The Existential Torture of a Race with No End

In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” the philosopher Albert Camus argues that the best way to endure the absurdity of life is to consciously embrace it. I mean no disrespect to the brooding Frenchman, but, as far as actionable advice goes, this isn’t particularly helpful. Just try and apply it the next time you’re suffering through a half-marathon. If you’re like me, you’ll probably discover that, while it’s easy enough to convince yourself that what you’re doing is utterly meaningless, it doesn’t make pushing the boulder any less agonizing. Thankfully, the half-marathoner always knows his punishment is finite. After 13.1 miles, he can stop running and go worry about something else.

But what about a race that doesn’t have a finish and is Sisyphean by design? At Big’s Backyard Ultra, which wrapped up earlier this week, participants don’t even have the luxury of knowing how much further they have to go. The race just putters on until only one runner remains. Fittingly, the mastermind behind this psycho torture is none other than Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, creator of the infamous Barkley Marathons

At Big’s Backyard, the rules are straightforward. At the start, all competitors run a 4.1667-mile loop on Cantrell’s property in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Everyone who successfully completes this loop in under sixty minutes stays in the race. Exactly one hour after the initial start, the process repeats itself. The winner is the person who successfully completes the most laps, i.e. is the last to quit. This year that distinction went to Johan Steene of Sweden, who hung on for a record-setting 68 laps (283.3356 miles) and 55 hours and 23 minutes of running, narrowly outlasting 2018 Western States champ Courtney Dauwalter who called it after lap 67. (In order for Steene to claim victory, he still needed to run one more lap on his own.) Since there is no official course distance, only Steene gets listed as an official finisher. Everyone else is a DNF.

“If you run from A to B, you know that each step takes you closer to the finish. Here, there’s not a preset distance, so it’s so much easier to give up,” Steene says. “If you stop believing you can win for one second, then you will quit because it won’t be worth the effort anymore.”  

Despite her “DNF,” Dauwalter was upbeat about her performance. Reached by phone, she said that, as a challenge that’s as much psychological as it is physical, Big’s Backyard would hopefully help her become even more resilient in traditional ultra races. 

“It was so crazy. Like a time warp, basically,” she said of her experience, while adding that she definitely plans to do it again. “The format helps you find your own limit and, for me, my limit on that day was 279 miles. Next time, I’m thinking to try and push that line a little further back.”  

The race format flips the script on traditional endurance competition. Since most runners are able to complete a four-mile loop in under an hour with relative ease—and since the only thing that matters is how many loops one is willing to run—at Big’s Backyard, speed is less of an asset than sheer stubbornness. The race description on UltraSignup.com bears this out: Have you ever thought that you could not be beaten, if only the faster runners were unable to run away and leave you? This is your chance to find out. Every surviving runner will be tied for the lead, every hour. 

As if that didn’t sound sinister enough, every participant at Big’s must wear a tracking device around their ankle. The race also includes “jeerleaders,” spectators who are tasked with taunting runners by reminding them of their misery and telling them to give up. Apparently, Cantrell likes to get in on the fun. (I’m sure he’s a swell guy once you get to know him.)

Of course, Big’s Backyard—which began in 2012 and gets its name from Cantrell’s pet pitbull—isn’t the only ultra that borders on the perverse. Every summer, in the Queens borough of New York City, a dozen or so runners attempt to circle a single half-mile block 5,649 times in what is known as the Self-Transcendence 3,100-mile Race. The current record stands at 40 days, nine hours, six minutes, and 21 seconds, held by Finland’s Ashprihanal Aalto. Compared to such biblical proportions, Big’s might seem like a low-key commitment, though at least the Queens runners know how many laps they have to go. (Also they get to sleep for several hours every night during the race.)

What are we to make of these spectacles on the fringes of the ultra scene? On the one hand, events like Big’s and the Self-Transcendence Race obviously represent a formidable athletic challenge. But feats of extreme endurance tend to become farcical when they fall outside a shared consensus of what’s considered worth doing. Just like Aalto’s “world record” for running 3,100 miles, Steene’s 68 laps at Big’s Backyard is simultaneously a massive achievement and completely meaningless—even within the relatively niche world of endurance sports.  

That isn’t meant as a knock on these zany, outlier races. But perhaps more than with mainstream pursuits like the marathon, an event like Big’s requires surrounding oneself with other like-minded souls to sustain the illusion of purpose. After her 67th four-mile loop, Dauwalter conceded defeat and congratulated Steene. Rather than a glorious victory lap, Steene told me that his final solo lap was the “worst one of all,” marked not by elation, but by a strange despair.  

“When she told me that she’d had enough and that now I had to go and win it, I didn’t feel joy,” Steene says. 

“When you win a race that you’ve put so much effort into, you would like to be able to just scream out and be joyful. But the only thing I felt was that I wanted her to come out onto the course with me so we could continue together. I don’t even think I said anything to her, but I just shook her hand, took off, and felt a kind of emptiness.”

Camus would be so proud.

Outside Magazine: Fitness

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