Bull Run Run 50 [Day548]

I wanted to run Bull Run Run 50 Miler for many years, possibly since 2018 and maybe as early as 2017 when I found out about the Virginia Trail Running Club, my local area running club.

However, back then I did not know how hard trail running was or the distance and when I did, I backed out from signing up. It took all these years to get up the courage, to sign up. A few times I tried to sign up but the race was full or the registration had not yet opened.

It was not until a friend encouraged me to run the MMT 100 about three years ago that I started to involve myself in the club. Covid also helped since less people sign up for group events and the lottery selection was not needed.

If it was my first time running the MMT 100, I wouldn’t dare tackle the BRR 50. You know, one slight accident on the BRR course would derail the 100 miler that is a month out. Many who are doing the MMT signed up BRR, for the same reason as me.

Long story short, this year I finally got a spot in the famous Bull Run Run 50 miler (BRR50). By now I am a much stronger runner. I can handle a 50 miler with confident.

I still put in the work. I attended one of their training runs. They had three sessions this year but two of them I had scheduling conflict due to my racing or other training runs. I trained for it last year too even though I did not get in. I was sufficiently ready this time.

We had a warm day. Hot in fact compared with 30 F we had recently. Thursday before we had 85 degrees (29-30C). I forced myself to go out and had a hot run for heat training and that was definitely very helpful in preparing for this.

Note too just the previous weekend, I ran in near 30 F temperature. So the swing from near freezing to the extreme heat was difficult for a lot of people to adjust to. I almost thought I couldn’t handle it either. The heat in Virginia is not like the dry heat out west, here when it is hot it is also very humid. For runners, it means our bodies can’t be easily cool down.

I ran for 7 miles Thursday. Friday I did not run. The temperature was a bit cooler around mid 70s. Saturday morning, I woke up around 4 AM, and it was already “hot” around 70s. I knew we were going have a hot day. The air was humid. Rain and thunderstorms were forecasted but did not come. So the humidity unofficially were near 100%. The air was thick.

I arrived at the race site around 5:30 in the morning. Everyone were up and about. Some people camped there. Traditionally, you could stay in a cabin overnight. It is a lot of fun, like a runner camping trip.

I was not early. Parking was an issue we were warned. They asked people to carpool if possible and the incentive was getting a closer parking spot. For the rest who didn’t carpool, we parked like half a mile away and walked to the start.

The race started at 6:30. I met up with a few good friends. Charlie and Stuart and a few others. I had coffee from the dinning hall. That was cool they opened it and we could have a small breakfast and socialize with other runners.

People saw how relaxed and confident I was thought I had run the race many times. They (the first time runners) were asking me various things because they thought I knew. I said I only ran a few training runs and am familiar with the trails. I love this race and the people. It is true VHTRC races have the best aid stations.

The staging area was big and everything seemed well placed and well organized. I placed two drop bags, one to be taken to Foundtainhead (mile 30 and 37) and one to be remain at Hemlock (mile 17 and 50), which we’d pass by at mile 17. The course is a double out and back with the finish at Hemlock which is about “halfway” point from the north and south, in Clifton, near where I live. We were to run to Bull Run Park and back and then run to Fountainhead and back.

I was sweating profusely immediately once we started running. I ran slowly and was not in an hurry. This helped with the breathing. I was not fighting for position with anyone. I learned from my experience during my few training runs there of not starting too fast.

Slowly I reeled in people. I drank from time to time. My footing was good unlike during training in February when I rolled my ankle on this course. My feet just knew where to step without me being too focus on where to step. It was as if a second nature. I was happy and comfortable.

During the training run, I was too focused on where to step. I had to pick each single step because a single misstep would mean tumbling or rolling my ankle. But today, I had the flow. I run in my natural gait and it didn’t matter where I landed as long as it is not loose underneath, I could find my balance. This was a big difference!

In the past, I adjusted my steps and it messed up my gait but now I just learned to balance better no matter if I landed even on an uneven surface, I just have to balance on it. I found it was easy. Just run normally. During the training I got tired after half an hour on this trail but today I felt refreshed.

