The ultra-marathon without end has a winner


Last night, while South Africa slept, four competitors were slowly whittled down to just one in a last-man stands ultra-marathon that has been described by competitors as something akin to a “holy experience”. It wasn’t the longest the race has ever been run for, but it was among the most gruelling.

Much was being spoken about Maggie Guterl before the start of the 2019 “Big’s backyard ultra” in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. An ultra-marathon runner from Durango, Colorado fans of the race had heard rumours she was looking to run 400 miles during the race this year. That’s 643kms, non-stop in just one race. A feat which would smash the previous record. And at hour 43 Guterl was certainly in with a chance, lining up with just three others, Katie Wright, Will Hayward and Dave Proctor to boldly chase that super-human record.

Big’s backyard ultra is a simple concept. Speed doesn’t matter. Endurance does. Runners have exactly one hour between starting times. Over that hour all they need to do is run the roughly 6,7km lap and be back at the starting line in time for the cowbell to start the next lap to still be in the race. Starting at 6.40 am on October 19th the runners would complete lap after lap until only one person is left standing.

With just 6.7kms per lap seasoned runners say this isn’t a race for the fastest or even the fittest, it’s a race that will be won by the person with the strongest mind.

The current record was set in 2018 by 44-year-old Swedish athlete Johan Steene who ran for a body-breaking 68 laps. That’s 68 hours with the only breaks allowed being the ones he had won for himself by completing a lap faster than the one-hour time limit. Starting on Saturday morning at 6.40 am he ran 456kms to end the last person standing at 2:40 am on Tuesday.

The final four line up for yet another lap.

Former runner Andy Pearson says the second he heard about this macabre race in the middle of nowhere he knew he had to do it.

“My mind began to swirl. How far could I run if I had to run forever? Would my body or my mind give up first? What would it be like to be one of the last two people left, stuck in a stumbling, mutually self-destructive duel of wills?” he says.

The rumours of Guterl’s ability to run 400 miles don’t seem to have originated with her. That accolade likely comes from those who witnessed her first crack at the race in 2018 when she had declared herself to be terrified of the sleep deprivation and then finished second among women completing 183.3 miles (295kms).

For most people the idea of running a marathon of 42.2kms is crazy enough, the idea of a race that never ends may seem the opposite of sanity.

For South African five times comrades finisher and Iron man, Shaun Wewege the reasons people start running ultra distances are numerous. For him, it was a 30th birthday that needed to be completed doing something “stupid and unnecessary”.

For English doctor Katie Wright it was the lure of her adopted country of New Zealand’s huge and beautiful wilderness.

As the 43rd lap started Guterl found herself still not certain she would better 2018’s second place as when she looked to her left full-time doctor, and amateur runner Wright was still standing alongside her. In May, Wright ran 201km to become the first woman in the world to win a similar event, the Riverhead Backyard Relaps Ultramarathon and newspapers report she was back at work “no worse for wear” just one day later.

“I’ve been trained by the NHS,” Wright laughed speaking about the UK’s National Health Service. “They definitely work you till you drop, and I’m no stranger to having to push through a little bit of tiredness.”

Despite starting ultra running less than a year before Dr Katie Wright was still there at the 47th hour.

Unlike Guterl whose experience includes iconic 100-mile races, 24-hour track events, a top 10 finish at Western States and a second place at the Georgia Death Race, Wright had literally only run her first ultra-marathon six months before winning in New Zealand, and she achieved that with no training plan, no special diet or hi-tech gear.

Developed by a man who Andy Pearson describes as being an “evil-genius” Gary Cantrell, a.k.a Lazarus “Laz” Lake, the neverending race is partnered with Laz’s other even more gruelling 100-mile race the Barkley Marathons.

“Barkley Marathons, are a route-less, five-loop, supposedly 100-mile race through the thickest underbrush of Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. In three decades, only 14 people have ever finished the race,” Pearson says. “Laz is a true artist. The Leonardo da Vinci of pain. The Rembrandt of mind games. The Lady Gaga of suffering. A master of the sadomasochistic craft.”

As if to underline this fact, Laz is known for joining his team of “Jeer leaders” at the beginning of each lap of Big’s backyard ultra to sing chants urging runners to quit if it’s all getting too much.

Big’s backyard creator Laz Lake.

At 51 years old Will Hayward was the oldest competitor left in the field at the 43-hour mark. Hayward, who has a wealth of ultra-long distance running experience including the 298km Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge and the Western States 100-miler, won his golden ticket to take part in the Big’s Backyard when he completed almost 168kms at the Big Boar’s Backyard Ultra back in April.

As a part-time runner, Wewege explains that a runner’s headspace is as important as their training if they want to break the tape inside the allotted time.

“At the start of a long race, I tend to focus on strategy – when to take a walk break, what nutrition to consume and at which point – but this often falls apart,” he says. “It’s insanely difficult to focus for hours on end. My mind tends to wander and if I am having a bad race, my thoughts are less about strategy than bargaining with myself. ‘Run another 50 m and maybe you won’t feel like calling an ambulance’ or ‘Make it to that tree up ahead and you can at least pass out in the shade and avoid sunstroke’.”

Describing his Big Boar’s win Hayward is far more casual. “It was very meditative,” he says. “It was obviously quite a long time but it really just passed. I wasn’t really aware how long I was out there for.”

“It seems strange to say, but I didn’t get bored at all. You just kind of dial into the moment … the act of repetitive activity where you’re doing the same path over and over again. There’s something quite satisfying about it,” he said.

For someone who claims to not be aware of the time Hayward does seem to finish his laps like a metronome. Running very near Wright, the two were clocking in an average lap time of 52 minutes and 26 seconds and 52 minutes and 38 seconds respectively, leaving them a mere seven and a half minutes between laps to recuperate.

Guterl at this stage was averaging 49min and 46 seconds a lap, but way out ahead in terms of speed was the final of the four competitors Dave Proctor.

Proctor had been clocking in at an average a shade above 45min, with his fastest lap a blistering 35 minutes. A massage therapist and multi-record ultra runner from Canada, Proctor’s career has put him on the motivational speaker circuit and on TedX stages.

Maggie Gutterl and Dave Proctor looking fresh on lap 27. Credit @RuggedRunning

The trail itself is a twisting thing that winds its way under the trees on Laz’s farm. Runners tell stories of jumping snakes as well as branches and rocks as they traverse the narrow path. They say the landmarks become like old friends. Each one a marker on how well you are doing on this lap. And then everything changes. Mainly because of those snakes the race moves to an out-and-back stretch of country road every night.

Much less gruelling in terms of twists, jumps and hazards the road comes with a different set of challenges. As the temperatures plummet overnight runners have described hallucinations shimmering off the moonlit tarmac, and being lulled into a half-awake daze by the simple pounding rhythm of the race.

For months, I had worried about how best to tackle Big’s. Within one loop I realize it comes down to one thing: consistency,” says Pearson. “In a typical 100-miler, you’re guaranteed to experience rough patches. Your legs will feel like lead. You’ll overheat. Your stomach will rebel. But you can always sit down, hit pause and sort yourself out. Hey, you have 30 hours to finish. But with Big’s, there’s no forgiveness. You get in a bad place, and you still have to be standing in the corral when Laz rings the cowbell at the top of the next hour.”

After 50 laps and a distance of 335 kms the deadlock that had lasted from lap 43 was broken. Having run the equivalent of two, back-to-back, sub-24-hour, 100-mile races with no break, Katie Wright limped off the course absolutely at the end of her abilities. Despite her herculean effort a DNF (Did not finish) is recorded against her name. Of the 72 runners who started, 71 will get the same result.

Just two laps later Proctor was out too. A man who runs to raise money for his 10-year-old son’s rare illness encephalopathy with cerebellar ataxia there was clear sadness from the crowd as he announced he couldn’t take another step.

“It’s TRUE in Backyard that you can’t have a bad lap. Besides having 51 spectacular laps and clearly the best race of my life. The 52nd lap brought me to my knees,” he wrote on Twitter afterwards.

And then there were two…

There is a saying at Big’s Backyard that when the race is down to two it starts again. Now it’s a whole new race as two people know that it is literally just down to who breaks first. And in what is most likely a considered psychological attack Will Hayward’s pace actually speeds up. He is running confidently, his head up, while his competitor Guterl keeps a steady rhythm – one foot in front of the other, one more mile under her belt. A woman has never won this race, but she is running like she plans to keep this going till Friday, and then the rain starts.

The icy rain begins lashing down on lap 53 and what had been a tough ask before just became harder. With barely a pause, and unable to change clothes the runners set out in the continuing storm for laps 54 and 55. The torrent is cold, heads bowed under their rain jackets the runners paint a miserable picture.

Something changes on lap 56. While Guterl still taps in at her usual time, Hayward shuffles in with just minutes to spare. Weakly smiling he is still there for the 57th cowbell.

Author Leigh Cowart doesn’t want to call the end of the race saying, “This race might be coming to a close soon. Will looked really rough coming through on that lap. He’s still running though. But also, who knows when this race will end! Some look bad and pull through it; others look great and then crash hard.”

Hayward does look bad though and even though he laps faster for loops 58 and 59 many are suggesting it may just be a matter of time now. The two runners set out for lap 60. Each has tied the record for the 4th longest ever run versions of the Big’s Backyard, and with the light failing this will be their last loop out on the track before hitting the road for another cold evening.

54 minutes and 24 seconds later Guterl is back and the nervous wait begins for Hayward. The three blasts on the whistle to indicate that the next lap begins in three minutes go off. Then two blasts. Hayward is still not back. One blast and the crowd is deadly silent. Maggie Guterl is waiting by the line for the final lap and when the cowbell rings, there is no sign of Hayward and she becomes the Champion of Big’s Backyard Ultra.

The first woman ever to win the race, she stands calmly sending messages on her phone to loved ones looking like she may just have been able to run that rumoured 400 miles. In the end, it took just 250 miles, a shade over 400kms.

It’s already pitch dark when Hayward shuffles out of the forest along the track. He knows he has lost and as his energy runs to a final standstill he says, “I just wanted to spend a few more minutes in the forest”. It’s a strange almost anti-climactic end to a race that had been building in tension for the past 60 hours and now was suddenly over.

“That’s the thing about the Backyard,” says Laz. “It’s like sudden-death overtime. No one is prepared for the end.”