It was going to happen, sooner or later. In the previous thirteen Bull Run Runs there had never been rain on race day. On April 8, 2006 it happened.
The upstream loop of the course along Bull Run is frequently slippery - even under good conditions. The Virginia Bluebells were at beautiful peak bloom in the morning drizzle, but they would have been spectacular if the sun had been able to open the blossoms even more. The only sun to shine all day was low in the west as the 13-hour time limit was ticking down.
I was one of many runners who thought the higher rolling terrain of the course’s southern loop would mean firmer footing. Wrong! The combination of mud, wet leaves, more rain, no sun and many sliding shoes on the out-and-back trail provided for the worst trail conditions of the ten Bull Runs I have done.
Another adverse condition of the day was the 60 degrees at race start dropped into the 40’s by dark. The combination of rain, slippery trail, dropping temperatures, and increased wind in the leafless early spring woods caused runners to chill down even when moving well. Those cold runners without crew or drop bags (which are usually not necessary at BRR) struggled to keep warm. I heard of several stories of runners getting gloves and various types of apparel from people they didn’t know. Race management made at least two trips to a not-too-convenient grocery store (~10 miles away) to get trash bags and instant soup for the Do-loop, Fountainhead, Wolf Run and Marina aid stations.
As I made my way back from the Do-loop in the middle of the runner pack and now running against those runners still going out to the turnaround, I saw many improvised outfits on my fellow participants. There weren’t any style points – they had been lost long ago with even beautiful shapely legs covered in half-inch dripping mud and no differentiation between shoes, socks or skin. Looking back, it was somewhat comical to see the ingenuity in the way runners improvised pieces and bags of plastic and non-running apparel to cover hands, arms and torsos. The cool rain had one advantage in lessening the need for fluids and I found myself going into a couple of aid stations with my single bottle still two-thirds full.
When I got to Wolf Run II and revisited Stan and Margie’s “fruits of the loom”, I realized I was missing something. Normally this is what I consider the beginning of the homestretch of BRR with ~ 10 miles to the finish. I didn’t quite feel naked because of all the mud on my legs and lower body, but I suddenly felt like Linus as I realized I was missing my prized mango bikini bottoms normally tucked securely in the elastic at my right hip. I checked my shorts hoping they had slipped inside, but there was nothing to show for in there. I looked down the trail and on the ground at the aid station hoping to spot them – nothing but thick slippery mud. Where did I lose them? Were they floating down some rivulet of muddy water where once a trail had been? Had one of my running buddies who had had a long term quest and/or fantasy about the item secretly snitched them? Were they even visible now if they had fallen into a muddy pool on a flat section of trail? These and more questions raced through my mind.
As I downed a cold yoo-hoo that Bunny had stashed for me, my thoughts changed from the lost part of my outfit to the task at hand: get ‘er done ! For a couple miles before Wolf Run II, Mike Feldstein, a new recruit from New York had been within sight behind me. He left the aid station before me, but when I caught up to him before the road crossing I asked if he had seen the “mangos” flutter to the ground. He had not. Mike and I hung together until after the Marina and he went on to finish his first 50 miler in a fine style 9:50.
As the smell of the finish line and thoughts of a warm shower became stronger, my ups and downs were on an upswing. By working harder and moving better the cold, I had been feeling, became less and less. The mile markers starting at Fountainhead came and went, and I knew from familiarity with the trail that the finish is comparable to mile #12 although we never see the #12 marker. The runners leave the River to climb the hill to Hemlock about one-half mile after milepost #11. In any ultra run, runners yearn for, crave for, and look forward to that last glorious mile. I was looking for that milepost #11.
If you’re toast, you can walk it in. If you’re strong, it’s amazing how many places you can move up in that last mile. I’ve done it both ways.
Just before the sharp right turn leaving the river (after milepost #11) and going up the water bar steps to the finish, I finally caught Darin Dunham whom I had been getting glimpses of for the past 5-6 miles. With a half mile to go it was too early to make any “deals,” but we pushed each other up the tough climb and across the field at the top. As we came within sight of the finish line and the clock, we closed the deal and agreed to finish together. It was my honor.
Even though the day was so miserable weather-wise for the runners, aid station crews, and friends and family, Mother Nature took it all in stride. In spite of the low snowfall winter and record dry month of March, the wildflowers knew it was spring. Many of the early spring flowers are considered ephemeral, which means that a particular flower may only be in bloom for a day or two or three. Just like the runners, they had to try to salvage something out of the day. With the standard caveat “as long as I remember”, the wildflowers I (or others) observed along the course were as follows:
For Chris Scott and his immediate staff of Amy, Bob and Kerry, the adversity of race day was a mere bump in the trail. Their work and preparation for aid station crews, finish line personnel, registration, apparel and awards, trail marking and unmarking, finish line food, clean up, etc, etc had been going on for weeks before the runners showed up Friday evening. A heartfelt thank you goes out to all who made the 14th BRR possible.