Mike Caldwell, race Director and Racer
The "Race Report"
This past Saturday the Mad Trapper hosted the world premiere of a Snowshoe Backyard Ultra race.
We only had 7 people registered for this inaugural event. The primary reason for that is probably how poorly I promoted it, but the secondary reasons may be because the average snowshoer considered the event too difficult and the more extreme athlete may have considered the event too easy.
The reality is that both of these views couldn’t be further from the truth.
When I first decided to host Backyard Ultras here at The Ark it was because I believed they were a perfect fit for the Mad Trapper philosophy of fun, participation, socialization and madness!
Any backyard Ultra has the potential to be the toughest ultra in the world ever. This is certainly the case for 99% of those who participate. But at the same time, it's an event that is designed to include athletes with almost any level of fitness.
Let me explain with my personal participation in this past weekend’s event.
First, for those of you new to Backyard Ultras, let me explain the race format. In the case of the Mad Trapper Snowshoe Backyard Ultra, the race started at 8am on Saturday. The event consisted of a 5km snow covered loop through a single track of forested, rolling hills. Anyone who completed the loop in under an hour was invited back to the start line at 9am. In the case of the Mad Trapper, we run a clockwise loop for the even hours (8am, 10am, 12pm, etc) and a counter-clockwise loop for the odd hours (9am, 11am, 1pm, etc.). The race continues until only one person presents himself at the start line. If he can complete that loop in under an hour, he is declared “the Only One”, the only finisher. Everyone else is the race is considered a “DNF” (Did Not Finish).
The week leading up to the race my plan was to stay downstairs in the venue and do a “deep clean” of it while the athletes were out running their loops. But on Friday, while showering after my run of the 5k loop, I thought “why not compete myself? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in a world premiere event.”
So despite the fact that the longest I had ever run on snowshoes in the past 20 years was 10km, I decided to compete against some of Ottawa’s most established ultra-runners.
And this is what I mean by the inclusive nature of Backyard Ultras. While I would never even consider registering for a 100 mile trail race, or even a 50 mile trail race for that matter, this is an ultra where I could go ahead and learn for myself just exactly what I was capable of.
Here’s what I learned. Backyard Ultras have a feel to them, a sense of camaraderie like no other event I have ever participated in. And here’s why. We were all there to test ourselves against ourselves. We all wanted the other competitors to do their absolute best. Because we knew that the better they did in the race, the better it would make us.
Now I am sure that all Ultras have a similar mentality, but here’s the difference, and it’s an important one. In any other Ultra, when the gun sounds and the race begins, every racer is pretty much on their own until the end of the race. But not so with a Backyard Ultra.
When I explained the course to the other racers, I told them how the day earlier I had run the loop in a time of 51 minutes. With no exception, that was about the time everyone wanted to run the loop. They didn’t want to run any faster and expend excess energy, nor did they want to have too much time to cool off. So, despite their physical ability to run the loop 15 or 20 minutes faster than I could, everyone wanted to run at my pace.
And this was the fun part, having all of us pretty much running together, like a training run for that first loop. As it turned out, the first finisher of that loop finished in 42 minutes, 4 of the racers finished around 45 minutes, another racer and myself finished together in 47 minutes, and the last racer finished after 51 minutes.
Then we all came inside, drank water, ate some food, discussed the course and explained our strategies moving forward. It was so cool. After one full lap we were all tied for first place, and we all communicated about the course as equals.
The second lap went pretty much the same as the first lap.
The third lap for me was unchartered territory though. Completing this lap would mean that I had snowshoed 15km, 5km or 50% farther than I have snowshoed in quite some time. But my third lap was just a bit slower than my first 2. But here’s the cool part.
When I came inside from that third lap, everyone in the room cheered. They all knew this was the furthest I had run before. After the race, once racer confided in me that many of them had expected me just to run 2 laps and hang up my snowshoes. So they were all honestly happy for me when they saw I completed my third lap in well under the 1 hour time limit.
They were also surprised and happy to learn I planned to head out on lap 4. And this is what makes the Backyard Ultra different from all other running events. Part way through the race, I had one-on-one contact with every other racer participating and they were all encouraging me and cheering me on.
Had this been just a regular loop running race, where I came through the 15km point at an easy exit point, I most probably would have quit with the satisfaction that I had run 50% more than I had ever run before.
I came through the 4th loop (20km) at the 53 minute mark and this time the cheer in the room was even louder. It was awesome. Everyone was asking me if I was going out again? How could I not with so much support?
The truth was though, I was starting to feel it… my legs were heavy, my stomach wasn’t sitting quite right, and my shoulder (I have a bad shoulder) was killing me. And this was the loop where we start the race hiking up a fairly steep hill and at the 4km mark we’re faced with another big climb.
While the other loops had my heart beating and my face sweating, this 5th loop was making me pay. I kept looking at my watch, not sure if I’d be able to make the 60 minute cut-off.
