By John Prohira
Definition: a sweet spot is a place, often numerical as opposed to physical, where a combination of factors suggest a particularly suitable solution.
I spent twelve hours on April 8th searching for "a sweet spot". I was on a Virginia trail along with 339 other long distance runners and I was betting that they were looking for the same. For the 9th time in as many years I was doing the Bull Run Run. I’ve described this event before. But just as no two snowflakes are exactly the same, neither are any challenges or opportunities offered by this life. It is never "just another day in paradise" no matter where or how one lives. Changes occur, unforeseen circumstances arise and life takes on it’s own individual feel as a function of the day. The Virginia Happy Trails Running Club’s Bull Run Run 50 Mile, always a unique event became more so in very obvious ways during this year’s 14th running. Yes indeed, this was different and all it took was water falling from above onto the dirt trail below.
Mud was the theme of the day. The afternoon before the race I walked down to the first water crossing at Pope’s Head Creek noticing that the trail was in good shape. I commented that this could be a fast year and that one would have to try real hard to get wet feet. The concrete cylinders used as stepping-stones across the creek were well above the waterline. So that was my plan. I would remember the undulating nature of the hills on this course. I would keep my feet as dry as possible, know and accept that mud always awaited upstream but plan a fast downstream traverse with only one pass through the White Loop. I have heard it said that if one wants to make God laugh then tell Him/Her your plans. Was that a chuckle from above I heard while returning to Hemlock Overlook for the pre-race briefing? Hmmmm, perhaps.
Race morning arrived dry with comfortable temperatures but overcast skies. No worries. My trail companions appeared to be in the very best of spirits. Race director Chris Scott told us to go and we did. A nice job is done spreading the crowd out before entering the trail system and heading up river. It wasn’t until after the rocky speed bumps along and after crossing the creek that it began to rain. "But it is always wet upstream. Always muddy. This too will pass", was some of what I told myself as I slipped and slid towards Centerville Rd and beyond. I heard no complaints; runners addressed the mud as they needed to, looking for that sweet spot. Attentively and hopefully; perhaps it would feel better on this side of the trail, or maybe the other. Or with deliberation; simply placing one foot in front of the other with the minimum of effort, concentrating on keeping their shoes on their feet. Or with distraction; chattering away about this or that. I tried them all and continued looking for the suitable solution to the muck that grabbed onto my feet and resembled what I’d find in my children’s diapers in bygone days. Someone asked me after the event what kind of shoe was worn most by Bull Run Run runners this year. My reply was that I had no idea. They all looked the same, brown and there was not much distinction to be seen as shoe became sock became leg. While struggling against the footing and searching for that runable spot in the mud I was tempted to vent my frustration. Lucky enough to recognize the folly in that I instead began to notice all that was positive this wet morning. I found the temperature perfect for the task at hand. The rain falling upon my hatless head washed the salt from my eyes and face. Everyone was running the same course as I and all looked fit and capable. Pretty women ran nearby. Some even talked to me! I’d be fed all day long. The new footbridge spanning Cub Run is indeed fancy and did not bounce half as much as the one it replaced. There would be friends and other familiar faces at each and every aid station. And the fabled bluebells near the river and runs brought a smile to my face. They looked sleepy or not quite awake yet with their cerulean colored blossoms not completely open. Maybe they were confused by all the foot traffic while they accepted the wet gift falling on them. Yes! Bluebells in the springtime along the water . . . . . this is the Bull Run Run.
There are many highlights at this event that I look forward to each year. One of my favorites is being able to see the front-runners as they double back from the turn around points. Those of us behind are treated to this view twice. These men and woman run with a strength that is almost but not quite hidden by their graceful movements. While passing us these talented people spoke genuine words of encouragement.
The course would have us back at the start at mile 16 ½ miles. I looked forward to the rest of the day being spent in gentler fashion, on drier ground without the added effort of pulling my feet from the slippery and shoe-sucking muck. I’ve run BRR before when the course was rerouted because the upstream section was too muddy. During those years the downstream sections were always in good shape. But then I have never been on this course while it rained all day with hundreds of feet churning that water into the dirt. I mentioned earlier in this write-up about the foolishness of plans in the face of Mother Nature. So be it. The last 2/3 of this year’s BRR trail resembled the first. Leaving Hemlock Overlook and heading into the trail system towards the Marina I found what the rest of my trail companions found - mud. Just as much and perhaps even more in spots than upstream.
