I love returning to run a race that I ran the previous year. There is almost no better benchmark to gauge one’s fitness than to return to a familiar course, give it another shot and see how the measurements shake out. This year I fully expected to return to the Bull Run Run 50 (BRR) in better shape than last April, when I ran 6:44 and squeaked out a second place finish by a whisker’s distance.
The race began at 6:30am sharp with a “go!” from RD, Anstr Davidson, and moments later it was just me and Brian Rusiecki, apart from the field. We disappeared into the woods from Hemlock Park, race start and finish area, and ran down the first long hill towards the Occoquan River. 11 minutes into the race, following Brian too closely down the hill, I executed ankle roll number one. Apparently in the blur of Brian’s back and North Face running belt and bottle right in front of me I failed to see one of the million little booby trap rocks lying in wait to snag a toe or hang a heel. The limping began immediately and so I backed off the pace until we reached the bottom of the hill and the river. I never said a word- at least I thought I hadn’t- because I didn’t want to expose a weakness to Brian. Though he figured something had happened I later realized. By the time we crossed the first creek the conversational sounds of trailing runners were not far off but there were no sightings of anyone in our rear view.
The ups and downs of the tall bluff hills and single track came and went. Brian and I chatted. My ankle throbbing subsided. Brian led with a strong pace and I was content to hang on his wheel. We reached the first aid station, then ran the final few miles to the out and back turnaround where we couldn’t help but notice Jason Lantz only a minute or two off our rear. By the time we reached the second aid station we each felt strong and warmed up. The cool morning air slowly warmed up, the sun shinned. It was a beautiful day for a long run in the woods. Seeing so many runners coming at us as we made our way back to Hemlock was a nice pick-me-up. It’s definitely a good thing to see and be around other runners in a race. That is what competition is all about, of course. Sometimes out front in an ultra the only company a runner has are the volunteers when passing through aid stations. It’s not always easy to know how I’m really holding up when all alone. By comparing myself to others on the course I know- I’m either stronger or not, feeling better or not, etc., etc. Not long before the short and steep climb back into Hemlock to round out the first out-and-back section of BRR at mile 16 I looked up to a friend and race volunteer, Tom Corris, standing by the trail and as I did rolled the same ankle a second time. Ouch. I was not happy about the first roll. This second one really ticked me off. I limped along again for a few moments and this time Brian knew what was up. Oh well, so much for keeping a lid on my weaknesses. Brian would eventually pull away in the race anyway I figured, I only wanted to contain him from doing so for as long as possible.
Up the hill we went to Hemlock. Mile 16 at BRR is the only place where a runner can access a drop bag and so some sort of calorie carrying waste pack is a must from this point forward. I guzzled coconut water, switched out a hand held, clipped on a waste pack loaded with Clif gels and chased Brian back into the woods. Funny thing is Brian mistakenly thought I was already gone and so he was chasing me. I wondered why he ran out of there so fast! My watch timer read 2:02. We again reached the Occoquan River, only this time turned left and followed it south. Moments later the bluff hills returned. They kept us company and kept us working all day.
When it comes to running, short distances or long, I’m fairly certain in knowing my weaknesses. Speed is one of them. Ultras provide an excellent competitive landscape for runners lacking in speed because so many other strengths frequently play a role. Over the next several miles Brian continued running hard and I held on. I never felt as though the pace was so blistering that I might fall off or blow up but I also knew that if I wasn’t chasing Brian I wouldn’t be running this hard on my own. It was an eye opener for me in that now I understood where the lead guys and gals in many races –short and long- go to, mentally and physically, to deliver the kind of top performances that they do. Some refer to it as the ‘pain cave’. Brian and I were not quite there, I figured, but we were knocking at the cellar door.
I’ve always been more or less content to plop along in races a few places or so off the lead and not deal with the mental stresses and physical pain that follow a ‘pain cave’ effort. Or maybe I always thought I was already in that place, only for me the basement levels didn’t reach quite as deep underground as they do for others. I realize now that is not the case. One can always go deeper, only in order to do so one must surrender completely- surrender to the pain, surrender to the idea that things might not work out and- even more importantly- believe that things will work out.
Foutainhead aid station at mile 28 is a lively place of volunteers and race spectators. It is also the final aid station before reaching the notorious “Do Loop” and the final looping terminus of the southern turnaround section at BRR. As Brian and I neared Fountainhead Jason Lantz caught us. He was running well. I figured Jason had either (a) slept the night before unlike last year at Grindstone or (b) wasn’t hungover unlike at Massanutten. Or perhaps he was faster thanks to a lighter and shapelier hair load. Either way, the boy came to play and I was annoyed that I would now have to chase two runners instead of one. Shortly after Fountainhead I stopped to leak and Brian and Jason pulled away from me in an instant. Damn it. For 30 miles I work my tail off chasing a runner, stop for 20 seconds and then must spend the next 25 minutes or so chasing them back down. Argh!
|Brian and Jason entering the Do Loop. Photo by Stefan Fedyschyn.|
|Entering the Do Loop. Photo also by Stefan Fedyschyn.|
Heading into the Do Loop is when I caught back up to Brian and Jason. We plodded our way through the nasty, up and down, cambered, unrecognizable, leafy trail sections that is the Do Loop. Brian continued to set the pace. Eventually, finally, we made it out. Exiting the Do Loop is what Tough Mudders must feel like after a shower. It feels so good to be done.
Overall I knew mine, Brian’s and Jason’s time was good in shape, though we did slow a bit in the Do Loop. It put a hurt on us, no doubt about it. We blasted through Fountainhead a second time, at mile 38, and not long after the actual “race” unfolded. I ran out of Fountainhead first until moments later Brian yanked the reigns from me to assume the lead, which he would hold for the remainder of the day. Shortly after, the three of us spread out. Jason slowly peeled off from my rear. Brian had more pep on the hills and slowly disappeared out front. He went on to finish in 6:14. As I said, I waited all day for Brian to pull away. Could I have dug down another level and held on? Perhaps. But most likely still I would have finished second anyway, just with a slightly faster time than 6:23. Jason finished in 6:34 after apparently barfing several times on the course.
A second place finish overall and first place male team finish is something I am very proud. Last year I came in second but my time this year was faster. The course this year was also dry and tacky, unlike last year, but the temperatures were considerably warmer. All in all, I think the test results prove that I am more fit than last year and that is nice to see.
|Coming into Wolf Run Shoals inbound. Photographer extraordinaire: Bobby Gill.|
|Brian, bringing it home. Photo by Bobby Gill.|
As it turns out, my time was the 5th the fastest ever on the course and fastest ever non-winning time. (For what it's worth...) Hopefully one year I can show up at BRR in really good form and win. We’ll see. At this point, it’s on my goal-list. Or at least it would be if I had one.
Aliza Lapierre crushed her own course record and finished 7th overall in 7:05. She is a Salomon team runner and a super strong one at that. The two times I saw Aliza on the course she appeared in control, content and completely unpressured.
The remainder of the day was spent chillin’ in the sun, eating, drinking, socializing and being merry. The post race bbq at BRR was probably the best post-race party scene I’ve ever enjoyed after an ultra. Maybe it is because I have so many friends in VHTRC and WUS who were in attendance it seemed there was an unlimited number of people to catch up and share war stories with. It was an excellent day of running and socializing at BRR. The race is such an enjoyable, friendly, well organized event. It has me thinking hard about MMT and what a waste it would be not to run it.
|Racing feels good. Finishing feels great. Photo by Bobby Gill.|
|Left to right: me, Brian and Jason. Photo by Bobby Gill.|