A Duel to the Near Death
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I lay on the soggy, wet ground, my body contorted into a pile of flesh and human suffering. My feet have long since pickled inside their shoes to something beyond recognition as actual appendages. Every second is a struggle just to maintain consciousness. The Tennessee dawn quietly slides in above my head, heralding the beginning of Day Three as I close my eyes and despair to no one in particular, When is this race going to be over? I need this race to be over. The problem is, I’m not even in the race anymore.
I had foolishly returned to the Big’s Backyard Ultra for a second year in a row. The race is the demonic brainchild of ultrarunning’s resident mad scientist Lazarus “Laz” Lake, known most infamously for the Barkley Marathons. But since learning about this race, I’ve become convinced it’s actually our sport’s premier test of athleticism.
The idea is fiendishly simple: last man standing. No set time, no set distance. Runners must complete a 4.1667-mile loop every hour, however fast or slow they wish, as long as by the time the next hour begins they are standing back in the starting corral. Three whistle blows are a three-minute warning. Two whistles, two minutes. One whistle, one. A cowbell means another lap of suffering begins. This carries on until everybody save for one hardy soul is left.
In 2016, I got a first-hand feel for Big’s bite. I made it 28 hours and 116.6667 miles before dropping because my Achilles was pretty much falling off. It was good enough to make me second-to-last-man standing. Plus, it made for a good Trail Runner article (see “A Race with No End,” Issue 119, April 2017), so obviously I had to go back.
It’s race morning, 6:20ish as we all gather in Laz’s yard, outside Bell Buckle, Tennessee. A glowing October dawn ebbs overhead. Old friends exchange hugs. Backs are slapped. Nervous “what-the-hell-were-we-thinkings” echo from seemingly everywhere.
I feel like I’m in the cockpit of a shitty cosplay X-Wing or something—but I could care less.
We runners have set up our shanty town of chairs, duffels and coolers around the start/finish line, our home for the next one, two, three days? Some enterprising runners have brought tents. Others have cots. My friend Guillaume Calmettes, 33, now of Los Angeles (formerly France), has built his own makeshift table from Jägermeister and Smirnoff boxes we procured from a liquor store the night before.
Personally, I’m proud of an upgrade I made to last year’s equipment: a camping chair with an adjustable sun shield that protrudes overhead. Sitting in it for the first time, I become acutely aware of how dorky it is—I feel like I’m in the cockpit of a shitty cosplay X-Wing or something—but I could care less. This chair is what’s going to help me win. Or at least that’s the lie I whisper to myself.
The field has swelled in stature significantly from the previous year. Among its ranks are last year’s winner Babak Rastgoufard, 44, of Missoula, Montana, Swede and current CR-holder Johan Steene, 43, of Stockholm, who went 204.1667 miles in 2014 before having to famously drop to catch a flight back home, 2014 Badwater winner and 24-hour extraordinaire Harvey Lewis, 41, of Cincinnati, Ohio, plus a handful of others with serious 100-mile-or-more wins under their belt buckles, including Guillaume and myself.
In the warming glow, our band of misfit runners congregates inside the hastily drawn corral. It’s one of those laugh-so-you-don’t-cry situations, so everyone’s in a fairly jovial mood. Laz, the emcee for this spectacle of suffering, blows his whistle three times. “Oh, you’re gonna learn to love that,” he says with a sparkle in his eye. Soon, two more whistles. Then one whistle. The small crowd of spectators begins to buzz. Some runners grow quiet. Others shout little yips of excitement. The cowbell rings. Time to run until we can’t run anymore.
Sixty bodies shove out into the unknown.
The trail snakes across Laz’s property, sometimes double-backing on itself. It’s simultaneously easier and harder than you expect it to be. Easy because, hey, this is the guy who invented Barkley, and the elevation gain is a mere 750 feet per loop. Hard because this is still Appalachia. The trail is gnarled and strewn with broken rocks and weird turns. It demands your constant attention and never lets you settle into an easy rhythm.
