An Easy 50: Bull Run Run 50-Miler

by Nancy Kleinrock

Following my personal version of March madness see the April 2007 issue of the FLRC newsletter, I have successfully kept the promise I made to myself and have taken to the trails. Early April offered unusually dry conditions in the local woods, permitting me to reacquaint myself with the feel of dirt and leaves and roots underfoot, and to prepare myself—more spiritually, than physically or mentally—for my longest step-by-step adventure thus far: the Bull Run Run 50-miler put on by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club.

Nancy Kleinrock
Nancy Kleinrock at the Upstream Turnaround

I headed south Friday morning, April 13, arriving at the Hemlock Overlook in plenty of time to set up my tent and meet some of the other participants even before the start of the pasta dinner. My next-flap neighbors (these were tents, after all) were Trail Dawgs who had run this race before. They were also veterans of the HAT Run 50K, which served well as a common point of comparison. By the time we all settled down for the night, I was comfortable with the fact that the topography would largely consist of continually rolling hills, but most would be shorter than those at the HAT Run and none would last unreasonably long. There would also be some bluebell-strewn flats, particularly in the early miles, plus some soccer fields to traverse. Moreover, the terrain would be imminently runnable, but with a bit of tricky rocky footing encountered within the first couple of miles and again immediately before the finish. With most of the aid stations separated by five or fewer miles, there was nothing to worry about, except, of course, covering the distance. I figured the only way to approach the day would be as a long (long!) easy run. To attack it any harder would ensure seizing up midrace—something I didn't care to repeat (been there, done that at the LA Marathon).

Race morning (and afternoon, for that matter) was perfect. I chose to tear down my tent before the 6:15 am start, because of light rain forecasted for later in the day. Incidentally, this was the leading edge of what would become the storm that ended up dropping a foot and a half of wet white stuff a couple of days later here at home and causing terror to enter the hearts of more than one Boston Marathon runner [e.g., see Christina Bruner's Boston Story, below]. In fact, had the Bull Run Run been conducted on Sunday rather than Saturday, it would have been an entirely different experience than it was in 2007—more like the unpleasantness that chilled, soaked participants endured in 2006, but that's not my story. My story is of couldn't-be-better dry trail conditions, windless air, and temps in the 40–50°F range. Just as the sky began to brighten, 330 of us took off on a little loop around the Hemlock Overlook nature center to spread out the field before heading down the trail to the storied waters of Bull Run, which moseyed pleasantly along.

Starting out easy, I moseyed pleasantly along, too. What surprised me was how immediately the field sorted itself out. While there was a little congestion and jockeying for position as we picked our way among the riverside rocks, within just a couple of miles running was clear and easy. And so it remained, even when the frontrunners began doubling back after the northern turnaround 9.4 miles into the race, and even after I had rounded the "cone" composed of a pair of stacked Starbucks coffee cups and a beer bottle sporting a bluebell and blustered head-on into the rest of the runners still on their outbound journey. At this early point, it was clear that I was fourth woman, with the three ahead of me clearly on the other (younger) side of 40. Going into the race, I had a secret goal of bettering the masters female course record of 8:19, but not having raced beyond the 50K distance, I harbored no delusions of my capabilities; after all, if one is constantly admonished to respect the distance when it comes to marathoning, how much more should this pertain to 50 miles!

So I concentrated on running easy and having fun. Shortly after the turnaround, I found myself running and chatting with Lloyd Thomas from just outside Cleveland. This was also his first Bull Run Run, although, touting the Laurel Highlands 70.5-mile ultra, he clearly had experience with distance, and his road marathon times were only a few minutes faster than my own (although I have recent lessons as to how elusive those few minutes can be!). I figured running with Lloyd was just the ticket for me to stay on an appropriate pace, and indeed we remained together until shortly before returning to the start/finish at 16.6 miles when I pulled ahead, being ready to resume running before he was, once the steep hill we were then hiking softened. (After the conclusion of the race, Lloyd confided in me that he fully expected to see me again after my pace got the better of me, but I managed to hold on adequately.)

