I had the privilege to help crew for CTS athlete, Chris Murphy, at Big’s Backyard Ultra this past October. It was quite the spectacle seeing some of the ultra world’s best compete against each other in the last man/woman standing format. It was humbling and awe-inspiring to see runners head back out loop after loop fighting sleep deprivation, 40-degree temperature fluctuations throughout the day and night, and the highly competitive field push each other way beyond their preconceived limits. I ultimately left that weekend realizing how an athlete could use a Backyard or Timed Ultra to make personal breakthroughs and solve failure points that have afflicted them in past races.
Backyard Ultra Basics
Backyard Ultra Events have exploded in popularity over the last few years thanks in part to their straightforward setup. The objective is to complete a 4.167 mile loop (24 loops equals 100 miles) in under one hour for as long as you can. If you do not complete the loop and make it back to the finish line/starting corral at the top of the hour, your day(s) is finished. The rote execution necessary to keep competing allows runners to reach distances that had previously plagued them and truly find their limits. Is every runner going to eventually run 354 miles over the course of 85 hours like Harvey Lewis’s record-breaking performance at Big’s Backyard Ultra in October? Probably not, but a runner can use the simplistic setup of a Backyard Ultra to achieve their own PRs, solve past hydration and nutritional failures, figure out pacing strategies, and learn successful ways to stay maintain a neutral to positive mindset late in races.
Having an effective crew can streamline time spent at aid stations, keep the runner mentally engaged, and problem solve before an issue derails a race. The beauty of a Backyard Ultra is that the runner can see their crew every hour. Backyard Ultras have basic aid station fare available to everyone, but each runner has their own personal aid station tent. Within that area, the runner can have anything and everything they want. A cot and sleeping bag for when they want to try and get that quick nap, a camp stove to cook their favorite food, a wardrobe of extra shoes and clothes, and all of their preferred nutrition and hydration products.
There is no overthinking and overpacking drop bags scattered throughout successive aid stations on the course. The crewperson is not frantically navigating sketchy forest roads and stressfully racing to the next aid station. The “hurry up and wait” mentality is replaced with “relax and wait.” The crewperson has more than enough time to prepare the aid station for the runner’s return, so that the runner and crew can have a stress free environment to get in calories, address problems, make gear and clothing changes when necessary, and have the runner optimally prepared for the next lap.
Figuring Out Nutrition and Hydration
Nausea and/or vomiting was cited as the second highest problem for finishers and the highest problem for nonfinishers in Marty Hoffman and Kevin Fogard’s 2009 study that explored the issues that affected runners at the 2009 Western States and Vermont 100 mile races. There is a multitude of reasons that can cause stomach issues during an ultra. Among those are inadequate training, poor pacing during high temperatures, failure to stick to a plan, and not properly hydrating.
In a typical ultra, runners can map out their nutrition and hydration plan before the race or set a reminder on their watch to remind them to eat and drink. But maybe a runner miscalculates the time between aid stations and runs out of food and water. Maybe the day was hotter than expected and the runner needed to be carrying a third bottle. Or the runner simply loses the concept of timing and frequency in how much they should be eating and drinking. A race being at high elevation could also affect the runner’s ability to consume calories.
Backyard Ultras take out the guesswork of estimating time between aid stations and keeping track of how much the runner is fueling. Environmental conditions will stay somewhat relative throughout the 4.167 mile loop as there will be no extreme elevation changes. The weather will of course change throughout the day, but the temperature should ebb and flow within a range that the runner and crew can make necessary and gradual adjustments throughout the day.
Nutrition goals can be as simple as eating two gels on each loop, drinking one bottle, and eating some type of real food upon returning to the aid station. The crewmember can easily keep track of how many calories the runner has consumed, what food options are working, and adjust hydration and electrolyte goals as the temperature changes throughout the day and night.
Is the runner able to execute a successful calorie and hydration plan for a 50k but struggles when going beyond that 6-8 hour timeframe? Use a Backyard Ultra or Timed Event to simplify the process and test out different strategies to see what works and what does not.
“I went out too fast,” is a common talking point in reviewing an ultra performance. It’s completely understandable to go out too fast due to the runner being excited to finally race, the palpable energy at the start line, and feeling fresh off of the taper. But going out too hot can come back to bite the runner throughout the rest of the race. You gain little to no advantage in “racing” each loop at a Backyard Ultra. There is some strategy at times in getting back to your aid station for a little extra time to take a quick nap or make a gear change. But the runner will be better served to keep their pacing steady throughout. For some runners, the goal will be to go for a set distance and stop when that is achieved. Other runners will be competing and attempting to be the last woman or man standing.
A Backyard Ultra is not the format to chase a time PR at a certain distance or to win your age group. There is little utility in completing a loop in 40 minutes versus 55 minutes. Again, sleep strategies do come into play, but the runner will put themselves in the best position for success if they keep their pacing steady so that they can fuel consistently and expend their energy evenly throughout the race.
Another considerable factor at a Backyard Ultra is that you can run with people for nearly the entire event. In a standard ultra, runners eventually spread out and can be running by themselves for hours. Running by yourself for miles can be an advantage in sticking to your own personal race strategy, but it can also be a hindrance in terms of losing focus, getting down on yourself, and subsequently slowing down. Running with others can lower your rate of perceived exertion thanks to the company and distraction and also make for a more memorable race experience.
Runners also develop a strong bond with one another throughout a Backyard Ultra. There is a competitive edge to most runners in that they want to be the last one standing, but the camaraderie that develops throughout the event causes each runner to push and support one another to keep going. Harvey Lewis, Chris Roberts, and Terumichi Morishita would no doubt credit each other in each runner’s ability to crest the 72-hour mark and go beyond 300 miles at Big’s.
Put It Altogether
The simplistic nature of Backyard Ultras allows every runner to finetune critical ultrarunning skills. A Backyard Ultra may not be your idea of an A race, but you can use a Backyard Ultra to better learn about yourself as a runner, solve and correct issues that have plagued you in past races, and reach distances that have previously eluded you.