When I registered for Bull Run 50 Miler, my first race at that distance, I knew I’d need someone to come with me primarily to help me after the race and drive home. I asked my friends and super-awesome runners Michelle and Vicki to come be my brain post race. They said yes instantly, despite having never been to a trail race or an ultra. Little did we all know how critical their presence would be on race day!
The weekend started with a humorous drive to the race site for packet pickup and athlete briefing. Once checked in we had a great chat with former race director Bob and gained some valuable insight into the course itself. When the athlete meeting still hadn’t started 40 minutes after it was supposed to, we decided to leave—we still needed to get dinner, check in at the hotel, and get everything finalized for the morning. A fellow racer who had done this a handful of times before gave us the low down on logistics (follow the blue, don’t cross the red, stay on the trail, etc) and we headed out.
At this point I was still very calm. The weather, which had looked absolutely hideous earlier in the week, looked much more promising now and while some predictions still called for some rain early on and snow in the afternoon, the amounts and duration were much better. Since Michelle and Vicki were going to be there and were determined to be as helpful as possible at every aide station they were were allowed to go to, we discussed what I might need at which point in the race, how best to ‘handle’ me at the stations, and the importance of kicking me out to keep pressing on to the Finish. We settled in for sleep and braced for whatever the morning would bring.
The morning brought dry ground, dry sky, and no rain. The temperature was low 40s which was higher than originally called for, and it looked like this would be the perfect weather for a long haul race. We arrived at the race site, found our parking place (thanks to the most upbeat, well organized group of parking volunteers ever!) and finished getting ready for the run. With final words from Quatro, the current race director, we set off.
Having looked up this trail on AllTrails, I knew that this part of the course would be fairly flat, and thanks to the heads up from other runners, I knew this was a challenging part of the course if only because it was too easy to start too fast and blow the rest of the race. Thanks to the ~1 mile loop around the parking lot at the beginning we were spread out by the time we hit the single track and I settled in behind runners going my pace or slightly slower. This section of the course is gorgeous and very runnable. The well groomed trails brought us down to the river, across creeks (yeah for those bridges and stepping stones that meant my feet never got wet!), and around historical battle ramparts.
Vicki and Michelle met me at the first aide station and cheered me on enthusiastically as I pressed on. From that aide station, the course makes a lollipop. Where the stick of the lollipop meets the loop, it wasn’t clear which way to go. Several of us went Left when we should have gone Right. We ended up doing the exact same course (and mileage and terrain) as everyone else, and the marshalls told us to just keep going. For better or worse it gave me the chance to see where the other women in the field were.
I was currently first place female. But judging by how close the others were and being able to tell that this was *not* their first rodeo, I knew it would be practically impossible to hold first the whole way. While it would have been a real hoot to ‘win’ my first 50 miler, I was also mindful of the fact that this was a training run and to push hard to place a certain way could derail my UROC goals next month. Now more than ever I needed to stay in my brain and run my race my way today.
We came back through that first aide station, I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich square, drank well while the course was still flat, and gathered more cheers from Vicki and Michelle as we passed back through the Start/Finish/Hemlock aide station at mile 16. I felt great. I felt slow. I felt on top of my nutrition and hydration plan and was on track to meet my goal—make the first 26 feel like a warmup.
This section of the course was slightly more technical but mostly runnable and I arrived at the Marina aide station (mile 21 feeling great). Here was the first place I stopped. As soon as I arrived Vicki told me to open my mouth, which I did without thinking, and she shoved a piece of chocolate in. Best piece of chocolate ever! While I stood there chewing and breathing, she and Michelle refilled my water bottles, crammed a new bag of PBJ sandwiches in my pocket, then shoved me out of the station and on my merry way. Nascar pit crew in the making!
This section from the Marina to Fountainhead was tough if only because it was so runnable. The trails were nearly free of roots or rocks, had only a few steep climbs, and gave me no excuse to walk. I was thankful for the chance to zone out and simply run, but the small rolling hills were tricky—too small to walk up, but steep enough to change my breathing. I battled between trying to bank time and trying not to burn up too much energy here. I arrived at Fountainhead happy to be done with that section and ready to tackle the infamous Do Loop.
I should not have been so eager.
I’d raced the Do Loop at the Women’s Half Marathon held in this same park back in September. I remember the steeper, long climbs and was actually looking forward to a change in terrain. But back in the summer the trail was easy to see and there were plenty of other runners out there to follow. This race day was very different. Trail markers were few and far between and the trail itself was smothered and covered with leaves. It was difficult to see where to go. This loop is famous for ‘trapping’ people in an endless loop and as my legs grew tired and the trail became harder and harder to see, I started to fear I’d be one of those people. The trees were marked with horseshoe shaped paint, but the blue ribbons marking the course for this specific race seemed incredibly far apart. I was in a constant state of doubt about if I was on the right course or not.
At last I made it out of there but was mentally fatigued at this point. As I exited the loop I saw another woman entering it. I knew there were 2-3 girls between the two of us so I knew it was only a matter of time before I was caught. The question was when…and by how many.
