Who Are You?

The 2004 Bull Run Run 50 Mile Trail Run
By John Prohira

John Prohira finishes Bull Run Run“Team Mango?” “No, not me” was my reply. I was moving along the Bull Run Run 50 Mile Trail course on Saturday, April 17th and repeatedly replying no to that question. Who are they - Team Mango?

I wasn’t Mango but was happy to be among the 301 men and women taking part in this year’s Bull Run Run, one of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club’s premiere events. For the twelfth time in as many years runners were offered 50 miles of forested, rolling terrain on dirt trail in Fairfax County, Virginia. Ten times along this distance runners would find aid stations filled with welcomed fuel and happy volunteers who incessantly lied to them about the state of their strength and appearance. A warm race day had been forecast and came to be. Temperatures reached into the 80’s by mid morning and stayed there. Just after day’s first light runners took their final briefing from race director Scottie Mills and promised that they would take care and drink, drink and drink along the way. The crowd that spilled across the start line was spread out while running a ½ mile loop around Hemlock Overlook headquarters and parking area. From there we entered the trail system on a course that parallels the Bull Run and Occoquan River. Twenty minutes after the start we crossed the first of many run and river feeder streams. Here at Pope’s Head Creek the level of the water was such that those wishing to keep their feet dry could use the series concrete steppingstones rising 6-10 inches above water’s surface. A reflection of true trail running, later crossings did not offer dry passage like that and shoes would eventually get wet.

I have never seen the trail in better shape. Spring’s mud was of course found in all the expected places like the meadows bordering the soccer fields and beyond where log bridges laid out in corduroy fashion offered reprieve from the muck. This type of trail running requires the use of so many body parts other than legs and lungs; this is not the repetitive, rhythmic and metered effort of the road race. Hands and arms were called into play as we climbed over and around the rocks that bordered the water. Jumping from log to log over mud and from stone to stone across the water requires balance and concentration. There is always the brute force option and one could simply plow through from here to there. There seemed to be as many ways to do Bull Run Run as there were runners. The front-runners seemed not so much to embrace the course as bear hug it, using their strength to confront and overpower the mile after mile of trail. Others addressed what lay in front of them with more finesse and patience. I moved tentatively hoping not to aggravate a recent injury. Everyone used the largest muscle in the human body more than any other, tapping into the reserves that reside in the brain. All relied on the intangible spirit that makes us human and has enabled mankind to survive. It is a head game – this ultrarunning thing we do.

I had spent eight days leading up to this year’s BRR on the West coast visiting my best friend, leaving San Francisco on Thursday morning and getting home that night at 11PM. The alarm clock woke me at six the next morning (read 3AM California time). I packed for the ride south, bracing myself for the eight-hour trip by car from LeRoy, New York to Manassas, Virginia. Luckily for me and others on the road that day I did not have to drive, my friend Jim Blaakman took care of that. I was somewhat apprehensive going into this event, not a good thing to be. Besides being jet-lagged I wondered about the extent of my recovery from the hamstring/glute injury I received three weeks before. I had run only once in the weeks since and was not happy with that result. I could walk and hike pain free but not sit, so it made sense not be stationary (I can justify any behavior). I promised myself that I would run conservatively and see what came of it.

There is no one piece of the Bull Run Run course that truly intimidates, instead it is the relentless offering of rolling terrain, up and down that eventually wear on the runner. During the first 13 miles on the upstream side of the course the warmth of the day blossomed. I kept my promise and paid close attention to electrolyte and liquid replacement. So did the others I shared the trail with. No one was taken away in ambulances this year; I saw no emergency medical help being administered during and after the run. A couple of miles before the first turnaround the leaders came flying back at us, with Tom Nielsen, the winner of the race chasing last year’s winner. These guys looked awesome! So strong and confident! Most spoke words of support to those they passed, others nodded but all encouraged those following them. On my return trip after telling those in the Centerville aid station that I was not a member of Mango I slipped on wet trail and stressed my hamstring. “Yikes,” a word that aptly describes without vulgarity what I was thinking. I found that if I shortened my stride significantly and walked anything resembling a hill and took care on the downhills that I could still move forward. How I felt a few miles ahead at the Hemlock Overlook would determine whether I would call it a day there or not.

