I’d never done a last-runner-standing race before, nor a 24-hour race or anything besides a traditional fixed distance. A few weeks before the race, I did a practice run with a similar format, simply to give myself an idea what to expect. I learned a few tricks, but how the race would go still remained a bit of a mystery.
Having a crew would be crucial in this race, so I invited my parents to come out and support. On top of that, a LRS race is much more spectator-friendly, since you’re guaranteed to see your runner once per hour, and they can stick around and chat for a while, until the next loop begins. Unsurprisingly, my dad volunteered and my mom didn’t.
I was unable to drum up support from anyone else. My only friend who lives nearby is a married man with kids, and he couldn’t ditch them for the whole weekend. It may have been possible that a few students would come out, in the interest of making it into a bizarre camping trip where they get to see their math teacher slowly turn into a zombie. No such luck; the race happened to be the same night as the prom. I’d have a crew of only one.
My dad and I drove out to Columbus the day before the race, set up a canopy tent near the start/finish line, and checked into a hotel. On Friday, I ate both breakfast and lunch before 9:00 AM, then had “dinner” at 1:30 PM. I wanted my food to have plenty of time to digest, get to work, and get through my system before the race began at 8:00 AM on Saturday.
It was strange that a race would begin an hour after sunrise during what’s usually a warm time of year. However, it was a surprisingly chilly morning for April. Even so, I began in a sleeveless shirt and never wanted anything more, not even in between laps.
The course was a lollipop loop, where the stick of the lollipop was only about 100 m. You have to complete a loop, roughly 6.8 km (4.2 miles) every hour, on the hour, until only one runner is left. Failure to complete a loop within the hour results in elimination, but most people don’t get timed out; they throw in the towel.
The direction of each loop was determined by a coin flip before each lap. First one was clockwise. An incredibly informal countdown took place and 49 runners set out on the first lap.
The “winner” of the first few laps rarely, if ever, wins one of these races. Knowing that, I made it a point to avoid doing so. Even forcing myself to run at an unnaturally slow pace, there were only a few other runners in front of me. Chances are everyone else had the same idea. Or at least, almost everyone.
If you’re used to running at a particular pace, running slower can be more difficult. Different speeds come with different gaits, and running with a form you rarely use is more difficult than running comfortably faster. I kept speeding up, since it felt easier, and I eventually caught up with a runner named Leann, from Fredericksburg.
I’d briefly talked to Leann before the race, and she claimed, “I’m only here to have fun.” Evidently her version of fun involves running at an impressive pace! Before the race even began, Leann clearly had the look of a runner that knows what they’re doing and means business, and that was only confirmed when she got moving.
I spent the 2nd half of the first loop simply following Leann, since she set a good pace, and going any faster would probably be a mistake. When we reached the stick of the lollipop, I walked in the last 100 m, a strategy I’d come up with prior to the race. Leann ran it in and arrived first.
The course was crap. Most of the time, there was no trail; instead, there were small marker flags indicating a path through undeveloped pastures. There were several mudholes. I wound up shoulder-checking a down tree you had to duck under. The ground was perennially uneven, and you couldn’t see where the bumps were due to the tall grass.
Someone’s gonna sprain an ankle before this is over. Probably at night, when we’re tired and it’s harder to see.
I only had to wait a few laps to be proven mostly right, except for the “at night” part. I’m simply glad it wasn’t my ankle.
Spectrum’s website had only mentioned that they’d have water and sport drinks, but they had a full spread of snacks at the finish start area (there were a lot of things Spectrum didn’t communicate adequately, or at all). Had I known, I wouldn’t have brought so many snacks of my own to the race. I’d be going home with a lot of leftovers.
No one dropped after the first lap, so 49 people lined up again for the second. Counter-clockwise this time. Leann got out in front immediately, and this time, I didn’t follow her. Instead, I spent the better part of the lap running with a guy named Ben, from McAllen. He only planned to do four laps, then bow out.
Several times, Ben and I couldn’t figure out where the course was supposed to go, and we had to stop and look around for a minute before we spied one of the tiny orange marker flags in the grass. I’d never done a trail run that didn’t have a trail. Spectrum probably picked the cheapest possible place to hold the race; that’s the only explanation.
I’m not coming back next year.
Ben was an incredibly likable guy and a fun conversation partner, and the second half of the lap flew by. Another 20-minute break and it was time to line up for the next.
Laps 3-5 were when each lap started feeling uneventful and mostly like the lap that came before. Go run for 40 minutes, rest for 20, repeat. It eventually became easier to follow the course, as a path was slowly worn into the grass. Four laps in was when the first major wave of runners dropped out. By noon, there were 35 runners left.
