Van Phan: Prolific Ultrarunner aims for 1000 lifetime ultras/marathons

Van Phan is an incredibly accomplished ultrarunner. Take for example the fact that she has completed 485 races of marathon and ultra distance, 340 of those being ultradistance (over 26.2  miles)! Considering how prolific Van is in regards to her racing, it is a wonder she is not better known nationally. She has won or placed high in many of the events she has finished but most of all she is a tough runner who is well known in Washington State as an icon in the running world, starting out running hundreds of marathons before moving to running largely ultras including a number of 100 and 200+ mile events. We caught up with her after her finish at the Moab 240 mile Endurance Run, the final race in the Triple Crown of 200s:

  1. What motivates you to race so many events and to do such long and tough races?

As you know, I have a lifetime goal of running 1000 marathon/ultras in my lifetime. As of Moab, I was at 483. I accumulated them much faster when I was running marathons and 50Ks. I did over 52 a year for 3 years in a row. Then, I got into 100s and 200s, so now I can only get about 30 races in a year. My other goal was 100 races of 100 miles or longer, but I think I will achieve that long before I get to 1000 races. So that's what keeps me racing frequently. Why do I choose such long and hard races? My vacation time is limited and valuable, so if I do a race, it has to be worth my while. I'm not going to travel across several states to run a 50K. Plus, I'm not a speedy girl, so I focus on my strength, which is endurance.

  1. Tell me about what happened on the Porcupine Rim, about your experience if you can as to how you got stuck on the trail for 9 hrs?

I arrived at Porcupine aid at mile 222 feeling the barn. I wanted to get in and out so I had them make me quesadillas, pancakes, and watermelon to go. I made sure I had a headlamp and my flashlight and extra batteries. My phone was pretty fully charged. I had extra shirts and a bivy. Check, check, check. I headed out thanking them and anticipated that I would finish around 11pm or midnight at the pace I was going. There were no runners an hour ahead or behind me I think, so I was on my own again. I had light for the first 5 miles or so, and I was moving well.

But then, I started to talk to myself. I know now this signifies that I am starting to enter the danger zone and should stop and rest NOW. I continued looking for the next marker and started to believe my sister was running behind me. Of course when I turned around to talk to her, she was not there. I had been having auditory hallucinations for the last 12 hours. It was like a radio talk show in the background. I could hear the conversation but couldn’t make out what was being said.

So what really happened out there? At some point, I could not find the markers anymore. They were there, I just couldn’t focus on them. I walked to where I thought the trail was going to be but shined my flashlight over what appeared to be the edge of a cliff. Um. No. I backed away a good safe distance. I decided to take out my bivy and take a nap. Keep in mind, I’m delirious by now. I should have found a marker and set up my bivy there so that others would see me. I was not off trail significantly, but up on the mesa, you can take many different lines to get to the next marker and easily miss a runner resting, especially behind a bush. I had never used my bivy before. It’s the SOL bivy, which I later looked up and stands for Survive Outdoor Longer. I thought it stood for Shit Out of Luck. At this point, I think I had lost my headlamp and flashlight because I was doing all this in the dark. I might have tossed them in my delirium. That’s a common thing to do-chucking things. Jean Beaumont tossed her poles at Bigfoot last year and Caitlin Smith was found pulling everything out of her pack before I rescued her at Tahoe this year. All I had was the light of the half moon and no other humans. I had a hard time getting the bivy out of its sack but I finally got it pulled out. Good thing I didn’t toss the bivy. Somehow I was able to pry it open. It’s basically an emergency blanket but like a big trash bag. I had all my clothes on including 4 layers on top and my down jacket and capris and my heavier wind pants on the bottom. I could have used one more layer on the bottom because during the course of the night, I woke up shivering at least 5 times. It was windy up there and probably below 20.

The next 6-7 hours I was in an alternate world. With only the light of the moon, all I could make out were shapes. The bushes and trees took on the shapes of cars, tents, canopies, and RVs. I thought I was at an aid station or a campground. At some point I thought Vivian was there and I asked her to go get the car so that we could go home. She said okay, so I crawled back into my bivy and rested while she got the car. I would take off my pack to use as a pillow but had to remove my water bottles because you just needed to squeeze them to get the water out and I thought laying on them would get me wet. Of course, at some point I lost those too.  I would awaken and get out of my bivy (completely) and see if she was back yet. And she was but I couldn’t see the car. So I asked her to turn on the headlights so I could find my way. I got back in my bivy so that she could do that. I repeated getting in and out of my bivy probably 15 times waiting for her. During the times I was out of my bivy, I did try to head towards what I thought was the parking area but each time I tried to move a few feet, the bushes would move and surround me like a wall. I felt like I was being held prisoner by these plants in a 10X10 foot area. If I made it past them, the trees would extend their branches so that I could not go past them either. I was getting poked and jabbed. I found myself giving up and laying back down in my bivy, sometimes on top of the bushes or rocks that dug into my body. I saw things that I knew were not real like the stars were oscillating or there were men sitting in lounge chairs with branches for arms. Still, I couldn’t convince my brain to leave this hallucination. Looking back, being held prisoner probably kept me away from the cliff.

The other thing was that when I was out of my bivy, I could see headlamps in the distance, make their way past me, but not right next to me, and run off into the distance. Just like when you are paralyzed in a dream, I could not call out to them. But, I remember seeing a guy named Phil and thought I called out to him, but he said he never heard anybody. I could see his face in the light of the other runners around him. I probably saw about 6-7 headlamps during the night.

