by Gene Gatens
Waking up in my finisher's pullover Sunday morning, a feeling of warmth enveloped me that was due to a lot more than the fabric on my back or the sun coming through the window. It was the warmth generated by a feeling of great accomplishment, of meeting a challenge. And make no mistake; completing my first 50-miler on that course, on that day, after having never gone further than 50k, was as good as it gets.
But I must admit that at 8 a.m. the previous morning, I was having serious doubts. After two hours of running too fast in what felt like a muddy sauna, my knees were wobbly, my groins were sore, I was sweating like a pig and my heart rate was off the charts. In a prerace strategy session earlier in the week, my partner Chris Frey, and I, were advised by a BRR veteran to start at the front and run fast down to the first stream crossing, to avoid the inevitable logjam there. The plan worked out well, but to my regret, I forgot the second critical bit of advice: once you get there, slow down. I remember running through the big rocks along the river, in company that was way too fast for me, (or equally as stupid) thinking how odd it was that I was sweating so much at 7 o'clock in the morning. But I didn't have the sense, or perhaps the patience, to slow down and gather myself. Soon I found myself sloshing through ankle deep mud, still unwilling to surrender the pace despite rapidly escalating heat, humidity and tiredness, and it was here that I almost blew my whole race.
The Bull Run Run was a running adventure like none I've ever experienced before. For sheer distance alone, it stands out, but it was extremely technical as well. I think the only smooth sections of the course were road crossings, so between the mud, the rocky stream beds and crossings, the rutty open fields and gravel jeep trails, this was almost all technical running, where one misstep could lead to a turned ankle, a face plant, a mud bath or any combination of the three. Of course, all of that is what makes this a magnificent course. I especially loved all the single track, and how it cut a tight path through the dense forest, with the adjacent foliage getting ready to bloom. I imagine it must be breathtaking right now.
Since this was my first 50 miler, I approached it with a healthy degree of reverence. I had no intention of racing with anyone until I was sure that the main objective -- completion -- was in the bag. Nevertheless, I set a casual goal of 9:30, based on something I heard at the HAT Run two weeks before. Someone mentioned that that course was tougher, mile for mile, than Bull Run, so after considering that I finished Hinte strong, with a lot left in the tank, I aimed to run the same pace at BRR. Not exactly the most exhaustive reasoning, but you have to aim for something, right? Anyway, that goal went out the window right around the time that the fire trucks drove away after hosing down the aforementioned muddy section of the course. Lugging my linebacker's body through that thick, shoe-sucking mud in temperatures that reached the 70s by 10 a.m., I was quickly drained. Overheated and breathing heavily, legs tired, shirt pulled off, I started to panic a little. Negative thoughts raced through my mind. Why did we have to smoke the last 10k at Hinte two weeks ago, after agreeing to use the race only as a training run? Why did we do two hard runs the week after Hinte, and just one week before this race? Will my hamstrings, already tender from training, be able to handle these hills coming up? Why am I sweating so much? Where are the car keys...
But as we began to climb out of the steamy lowlands, the temperature dropped a little, along with my heart rate. I met up with Rick Miller, who gave me a salt capsule, and calmly reassured me in his cool California way. Soon we reached the aid station, where I filled my water bottle with Gatorade, drained it, and filled it again while gorging myself on potatoes and salt. I perked up almost instantly, and felt like a new man, literally, as if the race was just starting from that point. It was an amazing transformation, like refilling the cells on a dead battery, and as sure as I'm sitting here right now, I know how lucky I was to have dodged a major bullet. Or bonk, to be more exact.
With renewed confidence, we set out to tackle the fabled Bull Run "rolling terrain," as it was described on the race website. (This was a running joke we used to lighten the mood every time we found ourselves standing at the bottom of another long steep climb..."uh, looks like another roller coming up." Honestly, describing this course as "rolling terrain" is like saying that the Tour de France "has a few climbs." A routine of climbing, descending, crossing a stream, and climbing again seemed to carry on well into the afternoon. There were a few sections of flat running, as I recall, but not many; the grade was constantly changing. By the end of the day, I was actually welcoming the uphills because the technical downhills had taken such a toll on my feet. In the five years since I started running, I've never had a problem with blisters or bad toenails. I can't say that anymore, on either count.
My legs, however, remained strong all day, and our walking was limited to only the uphills. Chris was familiar with the course from one previous appearance, so he was responsible for determining where we would begin running nonstop to the finish. (Notice I didn't use the word "kick.") We ran a few hills just before the river, seizing the opportunity to advance a few places. Along the shoreline, we pushed harder, using hands and feet to swim around ill-placed boulders and trees, and gained another place or two. But for the most part, the competition was so tough, and so determined, and the field so spread out, that it was almost impossible to pick up places. No one was giving an inch, and every attempt to move up on someone was met by a return volley, even after 10 hours of running. There was a lot of looking back and forth, over your shoulder and then up ahead, as runners surrendered terrain only begrudgingly. It was inspiring, truly, to be in the company of such strong -- and headstrong -- runners. I feel a close bond with the men and women with whom I dueled in the closing miles of this race, and I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with them, down the line.
I am truly in awe of the spirit, and determination, of the people who compete in these events, to say nothing of those who win them, in tough conditions, in record time. Simply awesome.
The race concluded in typical ultramarathon fashion, and I'm referring here not to the long, tongue-wagging climb -- although I have found that to be not uncommon in these types of races -- but rather to the manner in which each runner was greeted warmly by volunteers at the finish line, who saw to their every need. As the awards ceremony began near the finish, the race director encouraged everyone to interrupt him each time a runner approached, so that the entire group could cheer that runner in. It was a heartwarming display of community, and I can't recall seeing a single runner walk across the line; to a man, or woman, each managed to finish in a fashion that resembled running. Like I said, awesome.
Thank you to the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, professional race organizers whose attention to detail and quality of care is without equal.
[Editors Note: Gene finished in 10:30:42, 93rd place.]
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