Big Hill Bonk Backyard Ultra - longest lasting woman, 3rd overall (DNF)
The backyard ultra format is unique and poses different challenges than other multi-day events and the problems that I had in this race would have been easily solvable in a less restrictive format like a 48h race. Here we had to run 4.16 miles / 6.71 kms every hour on the hour. After you finish your lap, the rest of the hour is yours to do whatever you want to but come the next hour, you need to be in the starting corral to go out on your next lap. Again and again. Until there is just one last person standing.
I ran a total of 30 hours, 201 km, 125 miles. I felt really good for the most part (not the first 10 hours!), I enjoyed the race, loved the experience, felt that I belonged and had a lot of fun.
As for the result, yes, I'm disappointed. The ultimate goal was to get into Big's, but for that, I would have had to win. When I had decided to run this race, my plan wasn't to win. It was to go far enough to get on the at-large list. But I didn't know anything about the course. I knew it was not an easy course, but I had no idea of the extent of 'not easy'. My hopes died during the first loop when I found out how tough this course really is, with no flat night loop alternative.
Some races, like the World Championship in Tennessee, Big Dog's Backyard Ultra, has a trail daytime loop like ours, but at night it switches to a flat, much easier loop. That would have given me a chance of going long enough. (If you are not familiar with the qualification process, the winner of each Golden Ticket race automatically qualifies and then the other athletes are ranked based on how far they got in the backyard races all over the world and a line is drawn when the field fills - currently the line is at 43 loops.)
This time I didn't even get as far as in my first backyard (34 laps), which was only my second ever ultra race. That was held on a flat loop, however, it was also raining for the whole time. The irony is, that I had to give that one up for the exact same reason - blisters. You would think I learned my lesson! (You can read the full race report of that backyard ultra, the Team World Championship in 2020 - here.)
When everybody is still fresh (Photo: Jenny El Tee)
I was aware that it is unlikely I could win this race just because of the sheer talent that showed up at the last North-American Golden Ticket qualifier of the year. But there was also no other race I could have run as a qualifier, so I was seriously hoping for a chance to go far enough to make it in from the list. After running the first lap on this course, it was absolutely clear that this would not happen.
It was also a "D" race in my race calendar. Meaning I had no taper whatsoever. I was pushing my training hard earlier in the week and only took the last day off before the race to get a break. I was only 5 weeks out from my "A" race of the year, the ITU Long Course Triathlon World Championship. I was back on the bike the next day after the backyard was finished. However, it is also true that because I had just had a gallbladder surgery 5 weeks before the Big Hill Bonk, which meant that I basically had a 3-week break, I didn't have any residual fatigue built up to warrant much of a taper anyway.
So the course. It was beautiful. It was extremely challenging. It made the race a lot of fun. It was a complicated course. It was easy to get lost. I did. Many times.
We started with running out on a field, slightly uphill, through the fields and then onto a downhill road section which became very important. It was a long section and you had no choice but to pick up some speed there to make up for what you will lose on the technical and steep uphill parts. Then we hit the first uphill, single track that we obviously walked. You could potentially run it (as I did during my last lap), but you can't keep running it for days.
Then after a short road part (where I kept getting lost...) you reach the technical single trail. I was seriously thinking about taking pictures or even a video of this part. You start with climbing under a tree then climbing over one. It was soooo tempting to just sit down on it after about hour 25 since there was always a moment when you were literally sitting on it as you were climbing over, no feet touching the ground - I guess taller runners could avoid this temptation. Then the angled part where you really had to pay attention, since there was nothing between you and the valley and the trail was narrow and steep. Three big trees with huge impressive root features that you had to navigate your way around, another tree you climbed over, a shorter flight of stairs and then a longer 5 or 6-part flight of stairs and you were on the road again.
