It is a Tuesday morning, a few hours before the sun comes up. I have tucked myself into a lobby couch a hotel in tiny town Tennessee. I drove out here Wednesday + Thursday to spend an undetermined amount of time at the Big Dog Backyard Ultra. My plan + my gear was all about crewing. However, when given the last-minute opportunity to become another crazy person at the start line I jumped at the opportunity.
I have a history with the Big Dog Backyard Ultra. In 2014 I was crew for Jeremy Ebel when he battled it out with Johan Steene, until international flight schedules got in the way + they decided to call it. This was when I realized crewing for a multi-day race was like taking on the responsibility of a very large, exhausted + needy infant — Crewing a Newborn at a Multi-Day Race via Ultra Runner Podcast.
photo from my loops at the 2016 Big Dog Backyard Ultra, via John Price
In 2016 it was my turn to run. After a solid summer of running I injured myself just before the Bear 100 resulting in a medical deferral…then a go at the Big Dog Backyard Ultra a few weeks later. I felt like I was in way over my head + *knew* I didn’t have 49+ hours in me. But I showed up + gave it what I had. I made it 15 hours, about 62 miles/100 kilometers. I also cried, more than I should admit to. It was a brutal race + I was prepared to take a blood oath to never, ever run again. Of course, I didn’t do that. I shared this visceral need to quit + my survival “strategy” for the race in these two stories — Every Sixty Minutes + Until Next Time.
This year, 2018, I toyed with the idea of running the race alongside Jeremy for a while but I ultimately packed up + headed east with the intent of crewing. The race was wait-listed + there were some big names with impressive resumes at the race. I wouldn’t be a contender, I’d just be another DNF on a long list of DNFs. When a last-minute opportunity to run came up…I took it. My head was all ‘yay, running!’ while my legs were like ‘hey dum-dum, you haven’t run in months why do you hate us so much?!’.
2018 Big Dog Backyard Ultra
At 6:40am on Saturday, October 20th I lined up with 75 other crazy runners. The whistles had started blowing at 6:37am + just before the cow bell rang Laz was walking around this jittery group of runners yelling ‘get on the damn road’ while spray painting the starting corral [+ our shoes if we weren’t quick enough to move onto the damn road]. Then the bell rang + we were off. We hit the road for a quick out + back then looped back through the start/finish area to the enthusiastic cheers of well rested crew members. From here we hit the trail…the god forsaken trail.
the trail was beautiful…when it wasn’t muddy + sticky, which didn’t happen until day two.
Within moments of hitting the trail it all came rushing back to me — this tree, that rock, those squiggles, that turn. In denial of what I had just committed to I clung to the conversation I’d struck up with Ben Yancey. In 2014 we spent many, many hours running together as we chased the perfect 57 minute finish. Maybe if I focused on that I’d forget about the mental anguish that was already creeping up in the back of my mind as I saw the familiar cave + checked my watch. I couldn’t remember what time I had attached to this cave last time, but I knew it was a notable spot on the trail.
The day wore on, one hour at a time. I’d toy with the idea of quitting but knew it was way too soon to pull out of an “ultra” race. The forecast had hinted at rain + Mother Nature didn’t want to let us down so we had rain all night + half of the morning. This at least kept the heat at bay, but it also made for a disgustingly sticky + slippery trail. My legs felt this. Or maybe they just felt the miles I was jamming down their tendons without any preparation. Either way, my legs were NOT stoked on what I was doing to them.
we ran down this rock on the way out + up it on the way in…both directions sorta sucked
I kept running, hour after hour, but never fell into the rhythm I had last time. When I read through my story from 2016 I noticed I had far more check points during that race. This time I had only five — the Y-tree, the lollipop, the squiggly trail, the field, the house. My timing was also more relaxed as I didn’t have seconds displayed on my watch, just minutes. That said, I still fought for every stupid second I was out there. In 2016 I hit the Y-tree 20 minutes in, this year it was 22 minutes in. Two whole minutes — that’s half a lifetime in Big Dog Backyard standards! This resulted in more running later in the loop, which sucked on the wet, slippy trail.
My race ended just eight hours in at 33 miles, half of what I pulled off last time. My body was elated to be done but I was a bit disappointed I didn’t make it to the road. However, I was there as crew, so I needed my body to still be functional when I was done running so I could keep Jeremy’s legs out there longer!
