Friday, January 12, 2007

Van "Pigtails" Phan Does 53 Marathons /Ultras in '06 (Interview)

Washington runner Van "Pigtails" Phan hit a number of milestones with her incredible streak in 2006. She ran 53 races in one year to get the coveted "Titanium Level" for Marathon Maniacs, completing her 100th race along the way. But she didn't just trudge through marathons each weekend - she ran long ultras and ran them hard, including age group wins at the Lost Soul Ultra 100, Blackfoot Ultra 100k, March Mudness 100k, and a course record at the Watershed Preserve 12 Hour. She trounced the men and women in the 2006 Trail Runner Magazine Ultra Series, amassing 1462 points - 500 more than her closest competitor, and nearly double the amount of Nikki Kimball. Somehow, she also found time to be a Race Director for a couple of races as well.

(Van cuts through the lush trails of the Captail Peak 50m, photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama)

I caught up with Van to hear about her incredible year.

1) First, congratulations on an amazing year! You must be very excited. Was it your goal to reach 53 races in one year?

Thank you! It's hard to believe that my 2006 year of running is over. I didn't start out the year with that goal, but after finishing 9 races by the end of February, I realized that had a good start towards 52 for the year. Any run that had a web site, posted results, and had other runners at witnesses were eligible for race status. But when I reached the 30-race milestone, and even the 40-race milestone, it seemed as if I was still a long ways off of achieving my goal since sickness and injury were always possible factors. I was lucky to get injured only once and missed out on one ultra.

I did DNF one race (my first and only so far), Where's Waldo 100K due to a severe asthma attack that required me to stop after 42 miles. There was a lot of dust on the trail and a nearby forest fire. I had to get hauled off the mountain on horseback. I felt like such an idiot, but when you can't breathe, there's not much you can do about it. I ran 53 because the Last Chance Marathon only started in 2005, and I want to be a part of it as long as it is around.

2) How did you prepare for this? Was there training involved, or just a lot of racing?

After completing 28 races in 2005, I knew my body was capable of running distance races close together. I learned how much I could push myself at a race and still recover in time to run another one. Although I did not win every race I entered, I was able to stay fairly competitive. My training is not as strict as most would think. In 2006, I was not able to maintain regular high mileage weeks (because of work and studying for my boards) unless I had a 100-mile race or back-to-back races. I averaged 57 miles a week for 2006. But it worked out fine because I was either tapering for a race or recovering from one. So there was really no "training"
involved. Running races maintained my fitness level.

3) How long have you been running? How long have you been running ultras?

My first taste of running was with my husband years before we got married. But because I was not able to keep up with him, I ran "scared," fearing that neighborhood dogs would come out chasing me. I developed shin splints and dreaded going out on our runs. That didn't last very long. I started running on my own in April 2001 to stay in shape and lose weight. (I was almost 120 pounds then, which for my just under 5 feet frame was not considered fat but "soft." I am now down to 108). I was in Arizona for a one-month rotation during my clinical year for physician assistant training and did not want to join a gym for that short period of time. So I ran in the mornings when it was cooler and really struggled. I had brought cross training shoes and ran on the sidewalks, which caused hip pain. Slowly but surely, I was able to run a little longer each week. I decided to enter a race when I got back to Washington and did a 12K in June. In early October, I did my first marathon (Portland) after buying a book and following it's training plan. Although I qualified for Boston, I was not able to run for another three months after that race. I continued to run races from 5K to marathons, but always felt much more accomplished with the longer distances.

I remember the day that I discovered that there were races longer than marathons and signed up for Cle Elum Ridge Run in September 2003. My training before that race included several mountainous runs up to 20 miles. I met many of the local ultrarunners during those training runs, such as Carol O'Hare, Scott McCoubrey, Eric Sach, and William Emerson. I thought they were all crazy, running back-to-back long runs on the weekends in their preparation for their ultras. I survived Cle Elum and was hooked!

4) What is your favorite thing about running?

