Hitting rock bottom is better than I thought it ever could be: Big Dog Backyard Ultra
Big Dog Backyard Ultra is a 4.166666 mile loop that you have a whole hour to finish. All you have to do is run a 14 minute mile. It’s easy. A whistle blows three times at :57 minutes, twice at :58 and once at :59. Lazarus Lake, the race director, rings a cow bell on the hour and everyone starts again.
I have to write an email to my friend Jim to apologize. Jim ran the Backyard this year without his girlfriend Karen. She was hiking somewhere else in Tennessee and couldn’t make the Backyard. The year before, at the Backyard, they had had a canopy and a full camp kitchen.
Karen cooked for Jim. Karen, a licensed massage therapist, gave him rub downs. She had things waiting for him where she saw him rolling in off the road or out of the woods and on to the trail. She did what any good crew member would do, she looked after him.
This year Jim was alone. I, on the other hand, am almost always crewless and surely crewless at the backyard and I was also injured. I had been power hiking Friday afternoon, after driving from Florida to Tennessee, when I misplanted a foot, twisted my right leg.
Injuries for me are sort of funny in how all is well and sing song jolly along the trail and then POW! My foot slips and twists out, causing a massive contraction of my calf and hamstring muscles sending me to the dirt in a howling cussing pile of Mike.
I should also mention that this happened on the walk through. That’s right, I was injured on the walk through. I am now known for two things at the Backyard. I was the guy everyone at camp bet would drop and didn’t and I’m the guy that got injured before the race even started, walking the trail.
I could hobble by Friday night but every bump or tussle in the grass set me to the ground whimpering momentarily until I could catch myself and “man-up”. Thinking water, vitamin I and sleep would fix things by morning – I didn’t drink a single beer. I probably ought to have.
Morning did come and I was still limping. I hobbled over to the Thug Palace and settled in to watch. The Thug Palace was a shanty town McMansion of strung-together tents and tarps, decorated with Christmas lights and fake poop. It was odd seeing a race like the Backyard from the spectator’s view.
It turns out spectators eat a lot. We helped our runners when they came in and made fun of them when they left. We went to Starbucks and got in a car accident. I bought a donkey mask that I wore late that night at the bonfire. I had, by that point, begun drinking copiously.
The day before, and before my injury, I had pitched my tent at the bottom of a craggily stone laden field. I had cursed it in the daylight but in the warm moonshine glow of the night, I hobbled and bounced laughing happily down to my tent to sleep and dream.
I woke up around 2 a.m., wrapped up and spent a few cold hours around the fire with race crews staying up for their runners. They would scurry off every hour for the five minutes their runners had to eat and grouse and breathe before they, the crew, would stump down and wait again for the next hour to come.
There are a lot of things that make the Backyard the greatest ultra on Earth. It’s a devilish concept and by devilish, I mean of the Devil. Running each lap is, as Laz says, a modest request made over and over until almost every runner understands they cannot win and then inevitably quits or gets timed out.
The course is a beautiful and fun mix of single track trail and poison ivy. The course is littered with trees that should have been cleared and rocky fields that could have been avoided. This year was dry but last year’s course was a swampy mess. These are all great things
It’s the people who show up, however, that make it so amazing. I sat around a fire all day with world champion ultra-runners, transcontinental runners, national record holders, and Guinness book of world record holders. I talked 6 race strategies an old guard mad genius named Bill Shulze.
And then there are the mortals that come to run. These are every day folks just like you and me. They just happen to be fond of running 100 mile races back to back. One dude ran the Backyard until he lost his peripheral vision. They’re tough like that.
There is a world of people we are invited to honor with respect. There are presidents and judges writing and defending laws. There are basketball players and actors who build houses for the poor. There are popes and cyber whistle blowers.
Almost everyone I admire was there at the Backyard. Every hour I was blown away by the heart and guts of those people. They came to do battle with a clock and a trail. Every hour they would head out again or come straggling back or just crumble at the thought of going on just one more time.
We screamed and cheered like mad as one runner started to quit when the bell rang and then buoyed by our cat calls and clapping went on, looking back at me saying, “You know this is utterly pointless.” I yelled back, “I know – have fun!”
I would later learn that was Mark Williams, the first human to ever finish Barkley, the Walking Man. The awesome thing about Mark, at that moment, was that even though we all knew how badly the next lap would go for him – he still had hope. He pressed on.
Sitting in the grass, hours later, Mark and I discussed the plight of our matching giant injury prone calves. I was talking shop with the FIRST man that ever beat Barkley. I wrote that sentence ten minutes ago and have spent the time dumbfounded that it really happened.
In the end, the race came down to giants fighting giants. Marcy Beard folded first at 120 miles. Keith Knipling and Tim Englund duked it out for six more hours until Keith finally fell away. I want a poster with all three of them, dressed as matadors, to put over my bed so when I fall asleep at night I can dream of their greatness.
I need to finish though by telling you about Jim. Jim is a southern gentleman and a tough SOB. He was coming from his first morning loop, over 24 hours into the race, and looking over at me and asked how my leg was doing.
Every loop after his 12th loop, someone could be heard saying Jim looked bad, this was probably it for Jim but there he was – loop after loop. I heard he got so twisted up once at Vol State that he actually fell off a road into a culvert.
I want to say something about the human will but the truth is I have no idea how Jim does it. He kind of looks like Baudelaire. I mean the debauched sallow-eyed Baudelaire in case you were wondering. He just runs better than Baudelaire probably could.
He was sitting in a chair, wrapped in a blanket trying not to go hypothermic, saying he was so sorry that I couldn’t run this year. This is going to be cliché, but I don’t really care: when I grow up I want to be like Jim.
He ran 112 miles before he fell out. Most runners who go out for the fatal lap, struggle for a mile and then back out 15 minutes later. Jim ran the whole damn loop. The camp erupted when he finally ambled down the hill.
My only regret about the Backyard this year, including my leg and wearing a donkey mask, was not thinking to crew for Jim. I have no idea why I didn’t offer. I got to fetch him beer afterward. I would a given him every beer in my dang cooler if I’d had had the presence of mind to offer.
Its addictive watching that clock. There are 6 runners left, then five then 3. You just want to watch one more lap. I had an 8 hour drive a head of me though and each lap I waited meant driving deeper into the night.
I watched the runners leave out again. Laz was sleeping in his chair when I left the Backyard. The timing crew was delirious and nodding a bit also. I packed up my gear, looked at the clock and the race that would continue for three more hours after I left, I said some good byes and headed home.