Where: Big Hill Park – Beloit, Wisconsin
Distance: Endless 4.166 mile yards (loops) until there is only one runner left to complete a yard
Results: DNF officially (only the last runner standing is a finisher, everyone else is a non-finisher and basically SOL), but here’s what I accomplished: 8 yards (loops) / 33.33 miles / 22nd furthest distance covered out of 35 runners
Results Link: Big Hill Bonk Official Results
BIG HILL BONK – WISCONSIN BACKYARD ULTRA – LAST RUNNER STANDING
Finally. After three postponements and nearly a year and a half after this event was to take place, the Big Hill Bonk actually happened! And after 32+ years of running, I finally attempted and achieved my first ultramarathon.
Last runner standing format ultramarathons have become very popular as of late. I’m not sure when the first one was held, but it took a guy called “Lazarus Lake” to make it a very big deal. Laz is responsible for the Barkley Marathons, and he decided to create an event called “Big’s Backyard Ultra,” named for his dog Big, and held it in his backyard. Big’s is now the World Championship in this event, and qualifying for it means winning a similar race and getting the golden coin. Good luck getting one.
When I first heard of it I found the format to be fascinating, and when the Big Hill Bonk was announced and it was somewhat local I made it my goal to be there and attempt my first ultra-distance run.
Here’s the link to my previous blog post about committing to the race: My First Ultramarathon?
Initially, I intended this race to be my “A” race – the focus for the year and not let anything else affect training for it and participating in it, but Covid-19 derailed those plans. The race got postponed from April 2020 to October 2020 to April 2021 and then finally to August 6, 2021. In between that span of time Ironman Louisville 2020 also got canceled and I was deferred to Ironman Chattanooga in September 2021. Since I spend 30 weeks training for Ironman and it is such an investment in time and money, I made the decision to primarily focus on that race and apply that training to the Big Hill Bonk. It resulted in me being somewhat ill-prepared running-wise to do this ultra, but it was the best that I could do under the circumstances. I think my longest run in preparation was a couple 2-hour runs.
My goal for this race was pretty simple: last at least to the 50K mark, which would be eight total yards. As the race approached I was somewhat hoping to hit ten yards, but mainly I just wanted to be an official ultramarathoner.
The race started at 5:30 pm, which is somewhat strange, but it worked out just fine. I worried about a 5:30 pm start in April when the sun would set much sooner than it did in August. I also worried about being able to stay awake through the night, but sleepiness wasn’t really an issue. Thanks, caffeine.
Kari committed to making sure that I wasn’t going to do this race without her being there to ensure I didn’t seriously injure myself or die or something. So we drove up Friday afternoon and arrived about 3:30 pm. I checked in and got my bib and t-shirt and then began unloading the car and setting up my campsite, for lack of a better description.
I made my way through some serious tents already set up by those runners who were serious enough to get a spot as close as they could to the start/finish area. I found the first open area I could and set up my little pop-up tent and laid out my junk.
My little pop-up tent worked just fine and I was glad I didn’t have to worry about a much bigger tent to deal with when I stopped running, as we had to clear out when we bonked out of the race.
I made some idle chitchat with a nearby runner and made myself eat some food and get some water in me. Kari helped me get my hydration running vest filled with fluids. At 5 pm we met with the race director Tyler and went over the rules. We found out that there would be 35 runners, with three no-shows. I can’t imagine had there been a full field of runners. The tent area would have been super crowded, and running the loop would have needed some start placement strategy to make sure I was able to pace my run at the pace I was hoping to go.
Tyler admitted that he didn’t have a whistle to blow at 3, 2, and 1 minute before the start of the race, so he advised that he would just shout out how many minutes until the start as a warning to us all. That worked just fine.
At “3 minutes!” I took notice and got up and made sure I had what I need to run with.
At “2 minutes!” I kissed Kari goodbye and made my way to the pavement where we had to assemble at the bottom of each hour.
“1 minute! 10 seconds, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… GO!” And away we went.
It’s not so much a race as it is an endurance event. Who can go the farthest is all that matters. One 4.166 mile lap or loop in this event is called a “yard” I’m guessing because Laz’s race consists of loops through his and his dog Big’s backyard. So being the first to come in every yard really means nothing other than you get to rest longer if that is a benefit to you. I was somewhat under the impression that resting may not be in your benefit, but Kari said that most of the others were coming in and sitting down and putting their feet up.
I planned to be conservative and finish each loop around 50 minutes. That would give me time to use the toilet, refill my water bottle, eat something and do any equipment changes that may be necessary.
I started out with my Nathan hydration vest filled with water and Gatorade. I also opted to wear my Hoka Challenger trail shoes. Both of these decisions would be changed by Yard 3.
The course was a combination of pavement, grass, dirt, rock, and a very bouncy wooden bridge thrown in just for fun. And speaking of fun, there were plenty of tree roots, fallen trees, weeds, stairs and big rocks to navigate around, through and over. I figured that I ran about 2.5 miles and walked about 1.5 miles. Everyone walked the hills, even the small ones, myself included. The namesake Big Hill was a 10-minute walk for me.
