Big’s Backyard Ultra 2014 or My Death March toward Nirvana


Mike Baker,


The rural south is littered with dogs what generally get called red bulls because they’re red and built big like trucks. They’re a mix of whatever came along that day and took a fancy to their mama and most end up travelers or chained to trees or worse. They got bad reputations.

I reckon Big would get called a brown bull. I don’t know what mix of breeds he has in him, maybe pit, maybe horse, maybe Buick. He’s brown with a head like a cinder block and there’s a lot of him. Gary Cantrell puts on the Backyard as a fundraiser to cover Big’s upkeep. That’s how the race started.

Gary rescued Big, who I believe had been shot and beat up pretty bad and left in a ditch. Gary tried to give Big away to some college kid friend of his daughter. That didn’t work out at all. I think Big got real sad or Gary got to feeling like Big needed a better hand than some college boy.

Gary took Big back but most people that know Gary and have met the Big would argue that was gonna happen anyhow and it was just a matter of politeness shown to Mrs. Cantrell that Big got “sent away” under the pretense of not coming back. Now, Gary looks after Big and Big looks after Gary.

Gary is the race director for Strolling Jim, the Bloody 11w 100 Miler, the Bitter End 100 Miler, The Last Annual Vol State 500k, the Barkley Fall Classic and most famously, the Barkley Marathons or the “Race That Eats Its Young”.

It was because of Big surviving his mortal wounds and Gary’s reluctant compassion that I went to my first Backyard 3 years ago. Anyone who would save Big, this scary near dead shambling old pit dog was someone I would pull into the boat, if you know what I mean.

I knew about Big’s story before I really knew about the race or Gary’s other races. I was to Gary, the dog guy as I pestered him with questions about Big before I even started pestering him with questions about the race which is not like any other race I’d ever done.

And you really have to understand how the race works to understand the rest of this story. The clock starts and everyone runs a 4.1 mile loop which consists of a ¼ mile out and back on the road and then two conjoined trail loops in the hills behind Gary Cantrell’s house plus a little bit of land what belongs to Ben Yancey.

You have an hour to finish the loop. You can come in fast and rest or come in slow, closer to the end of the hour and start the loop shortly thereafter. There are three whistle blows at three minutes to go, two whistle blows at two minutes and one whistle blow at one minute.

The Race Director clangs a cowbell at the start of the next hour. If you haven’t finished the loop by the clang of the cowbell, you’re finished. You can cross the line right as the bell clangs and still be in the race. This goes on until only one runner can finish the loop after the bell clangs.

If no one finishes the loop in the allotted hour then no one wins the race. Those are Gary’s Rules. It’s his race. This race knows no mercy. The first year I ran the race, the Gary bet on the lap I planned on dropping and told me he was disappointed when I tried to quit which I ran and lost on. The bet was for one dollar.

This year, his very own son came sprinting out of the hills, staggering and tripping and generally hauling tail, finally collapsing 27 feet from the finish line as the bell clanged. We know its 27 feet because Gary paced it right in front of his son, as his son – his own flesh in blood still lay moaning broken up a bit in the squirming in the dirt.

I was the first runner ever, and I believe only, injured on the course walk through, my 2nd trip up to Tennessee to do the race, being too rock and roll to change out of my Converse lo-tops before the walk- through and whoopsied right out the race.

I missed running the second year and spent the rest of that day drunk. There is a photo of me wearing a donkey mask standing by the bonfire swigging a giant bottle of liquor. I would like to say this photo was staged. That would be a lie. This year I had a grudge.

I ran each of my good loops, and there were 8 of them, in 52 minutes a loop. I spent the day pacing off of other runners. I paced of Tim Dines who was too tall and I can run with Tim but I can’t power walk the hills with Tim. His stride is too long and I lack speed in this regard and stride length.

I tried running with Marcy Beard. She’s my size almost exactly and she’s a hundred miler for sure so I figured whatever pace she ran I would get in on time and make the bell. The problem was she runs differently than most people, all people really.

She would bomb the down hills like a dancer and slow march up hills, sometimes shooting ahead in weird unexpected places. She stopped to pick a flower or something. I ain’t certain as I nearly fell over the top of her, blowing my cover as it were and having to sprint ahead like nothing ever happened.

