Persistence Backyard Ultra - one too many
Driving to the race on Friday I was determined to win this one or at least go far enough to make it to the Canadian Team for Big's in October. I estimated that going 37 hours long should be enough to get in but 40 would definitely get the job done. I would have really liked to get to 48 but that is a very challenging goal so there was little chance I could actually do it. I still wanted to try.
A backyard ultra is a race format where you run 6.7km / 4.1 miles every hour on the hour until there is just one last person standing. It is that simple. The mental side of it though is brutally challenging. There is no finish line, you have no idea how long the race will go on and every lap there will be the little chimp in your head saying that you could just end it all by stopping right here. There is no finish line anyway. Not like a 100 miler or a 24h race where you know exactly when it is over and you can motivate yourself to get to that finish line since there is "only this much left". The backyard on the other hand goes on "forever". A pure battle of will - the winner is the one who wants it the most. Nothing else to it. For that reason it is absolutely fascinating.
42 runners started the Persistence Backyard Ultra
The whole qualification process is relatively complicated. Every other year the Team Championship takes place - like in October 2022. The winners of those national championships that are run simultaneously and are National Championships as well as a Team competition for the Team World Champion title go on to qualify for the Individual World Championship in 2023 and then every other year. To become a team member for the team championship, one also needs to qualify either by winning one of the 5 Canadian Silver Ticket races or running far enough in a race to score one of the other 10 slots. The Persistence Backyard Ultra was a Silver Ticket race so no matter how far the winner goes, she/he will qualify for the team, but others can also do so if the race goes on long enough.
A very tricky part of the ruleset is that the winner can only go one more lap after the second last person, the so-called "assist" drops out. So you never know how much longer the winner could have potentially gone.
The first 6 hours of the race were a struggle and I have no idea why. My tummy was great, my lead-up to the race was good, so I'm not sure why I felt the way I did, but it was so early in the race that it didn't matter much. In hour 7 when I started to feel better, I told my crew, John, to remind me when the next low hits how good I can feel once I'm out of the hole.
Feeling better from the 7th hour on. I pre-taped everywhere where there was the slightest chance of an injury showing up even though nothing hurt pre-race
The race started at 7pm and I think I prefer the morning start. Before the race I thought I really liked evening starts, my last backyard ultra started at 6pm and that worked well for me. This one was very different though. When I ran the Big Hill Bonk (race report here) last year I was very much afraid of the second night and then it turned out to be great. This time I was looking forward to the second night and it turned out to be a disaster.
The first night was all right. I need to get better at running in the dark. Because I never do it in training, my body is just not used to it and it became a problem during the second night. So I will include some training in the dark in the future. It should improve my outdoor multi-day performances too.
After about 2am on Saturday I started feeling really good and luckily it lasted the whole day. Everything was under control and we were just rolling as planned on every aspect of it. I treated some hot spots every now and then on my feet, used a lot of lube to keep myself chafe-free and it all worked great. I was eating well, drinking well, and I don't mind the heat which we got plenty of.
I love the heat and enjoy it
Others started to drop out as early as in the 5th hour and out of the 42 that started the race, the numbers were going down steadily and at a surprisingly fast pace. By hour 22 there were only 3 of us, the 3 who wanted that slot. Brian Bondy, who specializes in backyard ultras, has run 6 of them before this one and won 3 of those, his longest being 31 "yards" (yard here meaning laps of 6.7km/4.1mi) . Amanda Nelson, who holds the Canadian 100mi record (breaking mine this summer) and is the no. 1 selection for the Canadian 24h team (while I'm no. 2) . She is a much faster runner than Brian and I, but had never gone beyond 24h before and had never done a backyard ultra.
The heat was visibly beating down the other two runners while I was really enjoying it. But I knew we were still very early in the race so they would both just push through at this point. If I could get through that second night then the next daytime with the same temperatures could make this race very favourable for me. This is why I think a daytime start, 7 or 8am would have worked much better for me. Then hours 27-42 would have been in the heat which is my playground and neither Amanda nor Brian likes it. I also think I personally would have done better if the second night hit later so in the future I will look for a race with a morning start.
