Air Force veteran uses lessons learned from high school football, military career and his religion to bring him to the finish line of endurance races.
By Henry Howard
In high school, Brian Burk played running back and safety on the football team. He had grown up playing a variety of sports but did not fashion himself as a runner.
Burk — aka “CleDawg,” a nickname stemming from his passion for the Cleveland Browns — readily admits that back in those days he lacked discipline and any knowledge about conditioning. Instead, he just wanted to play the game he loved.
That all changed one day when the coach made the team run a mile after practice.
Toughness, Faith Fuel Ultra Runner
“I remember thinking there’s no way I can run that far,” Burk recalls.
“I stopped after three laps, blaming it on an injury. The coach called me into his office after we got cleaned up then figuratively and physically ‘kicked’ me out of his office and off the team. I still remember his foot landing squarely on my butt and me landing on the floor. It did not really motivate me to become a runner right away … but later in life I used that disappointment, that failure, that embarrassment to fuel me when times got tough. As a runner, I will never give up on myself again. As a man, it taught me that I never want to be the type of coach that Jeff Lane was … he never tried to figure out what I may have lacked.”
Burk didn’t become a serious runner until his Air Force career landed him in Thule, Greenland, for a year. The solitude and cold led him to the treadmill often.
“The mid-life weight gain had set in and I was back to not being able to run a mile, without a lot of pain,” he says. “When I reported into my new assignment, 900 miles south of the North Pole, with nothing to do but work, I changed my life. I became a runner. That year I lost 30 pounds and ran 1,200 miles (mostly indoors on a treadmill) with a long run of 21 miles.”
Burk runs races such as the Air Force Marathon in Dayton, Ohio, “to honor those that still serve, those who served with me and those who served before me. If ever I can’t run, I want my final race to be a military themed race.”
But Burk isn’t thinking about not running. He’s focused on how far he can push himself. He has yet to find his limit.
In the last 14 years, he has covered over 14,500 miles and completed 82 races – including a 100-miler, 100Ks, 24-hour runs and many more. What is he looking forward to on his 2015 racing calendar? In 2015, Burk plans on “a big year for me, if the old body holds out.” Among the highlights he envisions is a return to the Graveyard for a 100-miler (ran the 100k last year), over 100 miles at the VA 24 Hour Run For Cancer and a return to the JFK50.
When it came to his first 24-hour race, he had “no clue” about what he was getting into. “I had a friend who ran ultras, he helped me train for my first marathon (April 2005) and was always trying to talk me into running an ultra. I told him, ‘no way one marathon was enough,’ ” Burk recalls. “Then over time (years) I was drawn to them without really knowing what I was getting into or how they would take over my running career.”
It’s important for Burk to inform potential ultra runners of what they might be getting into. His advice: “Go slow and respect the distance.”
“The ultra world is opening up (to more runners) and it’s a great community but respect the amount of work that goes into running distances over 26.2,” he says. “I see a lot of folks entering races underprepared and they either don’t finish, get pulled because they don’t make the cut-offs or get injured. You need a solid mileage base before you jump up to these distances.”
During his runs, Burk places a priority on his faith. “I was an angry young man before Jesus entered my life. Running gives me the quiet time to reflect on life, love and his grace. I spend a lot of running time in prayer.”
For Burk, anything is possible through prayer and running.
“I would add that running has taught me that anything is possible,” he says. “Thirty plus years ago I could not run a mile. Ten years ago you could have never convinced me that I would have run a 100-mile race. But by believing in myself, keeping focused and not allowing doubt to sidetrack me, I finished the Umstead 100 Race in 22 hours 51 minutes and 5 seconds.
“That small victory is nothing compared to the story I’ve read or witnessed where people have overcome, weight issues, sickness, illness, loss of a loved one or some tragic event by simply staying focused, believe in themselves and running. Anything is possible … one step at a time.”
Name: Brian Burk
Hometown: Erie, Pennsylvania.
Number of years running: working on 15 (August 2000)
How many miles a week do you typically run: I normally run between 40 and 50 miles a week (high into the 60s) depending on what I’m training for.
Point of pride: I’ve been able to run a lot more than most people ever thought I could.
Favorite race distance: That is a tough one I love them all, I would have to say the marathon or the 100-miler.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE pizza and Diet Mountain Dew.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don’t listen to music when I run. I do however sit in my car before long runs or races and rock out. At the moment Lift My Eyes by For King and Country has words that speak to me.
Stand face to face with the younger me
All of the mistakes
All of the heartbreak
Here’s what I’d do differently
I’d love like I’m not scared
Give when it’s not fair Live life for another
Take time for a brother
Fight for the weak ones
Speak out for freedom
Find faith in the battle
Stand tall but above it all
Fix my eyes on you
The song has a faith context, but is there anyone who could not relate?
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ which strengthen me.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you: I write a running-related blog at briansrunningadventures.com and on Twitter @cledawgs I really enjoy connecting with others, I love hearing about their success, battles and doing things they never believed they could do. There are so many great stories out there!
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Thanks for being an inspiration Bryan!