PHUNT Trail Race: Highway to Hills

Runners run through a meadow in the winter during the PHUNT Trail Race.
Runners take on the early miles of the PHUNT Trail Race on Saturday, Jan. 18. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

With less than 10 minutes to go until the start of the PHUNT Trail Race, I emerged from the warm activity hall with fellow runners who would be taking on the 25K or 50K course. We stepped into the 20-something-degree air outside.

We were greeted by the song “Highway to Hell.” A few snowflakes fell as I stood in the starting corral.

Then, we were off, starting to head toward the trails of the Fair Hill Wildlife Management Area, outside of Elkton, Md. The first mile or so of the course was not singletrack — and by far my fastest mile of the day at 11:08 — but there were so many people that it would have taken some effort to pass.

Eastern Shore Running Club members gather for a group photo.
We had a great Eastern Shore Running Club group representing at the PHUNT Trail Race.

Then, when we entered the singletrack portion, it was crowded until we hit about Mile 2.5, at least where I was in the pack. This at times was slightly frustrating, but honestly, it was also motivating, because I felt like I couldn’t slow down with someone right on my heels.

In the second mile or so, I stepped on my ankle weird, and the guy behind me said something like I should keep running on it. I did, and I quickly felt normal again.

Runners line up behind "START" on an inflatable blue arch.
Runners get ready to start the PHUNT Trail Race. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

This wasn’t my first time running PHUNT, but it had been many years. Coming into the race this year, I hadn’t been running a lot of trails, but I have run a lot of long distances, and I ran the Algonquin 50K on trails in 2017.

I ran PHUNT back in 2011. At the time, ultrarunning was nowhere near as popular as it is now, and the race was much smaller and free. People brought donated items for the aid stations.

Selfie of Vanessa Junkin before the race.
Here I am before starting the race.

I went with my boyfriend and a friend, and we started a few minutes late because of a bathroom stop. All the other runners were gone, and we got lost on the trails. I’d planned to do the 20K (the race at the time offered a 20K, marathon and 50K), but I was afraid of getting lost, so I stuck with Mike and Lucia — until they took the route for the 50K and I continued along the marathon course with a guy who happened to be near the turn-off point.

At the time, I’d never run more than 11 miles at a time. I will never know exactly what distance I ran that day, because I wasn’t wearing a watch, but I wrote down 25 for the day. I was the most sore I’d ever been afterward.

Getting lost would not be a concern with the race now, because there are so many people. I found the course easy to follow and well-marked.

Runners on a leaf-covered trail.
Here’s a view from the trails of the PHUNT Trail Race. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

Although I didn’t remember exactly what the course was like, I did remember that it was tough. I went into Saturday’s race with no time expectations. I wanted to enjoy my run on the trails, and I would have no problem walking when I needed to.

This made the race so much better. Although it has to be the toughest course I’ve ever run, I wasn’t struggling like I did at the Marine Corps Marathon. In that race, I was let down early because I hoped to be much faster than I was. I didn’t feel well, and the weather was terrible, leading to issues with my feet getting shriveled up. I kept getting frustrated when I had to walk.

At PHUNT, I expected to walk, so it was just part of the journey. For me, PHUNT was like a big, fun group run with aid stations.

"Traildawgs Race Course" sign in the foreground with runners on a trail behind it.
The trail was well-marked with signs. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I came up on the first aid station, which I thought was a military-themed station. I realized it was a M*A*S*H themed aid station after seeing others’ posts (at no fault of the aid station — I was born seven years after the show ended and haven’t watched it).

I noticed that every volunteer I came across was so friendly and willing to help, despite freezing temperatures. I warmed up early on into the race, as I usually do. I started the race wearing the Buff-like race premium, but I quickly put that into my pocket, and I took my gloves off early on, too. However, the volunteers couldn’t have been as warm as I was.

At this aid station, there was even a dummy set up in a stretcher. I had to get a photo of that.

