By John Prohira
“What size shoe do you wear?” “Ten.” That was the reply given by Bill Hearne, a Northern runner to his friend Joe Gilroy. “Me too.” Replied Gilroy. “Try my hiking boots on and see how they feel.” Evidently they were comfortable enough because Bill was able to walk 24 miles to the finish line of the Bull Run Run on Saturday, April 12 in spite of severely spraining his ankle a couple of miles from the infamous Do Loop. Joe who had come south with the Rochester, New York division of runners was walking parts of the course encouraging all he came in contact with. He just happened to have been in the area near Bill after his accident. He just happened to be the kind of guy who would give another the shirt off his back or shoes from his feet. Bill just happened to be one who could accept the assistance offered and accept what had happened when he rolled his ankle for the third time of the day. He dealt with it. I always wonder before a long race just what trail lesson will be presented and if I will be cognizant enough to recognize it for what it is. It would be a waste to miss it. The evening before the race I would be tipped off about the direction in which that lesson might come. Our race director Scottie Mills spoke of it at the pre race briefing. His advice for running this year’s BRR involved acceptance. Over the past few years I have grown to like these Southern boys and girls from the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club. I no longer am surprised when they have their moments, shine and offer sage advice like Scottie’s.
There was a soggy feel to the Friday afternoon as I arrived at race headquarters located at the Hemlock Overlook. Hemlock Overlook Center for Outdoor Education is jointly operated by George Mason University and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. It resides in 5000 acres of Regional Park land on the western border of Fairfax Co. The mission of the Center is to challenge individuals, organizations, and communities to grow, change and develop by facilitating high-quality experiential programs. I watched groups of teenagers building team skills while running obstacle courses and playing games in the woods that surround the Spartan buildings at the Overlook. There are sleeping barracks available for those using the center, a mess hall, bathrooms and the hottest showers I have ever encountered after an ultra.
The decision to use the back of my van as a bedroom rather than sleeping in a tent made more and more sense in light of the water soaked ground. On this, my sixth BRR in as many years, I would join 283 other men and woman and run a race in the woods whose route had been altered at the last minute due to deep standing water on portions of the course. There was a fear that runners might venture onto these muddy flatlands and at best loose shoes in the mud. Worse mud scenarios were better not fixated on. The VHTRC acted responsibly and accepted what Mother Nature delivered in the weeks leading up to their Spring event. In my opinion theirs was a good choice and the distance added to the other side of the course as replacement was fair, challenging and enjoyable.
This 50-mile trail run is one of the premiere events staged by the VHTRC and a class act from start to finish. After the pre race feed Scottie Mills gave his briefing for the eleventh battle of Bull Run Run stressing important aspects of trail safety and etiquette, the course description and trail markings. He explained why the course had been changed and spoke of the mud and high water in the creeks and runs we would cross on the north end of the park. He insisted that by accepting the conditions as they were rather than fighting them runners would fare well.
Sleep came to me quickly soon after dark and during the night I realized that it was chillier inside the closed van than outside. Warmer weather had blown in chasing cloud cover away. Most runners came to the starting line dressed in shorts and shirts and wearing smiles. Runners would run for different reasons; personal or for the glory of their team. Five member teams could be entered at BRR. These teams competed in age group categories and sported the most interesting of names like: RUST, RAT Bastards, Guys and Dolls and for those with a little chemistry background --C2H5OH. I like surrounding myself with people like this, people who will step up and embrace the day. I find their energy intoxicating and I want to be part of it. This was real fun to be tasted and felt deep within bones, muscles and spirit. This is not the realm of the spectator but of the doer. What the BRR runners planned on doing from dawn to dusk was play. Their efforts would have little tangible value if measured by economic metrics. There would be sparse recognition for what was being attempted and accomplished. Yet I find what I do with my fellow runner on the trail so meaningful. The people that surrounded me on Saturday are those I most admire; those I aspire to be more like. They do not watch others doing . . . they do. They do not look for others to get their kicks for them; they get them for themselves - in surreal fashion but in real time.
We began at 6:15 AM and a nice job of spreading the crowd out before entering the trail system was achieved as we ran a little asphalt and dirt road around the Overlook.
Then it was onto the trail moving upstream. The first water crossing of the day appeared 15 minutes after my start. As proof of our embrace of the day we entered Pope’s Head Creek into water knee deep. I had visited this creek the previous evening and on Saturday morning was pleasantly surprised to see that the water level had dropped by near a foot over night. Other opportunities to cool off presented themselves and near one of these creeks Anstr Davidson; ultrarunner and webmaster for VHTRC directed runners across the water while documenting their passage with his electronic camera. We followed Bull Run to Centerville at 6.5 miles where we were turned around and told to retrace most of our steps, through the water and mud then up the hill back to the Overlook. Slippery terrain plus a few rocks was the order of the morning but fair enough – we had been forewarned.
Back where we started 13 miles ago well-wishers called us in and then bid us farewell. We left them by heading along the Occoquan River downstream towards the back end of the course where we would turn around and return as we came. The sun appeared with full glory after leaving the Overlook for the second time and helped raise spirits and chase away the doubts that accompany growing fatigue. Aid stations came when most needed and were filled with helpful and cheerful people who knew how to care for ultrarunners. I knew that fresh fruit would be on the table at the Marina aid station we would visit at mile 18 and again 45 miles along the way to the finish line. There I ate the sweetest strawberries of the year while my bottles were being refilled. The theme of the aid station at miles 23 and 40 at Wolf Run Shoals was the Oasis. Along with their fun loving approach to offering aid to runners with unbridled enthusiasm they once again offered ice cream. I smiled at the ladies there dressed in grass skirts and wearing coconut shell bras but cringed every time Stanley Duobinis wearing a similar outfit bent over – yikes! After the thrills at the Oasis the white loop beckoned; a 3-mile trail that twists and turns upon itself up and down and over and over again. The energy expended here was fair payment for the rugged beauty seen on the tree lined trail marked with white blazes.
It and He lay ahead and the aid received at Fountainhead prepared me for both. Fountainhead station contained a rather civilized bunch of aid personnel and lots of well wishers enjoying the sunny Virginian spring day. Soon after that aid station reprieve I saw Him. Him - the keeper of the Anti-Trail. If there is anyone to blame for what lie ahead in da Do Loop it is Chris Scott, the founder of Bull Run Run. If there is anyone to thank for that same experience in da Loop it is the same Chris Scott. He and his cronies stood at tables offering food, drink, jokes, jabs and alcohol to those Looping it. I do not know how many hills there are back in this 3-mile section of the course but do know it is either up or down in there. Over and over and over again. And to give Chris credit, he never did say there was a trail in there – just a loop. Again I accepted and had faith that there was solid ground underneath the thick layers of dry leaves and ran as best I could in between the trees that sported blue streamers as trail markings. There had to have been 60-70 people through da Loop before me but I saw no sign of passage, no footprints and no apparent disturbance of the ground cover. The Nash Rambler is still decomposing in there, the car abandoned there how many years ago I wondered. This year I allowed a Virginian to show me how to run da Do Loop. I followed John Dodds through the maze. He made it look easy. John is known for writing humorous race reports where he tries to disguise running wisdom and a deep appreciation of ultrarunning with sharp wit. John does not fool me. He obtained my unsolicited respect last year at the Massanutten Mountain 100 Miler when he remedied a severe chafing problem in the simplest of ways by removing the irritating shorts and running bottomless throughout the night. Gosh I like these people, I like their antics, their stories, and the challenges they offer their friends. That is how I felt joking and jiving with them; like I was one of them and that they understood completely what was going on as we ran from here to there.
