27 June 2012

Western States: Getting My Money's Worth

You know you're getting your money's worth at Western States when:

-The last 15 miles takes you 6:44! I had 7 hours to go 15 miles to earn a Silver Buckle...and I knew it was going to be tight!
-Other walkers start passing you going twice as fast! I was getting crushed!
-AD Thornley tells you to leave some food for the other runners at the Michigan Bluff Aid Station. They also need fuel!
-A high step involves lifting your foot 1 inch off the ground while your hip flexor barks at you.
-You start singing along to the AS music. Freebird!!! AS volunteers happily pull out lighters and phones as you do your best Skynyrd Serenade. "And this Burch you cannot change!"
-Your pacer starts hallucinating.
-You start asking AS cooks for one of those "dang k-suh-dill-ahs" in your best Napoleon Dynamite voice.
-You miss your time goal by 6 hours and Tim Olson beats you by 9 hours.
-Your family and friends get worried when you are hours behind schedule. Thinking you are injured, off course, having an allergic reaction...when the reality is you're just moving really really really slow.

Overall this was one of my more memorable finishes. From a performance standpoint it was a rough and tumble day. 10 miles into the race I felt the "ultra-ache" in my legs. This feeling first occurred for me at mile 25 during Leadville 2008. When I experience this I know it is going to be a long day. I knew I could fake it for 50 miles. Everyone was telling me, "You look great!" "Smooth and relaxed!" Inwardly I knew the wheels would slowly start to fall off.

I began to analyze why I might be feeling this. I had only raced three ultras in 2012, accumulating 112 race miles compared to 2011's 210 race miles leading into States. Then it dawned on me. WS was my 4th ultra in 7 weeks. On paper it looked like a piece of cake. Two 50K's and one 50M with a few weeks rest b/t races. I had been running well and winning some races. With this confidence I decided to run Golden Gate Dirty Thirty last minute and go for three wins in a row. The decision made total sense at the time...and it was only a 50K, I'd basically start my taper after the race. Racing is really fun when you're winning. I wanted to squeeze out my fitness gains one last time before States. I squeezed a little too much. In hindsight I lost vision of the big goal- competing well at WS. This decision impacted my day from Squaw Valley to Auburn.

Shortly after Robinson Flat (mile 30) the ultra-ache began to slow my roll. I had been leapfrogging with Riddle, Bitter, and Diboun for the first third of the race. We'd been running comfortably. Aerobically it felt like a jog but my legs were heavy and aching. Here's a look at the path of destruction I experienced.

Juxtaposition. Above the waist I felt like a champ! Below the waist I had been TKO'd with many miles to go. I was two people running. Mentally I felt like the strongest runner on the course. Physically I was Old Man Burch creaking down the trail. What I was most impressed with was my attitude. On a number of 100's I have turned into a hangry, rock kickin', f-bomb droppin', slow movin', monster. During the race I was slap-happy, Mr. Positivity, joke crackin', and enjoying myself despite my physical condition. I was hydrated, well fueled, and electrolyte balanced. If only I had some legs!

I love the part of the movie Into the Wild when McCandless is in the ocean with the waves. He says something to the effect of, "It's not about being strong, but feeling strong." Our minds are so powerful. I experienced that Saturday in a physical state that was less than stellar. There's something to that experience I'm still digesting, and it is deep. Concurrently I felt a pull to the finish that I've never felt so strong in any other race. At Foresthill I knew I would finish. I knew it would be tough. I knew it would get ugly. I knew I would get it done. I visualized myself going through the course and being led to the finish. I was led by the thousands of finishers who came before me at Western States. I was led by Gordy. I was led by Tim, Ann, and Scott. I was led by the strength of finishing. No matter how fast or how slow it is, you can't take a finish away.

Emotion. I'm standing at the crossroads right now. In a few days I head off to Georgia for Basic Training. Western States brought with it a lot of finality. My last race and finish for awhile. My last time to see a lot of friends. A lot of changes and things to think about as my life begins a new chapter.

My family and I road-tripped it to the race. Mom,dad,sister and me just like growing up. Great to have them share this experience with me. It was fitting to have them finish with me. As I hit the track Sean and I waited for the rest of the team to assemble. First I saw my sister running towards me. Then I saw my mom walking slowly to us. Last it was my dad coming from the other direction with a skip in his step and a smile on his face. As one team the five of us walked hand in hand the last 250 meters to the finish. Pretty special. Even better when Thornley placed the finishers medal around my neck. He had seen firsthand everything I went through the year before when I dropped at mile 70 with airway issues. He could see the significance and meaning of this finish.

Thanks. To the family. Sean- your pacing was a tremendous boost! Awesome having you share stories and slow miles with me. You deserve a medal!

John Tidd- Congrats,heck of a race! Didn't know I was famous...especially in Uruguay...thanks for saying hi. Likewise to Josh Katzman...the world is a small place with the Web...great job!


  1. I was told mid-race..."you are ahead of Burch"...that was not good news. Either I was really running my ass off or somebody blew up. I knew which. Sorry it wasn't the day you wanted. But from what I can tell, the silver buckles are all the same size. Enjoy your next phase and hope to see you out there again some day.

  2. Way to represent the Fort out on the track Sunday morning! Great attitude on the race AND in life, and it shows you're a strong person with great support. We'll miss you here so come back often and soon.

  3. Great Job Ryan! I hope to have your great attitude at Waldo and the Bear this year! Plus, if it makes you feel any better, I dropped the f-bomb a gazillion times running with KL the last couple miles to the finish at Big Horn. I think I scarred SL for life! Mine might, just might, have been alcohol induced.:)

    Good luck in Georgia! Watch out for copperheads and cottonmouths...they're plain nasty!


  4. Brandon, Mike, Victoria- thanks, I rolled with the punches and earned silver...not bad after the day I had :) Now that I'm retired from the sport I will officially announce my comeback for 10/01/2012.

  5. You represent the Fort well, Burch! Good luck in GA and we will miss you in CO.

  6. So refreshing to hear from someone of your ability who really "gets it". It's more than just "racing". I look forward to you coming out of retirement and kicking all of our butts soon. Thank you for your service and commitment to this great country!

  7. I think I passed you at almost exactly the same spot this year and last, and was bummed both years when it happened. Luckily, this year, you seemed to be in great spirits and I was happy to see you kept pushing on for a finish, despite the fact that you weren't having the race you wanted. I wish I'd been a bit more joyful in the moment, bc although I didn't have a bad race, I didn't have much fun doing it, and that's what it's all about.

  8. Slush and Rob- Thanks guys! I will miss Towers Thursdays and a summer of mtn running but will look forward to the Fort return.

    Amy- I'm still figuring out the 100 mile game. You were looking strong when you passed and had the game face on. I don't know the sources but I've heard some research about the benefits of running relaxed and smiling during runs that can benefit mood, experience, and performance. Good to hang more with you, Lisa, and Todd again at the house. Best of luck in life and running!

  9. Ryan,

    It was good seeing you out there - sorry we couldn't share a few miles. It certainly was a grunt to the finish. Great job getting 'er done - your "fame" is well deserved!


  10. Still figuring out the 100 mile game? It sounds like you got it right this time.

    Have fun at summer camp. I hope to see you come back stronger this fall!


  11. Ryan, I enjoyed spending some time on the trail with you. Whether you realize it or not, you really helped me get through the high country. I felt the opposite of you...my legs felt great, but above the waist I felt terrible. I didn't start coming around until Last Chance. I wish the end had turned out differently for you. After Quad Rock, I really expected you to be tough at WS100. Best wishes as you pursue some new goals in life. -David