Phunt Race Report

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Photo by Mark DeNio

I ran the Phunt 25k (15.5 mile) trail race last weekend near Elkton, MD, one of my favorite races of the year. I look forward to running it every January. I like everything about it. I like the hilarious emails that I get from the race director before the race, the pre-race indoor bathrooms, the varied, rolling course, the aid stations stocked with typical (awesome) trail race fare, and the great after-party with thumping music, hot food and adult beverages.

I must not be the only person who feels this way. Phunt used to be a fat ass. For those of you who are not runners, a fat ass is a run that is free, with no support, no official timing and definitely no medals or shirts. It was devised by Trail Dawgs Phil Nissen and Hunt Bartine, thus the name Phunt. This year Phunt had almost 500 finishers, and the race sold out last February. That’s right, 11 months before race day. The 2019 race is already sold out! For people who were slow to register, however, the good news is that there is a waiting list and a liberal bib transfer policy.

The race takes place in the Fair Hills Natural Resource Management Area, which has over 80 miles of single track trails. The typical Phunt course is not too challenging or technical by trail racing standards. The course is rolling, with a fair amount of roots and rocks, but it is very runnable. This year runners did not run the usual race course. Instead of the race winding through woods on single track trails, the majority of the race was on gravel roads and through pastures, with only about a quarter of the race on single track. The course was altered due to melting snow and heavy rains. Race Director Carl Perkins sent out an email before the race assuring us that the new course would be between 15.5 and 15.8 miles.

Here is one difference between road races and trail races: when a road race is advertised as 25k, it is actually exactly 25k. When a trail race is advertised as 25k, it is 25k-ish. Road runners, often Type A personalities, want to know that the distance they are running is precisely the advertised distance. I get it. Road runners are chasing PRs (personal records), comparing their times to other races of the same distance, maybe even trying to qualify for  Boston if they are running a marathon. I just checked the official rules.  Road race distances are not allowed to be shorter than the advertised distance at all (-0%); they may be up to +.2% longer than the advertised distance.

This fall, I ran a 50k (31.1 mile) trail race.  The director told us before the start of the race that the course was long, and in fact, we ran 31.8 miles.  No one was upset.  Everyone was joking about getting more miles for the same price.  Trail runners are a different breed. I love them!

Trail runners like to run in the mud, but we don’t want to wreck the trails that we love to run on. That’s why the Phunt course was changed last weekend. Some people thought that it was to protect the runners, because the footing was compromised. Pffffft, please! Trail runners love that kind of stuff! They are also some of the most conservation-minded people I know.

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We began the day in the Edward L. Walls Activity Hall, where we picked up our bibs, pint glasses and buffs. No shirts. The fee for the race was only $35. Runners only get shirts if there is a race sponsor, and this year there was no sponsor. The race did donate several thousand dollars, however, to Back on My Feet, a very worthy charity. At the activity hall, many very friendly, helpful volunteers are there to answer questions, assist with packet pick up and sell Phunt paraphernalia, including Phunt Christmas balls, knit hats, and shirts from previous years. Did I mention indoor bathrooms?

I was running with my husband, and both of us were doing the 25k version of the race (50k is the other option). Both of these factors helped to reduce my pre-race nerves to zero.

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Photo by Mark DeNio

The temperature at the start of the race was in the high 20s, with a 20 mph wind. Not too bad. The temperature at the start of the race I ran the previous weekend was zero! Unfortunately, I dressed the same way this weekend as last. I have a pair of Mountain Hardware tights with fleece on the inside that I love and wear for all of my coldest runs. These were good. On top, I wore a Patagonia quarter zip base layer, a tech shirt that I got from the St. George, Utah marathon, and a quarter zip Gramicci fleece. Too much! I wound up tying the fleece around my waist after about 5 miles. I opted to wear my Nike Air Pegasus, an old pair of road shoes, because I knew most of the run would be on gravel roads.

A little before 9:00, we got our pre-race instructions, walked the traditional circuitous route to the start line, and were off. The race has a downhill start on a gravel road. Usually, racers turn off the road after about .5 miles, and don’t see that road again until the end of the race. This year, we stayed on the road for quite a while. We eventually got to some single track trails and pastures. The gravel road and trails in the woods were sheltered from the wind, but when we were running through pastures, unprotected by the trees, the wind was howling. Overall, it wasn’t too much of a factor, though. The one time I really noticed the wind, it was a tailwind, pushing me up a hill. Fantastic!

There were 3 very well-stocked aid stations on the course. The first aid station was at mile 5, where beer and Jello shots were served. At mile 5 of a 15+ mile race!!! A woman who looked to be about my age walked away from the aid station carrying a beer. I told her that she was my hero. Then she noticed the Jello shots, and went back for one of those too. If I would have done that, someone would have found me passed out under a bush around mile 5.5! We fueled up on pretzels, cheese crackers, cookies and root beer, and kept going. No healthy stuff like bananas and orange slices for us! They were also serving pizza and chicken noodle soup, but we passed those items also and pressed on.

The second aid station was at around mile 9. I was having such a good run that I couldn’t believe that we were at the second aid station already. Here, there was a fire going in a stone fireplace where you could warm up if you needed to. They had some yummy grilled cheese sandwiches, along with bacon, chicken broth, crackers, pretzels, chips, candy, soda, sports drink, cookies, macaroni and cheese….the aid stations at this race are amazing! They are staffed by volunteers who appear to be having the time of their lives. They make a point of asking you what they can do for you. The first thing I heard at each aid station was “What do you need?” We stocked up and kept running.

I do not wear a GPS watch for any run, so I did not know exactly where we were, mileage-wise in the race. I knew that we had to be getting close to the third aid station, when I overheard a couple talking behind us. They said that we were approaching mile 13. I checked with my GPS-wearing husband. He confirmed that we were almost 13 miles into the race. I was surprised, because we had not hit the 3rd aid station, and it did not make sense for the aid station to be so close to the end of the race. Lack of oxygen to my brain late in a race makes mental math difficult, but even I could figure out that 15.5 miles minus 13 miles equals 2.5 miles to go. As the aid station came into view, I saw a sign: 3.5 miles to go! My heart sank. An extra mile.

We grabbed some food and drink and left the final aid station. The end of the race was mostly on a gravel road through pastures where horses train in warmer weather. This is Maryland horse country. Fair Hills also hosts an equestrian facility where horse trial competitions take place. We chatted with some fellow runners in the final few miles, watched the horse pastures go by, and craned our necks looking for the finish line.The finish line finally came into view at mile 16.5, and we crossed in 3 hours, 15 minutes. Here is a shot of my husband’s GPS from the race:

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Another cheerful volunteer handed us our medals, probably the biggest medal I have ever received. It opens up and serves as a bottle opener, which I used to open my after-race beer. The post race party featured chili, hot dogs, French fries, onion rings, lentil soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, brownies, cookies, beer, soda, iced tea, coffee, and a margarita bar. There was a DJ taking song requests, changing rooms for men and women, and tables and chairs for runners, friends and families.

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The thing that makes this race so popular that it sells out 11 months early is the race director’s and volunteers’ attention to detail. They know what runners like, because most of them are runners themselves. This race has achieved a near-mythic reputation, because it delivers almost everything that you could possibly want in a trail race, especially one that is held in mid-January. I was originally a little bit disappointed that the race was not run on the usual trails, but after running the race, I think I liked it at least as much as the original course. I love races run on a variety of surfaces, and this race definitely delivered that. It was not a typical trail race, but the RD did a fantastic job designing an alternate course. The cherry on the cake was that I was first in my age group and my husband was second in his. Can’t wait for Phunt 2019!

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