This was my 3rd backyard ultra. I ran my first just a month after running my first ever ultra in 2020, a 24h race (race report here). My success of winning that race outright, breaking the course record and the Canadian soil record got me invited to the first Big Dog's Team World Championship where I ran 34 hours. (On a side note, Amanda has since broken those two records. At least my age-group records are not in any danger from her, she is at least 10 years younger than me!) I still can't understand how I was able to run 34 yards as a rookie ultrarunner, having no idea of what I was doing. But it worked. I believe the morning start was part of that success.
Then last year I went to a Golden Ticket race which offered a slot to the individual World Championship in 2021 for the winner (there are no Golden Ticket races any more, now the Team Championship serves as a Golden Ticket race offering direct qualification to the winner of each National Championship). There I finished 3rd overall (1st woman) with 30 yards but it was a much harder course than either the championship course the year before, or the Persistence Backyard.
People started dropping out as early as in the 5th hour. I wore my mask that helps with my asthma for the whole race.
Now, I had been racing a lot this year and I knew it. But I had my races ranked in importance and there are only two "A" races in the year with 2-3 "B" races, the rest are ranked "C" and "D" so I didn't think it was going to be too much. Well, I was wrong!
I think with this one I pushed it over the edge, even though it was only a "C" race. But the problem is that the backyard ultra is mentally extremely demanding. It takes almost as much out of me as an Ironman race - which is the one I find mentally most demanding because of the intensity. Other ultras I can usually handle pretty well and bounce back relatively fast with a short recovery. After an Ironman I need about 2 weeks mentally to reset.
It was the conversation with Brian that started my thought process about potentially not going to BC for the Team Championship in October even if I win the ticket or get called in as an alternate. A lot can happen until October and I'm first alternate with my 34 yards 2 years ago so I knew that even if I didn't win the ticket, there was still a slight chance I would be offered a slot if someone else drops out or doesn't accept the slot.
There were three of us left and we knew we were going to go like that for a long time. I don't usually chat during the race and there were 3 exceptions this time, I briefly talked to Amanda twice, I chatted with Ben Puzanov who was going to pace me for Sulphur (a trail race that went surprisingly well) if I needed more laps to be paced and then Brian.
I told him that the Team Championship would be a week after the Kona Ironman World Championship. His instant reaction was: "So you are not going to take the slot?". I said "Yes, I will take it and just do my best." But then of course, I kept thinking and the more I kept thinking about it the less sense it made to take the slot.
Chatting with Brian Bondy. I don't usually talk to people during races
Originally I was planning on taking my kids with me to Hawaii for the Ironman and make it into a vacation. The day before the backyard ultra it was decided that I couldn't take them with me. That means I will leave them behind for almost a week while I'm in Hawaii. Then to come back and take off 4 days later for another week to BC where I'm very likely to underperform anyway just didn't make any sense.
If the Team Championship was somewhere closer where I could drive to, I would want to go if a slot was offered. But it's on the other side of the country so a lot of logistical challenges, stress of packing and flying, not knowing when to book the return ticket for, and about another week away from my family. As Brian said after, maybe in the next cycle in 2 years, if I'm not going to Kona that year, I will try again. This race format is so mentally demanding that it would have almost certainly resulted in a poor performance with that race schedule. But if the kids could have come to Kona I would have tried. Leaving them behind for a week and then right away for another week is not worth it given how likely I am to not get far in the race anyway.
It happens all the time that people don't take their slots on national teams or in championships. I was shocked when I first heard that someone wouldn't take their slot to Kona, but it happens. For 70.3 triathlon Worlds it happens a lot. I was offered a slot on the Canadian National Team for this year's 100km World Championship in Berlin, but it is the week after my World Triathlon World Championship and the week before the 48h World Championship, so there is no way I could pull it off. Even the other two being two weeks apart is a big stretch and I just hope that even if I'm not at my best at the GOMU 48h World Championship in New Jersey, it will be good enough. You just can't do them all.
