By Ali Lopez
MRG Contributor

Cancelled races? No problem here. I have been keeping myself pretty busy and motivated with virtual races, challenges and helping other runners achieve their goals. On a recent Saturday I had a really cool challenge on the calendar: The Endurance Evolution Backyard Ultra. Here is the description from the website.

The Endurance Evolution Backyard Ultra is a race with no pre-determined finish line nor finish distance. It’s also a virtual race.

Huh?

Here’s the deal. First map out a 4.167 mile loop or out and back course (preferably starting/finishing near your home). Then on race day at 8:00 AM ET you’ll start running that 4.167 mile course (and all other competitors will do the same wherever they are), and you have 60 minutes to finish it. It doesn’t matter if it takes you 20 minutes, or 59 minutes and 59 seconds. You just have to finish in 60 minutes.

Then at precisely 9:00 AM ET you’ll head out and run that lap again. Then at 10:00, 11:00, 12:00…you get the idea. No late starts are allowed – everyone starts at the top of the hour.

When you fail to start or complete a lap within 60 minutes, you’re done, out, DNF. The last competitor to still be in the race, and finish a lap in 60 minutes or less is the winner. 

This is a virtual event, and each competitor will be running their own course, wherever they are. Are you gunning for fast times and a top finish place? Plan out a flat route. Are you looking to really challenge yourself? Plan out a hilly course. It’s all up to you.

The Backyard Mini Ultra runners will do the exact same thing, but with a 3.14 mile course.

Sounds simple, right? Only need a 14-minute mile to make it back. So of course I signed up! I have done quite a few ultras, a few 50 mile races and 50K races. (You can read two of the race reports here and here.) And earlier in the season I did the Yeti 24 hour ultra, during which I ran 5 miles every 4 hours for 24 hours. But this was a new kind of challenge. The distance was manageable, but because I am a slower runner, I wouldn’t have too much recovery time between laps. Also, I am a TRAIL RUNNER and this was done on the roads around my house. (Can you say pavement!) I decided I needed a goal, and 10 laps seemed doable — and I’d be done by 6 p.m. 

The set-up

I set up a few 4-mile courses starting at my house. One had the most shade and would be the one I used most often. We had been having quite the heat wave in Traverse City for the last 2 weeks (90s!!), but lucky for me it broke just a bit on Saturday with the highs reaching the low 80s (definitely not cool by any means, but not unbearable). Here is my account of the day. As best as I can remember things. #ultrabrain 

Good morning!

Got up around 6 a.m. on Saturday morning and got myself set up for a day of running around my house. Literally! Got my mobile aid station set up in my carport for when I didn’t want to climb the 14 steps up to my apartment. (Think that was around lap 7.) Filled a cooler with ice and water and my secret ultra nectar: Pepsi. Also, I had a variety of chews and gels and real food, too. Rule #1 with ultras: give yourself a lot of choices. You never know what you are going to want to eat. Something might sound great one day and awful the next. I always prefer real food, but sometimes chewing just doesn’t happen or heat makes me not want to eat. So gels come in handy there. My fave real foods that worked for me here were peanut butter pretzels, salted watermelon and Oreo cookies (OK, that last one almost doesn’t qualify as real food). Had my breakfast of steel cut oats (link) and got ready to start at 8 a.m.

First lap DONE! 

The rule was we needed to check in after each lap via Google spreadsheet, text or video.  My first lap was lovely. I think it was around 69 degrees, sunny, no humidity. But by the time I finished the lap around 45 minutes later, the sweating had started. I ran upstairs, ditched the shirt (sports bra ftw!), switched shoes to a more pavement-friendly cushioned shoe (my minimal trail shoes would not cut it!) and shoved some watermelon in my face. 

The next few laps went by pretty pleasantly. Hot, but not unbearable. I kept eating pretzels, Honey Stinger waffles, Oreos and LOTS of salted watermelon. The morning courses that I ran were all pavement in my neighborhood and on the Tart Trail. Early in my laps, I saw a friend biking on the Tart and he asked what I was doing. I told him I’d be here all day. Literally. And a few hours later he was riding the other way on the trail heading home and there I was! 

Secret ‘ultra nectar’

Around noon I knew I needed my secret “ultra nectar” (aka Pepsi). I am not a soda drinker normally (I mean, seriously, Healthy Chef Ali!), but on a hot day after around 20 miles it kind of brings me back to life. I also noticed that my body had a lovely salty coating on it, so I started using ice cubes to rub over my arms and legs to cool myself down and wash off some salt. 

For the first few laps, I either listened to nothing or a podcast, and just tried to stay present. Normally when I run an ultra I don’t think about the total distance and just run aid station to aid station. Well same here, except it was the SAME aid station, and basically the same course. Can you say mental challenge. I also had to keep my eye on my watch because I needed to make it back each lap before the start of the next lap, hopefully with a few minutes to spare. This is another thing I normally ignore when I am running an ultra, unless there is a strict time cut-off. My first few 45-minute laps soon turned to 50-minute laps as the temps got hotter and the legs got more tired. This gave me around 10 minutes or less to refuel and prepare for another lap.

