Sunday, August 16, 2009

Summer Breezes

Two paths diverged in a wood…and I took the one less traveled by…

…and then I looped around and checked out the other path, because I am an ultra marathoner. I became one for real this summer. But summer is now over and its time to head back to the University of Findlay on a more regular basis starting tomorrow. There will be meetings and free donuts all next week and then the week after that the students return and things will be fun again, but there will be no free donuts. Life is like that sometimes.

The family and I just came back from Disney World and I drove all night long, which is a very ultra-like thing to do. Yep, all night long I drank coffee and listened to music. Then I listened to this guy on the radio talking about UFO’s. Then I listened to music again. It rained for a while then it didn’t rain anymore. The driver’s side windshield wiper was ineffective and the passenger side windshield wiper was in perfect shape. Alas. Then I stopped at a convenience store in Charleston W.V. to get more coffee and interrupted a lovers quarrel between two clerks. I tried to start polite and healing conversation by telling them of my experiences in the Rattlesnake 50K run, which is their local ultra. They weren’t interested.

Driving all night is a lot like running all night except that I find that there is much less puking. And the aid stations charge you money. And no matter how much money you are willing to spend they never have pierogis. Also, they try to get you to buy Lottery tickets, and the T-shirts that you can buy all have dirty words written on them.

I guess that driving all night really isn’t like running all night at all.

But I wish it was like running all night because I miss it already.

Disney World was awesome except for the smothering heat and the part where I hemorrhaged cash day after day. The kids had a blast and everything was well done. The entertainment was great. It was all packaged up for you, just like a present; an expensive present that you buy for yourself….but a present nonetheless. I got in some impossibly awful runs. Every runner knows what its like to go to an amusement park all day long and then run after getting home at 11:00P.M. But I did the run anyway because I became an ultra marathoner this summer and so running is what I do.

I spent a lot of time this summer seeing patients and rewriting a course that I teach. I also spent a lot of time this summer chasing belt buckles. Back in 1977 I spent the entire summer pursuing Halle Stordhouse. I was so unsuccessful that, even to this day, she has no idea that I was pursuing her. This summer I was unsuccessful until I finally did succeed. Sometimes you win sometimes you lose.

Actually spending a summer pursuing something isn’t that unusual for me. I have pursued other women and I have pursued other buckles so this summer was normal. The difference this time is that I didn’t just put on some shoes and set out to conquer Mohican, with every race and training run devoted solely to it. This year I met a lot of people and made a lot of friends. I had a few very good and wonderful people that I ran ultras with before this year but I never bothered to meet anyone new. This summer I think I finally learned some new things about the sport. This summer I grew to love the idea that I am an ultra marathoner. This summer I noticed that there are lots of other ultras and lots of beautiful places to run and lots of great adventures and friendships to be had. I still love Mohican and it will be a goal in 2010. But I now also love Burning River…and there’s this running with scissors thing this fall…or maybe that one in Youngstown. The whole gang will be at each of them. Hopefully I will be too.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


I just finished a slow 60 minute crawl. The only way you would have been able to tell I was running was the concentration on my face. What with all of the tapering and then 100 miling and then recovering I had forgotten how good a simple jog can feel. Physically I felt terrible but I feel like a million dollars mentally. I can't wait to do another one just like it tomorrow. Are we lucky or what?

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!

Burning River Report (Part 4)

At fifty miles I knew that everything about this race was perfect except me. The last few hours brought the slow realization that I was tired. Lightning-strike tired. Maybe it was from Mohican, maybe from Rattlesnake, maybe from life. Despite this I couldn’t get over the course and the race volunteers. Every aid station felt like an Indians game tailgate without the baseball. I had the feeling that the entire world was cheering for me.

The whole world might have been cheering for me but only one man was fully committed to making sure that my sad butt ran its way to Cuyahoga Falls. Since 50 miles Nick Longworth cheered, advised, and cajoled. Then he drove God-knows-where to get me a burger that I first asked for, then refused, then unceremoniously ate and, finally, threw up. Nick was pacing another runner but managed, from mile 50-70 to somehow handle both of us although a fair bit of distance separated us. At one point I asked Nick for something…God-knows-what…perhaps a spare kidney or maybe a seat on the space shuttle…and he went SPRINTING to his car to seek out the backscratcher, or perhaps it was a helper-monkey, or an application to Boston University or whatever else it was I thought I needed at that moment. What Nick needs to know, and what ALL handlers need to know, is that the decency and love at moments like this are truly more helpful than any sort of ginseng extract, or hydraulic Gu-pack opener, or any other physical thing ever could be.

