A thick blanket of snow covered roofs, mailboxes, lawns, and parked cars in Western New York last Saturday morning. Fat white snowflakes drifted lazily to the ground, the air was calm and serene, and for most of the working world there was nowhere to be, nothing to do but enjoy it. It was a perfect day for reading by a fire, for sledding, for making snow angels—or, if you’re a certain type of person, for setting out to run 50 or 100 miles.
The horn sounded at exactly 7:00 am on Saturday, February 27, for the Beast of Burden Winter 100 Miler and 24-Hour Ultra Marathon. To the sounds of whistles, cheers, and cowbells, a crowd of almost 40 runners took off from Wide Waters Marina in Lockport, New York, trotting steadily down a pedestrian path, across a bridge, and east along the Erie Canal towpath towards Middleport, where the Fire Hall would serve as the turnaround point for a 25-mile out-and-back loop.
It was cold, but not dreadfully so, and though the sun hid behind clouds the sky was bright enough. The path had been packed down somewhat by snowmobiles, and throughout the day, footsteps trod it down even more, so that it gradually became easier to run on. Until it became harder.
“Once the snow was packed down,” explains race director Sam Pasceri. “We were left with a single lane trail that had a ‘hump’ in the middle, making it difficult on your feet.” After dark, when the runners had already been going at it for close to a dozen hours, it started to rain. Those caught outside without waterproof clothing got soaked.
“We went from ‘look at the pretty snowflakes’ to ‘Am I getting rained on?’” Pasceri recalls. Several fresh inches of snow, footprints, rain, and snowmobiles—some driven by race volunteers in an attempt to even out the course, but many others driven haphazardly by recreational snowmobilers—combined to turn the path into an ugly, misshapen, injury-inducing nightmare. To maintain their footing on the uneven terrain, athletes had to use stabilizer muscles that they rarely rely on in training. Volunteer Nancy Kelleher, a masseuse, spent hours upon hours at the Middleport Fire Hall massaging tired and sore muscles, and her efforts enabled many athletes to return to the race. But not everyone made it.
Two people dropped out of the 24-hour race, both after running marathons, but most entrants were able to achieve 50 miles, the magic number needed to earn a belt buckle in the 24-hour, and a few went into the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Athletes prepare to begin the race.
The 24-hour winner, 18-year-old Royalton-Hartland High School senior Vincent Donner, ran exactly 100 miles. It’s never a shock when a teenager rocks a local 5K, but ultra-running is not a young person’s game. Most of the world’s best times at the 100-mile distance and beyond have been set by people in their 30s and 40s, and race winners are usually in that age range or older.
At the pre-race party, after he had been introduced to Donner, renowned ultra-runner Charlie Engle said, “When I meet a kid like that, I worry… If you want to do well in a race like this one, you have to have been alive long enough to know how to suffer.” Flash-forward to Saturday night/Sunday morning, and Engle telling “The Kid” to keep going, because he had talent.
“To run 100 miles is one thing,” Sam Pasceri said when I asked him to comment on Donner’s race. “The next thing a runner looks to do is break 24 hours,” because a typical first 100-mile time is close to 30 hours. Donner broke the 24-hour barrier on his first try, finishing in 22:50:41, barely half an hour after Engle. If he’d been allowed to enter the 100-mile race, as he’d initially wanted to do, he would have finished 4th (worried, reasonably, about letting an 18-year-old ultra novice compete in the 100-miler, Pasceri had convinced him to switch to the 24-hour). As it was, he owned the 24-hour race and outlasted dozens of experienced ultra runners.
The woman who took second overall in the 24-hour race ran 88 miles, which is impressive on any day, but was far from her best. Charlotte Vaserhelyi has set course records and finished on the podium at ultra races all over the country, but the Beast of Burden was not kind to her. By the time she stopped running, after 23 hours, volunteers had reason to believe she’d developed hypothermia (reluctant to stop, she hadn’t changed her clothes as often as many of the other athletes did. Although they couldn’t convince her to go to a hospital, the volunteers, who had been trained for just such a situation, were able to warm her up).
Even in one of the worst races of her career, though, Vaserhelyi exemplified ultra. She just kept going and going, past the point where it was no longer reasonable, past the point where it was no longer smart, past the point where it was no longer safe, until she couldn’t go anymore. That’s what ultra-runners do—they go so far beyond their comfort zones that even in falling short of their goals they achieve the sublime.
The 100-miler was even more brutal. Seventeen people registered. Fifteen started. Eight finished. One of the seven DNFs belonged to Pasceri, who ran until he developed blisters so bad that he couldn’t walk on what many referred to as his “corpse feet.”
Late the next morning, he learned that Roger Niethe was struggling at the Gasport Aide station (the halfway point between the start and turnaround). The two men, both Lockport residents, had run together until Pasceri made the tough call to back out and urged his friend to go on without him. Now, on Sunday morning, knowing that Niethe would need to get moving if he wanted to make the 1:00 PM cutoff, Pasceri started running again and urged his friend to follow. With Pasceri’s encouragement and through his own sheer grit, Niethe made it to the finish just as the sun came out for the first time in days. He still had twelve minutes to spare.
Richard Cook, 100-mile winner
And of course there was Richard Cook, 47, of Ben Avon Heights, Pennsylvania, whose ultra dossier dates back only to 2006. Most of the pre-race hype had surrounded Charlie Engle, who ultimately finished third (the buzz was not without reason—Engle has run across the Sahara, and he’s been a top finisher at the Badwater Ultramarathon several times).
But Cook led from the beginning, and when he reached the Middleport Fire Hall at around 10:30 on Saturday night, he was on his 4th loop. Most 100-mile racers (those who hadn’t dropped out yet) were still on their 3rd loops. He came in, refueled, muttered something to volunteers that might have been “Thanks,” and was gone a minute later. He finished in 18:08, an impressive time under any circumstances, an amazing one under these.
When I first spoke to Pasceri a few months ago, he said, “These people that are coming to run 100 miles: they already know they can run 100 miles. They just want to see in what conditions they can do it.” They had run 100 miles in the desert, in the mountains. Could they do it in Lockport, on the last weekend of February, in snow and freezing rain on an icy canal towpath?
Of course, athletes continued to sign up after our conversation, and they included several who didn’t actually know for a fact that they could run 100 miles. One of them was Niethe, a 51-year-old steelworker who spends all day on his feet before going out to train for hours. He finished his first 100 mile race in weather that makes 99% of Americans fly to the hot cocoa or hot toddies, weather that leads to school cancellations in most parts of the country.
Maybe the crucial difference between a runner and an ultra runner is this: runners usually enter races to see how fast they can go, while ultra runners enter races to see if they can finish. True, some of the athletes who started the Beast of Burden on that beautiful winter morning did not reach their goals. They’d set high goals, and the human body can only take so much.
But ultra runners prove, again and again, that the human body can take—and do—a lot more than most of us could ever imagine.
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