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

Updated: May 10

#TylerAndrews (click to see all content)

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 h