I had run Stone Mill 50 in November of 2016 with hopes of a win and big PR. Instead, a poorly marked course made the day one I’d like to forget. I still finished 3rd with a slight PR, but I left frustrated and felt like my training was wasted. Either way, my season was over and I was ready for the off-season. Some careless easy running for a month or so when a long training block leading up to A-race #1 (yes, I have more than ONE A-race), Bull Run Run 50.
I ran Bull Run Run in 2015. It was my second trail 50 miler with my first being an underwhelming performance at Cayuga 50 that same year in June. I was still a noob, especially at 50 milers. I wanted another crack at it and Bull Run was it. Well, a new job, life stressors (the job sucked), and what seemed like going from one cold to another for weeks made my pathetic training blog barely existent. We had a cold, snowy winter and the best I could do is cram in a hilly road 50k 2 weeks before the race. I felt OK during the race but the relative heat and my lack of fitness wore on me and the last 15 miles were tough, fighting hamstring cramps. I finished 25th overall with a time of 8:22:35. Not a bad time at all, but I wasn’t ready for that distance AGAIN. Oh well, life goes on. We did however with the co-ed team award. I owe that mostly due to the fact that we had both the overall winner Jim Blandford and first female Ashley Lister on our team!
But this year was different. I hit Sage Canaday’s training plan hard. A solid 16 weeks and already 899 this year. We had a mild winter with very little snow, the stage was set for a great race for me! I worked hard on my stride, getting more efficient, requiring less water and calories. I basically wanted to become bonk-proof through 50 miles. I wanted to be able to push it and not fear sailing over a ledge where there was no return. I wanted to race 50 miles. And I mean RACE.
Of course, winning Bull Run Run would be amazing. Some really great runners have won it and to be in their company would mean a lot. Beyond winning, finishing under 7 hours would be great. I tried my best to concentrate on my time. The motto “run your own race” is one to live by. Of course, I try to stick with a runner and try to catch runners… but not by going too far out of my comfort zone. My friend Tim O’Donnel (who was also running the race) is much more familiar with VHTRC (Virginia Happy Trails Running Club) members and can recognize names he’s seen pop up in results of other races and races he’s ran. He’s a hell of a scout and he scanned the list of entrants and told me who he saw as strong runners. Among them were Brad Revenis, Jordan Chang, Lief Van Acker, and Brad Hinton. We also both knew of Will Kuper who won Stone Mill last year and has done well at plenty of other races. All strong runners, but I really only thought Revenis was going to be really tough to beat. The rest could have breakout days or have been working hard in the preceding months…they were all legit threats… but Revenis did well at some fast, runnable races and had a pretty good recent streak. His 4th place at Sean O’Brien 100k this year was impressive and I sure as hell couldn’t pull that off.
Could he have a bad day? Would one of the aforementioned studs take the W? Did we miss someone on the list? Would I blow up, get injured, bonk, etc? Again, I should worry about racing the clock and see what place that put me in.
For the race I wore The North Face Better Than Naked t-shirt and split shorts and my trusted combo of Swiftwick Aspire Two socks and Pearl Izumi Trail N2. I am a Swiftwick Ambassador and despite trying, I can’t find a better sock. They last forever, they don’t hold water and they don’t jack up my feet. I WAS a Pearl Izumi ambassador until they did one of the dumbest things in running I’ve ever witnessed and disbanded the entire Pearl Izumi running line.
I also wore the Salomon Air Logo cap. It’s new and seems like a rip-off of the Patagonia Duckbill hat, but less goofy looking and with more sun protection in the front. My trusty first and only vest I’ve ever owned, the Ultimate Direction AK Vest carried my 24oz UD bottle and my gels. I also had thin cheap gloves and Pearl Izumi Arm warmers.
