Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Bull Run Run 50 Mile: My Day as a Battlefield Casualty

“Thanks, man, I really appreciate it, but I’m sorry to be messing up your time.” “No, not at all. Not a problem.” I had come across this distressed comrade sitting on a log when I had about five miles to go in the Bull Run Run 50 Mile race on April 12, and went over to see how I could help. He said he had stopped to retie his shoes and then got such bad leg cramps he couldn’t bend over to reach one of his shoes, or even to get up. So I tied his shoe and then offered him a hand to pull him up. He looked much relieved, so off I went. It kind of made my day to be able to help somebody out, and I chuckled silently over the fact that I had no finishing time to mess up. You see, I had screwed up the turns at the Do Loop aid station several miles back, causing me to cut three miles off the course and, when I realized what had happened I turned in my number at the next station as a DQ – not eligible for a finishing time. I proceeded on with a very long and grueling “fun run” that wouldn’t count for anything but for training value and proof to myself that maybe I could do this some time.
Photo by the author, race shirt backside
This race has been on my to-do list for years. I have always liked the historical overlay and Civil War theming (pitting North runners against those from the South, logos with buglers and cannons, etc.), and this seems to be one of the big ones in the area that the most avid trail runners seek out. With my main goal this year being to succeed in the Bighorn Mountains 50 miler out in Wyoming in June, this really was one in a line of training races I had planned, with two in the 30-mile range in March (Seneca Creek Greenway, and the HAT), along with this shot at Bull Run in April. For good measure, six days before Bull Run I threw in the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile run on the streets around the Tidal Basin and D.C. monuments. If I didn’t make the Bull Run cutoffs and had to DNF, so be it. It would still count as a training run.
Bob Fabia photo, Pope's Head Creek
On Bull Run day, with friend Ken at the wheel and with friends Mark and Gayatri, we hit the road before 5 a.m. for the 40-minute drive to the race start at Hemlock Overlook Park near Clifton, Va. We arrived in plenty of time for packet pickup, lubing up, and tightening the laces, and the race started promptly at 6:30. The course field of 321 did a loop around the Hemlock area to spread out, then ran down to the trail by Bull Run for an upstream loop for the first 16+ miles. It was a pretty morning, and although recent warm weather wasn’t quite enough to bring out the iconic bluebells in full force this year, they were still a welcome sight. I found that my legs were lacking a little oomph/spring in the step, but I started at a pace I knew I would need to beat the cutoffs later on. A few miles in I could hear someone talking about where he had “puked my guts out” in an earlier race, and I then knew it must be Ken. But why was he behind me? Was I pushing the envelope or was he just holding back during a long warmup? Well, a little of both, and he soon zoomed past me. I eventually returned to Hemlock for a big rest stop, at about the same time as Mark and friends Stephanie and Marshall, which gave me more qualms about going too fast and destined to slow down to a crawl.
Mike Bur photo, Little Rocky Run
And that’s more or less what happened, for pretty much the rest of the race. But I wasn’t the only one slowing down. The day was heating up to 80 degrees and affecting everybody, and I even noticed a few front-runners walking more than I would have expected (but on their way approaching the finish while I was still outbound). Well, I stayed ahead of cutoff-pace on through the White Loop, Fountainhead, and on to the Do Loop. But I think I spent too much time alone and got myself sufficiently confused (or just plain old brain dead with glycogen depletion syndrome) that I didn’t know I hadn’t yet done the Do Loop, but was only on the threshold. Thus, my downfall, as I turned around from the Loop aid station and missed the three-mile loop entirely. In a half mile or so I asked a runner about why was the Do Loop more like an out-and-back than a real “loop,” and as she patiently explained what the sights were on the Loop itself, I overcame my denial and realized that I had missed it entirely. “Oh, crap. Crap. Well, now I guess I’ll be getting in a nice fun run.” “It’s all good,” she replied. (Runners are great folks, aren’t they?) So all these people I was running with in this section, or behind – like Stephanie and Marshall – had actually run three more miles than I had. What an idiot, I told myself. So I ‘fessed up at the return to the Fountainhead aid station, a course marshall dutifully removed the pull tag from my bib, and I officially became unofficial. He offered to get me a ride, but I said I’d rather run it on in, and so I did. Things got warmer and warmer, and I went through numerous refills of my two-liter hydration pack. I eventually came across the poor guy who needed help tying his shoe, and then the delightful oasis of the Marina aid station – only about five miles to go.
James Williams photo, near Hemlock
Less than a mile before reaching Hemlock for the finish I heard Mark’s friendly voice behind me. We proceeded on together for a while along the banks of Bull Run, but he was still moving with a purpose and I was glad that he raced up the long climb back up the bluff to the finish. During my climb I removed my bib and folded it up so no one would be tempted to record me as an official finisher, and I ran my own finish off to the side of the finish chute, a half hour before the 13-hour cutoff (in my abbreviated course). I learned from Mark that Gayatri had stopped at one of the cutoffs and then gotten a ride home, and that Ken had developed his now-regular Bull Run GI distress and had to lie down at the Marina station and would need us to pick him up. Stephanie and Marshall had finished a half hour or so earlier. Neither Mark nor I could reach Ken by cell phone, and just as we were discussing what to do we saw him running in fine form on to the finish line. Wow. And as he drove us home he was in great spirits and showed no signs of someone who had left the action of the battlefield whoofing up all his Gatorade and pbj’s.
It was a long, hot day, and though things were cooling rather pleasantly toward the end of the afternoon, the battlefield casualty rate was significant. 49 runners out of 321 starters, or about 16 percent, had missed the cutoffs, pulled out voluntarily, or DQ’d somehow like me. Many still finished, and that was an impressive feat. That included two 70-year-olds, and two who had finished all 22 races. This was one awesome group of runners. I won’t know exactly what would have happened had I done the Do Loop, although finishing within the official cutoff time would have been very doubtful. That would have required some big-time second- or third-winds, and this wasn’t a day for that. Apart from sore feet and blisters, I had stumbled several times throughout, and fallen twice the first 16 1/2 miles, none of which was a sign of a strong run. Indeed, I was plain old beat, no two ways about it. So will I come back and try again? I don’t know, but I can’t let myself think about that now. I have to recover and get my butt into some serious training before I head to the beautiful Bighorns in June. One challenge at a time.

