Just One More Loop: ATY Recap

On the first afternoon of 2023 I took a little bow after dipping out of the Last Person Standing event at Across the Years, a long-distance running festival put on by Aravaipa Running. It was a happy exit with smiles and giggles. I went somewhere I’d never gone before… all on a singular loop, exactly 104 times.

I was inspired to sign up for this event by Whitney Pearson, who I’d helped crew for a similar-style event up in Portland, Maine last summer. It was so interesting to observe all of the different runners’ strategies and it made me wonder what my own approach would be. The race format is, everyone lines up together, runs the same loop, and finishes within a certain time frame. In my case, it was a slightly-over-one mile loop that had to be completed within 15 minutes. Once the 15 minutes is up, if you haven’t completed the loop, you’re out. If you’re not lined up for the start of the next 15 minute interval, you’re out. Repeat. Whoever is the last person standing, wins.

I had been really excited about hopping into this event. Beyond the athletic/physical component, you have to be mentally prepared to be “in it” for an unknown amount of time. Would we be running 75, 100, 150, 200 miles? There is no known halfway point or homestretch, because you don’t know how long you or the other runners will last. And then there’s strategy and time management. You have 15 minutes to complete a little over a mile, but you also have to take care of anything else you might need with whatever time you have leftover. That’s really not much time!

Recapping this event is interesting, because I’m not sure I’ll remember everything chronologically. What I do remember for certain was that every single loop was unique, despite being the same loop over and over. The sky never looked the same from one lap to the next, the weather was always changing subtly or drastically, and who you ended up running with or nearby would always change too. My mood changed from lap to lap, and so did my needs. No two laps were alike. The only constant throughout was time, distance, and the people that kept showing up to the line.

The hardest part of early stages was the waiting. My legs were fresh, mentally I was chipper, I had just had a big ol’ Jimmy John’s sandwich (veggie with bacon), and I was excited to go. The start area was bustling with runners and their crews and the energy was palpable. GG helped me set up my personal aid station, and being a chiropractor (lucky me!), worked out a couple knots in my back that developed this fall, in my opinion, from the enormous amount of sitting involved with playing piano. After that, as I get overwhelmed pretty quickly by big groups of people I went off to a smaller tent I had rented to lay down on my sleeping pad and just enjoy some moments of quiet to myself before the start.

I often go out fast in races, it’s hard to help it, but in this race I knew going out fast would absolutely serve no purpose. I finished my first loop in 12:52 with a combo of running and walking and felt very proud of myself for holding back. We had a group of 20 to start with. It was a super chatty, nice, social group. I am not usually very chatty during races, I get really focused and in my own little world, so I just kind of cruised along solo for lots of laps doing my own thing.

Right by the start/finish line, there was a large canopy tent set up next to the start line that all the runners had their make-shift aid stations at. I had nabbed a perfect spot in the back corner. I had two chairs, one regular-size one to sit on, and one little tripod to prop my legs up on every time I sat down. Being farther from the start line meant a few extra steps per lap, which would add up, but it was worth it to have a quiet little corner and the ability to put my legs up. I am pretty introverted, and being around groups is pretty energy-draining for me, so this worked out well. That being said I am all about one-on-one conversations and enjoyed chatting with those set up next me in between laps.

It was sort of the same thing out on the course. When you’re lining up with a group every fifteen minutes, it’s naturally a pretty social event! Sometimes I would tag along with the group and just listen, most times I’d go off and do my own thing, and many nice little side conversations were had throughout too.

It seemed to take forever to reach 20 miles. Imagine feeling so good in a race and purposely holding waaaaay back and taking 2-4 minute breaks for no good reason. Maybe I could learn from this? Haha. I certainly wasn’t the only runner feeling that way, but what could you do? Running faster served no purpose, other than maybe banking a tad more time to put your feet up and rest. Jeff, last year’s Last Person Standing, and I joked about how we wished we could just hit a fast forward button. He also pointed out how the next big thing to look forward to was switching directions (they did this every four hours), and how that was literally the most interesting thing that would happen to us in the near future. He wasn’t wrong.

That’s not to say running loops was boring, surprisingly enough! It just…. slowed down time. You start to notice things. The scenery, the sky, the trees, the manmade pond, the runners around you. I never took my phone with me on the course, since all it would do was distract me or be an annoying thing to carry. After a busy fall semester with a million things to do every day, it was incredibly blissful to only have to think about one thing: doing one more loop. This was nice.