The race was uneventful. The course was dry. Those who remember, a few times I did this trail, it was always muddy. I told myself, run a boring pace. No need to rush for anything. No surprises.

I started in the back almost the last one out and so was not fighting for position on a single trail. Those I passed usually would be too weak to pass me back. Over time the separation of the fast and slow runners became bigger and it got easier for me to pass some of the “faster” people in the front because by the time I reached them, they were no longer fast and they were more willing to let me pass. I was not the only one using this strategy. There were a few others.

I got to Bull Run Park and did the Blue Bell Loop. Amanda was there offering water. Amanda is my friend whom I ran with the previous week at the MMT night training. It was good seeing her again. I was a bit disappointed she did not sign up to run this one. I am sure it would have been a good training. But she might be struggling with the cutoffs and thus did not want to put her through the stress. Amanda will be doing the MMT.

I was running with a group about my pace. Somehow after Bull Run, the pack spreaded out and I found the next pack. I was behind an older man, we were still in a pack when he tripped over a root and fell as I were thinking about to pass him. The pack ran on without pause but I stopped for him. So I walked with him for a bit to make sure he was alright. I got him to the Centreville Road Aid Station. Not sure if he later finished, his pace was slowing down after the fall. He seemed to be shaken up.

There were a few people I saw with bloody elbows or shins who took a fall in the Centreville section. I actually don’t know why because this is the easier and flatter section compared to later sections of the race.

The race slowed down a bit for me too because I was a bit bored and was by myself. There was a long stretch without seeing anyone since I walked earlier with the guy and my pace got behind a bit.

The section going back to Hemlock was more hilly. I was familiar with this section because it is closer to where I live. I could run these hills since I was still pretty strong, however, I had to hold back on my pace. Two women (navy) were behind me and they were pushing the pace a bit earlier but somehow kept dropping back because they walked the hills. At times I let them passed me. One time during the passing, they almost collided with runners coming from the other direction. They were a bit of a rush and didn’t see. I didn’t like that. I don’t know if they finished either because I did not see them again. They also settled down in their pace after one of them tripped and fell. They stopped a few times for bathroom breaks. We were only 10 miles in.

Next, we passed a team of three. They had an older man probably in his 60s of his first 50 miler part of their team. This race had a team competition. The younger people could probably run faster but they ran with the man. I think this team was one that passed us on the final 8 miles of the race. They were fast (after the older gentleman had dropped from the race I am guess). I knew they were fast. I stayed with them for a time and chatting with the guys. The lead of the pack almost fell too when he tripped over a root. We were all laughing at him since he seemed to be so good and shouldn’t be tripping.

After passing them now, I encountered a few more guys. One seemed to be cramping up because he was kind of limping. We were closed to Hemlock. So I rushed on ahead. I was surprised people were struggling so earlier on and throughout the race, I saw a lot of the same, because fast people already ran on ahead and I did not get to see them. Those I came across were not doing well. I was not particularly fast but I was running and passing people. In my head I did the time and pace calculation, and I felt I was within an acceptable pace.

As I rushed up to Hemlock I came across Alma (that wasn’t her name, but I assigned names to people) and I thought her name was Tracy during the whole race, because I ran with Tracy earlier but somehow I lost her and I thought I caught up to Tracy again. Later as I was writing this, I found out they were different people. I am one of those who think everyone’s faces look the same 🙈. Alma will be volunteering at the MMT.

Anyway, Alma also took a fall earlier and bruished her shin. It was bleeding, swollen and looked bad. Later at the aid station a dear friend Charleen taped her up. She was moving but seemed to be struggling. She wanted to quit at mile 17 but Charleen got her back out.

We were only at mile 17, not yet halfway. I said I will pace her to the end if she wants to because I figured I need a slow pace like I will be doing for MMT in a month time. I want to practice the slow steady pace on the 50 miler, aiming to finish by 7-7:30. I was sure I could do this race under 12 hours, but I wanted to run and not exhaust myself. I spent a lot time walking and talking with people to hear their stories. Some of course, did not look like willing to talk and I left them alone.

By the way I came across Jeff friend’s from Eddingburg, whom I wrote about in a previous MMT training. Dylan was running in this race and Jeff was supporting.

