A quirky fun event? Or, THE ultimate (voluntary) test of the human resolve?
When I originally placed my entry for the Last One Standing Ultra I was thinking ‘yeah, that sounds like a quirky fun way to spend a February weekend in Ulster’. In it’s aftermath, I’m thinking that it may actually be the ultimate test of the human resolve that a member of our species can take.
So, what is it?
Well….. when the gun goes off at high noon, competitors set out on a lovely little trail run of 4.2 undulating miles around the grounds of Castle Ward, on the shores of Strangford Lough. Sounds delightful, eh?
Then, those that have finished in time get to start the whole thing again at 1pm. And of those, the ones that are back in time get to start the whole thing again at 2pm. And then… you guessed it….those that are back get to go again at 3pm, 4pm, 5pm and so on and so forth. The madness goes on until there is only one competitor back in time to go again. He or she then has an hour to complete one last lap to win. Otherwise, like everyone else, it’s a DNF.
‘But, 4.2 miles in an hour isn’t very hard for anyone that runs a bit’, you may be thinking. And you’d be right. However, I would argue that the choice of distance adds to the brutality, as well as the appeal, of the event. Let me explain:
It’s appealing because runners at all levels could identify with doing 4.2 miles within an hour. It’s brutal because it’s relentless. You have to continue to do 4.2 miles within the hour, every hour as the fatigue builds and builds. The only way you get to rest is to run faster to get more time in base camp before the gun goes again.
But, there’s something in the genetic build of the human species that attracts many of its members to brutality. For that reason, LOS is perfect.
In more orthodox ultra-marathons the goal, for the vast majority, is to complete rather than compete. The satisfaction comes from achieving the distance not winning the race, which, with few exceptions, is achieved by a naturally gifted athlete who can cover the distance quicker than anyone else. However, Last One Standing throws this paradigm out of the window. After each hour everyone who made the cut-off is equal again, and has a whole hour to complete another 4.2 miles and stay in the hunt for victory. So literally anyone can win. All they need to do is emulate our primal ancestors; just keeping their prey in sight until it drops exhausted.
The design concept is all important though. If the laps were longer, it would flip back in favour of those that naturally run faster. If they were shorter, competitors could just walk, so that wouldn’t be as big a challenge. But, as it is, it’s far enough to mean everyone has to run but short enough to make it doable for pretty much anyone that can run. So the genius of the event is that it’s the person who can best combine the power of mind and body working together is most likely to win. The right strategy and sufficient tenacity are key.
But what is the right strategy?
That’s a question I can’t guarantee a completely assured answer to; because I didn’t win. But I can tell you about mine, which eventually saw off 97% of the opposition. Plus, what I learned from observing all the gladiators around me during the race; something else only afforded by the unique format of the event.
It may just be a personal opinion, but I believe that any strategy worth its salt, needs to start with a goal to work towards. For LOS working out what the goal should be was hard though. In a ‘normal’ race, you’d consider the distance and the terrain, and figure out what kind of finishing time you’d be happy with. But, the finish line at LOS isn’t defined, it’s infinite; other than the fact it’s capped at 48 hours (presumably because that’s when the organiser’s rent money for the venue runs out).
In the end, I decided on 3 goals:
24-laps was non-negotiable, so I would treat those as compulsory working hours. That works out at 100 miles and, having run 100 miles in the past, I knew I’d be bitterly disappointed not to reach at least that point.
Achieving a distance PB (personal best) was highly desirable, so I would treat that as optional overtime. That would require 26 laps, my previous best standing at 106 miles – in a 102-mile race (less said about my night time navigation the better).
Continuing on to try and win would be the ultimate dream. I knew this had taken 30 laps in the inaugural race last year, and that it would almost certainly take a lot more this time. Word on the street was that there were some crazy b&stards who were actually prepared to go to the death - well, the full 48 hours anyway. So without a massive amount of help from lady luck (or more likely bad luck on the part of my adversaries), this could be no more than a dream.
With goals defined, I needed to work out how to go about achieving them. Again something that was not easy given the format of the event and the fact that I usually hate running multiple laps. So I decided to keep it simple and base things on past experience of ‘normal’ races as much as possible.
Before the event I’d try and run weekly mileage similar to the build up to any ultra, i.e. increasing from 50odd to 70odd miles per week for a few weeks.
