This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Trail Runner magazine. It details the author’s experience at the 2015 Big Backyard Ultra.
It’s 6:13 on a mild October morning in October 2015. The sun is about to break over the Tennessee countryside. I’ve already run 98.8 miles. And now, I find myself passing the two giant piles of once-frozen burritos that have been sitting—inexplicably—in the middle of the road all night. This is the 24th time I’ve passed them.
I may have to pass them another 24 times before this is all over. Or maybe not. I may have to run for another 100 miles. Or maybe not.
This journey to self-inflicted torture began three years earlier, when I stumbled across a race report detailing a crazy event in the Middle of Nowhere, Tennessee. Its premise was so simple yet so evil: Last man standing wins.
Big’s Backyard Ultra has no set time limit or distance; just a 4.1667-mile loop that each runner has to complete within an hour, over and over and over, until they can’t. Contestants continue running this macabre, Sisyphean loop until, ultimately, there’s only one poor soul left. He or she wins. Everyone else DNFs. Like it never even happened.
Upon learning about the event, my mind began to swirl. How far could I run if I had to run forever? Would my body or my mind give up first? What would it be like to be one of the last two people left, stuck in a stumbling, mutually self-destructive duel of wills?
Like some kind of Phillip K. Dick fever dream, this insanity was cooked up by ultrarunning’s resident madman, Gary Cantrell, a.k.a Lazarus “Laz” Lake. He’s the evil genius behind the even-more-infamous Barkley Marathons, a route-less, five-loop, supposedly 100-mile race through the thickest underbrush of Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. In three decades, only 14 people have ever finished the race. Many who have suffered through Barkley can attest that Laz is a true artist. The Leonardo da Vinci of pain. The Rembrandt of mind games. The Lady Gaga of suffering. A master of sadomasochistic craft.
Laz, 62, of Bell Buckle, Tennessee, is a savant when it comes to esoteric race formats. Aside from the Barkley Marathons, he’s cooked up horrors like the Barkley Fall Classic, an only slightly gentler but definitely shorter version of the original Barkley race, also held in Frozen Head State Park (“Barkley for Beginners”) and The Vol State 500K (a race across Tennessee in the middle of July that touches four different states).
Big’s Backyard Ultra began in 2012 as a tribute to Big, the pit bull that Laz rescued after it showed up on his property half-starved and with gunshot wounds. True to its name, the race is run in Laz’s backyard, on 4.1667 miles of rolling terrain on his rural Tennessee property.
Race participants spend the daytime portions of the event on this serpentine trail, weaving sharply in and out of trees and around rocks. I say “serpentine” because, yes, it’s winding, but also because there are snakes out there. I know because I jumped over one. At night, to avoid the snakes, runners pound 4.1667 miles of pavement out-and-back on the quiet country road that passes Laz’s house.
It’s simple enough to run. Every hour, runners have to complete the loop. Whatever time they bank before the next hour is theirs to do with what they want. At three minutes before the next hour, Laz blows his whistle three times. At two minutes, two whistles. One minute, one whistle. If you’re foolish enough to keep going, you’d better be standing at the starting line. Another lap around the backyard for you.
In 2014 the race went for 49 hours. The winning distance: 204.2 miles. Actually, “winning” isn’t really the correct term. Johan Steene, 40, of Stockholm, Sweden, and Jeremy Ebel, 30, of Lafayette, Colorado, started on Saturday morning, October 18th with a pack of 40 other runners. Saturday became Sunday. Sunday became Monday. The two dueled for so long that Steene was in danger of missing his flight back to Sweden. So, with no other option, he was forced to drop. In an ultimate sign of sportsmanship, Ebel chose to drop as well. So both men ran 204.183 miles, which is an incredible feat. What’s even more incredible is that because of the Last Man Standing rule, they both actually lost. (Laz later told me this detail with a twinkle of pride in his eyes.)
I became obsessed with the race.
Two years later—after my wife and I had quit our jobs to freelance and travel—I find myself standing in Lazarus’s backyard on a beautiful, still Saturday in October somewhere in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. In the early morning, we slowly build a small refugee camp that would be our home for the foreseeable future. Each runner’s setup consists more of less of a camping chair and a cooler, surrounded by boxes of whatever they could possibly imagine needing for the next 24-plus hours. My own battle station sports the usual gels and chews as well as four gallons of water, two liters of Coke, two liters of Mountain Dew, cheese and sour-cream chips, a fried chicken and half a cherry pie.
