Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bull Run Run 50 Miler - April 12, 2014

No Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy
The 2014 Bull Run Run promised to be a battle for slowest team between two time champion MCRRC Absolute Zeroes and Team Vilambitagati, successor to last year's defending champion Team Rocket.  But to add to the over- and mis-use of the oft paraphrased version of the quote from von Moltke the Elder, "No plan survives contact with the enemy." If the enemy can be terrain and weather, then BRR would be a testing ground for the aphorism.

At 4:50 a.m., I drive Mark, Barry, and Gayatri, three of the four members of the opposing team out to Hemlock Overlook for the start of the race.  The weather promises to be on the warm side, and with a late winter, the trees have not begun to leaf out.  I decide to start with shorts and a long-sleeve shirt, and change to short sleeves upon the return to Hemlock at mile 16.  I plan to take a Succeed salt/electrolyte capsule every hour and consume a gel every 45 minutes to replace salts lost through sweat and to keep up energy.

After a nice a cappella rendition of the National Anthem, we start promptly at 6:30 a.m.  Fellow Team Zero member Larry and I start off together and chat about the weather, clothing and our chances to reclaim our slowest team title and win yet another championship blanket.  Light showers Friday night have softened parts of the trail and created some small muddy areas, but the streams are not high and footing is good.  Larry trots on ahead.

Deflated Easter Bunny at the Turnaround
Diabolical Sibling Torture
One of the pleasures of trail running is getting to meet and chat with folk you might not otherwise meet.  Since you are going to be out there for hours stories help pass the time of day.

I run awhile with -  let's call her 'Jane' to honor the "what's said on the trail, stays on the trail" rule. She came some distance to the race with some friends but is going to stay a day or two in DC while the friends go home after the race.  Her younger brother is going to pick her up.

I ask if she has been nice to him growing up.  In response, she tells the following story.

When she was 15 and he was about to have his sixth birthday, she told him that on the sixth birthday, boys turn into girls and girls turn into boys.  "I don't wanna be a girl," her brother moaned. "Girls are icky."  She tells him he doesn't have a choice.  And she tells him the girl name she has picked out for him.

The bluebells were late this year
On his birthday he wakes up with trepidation and glances down.  He's still a boy! Bravely he tells her that he didn't believe her.

"You don't turn into a girl when you wake up," she smugly replies. "It happens when you blow out the candles on your birthday cake."

When the time comes and the cake arrives, he breaks into tears. Mom, figuring something isn't quite right, puts an end to the diabolical fun.

[Alternate ending: The brother blew out the candles, turned to 'Jane' and smartly said, "My birthday wish to remain a boy was granted." But he didn't. He was only 6.]

Fooling Around Crossing Pope Creek
(Photo by Bob Fabia)
In the Presence of Giants
On the way back to Hemlock I catch up with BRR legend Tom Green.  He's one of only three men who have finished all 21 previous BRRs.  The week before he had run the Umstead 100 Miler, his second 100 miler of the year.  I tell him that one reason that I don't want to run a 100 is that I don't want to see the sun rise a second time.  He tells me that seeing the sun rise the second time is actually energizing.  He also reveals that he takes a 90 minute nap during the night.  Maybe running a 100 isn't so bad, I start thinking.

Crossing Little Rocky Run
(Photo by Mike Bur)
Tom also tells how during Umstead he was passing a woman runner and her pacer during the night.  "How are you doing," he asks her in greeting.  She bursts into tears, saying that it is her first 100 miler and she is tired and exhausted and doesn't think she can make the 30 hour cutoff.  Tom, who has run over 40 100-milers and numerous 24-hour events, tells that he "pulled out all his motivational tricks" to help her.  He tells her that she is a lap ahead of him (Umstead is eight laps of a 12.5 mile course) and that he is going to make the cutoff, that she only has a lap and half to go, and that running at night is the hardest but with seven hours gone she only has three hours of darkness to go. "I only saw one women DNF later," he says, "and it wasn't her."

Just then we catch up with Tim Stanley, the second of the three finishers of all the BRRs to date.  Tim had tried to withdraw from the race because of a painful medical condition, but the other legends of  the race have persuaded him to come out and at least start.  Tim will go the 16 miles out from Hemlock, through the bluebells (few in bloom because of the late winter) and back to Hemlock before ending his streak at 21 finishes.

Tom tells us that 2014 may be his 100-miler final tour - he has six more planned through the summer. He says that running 24 hour races are becoming more attractive to him - "you can finish them by sitting in a chair the last hour if you wish," he jokes.

