Saturday, March 2, 2024

That Time Chris Got Kicked Out of a Race


Sad Chris (PC: Rick K, in his awesome 2017 Grindstone Top Finisher jacket!)


I was just kicked out of a race.

Not just any race, a Backyard Silver Ticket race, an auto-qualifier for The Big's Backyard World Championships. How the heck did that happen?! Well, here are ALL of the details!

Grab a drink and find a comfy place to park your rear for an eternity, cuz this is going to take some time to unpack.


Chris: "The world needs a 30 minute blog post about a silly race!"


Instead of running through the night and catching 5minute cat-naps in my awesome Backyard tent set up, I'm spending untold hours writing an unnecessarily long blog post. But I'm doing it all for posterity!

So Why Did I Want To Run This Race?

I love the Backyard format (I also hate the Backyard format). 4.1666 miles per hour, every hour, until you can't go on. Simple. Elegant. Brutal.

The Backyard Community is like nothing else I've ever experienced. The longer the race goes on, the more everyone bands together. Crews are helping crews, runners are helping other runners, runners that tapped out long ago (and their crew) jump in to give whatever support they can to those still trying to survive. I've been on the receiving end of this multiple times. It's awe-inspiring. It's humbling. It's everything you want "Sport" to be -- folks coming together so athletes can find their limit, and so a special few might push the bounds of human endurance, together. It's inclusive, supportive, uplifting. It's humanity at its finest.

For the past 3 years, I've qualified for The Big Show in Laz's delightful Tennessee backyard each October. The finest multi-day runners in the world, coming together to run laps until they decay into frail little shells of a human being. The first year, I was The Assist, with 84 hours, to Harvey Lewis. I crapped out because of a progressively deteriorating knee issue ... I ran and hobbled until I could hobble no more. The next year I crapped out, literally, when I partially tore my achilles standing up after, ahem, doing my business in the treeline during a night loop. Only 60 hours that go-around. For 2023 I gave up my spot to prioritize representing my country at the 24 Hour World Championships -- I'm no Harvey, I'm just a human, and I knew my body wouldn't be able to go the distance at Big's and then run competitively for 24 hours a mere 6 weeks later.

My 84 hours "expired" as a qualifying mark, and my 60 hours from 2022 isn't good enough to secure 1 of the 15 Big's Team USA slots for this year's World Team Satellite Championships. So I needed to re-qualify. You do that by running a Silver Ticket race. You win and you're in (or you go to the hyper-competitive Capital Backyard Ultra where a couple runners might go far enough to snag an At-Large spot). Guess what! There just so happens to be a Silver Ticket race 10 minutes from my house in St. Louis this go-around: The Queeny Backyard Ultra.

Story Time

(be patient, it'll all come together, eventually)


In the Summer of 2019 my family and I moved from DC to St. Louis. Wanting to dive head-on into the local ultra scene, I was looking forward to signing up for a lot of local races. I signed up for the Ozark Foothills 100, 20 minutes from my house. I ran the trails around that race course all the time and couldn't wait to give it a go. The race was scheduled for April 2020.

Anyone remember what happened in the Spring of 2020?

COVID sucks

The Race Director kept trying to find ways to host the race, hoping a solution could be found and permits could be secured. It sucks. It was a tough break. So many elements of "normal" life were upended, with folks struggling mightily to keep carrying on.

Everywhere around the world was going into lock down. Schools were shuttered. Races were getting cancelled left and right. Parks were getting shut down. People were wearing latex gloves to the grocery store and washing produce in bleach (and ... drinking bleach? ... sigh), and then they disrobed in the garage for fear of contaminating their house. Folks were dying and getting seriously sick. We were all clueless and had no idea what the hell was going on. Seriously. Do you remember Spring of 2020? It was absolutely insane.

I wasn't comfortable with the Race Director trying to put on the race. After the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC) Board announced the cancellation of all their events, and their reasoning behind doing so, I spoke with a number of East Coast runners with clout in the sport, whose opinions I valued. They suggested I contact the Race Director and voice my concerns.

The Deferral

On May 1st, 2020, the Race Director sent out an email, explaining the situation. They had COVID protocols in place. They were still trying to host the race and were working with the County Parks Department on possible dates outside of the current lock-down orders, to include Memorial Day weekend. I'm not going to post the entire email or the protocols ... if this were a senior thesis, it might go in an appendix somewhere.

Within the email was information about deferring until 2021:

Snippet of May 1st, 2020 race update email

I didn't think it was wise to host the race. I felt that I'd be able to run the whole thing without any aid or race support (it was 4x25mi loops), not interacting within 6 feet of anyone. But I also felt that'd send the wrong message. So I chose to defer my entry. While doing so, I took the opportunity to privately share my concerns with the Race Director about the COVID protocols and what I believed to be bad optics for the running community if the race were to still take place.

Below is my email, from May 5th, 2020, in full:

I think I start out really well! Sympathetic, referencing the decision-making process of another running group. Great job, Chris!

I then listed my concerns. Again, I think I start off on the right foot. Towards the end, perhaps I get a bit ... snarky and punchy. But I wanted to drive home the absurdity of it all.

I then tried spitballing some alternative ideas. Remember the Quarantine Backyard Ultra? That was a HUGE hit. Let's think outside the box and come up with a solution that satisfies the runners AND keeps the community safe.

I then closed with a post-script photo of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Was that a bit much? Yeah. But, in my defense, I didn't even come up with the idea, and I ran it by 2 other runner friends who were basically like "well, you're not wrong".

The Deferral Response

I immediately received the following response from the Race Director.

Race Director response to deferral request and voicing of concerns

 And then I deferred my entry, as instructed.

Things Get Weird

That October, I went to roll my registration over to 2021. Surely by then we'd have some of this COVID crap sorted out. We were learning more about transmission. The vaccine was just around the corner. Some events were testing the waters with rolling starts and what not. So let's do this!

Except, Ultrasignup wouldn't let me sign up for the race and recommended I reach out to the race organizer. Maybe something was wrong with the deferral/rollover process and I somehow missed a step in the process buried in the race cancellation notice or something. So I reached out...

And here was the email response, in full:

Did you catch that?

Here it is again: "as a result of [the deferral request and COVID concerns] email I received from your end your race registration was placed on hold without deferment for 2021."

