Last year, American ultrarunner Maggie Guterl made headlines when she won Big’s Backyard Ultra, a ‘last man standing’-style event run by Lazarus Lake (organiser of the infamous Barkley Marathons) which sees runners cover a 4.16-mile loop on repeat. Each lap must be completed within an hour and starts again on the hour and after that, it’s a battle to see which competitor outlasts the rest. Last year, Maggie completed 60 laps to cover a mind-boggling 250-miles and win it outright – the first woman to do so.
Maggie has also competed for Team USA at the IAU 24-Hour World Championships, she’s won the Brazos Bend 100-miler outright, come second at the Georgia Death Race and 8th at Western States, amongst other things. However, in this email Q&A, we take a deeper dive into last year’s Backyard Ultra win.
I also chatted with Maggie over the phone earlier this week for separate feature, coming soon…
Firstly, how is your quarantine experience – are you still able to run?
Durango is pretty relaxed on trail restrictions. We have a lot of trail options. They do get more crowded but so far, so good. However, everyone is outdoorsy here (and apparently everywhere now is in quarantine, LOL). I am actually not running personally. I tweaked something during the Quarantine Backyard Ultra on April 4 and haven’t walked a step without pain since then. It is finally improving as of this past weekend and I can at least ride my bike still. I will take it slow since there’s no rush.
Tell us about your running background – at what point did you step up to ultra distances?
I never really ran competitively outside of track in grade school. In college, I would hop on a treadmill here and there and bust out a 10-miler and then not run again for a long time. But I was pretty unhealthy. I ran my first marathon in 2009 and never looked back. I ran my first ultra in 2011 – a 24-hour race in July in Philly. I made it 97 miles with a goal of 100 so I came back the second year and did 110. It was tough in the beginning because I knew nothing about nutrition. And that is so much of ultrarunning.
You’ve run plenty of 24-hour track races, including the World Championships. Do track ultras require a different mindset to trail ultras?
For sure. You have to have a crazy big goal in mind and keep that goal the whole time. By big goal I mean a goal you can’t easily obtain, because if you do hit that easier goal you might tell yourself, “That’s good enough. I can be done now.” My goals have changed and shifted over the years and I haven’t quite mastered the track 24-hour. That seems to be more mechanical blocks over mental since I just can’t get my hips on board with all that turning.
In 2018 you finished your first Big’s Backyard Ultra experience, completing an amazing 183 miles. Did you take any learnings from your debut race into last year’s event?
I did. The main issues were sleep/caffeine intake and mechanical [learnings], so I did a caffeine taper which some say is pointless. But I drink a lot of coffee and so I wanted caffeine to really affect me. I felt it did during the race. Little boosts when I needed it. I was much more conservative and purposeful in my caffeine intake during the race and I think that enabled me to feel like I was actually napping between loops when I laid down and to have a morning boost of caffeine as the sun was rising.
Body maintenance was also a huge part of my training and between loops. Just a lot of strength training during training and stretching and massaging whatever felt tight during the race – I ignored a lot of things the first year. [Another learning was] Not letting little problems become big ones.
How else did you train and prepare for last year’s race?
As I mentioned I did a lot of strength training. I did a mix of road and trail running since the race is both. And I just hiked a lot because it was our first summer living in Colorado. My big peak training run was a 100K route I planned around Durango hitting our 7 major summits. It had about 13,000 feet of gain and was also a mix of road and trail. It was super-fun and took me 15 hours.
Can you tell us about the mindset of ‘Don’t quit’ which you went into the race with?
Yeah, it was that simple: ‘I am not going to quit’, and my other mindset was ‘100 hours and beyond’. That would be pretty amazing to have gone that long and pretty difficult, so I was confident that was a good big goal, LOL.
Do you use any mental strategies, mantras or self-talk to keep yourself going mid-race?
I do and they are never pre-planned but one I always use is, “If you can’t finish this, you can’t finish Barkley [Marathons]”. For Big’s on day three, my mantra became out-loud reminders. Like, “Pace” to remind myself to keep the pace because I would get too ‘shuffly’ in my steps and was slowing down. “Pick up your feet!” Because, again, I was shuffling, and I fell hard a few times and that is super-jarring after two days of running. And my third one was “focus” because I would let my mind wander to all the possible outcomes at this point and I didn’t think it was constructive or keeping me in the moment. I tried saying them silently but apparently they were not as impactful to my tired brain so I had to say them out loud. Typically, my mantras are in my head muttered silently to myself.
How did you fuel your race and were you able to take on the nutrition you needed to?
Yes. So that was huge. I used Tailwind for the majority of my calories. In fact, I wrote a detailed blog on how I fuelled on the Tailwind Nutrition blog.
Big’s is a non-stop race. How much sleep did you manage to snatch?
I had a routine and felt like I didn’t sleep much the first night but maybe my body got the hint on night two. It was so hard to keep my eyes open and that’s where going one lap at a time was helpful. My routine at night was: come in, lay down for 8 minutes immediately, then get up at 5 minutes to go, and do what I needed to do. It worked great and like clockwork because I had the best crew. I really can’t say how much sleep I actually got each time. I felt like the second night I was getting five minutes here and there, but it just didn’t feel like it was helping. I think, cumulatively, it was, and it helped me, in the long run, get through day three.
What is it about extreme ultra-distance racing that you enjoy?
The challenge of seeing what you can accomplish. Succeeding and failing are both part of it. Failing sucks, but it makes the success more sweet. It’s why the best run, the most rewarding ones, are the ones you struggle in the most. The problem-solving is fun and the best part might be the comradery. You can run with someone in a race for just a few hours and it’s possible to form a lifelong friendship starting right there!
You’ve won 100 milers outright before, you’ve raced Western States. Do you have a preferred race mileage and terrain?
I really love the format of Big’s. The terrain at Barkley [Marathons] is like no other race. Those are my top two. I just love the longer distances because they feel like such a journey.
What does a typical week of training look like outside of a world pandemic?
I fit all my training around my job. And sometimes I travel a lot for work so I felt like for Barkley I never had a routine. But ideally, most days would go like this: Wake up and do a workout, speed work, tempo, hills… whatever was on the plan for the day. Then I would rush to work. After work, I would usually go strength train at a local gym called the Vault with my co-worker/friend Laura. It was similar to CrossFit but more like circuits that took about 30 minutes and there wasn’t a competitive aspect to it (so you don’t feel like you need to win at all cost, LOL). Then, bed way later than I want, and do it all again the next day. Obviously, rest days are important too. I usually had one every 1–2 weeks, depending on how I felt.
What are your next running goals/plans?
Well, they keep changing. At this point, it is Big’s [Backyard Ultra] again. Crazy, because that is in October. But I have been discussing with a friend, [ultrarunner] Courtney Dauwalter, about tackling Nolan’s 14 (running 14 summits over 14,000ft in the Sawatch mountain range) this summer. We will just have to be flexible and see.
What are your favourite items of kit for ultras?
I use Nathan hydration packs – I used to work for them and have tons. Altra shoes – the Lone Peak is my go-to. Trail Toes lube. Drymax socks. (I use their hiking socks, actually.) Poles – I use LEKI and if it’s icy, I use Kahtoola MicroSpikes. Territory Run Co hats fit my head the best.
Who are you sponsored by right now?
To me, sponsorship means monetary support so that would be no one. I do have a few brands who have been really great to me over the years though (and some have even tossed me some money for entries and such.) Drymax, Trail toes, Altra, Nathan Sports, Tailwind Nutrition (work for them now and love them!), Kahtoola, Leki. Also my coach’s brand, Rugged Running. She [Michele Yates] has supported me in more ways than one.