An average runner’s delusion of greatness in the running-world’s most enigmatic format.
Somewhere in the pandemic, I forgot everything I knew about trail running.
I’m on my fourth day of training for my first backyard and it’s not going well. The giant latte I had for breakfast is fading fast, and the two bananas I inhaled before the run aren’t doing me any good. My body feels weak and shaky but better than yesterday. After that run, I made a solemn vow before God: never will I ever have Raisin Bran within 24 hours of any physical activity.
This all started in the spring when an editor suggested I give a backyard race a try. Conceived out of Gary Cantrell’s (aka Laz Lake’s) nostalgia for interval runs on his high school track team, victims run 4.167 miles every hour on the hour until all but one has dropped. Pacing is up to you, as long as you are in the corral at the start of the next hour. For Lake it’s mathematical. If you make it 24 hours, you’ll have run exactly 100 miles.
My right-brained-self thought why not and decided it best to go to the heart of darkness: Laz’s backyard in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Not able to get into Big’s, I signed up for Little’s, which takes place two weeks before on October 1st. In Laz’s words, it’s a “Good-old-timey backyard ultra (the kind your momma used to tell you about).”
Admittedly, I’m in way over my head. An average runner, my best finish is 12th at the Delano 12-hour, and there I had all the advantages. It was in my hometown, the elevation gain was 10-feet per loop, and the surface was smooth dirt. Laz’s course, with 490-feet of climb each lap, on trails, is going to be a different ball game.
“Good luck,” a runner friend says with a not-so-subtle drip of sarcasm. My wife, however, has the opposite approach. “It’s okay to just do okay,” she says. “And anyway, you’re more of a writer than a runner.” But I have the chance to run in front of Laz, and for some reason, that has me feeling like Rocky getting a shot at Apollo Creed.
On trail, five minutes from my home, a fog of humidity is settling over me like a body bag. I usually avoid this route behind The Sisters of Mercy Convent, but four loops precisely match the specs of Laz’s backyard.
My watch hollers at me: time for the next hour. But I’m not feeling it. My gut is playing a mad game of Twister, and I don’t need the bad mojo of going duecy at a nunnery.
So, I suck on one of my hydration boobs and try to walk it off. Water pellets tap my head from high above as a spring shower lumbers by. The heavy, rain-soaked leaves have reached their limit. I think I have too. On the edge of the woods, I spot a moss-covered stone with an inscription, “God is faithful and merciful.”
I sure hope so.
Temptation is the beauty and the beast of the backyard phenomenon. They are sneaky attractive, like the High Striker at a carnival (The Hammer Game). The bell is in no danger, but we’re curious just how high we can make the puck soar. “Just one more loop,” taunts the backyard website, and these quirky last-man-standing races have cut a swath across the planet. Over 45 countries now have their own versions of the race from Chile to South Africa. Some have funny names like The Bullshit Backyard Ultra, Herdy’s Frontyard, and the Go Aloha Yourself Backyard. Others represent their state like the Ohio Backyard Ultra or the Kentucky Last Sole Standing. Then, there are the nationals: The DNF Challenge – Backyard Ultra Israel and The Romania Backyard Ultra.
While the pandemic shuttered most races, backyards gained steam, virtually. A 2020 Outside Magazine headline read “The Quarantine Backyard Ultra Is Perfectly Insane.” Sports Illustrated chimed in too, calling the format “especially diabolical.” Laz, echoing P.T. Barnum, simply calls it, “The greatest show on earth.”
A week and several hill repeats later, I’m back at The Sisters for more fun. Now, I’m two minutes faster per loop and my average heart rate is lower.
I just might win this thing.
A mile later, my new-found faith plummets. I bounce and jostle through a creek bed and start wondering about my health coverage. I don’t feel like a kid playing in the woods like so many articles say. My legs are half-baked Jell-O. I’m gritting my teeth, and my pace is circling the drain.
Then, through a stand of vines and clingy branches, I see a towering wisteria. It’s long, hanging gems are blooming a brilliant purple. I don’t remember ever seeing it before. It seems out of place somehow – like magic – like something in anime. I crest a hill and feel the gravity of the Earth swing like a pendulum. Then running suddenly becomes a thing of grace – my feet a lullaby on the trail.
I never want to stop.
Pulling out of the parking lot after my run, I settle on a tangible goal to shoot for during the backyard: 24 hours. It seems both impossible and doable, analogous perhaps of the race itself. I whiz by Starbuck’s, tapping my fingers on the steering wheel as I avoid the temptation for a venti iced chai. I’ll head straight home, I tell myself, play some rock music and recommit to this endeavor of backyard training. I’ll elevate my game. I’ll eat right, train harder, and do everything perfect… from now till the race.
But when I walk in the door, my wife greets me with a surprised smile. “Perfect timing,” she says and holds up a large tray of mac ‘n cheese. The top is browned just right… and sitting on the counter beside her are two glistening Dr. Peppers.
My mouth begins to water.