By Karen Billing
It took grit, determination and a lot of Fig Newtons for 50-year-old Mark Backes of Del Mar to win his division in the Leadville Trail 100, a 100-mile ultra-marathon through the Colorado Rockies.
Backes ran the 100-mile “race across the sky” in 22 hours and 51 minutes on an extreme out and back course up to an altitude of 12,600 feet that 330 participants did not finish this year.
“A 100-miler has always been a part of what I wanted to do, to test me as a person, to see how far I could go and push myself to see what my limits were. I wanted to find them,” Backes said. “People think I’m a little nuts. But it helps me with my daily life when I achieve such crazy goals. I see everyday things ahead of me and I think ‘I’ve got this,’ life is so much easier.”
Backes grew up in a family of nine kids in Chula Vista and for his mother, running was one way to tame her extremely hyper son. She encouraged him to go outside and use up some of his overflowing energy running the canyons and it worked.
By the fourth grade, excelling at running was a way to stand out among his highly accomplished siblings. That year when they did the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, students were challenged to see how many 110-yard laps they could run (one 100-meter lap on a track) in a set amount of time. Backes did 18.
“It was an unbelievable number, not that I planned to do it,” Backes said. “Once people started recognizing me as a runner it made me want to do it more. It spurred me on.”
He made it to the Junior Olympics that year and placed third in Southern California and started doing track and field through city meets until the sixth grade.
He ran some cross country in junior high, but only ran a little in high school as he was plagued by injuries. As a sophomore he was badly hurt in a car accident and wasn’t able to compete and lost his confidence. He started to get his edge back right before his senior year, but the day before school started he broke his tibia and fibula while backpacking and missed his last high school season.
After a few tough years at UC Santa Barbara, running became a way to help him get his life back on track. He got his motor going again and transferred to Long Beach State to run on the cross country team.
He hasn’t stopped moving ever since, becoming a long distance specialist and taking on about a marathon a year.
In 2007, he qualified for the Boston Marathon and ran the historic race in what many considered to be the worst weather to hit the event in its 117 years, a Nor’Easter storm with torrential rains and heavy winds.
“It was a tough year to have the full experience but I did it,” Backes said.
He had aimed for a 2:50 but ran a 2:54 and was determined to return. He came back in 2008 and heartbreakingly missed his goal time by six seconds. Finally, in 2009, he accomplished his goal, crossing the finish in 2:48.49.
In 2010, Backes’ close friend and former business partner recruited him to join him on a 50-mile ultra-marathon to commemorate his 50th birthday. Backes accepted the challenge, running with his friend in the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run outside of Sacramento. The culture was so much different from what he had experienced at road races, he especially loved how the race brought together all kinds of different people who were all just the same amount of crazy.
Before Leadville, Backes had hoped to make it into the 2014 Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile race that he considers the Super Bowl of ultras — the race uses a lottery system and only 217 athletes are selected to compete.
He didn’t make it in the lottery so he chose to enter Leadville, considered one of the hardest 100-milers out there. Leadville starts at 10,200 feet, going up and down the Rocky Mountains, summiting Hope Pass twice at 12,600 feet. He registered for Leadville on New Years Eve, plying himself with coffee to stay up past midnight when registration opened.
Once registered, he started training like “a rabid dog,” running three times during the weekdays about 20 to 30 miles total and then weekends of 20 to 25 milers and 30 to 35 milers back to back to get used to running on tired legs. He would head out armed for his long, long runs with change to buy Gatorades from convenience stores along his route.
He tackled climbs of Torrey Pines and Mount Soledad and trained with another San Diego Leadville runner, 32-year-old Nolan Hansen, who “kicked his butt” on some “gnarly hills” in East County, such as the challenging, hot Mount Woodson trails between Poway and Ramona.
He got so crazy with his training that two and a half months out he purchased an altitude training tent to sleep in.
“That was magic, it helped so much in acclimating to the high altitude,” he said, admitting his wife Mardel might have thought differently.
He was dedicated and vigilant in his training and didn’t realize what great shape he was in until he began his taper, easing back on the mileage in the weeks leading up to the race.
“During the taper was when the magic started to happen, I started to feel how strong I was,” Backes said.
Backes traveled to Leadville six days before the Aug. 16 race to get used to the altitude. During a shake-out four-mile run on one of his first days in town, a hip injury that had bothered him during training flared up and hurt so badly he had to walk the last three miles. His head was understandably spinning — the 100-mile race of his life was days away and he couldn’t even run four miles.
