Thursday, March 28, 2019

Trail Methods Last Runner Standing

With the ever increasing interest in Big's Backyard Ultra, there's been an uptick in events with the last runner standing (LRS) format. The general idea is that runners repeatedly complete a loop in a specified amount of time. The field is narrowed down as runners are eliminated when they miss cutoffs or refuse to continue for another loop. Eventually, the last runner who doesn't time out or quit is declared the winner.

Every October Big's Backyard Ultra in rural Tennessee takes the LRS format to the extreme. In 2018 alone, overall winner Johan Steene totaled 283 miles and took nearly three days to do so, narrowly outlasting perhaps the world's top female ultrarunner, Courtney Dauwalter. Until a few years ago, this race, along with the format, was widely unknown. The indefinite time limit, the lore of race director Lazarus Lake, and the resiliency of the race's top competitors have lead to more and more media coverage, and hence a surge in interest. Big's now has a series of qualifying races globally that mimic its format, with the winner from each granted an automatic entry into Big's.

There are a number of smaller, less extreme races that follow the LRS format, one of which is Trail Methods Last Runner Standing. Eric and Sheila Eagan, experienced RDs who also direct Many on the Genny and several other races, are the race directors for TMLRS. 2019 was the third edition of the race.

In the low-key, local trail race, runners complete a one-ish mile loop around Basil Marella Park in Rochester, New York. On each successive loop, runners have less and less time to complete the mile. If a runner fails to reach the lap area under the time limit—even by one second—he or she is eliminated while all remaining runners set off for their next loop. Below is the time limit for each loop:

Per the race rules, if more than one runner remains after 25 loops, the twenty-sixth loop is an all-out sprint, with the faster runner of the loop taking the win. This means, unlike Big's, even the strongest runners won't be running more than a marathon or for longer than five hours.


I signed up for the Last Runner Standing only a few days before the race, once my body felt recovered from the mild beating it took on Frozen Branch's snowy hills. I figured LRS would be a solid long run with several miles at a steady pace and several more at lactate threshold. It was also a new-to-me format at a park I'd never been to, and the $20 entry fee seemed like a real bargain.

There are two main strategies when trying to last as long as possible at a race like this. You can go out fast and finish a loop with a ton of extra time to stand around, rest, and eat. Or you can cover ground slowly and have less time time to kill, but expend less energy in the process. I chose the latter, walking and jogging each of the first 10 loops in 10-13 minutes. The only exception was Loop 7—I ran this one hard to see how difficult it would be running faster in the hard-packed snow versus the lighter, powdery snow. I also wanted ample time after the loop to run to my car and strip down to lighter clothing.

The first 5-10 miles were all fun and games hanging around in the middle of the pack and socializing. The starting field slowly dwindled as runners were forced to move faster. As we waited at the lap area aid station for the start of each successive loop, we cheered for runners struggling to make the cutoff in the loop's closing seconds. There were quite a few close calls, with people breaking into a dead sprint around the final turn to finish the their loop at the last possible moment.

The course was covered in varying degrees of snow and ice. It also contained plenty of landmarks to watch for, to help gauge whether or not you were on pace to finish your loop in time. The first 200 meters were a straightaway on packed snow, followed by lumpier, powdery snow as you enter the woods. You then snake your way through a disc golf course as the trail widens, making it easier to pass people. A hard left onto singletrack takes you along a slope adjacent to a stream. This stretch is very narrow, with a slippery drop on your left. It helps to flail your arms for balance so you don't have to break pace, while somewhat lowering the odds of careening down the slope into icy water. Then the trail widens out again and descends a few rocks that resemble a staircase, crosses a wooden footbridge, and takes a hard 90-degree left turn where you have to slow down and walk a few steps to avoid wiping out. You then go up a 20- to 30-foot incline that feels like the Matterhorn when you're running at tempo effort and already have 20+ miles under your legs. The next quarter-mile is smooth sailing on a wide section with more packed snow, followed by a tight loop around some tennis courts where the snow is deeper and the footing is tricky. Take a final left turn down an icy asphalt path to the finish, then repeat ad nauseum.

After 23 laps around the course, I became well acquainted with every twist, turn, and minute detail on this trail. The monotony of the course description captures how I felt upon repeating the lap over and over and over for four and a half hours. I was able to run by feel and know how much time was remaining, within 10-15 seconds, without looking at my watch.

PC: Anita Cornell
Once we got down to 8-minute loops is when I really had to work to stay in the game. The snow made an 8-minute mile feel like half marathon pace. I was able to time the first 8-minute loops so that I'd reach the final straightaway with about 15 seconds to spare, then walk right up to the starting line and do it again. And again. And again.

One guy went out hard from the gun on every single loop, asserting himself as the one to beat and finishing every lap well before the cutoff. He continued this into the 8-minute loops, making it look easy while the few remaining runners and I were suffering hard. I knew I wouldn't win, but hoped to carry on as long as I could. I survived the five consecutive 8-minute loops and started the first 7:30 loop with three other guys. The lead runner went out hard again, while the rest of us struggled with the pace. I continued on in third place, and could hear Eric's call of "thirty seconds!" as I rounded the tennis courts with too much lactic acid in my legs and no chance of finishing. The lead guy finished his 7:30 loop easily while the other two runners and I timed out, making it a three-way tie for second place.

Looking back, I think I could have paced myself better on that last loop and been mentally tougher. I think had the fitness for two 7:30 loops but failed to get it together. That said, I still managed some quality mileage and got to hang out with a good group of #TrailsRoc-ers for the entire morning. Also of note: TMLRS was the my third consecutive trail race to have some great post-race chili, made by Sheila herself!

Results  |  Photo Gallery

PC: Anita Cornell

Results board. PC: Eric Eagan

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