This is a post that, like my running, has taken a long time for me to finish. With the Ring of Fire Ultra coming up soon and with some persistent comments on social media, I got to thinking about my experiences of what it’s like at the back of the field and how it’s often misunderstood.
It’s important to me that this doesn’t turn into a negative up yours to runners faster than me, as I like to think that they simply don’t know what’s going on far behind them. This is because the support and encouragement from 99% the trail running community is so overwhelmingly positive. So, then this will be more of a cicada on a tree view of our events/runs.
First of let’s break down what I mean by back of the fielder. Working from the front of the field at any event you have:
- The front runners at the fast and pointy end, these
peoplesuperfreaks are chasing a placing.
- Then the bulk of the runners in the pack. If you can see other runners, chances are you’re in the pack. You can further break down the pack to:
- the front of the pack – you see runners behind you
- the mid packers, and- you see runners in front and behind you
- the back of the pack – you see runners in front of you
- Then finally, it’s us back of the fielders – you don’t see anyone, and are running (and very often walking) scared of the tail ender and the ever-present spectre of cut offs.
I’m pretty sure that it goes without saying that the biggest difference between being fast and slow is the time it takes to complete the required distance, that seems simple enough. You might be out there for double the time of the winners, so just don’t make any other plans that day. But it’s not that simple, as that extra time factors into so much of how our events go.
One of the biggest impacts is how the weather can change during the day. In the case of The Hillary, being slow means hitting the hot house of Te Henga at the end in peak afternoon sun, or for RoF I’ll be finishing in the cold and dark of night close to midnight. Because we’ll see such changes, we need to be prepared for anything that can come up. So, we might head out with a jacket though it’s fine in the morning but there is rain is forecast for the afternoon, or with extra water for when the sun hits. Of course, this means more weight to carry.
“Oh, you’ve got one 500ml hand flask and 2 Gu’s for that 20km race? I’ve got a vest with 2L of water, 6 Gu’s, 3 Clift blocks, half a chicken, and a Stroopwaffle.” I’ve had almost this exact same conversation with someone before a race (I only had 5 Gu’s). When you’re going to be out there for 4hrs vs 1.5hrs, you’re simply going to need a lot more fuel and water.
But aid stations you say? Well, we really can’t rely on the aid stations to have anything left when you get there. The last aid station at Waitomo a few years back only had water and jet planes left, (so much for buffet). And an aid station in Breca only had one orange slice and a few litres of water when we got there, which really sucked as we were a team of two and there were still a few teams behind us. This falls on the organizers, they need to make sure they ration enough for everyone entered. But at the same time, runners, please only take what you need and think of others. Of course, this means more weight to carry.
With that event gripe out of the way and having read articles online, I have to say the trail event organizers here in New Zealand are some of the best for us back of the packers. Overseas (and on the road) it seems quite common for aid stations, course markings, timing mats, and finishing lines to be removed before the event cut off and roads reopened. Which is quite frankly disgusting, not to mention dangerous. I have the inside word that for one NZ company it’s an unspoken rule that the finish arch stays up until everyone is finished. And it really does mean something to us to finally see it at the end of a long day. And I’m really looking forward to my red-carpet finish at RoF.
However, that red-carpet will come at the end of a very long day (my prediction is around 18-19hrs). My biggest worry is not if I’m fit enough to finish the 72km, but rather if I’m fit enough to make the cut offs. Logically I understand the reason behind cut offs, but I really don’t know how I’ll take getting cut. So much time, effort, and money gone simply because I ran too slowly. For many of us every race is our Barkley or Revenant, not being able to finish is a real possibility. When an event extends the cut off’s, no it’s not “making it easier for people to amble along”, it’s giving us the confidence to have a crack when we would have most likely be cut in the past. It removes a lot of stress and for a change means less weight to carry (figuratively).
Not helping the situation is that for most of that time, I’m predicting I’ll be “♪♫ allll byyy myselfff ♪♫” . In the pack you have others to feed off of, you try to catch the lady in front and stay ahead of the guy behind. At the back you’re relying on self-motivation to keep your pace up and at times just to keep moving. To run slow you’ll need to be prepared to talk to yourself, a lot, and make deals with yourself, a lot. I think it takes a different bit of crazy to commit to being on your feet for so many hours. If you’re not there at the start, those long hours alone will fix that.
At the risk of making sweeping generalizations, we back of the packers fall in to the larger than average body type, I believe Clydesdale and Athena is the in-vogue term, and here is I have my biggest issue:
First nothing fits, well more accurately nothing good, compact, and light fits. I decided to invest in a good running jacket for RoF, as my current one is pretty low end; fine for 3-4hrs but not 19 in an alpine area. I have a grand total of 4 choices to pick from, one is over $500, one is discontinued so is rare, and none are on a shelf in New Zealand. That means I settle for a heavier tramping jacket or risk buying from overseas without trying it on first. And a jacket is just the latest; running vests, shorts, shirts, event shirts, thermals, all of them the options I can count on one hand. Then, when the measurements say it should fit, well now it’s freaking skin tight, and NO ONE wants to see me looking as lumpy as a sock filled with potatoes.
Seriously, the events and running community id so inclusive and supportive, but the sporting wear industry is sadly sending a message of ‘if you’re big, you don’t get to have fit for purpose gear’. I can see change happening in the plus sized gear for females (worst case there is the option of dipping into man sizing at a pinch), but for males it’s lagging behind. It also makes good business sense to have larger gear, because as we lose weight, we’ll be buying new gear that fits. At the same time, we’re starting to see companies embrace and support what I like to call the “Atypical athlete”. REI sponsors The Mirnavator, Nike signed Justin Gallegos, who has cerebral palsy, and CEP NZ and Infinit Australia are backing me (and I can’t thank them enough for their support) (Infinit have even made me custom mix tailored to the fact I’m a bigger guy). I hope we continue to see this embrace, and hope my jacket fits when it arrives.
With the rant over, I’ll hop off my soap box now. I’m not saying we have it harder, or easier, everyone has their own challenges. Many times, I’ve had quicker people ask how I be on my feet for so many hours, but at the same time I can’t fathom how they move so quickly across some of the terrain we run on. The mutual respect which was something I really didn’t expect when I started trail running. Sure, there are a few that feel if we’re slow we should be there, but if we weren’t, then they wouldn’t look so totally awesomely badarse when they brag to their mates about how many people they beat.
I hope I’ve given a brief insight into the life and times of a back of the packer. We’re an interesting bunch with some interesting stories, and whole lot of time to tell them. We might move slow, but we are moving (hopefully forward). So, save us a marmite sammie, we’ll be along later.
After all them words, here a treat of some memes: