I ran 50 miles yesterday.
Damn, that sounds crazy when you say it out loud. So does “I ran for 11 hours.”
To say I did it simply to see if I could sounds like it minimizes the experience. I’m not sure how to quite capture the reason, really, but a quote from the sci-fi author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke comes close:
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”
The starting line of my journey past the possible was at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park, in Clifton, Va., where 314 runners gathered for the Bull Run Run — a 50-mile journey through the hills, rocks and streams of the Bull Run-Occoquan Trail. The race is run by the VHTRC, a trail-running club that I’ve become loosely associated with in recent months.
To say this was the most difficult race I’ve endured in two-plus years of distance running, far tougher than the five 26.2-mile marathons and three 50K races I’ve completed, is a serious understatement. It was a terrible, beautiful, painful, incredible and ultimately life-changing experience.
The funny thing about it is that already the little details are starting to fade, replaced by a larger and tougher to capture intensity of feeling. In the interest of capturing some of those details before they’re gone, I’m cataloging them here.
Count-down to race day — Pick your neurosis
During the last couple weeks leading up to race day, I was a basket case. I hadn’t been this excited or nervous about a distance run since my first marathon in October 2007. Like all runners, I found myself fussing over absolutely everything. Weekly mileage volume, gear, nutrition, weather, foot care, you name it.
An ill-timed calf cramp that came in the middle of the night two days before the race had me completely on edge. Had I let my hamstrings get too tight? Would they lock up on me come race day? A regimen of stretching, Advil and Icy-Hot got things under control the day prior, but it felt pretty touch-and-go for about a half a day.
With temperatures expected to top out in the high 70s (the final high was 79.6), I planned for a hot day on the trails.
My gear included Brooks Cascadia 3 trail shoes, SmartWool trail socks, gaiters (to keep rocks out of my shoes), shorts, T-shirt and a gray Nike ball cap. Dark colors aren’t the best choice on a hot day, but they offer the advantage of showing in no uncertain terms how much salt you’re losing as you sweat.
With aid stations as much as an hour or more apart on the trail, I opted for my two-bottle Go-Lite waist belt. I carried two 20-ounce bottles, two five-serving nutrition gel bottles (Hammer-brand raspberry and orange gel — one serving per hour), 24 electrolyte capsules (two per hour, plus a few extra just in case), my iPod shuffle and a spare watch in case my Garmin 205 GPS watch died (more on that in a moment). I also took a tiny USB camera to snap a few photos, which you’ll find in the rest of the post — it’s not a great camera, so forgive the poor image quality. The tradeoff? It’s really light.
Off to the Races — Survival is a strategy
After a 0400 wakeup, I wolfed down a quick 400-calorie breakfast — Greek-style yogurt, a banana, a few fig newtons and a glass of OJ — and headed out. I arrived at Hemlock about 45 minutes before the 0630 race start, giving me plenty of time to relax, prep my gear and get my mind right.
I usually listen to music before the race starts and I’m starting to develop a bit of a ritual there, making sure to play the Grateful Dead’s live version of “Fire on the Mountain.” (I know, I know, I’m starting to get into jam bands – freakin’ hippie.) There’s this line in the song that I absolutely love to hear before a race:
“Long-distance runner, what you standin’ there for? Caught in slow motion in a dash for the door.”
(I know it’s not about ultrarunning, but I don’t over-think lyrics as a general rule.)
A quick briefing from the race director at the starting line offered time to scope out the crowd and find a few familiar faces. For all its growth in recent years, the ultra crowd is still tiny — only 17,000 people completed ultra-distance races in 2008, according to the editor of Ultrarunning magazine. (Ultrarunning reports in its March issue that about 3,000 of those 17,000 finishes were logged in Virginia and Maryland ultras, by the way — this area is a real mecca for East Coast trail runners.)
Earlier this season, at the HAT Run 50K in Havre de Grace, Md., I heard a bit about the BRR course from another VHTRC runner. It’s essentially two out-and-back legs on the BR-Occoquan trail, with Hemlock Overlook as the start/finish. But there’s apparently a bit more strategy that can be applied.