Approaching Hemlock the first time.
No running there the second time.
(Photo by James Williams)
Implement the Plan
Back at Hemlock I change my shirt and contemplate whether to switch from my handheld water bottle to the higher capacity backpack, or add a belt with a second water bottle.  Either would assure that I won't run low of fluids as the day is warming up and I drinking a lot but at the cost of being hotter and sweating more from wearing them.  I decide that the remaining aid stations are close enough together, 5 to 5.5 miles are the most, to stick with the handheld only.  A bigger problem is with gels.  Without the backpack I don't have enough pockets to carry all the gel I need to implement my plan.  It isn't optimal but I decide that I will rely on food at the aid stations to make up the difference.

Heading out I grab some bacon and cheese pierogis.  I hold the bacon in front of me and pretend to chase it to the amusement of the spectators.  All goes well to the Marina aid station (mile 21) where volunteers are handing out wash cloths dunked in ice cold water. It feels great on the head and I soak the blue washcloth I brought with me to bring along. Paper cups with bright red maraschino cherries are a nice treat along with salty beef jerky.

The day continues to warm up.  I remember to take a Succeed every hour, but I've messed up the schedule for the gels and can't remember when I took one last.  Finally I set a timer on my watch to remember for me.

Christmas Came Early at Wolf Run Shoals Aid Station
Wolf Run Shoals aid station (mile 26) is Christmas-themed this year.  I ask to meet the naughty elf but am told she is not there.  More wet towels.

In two miles I'm at the Fountainhead aid station and the drill is now familiar.  Get the cold, wet towels, wipe down, refill the water bottle, soak the blue washcloth and head out into the White Loop.  I put the dripping cloth on my head to both cool off and to provide some cover for the head.  Stephanie, the fourth member of Team Vilambitagati passes me looking relaxed.

Approaching Fountainhead outbound.
I didn't look so good on the way back.
 (Photo by Hai Nguyen)

In 4.4 miles I reach the beginning of the Do Loop. Once in the loop one no longer has to see runners headed back toward the finish while still headed out. I comment to a runner running his second BRR after a break of a couple of year about the crew teams we can see on the water.  He tells me about crewing at Villanova and I tell him about daughter Hilary crewing at LaSalle.  Somehow the conversation turns to mortality and he tells me about how he had had a heart attack years before while lying in bed.  The surgeon told him that he survived because his heart was strong from running.  Later I recall that I had met the same runner in almost exactly the same place in 2011 and he told me the same story.

Back to the Do Loop aid station (mile 35) I eye the pizzas but don't feel hungry.  I'm down to one gel but someone points out that a runner had left some extras behind.  The choices are peanut butter or unflavored.  Neither sound good but I take a peanut butter one.  The heat is starting to wear on me.  Not feeling hungry has progressed to vague nausea.

The Mind Quits Before the Body
Slowly fading away in the Do Loop
Plenty of walking gets me back to Fountainhead (mile 38).  This is the point where the race usually gets tough for me, but now I'm already in bad shape.  I sit in a chair and volunteers bring me wet towels.  I'm not at all hungry at the same time I realize that I'm running out of energy.  The aid station captain tells me that I am about 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff time if I want rest.  I sit for 20 minutes thinking whether to quit or to go on.

Mark comes in to the aid station and I decide to go with him and push on to the next aid station 2 miles away.

We go together a bit and then he simply runs away.  I struggle up the hill to the Wolf Run Shoals aid station (mile 40) and flop into a chair. I can barely talk. An elf brings me a cup of coke and refills my bottle.  The workers start to disassemble the decorations in preparation to shutting it down.  Santa comes over to talk to me.  I tell him I'm thinking of quitting. "You can't quit here," he says. "We don't have a cutoff."  I tell him I have a phone and can quit if I want.  Santa insists that I can make it to the Marina aid station 5 miles further along.  He introduces me to other runners who have arrived at the aid station and tells them that I will be going with them.  He tells me that I can finish and that he will be there to greet me.  He puts Succeeds and Tums in my pill case.

It was a hot day . . .
After 8 to 10 minutes of sitting, somehow I get up and move out. A small strand of remembrance that the mind quits before the body might have been the difference.

A bit down the trail I take the Tums and the Succeed.  They are like a miracle drug.  The nausea vanishes.  I can run again.  I try to follow a woman running and I can't keep up with her on the downhills, but I make it up on the flats.  I catch and pass Larry for the second or third time of the day.