Down the stairs at the end of the technical trail. It was fun - just not fast. (Photo: Jenny El Tee)
Another road part where I kept getting lost. The trails were really well marked, but the roads were always confusing. So much so that everyone cut off a tiny little loop on the first lap! It didn't make much difference, maybe 100 yards, but we kept joking that everyone will be DQ-d... You can see it on my Strava that there is a thin line that was only run once. I was just following everyone else!
There we hit my favourite part - the non-technical single trail. I loved it! You could pick up a little time there and it was lovely. Followed by climbing and jumping over another whole lot of trees, maybe 5-6. I actually got to really like the very technical part too. It was fun and made things exciting, you had to pay attention. But you definitely had to slow down too.
At the end of the non-technical trail there was a wobbly wooden bridge and then flat gravel where again, you could make up some time before you hit the big climb. It was about 1km long - 2/3 of a mile. And steep. Again, you could actually run up but you couldn't keep running it for days at end. I did run this on my last loop too, otherwise I wouldn't have made it back on time.
The Big Hill - steep and long (Photo: Jenny El Tee)
After that it was smooth sailing to the finish. Flat gravel again, short road uphill, fields, uphill fields, more fields and then more uphill fields to end the loop.
It was seriously very enjoyable. Just not fast.
I started with running 52-53 minute loops and that was my original planned pace, but because of the difficulty of the course, I eventually settled at 55-57 minute loops. On a flat course in this format 52-53 works really well for me, but I felt very comfortable with my 55-57 minute loops here after about 18 hours of running. I learned from my first backyard ultra, that as long as you don't need to troubleshoot anything, it doesn't matter. I prefer not to sit around for 10 minutes between loops but rather to make it easier on my body and finish slower, almost like constant running.
I was fully aware how this might have been perceived especially when we were down to the final 6 after hour 20. They were all much faster runners with much higher top speed. I'm only a 3:20-ish marathoner and the other five guys were all in the 3h-marathoner range or under. We kept joking with my crew that I was the cut-off - and I seriously was! On the one hand, there was not much room to come in behind me. Whoever was behind me, only had 3-4 minutes to finish the loop after I came in. On the other hand, having run much faster loops before, it indicated that something was not OK with whoever was behind me, so even if he came in before the cut off, he was out within 1-2 loops. The third thing is, that while I was really perfectly comfortable running 56-57 minute loops, these guys were not used to coming in so late. So it freaked them out, making it much more likely that they would drop out within a loop or two.
I think even before the hardcore 6 formed, a lot of people probably thought I would definitely be the next one out as I kept coming in last. Not so! I'm not sure when it dawned on them that I can keep it at that 56-57 minute range and I'm not slowing further - that is, until something goes wrong, which eventually did.
Coming in right at :56:00 (Photo: Jenny El Tee)
The only problem with cutting it so close is that you really don't have much time to troubleshoot if something does go wrong. But when it does, I can just come in faster and take care of it. Except the blisters... That was kind of stupid. I 100% should have taken care of them as they came up. I did the first one when it appeared and I was fine for a long time after that. But then when I was running these 56-57 minute loops, I just decided to ignore them and not come in earlier to take care of them. I absolutely would have been able to put up a little effort and come in around 54 mins and deal with each one as they came up. I just decided that they weren't too bad so I could ignore them instead. Huge mistake. I based that decision on the Dome experience. During 3 whole days of racing just a month earlier at the Six Days In The Dome I only had one blister, I took care of it and never had any others. What I didn't realize though was that this race was hot and humid. Making people much more blister prone. I had no idea humidity has an effect on the likeliness of developing blisters! Live and learn I guess...
I believe 34 of us lined up for loop 1 and people started to drop out really quickly. After lap 2, lap 3, etc. I was very surprised. Yes, the course was really tough. Yes, we hit night time on loop 3. But still... After 2 laps? Five people dropped after lap 5!
There were 3 distinctive groups of runners present. Very casual ones, who gave up very early. By the end of Yard 15 there were only 12 of us left. "The Dirty Dozen". There was a solid middle group who ran between 15-20 yards. Then there was the hard core 6. Once it was only 6 of us left, it was a different game.
