Like the Camelot of Monty Python fame, the Quarantine Backyard Ultra was a very silly thing, and that’s what made it so perfectly wonderful. Lots of people got together online to run a virtual endurance race where there could be only one winner, there was no prize, and it didn’t even count as an official backyard ultra. There was no reason to do it, so thousands of quarantined amateurs and elites lined up to start on April 4, some bearing self-made bibs, many on treadmills they’d just purchased for the purpose, with just about everyone smiling with excitement.
To give you the feeling for the scope and quality of the field, here’s a great summary from Runners World: “Both runners [Mike Wardian and Radek Brunner] outlasted a field of around 2,400 athletes from over 55 countries, including a group of elite runners like 2019 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc champion Courtney Dauwalter, 2019 Big’s Backyard champion Maggie Guterl, 2014 Badwater champion Harvey Lewis, Last Vol State 500K champion Greg Armstrong, and a cast of others.”
And in the end, elite ultra runner Mike Wardian won. You can see Wardian’s impressive prior results on UltraSignup, his blog here, and of course his very impressive trophy from Personal Peak fitness, the race creators:
Yes, Wardian ran 262 miles and got a fake toilet paper role as a prize. If that doesn’t tell you how serious this is, then nothing will. What it won’t tell you is what really happened.
What Happened? (The Facts)
You can find great summaries of what transpired at the Quarantine Backyard Ultra in Outside Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and so on. And you can tell how ravenous the media is for positive sports content by how quickly every site online published a race report today. So I have no intention of doing the same thing, but a simple summary of facts will help:
Travis and Ashley Schiller-Brown, Dave Proctor and possibly (?) others at Personal Peak endurance coaching created a virtual race called the Quarantine Backyard Ultra (QBU), which thousands of people joined. The race ran for more than sixty hours, starting on Saturday, April 4th with thousands of runners on treadmills or short backyard / neighborhood / inside laps, and finished 63 hours and 262.5 miles later with victory by Mike Wardian and controversy surrounding the disqualification of the second man standing, Radek Brunner, due to a late start on the last lap. Radek is less well known than Wardian, but has shown impressive results and is generally considered a world-class ultra runner and Spartathlete.
For those of you not familiar with the backyard ultra format, this race was invented by Lazarus Lake (aka Laz, real name Gary Cantrell) with the original Big Dog Backyard Ultra, which is literally run as 4.167 mile laps around his backyard in Tennessee. Runners have to finish one lap per hour, after which they can eat or rest, and then be in the corral and ready to start the next lap (aka “yard”) when the next hour starts. There’s plenty of information online, but like Laz’s more famous Barkley Marathons, there is no official website.
Since the Big Dog’s first running in 2012, dozens of regional backyard ultras have sprung up worldwide, with many as feeders to the Big Dog itself. But of course the coronavirus pandemic brought all of that to a halt, and Personal Peak stepped in–with the blessing and cooperation of Laz, to create an “unofficial’ race for all those frustrated backyard runners. Instead of a race course, you’ve got your treadmill, office, neighborhood, or even backyard–whatever worked, as long as you followed quarantine and race rules.
The result was a race never run before in a format never used before by thousands of people on dozens of Zoom feeds (like the one below), many of whom had never even heard of backyard ultras before this race went viral-ish online:
In a time when we were isolated in our homes, this race promised a chance to get out some athletic frustration and interact with thousands of equally cooped-up people around the world. What could go wrong?
Well, a lot. Problems with this format were immediate and obvious. Zoom was not meant for this type of event, and some people are frankly not meant for Zoom. There were glitches, lost feeds, and eventually total banishment from YouTube of the streamed feeds due to copyright violations as runners played music in the background without muting their microphones. Time delays due to global distances and stream buffering meant conversations were awkward or impossible. The fact that it went as well as it did is like a coronavirus miracle, but also go a long way to explaining how it all fell apart in the end.
Because it pertains to this story, the rules of the backyard ultras are here, including:
2) Starting Corral
. Measured to fit entire starting field
. Corral stays the same size thru out the event
. Participants must be in the starting corral at the bell
. Each loop starts precisely 1 hour after the last
. Warning must be given 3, 2, and 1 minutes prior to start
. All competitors must start at the bell (no late starts)
This language is largely mirrored for the Personal Peak Racer Guide (bold and emphasis added) for the quarantine version:
Racers can use a loop, out and back, or Treadmill
You must complete 4.167 miles or 6.71 kilometers every hour
2) Starting Corral
Your starting Corral is the field of view on your camera running Zoom. (If you aren’t using zoom, then designate a spot in the entryway of your home, backyard etc. and use that to begin each loop)
Participants must be in their starting corral at the bell, and must leave immediately to start their loop.
