The phrase of the night was “You look great.” Occasionally it was, “You look really strong.” It was always a variation on the same theme — tell the runners that they look good, strong, are doing well and have plenty of time to accomplish their goals.
And the sad thing was, the words of encouragement weren’t even lies or exaggerations.
In the middle of the night, 17 or 18 hours into the Beast of Burden 100 miler & 24 hour Ultra in Lockport, N.Y., the runners still competing really did look good. Billed as the only winter ultra in North America, the participants got their fix of nasty weather. A snow storm hit the area on Friday, adding about a foot of new snow and slushy flurries greeted the runners at various points along the 24.14-mile loop on the towpath along the Erie Canal.
The open parts of the trail put cold wind in their faces at points. The darkness and the deep slush slowed down many and caused a bunch of to drop out of the race, though many had planned to run only around 50 miles to begin with.
By the time I showed up to volunteer around 18 runners had decided their race day was complete. The handful that made it through my aid station, the turn around point of the course, were doing fine mentally and physically with the exception of their feet. In fact, one of the volunteers who had been there for extra hours decided he had seen enough when one of the runners worked on his feet, which looked like “corpse feet” — gray and scaled and covered in blisters.
But training for the physical part of an ultra run seems not much different than training for any long distance or endurance event. The battle is mental — how far you’re willing to go and how much you’re willing to take.
And it was an 18-year old who caught the hearts and imaginations of those around the race.
Vincent Donner, an 18-year old high school senior from Middleport, was running his first ultra event. The story was that he wanted to register for the 100-miler but because of his age and lack of ultra experience, race officials only let him register for the 24-hour run.
Donner, who just loves to run, just feels in his element among runners, did 100 miles anyway — unofficially completing 100 miles in 22 hours and 51 minutes.
He was particularly inspired by Charlie Engle, an elite ultra runner in the 100-mile event, who offered the young runner encouragement at one aid station and reportedly told him to keep running because he talent. That’s all Vincent needed to hear.
Granted, the only ultra in my future may be a bottle of Michelob Ultra, but the camaraderie of the runners, the support of the volunteers, is what makes this community work. It’s what makes this community make sense. It’s what inspires you to try and do your best, push your limits, and see what’s possible in your world.