The rise of the Backyard Ultra

Backyard Ultra

This coming weekend sees the first running in Australia of what’s known as the Backyard Ultras – The Mirrim Wurnit Back Paddock Ultra. Special mention also to AAA Racing’s Clint Eastwood LOS, which also offers the winner a golden ticket to Laz’s big show. While new to the general ultra running public, this format has been running in the US now for quite a number of years. It’s the brain child of one Lazarus Lake of Barkley Marathons fame. And, trust Laz to be behind this concept. Its sheer simplicity is its brilliance. 

The rise of the Backyard Ultra

Just like Barkley, Laz has this wonderful ability to dangle a carrot of temptation in front of every ultra runner in the world. He offers something that to the psyche of an ultra runner, appears vaguely possible. Yet, we know the reality is failure. Laz revels in this type of temptation. He’s all-inclusive. He makes anyone of us think we have a chance at glory. And, he challenges us to reach inside the inner depths of what we deem possible to see if we’re up to the task. 

It may appear slightly base, but when I think of anything Laz puts his name against, I think of the movie Dumb and Dumber. Those of you who’ve watched the film will probably be smiling right now and know what I’m talking about. But for those that don’t, our central character, played by Jim Carey asks whether he has a chance with a lady he’s rather smitten by. She replies his chances are around one in a million. Jim is clearly an ultra runner at heart, because his reaction is priceless, ‘So, you’re telling me there’s a chance’… pure GOLD – the kind of thinking that any ultra runner has. Watch the scene here.

So, ahead of the preview a little later this week, I asked one of the Mirrim Wurnit organiser’s, Peter Clarke to pen me a few thoughts around the concept. Initially asking for a few paragraphs to accompany the preview, Peter very generously penned an entire article, which I felt deserved its own pride of place. Many thanks to Peter for his words here and watch out for the preview in a few days.

A new era of racing in Australia

In the final days before the 2019 Mirrim Wurnit Back Paddock Ultra, I’ve been contemplating the new found global popularity of the Backyard Ultras and the “last one standing” (LOS) event format.

I think there are two, interweaving threads that explain why this is the next and latest big thing in ultra running.

Thread one

This is the concept and format itself.  A lot of trail runners will say they race mainly for the camaraderie, and to spend time in nature.  But when it comes to ultra distances there is something more. Finding and pushing limits, achieving big goals.  Ninety-five percent of us know we cannot win at a trail ultra with a half decent field. To do that you have to be super-fast and on form.  And we are fine with that.

Just completing 100ks, or 100 miles, or running up a mountain is an awesome feat in itself.  But what if speed was not an important factor?  What if speed was taken out of the equation entirely.  Do we know what we are capable of?  I don’t.  If you swap speed for determination, you level the playing field.  The LOS event is a challenge where you genuinely don’t know what you are capable of.  And you know you can run all day.  6.7kms in an hour is nothing…  you can always squeeze out another 6.7.  You would have to be truly broken to not be able to manage one more lap in an hour.

Thread two

This is what I would call the “Lazarus Lake factor”. Big’s Backyard has been running for decades, but who had heard of it, let alone paid attention to it before they knew about Barkley?  Laz is a marketing genius. And the genius is in how he has brought it to life. He puts runners and ultra running psychology at the front of what he does.

Laz has taken the LOS concept and created some parameters to standardise it into an event format.  4.1 miles, or 6.7kms per hour.  That means 100 miles in 24 hours.  And, some other basic rules to keep things synchronised.  An added bonus is all runners start each hour together.  This means if you are normally a mid-packer, you actually get to run with the elites. Instead of just standing next to them at the start of a race and then never seeing them again, you stand next to them every hour.  And their superior speed counts for nothing. How frustrating for them! Or how much fun for everyone?

More than speed

Barkley, like Big’s Backyard Ultra is not a race for the fast runner.  The key to success there is other skills.  Navigating and determination trump speed.  He created a race that was almost impossible to finish, and consequently the ultra running world lines up to take the challenge. And, so ironically it is almost impossible to get a start.

At Big’s you don’t even have to navigate, it is all about toughness and determination. Of course, fitness is a factor. But the Central Governor theory, that I’m sure many ultra runners have read about, is the idea that we are capable of so much more than we think.  That our brains tell us to stop a long time before we have to.  And consequently, we really don’t know what we are capable of.  We just need to overrule our brain.  These events exploit that curiosity.

Barkley is all but impossible to get into. But if you win Big’s you get a golden ticket to Barkley. And remember, you don’t have to be fast, or even able to navigate to win Big’s.  Now Big’s is almost impossible to get into. What if there were golden tickets to gain entry for Big’s Backyard Ultra? See what is happening here?

And this is not just trickery. Laz truly believes that speed is not the factor on which to base entry. Therefore, traditional running resumes should not be the basis for entry. He wants to entries to go to people who can prove themselves at the format. And, he wants to create a “world championship” of Backyard events.  This means golden ticket events for Big’s all over the world. Genius.

A new format

As race directors of Mirrim Wurnit we feel very lucky to have been at the right place at the right time.  In 2016 we started discussing how to use this fantastic property to stage a running event. We thought about old school cross country.  We thought about an enduro (timed events) festival. Then after Big’s in 2017 we started to think about LOS. Australia didn’t have a LOS event. Then we had a golden ticket.

But it is important to say that Mirrim Wurnit is not about Big’s, or Barkley.  It is our take on an amazing format.  We have created what we hope is a genuine community ultra event in the Victorian countryside. This is an original event in its own right, where runners can test their limits and see what they are capable of.  And have fun.  We think we have captured our community’s imagination. We have had enormous fun creating it. And the Golden ticket is a silver lining.

The rest is history.  And we are excited to be a part of it.

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

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