Van Phan finishes 400 ultras and counting
By Henry Howard
Had Van Phan not found ultra running, her life would be completely different. She says her outdoors experience would have likely been visiting a national park only to shun hiking the trails for the comfort of taking photos from inside an SUV.
“I probably would have focused on work and family all the while becoming oblivious of the amazing things my body lets me do,” says Phan, the prolific ultra runner also known as “Pigtails.”
On Oct. 16 — just four days after finishing her third Moab 240 race — Phan completed her 400th career ultra, the Defiance 50K. Overall, she is now at 560 races of a marathon distance or longer. And she's not slowing down. Her page on ultrasignup.com shows she is signed up for a 50K on Halloween, a 50-miler two weeks later, a 50K a month after that and the 10-day Across The Years, starting Dec. 28.
Phan is not a professional runner. She works full time but places a priority on her passion. As most ultra runners know, their non-running friends have trouble processing anything longer than a marathon.
“My friends really can’t wrap their heads around it so they ask a lot of questions,” she says. “But they are supportive and curious to know when my next race is. What I have noticed, however, is that none of them are interested in trying any running or any type of exercise for that matter. But when I talk to people who are active, even if it is in another sport, they can relate to the joy that their fitness gives them.”
Fourteen 200-milers and counting
Among those 400 ultras are 14 with a distance of 200 miles or longer.
Phan completed her third Moab 240 in October 2021 with her partner, Mikey Sklar. Afterward she wrote on Facebook, “This year it was all about sharing this race with Mikey. We packed heavy for the conditions (full upper and lower of all layers including thermals, OR Helium waterproof, and puffies). Our system worked great with our running packs and UD waist pack for more immediate access.
We moved methodically, taking advantage of a run/jog/walk system. I got dehydrated the second day hiking directly into the sun and that took some time to sort out. Got behind again on water on the hike up to Pole Canyon but figured it out sooner so not too much lost time.”
While Phan clearly loves the ultra running community, she is traditionally a soloist when it comes to running.
“It was my first time being social with the other runners,” she explains. “I usually run solo and without pacers. And my experience was enriched by it.”
(Photo by Howie Stern / howiestern.com)
Here are seven quick questions with Phan on her running journey:
Question: Why, when and where did you start running?
Answer: I tried to start running a couple of times with my ex-husband but he was faster than me and I didn’t like it because I would get painful shin splints trying to keep up with him. But I wanted to get in shape. I had become “soft” going through undergrad with too much studying and not so much exercising. Before becoming a physician’s assistant, I was thinking about firefighting because I had a good female friend who was a firefighter and suggested I give it a try. After passing the written exams, I had to pass the physical, so I did a lot of weight training but there was also running involved. I got into PA school so that took me off the firefighter track. But I continued running and it was only when I ran at my own pace that I found I loved it. When I did a one month physician’s assistant rotation in Phoenix, I started running early in the morning. When I got back home, I did a 12K with my sister and the rest is history.
Question: How did you progress from there to longer distances, and eventually ultras?
Answer: After a few shorter races, I followed Hal Higdon’s training program for the marathon and BQ’d my first at Portland in 2001. I ran a 3:37. But running on flat asphalt for my training resulted in plantar fasciitis. I had to back off from running but I was able to return and haven’t had any more injuries that have prevented me from running in the last 20 years with the help of arch supports. I continued to run more marathons because I was hooked. I joined the Marathon Maniacs and I am No. 27, a pretty low number considering their membership now. After running many marathons, I ventured into the ultras and my first ultra was Cle Elum 50K. I progressed stepwise to 50 mile, then 100K, then 100 mile, then 200 mile and beyond. I also got into multi-days a couple of years ago. Although I was competitive in my early years, as I aged, I found that endurance was my strength. I have completed over 52 marathons/ultras in a year three years in a row in the past and currently have 560 races of a marathon or longer. Of those, 400 are ultras and I have run 76 races 100 miles or longer.
Question: You are busy with a full-time job but are still committed to training, racing and traveling. what is your secret to getting it all in?
Answer: Like most people, I work to play. I have no secrets. I have never had a coach. I listen to my body, eat well and try to rest more than I used to as I age.
Question: What is your secret to recovery? Any special stretching, exercises and/or cross-training in your routine?
Answer: No stretching really. When I have time, I do some strength training. I stop eating early so that I can sleep better at night.
Question: What about diet as it relates to recovery? Do you focus on a special diet?
Answer: I eat carbs, protein and fats — heavy on the protein and low on the carbs. I try to eat between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., having a protein dinner with a salad or vegetables and no carbs so that I can sleep better. I consume carbs while working out and racing.
Question: It's clear that the ultra running community inspires you. Tell me what about the community keeps you motivated, and, in turn, inspiring others.
Answer: I like that the first runner and the last runner share the same course, weather, and terrain, which bonds athletes with the shared suffering. On trails and mountainous races, this is much more apparent than road racing and shorter races. After a race, I can relate with another runner about their struggles and what they did to overcome it. We become instant friends and comrades.
Question: Anything else you'd like me to know, or share with my readers, about your running journey?
Answer: If I had to do it all again, I would have gotten into trail running sooner than later and would have focused more on the journey than the endpoint. Sure being competitive is an important part of getting stronger and gaining confidence, but nowadays, I try to worry less about what people expect from me, given my success in the past, and what makes me happy, which is slowing down and enjoying my surroundings — not always in a rush.
Name: Van “Pigtails” Phan
Hometown: Currently Lakewood, Wash.
Number of years running: 20
How many miles a week do you typically run: 30 if no race that week.
Point of pride: Longevity
Favorite race distance: “I used to like the mountainous 100s (still do) but now happy to run 50K to 100K and be done before dark.”
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “Air fry roasted bananas with oatmeal, blueberries, brown sugar, and cream.”
Favorite piece of gear: Salomon Filter bottle, just scoop and go.
Who inspires you: “Anyone who makes fitness a priority.”
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Jason Mraz’s “Have It All”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Come on legs, you got this.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you: “I’m on Facebook but I don’t accept many friend requests. I’m on Instagram but hardly ever post. Mostly, I just meet people at races. I have some old posts on my blog: runpigtails.blogspot.com. My last post was in August 2017.”