Monday, July 1, 2019

Race Report: Mountain Lakes Backyard Ultra

It's not that different from a regular ultramarathon, really.  You sit in your chair at an aid station, staring off into the distance with unfocused eyes, trying to chew a burrito or a Snickers bar or a PB&J, as your friends dry off your feet or get your more ice or do a million other little things to get you out of the chair and moving again, and you try to ignore the screaming of your quads or your calves or your back and you try not to snap at your friends or throw the stupid burrito in their face, and you try not to cry, and you try to choke down another swallow of Roctane or Coke and you try not to give in to the despair of having to stand up and fucking run again.  It's all the same, except for this: in a regular ultramarathon, you get to that point and you make the decision that no, you're not going to quit, you're going to keep moving; and when you do, so often the crisis is past.  You keep moving and you start to feel stronger, and each step brings you closer to the finish.  You can feel the minutes and the miles pass and you know you're making progress and you know if you just keep moving forward you're going to get there.

But here is the difference.  Now you're trying to decide not to quit.  And you stand up and move toward the starting corral to start running again.  But now each step doesn't make you feel stronger.  It just makes your fatigue more palpable, your achiness more acute.  And no matter how much you run, you don't get any closer to the finish.  The hours pass and the miles mount and the finish just remains this nebulous concept that you have a vague sense of but can never really see.  All you can see is the end of the next loop and the prospect of having to go through the whole decision again about whether or not to quit.  And as long as you keep deciding not to, this will go on forever.  Running more doesn't get you to the finish.  It just makes you run more.

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I've been fascinated by the idea of a Last Man Standing race since I first heard of the concept a few years ago, and with the recent amazing performances at Big's Backyard Ultra since 2014--particularly the epic battle waged last year, which garnered a fair bit of attention (or at least what passes for such in the ultrarunning world)--I've become more interested in trying the format for myself.  The concept is devilishly simple.  Runners are tasked with completing a 4.167-mile loop every hour (the odd-sounding distance is worked out so that 24 hours of running nets you 100 miles).  You can run it as fast or as slow as you like, but in order to continue in the race, you must be back at the starting line for the start of the next loop, at the start of the next hour.  There's no banking time, or banking distance; you can't take an extra 15 minutes of rest once a loop starts and then make up the time on the back end.  Everyone starts together, and you keep starting together, every hour, until one by one everyone quits and there's just one person left.

The race is the brainchild of Lazarus Lake, the masochist behind the Barkley Marathons.  I don't know if Laz invented the idea of a Last Man Standing event, but he's the founder of Big's Backyard, which is the unofficial world championship of the format, and the seminal event behind the worldwide series that exploded in the wake of last year's craziness.  For the first several years of the event, Big's saw about 20-40 runners take part; the winner (the only finisher according to Laz, everyone else is considered a DNF) usually lasted about 26-30 hours.  But in 2017, Guillaume Calmettes outlasted Harvey Lewis over 56 hours and 245 miles, and the race grew remarkably in stature.  The 2018 race hit its cap of 75 entrants and became an instant classic, as five runners cracked the 48-hour/200-mile mark, and by the time Courtney Dauwalter conceded to Johan Steene--67 hours and 279 miles later--both were ultrarunning legends.

The popularity of the race exploded overnight; over 1000 folks applied for one of the 75 spots in the 2019 field.  This led to the minting of the Backyard Ultra series, a collection of 17 races around the world with the same format as Big's.  The winners of the ten overseas races would get "Golden Tickets" to the main event in Tennessee in October, as would the top two performances from the seven North American races.  The Mountain Lakes Backyard Ultra, just over an hour from my house, was the last US race on the schedule and would be my shot to make it to Laz's backyard.

Not only is the idea a brilliant one, but in theory at least, the format seemed to suit me pretty well.  Working almost exclusively nights for the past fourteen years, I've become an expert in running while sleep deprived and staying awake for long hours.  To win a Backyard ultra, you don't need to be fast.  You don't even really need to be much of a runner.  You just need to be able to eat a lot of food and stay awake for a really long time.  I was pretty sure I could do that.

