Monday, April 16, 2007


Bull Run Run Race Report

My alarm went off at something like three in the morning on the Saturday of 2007's Bull Run Run. This was fine. I'd barely been sleeping for most of the night. I'd broken from my usual pre-race pattern by packing my stuff the night before, leaving my primary anxiety for concerns about finding my way into Virginia and ending up in the right place. I'm relatively new to the area and good at getting lost. Especially in the dark.

And man, was it ever dark on Saturday morning. Dark! I've done a few 50Ks in the last several months in preparation for the Bull Run Run, and my general navigational strategy--these things are always way out in Virginia or Maryland--is to follow the personalized license plates and import cars to the start of the run. This strategy works suprisingly well. I don't often see plates that say "RUN100s" and the like, and when there's a bunch of them together, it's best to get out and trudge in the same way as everyone else until I see people in tights and dirty shoes.

So I knew I was in the right place when there were familiarly-dressed and friendly folks with flashlights leading me and my import car into a parking spot, and if that weren't enough, the people wearing funny clothes were also taking advantage of the darkness to trot into the trees. Conspicuous signs led me right to where I wanted to be, near the food and warmth. Bathrooms, people, heat, a place to sit down, indoors. The organizers of this race know exactly what they're doing. They've anticipated everything I need short of a jet pack. All I had to do now was sit and keep an eye on my watch. Maybe stretch a little bit.

In the very pleasant dining hall I watched people drink coffee and eat bagels and catch up with friends. I ran into a couple of guys I'd met on the HAT run a few weeks prior, Paul and Drew, a nephew and uncle team who had been a great lot of fun. These guys let me tag along, which was quite kind of them, and shared with me their "DFL" strategy for finishing the race. I must have made a funny face while trying to parse out this acronym--what does the democratic party have to do with running a successful race?--so Paul explained the "dead effing last" approach to running. Which made great sense to me. We also chatted with Pete, a fellow Potomac Runner I often see on the Mount Vernon trail and whom I had the pleasure of running with for much of the Eagle Run earlier this year.

Pete has a great story of last year's Bull Run Run, where he wiped out shortly before a planned rendezvous with his wife. He whacked up his forehead in the fall, leaving a shallow cut that bled through everything. He pleaded with the volunteers at the next aid station to wash off the blood so that his wife wouldn't see him looking like the battle wounded and pull him from the course and ultra running entirely. It worked. Little did she know.

I caught up with Pete after Saturday's race, and not only did he stay bleed-free this year, but he PR'd by an hour! He credited his performance to his family, who'd greeted him at a late aid station, giving him the strength he needed to finish strong. Way to go, Pete! Great job staying vertical when it really counted.

Eventually we followed the patchy stream of runners out to where the clock was. I wasn't really nervous, just excited. Saw lots of familiar faces from the other ultras and VHTRC events I'd done since December. I was as ready as I could have been, and even if I wasn't ready, well, it was too late to worry about that now. Shoes tied: Check. Water and gu: Check. Have to pee: Check. Wouldn't be the start of a race if I didn't.

Then we were off. No idea whether there was a gun or a shout or what, but on we went into the half-light. It was dry, it wasn't too cold, no one was pushing or shoving--perfect.

I'm more used to marathons, where you start to the holler of a politician and the echoes of someone singing the national anthem into a PA system. I really like the let's-git-r-done attitude of ultras. There's a sense of community at these things that's not really possible to replicate at 10,000+ entrant road races. Don't get me wrong--I love marathons and road races, particularly the huge ones where everyone makes me feels like a rock star.

But ultras are a lot more like a bar-b-que weekend at someone's cabin where I'm made to feel welcome among these many folks who've known each other for years. People pick up after themselves at ultras. Folks chat on the course and encourage each other. Aid station volunteers do anything and anything they can think of to make sure that I have a great day. Taking my water bottle, filling it with whatever I want, and then seeking me out to return it to me, cap replaced, filled to the brim with Mountain Dew. Care for olives and sardines with that, sir? Quesadilla? How 'bout an ice cream sandwich?

Much of the race sort of folds into itself in my recollection. I didn't start my watch when we began, mostly because my watch only counts minutes, not hours, and as such wouldn't really provide me with a whole lot of useful information. Occasionally I'd ask someone else what time it was, but too often that was the aforementioned Uncle Paul, who also hadn't started his stopwatch. So he'd look at his watch and say "We've only been running for eight minutes!" When in fact it was only 8.00 am. This is the sort of humor I came to expect on the course. You know. The "know what/chickenbutt" variety.

At the Hemlock aid station I was met by a coworker and her daughter. No, not just met--I was received. As soon as she caught sight of me, she hollered out my name, 'cause that's the kind of all-or-nothing person she is. Seeing Christine was very good. She's one of the folks who gives up her time just to enable the rest of us to have events like these. After a few fun pictures and some olives, I went on my way. Thanks, Christine! It was great to have a friendly face out there.

