Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is a bit of a one-horse town. Actually, it's a one animal town, namely, the groundhog. Punxsutawney Phil, who is certainly the best-known of the supposed spring-predicting groundhogs is honored by at least 32 six-foot tall fiberglass Phils in the town. In the few blocks of downtown Punxsutawney it is impossible to look in any direction and not see multiple representations of Phil.
And no visit to Punxsutawney, even to run a 50K race, would be complete without an opportunity to meet the real Phil. Which I get to do at the spaghetti dinner the night before the race. Phil makes the rounds of the dinner on the shoulder of a member of the Inner Circle, Phil's caretakers.
Naturally, the Pantall Hotel, where I'm staying for the race and where the dinner is being held, has its own "Phil'd with Service" outside. Since one should never bypass a chance to have one's picture taken with a six-foot tall fiberglass groundhog, Gayatri, who has carpooled with me to the race, and I go outside and take each other's picture with the impossibly friendly, if immobile, creature.
I wander off to buy some bagels for the morning and drop a postcard in the mail for my aunt. On the two block walk I spy at least half a dozen other Phils. Before heading off to my room I stop at the hotel bar for a beer. "Hydration," I think to myself. Back in the room I eat a cookie that I had bought on the drive up.
Can You Run if You Can't Stand?
At 4:30 I awake. Not because my alarm has gone off or because I'm nervous about the race and can't sleep. It's my stomach. It's bloated and distended and starting to feel painful. I get occasional attacks of this nature and generally the only thing I can do is lay down until the attacks passes in several hours. Since the race starts at 700 only two blocks from the hotel, I figure that I have a chance that the attack will pass before I start to run. I spend a restless couple of hours trying that plan.
Promptly at 7:00 the mayor of Punxsutawney climbs a ladder by the start line, says 'go' and the 74 starters are off. Two hours earlier, 22 "trekkers," including Gayatri, set off in the dark.
Unfortunately for me, my stomach is not cooperating. In fact, I can barely run. I can't stand up straight. I can run a bit and walk, and I would be wiser and more comfortable lying down in bed waiting for the episode to pass. But, no, I paid to run in this race, drove 200 miles, paid for a hotel room, and by God, whether it feels bad or not, I'm going to run this damn race. Or at least walk it. Or at the very least, start it and DNF.
The course is an interesting mix of paved and gravel country road, trail and dirt logging and mining roads. We go uphill out of town past the high school, then onto a gravel road and then a dirt road that becomes a wide trail. At one point we pass a tree stand that appears to be made of about thirty packing pallets piled upon each other and secured with random boards running at various angles. We climb a hill and reach the top of Two Beers Hill.
The hill is a very steep and rutted with loose talus making footing uncertain. Working downhill takes concentration and planning and I zig-zag slowly down the hill. When I get to the bottom I realize that my stomach is not bothering me, either do to concentrating on the descent or from having contracted my abdominal muscles on the way down.
Unfortunately the relief doesn't last long, and I spend much of the time to the Buck Run Aid station at mile 7 walking. The scenery is pleasant - mostly forest single track, so skirting a nicely reclaimed strip mine. Leaving Buck Run I down a Succeed!, figuring that the salt tablet can't likely do any more harm than what I'm feeling and it might help.
From Buck Run, the course takes two laps of a 8.1 mile loop. Unaccountably, I feel cold and put my gloves back on for a while. About a mile into the loop the trail ascends the steep but relatively short (300 feet) climb up Yellow Bus hill. Having endured the 700+ feet climb of Virgil Mountain on technical trails three weeks earlier, the hill doesn't seem so bad. Despite the pain in my stomach, I manage to fake running for the photographer waiting at the top.
From Yellow Bus the trail gradually descends until the foot of Cry Baby hill, another short (about 150 feet) but steep ascent. But my stomach pain continues, making running difficult. All morning I send out a series of tweets complaining of my condition.
From Cry Baby the course generally descends on a logging road that now appears to be used for gas mining. The area around Punxsutawney is replete with small wells collecting natural gas extracted through the use of 'fracking,' a process that involves shattering the shale that the gas is trapped in thousands of feet below.
After passing through the Seven Springs Aid station about halfway through the loop (mile 11.2) the course follows Big Run uphill. The footing is a bit soft and wet as natural springs on the side of the hill provide water for the run, and the water crosses the trail to get to the run.
It's Always Darkest Before the Dawn
Leaving the run the course follows a gravel road back to the Buck Run Aid station. It's on this road that the leaders, now finishing their second loop while I'm still on my first go by. I'm going along with Amy B. who is running her first ultra. We have a nice chat, but my stomach is killing me and I'm starting to think that I'll quit when I get back to Buck Run. The other half of my brain argues that this is just 'a bad patch' and it will pass.
When I get to the aid station I notice that there are Tums on the table! I had missed them the first time thru. Maybe there is some relief here. And I've done 15.1 miles; nearly halfway done. There really isn't any debate now and I start the second loop.
I'm feeling decent now - not great - but I can run. I notice that there are no groundhogs to be seen, but plenty of chipmunks, who scurry away at my approach. They rustle leaves as they scamper away into their hiding places.
The second loop is uneventful and near the end I'm feeling close to normal. Kathy B. and I leapfrog each other over Cry Baby Hill, through the Seven Springs aid station and on the way back to Buck Run for the third and final visit.
We leave the aid station together and resume our leapfrogging. I take her picture as she passes again then run off and catch her as we head up Tower Hill on a return course that differs slightly from the one we went out on.
Tower Hill is another one of the course's typical short, steep inclines. I power walk up, leaving Kathy behind for the last time. Up and over and it leads to a long flat stretch of grass - perhaps the floor of an old reclaimed strip mine.
In the distance I spot a runner, and to make the time go faster and for motivation I play a mind game: "Lion of the Serengeti." The open, grassy terrain inspires me. I'm the lion and the runner up ahead is the prey. Patiently I stalk the unsuspecting victim gradually closing the distance between us. He doesn't know it yet, but he will be run down and figuratively devoured.
As I draw even with Joe D., I ask him, "Which are you, kudu or zebra?" I explain my game to him and he selects zebra. Joe and I had been together early on and he knew of my stomach troubles and encouraged me hours earlier. We reach the Adrian Aid station (mile 27.3) together but I leave him as we begin the walk up Two Beers Hill. It's easier to ascend than it was to descend hours ago. Traversing the rest of the course is routine and mostly downhill. I'm feeling pretty good and run steadily. Perhaps my early stomach pain had kept me for going out too fast in my usual 'fly and die' method.
I cross the finish line in 6:37:31, a twenty minute 50K PR for me. Overall I finish 59th of 93, with three other runners who drop out. Gayatri finishes in 8:26, but having taken the early start, only has to wait about ten minutes for me to finish. First timer Amy B crosses in 7:08, with scrapes on both knees, a hand and her chin from a fall later in the race. We all collect the dark blue Groundhog Fall 50K folding camp chairs finisher's premium to add to our runner's premiums of a shirt, Groundhog Beer and a stuffed Phil.
Gayati and I eat, including spectacularly delicious homemade cookies and desserts as well as pizza, take showers and head home, happy from our time visiting with Punxsutawney Phil and friends.