By the time I remember to sign up for Bull Run Run 50 Miler entry lottery this year it had already closed. Fortunately I am able to get on the wait list, although without the priority that being on it from having lost the lottery would have provided. For the fourth consecutive year fewer people try to enter the race and I move quickly onto the entrants list as people withdraw.
Two weeks before the race legendary ultrarunner (and all-round universally acclaimed nice guy) Tom Green asks me to join his team in an effort to win the oldest team award. "You won't have to do anything except finish the run under 13 hours," Tom cheerily assures me.
I agree to be on the team and then find out that it consists of some of the legends of the BRR: 71 year-old Frank Probst, who has finished 22 BRRs; 68 year-old Bob Anderson with 16 BRR finishes; and 64 year-old Tom, who is the only other person besides Frank to have finished all 22 BRRs. Tom is a few months older than me, making me the baby on the team Huffin and Puffins. And the least experienced with only six BRR finishes. The team is a total of 267 years old, easily 30 or 40 years older than the next oldest team. We'll win if I can finish, because I know that the other three will finish.
The last few BRRs have been a bit of a struggle for me, I've averaged 12:30 in the last three BRRs (12:34, 12:09, 12:47). I ran some with Tom last year and had to tell him to go on as I stopped on the final hill to empty my stomach - twice. So he knows that this is not an easy race for me. Still, he has enough confidence in me to ask that I join this team of legends. Nevertheless, I feel pressure. I can't let the legends down.
Three of These Four Are Legends
(Pick the one that does not belong)
(Pick the one that does not belong)
(photo by Beni Hawkins)
|23-time finisher |
(photo by Beni Hawkins)
(photo by Beni Hawkins)
(photo by Beni Hawkins)
Little Big Data
I have aid station split times for five of my six previous Bull Runs. I ran the 2010 and 2011 BRRs in 11:16 and 11:34 and the 2012-14 BRRs in times ranging from 12:09 to 12:47, averaging 12:30. I figure that the last three are more representative of what I am likely to run today, so I construct a pace card based on those three performances. When I use the data to extrapolate for a column at 12:45 pace, the last two segments covering the final 10 miles, produces a 13:16 finish, well over the 13 hour cutoff. The only thing I can do is manually increase the pace for those two segments and rename the column the 13 hour pace column. In short, I have no room for error if I want to support the Huffin and Puffins.
Been Here Before
Mark shows up promptly at my house at 450 a.m. and we are quickly on our way for the 40 minute drive to Hemlock Overlook for the race. We stop at Seven-Eleven to pick up a cup of tea, park in the preferred carpool area, pick up our bibs and race swag, place our drop bags in the area for them and chat with old friends.
I run into Tom Green and he tells me that he plans to start off quickly to avoid the early bottlenecks where the back of the pack has to wait for those ahead of them to clear stream crossings or rocky stretches. (I'll only see Tom once on the course today, as he heads back from the turnaround in the bluebells while I'm still headed toward it. He finishes in 11:38, more than an hour faster than last year.)
A bugler plays a martial air, someone sings the National Anthem and the race is off at 630 a.m. with a thin cloud cover failing to hide a waning moon with moderate temperatures.
|Not too many bluebells this year.|
The Tyranny of the Pace Card
I get to the first aid station at Centerville Road (mile 7.2) in 1:39, about midway between the 12:30 pace and the 12:45 (now marked 13 hour) pace. That pacing repeats itself at the turnaround in the bluebells (mile 9.4) and back at Centerville Road (mile 11.6) even though my left foot sinks eight inches (that's about two inches above the ankle) into mud at one point. fortunately I don't lose my shoe. It repeats at all twelve aid stations through Marina at mile 44.9. Keep it up and I'll be in good shape. But if something goes amiss there is little margin for error.
Vegan Cheesecake and OK Cupid; or Love on the Trail
On the return from Centerville Road to Hemlock I run with a couple. She tells me that they met while at a previous BRR while pacing a friend. He was running and a mutual friend introduced them, thinking that as fellow vegans and runners them might have a certain degree of compatibility, which, it turns out, they did.
I note that I have recently attended two weddings where the parties had met via match.com. She had tried OKCupid,com but the only men she met were older and, she thought, more interested in hook-ups than serious relationships. Maybe it was a Washington area problem, she speculated, in that people were more interested in their careers than their personal life.
I mention the abomination of vegan cheesecake that was on an Easter buffet that we attended. Seriously, what is the point of omitting the cheese from the cheesecake? It's called cheesecake for a very good reason - an accurate description of what it is. You want tofu cake? Fine, just don't mislabel it as cheesecake. I'll report you to the FDA or USDA, or whoever is responsible for proper food labeling.
She tells me that not only is vegan cheesecake tasty, but that there will be some at the post-race food. Further she describes how it is often made with almond? walnut? flour. I agree to try some when I finish. Unfortunately there was none left by the time I did.
|BRR is a no sitting race.|
We run along together and Frank tells me how he brought a handsaw out to the trail earlier in the year to clear a fallen tree. He didn't want another notable BRR character, Gary Knipling, to have to lug his chainsaw that far. (Gary is also 71 and will finish his 19th BRR in 11:45 today.) He points out the tree to me and says that it took him three hours to saw it and then he asked some passing hikers to help him roll the cut log out of the way.