My home for the weekend
I slept in on Friday morning, staying in bed until past noon, before loading up the car with a ridiculous amount of supplies and heading down to get ready for the 6:30pm start.  I set up a tent with a cot, sleeping bag, and pillow, but I didn't plan on using it until the race was over.  In the "interloopal" area just beyond the starting corral, I made my true home: a folding lawn chair.  Next to that was my huge Orange Mud duffel bag packed with multiple changes of socks, shirts, and shorts.  I had four different baseball caps (two trucker, two tech), I had two long sleeve shirts, and I had two different rain jackets, even though there was no real forecast all weekend.  I had two towels, five pairs of shoes, two ice bandannas, two Buffs, and a massage Stick.   Doubling as a foot rest was a cooler chest full of ice, 64 ounces of Gatorade, four bottles of grape Roctane, two chocolate milks, six Snickers bars and 30 Cokes.  The winner of the race would need to last at least 32 laps to earn a Golden Ticket, and I was planning on being in it for the long haul.

We actually had a pretty good field for an inaugural race in a weird format.  Glen Redpath, an ultrarunning legend working his way back into shape over the past few months, would be running his first Last Man Standing event; he was preparing for Big's, where he was already entered into the elite field.  Glen and I have been friends for a long time--I paced him at his last WS100, in 2014--and I knew he'd be good for well beyond 24 hours.  Byron Lane, a former US 24-hour team member, was there as well; I hadn't seen Byron for a few years since we raced Recover from the Holidays in 2015, but if he was fit, he could go a long way.  Eric Kosek had a lot of experience going long, including a top-10 finish at last year's Tahoe 200; Glen and I thought he might be the man to watch.  And then there was Michael Postaski, who had beaten me at the Mountain Madness 50K in 2017 but as far as I knew had never gone past 50 miles before.

Lap 1
Brian, the race director, started us off with the clang of a cowbell at 6:30pm, and Glen and I settled into an easy jog pace in the front half of the field.  Within just a few minutes the road pitched up sharply and we gained about 250 feet in the first mile and change, as the road transitioned from pavement to dirt with loose rock.  We crested the hill and started descending; the road split and we took the right fork for the day loop (the night loop turned left, dropped down another 200+ feet over the next 1.1 miles, then turned around and retraced itself back to the start/finish).  The day loop traveled down a carriage road of cobble-sized rock before making a hard left into a winding single track trail.  The footing through the trail section was quite good; there were some rocks and roots, but nothing too technical.  Finding a rhythm was a bit tough with countless short and steep up and downs, but we were in no hurry, walking most of the uphills and just learning the ins and outs of the course.  The race requires a balance of not running too hard but finishing each loop with enough time to recover, fuel, and mentally prepare for the next loop; my pre-race plan was to run most of my laps between 48-52 minutes and I was pleased to finish the first one in 50:18.  Lap two was much the same; I focused on walking whenever I could and, instead of tracking my time over the entire loop, just ran my watch during the walking segments to see how much time I spend walking.  The total was about 12 minutes of walking in another 50-minute loop, which gave me confidence that there was plenty of room for error when the laps got harder.

Lap 4
Our second "night loop" was our first one fully in the dark.  The night loops at Big's are out-and-back on a paved, flat road; while they may not provide much mental stimulation, they also don't provide much of a physical challenge.  A motivated runner, even a very fatigued one, can stumble through them in under an hour without too much of a toll on the body.  We were not so lucky.  Other than about two minutes of running at the beginning and the end of the "loop," we were running or hiking either uphill or downhill the entire time at a 4-5% grade.  The whole lap could be run, but not without some effort, and over time, the climbing (and particularly the descents) would exact a toll.  With 400-500 feet of climbing per lap, each 100 miles would entail about 11,000' of climb--not exactly UTMB, but not nothing, either.

I spent the first few night laps figuring out when I would walk and when I would run.  Everyone had a different strategy.  Some walked the entire uphill and raced down the other side.  Others opted for a steady jog.  Other hiked more than I did, but faster.  As we progressed through the night, we began to stratify out, and I started seeing the same runners over and over again.  Eric Kosek, who was camped out in the interloopal area right near me, would hike the first part of each uphill, then fly past me about halfway up and not be seen again.  Francis Picard from Quebec would power-hike by every time I walked, with short, clipped strides.  Sean O'Conner, camped out on the other side of me from Eric, would alternately finish either just before or just after me, looking very relaxed and strong, running in a short sleeve flannel top.  He had a dedicated crew person there from the start, which was a nice luxury as it allowed him to rest the entire time in between laps rather than walking over to the aid station area for hot food.  Byron finished each lap with mere minutes to spare, though always smiling and comfortable; I wondered if he knew something the rest of us didn't.

Lap 12
A little less than half of the starting field remained at 5:30am, as we returned to the day loop after nine straight night laps.  I had quickly dialed in the night loops, running every one of them between 46:40 and 48:50; I had actually run three consecutive laps in 47:36.  I had come through the night feeling quite strong.  I battled a headache for a few laps around midnight, but Eric had given me a couple of ibuprofen and since then it hadn't been an issue.  The return to the day loop was a bit of a shock.  While the night laps had been a grind, they had become predictable and routine; now we had to re-learn the pacing, the splits, and how to parcel out our effort.  I think most of us felt that while there was less climbing, the loops felt longer, and most of us ran a minute or two slower on lap 12 than we had on the previous laps.  The field was starting to thin, as several folks had clearly made 50 miles their goal; of the 29 runners who finished lap 12, only 18 would start lap 13.

Eric was firmly in control of the race now; we were all keying off of him.  Through the night, he had turned in a string of 40-42 minute laps, while most of us were several minutes behind; he followed up a 40-minute lap 12 with a 38-minute lap 13.  Every time I got back to camp, he was in his chair, feet up, eyes closed, the picture of serenity.  He looked ready to go all day.  Several of the runners who had been logging fast laps along with Eric called it quits at this point, however.  Matt Wright, a tall, muscular runner wearing a green shirt pocked with holes, was hanging tough, though he was starting to look a bit worse for the wear.  He had told us that his goal was to win this race, not to qualify for Big's, but because he was hoping to impress Laz into considering him for a spot in Barkleys--an even more exclusive and more insane race than this one.  Matt had been up front most of the night, logging 42-45 minute laps, but his twelfth lap was significantly slower, and his effort level seemed a little too high for what was likely still the early stages.

Lap 15
Running strong at some point on day 2
photo: Lars Klein
After an adjustment period of a couple of laps, I was starting to figure out the day loop.  Thirteen minutes to the top of the hill.  Eighteen minutes to the trailhead.  Twenty-two minutes to the sharp left onto the OS trail.  Thirty-three minutes to the grassy field.  Thirty-seven minutes to get back to the road, forty-one minutes to turn off the road, forty-seven minutes back
to the finish.  I started to find the rhythm, and the loops were passing without much effort.

Eric was still out front.  I was finishing many of the laps in the top three or four at this point, often second behind Eric.  Sometimes Sean or Glen would finish ahead of me, sometimes behind.  We chatted and joked in between laps, sharing chafing cream or Gatorade.  There was still a long way to go, but we could start to see who was going to be around for awhile.  Glen and I, trying to handicap the field during one of the laps, anticipated that Eric and Sean would both last at least 24 hours.  Glen thought Matt might make it through on pure determination.  I thought Byron might outsmart us all and still be around that long.  But both Matt and Byron were gone by the start of the next loop, when our group of 15 suddenly became 8.

Lap 18
My friend Brian Hickey showed up at the end of lap 16 to crew me for awhile.  It was good to see a friendly face, and though I was feeling pretty good and didn't really need much help, I began to lean on him more and more over the next several laps, filling up my bandanna with ice, making trips to the aid station tent for hot food, and just sharing a few words of encouragement.  Our numbers had continued to dwindle, losing a couple more folks per lap, until the big shock came as we gathered in the corral to start the eighteenth hour.  Eric, who had led each of the previous twelve laps and shown no sign of strain, shook everyone's hand, wished us luck, and dropped.  We were down to four: myself, Glen, Sean, and Michael.

