The tenth annual running of the Beast of Burden 100 and 50 mile Winter Ultramarathons took place again on the Erie Canal between Lockport and Middleport way out in western New York State, under workable winter conditions on the 16th and 17th of February. Beast of Burden is one of only a few northern Winter 100 mile ultramarathons and comes replete with its own unique set of challenges for hearty participants, including those running in either the 50 or the 25 mile race.
Forty-three racers started the 100 mile race and twenty-five crossed the finish line. Pete Kostelnick dominated the field to notch the win in 16:28:39, good for the third best time ever completed on this course and a full 6:18 ahead of second place. Kimberly Wrate won the women’s division in the 100 miler and came in fifth overall in 25:33:58, three hours ahead of second place in the female division. Michael Condella (22:46:36) finished in second place and Sony Sawad (23:14:57) finished third. Raina Kao (28:26:56) earned second place in the Female division and 18th overall. Of the twenty-five 100 mile finishers, twenty-three were males. Kimberly Wrate was also the youngest finisher at twenty-two years of age while the oldest finishers were two males, fifty-seven years young.
This was my first time running in either the Winter or Summer Beast of Burden series, even though I reside in upstate New York. I have yet to meet an ultra that I failed to enjoy and the streak is still intact after Beast of Burden, and cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone considering the challenge.
As I became more familiar with the race after signing up for it, I know people that have run this event several times and that always speaks well for any race and the team that runs it. Here are my top five reasons to run the Winter Beast of Burden 100.
We are looking for real challenges. And that is one of the main reasons that anyone runs any ultramarathon, particularly a 100 mile race. Every 100 mile race is challenging and the fact that Beast of Burden is one of the truly rare, northern Winter 100s, means that it comes with weather-related challenges and issues most other 100s do not include. The weather and the conditions this year were as good as could be hoped for. But while there was little to no snow on the course, and winter can be much colder here in upstate New York, the temperature never climbed over the mid-20s during the day and got down into the high teens at night. And while there was no snow on the course, there was plenty of ice that you had to pay attention to, especially at night.
I like loop and out and back courses and found myself really enjoying Beast of Burden’s course layout. The course starts at the Widewaters Marina on Market Street in Lockport, travels west for a mile, crosses over and then follows the Erie Canal Towpath east until Middleport, NY. There the race crosses back over the Canal, into downtown Middleport, and inside into a hard building into the aid station between and behind the laundry mat and the Towpath Café. At the turnaround point, racers are 12.5 miles from the starting line, where they check in, hit the aid station and then turn around and head back to the starting line aid station at the Marina. This is a 25 mile out and back, lap-loop format.
The Beast course is the flattest ultra-marathon course I’ve ever been on, including the Ghost Train 100 earlier last Fall. If one were to rate a race course based on its steepness on a scale from 1 to 5 with 5 being “flat” and 1 being the steepest of courses, Beast rates somewhere around a 6.5 to a 7. It is flat. And I was excited about that throughout the first fifty miles of the race. The flatness of the course also provides racers with really long views and vistas stretching well ahead, out to as far as a mile and a half to two miles at different points along the Canal on the course.
The race is very well supported, with the two aforementioned aid stations on either end of the 12.5 mile course and an aid station located in Gasport, NY, seven miles from the starting point and five and a half miles from the turnaround. While the race seemed to be manned by a small group of people and could certainly use more volunteers, as most ultras can, the support was excellent day and night throughout the race.
Finally, this mid-February race is early in the calendar year giving ultra-runners the chance to schedule either a 100 or 50 mile race and get onto the scoreboard early in the year.
The three combined races, 100, 50, and 25 miler, had a combined 123 total racers toeing the 10:00 AM starting line, and with such a non-typical, late morning start, there was plenty of time to catch up with old friends and make some new ones before the race started. I ended up spending more time on the course with Jim Lampman than anyone else. Jim’s a serial 100 mile race finisher, also from upstate New York, and I’ve seen him at several races over the past twelve months. He’s one of those ultra-runners it’s great to spend time with during a race because he’s nothing but positive, and completely unfazed by anything or any weather during the event.
My primary goal, as always, was to cross the 100 mile finish line under the 30 hour time limit. My primary 1B goal was to complete it as fast as possible by rolling through as many miles as I could between a 10 to 14 minutes per mile pace. The weather was very cooperative through the first 24 hours of the race. The temperature stayed in the mid-20s during through the first day with a light, edgy breeze blowing in from Lake Ontario. After the first few miles, the running body of the race thinned and spread out. The out and back format of the race lent itself to monitoring how strong and steady Pete, Kimberly and the other race leaders stayed throughout the race, and the progress of each of our fellow racers. I completed the first 25 mile loop in 5:15 and 50 miles right at 12:20.
It never seemed really cold to me at any point during the race at all and I felt like I had the right winter-weight gear and layers on for the race. Most of my fellow racers had a lot more gear on than I did including hoods, face masks, really heavy-duty mittens, and some were in full body, winter outdoor gear. I think part of that is I run outside every day, even through the winter months in upstate New York, so that helped prepare me for Beast.
