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Jerry Biedenbender: What it’s like to run a 100-mile race through ice and mud — and actually win

What? What’s wrong with you? Why would you do that?

Along with a very confused look, that pretty much sums up the beginning of every conversation I have about the Falls 100 ultramarathon. Then it switches gears and I’m asked, do you eat? What do you eat? Do you sleep? Are there breaks? Yes, tons of food, no, nope.

This race was such an adventure that started eight months and 1,700 miles earlier. I was in the middle of training for the Boston Marathon, running way too hard and on the verge of injury when they announced the race was canceled. I was bummed out but also kind of relieved because I really needed a break.

After a couple weeks, I got restless and remembered reading about 100-mile trail races earlier in the year and thought it sounded like a fun challenge. I found the Falls 100, signed up and began my 1,700-mile journey.

Covington resident Jerry Biedenbender crossed the finish line at 20 hours, 11 minutes and 22 seconds, taking first-place honors at the Falls 100 ultramarathon. Biedenbender, an NKU graduate, also beat the course record by nearly four and a half hours. (Photo provided)

Eight months later, at 4 a.m., in a small cabin we were renting for the weekend, I found myself wide awake staring at the ceiling fan thinking to myself “what the hell have I gotten myself into?” The race started in three hours. I had been up all night tossing and turning and I knew it was pointless to try and fall back asleep now.

Eventually I rolled out of bed, made breakfast, got dressed, organized my supplies and made just enough noise to accidentally wake up my wife and kids. Over the next couple hours, we looked out the window at the frost-covered starting line, watching as everything started coming to life. Generators were started, lights came on, campfires were lit, then volunteers and runners started to gather.

The Falls 100 course is a 13-mile loop repeated 8 times that runs through an old ATV park that was recently converted into a hunting preserve. Along with the creek crossings, ankle-deep mud, ice, loose rocks and other technical terrain, each loop has 2,000-plus feet of elevation gain. That’s equivalent to climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and back down 16 times while running from Cincinnati to Louisville.

With five minutes until start time, I hurried out of the cabin, snapped a couple last-minute photos with my kids and headed for the starting line. The first step I took from the deck to the steps, my foot went completely out from under me and I somehow caught myself on the railing instead of falling all the way down the stairs. The wooden steps up to the deck were a solid sheet of ice. Not a good start, but at least I didn’t go down, yet.

As I tucked into the crowd of people at the starting line, I heard the race director make a comment to the guy next to me welcoming him back and saying he was glad to see him. This gave me two thoughts: first, that it was really cool that the race director personally remembers and recognizes each of the runners that participated in past races; second, I better follow this guy for the first 13-mile loop. I’ve never seen the course, so I didn’t want to get lost, and this is my first ultra-marathon, so I didn’t really know how to approach the hills or how to traverse across the technical terrain.

“Playtime is over” – the most accurate sign I have ever read. Half a mile or so into the course, this sign stands at the first sharp righthand turn that takes you straight up the tallest and steepest hill I have ever climbed. Since the field of runners was so small, there were no bottlenecks and we just fell in, single file, and trudged up the hill.

As we climbed, it got steeper and steeper and steeper, almost to the point that we needed ropes. I didn’t know it then, but about 90 miles later, I would be crawling up the final 20 yards of this hill. Finally at the top of the hill, I was hoping for a flat stretch, but that was not to be. The trail immediately went straight back downhill. At this point, we’re less than two miles into the course, my legs are burning and we have covered more elevation change than the total for all my runs over the past few weeks.

The next few miles were what you would expect from backwoods trails. Lots of rolling and steep hills with short flat stretches over ridge tops that had great views over the deep valleys. We crossed creeks, passed deer stands, ran over old dried up waterfalls and found trails that had names. Always be leery of a trail that has a name. Glen’s Peak, named after one of the race directors.

I don’t know the guy, but if he’s anything like his trail, I never want to cross paths with him again. Glen’s Peak is in the middle of one of the few flat stretches along the course. There is no reason for it except to torture runners. The straight flat trail is blocked off by sticks and ribbons and forces you to go straight up a nearly complete vertical hill that even with fresh legs you would have to climb with your hands to get to the top. Did I sign up for a race or rock climbing? I know it only exists for Glen’s cruel amusement, because before you start climbing, you can see where it comes straight back down and meets up with the flat trail 10 yards away.

After Glen’s Peak, you actually get the chance to run for a while, relax and enjoy being out in the woods. This section included a couple miles that take you through an open field on the side of a ridge. It was a narrow path that was cut through weeds and sticker bushes that were nearly six feet tall. For whatever reason, I found this section very peaceful and was able to zone out, refocus and kind of hit the reset button. It eventually leads you to a technical downhill that crosses a flowing creek and you begin the mile-long climb to the eight-mile aid station.

