By Larry Carroll
Typically, when you discuss a sporting event, you marvel over the feats of the athletes. Somehow, they might manage to accomplish the impossible, do something no one has ever done, create a physical expression on par with a masterful painting, poem or novel. In their own way, through endurance, imagination, and talent, they craft a masterpiece.
But when you’re discussing Big Backyard Ultra, the praise must first be heaped upon the race’s designer. Sure, massive props must be given to anyone who actually wins this punishing, annual test of the human capacity for pain in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. But much like when you consider the complex machinations of baseball (9 innings, 27 outs, no clock) or football (two-point conversion or field goal?), you begin to realize that the creation of the sporting event itself is a true thing of beauty.
And so, it is with that knowledge that we can call Gary Cantrell, a.k.a. Lazarus “Laz” Lake the Picasso of pain. And in the note establishing this year’s ground rules, he seems to take particular, defiant pride in his achievement.
“The Backyard Ultra is back for 2019,” he says of the October 19 race, in a page on UltraSignup whose “Align Left” format evokes a kind of cruel haiku. “The concept is simple.”
So simple, in fact, that it almost feels like a trap from a “Saw” movie. In short, you run. And then you run again and again. And as long as others keep running, you must do the same. The last person running wins the race, everybody else loses. If no one runs one last lap after second-place gives up, guess what? Everybody loses.
It is that distinctive framework that instills such a love/hate relationship with the participants.
“Have you ever thought that you could not be beaten, if only the faster runners were unable to run away and leave you?” the posting explains, teasing you with the allure of this one-of-a-kind race. “This is your chance to find out. Every surviving runner will be tied for the lead, every hour.”
Ultimately, every hour is a chance to start anew. At 6:40 on Saturday, October 19 the race will begin, with all participants running around a 4.166667-mile trail in Laz’s backyard. If you don’t finish near the top of the pack, no worries, all you need to do is cross the finish line within an hour. Sure, some might finish with more time to spare – and they get to do whatever they like with that time for recovery – but at 7:40, the madness starts all over again, and you are once again revitalized (or perhaps, cruelly teased) by the notion of being right back in first place with everyone else.
At that point, Big Dog participants become Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” – repeating the same events, in the same spaces, against the same people, time and time again. Each time, it all becomes a little less fun, a little more repetitive, a little more like a punishment. There is no certain point where it will end, and it will inevitably come down to a battle of wills as the final two competitors wearily eyeball each other in a “can we please just end this?” game of chicken.
For that and so many other reasons, this is a race unlike any other. “Brats and chili will be served beginning at 1500 hours and continuing until the finish. Rumor has it, there will be moonshine testing lessons around the campfire,” the site reads as if to underline that point in red ink.
In 2017, Guillaume Calmettes and Harvey Lewis dueled to the point of exhaustion, with Calmettes (listed as a returning participant for 2019) running a total of 245.835 miles in 59 hours. Last year, Johan Steene and Courtney Dauwalter battled for 66 laps before Dauwalter finished their 67th showdown with her slowest lap in three days (53:26); smelling blood in the water, Steene came out for lap 68 and rather than discovering a competitor, he found Dauwalter’s hand extended in capitulated congratulations.
Expressing the same sentiment as the Big Dog Backyard description, Steene freely admits that had the race been a traditional one, he would have lost. “If there had been a predestined finish line at Big’s Backyard, my money would have been on Courtney to win, she would beat me at any such race and distance,” he told Trail Runner. “But at the Backyard, you draw your own lines.”
As the race’s description reads: “The Big Backyard will continue until but one man is left standing…no matter how long it takes. This is a race to the death…”
Steene’s grand total was 283.335 miles. The general sense among Big Dog observers is that a 300 mile/72 hour race is going to happen soon. Steene has predicted that someone will do 85 laps soon. Calmettes, meanwhile, has been quoted as saying that it would be “cool” to cross the 100 hours mark. Could this be the year any of those milestones finally fall?