(Image: Beast of Burden Race Start, © 2014 Ron Heerkens, Jr.)
Before getting into this race report, it’s come to my attention that not everyone knows what ‘ultras’ are. And that’s ok. I didn’t know what they were either four years ago when I was severely overweight and started running because my wife was running and I needed to turn around my health. If you’d told that version of me (70 pounds ago) that these races existed – let alone that I’d be racing one – I’d have thought you were hilarious! So let’s start with the basics for the uninitiated:
First, there is a sport called ‘ultra running’ where otherwise seemingly sane people race distances further than marathons. 50 kilometers (31 miles), 50 miles, 100 kilometers (62 miles), and 100 miles being the most common distances. Most of these races are held off road on trails (the steeper the better) and preferably in any varying degree of deplorable weather conditions.
Second, one of the coldest winter ultras anywhere around is held right here in upstate, NY each year. It’s the infamous Beast of Burden 100 Mile & 50 Mile Winter Ultra Marathon out in Lockport, NY. The race is run each January on the frozen Erie Canal Towpath, in the snow, in frigid temperatures and sub-zero windchills. Might as well be running in a polar region. Fewer than 100 crazies have the cajónes or lack of common sense (I can say this, I’m one of them) to toe the start line each year, and even fewer finish. It’s a race that lives up to its reputation.
Third, while there are certainly elite ultra runners (and even a handful of professionals) who complete these racers in absurdly fast times, for most people just completing one of these events is a feat in and of itself. The consensus seems to be that one’s finishing time is somewhat irrelevant and that if you can simply finish before the time cutoff than it’s an amazing accomplishment.
So, yes. ‘Ultra’ is actually a thing.
(Image: Ice Screws In… © 2014 Ron Heerkens, Jr.)
While you’re wrapping your head around all of that, it’s important to thank Beast of Burden Race Director Ken Genewick for his willingness to be interviewed for this piece. I’ve included his perspectives on this year’s race interwoven as block quotes throughout this report. I’d like to thank Ken for taking the time to share his thoughts via phone conversation, and hope it brings an added dimension to this report!
The 2014 Beast of Burden 50 & 100 Mile Winter Ultra Marathon was recently held out in Lockport, NY situated on the Historic Erie Canal, east of Buffalo/Niagara Falls and South of Lake Ontario (a Great Lake and one of the largest bodies of fresh water on the planet, complete with its own weather systems). Conditions on Saturday were characteristically cold and unpredictable, despite what had been a relatively warm week for the region leading up to the race. As one race finisher put it, “I was a little concerned when I saw the no snow issue … afraid this would not be ‘beast’ enough. I could not have been more wrong.” Despite a 10am race start, the day never really warmed up, remaining overcast with several inches of fresh snow, temperatures in the teens and sustained 20+mph winds meaning the day’s high never got out of the single digits with the windchill factored in.
I’ve been training for this race for the better part of 2013, not wanting to just complete a 50 miler, but actually try and race one (which, apparently I did, finishing in the top 20). I also wanted to finish in a time that would qualify me for the infamous Escarpment Trail Race in the Catskills this summer. Training went great with lots of trail work, tough races, a 50k thrown in there along with some super steep mountain running out in the Catskills and down in the Finger Lakes. I stuck to my good eating guns through the holidays and tapered well leading into the race. I even prepped all my gear for Beast two days before the race (which I never do) so I could relax with the family the night before. Which I did and which was wonderful.
(Image: Sunny, Balmy race Start in Lockport, NY. © 2014 Lisa Griffen Murphy)
The 18th dawned cold and snowy. We’d gotten a couple inches of fresh powder overnight and the temperatures had dropped down almost into the single digits. That, and steady 20+mph winds meant that the windchill wouldn’t climb out of the single digits at all that weekend.
