Mike Walsh | Runner's High: Griffin getting creative to keep BURCS going

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Benn Griffin has spent almost as much time at the post office this summer as he's spent logging miles on trails or treadmills.

The Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service co-founder has had to trade race directing in person and the sore legs from it, for a sore thumb from placing stamps on countless medals, mugs and belt buckles to ship to his runners.

BURCS was all geared up for its eighth season, and had approval from the Department of Conservation and Recreation for the summer slate of races. Then, March happened.

"I was trying to figure out how big of a deal this was going to be," said Griffin, who also teaches and coaches cross country at BART. "Once they closed schools, then two, three weeks went by and I realized it was probably more serious than we thought.

"Sometime around May, we decided we didn't want to string people along, so we changed to see if we could do them all virtually."

A couple races had to be outright cancelled, like the Berry Pond Hill Climb and the Free to Run Trail Races, but Griffin and the BURCS team managed to pivot mid-stride and get the community together virtually.

"It's been really warmly received by our runners. A lot of great times. We've had about 100 to 150 people for each event," Griffin said.

The service part of that ultra acronym is what BURCS is all about, though, and the switch to virtual events meant a hit to donations. The Vegan Power trail races typically raise around $6,000, and this year managed around $4,000 for the VINE Sanctuary in Vermont.

The Jug End Loop Ultramarathon was set to raise funds for the Louison House homeless shelter in North Adams. Griffin made the event semi-virtual, still requiring runners to race the physical course, but not on any specific date and time. The event raised $3,600 last summer, and seeing that they would likely come up short of that mark during the COVID-19 pandemic, Griffin got creative.

It was during one of his quarantine days on the treadmill that he came up with the Circadian Challenge.

"I had seen all these virtual runs, but people were getting kind of tired or sick of them, so I thought maybe I could switch it up a little bit," he said. "I knew a lot of people were shooting for a marathon or 50K, so what if we divided up a 24-hour day and you have to run during both halves to earn each half of a medal."

He reached out to Stefan Rodriguez at Ragged Cuts, and the idea for a split medal became reality.

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With the addition of the Circadian Challenge, BURCS is still managing to raise about $3,000 to support Louison House, which brings the total to over $10,000 during the five-year relationship.

Circadian popped up on my radar right around the time I found myself falling into a bit of a COVID exercise rut. The same two or three loops and 5K distances from my front door were wearing on me. There's no better way to bust out of a rut than challenging yourself, so why not run two half marathons in 24 hours, one completely at night.

"Ultra runners know that ultra running messes with your circadian cycle to begin with," Griffin told me while I iced and CBD'd my quads late last week. "Quarantine was such a weird time anyway, everyone stuck at home, so let's switch things up. Let's make people go outside at night."

I opened my foray into the BURCS world with a 10-mile route I had been wanting to test out since moving to the Allendale neighborhood. I took off up Route 8 just after 8 a.m. last Thursday morning, and snagged a loop around the Berkshire Mall before tackling the Connector Road hill to Route 7, and then back by Pontoosuc Lake.

It was neat to circle the mall in its current state, as nature takes back control and greenery is busting through the unkempt concrete. While certainly a sad state of affairs for retail, it's calming in a post-apocalyptic sort of way.

That left just a 5K to be completed before the next stage began at 8 p.m., which I opted to churn up on the trails in Kennedy Park as a change-of-pace from the pavement.

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Woolsey to Aspinwall, with a detour to Pondside, Slippery Rock and Undermountain, getting me down to Deer Run and back to the Arcadian Shop in about 3 and a half miles no worse for wear.

But, as Griffin says, night running is it's own beast, and the 8 p.m. start was encroaching like the "Jaws" soundtrack.

"I wanted to come up with something that was going to test people's mental toughness, combined with the physical toughness of running in the hottest month," he said.

A quart of chocolate milk and tub each of hummus and Vaseline later, I suited back up after sunset Thursday night.

As the wife settled into a Harry Potter Zoom trivia night with some friends, I strapped on a headlamp and hit the roads in downtown Pittsfield. Nights on North Street are far less interesting during the coronavirus era, but enough lights were on to give me some confidence. That was until I hit Beacon Cinema, which — perhaps for totally legitimate reasons — had one film listed on the marquee: Ghost. In the midst of a deserted downtown at 11 p.m., that was a bit creepy to see. Between that, the screeching crickets of Silver Lake and a beheaded Minion toy on Merrill Road, I came to understand the mental toughness portion.

And if I didn't then, I did when I awoke in the 4 a.m. hour after minimal sleep to try and knock out the second half of my nighttime half marathon.

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With aching legs and a pace nearly two minutes slower than Thursday morning, I plodded back down Tyler Street toward Lake Onota to catch sunrise.

With motivation waning as heavily as my eyelids, the threat of explaining half a medal pushed me onward.

"The sweet spot was in that 26-to-30-mile range," said Griffin of the finishers. "There were some different approaches, but almost everybody was a finisher.

"The idea of me cutting a medal in half and mailing you half a medal was really inspiring people to keep pushing. There's something to be said about the ego of even your weekend warriors."

About 7-and-a-half miles later, I collapsed back in my front yard.

The final tally: 27.59 miles in just over 4 hours and 14 minutes. Two pairs of running shoes, four GU packets, four pairs of shorts, shirts and socks, one soaked flipbelt and a couple run-throughs of the new Taylor Swift album.

The Circadian's final numbers included an 89-percent completion rate, with more than 3,000 miles logged. Bill Odendahl was the overall champ with 91.57 miles, while Becky Burke went for 75.04 to lead the women.

In this summer of stagnation, pushing one's body has been one of the best ways to still feel alive. I've attempted both a beer mile and a cider donut mile solo, but BURCS is still providing the gutsier folks among us with those opportunities.

The virtual Sweltering Summer Ultra is underway now, with participants choosing any 8-hour window from Aug. 1 to 9 to log as many miles as possible, perhaps still on the Clapp Park track. Moment's House is the beneficiary there. Griffin is also formulating a four-part race for likely November that will feature four different terrains and varying distances dependent on a Sunday night roll of some dice.

This weekend warrior may leave that to the ultra pros, though. I've been toying with the idea of a Taco Bell mile this coming week.

Heck, sometimes, the only way to feel alive is to push the limits once in a while.

Mike Walsh can be reached at mwalsh@berkshireeagle.com, at @WalshWrites89 on Twitter and 413-496-6240.


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