"Gary, you're running with twice as many lovely young ladies as I am!" That's what I'm trying to figure out how to say, politely yet humorously, when Gary Knipling saves me the trouble by making the observation himself. He's got a huge twinkle in his eye, as he so often does. "Well," I parry, "you're far more mature than I am; maybe when I'm your age...".
It's a lovely spring morning on the Bull Run Trail. Friend Kate Abbott and I are playing hooky from work and enjoying an area-familiarization trek before we attempt the BRR 50 miler here on April 18. Hardly anybody else is out this Tuesday, so we're rather startled to bump into Gary, Holly Franz, and Johanna Lockner. We're ~10 miles into our journey. Gary is showing Holly and Jo the course as prep for their first 50 miler. Kate met them previously at a VHTRC run on New Year's Day. Gary confirms that he's doing the Massautten Mountain 100 miler in May. I salute him.
Gary tells us that their cars are parked at the Fountainhead lot a few miles ahead. "And is your key on top of a rear tire?" I ask. "And do you have beer in a cooler?" Since it's a state park Gary can't confess to the alcohol, but he admits that I'm right about the key. He invites Kate and me to partake of unspecified "liquid refreshment". I promise to fill the gas tank when I take his car out joy-riding. After more such banter we wish one another well and trot onward.
Today's run goes well. Both Kate and I have "adrenaline moments" as we stumble over rocks or roots, but neither of us falls. We feel no significant blisters, no major joint pain, and no precipitous drop in energy level—only minor tightnesses and twinges. If the BRR race is this smooth we won't be happy campers, we'll be ecstatic ones. After meeting Gary and the gals we proceed downstream to Fountainhead. I refill my bottles at the water fountain; Kate buys a soda from the vending machine. We take the White Loop, a two-mile well-blazed trail, and except for getting wet feet at a water crossing can't complain.
Then the real fun begins. Last August Mary Ewell and I found ourselves lost in the woods near Fountainhead while trying to locate the infamous "Do Loop". Today it's Kate's turn to get befuddled with me in the labyrinth of mountain bike paths near the shore of the Occoquan.
Fortunately, as I so often say, it all turns out OK. Our wrong turn happens after we pass two little women riding big horses along the blue-blazed track. They're putting up ribbons to mark the path for a trail ride this weekend. Kate and I proceed onward, but at a dirt road the signs confuse us. They say "Horses Only", and we read them literally. The correct interpretation is "No Bicycles". We zig-zag onto a red-blazed mountain bike path, "Loop 5".
After a mile of jogging and a climb up "Lungbuster Hill" we transition into Loop 4 and tour another peninsula of land. It takes us up "Holy Grail Hill" to Loop 3 and then Loop 2 with "Woodpecker Hill", "Daytona Curve", "Skunk Ascent", and other romantically-named steep features. A sign that says "Parking Lot" gives us hope that deliverance is near. Alas, it doesn't say how near. Heretofore we haven't seen another soul for almost an hour, unless brilliantly-hued butterflies have souls. I test a teeter-totter designed for bikers by walking along it, and it indeed tips abruptly for me.
So Kate and I continue with guarded optimism. A mile later as our route nears the water we see a boat with fishermen and glimpse in the distance what look like docks. Another mile and we're passed by two mountain cyclists and meet a fast trail runner. We emerge at the main Fountainhead parking lot. Whew!
Now it's time to really refuel. Kate leads me down the road to the Fountainhead waterfront, where I've never been before. The bait shop snack bar appears to be open, but nobody comes to the window when we ring the bell. After some dithering, desperation drives us to open the "Employees Only" door. We leave money on the counter, plus a few dollars extra for a tip, and pick up candy bars, salty chips, and drinks. As we're noshing at a nearby table the attendant returns and blesses our initiative. He identifies a feather I found as a barred owl's, and tells us about birds and snakes of the area. Then it's time for us to head out.
The return trip continues the delightful day. Daffodils and bluebells at trailside that were mere buds this morning have opened into lovely flowers in the afternoon warmth. Kate finds a brilliant blue feather and picks it up. Dog-walkers introduce their exuberant puppies to us. An energetic elderly trail worker asks if we have a minute. We stop and help him carry a big log halfway up a hill for him to install as an erosion barrier-step. "This is our cross-training!" I note. Hash-harrier flour markings that we saw on the ground half a dozen hours ago are now partly scuffed out from passing traffic. Geese march across the soccer fields near the Marina.
At a major road crossing Race Director Anstr Davidson has asked Kate to check out the new course, which leads across a jumble of small sharp-cornered boulders under the bridge. It seems rather risky to us at mile 5 in the morning, but at mile 27+ in the afternoon the passage goes much easier. Perhaps it's because now there's a flock of high school kids nearby, a crew team out training on the water. Girls are doing hillwork, running up the steep street. "Kate, I feel an urge to chase them," I whisper. "Please stop me!"
We press onward, and now it's Kate's turn as we pass a dozen buff boys working out on exercise machines. "Pssst! They're looking at you!" I tell her. We straighten up and run faster until we're out of sight from the youngsters.
Both Kate and I feel surprisingly strong now. We trot the final five miles in comfort, mutually amazed. After 8.5 hours we tag Kate's car in the Hemlock Overlook parking lot and I stop my watch. Kate's GPS has run out of power and shut down, but allowing for ~45 minutes of breaks along the way we estimate our pace at ~14 min/mile. If we can do this on race day ...