A good-natured crowd gathers, 47 runners mingling with crews and gawkers. There’s a lot of nervous laughter. I hear someone ask her friend to email her boss and say she may not make it into work on Monday.
At the timing table I spot Laz, who could easily double as a 19th-century prospector just stepping off his claim. He sports a trademark red knit hat, brown-and-white beard flowing, eyes aglow with mischief, puffing on a cigarette. He is surrounded by a band of merry “cohorts” who seem to be far more jovial than the people they’re checking in.
They’re all dressed in striped jumpsuits.
“Aren’t we the prisoners here?” I ask, pointing to their prison costumes. Laz and company laugh.
“Yes, you are,” Laz says, as one of his cohorts straps a tracking device around my ankle. It feels very reminiscent of a house-arrest ankle bracelet. From under the table, Big the pit bull peers out at me with his huge, brown eyes. Crowds seem to make him nervous. That’s OK, I say in my head. This dumb race makes me nervous too, buddy.
I make a few last-minute adjustments to my battle station. Other racers begin to gather at the starting line. I get up and walk the 10 steps from my chair. Looking around, I spot Charlie Engle, 54, of Charlotte, North Carolina: famous for multiple Badwater finishes and running across the Sahara, infamous for spending 16 months in prison for alleged mortgage fraud. Great, I think. In order to win, I just have to beat the convict who ran across the biggest desert in the world.
But it’s too late to back out now. Laz blows three whistles.
“Oh, man, you’re gonna love hearing that thang 20 hours from now,” he twangs with a grin. Two minutes before the start, he blows the whistle twice.
“Almost time.” He has all the glee of a seven-year-old boy about to torture a frog. One minute left, one whistle blow.
“Get in here so I can draw the corral!” he hollers, realizing he’s forgotten one key detail. Using a can of orange spray paint, he quickly draws a box around us on his crunchy, dead lawn. At the start of every hour, we have to be standing inside this corral to begin the next loop. Unless, of course, we can’t.
The race clock ticks to zero, and Laz gives his cowbell a hearty shake. We’re off.
For months, I had worried about how best to tackle Big’s. Within one loop I realize it comes down to one thing: consistency. In a typical 100-miler, you’re guaranteed to experience rough patches. Your legs will feel like lead. You’ll overheat. Your stomach will rebel. But you can always sit down, hit pause and sort yourself out. Hey, you have 30 hours to finish. But with Big’s, there’s no forgiveness. You get in a bad place, and you still have to be standing in the corral when Laz rings the cowbell at the top of the next hour.
The trail itself is deceptively harsh. While you never find yourself running hard, the constant hopping over branches, side-stepping rocks and sharp turns takes its toll surprisingly quickly. Luckily, it also provides landmarks to gauge my consistency: edge of the field by 29 minutes, the fence by 37, bottom of the hill by 42, top of the hill by 44. Mercifully, almost the entire property is also covered in a thick canopy of trees. Even though the sticky Tennessee air rears its head, we’re spared from the sun’s direct bite.
After each loop, I plop into my camping chair and rustle through my bags. It’s a chance to refill my bottles, scarf down some food and mostly just regroup for the next lap. I got here about a half hour before the race start and claimed a front-row seat for the main attraction: the race clock. It’s big and bright and just keeps tick, tick, ticking away, marching mercilessly towards the next hour and the next loop.
The first morning goes relatively well. I’m feeling good and running consistently. There’s a gang of four of us in a front pack, choosing to run at a comfortably brisk pace. We quickly become a weird, little band of friends, both in an attempt to be friendly but also to take our minds off the task at hand. Marc Laveson, 32, from Bainbridge Island, Washington, is a vet. After dropping at 18 hours last year, he declares that he’s in it to win it, mostly so he can nab the real prize: an automatic entry into the Barkley Marathons. Kat Schuller, 29, of Decatur, Georgia, and Trey Barnes, 32, of Aspen, Colorado, are virgin sacrifices like me.
We all just yammer on about other races, mutual friends, movies and whatever else pops into your head as you run with the same people loop after loop for 12 hours straight. It’s a solid distraction.
“Omygosh, I love this rock so much!”
“We’ll call it Kat’s Rock.”