I tried pacing her from the front. I figured if she got in behind me then I would be safe. It meant keeping track of her and I became sort of paranoid always listening for her like she might have passed me and I just missed it. I know how little sense that makes. It’s just where my head was at.

I talked to her at the end of the second lap I ran “with” her. I told what I had been doing and how awful it was and she gave me some advice: Stop pacing off me. Find your own pace and trust yourself. When you stop laughing at that last thing she said, it worked. Mostly.

I went out for the laps seven and eight lap looking for my happy places. You take any given piece of terrain and find the pace and style of running that makes you smile a little bit. The best example is up hills. The going wisdom is to power hike the up hills.

I don’t have a wide stride though so generally its more comfortable for me to look at up hills like a staircase and walk up the steps, sort of choppy and short-strided. It isn’t as energy efficient as power walking but it doesn’t suck like power walking either.

I run with this fella John out a Texas. You won’t know he was from Texas except to look at him, 5’8” and 200lbs a weightlifter turned runner. He ought not a been very long for this race. I thought so and kept trying to drop him.

He kept coming back at me, chatty and grinning. He’d been to Eastern Europe where I believe he was looking for a wife. He didn’t find a bride but sure drank a lot and right about then was pressing me. Getting him to talk didn’t slow him down one whit.

John ended up running over 130 miles. I can’t say how as he seemed like a river running north or rain falling up being he was built like Big. I would spend the evening cheering him on from the bonfire but right about then I was trying to drop him.

I think that’s where things went wrong. I had found my happy place and its running hard and right at that cusp of hard and the best I got. This here race is about being smart. Mrs. Baker didn’t raise a quitter but she might thrown some ciphering my way.

I got talking to this runner named Chris and it was so pleasant I missed the fact we were clocking 9-minute miles uphill. I say 9 minute miles but who knows. It just felt good. It’s something to feel like you just started when, in fact, it’s the middle of the race. Or, as it turned out, the end.

I came in from my eighth lap feeling pretty good, exhausted and a little crazed but good. I had a system. I would eat a few Fig Newton’s, drink Gatorade, use the privy and drink more Gatorade. I would do deep squats and then stand up with my hands on my toes pulling my back into a stretch and then go run.

This last time in to the start/finish after lap 8, I didn’t do any of that. I ate some Chexs Mix, drank a Mountain Dew, and before I knew it I was toeing the line and then running. I started the final loop feeling off. My stomach was rolling with Mountain Dew, my legs felt like lead. I wanted to hurl.

The out and back section on the road is meant to spread the runners out and the group I’d been running with dropped me in the first ten yards. I would doggedly sprint after them and they would drop me again.

And again. And Again. If this were a nature film, the narrator would describe the weak slow straggling deer about to be picked off by the hungry drooling lion; when the narrator said deer, he would have been referring to me.

I caught up with the pack again, around the timing mats and then hung behind my usual group of runners until we hit the woods. I started talking face-plants some time immediately after that. I am not a graceful runner under the best circumstances.

It would happen in the process of either running with them or being dropped by them or trying to catch up. I would cease running under control and begin flailing a bit, causing my trailing toe to catch on something or just simply misstep on a root and down I’d go, legs splayed cross wise, back twisted and usually bouncing down a hill ruddered by my shoulder or my face.

It got so bad, in a considerably smaller distance than you might imagine, I stopped seeing downhill trail as a chance to breathe or run faster. Downhill trail became just a lot of loose gravel and a tree branch or two crossing the way that was sure as the Devil going to be the reason I busted out my front teeth or snapped my neck.

My friend Bill describes this sensation as something like trail runner’s vertigo. He pantomimes looking over the edge of a cliff, his legs going all wobbly and his eyes filled up with the impending doom staring up at him from down below. I started slowing down.

It’s hard to explain but my body just slowed down under the weight of 35 miles of running, cold wet weather, not enough stamina, mental exhaustion and this new found reality that I was bound to fall again. My body just started shutting down.

That’s when the grim reaper caught me. He was a dude, super geared up in matching shirt, shoes and shorts with match arm sleeves and hydration pack and visor who came in almost dead last every loop. He said he frontloaded the loop. I should be able to catch him in miles 3 or 4 when he started walking.

