Ryan Stemen paced Chris Clemens from mile 54 to 75 of the 2014 Burning River 100. Here is Ryan’s story of the Team Clemens adventure and running free.
3:00 AM came early. Really early considering I had been out for drinks with friends the Friday night before and fell asleep around 11:30. But I had to see this race. In fact, I had see two fraternity brothers (who are blood brothers too) finish this race. I wanted to see them finish. It was more than a moment of cheering for them, it was as though I was living vicariously through their motions, their shadows on trail and their heartaches while running a 100 mile race.
Yet here I was standing in the parking lot of Squires Castle at 4:00 AM waiting for the start of the Burning River 100. No, this wasn’t some kind of bike ride for charity. Nor trail ride via horse or 4-wheeler. These are men and women signing up to run 100 miles from Willoughby, Ohio to Akron, Ohio. This wasn’t a Tough Mudder. This wasn’t a marathon or half marathon where someone slaps a gel pack in your hand and sends you on your merry way for another mile or two to the finish line. No, this was a marathon on steroids and caffeine.
Imagine for a moment that you crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon, but then you decided to turn around and run back, then did that same huge loop twice (at a slower pace of course). Get the picture? We aren’t talking about a shower, nice meal and nap at 1:00 PM after the race either. You’d be lucky to have lunch after 35 miles of running by 1:00 PM let alone think about a nap and a shower. It’s intense. It’s grinding all your gears (joints). It’s not hard so much as it is survival of the wittiest and fittest or some might say the craziest.
I love when someone posts a picture on Facebook of their Tough Mudder experience and have a caption like “#survived” or “#sotough” and I think, really? 100 miles is tough. 100 miles should have it’s own reality show called “Survived 100, Did You?”. Tough Mudder is great, glad you finished, but a 100 miles in 24 hours is like let me get you a hospital bed to sleep in for the next week and a feeding tube – maybe even a full time nurse and psychologist too.
Here are Chris and Tyler Clemens, who are from small town Indiana, went to Ball State and now live in California, getting ready to run 100 miles. They aren’t crying. They aren’t second guessing. In fact, they are smiling and cracking jokes before the race. They look relaxed even. Maybe nervous, but wouldn’t you be if you hadn’t ran 100 miles before? They line up with everyone else. Some of these runners had just recently finished the Badwater Ultramarathon (Google that race before you sign up for a Tough Mudder). Some have been running competitively since grade school. Some probably won’t even finish fifty miles. And some guy will go on to finish this race in 17 hours. Chew on that for a moment or two.
Let’s fast forward 54 miles from Squires Castle to Boston Mills. My goal for the BR100 was not only to watch, cheer, help and aid my fellow fraternity brothers running this race, but also to pace them. Yes, pace them. Pacing in an ultra marathon is half coaching while running half psychological therapy. You could almost compare to cat herding too, but cats typically don’t talk back to you. So here I am with a few hours of sleep, a half tank of gas so-to-speak from the Cliff bar and whatever random food I had for breakfast and lunch, getting ready to run close to 26 miles with Chris. As Maria Walton would later recall it “The Good” part of pacing Chris. Maria ended up pacing him through “The Bad” and Jess got stuck with “The Ugly”.
Boston Mills is this Mayberry like town nestled at the bottom of a ski resort (Parts of Northeast Ohio are considered the foothills of the Appalachia, so they tend have some hills. This isn’t Vail by any means, but we do have a ski resort). I stood expecting to see Andy Griffith at any minute maintain the crowd at Boston Mills. Instead I saw Chris Clemens upon the drizzly horizon, running toward the Boston Aid Station. I was ready to start pacing him, anxious really. The anticipation was killing me and I think he knew it once he arrived.
After refueling we started down a gravel trail. We seemed so far removed from Cleveland. No factories. No buildings. No parking lots. We seemed removed too from the polo field aid station just south of Squires Castle. Instead we were running dirt single tracks. Switch backs. Occasionally, we came down to paved paths, but that was rare. Mostly we went up, then we down like a kiddie roller coaster. Over rocks. Over roots. Chris seemed like a deer. Never being tripped up by the roots or the hurdles in our path. I would trip every so often and had only gone a few miles. He had been running all day and seemed like a natural on the trails. He even seemed like a natural when he was tired and we donned the headlamps at dusk on dark paths.
In pacing someone during an ultra the key is stay about an arms length behind your runner. I felt like we were at times about a forearms or wrist length apart. We were a team. For once I wasn’t running to the finish, but I was interwoven into the fabric of the race. I never felt scared to be there like I was going to hurt the flow of the race. It felt more like party than a highly organized city marathon – we seemed far removed from that sort of environment.
A side note: We passed a number of runners that were in front of Chris at Mile 54 (where I started pacing). Maybe that was our unique form: power walking up hill occasionally, then running down hill. I think it also helped Chris to have a pacer earlier on, some of the individuals we passed lacked a pacer. This person really can act as a coach and a guide when you start to mentally question what the hell you’re doing out there at mile 60, 80, and 90. The one runner we kept passing then he would pass us back had a pacer.
I also let him talk to me rather than the opposite. Chris said to me when we started, “I don’t want to talk too much” then proceeded to talk to me about races for almost two hours. Didn’t want to talk much my ass. We would speak for a few minutes at a time, mostly on the downhills, but save our breath for the steady climbs.
We didn’t converse much with other runners – not as snobs but more as this is a sort of linear journey between two brothers. Rather than saying to yourself in most long distance races, “I’m going to catch that guy” or a lets be new best friends mentality it was just Team Clemens doing their own thing on the course.
That is essentially what I loved about running with the Clemens brothers (and Maria, Jess, Jon and Tim). It was as though we were along for some kind of unique trip. Burning Man? No, Burning River 100. It would be fun. It would be hard. But we were going to have a great time running 100 miles from sun-up to sun-down. Through twisted up root filled switch back hills. Through the dark. Through dehydration. Through a check point where Chris got an aid worker to share a little IPA. He smiled after taking a sip or two but then we kept putting one foot in front of the other. We’d laugh about a dumb joke, then we’d go to our trot along the path.
I honestly didn’t feel like I had ran close to a marathon when I finished. It felt more like a nice workout with a friend. Tired? Yeah, but more from lack of sleep the night before, but then tired is a relative term when you look at the runners coming into an aid station. You compare your own energy to their energy. When I stopped pacing Chris and Maria started her portion with him, he seemed a bit depressed, almost like he had failed. However, he had completed over seventy miles at this point. He had nothing to be depressed or upset about, but maybe that is what gets into the head of an ultra runner. I’ve gone this far, but I can’t go any further or I’ll never make it to the finish. Yet, as runners, we also have a more commanding voice inside our heads saying “you will make it, you will finish.”
Prior to running with this crew or band of brothers and sisters I had known running as being extremely goal oriented for myself, all about pacing myself at a certain time and speed to run quicker marathons, Yet here I was enjoying the freedom to run. Enjoying the friendship of other runners. Learning how to love running even more. Finding myself becoming a fan of ultramarathons. Thinking why isn’t this on TV? This would make for an awesome realty show or Discovery Channel special. Yet, I didn’t want that for these runners. It was something special they had that wasn’t corrupted. It was natural.
I truly experienced the Good of running with Chris (and Tyler, Maria, Jess, Jon and Tim). I found myself wanting to have more weekends like this one. Wanting to pace more runners. Cheer on more Mas Locos. Deep down I realized we are born to run and we are born free.
– Ryan Stemen, 2014