It was five o’clock in the morning on the last Saturday of July, and the air was thick with humidity. John Hayward was one of 278 people gathered to run 100 miles outside of Cleveland, Ohio in the Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run.
For Hayward, a 47-year-old experienced runner from Annapolis, Maryland, it was his fourth attempt at completing such a distance. Two previous attempts were successful while one wasn’t, but it had been seven years since he last tried.
“The time I quit, I convinced myself that I couldn’t go on. I think a lot of people convince themselves they can’t go on and end up quitting because of that. In retrospect, I most certainly could’ve gone on,” Hayward said.
Numerous Aid Stations Helped Replenish Runners
To put it into perspective, 100 miles is 20 miles less than the distance from Los Angeles to San Diego. Thus, to mentally prepare for a race of such magnitude, Hayward said, “You have to break it down into sections that you can wrap your head around.”
The numerous aid stations set up along the way to provide water, food, and other amenities helped tremendously. They allowed runners to break down the race by focusing on the next aid station instead of thinking about how long it would take before they crossed the finish line.
The longest distance between aid stations was 6.5 miles, which is considered reasonable and convenient in ultra running. Sometimes, races will be held in such places like the mountains of Colorado, making it difficult to have aid stations due to the rough terrain and limited access points.
Feeling Alive in Meditation
But on a hot Saturday in July, Hayward ran through the municipal metropolitan park system outside of Cleveland, traversed across miles of trails linked together, and fought his way through cornfields. He didn’t carry a water bottle for the first 10 miles, and only carried a single bottle for the remaining 90.
When the sky darkened, he carried a flashlight along with wearing a headlamp. “It’s so much easier to run during the day. At night, the miles are really, really long because you can’t see very far. If you’re only using one flashlight, your depth perception is thrown off,” said Hayward. “I prefer to have as much light as possible so I can run as fast as possible. I don’t want light to be my limiting factor at night.”
While Hayward did run with others sporadically throughout the day, he ran by himself for the most part. “You’re alone in your own head for a long time so you better be comfortable there,” he said.
For those miles that he’s running solo, it’s the scenic beauty that draws him into an almost meditative state. “You’re surrounded by this beauty that God has created. You’re in a zone, you’re floating along perfectly. You get yourself into a rhythm and it seems effortless,” Hayward said. “It makes me feel alive.”
Body Takes Physical Beating
But there are also side effects. Because the race is so physically grueling, runners will occasionally reach the point where they can’t digest food and begin vomiting. Injuries are also not uncommon. Hayward recalled meeting one individual from a previous race who had slept on a rock and woke up not knowing how long he had slept.
If a runner cannot finish the race, standard procedure is for the runner to report to an aid station to let someone know. Some races, like the Western States 100, will have runners remove their wristband. Runners must check in at each aid station with their registration number whether or not they are continuing the race.
However, emergency situations arise where a runner will collapse in the middle of a route between two aid stations with no one around. In that situation, volunteer workers will be sent out to search for the missing runner.
The Finish Line
Hayward had no problem finishing the race, though he said, “For most people, the goal is just to finish. After that, the goal is probably to finish under 24 hours. My goal was to finish under 21 hours.”
He did just that, finishing with a time of 20:59:14. Hayward attributed the successful outing to a rigorous training regimen. Instead of running extremely long distances in one session, he would run 30 miles on consecutive days in order to teach his body how to run when tired.
The strategy clearly worked. After an exhausted Hayward crossed the finish line in 25th place (only 166 people out of 278 finished), he rewarded himself with a beer. A cold, refreshing beer. What could possibly be better after running 100 miles?
John Hayward and the others with him deserve numerous accolades for accomplishing a feat that the majority of people would find impossible to achieve. Truly mind-blowing.