This never happened.

Then Jeremy Ebel passed me. He had been running 14:30 miles all day. Everyone thought he was doomed. I may have been the first person to understand that this was just his strategy. He offered me some food tips and then realizing I was just coming apart, smiled and waved as he passed me.

My legs were shaking and I could walk faster than I could run. It’s a weird place to be because I’m a runner but as I watched Jeremy run off, I knew I couldn’t hang on at his pace which was almost walking and all I had left was not going to be fast enough to beat the clock.

Earlier in the race, I had worked out times to be at spots on the trail, which allowed me to get the loop done with 8 minutes to spare. This last loop I hit the first checkpoint two minutes behind my mark. I hit the second checkpoint 8 minutes behind my mark.

I hit the third checkpoint 15 minutes behind, a little past the cowbells clanging, my legs had no run left in them and there was a faint gentle breeze. I felt the calm ease of mind I reckon you feel when you done made peace with the inevitable at the end of everything.

Gary Cantrell makes special things. They aren’t just races, they’re experiments we get to conduct on our very souls. Everyone either quits or fights but ultimately everyone loses. It’s what we do with that information that makes us either stronger or chips a little bit of ourselves away.

There’s a bonfire Gary gets going every year as night rolls in to Bell Buckle, TN. It’s his fire and I mean by that, don’t mess with it unless you’re married to him. I once accidently burned my shoes trying to warm up my feet and he yelled at me, not for endangering myself but for putting something in the fire he didn’t want there.

There was moonshine and monkey shine and I don’t care how corny that sounds. It was a lovely place, a big circle of old friends and new friends and welcome strangers. I kept trying to find missing friends in the fire lit faces of these new people.

Jim was home tending his torn up feet, Catherine and Bill who are not married but really ought to be were home in Canada trying to get Tennessee out of their blood, Ray the K just ran 1800 miles for reasons no one can discern, Pat and Shannon who just had a baby they named Plexico. I missed them.

Don’t get me wrong, the new folks were nice enough. There were the two bearded Chris’, Rodney and Greg. I imagine world peace might happen with a bonfire and moonshine or a fist fight would break out and maybe a hockey game.

I drank a little moonshine with Durb and Waz. We had some cherries macerated in moonshine and moonshine sweetened with honey from Waz’s honeybee hives. I talked a while with Bill Schultz about a six day race he just did up in Alaska.

I had made Tim Dines late for dinner at Sir Pizza the night before so I could get some vegetarian brots and his wife cooked up for me and we shared them out to a few fellow vegetarians that night. I shared out most a my beer as well. It was such a pretty and cold night.

This year though, as the hours rolled on to late hours, the circle around the fire was mostly race wives and girlfriends too worried about their men out running through the night to want to tell stories and lie about races. They were thinking out the things their boys would need on the next loop.

I bugged Mike Melton and insulted Mike Dobies for a bit. Tim and Kathey Dines left early to rescue their son from a babysitter. I wandered back to a far field where my tent had been that year and brooded a bit and then pee’d on the spot. I went to bed around 10pm. It was really all that was left to do.

I’ve never done right by Gary in that I’ve never been smart about how I approached the race but I don’t reckon I need to, as my particular style has always been to run until there’s nothing left but heart and hands like that scene in Tin Cup where Costner keeps swinging at the stupidest shot ever just to be the guy who did it.

I’d rather run hard than smart. A man walks into a bar, lays down a 100 bucks and says I can out run all you mugs and then he asks the rummy sitting next to him to hold his wooden leg because that heavy old thing might slow him down. That guy would be me.

I headed home the next day around noon. Some people stayed later, some to the finish but I could see that the race would last a while and I needed to get home and to work the next day. Jeremy Ebel and Johan Steen ran 49 hours in total or 204 miles.

They both quit together. Johan had a flight out to Sweden that he couldn’t miss and Jeremy refused to win on a technicality. Gary, the race director is said to have cried actual tears. He then told them both that they had lost and the coveted entry to the Barkley Marathons would go to no one.

It’s funny to me how Gary’s compassion for Big is what got me here the first time, but the race itself has no mercy for the ill prepared or the witless, the fair minded or real good sports. This race, decidedly has got nothing to do with mercy.