Lockport is a bit over an hour from where we live, so I drove out to the race the morning of, but with the snowy back roads, it was slow going. I left a bit later than planned, and was thankful for a 10am start time. After a snowy, dicey drive I arrive about :45 before gun time. Checked in, got my number, caught up with my pacer (Ron Heerkens, Jr. who would join me for the last 12 miles of the race) and crew (Tom and Lisa Griffen Murphy), hit the restroom and got geared up. Ice screws in my trail shoes, Buff on, ear buds in this pocket, race fuel in that pocket, handheld filled, S-Caps (electrolytes+salt) in another pocket, etc… Just a never ending mental checklist of ultra odds-n-ends that you get used to after awhile. After doing this for awhile (this was my 13th ultra event) it’s become a pre-event ritual. Almost a mantra. Except that in these cold conditions, forgetting any one of these items could potentially result in a DNF.
(Image: Ready to Race!! © 2014 Ron Heerkens, Jr.)
After a quick pre-race meeting led by RD Ken Genewick, the Mayor of Lockport welcomed everyone and got the 92 racers off and started! 1 out of 3 would DNF over the next 30 hours. One of the tricks to ultra is restraining yourself from going out too fast for the first few hours. This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. So I knew that keeping a relaxed but steady tempo on the front half of the race would be key to having something in the tank during the second half of the day.
So, you and Bob (Timkey) took over from original race founder Sam Pasceri not too long ago, how’s it going? “Yeah, Bob and I took over for Sam as of 2013, so this is our 3rd race as RD’s. It’s really been an honor to take over what Sam did and his legacy. He did such an amazing job setting up this race, and all the behind-the-scenes details that we’ve really been fortunate. Obviously, we’ve wanted to keep the race true to its origins, especially for those racers who come back year after year. But we also want to make it something unique to attract new participants and also make it a fun experience for all the volunteers.”
Beast is run on the Erie Canal Path – a mix of cinder, dirt and clay – from Lockport all the way through Gasport (middle aid station 7.5 miles from the start) to Middleport, 12.5 miles from the start. Out and back twice for those of us doing the “short” race. Four times for those doing the full 100 mile race. You may be noticing that most of the towns on the Erie Canal end in the word ‘port.’ This is from the 1800’s when these villages all sprung up as actual ports along what was once one of the busiest shipping routes in the Western Hemisphere. Each town was located about a Beast of Burden’s (often an ox, sometimes a donkey) day’s walk from each other. This is where today’s race gets its name and logo. The Erie Canal and its historic villages are a matter of pride for many Upstate residents, and events like this that showcase our region tend to make us happy.
One thing I was particularly impressed with was the volunteers and the community reception. Folks seem really into BoB! “One of the things that has made this such a great race since its inception is the volunteers. A lot of them are from the surrounding community and then a lot of them too are ultra athletes themselves. So they really are passionate about the region and the race and the racers. In a lot of ways it’s really like a big family reunion every year. That definitely creates an atmosphere that makes this race a draw! People from all over the world come in for this race to Lockport. There’s always a lot of local interest in the race and it’s well-received by the community, but it’s challenging to promote a race like this because it’s not like a big 5k where it’s quick and done. It goes all weekend. Ultra marathons are just so unique and different. And that, actually, is what’s ended up drawing people in. It’s been amazing to see how many people are now dedicated race volunteers because they came to see the start of the race (which we promote), and then found out what’s going on, ‘Wait, these people are running HOW FAR?!?!?’ and then wanted to be volunteers. So many people are inspired by the racers and what they do, it’s pretty remarkable.“
(Image: Snowy Erie Canal Path. © 2014 Ben Murphy)
While this isn’t your typical trail race (it is flat, after all), it’s certainly nothing at all like a road race. The canal path surface had melted earlier in the week from a warm spell, lots of folks had been out on it in those muddy conditions (the canal path gets lots of recreational foot traffic year round), and then it flash froze solid overnight. So we ended up racing on rutted out, footprint indented, rough, uneven, rock hard terrain. With snow and ice on top. I made the first 12.5 mile leg out to the Middleport turnaround in somewhere around 2 hours flat. Faster than I’d planned, but I kept the pace relaxed and took advantage of the tailwinds. Any time advantage clocked in the bank now was a pace advantage I could dip into later on in the race when I knew I’d be feeling tired. At the turnaround I swapped out my sweaty compression tank for a dry OmniHeat base layer (which ended up being a VERY good call) and stocked up on a few odds-n-ends. Then it was back out into the cold for miles 12.5-25. And back into the headwind. That wind was like a sock upside the head getting back out onto the canal path! I knew there was no way I’d make it back to the start at my initial pace, so I started doing some brain math on a pace that would get me through the rest of the race accounting for the winds. I decided to slow things down and alternate running with speed walking, trying to keep my average moving pace in the high 12 minute mile range, which ended up working out really well.