Dummy on a stretcher in the middle of a field.
Here’s the dummy in the stretcher (with vodka attached), which I saw at the first aid station. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I had some M&Ms and some Lay’s Stax chips (like Pringles), and I refilled my water. I wore a hydration pack, and although the mouthpiece for the bladder did freeze later on, I had a bottle in one of the pockets, so I ended up using that. I also ate the UnTapped fuel I brought along the way.

I tried to recall points from the 2011 run, but I’m pretty sure the start location was different, and I think much of the course was as well. The one part I thought maybe looked familiar was part of the trail when we could see the water. I remembered running through a meadow during the 2011 run, as well.

Around Mile 6, I took a slide in some mud, with one foot sinking in a bit, but that was easy to recover from.

Runners in the distance on. a leaf-covered trail.
I enjoyed the trails of the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area, even if they were tough. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

At one point, I came across a decorated PHUNT tree in the woods, topped with a PHUNT hat and decorated with bottle openers and ribbons. I saw someone else stopping to take a photo, and I decided to get one as well. A fellow runner offered to take a photo of me, so I took her up on that offer, but later realized it wasn’t the most flattering — because I had stuffed my gloves into my vest, making my stomach look as if it were really puffed out.

One of the other runners mentioned that we could take a bottle opener, so I did, and I asked another friend about that later just to make sure. It’s a cool souvenir, but if someone from the race is reading this and I wasn’t supposed to take it, let me know!

PHUNT-decorated Christmas tree along the course.
Here is the decorated PHUNT tree in the woods. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

The next aid station was just before Mile 8. This one had a camping theme, with a real campfire. I had some snacks at this aid station, including ginger snaps, which seemed to hit the spot, and some bacon. I had to get a selfie with the bacon and share it with the Naylor Mill 7K group, because now bacon always reminds me of that race — which has a Bacon vs. Scrapple theme.

As I was leaving that aid station, someone said to me, “I love your hat! That’s a spectacular hat.”

I made a note of that in my phone, as I was wearing my new BibRave winter hat and I wanted to share the quote in my blog and with my BibRave friends. BibRave recently launched a new logo and branding.

Vanessa Junkin takes a selfie holding a strip of bacon.
Here I am enjoying some bacon at the second aid station.

I’d chosen to take some photos during this race and, for example, take time to make a note in my phone. This is not something I would normally do during a race, but because I knew I wouldn’t be moving at a fast pace, I thought it would be fun to stop for a few photos, as long as I didn’t get in anyone’s way.

We crossed a covered bridge and made our way uphill. Then, we headed downhill, only to go up the steepest hill of the course. Once I looked at my run on Strava, I realized that this was a segment called “Carl’s Torture Chamber,” with a 24.3 percent grade. My pace for the 0.07-mile segment was 31:07. Carl is the name of the race director.

Between these two aid stations, I talked to a guy in a tutu who I had been running near for much of the race. He said this course was considered “runnable,” which I had to get some clarification on. Did that mean easier? It seemed hard to believe that this would be considered an easier course.

I live on the Lower Eastern Shore in Salisbury, where it’s about as flat as you can get. It turned out he was from Pennsylvania, where courses can be much hillier. He estimated PHUNT to be about 1,600 feet of elevation gain, and noted one in Pennsylvania that had 1,800 feet of elevation gain in 4.5 miles.

Runners cross a covered bridge.
Runners cross a covered bridge after the second aid station. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I think PHUNT is hard enough for me. The elevation on my watch is always wrong, but upon doing the elevation corrections, Strava showed 1,802 feet of elevation gain and Garmin showed 1,759 feet of elevation gain for my run.

I liked talking to him and others along the way. While I talk a lot on training runs (as you probably know if you’ve run with me), I generally talk very little during races because it wastes energy. But I found myself talking more than usual at PHUNT and enjoying it.

We were greeted at the next aid station by rose petals on the ground and a red carpet. I walked the red carpet to more snacks, and at this one, I made sure to get a piece of potato, something I haven’t had during a race before. Again, I kept being impressed by the great attitudes of the volunteers.

