Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mid-Race Report


Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar? 
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking down hill to a frothy shore? 
Summer was past and the day was past.
Sombre clouds in the west were massed.
Out on the porch's sagging floor,
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God. 
Robert Frost

   I enjoy the solitude afforded by running. I don't run to escape or isolate myself. If anything, running frees me to ponder what is truly substantial, valuable, and important in life. Each breath becomes a prayer; each footfall the rhythmic accompaniment to vivid memories, each heartbeat a celebration of the abundant blessings bestowed upon me and now preserved and revisited like cherished collectibles in the album of my mind. 
   Sometimes, the journey leads to a replay of memorable scenes representing the highest peaks of excitement and happiness; a few strides more, I might be led -reluctantly- to revisit a shadow-laden trek through the lowest valleys in my life. My running becomes the physical act of recovery from those lows, each step leading me through, out, and then beyond those memories, refocusing on what lies ahead and the opportunities awaiting upon my return to home and family--or perhaps on to another page in the album, another climb to a recollection of a moment bringing joy, a smile or a nostalgic longing for times past. Running affords an opportunity to reconnect - to God, to priorities, to what is truly meaningful in life. It provides the opportunity to sift through each day, leaving aggravation and petty annoyances aside to re-calibrate my perspective on life's big picture. Running is more than fitness, more than exercise, more than a hobby; running is a journey both literally and figuratively, and I never know to where, or to whom, it is going to lead along the way. 
   There is contentment after a run; there is peace; there is a return to center. I often feel prepared and refreshed, and I am often humbled and grateful. Running is a reminder that life's journey is filled with opportunities to build, to create, to encourage, to cherish, to value, to love; its solitary nature is also a reminder that there is an appointed finish when this beating heart will cease, these memories will wither and fade like dry grass, and I will someday stand with no one left but God. 
   I am now closer to the conclusion of my race than I am to the start. But it never was about measuring distance. I know now it's about the journey, and with God's blessing, I still have many more miles ahead. 
   And I am at peace. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Oil Creek 100K 2013 Race Report: The Burkett Brothers Make Family History

The Mega's signature Boulder Field
It's September 28th and I'm trying to survive 27 miles of Central Pennsylvania's most technically demanding boulder scrambles and elevation changes known as the Bald Eagle Megatransect designed by trail masochist Dave Hunter and his accomplice, Brian Newcomer. With my brother Eric by my side, I rely on the camaraderie we have built over a lifetime of adventures together to stay focused and upbeat as my quads, knees, and ankles protest every punishing step of the course. I had typically (and somewhat disturbingly) embraced the challenge for three previous years.
   But today I am miserable. 
   Caught looking ahead to the Oil Creek 100K, our "Superbowl" event of the year in just one week, I was not mentally prepared to take on the Mega. I was hoping to take it easy in preparation for the 62 challenging miles facing me in just seven days. The previous year, my brother and I completed our first 100K at Oil Creek and did so in conservative fashion, finishing in the middle of the pack at 17 hours and 47 minutes.
Oil Creek 2012
Our goal then was to survive, cross the finish line, and obtain the coveted Oil Creek 100K belt buckle. Hoping to improve upon our times and our disposition at the finish in 2013, Eric and I trained harder, ran more miles, and participated in more events this past year. This year, we wanted to compete. But there was one more element added to the mix: instead of running together, this year's Oil Creek 100K would pit older brother (me) against younger brother. Age and Wisdom (and a guy confident enough to wear tights) versus Youth and Speed (and a dude who likes to wear tech shirts with no sleeves). Instead of teaming up together, we were going to run our own races. It was becoming obvious as our training progressed that Eric had a step on me and was running stronger. Reluctantly, I admitted to myself that I was likely to hold him back if we tried to run together.  I wasn't thrilled by the prospect of running the Oil Creek 100K by myself and wondered about the potentially demoralizing effects of having him outpace me, especially during the second loop when it takes all a person has to stay mentally focused and motivated through those "low moments". 
The Green Mile
   As I pondered over these concerns that awaited me in just a few days, I was currently frustrated by the fact that the Mega kept demanding my attention right now. Take it easy on the Megatransect and it will grab you, chew you up, and spit you out in a twisted heap of lactic acid, blood, mud, and tattered compression socks. Sure enough, as we reached the Green Mile, the infamous, never-ending expanse of grass leading to the finish of the Megatransect, I found myself fading and Eric took off, crossing the finish line 4 minutes ahead of me. 
   Clearly, I had held him back and my cranky whining at the end probably drove him that much faster to pull away. I was angry with myself. What would happen next week at Oil Creek? We'd find out, and the result was more than either of us could have ever hoped. 