The cold and windchill was an unbelievable factor in this race. It is, in fact, what drew me to the race in the first place given my viking DNA, my penchant for cold temps and an obsession with trekking to the South Pole someday. Prolonged activity (e.g. – people running a race for 12-30 hours) in this kind of cold can very easily result in hypothermia, frostnip and frostbite. And then there’s the additional challenge of successful race nutrition in super cold weather over ridiculous distances. Fueling properly during an ultra can be a finicky proposition to begin with, but in cold temps it’s another ball game where your body needs enough additional fuel to fight the cold and maintain proper brain function… but not too much extra fuel that you make yourself feel sick. Add to that mix frozen hydration packs and water bottles, and it further complicates the affects of dehydration one will be faced with in any ultra. The Erie Canal is a wind-tunnel in the winter, and it is a bone-chilling, mind-numbing cold when it hits. It’s like a freight train and there’s no stopping it. You’re out in the open in the middle of nowhere (Beast is surprisingly remote, you’re basically way out in farm country most of the time, mostly alone) and there’s really no hiding from it. It’s unrelenting and further magnifies any effects from exhaustion or exposure that one might already be experiencing. All of this makes Beast an incredibly mentally challenging race.
Obviously, there are a lot of logistics that go into a race like this. But then you have the wildcard of the weather. How did the insane cold affect things this year? “The cold was easily the biggest factor this year. Folks sign up for that, but winds this year, combined with the temperatures, were just brutal. The high winds – including the gale force 50+mph weather that moved in over night – definitely had an effect. The DNF rate was 30%, so that tells you something! We actually had to take the finishing tent down overnight and relocate it to a nearby picnic pavilion and use that as the finish line building. Which, interestingly enough, was the original finish line of the very first Beast. So, we were joking that we went old school this year.”
(Video: Gale Force Winds on January 19th, © 2014 @KinosFault)
I train as much as I can in frigid weather. For one, because I enjoy it. But also so that I’m as familiar as possible with any potentially bad situations I might encounter in a race like this. I’ve experienced frostnip and frostbite along with mild hypothermia before. And, in fact, Beast is the only race I’ve seen that requires you to sign off on having read a comprehensive, 12-page primer on the subjects as part of the registration process. But Beast gave me a new ‘cold experience’ to check off the list, when I began experiencing “Corneal Freezing” during this stretch of the race. Apparently, “The cornea, the outer layer of the eye which protects the rest, can freeze when exposed to cold temperatures and high winds without protection.” No kidding. It actually ended up happening twice during the race. I’m aware that mountaineers experience it from time-to-time, particularly as a result of high-winds in frigid conditions. Running into sizeable headwinds at Beast, my right eye began to feel cold (and hurt, much like one’s fingertips start hurting before frost-nip sets in) around mile 18 or so. The vision in my right eye got blurry – like trying to drive looking through a frozen windshield – and I knew what was happening. I also knew it was reversable if I could somehow warm up my eye or at least protect it from the elements (so THAT’s why so many racers were wearing ski goggles! Note to self…). Still, all of this was a bit unnerving. The best I could figure was that the constant headwinds sneaking in behind my glasses was simply at the perfect angle and had started to freeze my eye. So I pulled down my hat right to my glasses and did the same with my Buff so that it blocked the wind from hitting that eye. It seemed to do the trick as my vision cleared up pretty well by the time I reached the 25 mile turn around.
(Image: Erie Canal at the turn in Middleport, NY. © 2014 Ron Heerkens, Jr.)
