Chaskis by the Shore: 101km of staring down the "why"

March 5, 2021

I remember sitting on the floor, my back against the sofa and my legs straightened out against the carpet, and telling Matt, “This is why you need something like a flight to catch to get you to the end of an ultra.”

Just 19 days earlier, as night fell over the Everest Base Camp Trail in Nepal[1], I’d had that exact motivation. I could answer the increasingly loud voice screaming “why?!” in my mind with a perfectly coherent and pragmatic reason to keep going: I had a flight to catch the following morning and no way to get there but by the power of my own two feet.

Here, though, in coastal California, already in the comfort of my living room, my housemates debating what kind of pizza to order, I had to dig around in my brain to answer that “why?”

The truth is that there was no reason. I was in the midst of (one of)[2] the strangest endurance competitions of my life: the Quarantine Backyard Ultra. I’d heard of the event just a couple days beforehand and what usually would have simply made for a fun hypothetical conversation on a run (how best to fuel, pace, etc.), my training partner Matt and I decided we should just do it. Such is life with an empty calendar.

The idea is remarkably simple. Every hour on the hour, a bell rings and every competitor has to start moving. Between bells, you must cover 6.71km (4.11 miles), a distance 1/24th of 100 miles (i.e. each 24 hours, competitors will cover 100 miles). Runners can cover that distance as quickly or slowly as they please but cannot start the following “lap” until the next bell. Thus, you could essentially walk continuously w/ no breaks at 6.71 km/hr or jog 6.71 km in 30 minutes and have 30 min rest.

Simple. And easy, right?

The challenge of the “race” is that there is no set distance. The relentless bell keeps ringing on the hour until there’s only one competitor remaining. And for context, the winners of the last few years have had to keep this pattern going for 60+ hours (250 miles, 400km).

Now, I wasn’t particularly interested in running for two and a half days (I mean, who has time for that?) and anyway the obvious strategy for that would be to run as slowly as is comfortably possible, and at this point I’ve found myself more interested in getting some speed back in my legs. So, I came up with my own plan: limit myself to around 50 miles or 100km, but try to keep the running portions relatively quick, say under 4’00/km[3].

I have never been more unprepared for a “race” (and I put the word in quotes since this entire event was run virtually, i.e. runners all over the world ran at the same time, but on their own courses). I honestly hadn’t run more than a handful of sub-4’00 kilometers (and no true speedwork at all) since the Olympic Marathon Trials on Feb 29[4]. I figured I could run a few, but just had absolutely no idea what to expect in the later hours. Only one way to find out!

The Race

Lap 1: 06:00 PDT

Casa Chaski awoke in the dark and, after a quick cup of coffee, we set up the Zoom meeting which would serve as our source of communication w/ other runners (and some kind of accountability) for the remainder of the day. The sky had just begun the transition from black to blue as we headed down towards what I’d dubbed “the Beach Loop”.

We ran through the dark empty streets, up the hill to the underpass and down into town the other side and then through the few meters of soft sand to the hard-packed beach. But, having established a supremely relaxed definition of “morning run”, neither of us had been out at this hour and due to the receding high tide, we found ourselves running through soft sand and, a few minutes later, about a foot of ocean water. I scrambled up and over some rocks until we popped out onto a wider section of the beach. Damn, we really should have checked the tides.

Luckily, it’s lap #1 and not lap #8 or something, so we laugh at the SNAFU and are still back at the house by 06:29. My shoes (my normal HOKA Clifton trainers) are soaked, so I change into the brand new Machs for Lap 2. I drink a bit and then we sit around for half an hour.

Lap 2: 07:00 PDT[5]

Honestly, the part about which I felt the most nervous was the half hour I’d spend not running each lap. I feared I’d get stiff and tight and would feel awful for the majority of the running (as it often takes me a few km to feel like I’m really loosening up). I did some yoga and tried to keep moving, without wasting too much energy.

Unfortunately, Matt had been battling some patellar tendonitis, so he planned to only do the first and last rep with me. I left on my own for the next loop and again ran down to the beach. This time, I turned back at the entrance, seeing that the tide was still covering up all the good running sand, and ran back on the road.

I ran with my headphones on and got jacked up and made it back much quicker in 25’23 (3’47/km).

Laps 3-4: 08:00-10:00 PDT

Before leaving, I finally actually checked the tide chart and saw that I was going to need to give it a couple hours, so I headed north towards Toro Creek Road, a nice and moderately hilly out/back. The sun had risen and the Phish was ripping in my ear-buds. I’d managed to get into a good routine of staying loose, eating, drinking, and having a generally good time w/ my friends in the 34 minutes I had at home between laps.

These laps were 26’01, 25’53 (3’52, 51/km)

Lap 5: 10:00 PDT

I honestly didn’t feel tired yet at this point. I’d only run about 27km and for some reason really let myself go on this lap (must have had a real banger playing). I headed back onto the beach loop but was turned back one more time by the high tide.

25’05 (3’44/km)

Laps 6-12: 11:00-18:00 PDT

With the tide finally down, I got into a great rhythm and ran like a Swiss clock for the next 8 hours. I had set my watch to beep every 30 minutes at about 15/45 min past the hour, at which time I’d eat (a gel or gummy candy[6]) when running and whatever my body craved out of my grab-bag when I was at home.

My overall average pace was dropping every lap, well under my goal of 4’00/km and settling around 3’50, as I ran 8 laps in a row in 25 minutes[7].