The next day he went out again and ran a careful six miles and started to feel better. He felt like a “gajillion bucks” on his last eight-mile run before the race.
“I had never felt so good or so strong. I was so ready to go I was chomping at the bit,” Backes said.
Backes’ brother Frank was his one-man crew at the aid stations of the race. With some 800 athletes, there are just as many people waiting at the aid stations so it can be a nightmare finding your crew, especially during the nighttime hours. Frank had rigged up a 26-foot pole with a flag and flashing lights that Backes could see from a half-mile away so it was always easy to find him. Frank was loaded down with 24 32-ounce Gatorades, energy bars and Fig Newtons to sustain his brother along the way.
Backes said he felt a little nervous at the 4 a.m. start line as it hit him just how many people he had told he would run the race in under 24 hours — perhaps it was too lofty a goal?
But he thought of his wife Mardel, a cancer survivor. He would run for her. And he kept returning to the words that been implanted in his brain from the race founder Ken Chlouber: “You’re better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can.”
“No one else in the race mattered. From the time the gun went off I was just possessed,” said Backes, who launched off with a head-lamp affixed to his head to light his way.
He was careful about going out too fast and he ran at a conversational ultra-marathon pace, talking to everyone. When he hit mile 25 at the last aid station before they headed over Hope’s Pass, he started to realize how hard the race was. He crossed through a muddy, stinky river and started the ascent with dirty, mucky shoes, trying to keep himself in the zone even as several people were passing him. He took the backside of the pass just as slow because it was so rocky and steep and he knew if he tripped just one time, the race could be over.
Gatorades were guzzled and tray after tray of Fig Newtons consumed.
At 45 miles, he started to see all world-class race leaders run by as they had reached the turn-around point. And he started to get discouraged seeing all the people who had passed him as well, not to mention his hip was starting to jar him.
“It took forever to get to the turn-around,” he said, but once there he changed out of his mucky shoes and had to get weighed.
Athletes are weighed at the start of the race and if at any point during the 100 miles they have lost more than 7 percent of their body weight, they are pulled off the course. Backes weighed in a little bit over what he had at the start.
He took six Tylenols for his hip, having been warned by the race doctor against the effects of ibuprofen on the kidneys during a race of this kind at this altitude.
He had never been beyond 50 miles in a race before and he started to think this is where the race really began. He made it back up Hope’s Pass and was able to start passing people.
After 60 miles, athletes are allowed to use pacers. He picked up his first pacer, who would take him through mile 87. A second pacer would take him from mile 87 to the finish.
At this point they were running in the dark, it was about 6 p.m. His pacer was extremely well-prepared and together they picked up over an hour of time.
“We were flying,” Backes said of their 8:45 and 8:15 miles, which he said 70 miles into a race is pretty good. “We were just gobbling up the course at this juncture.”
At about mile 75, they came to a large group of spectators at the aid station playing music and offering encouragement. It was the middle of the night and without even thinking, Backes popped an ibuprofen that someone offered him and charged on to mile 87.
After 87 miles he had consumed 21 32-ounce Gatorades and had only peed twice. At about mile 95, he started to really hurt and was having trouble taking in oxygen.
The last five miles seemed to stretch on forever, but soon he could see the finish line all lit up in the 3 a.m. darkness of Leadville. Backes ran as fast as he could so that the 22- hour mark wouldn’t click into 23, remembering that Boston Marathon heartbreak, nearly taking a header tripping over the timing strip. He was sucking in air so hard that his throat was raw but he was thrilled that he had accomplished what he had set out to do and with time to spare.
His elation turned to concern when he stepped on the scales and saw he had gained seven pounds and looking down noticed that his legs had swollen to more than twice their normal size. He still hadn’t peed and was having trouble breathing — the medical tent doctor diagnosed him with High Altitude Pulminary Syndrome. The ibuprofen had effectively shut down his kidneys and he was so full of fluid that he couldn’t breathe.
The doctor monitored him over the next eight hours until the award ceremony as his fluids drained, allowing him to stand on the podium for the first time since he was a fourth grader to collect his first place medal. Nothing could have kept him off that medal stand.
“It was such a thrill to stand on that podium and have run the race of my life. It was really overall an amazing thing,” said Backes, noting that now the only thing left to do was just win that Western States lottery — the athletes for the 2015 race are picked Dec. 6.
“If I do get picked, I hope I’m blessed to be able to train like I did for this race,” Backes said. “And maybe, just maybe, I can have another magic day.”