I’m back in the trees. Above me, Laz and Sandra’s house sits on a small hill. I’ve got a short climb up to where the trail sidles around it, then heads down to the ravine. It’s not far, maybe 60-75 seconds of uphill hiking, but I just can’t deal. I grab a branch of a nearby tree-trunk and double over, panting for breath. Every fibre of my being just wants to crawl under the tree, lie down, and go to sleep – after all, it is late morning on Monday and I haven’t slept since Friday night. And if I was to take a nap, then this whole thing, this Backyard Ultra, this endless series of loops that need to be run every hour, can be over. If I don’t get back to the start by 11.40am then Maggie wins and we get to rest.
I look at my watch. 10.51am. 49 minutes to do 3.5 miles, or 5.5 km. I know I’ll be perfectly happy if I don’t make it back in time – I’ve wildly exceeded my expectations, outlasting all the other men and all the women except for one total badass who looks like she just finished a 5k and could go until next weekend. Failure at this point is honorable. But only if it is actual failure. If it is due to me giving up – well, not giving up is the only thing that has got me this far. I need to honor that achievement, and the race that surrounds it. So I need to try for as long as it is possible, no matter how unlikely, that I can still succeed. I check my watch again. 10.52. Sigh – it is still doable. But not if I take a nap. So off I trudge, for the 30th time, up the trail to go around the house and down the hill.
OK, let’s take a step back. Big’s Backyard Ultra (or Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra – I’m still not sure which, if either, is the official title) is a fiendish running race held on and around the farm of Gary and Sandra Cattrell. Gary also goes by the name “Lazarus Lake”, under which he hosts a variety of races. One is the Barkley Marathons, which you probably know about; if not, Google it. But when Laz was a boy, he had a vision of people coming to his farm to run around it. Later in life, on Saturday October 19, 2019, 72 people would start doing exactly that. At 6.40am, the first loop is run. A series of warning whistles are blown at 3, 2, and 1 mins prior, and then a bell is rung to signal the start. I am in the group, having qualified for this race by winning a similar event in Hong Kong. Our task is to run 4.167 miles (about 6.7 km) in an hour. If we finish early, we can rest, but we need to be back on the start line for the next loop, at 7.40am. And then again at 8.40am. And on and on until everyone gives up, except one. That last person standing is the winner, and everyone else gets a “DNF” (or did not finish). Last year the event lasted almost three days, running every hour, day and night. On that first start line, some people think that will be them this year. Others wonder who of their competitors can go for that long. There is only one way to find out.
The first loop is a “Day Loop.” We start by running out of the farm and down a road for about 1/3 of a mile, then we turn around and come up and re-cross the start/finish line. This time we head into trees which have been planted over most of the farm. A narrow trail runs through the trees, up and down the hilly terrain, over limestone rocks, twisting and turning in tight spirals. It is not easy to run on many sections. The trail runs up and past the house, then down into a ravine, then up another short hill where we need to run through the famous “V-tree” (two trunks growing up and away from each other). Just past there we get to what I call the “upper loop;” the trail heads up a hill then loops around, in and out, before eventually coming back to this place, from where we take the trail we just came up back to the start. We head up the hill, knowing that we’ll find ourselves back here soon. At the top of the hill the trail gets even tighter and a bit slippery; we don’t need to move fast but we need to be careful not to slip and strain an ankle or worse. It seems like no two steps are level – the trail is continually heading up or heading down. The area on which it is built has obviously been masively shaped by water flow, and the trail goes up and over a series of small rises and then down into old chasms. We come to the point I’ll end up calling the quarry, a rough series of large stone slabs; get here in 30 minutes and you’re heading for a total loop time of about 54 mins. Get here slower and you’ll start pressing up against the 60 min limit. In fact there are time markers everywhere – get to the start of the loop in 20 mins, get to the quarry in 30 mins, get back to the V-tree in 40 mins, and then 54 mins (my target) is pretty safe. On the first day, these numbers seem pretty manageable.
|The day loop started with a short out-and-back on the road. Credit: Trailbear Films|
The 71 other people are a resource, a new set of friends, and a traffic hazard. Deal with them as you wish. When you’re a bit late you’re tempted to push past – you don’t want to miss your time deadline because if you do, you’re out of the whole competition. But these people will be your company, possibly for days, and they know things that may help you. So don’t be a dick.
