October 19, 2020
The idea behind Big's Backyard Ultra could not be more simple: every hour, a runner must run a "yard," which is a 3.5 mile lap through the Tennessee woods. (There's a documentary if you are so inclined.) Most runners (even me) can easily run 3.5 miles in under an hour - but that isn't what the race is about. Instead, the race is about showing up every hour to run.
Every hour, you need to be ready to run. The clock never stops. When you finish your yard, you have whatever time you have back in camp to regroup. Early in the race, a runner might have 10-15 minutes; toward the end of the race, many finish their yard in just enough time to head back out. It is relentless.
But that isn't the most devious part: the race only ends when there is only one runner left who can complete the next yard. It could be over in two days; it could be done in a week. Fourteen U.S. runners started. As I type this, we're 53 hours in. Two runners remain -- one male, one female* -- and both predicted they'd go at least 72 yards, which would mean they'll see their third sunset without sleep.
(this photo is from Keith Dunn's twitter feed and marked the start of hour 30.)
This year, a new wrinkle was added because of the pandemic. Countries could field their own teams of 15 in their own yards, as long they measured 3.5 miles. Every lap starts on the hour across the globe. Right now, out of 21 teams, only Mexico, Sweden, Belgium, and the U.S. have runners left. Whichever country completes the most yards, wins. This has led (and continues to lead) to some interesting math, which I'll leave to someone else to figure out. With this wrinkle, however, it's in any given team's best interest to keep as many runners racing as they can. Individually, tho, it's in your best interest for your competition to RTC.**
Yes, this Big's Backyard is devised by Lazarus Lake, the same crusty dude who devised the Barkley Marathons. Yes, Lake stirred up controversy earlier this year by stating that running and politics should never mix but he seems to be OK with runners making their own statements now. And, yes, Lake's blog posts about the event capture the essence of what it means to be human. Example, when a runner dropped, Laz wrote "his strong ran out," which sums it up better than pages of prose.
This year has been a kind of Big's Backyard Ultra for all of us. Getting the yards in was easy back in the spring. It got harder to have enough time in camp as we've moved into fall -- and winter looks like it'll be full of laps where we get back to camp only to leave again. The next few months will not be about avoiding injury but managing the ones we have. Unlike Big's, we can't really RTC. But like any runner who can go this kind of distance, we can celebrate the moments where the yards feel easy and know that the hard yards will end. All you can do is focus on the one you are running right now.
* when you get into this kind of mileage, men and women are equals. It's not about strength or size but about sheer will.
** Refuse to Compete -- the term of art for being to broken/exhausted to go on, although some runners also RTC when they can't get back to the start/finish in enough time. To quote the organizer: they are left our in the woods to replenish the forest.