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2009 Bull Run Run 50 Miler

report by Ken Swab

Hands and Knees

The pale greenish-yellow liquid vomit is strangely reassuring. At least there is no blood or clumps of what could be stomach lining, I think to myself.

I’m on my hands and knees next to a tree log about 46 miles into the Bull Run Run 50 Miler, with about 4.5 miles to go. I had sat on the log in an effort to rest and gauge whether I would have enough strength to go on, or enough sense to go back to the soccer fields I had just passed to ask someone to call 911 for me. But first I slid off the log to sit on the ground and stretch my legs out, then became nauseous and after a few dry heaves, emptied my stomach of the lime green Gatorade that I had been drinking. Now all the fingers of both hands were tingling and I was getting the chills, but a run thru the checklist for orientation (President? Obama. Day and date? Saturday, April 18. Name? Ken.) hinted that I wasn’t yet out of it. And while I was thinking that I might be dehydrated, I had just stopped to successfully use a Porta-potty.

While a number of runners asked if I was OK, finally Ken Seale of Bernville, PA stopped. Not able to get a pulse on my wrist he checked my ceratoid artery and declared it regular. “If you want to go on, I won’t leave you,” he declared, “but you have to agree to do the same if you are ever in the same position for someone.” I’ve got a decision to make.

Beginnings

The Bull Run Run 50 Miler is a challenging but attractive race that travels along the Virginia stream of the same name. It covers ground with fields of bluebells, Civil War battlefields, 18th century roads, stream crossings and hills. Unlike the JFK 50 miler, where only about 11 miles are on trails, virtually every step of BRR is on a trail where there is no easy way out if something goes bad. JFK is the kiddie version of a 50 miler compared to BRR.

My 29 year-old cousin Peter had contacted me and said he was going to come down from Pittsburgh to run BRR as his first 50 miler and as a training run for the Laurel Highlands 70 miler in June. Without giving it too much thought, I immediately signed up, figuring my two JFKs had given me enough experience with 50 milers to give it a try.

I prepared by running the George Washington Birthday Marathon in February and the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K in March, and then ramped up my weekly mileage leading up to BRR, including for me, two unusually high weeks of 40 miles.

Peter arrived at my house on Friday, before the race. I gave him all the secondhand knowledge of the course that I had, having never set foot on an inch of it myself, we had dinner, and then off to bed to get up at 4:15 a.m. for our drive to the start.

Bluebells

The forecast calls for warm weather and for preparation I get a pair of Succeed capsules from Peter and pack some sports beans in my pockets as well as take my hand-held bottle of Gatorade. Normally I don’t use the tablets or the beans but the high temperatures call for caution to stay hydrated, to keep up the energy and to replenish electrolytes.

The race starts promptly at 6:30 a.m. and the 314 starters are quickly spread out through the parking lot before entering onto the trail for the first out and back through the relatively flat first 17 miles of the race. I run a bit with Mark Z. and Kate A. through the first section of bluebells but expect them to be faster than me, and sure enough they pull away. It is a bit of a relief because I know that I am a bad pacer who ‘runs like a dog’ as I describe it. That is, a dog will run and run with its companion until it falls over dead, not having enough sense to slow down. Or as CM calls it, ‘fly and die.’

Peter is much faster – being exactly half my age is a big advantage – and I see him on his way back from the turnaround in the fields of bluebells, already about a mile ahead after I have gone 9 miles.

Somewhere after passing thru the Centreville Road aid station on the way back I catch up with Mark and Kate. While I continue to urge them to run faster and away from me so that I won’t be tempted to try to stay with them, either they don’t or I don’t let them and we run on together.

In fact, we are having an excellent day. Kate’s plan is to finish in about 11:30 or faster. My goal is slower, 12:00 or 12:30 and I have a pace card with columns for both times. And we make ever increasing progress below 12:00. A third of the way thru the race we are 19 minutes to the good, then 22 minutes at 21 miles and we lengthen it out to 29 minutes under 12 hours by 26 miles. Even by the aid station at 38, we are still 25 minutes ahead of 12 hours.

