Let’s be clear from the start. I am not a trail runner. Never have been. Never will be. I don’t like the concentration it requires, I don’t like the constant risk of injury, and I don’t like growing itchy beards, and running wearing a camelback and old hiker’s shorts. When a couple of running co-workers mentioned the PHUNT trail race put on by the TrailDawgs in Elkton, Maryland I dismissed it off hand. Almost. “How technical is the trail”? I asked. “It isn’t too bad. It’s a regular trail with some areas harder than others”. My friend explained the ridiculously low entry fee of $35.00 and that, worst case, if the weather crapped out for the mid-January event, skip it and move on. The course is also a 25K loop so you could stop at 25K or continue to the 50K . . same cost. He also said the post-race party was worth the $35.00 by itself.
Did I mention I’m not a trail runner? But I’m also getting ready for Boston and potentially another spring marathon and I’d be due to run about 15 miles by mid-January. For the metrically challenged among you 25K = 15.5. A day on the trails sure seemed a lot better than 15 miles alone on the road. Take my money.
My only preparation for this event was to cash in a gift certificate I had to A Running Start for a shiny new pair of Saucony Xodus ISO trail shoes. I then broke them in on a 12 mile run around Valley Forge park a couple weeks prior which turned out, along with the rest of my regular running and training, to be quite sufficient.
The Phunt trail race takes place in a little town called Fairhill in Maryland, a stone’s throw across the border from Pennsylvania. As the name suggests, there is a fair, and there is a hill. We started at the fair and ran around, up, and down the hill. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you aren’t a trail runner either, then you’ve probably heard the rumors that trail races take place on a higher spiritual plain then your typical road race. You get the feeling that trail runners, like a pod of Orcas,
traverse the wilds together, gathering food as they go, gleefully calling out to one another and generally living in harmony with the universe. Like youth soccer, nobody cares about the score, and nobody cares who “wins”. We all win by virtue of our very existence.
I didn’t know about any of that, but I wasn’t going out to blaze any new speed records. I just wanted to get in an enjoyable 15+ mile run. To that end I had planned to meet several friends there including those that talked me into this foolishness. To wit: Keith Straw (Yes. That Kieth straw), Keith’s friend and personal concierge Andres Hernandez, and Jamie Hassert . . another very strong local runner and mutual friend of all-of-the-above. As a bonus I would get to at least start with an old friend from Runner’s World Masters forum days Karen Finney. As it turns out, the only person “man” enough to show up was Karen. Andres was dealing with an injury, Keith had said outright if the weather was questionable he wasn’t going, and Jamie wound up with a life-happening. But I wasn’t mad. I had 500 of my new best friends to sing Kumbaya with on the trails of Maryland. Karen and I whiled away the pre-race festivities chatting away and catching up.
We were all gathered in a big barn-like structure at the fairgrounds with indoor plumbing, a kitchen, tables, etc. Packet pick-up had occurred here and we milled around the growing crowd as time edged toward the start of the race. The 50Kers all had their 2nd loop bags stowed in the building with extra dry clothes, food, shoes and whatever else might be needed to survive the marathon+ distance. The forecast was for a blast of winter later in the day with snow and ice expected mid-afternoon. I was hoping to be done my 25K loop and be safely home before that happened. There were a lot of back, windy roads between Fairhill, MD and Reading, PA.
About 9:00ish, someone opened a big garage door at the end of the building and then directed us outward with the blast of an airhorn. Karen and I followed the crowd. We circumnavigated the fairgrounds and, after arriving at the start “arch” were sent off with another fairly undramatic blast of the airhorn.
Karen and I started together trotting along the driveway of the fairgrounds and out across a foot bridge toward the adjacent Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area. I didn’t need to try to win my division (if they have such a thing as “winning” or “divisions” in trail races) but I suspected Karen might have slower goals than I given that she planned on two full loops. Still, we hoped to stay together as long as we could.
