On the morning of the fourth day, Johan Steene and Courtney Dauwalter stood at Big Backyard Ultra’s start corral once again. The three whistles had blown, signaling the three, two, then one-minute countdown. The duo awaited the clang of the cowbell, the official green light to begin their 68th lap. Having run an improbable 279 miles over four days, three nights, and virtually no sleep, only one would be the ‘last man standing’–but when that would happen, no one quite knew.
Dauwalter, 33 and a rising star on the ultrarunning circuit, had learned about Big Backyard after reading about founder and organizer Gary Cantrell, a.k.a. Lazarus Lake’s, famed races. Steen first heard of BBU in 2014 (when he won the race in his inaugural year of competing); he was the third-to-last surviving competitor before quitting at last year’s competition. He entered again this year because he knew that first prize gains admittance into the Barkley Marathons. “I wanted that spot,” he says.
While Dauwalter has yet to enter Barkley, Big Backyard appealed to her because “with this format, you get to find your own limit, whatever that is,” Dauwalter says. “There’s no finish line. You just get to keep going and see how long you can go.”
Or how long you can, well, suffer. The race began at 6:40 a.m. on Saturday, October 20th, when 70 runners lined up and awaited the cowbell clang from Cantrell, before starting the 4.1667-mile loop trail on Cantrell’s backyard farmland in Tennessee (the race is named for his pitbull, ‘Big’). Competitors had an hour to complete the loop. Once finished, any down time was spent, at least initially, chatting with other competitors or crew members, enjoying a snack, or sitting in a folding chair that competitors set up for themselves as a micro, makeshift camp while awaiting the next round of whistles, which happened three minutes before 7:40AM. Four port-a-potties were stationed near the start; Cantrell says you can always tell when a runner has to ‘go’ because, “that’s when he runs his fastest loop.”
The loops continued each hour; runners gathered at the start. Pause. Another loop. Another pause. Another loop–and so on, every hour, for hours and hours and hours, as daylight faded to dusk.
“It’s a mind game,” Cantrell says. “The runners say that it’s a total mind fuck, because you can’t run off and leave people, and you can’t win until they lose.”
Throughout the first night, when the race transitioned to the road, runners dropped. Cantrell chooses the competitors each year (many more runners apply than are granted admittance) and says he can usually identify who will quit first; however, trying to choose a winner is much more difficult.
By the second night, Dauwalter started to feel the effects of no sleep. Her husband, Kevin, who serves as her crew, awaited each return to her camp chair. Dauwalter started hallucinating–she saw a giant cowboy, 12 feet tall, standing in front of her with a yellow bucket hat on his head, swinging his lasso. Then she saw an ice castle, and spectators lined up along the imaginary streets, cheering and twirling. Still, she kept running.
“You can’t have a bad hour with Backyard,” Lake says. “With 100-mile races, you can take a long break or have several hours where you struggle. This, you have to step up every hour. If your stomach is upset and you are ill, an hour later you may be fine, but by then it’s too late.”
At the start of the third morning, with 183.3 miles down, five runners remained, including 2017 champion Guillaume Calmettes; Dauwalter was the only female. By nightfall, only Dauwalter, Steene and Gavin Woody were still running. “I remember looking at both of them standing in the start corral that night and thinking, ‘this might never end,’” Dauwalter says. “They were showing no signs of fatigue and weakness. I thought to myself, holy buckets, what have we done?’”
But Woody dropped at 270.8 miles, leaving only Steene and Dauwalter.
“He had been a beast for the entire race, but we are predators now,” Steene says. “We all aim for the grand prize and therefore we leave the weak behind for carnage. And we feel triumphant while we do it. One less competitor to worry about.”
On they ran, throughout the night. Steene says he likely slept a few minutes between every loop; Dauwalter tried to push through on minimal rest.
“I feel that the absolute limit of how long you can go without sleep is around 80, 85 hours, then you run into issues,” Cantrell says. “You can take those five-minute naps, but if you don’t go through actual sleep, eventually, it will catch you.”
On the fourth morning, at the start of the 67th lap–67 hours and 279 miles into the race, Dauwalter turned to Steene, shook his hand, said a few words, and walked back to her tent. She was done–or, in the vernacular of BBU and the 68 competitors who’d quit before her, ‘DNF’ – Did Not Finish.
“I didn’t consciously decide it at that moment, it was just a reality of, there’s no battery power left,” Dauwalter says. ”It wasn’t a big dramatic thing or me having bones sticking out of my leg; it was just internally, I couldn’t give any more.”
Steene ran his final, lonely, 68th lap, the 2018 champion. “After she told me to ‘go out and win’ and walked away, I wanted to grab her and drag her out again,” Steene says of Dauwalter. “The lonely loop was extremely long. I understood that Courtney wanted to be kind, letting me to know that she was quitting in order for me to enjoy my last loop. The effect was strangely the opposite. I thought of all the runners that had spilled their guts on the Backyard. I thought of Courtney who had been the leading warrior, the steady metronome throughout almost three full days. I was feeling empty and alone. I longed back to the community. We hunt best in a pack.”
With 283 miles run, Steene set a new Big Backyard Ultra record, and Dauwalter’s 279 miles crushed the previous female farthest distance of 120 miles.
The race has evolved into a worldwide event, with Big Backyard Ultras taking place in over 12 countries. As such, the 2019 Big Backyard Ultra will be a world championship of sorts.
“Next year, the Backyard has an even stronger field than this year, which is astonishing,” Cantrell says. “Almost everyone in there is a contender to win. And they all know it. And they come to win.”