Backyard Ultra Training Run
My final planned race in the Texas Trail Championship Series is “The Game”, a last-runner-standing race, sometimes referred to as a “backyard ultra”.
Allow me to explain.
In a backyard ultra, all runners must complete a 4.167-mile loop (~6.71 km) every hour, on the hour. If you complete the loop in less than an hour, you have the remaining time to do whatever you want - eat, drink, stretch, change clothes, use the bathroom. Failure to return to the start line by the time the next lap begins results in elimination. This continues until all runners have been timed out or have thrown in the towel.
Why that distance?
It works out to precisely 100 miles in 24 hours.
Why is it called a backyard ultra?
The recently popular format of this race was invented by Lazarus Lake, who is also the race director of the infamous Barkley Marathons. His race, “Big’s Backyard Ultra”, is held on his property (i.e. his backyard), and the race format of repeated short loops was created partially out of necessity in order to make the course fit on his 140-acre property.
6.7 km per hour isn’t particularly difficult - with some effort, most people can power walk that fast. However, this begins to get more difficult as the distance piles up. For most competitors, each lap takes a little longer than the one before, which leads to a shorter break, which makes you start the next lap more tired, resulting in a slower pace and an even shorter break, and you wind up in a downward spiral until you can’t make it or you quit.
Notably, most runners don’t get timed out - they quit. It’s said that the hardest part of the course is the short distance from the rest area back to the start line. After long enough, competitors are dealing with blisters, chafing, sore joints, and sleep deprivation.
Since the race continues until one runner is left, there’s no set distance or time, and it’s uncertain how long any given race will last. They often continue for several hours. At the most recent Big’s Backyard Ultra, which is now the de facto backyard ultra championship, the winner completed 85 laps for a total of 570 km (354.167 mi). Perhaps more impressively, that’s 85 hours, or three-and-a-half days! That’s a long time to be awake!
Because each lap starts on the hour, it’s impossible to take any kind of extended break - sleep is obtained 5-10 minutes at a time, if possible. Hallucinations aren’t uncommon.
When I registered for The Game, a backyard ultra held two hours from where I live, in Columbus, TX, I mistakenly thought last year’s race lasted 15 hours.
Alright, so it started at 8:00 AM and it was over before midnight, and they only ran 100.6 km (62.5 mi). I ran a 100k in less than nine hours. And in less than 15 hours, I ran 100 miles. 100 km in 15 hours isn't that hard!
One day after paying the registration fee, I found out last year’s race, in reality, lasted 34 laps.
Oh holy crap. So it started at 8:00 AM Saturday and went until 6:00 PM Sunday. What the hell did I just sign up for??
It’s not so much the distance that worries me, it’s the time. Again, that’s a long time to go without sleep. I’ve never been awake that long in my life, much less ran an ultramarathon at the same time.
After a few days of being terrified, my horror slowly began to turn into excitement. Of all the races I’ve done, this is the one that truly answers the question “How far can you run?” I was going to get the chance to find out! And besides, some people finish 100-milers in 36 hours. If they can keep going that long, why can’t I?
During the few days in which I was still horrified, I talked about the race with a few friends in an attempt to calm myself. Nothing helps bad feelings like spreading them around. One friend suggested I do at least one training run in the same format, where I run a set distance each hour and take breaks in between.
A light bulb went off. The next week was spring break.
“That’s an excellent idea,” I told him.
So the plan was set. Wednesday night, and on into Thursday morning, from 7:00 PM - 8:00 AM (sunset to sunrise), I’d run 13 laps in the same format. I chose to do an out-and-back on the Winters Mill Trail, since the race itself would be on a trail, and the big church parking lot at one end was an ideal place to park a car and set up a personal aid station.
For whatever reason, the first lap felt difficult. Maybe it was the hill training I’d done the day before, but my legs didn’t have any juice. I was running at about a 5:00/km pace, which is slow for me but “too fast” for this kind of race. The thing is, I didn’t feel like I was taking it easy, and the problem is I’m not used to going any slower. I intellectually understood that this shouldn’t be difficult at all and simply got through the klicks, but for whatever reason, I didn’t like it.
I didn’t bother eating or drinking anything after lap 1. Just kind of sat there and texted some people to kill the 20 minutes I had. I got the impression that the breaks were going to be very boring.
After the next few laps, I started feeling better, and the running felt more effortless. I was running in a pair of shoes I’ve never liked, and which are on their last legs. The plan was to change them out after five laps, so finishing each lap put me in a better and better mood. I was getting closer and closer to changing out of these pieces of crap.
Instead of 6.7 km, I rounded each lap up to an even 7 km, and I was finishing each with ~18 minutes to spare. That gave enough time to plug my light into a power bank, eat something, and either stretch or eventually, take a catnap.
When it came to catnaps, I eventually found a strategy. To start off, I was walking the first and last minute-or-so of every lap, whether I felt like it or not, as a warm-up/cool-down. If I planned to take a catnap during a break, I’d turn my light to its lowest setting and half-close my eyes as I walked across the parking lot to my car. Then when I arrived at my canvas chair, I was half-asleep already and dozed off almost immediately.
The laps that came immediately after a catnap felt noticeably shorter, not in terms of distance, but in terms of time; it felt like they were over with quickly.
After five laps, I did a full wardrobe change - new shirt, shoes, socks, and shorts. It wasn’t necessary, but the race is in April, and in Texas, it could be hot. Putting on a fresh set of non-sweaty clothes could be a game-changer, and I needed to get practice. I don’t think I do it quickly enough.
The new shoes made a difference, and laps 6-9 still didn’t feel that difficult. I was still finishing each lap in ~42 minutes, including walking the first and last, and it seemed like each break went smoother and smoother as I started learning little tricks to save small amounts of time. It helped to come up with a “schedule”, not only for what to do during each break, but also what each break’s main task would be. 18 minutes isn’t enough time to do everything, so you have to pick and choose. Some laps would be dedicated to changing clothes, others to stretching, others to naps. I also set up a three-lap food rotation of fruit, oatmeal, and protein (usually nuts).
However, after seven laps, my knee started acting up. On lap seven, it was merely a sporadic annoyance here and there. Lap 8 began with some minor pain, but loosened up until I couldn’t feel it anymore. Lap 9 started a little worse, then took longer to go away. After a second wardrobe change (including a different pair of shoes), lap 10 started kind of bad, then became manageable.
Lap 11, however, started bad enough that I realized continuing the workout would do more harm than good. The point of any workout is to get better, and at this point, running on this knee would make me worse. So I called it off after 10 laps instead of 13. It was now 5:00 AM.
Even though I quit early, I was pleased with how the training run went. The point wasn’t necessarily to log a lot of distance, but rather to learn something, and I think I did. It helps to have a plan/strategy for each aid station, and now I have an idea how to use them effectively. Managing sleep deprivation is key in this race format, and having a few tricks for that will help immensely.
Only a few weeks remain to get myself in the best possible shape. Let’s do this!