To hear him tell it, the race breaks down roughly into three sections — an initial 32 miles on the main BR-Occoquan trail, the three-mile “Do Loop” at the southern terminus of the trail, and the last 15 miles back to the finish line. His guidance: Take the first 32 easy, make it through the infamously steep hills of the Do Loop in once piece, and save some legs to really pour it on in the last 15.
I just wanted to make it through the damn thing in one piece.
Miles 0 – 16.6 — The Garmin dies an early death
In retrospect, that first 32-mile piece my ultra comrade described really breaks down into two sections — the first 16.6-mile section that takes runners northwest from Hemlock Overlook to up past Centerville Road and back, and then the next roughly 16-mile section that leads south from Hemlock to the Do Loop.
I learned later that the first 16.6 is easy compared to the rest of the course.
The trail throughout the course is single-track, but it’s wide enough to let two runners run side by side — a good thing for this race, as the leaders were already on their way back as us middle-of-the-pack types were still working our way north.
As I dodged to the right to clear a path for the guy who ultimately won the race — Leigh Schmitt, an elite ultrarunner from Conway, Mass. — I thumped my right wrist against a tree and killed my Garmin. (It works now, but wouldn’t turn back on during the race — a blessing in disguise, as I had no business paying attention to my mile splits on that course. It would’ve only been disheartening.)
I started out at a pretty conservative pace, figuring that 12:00 miles would get me in under 10 hours, a very respectable time for a mid-packer running his first 50M (an unrealistic goal on the BRR course, I learned).
At the first aid station, I ran into a buddy, another Rob, who was volunteering to help keep the aid station stocked with chow and water for runners. As he promised me prior to the race, he made sure to shout “This is a race! Run faster!” The aid station was a scene of controlled chaos, as runners had to climb up a narrow set of stairs to get off the course and up to a parking lot where the aid tables were set up.
With runners heading north, runners heading south and all of them weaving off the course to hit the aid station, it was a sea of sweaty, hungry athletes looking to make as quick a fuel stop as possible so as not to lose precious minutes dawdling. Both times through, I quickly handed off my bottles to volunteers for a refill, grabbed some Pringles, banana sections and orange slices and dashed back onto the course — I wonder if this is where the expression “eat and run” really comes from.
This was easily the best part of the race. There were a few tough hills and some challenging rocky sections that made for some dicy footing, sure, but the opportunity to run through what seemed like a sea of Bluebell flowers made it obvious that the race organizers picked the timing of this race for a reason.
I made it back to Hemlock for a second fuel stop and I think they must’ve been slipping some “shut the hell up” into the aid station chow, because all the chatter that’s so common at the beginning of a race quickly died off. Except for the occasional “Ow!” as someone turned an ankle or “Goddamn” as someone started up yet another hill.
Miles 16.6 – 21.1 — Blissful ignorance
Starting the trek southeast from Hemlock, I got caught up in conversation with another runner who’d run BRR a few times before. He was shooting for a sub-10 finish as well, but said he’d be more than happy to come in under 11 hours. He figured that was within reach, since in his view the hills on the southern section of the course weren’t bad at all and that the “Do Loop” wasn’t all it was hyped up to be. In fact, he said, it was “transcendent.”
Of course, he also said at one point that he was planning to make an “autonomous” donation to some charity, because he didn’t want any attention. Good initiative and all, but I hope the grammar gods smite him. Easy hills? Not. Transcendent? My ass.
Miles 21.1 – 26.1 — I saw so much I broke my mind
That’s a line from Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In.” So appropriate for this section — I was in a black, black place. “I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole and then I followed it in.” There are highs and lows in every race, but I’d read that they get altogether worse — and better — in ultras beyond 50K. (A 50K is a lot like a marathon, really — play it conservative and the extra five miles don’t make a hell of a lot of difference.)
Anyway, I hit my lowest low of the course, although I couldn’t tell you why with any certainty. It may have been the realization that at the Wolf Run Shoals aid station, I’d only be halfway through and that the course was only going to get harder from here on out. Or perhaps it was that the heat of the day was really starting to set in and bake my brain. Who knows.
