Dan LaPlante, Eve Graves, & Brent Moulton
Endless gray stretched over the highway in front of us. The windshield wipers scraped away heavy drops. I looked out the passenger window without saying much.
I registered for Last Runner Standing (Duluth, MN) because I thought it would be a good training run. It’s a 4.2 mile loop runners complete every hour, on the hour, and it’s early in the season. Whether it takes you 30 minutes or 59 minutes, everyone begins the loop together at the start of the next hour. Each hour is considered its own race, and the races continue until only one runner remains. The course climbs and descends Spirit Mountain. When I signed up this spring, I figured I’d throw down some decent mileage and work the hill.
A week before race day, my stress spiked. I had some hard news roll into my inbox, and I felt like my heart was made of granite. I ran a 10-miler Wednesday before the race. My legs turned over, but I had soon had tears falling down my cheeks. My chest wouldn’t expand. The next day, I went out alone again, and again I found myself weeping in the woods.
Running and emotions have a codependent push-and-pull relationship. Typically, running helps mitigate and calm the waves. When a tidal wave hits, it destroys everything.
Friday night, we were supposed to head to the start and camp. I changed our reservation. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t feel like I could run.
I certainly didn’t want to race.
I did an unusual thing on the drive Saturday morning; I made my husband promise that I could quit anytime without a single objection. He promised.
Our friends, Chris and Mike, were getting ready at the starting line. I carried my totes into the runners’ village and flopped down in a chair with a blanket, waiting. One loop. I’ll do one loop. The weather was cold and dark.
LRS is a problematic race in the best way. When you calculate it the pace needed to complete a loop, it’s a 14+ minute mile average. Reasonable. The concept completely removes the element of speed. Banking time is a strategy that may or may not benefit you; it is a game of stability and a test of endurance.
Disclaimer: stability doesn’t run in the family. Stability isn’t something I’d start telling you about if I was to describe myself. Stability is one of the reasons I run. For me, anything stable is a concentrated practice and hard-earned. It is a skill that requires constant practice.
I pushed myself out of the chair and lined up. There were nearly 70 runners. We began.
Mile 1: Uphill gravel road, occasionally leveling off, leading to a sharp switchback onto the SHT (Superior Hiking Trail).
Mile 2: Rocky and rough ascending black singletrack. A technical Jarrows Beach-type section next to the river and plenty of roots.
Mile 3: Winding muddy trail through the woods ending in 129 steep log stairs.
Mile 4+: A short gravel road, a little hill, and The Plunge down Spirit Mountain.
I finished the first loop in 50-ish minutes, which was slower than I anticipated. The course was more challenging than I expected. Two people missed the first cutoff.
Sometimes people say that running is an addiction.
Maybe it’s the opposite: running is the determination not to quit. That’s essentially the same as an addiction, but the power is reversed. When you’re addicted, you’re powerless. When you refuse to quit, you are strong.
When there is something in my life that I am determined to do, or to continue with, running makes me feel strong enough to do it.
I started the third loop in the back of the pack, racing steady. We were three hours in and I wasn’t even at a half marathon yet. This was taking forever. The solution was also the problem: I started to recognize the same runners and making friends. Surprisingly, most of us seemed seasoned in ultras and no strangers to distance. Having good company made the miles tick by more easily, as it always does. I don’t believe I’ve ever run an ultra without making a new friend.
Four, five loops down and I continued to cross the finish line steadily around 50 minutes. I wanted to love the course, but I didn’t yet. I spent the first 20 miles going through the motions. I hated feeling so removed from a race, but my head and heart weren’t engaged with either course or competition. I told myself to get to a marathon.
Then, we (our 50-minute-per-loop group) decided to at least get to 50k. Just one more loop, right?
Finally, I woke up. This was fun. The number of runners started to diminish and the core group was growing more familiar. I felt my heart lighten.
The course was a little more trustworthy (the first few loops I stressed over the mile long, slow climb to the top and doubted how to pace myself). Every time we returned to the village I took in salt, calories, refilled, met any need, and rested for a few moments. The directors, Kim and Andy, rallied us to the start of the next race and blasted “I’m Still Standing.”
The starts are exciting because you can see who came out to play again – and who dropped. My friend Chris strategically walked particular amounts each loop but always caught up to me in the last mile. Some runners ran the loop in half an hour (and certain races had prizes for the speediest). I tried to run consistently, and I did.
The number of runners was now cut in half, maybe even fewer. 8, 9, 10 more races. The afternoon shadows grew long around 40 miles in. We were finally digging in to ultra territory. The gong would clang and we’d shuffle back into running and resume our conversations from the previous loop. I noticed only three females remained.
I had a small worry entering my mind about the night: I knew the course was too challenging for me to keep this pace up in the darkness. The feels get a little more real as you delve deeper into an ultramarthon. Hip flexors tighten, old injuries complain, feet swell, things chafe. I still felt great 46 miles in. I made up my mind to get to 50 and re-evaluate.
I lost a minute or two each loop, and I was sure I’d gain more because of the technicality of the trail when the sun went down. I realized that I wasn’t going to quit this race; eventually I would simply not make it back in time.
Everyone leaves Last Runner Standing with an award for completing whatever distance they were able to. As we started the 12th loop, there was only one other female. I had heard about her all day because she had a formidable reputation: Leslie won Voyageur 50, one of the oldest ultras in the country, a couple years ago. She looked lean and strong.
Headlamps on, twleve of us headed out to get to mile 50.
When darkness fell, so did my pace. I could not as easily navigate the rocks and roots, and I was starting to feel tired. I stopped eating and drinking (a cardinal sin of ultras) because I felt my end was coming. I did not know if I could win, but I knew that I didn’t have very many loops left in me.
I came down the plunge, mile 50, with a mere three minutes on the clock. I looked up behind me and saw three headlamps still coming down Spirit behind me.
If one of them was Leslie, she’d make it back in time for sure and we’d both have to go out again. I steeled myself for another loop. I felt a strange mix of rooting deeply for someone to succeed while secretly hoping they don’t make it back in time so the race can end. The first headlamp came in: definitely a dude. The second came in: not Leslie. One more headlamp. One more minute on the clock.
As the runner crossed the finish, it was a guy. Mike clapped me on the back and a small hoot when up around us. I was the last woman left. I completed a final victory lap, one last loop to say goodbye to the course and call it a day.
My race came to an end with only a single minute on the clock. 13 loops, 54 miles, and one significantly stronger woman than the girl trudging through the first loop.