Alma said you are going to pace me for the next 35 miles? I said yes.

I went for my dropbag. The guy who was limping earlier came into the station vomiting. I think he had heat related issues or could be food poisoning. You know runners grabbing food at the food stations, or they didn’t wipe their hands after using the restroom. Any of those could get a runner sick during a race.

His wife was trying to help him. They had salt tablets available at the aid station but his wife heard me said to give him salt, so she found the whole can of salt and brought that to him. I said no, get the salt tablets. It was a OMG that was too much salt, she was going to kill the guy by pouring that much into his small cup. This remind me to put a big-big cup in my drop bag iny next ultra event. Looking back it was kind of funny to see the inexperience crew and a runner struggling. This is why you want crews who also are runners.

The guy was probably having brain fog. His wife was not helping. I suggested give the guys some ice to cool him off. But my time was up and I left the station. I wish I know what happened to them. Not sure if the guy went on out after me or stayed. I wish I could help him but at the same time I did not want to interfere. If he had gone on out, he might have fainted because the day was going to get hotter and the trail harder still. He looked pretty beat up at that point and this was only mile 17 about 9:30 or 10 in the morning. I didn’t want to encourage him, so I quickly left. I felt torn to tell the guy not to go back out.

I forgot all about Alma too and left without her. I didn’t see her again until 12-13 miles later. I don’t remember much of my run out from Hemlock to the Bull Run Marina. I was able to adjusted to the heat by now. My sweat was evaporating. They had ice at all aid stations and that was a life-saver. I had ice poured into my hydration pak. It kept my back cool. The oppressive low pressure storm system seemed to be lifted. Humidity seemed to be better. I could feel the breezes. I caught up to the race pack, those that seemed to be able to finish the race at that point in time. I passed anyone who walked.

From Bull Run Marina to Wolf Run Shoals and then Fountainhead was uneventful as well. There I caught up to Jamie. I ran with Jamie in the past. She is quite famous due to her cheery personality. Everyone knows Jamie. She is usually faster than me. Today she was with her team of four and one of the women was struggling probably due to the heat, so their pace had slowed a bit, doing run walk. The woman couldn’t eat. They were offering her various solution. I think ultimately she was dropped from the race maybe at the second Fountainhead. I was with them for a few miles. No harm in following Jamie. Seeing her was a relief because I know I could finish by 6 pm at her pace. Jamie finished around 12.5 hours.

I was thinking, I had not done the next section the Do-Loop that was coming up. I heard a lot of people had gotten lost in there before and so I wanted to follow Jamie, thinking she might have done this section in the past and we would not get lost.

Jamie and her team was moving too slow for me so I passed them. I got to Wolf Run Shoals before them and then pushed onto Fountainhead. On my way there, I passed several people. Most were walking by now since it was past noon and we passed the 25 mile point. People were spent. They had a grim look and I stayed away from them and only shouted “you are doing great” as I passed by.

There was this Asian guy. I was a bit sympathetic because he looked like me. I walked with him maybe for a mile and started talking. He was receptive. He said he couldn’t do this any more. I said, we still have 6-7 hours how come it is not possible to finish. Surely even by walking we could put in 20 miles in 6 or 7 hours. Surely his pace would pick back up. We ran ultras and so we knew, you have cycles of highs and lows.

He said he has done this race 9-10 times. He knows that at his pace he wouldn’t finish. He said to make it he would need to get to Fountainhead by 1:15. And we were still couple miles out. Likely he would be arriving at the station’s cut off. The guy’s past strategy was to run very fast to fountainhead at first half of the race and then walk the rest of the way and would still finish under 10 hours, which is quite a feat. I ran 50 milers never gotten under 10 hours. I didn’t see him again.

His plan did not work today. I think it was because of the heat. I said goodbye to him and ran to Fountainhead and arrived by 1:15. The station cutoff was not until 1:45. We had to finish the Do Loop and arrived back at Fountainhead by 4:15. Two and half hours to do 9 miles. To me that was a lot of time because I could run 4-5 miles an hour.

