My First Backyard Ultra: My New Favorite Race Format (2024)

An exhausted competitor at a backyard ultra event

The backyard ultra is a new format of ultramarathon racing. I recently watched my first backyard ultra in Queeny Park, which is in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. I found it incredible to see these athletes battle it out until only one runner could continue.

Participants must run a 4.167-mile loop each hour, starting a new loop at the top of every hour. The amount of rest between each loop depends on the time it took to complete the previous loop. Whoever can run one more lap than everyone else is declared the winner.

Racing a backyard ultra is all about endurance (and resilience), and less about speed. It’s truly a race where the “last person standing” wins.

We have spoken with seasoned backyard ultra runners, and backyard ultra race directors to better understand this growing race format.


  • Backyard ultras are a unique endurance race characterized by their loop format, mental and physical demands, strong runner camaraderie, and an unpredictable and evolving race environment.
  • Success in backyard ultras requires strategic pacing, effective use of brief rest periods, and rigorous training to build physical and mental endurance.
  • Top competitors emphasize the importance of self-belief, mental fortitude, and patience in overcoming the significant psychological and physical challenges posed by backyard ultras, as these attributes are as critical as physical fitness.
  • This race format is very spectator-friendly, as you see the runners every hour.

The Origins of the Backyard Ultra

Many people have heard of the Barkley Marathons, a bucket list ultramarathon for many people. It was created by Gary Cantrell, a.k.a. “Lazarus Lake”. Cantrell’s involvement in ultrarunning dates back to his participation in races during the 1970s and 1980s, which laid the groundwork for his later role as a trailblazing race director for extreme sports events.

Lazarus Lake created the Backyard Ultra format in 2011, which focuses on the principles of endurance and resilience over speed.

Since then, it has expanded globally, being embraced in over 70 countries. Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra (also referred to as “Big’s Backyard Ultra”), is organized by Lake and takes place on his personal property in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. This race is held in October each year and is the World Championship for Backyard Ultra races.

The Backyard Ultra Race Format

Trail runners participating in a backyard ultra race
Queeny Park Backyard Ultra. Lap 25 starts with only a portion of runners left in the race.

Most people start out by thinking, 4 miles every hour? That’s easy. Except, you do it again, and again, and again.

Backyard Ultra Rules

  • Each runner must be at the start line when the lap whistle is blown.
  • Each runner must complete the existing lap within an hour (before the next lap begins).
  • Runners cannot use trekking poles.
  • Runners cannot get aid anywhere on the course except from their support team at the starting area between laps.
  • Runners must stay on course, except when using a bathroom.
  • Pacers are not allowed.

Backyard Ultra Race Format

  • Each lap (also referred to as “yards”) is 4.167 miles (6.7 km).
  • You can visit your support area/tent after each lap but you have to be back at the starting line before the next lap begins.
  • The race organizers blow a whistle at 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute before each lap starts to alert runners. Late starts are not allowed.
  • The winner is the last runner who can complete a lap after all other runners drop out or have been eliminated.

What’s Behind the Growth of the Backyard Ultra?

Tents setup to support backyard ultra runners
Each runner has a support team and tent area for in-between laps.

Unlike traditional races with a fixed distance, backyard ultras are a battle against the clock, the elements, and one’s own physical and mental endurance.

The format is deceptively simple: competitors run a fixed distance of 4.167 miles within a one-hour window for each lap. Yet, the unpredictability stemming from factors such as sleep deprivation, changing weather conditions, and the constant need to maintain running speed and manage rest adds a layer of complexity that can test even the most seasoned athletes.

Camaraderie Among Runners

“Tent cities” spring up at these events, creating a convivial environment where runners and their support crews gather, sharing stories, advice, and encouragement. The race presents a unique blend of social interaction and competition.

This camaraderie becomes integral to a runner’s strategy, as proven by elite competitors such as Harvey Lewis, who emphasize the psychological benefits of shared experiences and mutual support.

Each runner, including the final runner, is individually striving to outlast their competitors. However, they also find themselves part of a supportive and resilient community until there’s only one runner left standing.

Lessons from A Backyard Ultra Champion

Harvey Lewis was already an ultra running legend before he started racing backyard ultras. He won the legendary Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles) in 2014 and 2021. He then Lewis won the 2023 Backyard Ultra World Championship (running 450 miles) and the 2021 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra (running 354 miles).

He mentions that pacing is critical and takes each step and lap one at a time. He says, “I don’t know anyone that has won the race by winning the first lap.”

