OK, I’m a freak. I like to run long distances. Running 50 miles at a time doesn’t scare me. Ask me to run a 5K and I will likely spend all of my pre-race time worrying about how much to eat and when and you will likely find me in the bathroom with anxiety diarrhea. I never have to worry about any of this stuff with an ultra trail runs. I know that I have plenty of time to eat on the run and that there is a bathroom behind every tree. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t drive 50 miles to run a race. I like being a freak. And I am lucky to have freaks for friends, too.
That brings me to the 2009 edition of the Bull Run Run 50-Miler and an opportunity for the members of the original “Diane’s Team” (circa 2007 Vermont 100) to come together and put our running shoes on in support of our running guru, Diane Sherrer. She has been our tough-love running motivator for so many years and it was again our privilege to be able to do for her something she loves. So it was with great spirits and a renewed sense of purpose that we headed to Virginia with our team of me, Barbara Sorrell, Karen McWhirt, Rob Scott, and Will Danecki, along with our non-competing-but-ever-important-support-crew-cowbell-ringing Joe.
I had heard a lot about this great race but have not ever run it, since it is usually on the same weekend as the Boston Marathon. I have mad love for the Boston Marathon and it was a long struggle for me to qualify for it, so some time ago I made the commitment to keep running Boston as long as I kept on qualifying. Well, I qualified this year but I decided that maybe it was time to try something new. I found myself bored in my last road marathon and realized that I craved the energy and attentiveness that trail running requires of me. So I put my name in the BRR lottery as soon as it opened and crossed my fingers and hoped that I would get in. Fortunately, there was no need for a lottery this year and everyone who registered gained entry.
After a dreary New York winter it was so great to get to Virginia and actually feel HOT – I was sweating from the moment I stepped out of the car. Since we would only be staying in Virginia for one night, Joe and I decided to forgo the cost of a hotel and the driving back and forth from the race site and we stayed in the bunks where we would wake up just yards from the starting line. It had everything we needed . . . hot showers, clean bathrooms, pre-race pasta dinner, and clean beds. We sat through the first pre-race briefing and as the race director described a couple of potential trouble spots on the course. I suddenly felt a bit overwhelmed as it sounded like I could easily get lost, but Charlie Leonard, who has run this race before, assured me that when I got out on the course I would realize what the RD was saying and it would make sense. My only hope was that I would remember to remember the spots and recognize them! The rest of our team showed-up for the second briefing and die-hards that we are (and not wanting to miss out on any potential fun), Joe and I sat through the briefing again. And I started to feel less nervous. Highlight of the night . . . I got to meet Gary Knipling who is one of the stars of the Massanutten Mountain 100 DVD (which I bought “for Joe” for Christmas – he has watched it once, me about 30 times). What a super nice guy.
Race morning came and it quickly started to warm-up and become even a bit humid. I quickly shed the long-sleeve shirt that I had on, donned some sunscreen and bug spray, and headed to the start. As I chatted with old friends and new, I knew that it would be a good day in the woods, no matter what happened.
Start to Centerville Rd AS (7.2 miles) I was immediately impressed – it was like a highway of trails! Clean and very runnable with some ups and downs. Everyone was still closely packed and it was very relaxing. Questionable mistake #1 – did I start out too fast? I did start out faster than I would have liked but this was a necessity to avoid congestion of slower runners once we hit the single track. Despite wheezing from the humidity, I realized that my legs felt like I was handling the pace OK.
Centerville Rd to Turnaround and Turnaround to Centerville Rd (11.6 miles) What an extremely beautiful area with bluebells in full bloom and trail that was flat and smooth. Downside . . . it was very flat and I therefore felt compelled to run fast. There was no excuse to be walking in this area. The upside? Seeing all of the other runners as we passed each other going in opposite directions, getting and giving encouragement. My teammates were all looking really good.
Centerville Rd to Hemlock AS (16.6 miles) Back to where we started from on the same trail we came out on. I started feeling a little whippy, grabbed more Gatorade and Pringles and walked and ate breakfast. Now runners started to spread out and I took a minute for a bathroom break. Whoa . . . who lit that firecracker in Will’s pants? When I came out of the trees I saw my teammate, Will, was now running ahead of me . . . and looking really strong. I watched him on some switchback sections ahead and he was quickly distancing himself from me. Note mistake #2 . . . taste the Gatorade before diluting it. Mixing Gatorade really can be an inexact science . . . a little too much water in one of those large containers makes a huge difference. I had filled my bottle with 50% Gatorade/50% water and found myself drinking either very weak Gatorade or strong, bad-tasting water. Either way, it didn’t work for me.
Hemlock AS to Marina AS (21.1 miles) I was so grateful to get back to Hemlock where I immediately downed two cups of Coke, some just plain water, ate a PB&J sandwich, salted potatoes, and chips before continuing. And I filled my bottle with full-strength Gatorade. I was struggling with a slight headache that I had since the start and attributed to the heat. But I had teammates in front and behind me and Joe waiting for me at the 28.1 mile aid station, so I had plenty of motivation to keep on moving. I ran for a bit with a guy who was running his first 50-miler. He looked good and was in good spirits and it was nice to take my mind off of myself for awhile. Despite still following the blue ribbon trail markers, I couldn’t kick the feeling that I had no idea where I was going and just hoped that I was headed in the right direction.
Marina AS to Wolf Run Shoals AS (26.1 miles) I briefly questioned myself, wondering if this course would turn out to be all that I had heard that it was and all that I hoped it would be. It seemed like I was having to do an awful lot of running on relatively flat sections. I like hills; I like to power hike them and stretch my legs and utilize different muscles. It seemed that I wasn’t getting enough of a chance to do this. And then there was this phantom stone in my left shoe. I had already taken the shoe off once and shook it out, but somehow that damn microscopic pebble was still floating around under my foot. So this time I took the shoe and sock off and shook them both out. Problem solved. I started running and the pebble seemed to be gone. For like 15 seconds. And then it was back. I just ran and tried to ignore it and focus on something different. Like the insufferable heat. And then came the gunshots . . . lots of them. OK, yes, we were running Bull Run (as in the battle of Bull Run), and now I really felt like I was in the middle of battling gunfire. Somehow it seemed almost surreal . . . at first . . . and then it started to annoy me. The heat and the phantom pebble started to take their toll on my brain and it didn’t take much to set me off at that point. Fortunately, another runner caught up to me and we talked for a bit and this took my mind off from my misery. I was getting a bit tired of the taste of warm Gatorade, but at least I finally got what I bargained for . . . some real hills.
Wolf Run Shoals AS to Fountainhead AS (28.1 miles) Just when I started to feel a little grumpy, some signs started to appear along the trail. I really hoped this meant that the aid station was nearby. And I was right and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The heat was really draining me and all I wanted was some cold Coke and water, which I downed a few cups of right away. After some salty potatoes and more Coke, I took a lime popsicle and left the aid station with my newbie-50 running buddy. We talked and savored our popsicles. Nothing ever tasted so good after running 26 miles in 80-degree heat than that lime green popsicle did right at that moment. And with that I was again renewed. No sooner did I start a pathetic little jog than I saw a runner coming at me. Here was Leigh Schmitt, now in the lead and heading for home! And he looked so smooth and effortless. We were definitely the polar opposites . . . his smooth gait and my lumbering with a popsicle in my mouth. Little did I know just how far ahead of me he was and how much I still really had to go.
Fountainhead AS to Do Loop – In (32.5 miles) I had in my mind what I was going to need from Joe when I would see him, so it was a great relief when I finally heard it . . . THE cowbell. Joe’s cowbell. There is no other like it. And then I heard Joe and I knew that I would be renewed again. Enter mistake #3 . . . in my excitement I forgot absolutely everything that I had wanted to ask Joe to help me with – the biggie being cutting the sleeves off of my shirt. I was basting! I got some ice cold Gatorade and headed out, just wanting to get this over with! I struggled with a little nausea as the hills just rolled up and down, mixing walking and running. It would be just 4.4 miles to the entrance of the Do Loop, but here is where I really noticed that trail miles are just way longer than road miles.
Do Loop – In to Do Loop – Out (35.5 miles) FINALLY, I was at the infamous Do Loop – and I hadn’t gotten lost yet. I grabbed more ice cold Gatorade and icy Coke. And then I noticed the freshly-cooked cheese quesadillas. I grabbed three of them and started out. After eating two I started to feel a bit bloated. Remembering my huge mistake of eating too many grilled cheese sandwiches at my last 50-miler, I put the third quesadilla in my pocket for later use. I found the level of difficulty compacted into these three miles to be much more difficult than the level of difficulty spread out over the last 32 miles.
Do Loop – Out to Fountainhead AS (37.9 miles) My legs were getting heavier, my body cooking, my stomach nauseous. The best thing that I did was dump that damn warm Gatorade and fill my bottle with ice water. Chafing started and I give myself props for carrying that pocket-sized tube of Sportslick, which literally saved my butt. As I headed back home, I saw Rob and Barbara heading to the Do Loop and they were looking strong. No sign of Karen, which worried me.
Fountainhead AS to Wolf Run Shoals AS (39.9 miles) Finally, I got back to Joe, where I found out that Karen had missed the 28.1-mile cut-off by five minutes. Her spirits were good and she had a good run and was so very gracious to offer her support to help the rest of the team to finish their races. And this time I remembered the sleeves. Joe asked what I wanted and I did not hesitate to say “cut these damn sleeves off”. It was immediate relief as the wind blew through my shirt. I felt yet another life come back to me and I left the station with my ice water and Endurolytes, not eating as I was certain that my stomach was full enough.
Wolf Run Shoals AS to Marina AS (44.9 miles) My stomach was still feeling quite full when I pulled into the station, so I just grabbed a Coke, refilled my water bottle, and left eating a root beer popsicle. Whoever thought of those popsicles for this hot day was a lifesaver! But remember that full stomach I had? Now it was time for BIG mistake #4. It didn’t take long after finishing the popsicle that my tank hit empty in a big way. I was wishing I still had that quesadilla in my pocket. Then the grumpiness hit hard. I saw a volunteer who had hiked in from the next station and he said it was still about two miles to the station. I really did not think I would make it; I felt totally drained. I wanted to cry but didn’t have the energy or the tears.
I kept seeing the water off in the distance and told myself that it was promising that I would soon be at the Marina. “Soon” is a relative term . . . more like not soon enough. When I finally got to the parking lot there were a bunch of people hanging around, cheering me in, like I was winning or something. What a boost that was. I looked like hell and they cheered and told me how awesome I was. I had already decided that I would sit down and eat and drink when I got to the station – I had a lot of catching-up to do. And lucky for me, Karen and her son, Eric, were there and pep-talked me as I ate. I got the update on the rest of the team, who were putting in tremendous efforts. I tried not to waste too much time and I would not have had to had I been smarter earlier. I am a great learn-from-your-mistakes-person but usually it’s at a great cost. After some melon, chips, potatoes, Coke, electrolyte caps, and Motrin, it was time to finish this thing off.
Marina AS to FINISH (50.4 miles) OK, it so way seemed like way more than 5.5 miles to the finish. I had a couple of people to go back and forth with on the trail and fortunately I got the inside scoop that I had needed earlier. A guy who had run this before told me how the last few miles to the finish would go, so when I started heading up the steps, I knew I was there. And when I saw Joe I was renewed again and was able to pick-up the pace and actually look like a runner as I came into the finish. 10 hours, 26 minutes, and 3 seconds. Not bad for someone who made some bad choices and who was certainly not accustomed to running in 80-degree weather in April!
Our Northern Army won the North-South competition – good for a really cool red bandana. I got my finisher’s shirt to prove that I survived the battle. And after three hamburgers, some chips, and soda, I was able to stumble up the hill to the showers. Showering after an ultra is a kind-of love-hate relationship. I really stunk and I was caked in salt, so I knew that the shower was necessary – a necessary evil. I did not relish the idea of that water hitting the chafed areas. But it was a small price to pay.
And how did Diane’s Team do? Well, since not every member finished we did not count in the team standings. However, it was the greatest team effort I have been a part of. Will ran strong, finishing sub-10 hours. Karen turned her efforts into keeping the rest of us sane and moving. Rob and Barbara finished strong. It is amazing what friendship and tough-love can get you through. I thought of Diane often as I was struggling, knowing exactly what she would be saying about my whining. Diane, you’re tougher than all of us.