Sometimes not knowing a course in advance can be a great blessing. For example, I had heard of the “piano keys” but didn’t really know what they were other than some sort of steep hill. I crested the 88 steps on the way to the Boston store thinking that I was merely going up yet another of the endless hills we had been on for the last 13 miles. My ignorance also allowed me to literally stumble onto Brandywine Falls without any prior knowledge that it would be there. I have always heard ultra runners talk about the climb being worth the view from the top. This talk is usually nonsense but I tell you here that Brandywine Falls was the prettiest sight I have ever seen in an ultra and a climb five times longer than the one we just took would have been a bargain. I stopped for a minute to simply soak it in, and then I took a few steps and felt a wave of humidity hit me. I began to sweat. Gosh when did it get so hot? Then it occurred to me. “Oh God no!” I said and began to wretch violently.

Nausea had forced me out of Mohican and I spent the last 6 weeks carefully devising a plan to count my milligrams of sodium, avoid solid food during the heat of the day, eat ginger candy, and otherwise avoid stomach troubles at all costs. Now, despite everything, I was sicker than I had been at Mohican and it was occurring 10 miles EARLIER than it had at Mohican. The walk back to the store and the 60 mile mark was a slow realization, emphasized by repeated puking, that it was all just like it had been before. I sat on a log and started to cry. Before the race I had promised myself that if the nausea started I would simply drop out immediately. But that was then, years ago and this morning. That was before I had fallen in love with this race and with my past and before I had grown old. I have known for several years that some day these ultras will all stop. I could accept that this morning but I didn’t want to accept it now. The toughness had skipped a generation. My Dad was tough and my kids are tough but I sat weak and shaking and vomiting as lovers walked by. God, I did not want to quit here, especially not here, in Mike’s old neighborhood.

Mike Bunsey was my room mate and team mate at Ohio University. He grew up right around here and graduated from Walsh Jesuit High School. Mike had two lives; both of them too short. After Ohio University he earned a Ph.D. in Psychology from Cornell and within a few years had established a reputation as a world class researcher. He sifted through offers from several elite Universities and chose to become a professor at Kent State because of his love for this area. Most of Mike’s academic friends had no idea that he was a runner and most of Mike’s running friends had no idea how famous he was in his field. An individual of strikingly average talent he worked and willed his way into elite-runner status, finishing fifth at the Cleveland Marathon one year and winning the presigious ‘Elmirathon’ 10K in Elmira, New York five years in a row. Mike had been a friend during the formative years of my life. The late night talks, long runs, struggles with injury, lost loves, and hangovers that make people who they are happened to Mike and me concurrently. In his mid twenties Mike won a 5K road race on a Sunday morning and died of a heart attack while on a training run a few days later. These were his trails. I wasn’t going to quit here.

I walked into the Boston store again and tried to acknowledge all of the claims being made that I looked good. “I love these people” I thought. I figured I’d drop in some quieter place so I wouldn’t let them down. I knew the temperature swings between boiling and freezing would start soon so I left Boston store ridiculously clad in a toboggan hat, a coat tied around my waist, and bare-chested. “Good Lord” I smiled through my nausea, “All I need is a keg of beer and some body paint and I’m dressed for a Brown’s game in the 'Dawg Pound'”.

The next miles were lonely ones. There really wasn’t any reason for hope. I was strangely alone. I hadn’t seen another runner forever, the sun was setting and I knew from past experience that food and water wouldn’t be possible for …maybe the rest of the race. There was no way I could go 40 miles heaving every 20 minutes. But I kept asking myself “Can you just not drop here? Can you just do a bit more?” Each time the answer was yes. And that made me feel good and tough and somehow worthy of what this race represents. “Go down fighting” was my new motto.

I walked until nightfall and as I walked I noticed that there was some sort of weird static coming out of my ipod, which was turned up to its maximum volume in an attempt to drown out my own inner voice. “Great” I thought “first my stomach goes and now my ipod”. I took an earpiece out to see if it was sweat that was making it sound fuzzy, but when I took it out of my ear the sound strangely got louder. Much Louder. This sound wasn’t coming from my ipod at all. It was coming from the woods. Someone was screaming. No wait, lots of people were screaming…no…they were cheering. And since I was the only person in this neck of the woods they could only have been cheering for me…and ringing cowbells. I have no idea how they even knew I was coming but they must have because they were actually calling my race number. This could only mean that I was arriving at the Pine Lane Aid Station run by “Red” …and the Summit folks…

The Summit A.C.!

