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Following a decade-plus of consistent trail and mountain ultrarunning, the arrival of the pandemic shook a screw loose.
The global health crisis made me reconsider everything with all its loss and uncertainty, the many ways it awakened in us what matters and what doesn’t, life routines in need of appraisal. If the early pandemic offered anything generative at all, it granted this respite, a collective inhalation to take stock of our motivations, our purpose, and ask ourselves:
Why in the hell are you doing this, anyway? This job, this practice, this sport. What actually drives you?
For running, I didn’t have a clear answer. Though I knew how this practice offered so much value to my life — the community, the ability to spend extended time in less-modified landscapes, the self-affirming cyclicity of goal-setting and goal-achieving — parts of it felt like I was, well, going through the motions.
Then came an idea:
What if I took an entire year and designed a run calendar that radically scrambled convention, that pulled me out of my comfort zone by experimenting with different running formats? What might I learn by not being limited only by my favorite distances and surfaces? What if I ran . . . promiscuously? (“the miscellaneous mingling or selection of persons or things.”)
And thus, it was established. For the past year, I decided to crank my curiosity dial up a few notches and experiment with five wildly different race formats — Last Person Standing, World Major Road Marathon, Stage Race, International Race, and the 24-Hour Race — just to see what would happen.
Spoiler alert: A lot happened.
Experiment #1: The Last Person Standing
The Basics. Last Person Standing races are also called Backyard Ultras or Dead F*cking Last (DFL) races. The format was popularized by the Big’s Backyard Ultra and is essentially a 4.1-mile course that you must complete within one hour – on the hour, every hour, until you can either no longer complete the “yard,” as it’s called. The last runner present to start and complete the yard, without any other contenders, wins. These races might take anywhere from 50 miles to over 350 (!!!) miles to finish.
The Experience. This was the first in a string of races that departed from my beloved mountain ultras, and it proved humbling. The chosen race was the Chesterfield Last Person Standing Race, in Chesterfield, Massachusetts (two hours west of Boston). Though most respectable Backyard Ultras are held in a circuit, this course was out-and-back. Two miles out, two miles back. The weather pissed rain and flashed lightning for most of it. I showed up with three things: a cooler full of peanut butter and jelly triangles and a gallon of cold brew; a plastic tub full of extra gear and nutrition; a camp chair. At one point, ten “yards” in [40+ miles], I found myself eating animal crackers in the rain hypo-wrapping a blue tarp around my body and taking inventory of life choices. After 60 miles I pulled the plug, put on dry clothes, huddled by the fire at the start/finish, and drank a tall boy.
The Experts. In 2019, Maggie Guterl became the first woman to win Big’s Backyard, with 60 hours, or 250 miles of running. “The backyard format tests every single aspect of your preparation,” said Guterl. “So many skill sets are called into play in this format, like how well can you handle sleep deprivation and extreme fatigue. Can you run smart and patient and use your time wisely between yards? Can you keep your mind together and keep showing up to that line when your body is screaming for sleep? The absolute best part of it is coming together as a team to collectively push towards a goal or boundary and see what is humanly possible. That bar keeps being raised and it’s just a beautiful thing.”
In 2021, Harvey Lewis would complete 354.16 miles, or 85 laps, to win Big’s Backyard Ultra. This was the longest anyone had gone. “I have desensitized myself to aching,” said Lewis in an interview. “I’m not even thinking about it right now, but I’m sure if I really concentrate, I’m probably aching in places.”
The Takeaway. Last Person Standing races encourage constant camaraderie. Whether an out-and-back format or a circuit course, you’re seeing every runner, every hour, and this provides an electric charge of morale. The race is also a total head trip. Such a format is not about speed, but about finding a comfortable pace and being as consistent, and as patient, as possible. Finish the “yard” fast and you have more time to recover before the next hour starts, but you might be taxing your legs too much, too soon. Finish the lap too slow and your time to rest and refuel is cut short. I found 47-minute splits to be a sweet spot of effort and rest, offering enough time between laps to elevate the legs, eat, drink, and swivel my head on straight. To be able to establish a basecamp aid station enables you to focus solely on pushing your edge, worry-free, without carrying much of anything, and that’s unique. Fun concept. Collective joy. Whacky headspace.
Experiment #2: The Boston Marathon
The Basics: A brief foray onto pavement was bound to happen during my year of promiscuous running. As a dedicated trail runner, to train for and complete a road marathon was a tall order. The Boston Marathon is one of six World Marathon Majors and the world’s oldest annual marathon, starting in 1897. (The paper clip hadn’t even been invented yet.) Boston’s course is a 26.2-mile point-to-point road race that starts west of downtown Boston. Nowadays, school buses shuttle the 30,000+ runners to the start, and it’s a hard, net downhill—but notoriously hilly, 891 vertical feet!—run back to the finish.
The Experience: Having just moved to Montana, I found training for a springtime road marathon difficult. Early season races mean you’re unable to draft off a long season of fitness, favorable weather, and longer days, making preparations a little more challenging. But we’re not running these races because they’re easy, right?
