Going the distance: Maximum, RWF and ultra running

August 11 2022

Going the distance: Maximum, RWF and ultra running

“I don’t know if there’s anything like it in gaming or many things like that in life.”

Liquid Guild’s Raid Leader and Guild Master, Max “Maximum” Smith, has not found anything in his life as creatively, socially, and mentally challenging as the Race to World First (RWF) in World of Warcraft. As a competition, event, and esport there really isn’t much like it.

For starters, it’s a Player vs. Environment (PvE) event. The players don’t directly fight each other as much as a gauntlet of incredibly hard bosses. These bosses are so demanding that they take a group of 20 players (or raiders) to defeat. The raiders generally join up in guilds to compete in each new raid tier that gets released.

A sort of “Running of the Guilds,” the RWF is where all the best guilds in the world compete to complete Blizzard’s newest raid tier before anyone else. It’s a 7-21 day affair these days, and this is after nearly 2 decades of optimization that’s brought it down from a 30-154 day experience.* Especially in the modern era of raiding, these 20+ person guilds focus nearly all their mental energy and all their waking hours on clearing through the bosses and environments Blizzard builds. It’s unique in the world of esports not only for how long it’s survived but for how long it lasts. League or Apex or CS may have grueling practice schedules and stretches of on-time but none of their actual events go the distance of this race.

In the world of esports, nothing gets closer to “endurance sport” than the RWF.

And like a lot of endurance sports, the RWF has a niche feel to it. That vast, inherent distance of time and MMO grind makes it harder to package and pitch the Race as a broadcast. In recent years, the RWF has grown a lot of interest by taking on a mix of GDQ-style charity stream and esports analyst desk - but it’s still a ways off from LCS or GDQ numbers. The race is also immediately less aspirational and relatable than a title like League, CS, or Smash. But that’s all part of the allure.

(Eiya sees how many people know WoW and the RWF. It’s more CoD and Fortnite than anything.)

“It’s such a unique thing. It sounds to an outsider like it would be not fun,” Max remarks. “But 20-man WoW raiding is absolutely unmatched if you get the right people and it’s actually challenging. It’s awesome and everyone buys in because there’s really nothing like that anywhere that any of us do. It’s sick.”

As someone who makes a living off of hopping between nearly every esports league Team Liquid is in, I see where Max is coming from. Mainly because I really can’t compare it to many esports either. In fact, the only time I’d ever truly found anything to resemble it was when I’d found ultra running.

These white boxes present some optional information - added context to the bits with asterisks* next to them, at the cost of some of the narrative flow.

Ultra efforts

When I’m talking with my cousin, Patrick Heine-Holmberg, he is preparing for a 200-mile run in Switzerland. He’s been an ultra runner since 2014, talented enough to win regional runs and to be able to compete at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc - a 100-mile course that is the main race in the sport. But more like me than Max, he works on the content side of this weird little hobbyist gold rush.

When I first learned about his incredibly long runs, I was mostly surprised that it was:
A) Possible.
B) Something that enough people would want to do for it to have a whole scene.

But like the RWF, there’s more than a whole scene. There are broadcasts and interviews and news coverage all centered around big races and big names. The two endurance competitions share a surprising trajectory too - both becoming better-broadcasted over the last few years (though ultra running is a small fish compared to marathons much in the way RWF is to GDQ). And both are becoming ever more competitively optimized. Where it was once tough to complete a 100-mile course in under 24 hours, now it can be done in under 12.

The economics are much the same too, with only a handful of players really able to pull a full-time gig from either race. Many of the ultra runners and RWF raiders have full-time jobs, or coach or do content to fuel their peculiar passion.

And as you go deeper still and reach closer to the core of each of these separate worlds, the motivations merge too. The runner and raider are both obsessed with the challenge in the environment, whether that environment is a 100-mile stretch across mountains and rivers or a 2 week-long battle against the hardest, most overtuned RPG bosses in gaming.

“That motivation, unfortunately for me, usually comes in failure before success. There’s something about things not working perfectly - not going right, being hard, getting my ass kicked - that I like. I guess.”

This is from Jim Walmsley, one of the current best ultra runners in the world. A record-breaking runner, he’s touted as having changed the sport. (Specifically, Pat tells me, Walmsley shoots out of the gate at a faster pace and has a unique, bouncy form that’s more common to lower distance races - which helps maintain that momentum.)

