A passion for trail running, ultras, mountaineering, snowshoeing, hiking, and other outdoor adventures

Sunday, January 4, 2009

PHUNT was phunner than ever! Such a nice, low-key way to ring in the new year of running.

Organizers Phil and Hunt outdid themselves this year with a larger “fat ass” event than ever, with close to 200 participants among the 20K, 42K, and 50K distances. Still as well-organized as ever, and one of the nice new touches was a charity foodbank drive where they asked each of donate a can of food for every 10 miles we planned to run. It proved to be a beautiful sunny if chilly and windy day for a run through the rolling countryside of Fairhill Natural Management Area, just west of Newark, DE and south of PA in Elkton, MD. Across fields, down dirt roads, along forested single track, up and down many a hill, across many a stream, and amongst quite a few frolicking deer.

A Fearsome Foursome

We had a nice little group in my car, with Judith, Stephanie (Case), and Garth. It was also great to see Mason and Brennen just before the start, keeping warm by a fire as they were dressed minimally and for speed! Didn’t see them afterwards as these speedsters were long gone. Probably for that brewpub in Newark they mentioned to me! And couldn’t find their results, but hope to hear from Mason on how they did.

After much e-mailing on and off the Yahoo group, it was great finally to meet Stephanie, a Canadian who just moved to the city a few months back after law school in Vancouver and quickly plugged herself into the Flyers and other local running networks. Turns out that in addition to that engaging personality she’s quite an athlete—she’s done a trans-Canada 640K run, the Race for the Planet Vietnam stage race, Boston, etc.! She seemed quite happy with her swift run (somewhere around 5:20 I believe she said). Particularly as she was coming back from an injury hiatus.

Judith did the 20K, and was kind enough to wait around for us for several cold hours after she finished. She seemed happy with her run. There was a little last-minute crisis as we prepared our stuff in the car beforehand, as she realized that she had forgotten to pack her orthotics. But after we determined none of our extra insoles would work, I let her use and cut to size the manufacturer insoles from my Salomons, which I don’t use for running (too roomy) and where I usually use other insoles or arch cushions anyway. That at least enabled Judith to go through with the run, as it looked for a minute like she may not be able to do it at all.

A Recap

Garth and I were together for maybe 2/3 or ¾ of the run. At the start he encountered Steve, a good-humored 50-something (?) pediatrician from coastal MD whom he had met and ended up running with at Highlands Sky and Catoctin. The two of them stuck together the whole way, and at various points I caught up with them. Early on we realized we were going out too fast (around 8:30 pace for the first two miles, which were through fairly flat and runable meadows—Stephanie was still in sight during this part, and I called ahead to say the first finisher from the car must buy a round of beers at the next trail mixer, but that failed to slow her down, and we never saw her again till the finish!). But as we hit the woods and more challenging single track, we slowed, and I lost sight of them during a quick trip behind a tree. I started thinking to myself around this time: “hey, it’s a fat ass, your first event of the year, you have a big 50K destination race in two weeks, don’t’ sweat it, have fun, and think of this as an organized training run!” That thought kind of relaxed me.

Around mile 7 or so I was surprised to catch up to Garth and Steve. The one little navigational problem we encountered on this winding course with many turns, and turnoffs for the shorter distances, was toward mile 17. Here we came back to a point by a stream we had just been a mile or so earlier, and realized there were runners approaching from several different directions. Soon a group of 20-some runners had formed and were engaging in an animated conversation, maps in hand, about whether we were lost and where to go next. During that time, two runners who said they thought they knew where to go went off to check out the next turn maybe 1/10 of a mile away, and were kind enough to run back and tell us that, yes, indeed, they had found the way forward and we should follow them. Which we did!

While waiting for them, at a couple of points in time we had almost followed the advice of some in this gathering, such as Steve, who were suggesting an alternative route from this three or four-way “intersection” where we were stuck. Thank goodness, Steve later remarked, we didn’t follow his suggestion at the time! Turns out, apparently, the three of us had done the mile or so loop that we were actually supposed to, but some folks just now coming to that spot still needed to *start* this loop, and indeed it appeared that the others did then go back and do the loop rather than going with the three of us once the confusion had been (sort of!) clarified. Good sportsmanship! What added to the confusion for Garth, Steve and me was that at that very spot the first time through we had nearly missed a turn (or maybe not?), only to be called back by those behind us who shouted “off trail.” But whether we did the little “extra loop” the right direction or not, in the final analysis we did indeed do it, and my final Garmin GPS watch reading of 30.6 miles came out pretty much how one of the event directors said others’ watches did (and my watch usually undercounts distances a little over that much time and terrain). So we got in a good 31-32 miles, for sure!

Once we got back on course, I immediately started recognizing the forest trails, the beaver dam, and other sections and points of reference from the previous year. So did Garth. We were back on track! I also recalled that it was in that section that Melissa and other folks had gotten turned around or lost last year, and that made me feel better it hadn’t been just our stupidity! Unfortunately, the 15 minutes or so lost in all that course confusion had tightened up my legs. That plus the simple down time probably cost us a bit in terms of potential finish times, but hey, that’s trail running! I recall that at mile 16 we were at about 3:03, and we briefly mentioned the possibility of a 6-hour finish, but the second half, and especially with the time lost, we switched to talking instead of breaking 6:30 as a more realistic prospect to shoot for.

An Unexpected Late Surge

A dose of Advil and of Vivarin somewhere in the vicinity of 19 started kicking in by somewhere in the early 20s. I had started lagging off from Steve and Garth, but caught up with them at some point and we stayed pretty much together till around mile 27. There was one iffy turn in there that had Garth concerned we were off trail, but it turned out we were ok. Steve suggested I take my turn in the lead on the single track (we sort of informally rotated, but more often they had led). I think maybe a caffeinated Hammer Gel then kicked in. That plus being in a really nice area of forested single track, with the mid- to late afternoon sun shining through, and thoughts of still maybe breaking 6:30….some combination of things led me to start picking it up a little, and stop walking any but the steeper uphills. My legs suddenly felt lighter. Also, Steve had been battling some adductor cramps, and a couple times in the previous few miles I had passed on some Endurolytes to him, of which I had fortunately brought an extra little plastic bag. So, quite inadvertently really, I may have surged a little, just as they were lagging a bit. Sometimes I guess you just go with the feeling, like when you pick it up at the end of a training run. If it had been just one of them, I might have had second thoughts, but I still did feel just a little guilty for suddenly bolting away. It wasn’t my plan, but I kind of just went with it!

Before I knew it, I passed a few guys who we had jockeyed with earlier on, and found myself thinking back to my determined charge through the latter miles at Masochist. Only here it was rolling terrain rather than serious downhills, and it felt more relaxed rather than “torpodoes be damned.” I had pretty much given up on 6:30, since I figured—with the course being perhaps a mile long by memory and given the extra distance I thought we may have run—I would end up at 32 or so on the GPS. And by that measure I had 18 minutes to cover like 3 miles!

But it turns out, as I sped nicely along the river, and then made the turn away from the river, that the finish was much closer than I thought! Once I made that turn and started recognizing scenery from last year’s painful final stretch, I realized it wasn’t far at all. And I looked at my watch, with what appeared possibly to be one final rise on the dirt road to go before cresting a hill just before the finish, and saw I had like 4 minutes. So I breathed hard and surged up the little ascent (which I would have much preferred to powerwalk at that juncture), and then saw it was only a few hundred yards and I could make it comfortably if I just kept a good pace. I was real happy to see my watch hit 6:29:30 when I crossed! A good 20-25 minutes better than last year, and in fact a 50K PR (though Catoctin, Bear Mountain, and MontaƱa de Oro, the others I’ve done, are decidedly tougher courses in terms of technicality and elevation gain/loss, so not to get too carried away!).

Maybe five minutes later, Garth and Steve crossed together. They were all smiles, and we took a couple photos, and then some other group photos back at the car, where Judith and Stephanie were waiting. We enjoyed the nice hot chili and hot dogs at the finish line tent, another nice touch.

Singing PHUNT's Praises

All in all, this is really just such a nice winter, beginning of year, work off the holiday pounds type of event. Totally non-competitive. They give finishers a nice informal Trail Dawgs logo decal stamped on a little piece of carved wood. They charge nothing. But encourage donations of not just the food for charity, but also race foods and drinks, and $5 to cover parking fees and contribution to the recreation area. Three well-stocked, mostly self-serve aid stations make it possible to restock liquids and munchies. The attitude is fun and festive. And the rolling, horse farm countryside is really quite picturesque, and the course quite varied. As Steve noted, you think it’s flat and should be easy, but it really isn’t! Just enough rocks and roots and frozen, uneven ground thrown in to keep you on your feet (or off them, as I scraped and banged a knee about a mile and half in that bothered me a little early on). It’s not a pushover of a course at all, but a real good one to start off the year, work off those cobwebs, and start getting back into shape. This year the temps were a bit cooler (never escaping the 30s, with wind chills maybe never cracking freezing, and my three layers staying on the whole time as I just unzipped when necessary). But it was still more pleasant, as we had barely a cloud in the sky all day compared to the gray skies we had much of the time last year.

On a personal note, I was happy to be able to run a much higher percentage of the time (maybe 75%?) than last year, and feel on a much more even keel energy wise. It’s been a learning curve with this distance, which I didn’t start doing till a couple years into the whole ultra journey. Last year, coming off my broken foot and some subsequent setbacks and literally months of physical therapy for this or that, it was my first “race-type” event in like 5 months. I really labored then to keep Brice and Garth in sight, and they waited up for me many, many times. I remember not being able to run a step for the last 3-4 miles. So I felt like I exorcised a few ghosts this year in being able to finish strong and not feel depleted. Something good to build on, as I look toward Calico and the real start of the ’09 racing season in the weeks and months ahead.

I think PHUNT is definitely one to keep on the running calendar for next year! Thanks so much to Judith, Stephanie, Garth, and Steve for sharing in the great experience! I think 2009 is going to be a special running year!

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