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Why this year’s Backyard Ultra Team Championship might be the most extreme yet

Who will win Big Dog's Backyard Ultra Team Championship?

Can you run 4.17 miles in under an hour?

The answer is that you probably can. But could you do it again the next hour? What about after that?

How about running 4.17 miles every hour on the hour until you simply can’t? Suddenly you don’t make it back in under an hour, or your legs simply won’t carry you anymore. Welcome to the world of backyard ultra marathon running. This endurance event has taken the running world by storm in the past few years, pushing the boundaries of accomplished and novice runners alike.

It’s a challenge like no other, and on October 15, teams of the most talented ultra marathon runners from across the world will compete to push their bodies and minds to the limit. Then further. It’s only ever 4.17 miles. It’s only ever one more hour.

It’s easy, until it’s not.

A man runs through the desert on a trail running event.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What is a backyard ultra?

The brainchild of Gary Cantrell — more commonly known as Lazarus Lake or Laz — the twisted mind behind the infamous Barkley Marathons, backyard ultra marathons are the ultimate test of human endurance. The Big Dog Backyard Ultra — named after Laz’s dog — started, you guessed it, in his own backyard. The format is simple. A whistle blows every hour on the hour, and the starting corral empties to run another 4.17 miles — referred to as a yard. What you do with the remainder of your time is up to you.

Finish the yard in forty minutes? You get the remaining twenty minutes to rest, stretch, refuel yourself, change your shirt, go to the portapotty — basically whatever you need to do. A three-minute whistle blows, then a two-minute, then a one-minute. The last whistle is your cue to shuffle another lap. It’s about finding a balance. Too fast and you’ll burn out early. Too slow and you’ll time out on your lap and DNF the race. Those who don’t make it back in under the hour are timed out, but most simply choose not to start another lap when the going gets too tough.

Two men trail running.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What is the Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra Team Championship?

Backyard ultra marathons are usually solo events. That said, in order to push yourself further than you’ve ever pushed yourself before, you need a strong field around you. A strong second-place runner, if you view them that way. This year’s Backyard Ultra World Team Championships pitches teams of fifteen runners from thirty-seven different countries against one another in a bid to see which country has the strongest endurance runners.

In order to beat the other countries, teams must push one another to their absolute limit, feeding, encouraging, and dragging one another to the finish line. The races will all start simultaneously and run concurrently in satellite locations across the globe. This means that while teams can get live updates from other countries, they won’t know until the end of each lap whether or not they’re still in competition with another country. What’s more, they’re vying to be the top runner from their own country, as well as pushing their country to be the top team. It’s a gnarly and mind-bending combination of team and solo competition that should see limits — and perhaps records — broken.

Two runners run downhill on a track between forests, their headlamps illuminate the trail.
Andy Cochrane

What’s the prize?

For all but one runner in a backyard ultra, the prize is a simple and demoralizing DNF – Did Not Finish. In the same vein as anyone coming in on the infamous Berkley Marathons having completed just three, rather than five loops is given ‘fun run’ status, Laz started this event to beat out the participation medals in running. There is only one winner in a backyard ultra marathon. To be that winner, you have to complete one more lap than the final runner to pull out, but who knows when that will happen.

In the Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra Team Championships, that prize is perhaps the ultimate DNF. A DNF medal that you can wear with pride — that said, most Backyard Ultra runners display their DNF with pride, it’s something in the blood. But there’s more to it. The winning runner from each country will be put forward to the Backyard Ultra Solo World Championships exactly a year after the team race.

A close up of a trail runner's feet as they run away from the camera on a rocky trail
Brian A. Jackson/Getty Images

Will they break the 100-hour mark?

The current record holder is Merjin Geerts, who ran 90 laps back in 2022. Just imagine. That means running for ninety hours without any — or at least much — rest. Ninety hours.  375 miles. That’s three days and eighteen hours. Worse, though, he had to be pushed all that way. That means that the second-place runner ran for three days and seventeen hours, just to DNF a race.

This year, with a field packed with winners of backyard ultra events all around the globe, it might just be the right environment to push the envelope. 2022 looks likely to be the year that the 100-hour barrier falls. 100 hours of nonstop action. The fatigue, tiredness, pain, elation, the non-stop shuffle, and a Pavlovian reaction to a whistle. Even in the darkest hours, when the world is breaking around you, that whistle through the night still hauls you to your feet and sends you out the gate. Can any of these runners beat the 100-hour mark?

steven john running training
Steven John/The Manual

How to follow the event

The start: October 15 2022 0700 Central Time

The finish: It’s anyone’s guess.

The event will be live-streamed around the world and you can watch it here, with time dedicated to each team of runners. Okay, so it’s perhaps not the most high-octane viewing experience. There will be long hours of watching people running slowly around a course, a lot of watching people eat, and hopefully not so much footage of the portapotty shuffle. But what it will be is a showcase of human endurance. You’ll see all the blood, sweat, and tears of these athletes as they push themselves to levels they’ve never been to before.

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