THE BULL RUN RUN 50-Mile Race
Bull Run is little slip of water that runs nearby to the Occoquan River in northern Virginia. In the nearby town of Clifton lies Hemlock Overlook Regional Park, which contains a hilly trail that runs alongside, and sometimes over and through, these waters. In 1992, a bunch of crazy trail runners formed the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, with the sole mission of creating a 50 mile race along this trail – the Bull Run Run, held every April since 1993.
There’s a lot of history in those hills. The first major battle of the Civil War took place nearby in the town of Manassas on July 21, 1861. The Confederates routed the Union troops in that battle, with losses totaling 460 Union soldiers and 387 Confederate soldiers killed.
A year later, on August 28, 1862, two larger and more experienced armies clashed again at Manassas, when 77,000 Union troops marched against 55,000 Confederates. The South won again, losing 1,300 soldiers over three days, against the Union’s loss of 10,000 men. But historians have considered the Confederate’s inability to deliver a knockout blow in this battle a turning point in the war.
The Bull Run Run keeps the memory of those battles alive in its race theme, with competitors assigned to represent the North or South in one big team competition.
The BRR is a tough course, with very steep climbs and drops, checkered with a minefield of rocks and water crossings. Veterans break this race down into four sections: the 16.7-mile upstream section, the 11-mile downstream section, the notorious 10-mile Do-Loop, and the 12.5 mile final stretch to the finish line. On the course map, the Do Loop looks like a keyhole route, with a short loop at the end of an out-and-back. But in actuality it’s a couple of loops, with the official 3-mile Do Loop itself laid out on cris-crossing trails. The potential for confusion is legendary; it’s known as The Vortex, where runners go in and are never seen or heard from again. It’s said that there are still runners out there from past years trying to find their way out.
But the race is perhaps most famous for a small lavender-colored flower called the Virginia Bluebell that is usually in full bloom on the course come race day.
On race morning, a short blast from a bullhorn announces the race start. First is a 3-quarter-mile loop, followed by a descent onto a single track trail, on which most of the race is held. This part is marked by a mostly-flat section along Bull Run Creek and into Bull Run Park.
The first aid station is at mile 7. It’s was well-stocked with water, sports drink, soda pop, cookies, chips, crackers and candy. These stations would come along every five miles or so, and one station is rumored to have a bottle of liquor.
Runners then reverse field and return to Hemlock Park. Footing can be rough her due to moisture on the course; it’s not unusual to see a runner lose a shoe in the mud.
After leaving Hemlock Park again, the course veers toward the river and the toughest portion of the trail, in Fountainhead Park. There was no single monstrous climb, just rolling hills, ranging from challenging to daunting, for 11 miles.
At mile 26 is the Wolf Shoals Run aid station, famous for its ice cream sandwiches. At the 45 mile approach we there is another aid station, and then, finally, The Loop. The hills there are short but steep, and the trails are still covered in leaves. When I ran this race, I saw runners at this point through the trees heading off in different directions, and sounds appeared to come randomly at us from all angles. I wondered how a course that seemed so simple on paper could seem so confusing on the ground.
After leaving the woods, the course follows a rock-strewn path encircling a soccer field, past families picnicking and watching a soccer game.
In the last five miles, the course covers two more hills and circles back around the soccer. And then there’s the end, finally! – where a volunteers hand out long-sleeved, technical, zippered finisher’s shirts bearing a quote from the Union’s Major General John Pope, dated August 1862: “Be Expeditious, and the Day is Our Own.” Even better is the small but festive finish line party and cookout.
Hemlock Overlook Park is not accessible by public transportation. Plan to drive in.
Lodging in the D.C. metro area is feasible, but the easiest, most economical, and most convenient lodging would be to use the dorm-style bunks that are available at Hemlock Overlook Park, which cost only $30 per person for Friday night, although you’ll need your own bedding or sleeping bag and towels. If you stay in one of these dormitories, you’ll be just about 30 yards from the starting line on race morning. The bunks are not available for Saturday night, and no camping is allowed in the park, but campsites are available nearby. There is a pre-race past dinner, and a light breakfast is offered on race morning.
The race is limited to 350 participants. The race starts at 6:30 a.m., and there is a 13-hour limit with intermediate cutoffs. There are no early starts, and the entries are not transferable.
For more information, visit the race website at http://www.vhtrc.org/.