“It’s a very innate thing with me where if I’m doing less it’s much harder for me to give my full effort. I need to be intellectually challenged a lot to give my full effort. [...] It’s like kiss/curse. Me being like this at a time when I am interested allows me to perform at levels I would not be able to perform at [normally].”

These are Max’s words. Max himself is a player who, even without that full sense of challenge and effort, is one of the best raid leaders in the world. When he reaches that upper bound, Max has also changed the face of his esport. Max and his guild were the first to properly implement the “21st man” - bringing the raid leader out of the game itself but keeping him present as the primary shot-caller and leader.

At the peak of each of these long-distance races, at the summit where the very best sit, you can feel a real merger in the spirit of the two things. The raw challenge, the pure exhaustive effort is a shared call to the finish of line of each race. And as the call is similar, so is the process of improvement, of increasing speed, as you cover either of these great, sprawling distances.

Cut the Mental Stack

A big factor in both is how you cut the mental stack - or mental bandwidth. However you call it, the mental stack is just how much is on the mind - how much bandwidth is used up.

When I ask how much of the Guild’s prep goes to cutting down the mental stack for the raiders, Max says, “A ton of it.”

“Over time it’s been more and more [our focus]. We used to have just me [raid leading] and then Bubba [current Head Coach] was an analyst. Basically doing a lot of the guild management stuff. Now Bubba is the head of 6 analysts.”

“What a lot of those [analysts] do is the work for people outside of the raid. We are trying to prepare as much as we can and have as much outside-the-raid help where as close to as possible, the only thing a player should have to think about in the raid is doing the most damage and staying alive.”

More than just the analysts, Max and Bubba too are part of the core that helps cut down the mental load for the raiders. Bubba handles a lot of the organizational side of the guild - meetings, schedules, and the like. While Max raid leads, essentially calling the shots during the raid - directing all 20 players against each boss and its various high-damage mechanics and tricky phases.

“What the raid leader is doing - if you trust and respect what the person is saying - you are allowing yourself to not think about a mechanic and allow that person’s calls to do it for you as a crutch. So you can spend more of your mental bandwidth on beating the shit out of the boss or not dying to a really hard mechanic.”*

Running is a much more solitary thing in general. It’s mostly you and the track. (And there’s some serious comfort in that.) But as runs go longer and become ultra, the support staff becomes nearly as important as it is in th RWF. In an ultramarthon, the body becomes almost like the lean machines in F1 and IndyCar, needing pit stops, pacers, refueling regimens, and a team that takes all that load of off the actual runner. Ultramarathons will even have frequent aid stations, so runners can work with their crew.

Another top ultra runner, Courtney Dauwalter, attributes a lot of success to her own pit crew. According to a 2019 mini-documentary from Dream Lens Media, Dauwalter has a crew of 4, her dad and husband being a part of that. In the mini-doc, you can see multiple pockets of time where Dauwalter recovers at an aid station with her crew replenishing water and food, giving advice and support, and even prepping her for what the course does next. In ultra running, Dauwalter’s ironclad mentality is one of her biggest advantages - strong enough that she’s kept up pace even while hallucinating eels and giraffes in the Colorado mountains. You have to think that her crew is key to that. The encouragement alone is meaningful but all that they take off of her mental stack can’t go underestimated.

(Dauwalter stops at an aid station at night and quickly eats, brushes her teeth, and wipes away the sweat as her crew tells her the elevation for upcoming stint.)

Dauwalter’s extensive crew is, like Liquid Guild’s analyst squad, a privilege and advantage that those at the very top have. But, much like most strong guilds have some outside support, so too do most strong runners.

Pat’s partner - an ultra runner herself - often crews for him. In a 5 kilometer race, or even in a marathon, all of that isn’t necessary but it is vital as the distance stretches beyond what even feels possible. “A large majority [of runners] have a crew with them like that. Especially if you run into issues, it can be a huge difference. I did a race in Colorado - which was my first time at significant altitude - and I didn’t have a crew and I dropped out at 42 miles. I was having stomach issues and I was 20-something hours in and I didn’t want to do 20-something more hours feeling that terrible.”