I checked in at mile 25 somewhere around 5 hours into the race feeling good! Cold, but good. My crew made sure I had what I needed, got me some hot veg soup broth and potato chips, stocked up my pockets with fuel, helped me swap out my sweat-soaked top layers into a dry tech tee and dry down jacket, swapped out my Garmin 110 (which was nearing the end of its battery life) for a loaner 610, got the ice screws out of my shoes (I swear by them on steep winter trails, but they were overkill for the race this year after the high winds scoured much of the snow off the path), and got me back out and on my way in good time in good spirits.
(Image: Pit Crew – Ice Screws Out… © 2014 Lisa Griffen Murphy)
(As a side note, I owe a debt of gratitude to my Crew and my Pacer. Man, having folks crew for you makes one feel like a rock star. Seriously. It’s an amazing privilege and a luxury that I hadn’t planned on having when I signed up for Beast. Having folks who can check in on you, cheer you on, and make sure you’re not going loopy with hypothermia or dehydration (or both) is absolutely invaluable. Thanks so much, guys!)
Headphones went in at that point. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Macklemore, Rage Against the Machine, Switchfoot, Lupe Fiasco and Johnny Cash (yes, I have very eclectic musical taste) helped me along until I saw my crew again at mile 31 (a new 50k PR for me of 6:27!) just around sunset before hitting Gasport. They got me my headlamp and red blinky light (again, race requirements) and sent me on my way. The sunset was to my back, but was really amazing. The clouds had blown out by then and the beautiful colors in the sky at dusk were a real emotional lift at that point in the day.
(Image: Canal Town at Dusk. © 2014 Lisa Griffen Murphy)
I continued on, making my final turnaround somewhere before hour 8 of the race. At this point Ron had geared up and was ready to pace me the final stretch back to the finish. I hit the bathroom (always a good sign that one is keeping dehydration at bay), refueled, thanked my crew profusely and headed back out into the cold night. The cloudless sky meant the temps had dropped further and the wind picked up overnight as well making for more frigid conditions. The upside to this was the view running at night on the canal under incredibly brilliant stars and a big red moon on the rise. The constellation Orion was particularly prominent, as was Jupiter shining bright in the sky. I have a vivid recollection of turning around to take this all in. So beautiful. It’s those types of moments that make races like this so worth it and totally defy any attempt to put them into writing.
(Image: Ben (left) and Ron (right) Headed out Mile 38. © 2014 Lisa Griffen Murphy)
Ron kept me on pace the whole way back taking it a half mile at a time. Run a half mile. Speed walk a half mile. And repeat. The legs were pretty tight by that point, but still manageable. Having a pacer is such a psychological boost. I battled the corneal freezing again on this stretch. More pronounced than the first time and, in fact, ended up running a good mile or two with one eye closed. But I kept going, seeing my crew at mile 44 knowing that the end was well within reach. Within the last few miles of the race I could feel my breathing start to become labored. A result, no doubt, of my mildly hypothermic brain forgetting to breath through my Buff; the sub-zero air beginning to have a hypothermic affect on my lungs. That cold was no joke.
As the familiar landmarks of the Canal went past, nearing the finish line, I was ready to be done. I knew I had what I needed in the tank to finish strong and it was nice knowing that soon I would be out of the cold, warming up, eating good food, having a beer, hanging out with good folks and having accomplished a 50 mile finish in my goal time. I crossed the final bridge back into Lockport and ran the last half mile or so to the finish tent, having knocked it out in 11 hours and 8 minutes.
(Image: Night Falls. Racing by Headlamp. © 2014 Lisa Griffen Murphy)
And then I sat. For awhile. Got warm. Got my finisher’s medal. Got changed. Hung out. And let my brain and body “come to.” What an amazing experience!! Sense of accomplishment? In spades. What really blew my mind was that as I was finishing, there were a number of other 100 milers heading out into the cold for the back half of their race. Just incredible. (And, reading their race reports – which are all linked at the end of this article – I’m absolutely blown away by their experiences!)
