Last fall I was interested in running a 50 miler in the spring, so I did some research on races near me and found the Bull Run Run 50 Miler in Clifton, Virginia. I read the race description on their website and was immediately attracted to this race for many reasons.
First off, the race has history. It was first held in 1993 and is sponsored by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club. Any club with the words “Happy Trail” in the name are an automatic win in my book. What a fun name for a running club! And secondly, the race seemed to have charm from the way the website described it.
“The run’s unique character includes a Civil War theme that respects the battles that occurred here over 150 years ago. The theme includes a competition between runners from the North and the South”.
A race with personality and history is one you can’t pass up.
I talked it over with my “crew” and we decided to add this to our schedule for the spring. The race was held on April 9th. Entry is via lottery, and is slightly confusing in my opinion. But the lottery process is just as unique as the club is. I found out on Feb 12th that I got in. Here is a detailed description of the race entry process.
The race starts in Clifton, Virginia at the Hemlock Overlook Regional Park. There are no hotels close to the start. The closest larger city is Manassas, Virginia, which is about 20-30 minutes away from Clifton. There are accommodations at the park itself. If you want to camp out or relive your high school summer camp experience, you can stay there. The website says its $15 to stay in a bunk house (typical bunk beds with mattresses; bathrooms located outside the bunk house), and $10 for a platform tent. You can find more details HERE.
We stayed in Manassas at the Courtyard Marriott Battlefield Park. This was a great hotel. There is a Bistro restaurant in the hotel lobby with drinks, food and Starbucks® coffee. The rooms were really nice and clean. Across the street was an UNO® pizza where we had our pre-race meal. Next to the hotel was also a Cracker Barrel®. I was really impressed with this hotel and its location. It is located near the highway. The VHTRC does offer a meal at the campground Friday evening before the race. Manassas is a large city, and you can find just about any major store there if you need to pick up last minute items before the race.
PACKET PICK UP
Packet pickup is also at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park. I advise picking up your packet on Friday if you are running this race. There is packet pick up on race day. We went on Friday around 4pm and had no problems.
For entering the race we got a chair, a pair of socks and a koozie! My bib was blue since I chose to side with the North. Runners from the South got orange bibs. Finishers get a magnet, a plastic cup and a finisher’s premium!
Parking at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park was tight on race morning. Since my car had 2 runners in it, we were able to park closer to the start. The website suggests that you carpool, and I agree. Single runner cars have to park farther away.
There is a “chow hall” with breakfast for runners on race morning. There was a nice selection of bagels, bananas and coffee! There are plenty of indoor bathrooms as well, so no porta-johns!
WEATHER ON RACE DAY
I obsessed all week long leading up to the race over the weather. And on race day it was just as I had feared. As we exited the chow hall to walk to the start at 6:25 am, it began to rain. I cried a little inside because I knew what was in store. Rain meant muddy trails, and muddy trails meant a long day. I am a warm weather gal. I love when it is 90°. According to my Garmin, it was 39°.
At the start a lovely young lady sang the National Anthem as the race director held an umbrella over her. I felt disappointed at first with how the weather had turned out. But for a quick second I stopped worrying about myself, and listened to the words of our National Anthem. And then all of the sudden, I found new perspective and a new determination. I tuned into the words, and she sang the line:
“And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”.
And then it hit me. There are far worse things to worry about than some rain on race day. I am gifted with the ability to run. Today I was going to run for those who can’t run. And for those who have fought to make our country “the land of the free”. Let me tell you a little about my “home of the brave”.
My husband lost his right leg below the knee in 2009 while on deployment in Afghanistan. He served his country for 6 years in the U.S. Army. He loves the sport of running. He ran track in high school. When I met him I wasn’t much of a runner, in fact I hadn’t even run a half marathon. My passion for running developed and he was with me every step of the way. He attended every race I ran and was always there to support me with cheers, hugs, and unconditional love. He doesn’t run like he used to. He has told me on many occasions that he runs vicariously through me. He couldn’t be at Bull Run due to other obligations. This was the first race he wasn’t able to attend.
But when the young lady sang the anthem, and I heard the line “the bombs bursting in air…” I thought “my husband and many others have suffered a great deal in battle fighting for our country, the least I can do is run for them”. And that’s when I found a new purpose for my run, come what may.
I don’t really remember the order of what came first after the race started. I know there was rain, sleet and snow. Oh, and then there was strong winds and thunder (I believe, or this could be my imagination). But it didn’t matter. I was determined to finish under any circumstance. Mark Zimmerman said the weather reminded him of a scene from Shakespeare’s King Lear
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!”
It was like Mother Nature said “I’m gonna show you what I’m made of!” And she showed off.