“No, not Team Mango.” After the sixth query of the morning I found out that I was asked that because of the hanky I wore around my neck. I thought it was yellow but mango would more aptly describe its color. I was sporting the team colors of Mango. Oh my! Should I expect a gang type run in with the real Team Mango? What would these tough ultrarunners do to someone sporting their gang colors without permission? Need for caution in this regard dissipated after learning that that Gang Mango was comprised of VHTRC homies like Michael Bur, Vicki Kendall, Joyce Fendley, Kerry Owens and Tom Corris. I figured they might give me a pass for old times sake.

The question about Team Mango membership got me thinking about identity and association. And about why I continue to do this. I remembered being asked who I was in an email from a friend one day. Assuming a misprint I replied that I was fine and feeling very well. The next note to me asked again, “who are you? The question was not how but who I was. This was something I had to think about for days before answering. And then the answer was incomplete. On this morning in Virginia I did know that I was someone who was totally enamored with running for hours on end and sharing that experience with other like-minded souls. I like being part of them. I like looking into their eyes.

Approaching the climb to the Overlook I felt better than I had in the five miles leading up to it. The course is designed in such a way that it resembles a lop-sized bow tie. The first small bow is 13 miles in circumference and brings the runner back to where he began. Drink was taken here at the Overlook; I filled my bottles, smiled at those milling about, ate some and with spirits buoyed moved on downstream towards the back end of the course. I was a dues paying member of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club from western New York who was being drawn towards Da Do Loop. Twenty-nine and one half miles away Chris Scott, the BRR founder’s sense of humor beckoned. I went with the flow, accepting the day and pull of Chris’s anti-trail. The bluebells along the water were in full bloom, seeming to salute all who passed their way. Children played and parents applauded them during soccer games taking place in the fields we crossed three miles downstream. I do enjoy the delusion I immerse myself in while ultrarunning. But I also see the value in being reminded that that endeavor is the sublime bordering the asinine and that real life continues. The kids playing soccer were a joyful reminder of that. It would have been nice to stop and watch a while but I had a date with a Nash Rambler. There were strawberries to be eaten at the aid station at Marina and a wedding reception to attend at Wolf Run Shoals. Marge and Stanley and crew never disappoint the Bull Run Run participant. They always have an aid station theme working at Wolf Run. This year it was bride and groom and wedding party offering us ice cream and encouragement. Between the wedding and the next aid station at Fountainhead aid station lay the white loop. Last year we ran this white loop out to Da Loop and back instead of just out, making up for the muddy distance removed from out course upstream. This change pleased our race director and again this year we did the white loop twice, much to my pleasure for this is true single track and my idea of what trail should look like. It contains just enough rock requiring attention be paid to where feet are placed but it is not so technical as to distract from the spring scenery along this twisting and turning path cut through the trees.

After the Fountainhead stop wide jeep trail led us closer to it. On a path wide enough to accommodate four runners abreast we moved towards Da Loop. Erosion barriers covered with last autumn’s leaves were driven into the dirt every 25 to 100 yards and I took care not to trip over them. The long down hills were uneven as were the seemingly longer ups. I knew I was near the far end of the course when I saw my first silly hat of the day. They all sport them, the aid station volunteers; all types but my favorite at Da Do Loop aid station is the jester’s cap. Very appropriate for these guys and gals are real jokers! The grill was on and stuff was cooking, all manner of beverage were offered, some of a more mature nature. No matter how tired or stressed out I may be I always find it impossible not to smile before and after Da Loop. It is interesting in there, that is a word that can describe a lot. As warm as it got on Saturday the occasional breeze refreshed and put a spring in my step. But on the far end of the course, in the densely wooded loop the air was still and hot. There the Nash Rambler continues to rust and decompose. It was here years ago that confused and tired BRR runners misread trail markings and repeatedly looped this section. I understand how that could happen, one senses the trail in Da Loop rather than sees it. Da Loop leads the runner up and down and twists back upon itself always teasing. This year a spent I slow 40 minutes looping it, appreciating its rugged beauty and being relieved knowing that once out I would retrace my steps and be on my way home.

John coming back from Centreville RoadWho are You? Who are these Bull Run Runners? The roster listed them as 78 women and 261 men, aged 20 –67. 119 of them hailed from Virginia, 18 traveled south from New York, ten were described as mercenaries from overseas. That information did not describe who they were. Many worked for the government, at the FBI, the Pentagon and some were still in active military service. One works at NASA, another is a veterinarian. Doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs? (I wasn’t aware of any chiefs.) They are Team Mango or the winning Team VA-PA-CA-sub 35 who posted a combined time of just over 34 hours for their five-man effort. They are retired or just beginning college. They represent everyman and that is what I find so appealing about them. That and the fact they are doing something that is very difficult. They do what is hard because it is hard. They do it without hope of tangible reward other than for personal knowledge and a glimpse of the strength required of them and their companions as they make the attempt at accomplishing something difficult. That honest intent is what counts. That is what is so refreshing in today’s world. In a world full of excuses and easier softer ways these people show me the way to the finish line and much more. Looking into the eyes of my fellow runner 45 mile of a 50-mile race reassures me. Yes, it hurts at times and I have been injured in the process. That too is part of being human. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who observed that, “A man with a bull by the horns knows a thing or two more than the man who doesn’t”? Those running BRR knew a few important things.