There are so many things I like about running - the people, performing well, working through low times in a race, beautiful surroundings, etc. But if I were pinned down to just limit it to one thing, I would have to say that it is the level of peacefulness that you can reach with running. It's when your breathing is perfect, your legs feel weightless, and your thoughts are simple. To me, this definitely happens more out on the trails. It doesn't happen right away after you start running, and if you run too long, it may go away. I experience it often in my training runs and many times in my races, granted I am not trying to kill myself to get a placement. That feeling keeps me coming back for more.

5) How in the world were you able to recover so quickly for each race? Some of the 100's you did back-to-back with other races.

I needed to keep my ultimate goal of 52 in mind in running my races, especially later in the year when I had already run so many and still had more to go. So before each race, I would tell my husband, "I'm just going to finish today. I'm not planning on racing or doing anything special." He would usually just roll his eyes because he had heard it all before. Then, I would go out and either win the race or place well. He knows me well and also knows that deep down inside, I'm very competitive. In the course of the run, if I was feeling okay and had a good chance of performing well, I would pick up my level enough to push myself, but not so far that I would not be able to recover from the effort. I became very good at listening to my body and what it was capable of. Most of the time I was surprised at how good I felt whether it was a marathon after a 100K or another race within a week of a 100-miler. I just ran based on what my body was telling me. Sure, there were some rough spots, but somehow I was able to work through them.

Everyone knows that there is a fine line between pushing yourself too hard then dying later on and running too easily only to find that you have too much energy in the end. I was able to find a happy median. Contrary to what others might think, I don't follow a special diet, did not do massage or physical therapy, did not stretch frequently, or cross-train. Running 53 races in a year kept me busy enough.

6) What was the hardest part of doing 53 races?

Knowing that there would be no down time. With all the traveling, running, and working, it seemed that I had very few days where I could just relax.

Even writing up my race reports was time consuming. I tried to fit in track workouts, but I just didn't have enough steam in me. I made it a point to participate in training runs to be with my friends on the few weekends that I was not racing. But even those were 20-30mile runs. A couple mountain trail training runs even took up to 8-9 hours to complete. I might as well have run a race that day! It was also hard to be away from my husband so much. He was very supportive all year and attended mostly my very long races or races that were further away where we made a climbing/camping road trip out of. It just was not feasible for him to come to every race. He's self-employed as a high-end furniture maker, so he works a lot on the weekends.

(Van gets wet at the Cle Enum 50k, photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama)

7) Did you have crew or pacers for your longer races? Who were they?

My husband was my crew for my 100 milers and for Miwok 100K. Crewing was new to him this year, but he learned fast. I have never been paced by anyone in a race, but not by choice. I don't like running alone in the woods, especially at night. I'm not usually very talkative during my races but would trade running with someone who was very verbose to running alone.
Often times when I was near someone at night, I would try to stay close by them but would end up sometimes working too hard. I have also been in the situation where I would catch someone and think about staying with them but then had to go ahead if the pace was too slow for me.

I mentioned that I had run with my husband before, but after I took up running for myself, he had to quit due to knee pain. So he has not been able to pace me. His passion is rock climbing, so there were a few races where we did some of that before the actual race day.

8) What are your favorite foods/drinks during the longer ultras?

My intake has not been very elaborate. I am able to down Gu gels fairly quickly and have not been able to tolerate others as well. So I guess that's my gel of choice. I drink Gatorade or Gatorade endurance. I have found that late in a race, I cannot get by with just water because I need the calories that Gatorade provides, even if it is minimal. I haven't experimented with much other replacement fluids but hope to this year. I have been using Succeed for my salt replacement. Ensure has worked well to provide me with calories, potassium, and sodium without upsetting my stomach. Foods that I enjoy during long ultras have been chicken noodle soup, cup-a-noodle soup, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Popsicles on a hot day are heavenly!

9) What were your favorite races this year, and why?