Thirty years later the name still causes a chill to run up my spine. In the 1970’s eastern road racing was monopolized by a few groups of diehard fastmen. There were Bill Rogers and company from the Greater Boston Track Club, Frank Shorter, Jeff Galloway and friends from the Florida Track Club, and unlikely as it may seem, a group of hard nosed kids from Akron known as the Summit Athletic Club. I recall an issue of Runners World arriving in the mail that had a picture of the lead pack of the AAU cross country championships. In the picture were Frank Shorter, Gary Bjorklund, Jeff Galloway, and FOUR members of the Summit A.C. They were on the upper slopes of the distance running world. Jeff Hlinka had recently set the national record for the one-hour run and had beaten Frank Shorter for a top ten finish in the Gasparilla Classic on Frank’s home turf. In 1981 my hero, Olympian Craig Virgin, came to Berea to run a 12 kilometer race just three weeks after winning the world cross country championship for the second time. After beating the world, this race in Cleveland’s west suburbs should have been nothing more than a chance to stretch his legs. But I recall standing on the course with one mile to go watching Virgin, eyes wide with surprise, gasping for breath and desperately trying to hold off a fast-closing Ric Sayer from the Summit A.C. The other invited runner, 1976 Boston Marathon winner Jack Fultz, had been dropped miles before. I can still recall the look of horror on Virgin’s face and the wild animal look in Sayre’s eyes, the frothy spittle spreading across his bearded face and his shoulder length hair flowing crazily in the wind he created with his ferocious stride. I stood in awe. Numbly my allegiance shifted and I heard my own voice call out “Kiss his ass Ric!”

Ric Sayre went on to win the inaugural Los Angeles marathon in a time of 2:11and the club’s accomplishments would fill too many pages to include here. These days the club, now known as the Summit Athletic Running Club, is a large, family friendly organization open to all ages and abilities. They are fun, friendly, and well organized. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t still open a can of “whup-ass” if the occasion calls for it. For example, at this moment one of their own was winning this very race. Mark Godale, 1999 Ultrarunner of the year and current national record holder for the 24 hour run, had taken a commanding lead over a national class (and almost entirely local) group of frontrunners. Many states were represented but those runners were strung out behind the Ohio contingent. Similarly, Connie Gardner from Medina, one of the most decorated woman ultra runners over the past ten years had taken the lead over an equally talented group of women. In fact, she found herself in fourth place overall with only three men ahead of her; all from Ohio.

Yep, Northeastern Ohio runners; world-class and home-grown.

I walked slowly into the aid station to sincere applause. I’m embarrassed to admit how much this helped. I had never met Red but I have been a fan of her Blog (see link under “My Blog List” on this page) and I was excited to meet her in person. She was delightful. It hurt me to no end that I couldn’t try one of her pierogis, or even any of her water for that matter. Although this aid station was open for business my stomach was not. Instead I filled up on affection, turned on my headlamp and headed into the night, feeling better for reasons that must have come from someplace outside of my wrecked being.

Still reading? Gosh, I should send you a belt buckle :). Thanks , I'll post one more entry soon and that'll be it. This is cathartic for me!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Burning River Report (Part 3)

As the saying goes “Cleveland Rocks” and if you have any doubt about that you should have seen the crowd gathered in the square in Cuyahoga Falls the night before the race. The “Rockin’ on the River” event was rounding into full gear as the registration/dinner/bag drop off was ending. Northeast Ohioans like their music and they like their beer and they see no reason to hide either of these facts. Despite all of this I managed to get an hour of sleep in the back of my van and made it to the bus stop by 3 A.M.

The Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run is a point-to-point race and logistically the easiest way to get from place to place is to leave your vehicle at the finish, catch a ride to the starting line, and then run back to your car. The bus drive was one of the most amazing parts of the race. Some runners slept, some listed to music, and some quietly chatted. I looked up at the stars from the school bus window and marveled that we actually were, no kidding about it, being driven from friggin’ Cuyahoga Falls to bleepin’ Willoughby and that the actual plan (not just on paper this time) was that we would RUN back. Suddenly it seemed absurd and impossible and irresponsible. And the bus wasn’t making a return trip so once you were on the bus you were committed. And here is something that I need you to read and to understand: NO ONE other than me seemed remotely concerned about the wisdom of this plan!

