By John Prohira
There is a story about a group of cowboys who fall asleep after another hard day in the saddle. They've driven their cattle for weeks finally reaching the summer grazing grounds. Exhausted they fall into a deep slumber after the evening meal is taken together around their campfire. When they wake they are surprised to find themselves tangled up in a ball. Legs and arms are knotted and twisted together and upon one another in every which way. They don't know which appendage belongs to whom. Their cook, an old Indian man who took his meal separately and away from the cowboys didn't fall asleep in this mass. He tells them not to despair. He takes up a large sharp pine needle and begins one by one to stab each foot and arm he finds with it. "Ouch!" cries one man and the cook says to him, "there, that is your foot." "Ouch!" cried another cowpoke, "that's your arm!" On and on until all knew what belonged to each of them. By using their pain the cook showed them themselves and so it goes. - As told by Clarissa Pinokla Estes, from her "The Boy Who Married an Eagle."
For the fifth time in as many years I experienced the full bloom of the Virginian spring with friends. While traveling south from western New York the landscape became greener, it would be another color - "blue" that I fixated on the next day but I get ahead of myself. The closer I got to Manassas the more the world outside my car window seemed to be waking up. The hillside meadows were lush, cows and horses grazed in fields separated by hedgerows that were beginning to leaf-out. South of the Mason-Dixon Line flowers in house dooryards and in gardens displayed colors in manicured fashion while those in fields and woods smiled on the world with more wild abandon. Amish farmers turned over ground with horse drawn plows next to stone houses crowned with metal roofs. All familiar sights accompanying familiar feelings that had become for me a rite of spring. I was on my way to the Bull Run Run. I smiled to myself in anticipation looking forward to what I'd be doing the next day and the people that I'd be doing it with, people who bring out the best in me.
This was the tenth time that the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club had put on this event. Now that I've run in a few of these things I've begun to appreciate all that goes into staging a trail race involving 300 runners spread out over many miles. I am a dues paying member of the VHTRC (note to self: check to make sure dues are paid up) and I like that feeling of belonging there, even if it is only a long distance relationship. These southern folk have changed how I feel about joining clubs. I used to identify with Groucho Marx's adage that; "I never wanted to belong to an organization that would have someone like me as a member." I no longer feel like that, at least not towards these guys and gals. Thanks!
Not only was I lucky enough to know lots of the people running and working the race, this year over 20 Rochesterians had signed on for the BRR trail fun. I am hoping that each will share his own thoughts about the race, I won't tell their stories, only this little bit. For some it was their first Bull Run, for others their first 50-miler and for still others their first ultramarathon, brave souls. It was cool sharing it with them and I hoped that the trail gods might smile on me for helping bring trail virgins as sacrifice. Some ran only portions of the course due to injury or illness; yet they continued to help others still running finish their task. One learned the hard way lessons on following trail markings and paying attention to detail. His mistake caused more than a little anxiety for the race directors and for those of us rather fond of him. He may have added 10-15 miles to his run. Everyone was happy and relieved as he appeared finishing his race hours after he should have, a bit shame faced but in good-natured fashion, an example of self-control and acceptance.
It was a warm and humid day for running 50 miles. I liked the smell of the morning, hints of the rain fallen during the night still hung in the air. Dawn brought with it a day full of potential. I was surrounded by competence and determination and a good looking bunch of people. Everyone carried liquids with him or her; constant attention to replenishing lost water and salts would be a requirement for finishing in a vertical fashion. Attempts this year to spread the crowd out before entering the first trail worked but I allowed myself to get caught up in the energy of the group and went out a bit fast. By the time the first water crossing came I'd come to my senses and dropped into a pace I was able to maintain without too much struggle until mile 45. Shorts and singlets seemed to be the uniform of the day. The trails were in excellent shape, better than I ever remember, no mud to speak of. The water levels in the creeks and runs we crossed were low enough to keep feet dry by jumping from stone or log to stone or log. Late in my race I did miss the mark while tripping across a stream but the cool water on my tired feet was rather refreshing. Along waters edge the dominant presence were bluebells at their peak, looking to me like blue blankets thrown along the dirt creek banks and the grass near them.
This is an out and back course for much of the distance. During the first part of the course runners are directed north, upstream until they are turned around at 8½ miles then back to camp. Then we ran south or downstream of the Occoquan River to the Do Loop and back. Blue ribbons marked the way reassuring runners that they were still on course. There are hills, it wouldn't be a VHTRC event without them but nothing overly intimidating at first glance but lots of them and after a while my definition of intimidating changes. What is up on the way out is down on the way back and so on, fair enough. This course wears me down. It may take a while but it always happens. I compare it to being roasted over a slow spit, cooked slowly, at the finish line stick a fork in me and you'll see that I am indeed done. I fell only once and that was on level ground when the trail became less technical. In places like that I usually relax and often take in more of the world around me neglecting to watch where I put my feet. I watched geese landing on the water and listened to noisy woodpeckers in the trees. I saw lazy grass snakes slowly slithering near the trail and even lazier fishermen nodding along the River. I searched for the wildflowers Gary Knipling said graced our course and ended up tasting dirt after tripping over a tree root. Face first on the trail reminded me that attention must be paid.