In the May 1st, 2020 email she says we can defer our race entry to 2021. Now, I didn't use the exact language she requested: "that you would like to defer your 2020 race entry to 2021". But I did say: "I would like to be removed from the 100M starter's list for 2020." And her response gave no indication that I would somehow be prevented from using my deferral, my money that I'd already paid for the race, for 2021.

I had had no correspondence from or with the Race Director between the deferral request and this moment. So she had made the decision to prevent me from using my deferral for 2021 without ever telling me about it or reaching out. That seemed ... very unusual.

So I went back to Ultrasignup and tried to register for another one of her races. And wouldn't you know, I couldn't do that either. And then I tried another. Same thing. Did she ever, once, notify me that I was not allowed to sign up for any of her other races, or provide reasoning for that action? No, no she did not.

At this point, I could read between the lines. This Race Director was clearly pissed off at me because I privately ... PRIVATELY ... shared my concerns about hosting the race during a pandemic that was scaring the holy hell out of the entire world. I criticized her race management decisions. I should be punished. She was so pissed off that she kept my race entry fee and blocked me from signing up for her races. Again ... without ever telling me that she was doing this, or why she was doing this.

And yes, she was "happy to reinstate [my] deferment credit for 2021 race registration", but I saw what was happening here. And it was reinforcing a number of things I'd heard about this Race Director from other runners in the community -- a reputation that did not seem to embody the inclusive, supportive, and uplifting qualities I valued.

So I did not respond. I dropped it. I forfeited my race entry fee and went on my way. I'd come to St. Louis in 2019 excited to run her races all year long, year after year. And a year later, I chose to cut my losses and go elsewhere. And I never brought it up publicly, except for some eye-rolling amongst friends if the Race Director or her races came up in conversation.

One final point that I must drive home. Never. Ever. Ever. Did this Race Director ever tell me that I was "banned" from her races. What you see above is all of the correspondence between me and the Race Director. Nowhere in there is the word "banned". Nowhere in there is any mention of me not being welcome at her races in the future. Nowhere in there is any valid justification for banning me. Nowhere.

Queeny Registration

So let's jump ahead to the summer of 2023, where I give up my spot at Big's and realize I'm going to have to re-qualify for 2024. Queeny Backyard Ultra is put on by Terrain Trail Runners and the previously-discussed Race Director. It had been around for a couple of years. It's mere minutes from my house. I never bothered to try and sign up before because:

  1. I'd already qualified for Big's in the past and if my goal is to go to Big's, then why would I torture myself with unnecessary Backyards?!
  2. I only wanted to do Backyards that had deep talent pools (no offense to anyone that signed up for the race in the past, but the point of a Backyard, for me, is to find my limits, and I was unlikely to do so in any race that historically ends before 48 or 60 hours ... yeah, that sounds a bit smug and cocky, but it is what it is) ... and
  3. I didn't want to support the Race Director

But ... it's a Silver Ticket race for 2024, so the winner auto-qualifies for Big's! Huzzah! And guess what, the Race Directory pays for the winner's entry into Big's! Double Huzzah!

An auto-qualifier Backyard that I don't have to spend 2 days traveling to and from, 10 minutes from my house, with the opportunity to "earn back" my lost 2020 race entry fee if I win?! Alright, sure. I'll suck it up and register.

Except. Well, that's right. I can't.

I tried registering, thinking, hoping the Race Director had somehow only blocked me for 2020 and 2021 ... cuz of COVID or whatever. But deep down I expected this would happen.

The Pseudonym

So to run the race I'd have to reach out to the Race Director and get un-blocked from registration. Even though I had seen through her ridiculousness, I could play dumb and do the whole "hey, this registration isn't working" thing again. Because ... again ... she never, ever, ever banned me from her races. At least, she never told me she banned me from her races. Or I could be an adult and be somewhat confrontational and be like "did you ban me from your races, what gives?! let's fix this please!" 

Very briefly, the thought occurred to me to go running to Laz and whine that he take care of it for me. But that's like having a parent deal with two annoying kids that are bickering with one another ... he has better things to do and it's not his responsibility.


Chris: "Laaaaz! The Race Director won't let me play with the Silver Ticket! It's not fair!"

Race Director: "Ugh! That's just cuz he called my COVID protocols stupid. He's stupid!"

Laz: "Good god, figure this out yourselves and leave me alone. All I wanna do is come home after a long day and watch Love is Blind without being interrupted. Is that too much to ask?!"


Either way, I'd basically be begging the Race Director for the privilege of being allowed to participate in her events.

Except! Wait a minute! Laz ... laz ... laz ... Lazarus Lake ... Gary Cantrell! Oh my god! Genius!

I'll come up with my own "Running Name" and use that for registration. I'd recalled a point in the past when, maybe it was Jim Walmsley, or one of the "Coconino Cowboys", used an alias for a race. Granted, it was done purely in jest, I assume, and had nothing to do with trying to get around a, umm, what should we call it exactly, a silent ban?

At any rate. I had my amazing non-confrontational solution in the form of an homage to Laz.

Now, to pick a name.

Christopher. Chris. Topher. Boom, annoying first name (I was sometimes called Topher in high school). And now for a last name. Let's make it something to do with running, or speed, or something. What's that on spotify right now? Taylor .... SWIFT!

And that's how Topher Swift was born. The not-nearly-as-cool ultraruning cousin of Taylor, or something like that.

I perused Ultrasignup's website and Terrain Trail Runners website, and couldn't find anything that explicitly banned the use of an alias/pseudonym. So I set up an ultrasignup account and registered for the race. Avoid awkward confrontation and get the chance to re-qualify for Big's. That's a Win-Win.

The Conundrums

Okay. I was registered. But there were some problems.

Even though I feel a runner in a race should be able to face whoever else enters the race, I did feel a bit bad for folks signing up for Queeny, a Silver Ticket Big's auto-qualifier, not knowing a genuine superhero of the sport would be in their midst (that's obviously sarcasm guys). But seriously. I don't think anyone that signed up had ever gone past 48 hours. And I'd never run under 48 hours.

So I privately reached out to a few of the "top contenders" and let them know that I'd signed up for the race under a pseudonym ... and that I was looking forward to sharing all the miles with them. So at least the folks who had the biggest right to be mad at me would be notified in advance. When none of them did anything other than go "that's awesome!" my mind was at ease.