In closing, let me just say: Go, Boston runners, go!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Groundhog Day Came Early this Year

The parallel to Groundhog Day was obvious: waking up to an early alarm for four straight mornings to face the same routine over and over again. At the Dopey Challenge in Walt Disney World, I was much like Bill Murray’s character in the movie, with reality and dreaming intermingling as the days went by, sometimes wondering which was which. (But alas, no Andie McDowell.)

Well, okay, it wasn’t exactly like that, but there were a few similarities. From January 9 to 12, I arose hours before sunrise each day to run, in turn, a 5K race, a 10K, a half marathon, and then a full marathon, all on Disney property, in the quest to surpass the traditional Goofy Challenge (completing the half and full marathons on consecutive days) and gain the new Dopey Challenge status with a finish in all four races. Each day this involved early fueling and hydration, putting on the running clothes laid out the night before, with the appropriate bib on the shirt, catching the bus from the resort to the race check-in area, followed by the walk to and the wait in my corral until called to the start line. But I liked it a lot. Running is easier and more fun with the variety of first-rate on-course entertainment, including the Disney characters, bands, DJ music (I still can’t get that Katy Perry song out of my head, or that song from Frozen), and wisecracking race announcers. And each day was unique, just as no two runs are alike in any circumstances.

The 5K (the Pluto) and the 10K (the Minnie) were staged in parking lots much closer to the check-in area. The fields were smaller (with the 6,000 Dopey runners constituting the majority of each), and each was run in the dark and finishing before sunrise. EPCOT is awesome at night when World Showcase is illuminated with bright lights and torches, and we ran through most of that area, as well as, in the 10K, around the Boardwalk in the adjacent resort area. Several characters were available along the way for picture-taking, including the most popular, Dopey, who attracted an insanely long line for pictures. I took plenty of pictures and some videos with my iPod, but avoided standing in the lines. I felt a little chilled at the start of these two races (fighting off a mild bug that was wanting to give me a cold), but with the humidity en route it took no time to heat up and require throwing off layers, even as the sky was spitting out bits of rain. After each race the Dopey runners then headed to a designated queue to get a wrist band as proof of finishing each race, ultimately leading up to the Dopey medal (and the Goofy) on the fourth day, after the marathon.

