Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bull Run Run 50 Miler - Clifton VA

This race is held on the Bull Run trail in Clifton, Virginia. My house in Virginia is located on the Bull Run river, just a mile or two from the trail turnaround. I ran and rode horses on much of the course when I lived in Virginia. I had to go out to get my house rented this weekend anyway. So, although it was a bit early in the season for me to try doing 50 milers (I had only done my first ultra a few weeks before), how could I not do this race? Doing it in 11 hours or under would qualify me for the Western States 100, my goal for next year. I thought that if I was feeling good I might try for 10 hours. Overall the idea of a 50 mile race was still pretty intimidating. I had done only one other ultra (Chuckanut 50K) and though I enjoyed it, did in fact bonk slightly during that race.

Rebecca and I flew in Dulles the day before and stayed at the Hyatt Dulles, probably my favorite airport hotel, where I also stayed last year for the Seneca Greenway Trail Marathon last March. After a shopping trip to the nearby Safeway for race staples (nuts, pretzels, Red Bull, chicken soup), we retired for a room service meal before our 4am wakeup call. Its a half hour drive down to Clifton and the race start at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park. Apparently the park is part of George Mason University (where I went to grad school) and GMU allowed the race to use some of their buildings to run the race from. Nice. There was a nice warm lodge with coffee and bagels to wait for the start in.

There were a huge number of people for an ultra it seemed to me: 335 according to their web page, plus their supporting crews. I'm new to the ultra world, but I haven't seen a trail run this big. Apparently though the American River 50 has 500 people so maybe its not that big after all. At 6:15am the race started with a casual "go ahead and run" from race director Bob Phillips.

Since my goal was to run under 11 hours, I went out as slowly as I possibly could. I figured I'd do 12 minute miles and do 5 miles per hour. Add in some time for leisurely rest stops with Rebecca eating and drinking and I would come in under 11 hours. Easier said than done. I hit the first rest stop at Centreville Road at around an hour and seven minutes, for about 9:30 pace. Too fast. And yet it felt quite slow amidst the dense pack of runners. There were some nice little rolling hills which weren't quite as fun as they would be later amidst the early clustered throng of people.

The trail was in great condition with no mud (to my surprise, I had heard it had been raining from people I knew in DC) and not very technical. So I traded my heavier Inov8 RocLites for extremely light New Balance 940 racing flats. And I replaced my Perpetuem-filled Amphipod water bottle for a fresh one from Rebecca. I gave up my jacket and gloves as well as the day had started warming. I took a long bathroom break in the woods and headed back out, for another 4.5 mile jaunt to the northern turnaround and back to this same rest stop. To race to plan, I wanted to come in no sooner than 2 hours. But I still arrived a little before 2 hours. So I sat down and leisurely drank a Red Bull and ate pretzels. A race guy came over eventually and gently needled me for dogging it ("its better to walk than to just sit"). So I headed back out onto the trail, back towards the race start aid station.

During this stretch I got to have fun on the rolling hills as the runners had thinned out by this time. I passed many runners who were walking the hills. While I think I get the logic of that, I just don't need to do it on hills that shallow. I don't really find that it helps me unless the hills are much steeper. Still I did hear a lot of runners coach me about walking the hills or I would "pay later". One of these was Gary Knipling, a 63 year old 11 time Bull Run finisher, who ran holding mango bikini bottoms (which he apparently does at every race). He's looking for the owner. I found out after the race that Gary is one of 11 (and the oldest) of last year's Grand Slam Finishers (people who did Western States, Wasatch, Leadville and Vermont 100s). I can only hope that I maintain the humor, optimism and endurance that this guy has 20 years from now.

I arrived at the starting area aid station at the 16.6 mile point at around 2 hours and 55 minutes. I was chafing severely by this time (I will experiment with tri shorts under running shorts at my next ultra) and I took some time to apply body glide. I drank some soup and took some Advil before heading back out a bit before the 3 hour mark. Now we headed south, out across some soccer fields to the Bull Run Marina where Bull Run turns into the Occoquan River. I picked up my iPod from Rebecca here and had some pretzels and nuts. The Beastie Boys got me pumped for the next hilly, gnarly, rock and tree root-infested stretch:

I kick it root down
I put my root down
It's not a put down
I put my foot down
So Mike, get on the mic and turn it out
We're talking root down, i put my boot down
And if you want to battle me, you're putting loot down
I said root down, it's time to scoot down
Sometimes I feel as though i've been blessed
Because I'm doing what i want so i never rest

Yeah! Yup, that was me the crazy old coot rapping and yelling while bombing down the hills. I reached the Wolf Shoals aid station, the "halfway point" (actually its at around 26 miles) in 4:30 (a little less than 10:30 per mile). This stop is in the woods with no crew access. But they compensate with great creativity from the race staff. This year the volunteers were all dressed up like M*A*S*H doctors and nurses. They had turkey sandwiches and ice cream! Wow. I still couldn't muster appetite for such heavy fare. But I started drinking coke and mountain dew to wash down a handful of salty snacks. Since I had been holding back and was still close enough to ten minute pace, at this point I said, "ok, lets do ten minute miles the rest of the way".