Throughout the day I saw my pals Katie and Stephen from Portland, and Troy and Mikaela who I’d met in the hiking world, out on the course or resting by their tent setup. Stephen had completed the 24 hour event a couple days prior, and the rest were on day three of the 72 hour event, racking up as many miles as they could within that time frame. I got a little lift every time I saw them. I passed by GG & Stephen at the tent/RV zone and GG asked me what my hurry was? I suppose I had fallen into a 10-11 minute rhythm, which might have been unnecessarily fast, but going slower felt so unnatural and uncomfortable, what could I do?

On my next visit to the aid station I saw GG had left a carton of Dunkin Munchkins for me as a parting gift for the evening. He came back later at dinner time, but I’m having trouble piecing together the timeline. It’s all a bit of a blur! Every time I got back to my little corner it was the same thing. Sit down, legs up, eat and drink a little something. There wasn’t one break where I didn’t sit down. Those few minutes at a time really add up. Not to jump ahead, but my total time ended up being 26 hours, with only 20 of those hours out on the course. That meant I had 6 hours of cumulative downtime in the entire event. Isn’t that wild? So any bit of time off my feet truly counted for something.

I made a point of setting my watch screen to the current lap only, and took a manual lap split at the start of every fifteen minutes. That way I could keep track of my allotted time per lap, but I kept myself in the dark about what number lap I was in or how many miles I’d covered. There was no specific end point to this race, and I didn’t want to limit myself or get in my head. This ended up being a good strategy for me. Time simply didn’t exist, except for the fifteen minutes.

My tent neighbors and I would check in with each other and chat a little bit between laps. Paul, last year’s runner-up was constantly offering to help other runners, including me. He shared his powder drink mix with me and even heated up water with his portable stove for me a few times to help me clean the powder drink gunk off of the mixer ball in my bottle. At one point I remember when asked how I was doing, I thought about it and shared, “I’m a little bit grumpy and I don’t know why. Nothing’s wrong. I’m just a little grumpy!” I remember even giggling about how I had no reason to be in a foul mood. It didn’t last very long, but I do remember having these occasional little lows, or mood swings, throughout the event.

The sky began to darken and we were treated to two laps of the most gorgeous sunset. I was running with the core group during this bit and we all oohed and ahh’ed at the brilliant sky together. I took some mental snapshots of the moment, and it remains one of my favorite parts of the entire event. Even though I had only just met everyone, I felt really connected to our little group sharing that experience together. How cool.

Nearly every runner that began the event made it into the night portion. I began to wonder when the wheels would start falling off, for myself included, and so far everyone still seemed fine, or at least fine enough. I found myself perking up and chatting more than I usually would, probably induced by the slow drip of endorphins from running that long.

The much anticipated New Years celebration was getting close, as you could see from the tables being set up and topped with plastic goblets of champagne, hats, necklaces, and noisemakers. GG made the trip back to the course so we could ring in the New Year together. While I took advantage of my in-between minutes to sit down in my corner, he grabbed some champagne for us and just before the lap started I grabbed a golden party hat to wear. Tons of people were gathered at the start area to celebrate together. I still had to be in my little corral so we headed over there together, drank our champagne and gave each other a little kiss a few seconds before the New Year just to be on the safe side.

The New Years lap was totally fun and magical. The crowd parted to let the Last Person Standing bunch just barely squeeze through. Everyone was clapping and cheering. It would have made for a great slo-mo video, maybe there is one out there! Another neat moment to add to the night along with the sunset earlier. As we left the party scene and ran into the night, you could hear the endless booms of fireworks all around, and we even saw a few off in the distance too. I felt a sort of pang of… something, like what the heck am I even doing out here, why am I doing this?

I was pleasantly surprised to see GG had waited for me to come back around so we could see each other one more time before he turned in. My memory is really foggy on what happened next so I must have been getting tired. Past midnight meant we were over twelve hours in, which meant we were over 50 miles in. I remember bracing myself for the night ahead, knowing that many people, including most of the women, were planning to drop on or after midnight. Our group was about to get considerably smaller.

Some significant problem solving happened throughout the night portion. In what order, I do not remember, but here are a few happenings:

