Monday, December 2, 2013

Running with the Bulls: A Tale of the Bull Run 50

I set out gear and clothing for the morning, each piece carefully having been decided upon weeks before. Race days are not the time to try out new things. Stress is relieved by knowing in advance what gear you’re using. By planning ahead, you don’t have to think about anything other than the race on race day. But here I was, second guessing myself. Nerves were getting the best of me and I had to tell myself over and over, do not deviate from the plan. You’re ready for this. You’ve prepared. You can do this. It was 9 hours before the start of the Bull Run 50 and I was revved up with fear and stress and excitement and terror.
Just hours before, Matthew and I had attended the pre-race meeting. We were both trying to stay calm, and even though Matthew is, by nature, a much calmer person that I am, I sensed his anticipation too. Here we were, two unseasoned runners amongst a sea of Virginia Happy Trails Club veterans, people who had run the Bull Run 50 over and over again, people who eat the Bull Run 50 for breakfast.  Old and young, they all seemed to know each other. They delighted us with stories of the race and its history. At some point the RD said, “It’s not a question of if you’ll puke, it’s a question of when you’ll puke.” I turned to Matthew and said adamantly, “He’s crazy. You will not puke.”  It was my job to instill confidence in Matthew. I would tell him he would not puke. And the next day, I would tell him he looked great when he did puke. It was my first ultramarathon crewing job and I was determined to do whatever it took to get my runner across the finish line.  
The Bull Run 50 is a fifty mile race on single track dirt and gravel held in Northern Virginia in April, and if Mother Nature is in a good mood, blue bells bloom along the course, creating a sea of flowers that runners cruise through in the forest along Bull Run and the Occoquan River.   
The first challenge is getting into the race. Only 350 runners are given a spot each year, based upon winning lottery numbers chosen due to their proximity to a particular day’s DOW Jones Industrial Rate closing number. Or something like that. By the time I had read the lottery explanation several times, I had gone cross eyed and decided to let them and my fingers remain crossed in the hopes that Matthew would be chosen. I did not have a back up race in mind and neither did he.
As luck (or the stock market) would have it, Matthew was chosen and here we were, he with 6 months of training under his belt, and me with 6 months of reading every crew instruction to the point of memorization, along with every race report I could find, paying particular attention to what runners mentioned about their crews, and a healthy dose of adrenaline, ready to race.
I dropped M off at Hemlock Overlook (no crew allowed at the start) in the pitch dark with a shout of good luck and headed off to find my crewing partner, Alyson. We met up at Starbucks, fueled with espresso and headed to Aid Station 7.2/11.6: Centreville Road.
When you crew a race, RDs give you detailed instructions on where you can and cannot go, when you can and cannot aid your runner and other helpful hints. The instructions for Centerville Road Aid Station are as follows: “Access to this aid station is difficult and dangerous. We recommend that crews skip this station.” OK. Danger. If we skipped this aid station we wouldn’t see Matty until mile 21.5, which was 1.5 miles longer than he had ever run in his life. Shit. We headed to Centreville Road, survived the entry and parked out of the way so we would not bother anyone at the aid station. Before we knew it, Matthew was in and out of the aid at mile 7.2, in the front of the pack, and headed out and then back to us for another stop there at mile 11.6. We switched out his fuel (a combination of maltodextrin and water) and hit the road.
Alyson and I met up with Matthew’s parents at Bull Run Marina, Aid Station 21.1/44.9. I had spent the day with them at The North Face Endurance Challenge the year before and was happy to see them. Matthew’s mom was eagerly anticipating her son’s arrival at 21.5 with a typical mother’s concern and his dad was puffed out to “here” with pride that his son was running a 50 mile race. M came rolling into the aid in the same group as before, looking pretty good, albeit a bit tired. He sat down with us and took a longer break than we had planned for but he eventually ran on down the trail and we moved on as well.
Next stop was Fountain Head Park, Aid Station 28.1/37.9. We waited and waited and started to see familiar runners coming in and then in came Matthew, running up to me with the words breathlessly pouring out of his mouth, “I-just-puked-four-times-and-diarrhea.”
The job of a crew is to get their runner across the finish line. Pacers can do it in a more physical manner, by actually running with the racer, but crew meets the racer at each (allowed) Aid Station and offers him or her a series of previously planned out items, like a fresh fuel bottle or hydration pack, some food, first aid, a change of shoes or clothing. Crew also writes down splits, and gives the racer a run-down of exactly what has been happening with the race since the last aid station. “Here is your time, you’re doing awesome. These runners are in front of you, this guy just dropped, the next section has 2 small hills, the next aid station is 7 miles from here, and you look AWESOME.” You get the picture. Crew always tells the racer that he looks AWESOME. And that he is going to be just fine. And that he is doing GREAT. No matter how the racer is doing, and no matter how he actually looks, unless he is literally going to die, the crew will always tell the racer that he is doing just great. And then it’s the crew’s job to push the racer out of aid as quickly as possible.      
So. Here we were at mile 28.1. Eight point one miles further than Matthew had ever raced before and he, by his report to me, despite still looking strong, was internally depleted, dehydrated and weak. OK. I was prepared for this. I took him by the arm and said the magic words. I pulled out the trump card, gave him the golden ticket, the magic medicine of ultra running, “Coca-Cola.” 
It was at this point that something unanticipated happened. You learn things from every race. You learn that you cannot know every single thing that will happen ahead of time. You have to be able to anticipate the unexpected and react in real time. I definitely did not anticipate that while assisting my runner, his mother and my crewing partner would turn into mama bears, attempting to shield their cub from the evils of the world. Simultaneous to my utterance of the word that would fix all that ails, “Coca-Cola,” Matthew’s mother started muttering that he should quit, while Alyson started talking about how Coke is very bad for your health. Both of them were hovering in close proximity to Matthew. This could not be. Both were new to crewing. Both were probably in some world correct in their commentary and with their concerns. But neither are ultrarunners. Neither knew the rules: No quitting except in the case that death is impending, No arguing against the crew chief, No negative comments in front of the runner. Even if he is your kid. Even if you are a personal trainer and know correctly that Coke is not *the best* health drink on the planet in normal life.  I had made an error in not listing out these rules before the race began. I won’t do it again. You learn something at every race.
I had to act quickly. Seeing one’s mother fret about you is not good for a racer’s mentality. Getting a health lecture is a distraction that won’t assist in completing the race. I gently took Matthew’s arm, led him away from his mother and Alyson, and whispered to him again, “Coca-Cola.”

People who don’t understand ultras don’t understand ultras. Hell, people who do understand ultras sometimes don’t even understand ultras. So of course my racer’s mom was going to flip out when her kid was reporting body breakdown with 20+ miles to run. Of course Alyson, who is a personal trainer and writes about world health issues for a living, would want Matthew to consume only the best of things during his race (and always).

The body can do and take a lot. And I knew that the likely reason Matthew’s stomach had freaked out was because he had eaten too much or he had eaten the wrong thing. It didn’t necessarily mean that he had to stop running as long as he wanted to go on. And he did want to go on. Hopefully just meant that we had to get something into his system to get him through the next 20 miles. Enter the savior: Coke. It works. It offers calories and sugar and a little bit of magic. Especially if it’s a little flat. Take a poll of everyone you know who has competed in anything longer than a 50K and I am guessing you’re going to get a 99% Yes to Coke response. Matthew drank some Coke, and we filled a handheld half way with it as well, and sent him along with another one filled with water.

We waited patiently for his return at the Aid, which he would double back to at Mile 37.9. He came back before too long and looked good again – no problems and with a quick stop, continued on. I was happy to see him looking strong and to see so many now familiar faces cruising through 37.9 One more aid station to go and he’d be on his way to the finish.

We drove back to Bull Run Marina and set up our crew station at the Aid Station Mile 44.9.  Mid-pack runners started coming in. To put it mildly, it was a shit show. I remember feeling shock at seeing some of the runners’ faces as they hobbled into 44.9. The lightheartedness of the 37.9 Aid was gone. The last bit of trail into 44.9 was “up” hill (so mild you would not even think of it as a hill on a regular day) and we watched runner after runner struggle to the top. Matthew came in and took a seat at our little station. We helped him get refreshed and talked about the next 5 miles. “Everyone is looking really strong, including you.” I said. “You are doing great. You are doing awesome. I know you’re tired, but that’s understandable, and you are going to rage the last 5 miles.” He wanted to sit a little longer. (Who wouldn’t, man? 44.9 miles is a long bike ride even.) “You have to go now. If you want me, or your dad or Alyson or someone to go with you, OK, but either way, you have to go now.” It’s tough to be a best girl friend and want to hug a person so hard and at the same time know you cannot do that, and that you have to tell him to GTFO ASAP.  Guess what? Off that badass mo fo went running into the woods.

The finish line at Bull Run 50 is a party. There’s a band, there’s BBQ, there’s beer and there are a TON of people. It’s really exciting and people cheer like crazy for every single finisher that crosses the line. It’s a festival of ultrafamilies. Matthew came running out of the woods and down the hill to the finish line looking AWESOME. I didn’t have to make it up. He really did look GREAT. He finished his first 50 miler with a big huge smile on his face.  I was smiling as well - for him and for myself – I had proudly finished my first ultra that day too. 
Crew and Racer Happy at the Finish - Bull Run 50 Miler 


  1. Love it! Love you guys. Way to go pulling M through and way to go M!

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  3. Great story CBC! I'm proud of you. M is such an inspiration il'll definitely do my wimpy walk tonight.