For details on the course, maps, and more please consult the race website here. Below is a basic outline of the course. There is another REI map if you scroll all the way to the bottom.
VHTRC does an excellent job at describing the course, and the trail specifics. I will attempt to fill in important points where I can remember.
The race starts at Hemlock Overlook. You will do a ¾ mile loop before heading onto the trail. The loop ends right where we started, so if you decide you need something last minute or want to shed something after ¾ of a mile you could!
The next 16 miles are what I consider a “warm up”. You start out by running upstream 9 miles and then turn around to run back to the start at Hemlock (see map).
The first aid station heading upstream is Centerville Road at mile 7.2 (and 11.6). I thought the upstream section was somewhat technical. Before the Centerville aid station there were some rocky patches and climbing (which you will encounter again after you turn around). After the Centerville aid station (between miles 7-9) you will pass “the sea of bluebells” which was lovely, but unfortunately this entire trail section was muddy. The trail here is runnable. It is flat, so you can make up a little time here and run faster. You will cross over some bridges which were slightly frightening because they moved! There are a few water crossings with large stepping stones. You will go to mile 9, turn around and then encounter the Centerville aid station again (and yes, you have to go up the stairs to the aid station. You can’t just keep going past). The Centerville aid station is at the top of a set of stairs.
The first 16 miles end at Hemlock, where we started. This is the only place where you can access your drop bag. If you need to change clothes, you can do so at this aid station. Because of the rain and mud, many people stopped at Hemlock to change clothes. I didn’t, I just kept going after I grabbed some delicious chicken noodle soup, and an orange slice (which I have at every aid station). I did change my gloves.
Now the course heads “downstream”. I honestly don’t remember every little detail from here on out. I do know there were lots of up and downhills, and some runnable portions. But of course, the trail was muddy. Everyone was slipping and sliding. Many people fell. Here is the websites course description of the miles after Hemlock:
After partaking of the aid station at Hemlock, you go down the hill as you did at the start, but when you get to the stream, you turn left and head downstream. You go through the soccer fields and then to the Bull Run Marina for an aid station. After the Marina, you arrive at the famous aid station at Wolf Run Shoals. After Wolf Run Shoals, it is only two miles to the aid station at Fountainhead Regional Park. After this aid station, you do the White Loop, coming out by a chain link fence where you turn left and head out on a blue blazed horse trail.
You take the blue blazed horse trail to the next aid station which is at the entrance to the infamous "Do Loop". The Do Loop is like a lollipop on a stick. You go out the stick, go around the lollipop, and come back on the stick. You do the loop counterclockwise. Be sure to turn right at the intersection and when you get back to the intersection, go straight—don't do the loop a second time (although if you do, you won't be the first).
After you survive the Do Loop, you go straight back to Fountainhead without doing the White Loop. Then you go to Wolf Run Shoals, the Marina, and then the finish. You go up the hill to the finish from the Popes Head Creek side. You will go up the same way you did when you came back to Hemlock after the first turnaround. The result is that you always go down the hill on one trail and always up the trail on another one.
For those interested in running this race, you probably want to know the ins and outs of the trail conditions and if it is runnable or not. I can’t give you a play by play because I don’t remember it all. My race conditions were atypical for April, and I hope no one has to race in conditions like that again. There are a fair share of roots and rocks along the way. There are some flat sections where you can run, but for us those portions were muddy. I literally got “stuck in the mud” many times. I heard some say this was one of the harder 50 milers he has done. I have only done three, so I am no expert. I think this was a challenging course.
What’s the deal with Do Loop? I don’t know what the deal is actually. I felt like there were more challenging sections than this along the course, but for some reason this is titled the “infamous” Do Loop. Many people spoke of this section as if it was the hardest, but I didn’t feel like it was that bad. I actually thought it was entertaining. Along the loop somewhere was an old broken down car, just plopped right in the middle of the woods. It was decorated for the race and I saw a bottle of Bacardi on the front seat. There were a few painful climbs here, but nothing worse than I had encountered elsewhere along the trail.
NEAR THE FINISH
What I do want to point out is the last 5 miles. I felt as though the last 5 miles were the hardest, not because I had run 45 miles up until that point, but because it was rather technical and there were some steep climbs. After I hit the last aid station I thought I could cruise to the finish, but I was wrong. I wasn’t prepared for the last 5 miles. At one point, you have to run (or walk) over razor sharp rocks somewhere at mile 48-49. I kept remembering a line from the race website where they say “the rocky sections are runnable if you’re good”. I just had to laugh. I don’t know who could run that section. If you want to see more pictures on the condition of the course, scroll all the way to the bottom.