   All week long we watched as weather predictions indicated a rainy day for our race. But as the weekend approached, forecasters began to predict increasingly warmer temperatures for the weekend. The previous year, temperatures hovered in the 20's at the start. This year, it would be warm. Make that hot. Oh, and why not add high humidity in there, too? Indeed, 94% humidity combined with a high of 77 degrees proved to be the demise of many outstanding runners, turning the day's series of ultra-marathons into some very ugly battles of attrition.

   We arrived in Oil City on Friday, dropped our gear at the hotel, and took off towards Titusville with the Burkett Support Crew in tow. As we picked up our packets and race bibs, I was both excited and anxious. Did the Mega take too much out of me? Did I prepare enough this year? Was I mentally prepared to do this alone if Eric took off ahead of me? How would I feel if I jumped ahead and left him behind? Do I have the right gear? Do I even want to do this? 
Brian, Eric, and Rick the Elder
   We got our packets, grabbed some swag for family and support crew and headed out for some pasta. At dinner, we ran into Dave Hunter and Brian Newcomer, the Mega's mad scientists, and the
Newcomer Support Crew. Brian would be attempting his first ever 100 miler. Truly, Dave and Brian and the entire crew are great people and part of our trail family. We had a good time greeting each other and getting pumped about the race. I drew some measure of comfort from knowing that as much suffering as I would be enduring, Brian would be out there enduring even more for much longer. Oddly enough, Brian's attempt would add inspiration to my own race. 
   I broke three rules prior to this ultra event. 
  1. Never change into footgear you haven't tested before an ultra.  Battling the onset of plantar fasciitis in my left foot, I decided to try a pair of heavy inserts to cushion the pounding my feet would take in my almost brand new Brooks Cascadias. I had run about two miles with the inserts prior to Oil Creek. Besides, I reasoned that I could always pull them out on the trail if they didn't work.
  2. Stick with the hydration plan that worked during training. During the summer, Eric introduced me to Osmo, a professional grade hydration formula that would change my entire approach to both hydration and nutrition on race day. I had not really used it before the Mega. I had planned to go exclusively with Heed all day long in my Nathan camelback (as I had all year during training) and use Hammer Gels and Perpetuem prior to reaching for real food at the aid stations. I am never real comfortable with gels and have a fairly low tolerance for them on long runs. But after a combination of Osmo, gels, and chews during the Mega, I felt lousy and bloated all day. Just a day or so prior to Oil Creek, I read the literature on Osmo and found they recommended real food (i.e. not gels) to accompany hydration with their product; otherwise, some bad things could happen. But how much solid food could I take? These things are supposed to be worked out before the race, not the day of the race
  3. Don't experiment with nutrition the day of an ultra. Having run the OC the previous year, I knew there would be times when solid foods just don't go down well, so I gambled on a tip I picked up from  a blog post by Ron Heerkens Jr.and purchased a 6 pack of Boost Plus, a protein/carb shake similar to Ensure. At 320 calories a pop, I thought the mix of protein, sugars, and carbs would take some of the guesswork out of what I chose to eat at the aid stations and might give me better sustained energy than the quick-hitting carb-dumps that chews and gels provide. Oh, and I substituted Fig Newtons for gels just in case. Oh, and just in case I was wrong, I brought all my Hammer products with me, too. I was a neurotic basket case.
   Needless to say, I didn't sleep much the night before the race.  

   As I tried to force myself to relax and settle in for some sleep, I seriously had no idea what a reasonable goal would be. My hope was to keep up with my brother for as long as possible, get off to a faster start than last year, power hike the long, steep uphills and push the pace on the downhills. We also wanted to cut our time at the aid stations as much as possible. Ultimately, I just wanted to improve upon my time of 17 hours and 47 minutes from the previous year. At no point did we consider that the temperature and humidity would impact our race, and I believe those factors caught many runners by surprise. Despite all the unknowns I carried with me on race day, it was the unanticipated intensity of heat and humidity that nearly broke me halfway through the race.


