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The battle of Bull Run

Setting a fast pace on flat ground near Centreville before the day warmed up. (Photo by Bobby Gill)

The day after the race, the girl asked me: “Did you go out too fast?”

“No … I mean … I was running hard, yeah, but I felt like could have held that pace.”

I hadn’t looked at my splits yet — didn’t want to — but I thought that I had run the first 20 miles of the Bull Run Run 50-miler at a smart pace.

In hindsight? Not so much.

When I could finally bear looking at the Jeckyll-and-Hyde difference in my performance over the first and second half of the race, the evidence was there.

When I hit the Bull Run Marina, 21 miles into the race, I was on pace to finish in 8 hours and 45 minutes — a full 90 minutes faster than my 2011 finish. I’m faster than I was last year, but not that fast.

And as I was leaving the marina, I knew it. The unseasonably warm temperatures predicted for the day were already climbing at 10 a.m. and as I picked up pace I started feeling tired and a little dizzy — the beginnings of a mild case of dehydration that would dog me for the rest of the day.

The next 30 miles were going to be hard earned.

‘Instead, I’m gonna eat this popsicle’

The Bull Run Run Nine - the Lottery Gods smiled on us and we all scored spots on the starting line.

After fixating on the weather report in the taper-crazy days leading up to the race, I knew weather would be a factor. The day would start in the high 40s, but was predicted to reach the high 70s in the afternoon. That kind of warmth and accompanying humidity is tough early in the spring when runners aren’t acclimated to it, so the wiser course of action would’ve been to go out easy and build speed based on what the day would allow.

But after a season full of new personal bests, I decided that my goal was to break the 10-hour barrier. My previous best on the Bull Run course was a 10:12 and even coming in a couple minutes under 10 hours would’ve been a great new PR, but I wanted more. I wanted to break 10 hours decisively.

So while I spent the hour before the 6:30 start goofing around and catching up with friends, I got serious when the race got started. I set out at a fast pace and found myself in a pack of runners who I knew were 9-hours-and-something finishers, so I settled in with them for the initial out-and-back northern section of the course.

The course was dry and the trails are mainly flat in that initial 16-mile section, so we were flying along without too much trouble. As the first few hours slipped past, I found myself sweating hard with the extra effort, but didn’t pay it too much mind.

By the time I reached each of the first three aid stations, I should’ve finished off the 20 ounces of sports drink in my handheld bottle, but still had at least a third left over at each aid station.


Why run a downhill when you can eat a popsicle instead? (Photo by Bobby Gill)

Fortunately, I was eating well and keeping up with my electrolyte intake; I started with one electrolyte tablet per hour, but quickly switched to two when I knew that I was sweating more than usual.

Still, when I stepped out from the marina, my legs were starting to feel a little rubbery and my head was feeling a little loopy. Yikes.

I backed off the pace considerably at that point, taking it easy and trying to pull it together. But when I got to the Wolf Run Shoals aid station five miles later — 26 miles into the race — I knew I was cooked.

An aid station volunteer asked me if I wanted a popsicle and at that moment it sounded like the most amazing thing in the world.

“Yes. Yes I do.”

I ambled out of that aid station, bright orange popsicle in hand, and saw a section of sweet downhill that, on any other day, I would’ve enjoyed running. Instead, I said the hell with running and enjoyed my popsicle instead. I saw Bobby Gill out taking pictures on that section and told him as much.

“Hey Bobby! I know I should be running this downhill right now, but instead, I’m gonna eat this popsicle.”

He probably thought I’d lost my mind.

A well-timed washcloth

After a couple of slow miles grinding through the rolling hills that are a hallmark of the southern section of the course, I hit the aid station at Fountainhead Regional Park. There, I stripped off my T-shirt and grabbed a cold, wet washcloth from an aid station volunteer and draped it over my head. The blast of cold was just what I needed to perk me up and keep me moving.

I was headed into the toughest part of the course – the three-mile section at the southern terminus of the Bull Run-Occoquan Trail known as the “Do Loop,” which is full of short-but-steep climbs and descents, but beautiful views of the Occoquan River and Sandy Run.

Too bad I don’t remember much of those views.  From Fountainhead to the return trip through Wolf Run Shoals, those 11 miles were pretty much a blur. Other than seeing Sara and Beth at the Do Loop aid station — they were starting their turn through the loop as I was finishing mine — there weren’t a lot of highlights.

By the time I reached Wolf Run Shoals aid station for the second time, at mile 39, I knew I needed to take a few minutes to rest and regroup. I ate some food, had a couple of cold cups of soda for the sugar and caffeine rush, and hoped for the best. But within a mile of leaving the aid station, I was feeling dizzy again and knew I needed a bit more time to pull it together.

So I sat down on a log, put my head in my hands and closed my eyes. Focus. Focus. Focus.

After a couple minutes, I felt stable enough to start moving again, so I set out at a walk and fired up the iPod. A welcome blast of electronica — The Chemical Brothers’ “Galvanize” — filled my ears, I found a fresh burst of energy, and started running again. By that time, some cloud cover had rolled in and a cool breeze started blowing — just enough to take the edge off the heat and the dizziness.

The tunes and the breeze got me through the Marina aid station, but it was my friend Denise that got me through to the finish.

About a mile after the Marina, I looked back to see her approaching. She’s one of our regular Saturday running crew and I knew her company would be a welcome addition over those last few miles, so we fell in together for the final push to the finish line at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park. The last time we finished a race together was the HAT Run 50K back in 2010, so it was fun to be able to do that again at Bull Run.

She was running strong and was in contention for a new personal best on the course, so I got the hell out of her way and let her set the pace. And in the approach to the finish area, we trekked up the last hill and realized that she might pull off that new PR after all. We ran hard across the field and up the brief paved section to the finish line, where we crossed at 10:31:25 — a full three minutes faster than her previous best.

The price of overconfidence

At the finish, I changed into fresh clothes, tried to eat and rehydrate without throwing up, and reflected on how the day had gone.

Basically, the first 20 miles were great, the middle 20 sucked hard, and the last 10 weren’t too bad.

The race was meant to be a shakeout run for the Comrades Marathon — the 56-mile race in South Africa that would be my centerpiece race of the spring/summer season. It definitely was a shakeout — it showed me exactly what can go wrong when you underestimate the conditions and get overconfident on a well known course.

Meta moment: I let this entry sit, written and unposted, for nearly two months while I sorted out how I felt about the race. The fact that this one went so sideways on me really got inside my head. My reflections on this race and the running I did in the weeks that followed led to the post immediately following this one.

One Comment

  1. Ahh, I thought I was just way behind on your blog! I’m glad you posted this, even late.

    I read this somewhere: The PR races are fun, and filled with glory, but we learn the most about ourselves and our running from the bad races.

    Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

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