A Journey of 80,000 Steps Begins with a Single Mile

Preparation

Last year’s Bull Run Run 50 Miler was my first, so I was careful not to make the rookie mistake of starting out too fast. Nor did I finish too fast. In 2013 I just beat the twelve-hour mark on my first ultra, and given the weather and my utter lack of training in 2014 (one impromptu 18-mile jog in February snow), my realistic goal this year was to do no worse. My hopeful goal was to attend the 6 p.m. award ceremony, and my conservative goal was again to avoid a DNF. This despite the wisdom I had since encountered on the value of “achieving” a DNF in order to explore one’s limits.

This wisdom, and much more, appears on the ^zhurnaly, the online repository of ^z = Mark Zimmermann, an indefatigable polymath who has enlightened me on such subjects as Bayesian probability, Frog and Toad, and quantum mechanics, and also inspired me with his reflections on far more diverse subjects in the deep Zhurnaly.

I again enjoyed the gracious hospitality of dear friends, staying at Chez Ray Friday night before the event. Last year Ray calmed my nerves with a showing of “The King of Masks” which features no long-distance running. This year we started with a friendly go match in which he spotted me a handicap of at least 13 stones; the board looked something like this:

Despite what I thought the proper strategy of ceding much of the board in order to reinforce and secure a couple of corners, I failed somehow to make life and eventually accepted a courtesy resignation offered before all my stones overflowed Ray’s bowl lid.

After the teaching game we watched a documentary on the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100, for which Ray qualified and has entered this year. The MMT is for those who find a mere double-marathon in the hills inadequate to achieve a DNF. The DVD depicted the 2006 event, in which Sim Jae Duk was the unexpected winner, setting a course record by finishing the race in less time than it took him to fly to the event (from South Korea, two days before the race, according to a New York Times profile).

Ray had invited me to join him at the MMT, but in the same spirit of generosity he showed at the go board, he would give me a 63.5-mile head start. I would meet him as a pacer for the back third of the course, an intimidating and challenging idea as much of this would be done after nightfall.

Overnight I sorted my supplies, collected using my inventory list from the year before.

2014_BRR_supplies

 

I brought:

  • a paperback
  • chia seeds
  • Starbucks poop inducer (ineffective)
  • gels
  • Clif Bars
  • wet wipes
  • medkit with athletic wrap, Body Glide, Vaseline, Chap Stick, and sunblock
  • towel
  • bandana (not used)
  • smartphone armband
  • my uniform: hat, tech shirt, swimming trunks, compression shorts, DryMax socks
  • (not shown) my cleaner pair of sneakers

My belt was loaded with one 22-ounce bottle and sundries like S-Caps, Advil, Band-Aids and a sleeping pill. This last item was not like the others, and I ended up using it late Friday night. I couldn’t sleep for what felt like an hour or two, though I didn’t dare look at my watch for fear of adding deadline pressure to my restless mind. I would have plenty more opportunity to struggle against the clock.

Outbound

My accommodations included a drop-off at the start (thanks, coach!) and we made our way through the dim early light to set out our drop bags and perform final preparations. Ray spotted ^z and we exchanged greetings and good wishes. Ray then went up to the starting area for some breakfast, while I hung back to bug Mark for a celebrity photo.

Before the start, I got one more photo but didn’t see any familiar faces among the 321 starters.

The first mile is a casual loop through the parking area, spreading out the field, with most people adopting a comfortable warmup pace. I joined in somewhere in the middle of the pack. It felt good to be moving, to get into the physical rhythm that the body understands. I was already thinking about pushing just a little harder than my leisurely start last year. It seemed a good idea, as the forecast called for temperatures as high as 70 (21°C), and the weather was perfect and cool at 6:30 a.m.

My biggest mistake in 2013 was lolling about far too long in aid stations, spending perhaps as much as an hour over the day idly stuffing my face with peanut butter and jelly sandwich quarters and chasing them down with Gatorade. This year I again used my watch to time the minutes I spent stopped, with an eye to improving my finish time without spending much extra effort. Runkeeper on my phone recorded my progress, with audible announcements of my time and distance every mile.

Somewhere along the first few miles, I heard a familiar voice behind me. I turned and saw the face of Gary Knipling, who seemed omnipresent at the 2006 MMT. “I saw you on TV last night!” I called back. “You wasted twenty bucks on that thing?” he replied. I introduced myself and we chatted a bit. The dialog was frequently interrupted by greetings from seemingly every other runner, who greeted Gary by name, and he responded in kind.

