A handful of years ago I met someone who introduced me to the world of ultramarathon (farther than a marathon) running. I had run a few ultras myself in the past, but had had little exposure to the ultramarathon subculture (which over the past 10 years or so has exploded globally).
Like you, I have a handful of friends who have run in the Marathon des Sables
, a 251-kilometer (156 miles) stage race in the North African desert that was first held in 1986. And like you, one summer I crewed for a friend who was running the Badwater Ultramarathon
, a 135-mile (217 kilometer) race starting in California’s Death Valley – where temperatures can reach 130 °F (54 °C) – and ending at an elevation of 8360 feet (2548 meters) at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mount Whitney.
But although there are professional ultrarunners (e.g. Kilian Jornet
, Aleksandr Sorokin, Jim Walmsley, Courtney Dauwalter
, Camille Herron, Pam Reed and many more), what was most interesting to me was that the business my friend runs – the Red Dot Running Company
– is a hub for an endurance sport (running, cycling, swimming, triathlon, etc.) in Singapore that comprises mainly “ordinary people”. Who do extraordinary things.
For example, in 2007, Tomokazu Ihara
was an overweight Japanese salaryman with an unhealthy lifestyle, but having just joined a sporting goods company, he entered a company-wide competition to see who could lose the most weight within three months. He set himself a goal of running 5 kilometers every day, and lost seven kilograms, winning the contest. After that, 5km turned into 10, then 15, 20, 50 and 100, and now Tomo is in the process of running 100 miles 100 times
This past summer, Stella Tsui and PS Sim
became Singapore’s first female finishers of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run
, the world’s oldest 100-mile (160.9 kilometers) trail race, in which competitors climb more than 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) and descend nearly 23,000 feet (7,010 meters), dealing with high altitude (over 2,600 meters) at the start, and blazing temperatures during the second half of the course.
Also this past summer, nearly 20 Singaporeans competed in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc
, a week-long series of ultramarathon events in the mountains around Chamonix. The eponymous main event, known simply as UTMB, is around 171 kilometers (106 miles) long, with a total elevation gain of around 10,040 meters (32,940 feet). Astonishingly, given its difficulty, the race sells out over 2,000 starting places every year, and there is a waiting list.
These Singaporeans are not professional runners. They are salespeople and accountants and receptionists and auto mechanics. Whose idea of a good time is to spend $5,000 to fly to France (or Japan or Morocco or South Africa or Antarctica) for a weekend (okay, Antarctica is more than a weekend) to run 100 kilometers or more. They’re mostly not crazy rich Asians either. They save up, they use their annual leave (“vacation”, if you’re American), and they build holidays around their bucket lists of overseas races.
Last weekend, I helped my friend organize the Singapore edition of the Backyard Ultra World Championships
, a global event that pitted 15-person teams of ultrarunners from 37 countries against one another.
Dreamed up by Gary Cantrell, the evil genius who created the Barkley Marathons
, a backyard ultra
is a form of ultramarathon in which competitors must run a 6.7-kilometer (4.2-mile) lap of a pre-determined course in less than one hour. When each lap is completed, the time remaining within the hour is typically used to recover for the next hour’s run. Exactly one hour after a backyard ultra’s first lap, competitors must run the next 6.7-kilometer lap with a one-hour window for completion. These loops are repeated hourly. The race ends when there is only one person remaining on course and he or she completes a final 6.7-kilometer loop and crosses the finish line.
The world championship was held for the first time two years ago, and two Singaporean runners went 34 and 33 hours (once the second-to-last finisher quits, the rules require that the winner finish one more loop, then stop). This year’s event was staged in a “post-COVID” atmosphere, and in Singapore, uniquely (and to mitigate costs), a local “open” event was held alongside the world championships. Between the world championship “national team” and the open competitors, 39 runners toed the line last Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. (the event kicked off simultaneously around the world to match an 8:00 a.m. start in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, where evil genius Cantrell resides and stages the original Big’s Backyard Ultra in his own backyard).
At the start of the event, the backyard ultra “world record” was 90 hours, or 603.5 kilometers (375 miles), run by Belgian Merijn Geerts in Germany earlier this year. Irishman Keith Russell completed 89 laps to earn “the assist”. And so, running – and organizing – a backyard ultra is a waiting game. In order to win, you have to keep running laps, hour by hour, waiting for everyone else to quit.
How long you have to wait depends on the quality and determination of your opponents, of course. I like to think that most reasonably fit people could complete six hours, which amounts to just less than a marathon. Could you finish a marathon in six hours? I think you could.
How about pushing it out to 12 hours? Remember, if you complete your loops in under an hour, you get to rest in between runs. Some people run their loops in under 40 minutes. Some run and walk more slowly, and get to the finish line with only a few minutes to spare. Both strategies are valid, but if you plan to go far (e.g. over 30 hours), you will need to start thinking about sleep.
The seemingly strange distance of each loop adds up to 100 miles (161 kilometers) after 24 hours. Two hundred miles (322 kilometers) after 48 hours. Three hundred miles (483 kilometers) after 72 hours. You can’t do that. And neither can I.
Last weekend, from 15 starters in the world championship event, we lost our first competitor after 10 hours. He had been carrying an injury into the event, and “only” managed 67 kilometers, or 41.6 miles. We lost another at 12 hours, then two more at 15 hours. Fifteen hours is just over 100 kilometers (62.4 miles). A long way.
At the 24-hour mark we had five runners left from the original 15, and we lost another one at that point, 100 miles (161 kilometers) in.
