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!