The Mighty Six (Photo: Jenny El Tee)
I can absolutely imagine a much bigger field, say 100 runners where you don't get 6 people like this bunch. They all came to win.
These 6 runners were all very impressive and knew full well what they were doing. Nothing shows this more than the fact that nobody stopped at 24 hours which in a normal backyard race is a big drop off point. I'm guessing that if you go to an average backyard ultra and there are 6 people doing the 24th loop, you will find maybe 4 of them back for loop 25. The others just wanted to get in 100 miles.
In this very competitive field though I was 100% sure that nobody would drop at 24 hours. I knew about all the other runners, except Andrew Pavek, who ended up in 4th place. He fit in perfectly. I wrote a race preview a week before the race of the other 5 runners that remained.
After the 24h mental line there is a more important one in a group like this. The 25h mental line. That is for people to drop off who expected others to drop off at 24h and are now realizing that this is going to be a long game. That's what happened to Andrea Larson who is an amazing and really fast runner and had won a backyard before with 40 laps, as well as winning various trail 50 and 100-mile races and coming 3rd at Leadville! I don't know if she didn't know the other runners or why she would expect these guys to drop at 24. To me it was blatantly obvious that nobody would. Having realized that every one of the other five are in it for the ticket, she called it. She said she didn't think she would win and we also knew that it was not a course where we could go long enough to get on the list so she had a point. But my bet was on her or Jon. I think she did have a serious shot at winning. We'll never know. Jon was really strong, so she might have not beaten him. She could have beaten all the others, including me.
Then in the 28th loop Dan Yovichin came in after me. He couldn't finish loop 29. See, I was the cut-off. Dan is a very experienced ultrarunner. He went 42 yards deep just two months prior in another backyard race but he prefers shorter distances.
Andrew called it when we lined up for the 30th loop. I was kind of surprised but it was hard, so I get it. And it was night time again.
We got a few things right including gear for the heat. (Photo: Jenny El Tee)
By that time I was in trouble too unfortunately. The first night really didn't go well for me. I had tummy issues for the first 10 hours of the race. When you are not feeling well, it is so hard to enjoy the race and imagine that you might be going for several more days. I had some dark thoughts including questioning my sanity that I wanted to do this race so that I can get into another race to do this again?
I also kept getting lost on the course, the road parts. Sometimes I would be running and another runner would come towards me and say "did you miss a turn?" - "I guess..." . Other times the guys behind me would just shout after me that I was going the wrong way. Or I would just stand in the middle of the intersection waiting for someone to show up so that I can ask which way we were supposed to go. I wasn't the only one either. People dropped out because of getting lost.
There were little orange flags marking the course. Except in a big road intersection in the dark, you can't really see which of the other 3 roads have little orange flags. The course also crossed itself. So there were little orange flags on all 3 of the other roads (so all 4 total)! Two for the incoming part to go from one side to the other, and two for the outgoing part to go across the other road. Try to figure out which flags are for you this time!
See that little line across a corner? The one that was only run once? (In the first lap.) And the course crossing itself in the middle?
Having experienced the first night, I just kept thinking about the second night all day long and mentally preparing myself to be able to tough it out. However, once the second night hit, it was all good! I was so surprised but all the problems of the first night were non-existent and I loved it! By that time I knew the course inside out, so I didn't get lost at all. My tummy was also happy after the initial troubles and I felt really good. I also had great waist and head lamps so there was really no difference between running at daytime and running at night time. I just told myself, it was all the same, so there is absolutely no reason for the following 12 or how many hours to be any different, and it was the truth.
I made several mistakes that led to the end of my race and I made a few that were not detrimental, just learning experiences. I'm so new to running ultras that each race has several experiments while I figure out how this whole ultrarunning thing works. I've been only doing them for less than a year!
We also got several things right which was nice! One was dealing with heat and humidity which was an issue during the daytime. I had some special cooling gear and we poured ice water over my shirt, headband and bandana before each lap. It worked like a charm.