Approaching Marina an aid station worker is walking toward me.  He tells me they had been told of a runner who was struggling. "That was me," I reply, "Feel much better now."

A Tradition Like No Other
I reach Marina in 12:13, seventeen minutes ahead of the cutoff.  Tom Green is sitting there getting ready for his final push. I have 1:47 minutes to go the final 5.5 miles.  That's just under 20 minutes a mile, pretty much a walking pace, or it is on a flat surface.  I can run some and do so where the course is flat.  But there is one long climb and progress is slow.  I take out the peanut butter gel and try to force myself to eat it.  A small taste is all I can manage before I squeeze the rest out on the ground and put the empty packet in my pocket.

I move along fairly well.  Tom Green catches me and I use him to set the pace.  Finally we reach the long steep hill that climbs to the finish.  We start to walk up it but I'm running out of strength again and stop to gather some strength. Tom stops.  I resume and have to stop again.  Tom stops to wait but I tell him to go on.  I start again but nausea wells up from my stomach.  I bend over, but stay on my feet.  The second bout of nausea finally discharges my stomach.  I go a few more steps and sit on a log.  I'm terribly tired.  More nausea and finally my stomach is empty.  Larry comes by and offers to wait.  I tell him to go on.  Another runner waits with me.

This is the third time in six BRRs that I have vomited on that hill.  My own little tradition.  After about a minute I feel revived and we walk toward the finish. Rounding the corner that brings the finish in sight the two of us start to run.  I finish in 12:47:06, less than 13 minutes before the 13 hour cutoff for official finishers but good enough to log my sixth consecutive BRR finish, 264th of 272 finishers. Santa, now in civilian clothes, is there to greet me.  With my stomach empty, I enjoy an Orange Crush and a hot dog prepared by the volunteers.

Both MCRRC Absolute Zeroes and Team Vilambitagati were disqualified: for us because Caroline had to drop after 16 miles because of a pre-existing knee injury and Jim finished over the 13 hour cutoff; for them Barry unfortunately missed the Do Loop and was disqualified (read his report) and Gayatri missed a cutoff.

Tom Green not only finished his 22nd BRR, but he was on the winning slowest team. Gary Knipling and Frank Probst became the first 70 year-olds to finish the race, and Frank kept pace with Tom as now the only two runners to have finished all 22 BRRs.
Swag: Shirt, Finishers' Beach Towel,
Winning Side BRR Magnet, Reusable Cup, Bib

Friday, April 4, 2014

Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K - March 8, 2014

Miles and Miles of Mud
 A Tale of True Grit or Epic Stubbornness
We admire perseverance. The epic quest; the strength of will to go on in the face of insurmountable odds; the struggle to succeed when the odds of success are approaching zero. We also admire adaptability. The realization that conditions are not what we expected and react accordingly; to stop doing what is not working and live to fight another day; the change of plan that averts disaster. Both are admirable but mutually exclusive. We are selective in our praise, choosing the label that suits the successful outcome. George Mallory was foolish; Edmund Hillary was adaptable. Custer was dashing at Gettysburg and reckless at Little Big Horn. The frontal assaults at Fredericksburg were a tragic and futile loss of Union lives; Thomas' assault at Missionary Ridge a brilliant matter of perseverance by the Union troops. The story of the 2014 Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K is a story of either admirable perseverance or a lack of adaptability. I'll tell what happened, or at least as I saw it and leave it to you to judge.

No mud early on
Starting Out
I pick Jennifer up and we drive up to Damascus Regional Park, where the race ends.  On the way she tells me about her misadventures two days earlier when she took took of her children to Whitetail for a day of skiing and snowboarding.  Although she had never done either she first attempted snowboarding and wound up falling backward.  Even wearing a helmet, she said, she had never hit her head so hard. Also, her back was hurting from the fall.  Having decided that snowboarding was too difficult she switched over to skiing and promptly managed to fly over a berm on the side of the course, get airborne and wind up in some bushes.She tells me she waited until Friday to let me know that she was going to run.

We park, meet up with friends and board the bus that takes us to the start at Poole's Store, where River Road crosses Seneca Creek.  It seems like a long ride. But then again, it is a long ride.

Starting at Poole's Store makes the course about 0.6 mile shorter than in the previous year, when the race began at the old stone mill down Tschiffley Mill Road.  That's a nice concession, as the course is notoriously long, and even shortened still exceeds 50K.