My next partner was a mother of at least two whose story of the day was her new shoes. (How on earth do people with families manage to train for these things? I'm single and I can barely find the time.) She said that she put them on in the morning and knew within the first step that she'd made a mistake. The collar of the shoes was hitting her ankle in the wrong way, causing a bruise that became worse with each step. Considering that the steps she had taken by that time were in the tens of thousands, I'm sure that the pain she was in dwarfed anything I thought I was experiencing. She and I had a great chat for a number of miles, but we lost track of each other after the marina aid station. Or maybe she just lost track of me, a move that wouldn't necessarily have been ill-advised. I tend to talk a lot when I run.

My discomfort at this point was mostly limited to the fourth toes on each of my feet, which felt like they were broken. I've linked this pain to lack of arch support. No idea how or why, but it has something to do with my high-arched rigid feet. My wandering thoughts schemed up ways of surgically or ballistically removing these toes. Remove the cause and you remove the effect, right? Toes hurt, therefore remove toes, and you remove the hurt. Right?

Somewhere in the Do loop I fell in with Krista, whom many may recognize from the theatrical knee wound she sported for most of the race. Man, did that thing ever look dramatic! "I cut myself and then fell in the water, so it's clean," she rationalized, which endeared her to me immediately. I love the logic we use when doing these sorts of runs. This wound really did look great. Here's a pic. I wouldn't have been surprised to see her step to the side of the trail to cauterize her cut, Rambo-style, and then continue as though nothing had happened.

While charging through the Do loop with ueber trooper Krista, I fell in with Fred, a fellow first-timer to the fifty miler. In these last few hours the fun really started. Up 'til then I'd been holding myself back a bit. I'd run too fast in all my training and knew that keeping a sane pace would be the most difficult part for me, but now knowing that I had only ten or fifteen miles to go, I could finally let it out and feel like I was actually racing rather than just treading water, waiting for the end to appear.

We ran damned near all of it, charging around trees and up the small hills, helping each other over the rocks next to the river, all that stuff. We probably dropped down to an 8.30 or 8.15 pace over the flats, which felt like the speed of light after doing most of the day at 10 and 11 minute miles. It felt grand. Tiring, but grand.

Past the bluebells and along the river and up the seemingly vertical final hill, I was feeling a bit exhausted, a little floaty, and really happy. The grass at the top of the final hill looked otherworldly. Hadn't been in a clearing like that since early in the morning, hadn't seen vegetation that wasn't a flower, bush or tree in at least as long. Then suddenly there's this expanse of muted green under the grey sky, and all we have to do is run through it. Things were getting weird. Or perhaps I was finally beginning to notice that things were getting weird. My legs weren't that tired, really, but my shoulders ached, my stomach felt a bit nasty, and my entire being was tired. Not like sleepy tired or I-need-to-stop-now tired, but a general feeling of being faded and worn, sort of dulled and beated down. It was a tired that centers in the chest and sucks energy from everything else, as though my chest were the center of a low-grade black hole.

With less than a mile to go, it having become clear that we would indeed finish this thing in spite of the distracting disappearance of energy, I suggested to Fred that we sprint the end. He was a bit incredulous and probably swore at me. If he didn't, he should have. I egged him on, saying things like "It'll be fun!" So with maybe a quarter mile to go he stepped it up, and I followed, thinking that I'd humor him, make him feel like he's doing fine, and I'd go easy, not unleash my kick.

Well, he bolted away from me in no time and my kick got unleashed to little noticeable effect. I ended up in his wake as we crossed the line. Without a doubt, the most fun I've had finishing a race.

We stood dumbly near the finish line for a little bit, and I had a jacket in my hand before I knew what was happening. Amazing organization at this race. Truly amazing. Went up to the dining hall to change and possibly get some food. We were both pretty famished at this point, or at least assumed that we were. Fred called his wife, who's a doctor, and who considers his hobby a senseless abuse of his health. He finished the conversation, looked at me and said, "I'm going to be under observation for the next 48 hours." I dug around in my bag to find that I'd brought no pants, no apples, and about a dozen non-matching socks. So much for packing the night before.

We returned to the finish to stand around in the rain for a while longer. It was notably chillier, but now there was pizza and coke and Lord knows what else for the eating. I picked up my finisher's pin that will go to my mom; a while ago I realized that I have far more race shirts and geegaws than I'll ever need, so the swag I now get goes to my mom. I can't say whether she's the only woman in her exercise classes with marathon shirts, but I can say that there's no one more proud to wear them.

Pizza in hand, I greeted folks I'd seen on the course and met up with Fred's friends, all of whom had finished well. One lived only a short distance from me in DC and I look forward to running with her in the future; another grew up very near where I did in Minnesota, and I look forward to having midwestern-expat conversations with her in long runs to come.

Thanks a million times over to the VHTRC, its many volunteers, and its many many supporters for putting on this event and doing it so well. This ultrarunning stuff is where it's at. Thanks for making it so much fun, everyone.

Hey, thanks for the comment, dude. No, haven't dated any librarians...just seem to date lots of geeks. Not that that's a bad thing, geeks tend to be smart and smart is definitely sexy...but I am starting to get a bit of a reputation for it. Not sure THAT is a good thing.

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