Sunday, January 5, 2014

PHUNT 50k recap

First things first. I'm sure we'll all be relieved to hear my dental work on Friday went smoothly. It was just as much fun as you would imagine intense dental work from 10:45 to 2:00 (with a short break in the middle to drive from the root canal specialist to my regular dentist) to be.

I said that all this dental work would be an extra challenge, since I would be skipping lunch and maybe dinner and therefore would be underfueled. I meant it more as a joke, and the Novocaine wore off in time for pizza and wings anyway. But I started to get legit concerned on Friday. After I slept off the worst of the anesthesia, I tried to take a sip of water and it ended up all over the kitchen floor. So now I was like 17 hours out from an ultra, hadn't had water all day, and literally couldn't drink.

I woke up at 6:30 on race morning to find Kara already wearing all her running gear, including her hat, in our guest room. I had known she was really concerned about the cold, but I hadn't realized it went that far.

We fueled up with peanut butter toast and coffee (me) and coke (her) and began our pre-race warmup - finding Eric's car under sheets and sheets of ice. (My car was being a little bitch about the single digit temps, and being a teacher with no dental needs, he hadn't used his car yesterday, and Kara's car was filled with carseats.)

It doesn't look like much, but it took the two of us 15 minutes to scrape off the insane about of ice. We finished up just as my friend Matt arrived, and the three of us drove about an hour north to the race site.

Last year, I remembered having to wait in a cold line for quite awhile for a porto-potty before the race. The temperature for the race site was 0 degrees when I woke up, so we stopped at a Shell station to use a nice, warm indoor bathroom when we got close.

The email from the RD gave us directions to a "tea barn". We had no clue what that meant, there was no specific address, and "tea barn" wasn't coming up with any results in my GPS. The email said it was near an inn. We asked the gas station attendant where the inn was. In a bored, and somewhat creepy voice, he told us he'd never heard of it.

The tea barn

When we got back in the car and discovered the inn and tea barn were directly across the street, and you could actually see them out the window of the Shell, we started to suspect the creepy old man was actually trying to help us by tricking us into skipping the race.

Spoiler alert: in retrospect, he was right.

But we were still filled with delusions and bravado.
Arrival at the tea barn. So happy. So unaware of what was to come.
We got our bibs and excitedly met Carl, the race director. He was really nice and enthusiastic, and greeted me by name immediately. We also met up with one of my running friends, Karl, and his friend Carrie, who is also doing the C&O canal 100 miler! I've been emailing with her, so it was cool to meet her in person.
 The tea barn was filled with heaters and coffee and warm, clean bathrooms with no wait. Even though the overarching theme was "what the hell is wrong with us?" (that was generally how you heard people greeting each other), this was clearly going to be a great day! In fact, the temperature had risen to 3 degrees!


Matt is a faster runner, so I gave him the car key to change into dry clothes while he waited for us to finish. Remember this little factoid, it comes into play later in the story.