A couple miles further south, I reached the crewed aid station called the Fountainhead at mile 28 at around 4:50. After this no more crew for ten miles when we hit the Fountainhead again at 38 miles. I hoped to do ten minute miles even and hit the aid station again at 6:30, but failed to mention that to Rebecca.

There's another uncrewed aid station just before doing a little peninsula on the marina called the "Do Loop". Out from that aid station you run down the "stick of the lollipop" until you see a race volunteer who points people off to the right to run the loop counterclockwise. I was by myself at this point, listening to my iPod and enjoying the scenery. I saw several racers coming back the other way. Huh?! The Do Loop is supposed to be one way I thought! Thinking I might have the directions wrong, I turned off my iPod to pay attention to trail markings and landmarks and see about other runners going the wrong direction. Well, here comes a very young guy (looked like a highschooler) in a blue and white track singlet. I looked at him incredulously but kept going.

I proceeded around the loop through which borders the river but still has some nice steep hills. Its about twenty minutes to get back on to the "lollipop stick" that joins back to the out trail. I told the volunteer there about the runner I saw and described him. He said "yeah that happens every year and I saw that guy go the wrong way too". Well I'm new to ultras, but at any road race or triathlon that would have really mobilized someone. I got out of the woods to the Do Loop aid station and told the volunteers there. They didn't seem overly concerned either.

I made it back to the Fountainhead aid station at 6:30 as planned. I ate some pretzels and drank water but couldn't quite find Rebecca. Not wanting to dawdle too long, I took off at to try to stay close to my new "second half of the race" ten minute plan. The stretch to the Wolf Shoals station starts to get steep here, and I did start to feel fatigued at this point. Maybe I just needed more Advil, Red Bull and other crew stuff. I reached Wolf Shoals right around 7 hours. This put me off my new "aggressive plan" for ten minutes miles to the finish.

So after Wolf Shoals I picked up the pace and ran five miles to meet Rebecca at the Marina at around 7:50. I was feeling fatigued but still passing lots of people. Rebecca fed me some delicious hot soup, pretzels and Red Bull. I gave up my iPod for the last five mile stretch. I took off around 7:55, promising to meet her at the finish (5.5 miles later) at around 9 hours.

I ran down from the aid station back to the river trail again. Wow, I couldn't believe I was going to do this in under 9 hours. What a pump. I was fatigued and my legs were so I started off at the moderate 10 minute pace. After a mile or two, the trail moved away from the river, flattened out and started across some soccer fields and meadows that we had passed earlier. I am a hill runner so at this point a couple runners started catching me. I didn't look back. I just got concentrated on running tall and strong. Finally after about a mile of this it went back onto trails and up a steep hill. I quickly dropped all pursuers and started passing more people. This heartened me, with three miles to go, I started treating it like a 5k, swinging my arms, concentrating on form and breathing deeply. It flattened out to a technical stretch of river before climbing another big hill towards the finish. I passed a few more runners and came into the finish sprinting and feeling great. 8:43:17 in my first 50 miler, 42nd out of 335 runners. Not that it really matters too much, but given that the marshal at the Do Loop confirmed my sighting of several "wrong way runners" that successfully skipped the 20 to 30 minute loop I suspect my "true place" was significantly higher. Several runners I had passed before the Do Loop happened to be at the finish before me.

I really enjoyed the race. The constant up and down rolling and hills were great fun for me. Anything but a flat trail run. Lots of well-stocked aid stations with cheerful volunteers. I may do it next year, although I may do American River 50 if the dates conflict. I feel like 8:20 (just running an even 10 minute pace the whole way instead of "doggin it" for the first half) is very achievable so that would be my nominal goal.

Rebecca was a huge boost to me, helping me at each aid station with organization, supplies and good spirits. I'm not sure if I am capable of an uncrewed race anymore! We picked up an awesome embroidered finishers jacket (kudos to the VHTRC for great schwag) and headed out to pick up my daughter and drive to DC to my favorite Chinese restaurant, Szechuan Gallery, for a celebratory and recovery dinner. After feeling so good running a 50 miler, I'm very much looking forward to running Mount Si Ultra next week in Seattle.

P.S.: Regarding the "wrong way runners": I told the RD about the specific guy that I saw running the wrong way on the Do Loop. We (the RD and I) even went up and talked to him about it. He seemed confused about what he was supposed to do on that loop. The guy, Michael Hayden, is clearly a talent, holding several ultramarathon junior records. I hope he has a great career and I would bet that he will. I'm new to ultras (newer even than that kid) so I don't know the etiquette here so I'm not inclined to make a fuss about it. Maybe the "noncompetitive" ethos of ultras means that you let people do what they think is right. I do know that in a road race or triathlon one witness to such behavior (another racer or not) is sufficient for disqualification or penalties. And I know that the race volunteer at the Do Loop saw Michael come out the wrong way. I had a far better race than I planned, so I'm not going to let some shortcutters take the pleasure out of it for me.