It’s mile 19 of the Last Squatch Standing. I’m running in third place, just ahead of the first woman in the race, along a trail in South Mountain Reservation in West Orange, NJ, this April. And then, suddenly, I’m not. I’ve caught a toe on a root or a rock and I’m sprawled out so completely flat that there is a scrape on my chest just below my collarbone. The first woman goes by, slowing down to be sure I’m OK. I know time is tight, so I yell “I’m fine. Keep going!” I get up, make sure nothing hurts, and start running again.
Ten steps down the path, I stop. “Crap! Glasses!” I yell.* I don’t have my glasses on anymore, so I head back up the path looking for them. A group of about 8 runners comes by. “Are you OK?”, they ask. “Fine”, I say, “I just lost my glasses.”
*Crap is not the exact word that I used.
Folks, me looking for my glasses while not wearing glasses is a kind of comedy routine when indoors. My glasses are a now-dull brownish-gold, the same color as the sticks and leaves all around the path. The path, over which a bunch of runners just charged. Maybe now would be a good time to tell you about this race.
The Last Squatch Standing is a last-person-standing style race put on by the Sassquad Trail Running group/club. Rules differ race to race, but basically, in a last-person-standing race the competitors run the same loop over and over again until only one can finish it under the time limit. Most famous of these is Big’s Backyard Ultra in Tennessee, where in 2018 it took 68 hours and 283 miles to get to the last person standing. The organizers of this race make sure the race ends on the same day by giving you less time to cover each 1-mile lap. We had 18 minutes to cover the first mile, 17 to cover the second, etc., until the times went down by 30 seconds after mile 7 (12 minutes) and by 15 seconds after mile 11 (10 minutes).
This meant that Zeke and I ran most of the early miles together. Our pattern was to go out fairly quickly across the clearing so that we would be toward the front for the slight uphill. Here the group split into two single-file lines with a few people passing on the outside or in between. There were some wet areas along this trail; you could choose to go through them or leap over the log on the right side of the path. Around the half-mile mark the trail took a right turn, and then a hard right onto a smaller path with more rocks and roots. Zeke and I often took a walk break here with one eye on the watch. With less than a quarter mile to go, we came out onto a larger path which led back into the clearing where we had started.
With no need to go fast, these early miles were like a party. I picked this race in part because it gave Zeke & me a chance to run together, and others we talked with had the same idea. I was impressed by a group of about ten runners who always managed to cross the line about five seconds ahead of the cutoff. Zeke and I ran/walked most of these early miles in about 12 minutes as the time came down to 16, 15, 14… The intensity increased almost imperceptibly. Zeke and I had gone 5 miles together in training, and we thought that 7 miles would be a good amount for Zeke. After 8 miles, Zeke wanted to try something different – going out faster and walking more. Mile 9 needed to be in under 11 minutes, and I looked ahead to see Zeke leading the pack at the halfway point. In mile 10 (under 10:30) Zeke was starting to tire, and when I caught up, Zeke was trying to pass someone at the side of the trail and crashed into a log. Zeke finished that loop, and we agreed that ten miles was a good amount for the day. Others did too: though 42 runners did ten miles, only 33 completed 11.
Now the lap times were going down by only 15 seconds per mile. There was a certain deja vu to these laps – we start off with these people, the guy in the red shirt passes us here, we catch up to this couple a little later, I find myself with this group after this turn, I near the finish with these guys…
It was fascinating watching the crowd shrink and see who was working hard and who was taking it easy, who was just under the cutoff by design and who was just making it because they couldn’t go faster. When folks missed the cutoff, they always got a round of applause from the group, who was already assembled at the start line for the next lap. Mile 15 needed to be run in 9 minutes, and now we were down to 23 runners. 20 finished 16 (the 8:45 mile), 18 finished 17 (the 8:30 mile, and the old women’s record), and 16 finished 18.
This brings us back to mile 19, and me on the trail looking for my glasses with all the others ahead of me, feeling the seconds of the 8 minute mile ticking away. I thought about the drive ahead – to a Weber cousin gathering in Lancaster, then home at night. It would be a lot to ask Leticia to drive all of that. And the hassle of getting another pair of glasses…
And then, there they were, right in the middle of the trail, right under where ten others had just run. How were they intact? How much time had I lost? 30 seconds? 45? I picked the glasses up and took off sprinting. As I came out into the clearing, the last of the runners ahead were nearing the finish line, looking back to see if I was there. I made it with 10 seconds to spare.
On the next lap, I ran without glasses, knowing that my ability to see rocks and roots was compromised. I thanked the others for somehow not stepping on them. “I can’t believe you found them,” one guy said. “Everything from here on out is gravy,” I replied. Lap 20 (in 7:45), after the scare of lap 19, was much easier. Twelve of us finished, including Jane Kohlenstein, who set a new women’s record and then just missed the cutoff in lap 21. The intensity continued to ratchet up. Eight of us finished mile 21 (in 7:30), and six of us mile 22 (in 7:15). I was working a lot harder now and paying maximum attention to the roots and rocks of the second half of the loop. Only 5 of us finished mile 23 (in 7:00). I pushed a little at the end to pass Rich Riopel, knowing that if neither of us finished mile 24, this would put me ahead of him in the standings. (I’ll note here that Rich Riopel is on the U.S. team for this year’s 24-hour world championships, having gone 161 miles in a 24-hour race in May.)
I told Leticia that I was done, but she gave me enough of a nudge to get me to try lap 24. The five of us took off, Rich and I quickly falling to the back. Partway through, I started to believe that maybe I could do this, and I picked up speed on the back half. Then, another fall – perhaps on the very same root as 5 laps before – and I was flat on my chest. I realized that a 6:45 mile on this trail with the fatigue of 23 miles already in the legs wasn’t going to happen today, and I jogged the rest of the way in, getting the round of applause as I came across the line about 25 seconds too late. Rich didn’t make it either, so I finished fourth overall.
We stuck around to see two runners finish lap 25, and one of them decide he was done. This left Scott Savage to run lap 26 solo in under 6:15, setting a new record.
I’m largely a purist when it comes to races. I do not want to climb walls or belly-crawl under barbed wire, I don’t need to be spray-painted with various colors, and I don’t need a live band or a dance party afterward. I just want to run. This race, though, was so much fun. There was time to chat during and between the laps. There was food for runners throughout the day – good, because we were there for four hours or so. People were friendly to all of us. Leticia, who hardly ever comes to races but did on this day, enjoyed cheering, hanging out, talking to runners and friends and families. Zeke ran farther in a day than ever before. I hope to be back next year, perhaps with more friends along for the run. Til then. the Sassquad folks do lots of different runs, almost all with interesting twists. I hope to get to some of those too.