Waiting for the Start
   After a fitful night of sleep, the alarm sounded at 4:30AM and we scrambled to assemble our gear and get dressed. Eric and I slammed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast and I added a Boost for some pre-race calories. Our crew members, Tina (Eric's wife) and Danielle (family friend), drove us to Titusville Middle School while we sat back to wrestle with last minute mental checks and pre-race jitters. The other half of our crew (Mom and Dad) remained asleep and would greet us at Petroleum Center mile 14, which we had hoped to complete in 3 hours. 
   Strangely enough, I was calm and almost resigned to the arduous task that lay ahead. We had joked for several weeks about Eric flying out of the gate and then bonking by loop 2 when I would catch up, and I still thought there was some credibility to that scenario. I knew I wanted to start faster than last year, but as we gathered at the starting line 5 minutes before the official start, I just wasn't sure how I would feel after the Megatransect and hoped I could keep up with Eric at least until mile 14. 
   And with that, the race began. 
   We broke into a nice, quick pace along the bike path to the trailhead. Not wanting to get caught in a logjam of hikers on single track, we pushed closer to the front until we settled into a nice pace behind a group of runners. The air was cool but heavy with moisture and footing was slick. After a few miles, I could hear Eric breathing a little heavily but I was in front of him and feeling...well, great, actually. The inserts were working, I felt fueled and energized, and I was humming along. I pressed hard to reach my goal of arriving at AS#2 in three hours, and Eric was right behind me. I was also driven forward by the unceasing loud chatter of a small group of runners just behind us. Honestly, if conversation is your thing during an ultra, I don't mind small talk. But when the banter is incessant and too loud, it can spoil that sweet spot between mind, body, and trail, and I wanted to separate myself from it. 
Arriving at PC
Eric at PC
   We grabbed some PBJ's at AS#1 and began the climb up the switchbacks to the top of the hill. I was dialed in, focused, and pushing hard. So hard, in fact, that everything just became a blur and I felt a little dizzy but pressed on. We were able to switch off our headlamps but I didn't even think to remove it. A few climbs later, I noticed I was putting a little distance on Eric. All I wanted to do was keep up with him, and I was driven by the fear of letting him down and being too slow. I didn't want to run alone, yet here I was pushing the pace and out in front. I just wanted to shave time off last year's pace to AS#2 to give myself a little room on the return to the middle school. I also began to think that I wanted to have more daylight to work with during the second loop and wanted to get as many miles in as I could while the temperatures were still relatively cool. AS#2 became my focus and I was hoping to make it in 3 hours. As I arrived to the cheers of our support crew and the terrific volunteers at the aid station, I asked my dad to tell me what time it was. I couldn't believe it when he said "about 10 'til 9". Last year, we took 3 hours and 24 minutes. This year, I made it in 2 hours and 46 minutes with Eric right on my heels.  
   Motivated by the good start, I was determined to keep pushing hard. At this point, I thought if I could run a strong first loop, I could run a nice, relaxed pace for the 2nd loop and improve on last year's time. But already the temperature was rising while the humidity was making it tough on my body's cooling system. If I was going to maintain this pace, I had to get out of the aid station fast and keep moving. I grabbed a Boost, drank a cup of Heed, and said goodbye to our crew of Tina, Danielle, Mom, and Dad and began the trek back to Titusville. I was so eager to keep moving I forgot to remove my headlamp and didn't realize I was still wearing it until I began the climb up Heisman Hill away from Petroleum Center. 
Eric leaves PC 
   As temperatures and humidity began to rise, it became very apparent that very little evaporation happening. This meant my core temperature was rising and little cooling was taking place. My clothing and gear were soaked. Somehow, I maintained a strong effort and felt good - the nutrition plan and the Osmo were working! During my training all year long, I remember that one of my mantras for Oil Creek was to simply run for longer stretches before I allowed myself any speedwalk breaks. I was doing better than anticipated, running nearly every stretch until being forced to power walk any sustained climbs. Everything felt runnable and I was dialed in. I think it was during this stretch when the leading 50k runners passed by and I caught up to a group of 100 milers discussing their strategy for surviving the day. As we approached the Boy Scout camp, I stopped to scoop a handful of water from the table to simply experience a change from the Osmo in my pack. I ate a couple of fig newtons and when I felt the familiar twinge of an impending cramp begin to creep into my left calf, I swallowed an electrolyte capsule. 
Cresting Cemetery Hill
   Between the Boy Scout station and the seemingly endless miles to the Miller Farm Station (#3), I don't remember seeing Eric, but I knew he had to be right behind me. My fear of letting him down was dissipating; I was feeling strong, having a good race, and honestly couldn't believe how well it was going, feeling no side effects from the Megatransect the weekend before. Two things were beginning to happen, though, that caused me to take notice. The first was that my heart rate would climb. Not to alarming levels, but higher than I wanted it to be. The second was my head just seemed to be in a dizzying fog. I could think clearly, but when I would slow my pace to climb a hill, I felt a little disoriented and...well, just "foggy". I attributed that sensation to the pace I was trying to maintain, and hoped I would have enough left for the second loop.  I finally hit the dirt road leading down to the Miller Farm station. Sure enough, Eric popped out of the trail right behind me, and I was glad to see him, though any time I had caught a glimpse of him behind me it pushed me to keep moving. At the aid station, we took on some more food: a flat Coke, a few Oreos, a few pretzel sticks, and half a PB&J (I think). I also popped an Endurolyte to ward off cramps which seemed to threaten but never really materialized. Then it was off to climb back up the steps towards Cemetery Hill. I was just ahead of Eric and I figured I might be able to put some distance on him with the hill and Rockefeller's Revenge just ahead. 
   With 6 miles to go until pavement, I wanted to run as much as possible. Again, I found the trail to be sweetly inviting and I pushed any downhills I could. I was still pushing myself hard despite feeling my energy beginning to ebb; the heat was beginning to take a toll. Sure enough, Eric was right behind me again. This time, he passed. As he did, we ran together for awhile and he told me to put my music on; something I rarely do on the trail. "It helps", he said as he trotted on ahead. Reluctantly, I fumbled with my ipod, stuck a headphone in my ear and focused on the music to help me keep pace. The previous year, Eric and I ran a steady pace with a goal of finishing our our first OC 100K. We didn't deviate from the plan and conserved energy. Still, by the second loop, we were both tapped. Today, I not only pushed at a pace that had exceeded my expectations, but I was beginning to wonder what, if anything, I would have left for the second loop. Just before we began the descent to the trailhead and onto the Drake Well loop, Eric pulled ahead but well within sight. 

