Monday, April 18, 2011

Bull Run Run 50 Mile, April 9, 2011

April Showers Bring . . .
Friday brings rain, promising sloppy conditions for the Bull Run Run 50 Mile race put on by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club.  I'm less concerned about sloppy conditions than I am about rain on Saturday, so I prepare by spraying Scotchgard on my hat and lightweight windbreaker.  My thought is that I might be able to ward off getting my head, body and arms wet.  For my drop bag at mile 16.6 I pack a complete change of clothes except shoes and include a towel and a Mylar space blanket.

Mike E. shows up at my door promptly at 4:15 a.m. Saturday morning for a ride to the race.  We make very good time on the 32 mile drive to the start at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park in Clifton, Virginia, pick up our race packets and go to the dining hall where we meet up with other runners.  I have a piece of chocolate chip muffin that is available to the runners.  The weather looks like it will be OK, with a chance of some light mist or drizzle early, and gradually improving as the day goes on.  It is a bit cool, though, with temperatures in the middle 40s at the start, so I start the day wearing both a long sleeve and short sleeve shirt, tights, shorts, gloves and a hat.

I meet Mark Z., Yi D. and Larry B., my teammates on MCRRC Absolute Zeroes.  Our only chance to win a team prize is for all of us to finish and for our combined time to be the slowest of the 28 teams entered.  Kate A. is also there and is motivated by a comment I had made that Mark could run races faster if he did not stay with her.  She has taken this as a slight and is determined to set things straight on the course.  I start off with them, but soon leave them behind.

. . . Mud
At precisely 6:30 a.m. the race begins.  About a mile in, a fox charges directly at the file of runners on the single track through the woods, until it looks up and slams on its brakes.  It briefly looks left and right, then turns around and dashes back over the ridge. "Probably going to text his fox friends to beware of the crazily dressed people in the woods," someone wisecracks.

Soon we come to the first creek crossing.  Normally, the creeks are easy to get over without getting one's feet wet by hopping from one circular concrete stepping stone to another, but Friday's rain has got the creeks over the stones.  Nothing to do but get the feet wet and try not to fall in.

About six miles into the race we come to the second stream crossing.  The water in this creek is high enough that mud from the runners' shoes is clouding the water and making it hard to see the crossing stones.  I decide to follow some other runners crossing through the stream itself, which is about mid-thigh high on the theory that it is better to get a bit wetter but cross on better footing to reduce the chances of falling in.

To be safe, I take my cell phone, sealed in a baggie, from my shorts pocket, and hold it up.  I step into the stream, but the current is stronger than I anticipated, and it knocks me off balance and I fall into the water up to my armpits.  I manage to stumble across the stream, but I'm thoroughly soaked.

I strip off my shirts and wring them out, hoping to be able to avoid hypothermia over the next twelve miles before we get back to Hemlock where I can change my clothes.  I put the long-sleeve shirt back on but tuck the short-sleeve one into my belt.

I pass through the Centreville Road aid station, grab a couple of chocolate chip cookies and a mini-whoopie pie and head out through the low-lying portion of the course for the turn -around amidst fields of bluebells.  Alas, the bluebells are not yet in full bloom as they were last year.

But the mud is in full bloom.  Just about every step of the 4.4 miles out and back between the Centreville Road aid station and the turnaround consists of slippery, clinging mud. And I discover that I've lost one of the gloves that I had tucked into my belt as well.

Long segments of the trail seem to be shallow lakes themselves.  Every step requires care, and even then, one's foot moves left or right, forward or backward as it comes down.  Trying to run on the edge of the path to stay out of the mud puts one on  a tilted surface.  I pay the price for trying that, and fall full on my left side in the mud, covering myself from my ankle to my shoulder.

On the way back to Hemlock Overlook, the streams that we have to recross are noticeably lower.  I successfully use the stepping stones at the stream I fell in.

Heading along, I catch up to a women telling another one about a race she had taken part in.  She's telling how she had to run alongside this creek with cold water, while water ran across the trail from a hill above the trail.  All this while running uphill.

"Please tell me the name of that race," I say, "so that I can avoid it."

"Bighorn Trail Run," she replies.

"No!" I scream, "I'm signed up to go out there in June."

She assures me that it is beautiful.  And she was doing the 100 miler, and as I'm only doing the 50 miler, I only have to run down the section she had to run up (in the night) and then down.

When I signed up for Bull Run, I'd harbored a secret ambition to finish under 11 hours, knocking about 16 minutes off my time in 2010.  But the mud is slowing me down, and my splits through the first few aid stations don't bode well for reaching that goal.  Still, it is early, and the course after returning to Hemlock Overlook (mile 16.6) should be less muddy.

Change We Can Believe In
At the aid station I head for my drop bag.  It's in a picnic pavilion, and I'd put it on the furthest table so I could do what I now set out to do:  a complete change of clothing.  I strip off the still wet shirt and replace it with a dry long-sleeve one.  I sit down, take off shoes and socks, lay the towel over my lap and remove my shorts and tights.   The temperature has risen a bit and the sky seems a bit lighter and I gamble that dry shorts will be sufficient the rest of the day.  I put dry socks on, even if my shoes are still a bit damp grab a different hat and head out.  It takes about five minutes to change.

