At last year’s inaugural Bull Run Run 50, sixty runners battled with and learned the challenge of the Bull Run trail, as the course markings and trail conditions — both on mature and immature sections — slowed even the fleetest of feet. Only two runners finished under eight hours, and only one other under nine. Still, 90% of the starters finished. Certainly, this trial of wills pales at that suffered by both the North and South in the historical Civil War battles (to which this event’s creation pays homage) found on the BRR’s adjacent fields. The runners who grace this course with their tenacity perhaps gain greater fortitude from the memory of those more difficult struggles resulting in more dire consequences. And so, to “put a spin” on its historical counterpart, the Second Battle of the Bull Run Run again recruited those willing to pit their strength, endurance and wit against a worthy foe — thankfully in this case, a battle whose scars are mere scratches and dents.
The combatants began congregating on the eve of battle, anxiety apparent on some new faces, predisposed recognition on some First Battle veterans’ visages. Each soldier obtained his or her declared uniform of choice (gray T’s for the Rebels, blue for the Yanks), and a “rations” bag with assigned numbers, comestibles (Power & Edge Bars), and an Order of Battle (program) for the weekend’s agenda. And before funneling in for the pre-battle briefing, each caught a glimpse of the reward waiting for them should they survive the next day — North or South color-oriented INSport jackets with the event logo stitched on the breast, and Ultimate packs provided by REI for division winners. The combatants scarfed down the traditional ultra spaghetti dinner before the trail brief, the monologue of which exhorted the runners to carefully heed the course markings. While the First Battle was notorious for its seeming insufficiency of markings, the Second would suffer no such criticism. The instruction to “go with God” took on new meaning that evening, such deity discernible as blue streamers guiding the runners on the true path, with the painted blue blazes taking a more apostolic posture on the morrow. With a short Q&A topping off the half hour discussion, the troops retired to their respective campsites, a more focused anxiety or peace settling in for the night.
Pre-dawn saw more troops slipping into camp, before reaching the full battle complement (five would be missing from the list). At the signal to fight, 56 Yanks and 41 Rebels would charge into the distance. Among them would be eight fresh recruits facing battle for the first time, and at least one veteran of more than 100 ultras, Dick Good. Yank Damian Smith was the youngest at 18, two other Rebel marines (recruits Barberot & Carey) under 20; then three other sexagenarians joining Dick Good, and 25 others over 50 to comprise the Senior division. Over a third of those surviving the First Battle returned to avenge themselves.
The runners engage the Battle at Hemlock Overlook, quickly dropping precipitously to the Bull Run below, and follow a narrow meandering path — the mainstay surface of the course, only occasionally and sparingly interrupted with wider, abandoned jeep roads — that parallels the water. After the first mile, the runners bunch at the widest stream, Popes Head Creek, to cross over concrete pilings which this year protrude above the water line; then scramble over rocks to again pick up the snaking trail. Shortly thereafter, passing under and beyond a railroad trestle which still carries Civil War carvings, the runners leave the waterline for four miles of rolling hills and a couple more stream crossings, at one point again passing another Civil War landmark (an earthen gun battery). At the upper reaches of Bull Run, the combatants twist through the course’s only flat section. Here also, those runners conscious enough of their surroundings can revel in the beauty of the bluebells carpeting the forest floor. At 8.5 miles, the runners retrace their steps to Hemlock, climbing up the backside of the Overlook missed at the start. The return to camp headquarters is brief, as the runners retrace to the Run, then head downstream into the innumerable hills which separate home from the infamous Do Loop. Spring’s bursting colors provide welcome visual diversions from the demandingly twisting trail, any one moment of inattention offering an exposed root or rock the opportunity to bring a runner down to kiss the earth. At 22 miles the Second Battle combatants pick up a new section, a half mile of tight turns packed into a few small acres, before returning to the main blue-blazed trail. Several streams and countless hills later, they enter the other immature trail section called the Do Loop (drawing from a First Battle veteran’s warning to don’t “do” it more than once), the rolling hills compressing into tighter climbs and drops over 2.5 rigorous miles. Emerging from the Do Loop at 32.5 miles, the runner faces the long, final leg home, the familiar serpentine path that brought them to this other extension. And at 49.5 miles, the Overlook presents the runners with one last, memorably steep ascent to the oasis of camp headquarters, the end of a worthy struggle.