The day is nearly perfect for running, a bit cool, partly sunny and no precipitation in the forecast. But snow earlier in the week, followed by some rising temperatures promises to make for some tricky footing.

But things go smoothly on the trail at the start. It's single track and Jennifer and I are toward the rear where there is plenty of walking as runners gradually sort themselves out by pace.  We pass some folks when we can and make way for others.

The trail is a bit snow covered but the footing is generally decent.  The steep slope at the crossing over the creek at Berryville Road is slick but we manage it without incident. From there we move along nicely.  While the trial has some snow on it and is chewed up a bit by the runners ahead of us, it is in surprisingly good shape.  Even the section south of Route 28 which is a bit low-lying does not have the mud that many of us feared.

Arriving at the Route 28 Aid Station I take off my outer shirt.  I've already shed my hat and gloves.  Spotting Meghan C. who is crewing for Michelle P. I ask her if she would be willing to take them so that I don't have to carry them.  She graciously agrees.

Approaching Black Rock Mill
(Photo by Dan DiFonzo)
Jennifer Runs at Black Rock Mill
 (Photo by Dan DiFonzo)
The stretch between Route 28 and Black Rock Mill goes up and down hill and the snow is now getting slushy and slippery.  Footing is getting tricky and one has to be careful especially on the downhills to not get out of control.

At Black Rock Mill we are directed onto the Seneca Ridge Trail.  It will take us up the hills to the west of Seneca Creek, promising drier footing than if we stay on the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail to the next aid station at Riffle Ford Road. On the other hand, it is a bit longer than the alternative.

As we go along we fall in with Tom G. an extraordinary runner with more than 170 ultras to his credit.  He and Jennifer trot along as I stop to use the, uh, facilities available to all ultrarunners, then to take some pictures.

They chat about home improvements as Tom does that kind of work and Jennifer is a one-woman work crew at her house.  She even took and passed the City of Rockville electrical test to do her own wiring.
Holiday skulls

Tom goes on and Jennifer and I settle into a pattern of running and walking but she is going slower than usual.  As we climb up a steep bank following a stream crossing she gives a yelp from pain emanating from her back.

Time for Drugs
She gives up more of the story how on Friday she had back pain, nausea and was "just not feeling right." Friday night she rummaged around in the medicine cabinet, and took some prescription medications (not her own) that relieved the pain and helped her sleep.  She tells me that her back has pain radiating from her posterior and that she is feeling not herself.  With that she reaches into her pocket and takes a Tylenol 3 for the pain.

After 20 minutes or so she asks me for a gel.  The Tylenol 3 is giving her stomach pains and she hope that the gel, something that she usually avoids, will settle it down.  Fortunately it does.

When we get to Riffle Ford Road there is no aid station even though there was supposed to be one.  I didn't fill my water bottle at the Route 28 aid station or even at the unofficial one at Black Rock Mill and now I'm out of water; never a good situation. Post-race inquires lead to no explanation as to why it wasn't there or why runners were not told that it would not be there.

Jennifer has a snack approaching Clopper Lake
The Tylenol 3 is starting to work as Jennifer is able to clown around to pretend to gnaw at a tree. But our pace is definitely slowing and I'm concerned that we won't make it to Clopper Lake by the cutoff to start the loop around the lake for the 50K.  It is announced as 11:30 a.m. and I get there right about then or a minute or two later with Jennifer a minute or two behind.

It is clear to me that Jennifer is suffering.  Normally she is excellent on uphills, but today she trudges up the hill to the lake.  Given the time I ask her if she wants to just do the marathon (in actuality, about 29 miles rather than 26.2).  But she insists that she has to do the 50K, both because she has arranged childcare for the day and for training for our upcoming 50 milers and the Black Hills 100K that we are doing on June 28.

So into the loop we go even though it is after 11:30.  The race has traditionally been fairly liberal with its rules and later we learn that because of the adverse footing, the cutoff has been extended to 12 noon.  By now the snow on the trail is pretty much gone and has been replaced with thick mud that alternately grabs at one's shoes or causes one to slip and slide.

Clopper Lake from the Dam after Circumnavigating it
Done with the loop we head toward the next aid station at Route 355.  Jennifer is pretty much plodding on, running some and walking a lot.  I am able to stop in order to send a tweet ("Done with Clopper and headed toward 355, mud, runoff and occasional ice making my hip a bit sore.") and easily catch up to her.