Pouring ice water all over worked like a charm. I lay on a yoga mat so we don't get my socks wet - I know this much about blisters! (Photo: Jenny El Tee)
I figured out the chafing, liquid amounts, sodium amounts and learned more about potential sleeping. We knew that I can only start sleeping around hour 36. However, this race started at 5:30pm. So when I came in on lap 26 and told my fantastic crew, Brian, that I wanted to sleep, he made the mistake of saying yes - that if I come in earlier on the next lap, I can have a few minutes to sleep. I understand his thinking, I had been up for about 36 hours. Oh well, now we know that it has to be 36 hours of running before I'm able to power nap. I pounded out a 50-minute lap (the one and only where I came in first!) and tried to sleep - and of course I couldn't. But after 36 hours of running we know I can. And I'm perfectly fine going even 48 hours with no sleep, I had done that before and covered more than 200 miles.
For the liquid and sodium, for the first time ever, I decided to combine science with how I'm feeling and what my body is telling me and it worked really well. I do a lot of things by feel when I'm racing, I don't listen to my heart rate monitor or power meter, I just go by feel. I know by feel what is sustainable and for how long and what is not. We had a baseline that we started with and when I was craving salt we added more salt and when I wanted water we added water. However, it was a hot race and I usually don't have any problems with liquid-sodium balance in hot races so we will have to just see how this plays out in colder races in the future.
I also handled hallucinations very well, I had fun with them. They were very mild since we were still early but there were a few friendly creatures that I knew were not there. They didn't move, just looking from the distance. There was a mouse, a cat and a dog - oh, and two ghosts. A white one and a black one, together, like Halloween decorations, hanging from a tree. Trishul - who still holds some Canadian records and back in the day held most of them - was right, vitamin C helps. But I also had decided that I would just embrace them and since I am not a religious person, this will be my spiritual experience. I'm lucky that my hallucinations are never scary and never move so I can just look if I want to or not look if I don't want to.
I couldn't really test my new asthma meds this time, since I didn't get to 36 hours where I usually start having troubles. Everything worked perfectly well for the 30 hours of this race, so that test will just have to wait.
Brian was amazing throughout the whole race. I have no idea how he knew what was on my playlist - I guess we talked about it beforehand -, but he kept playing stuff that really cheered me up. Like Modern Talking: Cheri Cheri Lady. Americans don't even know that band, they were German! And I was totally in love with Dieter Bohlen (the blond guy from the duo) in my teenage years! Then he put on some Hungarian pop song for the next lap! He was seriously amazing. And of course he always had everything I wanted or needed and was just simply the best.
Brian was amazing. He always cheered me up. (Photo: Jenny El Tee)
Feeling so great during the second night mentally and physically made it that much more disappointing when I realized my foot troubles. It was partly the blisters, but I think if it was only the blisters, I might have just gone the Csecsei-way of simply running through the pain or at least I would have tried. But there was also a toe nail that really should have fallen off after the Dome but for some reason it didn't and it became really painful during lap 29. Now, I'm a huge fan of Zoltan Csecsei - he ran the world's best 24h last year and was part of the Silver Medal winning Hungarian team at the World Championship in Albi in 2019. But I wasn't going to go his way with my toe nail - just ripping it off as he did in one of his races. I'm not that tough!
Now that four days after the race that toe nail finally fell off, I can clearly see what was wrong underneath. There was a new nail growing which had grown out half way and under that is a bloody blister - which I couldn't have seen from the old toe nail. I will save you from posting a picture of all this disaster.
By that point I had 5-6 large blisters too and would have needed a significant amount of time that I didn't have, to treat them. I was able to come in in 57 minutes to change into my Luna sandals, but I doubt I would have been able to come in in 54 minutes with the already painful blisters to treat them.
