Running Big’s Backyard Ultra was a gamble for me: it’s not exactly an easy race to return to as my first ultra in over a year since injury, undergoing eating disorder treatment, etc. I knew that. It would have probably been “wiser” to do some shorter trail races, and slowly build back up confidence in my body. But then again, taking the traditional route has never been my M.O.
So why run it?
People have asked when I hit “rock bottom” and decided to seek intensive treatment for my eating disorder. I definitely had a few moments, but a clear one of those was the heel stress fracture two weeks before The Barkley Marathons this past year that kept me out of running that race. While I had already scheduled my admittance date for Opal Food and Body for the week after Barkley, that injury just drove the point home.
When I entered treatment, Opal was thankfully willing to work with me as an athlete and understand my running goals, but also asked me to clear my calendar of races. I obliged, but I asked to please let me hold onto the possibility of one: Bigs.
This was in April. I had zero idea if I would be ready for Bigs, but I needed hope. I needed a goal. I needed a purpose. Honestly? I needed a carrot to get my shit together. Because I knew that I would never be able to run Bigs if I didn’t start treating my body properly. (side note: yes, I’m aware that I shouldn’t need external motivation in order to recover and eat properly. But sometimes it can help in the beginning stages and I’m not ashamed of admitting that)
That’s the funny thing about how my eating disorder manifested that seems counterintuitive for people. I actually NEVER thought that being leaner would benefit performance in sport for me. In fact, I absolutely knew that the eating disorder was hindering my performance. I knew that gaining weight and eating plentifully would only help me, but I continually failed at my attempts to do it on my own without outside support.
And why did I fail? Hell, I wish I knew the answer. Honestly, it was probably a bit of everything. I imagine there was probably fearful of what the random masses would say if I showed up to a race in a visibly larger body. But it was primarily not being able to overcome the anxiety that came with having to eat the requisite amount to nourish my body properly.
(Oh wait. You came here to read a race report and not a self-assessment of my eating disorder? My bad. Sorry, the two tend to impact each other. Back to the race)
So…I was able to hang on to Bigs. Things seemed to be on track until I kicked a sauna bench in early July and broke a toe. While it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, apparently toes can be nasty little bastards, and I lost another month of running.
I started running in earnest only in late August/early September. My longest run before Bigs was 18 miles. My highest weekly mileage was 45 miles and I was averaging 30-40mpw. I was the only person on that starting line who had never run a 100 miler. Frankly, on paper, I had zero business being there. But I was healthy. My body felt great. And the only thing that told me to not toe the line was my ego that knew that I probably couldn’t compete for the win giving the state of my training.
But what if I toed the line knowing that I wasn’t competing for the win? Was that even possible? Was that shameful? Was it possible for my ego to handle that?
I wasn’t sure, but I thought I’d try. I like challenges. I like to compete. And yes, I like to win. And I’ve never entered a race with any other goal other than to win it. Given that, I was kind of a loss as to how to approach this race. So a few days before the race, I texted my coach David Roche and asked “How will I know when to stop?” He answered, “when you get what you need from the experience.”
Bigs is, hands-down, the most sneakily diabolical race I can think of. Sneaky because, in theory, it SEEMS easy. 4.16667 miles in an hour is pretty slow for most runners. It’s not a race like The Barkley Marathons, which seems impossible on its face. But because of that appearance of “easy,” in my opinion, it’s actually more of a mental and physical mindfuck.
In theory, there are two ways in which you can reach your limits in Bigs that would cause you to stop: (1) your mental limit, and (2) your physical limit. I’ve been pretty confident in my mental grit for many years – running loops around an obstacle course in 20 degree weather while getting shocked repeatedly by live electricity will do wonders for expanding that mental limit. My physical limit, however, was the big wildcard in this race. Unfortunately, I have a history of my body breaking, repeatedly. And that cycle has broken all shreds of the trust in my body that I once had.
