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Ultrarunner Harvey Lewis reaches the end of Lazarus Lake’s endless backyard | Marathon

The pleasures of winning a world championship can sometimes be small, but immediate. The evidence is plain in the smile of ultrarunner Harvey Lewis at 6.59pm on Wednesday 25 October. Lewis has just won the 2023 Backyard Ultra World Championship, but what appears to be of greater immediate relief is that after 450 miles, and for the first time in 108 hours (four and a half days), Lewis will not have to run four and one sixth miles (6.7km) at the start of the next hour.

Ultrarunners like Lewis compete in ultramarathons, or ultras. Any footrace longer than a traditional marathon (26.2 miles, or 42.2 km) is considered an ultra, although within that designation there exist multitudes – in New York City alone, ultras can range from pop culture-themed 28-mile events to epic journeys thousands of miles in length.

Many ultras use a straightforward racing format: the race starts and the first person across the finish line wins. Others apply a multi-day, multi-stage structure similar to cycling’s Tour de France. Backyard ultras, however, employ a unique format designed to test runners’ wills as much as their bodies.

In a backyard ultra, racers must complete a four-and-one-sixth-mile trail loop every hour, starting on the hour–they must do this every hour, no exceptions. Matters of strategy and speed are left to the participants’ discretion. Runners may take the entire hour to complete a lap, perhaps opting for slow pace to conserve energy. Alternatively, if runners finish a lap in less than an hour, they can use any remaining time to eat, hydrate, sit, stretch, talk strategy with their support crew, or, crucially, to sleep. Indeed, because backyard ultras run throughout the night, these minutes of sleep between laps are runners’ only chance to rest throughout the entirety of the race. By completing the four-and-one-sixth-mile loop 24 times over 24 hours, participants run exactly 100 miles per day. Run, rest (if you have the time), repeat until you can’t. That’s it.

It’s simple enough, yet a paradox emerges when describing backyard ultras. On one hand, they are teeming with statistics, data points and records, as if tailor-made for detailed description. Conversely, such analyses do little to express the reality underlying ultraathletes’ achievements. The numbers are just too large to understand intuitively.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s 37 miles or 307 miles,” says race designer Lazarus Lake, “People have no concept of [distance] at all.” To communicate some sense of the distances being covered, Lake (familiarly known as Laz, although his real name is Gary Cantrell) recommends describing ultrarunning accomplishments by identifying an equivalent city-to-city journey.

Claire Bannwarth of France was the farthest-running female athlete at the 2023 Backyard Ultra World Championship in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Photograph: Keith Knipling

Using this method, during his championship-winning run, Lewis ran the equivalent of the distance from Washington DC to Boston. Or from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Or London to Edinburgh. Use whichever comparison seems the most incredible to you; all three actually fall short of the 450 miles Lewis ran.

Just as statistics alone fail to accurately convey the magnitude of Lewis’s accomplishment, so too does referring to Lake as a ‘race designer’ neglect to describe his standing within the world of ultrarunning. Among his many other contributions to the sport, Lake invented the backyard ultra itself in the early 2010s. To this day, he hosts the format’s individual world championships every other year on his 150-acre property in central Tennessee. To ultrarunners, Lake is something of an inscrutable, prickly-tempered guru, or even folk hero.

Lake prefers to describe himself more modestly as a “hillbilly from the Tennessee mountains”. He also appears to enjoy alternatively satisfying and subverting the expectations that accompany his public persona. During the race, he often snaps with sincere-sounding anger at individuals for transgressions as minor as, say, standing in the wrong place. Before the moment gets too uncomfortable, however, a glance toward Lake’s face reveals a twinkly-eyed smile. His grumpiness is performative and productive, a technique he presumably perfected during his 35 years as a high school baseball and basketball coach.

The subject of multiple profiles over the last decade, Lake is occasionally presented as a sadist who uses his famously difficult races to inflict as much pain as possible on runners. In conversation, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Although he projects the flannel-wearing, cigarette-smoking, big-bearded image of a ‘man of the woods’, Lake is a nature-loving intellectual who can chat at length about everything from college football to the effects of new technologies on labour markets. Change his accent and passport, and Lake would fit easily into the much-loved tradition of British eccentrics.

