|At the finish!|
“A lot of people decry competition as a negative thing. It’s not. You come to love your competitors because you’ve been through this hell together. You don’t want your competitors to quit, but you need them to quit. These things are going on in your head at the same time. That’s a little bit evil. A total mindfuck, runners say.”
-- Gary Cantrell aka Lazarus Lake
Forty-two. It is the "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything", at least according to Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It was also the number of runners that arrived to run the inaugural Run Ragged on June 13th in Berlin, CT at the Ragged Mountain Trailhead. Maybe it’s a bit of a coincidence in a sense because I’ve found that longer distance ultras are an excellent means for me to believe I’ve found the "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything", at least at the wee hours of the morning after exhaustion sets in and my fragile mind starts getting somewhat loopy.
The event was a slight twist on the last person standing race format made explosively popular recently by Courtney Dauwalter and Johan Steene’s amazing performances (279.168 and 283.335 miles respectively) at the 2018 Big Backyard Ultra hosted by the evil genius Gary Cantrell aka Lazarus Lake. The race format requires runners to complete a 4.166667 mile loop in under an hour. The beauty of the rather seemingly random distance is that in exactly 24 hours you’ll have run exactly 100 miles. Sounds pretty easy so far, but every hour the race restarts and all runners must do it again and again and again until all but one runner remains. The last runner to finish one lap more than any other runner becomes the sole winner; all other runners receive a big fat DNF (Did Not Finish). Is it fair? Maybe not. Could it be soul crushing? Maybe so, but that is how the race format works. In fact, there could be no winner at all if a final group of runners goes out and none of them make it back before the one hour cut off.
The RDs of Run Ragged added a few twists to the format making it a bit unique amongst the abundant crop of so many new races that have popped up recently which are nearly exact replicas of the Big Backyard Ultra format. Where the traditional format uses a daylight trail loop and a night road course, Run Ragged used a single trail loop for its entirety. Most last person standing races use a relatively easy 4.166667-mile-long course. Run Ragged opted for a more challenging 5k loop. It was a shorter distance, but from what I’ve heard of other last person standing events the terrain and elevation gain (≈ 500’ per lap) made it a tougher course. While a good portion of the Run Ragged course was runnable, it was not easy or mindless running. The more runnable sections were broken up by technical stretches, short and steep climbs, and some tricky descents.
The Run Ragged course is made up entirely of the New England Trail (NET) and NET side/connector trails. The NET was designated a National Scenic Trail in March of 2009. The course starts at the Ragged Mountain Preserve trailhead following the red/blue Ragged Mountain Preserve trail for about 0.78 miles. Then just before turning onto the yellow/blue Ragged Mountain Preserve trail you are treated to a pretty welcome vista overlooking Lower Heart Pond. This stretch of trail is roughly about 0.85 miles and in my opinion seemed to be the most technical and unrunnable stretch of the course. After that you hop onto section 15 of the NET for about 1.52 miles. The course wraps up by following the orange/blue Ragged Mountain Preserve trail for the last 0.68 miles. Now I know what you’re probably thinking, “That equals a total of 3.83 miles! You said it was a 5k loop!” Let me explain. These distances are based on the trail map on the Ultrasignup registration page. The NET trail map itinerary page confirms the distances of the yellow/blue and orange/blue trails, but the course only uses short portions of the other two trails so their distances can not be confirmed there. My gps data was pretty close to what the RD had said, that it is a 5kish loop so rather than going round in circles indefinitely (pun intended) over this topic, I’ll leave the discussion of distances there.
|Map from the Run Ragged registration page.|
First things first, let’s get the obvious on the table. A last person standing event is nothing like a normal race. In fact, after running this one as my first I even question calling it a race at all. I first became interested in the format when I listened Billy Yang’s interview of Guillaume Calmettes following his win at the 2017 Big Backyard Ultra. Then after following Courtney and Johan’s epic battle in 2018 I felt I needed some of that in my life. I applied for the 2019 Big Backyard Ultra and so did many other more qualified ultrarunners. I was disappointed to not even make the waitlist, but thankfully many last person standing events starting popping up all over. I figured that if I ever want to be selected to run at the Big Backyard Ultra inTN, the best way to do it is to earn a spot there by building my resume. So I jumped into the most local last person standing event I could find, Run Ragged with every intention of being the last person standing. I know I’m not the most talented runner out there and I don’t follow a strict training plan or specific diet. But I can be extremely rigid and single minded once I have my mind set to something and I hate the idea of giving up or quitting. The way I saw it, these qualities may give me a distinct advantage over far more talented and better trained runners than myself so why not just go all in?