I don’t know who “Squire” was but he sure had a nice castle. The starting line was right on his front lawn and off we went at 5 A.M. sharp. Knees and elbows and headlamps. There was the inevitable bustle at the start but it was not your mall-at-Christmastime variety of haste. It was rather, more of a subdued ‘Late-for-detention’ kind of rush into the pre-dawn darkness. The first 13 miles were on flat roads to the Polo field. The roads were fast, paved and absolutely spectacularly beautiful. The sun rose as we passed lovely mansions and equestrian farms glistening in the morning dew. This entire stretch I spent running with Michelle Bichsel, a friend of mine who was taking it out easy. She benefited from the slow pace and I benefited from the great company.

My main reaction to the entire first 37 miles of this race was one of shock. I had grown up around here, how could I have missed so many beautiful places? We ran through woods, fields, along single track trails and horse paths. We saw lakes and deer and I even think I may have seen an eagle. Was it really possible that it would be this beautiful all the way to the finish? I kept recalling the lyrics of a ‘Pretenders'’ song that complained that the Ohio that singer Chrissie Hynde had known had been over-developed and ruined “From Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls”. I felt like the opposite was true. My trip to Cuyahoga Falls was one of constant wonder at how much more beautiful it was than I had recalled. And how easy…at least until Station Road…

Here’s a useful ultra marathon tip: If you ever want to run 100 miles and not feel sorry for yourself run along an 1800’s era canal for most of it. Heading into Station Road we ran in the hot sun for about 3 miles. It really was pretty tough. But there, right next to us, was the canal. Immigrants, including many many Irishmen, dug that canal for one dollar plus a jigger of whiskey per day. I don’t know how much a jigger is but I imagine its approximately the same as a 5-pack Gu dispenser. I would either need more money or several jiggers of whiskey to do that work. At any rate the thought of those men toiling in that hot sun made my walk to the virtual picnic-party occurring at Station Road more palatable. And when we got to Station Road what a party it was! The place was a hive of activity as some runners came through at 37 miles and other runners came through a second time at 43 miles. Many family members and spectators were there watching and cheering and on top of that the usual string of regulars, having nothing to do with the race, were out biking and jogging along the path. Despite all of this I got my own personal volunteer who attended to my every need for every moment that I was at the station. People seem to just love to volunteer for Joe and also for Lloyd. Captain Lloyd ran this aid station like a freshman meet-and-greet and it couldn’t have been a more pleasant environment.

I'll write more soon and, if you have the endurance, you are welcome to read it : )

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Burning River Report (Part 2)

One day in the winter of 1953 my Dad decided that he had had enough of being poor. He had grown up in Dublin Ireland in the 1940’s and during that era, in that country, you grew up to do whatever it was that your father did. When my dad was 15 years old his father was killed when a ditch that he was digging with a hand shovel collapsed, burying him and leaving his wife and ten kids penniless. My father, being the oldest child, dropped out of school, hopped a boat to London, and worked piecemeal as a longshoreman, sending whatever money he could back home to his mother. This kept everyone fed, more or less, but there was no reason for hope. There would never be a connection to employment in Ireland and in London he was treated as a second class citizen. It seemed he would indeed follow in his father’s footsteps and scramble to scrape together survival wages until his own death occurred. There really wasn’t a way out in sight…until he heard about Cleveland.

Dad had an uncle who had come to Cleveland a few years before and he sent my dad a loan to buy a plane ticket. He was promised that there was so much work in Cleveland, in fact in all of northeastern Ohio, that no more advanced planning than this was necessary. He turned out to be correct. Dad got a job at the Ford Motor Company plant in Brookpark and, six months later, sent a ticket to his girlfriend, who joined him and they married later that year. Dad went on to work for other companies, finished school, became a tooling engineer, and eventually moved half of his Irish family to Cleveland where they similarly prospered.

We love to tell this story at family reunions but the truth is that the story is not even remotely unique or even particularly interesting to those outside our immediate family. By the 1950’s Cleveland had been a city of dreams for over 150 years. Untold thousands of immigrants came to Cleveland and flourished. Oil, steel, tooling, shipping, salt, and dozens of other industries flourished. Wealth was created and shared. Generations lived and died in this place of ample opportunity.

By the 1960’s things began to change. Unemployment was rampant, industry was dying out and a sort of hopelessness had enveloped the city. I was five years old in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River caught fire. I remember almost nothing from that year but I do remember starting kindergarten and I remember the moon walk and I remember the fire… or maybe I don’t. Do I actually recall it or do I think I remember because as a Cleveland native I was never allowed to forget?

