Nobody wants to play with me – KatzenSprung’s Backyard Ultra 2019

Lots have been said about Backyard Ultras. If you are new to the concept, just google ‘Big’s Backyard Ultra’ for the origin. Just a few words: Every entrant starts for a loop of 6.7k every hour. Whoever fails to finish the loop within that hour is out. Who quits is out too, of course. The race ends when only one runner finishes a loop within the hour. That concept is so incredibly simple. And allows for so intense races, tension for days, cheering for people you never heard of, eager for the next post via ultra list of the remaining runners in some woods in the backcountry of Tennessee. And the runners deliver. People who never thought of being contender for first place in an ultra are tied for the lead, every hour again. Until they fall apart. Or lose the will to continue. This adds a big psychological aspect to the race. Everyone will be a DNF, but one. At most. So, when a runner gets into thinking that the other runners will be much stronger and outrun you, where’s the point in suffering on? People drop once they think, they cannot win. So, there is some poker game going on. Everybody will look great, cheerful, happy and easily running. It is a short loop of 6.7k anyway, who cannot do this in 60 minutes? But beware the time a person decides to call it quits. They go from 100% to empty in a split second. So much for the excitement about Backyard ultras.

Last Christmas, I talked to my brother again about how simple such a backyard ultra is to organize. And he told me, he wanted to hold one in Bremen. I encouraged him, and he made me promise, I will run it when it happens. I thought this to be a short lived idea, and somehow forgot about it. Every now and then we exchanged brief messages about the race. He already had a name, and a venue in his head. Only, the officials for the Bremen Buergerpark seemed to be a bit hard headed and not so happy of the idea that 30 people might run themselves to pieces in the park. Well, I am sure, Jan put it a bit differently, but still, no luck. So I thought this would not happen. Then he told me, he had another venue with more willing officials. The Werder island. A park with lots of small gardens in the middle and a long, flat, asphalt cycle path on the outside. And some spot to put tents on and two port-a-potties. Anything else necessary for the run? I don’t think so. He asked me for a date, I picked one, well in advance the Stunt100 for which I wanted to be fresh. And it was set. We did some advertising on FB, tried to get some runners to the event. With only five weeks to go, and a more or less niche race format, this was a hard endeavor. But after a while we had some ten or twelve people coming. Enough for this to make sense. 35 would have been cooler, but for the in inaugural event, and with that short period of announcement, that was great!

Thanks to the DUV statistics, I got a good idea of the runners. Some were friends of Jan, who never ran a Marathon before. Well, every time is a first, but for these people 30k sounded like a superhero effort. Then there were some runners, who already ran their ultra or two, not with big mileage, but you never know. Jan for example, never went longer than the Brocken Challenge to this day. Somehow I believed him that 100k was sufficient for him. Tanya did the Thueringen Ultra 100k several times, and I was trying to get her to run hundred miles for quite some years now. This year should be it. And it was partly in my hands to make this event long enough for her to go long. Then there were Frank, Morton and Holger who were in principle able to run 24h plus. But in a Backyard you never know. I thought of myself being the updog here. Maybe Tanya can get me when I make a mistake, and maybe one of the other runners just waited for a backyard ultra to show big class.

Then came a big bummer. I browsed through my mail and stumbled upon the date of the German Championship in underwater rugby. Argh. Same date as Katzensprung! No! We were far from being qualified, but we pulled this off last year, from a very bad position to hop to a spot in the championships. I dreaded the last league round. I fought with all I got, and the others too. It came as it should, and we qualified again, and I had to tell my team, I will leave them hanging as I promised my brother to run a stupid race that weekend. Gosh, was I torn. But promise was promise, so I ducked away, ready to be expelled, and prepared for an indefinite amount of running in Bremen. I could sleep in the van of my brother, got a train together with Tanya and made plans to go shopping for race treats once we were in Bremen. The train part did not let me pack as I do for a 24h race. And this might take even longer. Ouch. Shopping was fun though. Imagine browsing through a supermarket and put everything in the cart that you love to eat, is as calory rich as possible, and lots of it. Don’t forget the pickles. And a carrier of alcohol free Weizenbeer. Only, how will we get this stuff to the race site, which was a mere 3k from the train station? Luckily, Jan got us with his van, and we did not have to waste energy on the hike. Tanya pitched her tent, I inspected the race site and packed my stuff in the box that Jan provided for me, arranged the camping chair, while he went to mark the course. At 11pm. He came back quickly and decided, he will mark the course on the first loop in the morning, this is supposed to be a low key race. After all, It was not so difficult. We went to sleep, with our alarm to four am, when the start would be at 5:22, exactly at sunrise.