As runners learn, what you wear at a race tends to make a statement, whether you plan it that way or not. The Disney-themed costumes were everywhere, more than I’ve noticed in other races. Maybe the Dopey theme attracted the biggest fanatics. I also chose my race shirts with some purpose, I suppose. On the 10K, for instance, I wore my shirt from the 2011 Bighorn Mountains race. Wouldn’t you know it, but a guy comes up to me in the pre-race corral wearing the same shirt. (He allowed as how Wyoming is getting a lot of snow this year and that the trails in June might still be pretty wet. Just as they were in 2011.) Then a woman who noticed the shirt came up to me and told me about growing up in Wyoming and having run the Bighorn race, and we chatted a bit more before our corral was called. Maybe the Bighorn races and Dopey races have something in common on some subtle level.

The half-marathon (the Donald) and the full (the Mickey) require a longer walk from the check-in area out to the corrals on EPCOT Center Drive. The wait for the start was substantial, but this year the corrals were smaller and moved more quickly. Each of these races heads north up to Magic Kingdom on another road, World Drive, and then up through Main Street USA, where spectators are allowed in the park without tickets to cheer everyone on. My goal each year is to get a good corral placement and arrive at MK while it’s still a little dark, since it’s very pretty under the lights. (I need a better corral next time.) After MK, the half heads back south, paralleling the route up to MK, giving everyone two chances to see and/or pose with Jack Sparrow and other pirates alongside a mocked up ship, once in the dark and once well after sunrise. The half then heads back for a short run through a corner of EPCOT, past the singing and dancing gospel choir, and on to the finish and back where you had checked in before dawn. The full, of course, is more varied and covers more ground. Going south from MK, it takes a detour inside the Tom Petty NASCAR Speedway, then down for a loop through Animal Kingdom, and, in the last two years, a few miles through the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex (where you had been to the Expo and packet pickup four days earlier). The WWS part includes a stint on the track, and a run inside the ballpark where the Braves have their spring training. Then it’s a couple more miles of highways, with various entertainment, including the Toy Story Army guy (who is glad to count off as you drop down and do pushups), until you get to Hollywood Studios. You hit mile 23 in Hollywood Studios, and even if you’re pretty well cooked by then your mood is likely to improve with the “smell” of the nearby finish line.

That was the case with me. We had our best weather on marathon day and, feeling good and more energetic that day anyway, I was really savoring the last few miles. We proceeded on along the Boardwalk, World Showcase, and again past the gospel choir (how do they keep doing that all weekend?), all along with me pulling out my iPod taking pictures and videos of characters and even the cheering crowd (finding out, however, that shooting videos while in motion requires practice). I further savored the party atmosphere of the finish area, and especially the pint of local brew that aid in post-race hydration. (For the beer tent purchase, I was thankful that I wore the new “Magic Band,” which serves as your room key and credit card, and other things Disney World, all in one.) Speaking of savoring, I topped off the day with our traditional dinner buffet with friends Santa Steve, Joyce, and Kc, at the Boma restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge. I will say that is worth waiting and saving your appetite for.

So how did I like the experience, and would I do it again? Affirmative. I might do some things differently next time. I really should get more sleep, and maybe spend a little less time roaming the theme parks after the races. But I am fully open to another go at it, should that work out. This four-day venture included my fifth Disney marathon and fourth Goofy, and I think I still have more in me. I’m running marathons and ultras anyway, so getting in the training to make it relatively comfortable is not a big factor. Doing these races, particularly in the laid-back atmosphere of WDW, proved to be more doable than expected – just as Jeff Galloway was telling us in pre-race pep talks -- and I was able to run slight course bests in both the marathon and Goofy components (to the extent a personal best at WDW really matters).

There’s a huge diversity of running talent in these races. The overall Dopey champion, Mike Wardian (from nearby Arlington, VA), who surely ran all four races with a clear purpose and a focus, mentioned in a recent podcast interview how much fun he has racing at Disney, with all its bells-and-whistles entertainment. This is an elite runner, who trains very hard and races very fast, race after race. But you could hear in his voice how much fun he has with the sport. There’s room for everybody in these Disney races, the fast and the not-so-fast. So long as you’re willing to have fun.

My flickr pix from Dopey weekend: