Bull Run Run 2008

At mile 20 Caren and I stop running to examine a handful of feathers scattered on the ground. They're iridescent blue on one edge, black on the other, and white at the end. Has a bluejay met an untimely end? No time to look for further evidence of the crime — our own doom is looming if we don't make the next cutoff!

^z Jinx

It's a hot hot day on the trail, 12 April 2008, and my good friends Wayne Carson, Caren Jew, and I are trying to do the Bull Run Run 50 miler. BRR is on the bleeding edge of our capabilities, and today the temperature is a crushing 10°F above normal, the humidity is high, and the course adds patches of mud to its normal repertoire of treacherous tree roots and ankle-twisting rocks.

Beyond all that, there's the ^z50 whammy. No one who tries to run a fifty miler with me ever finishes it!

Alas, today the tragic ^z50 curse continues. Wayne, Caren, and I begin the BRR together. Wayne slips, strains a calf muscle, and punches out at mile 17. Caren hangs in there until mile 25 when the heat starts to sap her energy. We confer; she orders me to press ahead while she continues at her own pace. Three miles later she makes the official cutoff but only by a hair. She wisely decides to retire from the field to battle Bull Run another day.

Warm Up

Wayne Carson, ^z, and Caren Jew before BRR 2008; photo by Aaron Schwartzbard

Rewind to 4:15am, as I park my car at the Davis Library and join Caren and Michele McLeod for the ride to Hemlock Regional Park near Clifton in northern Virginia. Wayne follows us there in his own car. The trip is uneventful; we arrive at 5am, pick up our race packets, and settle down to await the dawn. We ask ourselves why we're doing this. We're joking (I think!). As runners arrive the noise level rises.

It's already clear the day is going to be a warm one. I recheck my fanny pack and load it with electrolyte capsules and energy gels, then drink up my extra Gatorade. No need to carry spare layers in case of chill; all excess clothes go into a bag to be left behind. At last it's time to begin: we straggle out and arrange ourselves at the back of the pack. There are 310 starters. Shortly after 6:30am we're off.

"We're just doing a warm-up for the London Marathon tomorrow!" I tell spectators who applaud as we go by. Within the first 100 meters of the course I spy two dropped gel packets on the ground. I pause to pick them up, carry them for the next few hours, then suck down the salty-sweet paste.

After a loop around the campground to spread out the crowd we enter the real trail. Now we're glad that we hung back: most of the traffic jams have cleared at the rocky, narrow spots and we scarcely have to pause. Soon we reach Bull Run itself and turn upstream.

Caren and ^z tripping down the trail at BRR 2008; photo by Aaron Schwartzbard

Swimming Through the Bluebells

A warm winter and recent showers have brought seas of flowers into bloom in the lowlands here. The rain has also left the path damp, but not nearly as swampy as in some past years. Although the water level is elevated we cross large tributary streams via big stepping-stones that keep our toes dry. Wooden footbridges areas sway and bounce; some are coated with mud that makes them slippery-scary.

As we progress, generally northward according to my mental map, I suddenly see the rising sun on our left, not our right. Whoa! Have we somehow gotten turned around? My disorientation amuses Caren, but we soon figure out that Bull Run is meandering here and the trail actually does curve south for a spell.

After about eight miles my singlet is sweat-soaked and starting to chafe me in delicate portions of the upper male anatomy. I apologize to all in the vicinity and take it off, wrap it around my hand, and enjoy a slight cooling effect from the sporadic breezes.

Wayne goes on ahead as I sit for a moment on a park bench to await Caren. We approach VHTRC webmaster Anstr Davidson, who snaps our photo at the northern end of the course while I try to suck in my flabby stomach. We make the turnaround at mile 9.4 perfectly on pace, a few minutes under 4 mph.

^z and Caren at the northern turnaround of BRR 2008; photo by Anstr Davidson

During the return trip we catch up with Carolyn Gernand, whom I ran with a few years ago along Seneca Creek on an icy February morning (cf. Ice Fangs, 2005-02-06). We chat about the trail and commiserate about the heat today. After the race Carolyn writes me to ask what technology I use to govern my speed — a GPS unit?

