A race with no end. Yes, that’s right. That’s what is the whole identity of Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra or Big’s Backyard Ultra held every year at Gary Cantrell or Lazarus Lake’s backyard. In his home at Bell Buckle, Tennessee. The rules are simple. There is 4.16667 mile loop in Laz’s backyard that all competitors run. Every runner who successfully finishes the loop in under sixty minutes stays in the race. Exactly one hour after the start of previous loop, the ensuing loop begins. The winner is the person who successfully completes the most laps, i.e. is the last one standing. Everyone else, is a DNF.
I got introduced to this race by accident in 2014 when I met Naresh Kumar in India and started reading about some of the extreme multiday races thereafter. Naresh was on his Himalayan tour before moving to New Zealand and had some of the most amazing stories to recite – from his travels, Barkley, Backyard and Laz. There was very little information available online about Big’s Backyard, but it was one of the few last man standing races in the world. What made this race special? This race actually had no end. No tie breakers. No decider closing hour. No cumulative addition of loop to choose a winner. At Backyard, each previous hour is final hour. Each following hour is a new race. And it will not end, until everyone else quits, and there is just one left. But, how far could one go? I knew the longest race was 3100 miles long. To beat that, they must go on for 744 hours without sleep. That’s one whole month with no sleep and continuous movement of 4.17 miles every hour. What was the human limit? I wondered. But, those were all fairy tales in my head. I knew I would never travel to US for running races that I was so dearly reading about, every evening.
Out of nowhere, I moved to Canada in 2016 and got hooked on to trail running. It didn’t take long to earn my first DNF, when I got injured during Bromont Ultra 100 miler. I was going down a steep downhill single trail in Bromont Ski Resort, a mountain bike charged at me, fast, from behind. I looked back, but I forgot to stop. As a result, I fell down the hill, rolled my ankle and my race was virtually over at 10th km. I was able to push 72 more kilometers on that torn ankle, on crazy Quebec trails in rain, to get finally pulled out of the race as I could not move any further. It took me ten weeks to recover out of that injury, but ankle was never the same again.
Three years later, I relived the same memories, in almost exact same sequence, during the Barkley Fall Classic 2019 when I rolled my same left ankle, very early in the race. I thought, I could repeat that at Frozen Head State Park last weekend, but that was a trail too rough to conquer on just one of the two feet. As I recover this week, faster than what I did after Bromont Ultra injury, I stare at the Big’s Backyard Ultra Start line, waiting for me, three more weeks. I have never done anything like that before. Neither, I ever wanted do.
Actually, when I first heard about this race, I never imagined I would even want to run that some day. A race with no end. And you move around loops. That was stupid and boring. And I had immediately responded to Naresh, “Ah, that’s not for me. I like scenary to change at every mile. Like Himalayas.” I closely followed the race in 2017 that lasted for 58 hours, breaking all past records. When everyone thought that was the limit, Johan Steene raised the bar further by refusing to quit for a record-setting 68 hours, running 283.34 miles in the process, in 2018.
What really grabbed all my attention were Courtney Dauwalter’s surgically precise timing splits, for each lap, every hour. I could not get my head around those so uniformly space finish times. And it was then I decided, I should take on this challenge finally to see what it really takes.
I’m not a fast runner. I run pretty slow. Not pretty, but slow. And this is where Big’s Backyard Ultra is special. Unlike other races, your speed, really, doesn’t count as much your grit. To complete a four-mile loop in under an hour, I believe it is doable for almost every runner. What becomes the parameter of separation, is the will to not QUIT! It is only the focus, sheer grit and stubbornness that can take a runner from one lap to the next. If you stop believing you can win even for one second, your body quits. So, it’s that relentless intensity that counts because after every hour, everyone stands on the same start line, tied for a lead. What separates each one though, is their belief if they are the one who are there to win.
One must read the hourly updates by Laz here to feel the tension what it’s like when all the drama on the big weekend unveils.
Sitting on the Eastern shore of Newfoundland, looking at the raging Atlantic Ocean, I just focus on the one lap that I can see.
That’s the only one in my control at the moment to finish and rest of them all, I don’t know how many, will demand equal amount of love and compassion to make it out with all my grit.
I have no idea how many hours I would last on that merciless trail, but all I am telling myself is “You are the captain of your soul, and you are heading there to win.”