Above photo: James Holk (@jamesholk).
“Chasing Cutoffs amplifies the stories of back-of-the-pack trail and ultra runners. Making fast friends with slow strangers.” —Ben Mead, host of the Chasing Cutoffs podcast
Chasing Cutoffs, launched in April 2022, is a trail running podcast that brings attention to incredible stories of “back-of-the-pack” runners. In trail running media, there is much focus on elite athletes and “everyday” runners, but the back-of-the-pack is underrepresented. In the following interview, I speak with Ben Mead, host of Chasing Cutoffs about his inspiration behind this podcast, his personal experiences as a back-of-the pack runner and the unique experiences and stories of chasing race cutoff times. For a comprehensive list of trail running podcasts, see our trail running podcast directory.
[TAYTE POLLMANN] Tell us a little about yourself and your inspiration behind this podcast.
[BEN MEAD] I love competitive sports. I have been following trail and ultrarunning for years, reading articles on popular trail running websites and listening to trail running podcasts. In my mind, famous trail runners such as Courtney Dauwalter and Francois D’Haene are on the same level as athletes such as Serena Williams or Lewis Hamilton.
In trail running media, the elite “beat” is well covered (we know very much about the front of the field) but it’s very rare to hear about the back-of-the-pack perspective. As a back-of-the-packer myself, this lack of representation stuck out to me. Hearing my people represented was what I wanted more of. Coming to the conclusion that I am the slowest trail runner in the Pacific Northwest and realizing that I want to hear a podcast for those who experience what I feel, for those who experience being on the bubble of Did Not Finish (DNF) or Dead Freakin’ Last (DFL), the seed was born. In February 2022, I ran the Elephant Mountain Trail Runs 50-mile race and I DNFd. It was the day after the race that the idea for the podcast was born.
[TAYTE] What is your background and how long have you been working to create this podcast?
[BEN] I have been obsessively listening to podcasts over the last fifteen years but had no experience whatsoever making podcasts. It took me two months to get Chasing Cuttoffs off the ground. There are many small details such as the audio equipment, software, format and spending time thinking about what I wanted it to be. I reached out to friends with podcasts and had much great help.
[TAYTE] Since launching this podcast in April 2022, has being a host of a podcast been what you’ve expected?
It’s been rewarding because I love talking to people and exploring someone’s origin story with why they run, their racing results and how their races have unfolded. That story arc is what I’m chasing after and is what I’m always excited to uncover. The only thing I didn’t anticipate was the amount of hours it takes to edit and produce podcasts.
[TAYTE] How do you find guests for your shows?
[BEN] Initially, I created an Instagram page advertising the podcast. I had several people reach out expressing their excitement and I invited them to the show as the first guests. I also look at race results every weekend and reach out to as many runners I can who finish on the “DFL podium,” or the bottom three runners in each race. I send a message congratulating them on their performance and ask if they would like to come on the show and talk about their race experience and share their running stories. It’s really about making ‘fast friends with slow strangers.’ There are so many awesome stories to come out of the back-of-the-pack.
[TAYTE] Our 2022 theme at the American Trail Running Association is ‘Trail running is for everybody.’ Could you explain how trail running is not just a sport for elites but also back-of-the-packers?
[BEN] Back-of-the-packers come in every age, gender, shape, size, ability, and background. We are hidden amongst the crowd when the race starts. There’s no way to pick out a back-of-the-packer on the start-line of a race. We are everybody. Being the slowest ones on course is just the reality and who we are as athletes. The goal of Chasing Cutoffs is to amplify the stories and voices and help people realize that the “party” is at the back and this is where you make friends. This is where we can support each other and lift each other up and get each other to the finish line.
[TAYTE] What are a few common misconceptions about back-of-the-packers?
[BEN] One misconception is that we’re not competitive people. If you come at me with a board game or pub trivia you had better bring your A-Game because I am super competitive. I just happen to be super slow when I run. I ask all of my guests if they consider themselves competitive people and it is about a 50/50 split. Another misconception is that we might be old, broken, out-of-shape, lazy or not training and that is not the case. Slowness is just our natural state. The faster we own and embrace that and wave the back-of-the-pack flag, the more fun we are going to have out there!
[TAYTE] I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run “Golden hour” (the final hour before the 30 hour cutoff). There is more cheering and larger crowds during this hour than during any other point in the race. Even at arguably the county’s most competitive ultra-trail race, there is this wonderful celebration for the back-of-the-pack during the Golden Hour. Why do you think this is?