|Andy Pearson looks on, little knowing he'd be looking after me later in the race. Credit: Trailbear Films|
On Saturday (the first day), we do 12 hours of loops on the farm. At the start we are learning the lay of the land and the rhythms of the trail. My aim is to finish each loop in around 54 mins, so that I save my legs from pushing at all, and because my experience of the Big Boar’s Backyard Challenge in Hong Kong is that sitting around for long periods is not particularly helpful. Because of the difficulty of the trail, running it in 54 mins is not challenging but is also not trivial, made more complicated by the presence of so many other runners on the tight trails. When we finish each loop, we cross the finish line then have the time until the start of the next loop to ourselves. I head straight for my crew, Jason and Heather, who have driven down from Washington DC to support me in this race. Jason and Heather are experienced endurance athletes so they know exactly what I need in the short time available, which is essentially (1) replace calories, (2) hydrate, (3) check in on general issues e.g., stomach, feet, and (4) keep my spirits raised. On a cool, dry day, and the race only having just started, the last one is easy. I’m on Laz’s farm, and in my happy place.
|Through the trees. Credit: Trailbear Films|
I enjoy the social side of things too, although I’m a little quiet, not sure why. Normally I find it easier to strike up conversations but here we’re all in single file and we’re following a challenging trail with little room for error so maybe I’m a little less relaxed than I appear. Or maybe I’m just in awe of athletes that I know have achieved great performances in the Backyard or in other venues. I have a brief conversation with Guillaume Calmettes, who became a God of the Backyard after winning the competition two years ago with 59 hours of loops (running just under 250 miles). I chat with Liz Canty, an elite runner from Alabama who ran in the Barkley last year and in Western States this year. I chat with various runners from Sweden and Ireland. I chat with Katie Wright, also from New Zealand (via UK); Katie won the qualifying event in NZ just as I won the event in Hong Kong. She’s looking very strong and running slightly faster than me. One to watch, for sure.
Night starts to set in on Saturday evening. It is 5.40pm and we’ve been running for 11 hours, now having completed 45.83 miles (almost two marathons; they add up if you run enough loops). We have one more trail loop to complete but we need lighting since it will get dark before we return to camp. So everyone puts on their headlamp. Sure enough the going becomes a bit slower but we pretty much all get around, maybe taking a minute or two more. We’ve successfully completed 12 loops, equating to 50 miles (80km). Bring on the night.
According to folklore, early editions of Big’s Backyard Ultra used the trail loop 24 hours a day. The trouble is, it is difficult to do at night and so the field rapidly dropped out. Laz doesn’t like that – he wants a long race and therefore a relatively easy course. So from 6.40pm, the next 12 loops are not really loops at all but rather an out-and-back on public roads around the farm. There is very little traffic, so on Saturday evening about 60 runners go out of his farm gate, down the hill, along one flat road, make a left turn, straight along for about 1 km, make another left turn, along and up about 700m, step over a sensor box to check we got there, go another few steps to the actual turnaround point, then reverse it all the way back to the farm. It’s the same distance of 4.1667 miles, which can be completed a bit quicker due to the road surface, straight lines, and fewer hills. I wanted to finish these loops in about 50 mins to have a bit more time for taking care of myself, but also not wanting to destroy my legs on the harsh surface for 12 hours. So I developed a plan around walking and running that got me back, pretty reliably, to the farm at 30 minutes past each hour. Because of my walking breaks I tended not to fall into step with other runners, most of whom appeared to run most of the loop, but in general there seemed to be a bit less chatter. More than 50 miles in now, bodies were beginning to register some damage, more severe in some runners than in others. There were a few people dropping but in general the numbers seemed to remain pretty strong. However some of the drops were shocking. At 20 hours, Joe Fejes, a well-known name with many achievements to his credit, and who seemed to be moving consistently, suddenly stopped. Then I noticed on two loops in a row that my relatively slow run/walk schedule was taking me past Guillaume, one of the favourites, who had typically been completing each loop several minutes before me. That didn’t seem promising, and indeed, just before the final night loop, Guillaume acknowledged the pain of a leg injury and dropped as well.