Each loop starts precisely every hour, on the hour
Warning whistles will be given 3, 2, and 1 minutes prior to start on the Zoom Feed
All competitors must start at the bell (no late starts)
And later in the guide, specific to treadmills:
Starting the race:
At the first bell, start your watch to record your GPS signal
Start your treadmill, and begin running (don’t straddle the belt or you will miss distance)
In other words, there can be no doubt of two basic rules: (1) you must be in the starting corral (on the treadmill) at the bell and (2) you must start immediately at the bell (which, for a treadmill, means the treadmill has started). This is unambiguous and is why Radek was disqualified last night as we all screamed out our computers in disbelief; Wardian started lap 63 on time, while Radek stood on the treadmill without starting the lap for nearly two minutes. Here you can see Laz and Sandra (his wife and collaborator) trying to figure out why he hasn’t started.
And while this also gives you a feeling for the awkward nature of the Zoom format, it doesn’t show you Ryan Kershaw from the QBU team trying to tell Radek to start. To hear this yourself, go to around 4:54 on this video. It’s probably hard to understand if you weren’t watching, but this was heart wrenching. People were freaking out in the chat feed. Radek, who clearly had the energy and will to continue, had for some reason just failed to start on time (suspicion now is that a lag on his tablet caused the confusion). It was over, and due to ongoing communication issues, he didn’t even know it. So he started running, an endurance machine nowhere near the limits of his abilities, and the internet started tearing its collective hair out.
And some of it got ugly. Fingers were pointed and names were called. Everyone became a legalistic nit-picking expert on everything. All the camaraderie and compassion went right out the window. People were screaming in all caps, begging for mercy, or just crying-by-emoji proxy, and all the while Radek kept on running. It was a human tragedy unfolding right before our eyes, and there was nothing we could do about it. Except watch, of course, and so many watched we eventually crashed the feed.
What Really Happened? (The Feeling of It)
To back up a bit, it should be obvious that this race does not not offer video-friendly content. Dozens of tiny windows of sweaty runners on treadmills or empty streets with runners occasionally passing by isn’t going to win any Oscars for Best Anything except soporific. And starting on Saturday morning, aside from a little initial excitement, it was pretty easy to drift away and do other things unless you were directly involved.
Which brings up an important point. Because this was a no-fee, no-qualification race, anyone could join. For at least a week prior to the start, social media was full of excited racers posting their printed or even drawn “bibs” just to get into the spirit of things. This was a race for anyone who could find space and time to run, not just elites, not just people living in the right areas, but anyone anywhere in the world where they had a video feed (so, yeah, that still leaves out a lot of people) who just wanted to be part of it. I would have joined if not injured as always, and I would have proudly displayed my meaningless bib for all to see. Instead, I went for a walk and got ready for the start which, as I said, was not a beautiful thing.
And then 24 hours passed. Runners had gone 100 miles and hundreds were still in the race. There were fewer feeds, and the chats were picking up but you could still be forgiven for not being riveted to your computer screen. But then the big names started dropping, including Maggie Guterl–a past Big Dog overall champion and female favorite–and by hour 48 (two days and 200 miles in) they were down to just two elite runners, Radek Brunner and Mike Wardian. Laz summarized the status, as he did every lap (compressed and emphasis added):
and they are off on the 48th hour.
two days and 200 miles.
it couold end here.
or it could last 2 more days.
no one knows what the two warriors are thinking…
except themselves (and maybe their crews)
but i am betting 200 miles has come at a price.
tied for first:
michael wardian: virginia
radek brunner: Česká republika
in second place…
there is no second place in the backyard.
the race is binary.
you win, or you DNF.
Usually in backyard ultras, this is where it gets interesting. People are tired and sleep deprived. Blood sugar is plummeting, moods are swinging, and yet the miles keep on ticking away. Even online in tiny windows on Zoom feeds, it got exciting. The chat filled up with people who couldn’t turn away. We talked about random nonsense, like the stupid orange cones on Mike Wardian’s street the cyclists kept assaulting. Save the Cones! Or how many shirts Radek had gone through.
Or about whatever. Who cares? It felt like we were all part of something, together, around the world, that was absurd and beautiful and ridiculous. This is what Travis and Ashley, Ryan and David Proctor and of course Laz gave us. Not just a distraction, but a coming together. A unifying positive thing that had nothing to do with politics, lockdown rules or body counts. It was no longer a race, it was an escape from everything else, and in a strange way, a place not to be alone inside all by yourself…even though that’s exactly where we were.