Beginning in the afternoon, there was a consistent group of about 5-6 runners that were in front of everyone else. I adopted the strategy of staying behind them for the first ~2 km, while we ran into the south wind, then eventually passed them and ran at what still felt like an easy pace (they were running 6+ minutes/km, or 10+ minutes/mile).
Leann kept coming in first, except for lap 6, which was the first of the “prime” laps. Before a few laps, a prize would be announced, and whoever finished that lap first would win the prize. For lap 6, that was a free month of yoga. A shirtless guy took off like a bat out of hell and finished the lap in 29 minutes, easily the fastest lap by anyone all day. He dropped out one lap later. I guess he just likes yoga lessons.
The temperature reached ~30 °C (~85 °F) in the afternoon, though low humidity and plenty of wind prevented it from feeling too hot out. Even so, mid-afternoon was when the dropout rate skyrocketed. By 4:00 PM, only 11 runners remained.
What helped me beat the heat was long breaks. 30 °C isn’t hot when you’re sitting around in the shade, wearing a sleeveless shirt and a pair of shorts. More than a third of the time, that’s what I was doing.
My strategy going in was to finish each lap in 40-45 minutes, giving myself a 15-20 minute break between each lap, and keep that up as long as I could. During the race, I was easily finishing each lap in 40 minutes, sometimes a little less, and that was despite walking the last 100 m every time. That meant lots of opportunity to sit down, take weight off my feet, stretch, eat, hydrate, and even repeatedly change clothes and shoes. Most of those are things you can’t do during a “normal” race, at least if you want a good finish time.
Prior to the race, I’d done some research on the field, and only a few runners had ever finished a 100-miler in less than 24 hours. All of them were gone by now. Leann dropped out in late afternoon; it turned out she’s a competitive half-marathon runner (which explains her speed), and simply wanted to see how long she’d last. That sort of explains the “just for fun” comment.
After the afternoon dropout wave, most of the remaining runners looked pretty strong. One of them, a bearded guy named Trevor, had previously stayed in a race of this format for 30 hours. Another, Justin from Wyoming, hadn’t finished a 100-miler in less than 24 hours, but he’d done several 100-milers on difficult courses in Wyoming and Utah. This race could last a while.
Laps 9 and 10 were both announced as prime laps, and I won both, for a $50 gift card and a case of beer. I’d already finished lap 8 in first, and began consistently “winning” each lap after that. I wasn’t running any faster; everyone else was getting slower.
While I was still cranking out each lap with ~20 minutes to spare, the closest to that was a tall guy from San Marcos named Dylan, who’d usually finished each lap with a ~15 minute break. He began consistently coming in second, usually with about ~12 minutes to spare. I figured he and Trevor were likely my strongest competition.
12 hours in, at 8:00 PM, the sun set and we put on our lights. I don’t like running at night, and I didn’t like this course. Would that affect me? Or anyone else?
Like the previous five laps, I finished the first night lap ahead of the field, but a couple minutes slower, with 18 minutes to spare. Night running slows you down, since you have to pick your way through the terrain more carefully. Everyone else’s pace appeared to suffer as well, and several of the runners finished with a break of five minutes or less. Shockingly, Trevor got timed out after only one lap in the dark. I’d thought it would come down to me and him at the end. Had he gotten hurt?
Dylan lasted only two full laps in the dark before he decided to cut his 15th lap short, hit the 100k mark, and call it quits. I continued finishing each lap with ~18 minutes to spare, and everyone else kept slowing down. There were only three runners left.
Normally, I only run at night during winter, which is the only time of year daylight hours are so short I’m forced to run at night. As it turns out, if you run at night when it’s warm, there are a lot of bugs out. And they like headlamps. I was getting repeatedly dive bombed in the face.
After lap 15, I changed clothes and shoes for the fourth time, a practice that had kept me feeling fresh all day. By switching shoes (and repeatedly sitting down for 20 minutes at a time), my feet felt better than they would after only 3-4 hours of running.
After finishing lap 16, just before midnight, my dad gave me an update on the other two runners.
“Justin’s out. He said he felt fine, but wasn’t sure if there was any point in continuing.”
“Alright!” Justin seemed like he was the strongest runner left. Was this race almost over? “And Aaron?”
“Aaron wants to make it to sunrise.”
I said that kind of loudly. Much to the amusement of Aaron’s wife and the race director (Shanna and Randi).