Then again, maybe it was the fact that I tried to nosh on a banana slice at the last aid station and got a mouthful of what tasted like paste and sawdust instead of carby banana goodness. “They’re a little green,” I was told as I spit the stuff out into a nearby trash bin.
Yeah, ya think? Ack.
Miles 26.1 – 32.5 — A little ice water does the trick
Bless the volunteers at the Wolf Run Shoals aid station. They had it all tricked out in a sort of gambling, casino, Deal or No Deal mishmash of a theme. But it wasn’t the decorations that made the difference — it was the ice water they had on hand. Someone topped off my bottles with water and threw in some ice and as I grabbed them to throw ‘em into my belt, someone else hit the back of my neck with some cool mist from a spray bottle of water.
Amazing what dropping your core temperature will do for your disposition. I quickly grabbed a few banana and orange slices to eat on the run and was amazed at the uplift I felt in my mood. My pace quickened and I commented to another runner: “I think I caught my second wind.”
I knew that at that point I was halfway home, the Do Loop was just over six miles away and that the next aid station was just two miles away. I didn’t have it in the bag just yet — not by a long shot — but things started looking up somehow.
Miles 32.5 – 35.5 — Transcendent? Not so much
At mile 32.5, I hit another aid station, restocked my fluids and grabbed some chow. I realized at this point that things weren’t tasting particularly good any more and that I’d have to force myself to eat enough to get in the 300 calories per hour that I knew I needed to stay in the game. It was likely a combination of the heat and level of physical exertion, but my stomach was starting to get a bit sketchy. So my old standbys — salted boiled potato slices, pringles, etc — went out the window. Fortunately, bananas and oranges were going down fine and tasted right.
I got my first indication that what I’d heard from Mr. Autonomous earlier in the race was bunk when I saw the faces of runners exiting the Do Loop for a second trip through the aid station and the return leg of the run. The haunted, strained looks I saw made me realize I was in for a long, long three miles.
Now mind you, it’s not that the Do Loop is any tougher than the rest of the course. It’s still hilly, it’s still technical — hidden roots and rocks abound in the leaves to trip up shuffling runners. But those hills are a hell of a lot steeper and they come at a really tough point in the trek.
I still had pretty good legs at this point, but the footing on the downhills was treacherous enough that my feet started sliding around in my shoes, irritating a tender spot on the ball of my foot — the remains of a blister I suffered at the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50K in early March. On those steep downhills, every time my foot slipped forward in my shoes, it offered up a bit of brief and searing pain. I found myself worrying whether that hot spot might become a blister or, even worse, get so painful that it would force me out of the race altogether.
Now all that said, the Do Loop is actually pretty cool. You get some beautiful views of the river and a couple of unusual sights — two junked cars that look like they have no business being in this tremendously overgrown section of forest. Wondering how the hell they ended up there made for a useful mental distraction.
Miles 35.5 – 39.9 — Endorphins, better late than never
The fringe benefit of the sheer suckitude of the Do Loop was that the endorphins finally kicked in. Paired with the knowledge that there were just 15 miles to go (just, ha), I felt at that point like I had the race in the bag. I didn’t have enough to “pour it on,” as I’d heard one can do at this point. But I knew I would finish, blisters, aches and fatigue be damned.
I’d been saving my iPod up until this point; I don’t normally listen to music while trail running, as it distracts from the attention you need to focus on staying vertical on technical trails. But I pulled it out after the Do Loop aid station, figuring I needed a little boost to carry me through.
Sure enough, it worked. The first track that came up on the Shuffle was Aesop Rock’s “None Shall Pass,” followed by School of Seven Bells’ “Chain.” They’re both huge favorites of mine on the run, big-beat tracks that sound really good played really loud. With the adrenaline and endorphins flowing, I cruised through the next four miles to Wolf Run Shoals.
