I first applied for a spot to run at Big’s Backyard Ultra on 3 November 2018. I finally secured my spot at THE backyard race of backyard races after running 254.167 miles straight in just under 62 hours at my most recent race, Capital Backyard Ultra. It’s all still a bit surreal that I’ve finally achieved a goal I set for myself nearly four years ago. It was a long, challenging path that tested me, but that’s the purpose of goals: to motivate ourselves and to make us the best version of ourselves possible.
Let me rewind one second for anyone who is not familiar with a “backyard” format race. It is an elimination style race without a set distance. The race continues until only one runner remains. Hence, these races are also referred to as “last person standing” races. So how are runners eliminated? By not completing a 4.167 mile lap every hour on the hour. Every hour all runners start a lap and must finish before the end of the hour. If they finish early, they must wait until the start of the next hour to start their next lap. With that caveat, this race prevents any runner from building a lead, more or less taking away the advantage of speedy runners. The cycle of on the hour lap starts continues indefinitely until all but one runner has opted to not continue running or has timed out. The last runner remaining must run one complete lap more than all other runners within the hour time limit before being named the winner. This leaves the possibility that there could be no winner (which has happened) if several runners go out for a lap and they all time out.
Since COVID travel restrictions prevented international travel for a world competition at Big’s in 2020, the race was reorganized to follow a biannual cycle. On odd years, the world’s best backyard runners would meet in Bell Buckle, TN to determine an individual world champion. On even years, all countries choosing to participate would assemble a 15 person backyard team running concurrent satellite backyards in their home country. The same backyard rules apply, but teams earn points for every yard completed by a team member until the team only has one runner left. How a spot on the team is earned varies between countries. For the US team, six spots are awarded to the winners of six silver ticket races (Capital Backyard being one of them) while the remaining nine spots are filled as “at large” entries based on a runner’s best backyard performance during the selection period. Securing an “at large” entry based on yards leading up to Capital would have required somewhere around 50 yards, certainly no small feat considering my best backyard performance thus far had been 36 yards. And to think, that was just my “I guess this is good enough”, B goal. Go big or go home, right?
Capital Backyard Ultra is held at Meadowood Special Recreation Area in Lorton, VA, just outside of Washington DC. It is a younger event with 2022 being only its third year. The first two years it used only a single trail loop, but this year Race Director, Sarah Smith, was able to organize a paved night course so the race would follow the standard backyard format of a trail course for daylight hours and a paved course for nighttime hours. The day loop is a mix of crushed stone bridle path and dirt single track, all completely runnable if you are so inclined. If I were to rate it on a technicality scale with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, I’d give it a 2. With a total elevation gain of 300-350 feet per loop, it is mostly pretty flat with easy hills. The steepest is about a quarter mile from the finish with a longer and steeper sustained climb of about 100 feet. The night course consisted of two separate out and backs on a paved bike path that had even gentler hills with a total elevation change of only about 75 feet. We would run the day loop from the 6 am through the 7 pm lap then switch to the night loop at 8 pm.
documented in earlier blog posts), but overall the training plan went great and I hit my mileage goals every month. After a little taper period in May, it was time to find out if this plan I concocted had any value or if it was just another one of my hare-brained schemes.
I made the drive down the Friday before the race, leaving around noon to try to beat what I expected to be bad traffic around DC. It wasn’t early enough to completely avoid it, and what should have been a four hour drive became a five hour drive. It could have been for worse though with DC traffic being what it is. The drive time also included an unplanned stop at a Dollar General. As I was driving I panicked when I realized I hadn't packed a chair. I certainly didn’t want to go however many hours this race was going to last without having a chair, so I made the unscheduled stop as soon as possible. I got settled into the hotel I had reserved that was about 10 minutes from the race and prepped everything I could in advance to have a smooth morning. Once my initial running outfit was laid out and all of my running gear that I would need during the race was neatly repacked, I grabbed some dinner and tried to stay off my feet as much as possible. I usually don’t watch much tv at home, but when staying in a hotel by myself I tend to turn it on just so it isn’t too quiet. With my belly full and laying in bed waiting to feel drowsy enough to turn off the lights, I was watching a documentary on the Wright brothers and how they approached tackling the problem of flight. I had two major takeaways from this documentary that I would apply to my race.