   I don't know exactly what happened, but as soon as I emerged from the trail to cross the railroad tracks and begin the loop back to TMS, I suddenly felt very, very hot. And very, very sick. 

   I couldn't catch my wind. I became dizzy and clouded and saw Eric begin to pull away in the distance and suddenly I wondered if I was even going to make it back to TMS. My heart rate elevated. The sun, previously screened just enough by the forest canopy, seemed to have a bead directly on my head and I could not cool down. Earlier, I had stopped briefly at a water station to partially fill my empty hydration pack. Now, every sip I took seemed to sit like a brick in my stomach; it wouldn't go down like the Osmo. I was not bonking. I knew what bonking felt like, but this was different. I was in trouble. 
   It took everything I could to minimize any walking on the flat stretch along the creek and bike path. I picked a flag in the distance and forced myself to run to it before taking a walk break. Eric disappeared across the bridge and on the bike path. I picked trees and ran to them, took a break, then picked another set of trees along the path and ran to them again. Finally, I emerged onto the street that would lead to the middle school, but then what? Was I finished? Why did I feel so horrible? Why did it happen so suddenly? I couldn't cool off, I was shaking and running on rubbery legs. As I turned the corner to the aid station, I saw Dave Hunter out of the corner of my eye. Dave said something like, "And here's another Burkett brother! Uh -oh! You don't look so good!" 
   "I don't feel so good", I replied, half expecting Dave's medical background to kick in and have him diagnose the problem and maybe offer some encouragement. 
   "Then YOU FIX IT! YOU FIX IT NOW!" he yelled. 
   That drill sergeant directive snapped me out of my funk. I was not going to quit this thing. I might
Recovering at TMS
have to walk the entire second loop, but I was not going to stop. Any hope of breaking last year's time might have gone out the window right there, but this was now about survival. As I reached the station, our crew was already working on Eric. He didn't look so great, either, and had just arrived a few minutes ahead of me. Mom and Dad looked worried. I hate putting them through that, but there they were offering food. My crew had a bottle of Perpetuem ready to go. I opened my hydration bladder and dumped the remaining water on my head. I was shaking. My complexion was pasty. I drank the Perpetuem, took in a half a grilled cheese, and honestly, I don't remember what else. While Eric was changing out his socks, I grabbed a pair of compression tights and headed to the locker room. Last year, the tights revived my weary legs and gave me some bounce back. This year, I foolishly put them on despite the fact that the trade off for fresh-feeling legs would be more trapped heat. But I was adamant; I wanted the tights because I was hoping to feel revived at some point. And hopefully, the temperatures would drop by evening. 