Miles 39.9 – 44.9 — A fortunate meeting
After a quick pit stop at the Wolf Run Shoals aid station, I rounded a bend in the trail to see a familar face — my buddy Rob. He’d said he would try to find me after his shift at the Centerville station ended, and I figured that meant at an aid station. As it turned out, he changed into running gear to meet me on the course and run with me for a while.
I owe him huge for that.
He pushed the pace and kept me going for about 3-1/2 miles to the Bull Run Marina aid station, where he’d parked his car. I’d heard from accounts I’d read of 100-mile races that a lot of runners opt to have a “pacer” come out and run with them for various sections of the course. I thought that I understood why, but I didn’t realize what that really meant until my own encounter with the challenges of running past the 40-mile mark.
He got me to the marina aid station in enough time to make a sub-11 hour finish realistic. I knew that if I pushed reasonably hard for the last 5-1/2 miles, it would be close but doable.
Miles 44.9 – 50.4 — A fortunate meeting, Part 2 – Electric Boogaloo
Yeah, you read that right — 50.4. The VHTRC throws in a little extra just for fun. That’s not bad, though, considering that Dr. David Horton, a professor at Liberty University and a legendary ultrarunner, is well known for his “Horton Miles” that make a usual ultra-distance race a bit longer just because. (His Holiday Lake 50K++ held near Lynchburg, Va., has the “++” tacked onto it for good reason — it ends up being more like 33 miles or so.)
This last section was a grind, as it seemed extraordinarily long — likely because I had visions of the finish line dancing in my head. With a few good hills interspersed throughout this section, it was a true test of willpower. Every time I reached another rise, I wondered whether I’d have enough left in my quads to make the climb, or whether I’d be left sitting halfway up a hill in hopes that an escalator might appear out of nowhere.
Thankfully, there was another fortunate meeting on the course. This time, it was a guy I recognized from the HAT Run. He and I ran the last section of HAT together, after he warned me that there was a real chatterbox of a woman behind us who was talking the ears off of anyone she encountered. We poured on the gas for the last few miles of HAT and he crossed the finish line about a minute or two eight seconds ahead of me.
This time around, we walked/ran to the finish and picked up the pace for the last few hundred yards. Since he crossed first at HAT, he gave me the honors of hitting the finish line first this time around. I finished in 10:52:30 and he came in at 10:52:31. Very classy move on his part.
Our finishes were good enough to place us 152 and 153 of 267 finishers. The heat claimed quite a few runners. Some dropped out, others failed to make on-course cut-off times, while still others surely fell short of making the overall 13-hour time limit.
Post-race — The walking wounded
With an awesome array of post-race goodies in hand — a Patagonia short-sleeve Capilene tee, a long-sleeve, quarter-zip Patagonia Capilene shirt and a first-time finisher pin — I grabbed a burger, a couple cups of Gatorade and collapsed onto a picnic table bench to savor the finish with a few new friends.
(I also ended up with a bandanna, by the way, signifying membership on the winning side of the “Bull Run Battle” — each entrant is asked to affiliate with “North” or “South” and a winning side is chosen based on how the “team” fares overall in the race. It’s meant to commemorate the Civil War battle that was fought in the area. I’m not sure how my finish helped secure victory for the North, if at all — I still haven’t figured out how the rules for that competition work.)
To anyone uninitiated into the world of ultramarathons, the finish area must have looked like a Civil War encampment. Talk about “the walking wounded.” It’s actually pretty easy to limp your way around a finish area when everyone else is in the same kind of shape, moving as slowly as you and taking care to stay out of each other’s way — once you get moving, you don’t want to stop until your seemingly simple task is done.
I dropped a fork near my picnic table, for example, and I wasn’t quite sure whether I’d be able to get vertical again after bending over to pick it up.
What’s next? The limits of the possible …
On the course, Rob asked me whether I’d be running the JFK 50-miler this November in Maryland. He told me later that all I did was just give him this look that said “yeah, right.”
But at this point, the soreness is starting to subside and I’m already thinking about the next 50. There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from running 50 miles that no 26.2 marathon will ever provide for me.
At 50 miles, I can begin to explore “the limits of the possible” and learn that those limits are a little bit further away than I thought they were.