The final four at the start of lap 19
photo: Brian Vanderheiden
Michael's name had sounded familiar when I saw the entrants' list before the race, though I hadn't been able to place it; after a dozen or so laps I recognized him from our race a few years back.  To this point I hadn't thought much about him.  He had set up his tent about fifty feet away from us, outside the interloopal area, and was being tended to by his wife and father.  He had been finishing the night loops three to four minutes behind Glen and I, and about a minute or two behind me on the day loops so far.  But now with just four of us left he began to assert himself.  He was starting to catch us towards the end of the trail section, running with a relaxed, flowing stride.  Previous Backyard races had always seen some attrition at 24 hours, as people often seemed satisfied with 100 miles.  I had thought that Michael might be the person we lost at 24 hours.  But looking at him running now, I wasn't so sure.

Lap 21
After leading several of the laps since Eric had dropped, running my customary splits, I finished lap 20 feeling a bit strung out.  I recognized that I had pushed a bit too hard to make all my intermediate splits and ensure that I still met my 47-48 minute goal for the lap.  I resolved to slow down for the next several laps and expend less energy.  I ran with Glen the whole way, running slightly over 50 minutes, feeling very comfortable.

On lap 22 Michael went past us midway through the loop, looking fresh and strong, running with an amazingly smooth, loping gait.  In a flash he was gone; back in camp Brian told me he had run 46 minutes for the lap, beating us by nearly five minutes.  We could no longer pretend he was just in it to run 100 miles.  At this point, he looked like the favorite.

Lap 24
Brian took off after lap 23, as I was expecting my second wave of crew.  I had continued working with Glen through the late afternoon, though I was struggling a bit.  The trail loop, particularly the "cobblestone" downhill section, was taking its toll.  Mostly I was just tired of it.  I was tired of climbing to the top of the hill and holding on for dear life; I was tired of the tiny little ups and downs; I was tired of Roctane.  Michael and Sean were now both easily outdistancing me on each lap.  My breaks in between loops were growing shorter, and I was getting irritable.  With half a mile to go in lap 24 I hit the wall, hard.  All three of my fellow competitors went past, and I struggled in at 54 minutes, my slowest lap yet, barely moving forward.

Getting ready for the final day loop
photo: Kevin Borden
Kevin (and his kids, Finn and Mac) and Brian Oestrike had arrived by this time and I told them I didn't know how much longer I had.  Gently but firmly, they fed me calories and got me refocused on the next lap.  I latched on to Glen and let him pull me through, just trying to survive until 8:30, when we could return to the blissful agony of the night loop and I would never have to run that trail again.  My splits were now minutes behind my earlier pace, but I began to feel minimally better with the reduced effort.  Perhaps I'd make it through to the night after all.

Lap 27
The night loop, finally.  I took of my Salomon S-Lab Ultras, changed my socks, and switched to my Nike Zoom Flys for the road section.  I refilled my ice bandanna and pounded more Coke.  Always, more Coke.  I had barely survived the last two day loops; without Glen to follow I wouldn't have made it.  But now night was here.  Thirty hours or more finally seemed possible again.

I made it about 150 meters, just out of sight of camp, before the thought of having to keep going overwhelmed me, and I stopped, right in the middle of the road.  The other three guys kept rolling and I was almost immediately alone.  I bent over, hands on knees, and studied my shoes for a minute.  The prospect of the climb didn't bother me.  It was running downhill.  I couldn't bear the thought of running two giant downhills per lap from now on.  It was too much.  I straightened up, ready to walk back to camp and quit.  I thought about what I would say to my friends, who had set up tents and were preparing to camp for a long night.  How could I explain that I just didn't want to do it anymore?  I couldn't do that.  I'd at least have to walk the loop.  I'd time out, and then it would be over, but I owed them at least that.

