Sunday, September 30, 2007

No Bull

On September 29, 2007, I attempted the hardest cross country race I had ever attempted. The Bull Run Invitational at Hereford High School in Maryland attracted seventy-five schools and tallied more than one thousand runners (possibly two thousand). There were more than ten races throughout the day, the first race at 9:00 AM and the last in the late afternoon.

Our boys' teams were signed up for the Boys Elite/Large junior varsity race, which started at 9:00 AM, and the Boys Large race, which started at 9:35. My school is located about thirty-to-forty-five minutes away from the race site, and we had to be there before 8:00 AM, which meant a 6:45 AM departure on the bus from school.

I was awoken at 5:40 AM (which is earlier than I get up for school), and immediately turned on my cross country playlist on my iPod. It was a chilly morning, with the temperature in the fifties, so I bundled up with a long-sleeved shirt and sweatpants and thick socks for the bus ride. I ate a small breakfast which consisted of eggs and a bagel, a good running breakfast in my opinion. I was dropped off at school at (shudder) 6:30 AM where I was joined by two of our team's freshmen (I'm a sophomore). The bus arrived and the twelve brave souls (seven guys, five girls) who got up early enough to take the bus departed at 6:45.

Bus rides are one of the best parts of being on any team. The conversation ranges from gossip, sports, music, and even into politics. Most of the time our coaches discourage us from being loud on bus rides, but today they were a little more lax. The first part of the drive was the usual yakking, but usually a change comes over our team about a half-hour into our bus ride where everyone usually slips into their headphones and gets in their zone.

We arrived at Hereford High School around 7:45, and it was a sight to be seen. Countless runners from various schools from assorted areas were out stretching and jogging and walking the course. We set up our tent as usual and started the course walk.

Now, Bull Run is known in Maryland as the fifth hardest course in the country. I had only heard stories and seen one picture of the course, but after the course walk, I knew why. The starting line was located in front of the backstop of a softball field. From there, the first 200 meters are relatively flat until you run up a relatively steep hill (it actually was pretty steep, but compared to other hills, it was not that steep. At the top of the hill, a U-turn is made around a tree and you go down the hill where at the bottom you run along the outfield fence. At the end of the fence, a sharp right turn is made into a downhill which takes you back into the woods. The loop in the woods comes out up a labeled on the map as "Slight Incline," which I would label as a misnomer. At the top of the hill, a left turn is made and you retrace your steps along the backstop and back up and around the first hill where you pass the one mile mark.

After that, you hang another left and traverse towards the most legendary feature of the course: "The Dip." The Dip is, well, a pretty big dip. Standing on one side of The Dip, the other side looks like a wall. Normally in a race, you are supposed to stride down the hills and try to build up speed. Not so fast my friend. I would estimate the angle on either side of the dip is around forty-five degrees, give or take about ten degrees. The bottom of The Dip consists of a narrow footbridge before you run up the other side (yes, there are two sides, and it is run twice). The top of the other side of The Dip flattens out, but not for long, as it goes up hill AGAIN and around a secluded soccer field, known as the Square of Death.

After that, you go uphill again and come out on top of a rather large hill which is run down and provides a great place to pick up some places, but alas, it does not last forever, as some rolling hills sneak up on you before you traverse The Dip again. During the walk, I found this side of The Dip to be more difficult. Once the top of the dip is reached, it is relatively smooth sailing. You run down into another woods loop where you run up another slight hill until you reach an open field and about 300 meters of open space to the finish line. After the course walk, I was, well, intimidated to say the least.

If you didn't find my description to be that enlightening, a video tour with narration is viewable here.

Now, one of the stories adding to the mystique of The Dip comes from 2003. Maryland had just been hit hard by Hurricane Isabel, but the Bull Run Invitational was going to happen anyway. The JV race started as usual, but then race organizers realized they had a problem: The Dip was impassable. Many runners would not run down it and those who did could not get back up. At the conclusion of the JV race, which took many runners an hour to finish, the rest of the meet was cancelled. That is where this photograph of The Dip comes from. I'd have to say the course was damp while we ran it, but thank goodness it was not during a rain storm.