Passing on the tequila offered as I exited da Do Loop I bid Chris and the crew good day and headed home. Now moving away from the far end of the course I was soothed knowing that more of the 50 miles lay behind me than ahead. Runners approached heading towards their own rendezvous with Chris. Almost six hours into this run the distance had begun to grind me down physically and mentally, I recognized what was happening and have on many occasions attempted to describe what it feels like. It’s as if layer after layer of ego is being peeled from my psyche and I become more and more sensitive to the world around me. I have come to appreciate this altered state and almost look forward to it. It can be humbling and I think that is a good thing. On my way back to the Overlook I made the effort to look into the eyes of my fellow runner as we passed one another. And I saw the same thing over and over again – acceptance but nothing near defeat. There was that look of fatigue and discomfort but little discouragement. I believe we all understood in one way or the other the deeply significant thing fringing on the asinine that was being accomplished here by putting one foot in front of the other again and again.
I watched friends from New York running and completing their first ultramarathon; finding and tapping into the required inner strength and faith. I saw runner after runner accepting the day as it came and rising to meet the challenge. Acceptance did not mean rolling over and playing dead or giving up, but did mean resigning and reconciling oneself to the situation. Acceptance meant understanding and honestly assessing what lay ahead and then doing what needed to be done. Acceptance did not mean that they had to like the mud, the ache and the pain or the hand they had been dealt; acceptance meant finishing what they had set out to do in spite of it. Frank Probst, a Southern runner with an impressive running resume did not like the fact that he was running with a nagging injury but he did not want to end his streak of 11 consecutive BRR finishes nor let his team mates down by quitting. My friend Bill Hearne could not have liked spraining his ankle but laced up those borrowed boots high and tight and finished his run. On the drive home Sunday I heard a song on the radio whose words exemplified the example of Frank and Bill and the other BRR runners. The line that moved me was, “And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance . . . dance.” What I witnessed was runner after runner dancing through the woods, with their own rhythm and at their own pace but with a common goal.
As I struggled late in the race wanting to finish strong instead of growing frustrated with waning energy I accepted that I was moving as fast as I could. I could do no more and no more could be asked of me. I was comforted knowing that all of us ran the same course that day. When a runner came up behind me in those last miles and passed by I knew that they deserved it because they were stronger and more capable at that moment. I accepted that and truly was happy for them. Walking up that last hill to the Overlook the climb felt twice as long and steep as it had only hours before. The finish line lay across one last field, just around the corner and I knew that I should be running but the walk felt so good. A runner slowed down as he caught up to me and spoke. I recognized that voice. It was the smiling wildflower lover Gary Knipling. He grabbed my hand and said, “John from New York! I am so glad to see you! Come on . . . we’ll run this thing in together.” And that is how I ended this years race, together and hand in hand with my friend Gary Knipling and David Feinauer another BRR traveler I met a few yards later.
The end is always sweet and I love watching runners approach and step across the finish line. There were hugs and laughter and cheers and all manner in which to celebrate. Karen Shiley, the third woman finisher had taken trail mud and rubbed it on her face in war paint fashion, a very cool look. Laurie Ann Schuler completed her race as she always does, by doing a cartwheel across the finish line. I had the pleasure of visiting a bit with Phil Andersen, ultrarunner and one of the HAT 50K’s race directors. I told him I would write a report on this year’s Bull Run Run using acceptance as the theme. “You mean about belonging to a group?” I told him no that was not the track that I would take. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that Phil had hit upon another important reason I am so enamored with this type of endeavor. It is in large part because of the acceptance I feel in the presence of my fellow long distance traveler. I belong here.
Acceptance, such a big word in so many ways.
The 2003 Bull Run Run was a success on all levels! The start of the second ten year campaign went off without a hitch as far as I am concerned. But then well-run and flawlessly directed events often appear that way; simple and transparent when in fact they are the result of lots of work, time and energy. My thanks to all involved in making my weekend in Virginia a memorable one.
In signing off I offer a couple of I think appropriate quotations.
"Perhaps the genius of ultrarunning is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of space ships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runners know this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being -- a call that asks who they are ..." - David Blaikie
"A man must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without any hope of fame and money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well." - G. K. Chesterton
"I run distance because I want to be in good shape when I die." - Unknown