How To Be The Last Runner Standing
Guest Contributor: Holly Burwinkle
Read Time: 4 mins
I recently ventured into the world of the 12-hour endurance run. You know, the kind where you run the same loop over and over at a set start time. For 12 hours. For no real apparent reason. Oh, and this race also had a twist, after each loop the lap clock decreased by 9 seconds, so you have to progressively get faster to keep from being eliminated. Admittedly, my primary motivation in signing up for this race was the t-shirt (who doesn’t want a dinosaur race shirt?) so it’s fair to say I did not fully appreciate this challenge going into it. It seemed like a fun way to get in a long run with friends on the weekend. (Spoiler alert I was not the last runner standing so if you’re reading this for race tips no need to read further.)
The day prior to the race, my friends and I were texting about our race strategies. My “strategy” was just to wing it for 24 loops because runners who completed 24 loops got a foam trucker hat for their lunacy. I showed up on race day with a towel and lunch bag full of gels, Pringles, and Rice Krispie treats. Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to set up my “home base” while others were setting up large tents, pulling out coolers, and laying out impressive spreads of food and aid. It was during this time that I started to realize I had seriously underestimated this event. Clearly people were here for the long haul, not just the t-shirt or a hat. I started to feel a little sheepish for not taking it more seriously.
Prior to the start the race director gathered us around for the pre-race briefing. The course was a 1.1-mile loop, marked with signs, and one big climb at the end. Sounds manageable enough. There weren’t many opportunities to make a wrong turn on the course, just keep making left turns. Maybe this WAS my kind of race! The clock hit 8:00am and we headed out on the first lap. The course was mostly a grassy greenway, relatively flat, and very runnable except for the last 50 feet which went straight up a washed-out dirt/sand hill. As an added bonus the race director parked himself at the top of the hill to heckle runners from a bullhorn as we trudge up the incline.
The first seven to eight laps went by quickly. Everyone was chatting, taking it easy, and enjoying themselves on the run. No one was struggling to finish the loops in the allotted time. The general feeling around the start/finish area was pretty relaxed. Runners came in, grabbed some water and food from the aid station or their home base, sit down and prop their legs up on a cooler for a bit, then all line back up to do it all over again a few moments later.
As the miles clicked by, the lap clock steadily decreased, and the heat index steadily climbed into the mid-90s. Runners started dropping, either by choice or by being eliminated by the clock. My rest time between each lap began to slowly dwindle and I started to feel the pressure at each break. Did I eat last time? Should I eat now? Drink some water! Ugh, it’s hot! OMG, it’s time to start again!?! At that point I’m starting to regret my strategy of “winging it”. The humidity was unpleasant at best, and I started a mental countdown of how many laps I had left to reach that all-important 24th loop.
My typical running mantra when I start feeling tired is “Just keep going - it’s the fastest way to the finish!” The thing is that doesn’t really work for this kind of race. I was at the “finish” every 10-ish minutes and each time I passed through I saw more runners settling into their chairs drinking cold beer and eating pizza. That sure seemed better than what I was doing. All I had to do was make the decision to quit and that could be me sitting in a comfy chair eating pizza and rehydrating with a beer. Well sitting on my towel at least. As tempting as that I was, I continued lining up at that start line over and over again. By lap 20 I could count down my remaining loops on one hand and each one was starting to feel harder and harder.
I love the mental part of racing. That unconscious mindset that elevates the end goal above the feelings of pain and misery. The internal voice that tells you to just keep going because you know you can do it. By lap 23 I was debating with myself about doing a few more loops, possibly staying in for the 50k just to push myself a little further. In the end, I stopped after 25 loops. I’ll be honest, I felt no sadness or regret as I watched the remaining runners line up for the 26th loop. I had exceeded my goal by one mile. I felt satisfied with my efforts for the day in spite of the voice in my head chastising me for stopping when I could have kept going.
So ... how to be the last runner standing? Tactically speaking, I still have to figure that out. The last two runners battling it out at the end seemed very adept at pacing themselves early on. They were never at the front of the pack during the first half of the race and were never the first runners to finish a lap so there’s probably something to that. What I can say is that watching the final runners gut it out at the end was truly inspiring. The look of exhaustion as they reached the top of the hill at the end of a lap was replaced by sheer determination when they lined back up at the start line. Those runners left it all out on the course that day. It was humbling and exhilarating to witness from the sidelines.
I recall commenting to my friend at one point during the day about how glad I was that I was only doing 24 laps. The thought of running the same loop without a set end seemed demoralizing. But the thing is, you can always run one more mile. Maybe not at negative splits. But when you tell yourself that you can keep going, you do it. Just keep going.
About the Author:
Holly Burwinkle lives in Charlotte, NC and enjoys the heat and humidity of a Carolina summer. You might find her running around the streets of Charlotte or getting lost on some local trails. She’s always looking for good tips on how to carry Pringles in her trail pack and keep them from getting crushed. If you have the answer ... hit her up on Instagram HERE.
Journal - How To Be The Last Runner Standing
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