Sky Runs

Taking the long way round


Last year I raced more weekends than not, and I resolved to cut back on that year. So what did I do but go run a race on the first weekend of the year? Maggie’s fault.

I’d been hearing about PHUNT for some time since Maggie had invited some friends over for a sleepover before the race, but by the time I looked into registration it was already sold out. Last weekend at a party for our trail running group, Maggie mentioned that she would ask the RD and sure enough, before I’d even gotten home from the party, she was letting me know that she’d secured a spot for me. Apparently some runners had cancelled after the RD posted an update on the forecast for rainy weather the following weekend. Now I had to go, right?

After a week or so of easy running and averaging only about five miles a day, my body and mind were finally feeling rested and relaxed. I’ve picked up the heart rate monitor to keep me in line and aim to stay within my aerobic heart rate zone according to the Maffetone formula of 180 minus my age, which works out to no more than 140 or a 9:40-9:45 pace at best, and ironically slowing down can be a struggle at first (even for someone like Liza Howard). Running in Central Park and getting passed by everyone, I wanted to tell them, “Hey guys, you’re all running too fast! You know that’s not good for you right?” But I decided against getting punched in the face.

I braved the cold as much as I could all week, since it’s not yet super-cold in NYC and I’m trying to build up my weather toughness, but I notice that my hips and lower back tighten up and it’s difficult to open up my stride once the temperatures dip into the 30s. After getting a super-tight hip flexor from just standing around in Central Park on New Year’s Eve to see the fireworks and cheer the NYRR Midnight Run, by Friday I decided to “treat” myself with a visit to the gym treadmill. And man did it feel luxurious: no layers, total comfort, and I managed to throw down a few speedy intervals to work on my neglected leg turnover. I think once the real cold starts up this week I’ll start spending a little more time indoors.

But the real highlight of my week was not running on the treadmill for half an hour but experiencing PHUNT, or the little Fatass that could. In this, the 12th year of PHUNT, the Trail Dawgs who organize the event were testing out whether they could transition from a DIY self-supported Fatass run to a legit paid-entry race. I’d say the money ($35) was well spent: the course was terrifically well marked, they had themed aid stations every few miles, hot food at the finish, and my favorite race souvenir- pint glasses! The course itself was like a lollipop with a 1-mile stem and a 13.5 mile trail loop, run once for the 25K and twice for the 50K, mostly singletrack with some roots and rocks and few stretches of road and gravel, nothing technical.

Now I wish I could say I was as well prepared for the race as the organizers. I went to Maggie’s packed for a 40-something degree run and was shocked to find we’d be starting in freezing weather. I had brought the CWX tights I’d worn on New Year’s Even in Central Park and knew my legs would be chilled in them, but I woke up on Saturday with the brilliant idea of doubling up with some of the extra clothes I’d brought to change into. I added a second pair of looser leggings over my compression tights and I layered a thicker tech shirt over a thinner long sleeve shirt. With a Buff, headband, cap, and gloves/mittens and handwarmers, I figured I could survive the 25K.

Our gang pre-race. Photo: Ken Tom

Our gang pre-race. Photo: Ken Tom

I hoped to enjoy an easy trail run and try to stick to my moderate heart rate plan: ignore the pace, set my main Garmin display to show only the heart rate and let it go maybe as high as the low 160s. But what ever goes according to plan on race day? A week of relative rest had me raring to go from the start, we took off and one woman shot ahead to the front of the pack and I hung back behind the next group of half a dozen guys. We had a road section to start with which I knew to take advantage of, because me and trails in this part of the world don’t get along so well. As soon as we hit the trail section I had to slow: it was covered in fallen leaves, twisting and turning like a maze through the bare woods. You could see people running around but couldn’t always tell if they were in front or behind or how far either way. A few people passed me in the first mile or two of trail, including one woman, but even my slow run was getting my heart rate up towards 170 early in the race.

Lined up and brrr. Photo: Tommy Pyon

Lined up and brrr.

Despite the early morning chill the weather seemed perfect by the time we started running. A few miles in I was feeling warm and I decided to take my handwarmers out of my mittens, but when I started to fiddle with a place to put them– BAM! First fall of the day. I could feel a sting of blood in the usual spot on my left knee but my pants were untorn and I was unhurt. Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall again, I remind myself repeatedly, and wonder why I keep signing up for trail races when it would be so much nicer to come here for a simple training run.

The course was ziggy and zaggy, the hills not as steep as I expected (until much later) and I felt nice and comfortable- as much as possible when I’m trying too hard not to fall. I was trying out some new gear for the first time- a fresh pair of trail Hokas and a funky looking Simple Hydration bottle that goes in the waistband in the back. The bottle jiggles a bit when it’s filled to its 13 oz capacity, but feels very comfortable half full, which was all I needed between aid stations. I’m not sure if I would want a cool water bottle against my skin on a cold day, but since I was wearing two pairs of leggings I was able to stash the bottle in between the layers. It worked.