By Monday morning, Wardian and Radek had been running alone for hours, remotely pushing themselves to continue, two great competitors egging each other on. And this, as Laz pointed out at some point, is the true magic of the backyards: you can’t keep running for more than one lap after the second-to-last runner quits, which means that any hope of breaking the 68-hour backyard record held by Johan Steene meant both men had to fun for at least 68 hours. They wanted to win, to beat each other, but they needed each other to reach their true goals. And we needed to be there to see it. God knows, I did.
Which is one of a thousand reasons why neither would ever have wanted the other to be disqualified on a technicality. They both had the chops and apparent energy to not only beat the 68-hour record (unofficially, of course), but then maybe continue on to hit the fabled 72-hour (300 mile) mark. Because while Radek may have lost some of the energy in his stride after hour 60, both men were clearly capable of going much, much longer. People on the chat feed were losing time at work, staying up past bedtimes, blathering about nothing and having a great damn time.
Until, of course, they weren’t. When it all fell apart, Travis was on the verge of tears. Technicalities and feed drops kept killing connections and making things even worse. And then we all got to watch Radek get the news on his cell phone while still running after Wardian had finished his last, winning lap in record time. Travis and Ashley were so worked up and apologetic they forgot to congratulate Wardian on his finish even as his wife (?) demanded to know what the heck was going on. It was an unmitigated shit show. I wanted to cry, and maybe I did a bit. It was just so damn sad. Then it somehow got worse as they accidentally cut the live feed (the new feed ended up on Travis’ page instead of the Personal Peak page) and we were all left wondering WTF had just happened. And that was just the reality of it, the unavoidable emotional consequences of something that didn’t finish the way anyone wanted it to.
What sucked worse was how people reacted.
What Really, Really Happened? (The Social Contract)
I’m going to wax a bit philosophical here because, well, that’s what I do. What unfolded last night as we all desperately searched YouTube and Facebook and God knows where else for a video feed we’d never find to explain objectively trivial events that had taken on vastly oversized importance, was a collective emotional breakdown of epic proportions. All the joy and wonder and gratitude got blasted off the face of the earth by righteous indignation and petty bickering.
People challenged the disqualification. Others defended it, while both sides cherry-picked parts of the rules that made their point and ignored those that didn’t. People accused Mike Wardian of cheating because he had allegedly started late on an earlier lap (he hadn’t, but his watch had paused). Everyone turned into race lawyers, backseat drivers and living room referees, picking apart everything in an event that had until minutes earlier, been lauded as universally awesome. Someone rationalized that Radek’s second step onto the treadmill constituted “starting.” People lost their damn minds.
Someone even called out Greg Armstrong for stepping off the treadmill in the middle of one lap to get a snake out of his house. A freaking snake:
“Since I was brought into question in a below comment about being shown “leniency” due to the snake incident and why I wasn’t DQ. Here is some clarification: The top picture is when I stepped off the treadmill; notice the watch in the picture coincides, within a few seconds, of the treadmill time. Bottom pic is the finish of the lap with 57 seconds difference. Side picture is of the snake trying to get back into the house. 57 seconds to run to the other end of the room grab a 4.5 foot snake, run to the yard, discard said snake, calm my family from said snake and get back to business on the treadmill. I actually probably ran 4.185 miles that hour but hey who’s counting. It was made clear by the race organizers that as long as you allow the treadmill to come to a complete stop you are allowed to get off and back on. It would be like in the actual Backyard stopping and grabbing a snake from the middle of the road and walking it safely to the other side…” –– Greg Armstrong
And some even blamed Laz, though he wasn’t the race director and it wasn’t his call–so many that Personal Peak had to issue a clarification: “To confirm. Lazarus Lake did not make the final call on the outcome of the Quarantine Backyard Ultra. He and Sandra were invited as honorary race directors, and a such the decision was entirely that of Travis and Ashley of Personal Peak.”
Laz himself expressed gratitude that it was not his call (formatting compressed, emphasis added):
maybe i am the only person who is glad not to be in charge.
not this time.
people tend to see the world in black and white, and with the screen of not having to make decisions when things go grey deal in absolutes.
being here in quarantine in the house on the hill, and handcuffed by a near total absence of technological skill, i dont know how many people saw the events that unfolded at the start of hour 63.
but here is what i saw….
with the caveat that i had finally gotten to sleep for a couple of hours…..
i did not realize it at the time, thinking i had just taken a nap between the start of hour 61 and the start of 62, i actually slept thru hour 62 and it was time for 63.
i got to the computer during the countdown.
as the final minute counted down i just saw radek’s treadmill standing alone.
it got under 30 seconds and still no radek.
i thought he must have quit.
then with just seconds left here is radek.
he gets on his treadmill and is just standing there.
i am yelling at him, which is useless because he cant hear me.
by a minute after the start i think he is done…almost 2 minutes in, he starts running.
the race management disqualified him.
maybe in the world of people who are absolutely certain they know the right answer i am the only one who is glad to not be in charge today.
mike did his 63rd hour, and now he is the winner.
radek was left with the taste of ashes.
