Maggie Guterl will be back to defend her title at the Big Dog Backyard Ultra this fall
“I was thinking this is going to go for at least 400 miles so just keep doing what you are doing,” is the answer offered by American ultra trail runner Maggie Guterl when asked what she was thinking about at the tail end of last year’s Big Dog Backyard Ultra.
She didn’t quite go that far, but she did log 250 miles to become the first woman to win the race. It was the highlight of her career… so far.
Big’s has become one of the biggest races on the ultra calendar, thanks in part to its illustrious founder Lazarus Lake, who has another pretty well-known race as well in the Barkley Marathons. The race takes place on Lake’s property in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Runners must complete a 4.16667-mile loop every hour until there is just one hardy competitor standing. In 2019, that competitor was Guterl.
“It felt like a culmination of everything I have learned in ultra running (and life),” she says.
According to Guterl, some of the keys to her success were keeping her nutrition in check and being disciplined about her sleep routine after each night lap.
But it was more than just that.
“Dealing with issues as they arose and not letting small things become big things, like rolling and stretching sore muscles or little niggles that popped up,” she says. “The main one was the mental part. Just knowing from before the start line that I could win and that I wasn't going to stop.”
She plans on returning to defend her title at this year’s race scheduled for Oct. 17. And was planning on competing at this year’s Barkleys before the race was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hopefully, by the fall, we will be back to normal and nothing will stand in the way of her competing in Tennessee again.
Guterl spent her formative years in Philadelphia, PA. Although she says she ran in grade school, the runner they call “Maggatron” was not involved in sports at all in high school and college.
She didn’t get back into running until she went for a jog with her college friend Leah to the Brooklyn Bridge and back (she went to school in Brooklyn).
“I also would jump on a treadmill from time to time,” she says. “But other than that I didn't start running until 2007 and then it was off and on until 2009 when I finally got serious and ran my first marathon that November.”
A couple of years later it was time for her first ultra. But why?
“Not sure I signed up because I thought it was a good idea,” she explains. “But for the past two years I would see people running in these loops in the evening and again when I went back out in the morning. They looked miserable and I was intrigued to see what it was all about.”
She signed up for an ultra when she was back in Philadelphia.
“It was a 24-hour race held on an 8.5-mile city loop us locals called the Kelly Drive Loop and it was in the middle of July. Not a great set up for success,” she says. “Philly can be sweltering in July. But it was a fun race and a good vibe.”
Now she’s a veteran of the ultrarunning scene and one of the top competitors in North America. Looking down her list of races and finishes and one can’t help but be impressed.
In 2014 she made the US 24-hour Team and competed at the world championships in Turin, Italy where she finished fourth after running 146 miles and her team won gold.
And in 2016, she had a mammoth year.
“I made a goal to go for a Golden Ticket to earn my entry to Western States. I ran the Georgia Death Race and got second and in June ran Western States. I had a steady race and got eighth place female there. My dream of top 10 was achieved,” she says. “Then to finish off the year in December I ran Brazos Bend 100 for the second time trying to get a sub-15 hour. I was also shooting for the American Traill Record (an unofficial record) at the time that still stands (14:22). I didn't quite get that but ran a 14:47 and finished with literally nothing left in the tank.”
She relocated to Durango, Colorado last April for her work with Tailwind Nutrition where she is the ahtletes and events manager. She lives with her partner and her dogs.
“It’s very difficult,” she says. “I am glad this round of training is almost down but it is very difficult to give 100 per cent to so many aspects of work, training and personal life.”
When asked what runners she admires most, she has a solid list including her coach Michele Yates, who she met in 2013 and a few more.
“Pam Smith for one. She was one of the first ultrarunners I heard about because I had a magazine with her on it,” she says. “I also admire Courtney Dauwalter for her attitude towards racing and life in general. I have been able to alleviate some of the pre-race stress but trying to implement a tiny bit of her laid back approach to racing. On the male side, I have learned a lot from Johan Steene. His mental approach to Bigs really had a lot to do with my success. It was simply, don't quit.”
Pre-COVID while training for the now-cancelled Barkley, Guterl would run early in the morning then head to work before hitting the gym in the afternoon or go for a second run. Although she misses her hometown and her regular trails, she is settling into the Colorado lifestyle.
“I love Durango but do miss my PA trails like a hill we call “Leg Destroyer,” she says. “But here in Durango, during the summer there are endless options with breathtaking scenery. For Barkley this winter I spent a lot of time at a hill called Hogsback. It's steep.”
Although she didn’t get to cross the Barkley off her bucket list this spring, she will, and there are a few more on the list as well.
“Hardrock, Tarawera, UTMB, TDG, Spine Race, some of your classic gnarly US mountain races like The Bear, Wasatch but would also like to take a crack at Badwater,” she says. “Also to earn another spot on the US team in the 24-hour would be cool.”
Can Guterl pull off the back-to-back at Big Backyard this year? Stay tuned.