Our fellow crazies at the start
The field was open for 200 runners, but we estimated only about 100 were dumb enough to actually show up, given the weather. After a quick safety briefing, it was 9am, and the race began.
When we heard how much snow there was, Kara immediately got us two pairs of Yak Trax (they go on the bottom of your shoes to give you extra traction). Generally, impulse purchases have a negative connotation. Also, you aren't supposed to try anything new on race day, but obviously if we had followed any logic or conventional wisdom, we wouldn't even have been there in the first place. Matt wiped out on the ice half a mile into the race, and we felt validated that it had been money well spent. The rest of the day continued to drive that point home.
About a mile in, we hit the trails. The night before, as we had started to get more and more nervous, I felt that the greatest problem would be the cold. I was pleasantly surprised when my hands and feet regained feeling not even two miles in, and I was nice and toasty.
Unfortunately, the reason for that was that running in snow is really, really hard. It's like running in sand. Fluffy, ankle deep, shifting, uneven snow added a whole new challenge to trails that were already pretty hilly and tough.
The blurriness of the picture demonstrates how it looked while I constantly teared up from the cold.
You know what else was fun in 3 degree weather? Stream crossings. My foot went in the icy water once when I couldn't quite manage to stay on the slippery rocks, and my instant reaction was "I WILL LOSE THESE TOES".
A common way of measuring effort is the "talk test" - whether you can hold a conversation while running. For non-elite runners like me, ultra marathons should always be run at conversational pace to ensure you conserve enough energy to complete the distance. Kara and I always talk the entire time throughout our races. Yesterday though, we were completely silent. The pace may have been slow, but the amount of effort was somewhere around 5k level. We were way too winded and exhausted to talk, right from the beginning. A good sign, for sure.
Crossing this field was certainly interesting.
The ONE smart decision I made was putting my hydration pack inside my jacket. It may have made me look like an insane humpback weirdo, but everyone else's froze. The first aid station (about 7  miles in) was filled with people frantically trying to de-ice their hoses so they could use their pack to drink, not just as an ice pack strapped to their back.
At some point after that (I didn't look at my Garmin much, and it was way off from everyone else's anyway), we took a turn on what we thought was the course. A couple guys behind us told us that turn was the wrong way - it was a shortcut, and would take 20 minutes off the course. I was confused about what was "wrong" with that. We weren't even at double digits yet, and I was already feeling less than confident about my ability to finish.
We took their advice though, and kept going, only to have a whole bunch of other runners (including Matt, who we knew was ahead of us) fly past us going the opposite way, telling us we were going the wrong way. But the guys behind us kept insisting we were right, and everyone was totally confused. Not long after that, we came upon the mile 15 manned aid station - at mile 11.
People were leaving that aid station going back the way we came, and people were leaving going in the other direction, and both ways had the pink ribbons that marked the race course. We asked the aid station volunteers which way to go, and they were all like "oh, you can go either way, it doesn't matter".
Call me crazy, but I didn't feel that made sense, and no amount of "explanation" from other runners was helping. We went back the way we came, and I secretly hoped it would just bring us back to the start, and we could call it a day after 22 miles. Except apparently we were still on the course, even though it was a loop, and not an out and back.
We ran for awhile longer, and the pink ribbons started getting fewer and further between. We came to a three way intersection with no ribbons, and no one seemed to know where to go. Then, a guy appeared from the trail behind us - his name was Hunt, the race was named after him, and he had marked the course! It seemed like a gift from God! He told us where to go, and despite the conspicuous continuous absence of pink ribbons, we now felt much more confident that at least we were on our way to the finish.

After what seemed like ages, Hunt asked us if we knew how far it was to the aid station. We were pretty confused, since he was leading the way and had led us to believe he was very familiar with the course.
It was at this point that I started to suspect I was never going to make it home alive.
The idea of being lost in the woods is always terrifying. The idea of being lost in the woods in single digit temperatures in soaking wet clothes is a whole new level of fear. Even though I was in no way trained for this race, I knew I could complete the distance, albeit slowly. But I hadn't learned any Hunger Games type survival skills, and it was beginning to look like things might come down to that.
We reached the mile 23.5 aid station and it was the most beautiful sight I'd ever seen. The cutoff for this aid station was 2:30. It was about 2:15, and at this point we had serious doubts about our ability to finish the race before the final cutoff, and more importantly, the sunset, at 5pm. We were only getting slower, and the last 8 miles were rumored to be significantly harder than the rest of the terrain. All joking aside, being in the woods after dark was a really serious safety risk.
We told the volunteer all this, and she cheerfully informed us that it was perfect timing, the medic had just arrived! She told us we could enjoy some cookies around the bonfire while she informed him he would be giving us a ride back. I can't even describe the complete and utter joy and relief I felt.
The joy was short lived. The medic snidely told us that we weren't really injured, and he was only taking people with real problems. He got in his EMPTY van and drove away with no one.
The volunteer very kindly tried to explain how to use the roads for a short cut (3 miles!) back. We tried to follow the complicated directions through our desolation and fear, but after she explained 3 times we just gave up and started running in the direction she pointed, woefully accepting that we would never make it.
We got to the road, and I saw a PT cruiser full of male trail runners pull over. I did the only logical thing. I ran to it as fast as I could, pounded on the driver's window, and demanded they give us a ride.
At first, the driver told us that they didn't have room, but then told his passengers to make room for the "pretty ladies". We crammed in, and he told us he would take us to the next water stop, which was closer to the tea barn than our current location. We agreed, but both silently vowed that we were not getting out of this PT cruiser until it was in front of the tea barn.
So excited to be in a car filled with total strangers!

