Freezing Cold, Not Enough Sleep, Sunburn, and One of the Best Days Ever: Promise Land 50K

Friday night and Saturday I volunteered at the Promise Land 50K. Promise Land is part of the Lynchburg Ultra Series and is organized by my running professor and mentor David Horton (who set the speed record on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. He’s one of my most favorite people ever). For his class, we were required to help with a race, and I couldn’t think of a better race than one of his.

We got the same shirt as the runners!
I have never volunteered a race of this size before, and being behind the scenes gave me a greater appreciation for what makes a race run smoothly. Because the race starts at 5:30am, most runners camp out at the start line. We started checking in runners and handing out bibs Friday night to the people who were camping out. Runners in large groups are a very confused people. They don’t follow directions well, but we got everything in the end.
Watching ultrarunners carb load at dinner is very entertaining. They were allowed all the pizza they wanted (and we got free pizza for volunteering) but I’m pretty sure that some of the guys ate at least a whole pizza if not two. The dessert table was piled with anything and everything  you could want to eat, and most of it was gone by the end of the night.
After some pre-race briefing and prize drawings, most people headed to bed. The volunteers had to be ready at 4am to start checking people in at the start. At about that time the temperature decided to plummet and the wind started to blow in 20 mph gusts. I froze in my sleeping bag wearing sweatpants and a hoodie but actually managed to fall asleep at some point.
Unfortunately my alarm rang all too soon and we struggled to make our way out of the sleeping bags to go check in starting runners. Again, runners are a confused group of people and we had to yell out individual names at one point to see if they were even starting. Roughly 350 people lined up in the dark, we sang the national anthem (with the assistance of a trumpet), and then they were off.
I then got the pleasure of navigating the Peaks of Otter in the dark to find my aid station. I don’t know the rest of the course, but I think I got placed at the one with the best view one the sun had risen:
Sadly, this was the only picture I took during the whole experience

However, at 6:30 in the morning at that kind of elevation it was cold. Even with a hoodie and a windbreaker on, I was freezing! Thankfully Dr. Horton is one of the best people ever and gave me another shirt and jacket to put on over mine. It certainly made a difference!

We were mile 11ish the first time through, so the first runner was expected a little after 7. We quickly put the tables up, made sandwiches, sliced fruit, filled cups, sliced up some potatoes with salt, and did everything to make sure the runners would be able to get what they needed and keep going.

Sure enough, the first runner came through right on schedule. It was a while before the rest of them came through, but we kept them hydrated and well fed. They were just getting to the toughest part of the course, but they looked great. I knew about 20 of the runners from the class I took this semester so it was fun to cheer them on as they came through all excited. I knew they were going to look a lot worse the next time they came through.

Here’s the elevation profile. Let that sink in a minute.

Unfortunately, we were a cutoff station, and had to stop people who reached mile 11 after 9:05. Once they descended onto “The Dark Side” the chances of them coming back up and finishing on time were very slim. I’ve never seen people so heartbroken as those that we had to cut off. Everyone was a good sport, but I could tell they were disappointed.

In the time that passed between the waves of runners, we chatted. Two of the guys I was working with had run several ultras. I was pretty much sold on running Promise Land just from my experience the night before, but they had me deciding without a doubt to run it and the Holiday Lake 50K next year. We honestly had the best crew at my station and part of me wants to run it next year, but the other part would be fine vounteering again because it was so much fun!
Soon, the runners were coming back through and they looked a lot more tired than the last time we had seen them. We were about mile 26/27 this time, they had just finished a nice long hike back up the mountain, and it was getting pretty warm. Several of my classmates informed me that they had thrown up on the Dark Side, and I offered them ginger ale from our station. The runners ate and drank a lot more their second time through, and we actually had to convince them to keep going. Only 2 really didn’t want to leave, they wanted to stop and quit. They chose the wrong station to want to stop at, because my fellow workers were having none of it, they pretty much made them get up and keep going.
Around 2 the final runner passed through and we got to head back to the camp to take part in the finish line celebration. During the 30 minute drive I noticed that my face felt really hot. I flipped down my mirror and saw that I had a horrible sunburn! It was so cold on the mountain that it had never occurred to me to wear sunscreen. I always get one bad burn a year, so if it was only my face this time, I’m okay with that.
At the finish line, Dr. Horton asked me what I thought about the race. My reply was, “I’m running it and Holiday Lake next year.”
His reply, “Nah, you’re not tough enough.” He only kids to make me work harder, and I am definitely running both next spring. The experience that I had this past weekend volunteering was one of the best days of my running career, and I wasn’t even running. I can’t imagine what it is going to be like next year actually running it.
So even though I froze to death, got less sleep than probably ever in my life, and came home with a sunburn, I had the best time. I can’t wait till next year.