An Interview with Harvey Lewis, Greg Armstrong and Gene Dykes
When I interviewed Harvey Lewis, Greg Armstrong and Gene Dykes prior to the Quaratine Backyard Ultra, I had no idea how big this event would turn out to be.
I underestimated just how many ultra runners out there were missing races cancelled in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Over 2000 runners eventually registered for the event. Many more thousands followed it online.
In the aftermath of the event, all three of the runners I interviewed shared recaps of their experience on social media. I wanted to capture those thoughts here in this blog post.
Toughest race I've ever done. When I completed my 100th mile just 10 seconds ahead of the cut, I was fading fast. A recap of the rules:
Each competitor runs a route of his own choosing and uploads results at the end of each 4.167 mile lap (1/24th of 100). There were over 2000 entrants. If you either fail to finish your lap within an hour or fail to return to the start line at the beginning of the next hour, you are out of the race. The winner is the last man standing after everybody else fails.
There were a lot of highs and lows as the race progressed. From miles 50 to 60 I started slowing down significantly and I was absolutely positive I was not going to reach 100 miles. But, my lap times stabilized, and I kept returning for another lap. Then at lap 21 I finished with only 40 seconds to spare. Again, I was positive my race would be over soon. with only 40 seconds to prepare for the next lap, I got off to a very slow start. Out of nowhere my pace picked up and I finished comfortably ahead of the cut by 2 minutes. A little slower in lap 23, but it looked like I had it made. Well into the final lap I was comfortably on pace at 13:50 per mile (one needs to run a 14:23 pace to complete a lap). Then the wheels came off with 20 minutes to go - the dreaded bonk. My pace crept up toward 14:23 and went above a couple times. I had to summon all my will power to make the cut by that 10 seconds.
Immediately afterward my body shut down, and I can still barely hobble nine hours afterward. I can't sleep because I can't find any position that doesn't hurt!
Although I thought I could do better, I am totally pleased with the outcome. I am in terrific shape to run a marathon, and I've always said that marathon training is all you need to finish an ultra, but that doesn't mean you can run an ultra well! You have to have ultra specific training to be good at it.
This format was tough because I had to keep pushing every lap. I thought I would be able to take more walking breaks, but it was always push, push, push. It isn't enough to finish each lap at a casual 14:23 pace - you have to get a big enough buffer to allow time to prepare for the next lap. Try getting everything you need done in just a minute or two some time! Bathroom break, nutrition refill, watch charging now and then...
The start/finish line of my route was my back door. My wife, Olivia Mitchell, showed up at key moments to help me rush through the lap preparation. My buddy Kenneth Andrew Hite was great company for 16 laps until he had to quit for child care duty. Thanks to John Goldthorp, Dorcas Huang, and Harsha Thirumurthy for running a lap with me, and thanks for the encouragement from the sidelines from a number of people, including Romain Duprat who supplied the photo and video.
What was the first thing I did after running 145 miles around my neighborhood?
Kelly’s daughter and I finishing my last loop last night to reach 145 miles in Quarantine Backyard Ultra 15th final person to DNF out of the 2,413.
I will never look at Roundtown as the locals call it or Circleville the same. I believe that is the first time anyone has run 100 miles in Circleville and outside of my two more common routes I purposely ran on as many different streets as I could. There was an a out and back and a 4.167 loop that will forever view slightly differently, remember that time...
The community was amazing, both online and locally, getting out and giving cheers from porches or from great distances. Thank you for your support! It helped me get out for 5 more loops, when I thought each would be my last.
Thanks to Tracey for sharing all the stories! Thanks to Kelly for letting me make a mess of our backyard. Thanks Dave Proctor for dreaming it up and to the race organizers at Personal Peak for putting together a really special free race. Thanks everyone who followed the adventures!
I had wanted to go further but I was happy with my effort and especially the experience. Michael Wardian who you might remember I featured on our 7 day vegan challenge is one of the two remaining athletes, along with Radek Brunner of the Czech Republic with over 190 miles and going.
The Quarantine Backyard Ultra could be both harder and easier than a standard backyard. It’s nice to be at your home and I took advantage of two warm showers. It was really neat to see all the wild ways people were running; from inside a coffee shop, treadmills, back porches, from frozen plains to remote countrysides. That was really neat. But the race was much more solitary. I ran the full evening with everyone asleep in my house (Kelly was saving her energy for later nights) and found the aspect of not running with other racers you can see challenging. I feel I probably ran my loops too quickly the first day. It’s a challenge to balance how quickly one ought to run the loops to preserve ones energy, yet have a chance to rest the legs and eat. Back to the drawing board for Bigs this October.