“Alright, see you again in an hour, Kat’s Rock!”
But somewhere in the back of my mind, a voice reminds me: They’re the competition. A seed of Survivor-style paranoia is planted. I try to shake it for the time being.
Morning turns to afternoon. The temperature climbs into the mid-80s. People start to drop. We’re less than 50 miles in, and already more than half the field is gone. Images of WW II flash in my brain for some reason.
Engle is nowhere to be seen. But I know he’s back there somewhere.
At the start/finish/corral, Laz and his crew crack the same joke, lap after lap: “Way to go! You’re back in first place!” or “Allllright! You were in second, but now you’re tied for first!” “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.
By evening, there are 12 of us suckers left inside the corral. The race switches to an out-and-back stretch on 4.1667 miles of paved country road. Surprisingly, this proves to be a nice mental break.
While road isn’t nearly as interesting as trail, it does provide a few new novelties, like the chance to not have to stare at my feet for 50 minutes straight. The moon is so bright we don’t even need headlamps, so we glide through the Tennessee countryside like tattered, sweaty ghosts.
During our first loop, my newfound friends and I notice two lumpy piles of something sitting in the road near what looks like an abandoned house. We wonder aloud what the piles are, and I say, “They kind of look like a bunch of frozen burritos.” Everyone laughs. It’s preposterous. And I’m sure in the back of their heads, their Survivor voice whispers, Excellent. He’s starting to hallucinate. He’s a goner for sure.
On the next loop, as we near the piles I tell them, “I wanna see what those are. I really think they’re frozen burritos.”
“Ha, OK,” they laugh again. We drift towards the two piles, flick on our headlamps and HOLY SHIT THEY REALLY ARE A BUNCH OF FROZEN BURRITOS. There must be 100 or so.
It’s by far the weirdest non-hallucination I’ve ever had during a race.
A few loops later, the burrito piles are flanked by two hound dogs sleeping in the road. Back at the start/finish, someone mentions the burrito-hound situation to Laz, and he conjectures that the owners must be out of town so they left some food out for their dogs. This makes no sense, but it also seems like the only reasonable explanation. Sort of a metaphor for Big’s as a whole.
The night marches on. Trey drops.
In the lull between one of the early evening laps, Laz taunts me, “You might wanna try to get some sleep. You’re gonna wish you had it when it’s this time tomorrow night.”
I throw a shirt over my head and try to not exist for a few minutes. It doesn’t work. Every time I’m about to doze off, I hear the “TWEEET, TWEEET, TWEEEEEET” of Laz’s three whistles.
The night creeps by, both slowly and quickly. Each loop becomes a sadistic episode of déjà vu. And each time, it becomes that much harder to get out of the chair and into the corral.
At some point in the night, Marc disappears—just never shows up for the 18th loop. Only later do we find out that he had curled up in his tent to catch a quick wink and slept through Laz’s whistles.
A few laps later Kat succumbs, after not being able to eat for the last five hours. I’m bummed for them but relieved for myself. I still feel good.
By the time dawn breaks over the Tennessee hills, there are just four of us left. Also, two piles of road burritos, mostly uneaten by the hounds.
One hundred miles and 24 hours in, the Final Four line up for our first lap of the new day. The group consists of me, Charlie Engle, John Sharp (who’s put in a gritty performance, staying just ahead of the cut-offs every lap) and Babak Rastgoufard, a quiet dude in glasses with a big ole mop of hair who hung just behind our Gang of Four on most laps and who Laz and his cohorts have enjoyed calling “Babagnoush” all day. Oddly, none of us have run with each other yet because we’ve all been chugging at different paces. So, in the light of day, we size each other up for the first time.
Three whistles. Two whistles. One whistle. With a twinkle in his eye, Laz reminds us that we’re all in first place. Then he rings that damn cowbell.
How long can this go on?
Lap 25 goes off without a hitch.
On lap 26, John falters. He doesn’t make the cut-off. One down. Three still in.
One mile into lap 27, I feel a pain shoot through my left Achilles tendon. How cosmically ironic, I mumble. My Achilles heel. The sudden reappearance of my chronic injury means my race is over.
Against better judgment I decide I’ll only go back out for another loop if Charlie comes in with two minutes to spare. Pride will be the death of me.
