Johan Steene, a 44-year-old ultrarunner from Stockholm, Sweden, was lounging in his motel room outside of Nashville, Tennessee, watching TV on Wednesday evening. Every muscle in his legs ached. “It will take a couple of weeks to recover,” he said.
Just a day earlier, Steene had been the lone runner—and therefore, the winner—across the finish line at a quirky, brutal race known as Big’s Backyard Ultra, the brainchild of Gary Cantrell, better known as Lazarus Lake or Laz, the founder of the equally challenging yet slightly more well-known Barkley Marathons. Laz hosts Big’s Backyard Ultra in his own backyard in Bell Buckle, Tennessee.
“There are always surprises,” Laz posted on Facebook before this year’s Big’s Backyard Ultra. “The race has been won by some of the preeminent multiday runners of our time and it has been won by the total unknown. Because, it only requires one thing … the willingness to keep stepping to the line, until no one else is left.”
This year, Steene and 69 other runners started the race early on October 20, a Saturday morning. The rules are straightforward: Participants run a 4.166667-mile loop on a rocky trail every hour for as long as they humanly can. (At night, they switch to a more basic out-and-back road run.) If it takes them, say, 50 minutes to run the loop, then they have 10 minutes to rest before the next lap starts. Runners gradually dropped out throughout the first two days and by sunrise on Monday, 48 hours into the race, just five remained.
By the early hours of Tuesday morning, the race was down to three runners: Steene, Courtney Dauwalter, a 33-year-old Golden, Colorado, ultrarunner who’s been dominating races in recent years, and Gavin Woody, a 41-year-old ultrarunner from Bellevue, Washington, who has run the 200-mile distance about 10 times and works a day job as an operations executive for a home-improvement marketplace.
“There’s trail running. Then there’s ultrarunning. Then there’s this weird stuff. This race definitely fits into the weird category,” said Woody. “The clock never stops. You can’t hit snooze or say, ‘I need another five minutes.’ That constant ticking is really what makes this race so awesome. When else do you get to experience that? It’s such a unique format.”
After 65 laps—equaling 270 miles—Woody was done. “I didn’t decide to stop. It was more my legs. They wouldn’t run anymore,” he said.
Steene and Dauwalter continued on. “After more than two and a half days of running, our brains are mushy. We are not the cleverest animals in the forest anymore,” said Steene. “Once it was down to just Courtney and me, I thought, who will be the weak link here? The whole race, she seemed unstoppable.”
In the end, Dauwalter had to call it quits first. She logged 67 laps—279 miles—the farthest any woman has made it in Big’s Backyard Ultra’s six-year history. (Last year’s winner ran 245 miles and no woman has surpassed 120 miles before.) But she could go no father. “It was death by one zillion paper cuts,” Dauwalter said. “I’d finally broken and that was all there was for that day. I was so bummed that that was my limit, but I was also excited to have been able to compete with Johan and to send him on that last lap. I was like, ‘Go get those last four miles.’”
Dauwalter shook Steene’s hand as he set out on his final lap. “As I counted down the last 10 seconds, I saw Courtney turn to Johan, and say something … and I knew instantly what had just happened,” Laz said in a Facebook post after the race. “Only one runner remained in Big’s Backyard. I watched Johan’s slender figure disappear into the darkness … [Courtney] had run 279 miles in less than three days and broken every man in the field, save one.”
It’s been quite a couple of years for Dauwalter. In September, she set a new women’s course record on the Tahoe 200 and took second place overall. In June, she was the fastest woman at the 100-mile Western States. Last year, she won the Moab 240 Endurance run overall, beating the second-place finisher by nearly 10 hours. “I tried to do my very best,” Dauwalter said about her finish at Big’s Backyard Ultra. “I would have loved to take home the win and be the first woman to do so at this race. But I’ll be back to do it again for sure.”
Steene said his last lap was the hardest. “That last loop feels like a long, lonesome loop with no purpose. You feel all your pains,” said Steene. “You also start to fall into real thinking: You understand you achieved your goal and you will get back and finish and win, but there’s also some sadness because when it’s over, everyone packs up and goes home. Somehow it’s just an illusion. It’s like the magic of the race is broken.”
When he finally crossed that elusive finish line, Steene said simply: “No more loops.” Steene ran 68 laps—283 miles—in 55 hours and 22 minutes. There’s no prize money for the winner. Just bragging rights and a dog tag that says, “I survived.” Everyone else? They get a dog tag, too, but theirs says instead, “I gave my all.”