For me long distance running offers life lessons and many examples of how to deal with circumstances that are out of my control. I constantly need to be reminded of what I can and cannot change. I have been taught that it is not sheer force of will that enables one to persevere although that might help but more the acceptance of the situation and addressing it as it is. Adaptation to any trial or trail and not the struggle against them more often brings about success for me. I bring humble goals with me when I put on trail shoes for an organized ultra. I want to do the best I am capable of that particular day and only I know if I have honestly done that. To accomplish that acceptance and faith are required. So on the backside of this course, on my way towards the Do Loop I decided then that I would not fight the rain, mud and muck and trust that if I did my part, sought a solution and worked with the trail I would be rewarded.
So it was down to the Marina, hugging the river’s bank. Some the of rocks were slippery but reward came at the aid station with being treated to fresh strawberries. I ambled off across the soggy soccer fields to Wolf Run Shoals’ aid station complete with their "fruity" theme, that visit was good for a chuckle and some ice cream. Then on to Fountainhead where I met Rochester runner Laura Bleakley returning. She was ahead of me by many miles and on her way to a 4th place ladies finish. I wondered if Laura realizes how good a runner she is. Next into the White Loop where the trail up and down twists and turns and almost kisses itself at times. There is always time for a quick stop before entering the Do Loop to “shuck and jive” with the boys from the Happy Trails Club at their aid station. I found the Do Loop to contain some of the best footing all day. I think it was the fallen leaf cover that helped protect the trail. Almost eight hours had passed from the start of the race when I popped out of the Loop, leaving the Nash Rambler behind. Back at Fountainhead I received word that most of my friends from the Rochester area were still on course, either ahead or slightly behind me. That was information sweetly received.
By the time the soccer fields came into view for the second time the rain had stopped. Pope’s Head Creek was an appreciated sight for I knew that the last climb up to Hemlock was near. The bluebells along that final bit of trail looked different than they had in the morning. Were they really that much bluer, brighter and open than they were earlier in the day? I thought so and chose to believe they were welcoming the runners back, urging us on. So it was up the hill and into the finish. It is always feels so sweet to cross that line, to accomplish the goal that was set. And it is sweet to have that accomplishment witnessed by others knowing the challenge first hand. For me this was a very tough run. Others I talked with agreed. Finishing times were off but not for everyone. Leigh Schmitt won the race in a time one minute faster than his win last year. Francesca Conte, 11th overall won the ladies’ race finishing only 4 minutes slower than in 2005. Friends from Rochester, N.Y. had personal records on that Saturday in April. My friends Teresa, Hillary and Ray and Mike lost their 50-mile distance virginity this year outside of Manassas. And I as I so often do found that sweet spot, it was always there. It always is.
I enjoy documenting my runs. And relish sharing the experience with others. Yet I have found myself with a severe case of writer’s block for more than a year. I’ve been stuck. This inability to express myself I liken to being stuck in the mud. Stuck in pain, disappointment and frustration that often accompany life. On the trail with enough time spent to think life’s sweet spots become more apparent. And on this trail I found my desire to write again, so I did. A wise friend of mine tries to remind me that I have troubles on the job because I have a job. I have challenges with children because I have children in my life. I have money woes because I have some money. Car trouble because I have a car. I have relationship problems because I interact with other people. I choose not to live in a box; if I did I would not have those problems. I struggle on the trail at times because I choose to run long on trails and when I forget that the race is not about struggle. I encounter challenges in life because I am blessed with life. I am a part of life today. This stuff I do, what we do on the trail and in the woods and on the mountain allows me to see just how big life is and it humbles me. It deflates my ego. And that ego of mine needs to be crushed from time to time. It is when the ego is out of the way that I can recognize and find the sweet spots even if they are not obvious. Then I can overlook that which is bitter. And find that suitable solution to living a life, not struggling against it.
This was Bull Run Run 2006. Another memorable day of lessons presented and great way to spend a springtime day. I do thank all who make this happen.
with a couple of definitions and Happy Trails to you,
"I refuse to tip-toe through life only to arrive at death safely." - Scott Weber
John’s definition: a sweet spot is a state of mind, point of view, living in the moment and knowing that; be it while running, holding a baby, performing an honest day’s work or lovemaking; when a combination of factors are recognized having particular value and bring joy; acceptance