"Mr. Natural don't need no stinkin' time/distance/pace units!" I reply. All I carry is a low-tech little chart pinned to my shorts. It's a table of the aid stations and how long it takes to reach them at 15 min/mi. The chart also shows cutoffs and my times from BRR'07, for comparison and planning.

Carolyn now slows, so Caren and I wish her well and begin the steep climb back to Hemlock Overlook where the course folds back on itself at mile 16.6. We catch up here with Wayne, who is suffering and debating the cost/benefit ratio of dropping. He shows us his mud-coated legs and explains his fall; we encourage him to pause to recover a bit before deciding.

At Hemlock Overlook we do Caren's efficient 60-second drill: refill bottles, grab food, and trot on. My hands are too weak to open a gel packet so I pause, tear at it frenziedly with my teeth, and finally get it open at the trailhead. I catch up with Caren and Angelo Witten partway down the hill.

PoMo on the Run

Angelo is a friend from the Montgomery County Road Runners Club whom I last saw at the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50k last month. There, with Caren miles ahead of us, we talked about economics as we climbed the steep hills. Today, we amuse Caren by debating PostModernism and Moral Relativism. (My understanding of both is infinitesimal, but that doesn't stop me!) When I discover Angelo's position I start calling him a "Stinkin' Relativist". At this point both of us are equally sweaty and in need of a bath.

I explain that I studied gravity and stars in college, and so consider myself half-relativist and half-astrophysicist. It's a pun/joke so weak that I have to explain it, after which I'm still the only one chuckling. I offer Caren and Angelo mercifully-brief lectures on quantum mechanics, cosmology, and similar arcana. When Angelo confesses to having attended law school I try to quote from Hamlet, without much success. (The lines I half-remembered are Hamlet's, after he sees a gravedigger turn up another skull: "... why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? ...")

At mile 21.1, the Bull Run Marina aid station, we restock and zoom onward. After crossing Old Yates Ford Road I bang my knee climbing over the guardrail — fortunately my worst injury of the day. A firing range nearby entertains us with fusillades as though the actual Battle of Bull Run is happening. Intermittent rainshowers patter down on the dry leaves, all too briefly to cool us.

Ultra Hydration

A few miles down the trail we pass the halfway point of the course. Caren's pace has begun to slip; I suspect possible electrolyte loss and incipient dehydration. Before the race we've agreed, as per Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark, that when we're on the course "What I tell you three times is true." We caucus and Caren insists thrice that I go on ahead. With deep regret I bid her good-bye and trek onward. It's a rough day. We later discover that one out of every seven starters this year won't make it to the finish line.

Caren's advice remains my watchword as I continue to spend less than 60 seconds at each aid station. The hot weather demands aggressive countermeasures. On every half hour mark I swallow a Succeed! electrolyte capsule, and on the hours I suck down a sodium-rich energy gel. I eat boiled potatoes coated with salt whenever I see them and also grab handfuls of salty potato chips to nibble along the way. The result is loud ringing sound (tinnitus) in my ears after 30 miles. My fingers swell up like small sausages. Blisters develop on my feet. I've had my shirt off since the second hour.

a tired ^z at Wolf Run Shoals in the latter half of the BRR 2008; photo by Aaron Schwartzbard

But it's still All Good, as Caren likes to say. (Ultrarunners have a different definition of "good" than normal people, eh?!) I keep moving along and actually feel stronger for a while. Yesterday I did my income taxes. Today, by comparison, is quite comfortable.

Sound Track

At the Fountainhead aid station I meet Tim Stanley, one of four people who have finished every Bull Run Run since the race began 15 years ago. The course loops back through Fountainhead during its return to the start/finish, so Tim is almost 10 miles in front of me. His beard is as long as mine, but far less gray. We pose for photos as "ZZ Top".

Now I enter the White Loop, a down-and-up horse trail, followed by the Do Loop at the southernmost end of the course. A course marshall advises me, "Run the downhills!" and I comply. I start to feel good and pass several flagging runners. One of them is starting to cramp and accepts my offer of a Succeed! salt capsule. Alas, their names have faded — Brian? Ron? Bill?

