“Congratulations! You have been selected from the waiting list for the following race and event. Phunt: 25K on 1/18/2020″ I stared at my e-mail. This was unexpected. I had been pretty far down the waitlist and, given that it was January 1st I had sort of given up hope of getting in. I was fearful that they might change their mind so without thinking I quickly clicked through the registration process signing all waivers (no refunds, possibility of death, etc.) and sent my $40.00 entry fee on its way to the Trail Dawgs. The $40 fee is one of the things that makes Phunt worth doing. Nobody puts on races so inexpensively these days. Nobody. Especially not races that are this much fun . . er . . Phun.
I smiled to myself as I got my confirmation back from Runsignup but then reality smacked me in the face like a cold, wet, sandy towel and the smile gave way to a bit of panic. Phunt was less than three weeks away and I hadn’t done a double digit run since July. I also hadn’t been on a trail in over a year. In fact, I didn’t even own viable trail shoes anymore. Oh well it’s only 15.5 miles. Other than being undertrained, overweight, and not really having a good pair of trail shoes what could go wrong?
There is only so much running one can squeeze in to three weeks and only so much actual training one’s body can absorb in that time. At least the trail shoes were an easy fix. I was less than happy with my old Saucony shoes so reached out to my running friends for advice. Ultimately, I wound up visiting Terry Kelly’s “All Kinds of Fast” in Phoenixville. Terry hooked me up with a pair of New Balance Fresh Foam Hierros. Long name, great shoe.
The footwear problem was solved. As far as training there wasn’t much I could do. I’ve been running 25-30 miles per week, biking another 20-40, and swimming a couple miles so cardiovascularly-speaking I would be fine. But distance running in general and trail distance running in particular requires some degree of preparedness that can only be attained by wearing rubber off the soles of your shoes and there simply wasn’t time. I did however execute a few short trail runs near home on the Neversink Mountain preserve.
I’m gonna take a side trip here for a second. We’ll get back to Phunt in a moment. How have I lived here 30 years and haven’t really explored Neversink Mountain!? It is literally 5 minutes from my front door and filled with awesome trails, and beautiful woods. You can bet that will change going forward. Okay back to Phunt. I had done Phunt once before. It was my first exposure to trail racing and it was a blast or at least, I remember it being a blast. There is a thing called the halo effect commonly applied to women and childbirth. Basically, women remember the pain of childbirth as being less severe than it actually was. While science does not specifically support the existence of this phenomenon, it is easy to believe or else everyone would be an only-child. I think the halo effect must apply to a lesser degree to distance running too especially when it involves a hilly, technical 25K (not to mention the nut bars that do 50K).
January and February tend to drag by unless you are signed up for a long race you know you are undertrained for. When you are hoping to get at least one longer run in, 17 days zips on by like a texting Millenial on the highway. Before I knew it, it was January 17th and Phunt-eve. The weather called for cold and snow. My wife assumed I’d stay home. Silly wife. Why not add a treacherous car ride on hilly, windy, snow-covered roads to the adventure? So, come Saturday morning, off I went heading for the Fair Hill Nature Preserve near Elkton, Maryland.
Honestly given the pending road conditions for the ride home (snow, sleet, ice) I probably would have bagged the whole thing had it been some obscure event where I knew nobody but I had a bunch of running friends that would also be participating. Additionally, Phunt is not an obscure event. It started some 17 years ago as an informal “fat ass run” among friends and was named after race co-founders Phil and Hunt.
Race director Carl Perkins has worked to promote this event making it what it is today. Phunt gets listed in the Trail Runner’s Magazine Race Directory and the 2021 event will probably be sold out by the time this blog post is published.
The drive to Elkton was easy enough. The weather was not supposed to deteriorate until later in the morning. Given the forecast I expected challenging course conditions with snow and ice covering the trail. As it turned out this was not to be.
I arrived at the preserve and was parked by a handful of flag waving parking volunteers. Surprisingly, this seemed to be a challenge for others. I’m not sure how one can miss the people waving big flags and pointing where to park. Aside from that, parking and packet pickup was quick and easy and, after tracking down a few folks I hadn’t seen in a while, I found myself sipping coffee and waiting for the arrival of my regular crew before the race start.
Before long, the troops arrived. It’s not like I don’t see most of these people nearly weekly but events are always more fun with friends. We gathered about, discussed clothing, food, and strategy for the day and of course took selfies.
