Monday, April 25, 2016

Bull Run Run 50 Miler - April 9, 2016

"I don't think your heart was in it," Sandy says over our dinner of hot turkey sandwiches Saturday night. "You didn't seem as excited during the week as you usually are."

"Hmm," I verbally shrug. But maybe she was right.

The weeks leading up to my eighth Bull Run Run include a minor setback of not being able to assemble a team. The team competition is mostly for fun, but having won Team Championship blankets for being on the oldest and slowest teams in past races, it is always worth a go.  And it provides and incentive to push on when the going gets tough, as all four members of a team must finish or the team is disqualified.

Daily reviews of the changing weather forecast for the Saturday race keep my attention. While there is precipitation and cooler weather predicted for the end of the week, the precise timing changes with each day's forecast, sometimes calling for rain or even some snow on Thursday or Friday, sometimes pushing the precipitation into Saturday. Other forecasts call for clouds or even sun on Saturday.

On Saturday morning I'm up at 4:15. A trip outside to gather the newspapers and stow my gear in the car is greeted by chilly, but not frigid temperatures, but a light drizzle. Back inside I check the weather radar (isn't it remarkable that we take both that technology and the technology that delivers it to us as a matter of course?) and am heartened to see that it is not raining along Bull Run, about 24 miles to the southwest.

At 4:50 I pick up Mark and Gayatri at her house two blocks away and we drive to the start at Hemlock Regional Park.  Having two or more runners in the car merits us parking closer to the start/finish and we soon stash our drop bags in the covered pavilion by the aid station that we will return to at mile 16.6 before continuing south for the remaining 34 miles of the race.  In light of the weather I've put a complete change of clothes in my bag as well as towels to wipe off with and plastic bags to stash wet clothing.

We go to registration and pick up our bibs and race premiums.  With plenty of time and the car close at hand we stow the loot in the car.

Starting Off
I greet the legendary Tom Green at the start. Last year Tom invited me to join his team of Bull Run Run legends, and I was the last of the team to finish, but that was good enough to win the "Oldest Team" award, setting a record for oldest team ever. (See my report on the 2015 BRR.)  Nine days later Tom nearly lost his life when struck in the head by a rebounding tree limb.  Despite his traumatic brain injury, the first person to complete the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning has been entering ultras and other races and has returned to Bull Run Run as one of only two persons to have finished all 23 previous BRRs.  He loves the sport - and other runners love him - too much for him not to be there.

Crossing Popes Head Creek
Just before the 6:30 a.m. start it starts to rain lightly. A singer struggles a bit with the National Anthem but she finishes strong and we are soon off. I'm wearing tights, gloves, two long-sleeve shirts, a buff, hat and a lightweight jacket to fend off the weather.

The rain stops in a few minutes and I tie the jacket around my waist. The footing is good as the bit of rain overnight has eliminated any dust and provides a little softer surface without creating mud. And there wasn't so much rain to raise the stream crossings over the concrete stepping stones.I run along at a easy pace in the company of Stephanie. She's a much better pacer - and runner - than me and figure she'll help me keep from doing anything foolish early in the race.

Watch Where You Watch
We move along at a steady pace, walking the uphills and running easily on the downhills. Most of BRR is either uphill or downhill, so one does not need to worry about the flats.  We pass the earthen Civil War artillery emplacement.  In a bit we pass a large rock formation on the right.  I hear a rustling from that way and automatically look in the direction only to jerk my head back around to the left. I've seen way too much thigh and hip than is appropriate as a woman runner rises from her crouch.

The BRR website information cautions runners that there are no porta-potties on the course or at the aid stations (although there are rest rooms at Marina (miles 21 and 45). For males this is usually less of a problem (find a large tree, get on the side away from oncoming runners, lean in). Females have greater logistical issues. And no runner wants to waste precious moments going too far off the course to find an appropriate locale. So a rock outcropping blocking the view of oncoming runners was a good choice, betrayed only by the rustle of a running bib. And since the race instructions admonish  that "A non-entrant in the race should not see you relieve yourself" (emphasis added), the runner was not violating race rules.

Approaching Hemlock AS
(Photo by Kevin Sayers)
Not long afterward it begins to sleet.  I put my jacket back on. The white pellets bounce off my hat and jacket and after five or ten minutes the frozen precipitation ends. I glance at my watch. It's about 1:35 into the race and I'm still a way from the Centreville aid station.  I recall that I am usually either at or near the aid station by that time. A bit of doubt creeps into my mind.

 Soon a couple of the front runners come flying towards me, already miles ahead.  I had been expecting them and seeing them at that point was reassuring, as it is about where I have encountered them in years past.

Soon enough I arrive at the Centreville aid station (mile 7.2). After grabbing some cookies and Pringles and refilling my bottle, I'm quickly on my way.

Thru the bluebells, the best in many years.
I pull out my data-based pace card to see how I'm doing. the card consists of four columns: 12 and 13 hour paces, 12.5 hour pace and the cutoffs for reaching certain cutoffs as set by the rules.  The 12.5 hour pace column is based on my last four BRRs, at which I averaged 12:29. So that column reflects the times I've run at the race, not a theoretical pace. The other two columns are proportionally faster or slower but reflect the same real world experiences I've had in completing BRR.

