| Joanne Cole, NGX | A race where the goal is not to finish first, but last? Where there’s no set distance? That’s the concept of the Last Man Standing ultramarathon that brought athletes and their friends and families, along with tents, coolers, lanterns, and lawn chairs, to the Pineland campus over Labor Day weekend. The race and its unique format are the brainchild of race organizers and New Gloucester residents Eric Cobb and Beryle Martin and their company Back 40 Events. This year’s edition was the fourth running of the race.
Here’s how it works: Runners have 60 minutes to complete a 4.2-mile route along the perimeter of Pineland’s eastside trails, with an extra field tacked on for good measure. Covering the distance under an hour earns you the right to continue. Fail to finish within sixty minutes? You’re out. Run and repeat, every hour on the hour, including through the night, until only one runner is left and completes a final lap alone.
A field of more than 90 runners from as far away as California, Texas, and Florida took up the challenge and crossed the starting line at noon on Saturday. The atmosphere was festive and runners exhilarated. Race director Cobb says that’s his favorite moment: “It’s such a spectacle at the start. It’s an amazing vibe. All these people lined up, knowing what they’re in for.”
What they’re in for is a supreme test of fitness, mental toughness, and disciplined pacing. Last year’s champion, Alan Groudle of Lewiston, who ran “only” 30 miles this year as a tune-up for the Chicago Marathon next month, described one possible approach. Complete each 4.2-mile circuit in about 50 minutes, walking the hills, and leave yourself ten minutes or so to eat, change, and rest before the next lap. For fuel, perhaps PB & J sandwiches “until you’re sick of them,” said Groudle, and then soup – maybe chickpea or lentil – warm, nutritious, and easy to digest. Besides eating, hydrating, and changing layers, some runners ice their feet between laps to keep inflammation down. An elite runner might bring as many as six pairs of shoes to accommodate swollen feet, according to Groudle.
As darkness fell around 8 pm Saturday night, the field had thinned by more than half, with many runners spent after completing more than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. The remaining competitors continued through the night, with only headlamps to light their way.
By mid-morning on Sunday most of the tents and RVs had vanished and only two runners remained on the course, Jason Bigonia, 42, of Walpole, Maine, and Ryan Metivier, 43, of Auburn. After 24 hours, they broke through the 100-mile mark. Two laps later, both had surpassed last year’s winning distance of 109 miles, a then-record 26 laps.
In the end, Bigonia prevailed, completing a remarkable 28 laps to Metivier’s also-remarkable 27. No one lost. After Bigonia crossed the finish line for the win, the two shook hands. “Next year is Metivier’s,” Bigonia said in a show of respect for his fellow competitor. Urged by a family member to “please smile” for photos “as if you’re having fun,” Bigonia responded, “I was having fun out there… Well, for the most part.” Bigonia’s post-race plans included loading his prizes in the car—the victor gets a handcrafted Adirondack chair and a case of beer—and a celebratory stop for ice cream with his family on the way home.
Electronic race timing revealed that Bigonia had spent a total of 22 hours and 25 minutes on his feet in covering more than 117 miles. And while there was no separate prize for the last woman standing, Kristen Glennie of Watertown, Mass., earned bragging rights with 18 laps, or more than 75 miles, also a record for the event.
Near-perfect conditions likely contributed to the falling records, as moderate daytime temperatures, dry trails with plenty of shade, and a cool overnight favored the runners. Gordon Collins of Gray, an ultrarunner who crewed and cheered on the finishers, speculated that Bigonia and Metivier might well have set a record for the longest competitive distance ever run in Maine.
Whether runners complete two laps or twenty, the appeal of the event is the chance to push themselves beyond their personal limits. Apparently, the lure is irresistible. Race director Eric Cobb says runners are already signing up for next year’s Last Man Standing race, September 5, 2020, at Pineland.