What I do remember, however, are the songs that are playing in my head. The chorus of "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode is on heavy rotation, for unknown reasons. I try to drive it out with "Brown Girl in the Ring" (Boney M) but it wins. Occasionally "Touch of Grey" and "No Rain" surface, then recede.

I've been worried about a meltdown, but when I get back to Fountainhead (mile 37.9) and make the cutoff by more than a dozen minutes, I start to get confident that I can (probably!) finish the race today. The ringing in my ears and the swelling in my fingers seems to have stabilized. The blisters on my heels are aching, but not enough to stop me; the blisters on the balls of my feet feel delicate but I run carefully and try not to break them. I dip my shirt in ice water at the aid stations and wear it around my neck like Superman's cape.

Drink the Hemlock

After the next aid station, Wolf Run Shoals, there are only ~10 miles to go — thank goodness, since I'm now slowing significantly. As I plod along I catch up with and start playing leapfrog with another runner who turns out to be Tom Green. Like Tim Stanley, Tom has finished every Bull Run Run. Unlike Tim, recently Tom has suffered from multiple injuries. He tells me his longest training run this year has been 5 (five!) miles.

Tom is modest and a bit shy, but in response to my questioning he admits that in 1986 he was the first to complete the "Grand Slam" of ultrarunning: four major 100-milers in one year (at that time, Old Dominion, Western States, Leadville, and Wasatch). Tom tells me about some of his running experiences, his work (when not running he's a home improvement contractor in Columbia MD), his investment philosophy, his wife's studies, and more. I listen, and learn, and continue to grow in my admiration for him and for the ultrarunning fraternity. There are so many really nice people in the sport!

As we approach mile 49 Phil Hesser passes us. He knows Tom well, and when the two of them mention a mutual friend I suddenly realize who they're talking about: Abby Glassman, the wonderful lady whom Ruth Martin and I ran with during the 2006 HAT Run. Tom tells me more about Abby and her family, and after the race I correspond with Abby and learn a bit more about Tom and how great he is.

I offer to hold Tom's hand as we cross the finish line, but he politely declines. During the final climb to Hemlock Overlook Tom suddenly experiences calf cramps and tells me to go on ahead. (Or was it just a polite excuse to get well away from me?)

"The horse can smell the barn" now. I put on my shirt and pick up the pace in anticipation of photographers. I'm almost half an hour slower than last year, at an official 12:50:18, in 242nd place out of 265 finishers. Tom Green comes in a few minutes after me, followed a bit later by Angelo Witten and Michele McLeod.

Friend Caren is waiting patiently at the finish line for me for me. Thank you, Ma'am!

^z approaching the finish line of BRR 2008; photo by Anstr Davidson

Split Data

location segment
Start 00--0:000:00--0:00--
Centreville Road 7.27.2--1:481:470:151:460:15
Turnaround 2.29.4--2:212:180:142:150:13
Centreville Road 2.211.6--2:542:480:142:430:13
Hemlock 516.6--4:094:150:174:020:16
Marina 4.521.1--5:165:250:185:120:16
Wolf Run Shoals 526.1--6:316:350:146:300:16
Fountainhead 228.17:157:017:060:166:590:14
Do Loop - In 4.432.58:208:078:120:158:030:15
Do Loop - Out 335.5--8:528:540:148:490:15
Fountainhead 2.437.99:459:289:310:159:270:16
Wolf Run Shoals 239.9--9:5810:020:1610:000:16
Marina 544.911:3011:1311:130:1511:050:13
Finish 5.550.413:0012:3612:500:1812:250:15

(cf. Tussey Mountainback 2004 (2004-10-08), JFK 50 Mile Run 2006 (2006-11-20), JFK 50 Miler 2006 Split Analysis (2007-01-21), Bull Run Run 2007 (2007-04-15), Bull Run Run 2007 Photos (2007-04-17), ...) - ^z - 2008-04-19

(correlates: Bull Run Run 2007 Photos, SemiAstrophysicist, Bull Run Run 2007, ...)