Switching things up

When I hit the 50K mark (around 30 miles), I decided the podcasts were annoying me and I could have some tunes. I also switched to my shady course (and also the one with “some” dirt miles) — Oakwood Cemetery in Traverse City. This was around lap 7 or 8 and I also decided that those 14 steps UP and DOWN to my apartment were not happening anymore, so I moved my snacks and drinks to the car in the carport. When I opened my cooler to add some water, a lovely friend had delivered an iced mocha (I had hinted earlier that it would be amazing!) and a bonus bowl of grapes! 

Heading out for mile 9, I decided to call my inspirational runner friend Erika (whom I have talked about endlessly in the blog posts and on the podcasts) for a little distraction and motivation. It was just what I needed. I told her my goal was 10 laps, but as long as I felt okay I would keep going until I couldn’t make the cut-off. She was encouraging as usual. When we finished chatting, I got a text from another friend telling me that it was just me and “some dude from Canada” left in the race. Well, that was exciting!!

Last two runners standing, er, running

I came back to base camp for my check-in and indeed, it was just me and Bill (the dude had a name). We headed out for lap 10, so at this point I am at almost 40 miles and really starting to feel the heat. I am drinking a 16 oz. bottle of water on each lap and eating some pretzels, but other than that food is starting to not sound so great. I also realize that I haven’t peed in quite a while. (And for those who run with me, this is very unusual… a.k.a. tiny bladder Ali). But I throw the tunes on and head back out to the cemetery for lap 10.  

When we come back in, Bill is unsure if he will start lap 11, but decides to go for it. At this point I somehow manage to eat a GOGO Squeez applesauce packet (hydration and nutrition) and a few slugs of Pepsi and head back out. Since lap 10, I am making it back to base with around 6 or 7 minutes to spare. Getting tougher for sure. When we check in after lap 11, Bill says he doesn’t think he will head out for lap 12 but he has 4 minutes to decide for sure. Well, those were 4 loooong minutes. If he doesn’t head out I just have to finish one more lap in 59 minutes and 59 seconds to win. But if he does head out, then if one doesn’t make the cutoff, the other wins. If we both make the cut-off…. You guessed it…. Another lap! Well, of course, he decides that even though his back is seizing up, he will go for lap 12. 

‘Everything hurts’

So this is where the digging deep starts for me. Everything hurts, I’m nauseous. I’m hot. I’m salty. I’m trying to drink water but even that doesn’t taste good. I eat another GOGO Squeez about 2 miles in and it does not go well. I am talking to myself and admiring the flowers and reading gravestones to distract myself. I put on my most ridiculous songs at this point, attempting to sing and dance my way home. 

Lap 12…. Complete. Both Ali and Bill make it back. What now? I don’t really know if I have another lap in me to make the cut-off. But either way, I HAVE to go whether he drops now or decides to go for another. Well, he decides to call it at lap 12. But I still have to make lap 13 to actually BE the winner or no one wins (yeah, right, imagine that… we both just ran 50 miles and no one wins?????)

Lap 13

So here I go lap 13. My friend who texted me earlier was sending encouraging texts, as was Erika, my coffee angel, and my running buddy David. I kept my eye on my watch and knew that if I could keep doing my walk…shuffle… run…walk…shuffle for 59 minutes and 59 seconds, I could do this. I kept reminding myself that I have done much harder things (EYE podcast) and this was less than an hour. Just keep moving forward. 

When I looked at my watch and saw that I had about 1 mile left and about 18 minutes, I started to get excited. But I know from experience with ultras, that one minute you can feel amazing and 3 minutes later you want to curl up next to a gravestone and cry. But no crying for me. I cranked my tunes (coincidentally Eminem came on with “Till I Collapse!”) and headed for the final half mile. 

Well wouldn’t you know that my watch dies…ha! I knew the miles as I had run the course a few times already (!) so I just checked my phone to make sure of the time. It was around 8:52 pm. I had plenty of time, but somehow I manage to run that last half mile and I think a little extra until it was 8:58 (I had until 8:59:59). Then I checked in for the final time! I won!!!! 13 hours and 54 miles after I started running … I am done!

This race really was such a new and different challenge. As runners we know that so much of running is a mental game. But this took mental to a whole new level. The monotony of the course, 54 miles on flat pavement (boy did I miss those hills), the time alone, no crew, no other runners around, no cheering (although the coffee drinks, the texts and phone support were amazing!), and pushing my body to limits I wouldn’t have thought possible. 

Another lesson: I think my nutrition could have been better. Eat early and often is usually my rule and I think because I felt pretty good early and with it only being 4 miles each lap I didn’t eat as often as I should have. Also, my running intensity was faster than it is during most ultras, and add in the heat factor, and I could have used some salt tabs or extra electrolytes. Not usually an issue for me. But what I have really discovered through this new world of running and racing is that, while of course I  miss the excitement and environment of races, I can still find new ways to experience the joy and love of running — whether it is through virtual races for myself or helping other runners achieve their running goals. Next up: helping a friend run his cancelled 50-mile North Country race.  Anyone else have some ideas????

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