I finally returned to Fountainhead where my NASCAR pit crew once again changed my tires, refilled my tank, washed my windshield, told me I looked great, and shoved me back on the trail. Here we repeated our steps through the well groomed, rolling hills path. This time there was no need to rein in my pace. I ran every possible runnable section as hard as I could and forced myself to push through the ache building in my thighs and that pinching pain under my big toe that I was certain was a blood blister forming.
At mile 39.9 I entered an aide station about 30 seconds before the next woman arrived. I grabbed what I needed then headed back out, wondering if there was any possible chance she was going to drop at that aide station! But she looked like she was just warming up and I knew it was only a matter of time. At mile 41, she passed me. She had the energy to chat a bit. I did not. She told me she’d just completed a 50k race two weekends before and her legs felt tired. Then she flew past me as if carried by the wind. I didn’t know whether to hate her or kneel before her chanting ‘we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy’!
I averaged an 11:30 pace from Fountainhead back to Marina aide station and was thrilled with that. But now everything hurt. My legs struggled to keep turning over. Downhills were painful. Uphills were painful. Running flat was painful. Vicki and Michelle did their best to fire me up at this last aide station and knowing that the next time I saw them would be at the Finish Line was a nice boost.
The day before I’d heard the story of a man who ended up taking a wrong turn and instead of heading back to the Finish ended up repeating the front portion of the race. I did NOT want that to be me. My body was not going to handle any extra mileage today. I looked for every blue ribbon and steered well clear of the red. But when the course brought us back to the river and over rocks that looked painfully familiar, I began to wonder if I too made a course error and was heading the wrong way. Yes, these were the blue ribbons, but are the blue ribbons for NOW, or are they still up from the first time we headed out? Just like on the Do Loop, doubt and fear filled my brain and drained me mentally. At last I passed the sign that said “One Mile To Go” and instantly felt lighter.
After one long final climb, Vicki and Michelle met me with Old Glory and I dug deep to push hard to the finish. My time goal was to finish under 9 hours. I ‘sprinted’ to the finish with a stop time of 8:58. The third place female came screaming through the finish line a mere three minutes later. Only about 15 minutes separated the top three female finishers!
As if Vicki and Michelle hadn’t already been a super star crew, they kicked into high gear at the Finish. I’d warned them that I was probably going to be mental moosh at this point and would rely entirely on them to guide me through my recovery needs. They took it to a whole new level. I’m not entirely sure how it all happened, but before I knew it I was drinking my chocolate milk, wrapped in a warm blanket, with shoes and socks being pulled off my feet and slipped into more comfortable attire. I stank to high heaven and these two friends didn’t bat an eye!
Thankfully awards were only a few short minutes later. I was already freezing cold and teeth chattering so shortly after receiving my water bottle for finishing as First Masters Female, we trudged up the hill (another hill?!!!) to take the best shower of my life. Once again my crew rocked it! I was standing under hot water, not remembering exactly how I got there, while the two of them gathered all that sweaty stinky gear and made sure I left nothing behind. When I finally dragged myself away from the steam (mostly because I simply couldn’t stand any more!) all my clothes were laid out ready for me to pile on. They even found a chair for me to collapse into. I sat there semi-savoring how exhausted my body felt while Vicki grabbed a brush and did my hair, and Michelle dried my feet and helped me get compression socks on.
You reach a whole new level of friendship when you’re willing to dry a runner’s fugly feet!
There are those in the ultra community who consider using a crew to be a form of cheating. I am not one of those people. If a race allows it, I see no reason not to take advantage of that. I am absolutely certain that having them at so many points along the race was critical to my finishing the way I did. Knowing it was only ‘X’ number of miles before I heard Vicki’s screams and encouragement, and having Michelle stuff more chocolate in my mouth and kick me down the path, made those painful miles bearable. And having them take charge at the finish allowed me to just enjoy the accomplishment and turn off my already tired brain.
On the way home they chatted about all the incredible people they met along the way, their awe of the fantastically strong and polite athletes out there, and how well run the entire race was. From all the goodies and helpful volunteers at each aide station right down to the meticulous (and stunningly accurate) Crew Directions to get from one place to the next, they were beyond impressed. I’m forever thankful to all who put on this race for showing my road running friends just how awesome trail and ultra running is!
My first 50 felt more painful than I would have thought. I’ve looked back on the race and feel like I ran it the best way possible. My hydration and nutrition was better than it ever has been on a long run, I held my pace well even when I didn’t want to, and I managed to charge up the steeper hills with a good march instead of an amble. I simply fatigued at the end and the mental struggles from being unsure if I was on course or not wore me down. There were more runnable sections on this course than I was prepared for and in the end my running muscles just wore out. Good to know for future and upcoming ultras.
UROC 100k is in a month and while the terrain and race plan will be vastly different from this, I learned so much at the Bull Run 50 that I hope will help me press on to the best possible finish for me there…including how awesome having chocolate shoved into your mouth is!
2nd Female/ 59
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