Wow, that's a pretty hard question to answer because I loved them all! But the two that really stuck out in my mind were the Auburn Trail Marathon and Baker Lake 50K. Perhaps because they were both new races for me this year and really tested my mental and physical skills. The Auburn Marathon happened on the fourth day of my "Quadzilla" weekend where I ran the Tahoe Triple Marathon then Auburn. After running for three days on roads and sometimes with crazy high-speed traffic at the Tahoe Triple, I was glad to be back on the trails. For most of the Auburn run, I was just floating and the trails were just beautiful. Everything was perfect-my breathing, the scenery, and the effortless feel of running. The miles passed quickly. I thought that I would be sore and stiff in my legs, but they felt light and free. I went on to finish second woman there, passing three women in the process.

Baker Lake is a local ultra that I wanted to run since 2003. But every year, there was always a problem, such as cancellation due to severe wind damage or me being out of town. So, finally, this year I had a chance to run on this beautiful trail. This race was on the weekend after my Quadzilla and again I felt that there was no way that I could do anything special. It started on roads and my legs felt heavy and dead. I fell behind the front pack in the first 2 miles. But as soon as I hit the trails, my legs woke up and I was able to get back to a good position. It features rolling terrain and is deceivingly tiring. It's almost too runnable! I was behind the lead woman at the turn around by a few minutes and it took seemingly forever for me to catch her. With about 4-5 miles to go, I gained the lead and held on to win by a margin of just over a minute despite major cramping issues. Plus, I won the coveted Baker Bear!

I was also pleased that I set a PR for every distance this year. For the marathon, I set an 8 minute PR at Newport Marathon with a time of 3:17:09. For the 50K I ran a 4:35 at the Ghost of Seattle Ultra (previous was 4:58 at Hagg Lake in 2004). For 50 mile, I ran a 7:19:34 at Autumn Leaves (previous was 7:42:21 at Mt. Si 2005). For 100K, I ran 10:37:38 at Blackfoot (previous was 11:49:32 at March Mudness-also in 2006). For the 100 mile 27:17:36 at Eagle, it was a PR because it had not run that distance before!

10) Your family/work must be very supportive of your hobby. Do they think you are crazy?

It's just my husband and I at home, and he is very supportive. He understands my drive because he knows that I cannot do anything halfway. If he has not come to a race with me, the first thing he asks when I get home is how it went. I usually tell him all the details, down to the bathroom issues (whether he wants to hear about it or not). My parents and siblings have always considered me crazy, but they are just starting to understand how much this running thing means to me and were pretty excited to see me featured in a local running magazine. It will be fun to show them my story in Trail Runner Magazine when it comes out.

The people at work are pretty clueless. You know how it is with co-workers. Unless they run or do any type of exercise themselves, it is very hard for them to understand what drives us to all do what we do. I think only one other worker does any exercise on a regular basis, which is kind of sad.

(Van smiles through the miles, photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama)

11) Was the TRM Series part of your goal all along, or did you win it just by racing a lot?

I did not set out to win the series. But after March Mudness 100K and the latest press release on the leaders with me being first, I thought I had a good chance of winning it since many of my races already planned for the year were in the series. However, I did add 4 runs in Canada that were not on my list that probably made the difference in me winning.

First was the Blackfoot 100K. I made the decision to run that race fairly last minute. I had just finished a double the weekend before at Watershed where I ran 71 miles in 12 hours and then an easy marathon the next day with one of my running buddies Mel Preedy, who at 73 was running his 300th marathon/ultra. I wasn't sure what I was capable of at Blackfoot since I had never run those trails before and felt the locals would have an advantage over me. Turns out I felt great and broke the course record by about 30 minutes or so. The Canadians really were so kind in opening up their homes to me, a complete stranger. I hope I get a chance to return the favor.

Next was the Eagle 100 Mile run, my first at this distance. My husband came with me this time and crewed for me. We drove and camped at one of the campgrounds that also served as an aid station. Despite temps in the upper 90s and severe muscle cramps at mile 32 that required me to sit in the shade for almost two hours, I finished. Since a decent number of people dropped, I was able to still come in third woman to get 200 points at that race instead of 100.