Jerry Biedenbender won the Falls 100 ultramarathon in 20 hours, 11 minutes, 22 seconds. (Photo provided)

It was obvious this was an old washed-out ATV trail, the trail was rocky and completely destroyed with two-to-three-foot-deep washed out ruts that we had to maneuver around and jump over back and forth multiple times. Halfway up this hill a sign read “Mind over Matter,” and that is a phrase that stuck with me and helped me overcome some obstacles later in the race.

At the top of the hill there sits the eight-mile aid station and it was a party. Huge inflatable archways, bon fires, music blaring through the woods, tons of people cheering, yelling, taking pictures and a buffet of food and drinks. As we inched closer, volunteers ran down to us and asked if we needed anything. That way they could run back and get everything together so it was waiting for us as we ran through. I planned to be self-supported by my wife and family with a little aid table that we set up near the start/finish line, so I thanked the volunteers and ran through.

From here there are five miles left to complete the first loop and smack dab in the middle of this section was another “Named Trail,” a new section of trail that was added this year to recognize Ashley, a woman who finished the race last year with less than 15 seconds to spare. Which is amazing – that means she was out there for 35 hours and 45 seconds. It was called Ashley’s Adventure Trail. More like Ashley’s Death Trap. There were sections of the course that were difficult and dangerous, but this section was the icing on the cake for me. If you want a broken ankle, take a stroll on this trail. It ran through an old washed out path that was completely covered with slippery, wet, loose rocks half covered in freshly fallen leaves. It was impossible to find a safe place to step. Luckily along the side were a few saplings that we could use for extra support and a vine that was hanging from a tree that we were able to hold onto.

After the loose rocks, it had a steep downhill that led directly into another steep sloppy uphill section. The uphill section must have had a natural spring because even on the first loop it was sloppy mud with running water.

The final four miles included more steep hills, but that was par for the course at this point and also a new type of trail – a highly vegetated section of thick woods that winded down along the riverbank. This was a nice change of pace and was another section that let you relax, reflect on what you just ran though, gather your thoughts and refocus. I really enjoyed this section, parts of it felt like you were running through the jungle. This trail eventually connects back to the first couple-mile section that leads you down the first steep “playtime is over” hill, past pit row where there is a huge field full of tents, canopies, RV’s and the support crews and then back to the start/finish line.

As I crossed the old bridge on my way to the start/finish line to complete my first loop I saw my wife and kids frantically running towards my supply table. I was an hour earlier than expected so none of my supplies were ready. Somehow she pulled it all together and they handed me my food and drinks as I ran by.

One loop, 13 miles down; seven loops, 91 miles left to go. The second loop was very similar to the first. I kept the same pace and showed up at my support table another hour early. Everything was set up and ready this time along with some new support. My sister, her husband and kids, and my dad and step mom had showed up. I said hello, thanked everyone for being there, grabbed my supplies and headed out for the third loop. By this point it was midday, the mud thawed out and thousands of steps had run along the trail. Needless to say, we were running in mud pits now. Ankle-deep mud and slop was everywhere.

Again I was able to keep the same pace but at around mile 37 I got a cramp in my stomach that instantly stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t even stand up straight. I really didn’t know what to do, this was the first time I have ever had a cramp like this while running. I started walking and thinking through everything that I had been eating and drinking, or not drinking. That was my problem. Since it was so cold I wasn’t thirsty, so I wasn’t drinking enough water. I was drinking all of my tailwind formula, but ignored my bottle of water. I chugged half my bottle of water and instantly the cramp was gone. I picked up the pace and finished loop three on pace.

Loops four, five and six (miles 39-78), I realized my quads were shredded from all of the downhill but other than that they were pretty much uneventful, so much that I really don’t remember them. It was just the same thing over and over again until I was at about mile 77. I was less than a mile from the start/finish line, ready to start my seventh loop when all of the sudden my left pinky toe felt like it exploded and lodged a toenail between two toes. I limped into the support area and yelled to my wife that I needed a chair and a new sock.

By this time it was dark, the temperature dropped and everything was starting to freeze again. It was a struggle to get my frozen mud-caked shoe laces untied. I expected to see a bloody mess but it was the opposite, everything looked relatively normal except for my toes looked like they were all melted together. What happened is my whole pinky toe had developed a blister and it got so deep that it disconnected my toenail and then the blister popped. There was nothing that could be done and I wasn’t going to stop, so we put on a new sock and grabbed a new shoe that was a little wider in the toe box and I headed back out wearing two different shoes. It hurt really, really bad and I could only think of one thing – the sign that I saw earlier in the race. Mind over matter. After a couple miles the pain stopped. It was like a switch flipped and I didn’t even feel my toe.