But my wife started getting in my head as the race drew near. "What are you gonna do if she kicks you out of the race?" I honestly didn't give it any consideration, but now I was trying to play out what the heck I was getting myself into.

I was effectively forcing the Race Director's hand. Assuming she viewed me as banned ... though she never, ever, ever told me I was banned ... she would have to decide if she was willing to take action against me.

If I won the race, the jig would be up and I'd ... unmask. At which point she'd have to decide if it was worth disqualifying the race winner and thereby completely give up the auto-qualifying spot into Big's ... or it'd be no big deal and we'd all go on our merry little ways like adults.

Or at packet pick-up she'd recognize me and kick me out  ... or it'd be no big deal and we'd all go on our merry little ways like adults.

Or at packet pick-up I'd tell them I signed up under a pseudonym and she'd kick me out ... or it'd be no big deal and we'd all go on our merry little ways like adults.

Or mid-race she would figure out that Topher Swift = Chris Roberts and she'd have to decide if it was worth it to kick out a runner mid-race ... or it'd be no big deal and we'd all go on our merry little ways like adults.

On my end of things, I felt like I hadn't done anything wrong. I didn't deserve to be disallowed from registering. I had a right to run the race. I signed up for the race. And yeah, the pseudonym thing was a bit of an issue with respect to deceiving my fellow runners, but I felt that I took some steps to mostly mitigate that concern.

You can say I was being deceptive, or childish, or non-confrontational. That's fine. That's valid. But on the Race Director's end, she'd have to decide if I really was banned and if she was willing to enact that ban and prevent me from running the race and having the chance to re-qualify for Big's ...

... which would allow me the opportunity to publicly explain precisely why I was banned ...

... the core reason being that the Race Director likes to hold grudges against people who privately question any decision she makes.

I was entering into a game of chicken.

Race Day

And then it was race day!

Yard One

I ran the first yard/loop with Dave Kwiatkowski (solid East Coast runner that I'd shared many hours with at Hellgate in December) and we started to catch up. I missed chatting with Cody Eubanks (fellow 2022 Backyard Team USA alum) but figured I had all the time in the world to catch up. And I was looking forward to talking to a handful of other runners I'd been hoping to meet and hang out with.

Well, That Was Quick

Only, as I came into the start/finish after the first yard, I read off my bib number and then immediately was confronted by the Race Director. Right there. At the corral. In front of everyone.

This is roughly how the conversation went. Not exactly because my memory is a bit foggy and I was feeling ambushed, but you'll get the idea:

Race Director: "Chris, I need you to leave."

Me: "What? Why?!"

RD: "You know why. Topher Swift? Come on! You signed up with a fake name!"

Me: "Okay, and that's why you're kicking me out?"

RD: "That's against the rules. You used the fake name because you're banned from my races. You know you're banned. You're not welcome here. I need you to vacate the premises now."

aside: this is the first time that the Race Director has ever, in any conversation, used the term "banned" towards me

Me: "Are you serious? You're kicking me out because I signed up with a different name?!"

RD: "I'm kicking you out because you're banned from all of my races. Remember? That COVID email!"

Me: "Can we talk about this?"

RD: "No. I'm done talking to you. You need to get out of here." <she starts walking away>

Me: "You're not going to talk to me?"

RD: "Please leave."

Me: "So I'm not allowed to run because I privately voiced concerns about your COVID protocols four years ago?!"

RD: "I'm not having this conversation. You know what you did. I have all the emails. I'm reporting you to Laz. I'm telling him everything."

Me: "Alright then. I'll be contacting Laz, too."

another aside: below is the closest thing that Terrain Trail Runners has in their policies as it pertains to this situation...

You could argue that I, the physical personage legally known as Chris Roberts, did not have the permission of the race directors. Though, I did officially register as Topher Swift and was given my bib (again, I know of no policy that explicitly requires the use of legal names) and I did not use another runner's bib. I do technically violate the "but is not limited to" catch-all either way (as does every runner for that matter).

Oh, and it's also worth mentioning that actual race bandits get a 1 year ban according to the Terrain Trail Runners policy, yet I somehow had been "banned" for going on 4 years now just for, well, you know why.

Just gonna leave this right here for some random reason

At this stage of the game I do believe that the Race Director reserves the right to ban anyone she wants from her races so long as it complies with State and Federal anti-discrimination laws (though, I do also believe if I had reached out before the race and she'd not allowed me that Laz would have stepped in and corrected that, given that it is a Silver Ticket race and all). So I fully accept this ban, this new ban, that was just now placed upon me. The previous ban, the silent ban, the blocking of registration of all races that I was never given the courtesy of being notified about ... I do not accept that ban.

So here I am. Laying it all out there.

Am I perfect. Of course not! This could have all been avoided if 1) I'd never signed up for the race, 2) I'd attempted to amicably resolve the situation ahead of time, or 3) the Race Director chose to rise above her petty grievances and just let me run. That 3rd one certainly did not take place. Just as I chose to go down this path, the Race Director chose to stick to her guns.

And because of her decision, I feel compelled to explicitly detail everything that transpired.

Some folks are gonna walk away from this and say "good god, Chris, you should have just reached out to her before the race." Which, yes, fair point. Very fair point. Excellent point! But this evidence hopefully makes clear just how awful of a road that might have been to go down. This Race Director banned me without logical cause, failed to inform me of the ban, and then, effectively, kicked me out of her race because of the ban. I could've grovelled ahead of time. But I didn't. I guess I chose some kind of weird pride over the chance to get my auto-qualifier.

Even so, it is my hope that a majority of the 4 people who actually read (let's be honest ... skim) this whole stupid blog post are going to walk away thinking "that Race Director does not embody the values of the trail, ultra, or Backyard communities".

Rest of the Day

Despite being told to vacate the premises immediately, I was in no hurry to spend an hour packing up my gear that I'd just set up a mere hour before (cuz the Race Director, I have inferred, did not secure a permit for the prior day to make it easier on the runners to set up the tents they'd be living in for multiple days straight).

So I spent 15 minutes haphazardly writing an email to Laz letting him know about the situation. I didn't want the Race Director to "control the narrative" and shit-talk me. I didn't ask for anything to be done. I didn't whine like a baby. I just wanted to make sure he knew about the situation (in a much more succinct manner than is presented here!).

