I heard of backyard ultras a year ago or so. It was clear to me instantly that that is the kind of folly I simply cannot resist participating in. But it took until I saw Jesse Itzler’s Instagram-Stories of his backyard ultra on September 1st for me to go and look for one to sign up for. Luckily I found one just within my reach about a 6 1/2 hours drive into Germany. In the little town of Rettert in the vicinity of Frankfurt Alexander Holl or simply ‘der Schinder Alex’–Schinder being the german word for tormentor, how quaint–was hosting the Schinder Trail Backyard Ultra.
It was only during the week leading up to the race that I started to grasp the extent of my blunder in signing up for this. Never had I run farther than a marathon and in addition I began to think through what it means to start at the race where the finish line is not defined as a location but by your personal mental or physical breaking point. A point that you might reach from time to time in other long races, but that you never intentionally work towards arriving at.
So I packed everything I thought I might be able to use during the race in my car and drove towards Frankfurt. On the way I picked up my girlfriend at the train station in Wiesbaden, she had graciously agreed to hold my hand through things to come.
The race-start was scheduled for 8pm. We had some pasta and then I was off on the first laps on the 6.7km loop through the adjacent woodlands. I do not remember exactly when the reality of the situation really caught up to me, but on the seventh lap we had only just ran a marathon’s distance, but I started to feel really drained. It must have been the hardest earned marathon I had ever run.
In the breaks I tried avoid cooling down too much by wrapping my legs with an blanket and ate as much as I could. I think being a triathlete gives you a bit of an edge here, because you are used to just eat from the first minute and stick to a nutrition plan religiously no matter if you are hungry, full or almost ready to puke. I certainly never felt anywhere near hitting a wall, nutrition-wise.
While physically everything went quite well, apart from those first few hundred meters at the start of each lap on slightly cold legs, the race started to give me a taste of the mind games to come. After about 8 laps and as many hours the experience of racing without having a finish line had begun to take its toll and sewn panic in my mind. How long will it go on like this? And why do I worry about this so soon in the race? Nine laps done, 5am and all that kept me going was my desire to finally run a lap in the light and to see more than what was illuminated by the cone of my headlamp.
By that time I had already developed a strict routine to keep me going. Three times before the start of each lap a whistle was blown. 3, 2 and 1 minute before the lap started. At the second signal I would get up no matter what. At the third I would leave the building and walk to the start-line. For each ascent along the route I memorized some significant piece of vegetation or other markers at which I would start to walk and begin to run again once passed the ascent. This helped me a lot when each time I had to pick up the pace after walking uphill sent a jolt of pain through my legs. I can really recommend that approach to anyone doing this race.
After lap nine it would take another two hours until we were granted the sight of our surroundings. At the end of lap eleven when we exited the wood to run the last kilometer towards the loop’s finish the landscape had started to reveal itself. It gave me some relief but not as much as I had hoped for and I felt spent. From that point on starting every additional lap felt like embarking on an odyssey. Had I not firmly committed to running until I was unable to finish within an hour I would have been done right there and then.
Start of lap 12.
After lap number twelve, which was the first lap after dark only 13 of originally 107 runners turned up for another lap. The following laps I barely remember running. All I know is that I had engaged auto-pilot and thanks to the unfaltering help of my one person crew, Nina, who diligently fed me each break and tried to ease my suffering with some consoling words I was able to continue without running out of energy.
Lap 15 had us reach 100km. I was barely able to hold on mentally. Lap 17, 17 hours of running. 17 hours is the official cut off time at an Ironman, but at the time I had much rather been in an Ironman than in this stupid race against my own mind. On the other hand though, this was the state I had signed up to experience. How long could I go on on nothing but the past decision that I would?
Lap 18, one of the things that bothered me most, was that I wouldn’t get slower. Each lap ended in 48 minutes. How much longer would I have to run until I finally start to slow down? My feet had started to hurt long before lap 18. Running on anything but soft cushy grass felt like running barefoot on broken glass and the first 3k of each lap had lots of that glass. My training and strong focus on running technique during the years before working with my trainer proofed invaluable. My auto-pilot had built in running form and that let me continue to run somewhat smoothly and efficiently. So had all that work paid off now? Or was it at fault for me still being in this stupid race? It was hard to maintain a positive perspective.
By lap 19 I had known for several laps that by the feel of my feet one wrong step could trigger my feet to cramp up. The muscles along my soles where clearly overworked and just 200 meters ahead of the end of the lap the first few steps of running after a walk gave me cramps in my left foot that sent me falling to the ground screaming. I was barely able to walk and limped to the finish. And this is when I broke. Because to start another lap I had to make a deal with my tormented mind. One more lap. And if I finish it, even if I somehow manage to finish it, I will have earned to stop.
My 20th lap was not pretty. I was barely able to walk in the beginning. When I forced the pace a little bit I had to fight tears shooting into my eyes. It took a kilometer of this to loosen up my foot enough for the pain to become manageable. I walked and ran like on egg-shells as I knew that those cramps could be brought back by any just slightly imperfect step. Down the first 3k. Up the big climb and then a few ups and downs. My watch showed numbers that gave me just enough hope to continue pushing. Finally on the paved descent it became clear that even if I had to start walking I would probably make it.
Together with two other runners of the seven remaining I pulled out of the race after completing my last lap in 55 minutes, tying 5th out of 107 together with them. I sat down at the start and saw the remaining four runners off, three of which would finish 24 laps and one even 25. On my way to my comfy chair that I had avoided for the last breaks fearing its fatiguing effect I had already decided: this was not my last backyard ultra. Then I sat down and while my similarly exhausted girlfriend watched over me I closed my eyes, finally, and slept the sleep of the just.
I had lasted 134 kilometers and 20 hours. Three full marathons and then some.
This race was such a mental challenge and there is nothing else that keeps you going other than your willpower. There are no distractions left on a 6.7km loop after the fourth time around and the finish-line is were ever you say it is. It was a fascinating experience and I was able to go beyond some boundaries. Next time around I won’t be happy with 20 laps though!
The race was set up really well and I think I will return next year. I have actually just signed up. *facepalm* The organizers had even decorated the course with miscellaneous scary stuff. This race is also set up as a fundraiser for the reforestation of the heavily damaged woods in the area that have lost many hectares to a storm and the influence of bark-beetles. For each of the first 16 laps one has to donate 3€ which is enough for one sapling. Hence this years motto of the race ‘The forester’s vengeance’ followed by next year’s ‘A fistful of trees’. What am I getting myself into… again!