Prepping for loop 2
Eric back out for loop 2
Eric took off ahead of me. Feeling only slightly
better and still a little dizzy, I left the aid station. I can only thank Mom, Dad, Tina, and Danielle for getting me back out there. As we sat and ate, they worked our legs. They had our fuel ready to go, they offered encouragement and reminded us that we did not want to spend a great deal of time at the aid station before going out for loop 2. The good news? Last year Eric and I finished our first loop in 7hrs 55min. This year, Eric came in at 6:41 and I followed at 6:45. If I could head out now, I might still have a shot at improving on 17:47, but the way I was feeling, that goal seemed to be slipping away. With no respite from the heat or humidity, Eric was the first to leave. Somehow, I followed. Lord, help me. I'm actually going out for a second loop.
   I must have looked bad, because Eric kept telling me to take it easy. He even offered his own Osmo (I had placed mine in a baggie for refilling but put it in the wrong drop bag). But once on the bike path and reeling from the heat, I pushed myself to make up time on Eric. I could see him in the distance and wanted to catch up. Helped by Eric's stop at a port-a-john at the trailhead, I caught up. Once again he was leading but I was right behind him. But I was a straw man. I could not seem to recapture my energy. I was having trouble sustaining a decent pace. I was hot and frustrated and miserable and beginning to feel a deep, indescribable sense of exhaustion. I had even thought of just trying to sleep at one point. It didn't take long for Eric to pull away. I think he turned at one point and said, "I'm going to go. You need to take it easy." I was beyond the ability to feel demoralized and continued chugging ahead. My pace had slowed, but I was running at every opportunity. My power walking up the hills, though, was reduced to a survival slog. 
   I kept hoping for temperatures to drop. Despite the exhaustion and fatigue, I marveled at the beauty of this place. Oil Creek is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful, gorgeous places I have ever been blessed to run. I exchanged places with a few runners in front of me. I was resolved to make it to that fast section just before Petroleum Center when I had hoped to make up some time on the downhills. Minimize effort, use gravity, open up your stride a little, and let one foot fall in front of the other.
   I was pleased to find myself approaching AS#1 at Wolfkiel with a cheerful Tiffany Hrach and other volunteers going out of their way to offer support and assistance. I grabbed some salted potatoes, a few other food items, and then discovered that the volunteers had a basin of towels dipped in cold water. Oh, man what an incredible relief! I soaked my head and felt revived. To top it off, they were handing out icy pops, so I had an orange one and left the station in good spirits despite the steep climb up the switchbacks that awaited. Funny how I can recall the flavor of the icy pop and the chill of the wet towels, but everything else seems a blur.
   The switchbacks sapped me, but once on top, I actually picked up the pace a little. I was able to
Eric Arrives at PC
sustain longer stretches of running and just tried to enjoy the colorful scenery and the sensory delights of a wooded trail in autumn. After surviving Ray's Neverending Hill, I was content to trade places with a few other runners. I'd make up ground and pass them. Then they would make up ground and pass me. Finally, I found that sweet spot and pushed myself to get to Petroleum Center. I had imagined that Eric was long gone by now, and with my GPS watch now dead, I had lost sense of time. I figured I would pull into PC with Eric already well into his second loop. One thing was certain; I wanted to lie down for just a few minutes. I was still fatigued and dizzy; I
Clearing my head at PC; Dad worried 
thought if I had a little time to just sit down for a second or two, I'd be ok. The one fact that kept driving me was that I had pulled into TMS a little over an hour ahead of last year's time, and even with this conservative pace, I was hoping to remain ahead of where I was last year.  With no relief from the heat or the deep sense of exhaustion I was experiencing, I finally made it to Petroleum Center. And there was Eric, being attended to by our crew. He was not so far ahead afterall.