The first thing I did after finishing the 145 miles around the neighborhood was take a warm bath with half a bag of Epsom salts. That bath was worth a million dollars.
Second I went straight to bed. I hadn’t slept since Friday.
Third, after waking up two hours later I raided the refrigerator, eating some vegan pizza, pickles and orange juice as well as an aloe drink. I know a strange combination.
My body really ached. But when I woke up this morning I told Kelly, let’s go do a 4.167 mile loop.
Thanks everyone! Let’s hope that was a once in a lifetime. Stay strong and healthy!
Disclaimer: this is my race report for the Quarantine Backyard Ultra and probably more suited for the runner than my non running friends.
The thought of race reports come to mind often yet rarely do I write them. Often after reading a race report from Bob Hearn or Shamus Babcock I realize I have nothing else to contribute.
Maybe it’s all this extra time or coming short of my C goal or the format of this event but I just keep ruminating on the lessons and how the event unfolded for me.
I will not go into any commentary on the ending. Too much of that already and personally social media is poor platform for all the back and forth negativity. Let’s move forward and unite with a spirit of love, forgiveness and understanding.
This report is my personal journey of mind and body. More of the mind; the body didn’t move more than a few feet in 43 hours other than to remove a snake from the house and bury a goat.
For those that don’t know, the Backyard format (originated by Lazarus Lake) requires the competitor to cover 4.167 miles every hour. A bell begins the next hour and the runner must be in “the corral” to start the next “lap”. Any distance covered more than 4.167 miles each hour doesn’t count.
Obviously, different strategies exist:
Run fast, have a longer break.
Run slow to save the legs, shorter break.
Since this was a virtual Backyard event, the runner could either create a loop/out and back course at their home or do 4.167 miles on a treadmill or a mixture of both.
The first tenth of mile of my driveway drops 125’ so I opted for the treadmill. Yes 43 hours and 179.15 miles on a 20 year old treadmill. More on that later
The event snowballed in popularity! So many elites in the world of ultra running came to play. Some came for just 24 hours or just to have fun while others came to push the limits of mind and body. I was excited to see so many friends joining in the fun. By the start on April 4th (8am CST) there were over 2,400 participants from over 50 countries. The serious competitors connected on multiple ZOOM meetings. One of those meetings was the elite page. When elite runners would drop others would be added until all remaining runners were on one page for all to see. The event was live streamed on YouTube.
My Goals and race plan:
I rarely go into any event willy nilly. The plan and preparation is exciting for me. Meditating and assessing my abilities to formulate a lofty yet attainable goal is valuable exercise of the mind. Harvey Lewis and I spoke and discussed our goals and approach; some of my favorite memories of the event.
Side note: This is my affinity for ultra marathons. The farther you run the limiting factors are less physical and more of resolve and fortitude. For instance, my marathon PR is 2:59; with proper training and focus I could possibly squeeze out a low 2:50s but the event would require little mental focus. I would just set my pace and run with little thought. Of course, it would hurt but only for 3 hours. A 300 mile race is so much different for the mind. The mind hurts far more than the body.
In fact, my willingness to suffer is the only way I can be competitive in a running event. I lack the genetic God given gift of speed or natural talent but I can continue to train my mind to endure more pain and suffering; that’s the fun part!
Back to my goal, I always create and “A” goal and “B” goal, sometime a “C” and “D”.....
After Vol State 500k 2018, my biggest failure, I vow to seek self discovery in every run! To this end every event is a victory.
A goal: 72 hours=300 Miles. I believe in making personal goals independent of others. This is why the Backyard format has never appealed to me; it’s so much about comparison and competition. My philosophy is a strong mind should be able to conjure up the same physical performance with or without competition or glory.
B goal: make it at least 48 hours=200 Miles. In my experience at Vol State 500k (314 miles) things were much easier after 48 hours.
Spoiler: I failed at both.