There were a lot of asians that day, because the MARRC (Montgomery Asian Road Runner Club) were represented there. They had their separate aid stations. They all wear their club shirt.

As I was filling up my water, Jamie and her team arrived. Alma also arrived. I apologized to her for not waiting earlier. Apparently she was fast enough to catch up to me. She said she was concerning about cutoffs, but to me, it should not be an issue, we had at least 30 minutes to burn. If we keep our current pace, we wouldn’t have to dip into our buffer. I would pace her in earnest. If I get a DNF (did not finish) because of the slow pace, so be it. I at least had my training for the MMT done.

Somehow around this time Alma lost her phone. She thinks it might have fallen off while she was bending over for her drop bag. She did not realize it until we left the station. It was too late to go back for it. It was either to give up the race to look for the phone or continue on. I offered to check for it on find-my-phone app/something. But we were a bit tight on time, so we hurried on.

Compounding that once we left the station about quarter mile in, we got lost. Granted we were with Jamie and her team too plus 5-6 other people around us. Our whole group of 10+ people all got lost together because everyone was following the person in front of them and not doing their own homework.

Some people cursed and became angry as if it was our fault since we were nearer to the front and because they were following us. We went down this steep hill and the lead person said they no longer see the course ribbons and thinks we are on the wrong trail. We could either go back or continue.

I went back immediately while the group stayed around still debating if to go forward or backwark. We were at a three-way cross trail without ribbons guiding us which way to turn.

My spider sense told me we were off and backtracking was the right thing to do. I ran back up the hill and came to the last guy who just was coming down and he said this was the right way. He seemed sure.

However, I did not go a little further back to double check on his words and I trusted him completely. Of course he was wrong. I am mad at him just like other people was mad at me. I ran back down the hill with his false info saying we had confirmation from an runner that we are on the right trail.

The group was still standing there debating. A few of us then ran on ahead to see if we could see any flagging. We saw some runners came down on a parallel trail and there were blue ribbons on that path but not ours, thus confirming we were indeed not where we were supposed to be but we were not too far off course either. We could take a short cut to get back on the right trail from there but that would be a violation of the race rules. We had to return to where we got off course. So I led the group backtracking up onto the hill where we came down of. Some people already left it us once they heard the word to go back.

From the map, they could also cut the course short because the trail was curvy but that would be in violation too. Alma’s GPS watch was indicating we were backtracking on the present trail thus, going the wrong way, and luckily we ignored that. Her GPS was wrong at the time. She blamed herself of not downloading the GPX file onto her watch before the race. I didn’t blame her. No need to cry over spilled milk. I did the map study before the race. I like some adventures like this.

Once we got back on where we got off course, there was another argument whether to go left or right. We got off course on curve section of the course. No one remember where we came off from. Some said we came from that way, but some said the other way. Both ways looked the same. The earlier group that got there first of the group chose one way. Their reasoning was we were walking straight at the time and didn’t make any turns and believed we came from the left because that seemed to match our memory of going straight. By the time Jamie group came up, a few of us caught a glimpse of some runners (those that did not get lost with us) in a distance in the forest, so turning left seemed to get us there, and we picked to go to the left and luckily that was the correct way. My gut feeling also said to go that way based on the terrain and the parallel trail I saw earlier. We had no idea what happened to the few that took the other way because we never saw them again. They would have arrived back at the aid station. They could cheat and said they did the loop or they could give up, or they could go back in and do the loop all over. We were pretty much at the last position from that point on till the end of the race. No other people passed us until way later.

Our little side trip costed us maybe 15-20 minutes in total, but it could have been a race ending event, thus many who were with us cursed in anguish. I did not let that affect me. In my mind, we were still in the game. Alma didn’t say anything either. We had to keep our emotion in check.

Jamie and her team said we now had to run and they ran and disappeared. They have been mostly walking earlier for the sake of their weakest runner. I was left with Alma and an older gentleman (I don’t remember if the same gentleman who gave me the wrong direction).