During the event I would run slow and even-paced but go fast enough to make the cut-off time for each lap with about 5 minutes to spare. Thus giving myself time to grab sustenance and sort out any kit or bodily issues before the gun goes for the next lap at the top of the hour.
Did my strategy work?
I guess I already gave the game away earlier, but I can let you know more about how the whole thing panned out.
I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of every lap. Partly because I couldn’t: the laps quickly started to blur together, and it would have been easy to loose count had it not been for the fact that the time of day at the top of each hour coincided with the number completed (for the first 12 hours anyway). And partly because you’d be bored shitless after a couple of laps, if not less. So, here are the highlights and lowlights from what I can remember.
My main priorities when I arrived at the venue was to figure out where to set up my paraphernalia to ensure easy access after each lap, and how to interact with my support crew (in the form of wife, Angela, and dog, Phoebe, who’d kindly come along to help). Luckily I found a spot just inside the barn, only 20 steps from the start line, ideal!
And the strategy for the support crew was for them to leave after the first few hours, assuming everything was going okay, have a good night’s sleep and return the next morning for the remainder of the event. We figured there was no point having a tired and grumpy crew as well as a tired and grumpy runner!
The start line
Unlike the usual race start scenario, where there is a lot of jostling for position to get close to the line, the density of the 141 souls taking part was less the closer to the line you looked. There was the usual nervous excitement as the organisers counted down the seconds but, once underway, nobody was in a rush to set the pace. We all just set off on what seemed like a training session warm up jog along the shore of the Lough.
The first few laps
My objective for the first lap was, with the aid of my Garmin, to make a mental note of where the ¼, ½ and ¾ points in the loop roughly were. This would give me an idea later on as to where I stood against my schedule in order to get round in about 55 mins. In reality, it took me a few laps to do this, because I was too busy gassing with other runners. Eventually I worked it out though. I needed to be at the ‘road crossing’ by 13 minutes past, the ‘main house’ by half past and the ‘tape on muddy patch’ by twenty to the hour.
Being able to chat to others was a great aspect of these early stages. Re-grouping every hour meant there was opportunity to talk to people with a wide range goals for the event, many of which involved doing something beyond what they’d achieved before. It was a truly eclectic crowd that I had the pleasure of getting to know. To name but a few, these included Gordon, a farmer from Armagh who’d come straight form dealing with a livestock emergency that morning; Janet, originally of Nova Scotia and training for the Stirling Marathon; and Allan from Manchester who I suspected was in it for the long haul.
In lap 3 I started to experience the first signs of wear and tear, in the form of a hotspot on my fourth toe of the left foot. One of the prime rules of ultra running is to nip any such problems in the bud, so the priority for the next return to basecamp was to apply Vaseline to the offending digit.
The next few laps
There’s not much to report about the next few laps. I was getting into a regular routine: seat, eat, run, repeat, seat, eat, run, repeat, seat……
It got dark.
It rained a bit.
My support crew, who were becoming quite a hit at ‘the bridge’ half way round with people fussing over Phoebe the dog, left for the night.
My toe was still bugging me. Kicking myself because not cleaning my shoes and socks well enough beforehand hadn’t helped. Pillock!!
116 of the 141 competitors were still in the game until the end of lap 7, having exceeded a marathon distance and officially completed an ultra.
Into the night (for the first time)
As darkness consumed us, numbers started to dwindle. By the midnight hour over half of the marathon exceeders had fallen by the wayside, some by choice and some being forced out by the clock. But those remaining had now exceeded the 50-mile point.
I’d like to say I was still going strong but, if truth be known, I was worried that it may be all over during lap 10 – and all down to my stupid freekin’ toe! Approaching the top of the ‘long climb’ to the highest part of the course, I felt something give, immediately followed by excruciating pain. Realising that the skin had given out allowing salty sweat and grit into the wound, I hobbled along the next section of the track thinking how embarrassing it would be to succumb to one poxy little toe. I was wincing with every step but knew I had no choice but to continue on to the finish line, so I could investigate further and [hopefully] take some mitigating action.
Tape carefully applied around the offending toe (harder to do than you think when the seconds are counting down to the next start time), I gingerly set out on lap 11. And within a couple of minutes was feeling a big sense of relief as it now felt much better, with the pain manageable – for now at least.