Photo: Jimmy Wilson

Hands-free with a nifty bum bottle. Photo: Jimmy Wilson

The 50K runners had started about 10 minutes before the 25K, which meant  a lot of passing after the first couple of miles. I get very nervous about passing or being passed on trails. I’m happy to pull over to let a faster runner go by and I always appreciate when someone does the same for me, as it spares the awkwardness of having to speed up to get by and chance falling right in front of the person I’ve just passed (yeah it’s happened). I saw Ken as we approached the halfway point and gave him the usual ass-slap as I passed him, and soon after came to a water crossing with some rocks. Don’t fall, don’t slip… okay good. As soon as I start congratulating myself for making it across- SLAM! I fall again and bang my right knee. This one hurt a little and required a minute  of walking up a hill to catch my breath and settle down. I fell again about a mile later for no reason, nearly landing on my face. I can’t even tell you what I trip on, I just fall. But three times in the first half of a 25K is not good. At least I shouldn’t fall more than another three times at this rate, I tell myself, as I self-debated whether I should just accept that I may fall a few more times or put it out of my mind because even thinking about falling might become a self-fulfilling prophecy… How about I just focus on looking at the ground instead? Focus, focus, focus. Sometimes the cold makes my eyes water and it’s hard to see, plus there are all those leaves and so much danger when stepping into them off the side of the trail while passing some runners. The time went by slowly and I tried to let go of the awareness of time and just enjoy playing in the woods on a pretty nice day for early January. Since my heart rate was high and my falls might be an indicator of too little fuel or electrolytes, I made sure to munch on some GU Chomps after the first hour or so. They are a bit hard to eat when they get very cold so I let them sit in my mouth for a while to soften before chewing.

It started raining more in the second half, but the trees provided some shelter and I was protected by my double layers of everything for a while. As I approached the final aid station I was starting to feel cold and regretted leaving my handwarmers at the first aid station. I checked the time, saw that I’d been out close to two hours and confirmed with a volunteer that this was the final aid before the start/finish and the distance: 3.8 miles, she said. Ok, probably not more than 40 minutes then, since the last portion had some road on the way back to the activity center. I toddled along, slowing or even walking a little on the uphills, which seemed to be getting bigger now, until I spied a lady up ahead who looked like the one who’d passed me at the start of the trail. With a few miles to go, this gave me something to look forward to: I could close the gap slowly on the trail and make a move to pass once we got back on the road. My heart rate was up in the mid 180s now and would pretty much stay there until the finish. I was extra careful trying not to fall on the remaining trail portion and took a short break to walk as we came to an uphill field section since my heart rate felt unsustainable. I let it drop a few beats and then turned on to the gravel road I’d been waiting for. I picked up the pace, closed up the gap and booked it to end with a little kick on that final half-mile stretch. After a few hours out there by myself, falling and trying to hone my focus on nothing but the few feet of trail in front of me, it felt real sweet to lift my head up and finish on a high note with a little of that game called racing.

I hurried in to the warm activity center to get changed ASAP and there were loads of people hanging out already- with the deteriorating weather and more rain forecast all afternoon, a bunch of 50K runners had decided to stop and take a 25K finish. I still have no idea about the results- I was the second lady who started with the 25K to finish that race, but there were several 50K ladies who started 10 minutes earlier who got in before me and dropped down. But as one of them said, “It’s PHUNT. Who cares?” Anyways, My watch time was 2:32:28, or a 7.5-minute PR over my last trail 25K in May. Nowhere near the 2:15 fantasy time I thought I would run, which was based on nothing, since I’d never seen this trail before and I suck on trails generally. I don’t see where I would have shaved much time off apart from a minute or two if I hadn’t fallen, and my heart rate was always higher than expected at 175 average. Still it was a decent training effort to start the year on.

Maggie FTW, and Dylan for the 3rd. Photo: Ken Tom

Maggie FTW, and Dylan for the 3rd. Photo: Ken Tom

Since I was the only half –ass among my friends who all signed up for the 50K, I had lots of time to hang out at the center, eating the delicious PHUNT lentil barley soup and sipping a bit of beer here and there (PHUNT is big on beer!) and meeting more of the locals. The ultra world is so small that there are always people who’ve been at the same races or have friends who did all those races.

Afterwards it was back to Maggie’s for a post-PHUNT meal and following live updates from another competitive 24-hour race in Florida late into the night. I went to bed and woke up under Maggie’s lucky charm Team USA jersey from Pam Smith and I guess it brought me some good fortune too because I woke up still at number 5 on the list of qualifiers. It doesn’t look like there are any more qualifying events before the team selection begins next week so I should be good to go to the World 24 Hour Championships in April. Stay tuned for the official announcement to come in mid-January!

Here’s a video of the entire PHUNT made by Jimmy Wilson, who ran the race wearing a pair of Pivothead glasses that automatically shoot a photo every 30 seconds. The rear images of me in this post were taken from screenshots of this video.


Week in Review 12/29

Monday: 7 miles easy at 135 HR

Tuesday: 5 miles at low 130s HR, body weight strength exercise

Wednesday: 5.5 miles easy

Thursday: 4 miles easy, heart rate monitor not working

Friday: 3.2 miles easy with 3 x 2 minutes fast + 1 minute recovery jogs

Saturday: 25K trail race

Sunday: Total rest

1 Comment

  1. Nice job, I recall you blowing by and I was wondering how that water bottle was working out for you. I would usually run with a pack or belt but went with a handheld which worked out OK but would have liked to have been able to tuck it away for a while like you had. Would be happy to send you the original photos if you like.

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