In January 2022, I ran the Phunt 25K trail race in Elkton, Maryland, for the first time. And I loved it. It’s a great, runnable course – similar to Little Bennet’s trails. I hadn’t trained adequately, in my opinion, but still had a great race and finished in 3:57. I was pleased, but knew I could do better. And so I immediately signed up to run the race again in 2023.

I put together a 12-week training plan for myself this past fall. And while I didn’t stick to it exactly, I hit the big bench marks and got in quality runs, maxing out with 14 and 15 miles for the long runs. I was not going to run out of steam on this run. I was ready.

The weekend before the race, I got a cold.

Not COVID-19, not RSV, just a stuffy nose. I took plenty of zinc and napped on the couch, did some gentle yoga, rested, and hydrated. I felt better on Monday. Then Tuesday was worse. I will still congested on Wednesday. But I was determined – it’s just a head cold, I’m not going to let it stop me from running. I did two easy shakeout runs at the end of the week as I was feeling better. My legs felt great, my energy was returning. The forecast for race day was getting better and better. I could do this.

I went into race day knowing that the cold I had the past week would effect my run. There was no way it wouldn’t. But I was mentally strong, and part of the reason I love running is pushing myself to do hard things. Prior to the cold, my goal had been to smash last year’s time. I knew that was unlikely to happen. Under four hours would be great, but I knew that also might be tough. So I gave myself grace before the race even started – I would just run, spend some time in the woods doing what I loved, and see what happened.

The race started out fine. The weather was great for a winter race – chilly, but not too much. Windy, but mostly blocked by the trees. My plan was to just run what was comfortable, walk when I needed to, and move efficiently through the aid stations. For the first half of the race, I did just that. I felt fine – not 100%, but like I was staying within my limits. My legs felt great. By halfway, I was actually on pace to run 3:52, but the second half of the course has some big climbs so I knew that time would adjust.

Around mile 10, after two big hills, I was grinding. It was starting to become an effort to maintain the pace I had for the previous half. I hit the mile 11 mark and didn’t feel good, so I let my 4-hour goal go. I told myself to just run what I could; the time didn’t really matter. 

By mile 12, I was DONE.

When you do long and ultra races, you know you’re going to enter, what Courtney Dauwalter calls, “the pain cave.” You’re going to get to a place where you’re struggling and hurting and you need to mentally fight your way out. I’ve been there, I’ve done it before. But this was different. Mentally, I was ready to keep pushing; physically, I had nothing left to give. I couldn’t run anymore. I had ZERO energy. I tried swapping out my buff and ear warmer, thinking dry clothes might improve my outlook. Nope. I tried reminding myself that I love trail running and spending time in the woods. Nope. I cursed every leaf I stepped on and every tree I passed. I tried doing intervals – run for 30 seconds, walk for 30 seconds. Nope. The walks became longer and longer, as I could barely catch my breath. My pace had slowed to 20-minute miles, and as I passed mile 13, I was disheartened to think I had almost another hour to get through. Because that’s a thing about trail running – the only way to stop is to keep going. In order to get back to the warmth and my car,  I HAD to finish the race. I was literally in the middle of the woods – there was no volunteer with a warm car I could sweet talk into driving me back (although, if I had come across this miracle person, I gladly would have done so). But here’s the other thing about trail running – everyone out there loves it and knows what you’re going through. They’ve been there. They’ve felt it. And every person who passed me, including the front runners of the 50K race, encouraged me to just keep going. “Every step you take is one step closer to the end.” “Do you need anything?” “Can I help?” “You got this.” “You’re tougher than you think.” And so I kept going, one painful step in front another.

I finished. I stopped my watch and hobbled into the staging room to warm up and get some fries (the fries at Phunt are LEGENDARY). Once inside, I finally looked at my time. 4:11. I was stunned. It wasn’t the sub-4 I had hoped for, but it also wasn’t the 4:30 I imagined I was going to see. Hmm. My mood shifted a bit. I was still completely drained and was starting to cramp, but . . . that wasn’t bad. That was pretty good. For just having had a cold, that was damn good. So as I sat in the warm room, eating my fries and drinking my beer (trail runs are awesome!), I made peace with my run. Was it what I had hoped for – no. Was it the best I could do on the day – yes. Considering I had been on the couch with a box of tissues four days earlier, I did really well!

I’ve never finished a race feeling both disappointed and proud before, but that’s where I am with Phunt 2023. I’m disappointed that circumstances weren’t ideal and prevented me from the goal I had set a year earlier. But I’m proud of the race I ran. That faster time goal is still out there – good thing I already registered for Phunt 2024 😊.