But make it I did, but with just under 3 minutes to spare. I did not look or feel good and the other racers thought my race was over. Here’s the thing though. I didn’t want to be the first person in the world to DNF from a Snowshoe Backyard Ultra. And lucky for me, Crwys was comfortable accepting that title!
After 5 loops of the course, 25km, Crwys was happy to stay in by the fire, eating chili and drinking beer. I only had enough time to try and swallow down a brownie and take a couple gulps of water before heading out. Everyone patted me on the back and congratulated me for sticking with it. Again, the support shown by my other competitors was awesome.
I know I said that there was a big hill near the end of the previous loop, but because this is a Mad Trapper course, the hill near the end in this direction was even longer and steeper. I knew I would need to have some time in the bank before I started ascending that climb and my goal was to be running an 11min/km average pace as I approached the climb. I hoped that would give me the cushion I needed to keep my final average time under the 12min/km I’d need to finish under the 60 minute cut-off.
If I failed to meet the cut-off then my official lap count would be the same as Crwys and we’d share the title as first person in the world to DNF!
I’m not going to lie…. This was one tough loop. Cal Mitchell, one of Ottawa’s toughest and most consistent ultra runners was just ahead of me. When he walked a hill, I walked the hill. When he started running, I started running. Cal had already told me that he was suffering and this would be his final lap. So I knew if I could keep pace with him, I’d finish under the time limit.
Sure enough, when we approached the final climb with about 1.3km left, I was running an 11:04 min/km pace. I knew I couldn’t rest and would still have to push it up the climb, but I knew I could power hike and didn’t need to try and run.
With 400m to go and lots of time in the bank I knew I was going to make it. But Sebastion was behind me and I knew he was good for some more laps so I turned around to ask if he wanted to pass?
When I looked to the left to see Sebastion, I was so dizzy that I lost my balance and ALMOST went crashing into the snow bank on my right. I righted myself in time though and avoided disaster.
I arrived back at the Ark with just under 2 minutes to spare. The guys asked me if I was going to head out again, but I knew I had nothing left in the tank. There was no way I could possibly complete another loop in under the hour. My legs felt like lead weights and my right shoulder was completely locked up. I was done.
Since I was still the race director though, I escorted the remaining 5 racers to the start line and sent them on their way at the top of the hour.
I took my spot in a chair by the fire, and about 20 minutes later I found the energy to take off my snowshoes and soaking wet shoes and socks.
I had just snowshoe run 30km in a time of 6 hours. I had no idea I was capable of such a feat, and had it not been for the Snowshoe Backyard Ultra I would have never known. It was just such an awesome sense of accomplishment.
The remaining 5 racers were still out there running strong. There was one pack of 4 running together and they were consistently coming in under 50 minutes. Sebastion was keeping to his 55-57 minute loop time and just kept plodding through.
Sebastion’s back was starting to bother him though and despite still having some gas still in the tank, he decided to call it a day after 9 loops or 45km.
The remaining 4 racers Richard, Guy, Tony and Julian looked like they could keep going all through the night. Julian had said at the outset though that he had to work at 8am the next day so his goal was 12 loops or 60k. Here’s the thing though, like me, Julian had never run anywhere near that distance with or without snowshoes.
After the 11th loop, Julian came in looking like I did after my 5th loop and he told us how wrecked he was. We all worried that he might throw in the towel.
His goal was 12 loops, and he was so close. We all encouraged him and ensured him that we believed he could finish another loop in under the hour. I could see the energy level rise in his body as we spoke to him and he headed out again with the other 3.
Everyone made it back from that loop under the hour and I thought the race was going to continue with the remaining 3. But much to my surprise, Guy and Tony both announced they were done. They had suffered enough. Richard was just sitting there. Looking fresher than I did after my first loop!
I told him, if he went out and finished the loop in under the hour, he would be crowned “the Only One” and the first ever Snowshoe Backyard Ultra winner in the world.
He explained that he had been holding back his pace, not knowing how long the race would go on. But now that he would be the only one out there, on his last lap of the course, he could give it his all and go for his best time of the day.
He predicted a finish time of 41 or 42 minutes. He ended up crossing the line in just over 37 minutes and was formally crowned “the Only One”.
This race absolutely brought out the best in all of us. Both as individuals and as a sort of team.
It really was wonderful to host this race and even more wonderful to participate. I can’t wait for this summer’s Mad Trapper Trail Backyard Ultra and all the subsequent Backyard Ultras that will follow here.
Thanks to Richard Turgeon, Guy Doiron, Julian Lopez, Tony Machado, Sebastion Warner, Cal Mitchell and Crwys Harris (the first ever Snowshoe Backyard Ultra participants) for taking a chance and making this such a spectacular and memorable event.
For 2023 there is no application process. This race is first come, first entered.
However, we are capping this first event at 60 racers and past Mad Trapper participants were given early notification.
So, when we are sold out, we are sold out...
Early Bird: $90 CAD
Regular (begins Feb 1, 2023): $120 CAD