  • I had pre-taped my known blister-prone spots on my feet, but felt a hot spot forming on my left big toe and knew I would need to address it before it became a big issue. So, right after the start of a lap, I immediately ducked into the medical tent and asked if they might have a bandaid or two I could use. They handed me two bandaids and a strip of tape. I then carried the supplies with me while running a quick lap in order to bank some time. As soon as I got back to the tent, I sat down, ripped off my sock and shoe, and bandaid-ed and taped the spot. I couldn’t believe the difference it made- no issue after that!
  • A little bit later I felt another hot spot forming on my inner right ankle from the collar of my shoes rubbing my skin. I ran a quick lap, same as before, to give myself time to address it. I was able to use the other bandaid that I’d gotten from the med tent to cover and add a bit of padding to the spot. It worked!
  • My feet swelled significantly as the race went on. Despite wearing size 9 shoes when normally I’m an 8-8.5, the elastic upper of the shoes was squeezing my foot and causing a lot of irritation on the tendons on top of my left foot. I switched to a pair of roomy trail shoes for one lap, but they felt like flat cardboard compared to the road shoes I’d been wearing. I immediately switched back to my original shoes in the following lap, but the tightness of the upper was still an issue. On my next lap, I asked, “Does anyone have a pair of scissors?” Two people immediately came to my rescue, a kind woman that was there supporting another runner, and Jamil the race director. Suddenly two pairs of scissors were in front of me! The 30 second warning timer went off, and I remember Paul being extremely concerned that I was starting a new project with such a little time to spare. I grabbed one and cut a line straight down the sewed-in tongue of the shoe. Ahhh. Immediately relief! After a few laps the pain on the top of my foot totally dissipated. Amazing!
  • I overheard in the wee hours of the morning that rain was coming in the next few hours. I had been wearing loose fitting shorts at the time, my most comfortable pair, but knew chafing would be an issue if I wore them in the rain, as they’d get all wet and bunchy. I used up some seconds after one lap to find a pair of tight shorts and set them out for myself. Then I ran a fast lap after that, maybe my fastest so I could get to my station, grab my shorts, some wet wipes to clean the salt and dirt off my skin, some anti-chafe balm, and a water bottle and some food, then I ducked into my private tent nearby so I could change. I had at least five luxurious minutes in which I removed my shoes and shorts, cleaned myself up with the wipes, applied some balm, and put on fresh new shorts. I had enough time leftover to just lay down on my mat, and eat a little and sip some water. Laying down felt like heaven. Wow. I set an alarm on my phone and kept my eye on my watch and heard the call for one minute, then the 30 second timer (Paul is the one who set up the 30 second warning, which was genius). And off I went to the start line to start another loop.

I couldn’t believe how fantastic I felt with a fresh pair of shorts. I was a new woman! I also couldn’t stop thinking about how good it felt to lie down. I simply had to lie down again. It was incredible. But dangerous. Just before I completed my next lap, I ducked into my tent again, which was located prior to the finish line, grabbed my sleeping pad, then completed my lap while carrying my sleeping pad across the line with me. I went to my little corner in the main tent, threw down my pad, and laid down. Ooh, and then I propped my legs up on my table. Incredible. A wave of sleepiness hit me so I drank one of my little cans of espresso.

I laid down one more time on my next lap and that seemed to satiate my need for at least a sense of rest. After that I was back to my chair and legs up combo.

After the mass drop-off on or a little after New Years, we lost more and more runners until there were only five left from 65 miles on: Paul, Jeff, Eric, Anthony, and me. Every time we lost someone it was very sad. Hugs and farewells were had, and per tradition the runner bowing out would scratch their name out on the chalkboard listing everyone’s names.

Throughout the night I saw Katie, Mikaela, and Troy out on the course. They were in the final stretch of their 72 hour event – it would end at 9am. Sometimes they were happy and smiley, sometimes they were quiet, forlorn, or aloof in their own little world, sometimes we’d walk or run together or chat for a few brief moments which always gave me a lift. It felt like we were in some sort of weird twilight zone. I mean. It was very late at night or very early in the morning depending on how you looked at it. Like we were all in a dreamlike zombie land going in circles, and circles, and circles.

At some point I think I sort of forgot to eat, or at least eat enough. We were getting close to my longest distance ever run at 72 miles. While I hadn’t been paying attention to the distance, I had told some of the other runners that was my longest, and they let me that we were getting close. I for sure had never eaten so many calories in one day to that point, or at least that’s what it felt like. I was sick of eating. That was a nice little prelude to the giant bonk I had not long afterward.

Suddenly everything was bad. My mood soured, I got very grumpy, nothing in particular was wrong, but I was just starting to feel… bad. Paul joined me for a lap and seemed perfectly pleasant just chatting away. I said NOTHING in return. I just couldn’t bring myself to. Sorry Paul! I stumbled over to my chair in a daze. A few people in the tent, including Anthony’s wife/support crew Nicole asked if I needed anything and I honestly didn’t know. Making decisions felt really hard. I said I think I need food, and someone said the aid station had oatmeal and asked if I’d like some and I said sure. Then I started to tear up and sniffle and cry in my little corner. I was in it. I was having a hard time thinking rationally. Nothing sounded appetizing but I knew I had to eat. I ate a little bit of the oatmeal which was still really hot, then it was time to step to the line again. I tried to buck up and wipe away my tears but felt very self conscious standing there at the start line and I felt like everyone was looking at me (even if they weren’t actually), there is no hiding in an event like this! I ate the rest of the oatmeal after it cooled down on the next lap. I ate some other stuff too, I forget what, but it definitely helped.