Who am I? A fifty-year-old man who has found a way to listen to the world around him while engaged in active meditation and contemplation. I am someone who never knew how to relax and enjoy the moment until shown how while running long distance. Twelve years ago I was convinced that I would be another death by heart attack statistic brought there through smoking and other poor life style choices. I still may exit life with a heart attack, running offers no guarantees but I worry less about it today. My legs and my hips may hurt but my chest doesn’t. I still pant and suck wind; but on steep climbs and while running at altitude not while chasing my daughters during play. I seem to enjoy living the moment more and more each day. In order to cover 50 and 100 miles during a race I’ve slowed down and that more measured approach to running has spilled over into my real life. I am not in as much of a hurry these days. I’ve recognized that I like what goes through my mind during the long run. Ultrarunning has helped me quiet my mind and listen, listen to myself and to the world around I travel through and to look about me. I am a man who has been taught by the example of those on the trail. Lucky man, lucky me!

Physically dinged up but spiritually revived I watched others pass me on my way to the finish line. Some looked strong and others not so strong but all more capable at the moment than I. I wanted to finish and clean up before the awards were given out at 6:15 PM, wanted to be part of a cool Bull Run Run tradition. Scottie Mills halts his ceremony every time a late arriving runner approaches the finish line and asks the crowd to stand up with him and applaud. Although I crossed the finish line two hours and 10 minutes slower than last year I was able to shower and change in time for this post race fun.

I have been told that we all have one story to tell. That is all. It is told over and over again in many ways but the song remains the same. I tell the same story about running over and over again. I was able to append that story during the run on Saturday. To it I added accepting the obvious; that there is a large degree of egotism, self-absorption and self-importance involved in ultrarunning. Those words have a common synonym – narcissism. Narcissim, is that why I run? Who I am? I think we all know the legend of Narcissus, the youth who knelt daily beside a lake to contemplate his own beauty. He was so fascinated by himself that one morning he fell into the lake and drowned. At the spot where he fell, a flower was born, which was called the narcissus. The following is the extension of that legend. I found it in the preface of “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.

“When Narcissus died, the goddesses of the forest appeared and found the lake, which had been fresh water, transformed into a lake of salty tears. "Why do you weep.” The goddesses asked. "I weep for Narcissus." The lake replied. "Ah, it is no surprise that you weep for Narcissus," they said, "for though we always pursued him in the forest, you alone could contemplate his beauty close at hand." "But . . .. was Narcissus beautiful?" the lake asked. "Who better than you to know that?" the goddesses said in wonder. "After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!" The lake was silent for some time. Finally it said: "I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected."

There it is! Endorphins’ glow and the reflection from my fellow runners eyes. I have always loved what I see there. My reflection? Beautiful? Let’s not go that far! Perhaps what I see reflected is only validation of my behavior. I know that more often than not I feel better about myself and the world during and after a long run. Running in the presence of others with concerted effort towards a common goal is grand. I like stories, legends, fables and analogy. They help explain complicated emotions. Maybe the story of Narcissus puts some of what running means to me in perspective. Maybe not. Does it really matter? I don’t know for sure. But I do like thinking about this stuff. And like even more where and when and with whom I am with while thinking these thoughts.

Many thanks to Scottie Mills, the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club and the volunteers for staging another memorable Bull Run Run. Thanks to Team Mango for not taking offense at my wearing of their colors. I am most thankful for what I saw reflected from the depths of my fellow runner’s eyes.

I end with a couple of appropriate quotations.

Happy Trails,

Despite what seems like the extraordinary nature of these events, in the end, they make you even more human. - Joel McNamara
The runner need not break four minutes in the mile or four hours in the marathon. It is only necessary that he runs and runs and sometimes suffers. Then one day he will wake up and discover that somewhere along the way he has begun to see the order and law and love and truth that makes men free. - George Sheehan
The road to excess leads to the place of wisdom, for we can never know what is enough until we have experienced too much. - William Blake
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