The aid stations as always were superb, very cheerful places to visit and hard to leave. The first, which also served as the second was filled with people who called to me by name (no they DIDN'T call me a name); that is a thrill and guaranteed to put a spring in my step. The third station came around mile 17 at the start-finish back at Hemlock Overlook after the first climb of the day up from Pope's Creek. This is where many well-wishers conjugated and cheered us on. Then it was out again away from the park. At the 4th aid station I was treated to fresh strawberries and then Popsicles at the next one served up by friends dressed as the Village People. On to the marina for a quick refill and the promise of fun at the Do Loop station a couple of miles later. Ah yes, da Loop! I like it! It's just about my favorite part of the course. Maybe in part because there's only 15 miles to go after it is done. Maybe it's the silliness and fun happening before and after, I think it‘s both. Here Chris Scott and crew offer to pamper and party the runner. They'll grill you a cheese sandwich or pour you a beer and fill your bottles with something wet. There I drank a can of Ensure getting 350 calories into my tummy in one fell swoop. I hope I didn't disappoint Chris too much by passing on his offer of tequila, I'm sure he had other takers. I love the rugged beauty and the sounds made moving through da Loop. I understand that we ran da Loop in its original form; in previous years there was a glorious downhill dirt road section before entering the trail system. Not so this year, it was all trails. That's kind of an over statement because although da Loop is well marked there is only a hint of trail, even after more than 100 runners have been through it. Here autumn's fallen leaves obscure the ground and it's a matter of faith that there is something solid under them for feet to land on. I'm soothed by the resonance, the background sound of feet on dry leaves. I knew the old Nash Rambler was back in there rotting away year after year, but a second car skeleton? What is the history there? Back to the task at hand - running or some semblance there of. In da Loop, choices are easy, you either run up or you run down. So I ran up and down over and over until I came out bidding Chris's crew "Happy Trails." I was heading back to camp and it was only 1:15 in the afternoon. Maybe the virgins brought had made the gods happy and I was being rewarded. More likely not! My Higher Power does have a sense of humor. I had to work at getting to the finish line, but then again - fair enough!
Familiar faces were seen coming out of da Loop as I was entering, now I'd see more as I came out and began the return to the Overlook. I am so enamored with the feelings that accompany this shared experience. I've said it many times, I like looking into the eyes of my fellow runner and recognizing the look found there. I believe I know what they see, what they know and we understand that what we are doing is important. We share the emotional ups and downs as well as the ups and downs offered by the hills. There is pain and struggle involved yet this is a very good thing. Those who served us on the way down into da Loop were visited again on the return trip. The same happy smiling faces greeted us, the same plentiful supplies of fruit, water, Gatorade and good cheer filled the stations. The same lies were told about how good we all looked. Soon after the color blue told me the end was near, ribbons and bluebells pointed me home, towards the last climb up to the Overlook.
At the finish we were called in by name. Race director Scott Mills and company waited for us, surrounded by well-wishers acknowledging our efforts. And there was food and a piece of grass to sit upon. It was nice to sit down after 10½ hours. And there were generous finisher's awards, prizes after the completion of the day's test. Hot showers awaited and then the treat of watching others still out on the course finish the magic begun 50 miles earlier.
And I knew that there was more to this picture than met the eye. It's big. I like being surrounded by such people. I realize that this isn't real life but for to me it serves as example, as analogy for what could and should be. It's here that I'm repeatedly reminded of the immense capability of man, as represented by the runner and by those making it possible for them to run. Good will and kindness fill the air. I'm betting that everyone running, working or watching the race knew something after its completion that they hadn't known beforehand. There is pain involved in doing this stuff. And it's hard on all. But there are rewards. I don't have to have the cook stab me with a pine needle. I instead follow the pain that surfaces during the ultra. It shows me me and tells me what belongs to me, not what fills my wallet, only what fills my heart. More often than not in my real life I'll take the easier and softer way. But I know that that is not the way to live. The trail reminds me of the value in struggle. Pain can be a sign of growth, physical as well as mental. My wise old grandmother often spoke to me of growing pains and I of course thought her a crazy old coot. But I no longer do. I'm amazed that I can still be taught, there's hope for me yet.
If running in the woods with friends had been all I'd done on Saturday that would have been reason enough to drive 400 miles in order to do it. Lucky man me. Besides playing with friends I had time alone to think and feel. And follow the pain of the day and the resulting joy and I came away once again reassured that all was well. I guess that is why I keep coming back for more. Big thanks to Scott Mills and the rest of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club for the romp in the woods.
"Fear is a part of everything you do . . . You have to take great risks to get big rewards." - Greg Louganis
"I run distance because I want to be in good shape when I die." - Unknown
"With a Rebel Yell, More, More, More!" - Billy Idol
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