Still, 44 runners got through 24 hours, including me, meaning that we’d run 100 miles. We’d done it slow and controlled, with regular breaks, but we’d done it. In most Backyard Ultras, a relatively small number of runners make it to 24 hours since it is a fairly impressive feat of endurance. At Big’s Backyard, more than half the field made it through. This was not your usual group of even moderately talented runners. This group had big goals.
It was a relief to get back to the trail at 6.40am on Day 2. The road had been hard on my body and I was beginning to hurt. The good news was that running the twisting, irregular trails of the farm required very different muscular actions than the repetitive running of the road, so there was some relief from pain. However, downhill running that on Day 1 had been effortless now was beginning to be painful, particularly a six minute stretch from just below Laz’s house that seemed to go on and on – from the bottom I’d walk up the next hill and it was always a massive relief to get there. I expected that most of the 44 would stay in the race throughout the day but actually there was a steady reduction in number, to 21 by lunchtime, to 12 (or the dirty dozen in Laz-speak) by evening. Names that I was awed by such as Amelia Boone (world obstacle racing champion), Marco Farinazzo (Badwater champion), Andy Pearson (former 2nd place-getter at Bigs) and Sean Nakamura (multiple 100 milers this summer) all vanished from the starting corral. So throughout the day the trails got clearer and clearer, and traffic congestion was no longer an issue. I found myself running about the same pace as Gavin Woody, who I chatted to for a lap, Katie Wright, and Shawn Webber. Shawn had an interesting plan, trying to run loops of 55 or 56 mins with a similar philosophy to me but with even shorter breaks. He walked much of the loop but was obviously a very talented runner and could speed up a hill if needed. He looked like he would go really far.
Spirits were good for most of the day, but I started to question what I was doing. In particular, what was I going to do if I was still running at nightfall? Although I tried not to have a target in mind, the reality was that I thought I was capable of running until the afternoon on Day 2, completing something like 32-36 loops. I was well on my way to doing that, but things were starting to hurt. My feet were really sore – I was fantasizing about taking my shoes and socks off and walking around in bare feet. My calves and quads were getting very fatigued and downhill running was getting even more painful. I could bear it until the end of the trail loops. But at 6.40pm we were going to switch back to the road again. Did I really want to do some boring road loops that would trash my already sore legs, no doubt resulting in my demise before morning? I mean, I wasn’t actually going to complete 48 loops, which would be 200 miles of running, and would then send me back on the trails for a third day. I told my crew that I was going to quit at 36 loops. Jason was having none of it. “Just get started on the road, we’ll see what happens,” he said. When I tried to fight this before starting the 36th loop, he said “We’ll talk about it when you come in.” (Spoiler alert: We never did). I mentioned to Gavin that I was thinking about giving up. He tried to persuade me that the road would be “fun”, which I wasn’t buying for a minute, but it gave me pause that I was here to test my limits so why was I talking about giving up.
I remain convinced that if I was at Big’s Backyard by myself, with no crew, I would have given in to the comforts of the chair and dropped at 36 hours. Going back to the road made no sense. My aim had been to find my limits and that worked as motivation until this point. But as the discomfort increased, and tiredness weighed me down, my internal goals were no longer strong enough to keep me going. Instead, it was Jason and Heather who became my new motivation. They had driven 10 hours to sit in a field in Tennessee for a day and a half, seeing me once an hour, in order to help me run my best race. If they wanted me to keep going, how could I say no to that? So, to my surprise, for the second time in the race, I laced up my road shoes and hit the pavement.