About 43 minutes after we started, I find myself back at the start/finish. Phew. I plop down into my X-Wing chair, grab a fistful of grapes and refill my bottles. Before I feel like I’ve finally settled down, three whistles blow.
What makes the Big’s Backyard Ultra so difficult is not the course or even the distance. It’s the cadence. It’s unrelenting. You feel totally helpless. It’s like a treadmill cranked to the fastest speed. You’re just trying to hold on for dear life, and the minute you falter, you get thrown across the room.
We gather. Whistle, whistle. Whistle. Cowbell.
The morning passes more or less uneventfully. But the attrition has already begun. Back in camp, runners are laid out, already calling it a day. Many happily guzzle drinks, glad they’re not in the ranks of the idiots still running.
Morning turns to afternoon. The afternoon grows warm but never hot. I vary my speed on loops, trying to find the perfect ratio of time-on-feet to time-on-butt per loop. It eludes me. During lap 7 or 8, I start chatting with a young kid with a pretty impressive résumé.
“The thing is, inclement weather is kind of my thing,” he humbly offers. “I’m just so good at it. That’s why I was hoping we’d have some hail or sleet or something here.”
In my mind I think, Let’s talk in another 12 hours and see how you feel then, man. But instead I mutter something like, “Yeah, a shame there’s no bad weather.”
Afternoon turns into evening. We’re still running—some of us, at least. By the 12-lap/50-mile mark, we’ve been whittled down by half: just 28 souls left. One runner who’s already gone: my meteorologically disappointed friend.
At night, the race morphs into a different beast. For 12 hours, the winding trail loop gets replaced with the mind-numbingly dull country road in front of Laz’s house—out and back for 4.1667 miles, every hour, on the hour. I begin running laps out front with Guillaume and Johan, each clocking in at around 40 minutes. The night is dark and mostly starless, but, after a couple of laps, we have our route memorized and opt to leave our headlamps behind. There’s something nice about not being able to see where we’re going. We’re hurtling forward blindly. I assume this must be a metaphor for something.
We crank throughout the night. It feels like a thankless task. I’m just not sure who’s supposed to be thanking us exactly. In a field along the road, a haunted hayride has been running late into the night (it’s just a few days until Halloween, after all). Big flood lights illuminate the edge of a dense forest. Shrieks of terror and mirth pierce the autumnal night air, and for a few moments I fantasize about taking a hard left and cutting across the field to them. Just to break up the monotony. Or just to have real human interaction. I’m not sure.
Sometime around 2 a.m., as I’m sitting in my chair between laps munching cheddar-and-sour-cream Ruffles, a runner comes into camp and heads straight to Lazarus. “Laz, did you put that clown out there?”
“Huh? What?” Laz plays dumb.
“There was some super-creepy clown just standing out there in the middle of the intersection. It freaked the hell out of us. Did you have someone go out there?”
Laz just laughs and denies the conspiracy somewhat convincingly.
The first night drags on. In the quiet moments—and there are a lot of them—you wonder how long this thing can really go on. A few people drop here and there, but not as many as you’d think. The road is easier, faster running and the temperatures are pleasantly cool. Between laps, we do our best to grab a few elusive moments of sleep by sinking into our chairs with caps over eyes. But falling asleep immediately after running 8-minute miles is just as difficult and futile as it sounds.
By the time reds and oranges and purples start to streak across the sky, there are only 14 of us left. Sunrise is coming. And with it, a switch back to the trail. For most of us, we’ve just been trying to hold on till then.
We cross the 24-lap/100-mile threshold. This macabre pageant is entering its second day. Getting back onto the trail feels like a photocopy of familiarity. You remember every little detail, but the image is blurred through a fog of sleep deprivation and pain.
Here’s the thing: everyone is in the lead at the Big’s Backyard Ultra until the moment they drop. Every runner has to face that moment of decision: Are you going to quit or not? When are you going to admit defeat?