He did take us back to the tea barn, and also turned out to be my neighbor, and advised me to stop bobbing my head so much while running. Um, ok.
While this was a delightful turn of events, our misery did not end there. Matt still had the car key. I called him, and found out he was still at least 5 miles away. So we were stuck in our soaking, freezing clothes and shoes until he returned.
We went back in the tea barn and were told to record our names, and the distance we thought we had run, and the time we thought we had ran it in. We estimated 24 miles in 5:15.
The good news was that the tea barn had heaters, food, bathrooms, and hot coffee. 

Waiting for Matt around the "fire" in the tea barn.

We met a really nice couple named Alan and Dina, and Alan became my new hero when he lent me a towel and a pair of dry socks. I also met two other blog readers - Catherine and Alvin (both are probably spelled wrong and I am so sorry!). If there's one thing that can cheer a girl up while she's shivering and miserable, it's feeling like a celebrity for a hot (but actually cold) second.
I would like to take a moment to note that my complaints refer to Mother Nature and all the nasty snow she dumped on us, and my own lack of preparation, not the race itself. It was great, and we met a lot of really nice, cool people. They even gave us shot glasses!

This guy agreed to show off his ice beard on Kara's blog, so I took that to mean mine as well.
Things weren't all bad. Our husbands, smart enough to stay nice and warm at home, got a lot of amusement out of our predicament.

Whenever someone would come in after finishing, everyone would ask "did you get lost?". And invariably, they wouldn't answer yes or no, but how many times they got lost. Some people ended up with like 33 miles, and others with 28. Some people had given up, like us, and found rides or alternate routes back. As some girl in the bathroom put it "well we should all feel proud. We all went out in the woods and ran some distance!"
When Matt finished, I skipped the usual niceties of "well done!" or "how do you feel?" and just attacked him, demanded the keys. Dry clothes never felt so good.
The unexpected takeaway from mstory is this: If something seems like a bad idea on paper, everyone you know including your mother warns you against it, and deep in your heart, you know it's a bad idea, it's probably a bad idea. You may end up getting a ride in a random PT cruiser to a barn and putting on a stranger's socks to avoid frostbite.
For a version of this story with fewer words and more gifs, check out Kara's recap!


  1. Hehe great report!

    So I studied the course map and my GPS and see two places I deviated from the course. The markings were OK but then, I did feel kinda lost for a solid 10 miles or so. There were at least 3 ambiguous intersections (markings in every direction) and I think that's just kinda bad in general especially given the ground conditions.

    But it was fun. I can say that now I'm warm at home drinking coffee, haha.

  2. I felt that putting on my hat first thing was a sign that I'm ready to go :)

    I was actually fine with running back to the tea barn on the road because I was just glad it wasn't fluffy snow. Obviously I wasn't going to turn down a ride haha. I was tired of feeling lost!

    I'm glad we found a race that is stupider than running a 50K in mid July.

    1. I was just really concerned about how long the "3 miles" would actually be, and predicted we would once again be lost and confused.

  3. I've been waiting to read your recap since I read Kara's this morning. It was totally worth the wait! You girls are crazy, but I'm glad you survived and didn't have to go all Donner Pass on other runners.

    1. It's early days, but this comment might win the comments on this post. It made me actually laugh out loud.

  4. I was supposed to do the coney island polar bear swim on new years day (jumping into the atlantic ocean in freezing temperatures is always a good idea.) but finally talked myself out of it when my new years hangover rendered me incapable of movement. might be the smartest decision i make for 2014. I'll also probably cross-post this on kara's blog, since I know she will inevitably have the same question at the end and I am lazy.

  5. I am the "snide" medic who refused to take you out in my "empty van". Get your facts straight. I had 2 seats available in my EMS responder, and both were taken by cold injured runners who I was transporting out. You reported no injury, therefore, were instructed to make it out under your own power. My role at the PHUNT was to provide medical care for ill/injured runners, not transport the poorly prepared.

    1. Get your facts straight Alyssa. Geez.

    2. I apologize if I offended you. We were confused because you were driving away with no one in the car. We were attempting to do the responsible thing by removing ourselves from the course rather than being unable to finish in time and putting ourselves and possibly others in danger.