What are your favorite moments/memories from the weekend? “You know, the whole weekend is always such an amazing experience. But I think my favorite part is standing at the finish line and just getting to experience all the finishers come through. They fight so hard to finish and seeing them come in and celebrating their victories… it’s just such a special thing to be part of that.”
(Image: Post-Race Eats!! © 2014 Lisa Griffen Murphy)
I was amazed by the Beast of Burden race. It’s tough. A very mentally demanding event. But the scenery is beautiful in its own barren and raw way. The volunteers are absolutely top notch. The organization of race details is flawless. And I literally couldn’t think of any food, snack or beverage I wanted that they didn’t have at the aid stations. There aren’t many races that have volunteers flipping pancakes in sub-zero weather in the middle of the night in a heated aid station tent in the middle of nowhere. Beast is a well-oiled machine! Very impressive.
So… what’s next? Summer Beast is coming up in August, yes? “Yes! The summer 100 and 50 is coming up and that race is always exciting because people have the opportunity to earn their double buckle (for completing both the winter and summer Beast in one year). And, we realized that this summer will be the 10th running of the Beast of Burden! So that’s really cool. It’s a milestone for us and we’re excited to be promoting the the ’10th Running of the Beast!’. We’re truly excited and we’d like as many people as possible who have been part of the race over the years to come back and celebrate with us by running or volunteering. And, the Canal really transforms during the year, too. In the summer there’s so much green, and it’s so beautiful. It looks so different. Racers come in who are from out-of-town and they can’t believe it’s the same place they experienced back during the winter. The course just transforms and they barely recognize it. The summer race is tough. It’s hot out on the Canal path under the direct sun, so we’ll have some cool things around that too. What other ultras have snow cones at their aid stations? We’ll be doing that and some other things to make the conditions bearable and the experience memorable.” You can click here to register for the Summer 2014 Beast of Burden 50 & 100 Mile Ultramarathon.
(Image: Race Bling. © 2014 Ben Murphy)
So, what’s next for me? Recovering. And than we’ll see how much additional adventure I can squeeze in before the snow melts. It’s been close to two weeks since the race and I’ve just been letting my body heal. Swimming. Yoga. Hiking. A few tight spots and bruising still here and there, but nothing major. Eye is good to go. Totally stoked about having qualified to enter Escarpment. Went for a trail run yesterday and felt really good. Definitely ready for more 50 milers. I really enjoyed this distance. Been spending more time with my beautiful wife and four amazing kids. Doing ultras often rides an awfully thin line between self-improvement and selfishness. A line that I like to think I balance most of the time. But they’re the ones who allow me to do this crazy stuff and it’s been good to lay low for a bit and simply enjoy their company.
(Image: Violeta Aleksyev finishes her first 100 mile ultra in gale force winds. © 2014 Dan Salmon)
A huge congrats to the other racers who were at Beast this year! I had the privilege of meeting so many amazing people. Lots of folks who knocked it out on their first 100 and 50 milers. And a lot of folks who DNF’d for reasons out of their control and should be commended anyway for their efforts. It was absolutely brutal out there. And the winners? Zachary Tomasik who won the 50 mile race (his first one, incidentally) in an incredible 7:52. And Steven Parke who won the 100 miler in the amazing time of 17:40 (pretty sure I got lapped)! The final 2014 Beast of Burden Winter Race Results can be viewed here. I’ve included below the short film – The Beast of Winter – that Ron put together from my race. Not only is he a great friend, but he’s also incredibly skilled with a camera. And then I’ve also included a round-up of all the Beast race reports I could track down. (If I missed anyone’s just leave a link in the comments below and we’ll get it posted!)
Any final words? “Just that this has really been such a great experience. We’re so fortunate with this race to get to promote New York State and promote the Historic Erie Canal. The most satisfying thing each race is not just the great things people say, but the fact that they keep coming back (and bringing their friends with them). That says it all.”
RACE REPORT ROUND-UP
(In no particular order…)
Want to learn more? Click here for the Official Beast of Burden Ultramarathon site.
All Photographs Copyright of their Respective Owners, 2014. All Rights Reserved. Use in any Medium without Permission is Expressly Forbidden.