Back at home base, Laz blows his whistle three times. No sign of Charlie. I start to get excited. He blows his whistle twice. No sign of Charlie. Thank God. And then, “There he is!” Charlie bursts out of the woods. Ugh.
I grab my bottle and trudge over to the starting corral. A minute later, the three of us set off again. This is my last loop, I promise myself.
It’s been 112 miles. As I hobble in, I tell my mom (who has been horrified for two days straight) that that is my last loop… “unless Charlie comes in with, like, 30 seconds left.” I cringe as I hear the words coming out of my mouth.
We sit there waiting. Three whistles and no Charlie. Two whistles, no Charlie. One whistle, no Charlie. Then, with 35 seconds left, Charlie comes barreling out of the woods. I close my eyes. “Dammit, Charlie,” I mutter.
Resigned to my fate I shuffle into the starting corral. Charlie crumples to the ground and throws up his hands.
“No más. I’m done.”
“Noooo!” the crowd cries. The cowbell rings. Charlie doesn’t move. It’s just me and Babak now.
As soon as we get out of earshot of the crowd, I turn to him. “Hey, man, this is gonna be my last loop.”
“What?” he says, looking confused.
“Yeah, my leg is hurt really badly. I can’t run on it anymore. You ran a hell of a race. Congrats, man.”
“Ah, man, I’m sorry…” he commiserates for a second. And then, he looks me in the eyes, “You’re not fucking with me, are you?”
“Ha, no. I promise.”
“’Cause that’d be kinda messed up,” he double checks.
“I promise, I’m not fucking with you.” I told you, this race messes with your head.
Even though I’m about to lose, it feels like a victory lap. I’m going to enjoy it. I say goodbye to all the little landmarks I’ve spent the last day with—the crumbly rock, the edge of the field, the top of the hill. Forty-seven minutes later, we burst out of the woods and into the sun. The crowd cheers.
I stride across the line one last time. 116 miles in 27:48. I immediately bend down and rip the timing tracker off my ankle. “I’m tapping out,” I announce.
“NOOOOO,” the crowd erupts in unison. “YOU CAN’T.”
“I have to.” I explain my injury. But they’re having none of it. They came to see a bloodbath.
I sit on the ground in front of Laz. He stares down at me with the tenderness of some sort of hillbilly Santa Claus.
“You sure you wanna drop? You still got plenty of time.”
He speaks with a mixture of genuine care and morbid interest in seeing this spectacle dragged out as long as possible.
“Thanks, but I’m really done.”
A few minutes later, Babak is standing alone in the starting coral. We all start chanting his name “Babak! Babak! Babak!” as he takes off on the very last loop of the race, solo.
The genius of Big’s Backyard Ultra lies in its simplicity. It’s as fascinating and as terrible a race as will ever be dreamed up. And the more time I spent around Lazarus—trust me, I had about 15 minutes every hour for 28 hours straight—the more I became convinced that he’s some kind of savant.
The world is a better place because of madmen like Lazarus Lake. And I’m a better person for living through his terrible genius firsthand.
WORDS OF SUFFERING
Throughout the race, Lazarus composed strange, little updates that he blasted out every loop. Each reads like the beautiful poetry of a sadistic Thoreau.
if we did this to dogs,
they would throw us in jail.
hour 8 just began.
25 runners are praying they can survive 5 more hours
and reach the road loops…
here is what they keep saying,
as they drop and drop and drop;
if only this was just a 100 miler,
and i could take a break.
just 5 minutes.
that is all i need.
24 runners are alive,
out on the trail
and the whistles start again in 54 minutes…
pray for the 18
we had our clean lap.
18 finished hour 11
18 started hour 12…
this is the critical hour.
the sun is setting,
and it will be dark before they get back.
nobody has more than a minute or two a lap to spare.
they cannot slow down.
dark or not.
if they finish this hour,
there are 12 hours of gravy,
before we return to the trail.
pray for the 18.
they need it.
nightmare under the hunter’s moon
tim dines and gary kaspar.
refused to continue.
may god have mercy on your soul.
14 tortured souls started hour 15.
it is one thing to run a 100,
and start once.
it is another to run a 100,
and have to start 24 times…
and you might not even be halfway through.
Andy Pearson is a founding member of the Pacific Mountain Runners. Against all better judgment, on October 21, 2017, he can be found toeing the line of Big’s Backyard Ultra.