   17 miles to go. And all I wanted to do was lie down. 
   Just one more segment. This was it. We were either going to have the race of our lives, or this entire
day would go down as an "almost", a "woulda, coulda, or shoulda". But when I arrived at PC, I was not in good shape. Eric recalled that I "did not look good. Your eyes were glazed and you were working on autopilot. If I was working as a medic at the aid station, I would have pulled you, or at least made you take 15 or 30 minutes to make sure you were recovered. I can't believe you were in that condition and then caught up to me 6 miles later."
I'm staring; the exhaustion is evident
   I just wanted to lie down. I have to give a shout out to the volunteers at every aid station, but especially to the guys at PC. As soon as I crawled onto the picnic table, 2 guys immediately came over and asked if I was ok. I thought I was alright, but I don't think I was very convincing, because one guy stuck around to talk with me for a few minutes (I have forgotten his name, but thank you!). I believe I was fairly coherent, but I kept staring off into the distance. All I wanted was a Boost, my headlamp, and a few minutes to collect myself. Eric fueled up, grabbed his gear, and was off to climb Heisman Hill back onto the punishing trail. I lingered for just a few minutes longer until the food seemed to kick in. Suddenly, I was ready to go (relatively speaking). After a few taunts, whistles, and jeers from my crew about my tights, I let them know I was feeling fine by skipping across the parking lot to the trailhead. I realize it's difficult for this 48 year old guy to rock a pair of tights, but I was definitely beyond the point of caring about fashion and was relying on the compression to get my tired legs through the last, difficult section. Besides, anyone who runs, hops, and skips over rocks, logs, and bushes in the forest has a little Peter Pan in them, anyway. I was simply embracing it.

   This was the part I had dreaded in the weeks leading up to the race.

   Heading into the final section, with Eric out of sight and ahead of me, I was wondering how my morale would hold up. Like I said before, I run almost exclusively on my own for training, but nearly every race event is run with my brother and we push each other through those "low" moments. Surprisingly, I felt great. My will to finish was strong. My energy levels were good if short-lived, and I knew I was ahead of schedule from the previous year. There was still plenty of daylight left and I made it a goal to try and reach the Miller Farm Aid Station by dark. I ran and power walked mostly alone for this stretch, and had the very unusual experience of catching a very strong whiff of a pungent odor, almost like a dead animal or rotting garbage smell. It was strong enough to make me look around the trail for a dead deer or something. Based on the descriptions I've heard from others, I wonder if I hadn't been in close proximity to a black bear.
   I messed around with my iPod again, just looking for a distraction to focus on during this long stretch.  Prior to the Cow Run Shelter and the Boy Scout camp, I began cramping and had to work it out of my calves. I took some electrolyte tabs, stayed hydrated, and ate a honey stinger waffle. It was still very warm and muggy and the temps weren't offering the kind of relief I had hoped for. Except for the occasional bout of cramping on this stage, I was not in much pain. I had popped probably two Ibuprofen the entire race, cautious about the use of NSAIDS, but I really hadn't needed more. What was holding me back was more of a very heavy, deep, almost indescribable fatigue that seemed to blanket my soul. I wasn't physically hurting, but the engine was misfiring, if that makes sense. I couldn't shake it, but after climbing Heisman Hill, I automatically began to jog. At this point, my pace was slower, but my goal was to alternate jogging with walk breaks--anything to try and improve upon last year's pace. I just didn't want to settle for another 17:47 finish.
   I was mostly alone from Heisman Hill to the Boy Scout camp. I was surprised, thinking other runners would surely pass by. I sure wasn't tearing it up out here but remained focused on alternating running, then recovering with a bit of walking, then running again. I knew my brother was ahead; I figured I was not going to see him again until the finish line. And that was ok. I was giving max effort, leaving nothing behind, no regrets. I passed through the Boy Scout camp and exchanged greetings with them as I jogged through the shelter site. I was mentally prepared for the fact that the Miller farm was still many miles away, so I didn't suffer the morale hit that others describe when reaching this point. I tried to sustain my jogging by finding a comfortable pace, but "comfortable pace" no longer existed. I drew consolation from the mantra, "every step I take is one closer to the tape (finish)".  After another mile or so, I saw a guy in an orange, sleeveless shirt behind a group of 100 milers who were maintaining a very conservative pace (God bless them). I couldn't believe my eyes. Was that Eric? Awesome! He hadn't noticed me creeping up behind him. Energized, I broke into a brisk pace to try and catch up. Sure enough, I shocked the heck out of him when I suddenly pulled up behind him. It was just a little past dark and headlamps were on. He humorously muttered a disparaging remark about the fact that he didn't expect to see me after PC.  We would at least arrive at AS#3 together, and I was pumped at having caught up to him. I might have even passed him on the road going down to the aid station itself. I found myself running next to a 100 miler. She asked me if we were going the right way to the aid station, and I said, "Sure. You remember this from the first loop, right?" She laughed and said something about conserving brain power just so she could remember the names of her kids.
   At Aid Station #3, we fueled up. I was running on empty again, and wished I could have had a Boost which was proving to be an excellent nutrition strategy for me. Eric told me to ask the volunteers for one, and to my surprise, they had them! One of the volunteers looked around and indicated that I might have had the last one. Eric was ready to leave almost as soon as he got to the aid station. When I began drinking the Boost, it wasn't going down very well and felt like it wanted to revisit my esophagus, so I sat down in one of the plastic chairs and nursed it until it was gone. Meanwhile, Eric looked over and said, "I'm going to take off. Take it easy, alright?" I told him I'd be right behind him but I wanted to finish drinking my calories. I knew Cemetery Hill and Rockefeller's Revenge were lying in wait, ready to drain the last drop of energy I had, and I wasn't looking forward to the climbs. I figured Eric had to be getting tired, too, and thought there might be some chance of catching up to him on the climbs.