The course is hilly but scenic. We walk the uphills and steeper downhills, and run the gentle downhills and the flats. The aid station food is good, with not only the usual candy, cookies and boiled potatoes, but the occasional ice cream sandwich, Freezee pop, and even Creemcicles. Mark recites Shelley's ‘Ozymandias.’ We pass two rusting auto hulks in the woods, and speculate as to what they are – a Studebaker and a Ford perhaps? None of us are sure. Around mile 34 Kate complains of blisters on her foot and we stop so that she can lube them up. I take the opportunity to take what seems like a pebble or two from the front of one of my shoes only to discover no pebble but that I worn or torn two holes in the sock in front of my toes.

Coming into the second visit to the Fountainhead aid station at mile 38 I‘m feeling really good, and as it is a gentle downhill, so I actually run on ahead of Mark and Kate. Mark McKennett is there having his head massaged with ice as he is feeling some effects of the temperatures that will reach 80 degrees. The person massaging his head is only working on the bald sections of his scalp, as he has had his barber sculpt his hair to read ‘BRR 50.’ I take my time at the aid station and the two Marks, Kate and I leave together.

Our pace is slowing a bit and we make the playing-card themed aid station at Wolf Run Shoals at mile 40 only 19 minutes ahead of the 12 hour pace.

I’m OK for the next two miles and keep up with the other three, but then the uphills start to greatly sap my strength. I can no longer walk up them, but I need to stop and rest several times on each one and the three disappear over the crest. I take my time and reach the final aid station at the Marina where I sit down and rest for 5 minutes. Oddly enough, I’ve only given back 2 minutes toward a 12 hour finish, and am still 17 minutes to the good. Mark McKennett is there. I drink some water and an aid station volunteer brings me a paper towel soaked in cold water that I put on my head. I ask Mark if he is ready to go on, and we head out, walking, with a pair of other guys for the final 5.5 miles. But even their pace is too much for me, and I’m soon walking alone. In about a mile I’m on my hands and knees by the log.

Finish

Maybe it was because my hands had stopping tingling, or the vomiting made me feel better, or maybe just because someone was offering to help a stranger, I made a decision. ‘OK,’ I said as I got to my feet, ‘I’ll give it a try.’

The next four miles were not easy. We stopped to gather our strength on the hills. Ken would sometimes walk ahead, as I was going slower and slower, but he would stop and wait for me. At one point I had to stop and sit for a couple of minutes. I took small sips on my Gatorade, and because it tasted better, Ken gave me sips of water from his camelback. Along Bull Run there were several rocky stretches that I had to climb over using my hands for balance.

And then we came to the end of the trail along Bull Run and had to turn to go up the hill to the finish. I had to stop over and over again. Finally, about three quarters of the way up a wave of nausea crept up on me. Down on my hands and knees again, dry heaving and then retching up what small amount of Gatorade and water was left in my stomach. And then I knew I could finish.

Ken and I walked until we got within sight of the finish line. ‘Do you feel like you can run it in?’ he asked. ‘Yeah’ I said, ‘but not yet.’ With about 20 yards to go we ran. I told Ken he should finish ahead of me but he insisted that we finish together. It took me 2:15 to go the last 5.5 miles to finish in 12:39.

Mark and Kate kept up their steady pace to finish 21 minutes under 12 hours. Mark McKennett was 28 minutes faster than me over the last 5.5 miles to finish in 12:11. And cousin Peter, who also had a rough last 5.5 miles finished in 11:08.

Epilogue

I am barely able to walk to a bench to sit down, and quickly lay down. I can’t quite catch my breath. My ears are stuffed. I have the chills. Peter gets me a hamburger and a root beer, and I can only nibble of the former and sip the latter. I give Peter the keys and he gets the car to drive us home. I only begin to warm up when I’m sitting in the car with a space blanket over me. Sandy asks why I’m yelling when get in the house and explain that because of my ears, I can’t hear myself. The scale at home says I dropped nine pounds. But for all that, I finished and have the shirt to prove it.

Somewhere, sometime in the future there is someone who I will help get to the finish when they don’t think they can. It may be someone I know, or a stranger, but Ken Seale sacrificed for me, a total stranger, and I have a promise to repay.

--- Ken Swab - 2009-04-20 ---

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