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Mercury in Retrograde: Tales from the 2018 Big’s Backyard Ultra
“This can end anytime you want”, is what one of the last three runners whispers to the other after running over 200 miles at last weekends Big’s Backyard Ultra.
The race is held on the race director’s property, near a small town, Bell Buckle in rural Tennessee. It’s name derives from the fact that it is in his dog’s “Big” actual backyard. Things are simpler in the south so why not have a race that the race director walks to the end of his driveway and hosts a race there. The race director, Lazarus Lake, is well known now for the The Barkley Marathons held in nearby Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. Laz, as we know him, describes the race as the following:
“The concept is simple. At 0640 hours on Saturday, October 20, we will start a race around the 4.166667 mile Big Trail. The time limit will be one hour. At 0740 hours, we will begin another race around the trail. We will do the same at 0840, 0940, and so on, every hour, until only one runner can complete a race within the time limit. Any runner not in the starting corral for any race, is not eligible to continue. No late starts! If no single runner can complete a race at the end, there will be no winner. At 1840 hours, the races will transfer to a road out and back course. At 0640 hours the following morning, we will return to the trail loop.”
I was playing support crew for my friend Michael Anderson this time around. It had been 15 years since we were down in Tennessee for our attempt at The Barkley Marathons, well before people knew that name or Netflix made the documentary. Mike’s goal was to run 100 miles. This would be a new record for time for him, finishing the Kettle Moraine 100 miler in 27 hours earlier this year. After flying to Nashville on Thursday, we headed down to Laz’s place on Friday to say hello and to set up our aid station (no aid stations were provided) and shelter at the start/finish line. What a pleasant surprise to see a Canadian Flag at one of the tents. Casey, the runner from that tent who had run the race a few times, agreed to walk the daytime trail course with us and provided Mike with some tips on mile markers and cues to be on track for the 60 minute cut off with enough time to refuel. At only 4.1667 miles per lap, it would be horrible to miss the first cut off. The slippery trail had lots of fallen leaves covering loose rocks, and with frost forecasted, it would make the footing interesting to say the least. After walking the course, all we could do was get some rest. Tonight would be the last sleep for 30 hours after that.
A 4 am alarm woke us up for a quick breakfast followed by a 60 minute drive to the start of the race. The race would start at sunrise (6:40 am). The excitement on that rainy and cold morning was palpable. Three minutes to the start; Laz blew his whistle 3 times. Two blows at two minutes and one lone whistle at 60 seconds till the start: a routine that would continue for the next 68 hours, a task that would cause fear and excitement over the next 3 days and nights
Get to the Road
And they are off. The first 0.3 miles consists of an out back on the road, back through the starting coral and onto the trails. It will be another 35 minutes until I see the runners so I start filling water bottles with electrolytes and readying gels while trying to stay dry and warm. I have enough time to fire up the MSR stove for some hot water for instant coffee. Just as fast as they left, the runners return from their first loop and an otherwise quiet camp bursts into activity. A last man standing race is interesting. It keeps elite athletes with the rest of the pack. These runners who usually zoom by you in a few seconds are suddenly starting over again with you every hour. In this style of race, everyone is equal, until they are not. This is all about endurance and mental strength.
Mike’s goal is to get to the road, which means 12 laps or 50 miles on the trails. At this point it will be another 12 laps of road running overnight for a total of 100 miles. Everyone is in high spirits coming in from the first loop but still one runner chooses not to continue. All he wanted was to do one loop…
The Endless Road
It’s 6:34pm, a full 12 hours after the race start. Mike emerges from the trails just as darkness hits the camp. He has six minutes to change to road shoes, refill his vest with food and water and layer up into the night. The whistle blasts three times. It’s time to come back to battle. First into the starting corral hour after hour, Courtney Dauwalter is once again there with her big smile and subdued presence. Slowly, more runners shuffle in. Two, then one whistle blast, a few words with racers at the front and Laz sends them off into the dark, into the night, into the loneliness. I can finally sit down for a minute now that my chair has dried out from last night’s rain.
Mike returns from the first road lap with sore feet. The running shoes he’s in are too small now that his feet have swollen. I try to lighten the mood by telling him his shoes are supposed to hurt as his Hokas and their unmistakably high soles look like drag queen shoes. He manages a smirk and we change his shoes back to the ones he used on the trails. A bit of pain killer, a salt pill, new electrolytes and a gel. The whistle goes off three times, Courtney is in the coral, racers shuffle in, two whistle blasts and then one and they are off. If there was ever a Ground Hog Day 2, this would be the low budget way to film it.
The Runners Run as Laz Stokes the Fires
1:45am. The runners left 5 minutes ago. It’s 2ºC and I’m tired. The fires are smouldering at best. Laz prides himself in stoking the fires to keep the support crews warm and to entice runners to stay rather than head out for another lap. I think he secretly wants to give the support crews just a kernel of hope like the racers have. The fire is just fueled enough to draw you in, but not enough to offer much warmth. He tells those around the fire to not let anyone add logs to ration the wood. I add a log when he’s not around to try and keep us warm. He comes back and notices that the fire is bigger than it should be and interrogates the group. No one gives me up for adding a log. The group is one, wanting to keep warm. The 4.1667 mile loop is endless and monotonous for the support crew just as much as for racers. There is just enough time to clean up from the racers coming in to take 5 minutes to sit down, before the Crewing for Mike has turned into being support for 3 more racers. From boiling water for coffee to heating up instant soup and prepping water bottles, there is little time for anything else. The runners come back through and just like that it’s down to 35 from the starting 70.