We soon left the older guy behind too maybe after a mile or so since he couldn’t keep the pace. Alma and I ended up doing the Do-Loop by ourselves. Alma put in a good pace of not too fast nor too slow. We passed a few people we saw earlier of those who didn’t get lost and that gave us confident we were back on track or on the pace we were originally doing. We passed a Jamie’s teammate, one who was having stomach issue. She later did not make the time cut-off.

This was my third time passing many of the same runners. I felt like covering the same ground and I hoped that it would be the last time. Everyone we passed, were pretty tired and their pace couldn’t be trusted either. We knew and we did the math. Indeed, later many of them didn’t make the cut.

Also as we entered the Do Loop (blue horse trail) a lot of earlier runners were exiting it, meaning they had completed the loop already, and we had wasted too much time with getting lost. Those people were at where we should be at if we did not have a little detour. I think at the this point we came across the real Tracy, who is a friend to Alma.

I did not let the feeling of self pity messed up our mentality. I know we were a bit behind on pace. We got to the actual Do-Loop entrance, which is just a 2 mile loop. The critical point is to enter and exit it correctly. There were runners in times past who did this loop more than once by accident and we would not want that today. It is sort of a running joke. I enjoyed the loop. It was hilly but not any more so than other hills we encountered earlier.

Funny thing was when we left the Do Loop, there were runners still entering it. Alma asked me if I think those people could finish. I doubted they could but did not want to discourage those runners or ourselves. I said I believe they have a chance otherwise they would have been cut earlier. If they have a chance so would we. Always believe. Those runners too were cheerful, giving us encouragements.

Alma told me a lot of things in the interval. Of her races. She had attempted Eastern States in 2017, maybe after two years of trail running. She is a brave person. I ran for 7 years and did not think I got what it takes to run the Eastern States. She did The Wild Oak Trail, the Cold Trot during Feb 2018, and got it done in 47 hours? The TROT race director encouraged me to sign up for next year. Doing that race is an impressive feat. I did one loop of TROT, 25 miles and it took me 12.5 hours. Indeed 48 hours was anything but torture for her. Since then she attempted Grayson Highlands. She ran Stonemill and JFK, races I also ran before.

She was not flexing. She didn’t tell me her results but later when I looked them up, yes she had impressive finishes, way faster time than me. She told me the time she ran out of water and there was 8 miles to go to the next aid station and she had to drink out of a creek and that got her sick. She was vomiting blood. She got to mile 68-70 before tapping out that time. That was some runner experiences I did not have and hope never will. We were not yet at that stage of desperation. I asked if she wrote race reports. She did not. I agree with her that race reports on races one didn’t finish is more important than ones we did finish.

I knew from her stories she has the persistency to finish the race today. Even before her stories I knew she was a mentally strong runner based on the way she ran. She was running all the uphills within reason, which was a good thing. In the racing world one of the mantras is to walk uphill and run down hill. However, this usually applies to marathons, once you have done a lot of ultras the reverse is usually true, you run up on hills you can run and walk on the downhill, of those you can’t. Doing this will save the legs (quads). I knew I was not dealing with a newbie runner.

Alma’s pace decayed a little by little during the Do Loop, which was normal. I was pray it would not decay too quickly to a point where she was too slow to continue. I’ve been through that before. She had the relentless forward mentality. She was saying we were doing 17 min mile and we were moving 15 min mile before. I think the course pace was 16 min mile. She was still pretty much in control of her pace.

At every subsequent aid station we were losing couple minutes here and there. Our initial 15 minutes buffer from the cut off was down to 10 minutes by the time we arrived at Fountainhead after the Do Loop. We left at 4:06 pm (cut off was at 4:15 pm). We lost a bit more time at Wolf Run Shoals. No cut off at here. The next one was 6:00 pm at the Bull Run Marina. We got to the Marina by 5:52 pm. They said we only have 8 minutes left. That was kind of scary really.

As we were pressing toward the Marina and there were a bit too much hills. Alma was slowing down a lot at every hill at this point. I could walk up on hills normally but she couldn’t keep up with me. She was breathing intensely each time. From the back of my head I knew we would make it but I was still afraid we wouldn’t. I had to take a deep breath from time to time to remind myself it is okay. If we get cut, we get cut. I did not want to stress her or showed being frustrated. I had to imagine that I was not in a race and felt calm again. From the Marina we had 5.4 miles to the finish and we had until 7:30 to be within 13 hours of the race final cutoff. She urged me to go ahead of her to get to the finish.