“Where, if I had a crew they can certainly take some of that decision-making off of your hands and you literally just have to put one foot in front of the other.”

Pat’s quote forms an echo of Max’s: “The only thing a player should have to think about in the raid is doing the most damage and staying alive.”

These 2 niche endeavers both have this similar obsession of going a great distance at a great speed and in turn, they produce a similar kind of depth. When your primary goal becomes chopping off seconds, minutes, hours from these long stretches, you do a lot of little optimizations and mental fine-tunings that - over thousands of steps and thousands of pulls** - add up to everything.

**(A “pull” is what WoW raiders call a single attempt at a boss. Particularly tough bosses can take upwards 200 pulls. Some bosses have pushed beyond 600. However, the pull count doesn’t say everything as some bosses have longer or tougher pulls on average.)

Less is More

The points of optimization in the RWF and ultra running have a spiritual similarity but physically, they do diverge.

Between the RWF and the ultramarathon, the little optimizations both point to a shared spirit of “less is more.” But physically, the optimizations diverge and go different directions.

That’s the because the weight in each race goes to pretty different places. For RWF, the weight is all on the mind: each boss is a hyper-complex puzzle where the raiders will face entirely different challenges and sometimes have to retool the characters they play, the items they have, the people in the 20-man raiding party, and the entire strategy they have going in. They have to attempt a hard boss over 200 times and somehow avoid a mission-critical sense of frustration.

For ultra running, a lot is still on the mind but in the end the body does more of the work and the body carries the literal weight of the supplies you’ll need over some 50, 100, 200 miles. The kye optimizations come in cutting the weight you literally carry and the finding the perfect balance between the sustenance you give to your body and the time you give to the course.

“That’s where it all adds up to endurance. You wanna do just enough to keep going.” Pat explains. “You want to try and eat and drink while you’re still walking and running forwards. [...] No matter how much you eat or drink, you’re gonna run a pretty heavy [calorie] deficit. So I try to eat every 40 minutes - that’s how I start off planning. It’s 100-200 calories every 40 minutes because I think your body can only process 300-something calories and hour or you’re pulling too much blood from your muscles. So there’s a balance there.”

That body balance is key to ultra running. It’s something that, if done poorly, will cause someone to drop out of race entirely. (Or, in fringe cases, worse). For as serious as this balance is, it’s also what makes ultra running look kind of goofy. Many runners are saddled with a little pack that seem a cross between a crop-top and a cargo vest where they have water bottles and tubes of liquid nutrients. This is where the physical equipment becomes a big part of the optimization - maybe even moreso than in the RWF - despite how important a top of the line (Alienware) PC is to any esport.

(Completely unrelated to this whole running comparison, but did I mention that sponsors and partnerships are important sources of income in ultra running and other niche sports?)

“A lot of times you try and have your pack be as light as possible because that weight is weight you have to carry. If it’s too much it can physically alter your running form, which could slow you down. But there might be situations where you need certain gear.”

In Pat’s case, his 200 mile run through the Swiss mountains will take him through different weather patterns that require different clothes. This is all weight he’s working on cutting down. “I actually went through and weighed everything. Last time I did a 200 mile race my pack weighed 10 pounds. Now it’s just under 7 pounds. I’ve gotten some new gear that’s lighter.”

It’s not all weight either. Some optimizations are so intensely specified that you can feel the collective troubleshooting of a dedicated community behind them. “I have rain jackets that fit over the top of a pack so that I don’t have to take off a pack to put on a jacket.” Pat tells me. “There’s a lot of stuff that you can think about to minimize the time that you’re doing anything besides going forwards.”

For Liquid, Echo, and the raiding world, less is more too. Only, in ultra running it’s about less time stopping, less time eating, or sleeping. In the RWF it’s more about less time raiding, more time resting.

“As far as boundaries, in gaming we’ve had a kind of different revelation. As time has gone on and one we’ve actually raided less in the days these races have gone on.” Max almost sounds surprised himself - but the reasoning comes together easily.

“That’s mainly because we need normally 8 or 9 hours of sleep but you’re so mentally exhausted from doing this that you need much, much, much, much more sleep than that.”

