Could you run a four-mile loop of your neighborhood starting at 7:00 am? Could you run that loop again starting at 8:00 am? Now, could you repeat that loop every hour, on the hour, with no end in sight 20, 40, maybe even 85 times?
The world’s elite Backyard Ultra runners will be competing for their national teams on October 15th during Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra (also known as Big’s Backyard Ultra, or just Big’s).
This year is the Satellite National Team Championships, where teams of 15 runners will represent 37 countries. The race alternates every even year. 2022 is the Satellite National Team Championships, and every odd year is the Individual World Championship. Each team gathers in their respective countries at the same time to race a 4.167-mile backyard loop until only one person remains. The winning country will be the team who has accumulated the most “yards” collectively (one yard is one loop of the course).
Every lap counts. Every runner counts.
Participants in the team championship this year also compete to get a spot in 2023’s Backyard Ultra Individual World Championship. The last person standing from each country is crowned the national champion and receives a golden ticket into next year’s race.
It’s not easy to get into Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra. Runners have to win a competitive local Backyard race to get a bronze ticket that lets them compete in a competitive regional race. Then, runners must win that race to get a silver ticket that gets them onto the national team and into this year’s Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra.
The Original Backyard
Lazarus Lake (a.k.a, Laz or Gary Cantrell) dreamt up this race format in his own literal backyard in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Laz has designed some of the world’s most difficult and interesting race formats including the infamous Barkley Marathons.
He designed Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra in October 2011 as a race that he could win. He claims he wasn’t the fastest runner in high school, but that he could keep up with the stars at the end of practice when everyone else started to fade. He’s proud that Big’s highlights “a lot of guys that you may have missed over the years. They’re not as fast, but they’re tough.”
The real beauty behind the Backyard Ultra format is its accessibility. “Anybody can put one on. Anybody can run one,” Laz says. “At the beginning of every lap, everyone who is in the starting corral is tied for first.” Even though everyone technically DNF’s this race, so many people can have success. “Only one person can win, but everyone is competing against their own limitations,” says Laz.
Laz thinks his biggest mistake in creating this race was putting “ultra” in the name. It really has more to offer folks with lower mileage goals. “Over half of the backyard ultra races are won in under 24 hours,” he says.
Even though Laz thinks the races should be more accessible, the Backyard phenomenon has exploded. There are over 72 countries around the world where Backyard races are held and over 400 races affiliated with the Backyard Ultra organization.
The U.S. Team
While the other teams gather in various countries around the world, the US converges in Tennessee, on “Laz’s labyrinth,” as the previous winner, Harvey Lewis calls it.
You may not recognize every name on the US team, but every runner is prolific in their own right. Laz noted that “this year’s US team is a lot more focused” than the previous team championships. The team does include last year’s World Individual winner and second place, Harvey Lewis and Chris Roberts respectively, who are returning this year to add their yards to the US total. In the individual competition, they pushed each other to run 84 and 85 “yards.” That’s over 350 miles each, as if they ran from Washington D.C. to Toronto, Canada!
“The beauty of Big’s is that anyone can win. It comes down to who has the greatest desire and best execution on the day.” Says Lewis. “[The race] levels the playing field. Even folks like Kilian Jornet and Jim can’t pull ahead. They still have to come together and start every hour with everyone else.”
The physical toll in the backyard format is immense, but Lewis notes that it’s the mental game that makes winners. Participants have to maintain focus hour after hour without knowing when it will stop.
Only one person can win, but everyone is competing against their own limitations
“You feel so connected to nature and yourself. It’s a spiritual experience to keep pushing into the next layer.” Says Lewis.
Lewis is no stranger to the backyard format and other long arduous races. He’s been racing Big’s since 2017, where he won it once and “assisted” twice (to assist is to come in second). He’s also won Badwater 135 and competed in the Marathon des Sables, a 150-mile race through the Sahara Desert in Morocco.
Harvey says Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra is his favorite race. “It’s accessible to anyone, not expensive, and there is real camaraderie among competitors that isn’t possible in traditional formats.”
The Race Course
The original race course in Tennessee consists of two different laps. In one day, there are 11 hours of 4.167 loops on sometimes technical trails. Each trail lap has about 400 feet of elevation gain and loss. When darkness falls, racers switch to an out and back on the roads for 13 hours. The race is a “test of the total runner,” according to Laz.
“It’s deep in rural Tennessee, so you feel mostly alone. You hear coyotes howling, and live with whatever you let your mind imagine” Says Lewis about the night laps.
Laz came up with the very specific 4.167-mile distance so a runner who ran for 24 hours would complete 100 miles. That distance is the only regulation for how other backyards design their courses. The 37 other counties will have different elevation gain, surface type, and course structure, from mountainous loops in Mexico to pancake-flat terrain in Belgium.
Laz Recommends Watching These Countries
- Mexico. They came in third last year with a team who was not as deep as some of the other countries, and on a course that had a 4,000-foot climb.
- Belgium. They won last year and are proud of it. They are coming back focused on the win.
- Japan. Their team is organized and consistent. They have only had one person drop from their roster due to a recent injury. According to Laz, “the stability of a roster is a key to who is going to be a good team.”
- The Dark Horse. Laz says to watch out for the small countries too because it is a contest of determination, and anything can happen in a Backyard. Anyone can win.
How To Follow Along
There will be a continuous broadcast of the race in all 37 countries. Every hour for the first 37 hours of the race, the broadcast will show introductions of each country’s team with profiles of the runners. That can be found on race day on their Youtube Channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWHNnGzy5Wy3rNtbgMzEPYQ or on the Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra Run Group on Facebook.
Laz will also provide unbiased, poetic, humorous, hourly reports on his Facebook page. Follow him there for consistent updates and pre-race news.
You can also follow Harvey Lewis’s Facebook for updates during the race with a different perspective.