This year, the weather gods blessed us with no discernible collection of rain in the several days preceding the Battle. And the recent budding of trees canopied most of the course, keeping the warming sun, which at zenith produced temp’s in the low 70’s, from overheating even the most northern of entrants. Blue streamers littered the course, their sparsity evident only on stretches clearly marked with blue blazes and offering no other course to follow. Conditions for a notable struggle of wills presaged this Second Battle.
Coffee and juice, fruit and munchies were laid out for runners and crews in the early hours before the start. And Quartermaster Joe Clapper and each Station Chief (Brian Stecher, Derrick Carr, Anstr Davidson, Betty Sue O’Brien, Gary Paetzke and Roger Allison) managed their respective areas and stocked the oases with a cornucopia of food, liquids and drugs, each station offering its own unique provisions (salsa and chips, guacamole, burgers and dogs, jelly beans, as examples) in addition to the standard menu. Staffs at each station catered to the runners’ necessities, quick and efficient support proffered before a gasping request could even be emitted. For those combatants fortunate enough to have their own supply trains (crews), logistics were enhanced by a road network that not only closely parallels the course (and hence reduces the driving time between stations), but also wanders through perhaps the prettiest country estate area of northern Virginia, each bend in the dogwood-laced road offering glimpses of homes found mostly in dreams. The trail’s end offered showers, a masseuse, lush green grass on which to languish, and a few pizzas to gnaw on (barbecue next year…).
Course of Battle
At 6:15, with the sky’s pale blue bleeding through the trees, the Second Battle’s combatants charged from the starting line. By Popes Head Creek, veteran Scott Mills was leading a pack with Jim Spencer (1st American at Masochist when the Russians invaded a few years back) and fellow veterans Frank Probst (‘93 Seniors winner), Harry Smith (4th overall and 3rd Yankee in ‘93), and Tim Stanley (2nd Rebel and 5th overall in ‘93). At the Centreville Road aid station (5.5 miles), Scott held a slight lead over Jim, with Frank close on their heels and Tim another minute back. Not many seconds behind, a Maryland squad of Dennis Fugate, Jeff Hinte, Rick Schneider, Tom Green and Gary Reilly were battling for position with a Pennsylvania squad of Barry Lewis, clydesdale Ted Massa, Steve Miknis, Harry Smith and Ken McSherry. Hidden in these packs were Nigel Finney from Minnesota and a couple Virginia soldiers, Al Schumm and clydesdale Paul Walczak. By the turnaround at Bull Run Regional Park (8.5) and continuing back through Centreville Road, Jim had wrested the lead from Scott, with Frank steadily at third. The next stretch through Hemlock and onto Bull Run Marina at 22.5 miles, the battlefield stances shifted. Jim was building a commanding lead, Scott now four minutes back and Frank dropping into fifth place 17 minutes behind pace. Between the two were Barry Lewis, holding a steady pace but still 11 minutes back, and Ted Massa, the eventual Clydesdale winner holding strong 4 minutes after Barry. By Fountain Head at 29.5, Barry was closing the gap, now only 10 minutes from Jim and only two from Scott; and before the entrance to the Do Loop, Scott and Barry had swapped positions and Jim’s lead continued to thin. The relentless hills between Fountain Head and Bull Run Marina on the return trip brought Jim and Barry together, Barry’s persistent pace bringing him into the last aid station at 44 miles mere seconds ahead, but on a pace that would eventually widen the finishing gap to five minutes. And it was between Bull Run Marina and the finish that the Maryland squad of Hinte, Fugate and Schneider edged past Mills to rob him of the third position. Nigel Finney, as far back as 14th place after the start, moved steadily through the final miles to finish 7th between Scott and Ted.