The night was cold, the van itself was of no help, but the day was supposed to be hot, so better enjoy the cold as long as I can… The five hours of sleep passed quickly and I was so not in the mood to get out of the sleeping bag and run. But it had to be done. Some car pulled up next to us, and another, and then a third. Nice to see the other runners, willing to do the endless circle with us. And Bernd, Jan’s father in law, himself a regular marathon runner, and he did 55k once. Nice last minute addition! I arranged all my spare shoes and equipment that I might need for the next night, or after it, in the trunk of the van, put on my watches and greeted the other contestants. At 5:10, Jan said some words, explained the rules, and how we should put our times in the list on the table. Either put the duration of our loop in the right field, or just the time of day when thinking would get harder. The official race clock was a cheap plastic alarm clock that Jan bought the day prior. It was able to show some colorful lighting through its white plastic case. Aside the table with the list and the clock, there was a larger tent where Jan had put some carriers of sparkling water, and as I insisted, some canisters of still water. I put my beer and bananas in the tent too, got out my chair and put the box with all my stuff next to it, and was set to go. It felt a bit weird to have all this unoccupied for most of the hours, but remember, this is a park in northern Germany, and it was kind of obvious that some event was happening here, and it was not obvious if there were people in the tents, so I tried to put all things of bigger value in the van and not in the box. The one last, and maybe the most important addition to the race setup were the two port-a-potties, that a confused delivery truck driver put within the bushes as he misunderstood as far into the park as possible.

Time elapsed and we set off. The first round, Jan showed the way, and marked the occasional corner to take. We had fun, were all chatty, but still a bit sleepy. And it got lighter, the sun showed just above the horizon. With no cloud anywhere, this was a not so colorful, but still impressive moment, to see the ball of fire, big and orange, making its way through some building and trees until it was set right to warm us entirely. There were some sections where we did not take the paved ways but cut two corners and went over the grass. This made for some nice wet feet, right from the start. Why? was my main thought, but I figured this will dry out again, and I had enough pair of shoes if this would become an issue. Aside those small cut corners, the route was entirely asphalt, a very short section of cobblestone, almost flat, but we had to get about a meter of elevation onto the dike between the land and the river Weser, or back down, occasionally. All in all a rather boring course when I think about all the trails I usually run. But this was a public park, so I expected it to fill with people who will give some distractions of the overall repeating routine.

The first loop was done, the course was marked, and we were in good spirits. Chatting, laughing, trying some mind games on each other like comparing return ticket times. A very good group of people. We went out again, and visited the course once more. Yep, still the same. Corners became more familiar, more tiny details emerged in the perception of the surrounding. Yes, this was definitely fun. If only there was no sun and heat scheduled (well, after surviving the STUNT, I can only smile about the ‘heat’ in Bremen in May). But there I was anxious about what was coming. No shade for long stretches, no cooling wind and temperatures I was not used to yet. But in the first rounds everything was fine, and we kept up the chatty atmosphere. Only, I noticed the group tempo was a bit too slow for me. I wanted to have more time to sit down in the shade and drink. So I sped up and ran alone most of the remaining loops. This worked out perfectly. I always had a good feeling being first back in camp, and getting some rest until the next persons arrived. Yes, it was a bit taxing to run faster, but I was out of the sun earlier, no? Also I began walking breaks, mostly on the first half of the loop when the few trees held away the sun. And then every bit of uphill, which was not much.