And then I hung out with Dave Kwiatkowski's parents for a bit, did my best to dish out any worthless Backyard wisdom I had, and give away any perishable food I had.

I chatted with a number of folks. Including one dude who was crewing and this was his first time even being at a Backyard or hearing about it (he was just there to help out his runner buddy that he'd recently reconnected with). I explained the whole Big's qualifying concept and other things, and he wanted to know about my running history. When we discussed why I wasn't "still out there, man", this dude got genuinely worked up. He straight-up said that the Race Director soured his whole view of Backyards, a newbie to this whole world ... how she's supposed to be an ambassador for the race format, for this awesome thing that's supposed to bring out the best in people, and instead she was on a power-trip, excluding people just because she doesn't like them. It was a strikingly clear and focused argument he made to me, and I walked away feeling pretty confident that I wasn't in the wrong ... this time around.

Then I went on a little jaunt of the race course because it's a public park and I have that right. And I made sure to cheer on all of the other runners along the way. Because they're all awesome, and they're all out there doing awesome things, and they deserve to be supported by people who care.


I observed a couple of race format irregularities -- rule violations relating to the corral -- as well as some race management decisions that were ... sus (kids these days with their ridiculous lingo). There's video evidence out there of some of it, and a Backyard Race Director that was there also noticed these things, among other folks. I'm not going to detail that crap here at the risk of looking petty. But such concerns will be passed along to those entrusted with protecting the integrity of the Backyard format or whatever. I'll happily comment if others bring it up in a public forum and want my confirmation.

Why In The Hell Did I Write This?

(from 10pm to 3am)

I needed to clear my head, and that meant putting it all out there.

But mostly, I want to make sure that anyone out there that cares about Backyards and what went down at Queeny has as much information as possible so that they can make their own informed decisions. I'm not looking for retaliation against the Race Director. I am now 100% done with her. And I'm not looking for folks to go out and ban her races or whatever. But if someone out there reads through this and starts to think twice about what races they sign up for and what race directors and race companies they want to financially support with their race entry fees or give up their time to as a volunteer, well then it might have been worth it.

I've already been productive with this new-found free-time, spending hours writing a stupid blog article. I guess it's cool that I won't have to miss my daughter's first ever violin concert. Maybe I should go file my taxes, too.

...onwards... to Ohio Backyard Ultra??? (nope, it conflicts with spring break plans, but that Race Director is salt of the earth).

So then Capital Backyard Ultra??? (not sure I can swing 6 days away from the family for a silly race, no matter how much I admire and respect that Race Director and the super-human cadre of runners that'll be showing up there in May)

Or Bob's Big Timber??? (nope, conflicts with the family summer vacation)


Finally...behold, all my unused crap:


Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Scenes From A Rivalry

Scenes From A Rivalry: A Brotacular Ultrarunning Love Story


The Meet-cute:

2015. 2nd Saturday in December. The Glenwood Horse Trail.

It was my first Hellgate. I knew nothing about Hellgate. At the finish line of my first 100 miler 2 months before, some weird old dude handed me a sheet of paper: 2015 Hellgate 100K Application.


So I figured, why not.


I knew I wanted to take it easy. It was my first year of ultra running and I wanted to simply use this race as a way to celebrate how far I'd come. A couple of miles in, I found myself running alongside a chatty dude.


"Hi, I'm John Andersen. I'm kind of a big deal."


This loquacious fellow gathered up a few more runners into a posse and proceeded to fill every second with chatter. I kept up for a while, but somewhere on the climb up to Petite's -- or was it all the way at Camping? .. No matter -- I lost connection and never saw him again.


In the succeeding weeks, I started planning the next 6 months of training. I'd gotten into Western States on my measly 1 lottery ticket and was going to cram as many races into the Spring as possible to try and get my legs ready. I signed up for the Beast Series, and then pored over race results from the previous years. I immediately identified 1 runner whose race times I thought I might be able to emulate…if I could run his times, I knew I'd be well on my way. The runner, none other than John Andersen.


At Terrapin 50K, near the top of the first climb, I found myself in the vicinity of a chatty cathy. And, of course, it was John. A bit awestruck at his effortless running ability, I did my best to keep up with him. We proceeded to run together, chatting along the way, as I mostly let him lead me through the race course. He was the well-worn veteran, and I, the ingenue. By the end of it, it was clear we were both running comfortably at similar abilities. There was … a connection. Neither of us wished to part the other's company, so we cruised into a tie for 3rd place, literally holding hands across the finish line. That was it. I knew. I had found the yin to my running yang.


The Courtship:

We raced a total of 5 races together that year, sharing well over 100 miles of trails with one another. 4 of those races ended with us tied or finishing back-to-back. For all of our differences, our age, our training, it seemed as if the universe wanted us to be together, to support one another through the tough times, each time we ventured out into the deep, dark woods. We shared in multiple Top 10 finishes together, collecting matching swag along the way. Each race was a chance to reconnect, to share with one another -- stories of who we were and where we came from, of our families, and of our hopes and dreams.


At Bull Run, we ran together in the pouring rain. At Promise Land, John cheered me on as he passed me near the top of the final climb, and welcomed me to the finish mere seconds after him. The end of the year was Hellgate again, and this time, we ventured together for the first 4 hours. I fell behind, but nearly caught back up at the finish. And again, there he was to welcome me in, 4 minutes after his finish. It was my first Top 10 at Hellgate. We were so proud of all that the other had achieved. Throughout the year, we went back and forth in wins and losses, and by the end, our special rivalry was flourishing … a relationship built on mutual respect and admiration, with, dare I say, a hint of disdain and contempt.

2016 Hellgate. Happy beginnings.


Equal Partnership:

We only raced each other 4 times throughout 2017 and 2018. I took 3 of the victories: a solid trouncing at Promise Land and slim victories at each Hellgate. For those Hellgates, we spent many a merry mile together. In 2017 we separated mid-race but rejoined by Mile 53, and then lazily walked it in together because we falsely believed we'd be unable to secure our desired sub-12 finishes … furthering our special bond. The next year, we worked together to crush our expectations and went well under 12 hours. We worked together for nearly the entire race, only for me to pull away in the final miles.