The wee small hours
The clock struck midnight and it became Sunday. Over a hundred of the starters had now vanished into the night. Well….into their nice warm beds if they’d got any sense. And for those of us remaining, the socialising had largely drawn to a close. We just got on with it, just grunting the odd word of encouragement to each other in passing.
Everyone now was making the most of their time in base camp. I could tell that because one time I misread my watch and came out to the start line with more than a minute to go, and found it completely deserted. For a fleeting second I thought, ‘shit, I’ve missed the start’, and then I thought ‘wow, surely there can’t just be me left standing’. And then, with less than 30 seconds to go, they all reappeared from all angles, like rats from a sewer!
Physically I still felt pretty strong, but the first hour of Sunday was perhaps my lowest mentally. I think this was because I let thoughts about the magnitude of what was still to come into my mind for the first time, which started to create doubts. And it was getting lonely, running for long periods alone in the little tunnel of light created by my head-torch, and with no support crew to cheer me on. ‘Have a word with yourself Brooks’, I thought. And, helped by the mantra of a good friend of mine that ‘smiles eat miles’, I forced myself to literally grin (and bear it) until the feelings went away. (I’m glad it was dark and nobody could see!).
Another thing that turned out to be key to maintaining a positive mood, was actually the power of modern technology. Taking a moment in each lap, usually when I was moving slowly up a steep hill, to post an update and read messages from friends and club-mates back home, turned out to be quite therapeutic. As I started out on lap 14, I was assuming everyone would had turned into the night, so I was quite touched to see a message simply checking whether I was still okay?
The only other thing to report about from those small hours was an experience midway around lap 17, as I climbed the hill to the ‘main house’, an experience that was new to me during a race. I found myself falling asleep. A bit like that dreaded feeling when you’re driving down a monotonous road late at night and your eyes start to droop. But on my feet. ‘Time for coffee next time round’ I thought!
Crossing the finish line at 07:50 and 52 seconds, I was surprised that lap 21 had been my fastest so far. Surprised, because I hadn’t made any special effort, I’d just got into the groove and done my usual thing. Then I realised it was probably down to the daybreak. Not just being able to see the path better, but my body-clock coming around too. And, the knowledge that my support crew would be back soon. I’d already sent my order to bring rice pudding for breakfast ;-)
18 of us had made it through the night and were still in the game. This number stayed pretty stable over the next few hours, as the remaining gladiators sensed that 100 miles was now within reach. Some had publically declared their intention to ‘just do 100’. Others, including me, were keeping their powder dry. However, I was becoming increasingly focused now on just getting to that point. I was seriously doubting whether I had the resolve to continue beyond it.
Lap 23 felt really tough, the toughest since number 13 for me. But 24 was much better, lifted physiologically by the approaching 100-mile mark. And there was a really positive buzz around base camp this time round as competitors and their supporters celebrated a sub 24 hour 100 mile, some for the first time.
It’s actually worth reflecting for a moment on that, as the sub-24 is an ultra running benchmark, just like sub-3 is for marathon runners. Also, as I mentioned at the start, 4.2 miles in an hour doesn’t sound very hard but bear in mind that the time limit for most 100-mile races is 30 hours or more, even on courses flatter than LOS.
This is where the race really starts
With goal number one ticked off, and mood now lifted, stopping now wasn’t an option. I only had to do two more laps for a distance PB, so it was a no brainer.
10 men and 1 lady, who now just need to complete one more lap within the hour to win the ladies’ category, lined up as high noon struck for the second time to mark the start of lap 25. And while the camaraderie remained, I sensed that everyone was also now trying weigh one another up, trying to judge what they had left.
As lap 26 started we were in single figures. I was in a positive mood because this one would see me reach goal number 2 for that distance PB, but with so many around me still looking strong, wondering whether I had the metal to go on beyond that.
But when push came to shove, I shoved myself out of the barn again for number 27. I figured I was still making the cut-offs fairly comfortably and was still coherent, so would feel disappointed in myself if I didn’t at least try.
Ditto for number 28, in the knowledge this time that last year’s champion, Bobby, had decided to call it a day.
Ditto for number 29. I was now certainly just taking it one lap at a time now.
And then I thought I could hardly stop at the end of 29. It would be such an odd number. Just one more would get me to a round 30 and a distance of 200 kilometres.
Allan from Manchester, who I’d been chatting with intermittently all through the event, stopped after 30, highly satisfied with his massive distance PB of 125 miles. Which left just five of us heading out into the impending darkness of the lap 31.