I perked up a little, and it had gotten light out again by this point, which helped. GG arrived which helped massively, I asked him to refill all my water bottles which had gotten hard to keep up with over time. With him there I didn’t have to make as many decisions. Every time I got back to the tent he’d say “eat this, drink this”. I didn’t have to think so much. Unfortunately I started to have some major GI issues. I had eaten so much in the last 20+ hours and taken in so many electrolytes, my body just didn’t want any of it at all.

Somewhere in the late 80 miles to early 90 miles I had another major bonk. The wheels were falling off. I was starting to feel pretty miserable, and food was just so unappetizing, I began to think I was about ready to be done. I remember seeing Stephen out by the RV area giving me a little cheer and also looking a little concerned or maybe just sympathy. Usually I had some kind of bright response for him but this time I didn’t. The cool thing was, the later into the morning it got, the more and more people were showing up to the course as there was a 24 hour event beginning at 9am. I started to receive a lot of cheering and encouragement particularly from the women out there. I felt ready to quit but also felt compelled to keep going because it seemed to mean something. One of my biggest motivators in running is doing it for something bigger than myself, and this definitely seemed big. Every time I completed another lap I was met with cheers and it seriously helped a lot a lot a lot–mentally. However my stomach still felt bad and it only seemed to be getting worse. Notice how in the next photo none of us look very happy!!

At the end of another lap GG shoved a cup of noodles in my face and said “Eat this! Drink the broth!” and I nearly vomited from the smell of the spice pack mixed in. I couldn’t keep food down and I had to run to the portapotty almost every lap. I took immodium but it didn’t seem to do anything for me. I asked GG to run to the med tent and see if they had anything that would help with my nausea and GI distress. They didn’t, but they suggested eating cheese so he brought me a cheese quesadilla. I was actually able to eat some of it. He also at some point told me I was only six laps from reaching a hundred miles. I asked him if he was positive. Somehow I felt I could wrap my mind around doing six more laps, but not more. He said he was positive.

In the last few laps before reaching 100 I seemed to come around again and feel better, probably from the bit of food I was able to keep down and the excitement of nearly reaching 100 miles. We all began the last lap before reaching 100 and had a little mini celebration. This was a big milestone in the race, and it would be Eric’s and my first hundred miler ever. Considering how wretched I looked and felt a few laps earlier, I think a lot of people (including myself) assumed I’d call it a day after reaching a hundred. But reaching that number gave me a little lift, and my problems seemed to have subsided at least a little bit, so up I got for the next lap. I was officially in way new territory and had nothing to lose, so why not keep going?

After the next lap and nearly forty miles of the five of us together, Anthony decided to call it. He had done incredibly well by all counts, and especially considering he’d come back from two pelvic stress fractures five months prior! When the rest of us heard, we all let out a sad/deflated, “Ohh.” It was always sad when someone stopped. Our group had just gotten that much smaller. I felt a bit like I was running on fumes and felt very close to petering out. But–I couldn’t let myself drop right after Anthony. It would seem too personal, as if I’d only been hanging on to outlast him specifically. That was the logic in my head anyway. It would have felt rude! However I felt like I was getting close to my end too.

Indigestion continued to be an issue. I got into a pattern – eat or drink a few bites of something in the tent. Start the lap. Run to the portapotty immediately. Spend the rest of the lap running fast to make up the time and give myself a couple minutes to try to eat and drink before the next lap. Repeat. I remember Eric peering over his shoulder toward the end of each lap to see if I was coming. On one of those final laps he joined me and we ran a little together. We all had our own styles throughout the race. Paul ran faster and rested more. I usually came in a minute or two after Paul. Jeff and Anthony were usually somewhere in between. Eric walked more so he usually came in with just a minute to spare, but always looking super relaxed and fresh. Thus, it was always Eric I was running to catch up with in those last few laps.

I forgot to mention that it did rain at a few points, but it was never really an issue. It was still pretty warm out, I threw on a jacket to be on the safe side, and we did get drenched at some point past 100 miles, but it never lasted long. The rain seems worth mentioning though!

At the start of another lap, I tried eating some more quesadilla but couldn’t bring myself to swallow it. I just felt so nauseous. So I spit it out off the side of the course right in front of everyone. Sorry!! My stomach was absolutely churning to a point where I had to stop running and walk because I was on the verge of having an embarrassing accident. I ran way off course (like, 100-200 feet so not that far, but farther off course than I’d ever gone) to use a real indoor bathroom as it was the closest one in that moment. It wasn’t good. I mean the bathroom was great. I was not good. Per usual I spent the rest of the lap catching up, again. I didn’t quite catch up to Eric this time, but still made it with a little under two minutes to spare.

I waffled on what to do. I was still in the game and making the time. I had to eat. Since there was hardly any time, I grabbed another wedge of quesadilla in tinfoil and my water bottle to take with me. I started the next lap with everyone. Then about ten feet in I thought What am I doing?? and smiled and announced, “actually JK I’m done!” The guys let out an “Aww/ohh” and shouted out for me to ring the bell. There was a PR Bell located just by the start line. I gave it a couple big rings, the guys gave me some whoops and continued on their way, and those gathered by the start/finish line gave me a little round of applause. It was over. I had completed 104 laps and 108.96 miles in 25 hours and 58 minutes, 4th to last person standing and last woman standing. I couldn’t stop smiling and giggling. What a fun and ridiculous thing to do.

Eric went on to complete 123.62 miles, Jeff stuck with Paul through 139.34 miles, and Paul took his final victory lap, completing 140.39 miles. Wow!!!

This recap has gotten long enough, but some of my quick takeaways:

-The ultrarunning community is awesome! I got into ultras and trails not long before the pandemic, so this kind of shared experience is still somewhat new to me. I feel like I left this weekend with a bunch of new friends and a huge appreciation for the organizers and volunteers that put this event on. I was on the receiving end of so much kindness throughout. Even among runners/competitors it felt like we had each other’s backs.

-Lately I have been questioning my willingness to go deep into the well and suffer. I haven’t really since being on the Appalachian Trail. The AT was by far my biggest physical/mental effort to date. This is the first effort since then that I felt like I accessed that place, that resolute part of myself. I haven’t felt like that in a long time, and it felt encouraging and exciting to know it’s still in there somewhere. I was giddy for days after Across the Years and had trouble sleeping at all. It’s now been over a week and I’m having vivid dreams that I’m still out on the course. Something about it clearly impacted me. I don’t know if it was the repetition of the loops, or running through the night (something I’m usually not keen on doing, but was able to do), or going farther than I’ve ever gone in one push, or what, but it feels big and I still can’t stop thinking about it!

💫

Thanks for reading. I never know who these letters might reach or inspire. Your support encourages me to keep going, plus it keeps the newsletter sustainable. My sincerest thanks to everyone who has done so!

Here are the most impactful ways you can support Mercury on the Run:

Share this with someone you know that might enjoy it too. New readers may subscribe below.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Buy me a coffee! This helps to cover expenses for the newsletter platform, website, logo, and supporting me/my work directly.

Become a monthly member! This serves as sustainable support for all of the above, plus it comes with perks like handwritten notes, postcards, stickers, and more. I have a new project bubbling up in the works for members involving new artwork by Anna Trella Ruth Miller and inspiring words by yours truly. Join for $5/month.

Gear

Throughout the event I was asked about the gear I was wearing – my apparel was all Tracksmith. I became a Tracksmith ambassador this year, though nearly all the gear I’d already purchased myself before then if that’s any testament to how much I love their stuff! The shorts and top I’ve worn for countless adventures. Their clothing is classic, well made, and lasts for years and years. I’m still wearing the Tracksmith gear that I wore on the AT years ago. Their customer service is awesome and you can try stuff on with free returns/shipping. Use my affiliate link to take $50 off your first purchase with them of $150 or more.

Strata Long Sleeve – the long sleeve is sold out but you can find a bunch of other pieces made with the same fabric if you search “Strata” on their website.

OTQ Shorts – I’ve never loved a pair of shorts more than these, I have two pairs. There are men’s and women’s versions.

Lane Five Short Tights – What I switched into before the rain hit. I also wore these pretty much exclusively on the AT as the numerous pockets were helpful for carrying my gels, phone, and tracker. They recently came out with a long tights version, I’d like to think my direct feedback begging for these played a role in their creation! Haha

Rain Jacket – This jacket was seeded to me, and I’m not going to lie the price raised my eyebrows at first, but holy cow this is a nice rain jacket. It blocks wind and repels water really really well. I also just love the fit and cut. There’s a men’s version too.

Rain Hat – Same lightweight/water repellent material as the jacket

Allston Pocket Bra – I’ve purchased this for myself in a million colors, it’s a running wardrobe staple.

Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

Newsletter 💫

Subscribe to Liz’s weekly newsletter full of inspiring stories about running, music, trails and life.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.