It may seem as if I were beginning to secure the upper hand … the full-length tights, as it were, in our relationship. And to add fuel to the fire, I outperformed expectations at Western States in 2016, whereas my success gave John a false hope, inevitably leading to a very embarrassing implosion when he had his shot in 2017. And yet, the scales remained even, as John absolutely annihilated me at Grindstone in 2018. His run was epic, and he trounced me by over 90 minutes. I truly believe that he was happy for my success, just as I was happy for his … for a time.

2018 Hellgate. The Golden Years.



In 2019, I pursued a better quality of life with my family by moving from the East Coast to St. Louis. The tough decision was made for John and I to pursue a long-distance rivalry. I made a promise to John that we would still have our annual Hellgate together. And I had hoped that would be enough. I came back to Camp Bethel and reigned victorious, again, the third Hellgate in a row. Not only that, it was the largest defeat yet at Hellgate as I persevered through hellish cold rain to beat John by over 7 minutes. With distance between us and my continued success, the seeds of division were sown.

2019 Hellgate. Hoodie puffies for everyone!


It pains me to admit, but I truly believed I was the more important one in this special thing we had together. But 2020 was a wake-up call. At the 2020 Sissygate, John and I found ourselves together, yet again, leaving Bobblets Aid Station. But John left me and by the next aid station he was out of sight and I was lost in self-doubt and misery. In my moment of weakness (needing to take a dump at Mile 55), John abandoned me and he never looked back. As a result, his course PR to this day is better than mine. I should have been happy for him, but I felt betrayed, humiliated. To add fuel to the fire, John expertly ridiculed me in his race report that year with a parody of Taylor Swift's 'Exile'. The balance of power had shifted.

2020 Hellgate. John Andersen is an asshole.


In the summer of 2021, we tried to move past our petty fighting. Couples therapy, if you will. We ran the Black Hills 100 together, every step of the way. We cheered one another on, we waited for the other when necessary, and we looked out for one another during an overnight rain storm. Our reward was a matching pair of podium awards: badass bison skulls. Rather than bonding through competition, we worked to rekindle the flame that brought us together at the beginning of it all … recognizing each other's value as a runner through the most admirable of race outcomes, a selfless tie.

Black Hills 2021. Bison Skullz.


But, I must admit, I began to grow bored. I sought to strut my colorful feathers in the Backyard arena, seeking out the attention of others. By October, a whole new world was opening up to me, a world that was so much bigger and brighter than little John Andersen of Crozet, Virginia. I was becoming so much more than simply John's rival, his nemesis, his frenemy. I never meant to hurt John. But his jealousy grew exponentially, and he got back at me the only way he knew how, in the most painful of ways, by abandoning me on Hellgate's grassy road near Mile 16, and running away with a 15 minute victory. I had begun to dream big, to find value in my own achievements, apart from him. And he put me right back in my place. It was, dare I say it, textbook emotional abuse.

2021 Hellgate. Look at that smug son of a bitch just standing there, well rested.


I knew that I was not yet strong enough to leave him, so instead, for 2022, I vowed revenge. 2 straight years of losing to John, and by the widest margins in our Hellgate rivalry. It was more than I could stomach. Any mutual respect in this relationship was long gone by now. All I wanted in life was to hurt him, to make him suffer! October rolled around and I ruptured my achilles at Big's, threatening my chance for redemption. But I played it smart at Hellgate and took care of my body and minded my pace. John and I came into Bearwallow together, like so many times before. But this time, I chose to lay down the hammer and crush his soul. When the dust settled, John was so broken he couldn't even finish under 12 hours, whereas I had been waiting patiently at the finish for nearly 30 minutes. Never has there been a victory as sweet as this!

2022 Hellgate. Suck it, loser!


The Last Dance:

By 2023, it felt like it was the end of the line for our special little rivalry. My trajectory was upwards, still in my 30s and with bright possibilities on the horizon. John, on the other hand, could feel the cold, unflinching grasp of old age dragging him down. Everything just felt harder for him. A DNF at The Bear, 3 months before Hellgate, was the universe's way of telling him to let go, to finally concede that his best days were in the past.


But we both still had our one shared goal for Hellgate: 10 straight Top 10s.


It was a silly, random goal, but it drove the two of us for years. John was already at 9. This year was going to be his crowning achievement, after which he could limp off into the sunset with his head held high. I was at 7 and had spent the past 2 years racing terrified of losing out on my Primary Running Objective due to the physical toll the ridiculous Big's Backyard race took on my body every Fall. To make matters worse, exactly 7 days before Hellgate this year, I wrapped up  the 24 Hour World Championships, half a world away from Camp Bethel, in Taiwan. 7 days to travel and recover from a 24 hour race, to find the will to eek out yet another Top 10 at Hellgate. The task felt insurmountable, perhaps Quixotic. Though, to be fair, no less so than John's own quest -- with each passing year, his dream felt closer and closer, but creeping old age kept reducing the likelihood of achieving that dream.


Could I Top 10? Could I crush John, yet again?...Should I? How would it all shake out?

As I reflected on our near decade-long rivalry, the movie Marriage Story came to mind (but who is Adam Driver, and who is ScarJo?). The special thing we had together was coming to an end. Deep down, I believe we both knew it. In a divorce, there's effectively 2 paths to choose: a hippy-dippy "conscious decoupling", and a knock-down drag-out legal battle, dragging each other through the muck and mud. Consciously or not, we took the high road together.

As in the merry early days of Hellgate, we ran together all the way to Bearwallow. Most of the time, John led with confidence. Whenever I wavered mentally, afraid my body would crap out on me at any moment, John was there to support me. That's not to say it was all kumbaya vibes. Elements of our rivalry inevitably cropped up: when I stopped to go to the bathroom and then had to spend an hour desperately trying to catch back up because John refused to take it easy, or when I made a power move to sprint into Jennings Creek just ahead of him. But we ran together through the night in search of our common goal.


After dawn, we were at Bearwallow together. How fitting. How poetic. Our shared years of experience told us breaking 12 hours was in the bag, yet again. In the history of Hellgate, no one had ever broken 12 hours and not been in the Top 10. And yet, 12th and 13th place. We'd been praying for carnage all day long and it never came. Our chances of Top 10 were effectively dead. Lifelong dreams shattered. All because Horton invited too many damn young, fast kids.