The start of the race was strange. The 5k loop was easy to do within the allotted hour at a relaxed pace even with the technical single track and the elevation change. I didn’t push myself to get it done faster than I had to and was getting it done comfortably in about 45-50 minutes during all of the daylight hours. My strategy was to do as little damage to my body as possible early on so I could last as long as possible. This meant not exerting myself if it wasn’t necessary. It meant being careful of foot placement with every step to minimize impact and avoid any unnecessary damage to my feet to curtail foot pain in the later stages. With this strategy in my head, my mind was on the long game. Mentally I was already wondering if this would go into a second overnight run and was telling myself to be ready for it if it did. With the 10 minutes or so that I had between laps I spent my time taking selfies, refueling, and rehydrating. I ate a mix of real food (whatever was available at the aid station: Doritos, pizza, rice soup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, grilled cheeses, oranges, etc.) and Science In Sport isotonic gels. For hydration, I mainly drank the Skratch that was provided at the aid station, but I also brought some iced coffees and coconut water to treat myself to a little variety of refreshments.
I felt this early strategy served me well, but it was hard to reel myself in. A few laps I did run a bit faster, but when I got back and spent more time in my chair I didn’t like waiting around to go back out. So I decided then that I would move slowly and consistently rather than race around just to wait to race again. The race format was messing with me even early. It felt like a super mellow group run for the first 10 hours or so. You’d go out, run comfortably with a few people chatting it up then sit down and refresh for a few minutes before doing it all again. Often, it would be with an entirely new group or you’d have one or two new additions to your group. Rarely did I find myself alone or stressed before the sunset. Yet that overall mellow and carefree facade was just a cover that this relentless monster of a race format uses to lull you in to a serene mindset that will likely be your demise as it continues and ultimately reveals itself as the cruel beast it is. As a cynic, I knew this and never trusted this race format for what it appeared to be near the start. I checked my watch more often during this race than any other race I’ve ever run (other than the 2017 Batona 50 where my watch crapped out on me). I decided early that I would not get sucked into its false sense of security.
And that’s basically how day one went, from 9 AM until sundown. The only other stand out moment I feel I should mention happened during one of the midday starts. As everyone was heading out after the whistle blew we were passing by a family that had been out for a trail walk and stuck around to watch the start of a “race”. A young rather perplexed looking girl in the family watched all the runners shuffle by, many with either an Icee pop or slice of pizza in their hands. “This is a race?!” she exclaimed in a baffled tone as we passed. That single phrase and how she said it had me laughing for a good part of the next lap.
Then it became dusk, headlamps came out, and soon after we were into the night running portion of this competition. My pace and strategy didn’t really change much over night. I was kinda looking forward to the night portion of the race because I hadn’t run through the night since my last 100 miler (Mines of Spain) back in October. There’s something about running through the night on trails with nothing but your headlamp to light your way that I love. I love how it is a release from all of my normal day to day worries. When I’m trail running through the night all that matters is forward motion and getting to where I’m going. My entire universe reaches only as far as the light from my headlamp. The other reason that I was looking forward to the night was because I assumed that’s when more runners would start dropping and I’d be able to edge closer to a win. This turned out to be true and I found myself alone on the trail more and more often as the night went on.
For the first mile on one lap overnight I decided I would keep pace with the dwindling lead pack as they went out from the start. After that mile, I said to myself “No more of that. My strategy seems to be serving me well, why change it now?” Not that I knew if my strategy was better, but I wanted to find out how long I could last without risking blowing myself up. The only other highlight from overnight that I want to point out was the volunteer that was stationed as the overlook cliff guard from about 8 PM to 4 AM. This dude was full of energy and had Coke and Mountain Dew shots lined up for us every time we passed. He had a cowbell to ring leading up to his station and a cymbal to hit as you were exiting. He was an aid station hype man and just what ultrarunners need during those low points at the wee hours of the morning. He even hyped up a midnight drink special he had planned for us. It turned out to be apple cider vinegar with a sprinkle of cayenne pepper, I think? It doesn’t sound good, but it was oddly refreshing at the time.
After 52.7 miles and 17 hours we were down to four runners by the early hours of the morning. As daylight broke I realized how many runners we had lost overnight and how few runners remained. Then three laps later after the sun had risen we lost one more. It was now down to the final three. The three of us would continue to battle mentally and physically with ourselves and with one another for nearly another 50k before anyone finally gave in. During those nine laps the three of us all went out together. I can’t speak for where the other two were mentally, but I was feeling isolated for a good part of those laps. The other two runners were more local, had a girlfriend/wife with them (at some point), and seemed to at least be running friends with some of the volunteers. I went solo to this race and it was my first race in CT so I was meeting all of these people for the first time. In my mind at the time that seemed like a huge advantage for the other two runners. Especially when a volunteer started reading Facebook posts from their trail running group rooting for the two of them. It was hard not to feel like an outsider in that moment. But a few people that I had just met less than 24 hours earlier stepped up and gave me encouragement. One person in particular who I had only chatted with online a few times previously went out of their way after their final lap to let me know they were betting on me to win this thing. It may have not seemed like much to that person at the time, but at some of my lowest, loneliest moments it helped keep me going.