Boston proved anything but easy. I found the crowds to be exquisitely loud, unlike anything I’ve experienced in running trails and ultras, almost a distraction from the task at hand. To watch miles melt away so quickly is something you just don’t experience on ultras. The inertia of the race’s deep history, the wonderful volunteers, and the crowds proved beyond my expectations, even after I crested Heartbreak Hill and everything fell apart.
The Experts: Peter Bromka is a writer, 2:19 marathoner, and five-time finisher of the Boston Marathon. Bromka is about as psyched on the event, its history, and race strategy as anyone. “The Boston Marathon is the racer’s race,” said Bromka. “Historic and competitive, very little about the event has changed over the 127 years. For some, qualifying for Boston feels like ‘the amateur Olympics.’ For others, it can all feel overblown. But the indisputable truth is that each racer in Boston brings experience and aspiration to the day.”
In 2022, running icon Tommy “Rivs” Puzey returned after navigating a severe cancer diagnosis to run the 2022 Boston Marathon, to an outpouring of support. “Running a marathon is a time stamp in which we’re able to declare ‘I am here,’” said Puzey in his return to Boston.
The Takeaway: Do it. The history, the hype, the buildup—it’s a lot, and I wrote about all the pre-race pyrotechnics—but the Boston Marathon is still a life-affirming event and something to experience, if you’re willing to jump through hurdles to train and qualify and travel. People often say it’s the closest you will ever get to feeling like a rockstar, because, for 26.2 miles, you absorb a screaming tunnel, loud music, and crass cardboard signs. That is, until you turn at the CITGO sign for the final stretch and your hammie seizes up in front of 10,000 people and you almost collapse into a puddle of mush. But yeah, total rockstar.
Experiment #3: The Stage Race
The Basics: We’re back to dirt for this one. (Whew.) Stage races are multi-day events that frequently involve moving across trail surfaces over long distances, typically sub-ultra, over multiple days. Each day, the runner will start and run to a new destination, and your accumulated time ranks you. The Tour de France or Marathon des Sables are two popular stage-format examples. You’ll find these races all over the country and world. Some stage races are individual events, while others are teams-only.
The Experience: I had the opportunity to take part in an eight-day TransAlpine Run, which crosses the Alps from Germany to Austria to Italy. The total mileage was about 150 miles, with over 50,000 feet of vertical gain. To participate in the activity you love most, in one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth, with a dear friend—we were a team—strung across several days with cozy accommodations and delicious food, constituted a dream come true. Each stage was demanding, with 18-30 miles and 7,000 feet of average elevation gain per day, but most had ample time to recover and relax afterward. I don’t remember having so much fun with running in my entire life.
The Experts: Rene Unser is an endurance coach, staff, and nine-time participant of TransAlpine Run from Kelowna, British Columbia. Unser has finished on the podium and has a deep affinity for these multi-day running events. “The TransAlpine Run is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it’s all relative,” said Unser, a gesture to the course’s unrelenting terrain that requires constant focus and day-after-day. To her, the magic in stage racing is in the teamwork, the cultivation of communication systems that put you in touch with your needs and the needs of your partner (if it’s a team event). “Open communication is key,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how fast you go if you don’t finish! Managing your pace as a team means making sure you don’t burn all your matches too soon.”
The Takeaway: It’s no secret: I am now a stage race evangelist. But it’s also true that these races can be a financial commitment and relegated to those with life circumstances amenable to taking the time off for a multi-day event. That said, a stage race can easily double as a vacation and may actually be even more attainable for many than a single-day ultra-distance push. The distances are broken into more accessible stages, with plenty of time to recover and prepare. And the payoff of covering such a long distance shared with others over several days—I remain in touch with teams from Holland, Israel, and Germany—is unlike anything offered in the running world. My running partner and I are closer than ever now and are currently planning a return to the TransAlpine Run this September.
Experiment #4: The International Race
The Basics: This is less about format and more about location, about the cultural differences and logistical dance necessary to pull off a race in another country. Luckily, foot races can be found on every continent, in every distance, over every surface imaginable (Antarctic Ice Marathon, anyone? How about a 200-mile race through a tunnel?) From the recently launched 30-plus locations offered by the UTMB World Series, to races in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, choosing an international race is joining another cultural approach to landscape, to event organization, to aid station foods, and to community engagement.
The Experience: After completing the TransAlpine Run (yes, also an international race), I was sent to northern Thailand to cover the UTMB Asia Pacific Major and decided to run the 55K race. With 10,000 feet of vertical gain through challenging terrain, every ounce of effort was required to ward off pesky cramping and endure late-race jungle climbs. Aid stations offered fried rice and noodles and an electrolyte drink that tasted like bubblegum, while Asia’s enthusiasm for trails tethered me to a much larger global running cohort. The trick was knowing what to pack, as the required gear on the race’s website was overwhelming and, in the end, unnecessary. I ended up traveling with far more than I needed, which is advisable, because you just never know what’ll be available on site.