But while all this loomed in the back of my mind, my first and foremost goal was to be present and enjoy the race. And as we took off on our first loop around Laz and Sandra’s (beautiful!) backyard, I recognized that wasn’t going to be that hard to do: the trail was beautiful, and the company was stellar. Coupled with the joy of just being out in the arena, the hours flew by.
Night fell, and we switched to the road out-and-back. Admittedly, I dreaded this part: I do probably 1% of my training on road, and rarely ever wear road running shoes. To my surprise, I actually found myself enjoying the road more than the trail. Perhaps it was because I had more room to stride out and run at my own pace, perhaps it was throwing in headphones and dancing to the greatest hits of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, or perhaps it was some fantastic conversations (especially a great loop with my SWAP teammates Don and Liz!), but I loved the road. And as the night wore on, I realized I was getting nearer and nearer to a huge goal of mine for the race: complete my first 100 miler (and another unintended goal – I technically almost completed my first road marathon in the process!).
In chatting with folks, I learned I was the only runner who had never run a hundred miler (which does make me question why Laz let me in in the first place…). The accolades of my fellow runners were ridiculously impressive, and I was honored to run amongst them. But the coolest part is how excited they were for me when I finally hit that 100 mile mark on the last road loop. Maggie, Liz, and a few others ran ahead to even make a finishing tunnel for me in the middle of the race. In case you are wondering, THAT’S the type of amazing folk Laz gets in his backyard.
However, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Started about mile 30, my feet started going to shit. It honestly surprised me because I’ve never had foot care issues before – I’m pretty meticulous about proper socks, lubrication, etc. But for whatever reason – perhaps it was the humidity, perhaps it was some rookie mistakes on my part, or perhaps it was the fact that my feet just haven’t toughened up enough – they became a nightmare. We triaged the blisters, and they honestly weren’t too painful, but the thing that proved to be my downfall was an odd heat rash that started enveloping my feet. The bottoms of my feet started to feel like I was running on hot pokers.
It was manageable while we were on the roads because there was no twisting and turning of the foot, but as soon as we hit the trail for the second day, I recognized what kind of painful problem this was going to be. While not overly technical, it had been raining and the rocks and roots were slick: each slip of the foot sent lightning bolts through my macerated and throbbing feet.
Reality started to sink in that I was fighting a losing battle. The elation of hitting 100 miles started to fade and I was just kind of frustrated. Frustrated because everything else felt fantastic. My legs felt great – the muscles/tendons, etc. I felt fresh. I had come into this race so fearful of niggles popping up that turned into nags that would turn into injuries, yet none of those materialized. In fact, the further we ran, the better my body felt. Except for the stupid skin on my feet.
(I’m aware that I’m rather embarrassed to say that I stopped a race partially because of heat rash and blisters/maceration. That’s a total noob type of thing, I know. But the bright side is that I know it’s easily fixable.)
When I made the decision to call it, I had Coach David’s voice ringing in my ears: “when you get what you need from the experience.” At 112 miles, I was pretty much at peace that I had gotten what I needed: a restoration of faith in my body. A body that had repeatedly broken, and one that I wasn’t confident could ever be trusted again. Over the course of those 112 miles, I found that trust again. So on the 28th hour, I walked out of the starting corral and positioned myself to high-five all the runners on the out and back. And with tears (mostly happy ones) in my eyes, I turned in my timing chip.
Granted, after I stopped, the doubts started to kick up in my mind. “Only 112 miles?” I thought to myself, “everyone else is going SO much further.” I started to feel sheepish. I started to feel like I shouldn’t be proud of my accomplishment when everyone else was running pretty much double that.
Given the format of the race, Bigs is a race that’s ripe for comparison and those doubts. But a text from the wonderful Devon Yanko snapped me back to reality: “Amelia,” she said, “other people’s accomplishments don’t diminish your own.”