Just before 9:00 Carl raised the garage door at the end of the building ushering in a wash of cold air and ushering 600 runners out the door toward the start. We made our way out as a group, gathered behind the “Start” banner and suddenly we were off!
Well, here we go. Phunt starts out gently enough. The big pack of runners makes their way out a paved access road that eventually gives way to dirt but remains wide for some time. It is good to have room as the pack finds its pace and thins out. The speedy deer ran ahead, the slow and steady tortoises behind, with most of us somewhere in the middle. I knew I’d get through the 25K but wasn’t really sure what more than that to expect. Since most of my runs had been 7-8 miles I assumed I’d at least make it that far before beginning to labor.
The first 5 miles flew by amazingly fast. This early part of the race, is festive and full of people. Trail runs are different than road races. You can’t just pass at will. It is neither polite nor safe to try to barge by people on a narrow single track. When you find yourself in a line of runners you make conversation and, as the trail permits, ask to pass or give a polite “Passing on your left” as you carefully go by. The onus is on the passer to leave the track and take their chances in the leaves and rocks to go around. At Phunt, this continues until the first aid station at the 5.5 mile mark.
The aid stations at Phunt make the whole event worth the $40.00. The first had a M.A.S.H theme and included beer, jello shots, fireball as well as more traditional running nutrition. I chose some Tailwind and a couple Oreo cookies. I made a quick pass through and kept moving down the trail (albeit at a walk while I ate and drank) but my friends Kim and Heather fully partook of the aid station. Hopefully Kim doesn’t mind me sharing her photos because they do a great job of capturing the essence.
There is one noteworthy introduction to the 2020 Phunt event. One of the quandaries of racing and trail racing in particular is that runners tend to try to be somewhat environmentally friendly and aid stations usually are anything but. Typically each aid station goes through several hundred disposable cups to try to keep runners hydrated. This is enormously wasteful and a race directors have, for years, sought a solution. I think Carl found a pretty good answer. This year Phunt featured reusable folding cups. Each runner was given one at the start and expected it use it throughout the race. I did just that by carrying it in my jacket pocket throughout the day. It worked wonderfully well and probably got me to hydrate better than the 1/2 filled paper or plastic cups that are normally provided. I filled it fully at each aid station and walked and drank until it was gone. It took almost no time to wad the cup up and put it back in my pocket.
Once I forced my sweaty, wet mittens back on to my hands I resumed running. I was impressed with how easily I seemed to be covering ground. I felt like a ninja gliding over the trail.
Still, I vaguely remembered the second half of the course being more difficult and wondered at what point my lack of distance training would catch up with me.
After the first aid station things thinned out a bit. The massive flood of runners arriving for aid gave way to a slow trickle of runners taking up the single track again. From that point to the end of the race, encounters with other runners would be in much smaller groups. I still felt good and continued to glide over the trail.
The interesting thing about trail running is that while it may seem closer to nature than a road race, the runner needs to stay pretty focused on the trail immediately ahead or they are going to get really close to nature when they face plant over an unseen rock or root. This is especially so as the distances and fatigue increase. Combine that with technical uphills and downhills, and the body begins to suffer quickly. Still, as my Garmin clicked off miles I felt strong and thought that I might get through the day without crashing and burning.
Aid station #2 came really quickly. This time I grabbed some tailwind and a handful of M&Ms and marched onward. The “crowd” in the woods really got sparse here. More than once I had to slow and look ahead for the telltale yellow flagging that indicated the proper course as I feared I’d missed a turn. Inevitably, I’d catch up with another runner or another runner would catch up to me and all was well.
Suddenly, I realized I was beginning to work a bit harder. The Ninja had apparently stayed at the last aid station and left the undertrained runner. I glanced at my Garmin: 8.5 miles. Well, that’s about right. On the road I suspect I could have made it a bit further before the wheels began to come off but the trails take a bit more work. Still, I was moving okay. Maybe I wasn’t a trail Ninja anymore but my running form was holding out. Just keep moving forward. Relentless forward progress. I took queues from the other trail runners and briskly walked the large, technical hills. It’s no good killing oneself to scurry up a difficult climb if it costs time later due to exhaustion.
