|The DNF bracelet was turned in when a runner DNF'd.|
The backyard race format seems to still be growing in popularity with more races of this format popping up around the world. It’s a unique format as it has no set total distance or time that runners must complete; they must simply go farther than every other runner there. The standard format is a 4.167̅ mile loop that is run every hour on the hour. Every runner must finish the loop within the hour and then be at the starting line for the start of the next loop at the next hour. If the runner doesn’t make it back within the hour or is not at the starting line for the start of the next lap, that runner is out of the race with a DNF. This continues until only one runner is left. The winner must complete one loop more within the hour than any other runner. There is also the possibility that the race wins if multiple runners go out for a loop and all fail to finish before the hour cut off. It’s a harsh and unforgiving format that is as mentally draining as it is physically.
|Runners' aid station areas.|
The original backyard ultra, Big’s Backyard hosted by the infamous Lazarus Lake aka Gary Cantrell, alternates between a trail loop during the day and a road loop during the night. KBU diverged from this format by using a single trail loop for the entirety of the race. This was done as a safety precaution at the request of the hosting venue. The race was held at Mauch Chunk Lake Park in Jim Thorpe, PA. The park is home to a 345-acre reservoir which was built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in early 1972 to protect the town of Jim Thorpe from damaging and recurring flooding of Mauch Chunk Creek. In addition to a flood control project, the reservoir and dam provide an outdoor recreational area. The park hosts access to a network of trails: Switchback Trail (13.7 miles), Shoreline Trail (0.8 miles), Fireline and Galen’s Surprise Trail (9.9 miles), Orchard Trail (0.8 miles), Board Bottom Trail (0.5 miles), and Anna’s Trail (0.4 miles). However, the course for the race would only showcase about 4 miles of trails.
|Image from race website https://keystonebackyardultra.weebly.com/course-info.html|
The course for the race was basically a large lollipop type course with a loop built into the lollipop. The start/finish area for the race was a large grass field directly across from the parking area for the lake. It provided a great view and ample space for runners to set up their personalized aid station and recovery areas. The course started by following a 0.1 mile stretch of the paved entrance road to the switchback trail. This roughly one mile section of the trail felt mostly like a rail trail. There was one short hill up a gravel stretch, but otherwise any elevation change in this section was extremely gradual. The course then turned, hopping on Board Bottom for the looped section of the course. This half mile stretch of single track was easily the most technical section of the course. There were a couple short climbs and descents with exposed root and rocks scattered throughout, but it certainly wasn’t the most technical terrain I’ve seen in PA. The way the course was set up, this technical half mile stretch would be run twice every lap. After 1.5 miles on the Board Bottom / Switchback loop the course followed Anna’s trail for about 0.2 miles to the Orchard trail. Anna’s trail offered a bit more single track and the steepest climb of the entire course before dropping you off on to the Orchard trail. The Orchard trail was basically a grass pathway, wooded on both sides. While it was not steep, it did offer a subtle change in elevation that was far more noticeable as the miles wore on. From there it was about a 0.8 mile stretch until connecting back with the Switchback trail to return to the start/finish area.
|A prerace selfie.|
Planning my strategy for the race and nutrition were the other key factors I focused on leading up to the race. During my last two backyard format races (Run Ragged and Last Idiot Standing) my strategy was a slow and steady pace throughout. I would run/walk my lap and finish with about 8-12 minutes until the start of the next. For me, less sitting between laps but just enough time to discard trash, refill bottles, and get some calories in was ideal. Since this strategy had worked so well for me so far, I planned to use it at KBU. Nutrition was a bit tougher to plan as only hydration was provided at KBU. No aid station food was provided due to covid precautions. I went with what has been a consistent performer for me in past long, hard efforts, the glorious pierogi. I boiled a box of Mrs. T’s potato and cheese pierogis the day before the race and tossed them in a tupperware with melted butter. My other goto for actual food is mashed potatoes. I prepared a family size package of Idahoan instant potatoes and added about two scoops to small flour tortillas to make about 8 mini mashed potato burritos. I tossed the extra mashed potato into another tupperware. I also packed a couple cans of chicken and rice soup, Chef Boyardee mini raviolis, and three peanut butter sandwiches. I stocked up on snacks and some sweets as well: Funyuns, pretzels, dill flavored chips, sour patch kids, candied ginger, and chocolate covered espresso beans. I also packed some hydration treats in my cooler: coconut water, Coca-Cola, aloe water, and iced coffee.
|A few hours in.|
With all my calorie and hydration needs in order, I packed my other aid station gear and made the drive from South Jersey to Jim Thorpe, PA the evening before the race. I arrived at Mauch Chunk Lake Park a little over an hour before the race start. I got my shade tent up and arranged my chair, cooler, food tub, and sleeping bag. I had all I needed to run 100 or possibly 200 miles, at least that was my mindset that morning.
I ran my first couple laps just getting accustomed to the trail and the course. With close to 100 runners, it felt a bit crowded early on when everyone started the early laps. Of course the field would continually dwindle as the miles accumulated. The only part of the course that worried me a bit was the loop within the lollipop section of the course. The loop required you to make a right at a fork in the trail your first time around and a left your second time around to basically run the loop 1.5 times. It sounded straight forward and the signage posted by the race organizers was great and very intuitive, but I couldn’t help but worry that at some point when I was exhausted and sleep deprived I would forget which lap I was on when I hit that fork. Thankfully that never happened. After running the course so many times, I was just on autopilot mode and not even thinking about the turns I was making.