The bickering started. I bungled the drop bag stop. John left me behind. Horton ridiculed me. Enraged, I took off. Soon after, I caught back up with John and rapidly left him in my wake. Perhaps that was it then, the unceremonious end to years of battle, right there, on an insignificant turn, amongst the rhododendron of Hellgate's Pretty Trail.


I pushed, desperately trying to crack the Top 10. But a Top 10 without John? Could I do that to him? It felt wrong. In the end, I approached Day Creek with no one in sight. Watson was there and told me 10th was 9 minutes up. 9 minutes in 6 miles, on legs that had covered more than 200 miles in the past week? Impossible. I pushed hard, for a time. But climbing Blackhorse Gap can be brutal, and my body was done. And so my attention drifted from what was ahead of me to what was behind. My lifelong dream of 10 straight Top 10s had died. I repeatedly looked back for a sign of my rival, my friend. I was in need of solace, and, likely, so too was John. But he was nowhere to be seen. So I ventured on, slowly, with dead legs carrying a deadened soul, to Camp Bethel, all alone, amidst a cliché of cold rain.


I crossed the finish in a blur and was whisked inside to crash on a couch. My body and mind on the verge of failure. 5 minutes later, John approached. I stumbled outside to greet him. As was the case last year, he laid himself bare before all in attendance and humbly kowtowed to my superior athletic prowess. His presentation felt genuine. I was conflicted. Unequivocally, I reigned supreme in our rivalry. But this rivalry had now reached its natural conclusion. There was nothing left to prove to the world. John is only getting older and slower, and I just beat him a mere 7 days after running a 24 hour race. If this thing drags on any longer, it will only continue at John's expense. It has to end. This is the end. And I must take the bitter with the sweet. I will miss our rivalry. I will miss him. I will miss … crushing him.

2023 Hellgate. I will always be better than you, John. Always.


Will John return to Hellgate to nab that 10th Top 10 at Hellgate? Perhaps. I sure hope so. If he does, we will undoubtedly share some miles … early on … before he runs out of steam, falls behind, and openly proclaims to everyone in his vicinity that he wishes he were half as talented as me. And I will cherish those shared miles. But it won't be the same. Our rivalry has ended. This chapter of my life has concluded, of our lives has concluded. And so we must each move on; I, inevitably, to bigger and better things, and John, to consolation age group awards and arthritis. I'd like to believe I can find another rival to duke it out against, to share with in suffering. But it's unlikely. There will never be another rivalry quite like ours. There will never be another John Andersen. … unless I get fast enough to start keeping up with Jordan Chang again …

The Rivalry, in numbers. (Note: 2015 Hellgate omitted because the rivalry had not yet begun, despite John frequently adding his "win" to the tally)

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Chris Goes to Taipei



America! PC: Senor Stern


There's a short(er) report at the beginning, and then A BUNCH of crap at the end. It wasn't just a race, it was a week-long trip, so I had to document a bunch of pointless crap.  Moving on…



Howie has a knack for capturing the essence of Chris Roberts.


Race Report:


Halfway around the world, there I was, over 17 hours into a race. Not just any race. The 24 Hour World Championships. Little ole me, representing the United States of America.


I limped my way around yet another 2 kilometer loop, resigned to speed walking most of it. As I dragged my non-responsive legs around the final few hundred meters of that loop, I started tearing up. Then I stumbled into the Team USA tent and immediately broke down crying. No. Not crying. Sobbing. Uncontrollable sobbing. Without a solid performance from me, Team USA was completely screwed. I just lost any chance of a podium for the team. I fucked up. I let everyone down. I let my country down. I don't belong here. I'm a fraud.


Grief, despair, self-hate … absolutely overwhelmed with every shitty feeling imaginable. I can only think of 1, maybe 2, other moments in my life that I have been that far-gone emotionally. It sucked. IT SUCKED!


Pam Smith and Bob Hearn, our team coaches / leaders / unifying forces of awesomeness, immediately came over to figure out what was happening, and then quickly transitioned to consoling me. They did their best, as I worked to regain some semblance of composure. I was laid bare emotionally, bawling into my hands, and they were there for me, immediately, kneeling beside me, wrapping their arms around me -- I could feel them holding me, protecting me, caring for me -- I can't quite put into words how truly meaningful that was. A kindness, a compassion, that I will never forget.




Within the weird running sub-culture of ultrarunning, there is this tiny little niche corner for timed events. The grand-daddy of that microscopic sliver of the running world is the 24 Hour event … run as far as you possibly can in 1 day. Simple. Straightforward. Dare I say: elegant. But also: unrelenting and cruel.


Oddly enough, there is a bon-a-fide World Championships for 24 Hours, typically held bi-annually, where some of the best (dumbest) runners from all over the world come together to act like hamsters in a cage in representation of their country. It's kind of like the Summer Olympics … in much the same way dual credit from a community college is kind of like getting a PhD from Berkeley.


The latest 24 Hour World Championships were just held in Taiwan, and somewhat miraculously, I found myself there, representing Team USA. 5 years ago I tried qualifying for the team -- basically, you post one of the 6 best men's or 6 best women's 24 Hour distances during a 2 year qualifying window and you're in -- but I failed miserably (here and on a black track in the middle of summer). This time around, I eeked out a performance good enough for the 6th and final spot on Team USA (at The Dome). It should be noted that by making the team, I kicked off Harvey Lewis. Take that, Harvey! You may have bested me (and my janky knee) at the Big's Backyard World Championships in 2021, but who's got the last laugh now, huh!?!! (oh, it's you? With the backyard world record? And it's, what, a full 24 hours more than what I did? Damn it….)


Can't wait to abandon these kiddos for a whole week!

I've been known to rail against flat running (honestly, if a 100 Miler has less than 20,000' of vert, why bother?!), and I have practically zero experience with the specialty, but I was beyond elated to have the opportunity to represent my country in international competition. I don't have the skills, mentality, dedication, or genetics to be an Olympian. And race distances for the World Mountain Running and Trail Championships are too short (aka: I can't keep up with young, fast whippersnappers). So my only options to compete with a big ole "USA" across my chest were to give it a go at 24 Hours or, I dunno, go work on my mini-golf skills (World Minigolf Sport Federation, it's a thing…). And so, I was off to Taipei to run around a 2 kilometer loop over and over and over again for the Red, White, and Blue.


