The Long Run

Why new ultramarathon participant Greg Brunner won’t stop running

Photo Essay by Kaycee Orwig
Pittsburgh City Paper
September 22, 2021

He“I knew I could run a half marathon. I knew I could run a marathon. I didn’t know if I could run 100 miles,” Greg Brunner said to me when we sat down to reflect on his first ultramarathon, a 50.3-mile race on the Baker Trail.

In fact, the Baker Trail Ultra Challenge — a footrace on the north section of the 134-mile trail that traverses six Western Pennsylvania counties — was not just the Millvale resident’s first ultramarathon, but his first official long-distance race ever.

Before stepping up to the start line of The Baker Trail at 6:30 a.m. on Sat., Aug. 28, Greg’s legs had only ever endured 20 miles in a single run. About nine hours of running later, Greg made it over 46.7 miles to the ninth and final aid station before the finish. After walking that final, stormy five-mile stretch with his dad, Greg came to the car shivering uncontrollably, saying, “I feel like I’m going to pass out.”

Greg’s dad, and his strength coach, Donny helped him into dry clothes, got him more water and allowed him to lay down in the trunk of the car to recover, but Greg couldn’t recover and finish the race. The head volunteer at that final aid station had experienced Greg’s symptoms before and urged him to drop out and go to the hospital. It is a good thing he did. At the hospital, he discovered that he was suffering from Hyponatremia, or a salt deficiency. His sodium levels were at 110, the lowest they could get before things got much worse.

When I saw Greg next, two days later, he was fully recovered and already thinking about his next race. For Greg, this story is far from over. Running had given him a purpose and he had the right people around him for support along the way.

In February 2020, Greg started his running journey with his dad, Kevin Brunner, when he and his dad set out to run three half marathons, three days in a row around the Grand Canyon.  Although the COVID-19 pandemic canceled those plans, Greg’s passion for running had already been sparked, and two of his best friends were already equipped to help him continue his journey. Matt Mauclair, Greg’s current running coach, took on training Greg started to train Greg. Donny, his former bandmate in the local band hearken, became his strength coach soon after. It seemed to me like a beautiful coincidence, but Greg corrected me: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence … these people were in my life for a reason and that reason happened later on.” And that reason for Greg became running. Those people found him, Greg says, just like running found him.

Before running, Greg had suffered through years of chronic pain, which kept him from hanging out with people and experiencing life.  “It wasn’t until I started running,” Greg explained to me, “that I really started to feel like I was getting out and actually getting back to that pure version of who I am and who I was made to be.” For Greg it has become clear that he was made to run, so his journey didn’t stop at that ninth aid station or at the Punxsutawney Area Hospital. He says he  feels that his technical “failure” to reach 50.3 miles was, in fact, not a failure at all. He is grateful for the experience he gained from those miles on the Baker Trail and will now take what he has learned into future races.

“100 miles is the goal,” says Greg, “and that was the goal from the start.

 

Greg Brunner completes a strength workout three weeks before his race at Free Will Health and Wellness in East Liberty. (photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Greg Brunner completes a speed workout on the Millvale River Trail, August 10, 2021. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper).

Runners gather across from the start line in Summerville, PA the morning of the race on August 28, 2021. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Greg Brunner prepares himself before the 6:30 am start time on race day. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Spectators watch as Greg Brunner runs into aid station number 4 at mile 22.2 of the Baker Trail Ultra Challenge. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Greg Brunner embraces his dad at aid station number 3 during mile 16 of the Baker Trail Ultra Challenge. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Greg Brunner drinks water and gets cooled off at aid station two at mile 10.3 of the Baker Trail Ultra Challenge. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Greg Brunner’s watch shows the 47.39 miles and farthest distance he’s ever covered during his ultramarathon on August 28, 2021. The distance shows longer on his watch than where he ended on the course because he went the wrong way once along the course and had to backtrack. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Greg Brunner lays down 3.6 miles from the finish line at aid station 9 of the Baker Trail Ultra Challenge before dropping out of the race for health reasons. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Donny Donavan and Kevin Brunner assist Greg Brunner in walking into the hospital following his ultramarathon on Saturday, August 28, 2021. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Greg Brunner’s hospital discharge paper shows his diagnosis of Hyponatremia, a salt deficiency. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Greg Brunner poses for portraits in his home in Millvale, PA.(Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Greg Brunner is taking what he learned from his first ultramarathon and continuing his journey to 100 miles. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)