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Ultramarathon man

Vince Donner runs alone in the snow.  Photo: Beast of Burden

Vincent Donner can run 4 laps around a track in well under 5 minutes. Most people will never run a mile that fast, but the top-ranked high school boys’ milers in the state run times a lot closer to 4 minutes, so Vincent’s best times don’t put him in contention at big meets. This doesn’t really bother him. “Track is not my specialty,” he says. “The events are all too short.”

Cross-country, with a standard distance of 5 kilometers, is more to the Roy-Hart senior’s taste and talent. This past November, he took 14th in the New York State Cross-Country Championships, Boys’ “C” Division, with a time of 16:30. In May, he won a local road race (the DeSales Race for Fitness 5K) outright, in 16:19, almost two minutes ahead of the second-place finisher.

But 3.1 mile races are still too short for 18-year-old Vincent, whose own words best describe his attitude about the many 1-mile, 2-mile, and 5K races he doesn’t win:

“I don’t say I lost. I say The course ran out.

A week with his high school’s cross-country and track teams might add 70 miles to Vincent’s training log. 70 miles a week is more than enough for most runners, but not for Vincent, who supplements his team practices with long weekend runs and the occasional post-practice jog. He has run as much as 40 miles in a single training weekend. His weekly average is over 100 miles; one week he got up to 124. He once ran a marathon, by himself, back and forth on the Erie Canal towpath, where it travels 11 miles between Middleport and Lockport.

Vincent’s older sister, Juliana, works with Virginia Pasceri, whose husband Sam spent the winter organizing the Beast of Burden Winter 100-Miler and 24-Hour Ultramarathon, an ultradistance event that would take place on Vincent’s stomping grounds, the Erie Canal towpath, and have a rest station down the street from his school. The night Juliana told her brother about the event, he e-mailed Sam Pasceri and asked if he could enter the 100-mile race.

Thing is, the Beast of Burden wasn’t just an ultramarathon; it was an ultramarathon that had the potential to take place in hazardous weather. Pasceri had imposed a rule that any runner wishing to enter the Beast of Burden had to furnish proof of prior ultra experience, such as a 50K or 50-mile race. Vincent’s longest races usually took him 16 minutes. But he made his case, and Pasceri offered a compromise: Vincent could enter the (hypothetically) less demanding 24-hour race (he would only need to run 50 miles to earn a finisher’s prize), as long as he got his mom’s permission.

I don’t know about you, but back when I still had to get my mom’s permission for things:

A: I would not have asked for permission to compete in a 100-mile race.

B: If I had, I don’t think she would have said yes.

But Lynnemarie Donner is probably her son’s biggest supporter, so she gave him the okay. At 7:00 AM on race morning, February 27th, she and Juliana were there to cheer Vincent on at the start. Mom sported a “Vince the Invincible” cap.

I first spoke to Vincent at a pre-race party the night of the 26th. He said he wasn’t nervous, and I believed him. Judging by his face, he could have been 8 years old, anticipating Santa Claus. It was Christmas Eve for him.

When I asked how many miles he wanted to run, I expected that his answer would be somewhat reasonable—maybe 50. Maybe 60 or 75.

“Oh, I’m going for the 100,” he said, matter-of-fact.

I told him “Good luck.” I thought yeah, right. I shared the sentiment that most of the experienced ultra runners held—this kid was young and determined and he had fresh legs, so he’d be good for a marathon, but beyond that—well, the best ultra-runners out there tend to be in their 30s or 40s, even their 50s or 60s. Ultrarunning requires focus, mental fortitude, and the ability to run for a long time through a lot of pain. It’s one of the only sports out there that doesn’t favor young people.

Of course, according to Joe Caprio, one of Vincent’s coaches at Roy-Hart, “Nothing bothers Vince mentally; nothing, except not being able to run.”

About twenty minutes into the Beast of Burden, Vince was—and I do not use this cliché lightly—grinning from ear to ear. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t being asked to stop after three miles’ worth of racing. At that point, however, it was still fun, still easy. Soft, fat snowflakes fell slowly, music piped from speakers, the mood was high. The real test was coming. It would keep snowing, and then the snow would turn to rain.