Whatever the underlying inspiration, Lake’s backyard ultras have introduced a new dynamic to the millennia-old history of competitive running and the world’s ultrarunners have noticed. Just a decade into their existence, backyard ultras are now regularly held in more than 70 countries and exist within an international framework that allows for robust world championships featuring elite athletes.


Four and half days before Lewis was able to enjoy his world-beating, record-breaking 108-hour run, he was just one of 75 world-class runners standing on a gravel driveway on a cold Saturday morning in rural Tennessee. Venus is visible and the surrounding walnut trees are still mostly silhouettes in the dawn sky. At precisely 7.00am, Lake rings a cowbell and the runners start their first lap.

Nearly all of the world’s greatest backyard ultrarunners are present; Jamal Said, Nazarri Hnat, and Moises Lopez (the Pakistani, Ukrainian and Venezuelan national champions, respectively) are unable to travel to the US for the competition. Their countries’ flags hang prominently from the timekeeper’s table at the starting line. Roughly half of the remaining runners are their home countries’ national champions, while the other half qualified by running especially impressive times at high-profile backyard ultras around the world.

Although all 75 have a chance at the tile, there do exist a handful of favorites. As the course recordholder (85 laps), Lewis is among them. So is Phil Gore, a 37-year-old firefighter from Western Australia who entered the championship as the world backyard ultra recordholder – he completed 102 loops earlier this year.

The previous record of 101 loops was held jointly by Merijn Geerts and Ivo Steyaert, both of whom were among the six Belgian runners also present to the world championships (all six ran at least 200 miles in the race). When asked why Belgian runners seem to excel in the backyard format, Steyaert replied, “Because we’re stubborn.” Gore mentions both Geerts and Steyaert when discussing the competition ahead of the event.

“I saw their [record-setting] race, and it looked like they had a lot more left,” he says. Gore makes the same observation about his own record-setting performance. All were prevented from pushing themselves further by a quirk of the rules governing backyard ultras – the winner can only run as far as the next best runner, plus one additional lap (eg if the second-to-last runner completes 50 laps, the remaining athlete must complete 51 laps to win, but cannot run any farther).

The first two days proceed relatively uneventfully and, in retrospect, are a bit of blur. After 48 hours (and 200 miles/320 km) of racing, more than half of the starting field (and all four of the female runners) are still in the race. Days three and four, however, see multiple prominent runners drop out of the race.

American Jennifer Russo, current holder of the women’s backyard ultra record for most laps, takes too long to finish her 54th lap. After exceeding the one-hour time limit on his 54th lap, Japan’s Tokimasa Hiratu tearfully apologizes for what he believes to be his poor performance (he’d run over 220 miles). Canadian Amanda Nelson collapses at the finish line after 57 hours (she was fully recovered by the following day, even going on a 10k walk to “get the blood flowing”). Irishman Keith Russell, who’d been averaging a blistering 44 minutes per lap for more than three days, suffered a fall that prevented him from completing his 75th lap in time.

“As Laz would say, ‘You can’t have a bad hour,’” Russell notes.

Harvey Lewis lies on ice after winning the championship.
Harvey Lewis lies on ice after winning the championship. Photograph: Keith Knipling

After surpassing his previous personal best by 15 laps, Mexican runner Rodolfo Ramírez earns a round of applause from the small on-site crowd after failing to complete his 76th loop. Ramírez had become a fan favorite through a combination of his strong running, Mexico’s historical ties to ultrarunning, and the enthusiastic on-site support of his mother (and support crew), Magdalena Leonides, whose patriotic flag-waving, improvised lyrics to Cielito Lindo, and vocal cheering for every runner made her one of the event’s most recognizable faces.

The sight of the Philippines’ dehydrated Jivee Tolentino walking to the finish of his (timed-out) 82nd lap, severely dehydrated and supported on the shoulders of his support crew, prompted murmurs about the race’s lack of an on-site ambulance. The absence of on-duty medical personnel is likely the consequence of backyard ultrarunning’s temporary presence at a crossroads somewhere between its DIY, run-with-your-friends roots and its (likely) formally organized future. Fortunately for Tolentino, his support crew includes registered nurse Donald Sombilla.

The race has more personal stories worth telling than there is space to print them here. Ultimately, however, after 103 laps (and, thus, already in ‘new world record’ territory), the championship came down to a one-on-one duel of wills between Lewis and Ukrainian-Canadian runner Ihor Verys. At 47 and 29 years of age, respectively, Lewis and Verys are a clash of contrasting styles.

