I first ran the Bull Run Run 50 last year during my training cycle for my first 100-mile race attempt, Bighorn 100. I really didn’t think I would like it because it was up in Northern Virginia and was “flat” vs. the mountain running I am accustomed to and prefer. But it starts and finishes right near where I grew up, my family is still up there, and its the Bull Run Run 50 – VHTRC’s baby and a must-do in Virginia ultrarunning…so I signed up last year and loved it. Turns out this “flat” course is full of about a million short, steep climbs and descents that eat you up and spit you out by the time you arrive back at Hemlock. The aid stations were top notch and the post race food was simply ridiculous in typical VHTRC fashion.
So when I looked at my 2017 racing plans in preparation for Western States this summer, Bull Run was an easy decision.
Since January, I have been doing some very different things in my training. In summary, zero walking up Jarmans, minimal walking on any other hills, and tons of track workouts and hill repeats. Basically, I’ve gone from smart, easy training to “all hard, all the time”. Why? Western States! So as I approached Bull Run, yes, it was going to be a great “training run” to test out my nutrition plan and race pacing, but to myself, it was going to be a test – has all this new hard work paid off? To be honest, I was a little worried to find out the answer. With just a little over 2 months to go until Western States, Bull Run was poised to be a confidence maker or a confidence breaker – I would leave this race riding the high wave to States, or scrapping everything and starting over with my training plan.
Specifically, I planned to have zero taper and I planned to run every step of the race. All those hills killed me last year and there was a lot of walking in the second half. Not this year. Even though I knew it was going to be less efficient than if I power hiked some of the steeper hills, I was going to run every dang one of them. And so after a double no-walk Jarmans on Tuesday and a hard track workout on Wednesday, I was off to NOVA for Bull Run!
Last pre-race note – I somehow convinced my brother Tim to spend the day crewing me. This was great, because Michelle couldn’t come. At the same time, this was daunting – Tim has never been to an ultra before and has never crewed me before. Would he understand everything I asked of him? Would he be standing where I could see him? He eased my mind by sending me a spreadsheet of an aid station pace chart the week of the race – oh yeah, Team Andersen lives on!
Oh wait, one last pre-race note – Bull Run has team competition and I strung together a ridiculous team of myself, Brad Hinton, Jordan Chang, and Leif Van Acker. Team name: “Dude, Pass the Chia Seeds Dude!”
After checking in and catching up with all the usual suspects, 6:30am came quickly! I lined with Brad and the rest of the crew up front and we were off!
The first 14-15 miles are pretty flat and uneventful. The exciting parts are the muddy trail by the river and the fact that this first section is an out-and-back. So besides feeling out your placement, you get to see everyone and I never tire of how great it is to see legends like Gary Knipling, Tom Green, and Frank Probst at these races. Frank was going for his 25th Bull Run. Consider that for a minute. Amazing.
After a few miles I found myself in 7th/8th place with Brad Hinton, whom I always seem to be just one place behind. He beat me by one minute last year.
Brad and I essentially ran alone, through the soccer fields and the endless grinders between the Marina and Fountainhead. I was feeling pretty great. The weather was amazing and climbing felt surprisingly easy. Patience and pacing…
My brother crewed me flawlessly at Hemlock and Fountainhead, putting at ease any worry I had about his novice crewing skills!
Coming into the Fountainhead Aid Station (~Mile 25) we finally saw another runner ahead. We patiently gave chase but he stayed just ahead out of sight on the ever winding trails. Finally, around 26, I decided to push a little and left Brad. Believe me, the entire rest of the race I was just waiting for Hinton to run me down!
After slowly gaining, I finally caught up to 5th place at the Do Loop aid station, mile 32. Normally, later in a race when you catch up to someone, it is inevitable that you will quickly pass them and never see them again. But not this dude! He somehow would keep turning on the jets and leave me again. Finally around Mile 36 I tried to pass him on a climb because I seemed to be climbing stronger than him. Instead, he just stayed right next to or behind me. He was tough!
In short order, we started chatting and quickly found we had a lot in common. His name was Will Cuper, cool dude and he ran Western States last year. Suddenly it went from us racing each other to becoming new friends and passing the time on the trail. Ultrarunning is so great like this.
But as they rerouted the course, making us run the “white loop” twice, I had run out of food and water for about 30 minutes as I anxiously awaited the Fountainhead II aid station. I was pushing it trying to keep up/ahead of Will and I knew it doesn’t take long to bonk or get dehydrated at this effort. Also, it was getting hot. Sunny and 60 degrees was hot!
As we pulled into Fountainhead for the second time, my sister had surprised me by bringing my son and her kids there. Whit quickly took over crew duties from his uncle Tim and shoved a bottle and gel at me. It was so great seeing them, but a sudden wave of heat and exhaustion hit me from the recent effort. I sucked down an extra HUMA gel like a pro and tore out of the aid station just a second ahead of Will. 12 miles to go. “Just a 12-mile tempo run” I said to myself as I entered what I think is by far the hardest part of the race, the endless grinding hills of the next 7-8 miles.
As I approached the first hill, the recent effort and lack of calories hit me like a brick. Suddenly I became weak and dizzy and my pace slowed to a shuffle. I knew I was entering a bonk but I was determined to hold on. I had been eating and drinking extra since catching up at Fountainhead, so this was an expected low. As I started climbing the first steep hill, I was really slow. I should’ve power-hiked but THIS was exactly the purpose of this race! Western States! I put way too much effort into the climb and felt terrible, then felt even more terrible as Will quickly overtook me and soon disappeared out of view. “Man! I had been running great all day – this sucks!” It’s funny how quickly your mental state can change in an ultra.