I joined Team USA for all the Nike swag.

The whole experience was beyond anything I could have imagined. For me, it was all about being a part of the team. I had the chance to meet and get to know an amazing group of runners, and, when the going got tough, bond through our dedication to and support of one another. Plus … sightseeing adventures! Plus Plus … the guilt of abandoning your spouse with your two progeny for an entire week!


When the race ended I honestly wasn't sure if I wanted to try to be a part of the team again. I'm just not sure I will ever have the right skills to succeed at a flat 24 Hour race in a way that is needed to help the team compete for a podium position at Worlds. But the camaraderie and the memories of Taipei have me convinced that I owe it to myself and to the team to give it another go. So we'll see if I can get some good training in, and put together a better race plan, and secure a position for 2025. Bonus: it's in France next time around!


Freezing my butt off after the race, with Chad and Stella. PC: Bob Hearn?


Post-race team bonding, crammed into an Uber, desperately trying to get to the airport on time.

I just wrote a bunch about how I cried a lot in a race, so that should suffice for an obligatory race report. But for people looking to waste more of their time, here's a somewhat random run-down of my 24 Hour World Championships Experience (aka: that time Chris abandoned his family for an entire week to fly halfway around the world so he could eat weird food and run in circles while continuously shouting "America! Fuck Yeah!")


But before that, the thank you's:

  • First and foremost, to Kristin, for supporting me in pursuing this silly little dream of mine. I truly do not know what I'd do without you by my side. You should probably go book yourself a week-long solo trip to Europe, you've earned it!
  • Thanks to the family and friends who reached out about donating to support the team financially. It really meant a lot, to everyone on Team USA.
  • Thanks to my nutrition sponsor, Hyle Hydration. Man, whoever came up with that product is a genius!
  • Thanks to Squirrel's Nut Butter for keeping me well lubed.
  • Thanks to my teammates for their incredible support and for making the trip an all-around awesome adventure that I'll never forget!
  • Pam and Bob, you guys were incredible. We were beyond lucky to have you leading the team.
  • Nicole, thanks for taking care of my poorly conditioned muscles and tendons and for being such a cool person to chit chat and explore with!
  • Howie! Thanks for the awesome shots, and for being a cool dude that puts up with me.
  • Bill! It was so great getting to spend some time with you away from an oval. Thanks for all of the nutrition hand-offs!
  • Tracy and Dobies – hanging out with y’all is so much different than when I’m feeling like crap at Big’s. It was a welcomed change of pace!


Behold, the Jade Cabbage!
Seeking out dirt, prerace. I'll take the one on the left, thank you very much.

Temple lanterns.


  • Something like 10 of the Team USA members were on the same flight from SFO to TPE. That felt pretty cool, all hanging out in the airport terminal with our team gear on!
  • The team race kit is sponsored by Nike and USATF, so it's literally the same stuff "real" athletes wear at the Olympics and whatnot. Pretty freakin cool. Well, not getting financial support from USATF is pretty freakin un-cool, but I digress…
  • I backed out of Big's to make sure I was "fresh" for Worlds. I still feel that I have unfinished business with the backyard format, but my next backyard failure will have to wait another year. Also, my favorite race in the world, Hellgate 100K, was 7 days after Worlds, so I gave up any chance at a good performance there, all for the glory of the U S of A. I just need you, dear reader, to know how much I sacrificed for my country. It should bring a tear to your eye. And if you'd like to acknowledge my sacrifice with a tiny violin, then so be it.
  • I grew a mustache for Worlds, as one should. My mustache was 20x better than Harvey's Big's mustache. This is a fact.
    • In the lobby of our "hotel" (it was a youth hostel), Andrii Tkachuk of Ukraine (eventual 3rd place finisher) pointed to my mustache and said "You look like a Ruski". Interpret that however you'd like.
  • A majority of the 250+ runners were staying in this crappy youth ho(s)tel, and they served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But it was fun cuz our food options were either bland "Chinese food" (fried rice, noodles, soggy vegetables) or a super fun spin on Western Cuisine (who doesn't love spaghetti and chicken nuggets for breakfast?!). Most of the westerners complained voraciously about the food situation. One day, I broke down and went to a nearby Subway for a mostly normal sandwich. And the beds were basically just a sheet of plywood. Yeah, it was so awesome!
  • I got all Cultured As Fuck out there. 2 days before the race, I went with some of Team USA to the National Palace Museum to check out buddhas and calligraphy and what not. Then I opted to be a loner and walk back to the ho(s)tel by myself. Along the way I stumbled upon a massive Chrysanthemum Flower Festival. In the days after the race, I checked out some more sights with the team, happened upon a random Reading Festival, and also got to see a parade in honor of some god's birthday at a temple (I think).
  • The day before the pancake flat race, I had to scratch my itch, and went for a hike up along a ridgeline in the city to seek out some dirt trails and good views. Specificity be damned.

Team USA Shakey Shake. PC: Pati Coury?


The beautiful Palace Hotel behind our youth ho(s)tel... some of us did book a room there for the final night of the trip, and it was glorious!

Race Stuff:

