This low-key trail race takes place early every January in the northeast corner of Maryland, just miles from the border with Delaware and Pennsylvania. It meant an early start and a 1 and 1/2 hour drive from Silver Spring. Not so bad. Since the race begins at a leisurely 9AM, I had time to eat and digest a good breakfast, get a quick shot up an unusually empty 95 North, and enjoy the sunrise while crossing the Susquehanna. I was one of the first to arrive. I dropped off my canned goods for the food drive, handed over my contribution for the aid tables, and did a little early exploring of the trails.
Elkton and Fair Hill NMRA sit at the head of the upper eastern shore of the Chesapeake, but the terrain in this area is not part of the flat sandy coastal plains area of Maryland. The twisty, hilly, stream-crossed forests and fields of Fair Hill NMRA are part of the same Piedmont Plateau region that includes the trails in my own backyard--Seneca Creek, Rachel Carson, Little Bennet. None of the climbs or descents are all that long; there's just a lot of them in a small space.
Most challenging, perhaps, were the open field sections. These looked pleasant enough on the map, but the poor footing and exposure to the wind made some of these climbs fairly wearying. Again, none of these stretches are all that long. This is not a particularly technical race (few rocks), but it's an honest trail race that will challenge you with a little bit of everything. I'd recommend it as an introduction to trail ultramarathons.
It looks to me as if the organizers tinker with the course each year, but I'm not sure. For 2013, at least, the 25 KM course consists of two connecteed loops, run counter-clockwise and together forming a sort of figure 8. You do the figure 8 twice. Aid stations come at the start/finish area, and the 5/10 mile mark (in the middle of the figure eight), meaning you have 5 aid stations over the course of the race. These are well-stocked stations, managed by plenty of wonderful, helpful volunteers. Not bad for a FatAss race with no entry fee. This is one of those events with real spirit and heart.
(Photo courtesy of Stacy Runs and Eats)
Yes, people do get lost--myself included, twice--but I have no one but myself to blame, since the trail is astonishingly well-marked. Astonishing, that is, given the absence of an entry fee, and despite the understated demurral on the race website that they "might mark some of the course if they have time." The challenge of finding your way on this twisty, serpentine, up-and-down, only-slightly-devious course is that Fair Hill NRMA has some 80 miles (so they say) of trails in not an extremely large area, which means trails cross and recross each other constantly.
The winter landscape of dead leaves strewn everywhere means some trails just plain disappear from sight. There are some sharp turns that come upon you suddenly and are easy to blow by if, say, the sun is in your eyes. A "bushwacking" section has you leave the trail for a brief mini-Barkleys adventure. It isn't long, but is easy to miss. You have to stay alert.
We had fantastic conditions. About 28 degrees at the start, relatively little wind, and sunny the whole day. Yes, very good--it is January, after all, and could be a whole lot worse. I fretted a bit in the final minutes before the start over whether to wear my grippy Inov-8 XT Talons or more supportive Saucony Peregrines, and ultimately went with the latter. It was a trade-off. Good for the first half of the course, when the ground was mostly frozen and hard as rocks, but not so good in the latter stages, when the mud became more of a problem. The Saucony Peregrines do pick up mud and I sometimes felt as if I were running in boots. Particularly challenging was the mud that hid unseen below a layer of dead leaves; I'd hit this and go into a skid.
I had a decent race, for the first effort since October's Grindstone 100, with steady energy levels the whole way. Thanks to my penchant for taking the scenic route (getting lost on the second loop for about 10 or so minutes), I just missed my goal of coming in under 5 hours, so had to settle for 5 hours and 3 minutes.
I came away from the experience with a firm decision, however, never to take in any sugar--fructose, glucose, maltodextrin, whatever--during a race. This 47-year-old stomach just won't take it. I'm going with "real food" only--I like Jurek's practice of pita with hummus--even if I have to pack it all with me.
Other race reports on the PHUNT 50K
2010 Report from Matt Frazier, No Meat Athlete
2010 Report from Maria Simone, Running, A Life
2012 Report from Stacy Runs and Eats