I made good on my hopes of an express pit stop at the first aid station near Mile 7, pausing for just one minute and 15 seconds to load in some food before moving on. I was concerned about pushing too hard so early, so I planned to determine my position in the crowd. Before long I saw the leaders coming back from the turnaround at Mile 9 and I began counting the runners ahead of me. I also watched out for the few entrants I knew, and managed to recognize and greet Bernard and Robin as they passed going the other direction.

I was quite surprised and confused on arriving at the turn to have counted about 135 people ahead of me. I clearly remembered that my position at this point the previous year was 92. I guessed that I wasn’t going as fast as I thought, but at least I was ahead of Ray, whom I had not seen yet. We crossed ways a little bit after the turn, and his exclamatory “Dude!” with elongated vowel and falling intonation (PDF) indicated that he also thought I was setting an aggressive pace. Eventually it occurred to me that I was 92 positions from the back last year.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
1 / 10:38 / -42
2 / 10:55 / -101
3 / 10:23 / -17
4 / 11:09 / 59
5 / 12:27 / 46
6 / 11:58 / -51
7 / 12:12 / -62
8 / 12:54 / -9
9 / 10:41 / 29
10 / 10:36 / -2

This first section seemed casual and fun, like before. I noticed that I managed ten miles without serious thoughts of quitting, which seemed an accomplishment. Not being a first-timer made a considerable difference in my confidence. I made another short stop at the Centreville Road aid station heading back, and saw Ray enter as I was leaving. I was following the protocol I established last year of walking out with my hands full, and this time paused by a trash bag to down the last of a sandwich quarter and some liquid so I wouldn’t have to carry the cup. Ray had wasted no time snacking and joined me there.

We proceeded together a while, both revealing the intel that a more insistent pit stop would probably be required before the day was done. He gave an enthusiastic recommendation of the loo we would pass after Mile 16, at the start/finish where our drop bags were waiting, but I was wary of even going a little off course only to have to wait in line. When Ray suddenly fell silent and disappeared, I concluded that it was this duty and not a root that had awarded me the lead again.

He didn’t linger long, though, and pulled on ahead before we got to the drop bag stop. I then saw him there briefly as he slipped on fresh shoes and set out, looking strong. I tried to chug a lot of the water with chia seeds I had prepared in the morning and grabbed some more gels and two Clif Bars. I decided to leave my spare battery pack behind, making it a race between me and my phone to see which had more juice.

By now the warmth was beginning to tell, and I was finding it hard not to think about the magnitude of the physical task ahead. Another two or three hours would make it a marathon, yet it was still far too soon to start counting down miles to the finish. I alternated greeting other runners with a cheery “Good morning” and the hopeful witticism “Got it in the bag.” At some point I asked someone if it was still morning and was assured that it was. I did the math and concluded that it was not yet 10 a.m. We reached the soccer fields and I spotted a proper Porta Potty. Another 90 seconds on the stoppage clock and I was on my way again, lighter and more comfortable.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
11 / 10:30 / -15
12 / 15:11 / 34
13 / 12:46 / -9
14 / 14:25 / 107
15 / 13:44 / -128
16 / 15:50 / 140
17 / 17:46 / -38
18 / 15:30 / -36
19 / 16:20 / -88
20 / 16:01 / 32

The middle fifth was the one I’d just as soon forget, and mostly did. I was still keeping to my promise of maintaining some kind of running gait over level ground most of the time, but with some cheating now and then. Somehow I managed not to worry about my speed very much, often not even paying attention to my phone’s time and distance announcements. I was usually low on fluid entering aid stations but never felt overheated or sick. I was confident of a finish, and the only motivational struggle was over the goal of beating my previous time.

I remembered the White Loop as a ruinous walk of 20-minute miles, and determined to do better this year. What I didn’t remember was that it is actually pretty hilly. But a chance encounter led to some conversation that helped the miles pass. I caught up to someone with a T-shirt from Le Marathon du Médoc: “le Marathon le plus long du monde.”

“So how long is the Médoc marathon?”

“Oh, it’s a regular marathon, it just seems long.”

“Is it because of the metric system?”