The race began April 4, 8am (CST). The first 24 hours were quite boring. Mile after mile, hour after hour on the treadmill. I passed the hours in prayer and meditation for our medical personal and those truly suffering amidst the current crisis. Well, boring except at hour 6 (24+ miles) when Shelley told me Dolly was moaning and on the verge of death; Dolly is a goat; I ran a “fast” lap so I could euthanize and bury Dolly. I made it back with a few minutes to spare. Then at hour 8 (32+ miles) Shelley, my wife, screams as a 4.5 ft snake slithers up the wall near the treadmill. I had requested her to open the door so I could get a cool breeze; after removing the snake I lost the breeze.
I had the typical hills and valleys of the first 24 hours. My legs began to feel fatigue and the mind begins to doubt; experience told me these both would pass; indeed they did. From 24 hours to 36-37 hours I felt amazing; the best I had felt. I was blasting John Denver, Avett brothers and singing along with the tunes. Accustomed to the routine of the treadmill I found a groove and really enjoyed it. Somewhere around 37 hours the field narrowed to 20+- competitors all on one screen. I was encouraged to see friends like Jake Jackson, John Cash, and Mark Manz join the elite page; each would have been there from the beginning but they signed up late.
Everything was going great until it wasn’t. I was still finishing my 4.17 miles around 45-46 min. The 15 minute breaks were not allowing any naps and I started to get crazy stiff. Laz even commented on how stiff I looked getting back on the treadmill; he said I needed to turn it around the other direction so I would loosen up. I have learned to appreciate his devious chuckle in response to my pain; it has been an acquired taste (smiley face).
I told my wife and daughters not to crew for me in the traditional sense and to go to bed. My wife had made lots of food throughout the day and prepared me to get through the night. The devil of loneliness began to grab a foot hold. Words can’t express how much the texts of encouragement from friends Brian Hutto, Joey Lichter, Gregory Soutiea, Tracy Outlaw, Joshua Holmes and Rachel Heronimus meant to me during these hours of weakness. Then like the angel she is, I get a text from my wife asking “if I need something”; I responded YES. She comes down stairs and gives me the lift I desperately needed, around hour 40 I think. I get my headspace back and tell her I’m good and to go back to sleep. The next hour wasn’t too bad and then...
Those all to common justifications start flooding the mind.
“Why am I doing this?”
“I’ve made it to the top 4; that’s good enough”
“Mike, Radek, and Anna; all look so much stronger than I do”
“What is the point of going further”.
The TEMPTATION to quit is so strong. The STOP is the morphine to the pain and chronic suffering. It’s so obvious, simple, so available. The STOP is the drug to cure all the pain. Three feet in front of my treadmill is my couch.
This is the absolutely beautiful part of the Backyard format that I didn’t fully respect (I’d heard about it but didn’t understand completely). You see in most ultras, especially multi days, these temptations are oh so common. The difference is you can take the drug (AKA The STOP), rest a bit, get your mind back, and return. Not in the Backyard! If you watch the video of the end of the 43rd hour, you can witness my indecisiveness. With 2 minutes to go I had decided to do one more lap (honorable, just one more is the mantra when at a low point); i stand up walk towards the treadmill, look back at my strong competitors, back to the treadmill. While I am still contemplating my decision the bell rings and I am Disqualified!!! A minute of doubt and weakness ended my journey!
The reason I am writing this lengthy report is that I am elated with the flood of lessons I have learned about myself these past few days. Lessons that extend far beyond a silly running event.
kolaphizó is a powerful word. It means to buffet oneself. Spiritually speaking, there is great worth in the exercise of buffeting ones body and mind for a deeper revelation or enlightenment. That’s what these events mean to me. They are a time for me to gain enlightenment about myself, my weaknesses and my ability to contribute more to the world in which I inhabit.
I Corinthians 9 speaks of the runner bringing the body under subjection with an intended purpose!
The truth is that we learn great lessons from suffering, from failure.
Romans 5 encourages us to “glory in our sufferings”. Because “suffering builds character, character leads to perseverance and perseverance Hope”
As we approach Good Friday, let us pause and appreciate the story of Christ. Even if you aren’t a believer, at least try to recognize the beauty in the humanity of the story. A man that didn’t have to suffer, yet he willingly suffered for a greater purpose!
The purpose??? HOPE, couldn’t we all use more hope!
In my next ultra, or challenging life experience, I seek the strength to willingly suffer for a greater cause and to resist the temptation/the drug/the STOP/the quit because of pain or hardship.