Why you should watch Big’s Backyard Ultra, which starts tomorrow
10.40, Friday 20 Oct 2023 Link to this post
I am going to try to convince you to spend the next 4 days watching a YouTube live stream of people running round a 4.1 mile loop in Tennessee, all day and all night.
Big’s Backyard Ultra (Wikipedia) starts tomorrow, Saturday 21 October.
Ok – I’ve never run a marathon, let alone an ultramarathon: a distance greater than 26 miles. I am a frequently injured, currently injured runner, but not that kind of distance. So I’m very much a spectator here.
A “backyard ultra” is an ultramarathon format with simple rules:
- You run a 4.167 mile loop (“yard” in the backyard parlance) before an hour is up. Easy: this is the pace of a brisk walk.
- The next hour, you do the yard again.
- And again.
- And again.
- At the top of the hour there’s a bell. You have to move forward off the starting line when that bell goes.
- At the end of the hour there’s a bell too. You have to have returned to the starting line and completed the loop before that bell. Otherwise you’re timed out.
- It doesn’t matter if you’re not in first place for a loop. Just complete the 4.167 miles before the hour is up. Everyone starts the next yard at the same time.
- And again.
- And again.
- No support is allowed on the trail, only between loops.
- And again.
- For 12 hours perhaps.
- Or 24 hours. That’s exactly 100 miles. (How are you getting enough calories? When are you going to sleep?)
- If you finish the loop 15 minutes early that means 15 minutes sleep before the next loop starts. But you’d have to run faster to have the time.
- And again.
- If you drop out, even if you race let’s say 48 yards, that’s 2 full days of running, 200 miles, you are placed DNF: Did Not Finish.
- The final runner must complete one full yard on their own, after the penultimate runner is out. Otherwise they’re DNF too.
This means that if someone wins at 60 yards, somebody else has to make it to 59.
There are backyard ultra races all over the world. They act as qualifiers for Big’s. Big’s is the original, started in 2011, and also where the world championships happen.
The Individual World Championships are once every 2 years (this is the race that’s starting soon).
I was hooked on the previous one in 2021. The winner was Harvey Lewis. Lewis ran 85 yards, or to put it another way: 354 miles in 3 days, 13 hours.
The world record is 102 yards and set earlier this year in Australia. I didn’t watch that. I did catch the 2022 World Team Championships. The races are streamed on YouTube as a combination of handheld cameras and trail cams. Much of the footage is in silence or in the dark. Two runners went head-to-head from 86 yards to 101 yards - breaking the 100 loop barrier for the first time – then both retired out together.
The inventor of the format is Lazarus Lake. Big is the name of his pit bull who naps under the scoring table. Backyard ultras took off during the pandemic lockdowns because you can do it, well, in your backyard. There was a distributed international championship.
There’s a great article from a competitor at Big’s back in the 2015, in Trail Runner magazine.
“There he is! First-place runner right there!” The joke goes on for hours. It seems to get funnier to them each time they repeat it.
But the more loops I run, the more I realize it’s not a joke. It’s the core truth of this entire race. Everyone really is in first place until they drop. Whether you finish your loop in 44 minutes or 59 minutes, if you’re still running, you’re still winning. There is no strategy. My brain starts to death-spiral, as I realize that no matter how hard I work, I’ll always be in first place, like everyone else. Time is a flat circle.
It’s as fascinating and as terrible a race as will ever be dreamed up.
So the runners seem to plumb deeper truths the further in they get.
Lazarus Lake too.
During Big’s, Lake stays awake and each hour posts increasingly gnomic commentary on his Facebook page. It’s like he simultaneously punishes and loves the runners. He speaks in aphorisms about human capability.
Another quote from that article, this one about Lake’s Facebook updates:
Each reads like the beautiful poetry of a sadistic Thoreau.
if we did this to dogs,
they would throw us in jail.
it is one thing to run a 100,
and start once.
it is another to run a 100,
and have to start 24 times…
It takes someone special. Though we - us, the runners - are all people.
Because, for me, that’s the draw of watching backyard ultras.
In a way, long-distance endurance running is what humans are made for. Physiologically this ability is why we’re special. David Attenborough documented the persistence hunting of the San people in the Kalahari Desert: the Intense 8 Hour Hunt (BBC Earth, YouTube).
Beyond fitness, race strategy, and calorie math, these runners need will. It would be so easy to just stop. Or sit down for a minute longer. After a couple of days they’re seeing things.
So when I’m watching Big’s on YouTube, I’m seeing humans who possess extraordinary fitness and also extraordinary will. They’re right at the limit, probing that boundary. Every time a backyard record is broken, they’re establishing new ground for human potential.
The BBC did a retrospective on the 2020 season. It, too, is packed with weird truths from the competitors.
“It’s like being punched in the face,” chuckles Cantrell from his kitchen via Zoom. “Not hard, just a little bit. But you do it again, and again, and again.”
“He gets called a sadist and that he likes people to suffer, but he’s not like that,” says 31-year-old Karel Sabbe, the Belgian dentist who is also among the 99% of non-finishers at Barkley. “He gets the best out of people. He wants everybody to have the opportunity to face their own limits.”
I love him deeply, says another runner.
“It’s really dangerous to think,” says Steene. Dauwalter describes it as running in “robot zone”. Proctor says: “We’re crippled by the past and the future. What’s happening in the next 10 seconds is all that I can control.”
Steene couldn’t stave off hallucinations - trees and bushes took the shape of dinosaurs and giants - while Guterl saw severed heads and heard growling in the woods.
It is all relative for Proctor, who has an app on his phone called WeCroak, which tells him five times a day how long he has left to live - as a reminder not to waste his life. “The chair that you’re sitting in right now - is that comfortable? Go and run 50 loops of a 4.17-mile course, then sit down in that chair and I’ll ask you if it’s comfortable.
It’s a fantastic article and great introduction:
So here are the 50 runners for the Individual World Championships at Big’s Backyard Ultra, starting tomorrow. They’ve qualified from all over the world over the past 2 years.
Watch a trailer for the race (YouTube).
Watch Lazarus Lake preview the race (YouTube) – he talks about what the trail is like and what makes backyard ultras particularly difficult.
Phil Gore, who holds the world record at 103 yards, is racing. The two last-standing runners in the team championships in 2022, at 101 yards, are also both racing.
The first couple of days, you can drop in and out of watching. Day three, you’ll become astounded that people are still running. You’ll get to know the characters, root for them, be gobsmacked at their capability. If the runners get through a fourth day again, I guarantee you’ll be hooked, watching for 10 minutes at the top of each and every hour, waking up in the night to check your phone. Waiting to see if the scope of human possibility has been enlarged.
I never quite know where best to look for updates. This is where I’ll be looking to follow along:
- On Facebook, Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra Run Group – join this and start here.
- Also on Facebook, Lazarus Lake – follow him for hourly philoso-commentary.
- Live positions and times.
- The official YouTube channel, Conversations by the Woodpile – I’m pretty sure this is where the live stream will be.
I think what makes it accessible to watch is that I can imagine running a single yard.
4 miles in an hour? I do that on a Saturday without thinking about it, running errands in my neighbourhood.
A second yard? A third? I can do a half marathon with some training. In three hours? Sure, easy. How much further could I imagine going? I once raced 20 miles over four loops. So, slower than that, the same again maybe. Outside single digits? Probably not actually. I’ve never tested my limit but I really imagine not.
When I’m watching these runners race their 10th, or 20th, or 100th, I know that they have arrived somewhere - through physical endurance and mental will - that I could not, but simultaneously I know that it’s just one more loop, and that fact I can picture and feel and connect with in my legs.