I'm troubled that my time to Centreville is 1:44, two minutes behind the 13 hour pace. After walking a bit trying to tweet my progress and eat the cookies I endeavor to pick up the pace on the 2.2 mile flat section through the bluebells to the turnaround.  I'm slowed a bit picking my way over a small water crossing, electing for one wet foot rather than chancing a bigger slip. I get to the turnaround (mile 9.4) in 2:12. A glance at the pace card shows I'm now only a minute behind the 13 hour pace.

Tom Green at Centerville AS.
Bib #1 recognizes that no one had completed more BRRs.
Headed back I meet Stephanie still headed to the turnaround.  She tells me that she plans to drop when she gets back to Hemlock. That's not good news.

And then it begins to rain. Not a downpour but light and steady. The trail begins to get muddy and slick. And then the rain fades and is replaced by a light snow.  I climb up and down the hill leading back to the Centreville aid station.  Arriving I consult my watch and pace card. A time of 2:41 puts me 3 minutes behind my 13 hour pace, meaning I've lost two minutes on the return from the turnaround.  Then we hear the rumble of thunder as the snow drifts down. I refill my bottle, grab snacks, take a Succeed and head to the steps leading down to the trail.

Inspiration . . .
At the top of the steps I'm surprised and pleased to see Tom Green coming up the steps accompanied by his long-time friend Alan.  Tom is using trekking poles to help with his balance but even so he totters nearing the top and Alan and I both reach out to steady him.  Regardless, Tom is in his usual fine spirits.  No one has a more positive attitude than Tom, and it is undoubtedly a large part of the reason for his recovery from his injury. That pleasantry envelopes and conceals an indomitable will - a will that has brought him here to his 24th BRR, with no chance to finish but a desire to be part of the event.  I cannot tell you how he managed to cross the stream crossings that involve hopping or stepping from stone to stone, or getting across the rip-rap under the railroad bridge or under Route 28 or many of the other challenging parts of the course.  I don't know. But he did, and that's why he has arrived at the Centreville aid station. We greet each other and go our opposite ways.

More bluebells - even pink ones!
. . . Followed by Despair
The snow changes back to rain and the rain stays steady turning the trail into a sloppy, slippery and somewhat treacherous mess. I try to tweet my progress but the rain falls of my device as I type activating keys, making it appear as gibberish. It forces me to give up the message.

The slippery conditions force Tom to put caution ahead of persistence, and he drops 10 miles into the race - the only BRR he has not finished. Frank Probst, age 72, will finish in 12:49, becoming the last remaining runner to have finished all 24 BRRs - and the oldest.

I don't try to avoid the mud in the trough of the trail as the banked sides of the trail are slippery and it is better to plant a foot on level muddy ground than on slanted muddy ground.

I run along with a woman who tells me of a previous experience in running in mud and rain at a 100-miler in Massachusetts. That ended up with an ambulance ride to a local hospital, the result of a serious muscle injury to her hip.

In the meantime, I'll feeling that our pace is lagging due to the slow going in the mud, the cautious approaches to the slick downhills, the energy-sapping cold feet and shirts and a general malaise from the lack of pace.

We recross Popes Head Creek and head up the hill toward the Hemlock aid station at the start-finish area.  Runners have to climb this hill at the finish of the race, 35 miles and hours later, and the climb up it feels like it does when confronted at the end of the race.

It's Over
Getting to the aid station (mile 16.6) I look at my watch - 4:08. Then the pace card - I needed 3:50 for a 13 hour pace.  Even more troubling, I'm 31 minutes behind my average pace for this point in the race.

I go through the motions of changing my wet shirts, socks and shoes for dry ones even as my body starts to cool down. I eat a warm cheesy quesadilla. But I know that I've already decided that my day is over even as I pretend it isn't. No teammates are relying on me to finish.  I call Mark to see whether he plans to go on or drop.  He says he will continue and urges me to keep going.  I tell the volunteers that I'm planning to drop. "Run until someone tells you to stop!" they urge. A brief ember of interest flares inside, but the cold, another look at the pace card considering the additional 20 minutes or so that I've taken to eat, change clothes and contemplate a decision, the forecast for high winds in the afternoon and a feeling of weariness snuffs it out.

I walk to the scorers table, turn in my tear slip from my bib, and walk back to the aid station to greet Mark as he runs through. He'll stay 3-5 minutes ahead of the cutoffs the rest of the day and finish his ninth BRR in 12:54.

Gayatri comes in, drops and we carpool home. We both comment on how strange it is to be getting back from BRR at noon.

It was a tough day at BRR. No records were broken. In fact, the winning men's time was only the 23rd fastest time, and the winning women's time was 44th. Of 310 starters there were 258 official finishers under 13 hours, a finishers' rate of  83.2 percent.  This was the lowest finishing percentage since 2008 when the finishing rate was 81.9 percent. (That year had some mud but warm and humid conditions, although it  also produced a women's then-BRR record.)

Swag: Camp Chair, socks, koozie,wrist band, bib.
Not won; finisher's shirt.


  1. fine report & great photos, as always, Ken! - but you didn't mention the odd/even year issue ... ^z

  2. Nice report and summary of an interesting day. Sorry I couldn't have been with you. Ok, not really. :)