As I accepted my new fate and still stubbornly struggled to not walk and not lose too much more pace, I remembered my headphones. In all the races I’ve run, I’ve only used music once, at my first Hellgate 100k. I have brought headphones to many races but, this sounds silly but I’m sure most ultra runners can relate, the effort and focus it would take to get them out of my pocket, untangle them, and then turn them on seems otherworldly.
So struggle I did, taking out the headphones, trying to unravel them. Predictably the cords were tangled and the iPod dropped into the dirt and I promptly stepped on it. Argh!
Finally, the headphones were in and I turned on this iPod that I had loaded music on about 8 years ago. I didn’t know what was on and was hoping it was on shuffle.
The first song was “Three Days” by James Addiction, an 11-minute classic from my youth. My friends and I used to drive all around the country roads near this race course in high school, blaring this song as we were up to no good. The iPod was turned up way too loud, but I decided to just leave it there. Uncomfortably loud, but the undeniable power and presence of music suddenly filling my head.
And I was transformed. It’s funny, I’m also a musician and am always listening to music, but for some reason had never really raced with music, combining my two deepest passions. Probably the calories had started to work at the same time, but as soon as the song started, any doubt, hardship, and struggle that I was having just vanished. Suddenly my mind was simply taken from suffering late in a race, to just running through the woods with the same spirit and wanderlust that my friends and I would explore music with. I started running fast. Shutting out the sound of my foot falls also shut out any doubt that I had about how the day would turn out. Actually, it was more that I suddenly just really didn’t care about racing. This run was no longer about securing a certain time or place goal, but suddenly all about playing in the woods, running hard because it was fun.
As the song entered Dave Navarro’s epic extended guitar ripping, I’m pretty sure I was doing some air guitar down the trail as I jumped over fallen logs and climbed and descended the many gnarly hills of this section. As I came into the Wolf Run Shoals aid station, as much as I didn’t want to be rude, I didn’t take out my headphones – I didn’t want the music to stop. I just needed some water and I saw that Will was stopped at the aid station filling up. I don’t really remember passing him or caring about passing him, I just remember that there was this huge tree down right across the trail and after I filled up with water I jumped up on and it and launched off of it like a kid, continuing my personal jam session down the trail. I assumed Will would be close behind but really didn’t care and never once looked behind me the rest of the race.
New, random songs kept coming on the iPod. I’m not even sure where some of these songs came from. From Mumford and Sons, to Indigo Girls, to some praise songs, every song had some meaning and passion behind it that blended perfectly with trail running at that moment.
I soon came up to Leif Van Acker, also training for Western States. As I passed him, I shouted some words of encouragement and again tore off in my own bubble of way-too-loud music. I was now in 4th place, having a blast and still able to run hard. The next aid station was the last one, Marina. My brother was there, again flawlessly prepared with the quick bottle handoff. Once again I made the decision to not take out my ear buds, quickly fueled, yelled thanks and headed out of the aid station.
I remember this next section well from last year, because it sucked. Its all very runnable and much flatter, but my legs were trashed and I could only muster what seemed like a slow jog. This year, I enjoyed it. Make no mistake, I was super tired and ready to be done running, but I was still blaring my music and running like a kid through the trail. After a few more miles, I finally hit the right turn that takes us up the biggest climb of the race back toward the finish. I looked down at my watch – 6:56, or something close to that. Crap. Now some expectations and time goals hit the meathead part of me and I couldn’t shake them off. Four minutes to climb this hill and sprint home to break 7 hours.. Ugh!
I tore up that hill, giving it all I had. As I started up, a song came on the iPad from Michelle and I’s wedding. It was actually an instrumental song that I wrote and played at our wedding and just hit me how much all of this running and racing was supported and encouraged by her, and how fortunate I was to be married to an incredible woman. This was the first race in a long time she wasn’t able to come to, but fate would have it that she would be with me through this last, randomly generated song on the old iPod. I took that sense of comfort and gratitude as I pushed up that hill. As I hit the field, unsure of exactly how much more terrain was left, I saw only about 90 seconds left before the clock struck 7 hours. Now all the speed work paid off. Running as hard as I could at the end of a great day, it was going to come down to seconds… 6:59:58! I was just one minute behind Jordan Change, though I had no idea, probably because I didn’t take my earbuds out at the last aid station;) Will finished just one minute behind me. Wow, we ran the last 25 miles of that course within just one minute of each other. Leif was just another minute back and Brad just a few minutes after him. Nobody gave up in that front group and it was an honor to race such an awesome group of runners.
Bull Run is an incredible race, and we were all treated to an incredible day. Hanging out on the grassy hillside for hours after the race, eating incredible food, ice cream, and soda, as we traded stories of the day. You just can’t beat it.
I want to give a huge thanks to my brother Tim for waking up early and giving his entire day to me. And of course, Chris Scott, Anstr Davidson and all of the incredible and selfless volunteers on the course that day. There were so many volunteers!
So, this was a great confidence booster for Western States. I’m gonna keep on pushing, riding that line of too much and not quite enough hoping to keep healthy and super compensate all the way to Squaw. Pretty sure I’m gonna bring some headphones.