Thursday, July 29, 2010


Burning River is in 2 days!!!! Every year is a separate race, a different story, and a new adventure. I will write about this year's race next week, but for now I want to share with my friends what this race means to me. The following is a cut-and-pasted re-issue from part of my lengthy race report last year. Forgive the apparent laziness of not writing new material. I forgive myself because I think its important that I remember why this race is important and why we should all learn from its lesson. Wish me luck, and pray that I don't lose sight of how blessed I am to be able to try this adventure once again. Peace. --Mark

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 Parma, 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! (remember, I wrote this last year : ))

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 in 2009 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?

And this year the national 100 mile TRAIL RUNNING championship lies on a course, through the wilderness, between Cleveland and Akron...the thought never ceases to amaze me. Thank you God!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mohican Report: Part 3

WARNING: This post is really really long. I suspect that there will be a high dropout rate so be sure to pace yourself. In fact this posting isn’t even the whole story. This is part 3. If you want to start at the beginning g’head and scroll wayyyyyy down to part one. Be sure to drink plenty and stay in the shade so’s you don’t get the heaves. Also, I want you to know that this part of the story was compiled based upon 5 different race reports, my personal observations, and several interviews (some with beer, some without). I feel certain that the facts are correct. Its an amazing story and I have endeavored to tell it accurately. You might be relieved to know that even though I paint myself into the tapestry (like a very unskilled Hitchcock) the story is not just about me for once. Please enjoy. And remember to shut off your cell phones and keep you children under control. And while you are at it, diversify your investment portfolio a bit as well. Peace. --Mark

If one were required, for some odd reason, to go to Port Columbus International Airport and identify a person whom they had never seen before, but who was described as having finished Grandma’s Marathon that morning, and had followed it up with a long, delayed plane ride, they could be excused for not correctly identifying Starshine Blackford as being that person.

Star looks like a runner. She is five-foot-nothing as my neighbor Bob used to say, and she is fit looking. But a marathoner should be hobbling around wearing a proud, painful, wincing smile, possibly a finisher’s medal draped around their neck. Star, on the other hand, was bobbing up and down in front of the baggage terminal belt wondering why it wouldn’t just speed up already. In her mind she was probably working out a sixth grade proficiency question that went something like:

“Your airplane leaves Minneapolis at 8:00 P.M. traveling at 500mph. The plane lands and then you dispatch a car and drive 60mph for 70 miles. Meanwhile your runner leaves the 65 mile point of a race at 8:00pm traveling at 3 mph. At what mile mark on the trail will you meet the runner (please allow for slow luggage belts and pee breaks)?”

The answer might surprise you. Then again, if you have ever run 100 miles, it might not.

Star and her husband Darris came rolling in to the Bridle Staging area aid station, gravel flying, at precisely midnight, to find that David Huss was sitting in a chair looking like death, and being ministered to by his wife Katie and Steve Zeidner’s wife Leigh. He had gone 7 miles in four hours. He was moving but unable to eat and the iliotibial band in his right knee was irretrievably inflamed. He had 30 miles to go and a cutoff clock that was ticking loudly.

They might have made it a few minutes earlier if Star had driven. Darris insisted on accompanying her even though he was due at work in Columbus by noon the next day. On the way up from Columbus Star wanted to drive. But Darris has been in ultra-land before and so he knew that there was no way his wife, scheduled to pace David Huss after a morning marathon, was going to be safe in a post-marathon/sleep deprived state circumnavigating drunks and deer. Both of whom would most certainly be sharing the twisting roads around Mohican on a Saturday night in June.

Michael Patton sat in a chair nearby. He was doing just a bit better than Dave but still lacked the energy to walk the 30 feet over to Dave’s chair so he sent his pacer, Kevin, with the following message: “Mikey wants you to walk out of here with him”. Dave accepted, and all four hiked out into the most feared section of the Mohican course. Seven-point-three miles to Rock Point. Three river crossings and a sea of mud and horse shit lay in front of them. It was a heck of a place to try to limber up a knee.

Meanwhile Ted Nieman stood near the CB radio located at Rock Point and suddenly found himself with a free Saturday night on his hands. Ted didn’t know Steve Zeidner prior to this race but had been connected to him through Michael. Ted had agreed to pace Steve from Rock Point to the finish but when the message that “Number 160 is out” crackled across the airwaves Ted realized that this was Steve’s number and that it was officially over. He then did a noble thing. He picked up another needy runner and headed down the trail with a new and unexpectedly grateful friend.

Steve actually had made a valiant effort to reach the Bridle Staging area. He left the Covered Bridge at mile 70 with Dave, walked halfway up the monstrous hill and turned around to walk back down to the bridge. On the way down the hill he ran into Michael who begged him to turn around. Mike told me later that Steve gave a firm “No” and continued downhill without stopping.