“It’s a quandary,” Lake observes before the race is over, “Because Ihor is clearly the stronger runner, but Harvey won’t give up. And, [in backyards], you don’t have to be the strongest runner. You just have to be strong enough.”

In his 107th loop, Lewis sprinted through the portion of the trail visible from the starting line, a move he later admitted was an attempt to get into Verys’s head. It worked. Verys failed to finish his next lap, giving an eloquent and gracious concession speech at the finish line before the Cincinnati schoolteacher completes his record-setting 108th lap.

Owing to the previously mentioned restrictions, Lewis couldn’t run farther even if he wanted to. So, he sits, smiles, and fields questions. He is at the frontier of lucidity and sleep-deprived incoherence. He mentions being “plant-powered” (Lewis is vegan) and the Brighton Center, the charity for which his championship-winning performance raised money. Mostly, however, he smiles. He, alone among the 75 runners who competed at this year’s world championship, knows what it’s like to reach the end of Lazarus Lake’s endless backyard.

Summarize this content to 100 words The pleasures of winning a world championship can sometimes be small, but immediate. The evidence is plain in the smile of ultrarunner Harvey Lewis at 6.59pm on Wednesday 25 October. Lewis has just won the 2023 Backyard Ultra World Championship, but what appears to be of greater immediate relief is that after 450 miles, and for the first time in 108 hours (four and a half days), Lewis will not have to run four and one sixth miles (6.7km) at the start of the next hour.Ultrarunners like Lewis compete in ultramarathons, or ultras. Any footrace longer than a traditional marathon (26.2 miles, or 42.2 km) is considered an ultra, although within that designation there exist multitudes – in New York City alone, ultras can range from pop culture-themed 28-mile events to epic journeys thousands of miles in length.Many ultras use a straightforward racing format: the race starts and the first person across the finish line wins. Others apply a multi-day, multi-stage structure similar to cycling’s Tour de France. Backyard ultras, however, employ a unique format designed to test runners’ wills as much as their bodies.In a backyard ultra, racers must complete a four-and-one-sixth-mile trail loop every hour, starting on the hour–they must do this every hour, no exceptions. Matters of strategy and speed are left to the participants’ discretion. Runners may take the entire hour to complete a lap, perhaps opting for slow pace to conserve energy. Alternatively, if runners finish a lap in less than an hour, they can use any remaining time to eat, hydrate, sit, stretch, talk strategy with their support crew, or, crucially, to sleep. Indeed, because backyard ultras run throughout the night, these minutes of sleep between laps are runners’ only chance to rest throughout the entirety of the race. By completing the four-and-one-sixth-mile loop 24 times over 24 hours, participants run exactly 100 miles per day. Run, rest (if you have the time), repeat until you can’t. That’s it.It’s simple enough, yet a paradox emerges when describing backyard ultras. On one hand, they are teeming with statistics, data points and records, as if tailor-made for detailed description. Conversely, such analyses do little to express the reality underlying ultraathletes’ achievements. The numbers are just too large to understand intuitively.“It doesn’t matter if it’s 37 miles or 307 miles,” says race designer Lazarus Lake, “People have no concept of [distance] at all.” To communicate some sense of the distances being covered, Lake (familiarly known as Laz, although his real name is Gary Cantrell) recommends describing ultrarunning accomplishments by identifying an equivalent city-to-city journey.Claire Bannwarth of France was the farthest-running female athlete at the 2023 Backyard Ultra World Championship in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Photograph: Keith KniplingUsing this method, during his championship-winning run, Lewis ran the equivalent of the distance from Washington DC to Boston. Or from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Or London to Edinburgh. Use whichever comparison seems the most incredible to you; all three actually fall short of the 450 miles Lewis ran.Just as statistics alone fail to accurately convey the magnitude of Lewis’s accomplishment, so too does referring to Lake as a ‘race designer’ neglect to describe his standing within the world of ultrarunning. Among his many other contributions to the sport, Lake invented the backyard ultra itself in the early 2010s. To this day, he hosts the format’s individual world championships every other year on his 150-acre property in central Tennessee. To ultrarunners, Lake is something of an inscrutable, prickly-tempered guru, or even folk hero.Lake prefers to describe himself more modestly as a “hillbilly from the Tennessee mountains”. He also appears to enjoy alternatively satisfying and subverting the expectations that accompany his public persona. During the race, he often