Contrast that to how Pat approaches sleep during an ultramarathon: “If you don’t sleep you’re gonna get into trouble. But it’s like: How little can I sleep? It’s like, can you sleep for 30 minutes, eat something, keep going? Even if it’s 2:30 in the morning. It’s that constant push forward.”

That works for the runners since their task is ultimately physical and rote - literal muscles that you can train. But In the RWF, every boss will be different than the last - some with entirely new mechanics. Since the challenges are mental - and spread actively across 20 people - raiders need well-paced rest much as the ultra runner needs well-paced calories.

“The amount of time you can get 20 people all playing at the highest level a day and playing in their prime… You have maybe 9-11 hours that people are actually going to be playing well and some of the later bosses require so much precision that you will not kill them unless you are well-rested.”

Rest doesn’t just mean sleep, either. It’s breaking from the task in general - and managing those breaks was one of the ways the guild improved drastically in recent years.

“We tried hour-long dinner breaks, 30-minute dinner breaks. We’ve learned that basically every food break you need to take is like 40-45 minutes. We’ve noticed that days where we feel very rushed, you don’t really get a chance to disconnect, walk away from your computer, and feel like you’ve taken an actual break. Even though you’re saving 20 minutes off of that break, you’re not actually gaining that back. It’s just an exhausted pull, which doesn’t really get you anywhere on a harder boss.”

For the more WoW knowledgeable skeptics, this isn’t just a facet of Liquid Guild - which has its own fairly unique culture. This is something that Echo does too, taking extra hours of sleep or rest when pulls become low-quality and tired.

Max and the Guild cite the Uldir raid as the moment where they’d learned what Echo already knew. It was the first race where the Max and the Guild made a serious attempt for World First, devoting all their non-rest time to the game. They narrowly lost, but Max was surprised it even came close.

“Dude, looking back on it, we did almost win but we shouldn’t have even had a chance. We were going up against a guild that had been doing this for 10 years and was better than us and we had no idea what we were doing. [...] I’ll tell you what one player did: We were trying to kill the [final] boss on Tuesday and the player had been up for days because as soon as our raid was over, he would stay up and talk in [the rival guild’s] stream chat.”

This learning curve is something that many of the officers and leadership in Liquid Guild talk about a lot. The more that a guild pushes their boundaries in the RWF, the steeper the learning curve becomes.

“There’s so much knowledge required to do this. Even if you were to create a guild right now - like Madden ratings - full 99’s. The best players that could possible exist. In their first race they would get absolutely demolished. And it’s because there’s so much built-in experience and a lot of that is the rest thing. Specifically in Uldir and Battle of Dazar’alor [the next raid tier] our sleep and eating schedule [was bad].”

This knowledge gap is true in ultra running too - though it’s more based on individual courses. Even the best runners will often fall short on a course the first time they run it simply because they don’t know it well yet. Jim Walmsley famously got swept up in a river and later ran off of the track at Western States - one of 2 biggest courses in the sport. It was one of his first attempts at the course and it showed.

Though, coordination is the bigger part of the challenge for a guild looking to hit first - getting 20+ people eating, sleeping, at their best all at the same time. “A lot of them are kids, you know?” Max says of the raiders, “They’re like 19, 20, 21. It’s kinda hard to be like, ‘Alright for the next 2 weeks you just play WoW, completely shut off from everything else, and go to bed.’”

One way that Liquid and Echo mitigate this is through events. Functionally, they host a bootcamp where they bring all their raiders out to one place to push for World First. “A good event really solves a lot of those [coordination] issues for you,” Max explains. “Being at a physical location with all of your people, with good catering that allows you to have everyone fed at the same time, that makes sure they’re actually eating good food, and making sure they all go to bed on time. That’s very real.”

More than coordination, the events turn the rest itself into more productive time. “We found out how important [it was] being able to sit around while we’re eating and talk about strats,” Xyronic, a WoW commentator and former raider in the guild said on the Titanforge podcast. “Some of our best strategies in Eternal Palace ended up coming from that.”

The event also carries a general morale boost - many of these guild members become close friends through raiding and the physical event is the first time they meet each other in person. Even with Liquid Guild having done a few events by now, there’s still a major social value there.

However, not all events are, “good events.” Not all raid tiers or races are good either. Given how long distance these races are, there is a great deal of time for things to turn south.