Only 10 of us made it there. I was top 10. This was starting to blow my mind. My running had slowed down so I needed to run more and walk less, but that seemed to be sustainable. I shared loops with Gavin and with Shawn, and I appreciated the company and the words of encouragement. But although to my tired eyes they both seemed to be moving well, within two loops in the middle of the night they both disappeared from the startline. The incredible Anna Carlsson, who looked like she was blown along by the wind, so effortless was her running, had disappeared earlier in the night. Shortly after midnight Tobbe Gyllebring, the final Swede from a very strong contingent, failed to come to the start of a loop, leaving just four of us: Katie, Maggie, me, and Dave Proctor. Maggie was running like she had for two days; strong, in command, finishing loops quickly and getting out ready to the start the next one before anyone else. Dave is an elite Canadian runner with an incredible pedigree in 24/48/72 hour running; he was running from the front almost every loop and when I saw him on the night loops (as he came back past me while I was still heading to the turnaround point) he looked so smooth it was as if he was dancing. Katie was closer to my pace and we were often running together or passing each other on the loops, with gentle words of confidence for each other, but when push came to shove, she looked stronger than me as well. None of this particularly concerned me; I’d already outdone my expectations, I was pushing towards 200 miles, and when the wheels fell off I’d happily fall with them and leave these three to fight it out.
As my legs deteriorated, so did the rest of my body. My stomach, which had been great for a day and a half, started to get nauseous. Somewhere around midnight I thought a piece of orange would be great, but as I tried to eat it I gagged and almost brought up the food in my stomach that I’d just eaten. Later I tried some noodles with the same outcome. To be perfectly honest, and as long-time readers of this blog will know, these symptoms are not unknown to me, and I wasn’t that worried. But it was unpleasant, and I wasn’t sure how easily I’d get them under control when this was all over.
And this was how the final day began. At 6.40am four of us went back to the trail loop, for the third time. With only a few of us in there, it was a totally different experience to the days before. Maggie and Dave would move quickly and assertively off the starting line, whereas Katie and I would take our time and enter the trees a minute or two behind. Once in the trails there was quietness and peace – it was quite lovely. The morning was cool. But all was not well. First, I was feeling really terrible. I started to develop mild diarrhea. This is not totally unknown in ultras but it is, of course, unpleasant. The porta-potties were at the finish line so generally you needed to finish the loop, then use them in the few minutes you have before the next one. But on day 3 speeds had reduced so the necessary margins were challenging. I popped some Immodium which eventually helped but I still felt pretty bad. Also not helping was feeling dehydrated even though I was drinking. I found that I’d take a deep drink, then shortly after I’d be peeing it all out and still feeling thirsty. So I wasn’t taking much food to try to reduce the need for porta-potty stops, and I wasn’t drinking enough because I was just peeing it out. My remaining loops seemed numbered.
However, as the ultra truism goes, no matter how bad you’re feeling, everyone else feels the same way. On the third trail loop of the morning, Katie complained about a pain in her leg as she was leaving the start line. She fell behind. As I was finishing the loop she appeared in the trees to tell me she had dropped. I was stunned and saddened – we’d made a great team and she had kept my spirits up while my body had become damaged. With her gone it was just me and the two elites, Maggie and Dave.
|Final 3, with Dave and Maggie. Guillaume wants to make sure I don't give up. Andy looks on. Jason and Heather are my rocks, supporting me for over 48 hours by this point. Credit: Jenn Coker|
But not so fast. Two loops later, I was struggling to finish my loop on time (my completion times were slipping towards 58 minutes), and was running up the hill to Laz’s house, out of breath and keeping panic under control. I’d had the trails to myself since Katie dropped, as the others were on a much faster schedule. Suddenly, in front of me, was Dave. He was ambling up the path, looking like he was on a slow hike. I didn’t really know what to say, but as I passed him he gave me an encouraging word. I got to the finish with 4 minutes left, and the word from the support crews was that Dave might be dropping. This seemed absurd. I took some food and waited. With 43 seconds remaining Dave made it over the finish line. He was still alive. I figured he’d take off from there once the new loop began but he seemed to stumble off the start line. Maggie said to me as we left “It looks like Dave will be dropping. I hope you’re ready to go through the night – I want to get to 300 miles!” Rather than giving her a brave face, I was almost distraught – it was supposed to be Dave that, with her, was going to carry this race to new heights. “I think I’m going to have to drop” I said. “I think I have a virus; I’m feeling very weak.” A strong game face. Anyway, sure enough Dave didn’t make it far on loop number 53, and he was gone.