But enough about the course walk. More about my race, which is what all you came for. I raced in the Boys Elite/Large JV race. There were forty-five starting boxes so there were probably at least that many teams lined up. The five of us running had box twenty-nine, which was towards the middle and gave us a pretty straight shot to the uphill. Our only worry would be the three or four hundred runners crashing in from either side. People say that cross country is a rather tame sport, but it is not. Two teams had laid claim to the neighboring box twenty-eight and they started to get into it before reaching the conclusion that the team that came second would line up on the line separating boxes twenty-eight and twenty-nine. The runner who lined up next to me from that school was intimidating to say the least. We all lined up at the start, waited for the gun, and then, all hell broke loose.

I got a pretty good start out of my box. There was pushing and shoving. I was trying to keep contact with a teammate who was about four people in front of me before disaster struck. The runner behind him was tripped up and that triggered a massive pileup which I was caught in (more about this later). By the time I could finally get up, there were only about twenty people behind me. My psyche was shattered. I was coming into this race all pumped up because I was going to run under twenty-five minutes and just burn it up (in my standards). Being in the back was not good for that, so after jogging up the first hill, I made the decision to make a move coming down the hill. I passed one of my teammates and about ten other people near the backstop and through the woods. My split at the first mile was 7:35; I'm usually around 7:15, 7:20 for my first miles.

I caught another teammate right before my most dreaded part of the course, The Dip. Running down The Dip did not end up being as bad as I thought it would be. I was able to make it down in one piece, even though I made a costly mistake of stopping all of my momentum before I reached the base of the uphill. The back part of the course was rather uneventful; it was just me passing people on downhills and then people passing me again on the uphills. Then, I came to The Dip again. At this point, I have less than a mile left to go. I'm tired. My mind is fried. I barely make it up The Dip without walking and I get passed by maybe five people, including one of my teammates whom I passed earlier. I get into the last downhill of the race and make up mind to "just do it." I try in vain to catch my teammate, but he just as too much for me as I cannot catch him.

On the very last hill of the course, my worst fear is realized, but it also sets up the second-greatest kick of my cross country career (in my first one I passed ten people in the last 400 meters of a race). A kid comes out of nowhere and passes me on the hill. However, once we are on flat ground (and 200 meters from the finish), I realize that I can take him, so I start my kick right there. He hears me and kicks too, and I do not have enough to keep with him. As I layoff, I sigh very loudly, as I am disappointed in myself. He hears this and slows considerably, and I take the opportunity and run with it. To get to the chute, there was a slight turn, so I moved to the outside of him and got around him and was in-step with him. Ten meters from the finish I step it into overdrive and start to lunge, while he reaches out and grabs my wrist to try and stop me. I am still unclear of the result, but I feel as though I got him. After this, I received a ribbon for being a participant and promptly started dry heaving.

My time: 26:03. Personally, I am disappointed, but given the circumstances surrounding the start (I'm still getting to them), I'm proud of myself.

Anyway, the pile up at the start. As I said before, I was tracking one of my teammates while I was four people behind him when it appeared that the person directly behind him got their feet tangled up and went down. Now, for any of you who have seen a race, you know that this had to have lead to a chain reaction, which it did. I was the fourth or fifth person to go down, and I have to say, it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I feel directly on top of another runner, and basically, with still another one hundred runners to pass me, I was pinned. People were screaming. People were swearing. I was kneed in the head a few times. And in case you didn't know, cross country runners wear spikes. Nice and sharp metal spikes. On the ground, trying to get up with my eyes still closed tight, I was stepped on a few times, and it hurt. I had a searing pain come from my left side, just under my armpit after I was stepped on. Once I got up, and started running, I could not evaluate myself, but I was rather shocked when I had time to evaluate the damage: I had (have) three cuts, at least three inches long, with various other shorter cuts on the lower part of my left side and even some cuts on my stomach. I just got up and ran the race, which I just did not feel like doing.

I was in a daze for the rest of the day. I could not believe that all of that had happened to me. It was one of those things you hear about, but you think, "That'll never happen to me." Well it happened, and I think I will be remembering my first experience with Bull Run for a long time to come.

So there it is. My experience at the 2007 Bull Run Invitational. Questions? Comments? Concerns?

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