I think the end was due to a series of bad decisions that I made. The first one was changing my socks. I only had one pair of the thicker socks that I use with my trail running shoes. I actually have another pair but they got lost in the laundry when I was packing and couldn't find them. So my only pair got so full of dirt after about 12-15 hours of running, that even when I emptied the shoes because I could feel stuff in them, I would put them back on and I could still feel that they were full of leaves and sticks which were just so stuck to the socks that there was no way of getting rid of them. So I changed into my thin socks that are really for road running. I think these caused the blisters to develop. After the race I saw from the pictures that Jon was wearing gaiters. Very smart! Except I don't have gaiters because I'm not a trail runner. Needless to say that I just ordered a pair - the same kind that Jon had on.
Running with Jon Noll - he totally nailed it! (Photo: Jenny El Tee)
I had also decided not to buy 2 full sizes bigger trail shoes before the race. I don't run trail races and I definitely don't run multi-day trail races. The only kind of trail race you will ever see me running is the backyard ultra. I knew that I wanted to run more of these so I didn't mind buying trail shoes that were 1 size and 1.5 sizes bigger since I knew I would need both of those for a race like this and I indeed needed them both. At the Dome I had a pair of shoes that were 2 sizes bigger than my training shoes and I never used them during 72 hours of running. So I decided that it was very unlikely that I would need 2 sizes bigger trail shoes and these are expensive shoes. I was wrong.
I also didn't pack my Teva sandals. I had to fly to the race because the US is not open at the land borders for Canadians, but we can fly in. I simply had to limit what I can bring with me and 2 of my running sandals made the cut but not the Tevas. That was a bad call.
I changed to my Luna sandals for lap 30 and that solved all the blister and toe nail problems as expected. But it created a new problem that I couldn't overcome. The way the course was designed, we were pounding down the asphalt roads on two long downhill sections to pick up some of the time that we would lose on the uphills and technical trails. But the Lunas have no cushion. You simply can't pound down the pavement in them at the same pace so I lost a lot of time there. This meant that I simply had to run the uphill sections which is doable a few times but not sustainable. And I could still only come in at 59:52.
Could I have finished the 30th loop in my Hokas and come in early enough to look at the blisters? I don't think so. I was in a lot of pain. And it still wouldn't have solved the toe nail problem. If I had a pair of Hokas 2 sizes bigger, could I have finished lap 30 in those and come in early enough to treat the blisters? I think there is a good chance that the answer is yes so I regret not buying those shoes. Could I have switched to my Teva sandals if I had them with me and try to pound the pavement in those since they are much more cushioned? Yes, I definitely would have given it a good shot had I had them with me. But I didn't. I never thought I would need them.
I definitely couldn't have finished loop 31 in my Lunas and come in under the cut off. I did start the loop, just so I don't make a rushed decision when I only have 8 seconds to go plus because Brian wouldn't let me quit. I went around the first uphill part but then I called it. There was no way I would have made it around on time. Could I have switched back to the Hokas and try? Maybe. I don't think it would have worked. (I would have had to switch back in 8 seconds though... )
James Baetz, who is also an Ironman and ran 34 yards at Ohio and 38 yards in the Quarantine Backyard lasted 33 yards this time and Jon Noll, who was probably expected to win anyway lived up to his reputation. He was strong the whole time and never showed any signs of weakness. He was very impressive to watch and I was very much inspired. By the way, he is also an Ironman...
(Photo: Jenny El Tee)
I feel like I had a good race. Mentally I was very strong. I didn't care about what the others were doing, I was running my own race. I wanted to take it as far as I could go regardless of the other runners. I wasn't just there to win. I was there to find my own limit, which unfortunately I didn't, but I found a blister limit... It just makes me want to try again. And I would like to try on a flat course, just how far I can really take this game. I think I had a lot left in me. I was barely sore and went biking the next day. Eventually the lack of top speed would take me down even on a flat course. But I believe that would be sometime during day 3, so between the hours of 48 and 72. Where exactly in that range is the big question and one that I really want to find out! So yeah, this wasn't my last backyard ultra, I'm quite confident of that. Even though it did seem very stupid during the race to think that I want to do this again.