   It would be the last I would see of him until the finish line. 
The Homestretch

The last 8.4 miles of this course begin with two climbs up hills that are challenging in their own right. But throw in the fact that you've already completed 53 miles, and in my case, run the first 31 a little too hard in the pervasive heat and humidity, and you might as well be climbing Mt. Olympus. It is also difficult mentally because you know you're on the home stretch. By anticipating the finish, it seems to take so much longer to get there. Compounded by darkness, a weary body, and unsure footing, this last section becomes an eternity where one loses track of time and place and distance.
   It was all I could do to climb. I would not be making any time on this section; the hills stole all I had and left only the sweaty husk of a weary trail runner who had nothing left to give on this night. But knowing that the best option for potential recovery was to simply press forward, I tagged along behind a group of 100 milers; I think one was the same young lady with whom I had a chat on the road to Miller Farm, and the other was a 60+ year old with his pacer. I knew something about his age from the conversation I overheard, and I was inspired by his effort. But I was content to hang with them and maintain a very conservative pace which consisted mostly of power walking interrupted by jogging on the levels and downhills. It was all I had left.
   I remained behind this group longer than I wanted to, but I didn't have the energy to pass them. At one point, though, the girl in front of me allowed me to pass (she had become my unofficial coach. When she ran, I ran. When she walked, I walked. Now she was forcing me to move on and I would have to coach myself). Sure enough, there were some sections of trail where I was able to find just enough firepower to break into a steady jog and maintain it. Then, empty. Repeat.
   I lost track of time. Meanwhile, Eric misread his watch and thought he was blowing his opportunity for a PR this year. Panicked, he began to push hard the last 4 miles. As for me, I resigned myself to the fact that I might have run too hard the first loop and was losing time now. The best I could hope for would be to hopefully finish around 17:05 or 17:10. This would not be as big an improvement as I had hoped, but it would have to do. I consoled myself with the humor found in alerting a couple of runners ahead of me. I dimmed my headlamp and ran off the trail for a few yards to find a suitable tree to serve as a place to empty my bladder. When I did, the crashing noise caused the runners in front of me to stop and peer in my direction, their bright headlamps peering into the woods like searchlights on a prison break. Perhaps they thought there was a bear behind them. Cruel, I know, but I did nothing to make them think differently. I crashed back onto the trail and began running.
   At some point I reached the bench and began the hard right turn that would eventually lead to the trailhead. Taking advantage of any opportunity to allow gravity to pull me downhill, I broke into running when I could, passing a couple of runners and catching up to yet another 100 miler. We chatted a bit and before I knew it, we found ourselves dumped out at the bridge and onto the Drake Well Loop section--the real home stretch. We talked for awhile about our previous running endeavors and he explained he was probably going to drop out of his race; it just wasn't a good day for him, but he had a great perspective and was pleasant enough. I asked him what time it was. He said "9:13pm".
   Thinking I would have to hustle to get back to TMS before 11pm, I couldn't believe my ears. I asked him to repeat exactly what he saw on his watch.
   I cannot describe the conflicted feeling of elation knowing I was going to exceed my goal, but not having enough energy to sustain a last dash to the finish. It is difficult to articulate the incredible sense of accomplishment and knowing you could do even better, but not having the strength or energy to muster anything more. As we continued down the road, I explained to my trail buddy that I would have to leave him, because I wanted to give everything I could to get back to TMS because it looked like I was about to PR in this event. He congratulated me and we parted ways as I went back to the strategy of running towards flags or trees and then taking a walk break. This worked well and I pushed past the Oil Well with its recorded soundtrack blaring over the speaker. As I approached the bridge, I adamantly established that I would not walk across that bridge. I ran up the small rise, made the left onto the bridge, and kept running. I tried to slow down at the railroad overpass to keep going. And then I came upon the long straightaway of the bike path. "I have to make it", I thought. Not yet knowing that Eric had stretched his lead ahead of me, I held onto some kind of hope of spotting him just ahead. Eric was nowhere in site along that long ribbon of asphalt that never seems to end. Eventually, I saw the road ahead where two of our crew, Tina and Danielle, were standing and cheering. As soon as I emerged from the bike path, I had to walk. They were a great encouragement at that point, letting me know I only had a little more to go. I said something about just needing to walk a little more and then I would cut it loose and run it in to the finish line.
   And that's what I did.
Eric at Finish (15:22)
   Spotting the middle school and then turning the corner into the flashing runway lights towards the finish line, I was sprinting with everything I had left. The fact is, there was nothing left. I was running purely on adrenaline and whatever emergency reserves the body could muster.
   As I crossed the finish line, I nearly teared up. I was overcome with emotion. Setting out with a goal to beat last year's time of 17:47, my brother and I destroyed it, set PR's for ourselves, and made family history, coming in at 15:22 and 15:40 respectively. We crushed our previous time by over 2 hours.

