05 April 2020

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What an unexpected and fun race I had this past weekend. Do yourself a favor and check out www.personalpeaks.ca for links to race coverage on both YouTube and Facebook. It may just have been the most competitive and exciting ultra marathon of 2020.

It's been a crazy month to say the least and it certainly feels longer than just the 25 days that have passed since i've abruptly cut my work trip to Barcelona, Spain short to make it back in time before the "travel ban" between Europe and USA took effect and all hell broke loose.

Since then, multiple ultra races have been scrapped from my race calendar and postposed until next year with more certain to follow for the remainder of the year. It's been a disappointing 25 days, but I've stayed busy with work and I did have one brilliant idea as soon as I returned from Spain. I went online and finally ordered that incline trainer (treadmill) I had been eyeballing for the last 2 years to give me a convenient way to gain vert in preparation for my favorite activity, mountainous ultras. I figured even in the most extreme lockdown circumstances, I would still be able to train. Two weeks later, I was the proud owner of my very own treadmill. Well, It was an early xmas present. Xmas, you ask? Yup, because that's how long it's gonna take me to pay for this bad boy.

Before I get further into the race that took place this last weekend, let me start by saying that I have never been a fan of so-called virtual races. In fact, I considered them a scam by individuals to essentially make money and by runners to find a way to collect yet another finisher's medal. Let me be clear, I had no issue with either organizers or participants, it just wasn't for me.

Let'a fast forward to last week. My perspective has changed. In fact, under the current circumstances I started to feel that this would be a great way for me to support race organizations that have ben hard hit by their inability to host their originally scheduled events. At the same time, it's potentially a way for runners to stay motivated in their training, to have something to work towards, to connect with other runners, even if just virtually. While many of us seek the solitude of long distance trail running, I certainly seek the camaraderie of my trail family as much if not more. From the pre-race banter between competitors to the post race socializing to the post race beers, there is a void that won't be filled until we all come out on the other end of this pandemic.
So when I realized that this could be a way to "supplement" my current schedule of solo adventures, I started checking social media for virtual challenges and ultras, not just your usual Strava challenges, but something more substantial. I quickly found out about a couple of events that were either free, seeking donations or charging a fee to keep their race operations going. I ended up signing up for three and am already looking for more.

First up was the inaugural Quarantine Backyard Ultra. What a cool name and what a captivating race format. The OG of Backyard Ultras was created by the legendary Lazarus Lake aka Gary Cantrell. It just so happens that he is the RD for a host of exceptional ultra endurance events and that many of them are no more than a three hours drive from my house, so I am not only very familiar with many of his race, but I'm also a huge fan of his events having had a chance to do almost all of them (excluding a couple of high profile ones;-) multiple times in the past.

I had done a couple of different backyard ultras over the last two years, that all generally follow the same format and rules as established by Laz. The quarantine version was no different, yet completely different. To begin with, participants were participating all over the world and all 50 states, nearly 2500 runners in 2500 different backyards and homes. Yes, even inside their homes. Some of them were running loops in their neighborhood, in their backyards, around their house, inside their house on a treadmill, circles around their living room table and through the dining hall of a restaurant. One Swedish runner literally ran north of the polar circle after plowing her course through the deep snow, running to and from a hut heated by a generator until a snowstorm cut her amazing performance short, but not until more than 2000 runners had already thrown in the towel. I was one of those 2000 runners.

The race started Saturday morning at 8AM CST sharp. Runners would stream their feats live via 4 Zoom online conference channels, one reserved for a field of 20 or so elite runners, but all 4 channels also streamed live on YouTube and later Facebook. Runners could pick their own route as long as they did not violate their local quarantine restrictions. They could also chose to run inside their homes, on their balconies, terraces, backyards or on their treadmills. The rules were simple. start every lap at the top of every hour, cover 4.167 miles and return within the hour to be ready to start the next 4.167 loop again at the top of the next hour and on and on. The time in between could be spent eating, drinking, stretching or doing whatever work for each individual runner. Some actually ran their loops fast enough to take naps, to take showers or even to make the drive home from their work. 

You had to be there either participating and just watching it all unfold to grasp the excitement that continually built throughout the weekend. I chose my newly acquired treadmill as my "race course". I set my pace to a conservative 10 min miles initially and later set it to 12 min miles. I set up supplies, gels and drinks next to my treadmill along with my laptop that would stream my running live online along with most of the other competitors. I set an A goal of 100 miles or 24 hours, a B goal of 50 miles or 12 hours and a minimum goal of 50K or 8 hours. My race ended after just 8 hours, but I am ok with that. It kept my weekly mileage exactly where I wanted it for my current training cycle. It was also way more fun to watch the next 55 hours unfold from the sidelines...or TV and computer screen, to be more precise.
I started my first lap with no music or any other distractions and just kept gazing at the trees just outside our house. It was a beautiful day, but I still opted to run inside to be able to control the temperature and to avoid the numerous hills that surround my neighborhood. By the third loop I started listening to one of my audio books "What Doesn't Kill Us" about the Wim Hoff method. I didn't finish it, yet, but his method is indeed an intriguing concept. I wore out the batteries in my wireless headphones over the next 2 hours before I turned to the "Beast Mode" playlist on Spotify. I knew that would be required to survive another umpteen hours on the dreadmill. Don't get me wrong, I love this new training tool and it has some awesome features, but the longest I had ever been on a treadmill was 10 miles. I was already a marathon into this thing and my mind started to struggle.  Let's just say my opinion of treadmills was no better than that of virtual races just a week ago.

In between laps, I would eat a vegan Spring Energy gel and some pretzels and alternate a bottle of Nuun Sport with a bottle of vegan sports drink from Silver Star Nutrition. I'd loosen up my legs with a quick session with the BioZoom from Addaday, a percussion massage gun that felt heavenly on my muscles and especially my calves.

If nothing else, I did learn that both now have secured a place in my running life, at least for the foreseeable pandemic future and most likely beyond, at least for training purposes. I also was reminded that the mental game is even more important than physical fitness and anyone not 100% committed to run as long as physically possible is going to drop out much earlier than necessary.

As mentioned earlier, I pulled the proverbial plug after 8 hours, much to the surprise of my wife, who couldn't believe I was already quitting. I believe only the spouse of an ultra runner would be surprised by someone quitting after "just" running 32 miles...on a treadmill:-) We spent the next two days glued to the YouTube channel regularly checking in on the progress. It wouldn't be until Monday morning that I finally heard the news that the event came to a conclusion after 63 hours or 262 miles!!! Major kudos to both Mike and Radek for putting on an amazing show for all to witness live around the globe and to Personal Peak for throwing this event together in a short 2 weeks to give all of us a much needed reprieve from the uncertainty that currently surrounds us all. Thank you!
SEE YOU ON THE TRAILS SOON

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