For nutrition, I tried something new, e-Gels from Crank Sports. I have been using Gu Roctane in races for a while but was sick of the high cost. e-Gels seem to be much of the same as Roctane, but with some more supposedly beneficial nutrients and 50 calories more per gel and with less sugar and for A LOT less money. The “e” stands for electrolytes and these gels have a ton. 230mg of sodium and 85mg of potassium to be exact. I ate one right before a 20-minute tempo and I didn’t feel sick so I figured I’d try them for the race.
About the Race:
Bull Run Run has been around for a long time, 25 years to be exact. I don’t know how the early races were, but in the 4 years that I’ve been running Ultras, I’ve never heard a single bad thing about it. My local running, the Pagoda Pacers, have been heading down to this race for many, MANY years…and in groups of over a dozen. The race has an interesting “North vs South” theme and competition to reflect the history of the area where a civil war battle occurred over 150 years ago. There is a points system to see who wins, and the awards go deep with open awards for the north and the south. There is also a same-sex and coed 4-runner team competition.
The course itself is a mix of silky smooth runnable single track, gradual ups and downs, moderate 100-250′ climbs and some relentless short-but-steep ups and downs in the “infamous do-loop”. There are short sections along the creek with a lot of rocks where, especially with mud, it is very hard and risky to run. Many of the downhills are also littered with exposed roots. All in all, it’s a diverse course that gives runners a challenge no matter what their strength or weaknesses are.
Head over to the Bull Run Run 50 website for more info.
The weather was about as good as it could be. A chilly 34º at the start and it might be breaking 60º by the time I projected my finish and 64º max for the day. Some wind was forecasted but otherwise a sunny, beautiful day. They announced that due to part of the course being too muddy, they were cutting out the 1.2 mile out and back past Ordway Rd. and making up for it by doing a more challenging looped section twice. This means I was missing out on 2.4 miles of flat, fast, runnable trail (which is my strong suit). Thankfully I don’t pay too much mind to section splits as this was going to throw a lot of that up in the air.
While looking at post race GPS data I saw from other runners showed 44 miles up to over 47. I looked at the Strava Flybys and it seemed like most had sections where their watches cut across a wide turn. The race had a lot of twists and turns and it might be one of those areas where GPS is always off. Wheel-measured, I still doubt it was 50 miles, but it was damn close and by the times and opinions of mutiple-time finishers… it’s didn’t seem easier than previous years. But it’s GPS. Lake Sanoma, one of the preier 50s in the world, oftens shows as 48 and under on GPS.
The race started and we headed out to this weird little loop that takes us right through the start again. I heard Revenis ask Kuper if he knew the course. I told Revenis that I ran it two years ago and had such a miserable day it seemed to be completely blocked from my memory. Before we knew it we were at the end of a parking lot confused. We are not even a half mile in and we’re lost. Kuper cut down a short grass hill to a trailhead and so did everyone behind us. Revenis and I cut down as well and quickly moved up to Kuper. At the top of the trail there some people and I said, “well, they’ll either clap for us or ask us why we’re coming up the trail”. They clapped. We went through the start area then into the actual Bull Run-Occoquan Trail. Kuper, Revenis and I quickly made some space between us and the pack behind us. Suddenly they seemed to both pull back a bit and I took the lead.
After getting lost .4 miles in, what else could happen in the first mile? Well, as we descended a steep hill and I went down it pretty quickly. At the bottom, there was a thin creek with a 5′ bridge across it made of thin logs. It looked wet and slippery so I went next to it and leaped across the creek. My left foot landed and sunk into the mud. When I drove my left knee forward for my next stride, my shoe was no longer on my foot. I looked back and it was buried in mud all the way to the heel collar. There I stood like an idiot wearing one foot. Revenis pointed out that there was a bridge, which of course I knew. I pulled my shoe out of the mud and tried unsuccessfully to jam my foot into it. Maybe a shoehorn is going to be part of my ultra gear. I ended up taking off my gloves and getting it back on and laced. Meanwhile, hoards of guys were passing me.