Over these 8 hours, things started to get interesting. The distance had already gone from “normal training day” to “pretty long run”, had passed the marathon, then 50K, and then entered into eyebrow-raising territory.

Running-wise, I felt like the frog being slowly boiled. No single lap jumped significantly in difficulty or discomfort from the one before it; rather, the laps generally were trending a bit harder, requiring a bit more focus, a bit more motivation to resist the comfortable stasis of sitting on the floor. I was just waiting for things to become unbearable.

But, honestly, it felt manageable. I remember at 9 laps thinking I could absolutely get to 50 miles (12 laps) and had already told Matt I wanted to shoot for 100km (15 laps). I simply kept getting out the door, told myself not to judge how I felt in the first couple minutes, and would without fail loosen up, get to the beach, and ride a nice tail-wind all the way home.

I did pass 50 miles on lap 12, my slowest lap of the beach-loop segment at 25’51, just slow enough that I wondered if things were starting to go south. But I ate some real food and headed back out, only 3 to go.

Laps 13-14 19:00-21:00

Three laps didn’t sound too hard.

I think the reason for this was because I’d mentally decided that this new unit, "a lap" (particularly a beach loop lap) was something that I could tolerate doing basically for the rest of my life. I wasn’t thinking about how many kilometers or minutes of running were left. In fact, I made the mistake of doing that mental arithmetic at the beginning of Lap 13, and panicked for a moment, realizing I had 75 minutes of running left.

See, in almost any other context, 75 minutes of running sounds like quite a bit. But this was an entirely new context. And running 3 laps sounded an awful lot easier, so I actively told myself not to think in normal terms. One lap at a time.

I finished lap 13 in 25’32 (20 seconds faster than the previous one), so I reassured myself that I’d just been tired in the previous lap and I’d surely be able to finish on pace. I drank a lot of nuun and sat on the floor as Matt and Sarah scoured the Surfside Pizza menu.

And yes, now we’re back to the start.

With two laps to go until I reached my arbitrary goal of 100km, I sat there and a very loud voice in my head asked, “Why?” Why not just stop? You’ve already run 87km at 3’50/km pace. That’s your second biggest day ever! And way quicker than you planned! Plus, the pizza will be here soon. And it’s getting colder out. It’s going to get dark soon. And seriously, WTF, you’re not going to win this race; you’re running it all wrong if that was the plan. And even if you did, there’s no prize. So, what?

“Because I think I can and I want to know if I can.”

That was the answer I had. I think I can do this, but I haven’t done it yet and don’t have the proof. I want to prove it to myself. I want the satisfaction that comes from finishing what I set out to do, especially when the path had been so uncertain at the start.

And so, I squatted down on all fours -- cat-cow-cat-cow -- loosened up my ankles, and headed out again. Lap 14. 25’15, 3’45/km, my third fastest loop of the day.

Lap 15: 21:00-21:24:56

The smell of pizza had overtaken our living room but there was nothing stopping me at this point; I was a man on a mission.

A tiny piece of me wanted to keep going for a few more laps, especially as I neared the end of the penultimate lap and just felt really full of running. But I decided to channel that into finishing strong, as fast as I could handle. I mean, come on. The pizza was getting cold.

Night had fallen and I’d put the headlamp back on for this last lap; full circle. I took off down towards the beach, coming through the first K quicker than I had all day despite the 95km (almost 60 miles) in my legs. I ran out/back to the bottom of the big hill just before the beach (the tide had risen again rendering the loop impossible) and turned back, hammering up the hill.

A light fog forced me to question whether my vision was going funky or it was just my headlamp moving through the damp air (I think it was the latter). I came past the cemetery, up the final hill, down parallel to Rt 1, and left onto our street, Matt standing there[8] cheering me home the last 200m. I split my watch at 6.72km as always and run the extra 50m that pushed my total for the day up to 101K.

The last lap ended up as the fastest of the day 24’47 (3’41/km).

I’m finished.

I’d thought maybe I’d be among the last 20-50 runners if I made it to 50M or 100K, but it turned out that over 300 runners were still going after I DNF’d[9] after Lap 15. As I sat on the couch eating pizza, watching Community, and, achily, making my way to bed a couple hours later, I thought of those 300 folks (and I thought of the remaining 30 or so that were still going well past 24 hours when I got out of bed the next morning).

What did these people say to that voice? As the count-down clicked down towards the start of another hour, how did they answer that “why”?

Unlike a typical race where you're likely out running, miles from the finish line, when that question pops up, this event forces you to really stare it head on while sitting in the comfort of your home. You have to actively choose to keep going; the default is to stay put.

Myself, I’m still learning about how to answer that question, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to stare it down 14 times today.

Full Lap-by-lap Splits


[1] See the full write-up here:

[2] I only say “one of” so I can mention the donut/beer mile in college, the 10,000 challenge, and others that I don't even want to write down.

[3] A pace of 6h40 for 100km which if I were able to run would almost certainly earn me a spot on the US World Championship Team.

[4] Recap here:

[5] Don’t worry, I’m not going to recap every single lap

[6] Store brand Orange Slice Gummies were the real MVP today.

[7] And, it’s worth noting, the Beach Loop did include one major street (Route 1). Despite having to stop at this light for anywhere from a couple of seconds to maybe half a minute, the laps were still all within 43 seconds during this stretch.

[8] He’d opted not to run again as his knee had gotten worse after the morning’s adventure 14 hours earlier

[9] Technically, the race has only one finisher, the winner. Everyone else registers a DNF (Did Not Finish), though the results do include how many total miles/km you covered before dropping out.

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