When it all goes downhill

In ultra running they call it a bonk. It’s a pretty goofy term perhaps because of how serious it can be or perhaps because niche things just tend to get that way. The bonk is when a runner disqualifies because something went wrong or because they were nearing a serious health risk. Every runner has some fear of the bonk - which is reasonable. Pat tells me himself that this sport just isn’t healthy - that he regularly gets fevers after finishing one of his ultra runs because his immune system is worn down from the effort.

But a bonk has a pretty wide range: anywhere from “I disqualify or I die” to “it’s been 20 hours in the Rockies and my stomach has been turning over the whole time” to “I missed a turn and ran off track for so long that I might as well call it.” That range is wide enough, the day of running is unpredictable enough, and the entire sport is volatile enough that bonks are fairly common.

“There’s always a handful of people in the favorites list who don’t finish,” Pat says. “Whether that’s like, physical injury or just not having a good day strategically and making kinda silly errors. In every race there’s people like that.”

If it’s possible to bonk in the RWF, you could argue that Liquid Guild did it in their last raid tier - Sepulcher of the Ancient Ones.

In Sepulcher, Liquid got off to a hot start, plowing through the first handful of raid bosses. They took a pretty nice lead at Halondrus - the dread crab mid-boss of the raid. Halondrus was one of the toughest enemies seen in recent raids, pushing Liquid past the 300 pull count. Clearing it allowed Liquid to keep a lead all the way up to the last 3 bosses. But even by then, it had already been a longer raid tier than most. And Liquid had started their event a week earlier than other guilds.

The raiders were gassed and losing momentum. Stalling out and falling behind on the final stretch, Liquid’s morale hit what may have been an all-time low. Before they had finished the endboss, Liquid Guild bowed out of the event, returned home, took a break, and beat the boss to later to finish in fifth. Competitive guilds will rarely completely cede a race, but for Liquid, ceding the push for First was basically the same.

“More than anything, when we decided to stop we knew we lost.” Max is frank about it, though there’s a tinge even now of the emotions he felt then. “When we’ve been going back and forth with Echo for multiple years, it’s us or them. We beat them, we win. They beat us, we lose. There’s no fourth, fifth, sixth. No one cares about getting anything else. [...] We want to win that is it.”

For the Guild, some of the trouble came from the event itself. Due to the timing of the race relative to the Guild joining Team Liquid, there wasn’t a lot of time for the organizations to gel and event planning faced some unique challenges that made it harder than normal to nail the set up. The conditions weren’t ideal, but it’s something Liquid as an organization - putting on its first RWF event - plans to learn from.

Even without any event issues, Sepulcher was brutal. It was an insanely overtuned raid that pushed pretty much every Guild to their limit. “Even if you were to remove all of that [trouble with the event], you’re talking about people in their 20’s, living out of a hotel room for 30 days, some of them for the first time ever being away from home. Not to mention that you’re playing all-day everyday.”

“A lot of them were just done with it and this was before we started losing!”

Many people outside of esports - and even some within - still see these entire-day grinds as easy because it’s a video game. But Max flatly, emphatically pushes against that. “A lot of people can’t relate to it. I promise a lot of people reading this: you would absolutely feel differently than you think you would if you were playing a game 16 hours a day in these conditions for 30 days. It’s insane.”

Liquid reached a point that goes beyond a bonk and encroaches into the space where guilds collapse. In a heart-to-heart with Liquid staff, Max calls the raid off due to mental health issues and fearing any further push would permanently damage the guild.

“That [permanent damage] was my primary fear,” He tells me. “There was a very real possibility that people were so mentally and physically exhausted that we could have stayed for an extra 2 days and been so demotivated that it actually takes even longer than it would because you’re playing under those conditions. [...] These people were fucking miserable.”

Max describes to me how the pivotal moment of the race may have been when the raiders got their flights extended. Rather than a morale boost, the idea of being there any longer was misery. He also describes how the air, the joy, and the conversation all came flooding back into the venue as soon as they called the event off.

“As soon as we made the call to stop and finish it up later, people were smiling for the first time in days.”

For Max and this guild, that sense of fun has always been core to the identity. Where Echo is the very self-serious guild, Liquid have long lived and died by a lighthearted approach grounded in good humor. Both Max and Tagzz have told me about how the Guild simply performs better when people are joking and having fun. It’s an approach that Pat and other ultra runners take as well, using humor to help shorten that distance.