By the time I got to the Covered Bridge Steve was sitting in a chair, covered by someone else’s towel, shivering, and miserable. I asked Steve to walk out with us. He looked at me and said softly “I just can’t do it. Its my stomach”. I looked into his eyes and could see straight through to his spinal cord. There was nothing there. I had been in the place he was now and had never been able to come back from it. In 100 mile races there are down periods, there are near-death experiences, and there are Jesus-as-my-witness “Cannot’s”. Cannot go on. Cannot think straight. Cannot regain homeostasis. Steve meant it. He was done. “God bless his poor heart but there is nothing he can do”, I thought. My pacer Scott, told me later that he saw Steve’s eyes and knew the look as well. I muttered some advice anyway and headed up the trail. Steve deserved better than this but I had seen this scene so many times today I was sadly numb to it.

And that’s when Mohican’s magic presented itself.

The magic makes a visit every year and this time it took the form of two attractive, committed, and loving young women who were prepared to offer some gentle persuasion, or kick some ass; whichever it took.

Katie Huss and Leigh Zeidner had been dispatched to the bridge, on Dave’s request, to give poor old Steve a ride back to the hotel. Instead they walked up to Steve, told him they were there for him. They also told him to rise and walk. Steve told them that it was too late. He had already officially dropped from the race. The women responded to this by walking up to the dumbfounded radio jockey and telling him firmly that Steve was “un-dropping” from the race. After a few radio communications with race headquarters it was decided that the rules said…well, they didn’t really say anything…actually. This had never happened before.

Well then, that settled it!

And so for the first time in the 21 year history of the event, a death certificate was revoked and an officially DNF’ed runner “dropped back in” to the race, with just a few minutes to go on the cutoff.

Immediately after leaving the covered bridge I heaved. Actually I expected it and was surprised that it had taken me this long to puke. I was ready for it. Way way way back hours and hours ago when I was approaching Hickory Ridge at mile 60 I had a hint that the stomach would be closing down for the night and I was delighted that I was able to pop and hold down three no-doze. The problem with not being able to eat or drink all night (as has been my pattern in recent years) is that not only don’t you get fluid or calories, but you also can’t have anti-inflammatories or caffeine. I’m becoming a reluctant expert on calorie-free running. I find that no matter how weak or thirsty I get I can still move slowly. But only slowly. No running, no fast walking, and rest breaks are required on uphills. It’s a crappy way to spend an evening but I really wanted this buckle and so I bent myself to the task. I have found that I can walk the nausea off in about 10 hours. A guy does get thirsty in that time though and so I rinse my mouth out and sometimes manage a small swallow.

Dave and Star were approaching Rock Point when Star found what she described as an “awesome” walking stick for Dave. His knee was ready to collapse on every downhill step and so the walking stick was used to cushion the blow. The uphills were going a bit better. Star entertained Dave with stories of old races, how she met her husband Darris, etc. and tried to keep the conversation light and upbeat. This is important for a runner.

On my way to Rock Point my own pacer, Casey, was employing a similar strategy. Casey never nagged me. He thought of hopeful things to tell me. He pointed out when I was walking well and reminded me that the bad patches wouldn’t last when they presented themselves. I didn’t speak much and he was fine with that. At one point we started to talk about some family troubles that I experienced this year. Then we decided not to speak of anything negative. The stars were out, a gentle breeze was blowing and we were moving. That was a wonderful thing, moving. Casey and I decided that we would concentrate on the beauty. We would produce good Karma. Meanwhile my other pacers, Scott and Nick, were seated in lawn chairs at the Sand Ridge cemetery sharing recipes for homebrew and holding a contest to determine who could produce the most pornographic shadow puppet on the wall of the abandoned church by the light of their headlamps.

Pacers are, after all, only on duty when they are on duty.

Steve arrived at The Bridle Staging area hours later than he originally planned. In fact he should have already been at Rock Point according to his original schedule. His current pacer, a friend named Ashley, agreed to stay with him through the rugged path to Rock Point. This was going to be a longer night than she banked on.

Meanwhile Katie and Leigh raced to Rock Point to try to notify Ted Nieman that Steve was back into the race. Katie, sprinted up the hill into Rock Point, breathless and searching for Ted, only to receive the devastating news that he was gone. The ladies knew that Ted had done the right thing but they also knew that this would leave Steve alone from Rock Point until the finish line. They immediately began to search for other pacers. They also began to rummage for running clothes…just in case no one could be found.