  6. As awful as this race sounds, reading about it brought great joy and laughter into my life.

  7. Boy, you totally are a celebrity. Even snide medics read your blog.

    1. Just wait until the creepy old gas station attendant reads this. He's going to be PISSED.

  8. Um, I just got back from cross country skiing in Yellowstone in blowing snow and single degree temps with insane wind gusts and your story sounds far more miserable. Way to go for taking on this race!! :)

  9. This validates my decision to not run yesterday in the snow and the cold and the negative temps. Glad you both made it out alive, sounds like quite and adventure! At least they had the heated tea barn at the end, that would have been awful without it!

  10. This whole experience sounds completely insane. I can't believe you guys did 23mi in those conditions!

    And WTF with the medic? I think it's COMPLETELY irresponsible for him to have left 2 runners in those conditions when they were legitimately concerned that they could not finish safely. At the very least, he should have arranged transportation for you guys when he returned to the barn. I would still be pissed about that. And the course markings. This whole experience sounds like it would have made me cry.

  11. Such a funny recap! Just think how easy the next one will be when there are actual trail markings and no snow. ;-)

  12. This is the funniest post you've ever written. I think, if you got serious, you could give Sophie Kinsella (who wrote Confessions of a Shopaholic, funniest book ever) a run for her money.

    But speaking of run, I know this is a running blog so my opinion is bound to be unpopular in the extreme, but I will stick it in anyway: I think the lot of you are closet masochists. Or perhaps not even closet.

  13. Cry me a river. Everyone made it out alive and most actually finished it (without blogging about it). Were you scared of the scared deer in the woods? I'm not sure what else you could have been scared by.... maybe the nice people that you were running with all day?

    1. Golly, were you one of the nice people out there? I bet you were.

    2. I have a running blog and recap all of my races, it's a pretty standard practice. As I specifically said in my post, I was afraid of being in the woods after dark in below freezing temperatures, as I was not dressed for that or confident in my ability to find my way back. I also specifically took time to note that I enjoyed meeting so many nice people, and to say that the weather, not the race itself, was what made my experience less than ideal. Since you didn't leave your name, am I to assume you are taking offense because you are Mother Nature herself?

    3. FFS, Anon, I really hope you have nothing to do with planning this race, or any other. However you allocate the responsibility for a participant finding herself cold, tired, wet, and unsure of how to get back to her own transportation with dwindling daylight, you utterly fail at risk management if you can't figure out what about that is scary.
      - Also anonymous, because I can

    4. Whoever you are, most recent anonymous commenter, I love you.

    5. Anonymous commenters are so pathetic, aren't they?

  14. Dwindling daylight? That is pretty funny. It was early afternoon and there was plenty of time to get back home. Even walking.

    I love you too and I am not affiliated with the TrailDawgs.

  15. Good lord, Anon...were you one of those nice people? I didn't think anything bad about the Trail Dawgs until I started reading the comments from all these anonymous posters.

  16. Nice people? Is it a standard practice to call people old, creepy and/or snide? Pretty rude and juvenile if you ask me, but what do I know, I don't even run. I heard it's bad for your knees.

  17. If the shoe fits, no?

    Anon to add to the confusion. :)

  18. Great recap Alyssa...good to actually meet you. And yes you spelled it right :-)

  19. Alyssa--great seeing you out there on Saturday! What a day, your blog captured the day well! Can't wait to run with you again.

  20. What a wonderful picture of ultrarunning in the snow you painted! Where can I sign up?? If I was in your situation on Saturday I would not have found any of it funny, but your recap of the day's events had me laughing. I think I would flip out if I asked a race volunteer which direction I was supposed to run and they told me either was fine, it doesn't matter. What the heck!? And then the guy Hunt who supposedly marked the course but then started asking y'all how much further. Did anything happen on Saturday that actually made sense? Oh yea, you did learn a valuable lesson about bad ideas and runner dudes in PT Cruisers.

  21. But you had each other, right? And where's the nude cuddling for warmth? Strike 1, you guys. Strike 1.

    How many people didn't complete all the miles out of the 100 that showed up? I'm thinking with a course marked like that, it was probably a lot.

  22. The lack of nude cuddling was clearly our fatal error.

    2 people completed the 50k distance. 2.

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