Date: Sat., March 24, 2018
Location: Safe Harbor, PA
Authors: By Crystal Cun, with contributions from Shan Haq, PaFoua “Puffy” Hang, and some photos from fellow racer Megan Michael
We’re all dedicated runners in PPTC, but have you ever pondered the serious questions in life, like “What is a trail?” and “What is a marathon?” It seemed deceptively obvious what these words meant, until PaFoua Hang, Shan Haq, and I went to Safe Harbor, PA for a trail marathon. There, we had such an unusual race experience that we want to ensure all future participants who sign up for this race do so with the right expectations.
To give some background, the three of us are currently training for trail ultra races, and we were looking for some low-key trail miles. We thought this $20 race might fit the bill, but the website (circa 1995?) was sparse on details, and the domain (http://www.5kand10kfromhell.com) didn’t seem particularly welcoming. I quickly searched to see if I could find race recaps from previous years, and came up empty.
But really, how bad could it be? I emailed to ask for more info, and was told the course was a 4.2-mile loop with more than 500 feet of elevation change, with an aid station at the start of the loop. Buried in another section of the website, there was a written description of the course loop, and the warning “NO ONE TO HELP YOU IF YOU GET HURT OR LOST.” Remembering that on a trail race, you are the only person responsible for making sure you don’t get lost, I scrawled down the directions on a Post-It.
Two days before the race, we were sent a welcome email which said the weather would be a sunny 42 degrees with “remnants of snow.” So for good measure, we purchased waterproof socks. We felt well prepared, despite not having as much information as usual. We were even quietly optimistic that one of us might win, since the website did mention a prize of a $400 gift certificate to a local running store!
At 6 am on race day, we set out from Brooklyn, NY for Safe Harbor, PA. The sleek cityscape faded behind us, and we were soon zipping past bucolic scenes of cows and Amish buggies.
We’d been warned that the last 7 miles of the drive would have ZERO cell reception, so we took screenshots of the directions and finally arrived at Safe Harbor Park…at 10:07 am, 7 minutes after the race officially started. Outside the park, a group of 20 or so runners wearing bibs were making their way up the hill we’d just come down. Inside the park, there was a handful of parked cars, a table with water, chocolate, and bananas—and no race director in sight. After waiting for several minutes, we decided to take the DIY approach and simply grab a bib from the stack on the table, pin it on, and start running. Keep in mind that at this point, aside from the Post-It, we really didn’t know where we were going; we were simply going up the hill that we’d seen the other runners on.
After running for about half a mile, a car drove up beside us and a man named Paul introduced himself as the director of the race. He seemed genuinely pleased that we were running his race. He scribbled down our self-assigned bib numbers next to a handwritten list of our names and said we were off-course, but that he would help us get back on course. He then handed each of us a hand-drawn map of the course. When we asked if the course was marked, he paused and said that there were some signs with arrows, and some blue flags, but we should be fine following the map.
We followed Paul’s car up the hill, where he motioned to a big field, and told us to follow the power lines as marked on the map. “Turn left when you’re in the second field!” he said, before bidding us farewell. Soon, we were bushwhacking up a 20% grade slope covered in a foot of hard snow. We sank with every step; it was impossible to run. Rather than a trail run, this was turning out to be a long, wet hike. There was no discernible path, and on the downhill sections, it was difficult to avoid sliding into thorn bushes. The scenery was stark and beautiful, but it was soon apparent that this was not the “trail marathon” we needed for our training.
Since there was no cell reception, we did not bring our phones. The next two photos are courtesy of our new friend, Megan Michael, who raced and won the half marathon and is the voice behind https://meggorun.blogspot.com/.
The rest of the course was sparsely marked and ran over private property. We tried our best to use the hand-drawn map to navigate, but with the ambiguous directions, we got lost for two miles. Finally, we resorted to the Garmin watch “Back to Start” feature, which points you in the direction you came from. With bated breath, we watched as our watches told us we were 0.2 miles away…0.1 miles…and then, we found ourselves at the edge of a steep cliff, within view of the parking lot. We could either backtrack a mile through the snow, or go down the cliff.
I’ve been told that if you aren’t questioning your life decisions during a race, then you’re not trying hard enough. Butt-sliding down a mountain was not quite what I had in mind, but it made the race official for me!
At the start, we found out that most of the other runners had already quit after one loop. “By the way, were you guys threatened by the man in the little house?” said Paul. (See course map for box labeled “Little House.”) Evidently, there was a property owner who was upset by the runners on the course. Paul reassured us that things were fine, and patiently went over the map with us again to make sure we didn’t get SHOT in our next loop. (The marathon required six loops.) At this point, Shan mentioned that he’d heard gunshots during the run, but figured it was hunting season and didn’t want to scare us, so he hadn’t said anything.
After taking everything into consideration, it was clear that while we could finish this race, the risk was unnecessary, and snow hiking was not what we needed for training. This simply was not a trail marathon. Had we known that this race was more akin to a PA rendition of the Barkley Marathons, we would have prepared differently. We decided to DNF (“did not finish”), which meant there were only six runners remaining in the field. Paul turned to another runner. “More victims,” he shrugged.
As we walked towards the car, Shan paused for a moment and said, “You know, $400 is a lot of money…” “Don’t even think about it,” I replied. “It’s not worth being out there for 9 hours! Also, how do we know that the prize actually exists?” We later went back to the website to see the results, if anyone had finished the race. The mention of a $400 gift certificate had been suspiciously scrubbed. But much to our surprise, there were finishing times:
Female: M. Michael — 2:43
Male: K. Wawrzyniak — 2:52
Female: T. Walker — 8:07
Walker, we raise our Garmins to salute you. If you received that $400 gift certificate, we hope you used it for a nice pair of hiking poles and snowshoes.
We spent a lot of time reflecting on the race after we drove off; it felt like such a strange dream. As it turns out, we were some of the luckier runners that day. Based on Megan’s race recap, the angry man in the little house that Paul had mentioned actually shot his gun to scare runners who were unknowingly trespassing on his private property. The man also physically harassed the runners, grabbing and shoving them.
We need more affordable trail races. Paul mentioned that he is retired, and puts on races at break-even cost. We fully appreciate a race director who puts together races for the love of it, especially in an era where everything authentic about running is commercialized and squeezed out to the dollar.
However, we are concerned that race participants were not given a transparent depiction of what they signed up for. It is one thing to knowingly sign up for a “ballbuster” race, and something completely different to show up expecting to continuously run a marathon on trails. In addition, we question the decision to create a course that trespasses through private property, and to continue the race despite clear threats to runner safety.
This race is already posted with a date in 2019. Assuming it takes place, we hope this recap will help bring about safer conditions for future runners, and set the right expectations for anyone who does sign up.
Addendum: Shan Saves the Day
Since we still hadn’t accomplished our goal of having a solid trail run, Shan then drove us to Brandywine Creek State Park in Delaware. If you’ve never run in Brandywine, I highly recommend it! The trail system there is every runner’s dream. There are meandering sections along the river, lung-busting climbs, rocky scrambles, creeks to ford, and everything in between.
Here, Shan and I are taking on Mount Scarpo (part of local running lore for being a 16% grade incline over 0.23 miles), where I got the second fastest women’s time on the ascent of this Strava segment. It was brutal—I’ve never felt like I was working so hard while making so little forward progress in my life. So much respect for the Delaware hills!
To conclude the day on an even higher note, we all went to Brew HaHa! for a well-earned dinner. Thanks for saving the day, Shan! And for driving us from NY to PA to DE and back to NY within 12 hours. You are the best. Can’t wait for more run-cations with this amazing running family.