing or two. Then I smiled. Then I vomited.

Coming into the Happy Days Aid station I once again learned from everyone that I looked great. Yay. I look great. Someone notify Revlon and get me a f%&ing contract. By this point I was defiant. Go ahead stomach, turn turn turn, this is apparently the time for your purpose under heaven. But guess what stomach? I’m still moving. You do your thing and I’ll do mine you mother! Suddenly Nick appeared and put his face right in front of mine. “Mark!, Mark listen, listen to me!” he’s saying. “Yeah Nick I know I look terrific yada yada. I love you man so don’t bullshit me” I’m thinking this not saying it but Nick isn’t stopping. “Listen!” he says and turns me toward him, “you need to picture that finish do you hear me?” I know it sounds hokey and corny but honestly I felt like he was talking to me while underwater. But he was so persistent. “You need to think of that finish and think of that finish and don’t stop thinking of that finish. Do you hear me?” And you know what? I DID hear him. He didn’t tell me a lie. He didn’t tell me I looked good. He told me how to get home. And I used it, just as Freddie was using his feet to lead him home I walked along for the rest of the night, through the ledges and into the oncoming rain picturing the finish.

After that things got better and worse. With each mile I grew weaker but with each mile I started to believe. During one down patch Ron Ross appeared at my shoulder. At first I thought that I was asleep again or that Ron had dropped out and come to find me but neither of those things was true. Ron is like some sort of guardian angel to me but he wasn’t here on a mission of mercy. He was here because he was suffering too. Seeing him helped and seeing him suffer helped too. God forgive me for that but try to understand that it gave me hope; Ron was sick but Ron always finishes. We walked together up the sound of music hills and I had the strangest sensation that we had done this already. At the top I lay down in the mud and tried to sleep…for about a minute. I let the rain begin to fall on my face and felt the ground pull on me. This is it, I realized. If I can stand up now I will finish and if I don’t I won’t. I pictured the finish. I got up and walked out. Ron slowly inched ahead as I had encouraged him to. The rain started coming harder and a deep fog arose. The last I heard from Ron he was calling up from the bottom of a valley, “Mark are you there?” “Go get ‘em buddy” I called back, “I’ll see you at the finish” and for the first time in hours and hours I began to wonder if that might actually be true.

As I approached the 80 mile mark and the covered bridge I found I could take a mouthful of seven-up and gargle it and spit it back out. It helped. I still heaved but I thought maybe I was getting some sugar. The Covered bridge Aid Station looked like an infirmary and Captain Tanya Cady looked like Florence Nightingale. I walked in, she looked at me, we chatted for an instant and she gave me a smile and said “You’re fine” and moved past me to someone sicker than I. She didn’t tell me I looked good. She didn’t offer any platitudes. Tanya is too loving for that. What she did was flunk me in triage, at least thats what it felt like, and this is gonna sound messed up but it thrilled me. Proceed, she seemed to say. Tanya knows her stuff and if she told me to scamper then scamper I would. I also saw Steve Godale, a past Mohican winner and national class ultra runner. He could have been tucked into an after-hours club or pancake house celebrating his brother Mark’s win but instead he was at the temple of ugliness, the temporary dropout capital of the Midwest, the covered bridge as 4 a.m. neared. “Looks like you are gonna finish” he said. He had been cheering me on all day. I told him “Steve this is weird I haven’t been eating or drinking but I’m still moving”. He was, at that moment, distracted by someone else and called back over his shoulder “You can do anything you want to do”. He didn’t mean me, I was convinced, he meant human beings. Mike Keller was there as well and helped me remove my filthy, digusting shirt and jacket and my filthy, disgusting shoes and listened to my filthy, disgusting, but now psyched-up language. Mike gets it and Mike knows about despair and he knows about lost hope and he knows where to find it. It was no mistake that he was at the bridge in a pre-dawn rainstorm 40 minutes before the time cut-off. If you know Mike then you know that he wouldn’t be anywhere else. He is some of God’s greatest work.

The Bridge-to-bridge loop on the Perkins trail was so hard and gnarly and muddy and steep that it defies description. It just does. To top it off it was pouring rain now and the hills were mudslides. I stopped to puke and as I stopped puking I looked up and stared into the fog. I couldn’t see the bottom of the hill I was running down, just mist rising into blackness. Then I saw the finish. I saw myself running across it. I saw Rob Powell standing there just to the left of it. I didn’t imagine it this time, I actually saw it. I felt the buckle being pressed into my hand. I heaved and coughed and the cough turned into a laugh and the laugh turned into a howwwwl. This was off the friggin charts. At that moment I knew I would clear this loop and I knew I would finish. I had broken through.