|Final two. Credit: Gavin Woody|
Suddenly, and, to my mind, shockingly, I’m in the final two. Maggie looks spectacular, as thought she’s hardly warmed up. I feel like I’m about to faint. Three laps ago there were four of us and now we’re two. My crew sense my unease and get right in my face. By now, Jason and Heather, who are supposed to be leaving to get back to DC, have been joined by Guillaume and Andy Pearson. I’m saying I need to drop since I’m not eating or drinking properly. They are having none of it. They are telling me I can do this. They are telling me everyone in Hong Kong and New Zealand are sending them messages of support, willing me to actually win the event. I have no fight left. I don’t even have the energy to argue with them. So I let them give me food despite my GI issues, and give me drink despite the fact I’ll just pee it all out, and put me on the start line, almost physically picking me up and putting me in the corral.
|I've got nothing left to give. Credit: Gavin Woody|
And this is where we came in. I’ve got nothing left to give but I give it anyway. Laz rings his bell. Maggie runs off the line. I walk slowly, getting to a jog as I get to the road. By the time I’m halfway down the hill, Maggie is already back up with me. “Keep it up” she says, willing me to stay with her. It is going to be a big anticlimax if I give up. From the final four to victory in a few loops would be something of a death spiral. Big’s Backyard has made its name from the incredible duels of the final runners, such as Guillaume and Harvey Lewis doing over 20 loops together in 2017 before Harvey stopped, or Johan Steene, Courtney Dauwalter, and Gavin in 2018. And like that, I get my third motivation. I’m not just continuing to extend my limits, or doing it for my crew; I have to keep going to honour the contest. Everyone who is watching wants this race to be extended, even my opponent. Despite wanting nothing else in this world other than to drop out of the race, I start another loop.
I can’t give up. If I give up, I’m giving up on Laz, and on Maggie, and on all my friends willing me on (and all Maggie’s fans doing the same for her). Maybe I can’t get the loop done, and if so, fine, but if I can then I have to. And two miraculous things happen.
First, even though I’m low on energy and often starting slow, once I get about halfway around the loop and a little behind on the time, I can jumpstart some energy to get me moving quickly. As I did when I passed Dave, if necessary, I can summon the spirits to get me running up hills that a day ago I was struggling to hike. Where this energy source comes from, I don’t know. It can’t sustain me for an entire loop, but when I’m in desperation, it manifests itself from nowhere. Somehow, my legs aren’t even really hurting now.
Second, the efforts of my crew pay off. The Immodium has controlled the diarrhea, so I’m starting to take more calories, and I’m drinking more fluids as well, and slowly I start feeling better. As the afternoon progresses, I begin increasing my speed. Whereas I was racing to finish with just two minutes to spare, I start improving my times, getting precious extra minutes between loops. Maggie’s not sure what’s happening. She seems pleased that we’re still playing the game and she hasn’t been abandoned, but it looks like she is also trying to do the calculus to figure out how strong I’m likely to become. Am I a threat? I’m trying to figure out the same thing. My thought process is that she’s way stronger than me right now, and so I still expect her to win; but there were plenty of other strong people who are now sitting in tents watching us and so it is not out of the question that I could actually win this thing. I never become confident or even entertain its likelihood. But right at the end, I do briefly wonder if I could win.
And so to the last loop, the final day loop of the third day. We get back to dusk. I know that final day loops are slow, and I have no margin of error, and by now it is raining and the path is slippery. So I better push hard from the start. I try to keep up with Maggie on the road going downhill, failing but much closer to her than normal. On the way back up I’m still behind but not as much as in previous loops. We head into the trees and I can see her ahead of me. We go up past the house then start heading down. I can see her some way in front, coming in and out of view as the path winds through the trees. At the bottom she is right there, having slowed down due to the slippery trail. She’s surprised to see me here, she hasn’t seen me at this point all day. But she takes off effortlessly up the next hill. I’m tired from the exertions of getting here, but figure that I’m ahead of my splits so I just need to move efficiently from here. I hike up the hill, through the V-tree, and get to the start of the upper loop.
This being a race report based as far as possible on facts, I apologise that from here we’re going to have to engage in some speculation. My ability to relay facts to you relies upon my conscious mind having a memory of them. This was shortly no longer to be the case.
