Building off the relative success I had a few weeks earlier at the Raid Pulse 8 hour adventure race, I decided that it might be time to put the ankle to a real test and sign up for a real trail running race. To those ends, I’d already committed to racing the 80km Quebec Mega Trail race on the July 1st long weekend. However, that wasn’t quite good enough for my liking. My training volume had been quite low to date, and I didn’t want to go straight into a 50 miler without a bit of a test. And I found just the thing to serve as that test: The Mad Trapper Backyard Ultra! My reasoning for this? Well, a ‘backyard ultra’ has not fixed distance. It is a ‘last person standing’ race, where competitors run for as long as they can on a looped course. At the top of every hour, you start a new loop until you either can’t complete a lap or drop out. At the beginning, everyone is tied for first place, but by the end, everyone except for one person is officially DNF! Sounds great right? Read on to see how I fared.
You may be wondering “what was he thinking”?? Typically, in this kind of a race, I’d set out to do exactly what you expect, go until I simply couldn’t put one foot in front of the other. Well, the good thing about aging is that you gain wisdom along the way. Realistically, due to the nature of the race, you DON’T have to run fast. In fact, it’s probably not a good idea. You want to finish laps with just enough time for a quick break and chance to fuel up. Finishing quickly would simply sap your muscles. So I wouldn’t be putting myself in a high stress race condition most of the time. Another factor to consider is that I was going in KNOWING I wouldn’t win. There were folks out there ready to crush 100 miles. That wasn’t me. So I could leave that to them, and just have fun. As such, I started the first lap with complete intentions of stopping after about 60k of running. After all, the following weekend was an 80k race, so no sense breaking myself!
As to the actual race course, the entire event was being hosted at the Ark on private property with purpose-built trails. I’ve raced out here lots, including a lot of snowshoe racing as well as a couple ultras (where I finished 1st and 2nd in back to back years!). So I knew the terrain and what to expect. It would be a perfect proving grounds for my ankle surgery recovery. I also knew a number of people that were planning to race, and knew it would be a great atmosphere. The whole event was patterned after the more-famous ‘Big’s Backyard Ultra’ put on by Lazarus Lake (of ‘Barkley Marathons’ fame!). Backyard ultras are gaining in popularity, and I was quite curious to experience one firsthand, so what better way than an inaugural race on familiar turf with friends??!
With a 6am Saturday opening lap, I opted to hop on the motorbike and ride out Friday afternoon to get my hammock and ‘transition’ spot all sorted out. Being on the motorbike forced me not to overthink and overpack things, relying on the bare minimum of food and gear that I’d need to get through. My only ‘luxury’ was the fact that I packed 3 pairs of socks and 3 pairs of shoes, just in case the trail was in rough shape. Arriving early also gave me a chance to meet some of the other ‘out of town’ racers, Including a fellow who had come over from Ireland to race. He had previously won a ‘golden ticket’ at a similar race in Dubai! Talk about a cool addition to the race right? After chatting a bit, it was time to have a very bad night of sleep before the start :-).
As planned the show got underway promptly at 6am on Saturday morning. Regardless of if you came out to run 5k or 160k, everyone starts at the same time, and by and large, most people end up running as a group, since there is no real point in ‘racing’. In that way, it was all very sociable. in fact, when the starting gun sounded, we kind of made fun of the first person to take off to the front of the group. Due to the terrain, Mike had decided to offer 2 different loops to use. One was supposed to be 6.7k, and the other 5.5k. Participants could choose the ‘classic’ 6.7k loop or the ‘junior’ 5k loop. The overall victory would go to the person who completed the most 6.7k loops and with the most overall distance. The two loops were set up this way so that people who were maybe not as strong would still have the option to push themselves longer than they might otherwise be able to do on the long loops. This was especially due to the fact that on these loops, there was quite a bit of elevation gain. On other courses, the terrain is quite flat, whereas here, it was ALL singletrack, mid-level technical terrain with lots of topology.
The night before, I’d actually ran a practice loop of the classic trail, and I had actually measured it out to be about 6.2k rather than 6.7k. Similarly, it turned out the junior loop was more like 5k. This was due to a last minute course change Mike had made due to a measurement error. This made both courses even more doable than originally predicted, so it was anyone guess how long things would go. Mark (the Irishman) had won his event in 24 hours (in the desert), while the record holder at the original Big’s Backyard Ultra ran for 67 hours!!! Mike hoped to see a 24hr + race, but no one knew what would happen. I started by thinking I’d do a few loops of the long course, then drop down to the 5k loop for fun. However, after the first loop, I felt great, and with the ‘shortened’ classic loop, I started thinking that maybe I’d just stay on that loop.
Loop 1 was finished just under 50 minutes for me, giving ample time to stretch the muscles, eat, drink, and socialize. Every loop, with 3 minutes to go, a custom-made song was played, with bells rung at the 3, 2, and 1 minute mark. There was also an audible 10 second countdown, and if you weren’t in the start corral when the word ‘GO’ was uttered, you were OUT, and DNF’d. After loop 1, this was absolutely no problem for anyone assembled. In fact, it’s rather misleading at this point, as you feel so fresh, and think ‘I could do this all day’. Well, time would tell, as the clock NEVER stops. If you have a bad loop, or feel bad, you can’t take a 10 minute break like you would in a longer traditional Ultra. You have to dig in and just keep moving. So on this went for several loops.