[BEN] First of all, thank you to Western States for highlighting the Golden Hour and making it one of the most essential moments of the event. Why I think it attracts the crowds that it does is because there is a powerful confluence of empathy and excitement at the same time. These people have gone through so much, chasing cutoffs all day and are dragging themselves across the finish line. What is more exciting than watching someone break down that barrier and crossing the finish line? It’s human. I would argue that watching that is more exciting than watching someone shave four minutes off of the course record. Elite finishes are amazing, but they are not super relatable for most of us. We don’t know what that experience is like or what it takes to get that four minute course record. It’s a rare type of person who understands that mentality. Cheering someone on and getting them across the finish line with your energy is the most beautiful thing in a race and something anyone can relate to.
[TAYTE] Could you describe the community at the back-of-the-pack? What is the race atmosphere like and how is it different from the atmosphere at the front of the race?
[BEN] I don’t know what it’s like to be at the front but I imagine it’s a lot of throwing elbows and grunting. The party is at the back. This is where people are laughing and making new friends. There’s many high highs and low lows, but we’re doing it together. We share resources and help each other. I’d imagine there’s less resource sharing and picking each other back up at the front.
[TAYTE] What do you find to be the best sources of motivation for back-of-the-packers to train and push their limits? Is their attitude towards training, competition and self-improvement any different than that of the rest of the pack?
[BEN] In general, we take training very seriously because we know our race experience could be two to three times more time on our feet than someone finishing at the front. Back-of-the-packers have to train for that extra time on foot. You have to take things seriously if you want to finish. It’s about overcoming the distance, but you also want to finish it healthy so you can go do the next thing. This isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s about pushing yourself to be able to do harder and harder things, despite where you finish. An elite athlete might prioritize “A races” and they may not want to race as much for injury or risk of not winning. For us at the back-of-the-pack, it’s more about staying healthy to be able to keep doing what we love and challenging ourselves with hard things.
[TAYTE] You ask your guest Rebecca Roehm, “Would you rather be first in a 5-Kilometer race or be “Dead Freakin’ Last” (DFL) in a 100-miler?”, to which she quickly responds “DFL!”. What does this tell you about the back-of-the-pack running community? How would you answer this same question?
[BEN] It says a lot. The accomplishment of the 100-mile race is so much more important than finishing first in a 5K. Back-of-the-packers are more interested in overcoming the obstacles. The victory over the race distance and proving to themselves that they can do this is more important than winning a local 5K where no one is really helping each other get to the finish and you simply go home with a medal around your neck. Finishing 100 miles is more meaningful. How would I answer my same question? 100% I would DFL the 100-miler!
[TAYTE] Back-of-the-packers have the unique experience and added pressure of “chasing cutoffs” to avoid a “Did Not Finish” (DNF). Could you describe the feeling of “chasing cutoffs?” What have you learned from your DNFs?
[BEN] I have three official DNFs and my most recent was the most painful. The feeling of chasing cutoffs is a vacillation between agony and ecstasy. There is a panic of arriving at the next aid station before the cutoff, and excitement and relief when you make it just in the nick-of-time. If you are running alone, it can be hard because it’s a mental battle if you can make it on time. It’s about constantly reminding yourself that you can make it. If you have a buddy and you can encourage and rally each other, that is a huge boost. Chasing cutoffs is a constant roller-coaster of ups and downs.
[TAYTE] How do you feel about the majority of race cutoff times in our sport? Do you have any suggestions for race directors when it comes to determining fair cutoff times?
[BEN] I understand that race directors juggle many factors when they put their races together from permitting and how much time people can be on course and expectations of how long volunteers should be out there. It’s challenging to strike that balance. I would ask that race directors maximize the cutoffs at each aid station and the overall time cutoff while still being in their time frame. If there is an extra ten and fifteen minutes that can be worked in, do it for the sake of the back-of-the-packers.
Another suggestion is to have pacing charts. When the race has the pacing math done for athletes (to make it between aid station x and y, you should be running at this pace, etc.), this helps back-of-the-packers know if it’s even possible for them to finish if they sign up for this race. These charts set the expectations for all runners about whether this is really a race for them.
At the end of races, I’ve experienced large parties and also everything already being torn down at the finish line with only one person waiting for me, relieved that I had finally made it. I want to give a big thank you to race directors who make the effort to accommodate every runner out there, from first to last!