During his 450-mile run, he would sleep for 1 to 2 minutes in between each lap. He said he could close his eyes and instantly be asleep and wake up feeling like he slept for much longer.

Everyone is different, so you really have to find what works for you and go with it.

Tips for First-Time Competitors

The exhaustion of a runner during the Queeny backyard ultra in between laps
The importance of a great support team. After 240 miles, you may not be thinking clearly.

Based on veteran participants, here is some advice for first-time competitors.

Having a support crew is crucial for providing logistical support and the mental motivation needed to persist in a backyard ultra.

Starting conservatively is crucial to conserve energy for the later stages when fatigue sets in. It’s also vital to utilize the time between loops to rest, refuel, and recover, as this efficient use of downtime can maintain optimal performance throughout the race. Be prepared for this rest time to get shorter the longer the race goes on (your laps will take up more of each hour).

Having a well-organized campsite with easy access to important items can reduce stress and allow for more efficient use of rest time between loops. Most competitors have a plan on what lap they will change shoes, when they’ll eat, and when they will typically use the bathroom.

Finally, varying movements during rest periods and on the course can help prevent the body from tightening up, possibly ending the race prematurely.

You'll run through the night which presents a lot of challenges
You’ll be running in the dark. Be prepared.

Maintaining a Steady Pace

Keeping a consistent pace is a fundamental strategy in backyard ultras. I was speaking to the support crew for a runner who had already completed over 200 miles, and they were saying he likes to do 53-minute laps now. His next lap was 53 minutes exactly. It’s crazy.

Starting the race at a comfortable pace can help avoid early burnout and conserve energy for the later stages. Patience in strategy, allowing the race to naturally unfold, can improve pacing and lead to a more enjoyable race experience.

Oh, and everyone walks the hills. So follow that format and you’ll fit right in.

Efficient Rest Periods

Making the most of the brief rest period between loops is vital. Here are some tips other athletes have used effectively:

  1. Lie down for 10 minutes initially and reduce this to 1-2 minutes as the race progresses to aid recovery.
  2. Establish a comfortable rest area with items such as a reclining camp chair, warm clothing, and organized your trail running gear to aid recuperation.
  3. Prepare nutrition during the rest period to sustain performance levels.
  4. Take care of your feet during the rest period. Switch socks and shoes every so many laps.
  5. Vaseline! You want to avoid blisters and chafing so be liberal with vaseline on your toes and other body areas.

Notable Backyard Ultra Races

Male trail runner wearing a hydration vest and other trail running gear

Backyard ultras have been growing each season with more races starting in all parts of the world. There is a good list of many of them here.

The largest race is, of course, Big’s Backyard Ultra. This is the World Championship for Backyard Ultra races and is held annually in Tennessee in October.

World Records and Standout Performances

Several standout performances and world records have been set in backyard ultras. The current male world record is held by American runner Harvey Lewis. He broke the previous record at Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra in 2023, running a staggering 108 laps (450 miles or 720 kilometers).

At the 2023 Capital Backyard Ultra, 57 year old Jennifer Russo achieved a remarkable feat by setting the female world record. She completed an impressive 74 laps, totaling 311 miles or 496.2 kilometers.

These record-setting performances and the escalating challenge of backyard ultras truly highlight the extraordinary endurance and mental fortitude of ultra runners.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you qualify for Big Dogs Backyard Ultra?

To qualify for Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, you can secure a place on the team by winning a Silver Ticket event, or you may be selected as an At-Large addition to the team, such as the 15-man US team with 6 places determined by the winners of 6 Silver Ticket events.

Where is Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra?

Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra takes place on the Big Dog’s Trail outside Bell Buckle, Tennessee, and the next running event is scheduled for October 19, 2024.

Do you sleep during a backyard ultra?

Participants in a backyard ultra have limited time for sleep, with only a few short minutes between loops to rest, eat, hydrate, or sleep. This format is designed to test the endurance and mental fortitude of the runners.

What makes backyard ultras unique among endurance races?

Backyard ultras are unique among endurance races because they involve running a fixed distance within a one-hour window for each lap, which presents the challenge of managing sleep deprivation and changing weather conditions. This format tests athletes’ physical and mental endurance in ways that traditional races do not.

Why is it called a Backyard Ultra?

A Backyard Ultra is named so because it is a small looped course and the first race was held on the creator’s property. He named it a backyard ultra.

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