I was weighing up the other four, and I’m sure they were weighing me up. My assessment was that two of them weren’t in any mood, or state, to drop anytime soon – they could go for many more hours if necessary. The other two were, I felt, starting to get close to their end point.
The pattern that had been established over previous laps was that I’d be at the back early on and loose sight of all of them by the end of the first mile. But as the climbing started I would regain some ground and be close to a couple of them by the end.
But in lap 31 that didn’t happen. When I reached ‘the bridge’ I’d lost a couple of minutes on my usual schedule already. And the darkness of the second night wasn’t helping me. I forced myself to run up the climb to the ‘main house’ (which I’d seen NOBODY run up all day incidentally) to try and regain a bit of time. This worked, as I made it round, but my spirit was gone…. It was just going to get harder and harder to make the cut-offs as the night progressed. And I realised that this was another part of the event’s brutality.
In a normal ultra-marathon competitors tend to walk more and run less in the latter stages when they’re tired. Here, the relentlessness of the cut-offs, meant you actually had to run more and walk less to stay in the game. A friend, who sent me a message during the event, summed it up well: ‘Carlsberg don't do the 'Beep' test, but if they did....................’
Unless I stood a chance of winning, I really wanted to finish on my own terms and not wait to be timed out or be pulled out as a jabbering incoherent wreck. So, as I trotted through the woods in the last mile, my decision was made. I was done this time round.
But then I thought ‘what if my assessment of the others is wrong?’. What if I hand in my chip, only to find the ones I perceived to be still strong not lining up again? I could throw away a chance of winning. So okay, revise decision. Wait until I see who’s on the start line; and if anyone else has dropped, go one more time and give myself a chance of a top 3 finish at least.
With 10 seconds to go, there were only 3 on the line, so I was in a quandary. Should I? Shouldn’t I? But then, at the very last second, Pat (last year’s runner up) reappeared and lined up to start.
'That’s me done' I declared, congratulating the others and wishing them luck for the rest of the race. The clock struck 7pm, and they were gone. For me, it was game over.
The right decision?
Did I make the right decision to stop? Well, it was certainly a tough one, and had it been a normal race format, probably not one I would have made. I’d have just kept plodding on to the finish line. But, when the the finish line is infinite, it’s a different ball game.
Could I have gone further? Yes!
Could I have continued to make it round in under an hour? Probably not for more than another lap or two at the most!
Could I have continued on to win? Almost certainly not.
It turned out that my assessment was pretty accurate. Two of the four remaining were done within two more laps, and the other two continued on, running together through to lap 36. And I’m pretty sure they would have gone on further if any other challengers had remained in the game.
Yes, it’s quirky and it’s fun. But if you ever give it a go (and you should) you may well find that it is the most brutal challenge you’ve ever taken part in. I’ve been around the block a few times in ultra-marathons, and I did!
Many thanks are due to:
Adrian and Sammy Daye, and their team at Atlas Running, for putting on such a great and unique event.
All the other competitors that made it such a great, but brutal, event.
The Tailwind guys for quite a few of the calories consumed.
Everyone out around the course, cheering and supporting at various times of the day and night.
All the friends who provided support and encouragement via the world wide web - you'd be amazed how much that helped.
And last, but certainly not least, my own trusty support crew, Angela and Phoebe.
The bloopers and other interesting facts
Seeing a large crowd of Game of Thrones fans dressed in full costume on a tour of Winterfell as we passed by and thinking ‘why the hell would you want to do that’. And then thinking ‘why the hell would you want to do THIS!’.
Being asked by some dog walkers, late on Sunday afternoon, what time the race started. And seeing the looks on their faces when being told 12 o’clock, yesterday!
Seeing more eggs and Guinness consumed by competitors than energy gels. In fact, I never saw a single gel consumed throughout. Overpriced, over marketed, junk food IMHO.
The guy behind me in the barn enjoying a pint of Guinness before every lap. He still did pretty well BTW.
The winning lady, Louise, being the only person in the whole event not to DNF. And then, after 105 miles competing, setting out on a celebratory victory lap with her friends, drinking beer on the way round.
There’s not many races where you get a medal for completing a 100-miles and one for a DNF.
They give you a cycling shirt as a souvenir. Perhaps they presume you’re not going to be running for a while after taking part.