  • As the 6th place qualifier for Team USA, I fully anticipated being in a supporting role -- racking up miles for as long as possible to serve as insurance since team scoring only accounts for the total distance ran by the top 3 runners. I had no real race goals other than to help the team, but I settled into a somewhat comfortable groove that I thought might get me somewhere between 152 and 155 miles.
  • Somewhere in the evening, everything changed. 2 teammates -- Jake Jackson and Jeff Urbanksi -- had resigned to the tent after problems arose for them. I came into the tent for a minute and dawdled around, then asked how Scott Traer was doing. I got a look of sheer confusion from Coach Pam, who then informed me that Scott also ran into trouble some time ago and was sleeping in the back of the tent. I was now a scoring member of the team. A sense of panic came over me and I hastily shot out of the tent, awkwardly apologizing for pissing away a couple valuable minutes.
  • I soldiered on for some time, but had really weird stomach issues between 12 and 15 hours. My body seems to want a different nutrition plan for these flat races than what I've typically utilized for trails, and I still don't have that locked down. Or … maybe my body hated whatever the heck I'd been eating at that weird ho(s)tel buffet lately. At any rate, I got to spend quality time with the port-a-potties -- some of which were "Turkish style", which was fun!
  • After I got my gut back under control, I cleared 100 miles unceremoniously and felt like I was plodding along pretty well. But then the wheels came off. In the span of an hour I went from feeling perfectly fine, to having multiple joints aching in pain, to having full-on quad failure. And somewhere in there I got really queasy too … I faintly remember having a half-coherent discussion with Nick Coury's crew about mashed potatoes, maybe…
  • I then limped around the course and cried like a baby for an eternity, but you, dear reader, are already well aware of that scene.
  • Once I composed myself, I could see and hear Nick in the tent, discussing whether he should continue or not, due to problems he'd spent hours failing to remedy and with genuine concern he was on the verge of limping his body to competitively meaningless result at risk of prolonged injury.
  • Basically, Jeff joined Nick and I in a fun little self-pity circle now that there was only 1 remaining American dude still out there doing his job. Then I had our amazing team doc, Nicole Yedlinsky, give me a bunch of random drugs and try to "fix" my quads. Then we sat around some more. Then Nick and Jeff said "screw it, let's go mall walk!", so I threw on some warm clothes and joined them for a very, very sad lap of slow walking where we all complained about how awful we'd done and blah blah blah. Then we sat down in the tent for an eternity, ate a bunch of warm food, and continued the parade of self-pity. We ventured out once again onto the race course for another sad stroll in the middle of the night. Only, this time, at some point I decided I would try to shuffle jog. And I'll be damned if my legs didn't feel normal again. A miracle!
  • So I ventured on for the rest of the race, about 4.5 hours, logging a somewhat respectable pace, doing my best to let Chad Lassater know that he wasn't the only American out there suffering anymore. My mileage was nothing stellar, and without a 3rd runner out there putting in consistent miles too, we were completely unable to compete for a good team position.
  • But I'll be damned if it wasn't amazing to be out there in the final hours of that race. It was something special to be a part of.
  • Chad Lasater was grinding, putting in the work. He ended up with 155+ miles and 2 age group national records.
  • Nick, Jake, and Jeff frequently popped out from the tent to walk more laps and cheer on Team USA, and when they were in the tent they were helping with nutrition and cheering.
  • In the final hour or so, Jake even got back out there to help pace for a couple laps, which was friggin awesome to see.
  • Scott, honestly, looked like a bombed out shell of a human being, but when he arose from his mummified state, he did his best to provide emotional support for the team.
  • And the women. Good grief, the women! Absolutely inspirational!
  • Marisa Lizak flew half way around the world to be a part of the team, despite having a stress fracture and hobbling around in a boot. She put in a couple of ceremonious laps in the beginning and end, and spent the rest of the 24 hours up front in the tent being the world's most supportive teammate: cheering, crewing, working problems.
  • Mandy Holmes was dead and gone in the tent after her day went south. But then she revived in the final hours and started blasting out laps left and right.
  • Jenny Hoffman just finished running a transcon in record time and still found a way to pull her body to nearly 140 miles. Honestly, not a one of them looked easy. But she was persistently grinding it out, hour after hour.
  • Stella Springer was working her ass off towards the end. I finished the race pretty close to her and had the pleasure of seeing one of the most adorable scenes ever when her kids ran up to greet her with great big hugs.
  • And Aly Allen was on fire! For the first 18 hours of the race she just kinda seemed like she was doing her thing, nothing special. But at some point in the final hours, watching her go around those laps, it became apparent that she was really putting in the work and racking up the miles. She ended up with 148 miles and 10th place. Awesome!


Post-race temple explore.

More Non-Race Stuff:

  • Some of us were still in Taipei the day after the race. We made Chad and Aly walk up and down a bunch of stairs. Like, A LOT of stairs. They looked so miserable…1st time marathoner miserable.
  • I got to meet Laura, a member of the Canadian team, who lives a couple hours away from me in Missouri. I hope I can carve out some time for a long run with her one of these days.
  • Stinky Tofu smells like rotting garbage that's being cooked in an oven. That smell will haunt me for the rest of my life.
  • Bob tried ordering "drunken chicken" at lunch, but was forcibly told "no, you want the duck!" instead. Post-race duck … delicious!
  • After a week of salty, cliché chinese food, I was dying for a fresh fruit smoothie. The night before our flight out, I had to make due with sharing a few rounds of daquaris and margaritas with the team. That was pretty freakin awesome.
  • I upgraded to "bougie seats" on the 11hr flight back stateside. United calls it "Premium Plus" or something dumb like that. I didn't realize until I got on the plane that it was legit 1st class -- not business class fancy, but fancy enough that I immediately felt guilty for splurging when I've never, ever shelled out for first class seats for my wife. That guilt quickly receded after I slipped on my complimentary slippers, noshed on my superior meal, and stretched my legs all the way out.


Tracy knows *exactly* what he's gonna get. Bob thinks he's getting chicken...

Teammate selfie at Liberty Square.

Chang Kai-shek doing his best Lincoln impersonation.


Final Etc:

  • I called an audible and went with a new pair of shorts for the race. I've worn Patagonia Strider Pro's for years. I wore a pair of Rabbit FKTs for like 1 hour a week before the race and thought, "hmm, maybe I like these…". For about Hour 2 through 12 I repeatedly thought "these shorts don't feel right, they're going to ruin my race!" But they ended up working out just fine. I dunno…
  • I've only ever worn 3 types of shoes in races: Altra, Topo, Pearl Izumi (obligatory Rest In Peace). I went with Saucony Endorphin Pro at Worlds. I've worn them for most of my speedwork in the past year, but never tried them on long runs. I was afraid the toe box was too small, but that fear was more than made up for by the 8mm drop to support my achilles -- I've pretty much given up on Altra because I'm now convinced they've wrecked my achilles at Big's. The Sauconys definitely required a bit of a biomechanical change at slower paces while tired, but I mostly figured it out. Pretty sure I'll be using them or Topos in any flat races going forward.
  • Bidets with heated seats!
  • It’s possible to fit 3 people and 4 full-size suitcases in a compact sedan.
  • I'm forgetting a bunch of stuff. Oh well...


Fancy toilet!

Fancy balcony view.

Forcing teammates with trashed quads to walk up and down stairs for no reason.