Growing up in Cleveland in the 1970’s I learned to love the city the way one loves an abusive relative. I was always cheering for it. I was always hoping that Cleveland would win but I was always also being told that it was no good. I hated it for the bad things but I also saw the good parts and wondered why no one else could. The stand-up comics on television had only just begun to get warmed up on the river fire when Mayor Ralph Perk set his hair on fire while giving a fire-safety demonstration downtown. The critics never stopped for a breath. “Of course Cleveland’s football team is called the Browns; the sky is brown, the water is brown, the buildings are brown, so why not the football team?” they said. The city appeared to be dying. Even Cleveland’s tallest building, they pointed out, was “Terminal”. The basement of Terminal Tower had homeless individuals living in it and outside on Public Square storefronts were boarded up. Mayor Dennis Kucinich (yes, he was Mayor of Cleveland after Perk) battled to keep the city from bankruptcy. Shipping slowed and the once busy docks in the flats were now places where the Mafia dumped bodies. Crime was rampant; domestic violence and drug use were up. The Browns lost the AFC Championship in heartbreaking fashion three years in a row, Cleveland State was denied a trip to the NCAA final four when David Robinson tipped in a last second shot for Navy, the Cavs were chronically in last place, and the even the free tickets that the Indians gave to schoolchildren went unused for lack of interest.

This was when I discovered running. We used to run through the metroparks for miles and miles and wonder why no one else could see the beauty. I won’t speak for Joe Jurczyk but I remember Joe from high school cross country meets. He went to school in Brecksville, just a few miles away from me. He must have seen all of this as well.

In hindsight the tower wasn’t really terminal and neither was the city. You don’t take the hardest working and most diversely talented gene pool ever assembled on this planet and hold them down for long. These folks were of good stock. Their work ethic and ingenuity created a rubber industry in nearby Akron, a collection of Universities and museums unrivaled outside of New York City, and a faith in their ability to succeed fueled by the stories told at their own family reunions. If they could dig the canals they could dig out of this mess as well.

And they have.

The basement of the Terminal Tower now boasts ‘The Galleria’ one of the most beautiful shopping malls in the country and the only people sleeping in the Tower these days are paying top dollars to The Ritz hotel to do so. The flats are now the place to experience the city’s night life. The Lakefront boasts parks and athletic facilities that are the envy of nearly any city and just try getting a ticket to a Cavs game these days to see LeBron!

The jokes still remain though and they have become annoying in their inaccuracy. When the time came for Joe Jurczyk and friends to put together the first one-hundred mile trail race in the region they decided to call it “The Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run” and gave it the motto “eracing the past. Moving forward.”

To me the name issues a challenge: “Hey funny guy, haven’t been paying attention? should see us now! The Cuyahoga River Valley is now a NATIONAL PARK, and one of the most beautiful places in the world. Care to join us for a little jog? We’ll arrange to have some of our local runners show you around…they are, after all, one of the most talented and decorated communities of ultra runners in the United States and you can just entertain them with your little jokes for as long as you can keep them in earshot. OK?” And one more thing, “In case you have heard that Clevelander’s are rude, we are going to blow you away with our goodwill and hospitality”.

A few days after my DNF at Mohican I knew it was time to return home. I may or may not have another ultra in me, I figured, but if I had one left I wanted it to be Joe’s race. Besides, if Dad got a second chance, and Northeastern Ohio got a second chance, and the Cuyahoga River Valley got a second chance, well then why not me?

I’ll talk about the race in the next post, I promise.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Burning River Report (Part 1)

Just a very quick note to say that I finished Burning River!!! I believe that I am one of the happiest guys on earth right now! I had stomach problems again, about as bad as at Mohican, but I handled them differently. I also had so much help from so many friends and so much good fortune that my head is spinning from it all. It felt like the whole world was cheering for me and giving me a soft shove in the small of my back to help me down the trail (don't disqualify me; I'm using meataphore...kinda).

The course was spectacularly beautiful and very rough. The scenery constantly changed from one type of beauty to another all day and all night long. The weather varied as well. We had heat, we had rain, we had fog, we had perfect blue skies and sun dappled rivers.

The volunteers were saintly and I have to say that Joe Jurczyk must be the best race director on earth. I heard someone say that they knew the race would be a good one because it was "A Joe Jurczyk event". I guess that makes Joe a brand name. He deserves it. The event can be described in one word: perfect. My finish requires two words: Ugly and Ecstacy.

I'll write much more in a few days.

To all of you who got me to the finish line (and there were many of you): Thank you and I love you. Chat soon. --Mark