“No, it’s a standard 42 kilometers, but it’s like a big party. Every year there is a theme, and everyone dresses up in costume. When I was there, the theme was space. My buddy and I got some shirts with a steampunk motif, but a lot of people took it farther. There were robots, aliens, stormtroopers. A Chewbacca. I got a photo of a line of ten supermen before the start, all peeing. The aid stations are châteaux and they serve wine and cheese, everything. And I don’t mean a little sip of wine, you can get a whole glass if you want. People who usually finish in three or four hours take six or seven there. It’s great. Toward the end one of the châteaux was serving raw oysters. It was actually really good race food. Feel free to go on ahead if you want. Some of the costumes we couldn’t figure out what they were. We saw these guys running and pushing a giant bowl. They were all dressed up in yellow with red on their heads. We asked them if they were chickens. “Non, non, super shoe!” They didn’t speak any English, and we couldn’t figure it out, they kept saying “Super shoe!” After the race we asked our hosts if they knew what the Super Shoe was about, they didn’t know either. We came back home and tried to look it up. Asked friends and relatives. Nobody had any idea. Finally we found someone who recognized it. Soupe aux choux, it means cabbage soup, it was the name of a movie. It’s about these two old men who spend all day sitting on their porch getting drunk and farting. One day an alien comes and visits them and offers to take them back to his planet in exchange for their cabbage soup. But the men don’t want to go. The alien makes promises and gives them gold and says they can have whatever they want. One of them men asks for his wife back; she died long ago. So the alien brings the wife back to life, but she is still 20 years old and she immediately runs off with a young man to Paris. So the men continue drinking and farting on their porch. But eventually the town changes and becomes more developed and they don’t like it anymore. So they decide to go with the alien to his planet. It’s a well-known movie.”

Then he said something about having to “plant a seed” or “water a tree” and stopped, then later passed me and I lost sight of him ahead.

[Update: Ken Swab’s report from Médoc, including Supermen photo.]

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
21 / 20:14 / 17
22 / 18:05 / 41
23 / 17:32 / 81
24 / 17:21 / -104
25 / 20:57 / -21
26 / 17:04 / 81
27 / 19:04 / -17
28 / 17:28 / 25
29 / 15:31 / 7
30 / 17:48 / -71

How to carry two Clif Bars for 30 miles and despise them the whole time

It was a little farther on to the Do Loop, where I anticipated a popsicle at the aid station that greets runners before and after that circuit of grueling elevation change. Ray was on his way out as I arrived, some three miles behind him. The spark of competition had faded, but I was motivated by the approaching point at which the shortest way to get to the finish would be to go directly to the finish. There was a small line for a frozen treat but I didn’t mind waiting, using the time to drain some of my freshly-filled bottle to make space for more. They also had stacks of pizza boxes, but a hot greasy mess was the last thing I wanted to take with me. I strolled out with my popsicle and took the loop at its word; it was neither less nor more than anticipated.

On the way out I thought I should appreciate the pizza; it is really an amazing job that the volunteers do all day. I had run out of Gatorade by the time I came back so that was a priority, but I grabbed a couple of thin slices of pizza to go and worked on them as I walked out. I had been taking S-Caps every couple of hours but wondered if they would make me drink more. I had also taken an Advil by now and a caffeinated gel, hoping to spark another kick like the one that carried me in in 2013.

The kick was not as dramatic, but it came at a good time. The miles after the Do Loop are long, dull, and fairly flat. Since my fast start, I had been getting passed pretty regularly all day, but now I started pulling people in. Many of them were still running, but I managed to keep up a pace just fast enough to overtake, and each time I passed one there would be another runner in sight ahead to keep me going. I leapfrogged with a lady in an “Alaska” shirt several times, mainly thanks to her longer stays in the aid stations.

I ran low on fluid again, and applied the motorist’s ill logic of going even faster to the next station to get there before running dry. Seeing the “10 Miles to Hemlock” sign gave me almost as much of a boost as it did last year, when it seemed an impossible lifesaver.

By now walking was very little less unpleasant than running, so I continued to try and make time. I had started the race with a thin pair of Injinji toe socks under my trusty Drymax trail socks, but the toes of my right foot seemed cramped and I had removed the Injinji sock on that side. A root caught that foot pretty good, and I cut the corner off a turn demonstrating that most ungainly of human gaits, the pre-faceplant: hunched over, stomping and windmilling, but somehow managed not to fall down.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
31 / 18:59 / 47
32 / 16:44 / -39
33 / 20:27 / 56
34 / 19:45 / 27
35 / 17:00 / -7
36 / 16:44 / -21
37 / 12:46 / -94
38 / 20:24 / 45
39 / 16:11 / 74
40 / 17:04 / -95

At some point my phone emitted a plaintive buzz and then ceased announcing my mile times. I was likewise pretty well used up but sensed that the job was going to get done. The aid stations were frequent and refreshing, with iced Gatorade tasting as good as something can taste. There were cold wet washcloths, also uncommonly pleasant. I would drape one over my head during the whole of my brief respites from forward progress, trying not to drip onto the doughnuts, chips and cookies spread out.

