Run Like Harvey: 5 Dig-Deep Lessons From Big Dog's Backyard Ultra

One look at the homepage for the Big’ Dog's Backyard Ultra Race explains almost everything you need to know about this extraordinary adventure through the backwoods of rural Bell Buckle, Tenn.

The headline itself makes the nature of the race abundantly clear:

“There is no finish."

Nothing but the limits of willpower and human function can determine the extent or the winner of Big Dog's Backyard Ultra.

Big Dog's Backyard Ultra founder Lazarus Lake rings the bell for another 4.167-mile loop that must be completed within an hour.

Why Last is First at the Big's Backyard Ultra

The premise of the Big Dog's Backyard Ultra is deceivingly simple...

  • 35 international competitors line up for unlimited loops of 4.166667 miles each on the dot. 
  • So long as runners can complete one full loop an hour, the race rolls on. 
  • The last runner standing becomes the Big’s Backyard World Champion. 

Every Hour on the Hour

This requires a unique sense of endurance.

It may be relatively easy for these strong athletes to finish each lap and line up for another throughout the first few iterations.

After all, the runners who show up for this kind of challenge already have a strong grasp on the stamina necessary for long ultras.

No one can deny the extreme levels of physical, mental, and emotional fortitude it takes to willingly step into the ultramarathon pain cave, let alone make it through to the other side. When you step up to the starting line, you're signing up for...

  • Discomfort
  • Exhaustion
  • Depletion
  • Deep psychological suffering 
All this adds up along the way to create a vicious whirlpool from which there are no guaranteed outcomes.

It's one of the great equalizers in ultrarunning: Everyone comes face to face with the same demons at some point. 

Some of the most experienced ultrarunners in the world stepped up to the starting line of the Big Dog's Backyard Ultra on Oct. 16, in Bell Buckle, Tenn., to see who could run the most laps.

No Concrete Finish

However, even the longest traditional ultramarathons shine a light at the end of the tunnel.

Working toward a concrete finish, no matter how far away, still stacks on less of a cognitive load than asking athletes to step blindly into the void for who knows how long.

Big’s Backyard Ultra takes all of the uncertainties already present in racing ultra distances on trails, and amps them all up by a huge notch because of the bravery it takes to enter that void. 

Every lap offers up a new invitation into an unquantifiable future.

There is no concrete finish line at Big's Backyard Ultra. The race ends when there's only one runner left.

5 Lessons on Digging Deep

This year, Big's Backyard Ultra drew an impressive line-up of runners, along with an unexpected twist.

Ever wonder what it takes to step up to the starting line of a race with no finish line?

You're gonna have to dig deep. Here are 5 things you can learn about running a race with no finish line...

1. Commit to the Present and the Future

Lining up at the start for Big’s Backyard Ultra means committing to the present and the future at the same time. 

There’s no end in sight for a long time to come, and that long time doesn’t even exist on a clock yet. 

With that in mind, there’s nothing to focus on but the immediate moment and commitment: 

  • Each step...
  • Each lap...
  • Each hour...
  • One at a time...
  • Until there’s eventually no more left to count. 
On the other hand, runners enter the race knowing that they are committing to racing through the foreseeable future without imagining anything else crossing their path. 

Dedicating themselves to the concept of endless running without thinking too far beyond each individual step asks runners to hold themselves in a careful balance between two very distinct dimensions.

2. 'You + Them'

Racers also need to learn how to balance themselves between individual effort and strategic group tactics.

Obviously, the whole point of Big's Backyard Ultra is to beat out all of the other competitors in terms of stamina and relentlessness.

It pays to be the one runner able to forge ahead and choose to keep going no matter what decisions anyone else makes. 

At the same time, companionship among runners in this atmosphere gives new meaning to the phrase “strength in numbers”. 

Leaning so hard against the limits of human ability takes the kind of effort that’s hard to summon on your own. 

3. Spark the Flame

Runners at the Big’s Backyard Ultra rely on each other to keep the spark alive when the going gets tough. 

  • They work together to finish each lap on time.
  • They make the hard choice to continue showing up at the onset of each passing hour for another round. 
  • When internal drives begin to fail, external factors can bridge the gap to reignite that motivation. 
Just like meeting a friend for that dreaded dawn run helps us all crawl out of bed, knowing that someone is counting on you to start the next lap with them can put just enough gas in the tank to get out there and join them.

4. Be Inspired by Experience and Competition

Strong competition helps these runners fulfill the second main goal of a race like this: figuring out just how far and how long our feet can carry us while moving at a decent clip.