Once across the paved footbridge, the trail changed to a gravel road. We were near the back of the field and going was slow including some walking already. This surprised me. We weren’t even a mile in. These people were serious about soaking up nature. Karen and I chatted as we ran. She had on a pink jacket so I figured it would be easy to keep tabs on her. We started up the second hill with me slightly ahead. I could see a pink jacket just behind and to my left out of the corner of my eye. I made several jokes and kept chatting to her as we crested the hill. Only then did I realize it wasn’t Karen. In fact, I wouldn’t see Karen again the rest of the day.
Okay then moving on. The trail died down from gravel road to footpath through the fields and then finally to much more technical trail through the woods. In fact, the vast majority of the race would be run on hiking and equestrian trails through the natural area some marked as unsuitable for equestrian use. This was interesting. I had counted on horses a few times during western elk hunts to get me through places I wouldn’t wanted to have walked. I wondered what we were in for?
I had debated buying trail shoes versus just using my road shoes and ultimately had decided on the trail shoes and I am very glad I did. There were many parts of the trail that were muddy and slippery where a loss of traction could have been catastrophic. My Sauconys served me well and not once did I lose footing even on the greasiest sections. The trail itself had more than it’s share of rocks, roots, and sticks and little quagmires of mud here and there. I decided as I ran that these trails were passable for running when clear of snow, and they would have been okay with a half-foot or so of snow, but things would be dicey if there had been just enough snow to cover the rocks and soft muddy spots. As it was, the trail was clear and I was able to focus on being careful where necessary.
After leaving Karen, I began picking my way forward through the field of runners. I’m certain I engaged in multiple breaches in trail-running etiquette what with passing and all. The runners seemed to form little groups each with their backpacks and pom-pom hats. I believe protocol calls for some sort of group yodeling session before anyone is allowed to proceed forward past the group but I’ve never been a great yodeler. (Yodeleer? Yodel-a-hee-hooer? One who yodels.) I tried to pick safe spots to pass and politely warned that I was moving by. I often took queues from other passers and followed them when possible.
Leading up to this race many of my running friends expressed grave concern about my ankle which I injured repeatedly this past summer. If there were any doubts I’ve successfully rehabbed it, they can now be laid to rest. There were multiple times during the 25K that I landed oddly on a rock, root, or stick far worse than the latter times that I rolled my foot after the initial July injury. In all cases I bounded away like a deer completely unscathed. The ankle issue is over. I will continue the strength and balance exercises I learned for both ankles though. Rumor has it trail running is also good for ankle strength and flexibility.
I was still maneuvering through the slower packs of runners when I heard the noise and commotion of the first aid station. I’m pretty sure the main reason the Traildawgs put on events is so they can have aid stations. Aid Station 1 followed a M*A*S*H theme. I’ve never seen a group having so much fun. I was completely envious as M*A*S*H is my all-time favorite TV shows. I wanted to stop running and help with the aid station. Several costumed volunteers rang cowbells and shouted encouragement as we approached. Others offered up beer or shots. Then there was a veritable buffet of food with everything from orange slices to hot soup and everything in between.
I stopped long enough to down some water and then continued on.
After the aid station it was necessary to re-pass a couple folks I had gone by already. I did so and continued my forward trend. I was getting a feel for the trails and felt really good. As always, I like running uphill better than down. There were several near-disasters on downhill sections especially when my glasses fogged and I could only see out of one side. Finally, I propped them on top of my head and continued on without them. That made things better but I stilled decided to be conservative on the downhill technical sections and used the uphills to pass walkers.
I occurred to me after a while I hadn’t looked at my watch yet, but I figured I must be halfway through the day by now. I glanced at my wrist. 6.62 miles. I wasn’t even at 7 miles yet. But I was approaching the next aid station. In this case, the Star Wars aid station featuring R2D2, at least one life-sized, walking, talking Ewok, an Endor-style campfire, and storm-trooper marshmallows.
