Last One Standing
11 June 2018 - By James Blackshaw
On Sunday I took part in the Last One Standing ultra marathon, which is an event jointly organised by Challenge Running and Atlas Running. It was the first time the event had come to the UK, and was held in Knettishall Country Park in Norfolk.
The concept of the race was simple: you had to complete a 4 mile loop every hour on the hour. If you took more than hour to complete the loop you were out. If you didn’t start the loop on the hour, you were out. You were not allowed to start the next loop early, it had to be started on the hour. Of course, 4mph isn’t a particularly fast running pace, so the idea was that you would complete the loop in around 45-50 minutes, and then you would have some spare time to eat something, use the toilet, or deal with any other race management issue.
The race was to start at midday, and I arrived at 10:00am with my ever suffering crew of wife and dogs to set up my tent and get myself fed, watered and ready. I also spoke to a few of the other runners, and I couldn’t fail to notice that nearly everyone else here was a ‘proper’ runner. When we were discussing what our goals were for the race, most of the other runners said they were aiming for “no less than 100”. I was also aiming for 100, but whereas I was talking in kilometres, they were talking in miles. Oh dear. I’d completed a 100km event before, but I’d had a bad day of it due to various things, so my goal was to get through 100km a little more comfortably and at least feel like I’d ran most of it.
We set off bang on the hour of 12:00, and the first few laps passed fairly comfortably. Like the other runners, I used these laps to develop a pacing strategy to get the correct lap time, and there were three longish climbs on the route which everybody seemed to use as the natural walking breaks. The route itself was stunning, and even after completing it a dozen times I was still not bored of it. It was almost exclusively trail, and much of it was in the canopy of the forest, which helped to keep cool during the warmest hours.
Because of the concept of the event, you get some quirky things happening that you don’t see in other running races. Firstly, every time you stand on the start line for the next loop, you are in joint first place with everyone else. It doesn’t matter how well or how badly your last loop went, once you’re back on the start line for the next one, you’re all on equal footing. Secondly, you get to run with the better, faster runners throughout the race, and even overtake them. There was a guy who went on to run for many more hours than I, but I passed him on every lap with a mile to go, simply because our pacing strategies were different.
The first person to drop went at loop 6, due to some stomach complaints, and the next drop was at loop 10. After that, the drops were fairly regular at one or two per loop. One of the things that had hindered me during my first 100km a few years back was an inability to take in any food, but I’d sorted that out for this race, consuming sandwiches, chocolate, pasta and ice cream in between the loops, and sometimes all at once and in that order. I also had my trusty friend Tailwind, which always manages to keep me running further than I would normally expect. One of the other things I was worried about was the psychology of starting another loop. When things began to get difficult and I started to get tired, it would be almost too easy to just not start the next loop. I mentioned this to one of the other runners during the first loop, and his words stuck with me throughout the entire event. “Start every loop. Even if you only just get in on time, start the next one. You’ll regret it if you don’t start because you’ll always think ‘what if’, but if you start and get timed out, at least you’ll know you tried.” It made sense; it was what I was here for, after all.
To my complete surprise, I made though the 40 miles to lap 11 with relative ease, but laps 12 and 13 felt really tough, and this was partly due to the fact we were now in the hours of darkness, and the concentration levels were up to ensure that you did not trip on any of the exposed tree roots that were on the course. One of the runners had fallen over a root, put his hand out to break his fall, and in the process had dislocated a finger. I happened to pass him just as the race director was manually adjusting his right-angled digit back to a straight one. Ouch. Before I left for loop 13, I had a chat with the wife, and insisted she went back to the hotel to get a few hours’ sleep. She’d been with me at basecamp all day, and was pretty tired herself. I asked her to make me up some Tailwind drink in my bottles before she left so that I had something when I got back, as my last lap time was a bit longer than optimal, which didn’t leave much time for doing other stuff. I didn’t hold out much hope of achieving my 100km goal, so was prepared for the fact that the event would end soon for me, and that I would spend much of the night in my sleeping bag.
I got back to the tent to find my wife gone but, as promised, she’d made up some bottles of Tailwind, and I grabbed one and took a big slurp. My eyes immediately came out on stalks. Wow. Helen had never made up Tailwind before, and had no idea how much to put in, so she’d gone with the ‘more is better’ approach. I’ve no idea how many scoops she put in, but I sailed around the next three loops without a care in the world, pretty much flying, with lap 15 being my quickest of the whole event. I passed 100km nearly two hours quicker than my previous attempt at the distance, and found that I could even continue on. I got in a little late on loop 17, and my legs had started to feel really heavy, but true to the advice given to me by the runner during loop 1, I toed the line for the start of loop 18. Unfortunately, it was to be my last hurrah, and I got timed out, coming in to the finish two minutes over the hour. But I didn’t care. I was happy. I’d achieved what I’d set to do and more, I had run from day into the night and back into day again, getting a 100km PB and a distance PB of 71 miles. I was over the moon. The medal they give you at the end has ‘DNF’ on it, which makes sense, because only one guy or girl is ever going to complete the event, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be the proudest DNF I’ll ever get.
Speaking of which, the event finally ended after 36 hours (twice what I’d managed), when the winner completed his solo lap (you have to complete a solo lap to win). By an odd twist of fate, the winner hadn’t run a single step; he was a very fast walker, and had been consistently walking round each loop in 55 minutes. He’d been the last one in on every lap…maybe there’s something to be learned by this.
Out of 36 starters, I came 17th, but I definitely feel that with a bit more training and strategy (and maybe a few more kilos of Tailwind), a lot more could be possible. This is such a great event, and due to the concept of the race, in that it prevents you going too fast, it enables you go much further than you’d think possible. And as with all ultra events, the camaraderie is amazing; when you spend 18 hours running round with the same group of people you tend to get to know a few of them fairly well, and I’m pleased to say I made a few running companions during the weekend, including the Last Lady Standing, and a guy who ran a marathon a day for a year*. There’s a massive sense of “we’re all in this together” with everyone sharing their foods, hints, strategies and forgotten kit items.
Even the wife really enjoyed it, so I’ve already received a pass to do the whole thing again next year!
*if your immediate questions about this are the same as mine, then the answers are: 1) he got up at 3:00am every day, and 2) he averaged about 4 hours.