Once I was back to running with two shoes, I was surprised to see Revenis and Kuper weren’t all that far ahead. Not knowing if there were any bottlenecks coming up, I aggressively tried to get in front of the small pack I found myself behind. Once I got around them, hopefully not pissing them off too much, I quickly worked my way back up to 1 and 2. The guys in that small pack were chatting quite a bit, which is what I like to do early in a race if not for as much of the race as I can. But today I wanted to try to mix it up in the front if I could, which both shoes on. I ran behind Revenis and Kuper for a couple miles. The mud was pretty bad a Kuper slipped a few times. It looked like he may have been wearing road shoes or trail shoes with shallow tread. At 3 miles in we hit a decent hill that went up about 120′ in less than a 1/4 mile. Revenis zipped up pretty quickly and Kuper followed his effort. At just 3 miles in I decided I was done “mixing it up”. I don’t mind racing from the start, but I don’t want to risk working too hard too early. I went up the hill conservatively and not longer after Revenis and Kuper were out of site. That lasted long! I thought it was probably for the best. I need to race the clock and see what place that gets me. My epiphany was rewarded by my foot
That lasted long! I thought it was probably for the best. I need to race the clock and see what place that gets me. My epiphany was rewarded by my foot sticking in the mud which tripped me up. I came down pretty hard on my right kneecap and pain radiated out accompanied by my knee telling my brain that it doesn’t want to bend anymore. I limped into a run and figured I would try to run it out. Despite some blood it felt better pretty quickly and I was back to form.
About 6 or 7 miles in Jordan Chang came up from behind me. I saw him then soon after he was passing me. He was flying! I asked him if the mud got him yet and he just replied how he was loving it. I told him about my fall and he just kept running by me. Downhill he had his arms out like a plane flying down the hill, which was appropriate considering his pace. This was one of those moments where I thought to myself, “I’ll either catch him later or he’s a much better runner than me” because I wasn’t going to even try to hang with his effort. I kept him in sight until I took a long bathroom break, and then he was gone. Unbelievable no one caught me while I was not moving, which surprised me since it was so early in the race. There was already a gap behind me.
The next 25-30 miles I saw no one except runners coming the other way (which is really awesome to see and share encouragement). Volunteers and other runners coming the other way would yell out times of how far back I was, but I didn’t really care. I just had to keep working. Due to the cool weather, I didn’t even refill my 24oz bottle until mile 18. I quickly learned that with the e-Gels, I shouldn’t take them every half hour and not without some water after half a gel. I felt a little cramping in my lower right side and following that protocol and just eating them when I felt the urge worked well. I ended up only eating 7 of them the entire race along with 4-6 cups of Coke and 2 Salt Sticks.
Early in the race my legs felt a little tired and damaged and I didn’t feel like I was in the shape I thought I was. I don’t know why this was. Maybe I trained a little too hard too close to the race. Maybe missing my morning coffee and eating gels without caffeine was putting me in a funk. Who knows, but I ate half a caffeine pill and despite my quads taking a thrashing, they felt beat-up but they weren’t feeling shredded or weak. Just not fresh. But that’s the trick with training and racing. You have to break yourself down and peak as close to the race as possible bu tnot so close that you’re damaged for the race.
The entire white loop/do-loop section was a little confusing, but apparently well marked because I stayed on course. Anytime I see arrows on both sides of a tree I get scared that if I miss a turn, coming back will make me more lost. But I followed the turns, eventually, I saw markers and every time I hit an Aid Station I asked for confirmation that I was coming in from the right direction. I think I just had the loop aspect in my head wrong. But the do-loop was tough. Lots of steep ups and down, one after the other. It reminded me a bit of a train in my region where the Quadzilla 15k is held, Trexler nature Preserve, or “T-Rex”.
Somewhere in there, I took another spill, this time busting up the outside of my right knee but not doing that battered knee any favors. There was an aid station with a bunch of downed trees on either side. It looked like a roadblock. While throwing my right leg over the one downed tree I smacked the same knee. Awesome.