I checked my watch.  Three minutes gone by.  I didn't really have any designs on finishing the loop in time, but I needed to start moving.  I started walking.  God, I thought, walking this loop is going to take forever.   Maybe I could make it a little shorter.  I shambled into a slow jog.  Huh, that doesn't feel so bad.  Up the tempo a little bit, to a full-fledged trot.  All of a sudden, my legs were back. Suddenly I had a new life.

I caught Sean and Michael at the top of the hill.  They did not try to hide their surprise.  "Wow," said Sean, "we thought you were done."

"So did I," I replied.

I fairly flew down the hill, caught Glen shortly past the turnaround, and we powered up the hill together.  Sean caught us near the finish, but Michael crossed around a minute after us.  After looking indomitable on the trails he suddenly looked a bit vulnerable.  I wondered if my little resurrection had shaken him.

Lap 29
After feeling so solid on the past two laps, I've now resigned myself to the fact that this is going to be it for me.  None of these guys are ever going to quit.  Michael looked like he was going to crack on the previous lap, making it in with less than three minutes to spare, but bounced right back into the corral with us and started off.  Sean is getting stronger as we go on.  I'm not sure he's human.  Glen seemed tired awhile ago but not now.  He's so experienced.  He knows exactly what he's doing all the time.  He'd quit now if the race was over, but it's not, so he'll keep going.  It's all the same to him.  What's another hundred miles for someone who's done so many?

My quads are Jell-o.  My hip flexors and stabilizers are worse; I have a single plane of motion with about a six-inch stride.  I'm seriously considering walking the downhills and running every step of the uphills; the only thing keeping me from doing that is that I just intuitively know it's stupid.  Sean, Glen, and I all finish between 53 and 54 minutes and try to eat.  No sign of Michael.  He was about 28:30 at the turnaround.  Would he make it?  Just after the three-minute whistle, his headlamp appears.  He's struggling but he's going to make it.  Crosses the line in 58:30, ninety seconds to spare.  His crew brings him some broth; he sinks to one knee but doesn't leave the corral.  Fuck.  He's just going to stay in the corral and start again.  He's not going to fucking crack.

Thirty seconds to go and we join Michael in the corral.  He stands up and shakes our hands, wishes us luck.  For the first time in twelve hours and fifty miles, we have a drop.  We're down to three.

Lap 30
We shuffle off, still a little bit in shock.  This wasn't as big a surprise as when Eric had dropped after leading so long--Michael had looked to be struggling for a few laps--but after it had been just the four of us for so long, we definitely didn't quite know how to react.  Some small part of me had felt as though the race would never end, though I knew that was impossible.  Now suddenly it seems as if the finish might happen after all.

Glen and I do our usual power hike/jog up the climb and Sean falls back as usual.  By the turnaround we've got maybe thirty seconds; we'll extend that a bit on the return climb, and he'll catch us on the final downhill back to camp.  Again, and again, and again.  Everyone looks the same.

For the second lap in a row, and at least the fifth time in the last six hours, I'm ready to quit.  My quads have simply given up; the downhills are agony.  I tell Glen I don't think I'm heading out for another lap.  He responds, "But Sean is still going."

Fuck.

Lap 31
None of us seem to be moving all that well off the line, but I manage to stagger out to my usual lead in the opening minute.  From here, I know how it will go.  I'll start hiking at the pole about 200 meters into the uphill.  Glen will catch me shortly thereafter.  I'll start jogging with him when the pavement ends and the road turns to dirt, six minutes in.  We'll jog to the big tree on the right, then walk until we can see the Port-a-Potty at about the ten minute mark.  From there we'll jog to the top of the hill and run down the other side.  Sean will hike to the top, run smoothly downhill, and be slightly behind at the turn.  The pattern repeats itself on the return.  Sean will catch us when we hit the pavement again.  He'll beat us in by about a minute.  And we'll go out again.