As I headed into Rock Point I was worried about cutoff times. It was 3 am and we were holding an hour cushion on the cutoff but we were really moving slowly. My experience at Rock Point was an odd one. Michael’s dad, Tom Patton, warmly greeted me and I was nearly non-responsive. It was almost coma-like. It was as though I didn’t realize that I could have chatted with him, or thanked him. I saw David sitting in a chair having a bandage applied to his foot and I was delighted to see him…internally. But I was unable to reach over to the other side and speak with anyone. It was like I was watching the scene on TV. I left the aid station a few minutes after Michael and a few minutes ahead of Dave. I also learned that Steve had rejoined the race. My heart leapt for joy at this almost unbelievable news. But I spoke with no one of it.

I don’t ever want to relive that experience.

When Steve arrived at Rock Point he was very nearly in last place. There were simply no pacers to be had and he couldn’t be left to wander the woods on his own…he was starting to fall asleep. So Ashley refilled her water bottle and decided that this was a night she would remember as her personal record for mileage.

Leaving the South Park Aid Station at mile 84 I decided it was time for another mouth rinsing. I grabbed what I thought was a bottle of ice water, took a huge swig, and vomited so loudly that it stirred sleeping birds from the trees. “ITSSSHHEEED”. I yelled to Nick between heaves. “What”? Nick Asked. “Itshheed” I replied. “What are you saying?” asked Nick again. “Its Heed. Oh God, its Heed”. Someone had put Heed in my bottle, and at that moment nothing could have made me more violently ill. I was actually using filthy language DURING my heaves. A couple of runners went by and I apologized “Hey man, its part of the sport” was their response. For some reason that made me happy. Very very happy. Nick and I joked that any chance we had for a Heed endorsement deal was irrevocably gone but that’s OK. As the mystery runner pointed out this was normal. And normal felt good.

Meanwhile, Steve was actually starting to do better. He could now break into an occasional shuffle…when he wasn’t sleeping. Ashley had finally run out of steam at the South Park aid station and so Leigh, a woman who must have been paying attention during the “Better or worse/ Sickness or health” part of the wedding vows, pulled on a spare set of Steve’s overly large running togs and decided that it was time to join her husband on this journey. She had never run 18 miles before and really had no plan regarding how she would achieve it now. But that plan could be formulated later. Now it was time to move forward with faith. She shuffled with Steve when he shuffled, woke him when he fell asleep on his feet, and gave him gentle shoves back onto the path when needed.

Up ahead Star and Dave were both falling asleep. They were motivated back to wakefulness when Ron Ross and his daughter Tracey passed by. I was wide awake but really needed sugar. There were three massive climbs to get to the fire tower and I didn’t have any fast burning power to climb them. Nick had procured an enormous bag of orange slices at South Park and I put one in my mouth at the start of each climb, tried to suck in sugar through my gums, and spit it back out at the top. It worked! The third climb was a hill that Nick and I ran powerfully in a workout last fall. Since that time we have determined that it is “our” hill. We crested it, gave a manly fist-bump and headed for the fire tower.

The sun came up just as we hit the fire tower at mile 88. Suzanne Pokorny walked out the trail to greet us and when I saw her my heart leapt, and then exploded. It was like fireworks. I was so happy to see my friend, until the sudden realization that her presence here meant that she was no longer in the race. I assumed all night long that she would pass me. Instead she fought terrible heat exhaustion all the way to Hickory Ridge where she simply was too ill to go on. Instead of sleeping she came to find us. This sort of caring is why I love Mohican. This is why the world needs to learn from us.

The walk down to the bridge should have been easy, with the daylight and net downhill path, but I almost collapsed with exhaustion. I don’t know why, but this simple little downhill leg was almost my undoing. I was so confused when we got to the bridge that I had to beg Nick to stay with me, even though the bridge was supposed to signal the end of his duties. He jumped at the chance. Nick is such a wonderful person. He has been having health issues and hasn’t been running much. A 23 mile run through the night was too much to ask. But I asked anyway because I needed it. Nick was able to provide. More Mohican Magic.

At the fire tower Katie Huss, dressed in street clothes, jumped in to pace Steve. Leigh would need a break, they reasoned, if she was going to hang with Steve until the finish. Meanwhile Ted Nieman, Steve’s originally scheduled pacer, finished pacing his runner to the finish, and learned from Michael’s wife that Steve was back in the race. Despite the fact that he had not slept and despite the fact that he had 23 miles on his legs, Ted Immediately headed to the covered bridge and found Steve. He agreed to pace him to the finish line. He arrived in the nick of time because Steve was only ten minutes up on the cutoff time was facing a steep six mile climb up Hickory Ridge. He needed to start running…and Ted was the man who could make that happen.

”Twenty minute miles. They have to be 20’s”. Star was carefully monitoring the clock, which was now ticking loudly in their ears. She was terrified they would “time-out” at the Hickory Ridge aid station. Dave was staying cool though. He was willing to risk a photo-finish at Hickory Ridge if it meant he could then risk jogging on the knee during the last 5 miles. He reasoned that a jog now, if it failed, might take him out of the race…and so they walked…and lost time. And Star worried. And Dave never blinked.

