Burning River Endurance Run was emotional homecoming for Shaun Pope
If home is where the heart is then it makes sense why Shaun Pope’s second-place finish in the Burning River Endurance Run 100-mile race on July 28 was an emotional one.
The owner of Vertical Runner on State Street is as at home on the trails as he is anywhere, including Northeastern Ohio, where he discovered his passion on the very trails that make up much of the course for the race.
Pope finished fifth in the Burning River in 2013, the year he moved to Black Mountian from his native Ohio. The 100-mile race begins at Squire’s Castle in the Cleveland Metroparks near the shores of Lake Eerie, an area he knows well.
“My mom used to take us there all the time to go hiking and catch frogs and snakes,” he said. “So the race basically starts in Cleveland and ends in Akron.”
As the course winds its way into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the trails become even more familiar to Pope, who burst onto the Western North Carolina running scene in 2014 when he finished second in the Mount Mitchell Challenge. It was in the 51-square-mile park in his home state that Pope began running on trails.
"I've spent a lot of time on those trails," he said. "I know them like the back of my hand."
As homecomings go, the Burning River race was a particularly poignant one for Pope, who didn't even know for sure he'd run it until about 48 hours before it began.
"I originally planned to race, but I got a stress fracture in April," he said. "I didn't run a step all of April, May and a little bit into June."
Looking to limit the time he spent on his feet, Pope began going to Cheshire Fitness Club for other forms of exercise, he said.
"I started rowing on the machine," he said. "I started swimming again, for really long distances. I really focused on building my endurance."
The timing of the injury was particularly poor, considering Pope had rededicated himself to running last fall.
"I really wanted to make 2018 my year," he said. "I wanted to focus on having a healthy mind and body because I wanted to get my jovial self back."
While Pope was increasing his mileage before the injury, something was missing.
"I was adding miles, but I never felt physically strong," he said. "But when I started going to the gym I started to gain strength in the rest of my body, and that was the first time in a long time that I felt strong."
The injury, Pope said, was a blessing in disguise.
"I was too focused on running," said Pope, who has participated in over 50 ultramarathons in his running career. "This helped break that and got me into the gym."
With a 4 a.m. start time set for the Saturday race, Pope made the decision to head for hometown on Thursday. He felt stronger from the start.
"Nobody knew I was running it, so if my foot felt really bad at mile 20 then I would've dropped out," he said. "But I ran near the back of the pack for the first 20 miles or so and kept a level head."
It was around that point that Pope made his move.
"I started picking people off when the time was right," he said. "You start in Cleveland and work your way to the (Cuyahoga Valley National Park) and when you hit the really gnarly part of the park, that's where my house was."
Around the 40-mile point of the race Pope shifted his focus.
"That's when I decided I was going to take first place," he said. "That's where I felt the most comfortable pushing it."
He moved into the top spot around mile 50 and held onto it for nearly half the race.
"Then I got chased for the rest of the race by the guy I passed," Pope said of eventual winner Jeremy Pope (no relation). "For the longest time he was only three to six minutes behind me; I'd get to an aid station and eat something, talk to my parents, and see him running in."
With four miles to go, runners participating in the race as part of relay teams began to pass Pope.
"In the last three-quarters of a mile I got passed by three relay guys alone," he said. "The other individual runner was 40 minutes behind me with 25 miles to go and caught me a quarter-mile from the finish."
But where most runners would be devastated to fall out of the top spot in such a way, Pope felt something different.
"I feel motivated," he said. "More than anything I left that race feeling like I'm ready to get back out there and run."
Pope plans to run the Iron Mountain 50 Miler in Virginia this September and he signed up for theNovember Shut-In Ridge Trail Race, which takes runners along 17.8 miles of trails from Bent Creek to the Mount Pisgah parking lot.
He plans to utilize what he calls "the best training grounds on the coast" to get ready.
"I've been in Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania, but we have the biggest mountains," he said. "We have a very large playground here."