Not only is it much easier to give up on such an open-ended mission without anyone else to share the load, it’s also much harder to push that envelope in the first place without anyone around to challenge or measure up against.

Motivation to forge ahead is just one piece of the puzzle.

A good challenge changes the way athletes see themselves and what they are capable of. 

The race also only goes on so long as at least two runners keep up the effort, so there’s no challenge at all without enough contention to keep it flowing. 

Runners on the field at Big’s Backyard Ultra become each other’s accountability buddies, performance metrics, and existential necessity all in one. 

5. Your Crew Makes a Difference

At the Big's Backyard Ultra, and just about any other ultramarathon or race, having a support crew makes a difference.

Your crew can provide the essentials, like:

  • Food
  • Drink
  • Gear
  • Change of clothes/shoes
But they often play an even more important role when it comes to mindset, motivation, and determination to keep going.

It's one of the very things that helped Big's Backyard Ultra runner Harvey Lewis do the impossible this year.

Harvey Lewis won the 2021 Big’s Backyard Ultra, and set a new endurance record. He completed 85 laps and 354.1695 miles over a total of 71.25 hours.

WINNER: Runner Harvey Lewis Sets New Record at Big's Backyard Ultra

This year the winner of Big’s Backyard Ultra, Harvey Lewis managed to set a new endurance record.

He's already well-known for his multiple wins at the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon and 24 Hour World Championship.

And he did something even bigger. This year, at Big's Backyard Ultra, Harvey...

  • Completed 85 laps
  • Ran 354.1695 miles
  • In 71.25 hours, and...
  • Broke the backyard ultra record. The previous record-holder, John Stocker, had completed 81 such laps earlier this year during another race based off of the Big’s Backyard design. 
Harvey Lewis broke the backyard ultra record. The previous record-holder, John Stocker, had completed 81 such laps earlier this year during another race based off of the Big’s Backyard design.

Run Forever: A Reminder There Are No Limits

In the biggest understatement of the century, Lewis has plenty to be proud of when it comes to his own athletic prowess and unparalleled determination. 

  • His win took an axe to everything the endurance world thought we knew about distance running.
  • He shattered any illusions we may have had about even coming close to the boundaries of our sport. 
  • By hitting such a mind-boggling milestone, he’s reminded us that human nature will always come back to laugh in the face of any assumption we dare to make about it. 
Harvey Lewis prepares to run another lap at the Big Dog's Backyard Ultra.

Run Your Best with Help From Others

No matter how incredible his achievement, however, Lewis didn’t make it there alone.

A good crew sets the stage for any successful race, of course.

But the real secret ingredient for Harvey may have been the support he found in fellow runners Chris Roberts and Terumichi Morishita. 

  • Roberts stuck by Lewis until the bitter end, calling it quits in the middle of loop 85 at just over 3 miles while Harvey ran on to complete his last victory lap. 
  • Chris even broke the record alongside Harvey as they both finished their 82nd lap. 
  • Morishita covered over 330 miles with them before taking a fall on loop 80, briefly losing consciousness, standing back up to return to the race, and just barely missing the cutoff for starting the next lap. Until then, all three runners had held strong together since the last runner to drop after loop 62. 
Without the presence of one another to add fuel to the fire each and every hour, it’s anyone’s guess how far each of them might have made it. 

In the end, each of these athletes have made unparalleled contributions to running history. 

Harvey showed up for the challenge with a winner’s grace and resolve, but all three taught us a lesson in camaraderie. 

Harvey Lewis is the winner of the 2021 Big Dog's Backyard Ultra.

Run Like Harvey with a Backyard State of Mind

Big’s Backyard Ultra will continue to put running beliefs and abilities to the ultimate test year after year. 

No matter how far the winner may go, there’s always the opportunity for more the next time around. 

That’s the beauty of Big’s Backyard Ultra. 

There is no finish, and there is no limit. 

Some years might force runners to take a step back while others propel them forward by leaps and bounds, and that unpredictability is just another allure of the Backyard state of mind. 

When there are no guarantees, not even at a finish line, there’s no telling how far we’ll go. 

Ever thought about running a backyard ultra? Tell us about it in the comments.
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Lucie Hanes 108
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Eagle, CO
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Ultrarunner, rock climber, youth coach, occasional artist. Small human on big adventures with big goals and big feelings.

Comments

Rob Myers Harvey is a beast!!!! 354 miles. WOW!

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