The first few hours of the backyard are deceiving. It feels easy. You’re not pushing your pace, you’re taking in calories regularly, and you’re having fun learning your personal routine for the short course. I set landmarks for myself to measure where I should be on the course and at what time. I had planned walk break sections and a set point when I ate my energy gel. Foot placement in certain stretches of trail became a planned activity after several laps. As the day went on and temperatures reached the upper 80s, the exact route was modified slightly to stay in shaded areas of the more open stretches of the course. Besides that, my pace and foot placement had become a precise pattern for every lap.
|A few more hours in.|
The overnight portion of the race went pretty well for me. I started feeling pretty drowsy around 3-4 am, but a couple pierogies and some chocolate covered espresso beans brought me back. I also started laying down on my sleeping bag for just a few minutes between laps. I didn’t have time to fall asleep, not sure if I even could have if I tried, but it felt refreshing just to close my eyes lying down and stretching out my legs.
|The first night loop.|
|The before and after.|
We went on matching each other lap for lap as the miles accumulated and the heat of the day rose to nearly 90. It was around 120ish miles that the first thought of quitting entered my mind. I started having a little pain in my front right ankle. It felt like it wasn’t getting worse, but I started telling myself that if it did then it might be time to call it. The ache felt like an overuse tendonitis injury. I probably paid too much attention to it trying to decide if it was getting worse or staying the same. That was the mind game I played on myself. I wanted to quit if I was going to injure myself and not be able to run. Then I started questioning if I was using this pain as an excuse to quit. When I thought about quitting I was planning the timeline in my head. My ankle is injured, I’ll quit this lap, pack my stuff in an hour, drive 2 hours home, and I’ll be home before dark and see my kids before bedtime. It sounded so much better than continuing on in pain in the heat, but that is what made me scrutinize the decision so thoroughly. If I was quitting because of an injury, it had better damn well be an injury worthy of quitting not just a convenient injury that I was using as an excuse to go home. How could I distinguish the two? Thinking of my kids reminded me of what they said to me before I left and what I promised them. They both said "I hope you win." And I responded with "I'm going to try my best." Thinking of that and looking at the poster they made that I hung in my aid area kept me going back out for another lap even as motivation was beginning to lack.
|The sign my wife and kids' made me.|
I ran the final stretch in with the volunteer that had given me the news ringing his cowbell the last tenth of a mile. Race staff, volunteers, and a few spectators that were still around all cheered as I finished my final loop to hit 129 miles. The race director, Jake Martinez, and Tom were both there to congratulate me at the finish line. After some finish line pics and being presented with a really cool Aravaipa Artworx trophy, I was able to relax and chat a bit about the race with Tom and Jake. While chatting, the topic of mind games between Tom and I came up. I think someone asked what kind of mind games we played on each other when it was just the two of us out there. Neither of us were really playing mind games with each other. We weren’t even running together the majority of the time as our paces on different sections of the course were just different. Without either of us really having a mind game to divulge, Tom volunteered that he was trying to finish the loop before me and out of my sight to mess with me a little. Then he brought up the one lap where I went out fast early and finished out of his sight. I explained that I wasn’t running that lap fast to mess with him at all; I just had to poop and was trying to carve out some extra time between laps to hit the portapotty. Maybe it was too much information for the small crowd there, but I was a bit sleep deprived and excited having just won so my filter was pretty much turned off at that point.
|Race Director Jake Martinez and I. Photo credit: Matt Jurgs (https://www.instagram.com/matt_jurgs/)|
With a victory and a new PR for my longest distance ever run, I was pretty pumped about how the whole race played out. The PR for longest distance was one of my running goals for the year so I got to check that box. However, the look on my boys' faces when they woke up the morning after I got home and told them I won and showed them the trophy was definitely far more rewarding than the PR pride. And the icing on the cake was the cash prize ($12.50 per lap) the race awarded me for being the last person standing. The cash prize covered all of the expenses (race registration fee, hotel, gas, tolls, food, etc.) I incurred to run the race. With all of my expenses basically reimbursed, I decided that since I had failed at my earlier fundraising efforts to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that I would donate the remaining difference of how much my fundraiser had raised and what my fundraising target amount was. After feeling like a failure for running two 100 mile plus races and not hitting my fundraising goals, seeing that fundraising goal met was a pretty sweet reward.
|Me in front of the lake I had just washed up in.|
And that pretty much sums up the whole story of my experience at the inaugural Keystone Backyard Ultra. But before I wrap this up, I want to add one more anecdote that didn’t fit in at an earlier point. After all the festivities were over and pictures were taken I layed down on my sleeping bag and closed my eyes for a bit. I’m not sure if I slept, but I just wanted to relax for a bit before making the drive home. I mentioned earlier about the lake directly across from the start/finish area. Well, after I rested for a bit, I decided that the lake looked irresistible for a guy who felt dirty and needed to get refreshed. I had soil caked on my legs from the trail dust sticking to my sweat. And I thought that washing my face would reinvigorate me for the drive home. I sauntered across the road to the lake swimming area. As I got closer I began to realize how busy it was. There were many families there with kids swimming, playing, and splashing in the water. I became a little self conscious about washing up in the lake with so many kids playing in the water, but I had come so far at this point that it felt like I was beyond the point of no return. I continued on towards the water. I avoided eye contact with children and parents alike. I stepped out of my Oofos sandals at the water’s edge and waded in. After 30 some hours without sleep and running 129 miles, I assumed that how I was walking and my overall appearance may have suggested that I was likely drunk and homeless. I could sense the parents’ collective apprehension about me as I rinsed my face in the water and scrubbed the trail dirt off my calves. I felt ashamed, but I continued on. I exited the lake with my eyes staring at my feet while the parents pulled their children away from my direction. It was an extreme shift of emotions from the high I was just on at the finish line receiving a trophy and it certainly didn’t feel like my proudest moment at that point. But that is the point where the experience ended and that is where I will end this report.