Nick and I ran more than we walked on our way to Hickory Ridge. I was able to eat and drink again and was feeling…OK…for the first time in forever. Despite our well-being we learned that we were only 21 minutes ahead of the cutoff and so we ran nearly the entire rest of the race.

Just out of Hickory Ridge Dave had an episode that I will quote directly from Star’s account of the race:

“…His IT band had locked back up and his leg was straight and he could not walk. I asked him if it was like before and he said it was worse. We stood there, stuck in the moment. He tried to put weight on it and he simply couldn't. And my heart broke for him, for the miles and the hours and the fight and the ugliness of it all. Because it was over, five miles from the finish. I think he told me he couldn't get there. I honestly had no idea what to do. What to say. Even what to think. I just stood there, lost and hurting for him.

And then he lurched forward. And lurched again. And the lurch became a walk, and the walk became the fastest it had been in hours. And I stood up and I walked behind him and I prayed without words.

And then he ran.

And he kept running.

And suddenly, I had to get up there.”

Steve was hitting full stride as well. After arriving at Hickory Ridge in last place and with only 2 minutes to spare he peeled off a 12 minute mile on his way to a scene that I did not witness but would have given anything to see. Steve caught up to his friend Dave with 2 miles to go and the two runners became so jubilant at the unlikely sight of each other that Star and Ted found it necessary to eventually break up the party and goad them into running again.

Closing in on the finish the heat of the day was on us again. I heard “Wooooooo Hoooooo, one mile to go”. It was Tracey Ross, leading a smiling Ron to another finish. This race has been a part of Ross family lore forever and I was delighted to be included in this Father’s day celebration.

It seemed like everyone I knew was at the finish line and the cheering was as loud as I have ever experienced. Finishing very late in a race is a lot like dying young. The funeral of a young person is crowded because everyone they know is alive, and thus available to attend. The earliest finishers are running ahead of all of their well-wishers and actually have a lonelier finish. In fact, one of the people cheering for me was Jay Smithberger. Jay won the 50 mile race in a course record time of 7:55 and was greeted at the finish line by precisely…no one. In fact he had to go find a race official to let them know that he was finished. He was the first finisher on the day and all other runners were still out on the course. There is a U-tube video of Jay’s finish floating around that is both hilarious and sad all at once. I guess it really is lonely at the top. It seems unfair but I was moved by the support nonetheless. I crossed the line and powerfully hugged Nick. There was no way I could have made it without him, and Scott, and Casey.

I received a long awaited kiss from my dear friend and the woman who represents the true spirit of the race. Colleen Theusch, a.k.a. “The Lady in Purple” is perhaps the only person who has attended all of the Mohicans since the beginning. She lends a life force to the race that simply needs to be experienced to be believed. She is loved beyond measure and loves without limits. I knew she would greet me at the finish no mater how slow I was and the reunion was as rewarding as the buckle she pressed into my hand.

This was my ninth finish and so now I can dream of the big buckle, God willing. I stood at the finish for a few minutes.

Then it happened.

David and Stephen crossed the line together in 56th and 57th place. It was the happiest scene I have ever witnessed at this race.

The 2010 version of the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run had 133 starters and 58 finishers. Half of the finishers came in during the final 2 hours of the race. Among the final runners to finish were Michael, myself, Stephen, David, The legendary Ron Ross, who tied the all-time Mohican record with 15 finishes, and Fred Davis who has 12 Mohican Finishes.

This group was capped off by Mike Heider, who earned his 1000 mile buckle with this, his tenth finish. He also earned the “Last of the Mohican’s” award for being the final finisher. The “Last of the Mohican’s” award is an honor possibly more valued than the Champion’s Trophy in this race, where perseverance is prized and rewarded like no where else.

About ninety minutes after my finish I was sitting in the shade with my friend, Shannon Fisher, when Karen Ray (K-Ray), the woman who shared her light with me on the way into Mohican Adventures the night before, appeared. Karen was smiling ear-to-ear and accompanied by her husband as she crossed the finish line in 31 hours. Karen had “timed out” at the Hickory Ridge aid station but chose to complete the final miles with the love of her life. I had believed that Stephen’s and David’s actions were the bravest story of the year, but I believe K-Ray shares this podium with them. She promises to return next year.

In last year’s blog post I stated my belief that Mohican-world sadly returns to torpor when the Last of the Mohicans crosses the finish line. Karen’s presence at the finish line as morning turned to afternoon proves that I was wrong. Mohican isn’t about race administrators and it isn’t about aid stations. In fact I’m not even sure that its about the trail. Mohican doesn’t go away when the clock strikes 30:00:00. Its still here. Mohican is about magic and Mohican is about us.