Back on the trail, my Achilles begins to act up. This time, I vow to be smarter; I don’t want to be sidelined for three months like last year. Plus, I’ve spent the last 12 hours running with Guillaume and Johan. They are machines. Whatever is below a machine, that’s what I feel like. A sub-machine, I shrug to myself.
I complete my 25th lap, 104.1667 miles and then walk over to Laz to say thanks.
“Aww, you can’t quit now. You’re in the lead,” he goads me.
And, yeah, it’s true. Here’s the thing: everyone is in the lead at the Big’s Backyard Ultra until the moment they drop. Every runner has to face that moment of decision: Are you going to quit or not? When are you going to admit defeat? For me, the moment had come.
I politely smile at Laz and say, “Thanks but I’m done.” I walk to my dorky X-Wing chair for one last time and plunk down. To his credit, Laz keeps trying. Even as he’s blowing the final whistle, he hollers in my direction, “C’mon, you still got plenty of time!” A minute later, he rings the cowbell. I’m still in my chair. He walks over to me and hands me a cheap metal dog tag in the shape of a bone that reads, “I gave my all at the Big’s Backyard Ultra.”
Well, I guess I’ll just hang out and wait for someone to win now, I think to myself. How long can that take? My own race is over, but I still have a horse in this race: Guillaume. Time to crew. I join Katie Grossman who has flown out “just to laugh at us and also crew” as member of Team Guillaume.
Day Two wears on. The once-lively encampment around the start/finish now has the feeling of a ghost town. As runners drop, they pack up and depart, leaving only a handful of people who are either curious to see what happens or stuck there because their runners are still, well, running. Around noon, Babak bows out. Two laps later, Chris Robbins drops. We’re 31 hours in, and it’s down to just three: Johan, Guillaume and Harvey. No one is surprised.
I’m happy for Guillaume, but the thrill of the race is quickly being replaced with misery. I’m sore, exhausted, and haven’t even bothered to change out of my stinky race clothes yet. Guillaume is clipping off 45-minute laps, so we don’t have much time to do anything before he comes tearing back in and needs more food or a fresh pair of socks. We can see the writing on the wall. The Three Amigos are going to make it 150 miles, which means they’ll switch to the road, which means they’re actually going to go at least 200 miles, which means we’re going to be here another whole night.
“I need real food,” I announce. Leaving Katie to tend to Guillaume for the next loop, my friend Rob and I hop into our rented, full-sized SUV and zoom off in search of sustenance. We return an hour later with four bags of McDonald’s, three six-packs of beer and one jar of gas-station, hot-pickled eggs. I wolf down my hamburger and fries, then offer some pickled eggs to the horrified onlookers. No takers. I pop one in the mouth. It tastes exactly how you think gas-station, hot-pickled eggs are going to taste. I don’t care. I’m bored. I pop another one in my mouth.
Guillaume is a powerhouse. Harvey is methodically plodding along. And Johan floats along calmly.
The night has turned dark and bitterly cold. Still in shock from running 104.1667 miles, my body can’t can’t regulate its temperature. I’m shivering and miserable. Then I remember, Oh, right, those three guys are still out there running.
Guillaume is a powerhouse. Harvey is methodically plodding along. And Johan floats along calmly. But he is slowing. As hour 38 draws near, I watch him approach Guillaume who’s sitting in his chair happily feasting on a cup of soup. Johan shakes his hand and says, “Great job, man,” in the way all Swedish people say “man.”
“You can’t drop now,” pleads Guillaume. “You’re doing so well!” Johan shakes his head and then approaches Laz in the timing tent and quietly drops.
And, then, there are two.
As lap 38 begins, Guillaume and Harvey stand in the starting corral. Johan lies crumpled and motionless under a pile of blankets nearby. And as the cowbell clangs and the two warriors slip off into the darkness, we’re left to wonder, How long can this thing really go?
It’s around this time that Laz retrieves the moonshine.
“I’ve got a guy,” he assures us. A big jar comes out of the house.
I have a sip and nearly go blind right then and there.