Vincent doesn’t run with an iPod. He doesn’t like distractions that could imperil his safety, doesn’t like sticking headphones into his ears, and just enjoys running so much that he doesn’t need anything to occupy him. Outside of track and cross-country practice, he usually runs alone: “When I run it is just me, my mind, the weather, and the path in front of me.”

He makes it sound easy. It isn’t, and it sure wasn’t on the last weekend of February, when the weather gods sent a couple feet of snow to Western New York to remind us that winter was far from over. During the race, I volunteered as a pacer—a person who basically tags along with a racer to keep them company, maybe carry their water bottle, maybe phone for help if help is needed. I started in Middleport and ran-walked to Lockport with one of the 100-mile runners from about 1:00 to 4:00 in the morning. Snow, rain, snowmobiles, and running shoes had turned the narrow path into an uneven, icy surface that was just plain unpleasant, and a little dangerous.

When we got to Lockport after three miserable hours, I was done. I wished my runner good luck and hopped into a warm car for a ride back to Middleport, because I had not signed up to stay outside any longer in those conditions. Many of those who had signed up had left hours ago: 7 of the 15 contestants in the 100-mile race were unable to complete the distance, dropping out from injury or fatigue. Most of the 24-hour runners called it quits as soon as they’d finished 50 miles, enough to earn their belt buckles.

But for once, Vincent had found a course that wasn’t too short. This was his moment—all he had to do was what he liked to do best, just keep running and running, like Forrest Gump or the hero of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (when asked if he had ever seen the latter film, Vincent said, “Have I seen it? I live it!”).

He just kept running. It wasn’t easy, but he did it anyway. “My will was tested at many times through the many aches and pains in my legs,” he wrote in an e-mail, “but the power of habit kept me going. At the middle of the race…I wanted to quit, but I kept going since I was already half done. At the end of 75 miles my family and everyone else at the stop convinced me to keep going. I had nothing to lose so I braved the pain and the whiteouts, and I told
myself, ‘here goes nothing.’”

At 5:50 AM on the morning of February 28th, Vincent—delirious from exhaustion—crossed the finish line in Lockport after running exactly 100 miles and clinching a decisive victory in the 24-hour race. If he’d been allowed to compete in the 100-miler, he would have finished 4th.

After the Beast of Burden, Vincent took about a week off until track season started. On Thursday, April 15, in a dual meet against Wilson High School, he won the 1600 in 5:52, took 2nd in the 3200, and ran in the winning 4x800 meter relay. Caprio reports, to no one’s surprise, that Vince has “an insane work ethic” and “leads by example and never misses a workout.”

“Our entire distance group this year has a tremendous work ethic, to the point where we have to make them rest to avoid over training,” he says. “I believe our young distance runners developed their work ethic by watching and training with Vince.”

“I am looking forward to having fun with track for once,” Vincent says. Having accomplished what he calls “the ultimate milestone in running,” he’s ready to relax and enjoy his senior track season before he moves onto future ultradistance races.

Among runners, you’ll hear disagreement about what constitutes the “ultimate milestone.” Some will say it’s breaking the four-minute mile, others that it’s completing a marathon. But for ultrarunners like Vincent, speed isn’t the goal (it helps, but it’s not the point), and a marathon is barely a milestone. 100 miles, though, is something. 100 miles in less than 24 hours is even better. Sam Pasceri told me that for most ultrarunners, it works like this: first you run 100 miles. Then you shoot for breaking the 24-hour barrier. A lot of ultrarunners never achieve that milestone, and for that reason, the maximum time allowed to finish a 100 mile race is usually 30 hours, sometimes 36. Most people, no matter how hard they train, just can’t cover 100 miles on foot in less than a day. Vincent did that on his first try.

As awed as friends, family, and spectators were by Vincent’s achievement at the Beast of Burden, he doesn’t seem to think it’s as big a deal as they do. The day after his race, Vincent got up and went to school, as usual.

“I did not have gym that day, so it did not matter whether or not I could move fast,” he said. “I know it was an extreme event, but it was not that extreme.”

 Author's note: the Beast of Burden will also hold a summer race, in August.  Registration is scheduled open online at 12:00 noon today, April 18, 2010.  A link will be provided on the Beast of Burden Facebook page.


  • Bernadette Cosgrove 5 years ago

    What a wonderful article......"Vince the Invincible", so proud
    of you!!!You are a perfect role-model for the youth of today.
    You inspire dreams that are unthinkable to some.

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