We didn’t talk much after the Marina. I sat down at the aid station trying to clean my shoes because rocks were getting it and it creating a blister on the right foot’s heel, but then my quads started to cramp up. It was not good. I asked the volunteer for some banana pieces and drank some gatorade. It helped with the cramp. Alma said she would walk on ahead while I could catch up later. Smart of her. Yes, the ultra mantra is “avoid the chair!”

The last section, people from the rear were passing us. Maybe 5-6 of them. They formed a train pack and ran on together. It was amazing I did not recognize these people before. Normally I’d recognize all the people I passed earlier. They looked tough and strong and absolutely fresh. What were they doing in the back I asked myself. They were booking it. I believe they might have been in a team and once their slowest team member dropped, they were free to run and they did. They were doing 9-10 min pace rushing to the finish. I wanted to join and run with them, yet I felt I should stay with Alma. I know we would able to finish but the cutoff was just tantalizing.

6:45. We were nearer to the finish. I sense we were still two miles out and maybe three. We got to the rockiest section of the trail. I used to have trouble with this, but today it was easy. With a lot of practice at MMT, I could run on this section. It was fun for me. Compared to Kerns Mountain last weekend, this quarter mile or rocks was nothing. We caught up to a few people who were walking. Alma could still run on the flat section!

7:15. We climbed the last hill. There was 15 minutes left on the clock. Unless the finish line were still a mile away there was no way we would not finish on time. Alma said lets run it in. Sure. I got in with 5-10 minutes to spare. We were the last six to finish the race. Actually there were a few who came in behind us, but I was probably looking away and was getting food. One guy who ran this 14 times from Alabama finished with 20 seconds to spare. We all cheered him and gave him a standing ovation. He sprinted in. It was heartfelt. We saw him earlier on the trail. When I first saw him, I told myself this guy will finish. He did. Somehow, we all liked the last guy finishing. I like how even we were the last to finish there were still a bunch of people there cheering us.

One of the sweepers, Marty my friend, said I would finish when we were at the Marina. He said, don’t let him catch me. The race RD commented that this was the fastest sweep they had. The sweepers came in just under two minutes after the closing. We all cheered the sweepers too. We had stayed ahead of the sweeps. I told him I was running like he did at the Red Eye 50K at the beginning of the year (he and I ran together that time to make it under the cutoff). We did it. Marty is a fast runner (faster than me) and he is older. I joked with him that I ran like he did.

Leasons: There were many. Aid stations saved the day, especially the ice and popsicles. I was quicked to make adjustments mid race. It saved my foot. I didn’t mention that I bandaged my foot at mile 17 when I started to feel hotspot on the back of my heel. The pace was right. Celebration good. I had fun.

We stayed until 8:30 when it started to get dark. I wish I had finished earlier so to eat all they had to offer. Someone did metion they found a phone but they didn’t know what happened to it. I was not sure if that was Alma’s or if Alma was able to retrieve it at the end. I forgot to ask when we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. I stayed to eat some more. My other friend finished but he could not walk to the food table. I was sitting on the bench watching other runners coming in. I shared my food with him. I kind of laugh that was how I used to be in other races, couldn’t move. Later I found him standing by the food tent eating. Avoid the chair! This time I finished and still was relatively fresh. The next day though was a different story (I stayed in bed the whole day).

This was the end of my weekend adventure. If not for a race, I would not be able to will myself to run 50 miles on my own. I was happy with the new friends I made on the trail. Sometimes, running is not about time but the community.

Up next, of course will be the MMT itself. I will have couple smaller events before it. I spoke with Larry, RD from MMT first training run, after the BRR (I think he ran the BRR that day, but he already looked clean and fresh), he said I should be careful of not overtrained for the MMT. Indeed. This is the same Larry that will be doing the Western States this summer. I felt honor he looked me up and talked to me. Everyone know that I am going back to the MMT and every race is a stepping stone including the BRR.

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