“Heh, you’ll have to write another article, just about crewing this race now,” Laz jokes. I laugh. Yeah, right.
As the jar continues to get passed around, Katie and I retreat to our camp and begin to worry about the night ahead. According to the radar, a powerful storm is set to blow in. Looks like my friend from earlier didn’t last long enough to see the inclement weather he was pining for. Someone has loaned us their awning to stash Guillaume and Johan’s gear, and we crowd underneath.
Every lap, Guillaume still comes in cheerfully and announces in his bubbly French accent that he’s “having so much fun!” Or, “I am feeling so good. I am lucky I have such a strong stomach. Can I have more licorice please?”
It’s growing colder, I’m growing sleepier, and the moonshine crew is growing drunker. The timing tent has been blasting music for almost two days straight now, and they don’t seem to be stopping any time soon, despite the fact it’s the wee hours of the morning.
The playlist is mostly Counting Crow-era alternative rock list with an occasional Journey song peppered in. We’ve made it through, top to bottom, at least four times now. Sometimes a song plays and then a shittier, live version of the same song follows. It dawns on us that the entire playlist is just playing through in alphabetical order. I’m not sure why, but somehow that makes it worse. I’m miserable.
“Hey Jealousy” blasts from the timing tent.
I wake up with a jolt. The awning is collapsing all around me. Water streams in from everywhere. I shout to Katie. She sounds something back. We can’t hear anything over the din of pounding rain and driving wind. The promised storm has finally arrived, right as we were dozing off. I look up at the frame of the awning. It’s snapped into two pieces. The material sags under the weight of dozens of gallons of water pooling above our heads. Nearly everything is soaked, but we manage to salvage a few of Guillaume’s socks, a little food and the Jetboil.
I look back at Johan. He is still totally motionless under his blankets, which are now drenched in water from the lagoon forming under our feet. He might be dead, I think.
The storm cell batters our poor camp. We race to save what we can. Then, suddenly, Guillaume pops his head in unexpectedly. “Helloooo!” He just ran his fastest loop of the entire race. He’s soaked but in high spirits as usual. We heat him some soup as best we can and, 20 minutes later, send him back out.
The torrential rain only lasts another lap, but the damage is done. It’s so bad, one friend rides out the storm by locking himself inside one of not-so-gently-used port-a-potties and subsequently passing out in it. There may have been moonshine involved. We all cope in our own way.
By dawn of Day Three, the rains have stopped but the air is gray and heavy. I’m soaked and cold and sipping on the last remaining beers because, in my haze, I’m convinced they’ll give me energy. Guillaume and Harvey are still somehow running.
If I could DNF my crewing duties, I would. Everyone looks glum. In fact, the only two guys who don’t are the two runners.
The truth is, this race is an endurance test for everyone in its orbit. Between loops, Lazarus sneaks off into the house to lie down. But he awakens every hour to return to the runners to whistle his whistle and ring his bell. He’s visibly weary as well, but also oh-so-enthralled.
The morning before the race, he wrote a now-prophetic Facebook post:
“… i don’t have to try to hide my pain.
for no one cares.
it is not as great as theirs
but they have a choice.
they can end the suffering at any time.
i cannot …
as long as there are survivors to answer the bell
i must go on.
and so i must prepare my mind
as if i will be racing this race, myself.
because we are having a deathmatch
on the big trail this week.
with all the bells and whistles.”
He’s right. Somehow, we’ve all become slaves to these two maniacs who refuse to quit. I feel helpless, like the treadmill is running on high again, and I can’t get off.
The boys have passed the 200-mile mark now and are back to running the trail loop. No signs of stopping. They cross the 50-hour mark. They’re into uncharted territory now.
Something shifts, though. The bedraggled refugee camp begins to buzz back to life with excitement. Thanks to texts and Tweets, people in the outside world begin to realize something special is happening in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Folks who left the race yesterday have turned around and are driving back. A few flights have even been rebooked. People start flooding back into Laz’s yard. Everyone can feel it. Something remarkable is going to happen.
