Belgium’s Karel Sabbe set a Big’s Backyard Ultra record on Tuesday after running 75 laps and 502K to take the overall win in the globally-contested event. Sabbe was pushed by fellow Belgian Merijn Geerts, who failed to complete his 75th lap within an hour. The race—put on by Laz Lake—was a hybrid event, somewhere between being in-person and virtual, with athletes from around the world competing on set courses in their respective countries. Courtney Dauwalter took the win in the U.S. event (which was held at the traditional race site in Bell Buckle, Tennessee), completing 68 laps and covering 455K. It was an unprecedented three days of running, and certainly one of the best backyard ultras to date.
How the race worked
Normally, Big’s Backyard Ultra is held in Tennessee, but Lake decided to open the event up to runners around the world with a virtual format. In each of the 21 countries that participated, runners ran together on the same 6.7K courses. They then used Zoom to provide race organizers with regular updates. When a country had only one runner left, their race was over (even if they felt like they could keep running) and they were crowned the national champion. As Alberta’s Dean Johnson (who commentated the live stream) explains, “Laz feels that once you win, you win. This makes it a team event, where the second-place person is staying in the race just to help win for their country. The top two runners are forced to work together.”
This rule might have ended up hurting Dauwalter, whose race was cut short after the second-place American, Harvey Lewis, bowed out after 67 laps. Sabbe and Geerts were by far the strongest duo in the event, and that played to their advantage, allowing them both to keep running hours longer than Dauwalter and anyone else in the race. When Belgium was the only country left, Sabbe and Geerts went from working together to trying to beat one another.
Sabbe is no stranger to Lake’s races. In 2019, he got farther than any other runner at the infamous Barkley Marathons (although, like everyone else in the race that year, Sabbe registered a DNF). Despite not physically running in Tennessee, Sabbe showed up for another crack at a Lake event, once again taking the top spot, and this time ending up as the only athlete who didn’t DNF. In a video he posted on his Facebook page, Sabbe outlined the routine that he followed for most of the race.
“[I set] a pretty solid pace and then do a power nap for 10 minutes,” he said. That might not seem like a long time, but after running for multiple days, any sleep is better than none at all, and even the shortest of naps can help re-energize a runner before they continue on their way. Sabbe and Geerts kept blistering paces throughout the race, averaging 46- and 47-minute laps. In his 67th lap (which is the last listed on the event results page), Sabbe posted a ridiculous time of 42:34. This works out to a per-kilometre pace of 6:21, which is incredible considering he ran that time after almost three full days of racing and just 10 or so minutes of sleep at a time.
Dauwalter’s American title
It’s too bad that the rules prevented Dauwalter from continuing on with the race after Lewis dropped out, because her lap times don’t show any sign that she was ready to quit. Over the course of the race, she averaged 50-minute laps, but from the 60-hour mark until her forced finish, she didn’t run a lap over 47 minutes. Dauwalter was the last runner to DNF at Big’s Backyard in 2018, and while she won her national title this year, she probably wishes she could have gone after the overall championship. Hopefully we’ll see her back in Bell Buckle in future years along with Sabbe and Geerts for an in-person showdown.