The last two races in Canada were Walk in the Park 50K (very hot and hard) and Lost Soul 100 Mile 4 days later (even hotter and harder). I was third woman at Walk in the Park and first at Lost Soul. As you know, unfortunately Lost Soul did not get counted in the final tally. To make a long answer short (too late!), it was not my goal all along, but became one as my year progressed, and yes I did win it by racing a lot.

12) You also directed a few races this year, yes? Can you tell us about them?

The first race I directed was in February when Lord Hill, a popular local and free 50K+, was cancelled due to high wind warnings. The Race Director had to make a tough decision last minute because there were quite a few people signed up, something like over 50. With two days to plan, I put together a run close to my home on a nice rolling 9.6 mile loop that people could do 3 times to get in an ultra distance of 28.8 miles. There was also the option of running one or two loops. So my race info was forwarded to all the runners who had planned on running at Lord Hill. The course did not need to be marked much and it was billed as a low-key event just like Lord Hill. We had a pretty good turnout (26) and the winds were not too bad at our location.

The second race was again to replace a run that was cancelled. But this time I had more time to put it together-2 months. However, it was a lot more work since I had to measure the course, mark it, set up aid stations, and make homemade medals as promised on my race site. Well, I didn't HAVE to make medals, but it was to be my 52nd race and I wanted to make it special. The medals were a big hit as well as the race and aid (my husband and his parents). I had hot Butternut Squash soup at the end that really hit the spot. There was a marathon option and a 50K+ option. 23 finished the ultra and 22 finished the marathon. I plan on holding both again in 2007.

13) Any tips you would like to pass on to somebody else trying to attain Titanium Level?

Washington has an incredible number of races of marathon distance or longer, and I was lucky in this regard in achieving my goal. Thirty-one of my races were in Washington, 9 in Oregon, 9 in California (but with the Tahoe Triple and Coyote Fourplay counted as 6 of those 9 races), and 4 in Canada. So my total expense for 53 races was not as exorbitant as most would think. I only traveled by plane once during the entire year. The other races far away just turned into fun road trips with my husband. I know of many others who achieved Titanium, but unless they were sponsored, I'm sure the cost was significant.

As far as being able to actually run 52 races (as opposed to achieving Titanium by running in 30 states in a year), I think working your way up like I did with 28 the year before helped me to know what my body could handle. I think doing several doubles may actually be better than running every single weekend so your body and mind can get a little bit of a break.
Don't "race" every race. Make some of them aided training runs. If you have a chance to soak in a cold river after a race, recovery will be much better. I did that at several of my back-to-backs when a river or cold stream was available. Plan your races at the beginning of the year and try to schedule in at least one or two extra races so that if something goes wrong such as injury or sickness, especially late in the year, all your hard work is not lost. If you're not having fun, then change your plan, such as achieving 50 states (but maybe not in a year), running in your dream marathons, or going for a PR whether it is for a certain course or all time.

14) Any tips you would like to pass on to a first time ultra runner?

Don't be afraid of the distance. Be more concerned with spending more time on your feet than in a marathon. Most ultras are on trails, so it will take longer to cover the distance. When I first met Eric Sach, now a friend, I told him that I was planning on running Cle Elum as my first 50K. He asked me what my marathon PR was. At that time, it was something like 3:25. He said that he expected my finish time at Cle Elum to be over 6 hours. I thought, "Yeah, right." It was only 5 more miles. It wouldn't take me THAT much longer. He was right. I finished in 6:21, completely spent, but happy.

For a 50K try to run at least a 20-mile training run in similar trails and conditions. Experiment with eating different types of foods and drinks. Because you'll be out there longer, you'll need to be able to fuel yourself for the long haul. Get comfortable wearing a waist belt or carrying a hand held bottle. If you are usually a middle or back of the pack runner, take the early start if that option is available so that you have a better chance of finishing. That way, when you finish, you'll feel like you've accomplished something special and won't be afraid of trying it again or a longer distance. It will also give you a good idea of your speed and whether you can use the regular start.