She’s right. In fact, I’d argue that the harder thing for me in this race is actually stopping when I’m ahead. I’m well-aware of my capability of running my body into the ground: that limit, I’ve explored multiple times before. The limit I needed to explore in this race was my limit of knowing when enough is enough for that day. And to be able to walk away from a race healthy, happy, and confident is something I haven’t done for a long time.
So that text was EXACTLY what I needed to get my head unstuck and focus on perhaps the most fulfilling part of the adventure: the next 33 hours of cheering on and supporting other runners, especially my incredible friend Maggie Guterl (who I have to thank, like so many others do, for being the one who encouraged me to run this race in the first place). In case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard, she won like the fucking boss she is.
I’m aware I can’t find the words to adequately express the magic that happens in the Cantrell backyard: the camaraderie, the stories, the testament to the human spirit. The fact that you have racers who run 100, 150, 200 miles and then, after stopping, jump into crew and help out without second thought. It’s the most delightful non-race race I’ve ever been a part of. And as a crew of us gathered on Tuesday morning to help clean up and break down everything in the Backyard, I came to realize I never wanted it to end.
So thank you, Laz, for giving me a chance. And thank you Sandra for being the glue that clearly holds everything together (we love you!). And to good Mike and bad Mike and Bill and all the other Backyarders, you are the best. And CLEARLY to the best crew ever, Jenn Coker and Gina Fioroni.
I write these race reports for a number of reasons, but partially as a means for me to take stock of what worked and what didn’t.
So, my biggest learnings/takeaways:
- I need to either (1) perfect my ultrashuffle and learn how to slow down, or (2) run my own pace/gait. I’m aware this sounds pompous, but my easy runs have traditionally been done around a 7:15-7:30 pace, which is clearly too fast for a race like Bigs. When I tried to mimic the gait/speed of others, my body started feeling funky. Instead, I started adopting a run/walk mixture – run at a comfortable/natural pace for me, and then take more power walk breaks, as opposed to one steady slow shuffle pace. As soon as I switched to this approach, things started feeling MUCH better. I’m not positive I will ever excel at this kind of format, but I am eager to learn and experiment.
- I need to figure out my gut issues. I used to never have gut/colon/runner trot issues, but ever since I entered eating disorder recovery, I’ve been dealing with a rebellious colon on runs. Clearly, the solution is not going to be “stop eating,” so I’m hoping my body is just going through an adjustment period. But for the record, Laz, I did adhere to your “no defecation in my backyard” rule. It was pretty dicey at times from about mile 16-70. Woof. So if anyone has ideas about this that DON’T involve eliminating foods, please let me know. I’m frustrated and flummoxed.
- For a low-intensity race like this, I need to ditch the liquid nutrition and sugars. I ended up switching to bread and butter (weird, I know), and somehow that worked. Water on the run, and then I’d eat white bread slathered with butter between loops, complimented my instant mashed potatoes, potatoes soup, and some grits.
- as much as I hated it, a caffeine taper works. Used caffeine for the first time at around hour 18 (in the form of Run Gum, which I tried for the first time since I wasn’t sure how my gut would react to liquid caffeine sources), and man, I was FLYING. So going to do the caffeine taper for any longer race from now on.
People have asked: “will you return?” If given the chance, absolutely. I’m not positive if it’s a race format in which I will ever excel, but that’s probably the reason I’d keep coming back. It’s a chance for mastery, and a chance for learning. And it gives me a year to shore up my body and actually be in a position to where I’m confident I can hang for 250+ miles. I have faith in my ability to do it, and I look forward to the challenge. And that challenge has always been what fuels me.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank my sponsors who have stuck with me through a weird and tumultuous year: Altra Running (I wore the Timps, Torin Plush, and Olympus – perfect combo), HumanN, Rocktape, Sufferfest Beer, Ultimate Direction, Goodr, Big Spoon Roasters, and Pete & Gerrys. And to Dr. Justin Brink at Premiere Spine & Sport who has tried to keep me in one piece through this all.
Cheers to big things ahead. See you in the Backyard.