The sun wouldn’t rise until 7:00 AM, and I suspected he wanted to go out for a lap after sunrise, in the daylight, which meant going until 8:00 AM. And since the winner has to complete one more lap than anyone else, that meant I’d have to keep running until 9:00 AM - another nine hours - before this thing would be over. All because some guy wants to see the sunrise.
Aaron had been using a slow-’n-low strategy all day, usually finishing each lap with only 5-10 minutes to go. By now, that had settled in at a break of only about five minutes each time. A few laps prior, he’d said he probably only had one lap left in him, but he’d since run two more and looked like he was rallying, and was still consistently coming in with five minutes to spare. That’s not much time, but he was a master of quick, efficient turnarounds.
As we lined up for another lap, I remarked, “I heard you wanted to see the sunrise?”
“Y’know, you could take a nap and then watch the sunrise…”
He laughed, “Yeah, I know. But it’s more that I want to make it 24 hours and 100 miles. The farthest I’ve ever gone is 62 miles, in one of these races. I’ve been working my butt off for this, trying to get to 100 miles in 24 hours, and that’s still a possibility and I gotta go for it. I don’t mean to do this to torment you or anything, and I don’t think I’m gonna beat you; you’re a great runner. Fast, perfect form, incredible.”
I shrugged. My form isn’t nearly perfect, and certainly wasn’t at this stage of the race. “I’m far from perfect, but thanks!”
I was still annoyed at the prospect of running several more hours, but I understood. If I were within striking range of a lifelong goal, I wouldn’t quit either.
It turns out Aaron has done several Ironmans and would be better described as an excellent triathlete than an ultramarathon runner. Of course, an Ironman triathlete is going to have considerable endurance, and that translates well to distance running. He was close to my level in my type of race, and you couldn’t say the same thing if it were the other way around.
For the next several laps, I was still coming in with 18 minutes to spare, still walking the last 100 m, and Aaron kept making it back with five minutes, almost exactly. Slowly but surely, he started showing wear, and you kept thinking his next lap would be slower, but it never was. Five minutes, every single time. That didn’t mean he was slow; it meant he was strong. This race was trying to break him and he wouldn’t slow down.
At 6:00 AM, we lined up for lap 23, the last one we’d have to run in the dark. After that, Aaron and I would run his last, in the daylight this time, and I’d have to run another after that.
Alright, only three laps, you’re nowhere near the time cutoff. And it’ll feel good to run in the daylight again. You got this.
As we took off, I immediately got away from Aaron. Sensing he could use some encouragement, I turned my head halfway around and yelled, “Last one in the dark!” Didn’t hear any response. I plunged ahead on another clockwise loop.
Over the course of the lap, the sky slowly started to change color. To the east, black turned to navy blue, just enough that you could see the outlines of trees on the horizon, then a more earnest blue, fading to navy and black across the top of the sky. Birds and insects started making noises again. The sky eventually reached a full gradient, until there was enough light to see the ground in front of you, but not quite enough to turn off the lights.
When I made it to the last 100 m and began walking, I could just barely see the outlines of my dad and Randi, as well as at least one other figure.
“Runnn!” my dad called out.
I suspected I knew the answer, but in the interest of not getting my hopes up, I asked, “Whyyyyy??”
“You WON!! Last runner standing!!”
“OK, fiine!!” Might as well. I jogged it in, finishing with ~18 minutes to spare once again.
After starting lap 23, Aaron only made it the 100 m to the gate before turning around instead of heading out on the loop. When he got back, he announced that he was dizzy, confused, and worried that he’d get lost on the course. Since all that happened behind me, I had no idea he’d tapped out and that completing this lap would win the race. But I was pretty happy about to be done!
Once across the line, my first words were “Where’s Aaron?” Before doing anything else, I wanted to congratulate him on surpassing his previous longest run by 30 freakin’ miles!! However, neither Aaron nor any of his family was anywhere to be found. He was in bad shape, and they’d taken him back into their RV to recuperate. Instead of banging on the door and bothering him, it would be better to let him rest.
While I was running my last lap, my dad spent the entire time packing up, so we were all ready to go! Grabbed a few last snacks and hopped in the car for a two-hour drive home. Somewhat surprisingly, I stayed awake the whole time.
Predictably, Sunday included a long nap, followed by a couple beers, a walk around the local park, and a guacamole queso burger. All in all, a successful weekend.
Once again, kudos and big thanks to my dad. He was an integral part of the team.
The Game served as the conclusion to my spring season, which included four ultramarathons and three wins in a row. The results aren’t official yet, but it looks like I have an insurmountable lead in the Texas Trail Championship Series.