I may have signed up for my first ultramarathon. May have, you ask? Oh, I definitely put my name, age, sex and credit card number in the online entry form and hit submit. And my name officially appears on the list of participants. And I for sure plan on being in the field of the Big Hill Bonk Last Runner Standing race on Friday, April 3, 2020, in Beloit, Wisconsin at 5:30 pm. So what is the confusion? Let me explain.
There’s a guy in Tennessee that goes by the name of Lazarus Lake. That’s not his real name, but that’s not important. Laz, as he is called, is the brainchild of a race called the Barkley Marathons, also known as the “race that eats its young.” That particular race has people running through the hills of the Smokey Mountains for 100 miles in five 20-mile or so segment loops, and very few people even finish it. It’s legendary and well worth watching the documentary if you haven’t seen it. Highly entertaining. But if the Barkley wasn’t enough to keep Laz busy, he decided to create another race called Big’s Backyard Ultra. Big is his dog. It’s his backyard. You run through it. A 4.166-mile loop every hour. And then you do it again. And again. And again. And again until there is only one runner left. The last runner standing who finishes a solo loop in an hour after everyone else has dropped out is the winner. Everyone else is a loser. Actually, everyone else is declared a “DNF” – Did Not Finish. For the first time in my racing and running lifetime, I will be a DNF. Unless I outlast everyone else. That’s not very likely. The most recent winner of Big’s Backyard Ultra ran somewhere around 250 miles. Three days of running. I’m 56 years old and kind of know my limitations. I won’t last that long. I will be a DNF.
The overwhelmingly positive response to the Big’s Backyard Ultra in the ultra-running community has spawned other races, not just in the United States, but all over the world. Many act as qualifying races for Laz’s race. Actually, to gain entry into his race, now considered the “World Championship” you have to get a golden ticket, which is actually a gold coin with Big’s picture on it, and it’s only given out to the winner of the other Laz sponsored races. I won’t get one because I will be a DNF. I’m not even sure I will get a t-shirt out of this.
So, if I am not going to be the winner, and I am not going to even be listed as a finisher, and I’m not getting a t-shirt, then why the hell am I doing this? Because it sounds awesome.
Three decades of running has taken me from getting around the block once, to dropping a couple of pounds to fit into my pants again, to racing local races, to running marathons, to giving triathlons and Ironman a try, to… My point is that even though running eventually became part of the fabric of my life, it gets a little boring after a while, and you begin setting new goals and seeking out new adventures. I’ve had ultras in the back of my mind for a long time, but I was always fairly content with marathons and Ironmans, which were plenty of a challenge for me. But now I’m looking to explore a little more of what running has to offer before I get too old to experience it or enjoy it. This race format popped up on my radar and I became intrigued.
What’s the draw of this race for me to get my first experience going past 26.2 miles? Well, it’s unique for one. Ultras usually have set distances – 31 miles or 50K being the typical minimum, 50 miles, 62 miles/100K, and 100 miles. Pick one of them and run it. The race format for a last runner standing race is very much open-ended. Is there a finish line? Well, yeah – sort of. You cross it every loop, but then it immediately becomes 4.166 miles away again. There’s really only one finish line, and that’s the one that the winner crosses – alone. Again, probably not going to be me. In this race, you could choose to get to any number of miles and then quit. Or try to last for 24 hours before dropping. It’s up to you how far you want to push yourself. If I last 10 loops and get in 41.6 miles, that might do it for me.
Another factor for me is that it comes in manageable 4.166-mile segments. Why 4.166-mile loops? I was puzzled by the length of the loop too, thinking it was just another quirky aspect of Laz’s brilliance. But in actuality, 4.166 X 24 hours = 100 miles in 24 hours. So if you run twenty-four, 4.166-mile loops you will end up with 100 miles in a day. What is nice about the distance is that it is something most runners can wrap their heads around. Running a little more than 4 miles is no big deal. Running 4.166 miles in an hour is really no big deal. That’s like averaging around 14 minutes per mile. Anyone who runs should be able to get through that in an hour.
Toss in that it’s fairly local for me, being only a couple of hours away, and that I feel pretty fit from all of the triathlon and marathon training I have done, it was easy for me to sign up.
So, will this be my first ultramarathon or not? It’s still a valid question in my mind. In the past, I have learned that I don’t do as well running spring marathons because I don’t train as well in the winter months in the Midwest as I do in the summer months for a fall marathon. I’m always more fit in the fall than in the spring. Secondly, I have no idea how to train for this race. I’ve searched for training plans specific to this type of event and there really aren’t any. Most trail and ultra runners just treat it like a normal ultramarathon, and they train as usual and race the event as if they are running a typical ultramarathon. Which brings me to another issue: pacing the run. From what I can tell, most will try to plan to finish each 4.166-mile loop a little under one hour, leaving themselves just enough time to use the toilet, eat something, change some clothes if necessary, and then get back to the starting line for the next loop. Ultrarunners know how to pace themselves, i.e. they run slow. Very slow. Sometimes they walk. They know that fast tempos early will lead to some very sore and tired legs much sooner than they would like. I’m a runner. I can run 4.166 miles easily around 9 min/mile. That will leave me with about 20 minutes to sit around and wait for the next lap. That was my initial plan, but now I’m thinking that might be a bad idea. Will taking a 20-minute rest in a chair in between the hourly loops be an asset to me or be a really bad idea?
One last thing I need to emphasize is that this race, in particular, begins at 5:30 pm. That time of day in April will most likely be getting near dark. Sunset is at 7:25 pm. I Googled it. I will be running the majority of this run through the woods in the dark. I’m not very experienced at that and sleep deprivation isn’t something I handle very well. I got a feeling there will be a lot of caffeine involved in my nutrition and hydration planning.
April weather in Beloit can be anything, but I’m guessing it will be cool and possibly wet. I need to plan for all kinds of weather and be prepared.
Also on my mind about this race is what are my goals? Since I’m pretty sure I probably won’t outlast the field, what do I want to get out of it? Here are a couple of my main goals:
- Do enough loops to make it past 31 miles/50K and satisfy the minimum ultramarathon distance. That should be no big deal. It’s just a few miles longer than a normal marathon. But the real goal will be to make it to 100 miles.
- Don’t be the first to drop. I have looked at other race results and found races where there are plenty of dropouts after 1-2 laps. I don’t want to be that guy.
- Make it through the night. Okay, this is going to be a challenge. I hope I can stay awake because most nights I’m asleep by 10 pm.
- Meet some cool people and enjoy the company. It will be interesting to see how others approach the race and learn from them.
- Stay out of the hospital. I’ve visited the medical tents of past races and even though I have gained the knowledge needed to prevent the need to go there, I still sometimes push myself a little too hard. This race will be new territory and I will really need to focus on how I am feeling.
I have a lot of questions yet to find answers to while I train the remaining four months for this race. I will keep looking for insight and reading race reports to find the nuggets of information that I am looking for.
So did I actually sign up for my first ultramarathon? Maybe. It depends. I don’t know. We’ll see. Hopefully, I did. Possibly.