One aspect of this event I appreciated is the mile markers on the Bull Run–Occoquan River trail system. These kept me aware of my pace and how it ebbed and flowed with the ups and downs of the course. They also buoyed my spirits when, later in the race, the miles seemed to be passing much more slowly, but instead it was time itself that was warped, as my splits remained reasonably steady throughout. Aside from the trail itself—with its intermittent but cheerful floral blanket—the ideal ambient weather, and the excellent course markings (more on this shortly), the most remarkable thing about the Bull Run Run is its collection of aid stations (all of which are encountered twice during the event) and the volunteers staffing them. Not only are cups kept at the ready with water, Gatorade, Coke, and Mountain Dew (the latter two for those who want some caffeine to go with their sugar), the staff uniformly asked each runner to hand over his/her water bottle(s) to be filled and recapped by the volunteer, while the race participant ate and/or drank what they pleased before heading out again on the trail. And the aid stations offered quite the repast! Sure, there were cookies, pretzels, M&Ms, potatoes, chips, PB&J, bananas, oranges, and the rest of the usual ultra fare, but for the more eclectic eater-on-the-run there were variously ice cream treats, grilled cheese sandwiches, soup—and even a bottle of tequila at the Do Loop aid station (miles 32.5/35.5). Had the tequila come later, I might have had a swig, but it was only offered at the point beyond which I had never run, so I satisfied myself with just water (in my single 10-oz handheld bottle), Gatorade gulped down at most aid stations, and a total of five quarters of PB&J scattered throughout the day. I nibbled on the sandwich bits after leaving the aid stations, one of which (Wolf Run Shoals) featured volunteers decked out in M*A*S*H outfits, including a rather disturbing two-foot-high camouflage-and-T-shirt-attired Barbie Doll beckoning runners as they approached this 26.1/39.9-mile respite.

Now having held this race for 15 years, the Happy Trails folks have gotten the course-marking thing down to a science. It was flawlessly adorned with blue ribbons indicating the way to go and red ribbons blocking off unwanted side trails. Near mile 18/47 was a red barrier, beyond which was the steady resound of gunshots. While the noise must have been from a shooting range over the rise, at the time it seemed like harsh punishment for runners who took a wrong turn! There and elsewhere, I diligently stuck to the blue. The hard-to-follow and reputedly infamous Do Loop (miles 32.5–35.5) could have used a few more blue ribbons, but never did I feel lost. Unlike simple out-and-backs, or single or repeat loop courses, the Bull Run Run route presented special marking challenges, particularly downhill from Hemlock where the course's loopiness required several midrace reblazings of the route. Hats off to the folks who stayed on top of this task.

Anyway, as I went from buffet to feast to smorgasbord and from blue blaze to blue ribbon, I continued to run easy, walking only the steepest of the hills and keeping up a steady 9–10-min pace. Frankly, I was surprised at how alone I was, as I had sort of expected to hook up with others at my pace and have a conversational day. In fact, I was passed by no one after roughly mile 17, and only passed a few other folks. Although no passing was involved, my most notable encounter occurred near mile 30 as I found myself approaching the woman who was then in third place. I knew it was foolish to put on a surge with 20 miles to go, so I retained my comfortable pace; it was nice, however, to have someone in my sights for a while. Unfortunately, the near-meeting-up lasted less than a mile before she picked it up a bit, while I did not. Retrospectively, not trying to stick with her was the best decision I could have made, as she ended up finishing second woman, 15 minutes ahead of me (Justine Morrison is my new hero!). I never could have kept up, and I almost certainly would have burned myself out and ended up doing the proverbial death march to the finish line. So on I went on my own, exchanging encouragements with the bulk of the field of runners still on their way out that I encountered after exiting the Do Loop and retracing the main trail upstream to the finish at Hemlock.

As the day bore on, with sunshine turning to overcast turning to intermittent light drizzle, I bore on, too—feeling light and easy. It was only after surmounting the final aid station, at 44.9 miles at 7:09 into the race with 5.5 miles to go, that I put any pressure on myself to push it a bit. I knew that I still had an ample cushion to break 8:19, but I also knew that I had the soccer fields and shooting range to run by, the riverside rocks yet to tiptoe through, and the punishing final ascent from Bull Run to the Hemlock Overlook on the bluff above ahead of me. If I let myself slough off, I still could unnecessarily let my dream goal slip away.

In the end, I finished in 8:03:41. It never occurred to me to strive for a sub-8 finish, although I imagine I could have found four minutes somewhere to cut—but no complaints, none at all. I couldn't have had a better first experience at 50 miles.

So I extend big thank-yous to race director Bob Phillips, the Happy Trails crew, my itinerant Trail Dawg neighbors, the three inspiring young women who finished ahead of me, Charlie and Ann Leonard and Katie Stettler who clued me into this race in the first place, and Lloyd, VHTRC webmaster Anstr Davidson, and Trail Dawg Gerard Prilutski who have been giving me the low-down and encouraging me to continue to move up in distance and give the more technical trails of the Laurel Highlands ultra a go in June. Plenty of time and two more long-distance events on my calendar between now and the registration deadline, so who’s to say!

Happy trails, all.

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