I repeatedly asked Vivian to turn on the headlights, have the engine running, and even have the door open so that as soon as I got in, we were leaving. Each time I got out of my bivy, I became more frustrated with her. Finally, when I got out of my bivy for the last time, I thought I could make out her car because we put a pod on top and I could see the shape of that. But the lights were not on so I decided to walk there on my own. I lifted my legs so that I could go over the bushes. I forced myself past the tree branches. I stumbled because the ground seemed to slant down. But I was determined to get to the car. When I got to it, it turned out to be another tree. I felt deflated, tired, and hopeless. It was then that I turned to Vivian and apologized for yelling at her. I also took a last look around at my surroundings and said to myself, I’m going to die here. I crawled back into my bivy for what I felt was the last time and let myself finally rest. As I write this, it hits me all over again and I can’t hold back the tears. The realization that this could have been my end makes me very emotional still.

I don’t know how long I had been laying there but out of nowhere, I hear a woman’s voice, “Van?” I only heard it once, but she might have called it out more than once. I said, “Yes?” I fought my way to the opening of the oversized bivy like I was swimming to the surface and emerged from my alternate world. When I came out, there was Candice. She said, “Oh my God Van, I’ve never been so happy to see someone! Are you freezing?” I don’t know how I acted but I answered all her questions. All I remember was that the scenery had changed. No more shapes and forms. My alternate world was gone. Now was my heroine, tall and graceful and kind. We realized that I didn’t have my lights or water bottles. There was stuff in my bivy that we dumped on the ground, some pancake that I must have tried to eat but didn’t finish off. She gave me a flask, peanut butter cups (num, num), and a bar. We wrapped the bivy around me and she called Kristal to let her know that I was found. I could hear the relief in her voice. About the same time as they launched my rescue, there was another runner off course and one other emergency. They had their hands full.

Candice had parked her truck at the trailhead where the bike path went in a tunnel and ran up to find me 6 miles away. Riley started from the Porcupine aid station and whoever found me first would bring me in. We got moving as fast as possible because Candice was getting cold too. This was about 6:15-6:30 am. It would start to get light at 7 am. I had her spare headlamp, which was starting to fade, but as far as I was concerned, it was like car headlights. It was so much more light than I had all night. Although we started walking, I soon told her that I could run. I think she liked that because it would mean we could warm up. We started shedding clothes one by one. I decided to call my husband while we were still up high and had reception. Like everyone else, he had gone to bed expecting I was going to finish while he was asleep. He had not yet checked the tracker in the morning so didn’t know I was still out there. I was glad he was not stressing about me. That would have been horrible. I told him I was fine, had Candice with me, and heading towards the finish. I was only 10 miles from the finish when I started to move around in circles.

We ran just about everything, even the slight uphills and soon caught runners. They all knew Candice was out looking for me as she passed them on the way up and many of them ran stressed out knowing that I was out there somewhere. I could see the release of strain on the faces of Dennis Williams and Alex Nemet when we caught them. In fact, Alex got such a boost from it that he caught me with about 2 miles to go with renewed energy. His stomach had not been doing well. We caught Lizzy Hughes just about when she was going to get out of sight and off trail. Candice redirected her back on the trail. From that point on, we were assured that she could not go off trail again since she was getting close to the bike path. We caught Julie Sager when we got to the bike path. She had struggled with the altitude at Shay and Pole Canyon. She persevered and finished.

We picked up the pace on the short road section to get back on the bike path and ran across the bridge. I had the energy to run faster but my Achilles barked at me so we ran steady. Nothing hurt at all after I started running from my hallucination until we hit pavement. Then my hot spots re-emerged and my knees were pretty sore. Bach drove by use and parked his car ahead. When we got to him, he filmed us running and asked about my night. When we got to his car, Candice decided she better get back to the finish and got a ride back to her truck. I had about 2 miles until the finish. Alex passed me. It hadn’t hit me yet what I was about to accomplish. I was just on a mission to get to the finish line. I knew I was getting very close when I got to the Arches Park. I “sprinted” to the finish and raised my hands in the air as I crossed the finish line. Immediately, I covered my face as I sobbed as soon as I stopped after covering 243 miles and being out there for over 98 hours. I couldn’t hold it back anymore. Candice gave me a strong, hearty hug. Charlotte and Sarah were there with tears and held me close. Kristal hugged me and dutifully removed my SPOT, so critical on this day. Howie hugged me and took my post finish mug shot. I was approached by everyone there saying congratulations and saying how happy they were to see that I was safe and unhurt. It was all like a dream when I look back on it. I was happy and relieved. I felt like I was just going through the motions.

  1. How did you first get into running ultras?

I had done a ton of marathons and needed a new challenge. My first ultra was Cle Elum 50K and I was told that it would take me over 6 hours based on my marathon PR. I was told right and was hooked It took my a while to break into the 100 mile distance because I was scared of being out there so long and being in the dark. I can't believe how far I've come!

4. What is your job/job description?

I have been a Physician Assistant since 2001. I have been working as an Ortho PA for 10 years. The truth is that I work to play. Although I have a good job and thank my lucky stars everyday that it pays well and allow me to afford my increasing running habit, if I could simplify my life, have less expenses, and be less tied down, I'd choose that path.

Work is hard and long. We take care of healthy and sick patients. There is not really a break. Some days I can work over 14 hours  when I'm on call. Fortunately, I negotiated Fridays off a few years ago, so I do get a three day weekend every week. I really think that helps me continue to be motivated to work and helps with my running and travel. I'm hoping to work part time in 5-7 years when we have paid off our mortgage! We don't have kids, to we don't have those expenses. We have a pit bull named Yoda, 2 outdoor cats, pigs, cows, and chickens on our 5 acre farm. My husband is an artist and his shop is on our property. Yeah, we have it pretty good.

Photos courtesy Scott Rokis and Howie Stern, from the Triple Crown of 200s

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