Work on hill climbing and try to avoid the urge to run all of them, especially if the race calls for more later in the course. If there is a local trail run of shorter distance, run those. They will give you a pretty good idea of how much longer it takes to run that particular distance and then you can extrapolate for the longer stuff. It's not a good idea to look at previous year's times to get an estimate of how long it will take you, even if you know someone who ran in it. When I first started running ultras, I was passed by plenty of people who I knew I could out-pace in a shorter race but did not have the endurance to keep up with in a longer race. Conditions change every year, so times have to take that into account.

I hope I have not scared anyone about running ultras. You'll have so much fun that you'll get hooked. Even if you have a crappy day, you'll find that working through it will hook you anyway.

15) What do you have in store for 2007?

I'm going to work more on quality than quantity. Sure, I'll probably still run over 20 races for the year, but I hope to increase my speed on the trails. I plan on running fewer road marathons. I need to work on becoming a better hill climber. I want to run some new races, especially 100 milers.

I still plan on running all the local ultras because they are inexpensive and great chances to meet up with my friends. There will be some road trips and maybe a race that will require me to fly (yuck!). Now that I've achieved Titanium, I don't need to worry about getting to a higher level. They better not add more levels! I don't plan on specifically trying to win the TRM series again, but if I place well, that would be cool. It would be fun to return to a few races in Canada such as Blackfoot and Lost Soul to defend my title, but I may not have time for them. I didn't get into Western States, but I'll keep trying. Someday, I would love to do the Grand Slam.

Thank you for taking the time to interview, and happy running!

Thanks for your interest in my crazy running addiction! I think it's excellent that there is a site like this that everyone can go to and voice their love for the running. See you on the trails!


  1. Thanks for the great interview, Scott.
    Congratulations, Van.
    Very impressive!

  2. Great interview- encouraging! Good job, Van! How old are you?

  3. Scott, you both forgot to mention Van was invited to run for Montrail Regional Team in 2007! Way to go, girl! Awesome year (and years past, and years to come)! Van is not only a very strong and competitive runner (by times, finishing places and inner strive), but also a great person and a friend, a trail enthusiast (by clearing local trails and helping at local races) and a cute little bundle of smiles.

  4. Kate,
    I'm 35 and will be 36 in early March. But I guess I can pass for about 25, so I've been told. Thanks to everyone for reading my interview. It was fun to relive some of the memories!

    Hello Olga, my fellow Montrail teammate! I'll see at Bighorn 100!

  5. Thanks, Van. You are an encouragement. Keepup the good work, don't get injured! Run on! (running keeps you young!)

  6. That's great that Van is running for Montrail. She is certainly a testiment to their product holding up with the miles!

    Olga, I'm not sure what the Montrail "Regional" Team is - do you have more information on that? Is that the same team you and Sean Messiner run for?

    Thanks, SD

  7. Scott -

    Great interview. Thanks. Came across this article earlier this week about exercising and music, thought you might be interested:

    TVs, iPods 'break connection'
    12/01/2007 09:31 - (SA)

    Michael Hill

    Albany, New York - Researchers are trying to find out if listening to music or watching TV while working out in the gym helps or harms exercisers.

    "I've got it figured out," said Unruh, who moves to the beat of Van Halen and The Fray on her iPod. "Usually, every song lasts about four minutes. I run a mile in a little over eight. So if I can get through two songs, I know I'm a mile though my run."

    Gyms are jammed with people like Unruh - the guy on the treadmill watching ESPN, the aerobic class bouncing to Hollaback Girl, the spinner reading Self magazine. Words, images and especially songs can provide inspiration for exercisers, as well as a distraction from tedium and discomfort.

    Unruh, director of wellness support at the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta, uses her songs-per-mile mind games as a way to keep engaged.

    But are those distractions good or bad for exercisers?

    Researchers say it cuts both ways. Yes, a dose of video or audio can inspire better workouts. But distractions can also hurt performance. In a way, music can add some static to the mind-body connection.

    Since the dawn of the Walkman, headphones have been as important as sneakers to many exercisers. Jacqueline Wojtusik, an Albany-area fashion designer who wears headphones for her regular workouts, listens to disco, '80s dance, electronic - anything as long as it has a fast beat.