At this point I am wearing every piece of clothing that I brought. Standing around doesn’t produce enough internal heat to stay warm. The fire is still small. Routine kicks in. Heating water for Mike’s coffee, soup for the other runner, prepping electrolytes and thinking through what Mike might need for the next loop. Ultra running is one of those activities that favours the strong mind. It’s a long and mostly lonely road (literally) so making friends on the trail and at the aid station helps pass the time. I was supposed to trade off support duties with Julie, a Parks guide in Washington, at some point. Her partner Ricky is running. She left early as he had to drop out after 17hrs. My person to trade off support crew with is now gone.
“It’s Howdy Doody Time”
Laz steps up to the start line. 60 seconds until another lap starts. He has an especially funny smirk on his face, one that only Laz can have. He asks out loud, “Do you know what time it is?” With a bigger smile, almost a chuckle, he says, “It’s howdy doody time!” A few laughs lighten the mood of the otherwise tired and quiet runners. He will ask that exact same question every hour until the end of the race to mock the runners a bit. The race is really quite simple. Their bodies “can do it” but can their minds? He explains that they only need to run 4.1667 miles in 60 minutes. It’s just that lap that exists. Not the last one. Not the next one. Just that one lap.
Eat Especially When You Don’t Want To
It’s 3:40am. Mike is having trouble drinking or eating anything. I pull out some tough love. If he doesn’t eat or drink he won’t finish the race. He’s upset that I’m telling him something he doesn’t want to hear, but he knows that I’m right. He needs to get in at least 200-300 calories per hour, however gross that sounds at the moment. Some coffee and cup of noodles help him stay warm. He’s doing ok. I tell him he’s “looking strong”. Everyone understands that it is not how they look after running 150 kms, but it’s an unspoken truth. Looking at the food left, it’s obvious that he won’t have much left after this lap. He has enough gels to push it to 100 miles if he likes variety, but at this point all he has are salted maple gels so those are almost gone. He doesn’t need to know that though, and after asking a few crew around the campfire, I now have an assortment of the weirdest gel flavours to satiate Mike’s palate. Flavours be bygone, we are here to run an ultra.
Mike’s pains work themselves out. Another 3 laps and he is done with his goal, running 100 miles with the likes or Guillaume, Courtney and Maggie. Side by side and starting on the same line each lap.
It’s 6:40am. The race is down to under 30 people and Mike is one of them. The man with the whistle blows it three times. It’s time to get ready for another lap. Courtney is prompt and in the starting coral at the three minute mark. As she stretches her legs, she pulls off a full squat. I’m not sure how you can do a full squat after 100 miles, but she’s some sort of super human I guess. This lap will be run, but not with Mike as a runner. He has done the distance he came for. He’s happy to run 100 miles in 24 hrs, which is his fastest 100 miler yet. The sun is coming up and its light is finally warming us up, the sleepless and frozen people at camp. We stick around for another couple of laps and head back to shower and sleep for a couple of hours before coming back to cheer everyone on. I hand off the crewing responsibilities to others and we are finally off to some sleep.
“Peter! Peter! Go run Peter!”
A two-hour nap and we are back to cheer on the remaining runners. One of them is Peter from Dublin. Peter comes in after 35 hours and cannot eat or get any food down. As you do when you’re crewing you say “yup”, the complaining is ignored and you focus on the task: trying to convince someone to eat. Some of his friends who travelled over from Dublin with him and dropped out at some point the night before try to get him to eat a cold bratwurst. Not exactly an enjoyable option, especially running an ultra. Some beef jerky and a Gin-Gin (candied ginger that does wonders for an upset stomach) later, he is forced to get up as the three whistles sound off. He gets up and says “I can’t go on” , and then more forcibly, “I won’t go on”. He reaches down and takes off his timing chip from his ankle to hand it in to a waiting Laz. Suddenly, all the remaining runners and support crews start cheering Peter to run, “one more lap”. He flat out refuses, but the cheers won’t stop, begging him not to quit after he’s ran so far. Again, he says “I can’t run anymore”. The crowd, louder this time, cheers him to run at least one more lap or quit along the way. He sighs loudly and reaches down to place the timing chip back on his leg. A whistle blast signals it’s time to get ready to head out again. 47 minutes later, Peter finishes his lap in better spirits. He grabs food, drinks some electrolytes and rests before the next lap. Laz chimes in, “You only need to run one 4.2 mile loop. That’s it. You quit in your mind before your body does.” And then walks off chuckling to himself.
We cheer on racers while enjoying a beer for the next 3 hours. It is slowly getting dark and again, runners are switching back to the road loop as we pack up our tent and gear. This is the second night that they will be out there in the cold running against their mind. What we don’t know yet is that there will be a third night to be had albeit with a much smaller group battling each other. Courtney’s words, “You can end this anytime you want” have never been truer.
The Timers Need to Leave
Heading back to Nashville to get ready to fly out means that we are left to follow the race via updates from the “Big’s Backyard” Facebook group. As the race goes on, the racers tiredness is replaced with Laz’s tiredness. He moves from tormentor to tormented. Hourly updates with titles like, “Squinty Eyes” and “Where’s the line?” show his fatigue as much as theirs. It’s 61 hours in and the race timers are getting antsy. They need to leave in the next couple of hours to make their flights to the next race they are heading to. It’s ok, Laz is just going to use his Barkley Watch instead, referencing a $5 Timex that he handed out for last year’s Barkley Marathons. It’s Mercury in Retrograde I guess. The race is morphing into Laz surviving more than the racers surviving. Mercury doesn’t actually change it orbits and direction but it appears as if it does. Nothing has changed here at Big’s Backyard but Laz’s cracks are starting to show. Laz is showing a tired Gary Cantrell battling to stay awake for endless hours. The racers determine when he will sleep, when his job is done. Until then, the runners run and Laz tends to the fires.
Gavin Harmacy was down at this year’s Big’s Backyard