Once I decided that it makes no sense to take a slot on the team, the next question is, what do I do about the race I'm in? It is a very easy excuse to quit the race right then and there but I also wanted to make sure that the decision I just made was not because I wanted an easy way out of this race - that would be an even weaker mental performance than what I ended up with.
So, the answer to dropping out was a clear NO, but then how do I go about it? At this point we were 22 hours into the race. For one thing, there were still 3 of us left, so I didn't need to worry about this until we were down to 2 because if I'm 3rd then it doesn't matter, I just go as far as I can and the other two will play the end game.
But I'm not someone who will stop the thought process there. I still wanted to have a plan, and I had doubts I would be able to think clearly for much longer so it is better to have a plan while I am still comprehensible and then just follow it. So if I do end up being in the last 2, what is the most honourable way to go about it? Try to keep going and potentially win and take the slot opportunity from someone who would have gone to BC? Or drop out right after the 3rd person drops out? Now that we know I dropped out in 3rd, it all doesn't matter, but at that point in the middle of the race it was important to me to have a clear answer.
And then there were three: myself, Amanda Nelson and Brian Bondy (left to right). Far left is John, who did a fantastic job crewing me.
As mentioned above, the winner of this race got a slot in the team no matter how far he/she went. But there is also a list of best Canadian performances in the last 2 years, called at-large list. The rest of the team is made up of the next 10 people on the at-large list, making it a 15-person team.
If someone who finishes 2nd or 3rd in a race, can get on the at-large list (which currently stands so that you need a minimum of 35 yards as an assist or 36 if you are not the assist to get into the team) and make the team, pushing someone else out. The assist's role is crucial in these races because it determines the length of the race so in case of a tie on the at-large list their result takes priority over someone who finished further back in a race.
If I drop out as the assist and give the other person the win, they can get into the team with less than 35 yards as the winner of the race. However, that would mean they got in with a weaker performance than the people already on the list which is not fair on those runners, especially on the one who will be pushed out of the team this way.
Therefore I think the right thing to do is that if I can then I should win the race and if the assist has enough yards to get on the at-large list and push someone out then they proved that they are stronger than the other competitors on the list so they deserve a slot. This was the decision that I came to and I was going to go through with it. What I'm saying is, I didn't drop out because I decided that I wouldn't take the slot. I decided that I wouldn't take the slot and then I also came to the conclusion that regardless of taking the slot or not, I need to do my absolute best in this race and not drop out just because I'm not going to BC.
The breaking point came fast and kind of unexpected and it was a result of a total mental collapse because my plan didn't work the way it was supposed to. Up to that point everything went smoothly, according to plan. I was very much looking forward to the second night because the plan was to start 3-7-min power naps between loops. The sun set at 9pm so at 9:54 came the first nap as per the plan. I was very excited about being able to shut my eyes and relax, even though in a normal timed event I wouldn't nap this early in the race, because I simply can't fall asleep.
The trio leaving for yet another loop. It was going to be a long fight.
I need to be about 32-36 hours in to be able to actually sleep, but because of the format of this race I wanted to take advantage of all the night time breaks since I can't go to sleep for an hour, I can only do micro-naps. I came in at 9:54pm, giving me a good 4-min nap time, that was perfect. I wasn't going to speed up the lap because then it causes an adrenaline rush which makes it even harder to nap.
I knew that I almost certainly wouldn't fall asleep but I expected that the little break with my eyes closed, lying down would recharge me somewhat and then I can come in without any more effort earlier in the next lap making it a longer break and eventually after a few hours I might be able to even fall asleep.
What happened was though that I ended up being slower in the next lap, coming in at 10:57 which didn't leave any time for a nap! And that's what freaked me out. We switched the plan and I took a caffeine pill instead and went out at 11pm for the 29th loop.
