The Mentally Brutal Big Backyard Ultra Just Keeps Going Until One Person Is Left Standing

The winner in the last-person standing race put on by Gary Cantrell earns a spot in the Barkley Marathons.

Every hour, another loop, until only one runner is left standing. That’s all there is to the Big’s Backyard Ultra put on by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell.

Starting at 6:40 a.m. on Saturday, October 20, runners set off on the 4.166667 mile Big Trail on Laz’s property in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. To continue, runners had to complete a single loop within 60 minutes and be ready to go before the clock started for the ensuing hour-long loop. This continued until only one runner had the will to go on.

This year, it came down to two strong ultrarunners: Courtney Dauwalter and Johan Steene, with Steene being the sole survivor after 68 hours and 283.335 miles along the way.

As with most of Laz’s races—like the Barkley Marathons, which often has no finishers—the format for Big’s Backyard favors the strongest mind, not necessarily the fastest runner.

“Unless you’re really slow, it’s not hard to make the time limit every hour, so it’s the strongest mind that wins,” Laz said. “Everyone wants to see how strong their mind is.”

Runners must carefully balance the effort it takes to complete a single, four-plus mile loop, while still having time to grab food and rest before they set off again for each lap.

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Runners also face other mental barriers. On the sidelines, a group of “jeerleaders” were on hand to encourage runners to give up early. Laz himself even got in on the action, starting a “Give up!” cheer during the first night.

After 24 hours, the starting field of 70 runners started to decline rapidly, with only five runners remaining by the end of day two.

Sixty-five hours passed before the race was down to the final two of Dauwalter and Steene.

Dauwalter ticked off loops like literal clockwork. She’s no stranger to spending days on her feet with little sleep, having won the Moab 240 by more than 10 hours. Steene, of Sweden, has a long relationship with Laz, running Big’s Backyard in 2014 and participating in the Barkley Marathons multiple times.

Steene’s journey of just getting to the starting line was also a test of will: multiple flight delays left him renting a car to drive overnight to Tennessee so he could get to the race on time. His persistence paid off, and with the win he earned his return to the Barkley Marathons next year.

If there’s anything poetic to be said about a race with no end in sight, Laz is saying it. His race updates at the end of each lap come in the form of poems, detailing the condition of the race and remaining competitors. As he wrote on Facebook during the final hours...

hour 66: and then there were two
with the passing of gavin woody,
it all comes down to johan steene and courtney dauwalter
one will get everything
and one will get nothing.
life is not fair in big's back yard.
but you know the deal when you sign up.

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