The Experts: To prepare for running in unfamiliar regions of the world, runners must take a serious look ahead of time, to make sure their body and mind are ready. British Columbia’s Jenny Quilty, 34, won the 100-mile distance at the UTMB Thailand race, and she prepared for the humid Thailand by installing a sauna in her home months prior. Hannah Allgood, 31, from Colorado Springs, Colorado, finished second woman in the 100K race against a stacked field. “The terrain was just so gnarly,” she noted. “I can’t even describe it. It’s just insane! Really fun.”
Veteran ultrarunner Jason Schlarb, 44, finished in the top 10 at the 100K distance. He has raced more internationally than domestically and was blown away by the trail scene in Southeast Asia, grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the magic. “To think there’s 5,400 runners here and 70 percent are Thai? That’s fantastic. That’s getting people out and running,” he said.
The Takeaway: Whether in pursuit of a road marathon or a trail race, traveling to a race in another country, landscape, and culture can be its own form of diplomacy, one of the most powerful ways to reconnect with the shared power of sport. Because, cliche though it is, chances are you’ll find a common language out there, one of moving across long distances afoot, a rich experience you’ll bring home with you.
Experiment #5: The 24-Hour Race
The Basics: The fifth and final running experiment crescendoed into the most unusual of all: the 24-hour race. These “timed races” can be as few as three hours to as long as 52 days, but the most common timed events are 6-, 12-, and 24-hour runs. The structure is simple: a gun goes off and you have the allotted time to cover as much distance as you can in that time. Some race. Others walk, nap, and enjoy their laps with friends. Typically the courses are looped, which makes for easy logistics and resupply.
The Experience: The task of running in a one-mile circle for a full day both haunted and intrigued me for years. Three days after Christmas, I flew down to Phoenix, Arizona, for Aravaipa Running’s Across the Years Race (and somehow roped Ben Gibbard into joining me). The first half went by quickly. Every four hours you would be forced to change directions, so as to not wear down one side of your body. This timed race community might be the quirkiest and most unusual subculture of all. (I mean that endearingly.) Some wore reindeer costumes. Others took naps on the side of the muddy track. A man drank malt liquor while listening to Mongolian throat techno. Others made hours-long phone calls. After the sun rose a second time, I’d ticked off 104 miles and found my way to the nearest pizzeria.
The Experts: Despite the quirk, there are some serious performances being established in the timed race category. The 24-hour world record flirts with 200 miles. (In September 2022, Lithuania’s Alexandr Sorokin ran 198.6 miles.) In 2019, Camille Herron set the women’s U.S. 24-hour record, running 167.8 miles. “I’m naturally the type of person who can tune out pain and fatigue and push myself to a near-death experience,” said Herron.
In 2021, Nick Coury, 35, from Scottsdale, Arizona, set the men’s U.S. record in the 24-hour race, covering 173 miles with a negative split. While running around and around, one effective tactic Coury used to push the pace was to imagine himself as an animal chasing prey or as the prey being chased by other animals.
Larry Stephens, 66, from Portland, Oregon, holds the 12-hour road American age group (60-64) record, and has run multiple 24-hour races. “It’s as simple as you want it to be,” said Stephens. “Highlights for me are always running through the night, that precious sunrise, and the camaraderie developed over that 24-hour period.”
The Takeaway: If you’re curious about pushing your mental boundaries, and not leaning on external scenery to keep you entertained and inspired, I can’t recommend it enough. There can be some serious wear and tear on the certain parts of the body, due to the repetition, but it’s a near-perfect venue to safely induce flow while running. Just as my right hip started acting up, for example, the direction was reversed and that seemed to help. Removing any variables of environmental danger or technical skills, the 24-hour race is a special format that is surprisingly difficult – and surprisingly fun.
In the end, there’s a clear case to be made for changing things up when things feel stale, when gratitude for something so precious in your life wanes, when you’ve come to a plateau and don’t feel the levity and curiosity you once did. Perhaps these moments are nothing more than invitations to get orthogonal, to tack in a different direction and see what’s uncovered when you meet new communities in new landscapes. We can do this through something as simple as exploring different run formats (cross-training can also do this), all of which demand new problem solving sets to wrestle with.
Here’s what I learned over my year of running “promiscuously:” I learned that there’s never one singular, inert way to approach life—personal, professional, political, recreational. Such myopia can be dangerous; everything is dynamic. I also learned that widening my circle of understanding through immersion into different run formats can be wildly fun and strange and instructive. I gained a new sense of inner resolve through having to be adaptable, by constantly assessing the needs of each new race. Most importantly, I gained further respect for the many corners of this vast running community.
As I return to my preference for trail and mountains in 2023, each run now feels a little different, as though they are now part of something larger, as if the trail grew a little wider, a little weirder, and far more interesting. This past year further developed my working definition of compassion in motion, something I didn’t even know I needed until shaking things up, something I suspect we all could use more of these days. So I say: This year, invest in curiosity. I dare you. Because it seems to also be an investment in joy, with all the wonderfully quirky interactions and resiliency-building that will inevitably surface. Invest in curiosity. Invest in joy.