Post-Race Notes:

Bringing it home! (15:40)
   Eric's finish was good enough for 16th place overall, and I finished 18th. Of the 82 runners who began the 100K, about 55 finished. The course is tough; the heat and humidity were brutal, and I saw many runners far better than I succumb to the elements prior to completion of their races.
Danielle, Tina, Eric, Rick, Mom, Dad
   The 2013 Oil Creek 100K was a climactic race for both my brother and me--and for our family as well. Initially heralded as the race between the "Burkett Brothers", Eric did what he had been doing all throughout our training- he was able to sustain at the end when I "faded". But it really didn't matter; all the training and determination throughout the previous year leading up to this race had paid off for both of us in a huge way. I feel tremendously blessed to not only run through all Creation but to still be able to compete and see improvement with effort. I am tremendously blessed for the support of my family, from my wife Denise and my daughter Ashley, who both tolerate my long hours on the run, to Mom and Dad B, who are the heartbeat of "Team Burkett". Special thanks to Tina and Danielle, (they both completed their first Rothrock Trail Challenge this past year) who could not have been more efficient, supportive, and encouraging all weekend. Also a shout out to Dave Hunter, whose friendship, advice, and Megatransect course prepared me and whose halftime hollering rallied me to keep going; to Brian Newcomer who is a true brother who constantly inspires and motivates and amazes; and to legends Jeff Lister, Dave Lister, and Ashley Moyer who gave of their time to hang with our family and to greet us both at the finish line. Being cheered on by 3 athletes who are as kind, as supportive, and as selfless as they are elite in the field of trail running is something extraordinary and special. Thank you!
Eric, Ashley, and David
Exhausted but elated
   Tom Jennings and his crew of volunteers are simply magnificent. Oil Creek has a very unique, family atmosphere where every runner is made to feel most welcome and enthusiastically supported. Oil Creek provides a canvas of autumn color and natural beauty upon which scenes of personal struggle and triumph are painted. It is pure poetry... and I am already looking ahead to another visit.