Why You Should Try a Garden Ultra

The creator of the backyard ultra, Lake Lazarus, sums up his event perfectly: “We run in the garden for many different reasons. We run because it’s fun. We run to socialize with our friends (old and new). We are running to go further than we have ever gone before. Whether you’re an experienced trail runner or completely new to the scene, a backyard ultra is worth experiencing. Lake is home to the most famous backyard ultra, Big’s Backyard, but you don’t need to pin your hopes on Big’s to try one of the many backyard races held each year.

Harvey Lewis at the Big’s Backyard Ultra World Championships in 2021. Photo: Tracey Outlaw

Backyard ultras follow a simple rule: runners start every hour and follow a 6.706 km course. The pace doesn’t matter, as long as you complete the loop before an hour is up and you’re ready to start the next loop on time. Once runners complete each loop (or “yard” as it’s called in a backyard race), they can rest, eat, refuel, cry — the options are endless. Runners simply need to be at the starting line ready to run every hour until only one runner remains. A backyard ultra can last for hours or even days with the current record holder Merijn Geerts with 90 laps, or 600 km. Although it may seem daunting, a backyard ultra can be a unique and valuable experience for any runner, regardless of distance and time goals. Here’s why you should sign up for this season.

No matter how fast or far you run

I ran three loops on my first run in my backyard – not anywhere near an ultra distance, despite the word in the name of the run. I was recovering from an injury and just starting to add mileage, I knew I was done just short of a half marathon. I had never participated in an endurance event like this, and I hung around afterwards to soak up the atmosphere. I wasn’t the first person to give up. At the end of a backyard race, each person except the winner takes a DNF (did not finish). There is no second place; Everybody’s equal.

Running fast in an ultra-backyard sounds like a positive – plenty of time to recover, right? Many of the best backyard athletes actually run very slowly, even taking breaks from walking, to minimize the effects on their bodies and prolong their ability to run for hours (or days). There is very little benefit to speeding through the course and burning off your energy, fuel, and enthusiasm. If you’re generally a back-of-the-packer, you’ll find that you’re never alone.

Photo: Raven Eye Photography

This is the perfect place to learn and practice troubleshooting

Most runners experienced a less than ideal race situation. From wardrobe malfunctions to gastrointestinal distress, if you run long enough, you’ll have to solve any problem. In an ultra backyard, because you’re with your crew and around the pit stops after each loop, you have the perfect opportunity to practice handling situations as they arise. If you’re training for an ultra, this can be essential. Not only are you only a maximum of 4 miles away from your crew if your shoelace breaks or you start feeling unwell; but you also learn to deal with potential setbacks on the fly. Backyard ultras often have both a day course, on trails, and a night course, on smooth roads or paths that are safer during dark hours.

My mother accompanies me on most of my races, and instead of trying to anticipate what I would need when I fly into an aid station (as is usually the case), I was able to ask to have something ready for me when I came back from my loop. There’s a mental boost in knowing that you just have to run 6.706 km and you’ll find fresh clothes prepared for you, or the snack you’ve been craving.

Kevin Barata (left) and Matt Shepard at Outrun Backyard Ultra. Photo: Take roots

You will experience a community like no other

Backyard ultras are unique in that you’re always fairly close to the rest of the group, as well as the crowd and crew. There’s a team vibe to it, as a backyard rider can only ride as long as their “assist” or second runner-up is running. Runners need each other to keep going, and the bigger the crowd, the more fun it is. If you make it as far as the night loops, you’ll find the team atmosphere grows stronger, as runners personally battle their own fatigue and desire to stop racing when darkness takes over. At my most recent backyard race, the first Lewiston Backyard Ultra in Salmon Arm, BC, it was most definitely the camaraderie between runners that kept me moving through the night. A particularly cheerful (and renowned) backyard athlete Matt Shepardof Valleyview, Alta., performed a resounding rendition of Macklemore Downtown, running, to rejoin the group in the wee hours of the morning, and it worked – our spirits were lifted. You will experience little magical moments like this sprinkled during every event in your garden.

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