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The final marathon, what remained of loop seven and loop eight was a race all on its own. After the toe issue, I was starting to fall into a deep dark place, it was after midnight, cold and the trail was empty. I only saw a random headlight off in the distance every once in a while and something hurt with every step I took. As I ran through the backwoods aid station a volunteer asked me if I needed anything and I thought I told him “Just to be finished,” but I really don’t know what I said. He looked at me with a very confused and concerned look and just said “What?!?” I didn’t even try to speak again; I just turned my head and followed my headlamp back down the trail. I felt like I was literally dragging myself along.

I ran through Ashley’s Death Trap on my way back down to the river and thought to myself how lucky I am to only have to run through that section one more time. That kind of gave me some energy again as I continued along the river. This is when I realized I was in the middle of nowhere, deep in the woods. It was pitch black dark out and I heard a pack of coyotes going nuts in the direction that I was running in. I knew they wouldn’t bother me and would probably run away if I ran near them, but I really didn’t want to find out. Luckily the trail took a turn before I got close enough to find out. I ran through the jungle and made my way back to the start/finish line to start my last loop.

At my support table, I grabbed the last of the caffeinated GU’s, my last peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bottle of water, a bottle of tailwind and a couple hot hands; I told my crew I would be back in a couple hours and I would need a cold beer, some fireball and a turkey bacon wrap. Something felt different as I started this loop. I felt like I did at the beginning of the race, nothing hurt, I was wide awake, my head was clear and I just felt all around great. I had no idea how this was possible, why I felt like this or how long this was going to last but I knew I only had 13 miles left, so I was going to take advantage of it for as long as I could. I was running up hills that I could barely pull myself up the prior loop, I was jumping over stream crossings again instead of trudging through the water.

I was able to run downhill again without feeling like my quads were completely shredded. I was completely revived flying through the course thinking to myself that it was the last time I would ever have to climb that hill, run through that mud or climb Glen’s Peak.

At mile 100 I looked at my watch and saw 19:29 and couldn’t believe it. I had just run one hundred miles in under 20 hours, had four miles left and was on pace to win the race and break the course record. Then BAM, it felt like the calf muscle on my right leg had a golf ball lodged between the muscle and my bone. I overdid it, I pulled my calf and still had four miles of technical icy trail left to go.

There’s a 36-hour cutoff for this race, so I knew I had 16 and a half hours left that I could use to crawl or drag myself to the finish if I had to. I thought for sure I would lose first place and probably miss the course record, but it didn’t matter at that point. I just wanted to finish. I started walking and realized that if I walked with my leg sideways it didn’t hurt as bad. So I tried running again and as long as I kept pointing my right foot outward I could run again. Just like that, I was running again except for the hills; I had to walk up them backwards. I made my last pass through Ashley’s Death Trap and celebrated a little too soon by picking up the speed at the bottom of the hill.

My right foot caught a rock and I went flying forward, landed on my chest and slid on the icy mud. I laid there for a second, cursed the death trap one last time and went on my way. I crossed paths with a few runners during the last couple miles and with about a mile and a half left I hit a patch of ice as I was starting to descend another hill. My feet went out from under me; I landed on my back and slid the rest of the way down.

Two runners were standing at the bottom and looked terrified. They checked me out, asked if I was okay or if I needed anything and then we split ways. It was too close to the end and I was getting reckless. I knew I needed to chill out, slow down and get to the bottom of the hill. From there I would only have a half mile of flat left to the finish line.

At the bottom of the hill, I picked up the pace and wanted to push it as hard as I could for the last half mile. I passed a few runners that were still working on prior loops and then ran into the runner that I met earlier in the race who taught me the ins and outs of the course on loop one. How cool was that, I thought. He realized it was me, said something along the lines of “Holy cow, this is your final loop, finish strong.”

I thanked him, wished him luck and pushed on toward the finish line. As I got closer, I saw my family hanging out on the bridge jumping up and down yelling for me like a bunch of wild animals. I ran past them with my arms in the air and darted to the finish line. I crossed the finish line at 20 hours, 11 minutes and 22 seconds, taking first place and beating the course record by nearly four and a half hours. I took a shot of bourbon with the race directors, posed for a million photos, thanked my crew, then sat down and didn’t get up for three days.

Jerry Biedenbender is a resident of Covington and the Geographic Information System Manager for Sanitation District No. 1.

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