YARD 1 – 49 minutes, 37 seconds / 4.166 miles / 5:30 pm Friday
I had run three loops of the course back in March 2020 prior to Covid shutting everything down, and thankfully the course was still familiar to me. There weren’t any surprises and the first yard went pretty much as I planned. I spent some time monitoring my watch, checking the time when I would pass certain checkpoints so that I would know how I was doing each subsequent yard.
It was clear to me even before starting the yard that a fully loaded hydration vest was probably not in my best interest. I was carrying far more than I needed. Plus, it was making me hotter than I need to be. There were a few others also wearing one, but for the most part, everyone else was just carrying a small, hand-held bottle.
After finishing this yard, I went straight to the portable toilet and then back with Kari to my tent to refuel and discuss how I felt. I decided to just take on some gel and drink some Gatorade.
YARD 2 – 49 minutes, 33 seconds / 8.33 miles / 6:30 pm Friday
Yard 2 was just a few seconds faster than the first and I felt really good about that. I came in and committed to the peeing again, which I think was a good plan. I tried to urinate after every yard just to make sure that I was staying on top of hydration. Back at the tent, Kari handed me some pretzels and some more Gatorade and I took another hit of gel. I also decided to take a salt capsule at this time, as I was sweating a lot. I’m not sure the extra salt was needed because I was eating plenty of salty snacks and drinking Gatorade, but I was leaving nothing to chance.
YARD 3 – 51 minutes, 05 seconds / 12.5 miles / 7:30 pm Friday
I decided to take my iPhone with me and take some really crappy selfies and photos as I ran on Yard 3 because I figured it was the last lap with available sunlight. I was also now pretty familiar with the course so I wasn’t too worried about carrying the dumb phone around and snapping a few pictures. Here’s some of what the course looked like:
The yards were starting to become pretty routine – Start with running on the parking lot asphalt and transitioning to grass, down a paved bike trail, head up a steep dirt path, run across the grass to the road, down a technical path and over a bunch of roots and fallen trees, down the stairs, across a path and then head through the foliage portion of the trail always watching for tree roots and low hanging branches, across the trampoline bridge, up the gravel/crushed rock Big Hill, onto the dirt path then onto the road, back to a gravel road that changed to dirt, then back to a grassy path that leads to the finish. Into the toilet, back to the tent, down some gel, food, and Gatorade. Repeat, repeat, repeat…
It was on this yard that I decided that I was done with the hydration vest and opted to just use a handheld Nathan 8 0unce water bottle from now on. I drained the water bottle every loop. 8 ounces seemed to be about the right amount of water on this warm and humid evening.
YARD 4 – 49 minutes, 06 seconds / 16.67 miles / 8:30 pm Friday
I changed my shirt and visor and added a light to the bill of the visor. The little lights that I bought over a year ago got a good recharging and one little light provided enough light to see sufficiently. I also grabbed a Nathan hand-held flashlight that I carried with me strapped to my right hand and turned it on when I got to the technical stuff. At the start of this yard, Kari was telling me to turn my light on, but I was surprised at how well I could see just using everyone else’s headlamps and lights. But when we spread out, it was time to rely on my own lights.
I was glad to be done with the vest and felt refreshed after toweling off and getting a dry shirt. Simple things like this can certainly lift your mood.
In the dark, the course was now almost unfamiliar in a way. Oh sure, I knew the layout and such, but not being able to see specific landmarks that were visible in the daylight made for some new challenges. One time through the course in the dark was enough to build confidence in knowing the turns and course again.
YARD 5 – 47 minutes, 20 seconds / 20.83 miles / 9:30 pm Friday
Kari had left the park to go check into the local hotel and grab some dinner, so I was on my own for this yard. After getting back to the finish, I immediately walked over to the water cooler and filled up my bottle. After another bathroom break it was off to my tent to replenish my fuel and drink some Gatorade. In addition to taking a shot of GU Salted Caramel gels, I was snacking on salty potato chips, salty pretzels (Dot’s Pretzels are the best), fun-size Payday bars, and a turkey and swiss sandwich.
I also decided that I had had enough with the trail shoes and switched out to my normal Hoka Clifton running shoes. The bottom edge of the trail shoes would clip my ankle so often that I couldn’t take it anymore. The Cliftons were more than sufficient for this multi-surface trail.
I found a little speed this lap somehow, turning in the quickest time of the eight yards I ran.
YARD 6 – 50 minutes, 45 seconds / 25 miles / 10:30 pm Friday
As I ran through this loop I knew I was about to get to marathon distance and thought how strange it was to feel pretty good at this point. Normally in a marathon, I am holding on for dear life at Mile 25 trying to set a marathon personal best or get that elusive Boston qualifier. But today that was not in my game plan. Slow and steady was the motto. I didn’t have to remind myself to take my time on the hills and just kept that forward momentum going.
