Big Dog’s Backyard Ultras Complete Guide: The Format, Training, How To Survive One

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Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, also known as Big’s Backyard Ultra or Backyard Ultra, is the original backyard ultra, invented by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell of Bell Buckle, Tennessee in 2012, the mastermind of the famed Barkley Marathons and more recently, CRAW.

Since its founding, Backyard Ultras have popped up all over the world, especially gaining popularity during the pandemic. 

What is Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra?

The Backyard Ultra is an ultramarathon where runners must consecutively run the distance of 4.16666 miles in less than one hour for as many hours as they can.

When each lap is completed, the remaining time within the hour is typically used to recover for the next hour’s race. 

There is no predefined finish.

The winner is determined by being the last person to be running the loops. If there isn’t a single runner to complete the last loop, there is no winner. 

Related: Here’s How To Survive The 4x4x48 Challenge

big dogs backyard ultras

Who started the Big Dog Backyard Ultra?

Lazarus Lake, who was an ultramarathoner, created the Backyard Ultra.

Lake is also the creator of the famed Barkley Marathons, known as one of the hardest ultramarathons in the world. 

The 100+ mile race, which takes place in Wartburg, Tennessee, is challenging for several reasons including its immensely thick and sharp briars, bone-chilling wet weather, and its elevation gain of two-times Mt. Everest. The race has a 99% DNF rate. 

The event was off-the-grid for a number of years but became notorious after being chronicled in a Netflix documentary

Related: The Marathon Monks of Japan

How did Lazarus Lake get the idea for the Backyard Ultra?

Lake told Marathon Handbook that he actually got the idea when he was a kid: 

“I wanted to host an ultra on my 140-acre farm, so I needed to come up with a format that would yield a fun race with limited space and resources.

The basic idea of a race of 4 miles per hour until only one person was left came to me in high school.”

big dogs backyard ultra
The village of Concello de Castro Caldelas hosts the Spain edition of the Backyard Ultra, credit: Spain Backyard Ultra

Why did Lazarus Lake start the Backyard Ultra?

Lake told Marathon Handbook that he started the race for fun: “It started for the same reason it was created. I wanted to host a fun race for my friends. People immediately began holding similar events.”

Lake says backyard ultras are some of the most social ultras with lots of community because people are together instead of being spread out over miles. 

“One aspect of the backyard is that the last few runners get particularly close,” said Lake. “Theirs is such a shared experience, and the winner knows that he could not have gotten as far without the ‘assist’ because when there is only one person left, the race is over!”

Related: Ultramarathon Training Resources

Where is Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra?

The original Backyard Ultra takes place in the rural backyard of the founder Lake’s backyard in rural Bell Buckle, Tennessee.

Runners complete a loop of the woods every hour during the day and switch to an out-and-back route on the road at night (for safety reasons).

When the pandemic struck, remote backyard ultras popped up all around the world.

Backyard ultras have taken place in 43 countries and counting. 

Big Dog's Backyard Ultras Complete Guide: The Format, Training, How To Survive One 1
Competitors in the Spain Backyard Ultra, credit: Spain Backyard Ultra

How do you organize a Backyard Ultra?

You can get instructions on how to organize a backyard ultra on their webpage. There is also a Facebook Group with almost 19,000 members.

How did the Big Dog Backyard Ultra get its name?

According to the BBC, the backyard ultra is named after Lake’s pet bulldog, Big, who reportedly spends the duration of the race sleeping under the scorer’s table. It’s called “backyard” because it takes place in Lake’s backyard.

Why is the loop 4.1666 miles long?

The distance of 4.1666 miles times 24 equals 100 miles. Therefore, runners race 100 miles in 24 hours. 

How does the Backyard Ultra work?

Runners run the 4.1666-mile distance in an hour, having 15 or 20 minutes (depending on how fast they run), to eat, change clothes, and nap, before lining up for the next loop at the next hour. 

If they aren’t at the start line on the hour, they can no longer compete. Even if they are a couple of yards away from the start line, they get a DNF (did not finish). 

Big Dog's Backyard Ultras Complete Guide: The Format, Training, How To Survive One 2
Competitor in the 2021 Bienwald Backyard, photo credit: Manuel Steiner

Do people run the Backyard Ultra in their backyards?

Not usually, unless you have a really big backyard.

Backyard Ultras take place in areas that are large enough to have a 4.1666 loop or out-and-back.

How long is the Backyard Ultra?

There is no set distance of a backyard ultra.

That is because it is a last-runner-standing kind of race.

Whoever can run the 4.1666 miles every hour the most times wins.

The current record is 337 miles (or 81 “backyards”). 

How do you win the Backyard Ultra?

You win the backyard ultra by being the last runner to be completing the loop.

You don’t win by going faster than everyone else and getting to a finish line first because there is no finish line

The point of the backyard ultra is to see who can run as many 4.1666 loops in a row (every hour, on the hour). 

Big Dog's Backyard Ultras Complete Guide: The Format, Training, How To Survive One 3
‘DNF’ shirt for all non-winners of the 2019 Mad Trapper Backyard Ultra – photo by ActiveSteve, used under Creative Commons license

Related: The Ultrarunner’s playbook

What is the current record of laps for the Backyard Ultra?

