Revisionist History at Bull Run
The Civil War brought only two major battles to Bull Run. The Third Battle of Bull Run Run, like its recent predecessors, writes its own embattled history along the banks of this meandering stream. Both records and bodies would fall this year…
The Bull Run Run battles have grown from 60 to 96 to this year’s 148 starters. Roughly a third would be returning veterans, many with friends in tow, coming to test their mettle on a deceptively difficult course. A tenth of the starters would be newbies to ultradistances, succumbing either to cohort exhortations or race management advertising, each excitedly anxious to engage those ueber-marathon miles. Others had tested the course during the winter Culo Grasso 50K, others came into the foray clueless of what they were about to engage. The advertised “rolling hills” conjures different visions of difficulty, and each runner would leave the course with a refined perspective on the buttkick attitude those hills would express.
Staging the battle would require considerably more effort to accommodate the 50% growth in combatants. In previous years we garnered only a minor share of the Hemlock Overlook headquarters, but would require more than half its capacity in ‘95 (with expectations for full usage next year). Our basement and garage would house a sizably wider assortment of goodie bag treats, and finisher jacket packets would canvass the living room floor just three days before the race. Our quartermasters, Lou and Renee Ortego, would dedicate almost equal space in their home for aid station supplies. Stocking aid stations would be more complex, exacerbated by unseasonable heat and humidity. The logistics commander, Dan Grayson, would double with Lou to constantly bounce between stations with water and ice. Aid station commanders would add individual flair above assigned comestibles — Col Molly Parker’s Turkey Shooter, dispensing ice cream sandwiches, would raise many broken spirits; and Col Roger Allison’s Mountaineers, armed with chips and salsa, would add zing to others’ stride.
Interleaved gray and blue paged programs, complete with historical records and the ‘95 list of combatants, wouldn’t go to press until the last possible minute, to capture all but the latest of entrants. Stitched finisher jackets, each individually assigned to expected finishers, would still be coming off machines in the final days. Repeat veterans would have special insignia reflecting their multiple visits to the Bull Run trails, all finishers jackets emboldened with the unique “VETERAN” to acknowledge the day’s achievement. And on Friday, a VHTRC squad would add final streamers to the course, then pack individual aid station boxes before combatants arrived later for dinner and the trail briefing.
Meat and meatless spaghetti comprised the pre-battle meal, combatants moving constantly through the line to get his or her fill. Veterans of this and other ultra battles spread comaraderie around the dining hall, with recruits interspersed thru the crowd, making new friends and hearing ultra lore. Just after dusk, the crowd hushed to hear instructions on the next day’s challenge, broken only by the orchestrated cheers for North and South battle lines, and recognition for both veterans’ achievements and neophytes’ naivete. With morning coming all too soon, the briefing was restricted to a quick 30 minutes, to get the runners off to campsites and dormitory bunks for too few hours’ sleep.
Combatants run an out and back on a mostly single track trail, the infamous Do Loop at one terminus serving as the only time runners don’t see one another travelling in opposite directions. This adds mystery to competitors within 25 minutes of each other at critical miles on the course (31.5 to 34). The start at Hemlock Overlook sits about a third of the way along the coursee, runners completing the short end on the first out and back, then turning southeast and heading toward the tough miles to and returning from the Loop.
At the start, runners drop quickly off the Overlook’s backside down to Bull Run’s banks, and at the first mile meet the first stream crossing. Before the next mile’s over, runners contend with the first of the endless streak of hills. No hills present significant altitude, but their vast numbers exact a toll too often not appreciated until late in the race. Ambling and mildly rolling trails lull many runners into a false sense of fun. The first hill doesn’t frighten anyone, and is treated as a mere hillock compared to more prominent landscapes of other courses. But the hills multiply, and by the southern turnaround, when the home stretch would otherwise energize most runners, the still countless hills flout any resurgence. Those who’ve previously faced that challenge would use the lessons effectively, moving methodically over Mother Earth’s bumps to the day’s terminus at Hemlock.
After the Centreville Road 5.5. mile aid station, the course flattens to unveil a distracting vast carpet of brilliant bluebells, the vision repeated after the turnaround just 2.5 miles from the station. A few flat miles in this section were dropped from last year’s course, replaced later with, gosh, more hills. (Hey, we advertised ‘em, why not produce ‘em!?) After repeating several streams and hills, runners must engage the short, tough climb back to Hemlock, some aware that that hill must be re-taken before finding the finish. Refreshed at Hemlock, the runners again drop to the water’s edge and begin the long haul to the Loop.
Just before Fountain Head (29.5 miles), the displaced miles from above Centreville now detour from the blue blazes and roller coaster for a mile and a half before exiting along a pre-Civil War cemetery and into the aid station. Two miles beyond sits the Do Loop station, this year situated on the frontage road rather than a quarter mile farther at the Loop itself. The event’s increased numbers almost dictate this position in order to keep the station supplied, but it also invites runner confusion upon greeting the Loop (and adds to its infamy). Runners effectively negotiating the Loop’s 2+ miles find only momentary relief upon exiting, for long miles still await them before Hemlock’s finish line 16 miles away.
Weather would be a factor for the Third Battle. Early week predictions called for showers midweek and on Friday and Saturday. Meteorology being the exact science it is, a few spits found ground through the week, and only late afternoon clouds on Saturday supplied mere sputtering moments. Without earlier rains, trees withheld their full canopy of leaves, the sun penetrating to the forest’s floor to heat runners even more. Friday was gorgeous… and warm, a harbinger of similar conditions on Saturday.
The temperature was 10 degrees above normal as pre-dawn tights and gloves were shed before the start. Before noon the mercury would climb to 80, shortly thereafter accompanied by distinct and energy-draining humidity. These conditions generated some afternoon clouds and welcoming breezes, but by that juncture, the heated humidity would have done its damage.
But for all its challenges, the course nonetheless displayed its beauty for all to enjoy. After the bluebells, runners were still continuously treated to other pleasing flora and fauna. Bluets, dogwoods, redbuds, waterfowl galore, the meandering Bull Run and its feeder (and refreshing) streams, the soft earthen trails — so many opportunities to disengage from the event’s miles, each creating its own invitation to catch a gremlin rock or root and kiss the earth!
Bearing #1 was Rich Ratzan (with compatriots recruited for their first battle), defeated at the Second Battle and returning for revenge. Numbers were assigned not by speed, but by anticipation for the battle, receipt date of entries being anxiety’s indicator. Barry Lewis, last year’s winner, opted in the final days to commit, arguing injury recovery but gracing us nonetheless. He would start almost an hour late due to pre-race navigation problems, yet still finish in the top twenty. A spy — Gary Paetzke, under alias of his nephew — would infiltrate our ranks, his disclosure coming only in the final yards before the finish. Actually, he’s a VHTRC’er who surprisingly returned early from “vacation” duty in Adak, Alaska, and effectively concealed his presence until the very end.
“Squads” came in greater numbers this year. Thirteen Buckeyes from near Dayton and Cleveland came for their first crack at the course, five of them (Leo Lightner, Jane Orth, Roxanne Edmiston, Rich Abbott and Michael Rickey unfortunately either DNF’ing or missing the 13 hour cut). The RASAC crew from Maryland brought its strong contingent (hey, where was that slug Rick Schneider?!). New York supplied a larger band this year. Janet Stein, ‘94’s winner and course record holder, returned with others who also left as awardees last year — Joe Dabes, Dek Stump — and with her own candidate for a new course record, Shelley Reynolds. Ben Clark packed up a crew from Vint Hill, and Pennsylvania sent groups from different geographic pockets.
Noticeable pairs migrated in, too. The Coast Guard Academy dispatched slightly seasoned (at 4 ultras, lightly peppered?) Peter Mitchell and a newbie schoolmate. Other familial pairs were evident as well — Andy and Shelly (just months from San Diego and a wedding planned for the summer), third year veterans Dale and John Weitzel, the ever smiling Margie and Stan — all three couples using BRR as a training run for MMT — and Susan and Mike from the Annapolis Striders. Marty Szekeresh cajoled his brother and nephew into entering, though (as families did in the Civil War) they chose to represent opposite sides.
Two came from beyond U.S. borders, Alex for his third battle, Nigel for his first ultra. We finally got Left Coast representation from (haven’t I seen him on Comedy Central) Mark Konodi, visiting friends Tom “once I start, I finish” and Kay Green, and SF’er Ron Perkins. Eastward, we picked up beyond-the-Plains Coloradan Chris Nutting (surprised that mountainless terrain could kick her butt) and Texan David Evans (whose drawl is as much Texan as mine is French).
Kevin was our youngest at 19, with five other starters over 60, Joe finishing his first and Charlie his third. Nineteen women would toe the line, about double from ‘94. The North’s numbers nearly doubled the South’s (the numbers even more disparate in the real War). Thirty-one Seniors and 23 Clydesdales would gallop (OK, maybe canter, maybe walk) the trails.
Sadly, third year combatants Ed Demoney and Dick Good would join Leo as early casualties. Also absent from the finishers list would be super congenial Debbie Roth, our First Battle’s winner and seemingly annual entrant, out at Hemlock from pre-existing injuries. Second year Vets Daniel Rossi, Bruce Cowling and Bill Piper would later bonk severely, and clydesdale Joe Bross would regrettably again miss the cutoff. Seven combatants would be AWOL at the start, among them Oogie Dovel, missing his third year. Barry Oring, out just the day before for blood poisoning, used the First Battle as his initiation into the sport, and will run the course three weeks late this year to honor his annual pilgrimage.
The 15 minute spread between David McCombs and Mike Morton doesn’t begin to tell the story. Both scampered easily ahead of the pack off Hemlock and across Popes Head Creek, with Mike leading but not out of sight. Mike led the pack into the Centreville Road station, with David now back a couple minutes, Clapper still a couple more, then Foley, Stanley, Mills and Horton yet another minute behind.
After Centreville’s first pass, Mike missed the blazed right turn just after Cub Run, so that upon returning to Hemlock, David had opened a 7 minute lead. Mike again wandered off before Bull Run Marina (21.5 miles), dropping another 8 minutes. Mentally beginning to burn, Mike dug back in as Horton came into view from behind. McCombs and Morton continued to press methodically and smoothly, each displaying visible resolve and tenacity in attacking the relentless hills. David opened as much as 19 minutes into Fountain Head, but Mike began cutting into the lead as they approached the Loop. Distance between them lessened to 11 minutes out of the Loop, another minute gained in the two miles back to Fountain Head, and finding the closest proximity of 3 minutes back at the Marina. But again, in the stretch to home, Mike left the course, finishing with more miles logged but still only second place.
Both ran noticeably controlled throughout, each finishing to suggest they’d only been out for a few comfortable miles in the woods. Both eclipsed Barry’s previous record of 7:33:10. David’s repeated comment for the course — “It’s a pain in my Manassas!” Horton, in finishing third, captured that spot after coming into Hemlock two minutes behind Clapper, then reversing that distance on his way to the Marina, and thereafter steadily moving away from those behind. Joe would hold another two minutes over Scott, and he on Ian, until Fountain Head, at which point Ian passed Scott on his way to the Loop, and then slipped past Joe in the Loop. Ed Foley was only 5 minutes back and moving strongly.
Between Fountain Head and the Marina, Mills overtook Clapper. Ian steadily pressed forward, 3 minutes ahead at the Marina, with Mills two up on Joe and he still five minutes in front of Ed. In the final miles, Scott pushed hard to catch a slowing Ian, who spurted ahead at the finish when surprised to find Mills creeping up behind. Ed missed a homecourt advantage turn and came to the finish from the opposite direction. Expecting to be disqualified, he was sent back onto the course to finish properly, intent that he walk away with his Veteran jacket. Jeff Hinte, 20 minutes behind Joe at the Marina, could not recapture the same ground as he did with Mills in ‘94, but still finished characteristically tough in the final miles.
The women’s battle was accurately predicted by Janet. While Stein and Reynolds ran together into Centreville, by the return pass Shelley had opened a minute lead. At Hemlock, the lead had increased to 2 minutes, with Shelly Post another 11 minutes back. Reynolds’ edge opened to 6 minutes by the Marina and continued to build through the remaining miles, the first 35 miles suggesting that Stein’s course record of 9:21:44 was in serious jeopardy.
Janet’s lead over Post never extended beyond 11 minutes, and by Fountain Head, the gap had narrowed to 6 minutes. Getting wind that she now was competing for a top slot, Shelly gained all but a minute into and out of the Loop, then moved ahead of Janet by Fountain Head. Post cleanly moved ahead to maintain her second place, and from farther back in the pack, Sue Johnston and Chris Nutting were moving up on a persevering Stein. At the Marina, Sue and Chris were only 10 and 11 minutes, respectively, behind Janet, with Chris making the more dramatic push to gain another 8 minutes before reaching Hemlock. Janet, like Barry, returned to Bull Run more for the expectation of enjoying the event than winning, though both still finished with fine performances.
Across the remaining combatants, the day’s weather was taking its due. Midday heat and humidity dehydrated most runners, despite active encouragement at aid stations to refuel. Frequent streams would offer temporary relief from the heat. With heat’s contribution, more than a couple runners would lose their cookies; one would eventually go to a hospital for IV recovery. Ice in water bottles was an elixir, and each aid station, both by special treatment meted out by volunteers and for the cornucopia of nourishment, provided regular oases from which runners grudgingly departed.
The Do Loop continued to frustrate minds and bodies, its course position coincident with those miles that begin to really test one’s ultra experience. Gary Reilly, at least by his split time, apparently doubled his pleasure with a double trip. Maybe next year we’ll send everyone first in one direction, then the other, to gain full appreciation for its lore (just kidding?!?).
Four who make the last cutoff at the Marina nonetheless miss the 13 hour event limit. Larry Fischer slides in almost 20 minutes late, with Roxanne Edmiston and Michael Rickey moments later, just ahead of Betty Sue’s sweep, with Olga Martinez appearing sometime after dark. All four, for their travails, nonetheless earned their Veteran status…
The Spoils of War
All finishers received their custom “VETERAN” embroidered fleece jackets. Despite the day’s heat and humidity, 85% of the field endured to find the finish. Harry Smith, usually competitive on this course, opted to suffer through the elements rather than relinquish his jacket. He was one of many found horizontal after the finish, painfully thankful for the day’s end. For others less stricken, a variety of delectable pizzas helped replenish depleted body stocks, and cleansing showers rinsed away the course’s grime (and for the venturesome leaving the trails, poison ivy’s invisible oils).
Eleven recruits finished their first ultra — Charman (and he felt great at the finish — he needs to work harder…), Carter, Brown, Rearden, Arbucci, Cupo, Hernandez, Hite, Mahoney, Holder and Martinez. You each, no doubt, have special friends to thank for roping you into this sport. Blame them, not me…
We sought to make as wide a distribution of other awards as contributions would permit. With North and South, Men and Women, Open and Senior, and Clydesdale divisions, one or two in each division walked away with Ultimate single bottle mesh fannypacks with printed Bull Run Run and VHTRC logos. David and Mike, though living in southern Virginia, claimed North allegiance, and placed respectively in the Open division, with Ian third. Dave Horton led the South, with Scott and Derrick taking the next two positions.
Shelley, Shelly and Janet took the top North spots, with Dale, Carolyn and Diane leading the South. Joe Dabes, Dek and King won North Senior honors, with Frank, Al and Joe taking the South. Mitzi is our first Senior woman to finish within the time limit, she electing to represent the North, while Ohio compatriot Irene is the only woman Clydesdale to finish today under 13 hours. Bob Bergman, Mike Strzelecki and Al Schumm garnered top honors for the Men’s Clydesdales.
Gage Haskins of Moments of Glory Civil War Art Gallery donated a Rocco numbered print of First Manassas, given in a drawing to those entrants with Civil War interest. We drew Marty Szekeresh’s name from the hat before he even finished, so his spoils were surprisingly enhanced beyond the anticipated jacket. And Robert Denney autographed his book The Civil War Years, also given as a freebie during the awards ceremony. Betty Sue Brannan donated two sports watches, given randomly to Jim Moore (for his trail “stories”) and Mark Konodi (farthest travelled, our British guest notwithstanding).
David McCombs walked away with Bull Run Run perpetual trophy, to be returned for next year’s Battle. The event’s 10th winner, thus heralding the end of the first Bull Run Run Campaign, will keep the trophy. By then, all our veterans’ own victories will mark a fine history!
War Correspondent’s Comments
The dual symbiosis between runners and aid station staffs, and between runners and Nature’s gift of this trail, perhaps best represents this event. The people who honor these hallowed grounds with their dedication to the sport, and respect for their compatriot combatants and support staffs, define the exhilarating and rewarding experience that the Battle of Bull Run Run produces. To both the selfless volunteers who spent countless hours before, during and after the race, and the runners without whom we wouldn’t even have an event, my humble thanks and congratulations go to you all. Writing for the VHTRC, I hope we meet again soon on other trails, and repeat next year at the Fourth Battle of Bull Run Run!
Last updated January 31, 2021