Somewhere on a hill in the woods I encountered my first two casualties. A young woman in front of me rolled her ankle and went down. Thankfully her landing wasn’t hard. I stopped to make sure she was okay, helped her up, and told her not to be a hero. We aren’t getting any sort of awards for bravery for finishing injured. After determining she could at least walk without assistance I pressed on. Shortly thereafter I encountered two fine young men helping a lady who had obviously fallen and could not walk. They were making their way slowly down the trail. There was not much to do other than encourage them and promise to report in their situation at the next aid station.
Aid station #3 came at about the 10 mile mark. I don’t know what the theme was. Everyone was dressed in red. Maybe Hell? If so, it was a good place for it. (More on this later.) Again a wide variety of snacks, and hydration was offered. As I got my folding cup filled with Tailwind I told them about the injured runner. They had already dispatched someone to go pick her up. Bravo Team Phunt!
As I left the aid station, a foreboding feeling took over as I began to recognize where I was. We often read about forgotten traumatic childhood experiences that get released years later with a flood of fear and emotion by something as simple as a smell. Such was my feeling as I turned off the trail shortly after aid station 3. Miles 10-13 are brutal and certainly deserve at least an honorable mention in Dante’s 9 Circles of Hell. (See aid station reference above.)
As if the terrain in these miles isn’t enough, it is the loneliest part of the course. As you wind around and go up and down it is sometimes difficult to catch sight of another runner. When you do it is like one zombie spotting another. There isn’t a lot of conversation as you plod along seeking some brains to eat and hoping your arm or leg doesn’t fall off. You give a grunt of acknowledgement and keep moving. Relentless forward progress.
These miles feature some of the most brutal downhill sections on the course. They are real quad-beaters and really sap all remaining energy.
As I scrambled down the last hill and struggled across the road to the final, relatively flat portion of the course, I suddenly realized my friends Claire and Bundy were doing the 50K. Basically, they’d get back to the start and head out again for another loop. We always discuss the poor access to mental health care in the United States. The effect of this doesn’t sink in until you see the results in person. I was grateful I didn’t have to do another loop.
Somewhere around mile 12 the muscles around my left knee had had enough. I had hoped to at least maintain good running form until the end but it wasn’t to be. The “Trail Ninja” was a distant memory. Now, especially on even the slightest downhill, I felt more like an Ogre clomping along the trail. The hills had taken their toll on my quads and they announced that they were just passengers for the rest of the race.
The video is kind of how I felt at the end . . except maybe not that graceful and fast. On a side note, perhaps the name Glubtrub will be my new trail running alias.
The last couple miles of Phunt should be fairly easy. They feature mostly a gentle downhill on a fairly non-technical section of trail. All I could do was plod slowly along and keep counting down the miles a tenth at a time mixing in the occasional, brief walk. Really, all I could think about was dry clothes and a hot bowl of chili. I was acutely aware of my struggle up the hill at the end the last time I Phunted and was also acutely aware that I had trained pretty well at that time getting in some long trail runs beforehand. Relentless forward progress. Chili. Beer. Keep moving.
I burst out of the woods (burst might be an over-statement) and onto the road that leads to the finish. It was all uphill but, at this point, I was fine with that. My selfish quads didn’t mind going uphill. Still I was only vaguely doing something like running and I crept along up, up, up the hill, across the road and on to the grounds of the Preserve center. I was almost there. Around one last bend and there was the finish. Praise be! I made it! I grabbed a finisher’s medal and made a beeline for my bag of clothes, some chili, and a beer in that order.
Oh . . how do you get through the tale of a winter trail run without mentioning the weather? The prediction had been for 1-4″ of snow starting sometime that morning. Other than the occasional flurry, we didn’t have a thing. It was cold with temps staying in the mid 20s the entire day. This was a big plus over the last time I raced the course. At that time, temps got into the 30s providing enough surface melt to make sections a bit slippery. On this day you could have really raced in any shoe you chose. The course was frozen solid and easily navigable without slipping. That said, I knew we were getting snow farther North and was torn between seeking out my friends as they finished and heading home before the roads got terrible. The drive home was treacherous in bad conditions so I elected to pack up and go. I did catch up with Jill and Claire on my way out though. Jill was doing the sane thing and enjoying a cup of hot chocolate. Claire was doing the not-so-sane thing and getting ready for loop #2.
Aside from following a plow truck, a horse trailer, and some poor individual that should probably think about moving South the ride home turned out to be uneventful though I’m glad I didn’t wait longer to come home. When passing slower drivers on snow covered I-176 I may have said “Passing on your left” out loud more than once.
In retrospect it wasn’t Phast but, it was Phun!