Which is pretty characteristic for how Laz sums things up; poetic and compassionate, but also cogent and pointed, with just a little dig thrown in to inspire competitors to greater efforts next time.
Then someone said something about how Laz had made other bad calls, like the one about Gary Robbins and the Barkley, at which point I wanted to throw my computer across the room. So, quick segue for the Barkley-obsessed. In 2016, Canadian Runner Gary Robbins famously failed to finish the Barkley by just six seconds after 60 hours of running, and social media piled on Laz for being so cruel. How could you? they asked. He was so close. You can see the whole gut-churning thing documented in the Ginger Runner’s movie, Where Dreams Go to Die:
In which you can see Gary tap the gate and collapse in front of everyone, exhausted, knowing he failed, as his wife and supporter tries to comfort him:
That was a sad and terrible moment, but the social media backlash was based almost entirely on misinformation. The “six seconds” was largely irrelevant–Robbins had in fact gone off course, missed a few miles of trail, and then finished six seconds late. But saying it was because of this pittance of seconds made for better click bate, and so the myth persists. Laz made the right call then, and Travis made the right call here with Radek. Though only God knows how both will be remembered.
And that brings me to an actual point. It’s hard to do things. It’s inconceivably harder to to things involving hundreds or thousands of people, and impossible to do anything that makes everyone happy. If our standard is to be that nothing will be done that isn’t perfect, and no person shall be forgiven who is not without sin, then I reject that world. I think most of us do. I was going to go on a bit of tirade about fascist legalism vs. anarchist libertarianism, but I’ve used up today’s word count.
What I really want to say is that I’m grateful, and no matter what you think of the outcome, you should be too. The social contract inherent in having a functional society must embody the recognition of imperfection, tolerance for mistakes, and the character to forgive all the petty insults of our daily lives. In that sense the QBU was just a microcosm of what we face every day. Some people will do anything, including work themselves to death (e.g., healthcare workers on the front line), while others will do nothing but scream and criticize. For every act of beauty, there will be reactive acts of ugliness, but the latter do not outweigh the former. At this race, as during the pandemic and in life, good easily outweighs bad if we let it.
I’m not a Pollyanna. Things could have been done better, but so what? In the midst of a terrible time, good people did their best, without being asked, and without compensation, to help make our lives a little bit more tolerable. Travis and Ashley worked their asses off and gave us endless ours of wonderful social engagement. The runners impressed us with tenacity, grit and eventually encouragement for their competition. Laz and Personal Peak brought us yet another inspired event that is less about beating one another than helping each other do things we never thought possible. Spectators and chat participants were supportive, hysterical and genuinely glad just to be part of it. And the cones survived.
Here, Mike Wardian shows his gratitude once the video feed was finally recovered:
“It was a real honor and privilege beyond my imagination,” he says. Damn right. That goes a million times for all of us who did nothing but watch and cheer. Yes, I’m sad that Radek was disqualified and wish there had been a better way. But not one person involved did anything hateful, unkind or even illogical. That’s the best you can ask of anyone. And I can’t wait to see Radek and Wardian move on from this to compete on a real course under better circumstances.
So what I mean by the social contract is simple. Events like this, like families and societies or even species, survive and thrive only by tolerance and compassion. If you step back from the details, what you see is a glorious unexpected thing that you and I didn’t earn or have the right to demand, but which was nonetheless given to us. I’ll always remember the terrible ending, but more I’ll remember the athletes, Laz struggling with the technology and video-bombing his own living room, the jokes, the smiles (and of course the cones). We owe people who make an effort to do something, no matter how small and objectively inane, appreciation and forbearance rather than criticism. Otherwise, why would they ever do it again? And if you can’t do that, if you don’t have that kindness within you, just don’t watch.
So, Thank You
To Personal Peak, Travis and Ashley, Wardian and Radek, Dave and Laz, Sandra, Ryan and God knows who else, thank you. You made a potentially crappy weekend a lot of fun, but not just that: In a time when the world seems to be tearing itself apart, where we’re trapped inside with our families and carbohydrates and dark thoughts, the Quarantine Backyard Ultra brought us hours upon hours of beautifully imperfect escapist perfection.
You can see my post-race interview with Radek here. And in case you missed the Monty Python reference, here you go: