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Race Result

Racer: Aaron Schwartzbard
Race: Bull Run 50 Miler
Date: Saturday, April 9, 2005
Location: Clifton, VA
Race Type: Run - 50 Mile
Age Group: Male 25 - 29
Time: 7:37:06
Overall Place: 9 / 281
Comment: Glad to get the "disaster race" out of the way

Race Report:

First light of the morning was breaking when Chris Scott told us to go ahead and start running. Some ran fast to jockey for position, some ran slow to conserve energy. I was somewhere in between.

My legs felt particularly heavy throughout the week before the Bull Run 50 Mile Run (BRR). I couldn't get through five miles feeling good. I chalked it up to some recent long runs and hoped things would magically come together on race day, as experience tells me that things are apt to do.

By the time I had descended from Hemlock Overlook to the Bull Run Trail, hardly two miles into the race, I was starting to grow concerned. The race day magic that had taken hold of me as I crossed so many previous starting lines had still not arrived during this race. The runners in front of me started to pull away. The lead runner were already out of sight. I was focusing on running my own race and looking for that magic.

As I approached the upstream turn-around, I devoted half of my attention to watching for the lead runners coming in the opposite direction. (I devoted the remainder of my attention to staying upright while running on hard-packed trails covered with a layer of slick, silty mud.) Before the turn-around, the leader came by, and I didn't recognize him. Moments later, Sean was running in second with someone else I didn't recognize. Then Mike W., then a couple more guys I didn't recognize then me. "Who are all these people?" I wondered.

At the turn-around, Keith D. asked how I was feeling. "Lousy," was my honest answer. As I started heading downstream, I saw folks like Tom N. and Barry behind me. I was becoming confused; less than seven miles into the race, I felt like I was running Bizarro Bull Run. Last year, I was running faster to keep up with Barry --- and we were still well behind Tom N.

Anyway, I was getting the feeling that no amount of warming up would make me run well on this day. For the next few miles, I dodged and cheered runners heading in the opposite direction. By the time I finished the first 15 miles of the race, and had returned to Hemlock Overlook, my legs were sore, my heart rate felt higher than it should have been, and I was getting ready to declare it a "Plan B" day.

At Hemlock, I swapped an empty water bottle for a full one that Jen had waiting, and moved on. The next 10 or 11 miles --- from Hemlock, downstream to Fountainhead --- were miles I knew well. I've run that section of the Bull Run Trail many times. I focused on ticking off the mile posts, which would go up to 18 in the downstream direction. I also thought about my goals for the day. A miraculous recovery was still possible, but not probable. The soreness in my legs was unusual. Something was definitely wrong. Not wrong, as in, "I need to seek medical attention." Just wrong, as in, "this is not a day for racing." I continued to run as fast as I could, but no faster. My backward slide through the field was inevitable. All I could do was delay it.

At Fountainhead, Jen gave me two fresh bottles. While I was enjoying some tasty calories, Tom C. came over to see if I needed anything else, and to make sure I was alright. By the time I explained that things were not optimal, and he offered encouragement, it was time for me to leave.

I ran the familiar "White Trail" several miles to the new section of the course: The Blue Horseshoe Trail. The Blue Horseshoe Trail was a late addition to the course, added as a replacement for a section of the normal course that would be used for a mountain bike race on the same day.

It has been said that Eskimos have 100 words for different kinds of snow. If Eskimos had been trail runners in Virginia, they might have had 100 words for different kinds of mud. And the Blue Horseshoe Trail would have had every one of them. Maybe it wasn't all that bad. But it was muddy, and there were twists and turns and ups and downs. I never knew which way I'd be heading 20 feet down the trail.

Tom N. caught me, and we exchanged some good words before it was time for him to move on ahead. I passed through the Do Loop aid station, and informed them that someone had left some mud on the course. I requested that the volunteers clean it up before I got back for my return trip. They promised to construct bridges over the mud immediately. At some races, aid station volunteers think that it's enough to attend only to the immediate needs of the runners. At BRR, however, the volunteers go the extra mile. I looked forward to the return trip, when I would be able to avoid the mud in favor of the bridges that the volunteers would construct in the intervening 30 minutes.

On the approach to the Do Loop, the three mile loop at the downstream-most end of the course, I watched for any runners coming in the other direction. I had hoped to get in to the loop before the first runner was out of the loop. I nearly made it, too! However, just before getting there, I saw another runner heading toward me. So I didn't make it in before the first runner made it out, but I did make it in before the second runner was out.

In the Do Loop, Barry was first to pass me. Moments later, Derrick went by. Both offered encouragement, but it didn't take long for either of them to disappear into the woods in the distance.

I noticed that the loop was easier to follow than in years past. Then I realized why: the trail had been freshly blazed. The blazes used to be almost invisible --- a faint, faint orange that was of no use to anyone who didn't already know where the path was supposed to be. As a result, the loop was rarely traveled outside of races. Now, with a fresh coat of bright orange paint blazing the trail, the trail had become just that: a trail. Enough people had ventured through these woods in the preceding months to leave a path on the ground. Getting through the loop was uncharacteristically easy. But at the same time, I was about ready to declare it a "Plan C" day. It was a beautiful day to be on the trails, but anything beyond a minimal effort seemed to take too much out of me.

At some point in the loop I would be reversing direction, from heading downstream to heading upstream. At that point, I could start to feel like I was running toward the finish line at Hemlock Overlook, rather than running away from it. No worries, no need to suffer, just enjoy the day.

After the Do Loop, I spent the next hour passing people heading in the opposite direction --- the best part of the day. The first person I saw, as he was moments away from starting the loop was Scott M., who had been race director of BRR for the last decade. I saw Keith K. and asked, "How you doing?" "Ehh... Just hanging out. You?" "Ehh... Same." I saw Bethany and Francesca running together. I saw Horton and Sophie, who chided, "What are you doing, Aaron? There are PEOPLE in front of you!" I saw Frank P. on the re-routed section of the course, with 12 BRR finishes behind him, now suffering the indignity of having to watch for course markings. Steve B. was having a rough day, but soldiered on, no less. Kiwi Chris was excited to tell me that she had been having a low spell earlier, but she had recently gotten her running mojo back. I decided that Mark was in the midst of a low spell, because he wasn't as amused as I thought he'd be by my explanation of how I felt, sung in an operatic fasion... But I think Al liked it. At the Fountainhead aid station, Jen gave me some fresh bottles and Ensure. Lindsey was there. Rob was there, waiting for Mel, who was just a short way up the trail, as happy as could be, even climbing up a big hill. At Wolf Run Shoals, Anita was wondering how far it was to Fountainhead, and seemed no worse for the wear of 100 miles the previous weekend. And only a short way later, Krista and Terry were running together. Of course, I feel neglectful for all the people I've left out, but a complete list of all the friends and acquaintances I saw on the trail --- all the people who reminded me how fortunate I was to be doing what I was doing, that the worst days on the trail are still better than the best days off the trail --- would be five pages long by itself.

It was sometime after seeing the last downstream runner that I was passed by another upstream runner, John, who I didn't know. (It was only in the days following the race, upon examining the results, that we realized that John and I had corresponded through email about the race several weeks prior.) He was moving much better than I was, so as I approached a narrow bridge, I stood aside. "After you." I told him.

"This is it," I thought. "This is where I start moving backward through the field at a blistering pace." I hiked up the next hill, and half way down the other side, I could hear the next runner coming up behind me. I looked back as saw Annette. I didn't have a watch on, but I figured that she might be on pace to be in the neighborhood of the course record.

"Awesome job, Annette!"

"Thanks. How you doing?" she asked as she went by me.

"Mmm, not great. I'll see you back at Hemlock."

"We'll probably cross paths a couple times before then."

"I don't think so. I'm just getting slower and slower."

A month earlier, in a similar way, Annette caught up to me as I was struggling in the late miles of a long day of running. A month earlier, as she went by me and I expected her to disappear in the distance, she started talking to me on the trail. Not wanting to be rude a month earlier, I picked up the pace to carry on the conversation. By the time we reached a point when I could have politely backed of, I realized that I could keep up. So on this day, I wondered if maybe I could keep up again. I thought I'd try for just a little while. A moment later, with white knuckles and gritted teeth, I was hanging on to the Bednosky Express. When I was sure that I could last for more than a few steps, I said, "I hope you don't mind if I try to hang on for a little while."

And there it was: there was the magic I had hoped to find many hours and many, many miles earlier. While I'm sure that it required a large physical effort, in retrospect, what stands out to me was the mental effort required. Every step required focus. Before Annette came along, I felt like I was going as fast as I could go. But I wasn't. I tried to keep up with Annette, and suddenly, I was focused on running, and I was moving much faster. My mistake had been to confuse sore legs with dead legs. Sure, my legs were more sore (and sore earlier) than they should have been. But part of the training I had been doing had been to teach those legs to run hard even when they're sore and tired.

A mile from the Bull Run Marina, I told her that we were about five and a half miles from the end of the race. A half mile later, I recognized my mistake, and told her that I was a mile short in my previous estimate. Six more miles. I felt bad about misleading her, but there was nothing else I could do about it. At the Bull Run Marina, we each refilled a water bottle. I needed a cup of soda; she didn't. By the time I was ready to go, she already had a 30 meter head start. I knew that on my own, I would revert back to slogging along at my pre-Annette pace. For a moment, I debated whether it would be worth it to make a possibly-futile attempt to catch her. Perhaps I should just save that energy, and run on my own, I thought. I didn't have time to think about it anymore. If I was going to try to catch up, I had to start working. Catch up, I committed to do that. Again, it was difficult, but I found that as long as I had a goal to focus on, I could run well.

As we started to run on the gravel road around the soccer fields, a soccer dad fumbling with his cell phone some distance away from the games in progress watched us running past. He, in khakis and a button-down shirt; we, in sweaty shirts and mud caked up to our thighs. "Is there a race goin' on?"

"Yup," I told him, my head down, still focused on running.

"How long's it?"

"Fifty miles."

"FIFTY MILES!?!?" He paused, as if it took a moment to fully understand. "HOLY COW! Wanna borrow my CAR?"

Sometimes when doing this sort of thing (especially in the later miles), I don't particularly care to interact with someone whose main concern is keeping the dirt off his loafers. But the comedic value of that moment was not lost on me. I laughed to myself. I wanted to tell him that he said just the right thing at just the right time, but there was no way I could have explained what I meant. So I just called back, "YES!" as I continued on.

Past the fields, up the hills, along the river... We were getting close to the end. And then came the unexpected: ahead of us, we saw John. He had passed me before Annette came along. I asked Annette, "Do I see a victim ahead?"

"Perhaps he could be prey."

We were gaining on him. When I was starting to feel confident we would catch him, he looked back and saw us. He picked up the pace, and started to pull away. Eventually, we passed the marker for mile 10 on the Bull Run Trail. The course goes past mile 11 on the Trail, the turns away from the trail to head up a hill to Hemlock Overlook, and the finish. "We have a little more than mile and a half to the finish," I told her.

"If I try racing any harder, I'm going to vomit. You want to try to catch him?"

I wasn't sure. I thought I had a relatively good shot at catching him. At the same time, Annette had dragged me along the trail for six or seven miles. I sort of felt like she should finish ahead of me. But a race is a race, and after 48 miles, I was finally ready to race. "Do you mind?"

"Go for it."

"Thanks, Annette. If you hadn't come along, I'd be 20 minutes back up the trail."

She let me by, and I shifted into a gear that had been collecting dust (or, perhaps, mud) through the day. A few moments later, I caught John on a narrow, rocky bit of trail. "I'll let you by," he told me to let me know that he'd give me room when we got to a more comfortable bit of trail. After passing him, I kept running hard, in case he had another gear too.

I finished in ninth place, with a time of 7:37. I finished well behind where I coulda, shoulda, woulda been. I don't think that every time things go bad it happens for a reason. I also don't think that everything has to be a Learning Experience. Sometimes, a bad day is just a day you never should have gotten out of bed. That being said, I think my race went the way it did for a reason, and I treat it as a learning experience. I spent a lot of time on the trail thinking that I couldn't go any faster, or maybe that I could go a little bit faster, but only at the expense of a lot of pain. In the end, I was able to run the last two miles faster than the first forty-eight. There was no great physical transformation; it was only a honing of focus that allowed me to do what I did.

Good to learn that lesson now. Hopefully, I'll get to apply it in my next big race.