My absolute lowest point of the race was the 25th lap. After 24 hours of running without sleep and not having a finish line in sight, it all started to catch up with me. The other two guys were both consistently finishing their laps faster than me and had more time to regroup between laps where as my pace had slowed and I was typically coming in with about five minutes to spare. Mentally it was wearing on me and I began to think it was only a matter of time until I didn’t make a cut off. Before the one mile mark of that lap I almost turned around and walked back to the start to quit. But I didn’t. I figured I’m almost a mile out, I might as well finish this lap before I quit. As I passed the new cliff guard volunteer I announced that this would likely be my last lap. She tried to encourage me, but I didn’t pay it much attention. I decided to call my wife to tell her I was ready to take my first DNF. After a short conversation with her I agreed to finish this lap and to keep finishing laps until I got timed out. Talking to her and my two sons lit a bit of a fire in me for the remainder of that lap and I moved well until I got back to the restart. Then it was mostly lows again. At one point I actually sat down on a log that was across the trail and told myself that if I sat there long enough I wouldn’t be able to make it back in time and I would be able to quit without saying I quit. But I got off of that log and ran it in before the cut off. Some of this mental anguish may have been due to nutrition as none of the aid station food was sounding good anymore and I hadn’t eaten much real food since the soup in the early hours of the morning. Thankfully I guess I started to recognize this and fixed it by devouring bananas, leaving every start with a banana in my hand and sometimes with one in my water bottle pocket as well.
At every break between laps I would try to size up the other two guys. They were both getting more recovery time between laps and neither were showing any signs of quitting as hard as I looked for them. Which is why it was so unexpected when one of them (Joseph Nuara) finally threw in the towel after 29 hours and 89.9 miles. It nearly brought me to tears when he said he was done, but once I started running the next lap it gave me a spark. It was now down to two. As we headed out for or first lap as the final two I told the other runner (Matt Pedersen) that however this thing ends, it’s been real. I wasn’t sure if we were playing mind games with one another or just chatting anymore, but Matt and I were talking about this race continuing into another night and whether we would be able to continue to do the loop in under an hour after dark. I wanted to show him it wouldn’t be a problem for me so I picked up the pace on that lap and came in with over 10 minutes to spare. It began to rain again as we went back out for our next lap and then it rained heavier. I continued my faster pace wanting to convince him that the last faster lap wasn’t just a fluke. Surprisingly, he slowed way down for this lap and I finished before him for the first time. I was convinced he did it just to mess with my head and was going to come in just a minute or two before the cut off to make me think it was nearly over when it wasn’t.
He came in with about eight minutes to spare then sat down in his chair like normal. I was going through my normal routine of drinking water and taking in calories when Matt came over from his chair and said the words "take your victory lap". Without thinking, I immediately got up and gave him a hug. I could try to express the emotions I felt right then in my own words, but I believe Cantrell said it best already: “A lot of people decry competition as a negative thing. It’s not. You come to love your competitors because you’ve been through this hell together. You don’t want your competitors to quit, but you need them to quit. These things are going on in your head at the same time. That’s a little bit evil. A total mindfuck, runners say.” The relief and strangely the disappointment when I finally knew there was an end in sight was a surprisingly emotional experience and overwhelming; I couldn't hold back tears and had to wipe my eyes a few times and recompose myself before heading out for my final lap. A few minutes later when Matt counted me down to go out for my final lap I was all smiles. I recall excitedly telling everyone how I was finally going to run this course. Knowing that the finish line was there gave me a burst of energy that I had no idea was still available to me. That last lap (39 min.) was my fastest of the 32 laps (99.2 miles) that I ran during the entire event.
I’ve probably gone on longer than I should have already for this race report, but I like to close all of my race reports with some kind of take home message or a lesson learned. Here are the words I wrote just before 6 AM Monday morning after the race when I arrived home with only four hours of sleep since the finish. After rereading this post, I still feel like this sums the event up pretty well.
“After a four hour drive broken up by a four hour nap in the car at a rest area parking lot on the garden state parkway all following a 32ish hour "running" competition, I brought this baby home. A beautifully crafted momento of an event that will be hard to recap into words. But now, while they are fresh and raw I have the main takeaways from this race: 1 - it was the first race that I have ever had to deal with the pressure of chasing cut offs, which is a completely different feeling than failing to meet your self imposed time goals; 2 - it was the first race during which I seriously contemplated dropping for extended periods and was on the verge of dropping on several occasions; 3 - it was the first race that has ever brought me to tears. I was close to tears when Joe dropped, but the relief when Matt said the words "take your victory lap" and I finally knew there was an end in sight was overwhelming and I couldn't hold them back. So many thanks to the RDs, race organizers, the CT Trailmixers, emergency personnel, and all the volunteers that made this an amazing experience for so many. All of us runners are in your debt. Now it is time for a long overdue shower beer!”
|Another finish to an early lap.|
|One of the earlier starts when it was done to just three.|
|The "Three Amigos", me with my bananas.|
|Heading out again.|
|The aid station at the start of the event.|
|Preparing to head out again.|
|Brushing my teeth has never felt better.|
|An early photo of the overlook at Lower Heart Pond.|
|This was the start of the first lap with only two left, just after Joe counted us down and sent us on our way.|
June 22, 2019
June 22, 2019