The current record is 81 hours, or 337 miles.

Who is the record holder for the Backyard Ultra?

In June of 2021, John Stocker of the UK set the backyard ultra record with 81 “backyards” or 337 miles, running for 81 hours straight.

He broke the previous record set by Karel Sabbe, who ran 312 miles, or for 75 hours, in October 2020 in Belgium.

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The Greener Miles Cowshed Backyard Ultra in the UK, photo credit: Reg Ord

Who is the female winner of the Backyard Ultra?

The female winner (and U.S. winner) of the Backyard Ultra is Western States winner Courtney Dauwalter who ran 68 loops for a total distance of 283 miles in Bell Buckle on October 20, 2020.

Is there a strategy for running backyard ultras?

Runners don’t want to run loops for a backyard ultra too fast.

The front runners of the first several loops are not the ones to win because they burn out.

Runners don’t want to run too slow either because then they cheat themselves of recovery time before the next loop starts on the hour.

So there’s a sweet spot between going too fast and too slow.

Running about 10-11 minute miles (on trails) is easy enough on the body and gives the runners time to eat, sleep, and repeat. 

Runners also don’t like let other runners know if they are hurt or hurting. It is like a poker game, Lake said to Sports Illustrated. You don’t want your competitors to know your hand.

Big Dog's Backyard Ultras Complete Guide: The Format, Training, How To Survive One 4
Competitors in the 2021 Bienwald Backyard, photo credit: Manuel Steiner

How can you train for a backyard ultra?

Lake says there isn’t one successful training method.

Instead, practice makes perfect:

“I know that a lot of people who have not done one try a similar format using a shorter distance in a training run just to get a feel for what it is like,” he told us.

Speedwork is probably less important than distance runs.

Practicing holding to a specific pace (for the race) is of greater importance.

(And so) might be getting a ‘pit stop’ technique so that normal resting processes can be confined to the available time!”

Veronica Leeds, an ultrarunning coach and past backyard participant, advises:

“Training for a last-person-standing event is similar to training for an ultramarathon of a similar duration.

Prioritize fitness and focus on specifics as the race approaches: running on terrain of similar technicality and elevation change per mile, carrying the gear and fueling as you intend to during the race, and practicing some long efforts on a loop of similar distance, to get used to the cadence and repetition.”

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Veronica Leeds, previous Backyard Ultra runner and run coach, recuperating between runs. (image credit: Veronica Leeds)

What do people eat who run Big’s Backyard Ultra?

Runners eat all kinds of food on their short breaks in between laps including Greek yogurt with honey, pierogis, pies, mashed potatoes, porridge, cheese and grits, and pizza. They may also drink beer or coffee.

“You get to a point where you don’t feel like eating. You really have to force it down,” said one racer.

What do people wear who run Big’s Backyard Ultra? 

Dauwalter is famous for wearing baggy shorts that look like basketball shorts and tanks during her running.

She is sponsored by Solomon and wears Ultra 2 Solomon shoes.

Sabbe is sponsored by On Cloud and wore the Cloudflow and Cloudswift during the day, before switching to the Cloud during the night.

Runners also wear hats and headlamps during the night hours. Some wear the lamps on their waists so competitors don’t know if they are looking behind them (a tell of struggling).

What is the hardest part about Big’s Backyard Ultra?

While the physical challenge is unsurmountable for most, the mental challenge is even tougher.

For that reason, Lake says the hardest part is covering the distance from the chair to the starting corral.

“Not many runners time out. Most of them fail to start the next yard,” he shared.

Managing sleep is the second most difficult part, he adds.

Runners only get a few minutes or so between their laps before having to run again.

“Running is the easiest part; sleep is the hardest,” said one runner to the BBC. 

big dog backyard ultra
A runner resting between circuits in the Spain Backyard Ultra, photo credit: Spain Backyard Ultra

Do people get hurt running backyard ultras?

Yes, people do get hurt running backyard ultras. But the injuries are not typically life-threatening. 

Runners may sustain injuries such as hamstring pulls or blistered raw feet. Many runners reportedly hallucinate and say parts of their brain stop functioning. 

Record-holder Sabbe said his win was anti-climactic. “It’s hard to be excited. Your brain isn’t working properly. Five or six times I had to ask if it was finished because I was too dumb.”

So, why do people run backyard ultras?

People who run backyard ultras run it more for the mental challenge than the physical challenge. They reach inward to push onward. They want to know their true limits.

Dauwalter told the BBC, “It’s a fun mental challenge. (It is about) finding out what’s possible rather than a race that you want to win. If we don’t limit ourselves, it’s pretty cool what can happen.”

Runners also share that the suffering allows them to enjoy the simple pleasures of the rest of their lives like a warm bed.

Learn more at backyardultra.com

Photo of author
Whitney Heins is the founder of The Mother Runners and a VDOT-O2 certified running coach. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her two crazy, beautiful kids, pups, and husband. She is currently training to qualify for the US Olympic Trials marathon.

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