The first 3 or so loops were pretty cool temperature-wise, with the long grass in the fields wet with morning dew. We all enjoyed the day as it unfurled before us during the loops. By loop 4 the sun was out, the trail mostly dry, and most of us had found a pretty good rhythm. By this point, you also were staring to feel a bit of the ‘groundhog day’ effect. We got to know the landmarks on the course, knowing for example that such and such a bridge was at 1k from the finish, or the sugar shack preceded a certain trail section, etc. etc. The one thing implemented which was designed to keep things interesting was the fact that we alternated directions with each loop. Clockwise for one loop, then counterclockwise. Each had their ups and downs, literally. Personally, I found them both about the same in terms of technical challenge. I was also starting to settle into a fairly predictable time of 50 minutes per loop.
By the end of the 5th lap, Deanna had made her way out in the car to join in the fun for a bit, cheering us on at the start/finish area and hanging out with others. At this point, people were starting to drop out. For ‘junior’ loopers, this meant about a 25k race. Regardless of the fact that you DNF, most people were pretty ecstatic abut their races. Due to the format, people would find themselves motivated to try ‘just one more loop’ instead of stopping. There was no harm or risk in trying it, and led to folks running further than they thought they could. I was happy to see people crossing the line with each lap grinning and deciding to go out again.
Sometime around Lap 8, I got worried. Not because it was hard or I was injured, but because I was having too much damn fun! I wasn’t hurting at all, and my pace was still absolutely consistent. My worry was because I didn’t really feel like stopping. I knew that I HAD to, in order to ensure I was fresh for the next weekend’s race, but how do you STOP wen you don’t need to? I was in uncharted territory mentally. Id stuck to the ‘classic loops’ with the other contenders and had shared the trails and laughs with all of them, getting to know people. I’d covered almost 50k by the end of loop 8, but still feels like I was on loop 2 or 3! By now, quite a few people had been ‘tapped out’ (courtesy of clip of Taps played over the speaker), and were rocking their bright orange DNF shirts. But lots of them had stuck around to keep the atmosphere fun and cheer those of us still running.
Loop 9 came and went, and finally found myself in the corral for loop 10. At the end, this would put me at 62km, and my theoretical stopping point. I believe there were only 6 or 7 of us left already at this point on the ‘classic loops’. I mused to myself ‘could I win this’? ‘should I keep going’? But that was fools thinking. I had to stick to my plan. Lucky for me, on the 10th loop, I definitely started feeling the effort in my legs. I felt I was pushing much harder to maintain the same pace. I was also feeling the heat of the day, and could tell my legs might start cramping if I wasn’t careful. To top it off, Dave McMahon was now on the loop with a camera in hand and was chasing us around the trails. As such, I probably pushed harder than needed in some spots. Thanks to all this, I came to grips with my choice, and told everyone I was definitely dropping out. A number of folks who know me really didn’t believe I’d stop that way :-).
True to my word, I crossed the line of my 10th lap, still in about 51 minutes, but told Mike I was done. Out. Finished. He tried to egg me on, but I stuck to my plan. Besides I wanted to transition to spectator mode and see how this would all play our. I’d already decided that I’d be staying until the last person tapped out, and get to see the ultimate winner. I hoped it wouldn’t be 67 hours, but I was ready to stay for the duration. Lap after lap, the same people were going out. There was a good core group of runners contending for the title, but gradually, the field was whittled down.
Before sunset, the course had another twist. Racers would complete a final trail lap before moving onto the gravel road for the overnight legs. It would be a pure out and back, but the distance was upped to almost 7k! Big jump, but it was no longer technical singletrack. However, it still had some big monster climbs for runners, so in many ways it was no easier, and mentally, may have been even more challenging. At this point, we were down to 4 racers on the ‘classic’ loops. However, one of them had already stated he’d stop at 100k regardless. Shame, as he was probably the strongest and freshest looking of the lot on most loops, easily finishing loops and resting easy between loops. By this point, the others would intermittently have slower or faster loops, with one competitor (Terri) having less than a minute in some cases!
At the end of the first night loop, Francois, true to his word, dropped out at the 100k point. We were down to 3 heroic racers, and a determined group of us spectators. Somewhere around 2am (I think), we finally lost the 3rd to last person. I had hopped into my hammock briefly, and no one thought to wake me to see his completion. Booo! However, it meant we were down to Terri Bilosky and Guy Doiron, both of which really wanted to win it. Lap after lap they went out. Lap 22 was a real nail biter. Guy had cruised in with 7 minutes so spare, but with under a minute, Terri was still running up the final climb. It was insane! With 20 seconds or so left, she made it to he corral in time to turn around and head back for lap 23. The look on Guy’s face was priceless. You could see he really didn’t want to head out again, and was no doubt silently cursing Terri for forcing another lap. This was now lap 23, and at the end of this, if they both made it, they’d be heading out onto the trails again, since the sun would be rising.
I’ll save he suspense. It ended this time. Guy made it in with time to spare, and got set for the next loop, but as the 3 minute countdown played on, there was no sign of Terri. Ultimately, she came in about 46 seconds too late. This left Guy the sole finisher of Loop 23, and the winner! It was both exciting and anticlimactic, as we were all pretty beat. We had a very short celebration, before everyone crashed for a few hours. It was then time to break camp and head home. Looking back, that was a truly unique an fun event. I’ll definitely take on another one at one point, and likely actually try to contend and see how far I can go. Till then, if you’d like to see a video of how it all unfolded, you’re in luck, I filmed it! See the video below. Up next, QMT 50 miler! Stay tuned for that report next!!