Over the hours, people began to drop. Some because they did not want to run far in the first place, others because of appointments later the day (shakes head…) and then some because of exhaustion. Frank, who had big plans, brought his own gazebo, and was definitely eager for the night got dizzy in the heat. He made one loop barely in under an hour, and as I was trying to get out of him if he had a cell phone to call us when he had to drop somewhere on course, he told us that he quit. Dang. I was sorry for him, as was he. I was no longer that fresh too, but could get along with the heat quite well. I had my sunblocking long sleeve and after putting a Tshirt under my cap for neck protection and wondering if a thin white cloth might not work much better. Then I had a brilliant idea. I simply cut a buff open and put that one under the cap. Problem solved! Also, I drank a lot of Weizenbier, Coke, and tea. Mixed with bananas and potato chips, and I was really well fed. As the legs were getting more and more tired, I felt like in a steady state that could go on forever. Well, it did not. I had to work more and more, and began to wish night might already fall. But it was still a long time to go.

Having some experience in short loop races, I was expecting boredom after some loops. But this was different. The hour was long enough that the course changed quite a bit between loops. Being a public park, there were many people around and I got lots of insights like waves of different folks flooding the park. Shortly after sunrise we met the fitness enthusiasts. 80% female, sometimes looking determined, sometimes looking like pre-coffee, a very few of them really enjoying moving in the early morning chill with a blue sky and a huge sun creeping over the horizon. They were soon complemented by the dog owners. All genders, and mostly looking like it was not their idea to leave the house before 7am on a Saturday. As the runners were getting more and more happy, relaxed and casually jogging, came an unexpected wave of daddies with little kids. The kids between half a year and two, in a bike trailer or some other cart, again sound asleep and their fathers either asleep on a bench themselves or enjoying a newspaper or a book. I barely saw one of them actually pushing their vehicle or interacting with an awake kids. An hour later they were all gone again. The dog owners became more and more positive and doing longer strolls. The first people where populating benches for some sun bathing. Early in the day, cyclists were either falling into the fitness enthusiast category, late from a party, or on a commute, being in a hurry. This changed gradually. Bikes became electrified, their way was less and less straight. More and more bikes were leaning against benches, trees, laying in the grass, their owners sitting alone or in groups, more and more populating the park. There was one wave of soccer fans flooding towards the stadium, then lots of crowd noises and then the wave retracted back into the ocean of their homes, with some green and white people stranding in the park with more or less beer in their bellies and heads. I even saw the Werder team bus going over the bridge which crossed our course twice.

Many people came to work in their little remote gardens. Or just hang out. Or meet with friends, family. All paths resembled veins in a big system, transporting human particles back and forth, some with a purpose, some without. Having an hourly snapshot of every meter of the course was highly entertaining. This group grew, the other resolved. That couple hopped from one bench to the next. A family reunion met in front of a cafe, then sat in it, their kids started playing on the playground next to it, and finally they parted again. Apparently some sections of the Werdersee shore were a nudist beach, where we had to run by. For some rounds I hoped they would not feel offended that we ran by every hour, but later I just enjoyed that this is possible in a German city. This place was mostly sunbathing, but also had quite some fluctuation of people.

I expected people to recognize me, all the more when I was wearing shades and my funny napkin under the cap, but not a single word from bystanders. But we as a group of backyarders totally dissolved in the crowd of people seeking recreation in the park. Even the youth groups gathering later in the afternoon did not make fun of me. I sometimes felt as an invisible observer of a huge experiment. Then there were short interactions. Plain eye contact in moments of awareness on both my and the opposite side. Brief but sometimes deep. But very few words were exchanged. Only once I saw a couple with heavy looking Ebikes eating lunch from styrofoam plates. Next round they were gone, but two plastic bags with very familiar looking plates next to their bench. This made me angry. Somehow it felt like my park already, and no one dares to litter here! a quarter round later, I found the two sitting on the river shore. So I stopped and told them directly that I saw them eating an hour earlier and that what looks like their remainders was still next to the bench and I don’t like that. They tried to tell me that they would never litter, but I did not stay, but just leave after my words. This was a very empowering moment. Usually, I just swallow and not speak up. This time I did and it felt great. It was not even as bad as I always fear when contemplating whether to address things I don’t want other people to do. Next hour the plastic bags were gone 🙂

