Updated: Aug 24, 2022
If you're reading this article you're probably landing in one of these three slots.
-You've run a backyard ultra before and/or preparing to run a backyard ultra race;
-You've heard of this hillbilly type of event where people run for hours or days around a loop and intrigued of the event and format (you can probably think of nothing worse) or;
-There's a family member or co-worker that's just done one and is non stop talking about it, driving you crazy so you're searching google or they've shot this across to you!
Either way, read on as I explain how simple and monotonous, yet strategic and exciting this racing format can really be. Although I'm no stranger to endurance sports and pushing the mind and body beyond self belief, I've only done one backyard ultra, the Clint Eastwood AAA Racing event in 2021 where I posted a write up of that race here. I ended up as the assist with 41 laps at that weekend. Reflecting on the race there are things I did well and a lot that I can improve. As a running coach and being that type of person that analysis's every detail for continuous improvement there's some unfinished business!
Here are my top tips for getting maximum distance at a backyard ultra race, tips to be applied from a recreational runner through to the most experienced and elite.
I recently took the go pro out around the Clint Eastwood course to check out the trail and vlog a review of the course, check it out here and subscribe to the Run Vault channel for more!
First things first:
What is a backyard ultra race?
Let's start with Gary Cantrell. Ring any bells? Laz Lake? How about the Barkley Marathons? Netflix brought the Barkley Marathons to life via a documentary of the infamous ultra race held in Tennessee, an invitation only event whereby your entrance fee is a vehicle licence plate from your home town.
This race has one of the highest attrition rates in the world. No course markings and unforgiving terrain make it one of the most difficult and intriguing ultra races on the planet. Ask any ultra runner if they'd attempt the Barkley's and the answers are usually split 50/50, 'Absolutely' and 'No way'!
The creator behind the Barkley Marathons is Gary, aka Lazarus Lake. He is the Race Director of the Barkleys and other races in the US and most recently created the Backyard Ultra race format. Here's how it goes.
A backyard ultra is a format whereby everyone must together run a 6.7km lap around a marked course and finish within 1 hour. Any remaining time you have within the hour once the lap is complete is usually used to rest, eat and drink. If you do not make it back to the finish and starting line within one hour you are cut from the race. If you choose to not line up for another lap on the hour with the remaining competitors you are not allowed to continue.
The race is over when there is only one competitor left who must complete one full lap more than anyone else. These events can go for days on end, with the current world record of 90 laps, a staggering distance of over 600km set by Merijn Geerts of Belgium this year.
If you're in this race for the long haul, it demands nothing short of true grit and resilience. Everyone is equal on the hour every hour. It is only the toughest physically and mentally that can push through their own perceived limits.
Tip #1 - You are capable of so much more than what you believe
How close to the sun are you really flying? I remind myself the story of Icarus often. With wax on his wings, flying too close to the sun his wax would melt and fall out of the sky. How do you know how close you can fly? Are you limiting yourself with a roof, protecting you from what?
There is not one race in the past where I look back and say yeah, I gave that absolutely everything. At the time I thought so, but reflecting on races I know there was more to give. Reminding ourselves of this in the heat of the moment when we think our wings will melt and we'll come crashing down in flames. You have more to give!
Tip #2 - Keep normality in amongst the insanity
This is unnatural, there's no doubt about it. Sure, the human body is designed, engineered and built for endurance. But to run, rest, run, rest repeatedly until we choose to stop or are forced to is a very uncomfortable and taxing way to spend a day or more.
By focusing solely on your race, each step, analysing your lap times and disconnecting yourself from your life and reality you'll mentally exhaust yourself cutting your race short by simply 'getting over it'.
Bring comforts and routine from your life into your race. I've learnt by keeping somewhat of my daily routine within an endurance race helps distract from the effort that exists in the moment.
Try and stick to your daily eating routine. Have breakfast, lunch and dinner in between laps at the times you would normally eat. Check in on headline news or your social media feed for a minute or two between laps. A quick face time with family as they set off work, school or bedtime if you're in for the long haul. Finding comfort in daily rituals is a perfect way to distract from the monotony of your race.
"It hurts. It's meant to. If it didn't everyone would do it"
Tip #3 - Organise your campsite with important items within reach and easy access
You don't want to be scrambling for that one flavoured gel or muffin you've been craving on your last lap. if you are really pushing the limits, lap times traditionally become slower resulting in less time to rest before the hour is up. If your campsite is a dumpsite you're create nothing but stress and pressure upon yourself and crew, only to risk dropping out of your race.
Have items of comfort available as well. A comfortable reclining camp chair will be a given for me in the future. Last year I brought a big and warm Sheridan dressing gown which my crew were happy to don on me after each lap, the perfect piece of clothing for warmth.
A fabric hanging wardrobe organiser is a great option to hang off your marquee or tent to keep things accessible and plain view.
If you are using plastic tubs, choose ones with a clear body and/or lid so you can see the contents without rummaging through everything.
If you don't have a little OCD in you, Make sure you appoint a crew chief who can organise your mess before you start!
Tip #4 - Follow on from above, enlist a patient and amazing crew!
It can really go without saying to anyone that has run an ultra before. Having a solid team in your camp is more valuable than anything else you can bring to a race. Endurance racing is tough enough, let alone having to do it with only you and your thoughts. There is nothing more valuable for you at a backyard ultra than having a family member or friend to be there for you and helping each lap.
If you are here to push yourself to a place you've never been before, your thoughts will be scattered, fine motor skills will disappear and like me you may even see things on course that don't even exist! You know you're in the abyss when you are hallucinating wild animals sitting on couches on the side of the trail. It's times like that you need people in your corner making basic decisions for you. If there is anything you take from this article, this is it! Get a crew to help, they will learn so much about you and help you find that fire within to keep going.
Tip #4 - Mix it up on course and in camp with varied movements
Running is a very repetitive activity on the body. Runners are traditionally tighter than other people when it comes to flexibility, mainly due to the repetitive nature of the movement of running as well as the fact we spend more time running and less time stretching, strengthening and cross training (a general rule).
In a backyard ultra race you'll most probably run your comfortable pace from the first lap, return to tent city and sit before the next. Over time the body tightens, then hurts then may seize up, cutting your race short.
On training runs and races, I tend to move the body in different directions and at irregular times which opens up the body and lengthens out muscles, giving them more life.
When on course, consider a small shakeout once or twice a lap. Movements like:
Deadhang the arms by your side or stretch them out to the sky as you run or walk.
360° turns, slow down to a walk and turn around clockwise and anti clockwise.
Turn around and walk backwards a few yards, changing your gait and stride.
When in camp, your focus is rest, food and drink. When the one minute warning goes for the next lap, open up the body with some stretching through the upper and lower body and core. Pulling and pushing against the support of your marquee through the upper body, a low lunge or squat is good for the hips and legs. It hurts at the time but helps activate before the lap.
Tip #5 - Know your aerobic running zone and lap time estimates
Think about a training run whereby you've felt that comfortable you could run all day. We've all had them. If your training is focused on heart rate and pace zones, you'd be familiar with aerobic/anaerobic training and Zones 1 through to 5.
Your aerobic zone is very simple. It's the zone in which you conduct an activity whereby your heart rate stays between 70% to 80% of your maximum heart rate. You are exercising comfortably, you can hold a conversation and string a few sentences together without having to stop to take a breath.
Training frequently in this zone improves your aerobic capacity, meaning you are able to run faster for longer. Simple!
In a backyard ultra race, you want to be running in Zone 1 and 2 for the majority of your race, no higher! The moment you enter a higher training zone such as 4 or above, you are now burning much needed fuel stores in your muscles and simply will cut your race short.
It's a bit like a HIIT workout or group fitness class. The instructors in the gym want to push you in that short 30-45 minutes by having you train aerobically and anaerobically, heard of Metcon? This is great training for sport and running but not great strategy for racing. Training your body to run slow in a low output zone which will give you the best chance to go far at a backyard ultra race.
Aerobic conditioning for long term benefits takes just that, a long time to develop. My recommendations on this is know your training zones prior to a backyard ultra. Keep your output low to go the distance.
Tip #6 - Nutrition. What do I eat, drink and fuel with? Mix it up with running and comfort food
First things first, I'm not a nutritionist or dietician so this is not advice! What I am is an Endurance Athlete with mounds of experience training, running and racing many different events in many different locations exposed to many different elements. I'm also a Running and Fitness Coach and have learned and continue to learn from the experiences of the many Athletes I guide.
So with that out of the way, here's what I know. The body needs everything from every corner of the food pyramid we were taught in school. During a normal day, it's pretty basic with proteins, fats, carbs and water. Some of those foods more than others. If we skip a meal, we get a bit hangry, that's about it.
The Backyard Ultra format of racing is anything but normal! As you dive in lap after lap your body becomes more fatigued and exhausted. Fuelling at a backyard ultra is a real balancing act.
My number one rule when it comes to nutrition at an event is test it first in training. Simulate your race conditions in training multiple times and work through your own options to see what works best. Using a powdered endurance fuel like Tailwind or Trail Brew, an Electrolyte source such as Edge; and easy digestible gels such as Spring Energy and Huma is a great start for a base nutrition and hydration source.
These types of products provide a source of calories and hydration to cater for your immediate and long term needs. They are easy to digest and don't divert much needed energy towards breaking down solid foods so your body's effort can focus on running.
In saying that a liquid only diet doesn't appease everyone, including me! I crave solid foods at endurance events.
For the most part, a backyard ultra race doesn't demand a high level of output from your body, so taking on solid food can be relatively easy. As mentioned in tip 2 above, consider similar foods from home for your breakfast, lunch and tea at the event. Lucky for us at the AAA racing backyard ultra race we are in the middle of town at Oxley in Brisbane, Australia. So a quick order via a menu app on the phone will have your favourite meal delivered to you in minutes.
Remember, practice all of this in training before the event. Train hungry, train with a full stomach and rehearse your race with your choice of nutrition and hydration!
Tip #7 Running and race gear, comfort and performance
In preparation for this event, test your clothing and gear just like you do your nutrition. You may find your output levels to run a comfortable 45-55 min lap are low and minimal effort. With this in mind, I tend to go for clothes that offer comfort and loose fitting for freedom of movement and add a bit of creativity or normality. For last year, we bought some $2 shirts from Target and my daughters went to town drawing clowns and quotes on them. As my output levels were mostly low there was no negative impact to performance.
I do recommend a performance base layer around areas that are skin to skin contact and friction, as well as anti chafing cream or gel to avoid unwanted pain and discomfort.
Time to get excited!
The Backyard Ultra race format is a relatively new type of racing for ultra runners and has grown hugely popular over the world in the last two years. Many runners are there to simply enjoy the social and somewhat simple yet strategic aspect of the race, whereas others are there to find their outer most limits of comfort to truly understand who they really are.
There is a lot at stake in some of the local races, with the Clint Eastwood AAA Racing Backyard Ultra being a qualifier for the World Championships held at Big Dog's Tennessee, USA in October 2023.
Backyard Ultra, it's an event that brings out every emotion within your soul in an obsessive way.
Just. One. More. Lap.
Jamie: Coach - Run Vault Performance