Jeremy, early in the first day of running in mind-boggling loops
Unfortunately, Jeremy’s race also ended earlier than expected at just 17 hours/70 miles. It definitely wasn’t what we came out here to throw down, but that’s what the Big Dog Backyard Ultra is all about.
The Battle of Mind + Body
The format of this race is a complete mind game + your body pays the price. In a traditional ultra you can crash into a chair at an aid station + let your stomach reset or work out a niggle in your legs. At the Big Dog Backyard Ultra you can’t…at most you have 15 minutes + that’s assuming you can still flat-out RUN the full loop to earn that 15 minutes.
You’ll either have your heart crushed when something goes wrong or you’ll do something you didn’t even think was possibly simply because you don’t have enough time to formulate your excuse to actually quit…so you just start running again.
Ben Yancey, cruising through the rocky, muddy trails with Terri Biloski
This year Ben Yancey got another chance to experience the latter. In 2016 he bailed out just a few hours before I did so he didn’t make it onto the road. Last year he made it to 13 hours + out onto the road [12 hours of daylight are run on the trail, 12 hours of night are run on the road] but ended his race by hurling a day of eating into a trash bag with true ultra runner grace. This year he hung onto all those snacks + kept running into the night. After 17 hours + 70 miles of running he finally got smart enough to call it a night.
This is not a distance PR for him [he’s also run the Vol State 500km this year!] but it is a notable Big Dog Backyard Ultra PR…which I’ve just decided is a thing. This race is special because it almost forces you to do more than you knew possible.
Jeremy + I didn’t quite have the weekend we’d planned on but we decided to make the most of our time in Tennessee. After both of our races ended we opted for the second best thing — hanging out at camp for the weekend where we cheered for everyone else still running + ate as much of our race food as possible. We found the one perk of DNF’ing a race…your weekend becomes a vacation full of naps + snacks!
We watched the runners drop off, one at a time. When Sunday morning dawned we were down to 34 runners…which felt like a lot, especially since they all looked pretty bouncy! As the race continued, one hour at a time, we worked our way down to just 11 runners hitting the road for a second time 36 hours into the race.
the ribbon of dirt weaving through the backyard woods of Laz’s home, beautiful!
On Sunday night I rolled myself into a sleeping bag + curled into a camp chair to watch the crazy as the nearly full moon rose high, making headlamps unnecessary. Every hour I’d wake up to whistles, a smattering of clapping + eventually a cow bell. This is a familiar was of life at the Big Dog Backyard Ultra but this time I needed to do nothing more than pop my head out of my sleeping bag + toss out a few cheery pep talks before hunkering back down. It’s much easier to crew a race when your runner has given in + is passed out in a tent rather than begging for attention every hour!
They Just Kept Running…
When dawn broke the next morning we were down to just five runners — Courtney Dauwalter, Greg Salvesen, Gavin Woody, Guillaume Calmettes + Johan Steene. They all looped with surprising consistency every hour throughout the day, leaving us with little drama to keep us on the edges of our camp chairs. They didn’t get whittled down to just three until Monday afternoon when Guillaume’s tendons gave up + Greg’s legs stopped pushing him forward.
That left Courtney, Johan + Gavin fighting into the night. As the THIRD night wore on we eventually made it down to just two + finally just one runner. Gavin dropped 65 hours/270 miles into the race with Courtney holding on until hour 67, logging an impressive 279 miles [her furthest distance by 40 miles!]. Johan headed out for his victory lap on the road to complete 68 hours/283 miles of running…after a messy 48 hours of travel from Sweden, including 10 hours of overnight driving to arrive just before the race started!
the welcome sight of camp + the start/finish as seen from the trail + my ‘two-minute’ turn
Every single person that toed the line + fought until their bodies or minds gave up on them are insanely impressive…+ a bit insane. It was motivating + a bit mind-boggling to watch these incredible feats of athleticism + determination play out in the backyard of one of the most encouraging yet diabolical race directors I’ve ever encountered.
Once again, I am humbled to be allowed onto trails with people like this. Every one was incredibly encouraging, with their words + their generosity with hot food. Even though my own race wasn’t worthy of fanfare the entire experience was well worth the trip. The humans who lived in Laz’s backyard for the weekend are interesting specimens of the human race with eclectic life stories to share but with very few day-to-day similarities.
It is races like this that bring us together + give us an excuse to get to know people from different backgrounds + with new outlooks on life. It’s refreshing, beyond running, which is why I love the ultra running community so damn much!