Four remained. Chris, Ned, Joshua and Deric.
Chris had looked fantastic throughout. Strong and efficient. Ned is not a stylish runner, but as the Olympic legend Emil Zatopek said, “I will run with perfect style when they start judging races for their beauty, like figure-skating.” Still, I wasn’t picking Ned to be the last man standing. Joshua and Deric were tougher to figure out. Both were looping quietly, not looking great, not looking bad. In retrospect, biding their time, waiting for people to quit.
Shockingly, to those of us watching, Chris was the first to crack, after completing 27 loops (181 kilometers, or 112 miles). He had an issue with his iliotibial band, a problem he said he had previously in ultramarathons longer than 100 miles, and decided to stop rather than risk further injury.
Ned went one more loop, stopping at 28 (187 kilometers, or 116.5 miles).
Joshua and Deric remained, and the Singapore record was “only” six hours away. A marathon.
Meanwhile, we in the race organizing crew were on the one hand hoping our runners would be able to do something special, not only for themselves, but in contribution to the overall team result.
But on the other hand, we were exhausted, and not-so-secretly hoping to be home in our beds before long.
Joshua and Deric didn’t care about that, of course, and they kept on looping. Past 30 hours. Past 36 hours (150 miles, or 241 kilometers). Past the Singapore record of 34 hours. And at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, they went past 48 hours and the 200-mile (322-kilometer) mark! They had been running for two days, “resting” 10-15 minutes (or less, toward the end) every hour.
At 10:00 p.m. the guys finished their 50th loop. It had been dark for three hours, and the ground was wet from a recent rainfall. Since the morning, a crowd had been at the start/finish, cheering them on as they departed on every lap, and came back to the finish. The spectators were their former competitors, gone home after dropping out, having showered, slept and returned to the course. Plus friends and family, of course. The spectators came to watch them pass 34 hours and beat the record. They stayed to watch the 40-hour barrier broken. Most of them stayed 10 hours longer.
A backyard ultra is not a running race. And mostly it’s not a competition against others. It’s an internal battle, a struggle to surpass your limits, real or perceived. Many competitors start a backyard ultra with a number in mind, a goal they’d like to achieve. Twelve hours. Or 24. Or if the national record is 34, they may aim for 35.
A few start with the simplest and most obvious goal: be the last man or woman standing. When I interviewed our competitors before the event for the global livestream, the Singaporean record holder, Abimanyu Shunmugam, said to me, “My strategy is very different from the rest, I suspect. I’ve got no set number of loops in my head. I just want to be the last man standing.”
Abi was sidelined after only 17 loops by injury, but he was there with the others when Joshua and Deric headed out on their 51st loop. Maybe 10 minutes before 11:00 p.m., Joshua finished the loop. As he had been doing for hours, he lay down, and his crew began massaging his legs and trying to get him to eat a bit of food. At around two minutes before 11:00, Deric was nowhere in sight, and it appeared he would not make it back within the hour.
Joshua stood up and made his way to the start line. To win, he had to be ready to go out on another loop.
He was ready, and the race director gave him a one-minute warning.
Still no sign of Deric.
The race director told Joshua there were 20 seconds to go. He covered his face with his hands, realizing the “finish line” was close.
The race director counted down … “five … four … two … congratulations”, and stepped in to embrace Joshua, finally the winner. Fifty-one hours … 341.7 kilometers … 212.3 miles.
Deric came in a few minutes later and the warriors embraced.
The rules of the backyard ultra tie together the winner and runner-up. When the runner-up quits, the winner runs one more loop and is done. Joshua could not have run 50 loops unless Deric had run 50.
Before the event, when I asked Deric about his goal, he said, “I would like to do at least 24 hours … and hopefully around the 30-plus mark.”
When I asked Joshua, who had dropped out after 23 hours during the first Singapore backyard ultra, in 2020, he said, “This year I definitely want to do better than last time. I have done 100 miles before, so I would not be happy with anything less than 100 miles. In fact, regardless of my finishing position, I really hope to do 48 hours. That was something in my mind last time. The winner last time, Abi, went 34 hours, so I’m not sure my expectation is reasonable, but if I had to pick a figure, 48 hours is it.”
After the finish, I interviewed both Deric and Joshua again, and when I asked Joshua to describe the second half of the race, during which he and Deric were running together for 25 hours, he said, “The question in my mind was, ‘When is he going to stop?’”
That made me ask a follow-up: “Did you think at all about stopping yourself?”
He replied, “No. When I started this race, I didn’t tell many people, but deep down inside, my aim was to be the last one standing. So that didn’t concern me.”
The race was amazing to watch, and I felt privileged to have been able to witness the athletes’ struggles, and their crews’ efforts.
But on the other side of the globe, a pair of Belgians – Merijn Geerts and Ivo Steyaert – kept looping. Five Americans had made it to 70 hours or beyond, and two Japanese went past 85 hours.
The Belgians went past Geerts’s world record of 90 hours, and kept going. Could they make it to 100 hours?
Merijn and Ivo ran 101 loops. An incredible 676.7 kilometers, or 420.5 miles.
Then they stopped. The rules did not allow it, but they decided they had run far enough, and there was no winner in Belgium.
Afterwards, race organizer Cantrell wrote, “Two men worked together to reach the pinnacle of their sport. And then walked away from personal victory at the expense of the other. They had already achieved all there was to achieve on this day.”
And the previous day. And the day before that. And that day before that.