The first being the idea that the Wright brothers didn’t approach flight as a singular large problem to be solved, but a multitude of smaller problems to be systematically addressed. It’s the same for a backyard race. The big picture and overarching goal to run one lap more than anyone else is made up of many smaller problems that must be managed: time management, pacing, nutrition, hydration, sleep management, gear management, sock changes, shoe changes, attitude, mental acuity, course navigation, temperature, headlamps, blisters, chafing, electrolytes, etc. Many little successes can lead to a big success, and likewise many little failures can lead to overall failure. The second takeaway was their mindset of attempting to master flight. As the documentary put it, it was simple. Their attitude was “why not us?” I heard it and I thought the same thing about my race tomorrow. Of the 57 runners in the starting corral that could be the last one standing, why not me? I would tweet that thought out at some point during the first morning of the race, not realizing how important it would be in about 30 hours or so.
The first 24 hours and hundred miles of my race went pretty much exactly as planned, uneventful. It felt like an easy pace that I could do forever for the whole first day and first night. There was lots of shade all day in the woods so temperature never became an issue. I never felt too sleepy overnight and felt refreshed and motivated when the sun came back up and it was time to switch back to the trail course. It was after four laps around the trail course that I hit my first stumbling block. It wasn’t anything major, just muscle soreness and some overall aches and pains from the wear and tear of running over 100 miles. I knew it would become painful at some point, but at this point I knew I still had a long way to go and expected that I had to keep moving for at least another full day before there was any chance of reaching my A goal. The thought of how bad the pain could get and how long it could last messed with my head a bit. I vocalized it in an attempt to get it out of my head and sent my wife a text that simply read “Love you. Hurting” at 9:58 am on Sunday morning.
|First shoe change for the first night loop.|
The day rolled on and we continued to accumulate miles, our group of runners seeming to maintain its numbers. With 32 of the 37 runners continuing on after hitting the 100 mile threshold, it was pretty safe to assume that the runners sticking this out had their eyes on the prize. But there could be only one to hit that mark. The slightly warmer weather the second day seemed to wear on other runners, but it didn’t bother me much. Every lap I cooled down under my pop up and refreshed my icy bandana like clockwork. This was the part of the race to be patient and persistent. I was well aware that this could and likely would go through a second night so there was no reason to do something careless and blow my race at this point. They say patience is a virtue. In backyard racing it is a necessity.
Trail runners are a different breed of runner. The most entertaining part of the second day had nothing to do with me or my race. Another runner who I believe was nearing the end of their race decided to drink a beer during one of the afternoon laps. She was definitely having some fun with it this lap. About a mile in, she came bombing down one of the hills yelling “Move b!tch! Get out the way, get out the way!” and passed everyone, guzzling her beer on the next flat stretch. It had me laughing and thinking how much more fun trail running is than road running. I’m not sure if the group reaction would have been so jovial had someone done the same thing to a group of runners at a crowded big city marathon.
As day two wore on into the afternoon, lack of sleep and overall fatigue started getting to me. There were still so many runners left and I didn’t know how I would handle a second night of running. I began to lose hope. Prior to the race, I had scheduled an hourly tweet to coincide with the start of the first 48 yards. I had every intention of going that far and beyond leading up to this race, yet here I was about 36 hours in and beginning to feel hopeless. I wanted to stop and just go home. I began to feel like a failure. Here I wasn’t even going to make it to 200 and would have to tweet some sorry excuse of an explanation why tweets were still going out as if I was still running. I began planning my exit from the race. I’d bring my phone out for the first night loop and call my wife. I was sure that after I told her how tired I was and that my walking felt wobbly and I was starting to dream every time I closed my eyes she would tell me to just come home and be with my family. But she didn’t. She told me to drink an iced coffee and to keep going. She also reminded me of my tweet, “why not me?” I didn’t have a good answer or even a decent excuse, so I continued on. This was my second phone call to her during a backyard when she convinced me to keep going when I had been ready to give up.
|Staying cool in the shade with an icy bandana.|
It was at some point during the second night that I had my most stressful moment of the race. I was changing socks and as I went to put my transponder back on my ankle with the velcro wrap I realized it was only a velcro wrap and the transponder was missing. I panicked. Would I be disqualified? I started searching frantically around my cot and on the ground as the two minute whistle blew. Nothing. I went up to let Sarah know. Thankfully, there was a backup timing chip on my bib. Catastrophe avoided, I headed back out and before I finished that lap, another runner would find my transponder on the ground and get it back to me.
I was pushing through the second night with renewed determination. Our group seemed to steadily shrink in numbers during the night providing additional motivation as the wee hours of the morning passed. The sleep deprivation was getting bad for me though. I could not walk a straight line for the life of me and every time I closed my eyes I felt like I began dreaming. My solution: jog slowly and keep my eyes open. This worked, but I knew I needed sleep. My greatest fear of sneaking in a nap was that I would sleep through the warning whistles and the bell and my race would be over. I came in from a loop when I thought I had a few extra minutes and asked a race volunteer to wake me at the whistles if I didn’t wake up on my own. Laz, who had appeared at the race the first night, was within earshot and helped me get a second race volunteer as a back up to be certain I didn’t oversleep. I felt good about laying down, but as soon as I did, the three minute whistle blew. No nap this time. It was the 4 am lap coming up and I decided this was my best chance for a good nap. I pushed the pace for the first time of the race and finished my lap in 43:47. I lined up my volunteers and prepped everything to go back out. I laid down on my cot, put my towel over my eyes, and was out. I awoke to the three whistle warning and popped up waving to the volunteers to let them know I was good. I chugged a little iced espresso and went back to the starting corral to tell Laz how great the 10 minutes of sleep was.
The sun came up on that lap and I felt like I was having a fresh start. Nap, a new day, sunrise, morning espresso, approaching the 200 mile threshold, life was so good right now! The next interloopal period was the transfer back to trails. Laz approached me as I returned to my area to change my shoes. Since I didn’t have a crew, he was informing me of an update regarding spots for the American team. Based on his calculations at that point, he told me that we were only a few laps away from earning a spot on the at large list and that the top four finishers would make the cut. Well that was great news and motivation to keep going, which I believe is exactly why Laz was telling us this. With that information, I knew I just had to maintain and expected the heat of the third day (which was forecasted as the hottest day of the race so far) to narrow the field substantially.
This topic came up amongst Jason Bigonia, Keving McCabe, and I. It definitely felt like a mind game as we all confirmed with one another that we had all at least secured at large spots. My thinking was still “why stop now?” I’ve gone this far for this long to have an at large spot, but a guaranteed spot with the silver ticket for the win may be just a few laps away. “Why not me?”, I repeated to myself.
Day three continued on and the heat began to play a role. It was the first day that the heat started bothering me and making me uncomfortable. I envisioned myself passing out and busting my teeth out on rocks on the ground. Kinda scary, but I kept going, receiving an ice bath at the end of every lap and refilling my hat with ice for the next lap.
I had no true hallucinations, but my mind was seeing images of familiar objects formed from random objects along the trail, much like seeing animals in the clouds as they pass overhead. It's a common phenomenon even for people who aren't sleep deprived. There's even a word for it: pareidolia. Yes, I was curious enough to look that up. At the time, it made me feel like I had been transported into a 3D world of one of the old Highlights magazine hidden object search and find pages. It wasn't disturbing and I chalked it up to an effect from my sleep deprivation.
However, before the night loops began, the final drama of the event would begin to unfold. It began lap 58. Jennifer Russo had only had three interloopal periods greater than five minutes since crossing 200 miles. Her last two loops (56 and 57) had only allowed her about four minutes and and three minutes respectively. It was definitely a little too close for my comfort level. Jason went out fast for lap 58 then slowed to a casual walk after about a quarter mile. It happened so suddenly, I slowed down to ask if he was alright. He assured me he was fine, so I continued on. Kevin, who had looked so strong and determined the entire third day, went out slower than normal this lap. I didn’t see him again until the out and back where he was looking like he was hurting terribly and asked me for electrolytes. I didn’t have anything to give him. I just had my bottle of Long Haul and a SIS gel pack that I was about to eat. I apologized and continued on. Then I saw Jennifer back even a bit farther than she normally had been. I asked her about Jason and she told me he turned back. Suddenly, it felt like this race had gone from never ending to almost over. I thought to myself, “Jason turned around, Kevin doesn’t look like he can run, and Jennifer might time out this lap.” I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but the thought crossed my mind that this could potentially be my last lap and I could be back to the hotel by dark and order a pizza! I wanted that so bad. I tried not to get overly excited and remain patient. I finished my lap and prepared for my next one as I had for the last 57 hours.
