I started and finished the first 21 years of the Bull Run Run 50 Miler along with Frank Probst and Tom Green. I was certain that the three of us would get 25 consecutive finishes. Then I had kidney stones during the race in 2014, a total hip replacement in 2016, and major surgery to take out part of my pancreas and my spleen in 2017. The streak was done, but I still keep showing up, and this year I wondered if I could get finish #24?
A lot has changed for me over the years. Gone are the years of competitive racing for me. Twice I ran under 8 hours, but now I just hope to make the cut off times and finish! What hasn’t changed is the pure enjoyment of moving on trails through bluebells and trees for hours with friends and other ultra runners. Frequently, I tell my wife that trail running is my church or my meditation or simply a place and time for solitude and simplicity and spiritual growth.
This year it rained a lot the night before the race, but the rain moved out just as I arrived at Hemlock Overlook Park early in the morning. Quatro Hubbard, race director extraordinaire, sent 266 runners off at 6:30 a.m. The race starts with a loop through the parking area to spread out the runners before hitting the single-track trail. Today I call my running, “shuffling,”” and I tried to shuffle faster this year. I had set several goals for the first 26 miles in hopes of finishing under the 13-hour time limit. I settled into a spot between other runners, and discovered I was near a guy I see at my local grocery store. We had a great time as the conversation focused on different races done in the past or ones coming up in the near future.
We got our feet wet at the first of many stream crossings because the concrete pylons put in place to get you across the stream were just under water. I wondered what this crossing would be like in a couple of hours when we came back this way. We continued running north up and down the hills until we came to the first aid station at mile 7.2 where Kevin Sayers welcomes each runner every year. The next five miles were CRAZY, muddy, but the bluebells were beautiful. These five miles are the flattest section of the course and a place to put in some faster miles, but not today. I spotted Frank Probst, 25-time finisher, taking photographs of the runners.
As we headed back south on the course I just focused on a steady shuffle and kept moving. When I arrived back at the initial stream crossing, the water was much higher and the concrete pylons were totally under rushing water. My good friend, Jim Nagle, was on the other side of the stream to help runners out and to warn us about a tree branch that two runners had hit and cut their heads on. The runner in front of me wanted me to go first. What to do?
I plunged in and found myself in cold water up to my waist, and the current was much stronger than expected. I crawled and climbed on top of the pylons to get across and then headed up a steep hill to the Hemlock aid station at mile 17.6. The support at the aid station was super – volunteers offered to fill my bottles, and I found some Succeed S! Caps as I was keenly aware that the temperatures were climbing and salt has always been critical to calm my stomach in the heat.
The section from Hemlock to the Bull Run Marina is constantly changing. It goes from trails right along the Bull Run to a couple of modest climbs to fields and then a very muddy section before the trail meanders through some evergreen trees. When I came into the aid station, a volunteer was making a humus and guacamole sandwich, and I could not resist it. I try to be very efficient at aid stations, and I am very consistent about what I eat and drink. Typically I get two bottles filled with water and Gator Aid, and I look for PB&J. Today I was making sure I got some type of salt as well. I asked for ice in my bottles, and they had it – awesome! I will drink a cup of Coke during long runs, although I never drink soda in everyday life. The Coke seems to sit well on my stomach, and a calm stomach is an ultrarunner’s friend.
Now I was off for four miles to the Wolf Run Shoals aid station, which is at mile 26.1. My goal was to get there in 5½ hours so that I would have plenty of time to finish. I live about 45 minutes from this section, and I come out three or four times in February and March to train on the hills. I have been doing this for two decades so I know the trail well, and I try to push myself. It was hot now but I felt like I was doing well. I arrived at the aid station at 12:30 p.m. and behind my goal. Ugh! I tried not to let it bother me too much.
I headed off toward Fountainhead, and within two miles I saw James Blandford, the eventual winner, coming toward me on the trail and yelled, “You are rocking it! Take care.”” He must have been in a trance because he jumped when he heard me. The out and back on both the north and south ends of the Bull Run trail allow runners to see other runners and to support each other.
I loaded up on fluids at the Fountainhead aid station, and I headed down the white loop trail in the hottest part of the day. This trail winds down hill to a steam and back up before you head along a ridge and toward the Do Loop. This course does not have any long climbs, but the hills are pretty constant, and we had to navigate multiple muddy sections this year. The Bull Run Occoquan Trail, which is about 36 miles of the Bull Run Run 50 is not technical, but there are plenty of rocks and a few roots that required me to focus on almost every step.
The Do Loop is infamous, and it has really changed over the 27 years. Honestly for many years it didn’t seem like there was a trail, and you had to rely on blazes and ribbons to guide you. However, this year there was a trail. After the bluebells and the aid stations, the #1 attraction on the course may be the old Nash Rambler (see photo) that was left in the woods many years ago. It is decorated in a unique way each year, and it is part of the Do-Loop experience. At the car this year there was a tribute to two Virginia Happy Trail Run Club (VHTRC) members who passed away in 2018-2019. One of these members was Ed Cacciapaglia, who fought pancreatic cancer.
In 2017, when I learned I had a tumor in my pancreas, Ed had lunch with my wife and me. He taught us so much about how to fight cancer, educate yourself, and stay positive. He really was an extremely caring and an amazing guy!
Once out of the Do Loop, I enjoyed a delicious frozen ice pop at the aid station, and headed north toward the finish, with only 15 miles to go. I saw Dave Janosko heading into the loop and was amazed at his steady pace. Dave has also finished 23 times, and I knew he would finish today, which he did.
The support at the three aid stations on the way back north was super. At Fountainhead, Bob Phillips, former race director, greeted me again and made sure I had everything I needed. Clouds had moved in and the heat was less of a factor now. At Wolf Run Shoals I felt like I was in a desert and seeing a mirage – was that really a finishing line arch and did they really give me a finisher medal???? I was tired of eating and drinking but I kept drinking. Occasionally another runner would catch up to me and we’d chat for a few minutes before moving on.
Melanie, my wife, met me on the trail just before I got to the Bull Run Marina aid station, and it was a joy to see her. She encouraged me and pushed me to get moving. Runners like me are lucky to have their “Melanie support.” She puts up with the addiction to exercise and the long days that training and a race takes.
The muddy section just after the marina was even more challenging but at this point I was confident of achieving my 24th finish. There was time to think back over the years and enjoy the support of family and friends, and the perseverance, discipline and luck that it takes. There is something about the challenge of 50 trail miles that I really love!
I finished in 12 hours and 7 minutes. Melanie and I celebrated at the finish line, and we got the share the moment with Anstr Davidson, one of the founders of the BRR and a former race director, and others who have been part of the race for many years. There were many happy trail runners who survived a slow, muddy and hot day at Bull Run Run 50 Miler #27! THANKS to VHTRC, Quatro, and all of the volunteers who make the day so much fun.
Last updated May 11, 2021