At the 355 aid station (mile 21), Rebecca and Gayatri are waiting.  They have decided to drop out and An is there to gather them up.  Despite her deteriorating condition there is no hesitation from Jennifer about going on.

By now the course is all mud. It is wet mud when the trail is near the creek, and wet mud when going uphill or downhill.  I embrace the day, tweeting at 1:36 p.m., "Past 355 at 21 miles. No longer bothered by the slop. Its kinda fun in a kids way."  In fact, given that the mud is unavoidable there really isn't anything to do about it.  Might as well enjoy it.
Sock adjustment

But Jennifer is beyond enjoyment.  She is pretty much reduced to walked.  Any attempt to run causes back pain. At one point I ask her how she is doing and her eyes well up.  I've never seen her lose her composure like that and it is frightening.

Furthermore, I'm convinced that she suffered a concussion two days earlier.  She said that when she fell it felt like someone hit her in the head with a baseball bat.  While she claims that she never passed out, she admits that she has no recollection of the fall. And she has been feeling nauseous and 'funny' Friday and now today.

Dirty Girl
A woman passes us with her back covered in mud.  She tell me that she has fallen twice.  She is not the only person we see who has had a close encounter with the ground. The lucky ones only have mud on them.  On others there is mud and blood.

We press on. Just past Watkins Mill Road she stops to get the mud out of her shoe.  A few miles further I will do likewise as even wearing gaiters the mud has worked its way into the shoes and made a ball under the arch of my foot.
Don poses in the mud before passing us
 for the final time

In a few hundred yards with both veer off the course in opposite directions to use the natural facilities.  Don, who has been leapfrogging with us, passes me and asks in surprise, "Why am I catching up with you again?"

Relentless forward progress
On we go and surprisingly, we somehow catch up with Don.  But it isn't for long and he passes us for a final time.

Death March
We clear the aid station at Brink Road.  We have about six miles to go.  By now Jennifer has given up any pretense of trying to run. It is a matter of perseverance now for her.  She says how she tells her children that just because something is hard you can't quit.  But this is different, I argue. You are in pain and taking drugs (by now she has taken another Tylenol 3).  There is nothing wrong with stopping when you are in pain and probably have a concussion I argue.  It is no use.  She is intent on going on.

In a couple of miles we come to the crossing of Seneca Creek. There are rocks to cross on, but the creek is up from the runoff and they are mostly at or below the surface.  There is a robe to hold onto to steady oneself, but it is generally slack.  We gingerly climb and slide down the slick bank to the crossing and I start across.  After a few steps the rope flops away from me, I lose my balance and both knees whack against the rocks. Cold water reaches tights, shorts and part of my shirt.

By now our pace has deteriorated that we are regularly being passed.  Appropriately, somewhere south of Watkins Road we smell death.  Somewhere nearby there is a decomposing carcass.  We don't see it but our noses pick up the unmistakable scent.  Since she is already nauseous it must be even worse for her.

The sun is getting low and the temperature is starting to fall.  I'm starting to get cold and my shirt and shorts have not fully dried.  

We cross Watkins Road and the volunteers there tell us how much further to the final aid station at Log House Road.  By now Jennifer's voice has changed.  When she talks it is in a disturbing monotone, devoid of any inflection. A little while later she says that her shoulders are getting hot.

And then she tells me that her eyes are pulling to the left.

Approaching Log Cabin Road with
less than 2 miles to go 
I spend the quarter mile before the Log House Road aid station trying to convince her to drop out there. I know that she won't but I've got to make the effort.  In her flat, affectless voice she insists that since she has gone this far she will go the remain 1.6 miles.  I can only tell her that I 'll continue to stay with her and that I have my phone if I need to dial 911.

On we walk. Finally the trail ends and we come out on the paved path in Damascus Recreational Park.  It is mostly uphill but at least the mud is over. Incredibly, as the finish line comes in sight, Jennifer insists that we run to it.  And so we do, crossing the line in 9:14. Astonishingly we are not DFL. Two runners finish 36 minutes behind us.

Jennifer tries the run the following week but her back continues to hurt. After another week she goes to the doctor.  He tells her no running for 4-6 weeks - she has a broken tailbone as a result of her snowboarding fall.

Later she admits to me that her memory was foggy in the days following her fall. "My boss told me he sent me emails to do things, but I had no recollection that I got them and opened them so I hadn't done what he asked," she said.

You decide: is this a tale of perseverance and true grit, or stubbornness and lack of adaptability?