Guillaume remains freakishly upbeat. He’s enjoying every second of this sufferfest. Harvey looks a little more road-worn. But he’s smart. Neither man blinks.
The day lurches on. Morning turns to afternoon. The guys are edging closer to 250 miles now, which would mean a return to the road. And that would mean, we’re all going to be here another night. I want to blow my brains out.
And, then, suddenly, something does happen. Or, rather, doesn’t happen. Guillaume comes in from loop 57, but Harvey is nowhere to be seen. Laz blows his three whistles. Electricity races through camp. Laz blows his two whistles.
“This could be it, Guillaume!” Katie excitedly quips.
I scold her, “We have to get him ready to go out again.”
Laz blows one whistle. One minute left. Maybe this actually is it. All eyes are trained on the edge of the woods.
And, then, suddenly, a tangle of arms and legs and a Hawaiian shirt burst into the clearing. Instinctually, all of us scream. It’s a deep, animalistic scream filled with shock and hope and despair and all the other emotions that’ve been building up over the last three days. We scream. Guillaume screams. The clock ticks down.
Harvey careens towards the finish line. In the last few dozen feet, he finally sees the clock. Ten seconds left. Somehow, even after 237.5 miles, he breaks into an even faster sprint. We scream. Guillaume screams. Harvey screams.
With a single, solitary second left on the clock, Harvey crosses the line. But it may not be enough. In order to start the next loop, the rules state that runners must be inside the starting corral. He skids to a stop and throws his body backward across the line and into the corral. Simultaneously, Laz rings the cowbell. In a single motion, Harvey rolls and pops up, staying in lockstep with Guillaume, and they shoot off the line together.
The crowd is utterly gobsmacked. We all try to process what our eyeballs just saw. Most people just stammer dumbly. Even Laz looks in shock.
And with that, the race goes on.
We’re all still chattering when Guillaume and Harvey come blazing into camp way ahead of schedule, in under 42 minutes. Initially we think something is wrong, but, no, they just ticked off their fastest trail lap together—58 hours into the race. Harvey, perhaps to prove something to Guillaume. And Guillaume, perhaps to test Harvey. The game is afoot.
Both men sit down at opposite ends of camp, like two boxers in their corners. They’re drained. They’ve been running head-to-head, just the two of them, for nearly 100 miles now. But if they can just last two more loops, they’ll be rewarded with another night on the roads. And then, another morning on the trails. Undoubtedly, they’re thinking about this as they both walk back into the corral. Laz rings his cowbell, and they take off—Guillaume with a smile on his face and Harvey with more of a grimace and a limp.
To hit the correct mileage, each trail loop actually begins with a short out-and-back that takes the runners back through camp before continuing on with the loop. Guillaume comes through per usual and disappears into the woods. Harvey ambles in a few minutes later and slows to a walk. As he enters camp, he throws his arms into an X. He’s done. After 58 hours, none of us quite know how to react. It’s a mixture of disappointment and joy and relief. He gives a short speech about how he’s happy for his new friend Guillaume. We all settle on joy and relief.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the woods, Guillaume has no idea that he’s just won. All he has to do is make it back across the line within the hour. We all wait breathlessly. Finally, he shoots out of the woods. Over the last three days, there have been a lot of cheers, but never one this big. The crowd erupts. Guillaume has no idea why. He crosses the line, happy but confused. Then he spots Harvey, huddled under a space blanket, 20 feet from the finish line.
“No!” is his first reaction.
Guillaume Calmettes is the last
It took 245.835 miles and 58 hours 52 minutes 12 seconds to do it, but he did it. Laz ambles over to him and gives him a hug before handing him a dog tag. It reads, “I survived Big’s Backyard Ultra.”
Sure, you did, Guillaume. But you nearly killed the rest of us in the process.
Andy Pearson is angry at Guillaume for ruining his Ultrasignup score. That’s why he’s vowed revenge at next year’s edition of Big’s Backyard Ultra.
This article first appeared in the 2018 issue of DIRT.