More and more drops happened over the day. Especially Tanya having to leave made me sad. I was so sure she would go a hundred miles for her first time that day. But some sharp knee pain ended her run. Jan had already dropped earlier without setting a new personal longest. There always was some poker before the start of a new loop. No one came back and called it quits if it was not for a fixed deadline. People started gathering at the wooden posts and then refused to go out, so no one could try to get them to try another loop. They were out. Also, Tanya and Jan knew that I was looking for a long experience and they were sad they could not assist me with that. This left Morton and me. He looked strong, happy, cheering, patient. A hard opponent. I wished for signs of weakness, but he showed none. We did some war speak here and there, but it felt more like trying out the new game we were doing here, than actually convincing the other or even ourselves. Still, the ‘early’ drops made for a feeling of losing playmates. Hey, please stay in the game! Don’t leave! But they did anyway. This led to a feeling, described by the title of this post.

The heat got to me. I felt lots of wear. And I longed for the drop in my chair in the shadow. So I went quickly over the course as ever. But it felt more and more hard. Then came some bowel distraction. I made it to camp, and did not dare to go immediately, mostly because the portapotties were 50m downstream. So I took my break, refuled, saw Morton coming in. After a short rest we got up again, to leave for the next loop. In the first meters I told him, I would use the toilet and then catch him later. I hurried quite a bit and felt stressed. Not in a comfortable lead for the first time for long. I expected this loop to take 55 minutes or even longer and to have only a very short break. But the stress led me to run a tad faster than usual, and I was surprised to meet Morton already a mile before the end of the loop. I wanted to stay with him and chat, but he was walking and obviously in a bad spot, and sent me on. I went and reached the cool shelter and my drinks. Morton came in, did his routine and we set out again. This would be the last day loop. The mercyless sun was about to let us go. Relief.

We went on with the whistle and Morton began to praise the cool night to come through which it would be a piece of cake to run. I answered enthusiastically that I was so waiting for the night to fall and that I love to run in the dark, especially after a host day. Really looking forward to eight hours of silence and peace. And I wanted to share those with him, for sure. But suddenly, he shook his head and said with a grin ‘Well, that bluff did not work as intended. I’m out’. Whoa! This took me by surprise. And it made me very sad. For him to drop. For this race to be over soon. Also for my distance being way less than I hoped for. This was supposed to be my longest run ever, which meant 180k+ at that time. Well, did not happen. But having Morton go back and being alone on the course on my final lap was hard. Yes, I was already baked from the day. Yes, my legs were stiff for quite a while now. This was not really fun anymore. And now the loop seemed endless, although I was running fluently through it like I did 15 times before. I shifted the idea back and forth to use the nudist beach, ripping off my running clothes and run into the cool water. I so wanted this for the entire day. But there was a nagging voice in my head. What if Morton played a trick on me? There is no rule to be honest in the mind games in a backyard. When I was making sure to stay a tad under the hour to come back to camp, and he would have snuck behind me all loop, I’d be done. Then, with drenched clothes getting a pit stop in a minute or two was impossible. So I hobbled by that section and made my way up the final ‘climb’ and was greeted by many people. I found big relief when I saw Morton with the others, in new clothes. Phew, this was really it. I did it. Won the first edition of the Katzensprung. Yeah!

Dropping in my chair I began eating and drinking, and with the falling night I became cold. Take the relaxation of the entire system my status went downhill really soon. Jan told me afterwards that I took a really long time until I was able to leave the chair again. Yes, this was not a piece of cake. No Katzensprung as the name would suggest. This had been hard work. We said goodbye, more people left, we (ha, all but me) took down the tents, removed our traces from the camp and finally I was packed into the van too and we were going to Jans place, Tanya and I could get a camping mattress there. We got a pizza on the way which was exactly what my body needed when we came to his home. The night was horrible, mostly because the mattress had a puncture and I was basically laying on the floor. I thought it was my legs and hop from the run that hurt. Well…

Anyway, this was a lots of fun. Would do it again. Next year!