The Ultimate DNF: Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra Team Championship

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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? And after that ?

How about running 4.17 miles every hour until you just can’t anymore? Suddenly you don’t come back in less than an hour, or your legs just don’t carry you anymore. Welcome to the world of ultra-marathon running in your backyard. This endurance event has taken the racing world by storm over the past few years, pushing the boundaries for both accomplished and novice runners.

It’s a challenge like no other, and on October 15, teams of the most talented ultra marathon runners from around the world will compete to push their bodies and minds to the limit. Then further. It’s only ever 4.17 miles. It’s never more than an hour more.

It’s easy, until it’s not.

What is a Garden 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 shape is simple. A whistle sounds every hour, and the start corral empties for another 4.17 miles, what is called a yard. What you do with the rest of your time is up to you.

Complete the job in forty minutes? You have the remaining twenty minutes to rest, stretch, refuel, change your shirt, go portapotty – basically whatever you need to do. A three-minute whistle sounds, then two minutes, then one minute. The final whistle is your signal to shuffle another round. It’s about finding a balance. Too fast and you’ll burn out early. Too slow and you’ll waste time on your knees and DNF the race. Those who don’t return within an hour are timed, but most simply choose not to start another round when the going gets too tough.

Two men running.

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

Backyard ultra-marathons are usually solo events. That said, to push yourself further than you’ve ever done before, you need a solid field around you. A solid second runner, if you see them that way. This year’s Backyard Ultra World Team Championships pit teams of fifteen riders from thirty-seven different countries against each other to see which country has the best endurance riders.

In order to beat other countries, teams must push each other to their absolute limit, feed, cheer and drag each other to the finish line. The races will all start simultaneously and run simultaneously at satellite locations around the world. This means that while teams can get live updates from other countries, they will only know at the end of each round whether or not they are still competing against another country. Additionally, they compete to be the best racer in their own country, while pushing their country to be the best team. It’s a jaw-dropping, jaw-dropping combination of team and solo competition that should see some limits – and perhaps records – shattered.

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

What is the price ?

For all but one runner in a backyard ultra, the prize is a simple and demoralizing DNF – Did Not Finish. In the same vein that anyone who enters the infamous Berkley Marathons after completing just three loops instead of five is awarded “fun race” status, Laz started this event to beat race participation medals. There is only one winner in a backyard ultra-marathon. To be that winner, you have to complete one more lap than the last runner to retire, but who knows when that will happen.

In Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra Team Championships, this award is perhaps the ultimate DNF. A DNF medal you can wear with pride – that said, most Backyard Ultra riders display their DNF with pride, it’s something in their blood. But there is more than that. The winning racer from each country will be presented at the Backyard Ultra Solo World Championships exactly one year after the team race.

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

Will they cross the 100 hour mark?

The current record holder is Merjin Geerts, who ran 90 laps in 2022. Imagine. That means running for ninety hours without any – or at least a lot – of rest. Ninety hours. 375 miles. It’s three days and eighteen hours. Worse still, he had to be pushed that far. That means the second-place runner raced for three days and seventeen hours, just to DNF one race.

This year, with a field full of ultra-backyard event winners all over the world, this might just be the right environment to push the limits. 2022 seems to be the year of the fall of the 100 hour barrier. 100 hours of non-stop action. Fatigue, tiredness, pain, elation, the incessant shuffling and a Pavlovian reaction to a whistle. Even in the darkest hours, when the world shatters around you, that hissing in the night still lifts you up and sends you out the door. Can any of these runners beat the 100 hour mark?

steven john running training
Steven John/The Manual

How to follow the event

Departure: October 15, 2022 0700 Central Time

The finish: Anyone can guess.

The event will be broadcast live worldwide and you can watch it here, with time dedicated to each team of runners. Okay, maybe not the most intense viewing experience. There will be long hours of watching people run slowly around a course, lots of watching people eat, and hopefully less 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 reached before.

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