Saturday, May 7, 2016

2016 Bull Run Run 50 Miler Race Recap

After a three week reprieve from races, complete with my first ever 80+ mile training week, it was time to take on Bull Run! Since the elevation profile of the course is just a bunch of rolling hills -- or so I had heard -- I didn't create my traditional race plan. To be honest, I wasn't even sure how long the course really was. The race organizers are old school and seemingly allergic to data.  I figured I'd have a goal of finishing in 7:30 with a dream of 7:15. Looking at previous race results, that meant I had a shot at Top 10.

... Oh, and here's proof of how old school this race is ... look at this absurd course map:
(Official BRR Course Map. Compliments of MSPaint, circa 1985.)

Since the BRR is in the DC area, I was happy to get to spend the night before the race at home in my bed instead of in the back of my SUV or in a tent. However, I had to wake up at 3-ish to make the hour-long drive to the race start at Fountainhead Regional Park along the Occoquan River. When I got there I tried sleeping in my car a bit, but ended up just laying there, biding my time before I went to pick up my race bib and get ready.

I went back and forth between wearing Altra Superiors and Lone Peaks, and 15 minutes before the race start I decided to tear off the Superiors and opt for a little bit more cushioning in the Lone Peaks, despite never having raced in them before. And, lucky for us runners, just before the race started the forecasted rain came rolling through, so I threw my Houdini over my thin long-sleeve shirt and headed to the start, not entirely comfortable with my last minute gear decisions.

As the race started, I tucked in towards the front, but I wasn't too sure of my place.  I ran alongside a handful of runners, chatting them up, and just getting a feel for my pace. The section before the first AS around 7 miles had some rocky, rooty sections but it wasn't that bad. Then there was 2 miles out and 2 miles back to the AS, and this section was FAST. An older guy I was running with (that turns out to have been a Grand Slam finisher) advised that we pick up the pace, but I was already dipping into the 7:40s. As the runners reached the turnaround I counted and realized I was comfortably in 7th place. I made sure I maintained sight of a couple runners in front, but I had no desire to try and play catch-up.

When I rolled by the AS that we passed on the outbound trip, around Mile 11, I begrudgingly ran up a packed incline to the AS, just so I could run around a damn chair and head back into the sea of humanity swarming into the AS. I had no need for water or food either time, but was instructed that I needed to run up a couple dozen steps, awkwardly circle a camp chair, and run back down. I felt like yelling in frustration!

I made the way back to the start, at around 16 miles, and couldn't wait to cast aside my second handheld bottle.  I had wanted to run the race with 2 bottles, despite the numerous aid stations, to get a feel for my Western States hydration strategy. But this 50 Miler was running fast and 2 bottles just felt awkward at the pace I was going, so I threw aside the empty water bottle and kept the one still half filled with electrolytes and calories.  As I exited the AS/Bag-drop, I somehow found myself ahead of everyone I'd been running near for the first third of the race. I was probably in 4th or 5th place at that point.

I continued on, making good time. Near the soccer fields, around Mile 20, I found myself bunched up with 3 other runners, likely representing 4th through 7th. I had been needing to go to the bathroom for a couple of miles, but was not looking forward to squatting in the rain, so I held out hope there'd be restrooms near the soccer fields. One was conveniently right along the race course, but another runner beat me to it, so I rounded the fields and took a slight detour to some other restrooms. Right as that happened, the thunder began to boom and little kids and their parents went scurrying off the fields.

When I was done using the restroom, the 3 runners I was with were long gone, but coming up on me was John Andersen, whom I'd run with 3 weeks earlier at Terrapin. I slowed down so he could catch up, and we ran along together through the next 2 aid stations. It was great to have some company in the rain and slop.

At the start of the White Loop, I pulled ahead of John as he stopped to grab a jacket. At this point I was feeling good and could see a couple of runners a minute or two ahead of me. I picked up the pace and kept rolling through the undulating trail. I quickly picked off one of the runners and then came up alongside Brad Hinton just as we entered the Do Loop. I had heard stories of how draining the Do Loop was -- a 3 mile roller coaster ride -- and went in a bit apprehensive. But 3 miles later I found myself wondering that was it?! All of my trail running in DC is on successive 100' - 150' climbs and descents so I was more than accustomed to the trials of the Do Loop and found it to be rather underwhelming.

At this point in the race I had passed a good number of runners and found myself in 4th place. But I started a period of mental disorientation that lasted through the end of the race.  I never bothered to check my watch for times or distances between aid stations on my route out to the Do Loop. It was supposed to be a 50Miler, and the Do Loop was supposed to end at around 35Miles, but my watch was showing closer to 32. What was going on?! Did I cheat?! Did I miss a turn and skip a section of trail on accident?! How much farther do I really have to go?

I kept trudging along, thinking I've got at least 15 miles to go. I passed through one aid station and remembered on the outbound section a volunteer said it was "only 2 miles to the next one." I thought I was on that section and that I'd quickly come upon the next aid station.  But I had lost track of where I was on the course and was actually in the middle of a 5 mile section between Wolf Run Shoals and the Bull Run Marina. It felt like someone had up and moved an Aid Station just to screw with me. I was clearly losing steam.

I slowly rolled into Bull Run Marina, and saw John Andersen's wife, Michelle. She told me there was about 5 miles to go and that Ryan Paavola was a minute ahead of me in 3rd place.  For about 2 seconds I thought Just dig deep and you'll be on the podium!  Then the fatigue crept back in and I started to panic ... How far back is everyone else? Am I going to get swallowed up in the final miles?!

Just before the soccer fields I ran through what felt like a mile of mud. At this pace, there was no way I'd ever make it to the finish. I came back upon the soccer fields, long since abandoned by all the soccer kids, and saw Ryan maybe a minute ahead. I tried to pick up the pace but my legs weren't having any of it. For the next few miles I stumbled through some rocky sections along the river bank, not really knowing how much farther I had to go. My watch read 45+ Miles and I had a panic attack ... wasn't the last aid station only 5 miles from the finish? What is going on?! Then I looked back and another runner was maybe 150 yards back. Where the hell did he come from?!

I kept trying to pick up the pace, and then I'd immediately resign myself to getting passed and taking 5th.  It's okay, I thought, this is a hard training run, not a race. I came upon a long, steep climb and Ryan was only strides ahead of me, clearly suffering. I passed him and told him to hang in there. When I crested the climb I recognized the open grassy field from earlier in the race. The finish line is just ahead! I looked behind me one last time to see the other runner coming up on me, hard. I dug deep and found I had another gear.  I cruised into the finish, capturing my second 3rd place finish in the last 3 weeks. My watch read 7:16 ... and 46.8 Miles. Thank goodness I didn't have another 3.2 to go!

Bull Run was a fantastic experience. It served as an affirmation that I was on the right track with my training and that I would be ready for Western States come June. If I have any words of advice for other runners out there, it's this:

  • The race is well short of 50 miles! Be thankful.
  • If you're not prepared for miles and miles of rolling trails, this race will chew you up and spit you out.
  • The first third of the race can run fast, but don't overexert yourself.
  • Don't fear the Do Loop!
  • There's bathrooms at the Soccer Fields! (Roughly Miles 20 and 42)

(At the awards ceremony. 3rd Place behind winner Brian Rusiecki. How cool is that?!)

Now, on to Promise Land in 3 weeks!

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