The last thing I remember, I was hiking up a steep, rocky hill, for the 36th time, from which the trail starts to meander down and eventually back to the start of the upper loop. By now it was really getting dark and I needed to switch on my headlamp, so I did. Immediately, I started struggling to keep the images of the rocks on the path in my consciousness. Images of other shapes, face, animals, people were shifting across in front of me. I tried to push them away but I could not. And I’m not really sure what happened after that. I am pretty sure I remember starting to run around the loop, which trends downwards from this point. But at some point, before I finished the upper loop and started to take the trail back to the finish line, it appears that I fell asleep while moving.
Here’s what I experienced. I found myself walking on trails through old abandoned Chinese villages in Hong Kong. I’m not sure I could exactly see the buildings, but I could see where they’d been. The trail was marked in the same way as Big’s but I did not recognise it or where it was going. I felt that there were people around me but I couldn’t see them. I didn’t think I was supposed to be going anywhere in particular, but I was exploring the paths. However, it was wet and cold, and I was only wearing my thin jacket, so I thought I should get down from the path to the city. Trouble was, I couldn’t see how these trails linked up with those that I would expect to take me back to the city streets. It was all a bit of a conundrum. Somewhere, deep in my mind, a thought occurred to me: “I think you’re supposed to be finishing this trail within an hour.” Given that I was moving very slowly, that did not seem likely. I felt like I was playing a game, and the phone had rung while we were playing, so we’d agreed to suspend it while we took the call. Only trouble was, the call was coming from inside my own head. I figured that we’d sort it out somehow. I kept wandering, and I seemed to stay on the path that I was on. At some point I came across signs and yellow tape that I recalled seeing on the Big’s Backyard Trail in Tennessee. I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
Eventually, while trying make sense of one piece of trail, I saw a headlamp moving towards me. “Who is that?” I asked. “Guillaume” was the answer. I asked “What are you doing here, Guillaume?” But then I understood, and I came back to the present. I was still in Big’s Backyard. I asked what happened to the race. “Maggie won.” I apologised to Guillaume (and also Emma from Katie’s crew along with Jeremy Kaiding, who had also come) for letting everyone down, but they convinced me that I’d done well and that it was the cause for celebration. Guillaume gave me his jacket to keep me warm and we walked back to the finish line. I had still been on the trail and think I must have been slowly making my way back to the finish. When we got there, Laz had already presented Maggie with her winning medal, so the final prize presentation was to me, with the last DNF (Did Not Finish) medal. I’ve seen myself on video, thanking Laz and congratulating Maggie, and I am obviously still struggling to remain fully conscious – so apologies to all if I made no sense or seemed like a sociopath at the end! 59 loops and 246 miles had taken their toll, and I was the last entrant who failed to finish the race. In the history of ultras, a DNF has never been more satisfying.
Laz had kind words for me, and in particular my effort to stay in the race. I ended up racing the whole third day and Maggie and I ran more than a marathon since Dave dropped. Sadly she did not have the opportunity to go through the night, and challenge the all-time record of 68 loops. I have no doubt that she would have done so. But at least I got her to 250 miles. That’s not nothing.
Some final thank you’s:
To Laz and Sandra, thank you for opening your home to 72 trail runners and their crews. You have generous souls and a wonderful backyard. You have created a unique event that pits people of all abilities against each other and lets them explore their potential. You are the best people.
To Jason and Heather, thank you for supporting me, and for challenging me to be my best. We did this as a team.
To Guillaume and Andy, thanks for joining my support team for the final day, and then looking after me once it was over. You are both my idols in the sport and to have you join my team meant the world to me.
To Katie, Maggie, and Dave, thanks for being a great final four. We had perfect balance along many dimensions. And to Maggie, we’re all in awe of that performance. One for the ages. Thank you for inspiring the best out of me.
To Scotty Hawker, my coach, thanks for believing in me more strongly than I believed in myself.
To the running communities of Hong Kong and New Zealand, thank you for following along and being part of the journey. It was thrilling to represent you in the cauldron of Big’s Backyard. Make sure to send some excellent representatives next year.
Finally, to Sasha, Max, and Alyssa, thanks for your unyielding support and belief. None of this can happen without your love, and your generosity. Thank you for getting caught up in the craziness, and for leading the cheers as part of #TeamWill.