I wore lined wind-breaker sweat pants, three top layers including a long sleeve shirt, hooded sweatshirt and a light, polypro jacket, two pairs of lightweight gloves and instead of a full hat, a thick, polypro headband that used to be a full hat. My one real winter concession was wearing full, over the calf OD Green wool socks that ended up causing some foot blisters I don’t normally get, but kept that edgy breeze off my ankles that I would have had to deal with had I worn my typical Injinji crew-length socks. However, I was wearing a lot more gear than my friend and fellow member of the upstate New York ultra community, Tom Butler. Tom started the 50 miler in shorts, long socks a heavy hooded sweatshirt, gloves, and a head band. Apparently Tom went to long sweat pants after dark.
When I started the third 25 mile lap just around 11PM I added another lightweight jacket and a very think neck-up to my top layer gear but regretted it as that breeze we had during the day dropped off. While the air temperature dropped to the high teens, it really did not seem to cold, until a steady 8-12 knot breeze coming directly from the east kick up after daybreak.
What was already a highly interesting undertaking became an even more interesting race out beyond 50 miles. The race thinned out of course, with the 45 runners that started the 50 miler leaving the course along with the 35 racers in the 25 miler who were long gone. There was so much ambient moonlight I hardly turned my headlamp on at all, and traveled with only a flashing red LED on my back in accordance with the race rules. I slipped and almost went down on patches of ice a few times in the dark during Lap 3, but I left my headlamp off anyways. I know it’s my Army background but I like moving through the dark night mostly invisible.
I never caught, nor yet learned his name, but a younger guy with Race Bib #135, carried a 3×5 American Flag properly displayed for the entire 100 mile race. When I first saw him starting the race I assumed he had to be running the 25, or maybe the 50 miler, but there he was, still out on the course well beyond 75 miles. I also met Michael Ortiz very late in the race. Beast 100 was Michael’s twelfth week in a row completing a 100 mile race. Mike just completed his fifteenth 100 mile race in fifteen straight weeks as of this writing.
Distances based on faraway lights along the Canal Towpath, and other things you thought you were seeing, were sometimes tricky to figure out. At one point, about 3 miles west of Middleport, while I was on the way back from the Turnaround on Lap 2, I was moving towards a headlamp but I was having a hard time figuring out why it was taking me so long to reach it and whoever it was. But that turned out to be because it was a 50 mile racer walking backwards on the course. He was still walking backwards about 4 miles from the 50 mile finish line when I passed him headed out on my third lap.
Here are a few of the things that also make this race challenging. The fact that it is flat makes you think at first that is a tremendous advantage and to a certain extent, it is. There are no hills to climb. But on the flip side of that, there are no downhills and no gravity to put to work in your favor either. You earn every foot of the course through your own power. It was also interesting as to how remote the course often felt between the aid stations, especially out on the eastern section of the course. There was very little non-race related activity on the course and by the second day, while peaceful and almost tranquil at times, those long, panoramic views along the canal had their own sense of reality as far as the real estate ahead of you that still had to be covered. Even though the weather was mild compared to what winter can be in western New York, you still have to deal with winter’s affects the entire race. Dehydration, potentially being overdressed and sweating, and then freezing up, and whether you needed extra calories or not. Winter affected the course significantly in other ways too. 11 of the 12.5 miles were on the Towpath cinder covered surface. But that was completely frozen the entire race and it was like moving on asphalt for 100 miles. Lastly, the fact that this race is in deep winter and starts at 10 in the morning meant average ultra-runners like me spent a full 50 percent of their race time moving through hours of darkness.
Overall, Beast was not one of my personal bests as far as 100 milers go. It became apparent early in Lap 3 that I was not going to have any time to take the 20 minute, 0400AM nap that always tends to re-set me during a long race. Nor was I going to have time to even stop and sit down for even a few minutes without completely risking the 30 hour finishing time. So I never stopped moving or sat down during the race except for table grazing at aid stations and the two minutes I took after the second loop to change my shoes. I hit Mile 65 at the 17 hour mark on the race clock and that last 10 mile section of the third 25 mile loop seemed to stretch on into infinity during those early Sunday morning hours from 3 to 530AM. I lit a cigar leaving the Turnaround at 62.5 miles and smoked it to stay awake for the entire 12.5 miles back to the starting line. My third lap was my longest and took me right up until daybreak, but I never once considered dropping out because, ultimately, the person I wanted to be was the guy on the far side of that finish line.
The “out” section of my last lap was into that aforementioned, face withering, 8 to 12 knot winter wind. It did not let up for those entire 12.5 miles. At one point Jim Lampman even mentioned that while he’d done this race several times, he’d never been on the course before with the wind coming out of the east. That really did not bother me much as I was moving under the optimism of new daylight, and I was actually looking forward to having a tailwind for the last section of the race.
Ultimately, I knew that I had not trained well for this race since completing the Devil Dog 100 the first week of December. I had no running gears really left at all for the last eight miles of the race. And people were passing me in the tail end of the race too, and while I’m no big deal as a racer I usually finish strong and am rarely passed late in a race. Mike Ortiz and Jim Lampman flat out caught me from behind 300 yards from the finish line and they were moving well. They asked me to run with them but I explained I had nothing left and they opted to walk in with me, even though I all but begged them to keep running, and we all finished at 28:53:41.
39 out of the 45 racers finished the 50 mile race. 25 out of the 43 starters finished the 100 mile race. I and one other gentlemen ended up being the oldest finishers to cross the finish line. I had an awesome experience at the 2019 Beast of Burden 100, was glad to finally run it, and cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone considering the challenge.