Goodbye . . .
I gradually pull away from Frank. This is a great relief to me as it means that if I can stay ahead of him, I'm pretty much assured of making the 13 hour cutoff. Furthermore, I can see Mark in the near distance. If I can catch and keep up with him that will be another bit of assurance of finishing.
Leaving Fountainhead AS and heading into the White Loop I steadily gain on him. The loquacious Mark is chatting with another runner and as they hook around one of the switchbacks I warn the other fellow, "Be careful, he's paid by the word!"
|Spiderman, me and Batman in the Do Loop.|
One of these three is not a superhero.
(Photo by Mark Zimmermann)
After running the relatively short - and inevitable up-and-down - path to the loop proper, we get to enjoy the wide, smooth, gradual downhill that takes us to where we have views of the boathouse on the Occoquan and the many boats on the water for a crew regatta. Entering the Do Loop proper provides a psychological boost because it means that one will no longer see runners headed in-bound while you are still headed outbound.
Then it is back to up-and-downs for the return to the Do Loop AS. Mark mentions that he is feeling a bit tired from his 75-mile effort two weeks earlier at the Umstead 100 (cut short by blisters). We are joined by Mike E. who finished Umstead in a nice sub-24 hour performance. Mike's back is bothering him a bit. I mention that I'm feeling a bit light-headed or otherwise not quite right but that it feels better when running than walking.
Leave the Weak for the Hyenas
Back at the Do Loop I remember to get an ice pop for the return. I look around for Mark and don't see him. Seeing me searching, the runner we had been with in the White Loop says, "Your friend is up ahead, He took off. He said something about being concerned that you might not be feeling that you could finish." I look down the trail and can see Mark, but he is well along. It is the last I will see of him until the finish. (He later apologizes for going off with an adieu, explaining that he was simply trying to not lose too much time in aid stations. He also buys me a hot dog and drink at Seven Eleven on the way home.)
I feel a bit like the weak and elderly in the herds of antelope in Africa. If you can't stay with the herd you get left behind. Without the strength of the herd you are easy pickings for the predators that lurk to pick-off the defenseless, solitary creature on the long journey.
But at least I'm still ahead of Frank! So long as I can do that I'm safe.
. . . and Hello and Goodbye
Headed up the long hill back to the Wolf Run AS I'm greeted by an overtaking runner. It's Frank! He tells me that he started to feel much better in the Do Loop. That's obvious as he strides past me, restocks at the aid station and steadily pulls away.
I'm back to being on my own again. The only question is whether the hyenas and lions lie in wait over the last ten miles. In prior years they often have.
Intel is Important
As Frank disappears into the distance (at the age of 71, he'll finish in 12:21, 34 minutes faster than last year) I leave the superhero-themed Wolf Run Shoals AS (mile 39.9) in the company of two other runners. Ray lives in Manassas and frequently runs this portion of the trail. He provides valuable information about how far it is to the Marina AS (mile 44.9) based on the trail's mile posts.
And then he let's us in on a secret: the miles are "compressed," that is they are less than a mile apart. This is psychologically encouraging in that it means we don't have to run as far as we have been led to believe, but it is also irrelevant. Time is what matters, not distance, and the cutoffs and the pace card, the damn pace card, measurer of how long it takes to travel from one fixed point to another, regardless of the absolute meters, miles, kilometers or yards between them, has taken distance into account and transformed it into time. The cutoff of 11:30 at Marina and 13:00 at the finish means that there is 90 minutes between them, not 5.5 miles as the official distance says or 5.09 miles as Ray says. The time matters, not the distance.
To the End
In recent years I have never been able to run between the final aid station at Marina and the finish in less than 90 minutes. So beating the 11:30 cutoff at Marina will not be enough to finish in under 13 hours. Get there in 11:15 is cutting it close but is doable. Faster is better.
I get to Marina in 10:54. It's a huge relief. More than two hours remain and that means I can walk it in if need be. I do walk a fair amount with Ray but finally decide to push on a bit. I'm doing fine, I try to be careful on the rocky stretches. But crossing a small rocky stream my left foot slips and goes into the water and as I try to step out and over a large flat rock my left shin scrapes against it, I loose my balance, my left knee bangs down and I tumble to the ground winding up on my back. No great harm: a sore right palm, a superficially bloody left knee and a few inches of scraped left shin, with a bit of dirt for a dressing.
Another mile or so then up the final hill toward Hemlock. I go slowly, not wanting to trigger muscle memory (or more accurately, stomach memory) of the times and places I've vomited here in BRRs gone by. And I succeed. Walk a bit more, than run to the finish where I cross the line in 12:30, having made up nine minutes on the pace card.
|Tom and I with the Team Champion blankets.|
(Photo by Caroline Williams)
|Swag: Bag, Buff, Hat and Bib|
atop a BRR Team Champion Blanket