Someone said there were only about five miles to go till the next aid station. I confirmed with someone else that he was talking about the end.

I recalled that the first 40 minutes went by really fast — although my pace was not fast, I was surprised I’d already been running for 40 minutes. But by this point, I was feeling my time out on the trails. It felt like I had been out there a while, and I was glad I hadn’t decided to do the two loops for the 50K.

I did enjoy the views along the way, with beautiful trails, meadows and even some ruins.

Vanessa Junkin smiles as she runs the PHUNT 25K.
I really like this action shot of me from the PHUNT Trail Race! (Photo by RunningMadPhoto)

I’d also been coughing a lot, with the cold air, and people continually asked if I was OK. I really didn’t feel bad, and I’d taken my inhaler before the race, but I think I just wasn’t that used to running in the cold.

With about a mile-and-a-half or a mile to go, I was near a fellow runner from Sykesville for a bit, and I remarked to her that it was nice how the end didn’t seem to be as hilly. I tried to run when she ran, rather than walking, particularly since it seemed to be a flatter portion of the course and I knew I didn’t have to save that much more energy since the race was almost over.

PHUNT Buff, reusable cup and "Phuckle," which is a medal/buckle.
Swag included a PHUNT Buff-like item, a reusable cup and the Phinisher “Phuckle.” (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I also mentioned that my back hurt. I cannot recall my back ever hurting in a race — it likely did during PHUNT 2011, but I’m not sure. The pain started in my lower back and started affecting my upper back as well. It seemed to mostly hurt when I was going uphill, and I’m sure my positioning on the hills caused the pain.

However, when I said that, someone behind me said she was glad to hear me say that as she’d been experiencing the same thing.

It turned out that I spoke too soon about the flatter terrain toward the end of the race. Upon exiting the trail, I saw a huge uphill on the road that we would have to take to the finish. I did walk some of the hill, but I also made myself run, because I knew I would be finishing the race soon.

Runners climb a hill in the distance, with trees on both sides.
Exactly what you want to see at the end of a race: An uphill finish! Not! (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I crossed the finish line in 4:05:50, which is a 15:50 average pace. There were a lot of people who ran faster, but that still helps put into perspective the toughness of this course.

I got my “Phuckle” for finishing the race, headed inside and got some food — grilled cheese, Phries (fries), a hot dog and a piece of cake. I was drawn to a piece of cake that said “Mike” on it, because that’s my boyfriend’s name. I went back and got some chili. There was a large group from the Eastern Shore Running Club that participated, and I found my friends afterward in the area we’d met before the race began.

This race was such a challenge — there’s nothing like this near Salisbury. I knew I needed to try it again. On my way to my mom and stepdad’s condo, I stopped in Rising Sun at a nice coffeeshop called Rise ‘n’ Grind, and when I got back to my car, I signed up for the 2021 PHUNT Trail Race 25K. Less than 24 hours later, it was sold out. There is a wait list, so if you’d like to add yourself to the list, go here.

While I don’t think this will ever be a course I target for speed, I do think I can cut off a few minutes and try to go for a time that starts with a “3” next year — under four hours.

Vanessa Junkin takes a selfie with the Phuckle (medal/buckle).
Here I am with my finisher “Phuckle” after the PHUNT Trail Race.


Mile 1: 11:07
Mile 2: 13:47
Mile 3: 14:37
Mile 4: 14:02
Mile 5: 16:27
Mile 6: 14:41
Mile 7: 16:44
Mile 8: 15:13
Mile 9: 17:50
Mile 10: 15:14
Mile 11: 18:42
Mile 12: 16:56
Mile 13: 16:02
Mile 14: 17:07
Mile 15: 16:00
Last part (watch had .77): 11:19 (14:47 pace)

4:05:54/15:36 pace on watch
4:05:50/15:50 pace on results

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