Knee Pain
It is 4.5 miles to the next aid station, and my left knee begins to hurt. The pain is toward the medial side, so I figure it is not an ITB problem.  But it starts to slow me down, and I decide that I'll take the rest of the day aid station to aid station, as it will be wiser to quit than risk serious damage that could jeopardize going to Bighorn.  It is also clear that 11 hours is out of the question.

Through the Marina aid station (mile 21.1), where the volunteers are grilling hot cheese and ham and cheese wraps to go with the usual cookies, candy, boiled potatoes and assorted other goodies.  Next stop is the Wolf Run Shoals aid station (mile 26.1) where the volunteers always dress to a theme.  Last year, they were characters from the Wizard of Oz.  This year, they are dressed from Toy Story.

Now my knee is really bothering me, particularly on the uphills.  I'm not just walking them but walking them and favoring my left side, so that I am actually limping up them.  Strangely, the knee isn't really bad going downhill or on flats.  I run a bit with a doctor who has just helped another runner by tying a band around her knee, and he says that he can practice field medicine on me as well.  I decline the offer.

Soon I look back and see Kate A. approaching.  She gives me a couple of Advil for my pain and then moves ahead.  She tells me that she has left Mark a ways behind, and that he had fallen in the same creek that I fell in, only that only his left ear remained dry from his dunking.  Her race report has more details on his fall and her day.

I spend some time running with Caroline W.  She seemingly knows every runner on the course, and has words of encouragement for everyone, even those she doesn't know.  She doesn't allow me to lapse into any kind of pity party over my knee.  The Advil seem to be kicking in, and the pain, while present on the uphills seems to have lessened a bit.

At the aid station heading into the Do-Loop (mile 32.5), I contemplate the pizza choices: plain, pepperoni, and ham and pineapple. This last is an affront to my Brooklyn-born Italian-American heritage, but I help myself to a slice of the pepperoni pie.

In the loop, I run past the carcasses of two abandoned cars and look at the crew boats on the Occoquon River.  I chat with a runner who had a heart attack 18 months ago, and received two stents and a quadruple bypass as a result.  His doctor told him that his running had strengthened his heart and that without that, the heart attack would have killed him.

When I get back to the Do Loop aid station there is one slice of pepperoni pizza left.  I hesitate, but a volunteer tells me to go ahead and take it, and I don't need additional encouragement.

Through the Fountainhead aid station for the second time (mile 37.9) I tweet, "knee sore but bearable. Can run flats and downhill."  As I pass a woman she says, "Are you Ken?"  It is Jennifer Z., who I have exchanged emails with (she is a friend of Mark Z.), but have not met.  Her left knee is bothering her, but strangely, hers hurts more on the downhills, while mine hurts on the uphills.  We chat was we amble along, running where the course is flat, but also doing a fair amount of walking.

We get back to Wolf Run Shoals aid station (mile 39.9) and I have half of an ice cream sandwich, one of that aid station's specialties.  I consult my watch and pace card and tweet that it "looks like 11:30 is not gonna happen."  Given that I had hopes for sub-11 hours, I should have been discouraged, but I'm feeling like I'm making relentless forward progress, and given the mud and my knee, I'm OK with doing that.

Kicking It In
About a mile from the Marina aid station (mile 44.9) one can see the bridge carrying Yates Ford Road over Bull Run. This perks me up, and I pick up the pace.  The climb over the rocks under the bridge is slow and painful to my knee.  I wait for Jennifer at the aid station and then urge her to hurry along.  I've looked at my pace card and think there might be a chance to finish under eleven and a half hours after all.

I don't feel tired, and with the exception of walking uphills, I'm pushing the pace.  I'm passing people, just as I did last year in my quest for 11:15.  Just like last year, I'm urging people to get a move on, because "You have a chance to finish in 11:30."  But the rocky sections are difficult to clamber over for my knee, and I let out more than one yelp of pain in so doing.

I keep waiting for the turn away from the trail alongside Bull Run and up the hill to the finish, but at each bend it isn't there, and when it comes, it's clearly too late for 11:30.  But no matter. I move along with another pair of runners, and don't even try to out sprint them at the end and they finish three seconds ahead of me. I cross the line in 11:34:19, good for 250th out of 320 finishers.  In my first appearance in the Male Super Senior division, I finish 13th of 19.

Kate gets her revenge, finishing nine minutes ahead of me.  Jennifer, with her bad knee and her quads complaining, finishes her first 50 miler in 11:49.  She has to walk backwards downhill on the way to her car.

Mark, with his hamstring bothering him, finishes in 11:55.  That time clinches last place for the Absolute Zeros, and each team member receives a BRR Team Champion blanket for being the slowest team.

- - - - -
Read my 2010 Bull Run Run report here.

Read my 2009 Bull Run Run report here.


  1. Great report, Ken! (and I see you've learned how to add links (^_^)!) --- congrats on fine run, crushing me as usual ... will get my BRR write-up finished later this week and posted on ... meanwhile, have fun at Capon Valley --- it's your "signature" ultra, no?

  2. Nice mud photo. You looked amazingly sane at the end. Mike and I were commenting that the toughest part was yet to come--driving home without falling asleep. There should be a waiver to cover that. Congrats.


  3. Great report Ken! Great to see you power through a challenging run. It was a muddy, amazing, inspiring day!