Hit a GPS 50k in 4:33 which is pretty damn fast. I had in my head that once out of the do-loop I would start to gradually pick up my effort. I saw my pro scout Tim O’Donnell coming the other way and he said, “I told you to watch out for Chang!” Prick. Haha. He then said Chang was just at the aid station he was coming from. A mile or two later and at around mile 36 I saw Chang’s red shirt through the woods. Before I knew it, he was not far ahead hiking up a hill. I hiked the hill as well but when he crested it, he kept walking despite in being flat. I ran the rest of the hill and when I caught him, he told me he was in bad shape. I asked if he needed anything like a gel, salt, caffeine, etc. and he said he was just hurting. I carried on and felt energized. Not by Changs suffering, but because I moved up to 2nd and it was because I was running hard but smart.
I again was hearing reports of Revenis being 5 minutes ahead, minutes ahead, 13 minutes ahead. None of it matters. I had a lot of miles in me and I wasn’t going to blast through the last 10 miles and make up any huge chunks of time. If Revenis had an injury or some huge breakdown, so be it. But that’s doubtful and out of my control. I just wasn’t going to kill myself chasing a guy who was going to beat me anyway. Too risky. I just kept pushing on with a goal of finishing under 7 hours.
One big takeaway I had late in the race: my stride was bulletproof. When I hit stretches of smooth, flatter sections I hammered with quick powerful strides that felt the same at mile 44 as mile 4. My watch was showing 172-182 steps per minute which is great for me late in a race where a clunky, labored stride often takes over. I tried to use the uphills for little moving breaks to eat and drink and I was a little slow on the downhills due to being extremely rooty and steep. My brain was a little foggy and my coordination wasn’t the best. I didn’t want to risk a bad fall. But on the runnable stuff, I was moving!
The last few miles of the race are pretty rough even without the mud. Lots of uneven, jagged rocks and bad footing. I pretty much tip-toed through there. I could feel my hammy almost cramp a few times which makes navigating that kind of terrain extra tough. I remember Jim Blandford telling me there was one last big climb and I had hoped it was one climb but it wasn’t. Once I hit the last climb I alternated hiking and running it with a 9:26 last full mile. After that, I tried to push it to the finish and hit the road flying with a 6:55 pace last .2 miles to cross the line at 6:46:18! Sub-7 Club!
Now, this course has been said to be shorter in the past with GPS reporting 45-48 miles. It may have been even shorter that day with the course changes, but doing the white loop a second time did add about 1.5 of the miles missed by cutting off the section near the start. Either way, multi-time finishers claimed it to be harder because the white loop was significantly harder than the section that was removed. With all that said, I’m still very proud of my time and have no doubt I’d be under 7 on the original course. But is it a 50 mile PR? I don’t know if I can say that without it being really close to 50 miles. But it’s Bull Run Run, a 25-year-old race and those in the know what a sub-7 there takes and I’m proud of my performance.
Revenis ended up with a 6:33:58 and Chang hung onto 3rd (amazing!) with a 6:58:55 just edging 4th place John Anderson and the final sub-7 finisher with his 6:59:58.
The top 3 overall got framed artwork with a label showing our place, all civil war related. Such a cool, useful award that doesn’ t get lost in a pile of medals or plaques. I’m proud to display it! Revnis pointed out that it looks like one Union soldier is shooting the other in the back, or at least in a proximity close enough to warrant a possible update to safety standards on the battlefield.
Bull Run Run lived up to its great reputation. Plenty of aid stations, super kind, and helpful volunteers, a great course, great rewards, awesome swag (my new favorite mug featuring a soldier in running shoes), stellar post-race food with a menu (yes a menu where you can pick your own options), and a fun post-race vibe. The course is dymanic and challenging without being overboard. At the end of the race, you will be spent but you will be very glad you ran Bull Run Run 50!
My knee was pretty swollen that night and still swollen as I type this a day later, but I think it’ll be fine. I’d like to get back on the horse soon as Laurel Highlands awaits my revenge on June 10.