I was over an hour into the day and decided I should grab some nutrition. I looked over the vast selection and chose an oatmeal sandwich cookie. Yummy! (Eh . . nutrition.) It was tempting to linger at the fire for a bit but I pushed on.
There was a fairly steep set of climbs after this and I passed a lot of walking runners. The number of folks ahead of me thinned out quickly. I had to keep an eye out for the yellow police tape that marked the proper way for fear of taking a wrong turn without anyone to follow.
Somewhere along the mile 8 mark, I caught up to a group of runners and saw one of them take an ugly spill. We gasped a collective gasp but were relieved when she was able to get up and continue on. I double-checked that she was okay as I went by. I felt it was the trail runnery thing to do.
As slow as miles 0-7 went, miles 8-11 clicked by fairly quickly especially considering I ran the vast majority of it by myself. Just me and the trails. It gave me a bit of time to digest this trail running thing. In almost all circumstances, running downhill is hard. I had to control my speed and step carefully when there were rocks, and roots. In other places where it was greasy or muddy one mis-step could send you sliding to the ground. It was also hard to run on muddy single track where the sloppy ground seemed to move under your foot making it extra-hard to gain forward progress. Running uphill, was surprisingly fast. It is much easier and safer to bounce over rocks and downed limbs while springing uphill. Obstacles on uphills seemed much more secure as gravity would have long-since carried them downhill if they weren’t firmly attached. There was also the constant distraction of navigating the windy trail and ducking limbs and so forth. I seemed to be having fun. Maybe this trail running thing shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed.
Unlike road races where I tend to spend a lot of time focusing on the next aid station, how soon I’ll get there, what I’ll take when I do, the aid stations at Phunt seemed to pop up as a pleasant surprise. I guess with navigating the trail and terrain, I didn’t think so much about unimportant things like food and water. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pirates and their bounty at aid station 3.
I’ll admit that by mile 12 I started to feel the day. Considering I didn’t think I was running all that hard, I suddenly felt fatigued. (In hindsight, I now know I was also coming down with the cold that my co-workers have all considerately dragged into work.) I focused on maintaining, pace, and running strong and clean. When I am tired I tend to slouch and run with very poor form that bothers my hips and knees. I focused on running tall enough to feel the Rock Tape on my hip pull tight.
Despite the fatigue I still passed folks toward the end of the race. With under 2 miles to go, I had one person pass me. He was the only person I would yield the trail to all day but he was clearly running fast behind me. He had popped back on to the trail from a strange spot and I suspect he either took a wrong turn or intentionally left the trail to answer mother nature’s call.
As mile 15 clicked by we were still in the woods and I began remembering reading about how these trail runners sometimes only vaguely “measure” races. I wondered if the 25K loop was approximate and maybe really 30K or so? I was getting tired and hoping not. But soon we emerged on to the service road back toward the fairgrounds. It was, quite literally, all uphill to the finish.
I was by myself heading back to the fairgrounds. I crested the hill and could see the finish arch around the corner. There were no spectators or anyone else in the majority of the fairgrounds but the finish line was hopping with volunteers and finishers. I crossed the line and handed over my 25K tag from my bib. You actually have a 25K and 50K tag no matter what you signed up for. They cost the same and you just go do the other loop if you want and have time. But I was, thankfully, done for the day.
Phunt is known for it’s post race festivities. Lots and lots of food, beer, donuts, coffee. You name it. Like most long races though, I don’t have a big appetite afterwards. I wasn’t really hungry at all. I did sip a cup of coke and enjoyed a small bowl of very good chili but I ignored the warmers full of fries, poppers, and hot dogs. I debated about hanging out for a bit and enjoying the post-race glow but had the pending predicted snow and ice storm in the back of my mind. Nothing had started yet and I thought it best to beat feet home before it did. After a quick change into dry clothes, I headed back to Reading. Even as I drove home I contemplated the day and thought “It seems trail runners really aren’t that different after all. Maybe I could be a trail runner”.