However, I was beginning to get a pain in my upper left thigh that would bother me when I ran. I started to think that I could definitely get in two more loops, but started thinking that eight might be my max. Besides having a goal of reaching 50K (~31 miles), I also had a goal of not wiping myself out to the point where Kari would have to deal with a dehydrated, shivering and cramping mess when I was done.
As I got back to my tent, Kari had brought me some chicken broth that she had warmed up at the hotel and placed into a soup thermos thing she purchased for this dumb event. I drank as much as I could and chased it down with some Gatorade and headed back to the start area for Yard 7.
YARD 7 – 52 minutes, 16 seconds / 29.17 miles / 11:30 pm Friday
As we started off this yard, I burped up some Gatorade/chicken broth mix and that acid reflux was not a good feeling. It was just a little too much in me for the jogging I was doing, but it settled quickly enough. The pain in my thigh was not happy however, and my overall sense of reaching my limit was becoming clear. I figured I had this yard and one more in me. At 52 minutes and 16 seconds, I didn’t really leave myself much time to get through my routine. My appetite was fading and I decided to tell Kari to start packing up the tent and junk as I made my way back to the start for the yard that would put me over 50K and make me an ultramarathon finisher.
YARD 8 – 53 minutes, 12 seconds / 33.33 miles / 12:30 am Saturday
When Tyler the race director yelled go for Yard 8, I could barely get myself going. I began walking and quickly everyone else was into a jog. I willed myself to join them. On the previous lap another runner was running through a rough spot and the lady from Canada reminded him that he may feel bad now but be much better later. I put that in the back of my mind and kept moving forward. I was determined to get through this lap in the allotted sixty-minutes.
As the steps passed I became pretty confident that I would hit my goal of eight total yards, and as I got to the bottom of the Big Hill I glanced at my watch and saw that it read 31.85 miles. There was no celebration, but just some relief. I’d never run this far before. I kept climbing the hill and caught up with Viktoria, the runner from Canada.
Viktoria looked tired as well, and she quickly corrected herself when she made a turn at the top of the Big Hill instead of going straight. She admitted that she had made a few wrong turns, but was able to get back on track again. She started off in the wrong direction again when we made it back to the road, and I made sure that she went the right way. As we ran through the fourth mile, I told her that I was pretty familiar with it from having run it before. She asked if I was the one who wrote the blog about the pre-event course run and I said Yes! She said that she chose to use trail shoes because of how I had described the course.
Seeing that she was from Canada, I asked her if it was mandatory that she liked the band Rush. She said she had never heard of them, which gave me a chuckle. So much for making small talk. She did say that she wasn’t born in Canada, so that explains it a little better. I advised her that I was done after this yard and she was surprised at that because I was running a pretty good pace with her. I said I was just finishing strong to make sure I didn’t miss the cut-off, but I was indeed done. I thought she would be done soon too, but boy was I wrong about that. Viktoria made it through the night and the next day, completing Yard 25 and 125 total miles, finishing third overall. So impressive. It’s so hard to judge these runners and how good they can be.
As I finished I found Kari and asked her if everything was packed up and in the car. She replied no! Coach Kari didn’t believe me when I told her that I was done! But I was in fact done. I had enough. We walked back to the tent and started picking up the tent and stuff, and I just let the warnings of 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute just go in one ear and out the other. As I heard go, I wasn’t on the tarmac for the start, and officially out of the event.
As I walked up to Tyler sitting at his scoring table, I advised him that I was tapping out and that I had a terrific time. “You got your ultramarathon!” he said, and I was very glad to hear those words. I went over and picked out a loser’s rock and threw it into my bag.
NOTES FOR NEXT TIME
I’m very pleased with how I did and I will definitely put this race on my calendar. The race director posted post-race on Facebook that he plans to have it again in April 2022. But as with any race or event, I will want to improve on this year’s total miles. I made plenty of mental notes as I went around the park, so here are a few things that helped me and a few things that I can improve.
- A hydration vest wasn’t necessary. Fully loaded with water was enough to cover a large portion of the yards I ran. I was much better off just using the hand-held water bottle and just refilling it after every yard.
- I think that the salty snacks were doing a good job providing enough salt for the amount of sweating that I was doing, but regardless, I was still taking a salt capsule after every even yard.
- I brought one long-sleeve shirt, four regular shirts, and two sleeveless shirts and only used three of the regular shirts. I should have changed the sweat-soaked shirts and visors more often than I did.
- I planned on doing this thing solo, but that would have been dumb. I’m so glad my wife Kari came along to monitor what was going on, knowing full well that I probably wouldn’t be making smart decisions later in the run.
- Book a hotel ahead of the event next time.
- Having some extra shoes to change into would be beneficial. Mine were very dirty and somewhat sweat soaked as well.
- I had a plan of running each yard in about 50 minutes and I executed that very well. I faded a little toward the end, but I don’t believe going faster or slower is a better option. 50 minutes gives you just enough time to refuel, rest, and prep for the next yard.
So there you have it, my first ultramarathon distance of 50K in the books! I can’t wait to give it another go.
The Extra Yard – There was a pro photographer at the event and captured these shots that I am glad to have found.