The creator of the backyard ultra, Lazarus Lake, sums his event up perfectly: “We run in the backyard for many different reasons. We run because it is fun. We run to socialize with our friends (old and new). We run to go further than we have ever gone before.” Whether you are an experienced trail runner or completely new to the scene, a backyard ultra is worth experiencing. Lake hosts the most famous backyard ultra, Big’s Backyard, but you don’t need to have your hopes set on Big’s to try out one of the many backyard races hosted each year.
Backyard ultras follow a simple rule: runners start every hour on the hour, and follow a 6.706 km course. Pace doesn’t matter, as long as you finish the loop before the one-hour cutoff and are ready to start the next loop on time. After runners finish each loop (or “yard” as it’s called in a backyard race) they may rest, eat, refuel, cry—the options are endless. Racers must simply be at the starting line ready to run every hour on the hour until only one runner is left. A backyard ultra can go on for many hours or even days, with current record holder Merijn Geerts boasting 90 laps, or 600 km. While that might sound daunting, a backyard ultra can be a unique and valuable experience for any runner, regardless of distance and time goals. Here’s why you should sign up for one this season.
It doesn’t matter how fast or far you run
I ran three loops at my first backyard race–not remotely close to an ultra distance, despite the word being in the race name. Recovering from an injury and just starting to add mileage, I knew I was done just shy of a half-marathon. I had never been to an endurance event of this kind, and I hung around after to soak in the atmosphere. I wasn’t the first person to drop out. At the end of a backyard race, every single person aside from the winner takes a DNF (did not finish). There’s no second place; everyone is equal.
Running fast at a backyard ultra sounds like a positive—lots of time to recover, right? Many of the top backyard athletes actually run very slowly, even taking walk breaks, to minimize the toll on their bodies and extend their ability to run for hours (or days). There are very few perks to running quickly through the course and burning through your energy, fuel, and enthusiasm. If you are usually a back-of-the-packer, you’ll find you’re never alone.
It’s the perfect place to learn and practice troubleshooting
Most runners have experienced a less-than-ideal racing situation. From wardrobe malfunctions to GI distress, if you run long enough, you’ll have to work through an issue of some kind. In a backyard ultra, because you’re with your crew and around aid stations after each loop, you have the perfect opportunity to practise handling situations as they arise. If you’re training for an ultra, this can be essential. Not only are you only a maximum of 6.706 km away from your crew if your shoelace breaks or you start to feel sick; but you also get to experience handling potential setbacks on the fly. Backyard ultras often have both a daytime course, run on trails, and a nighttime course, on road or smooth paths that are safer during the dark hours.
My mom crews me at most of my races, and instead of trying to anticipate what I would need when I came flying into an aid station (as is usually the case), I was able to ask her to have something ready for me when I came back in from my loop. There’s a mental boost to knowing you only have to run 6.706 km and you’ll find fresh clothing prepped for you, or the snack you’ve been craving.
You’ll experience a community like no other
Backyard ultras are unique in that you’re always fairly close to the rest of the group, as well as the crowd and crew. A team atmosphere emerges, since a backyard racer can only go as long as their “assist” or the second-place finisher, runs. Racers need one another in order to keep going, and the larger the crowd, the more fun. If you make it until the nighttime loops, you will find that team atmosphere growing stronger, as runners personally battle their own fatigue and desire to stop running when darkness takes over. In my most recent backyard race, the inaugural Lewiston Backyard Ultra in Salmon Arm, B.C., it was most certainly the camaraderie among the runners that kept me moving through the night. One particularly cheerful (and renowned backyard athlete) Matt Shepard, of Valleyview, Alta., performed a resounding rendition of Macklemore’s Downtown, while running, to rally the group in the wee hours of the morning, and it worked–our spirits were lifted. You’ll experience tiny magical moments like this sprinkled throughout every backyard event.