The start of lap 59. Jason had walked back on 58 and Kevin had timed out. Suddenly it was just Jennifer and I. She had come in with only 2:39 to spare and had to hustle to get back out. It was looking grim for her, but backyards are unpredictable and people have come back from what looked like a hopeless downward spiral. I focused on what I had to do and took it one yard at a time. Jennifer came in with 1:41 to spare that lap. During the hectic rush of prepping her to go back out for yard 60 and hustling her into the starting corral, somehow she went to the corral without her water bottle. As a crew member got her attention and Jennifer reached for it, the bell rang. The time for aid had ended and she was forced to go out for lap 60 without any hydration. At this point, I thought the race was over and was seriously concerned for her safety. I had been drinking about 20 ounces of fluid every lap in addition to what I drank between laps. Feeling truly concerned, I tried to make sure she was going to be ok for this lap. I wanted to offer my water bottle, but that would be considered aid and against the rules. She assured me she would be fine and very confidently and without hesitation told me she was NOT going to time out on this lap. I trusted her word was good and went on to run my lap. Good to her word, Jennifer came in with 1:35 to spare. We were going out for night loops.
I went out for lap 61 uncertain how long this was going to go on. I tried to get my legs to adjust to the paved surface after running trail all day as that had been a challenge the first two nights. It felt wonky, but I was confident that I could make it through another night if I had to. I saw Jennifer going out to the first turnaround and she was only a few minutes behind me. At this point, I believed we would be running until after sundown. I hit the second turnaround and started the home stretch back to the start/finish area. Jennifer wasn’t in sight. I was checking my watch and doing some complicated, sleep deprived trail math. How much farther did she have to go and how fast would she have to run it? It was going to be close, again. We finally crossed paths about 0.25 miles from the turnaround. Given the time remaining, it was possible for her to make it back. She stopped briefly to ask me if the turnaround was just ahead as she said it didn’t seem familiar to her this time. She seemed out of it, but seemed to be moving ok. She seemed worried about making it back in time. It felt like we talked longer than we should have. I looked at my watch and wanted to keep moving so I would have enough time to eat a chicken quesadilla after this lap. We parted ways and I made my way back pushing my pace a bit to maintain a cushion. I finished that lap with just 3:30 to spare. I knew she had about a half mile to cover in that amount of time. Definitely possible, but with 250 miles on your legs a 7 min/mile pace becomes far more difficult to achieve, even for just a half mile. I waited nervously until the final few seconds ticked off the clock and Jennifer officially timed out.
|If you ever meet a legend, be sure to get a pic!|
With the race over and as the official last person standing for the Capital Backyard Ultra, Laz congratulated me as did race volunteers and other runners that had dropped earlier and hung out to see the finish. It was all a bit overwhelming at the time chatting about backyards with Laz and it still feels a bit surreal. I was exhausted, but so pumped. This had been the most competitive backyard race I had ever competed in and I won it which meant I had secured a spot on Team USA for the International satellite team competition!
A local runner who had returned after cleaning up and resting, helped me out immensely during the third day when the heat was at its worst and my mind wasn’t functioning at 100%. A huge thank you for that Dagmar! And she didn’t stop there and leave me to sleep on the ground in the field as I had planned. She invited me to use her and her husband’s guest room at their house so I could get a shower and sleep in a bed. It was amazing and I felt like a new person. Thank you so much for your hospitality and generosity, Dagmar and Alex!
As I was getting my things packed up to head out, I realized I needed to get a picture with Laz. How could I come to a race where Laz was attending and posting updates, win it, and not get a pic with Laz? When I approached him for a picture, he was in the process of writing another race update. We chatted some more and I told him how great his updates are and how much fun they make the races to follow online. I know I’m not getting this exact, but he very humbly said something along the lines of how he doesn’t write great stories. You just bring great athletes together to compete and great stories happen. Then he just tells it as it happens. I would disagree, I believe he is a gifted writer with a great and distinctive writing voice.