PBJ and Gatorade was not the only awkward combination made palatable by exertion. Pizza and popsicle went together surprisingly well. At a station toward the end I heard someone say there was coffee, and while waiting for a cup I spotted a tray of stuffed grape leaves, delicious-looking dolma. A volunteer said they were popular and I grabbed a serving, but it didn’t quite hit the spot. Washing it down with tepid black coffee didn’t help. I finished it off, though, and managed to get through the day with no tummy trouble. I hated the thought of those Clif Bars in my pocket though. I was afraid to throw them away for fear of regret, but they are hard enough to get down with a drink and I never had any desire to open them.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
41 / 18:33 / -28
42 / 21:36 / -3
43 / 13:41 / 7
44 / 22:18 / 3

With no smartphone updates, I thought I might still be able to beat my previous time, but didn’t feel much urgency about it. Then I remembered that my stopwatch was also a watch. I switched it to clock mode, having timed just under 30 minutes spent not in motion since the start. I wasn’t sure how far I had to go, but it looked like I would finish well past 12 hours. I gave it a good push though, and only walked the incontrovertibly upward-sloping hills during the last miles.

The finish was no less sweet for having seen a “12” on the clock. I sprinted in the last stone’s throw for show, then gathered my loot and plugged my phone in to stop the recording and get a shot of ^z coming in. Among those who finished in both 2013 and 2014, he was one of the few who managed to improve his time this year. I was happy to see that I was only about 1% slower, a little better than the average change, and my overall average time was still just under half a day.

Coda

Probably I am not the only person who finds it difficult to give satisfying answers to the questions posed after an event like this. How could anything be worth that much effort and discomfort? After it’s done, it doesn’t seem like any effort at all. It is really just a matter of not doing one very specific thing from the time you start until the time you finish. After last year’s unlikely success, this time I never had serious thoughts of quitting. And another answer: were the things I did on the previous and following Saturdays worth the effort I put into them, now that I have forgotten what they were?

Maybe it is simplest to focus on the little pleasures. It’s one thing to extol the charms of a rag soaked in ice water. How much more appealing is the idea of spending hours in the woods, hardly ever hearing an engine or seeing a house. Being among people who are all in an improbably good mood. Absolutely no distraction from any thoughts of the outside world, just one single task upon which all attention is focused. And now and then you look up and see a stretch of gorgeous single-track smooth dirt path surrounded by wooded scenery.

I was immersed in this effortful reverie about 15 miles in, trying to experience the moments and not dwell on the challenges ahead. I happened to be on my own, just running through the forest. Suddenly there was a grand mechanical roar and an Amtrak train appeared, racing by on unseen tracks atop an embankment. Like something from a film, resplendent with power and momentum. Nothing more natural for that body than to keep moving. The image carried me through the day.

After the final chow of burgers and soda, the beginning of a couple of days in which food and liquid would disappear into some internal void, it was time to go home. I looked up directions on my phone, to avoid getting turned around in the dark, and headed out on the country roads. It was strangely exhilarating to travel with such speed and so little effort. To move while seated, a little miracle.

At a red light, I pulled up beside a car with IRUN100 vanity plates and bumper stickers to confirm that we were both coming from the same place. I tooted the horn.

She didn’t put her window down and gave me but a brief glance. “How was your race?” I said aloud, but mostly to myself as the driver stared straight ahead. This wouldn’t do, but I would have to double down before it got any better. I pulled out my finisher’s premium, a large beach towel, and honked again. She looked over, and I held the navy blue towel up, the full moon doing little to illuminate the dark lettering, and gestured at it. Hey, I’m the jerk in the car again, and I have a towel! Fortunately the message was received, she held her own towel up, we exchanged thumbs-up, and then I stared straight ahead until the light changed.

The drive home was 24.7 miles. I am no Sim Jae Duk; the race took me a good deal longer than the commute.

BRR 50 Report from 2015

BRR 50 Report from 2013

La Soupe aux choux