But for Liquid Guild, I also think there’s a historical element to the humor and to why they called off their run too. One of the most successful pieces of RWF media is a documentary that - by pure coincidence - was filmed right near the collapse of one of NA’s most legendary guilds: Blood Legion. In this documentary, you can really feel what the collapse of a guild is - what that permanent damage actually is. Rather than just the abstract idea of parting ways or distant arguments, you can see close friends snap under the tension and rise to truly emotional bickering.

It’s awkward, it’s ugly, and it’s the circumstances that this guild was born out of. A great deal of NA guilds were dying on brutally hard bosses and massive morale issues. The Guild picked up a those pieces and aimed to build something that would last and be fun. There was no sense in jeopardizing all that they’d build - like other guilds had before - for a pole position that did not really matter. Like Walmsley, they’d ran too far off course and they knew it was time to call it.

Going the distance

When I sit down with Max he’s been on a nonstop WoW grind. He and his entire guild are feeling charged by what was an exceptionally bitter defeat.

“Failing in general is an extremely strong motivator. We’ve won before and we’ve lost before and I think as much as you as a leader try to fight complacency, you will not prepare for a match after having a ton of wins as you will coming off of a loss. It’s just different.”

“We’re definitely seeing that now,” Max adds, “We’re more motivated than ever before because we lost. Especially the way that we lost. [...] There’s a clear difference to me within our guild.”

In that endurance sport mirror-world of ultra running, there is yet another reflection happening. Another shared NA vs. EU battle which is almost perfectly parallel. Almost.

Like Liquid, Walmsley is America’s best ultra runner but he can’t seem to conquer Europe either. In fact, no NA runner in the men’s circuit can. The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, set in France, has never been won by an American man. Dauwalter has taken it for the women - because NA is quite competitive in ultra running. Walmsley has even beaten European rivals on his home turf, but just not on Mont-Blanc.

After another defeat, Walmsley too is more motivated than ever. Motivated enough that he has uprooted his life and moved to Europe specifically to train on their trails, get used to their climate, and to have the best shot possible at cracking open ultra running’s biggest event. Come this month, August 22nd, we’ll see if the move pays off.

It feels like a reflection of Liquid’s own eagerness for the next raid tier. But that reflection is slightly off, mostly because Liquid and Echo genuinely don’t care for each other. “We’ve never been more motivated to win both out of [the fact that] losing sucks and kind of a dislike for our competitor.” Max lays it out flatly and frankly.

“It’s gone through ups and downs. Right now is a major down,” he says of the relationship. “I don’t think the guilds really like each other at all. [...] I don’t know we just don’t like them. It’s like a culture difference, the way they carry themselves, everything. I’m sure if you were to ask them they would say the same thing.”

No such rivalry seems to exist for Walmsley. After all, in the running world your rival is usually either the course or yourself. Both sports have these pit crews, broadcasts, and little economies, but there is something fundamentally more social about the guilds and their race than there is about running.

It’s not to say there’s nothing there, between the runners. You can feel a tension as the professional runners begin to catch each other and encounter one another at aid stations. You can even find stories to draw some parallels. For example, Pat, tells me how in older eras runners would shut off their head lamps at night when the opposition started to catch up - cutting off that pleasant feeling of catching up to someone. Seeing Liquid and Echo shut off their comms and go into private strategy meetings lines up pretty well to a head lamp in the distance going dark in the night.

(In the Dauwalter mini-doc, you can see the interplay of head lamps at night and the mix of competition and camaraderie as other runners begin to close the gap she’s made.)

But in the end, running will always be one of the most personal and individual sports you can choose and the RWF has to be one of the more social and interpersonal ones. For as big as that difference is, I still can’t help but see the similarity at the core as more important. I still can’t help but feel similar things when looking at these two competitions.

Like there’s a strange kindred spirt inside these two crannies, similarly carved over the years through an intense passion over going the distance. There is a shared love inside there, for the challenge and the struggle and the grind that feels integral to each of these things. More important than whether or not the tax of it is more physical or mental or the battle is against the track or opponent.

Writer // Austin "Plyff" Ryan
Graphics // Tiffany "Luzufu/Egg" Peng

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