The final miles of the race ran along the towpath again. Groups of Sunday morning joggers whooped and hollered for us as we jogged and walked past them. One man slowed his car almost to a stop, rolled down his window and yelled “Hey you! Are you one of those 100 miles guys?” I admitted that I was. He pointed to me and called out “Good for you! Good for all o’ youse!” It felt, for the hundredth time in 100 miles, like coming home.

A couple of miles before the finish I told a lie and prepared to commit a crime. I was running with a pair of runners from Wisconsin and told them that I felt wonderful (the lie) and that I would be pushing ahead. I ran until they were out of sight and then unpacked the secret I had been carrying with me the entire race, in a baggy in the bottom of my waist pack. The finish would be here soon and Rob would be at the finish line, just to the left of it exactly as I had pictured. I would pick up the phone to call home. Instead of calling I would find seven text messages and 3 voicemail messages. The family had been watching the web cast of the race and knew just when I finished. Dad watched it from Colorado and broke down in tears during his voice message. I would sleep in the van for 4 hours in a shopping center parking lot before driving home; my buckle and a bucket of KFC beside me. But all of that was in the world beyond the finish. For the moment I looked around, made sure I was alone, took out the small package of wooden matches that I had carried with me, lit one, and tossed it into the Cuyahoga. It fizzled and bobbed on the current on its way to Lake Erie.

We win!


  1. What an awesome story Mark.
    You finished! I knew you would when I saw you at Happy Days. You were putting on a good front when I met up with you, but I saw it in your eyes that this one was yours.
    I tell myself all the time to "Picture the Finish" and it always gets me there.
    I had such a great time seeing you at various points. I wished I had been there to see you finish. True Human Spirit.

  2. No Nick you have no idea how much you helped. Seriuosly, thanks.

  3. Great report, Mark, and much congratulations to you! And I thought my report was long.... :-)

    Recover well and I hope to share the trails again with you in the future!

    Cherish that buckle!

  4. Nick B. Hey now you were out there for wayyy less time than me...your report SHOULD be shorter : ). Honestly though I just loved this event. I want to remember it all when I'm 70...thus the blog. I read your all the time btw. Hope to see you soon! --Mark

  5. Your journey at Burning River reminds me a lot of mine at Mohican. I didn't hold down any food or liquid for 20+ hours but I was still moving forward! I was perplexed and confused (and miserable) but eventually I became convinced that there was some divine intervention willing me to a finish. That was all I needed to keep moving. I’m so happy you finished Mark, congrats!

  6. Michael
    Thanks! It was great seeing you there!

  7. Your words about the Perkins you nailed it. It is brutal especially at night. I got caught there at night the year I did the BR100 (2007). It add character to the race. - Wyatt

  8. Mark - I cried just now. Your words are golden. If I thought I was proud to help you out at the Covered Bridge that night, it is amplified many fold now. I don't have the words to convey my enjoyment of this report. Fantastic!

  9. Congratulations, Mark. Thanks for bringing all the pain and joy of that run. Brilliantly written.

  10. Hi Mark,
    Well, I finally got around to reading your blog about the race. I've been avoiding reading most of BR stuff because it's just simply too painful for me.
    Congratulations on sticking with it and getting the buckle. I agree with you, the BR is a top notch event.

  11. Wyatt
    Thanks so much. Your words are gives the race character. i just loved this whole race. Every part of it.

    It was like medicine seeing you at the bridge. It helped so much that words fail me. i hope I get some chance to help you out in the same way some day. thanks from the bottom of my heart!

  12. Duch
    Thanks so much. I love your blog by the way!!

    Thanks. i was sad to hear that you had so much trouble. believe me it was only by the slimmest of margins that I made it. There is a 100 miler out there with you name on it and you will conquer it soon. I hope I get to be there to see it!!

  13. That is an amazing story. Congrats on the finish.

  14. So glad I "endured" reading this -- what a joy, every word. I hope you realize what a gift you are to this sport, to all of your friends and family you openly appreciate.