Only this time, something is different.  We're only two minutes in, haven't even hit the climb yet, when Sean says, "Hey, what happened to Glen?"

We stop briefly and turn around.  It's black outside the glow of our headlamps.  Glen and his headlamp are nowhere to be seen.  We shout his name a couple of times but get no response.  We're not quite sure what happened; in our fatigued state it seems inconceivable that he would turn back without saying anything to us.  Could he have collapsed and his headlamp conked out?  Did he just turn his lamp off to screw with us, playing some mental game?  This actually doesn't seem that unreasonable, and part of me spends the entire lap expecting him to roll up on us at any second.

Since it seems to be just the two of us, though, we decide it's time to run together.  Surprisingly, despite running in close proximity for the past thirty hours, we've actually run side by side very little.  I've been "banking time" on the climbs and surviving the downhills; Sean's been hiking the ups and running the downs steadily.  I tell him I'm not certain if I walk the hills, as he's been doing, that I'll be able to run the downs fast enough to make the cutoff, and Sean says he should be able to run most of the uphills with me.  We fall into my usual run/walk pattern on the way up and hit the turnaround about thirty seconds ahead of schedule.  We spend the time reliving the events of the past day and chatting about Big's.  Now that one of us appears headed for a 32+ hour finish, the winner will be assured of a spot in the field.  Maybe both if us will.  There are still several "at-large" spots to be awarded, and rumor has it that some of those are already earmarked for folks with finishes in the low-30s, on courses less difficult than ours.  Sean is assuming that we're both finishing lap 32 and is already looking ahead to 33.  I'm can't comprehend anything beyond this lap.

We reach the top of the return climb in about the same time as my last several laps; I won't get timed out.  I tell Sean to go on ahead, that I'm going to shuffle down and I'll see him back at camp.  He takes off and immediately vanishes into the darkness.  I hobble downhill, each step sending painful shocks through my quads.  I arrive back at camp in right around 54 minutes; Sean has put three minutes on me in the last mile.  He already looks ready to head back out.  I can't find a weakness.

Brian is asleep, but Kevin is still there, checking on me, pushing calories as best he can.  I keep up the charade but I know I'm done; I've known for twenty minutes that I can't bear another lap.  I slowly drink another Coke and eat a GU, waiting for the whistle.  With thirty seconds to go we both make our way into the corral.  As Brian counts us down to the start, I give Sean a hug and send him on his way.  And then I stumble back to my chair and finally, blessedly, stop running.

My DNF medal
In the immediate aftermath I'm OK with the decision not to start another loop.  Could I have staggered through one or two more?  Maybe.  But that wasn't getting me anywhere.  I saw no signs of cracking from Sean; he really looked as if he could go forever.  I know Michael had looked unstoppable on lap 26 and was out only three laps later, and maybe something similar would've happened to Sean, but I don't think I was making it that long.  And the 35th hour would bring the return of the day loop.  There was no way I was attempting that trail again.  It would've been good if I'd made it one of two more laps; I might have a stronger argument for an at-large spot at Big's with 32 or 33 laps rather than 31.  Or maybe not, I guess we'll see.  And yes, on an easier course with a more forgiving night loop, I think my quads hold up and 36+ laps is easily achievable.  But you can only run the course in front of you, and I'm satisfied that this was the best effort I had in me on that day.  Unfortunately it just wasn't enough.

Big thanks go out to RD Brian Vanderheiden and his fantastic crew of volunteers for putting on a first-class event and bringing incredible energy and support to the course at all hours; to Brian, Brian, and Kevin (and Finn and Mac) for dragging me through more low spots than I would've thought possible; to Jodi and the girls for their love and support; to my awesome teammates at MPF/RNR who crushed Manitou's Revenge that same weekend, and our great sponsors who keep that team going; to Dave Roche and the SWAP crew; and especially to Sean, Glen, and Michael for an epic experience I'll never forget.  And thanks too to everyone who followed along during the race and reached out afterwards on social media.  I'll need all that support again in just a couple months as I make my return to Leadville and try to improve on last year's amazing experience.

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