    "If it has a higher beat per minute," she said, "then I tend to stay with that beat."

    Science is on her side.

    In a 2005 study, British researchers put 18 undergraduates on stationary bicycles to pedal either to silence or to "popular electronic dance music" on headphones. Participants worked about 13% harder to the up-tempo music compared to silence. One of the researchers, Sam Carr, suggested in an e-mail interview that music competes with an exercisers' awareness of how hard they are breathing, or how much their legs ache.

    'The more dissociation the better'

    Psychologists sometimes use the phrase "dissociation effect" to describe distractions like music and TV, and they have found it can have other benefits.

    Dr James Annesi, a health psychologist who works at the same Atlanta YMCA as Unruh, found that novice exercisers given a choice of TV or music were more apt to stick with an exercise programme than those told to focus only on their exertions or people limited to one type of media. If the gyms look like media centres, that is fine by Annesi, as long as it encourages people to exercise.

    "The more dissociation the better, the more we can distance the people from their discomfort," he said.

    Still, athletes digging deep for peak performance would do well to ditch the headphones and focus on their bodies. Studies have shown that the more distracted the athlete, the slower the times, said Ohio University psychology professor Benjamin Ogles.

    "If you want to maintain a high level of intensity, you pretty much have to focus on your body," he said.

    This is related to the belief that noisy gadgets interfere with the intensely focused mental state many athletes refer to as "flow". For instance, visitors to the Kripalu Centre for Yoga & Health, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, are encouraged to leave the headphones behind. Jennifer Young, director of healthy living programmes, said she wants to keep visitors' mind-body connections strong.

    Hikers at Kripalu are coached to "scan" their bodies by concentrating sequentially on their ankles, hips, shoulders and so on. Even during weightlifting - an activity linked more to Metallica then meditation - people are asked to visualise what their muscles are doing, or to focus on their breathing.

    "Don't turn out and turn off," Young said, "because then there's that underlying signal, 'Oh, working out is something I don't want to do. I'm escaping it by doing this."'

    Even Anna Fyodorova, a triathlete from New York City who calls the iPod one of the "greatest creations made" for training, sees its limits. When other runners wore their ear buds during a recent 60 kilometre race, she decided against it.

    "When you're racing, you have to concentrate," she said, "you have to be totally in the moment."

  8. Scott, Montrail has 2 teams: National (that Sean Meissner runs for along with about 25 others) and Regional (that Van and I are in, where the qualifications are softer, race over 8 times a year, place in local races and all what everybody on the team has got to do - promote trail running and sponsor's product, in our case Montrail shoes, Nathan gear, Cliff and a few other). Regional team, I believe, has 45-50 runners around the country, I'd have to check the rooster.

  9. Very cool! I didn't know there was a regional Montrail team. That's a great idea.


  10. Van is awesome! So who pegged the name "pigtails"? From the pictures I can see why...


  11. What a year!
    Scott, this was a great interview of a remarkable runner.

  12. Hello, Scott. I am a spanish journalist and blogger. My blog is I usually read your blog. In Spain, we don`t have a lot trail races. It's a pity.

    I would like contact with Kristin Armstrong to make a interwiew for my magazine Corricolari. Can you help me? Can you give her email?

    My email is


  13. Great interview. Inspiring and upbeat attitude in Van. Initially I thought she was probably a plodder with some slow times but her PRS, all from this year, are VERY impressive, especially for someone not even tapering or doing speed training! She mentioned her race logs..does Van have her own website?

  14. No Web site currently, but you can see her race log on Marathon Maniacs here.

    Van is definitely very cool!


  15. Thanks Scott! Will check it out for some inspiration.

  16. Wow nice interview! Van's running is pretty impressive, too ;)

  17. Finally! I get to READ what makes Van tick! :-)

    I had the privilege to attend Van's 52nd run of 2006, which was my first ultra. Still have my one of a kind finisher's medal hanging on my wall.

    And congrats to Van on getting on with the Montrail Regional Team! I was wondering when Montrail would come knocking at the door! You rock!

  18. wow! what an inspiration! great attitude.


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