Harvey Lewis is the last person standing at the 2021 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, and in doing so he set a new backyard ultra record with 85 laps completed.
The Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, a race that proclaims “there is no finish,” finally came to a close at on Tuesday, October 19, after over three days of running and eighty-five 4.166667-mile loops (which the race calls “yards”) around a backyard in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. The event started on Saturday, October 16 and each entrant had a simple goal: to cover each loop in under and hour and start the next loop on time until they could no longer do so. If one person could finish more laps than every other entrant, then they would become the last person standing.
The Sisyphean challenge of a race, dreamed up by Lazarus “Laz” Lake, creator of the infamous Barkley Marathons, draws less than a few dozen people each year, with 35 starting the 2021 event. Only a few are able to endure the never-ending loops, “jeerleaders” who cheer/heckle the runners at the start-finish area, a lack of sleep, and the same scenery over and over again until they either can’t complete the circle to start anew in the prescribed hour, or refuse to toe the line again. There is perhaps one bit of solace in the Big’s format: runners switch between trail loops during the day and road loops at night, thereby giving them new scenery and what most entrants see as an easier night course.
There were a few surprises in this year’s event. Michael Wardian, who won the 2020 Quarantine Backyard Ultra (inspired by Big’s, but where runners made their own course and checked in virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic) by running 262.52 miles, dropped out after only 36 laps. Previous champions Courtney Dauwalter and Maggie Guterl missed the cutoff for lap 43, eliminating them from the competition. In a more pleasant surprise, nine runners completed 50 hours (thus, 50 laps), a dramatic increase from the early days of the race in 2014, where 49 hours was the record at Big’s.
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For each lap and hour, race director Laz posted short stories online, ranging from multiple paragraph poetic soliloquies, to a single line “hour 47 and all 9 going strong.”
After Dauwalter and Guterl dropped, that left 10 runners in the race. Those 10 dropped off gradually over the subsequent 20 yards (about 83 miles) until only three remained: Terumichi Morishita of Tokyo, Japan, Chris Roberts of Kirkwood, Missouri, and Harvey Lewis of Cincinnati, Ohio. Morishita is no stranger to long times on his feet, having the course record at the 400-kilometer Okinawa Survival Run, a win at the 500k River Road Foot Race, and has previously competed at Big’s. Lewis has twice competed in Big’s, and twice come in with the “assist” — since there is technically no second place finisher, this is what they call the runner up. Roberts has a number of 100-mile and 100k races under his belt, but first waded into multi-day events in May of this year, when he took second at the Capital Backyard Ultra, lasting 57 hours.
Into Tuesday morning, afternoon, and stretching into evening, the race went on – participants seeing a third sunrise and sunset for the first time in Big’s history. The three runners seemingly set their eyes on the backyard ultra record of 81 yards, set by John Stocker of the U.K. on a different course in his home country in 2021.
All three runners made it through lap 80. But then in a heartbreaking moment, Morishita tripped and fell, reportedly losing consciousness somewhere along the the loop. He got up of his own power, but missed the cutoff for the start of lap 81 by only 30 seconds.
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That left only Roberts and Lewis as the final two people. Pressing on in the Tennessee night, Roberts and Lewis both finished 84 laps, both in a relatively fast time, and set out on their 85th laps. Having been plagued by his knee for over 24 hours however, Roberts decided to call it early in the 85th lap, returning to the start-finish area. Officially named with the assist, Roberts sat back in his chair, surprisingly coherent, and waiting for Lewis to finish his lap – for only then could he be called the Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra Champion.
Lewis handily managed to finish his 85th lap in 49 minutes and 42 seconds. After over three days and 354.16 miles, Lewis became not only the champion of Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, but also set a new record for most laps and miles run in the backyard ultra format.
As the last person standing, Lewis wins nothing except the bragging rights of being, in the words of Laz, “champion of champions.”