Big’s Backyard Ultra and the Rise of Women Endurance Stars

On Monday evening, Maggie Guterl and Will Hayward set out for the 60th time on a four-mile loop through the hickory-covered hills of central Tennessee. It was dark and rainy on day three of the Big’s Backyard Ultra, a running race of fiendish design. There’s no set distance, and no set total time, just endless laps around a four-mile course, which participants must complete once an hour. To win, you basically just have to be the last competitor still moving your legs.

For hours Guterl and Hayward had been the only two runners left. They could theoretically have gone on forever.

Guterl finished her loop, and the crowd watched to see if Hayward’s head lamp would split the darkness, leading him in before the clock ticked 60. But as the final “time’s almost up!” warning whistles blew, no shards of light glimmered on the trail. He’d gotten a little lost mid-circuit, and Guterl became the first woman victor in one of running’s most epic, masochistic events.

“i figure everyone already knows / but if you are living in a cave / maggie guterl of colorado won the 2019 world championship of backyard ultra at the big’s backyard ultra,” the race director, Gary Cantrell (aka Lazarus Lake), wrote in an almost poetic post on Facebook. The “backyard” in the race title, by the way, is his backyard. “not the women’s world championship / the world championship of everybody, period.”

Guterl was once a regular, mid-pack road-runner who wandered onto a trail on a run in Valley Forge one day. After that, she took on more trail races, powered through longer trail races, got a coach, and now finds herself a world champion. With this victory, she joined a small but growing cadre of women athletes who are competing head-to-head with elite men, and winning.

Endurance sports may not exactly be a level physiological (or social) playing field, but women do earn, as Guterl did, top overall spots in the most grueling events—which they wouldn’t in, say, sprinting. These long-slog races aren’t all about gigantic lung capacity and muscle measurements. They’re also about repetition, pacing, fatigue so extreme you get zombie eyes, hormone fluctuations, spiraling thoughts, high highs, low lows—and, mostly, not listening to that voice in your head that says, “You could just stop.”

The phrase “Big’s Backyard Ultra” may sound like the quirky, sweat-of-the-Earth name of one particular race. And it is that. But others have generalized the format into a lowercase “backyard ultra” style of race, each of which follows the same format. Racers must run a 4.166667-mile (6,706-meter) loop in under an hour. They can do it 32 minutes, or they can clock in at 59:59. As long as they cross that line before the clock ticks 60, they remain in play (although if they finish in 32 minutes, they have more time to, say, sit down for a sec, sip some coffee, and pop some aspirin). Exactly one hour after a circuit starts, another begins, and racers set off on what ultrarunner Andy Pearson called, in Trail Runner Magazine, “a macabre, Sisyphean loop.” The last person who completes the proverbial boulder-pushing, after everyone else has dropped off, wins. Cantrell says the basic idea for the format—essentially a four mile-per-hour race—goes back to his high-school running days. “I was not fast, but I could withstand a lot of abuse,” he says. “This would be a race I could win.”

After he bought this land in Tennessee, he decided he wanted to hold an ultra race there and built trails through his woods. “The parameters were to make it where it was easy enough to do that anyone could do it—but hard enough to do that, after a while, it would be difficult,” he says. People liked it, replicated it. “The majority of people who run backyard ultras are just people who like the low-key atmosphere,” says Cantrell. “Not having to push really fast.” Plus, in long-course ultramarathons, you might not see a single other person for hours. In a backyard ultra, the field doesn’t spread as far, and everyone hangs out together (in chairs) every hour at the start/finish line. It’s a party.

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