snaps with sincere-sounding anger at individuals for transgressions as minor as, say, standing in the wrong place. Before the moment gets too uncomfortable, however, a glance toward Lake’s face reveals a twinkly-eyed smile. His grumpiness is performative and productive, a technique he presumably perfected during his 35 years as a high school baseball and basketball coach.The subject of multiple profiles over the last decade, Lake is occasionally presented as a sadist who uses his famously difficult races to inflict as much pain as possible on runners. In conversation, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Although he projects the flannel-wearing, cigarette-smoking, big-bearded image of a ‘man of the woods’, Lake is a nature-loving intellectual who can chat at length about everything from college football to the effects of new technologies on labour markets. Change his accent and passport, and Lake would fit easily into the much-loved tradition of British eccentrics.Whatever the underlying inspiration, Lake’s backyard ultras have introduced a new dynamic to the millennia-old history of competitive running and the world’s ultrarunners have noticed. Just a decade into their existence, backyard ultras are now regularly held in more than 70 countries and exist within an international framework that allows for robust world championships featuring elite athletes.Four and half days before Lewis was able to enjoy his world-beating, record-breaking 108-hour run, he was just one of 75 world-class runners standing on a gravel driveway on a cold Saturday morning in rural Tennessee. Venus is visible and the surrounding walnut trees are still mostly silhouettes in the dawn sky. At precisely 7.00am, Lake rings a cowbell and the runners start their first lap.Nearly all of the world’s greatest backyard ultrarunners are present; Jamal Said, Nazarri Hnat, and Moises Lopez (the Pakistani, Ukrainian and Venezuelan national champions, respectively) are unable to travel to the US for the competition. Their countries’ flags hang prominently from the timekeeper’s table at the starting line. Roughly half of the remaining runners are their home countries’ national champions, while the other half qualified by running especially impressive times at high-profile backyard ultras around the world.Although all 75 have a chance at the tile, there do exist a handful of favorites. As the course recordholder (85 laps), Lewis is among them. So is Phil Gore, a 37-year-old firefighter from Western Australia who entered the championship as the world backyard ultra recordholder – he completed 102 loops earlier this year.The previous record of 101 loops was held jointly by Merijn Geerts and Ivo Steyaert, both of whom were among the six Belgian runners also present to the world championships (all six ran at least 200 miles in the race). When asked why Belgian runners seem to excel in the backyard format, Steyaert replied, “Because we’re stubborn.” Gore mentions both Geerts and Steyaert when discussing the competition ahead of the event.“I saw their [record-setting] race, and it looked like they had a lot more left,” he says. Gore makes the same observation about his own record-setting performance. All were prevented from pushing themselves further by a quirk of the rules governing backyard ultras – the winner can only run as far as the next best runner, plus one additional lap (eg if the second-to-last runner completes 50 laps, the remaining athlete must complete 51 laps to win, but cannot run any farther).The first two days proceed relatively uneventfully and, in retrospect, are a bit of blur. After 48 hours (and 200 miles/320 km) of racing, more than half of the starting field (and all four of the female runners) are still in the race. Days three and four, however, see multiple prominent runners drop out of the race.American Jennifer Russo, current holder of the women’s backyard ultra record for most laps, takes too long to finish her 54th lap. After exceeding the one-hour time limit on his 54th lap, Japan’s Tokimasa Hiratu tearfully apologizes for what he believes to be his poor performance (he’d run over 220 miles). Canadian Amanda Nelson collapses at the finish line after 57 hours (she was fully recovered by the following day, even going on a 10k walk to “get the blood flowing”). Irishman Keith Russell, who’d been averaging a blistering 44 minutes per lap for more than three days, suffered a fall that prevented him from completing his 75th lap in time.“As Laz would say, ‘You can’t have a bad hour,’” Russell notes.Harvey Lewis lies on ice after winning the championship. Photograph: Keith KniplingAfter surpassing his previous personal best by 15 laps, Mexican runner Rodolfo Ramírez earns a round of applause from the small on-site crowd after failing to complete his 76th loop. Ramírez had become a fan favorite through a combination of…
https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2023/oct/27/harvey-lewis-ultramarathon-backyard-championship Ultrarunner Harvey Lewis reaches the end of Lazarus Lake’s endless backyard | Marathon

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