It is kind of a mean set-up that we pass base camp 3 times during each lap. First and third time we run by it, second time we run through it. This makes it way too easy to call it! When I came around the first time to pass by, my pace was slower than would have been required to finish the loop on time. However, that is a slow part of the course with two small hills and the rest of it would have been faster. So I could almost certainly still make it back on time. I first intended to just do the next part and I would see halfway through if I'm under 30 mins or close to it. The problem was that I needed the bathroom. Although that should have only taken a few minutes, I didn't have a few minutes to spare! And the faster you are trying to go the more you need to go...
The bathrooms were at the halfway point. The smart thing to do would have been to do the rest of the first half, go to the bathroom and then see where I was and still try to make it back. But 28 hours into a race I'm not famous for making smart decisions. The caffeine also hadn't yet kicked in at that point. I was just listening to a podcast on caffeine during races while we were driving to this race and it said that the effects start at 15-mins after taking the dose and peak at 1h after. Having only done 9 minutes of lap 29, the caffeine could have kicked in within the next few minutes speeding me up just enough to make it around.
I quite liked the course, it was flat with mostly gravel paths and some grass
But I simply fell apart mentally and couldn't handle all this mess. The blister situation was not great either, although I feel that I made huge leaps forward in this area and maybe as soon as next time I will have this nailed. There were 3 painful spots on my feet, two on the left, one on the right. The one on the right being mildly painful, one on the left being somewhat painful and the third one being quite painful. This last one was on my sole, the ball of the foot. Not great for running on it and I didn't have any idea what to do with it either.
My toes were all good! I taped them pre-race and they all held up as well as the spots between my toes which were taped and cushioned. The two big toes had to be retaped during the race and they each got a doughnut and it all held up.
The spots that kind of held up were the side of my feet on the inside where the ball of the foot is, those were taped with a doughnut each pre-race and this was working. The problem was that on the left side the blister outgrew the doughnut, poking out on the top, making it somewhat painful. It was not under the doughnut, it was contained within, just taller. My original thought was to pop it with the tape on, let it drain and it would be fine, I was just worried about it getting infected if I push the tape into the blister accidentally. But this is what I will do next time, spray it with alcohol and pop it with the tape on within the doughnut. I think it would have held up for the rest of the race.
On the right foot, next to the same doughnut there was a blister completely outside of the doughnut, that would have been easy to treat at one point and it wasn't horribly painful to begin with.
The problem was the ball of my left foot. When the hotspot started I put a doughnut there but I didn't really know where to put it exactly. It didn't really matter because the blister ended up being much bigger than the doughnut anyway. At one point I thought there was a blister there but it was still only a hotspot so I removed the doughnut and I put simply tape there. I think this was a mistake. What I should have done is padding and then tape and that's what I will do next time. Then it might have held up! But just the tape at this point only gave me a few hours until the blister came on and that became quite painful and it was part of the reason for my slow down.
The doughnut (round cushion) protected the blister but the blister poked out on the top as it outgrew the doughnut
But again, I could have potentially put in a little effort in one loop, come in early and treat it. It just would have required me to think a bit more clearly, being able to consider my options without my chimp banging my head to quit and also to be able to come up with the idea of putting cushion there and then tape it - which was beyond my mental capacity at the time.
I think the reason I'm disappointed about this race and my performance in it is because this was the first time that I mentally couldn't handle the challenge. The previous two times my blisters became so bad that I simply couldn't make it around the loop on time. This time I could have. There was no serious physical reason to drop out even with the struggles. They all could have been solved. They just gave me an easy excuse to quit.
My only explanation is that it was just too close to my 6-day race which required a lot of mental strength and I set a World Record and 3 Canadian Records in that one. Digging so deep again a month later was just not possible. So I pushed it too far in terms of what I can handle mentally and that is ok.
"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." - T. S. Eliot
I have 3 World Championship races coming up in the next 2 months so I better pull myself together quickly and get on it!