Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Listening To The Voice Of Reason – She Knows Of What She Speaks

“You Can’t Win If You Aren’t In The Lead.”
-          Me

The year was 2008, the location where I muttered that line to myself was Mile 15 of  the Burning River 100 in Northeast Ohio.
This was an Olympic year, Beijing to be exact, and excitement for another great Games was building.

But before they took place, I had Burning River to face. This race has a lot of meaning for me. My first 100 miler a year earlier, it starts in Willoughby, where I had my first newspaper job out of Kent State University’s school of journalism, and finishes in my hometown of Cuyahoga Falls. In between, the course traveled through parks I loved as a youngster and towns I know well.
And now, here I was at Mile 15, and I had just taken the lead in the race.

Frankly, I was quite astounded with my situation at that moment, and took advantage of the opportunity to make myself a legend in my own mind.
“This is your Olympics.”

“You can’t win if you aren’t in the lead.”
When I got to an aid station several miles later, one of the people checking race numbers called out, “you’re in first place!”

“I know! It’s crazy, isn’t it?” I called back.

These weren't my Olympics, but I knew of what I spoke!

Wow, was that the truth.
You can probably guess what happened soon after. Apparently 100 miles really is 100 miles. And while I led for 15 percent of the race, that only got me to mile 30 before someone else passed me. Then someone else. And so on, eight times total.

I ended the race  that year in 9th place with a time of 21 hours and 43 minutes. Certainly not bad, and a time many people would love to achieve.
But if I hadn’t done what I ended up doing, I bet things would have turned out much differently.  

Steve Prefontaine, the iconic middle-distance runner, used to go as hard as he could for as long as he could in races, to see who had the most guts.
I only compare myself to Pre in noting that my way of approaching that 2008 race was how he probably would have run ultras. And he probably would have won the 30-mile division of every 100 miler he entered. Then he would have puked his guts out.

Not puking my guts out, but not feeling the love either.  Pictured with my youngest Badwater crew member, Lexi - you'll hear more about her later this week.  Hint: though only 15, it's not her first rodeo.

In an ultra, you don’t have to be in the lead early, or even in first place close to the end, to still end up winning, or at least do well. And the best example I know of someone following this route happens to be very close to me: My wife Star.
My wife is very competitive. Just try being married to her (she said I could use that line).

You think I kid?  Here she's just starting to pick up some speed running into a mile 40 aid station ...
And here she is kissing me good-bye as she leaves the aid station.  I wouldn't get close to her again - until I dropped.  Another experienced BW crew member, Robin, is in the black top.

But Star hasn’t come across that way in the early parts of any of the 100 milers she has run. “Second Half Star” is a title I gave her because that is how she runs ultras. And of the eight she has done, she has been 2nd place woman twice and captured 3rd place three times (National Championship third places twice at Burning River, FYI), so she IS competitive.
One of her 2nd place finishes was actually more of a “fun” run at the Umstead 100 in North Carolina, which she set out to run very conservatively after only five weeks of training. We both also lost a ton of time when slowed by a crazed guy attacking runners and then helping a participant this madman injured.

Yet as she has done to so many others, she hunted me down in the second half, and finished only 30 seconds behind me - and I was working hard just to finish. I am hanging on to that Blackford family 100-mile PR of 19 hours 23 minutes as long as I can, but she is knocking on the door with every race she does.
Her strategy is so simple and proven, yet it has failed to sink in for me. Until now. She has devised a plan for how I should run the Badwater 135 that I have promised I will follow in pursuing my goal of breaking 30 hours.

I admit it is going to be hard to do this, because I am going to want to go out as fast as possible. And why not? In the ultramarathoning world, Badwater is one of the jewel races, and this year’s field again features a “who’s who” among runners.
Oswaldo Lopez, who was 2nd last year in 23:32:28 (he won in 2011 with 23:41:40);

Badwater veteran and Navy seal David Goggins, who did 2,588 pull-ups before injuring his forearm in attempting to break the 24-hour world record;
Dean Karnazes and Marshall Ulrich, who many people know for their long-distance running antics and books;

Charlie Engle, featured in the movie “Running The Sahara;”
Pam Reed, the only woman to win Badwater two times outright;

And of course, the most awesome Chris Moon, who was in the documentary about Badwater, “Running On The Sun,” and for whom Star and I had the privilege to crew last year.
This year’s field also includes two fellow Ohioans I admire: Harvey Lewis of Cincinnati, who came in 4th at Badwater last year (26:15:51), and Jay Smithberger of Granville, a local ultra-running legend who has done and won many races.

Heck, dare I say it … “This is my Olympics?”
Well I just did. Now I just have to stop saying it or even thinking it, and stay focused on my plan. That is why I am sharing my pace chart, so those of you who might follow my progress at on July 15 and 16 can hold me to it.

Checkpoint 1 – Mile 17.4 – Running time: 3 hours, 7 minutes
Checkpoint 2 -  Mile 41.9 – 7:31

Checkpoint 3 – Mile 72.3 – 16:36

Checkpoint 4 – Mile 90.1 – 21:35
Checkpoint 5 – Mile 122.3 – 25:59

Checkpoint 6 – Mile 131 – 28:23
Finish – Mile 135 – 29:45

This takes into account the high temperatures, uphills and distance Badwater presents, particularly on the first day of the race. Once night falls and I get to some major downhill sections (10-mile-long stretches of descent) I might get to some checkpoints earlier, but none of that can happen until Day 2 (Happy 50th Birthday to me!).
While service is spotty in Death Valley, the race organizers do a great job of updating the progress of the racers, and my crew will likely be posting messages when we reach towns along the way.

Feel free to send comments and commentary to keep me on track!
Meanwhile, thank you for your interest in this adventure, and if you feel inclined, please support the two charities for which I am competing: The Mid-Ohio Marine Foundation (, and Always Brothers (  Several people have done so already – THANK YOU! – and I suspect others are waiting to see if I can actually complete this monster.

Picking these two charity groups to support, do I have a choice?
Bottom line is the Marines and families these groups help have endured much worse things on our collective behalf than me running across the desert “for fun,” so show your support for them and for me with a donation without even leaving the air conditioning!
One of my favorite Death Valley shots ever.  When life seems overwhelming sometimes, I still think of this odd bit of plant life, and how insignificant most of my worries are.  I'll be looking for you out there, friend.


  1. Darris, I am so inspired and amazed by both you and Star after reading this. You are both incredibly motivating and the kindest people one can know as well. Death Valley is something I can only dream of doing, but I will enjoy following your progress - this is a very exciting journey that I know you will succeed in. I can't wait to watch that happen! What you said, "When life seems overwhelming sometimes, I still think of this odd bit of plant life, and how insignificant most of my worries are," really resonates with me, especially since all I have personally been through in the past couple of years. I just wanted you to know reading those words - something as seemingly small as a plant growing in death valley or as large as running Badwater - doesn't seem so impossible after all. :)

  2. Good luck Darris. I'll be thinking about you this weekend.