There are plenty of aid stations along the course that are well stocked with just about every food and drink imaginable. There were: Pierogies, bacon, potatoes, chicken noodle soup, Oreos, chocolate chip cookies, candy, crackers, chips, pretzels, orange slices, bananas, watermelon, grilled cheese sandwiches, PB&J sandwiches, Gatorade, water, coke, ginger ale, mountain dew, coffee, beer (if you ask) and more!
I have to say THANK YOU to the race volunteers. They were simply amazing. As a runner approached the aid station, volunteers were there to help out with whatever needs he or she had. I cannot thank the volunteers enough for being so hospitable.
The following section might be helpful for future Bull Run Run 50 miler participants. This is a list of questions I had before the race, and questions I think others may have.
Trail shoes necessary? Yes
Gaiter’s necessary? +/- I would say half the people wore them. The trail this year wasn’t dry so there weren’t any little rocks or dirt to get kicked up. But I did find a few little things crept into my shoe. I didn’t wear my gaiters.
Crew needed? It is always helpful, especially since there is only 1 bag drop at mile 16. It can be done without crew, but having crew is always a good idea. My crew was the best ;)
Crew accessibility My crew said it was very easy to access each aid station and park. There is a crew instructional page on the race website.
Porta-Johns at aid stations No
Trail markings Blue ribbons. No mile markings
Is it clear where to turn? I think so. There are red ribbons marking where NOT to go. But a couple people got lost. Pay attention.
GPS watch Yes. I would use a GPS watch
Is it necessary to carry your own food? Not really. The aid stations are well stocked with pretty much everything that you should need. I personally took with me Hammer Nutrition® Gel- Nocciola (hazelnut chocolate) as a treat. I used Hammer HEED® in my hydration vest.
Pacers Not allowed
Race swag Fold-up chair, magnet, koozie, socks, cup, magnet and premium. No medal.
Headphones Not allowed
Bag drop Mile 16 only (where the race starts) Bring a change of clothes
Water crossings Will my feet get wet? Yes, there is a good chance they will. There are a few minor water crossings.
Race photographers There were 4 along the trail!
Is the race 50 miles? It is actually a little more than 50 miles.
Cut off 13 hours
Max # of entrants 350
Finishers this year (2016) 258 (under 13 hours)
Would I do this race again? Absolutely
Overall this was a fabulous race. The conditions were not what I had hoped for, but the reward is so much sweeter now that I look back. Because now I can reflect and see that I finished despite the horrible conditions on the trail and with whatever Mother Nature threw at us. And I feel stronger because of it. Many people didn’t start the race because of the conditions and many people didn’t finish because of them either. I can say that I finished this race in spite of how bad the weather was. I dedicated this run to those who cannot run, as I mentioned in the beginning. Never once did I think about quitting.
This race overall is challenging. If you are considering a 50 miler as a first timer (and you’re not an experienced trail runner), you may want to do your research before signing up for this, but it can be done. I personally loved it. It was my third 50 miler, and fourth ultramarathon. I would definitely do it again, but would pray the conditions would be more favorable in the future.
During the race this saying kept popping into my mind:
The Virginia Happy Trails Running Club is an amazing organization. Hats off to them for organizing such an awesome event. The entire vibe of the club itself is so magnetic. Everyone is so friendly. There are lots of “old timers” who organize this race and run it. I really fell in love with this club and the atmosphere they create for races. If you ever have a chance to run a VHTRC race, you should do it. I met some lovely people along the way, and I hope to run one of their races again.
Thank you again Virginia Happy Trails Running Club for such an awesome event.
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Subscribe to my blog so you don't miss a post! Did you read my previous post where I interview bestselling author (Born to Run) and barefoot runner Christopher McDougall? If not, click here! See what McDougall had to say about the article on his Facebook page:
"You can tell from that exchange that Jill Monroe is the kind of athlete and writer who plunges first, worries about discarded fruit slop later. We met on a freezing morning in Middle of Nowhere, Maryland, just before the start of the HAT 50k Trail Run. Our conversation turned into one of the smartest and most enjoyable interviews I've ever done, mostly because Jill is a true student of endurance sports whose mind is constantly tuned to what she, personally, can learn from each answer. Plus, she is a master detective when it comes to sniffing out action photos: she turned up candids from the race that I didn't even know existed. (Scroll down and you'll see photographic proof that I'll never be a convert to Wim Hof's Ice-Water Immersion). Jill even unearthed a shot of the two of us right after the starting gun, which was the only time we were in the same frame before she darted off and left me eating mud. If you're curious about Parkour, fat-as-fuel, or how to begin your own journey into ultra running and natural movement, Jill's blog is a great place to start". - Christopher McDougall
**Disclaimer: I am an ambassador for the Abbott World Marathon Majors and Hammer Nutrition. My opinions stated here are my own.