The women’s race was no less dramatic even without the larger number of entrants. Locals Jeanne Melanson and Renee Ortega had some familiarity with the course — which in any Battle can play a significant role in the day’s struggle — beyond that of New Yorker Janet Stein. Jeanne looked recognizably calm as she approached the Popes Head Creek crossing at the start, and built a minute and a half lead over Renee, with Janet 10 seconds back, at the first Centreville Road pass. At the western turnaround, Janet and Renee were together, though now two minutes back. The lead lengthened to 4 and 7 minutes, respectively, at the second Centreville pass. But the turnaround at Hemlock, as with other opportunities to see runners ahead of you coming back at you, brought renewed motivation to Janet. By Bull Run Marina, she had gained a minute on Jeanne, and at Fountain Head was entering the aid station as Jeanne was leaving. While both Jeanne and Renee were running intently steady paces against a seemingly intensifying course, Janet was pushing the edge to gain control of the race. Into the Do Loop, Jeanne and Janet switched positions, with Janet now two minutes ahead after little more than two miles since Fountain Head. The encroaching heat of the day, despite the mitigation of the trees’ canopy, played out equally among the three contenders. Janet continued to stretch her lead, finishing 23 minutes ahead of Jeanne and eclipsing Debbie Roth’s course record by an hour and 46 minutes, with a 9:21:44. Renee finished 14 minutes behind Jeanne, bringing three women under 10 hours.
The Second Battle had its other memorable moments. Who among you runners will forget the automobile tires agility test composed by Roger Allison and the Hamiltons at the Do Loop? How many didn’t kiss the dirt somewhere on the course? How many remember Danny Johnson’s all-out sprint to the finish, attempting to keep his two recruits — Barberot & Carey — from beating him, missing only by nanoseconds? How many, of those who took showers with the Fels Naptha soap, at worst developed only a couple small spots of poison ivy? How many remember the locust swarm of runners devouring the pizza at the end? How many lingered perhaps just a bit too long at the oasis aid stations, loathe to leave such friendly faces and nourishing sustenance? Who among you have only vague memory of those early flat miles in bluebell country, the more vivid picture the endless ups and downs, twists and turns that make the course one to reckon with? Who of you can still visualize the plethora of Nature’s color (red buds, dogwoods, azaleas, bluets, spring beauties, bluebells, to name a few) spreading out on both sides of the trail, and the occasional water fowl (herons, egrets, geese, ducks) gracing the waters of Bull Run? How nightmarish was that last hill to the finish line? And how relieved, and maybe proud, were you to earn your veteran status for the Second Battle of the Bull Run Run? These are but a few suggested reminders from only a few “sightings” — there no doubt are scores more stories, those hopefully being told and retold to create the lore that accompanies every ultra.
Eighty-six of the 96 starters crossed the finish line under 13 hours. Daniel Rossi and Sarann Mock inched past the last cutoff station at the Marina, but missed the 13 hour mark. Nonetheless, they earned their veteran status. Five of our newbies (Barberot, Carey, Waldrip, Boyenger, Highfill) finished the ordeal. Again this year we only had two runners under 8 hours, but another 11 under 9 hours, and 24 under 10 hours (9 in ‘93). Barry Oring improved his time by over three hours, the First Battle being his first ultra and this his second. The majority of ‘93 veterans improved their times considerably, and the others benchmarked for the next.
We were blessed with three critical ingredients: (1) weather which in the preceding days helped keep the course relatively dry and spawned Spring’s burst of color, to make the environment as pleasing as any runner could expect; (2) a dedicated group of VHTRC members and friends who resolved to make this year’s BRR a total success, from critical matters such as course markings, to seemingly miniscule matters, such as Fels Naptha soap in the showers to stave off the poison ivy; and (3) this year’s combatants, who recognized both the beauty of the course and the work involved in putting on a quality event. I am indebted to both groups for this year’s success. As for next year’s weather, well, that’s another Battle… We’ll see you then!
Last updated January 31, 2021