By Kate Dzienis

Despite the concept having been around for more than five decades across international waters, 2019 is the year of the backyard ultra making itself welcome on Australian soil. 

The ‘last one standing’ format is more widely known in the community as a backyard ultra, the concept having come loosely from the Barkley Marathons (since 1986) and then Big’s Backyard Ultra (since 2012), created by the renown American race director Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell, who relishes in the pain of others.

Fifty years ago, Cantrell dreamed of an endurance race where he would be the only person to complete a race on the hour, every hour – seven years later after Big’s Backyard Ultra, the idea has shot itself higher than a rocket to Mars and is now taking over the running world.

Backyard ultras have taken off in popularity amongst Australians with some flying overseas to participate in them, however this year in particular Aussie race organisers have taken a hard look at the concept behind LOS-formatted events and seen the benefits – certainly not financially, but in terms of catering to ultra runners and going back to basics with the ideology of ‘ultra running’.

The concept is simple.

Runners head out altogether from the start line (which doubles as a finish line) on the hour. They must complete the lap before the hour is up, ready and raring to go before the next hour starts. Not completing the lap or not being at the start is an instant DNF – and the result leaves just one person remaining to claim the title as last one standing.

We’ve already seen sell out numbers for the first races conducted this year – the Mirrim Wurnit Back Paddock Ultra (June 15) and AAA Racing’s “Clint Eastwood” Last One Standing (August 16).

To note, 2020 registrations opened just before the latter was run, and in less than a week all spots were filled with numerous runners on a long wait list.

Coming up, there are three more LOS formatted events, including Birdy’s Backyard Ultra by Ultra Series WA and the Backyard Blister Ultra both held the weekend of September 6, and AAA Racing’s Blue Goat’s Backyard Marathon from November 29.

So what makes the ‘newly’ introduced Aussie backyard ultra so attractive for both race organisers and runners?

AAA Racing race director and organiser Alun Davies hosted the inaugural ‘Clint Eastwood’ Last One Standing earlier this month, and said he was very much an advocate of seeing ultra running go back to its roots.

“I feel like real ultra running is being left behind a little bit, where lately there’s been a lot of focus on gaining elevation and hitting the trails for long distances,” he said.

“With most runs, more often than not you know the distance you’re going to be doing, or the time you’re going to be out there, but what’s at the heart of the LOS format is that there’s no end.

“You don’t know how far, or how long, it’s going to go for – it could be 40 hours, it could be 60 hours, you just never know.”

One of the attractions of backyard ultras is the technicalities behind it, with the distance of each lap being critical for it to be a qualifier for bigger events, according to Davies.

Laps need to equate to 6.706km, so that over 24 hours, 24 laps equates to exactly 100 miles, and he said the distance element of the event tied in with the American Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra.

“These sorts of events are qualifiers to get into that, so it’s like an unofficial world championships, if you like,” he said.

David Jones from Oyster Bay, NSW participated in Davies’ most recent backyard ultra, and said the format had always appealed to him for the mental challenge.

Running for 10 years, Jones spent most race entries participating as a sweeper, or helping getting someone else to the finish line, so to race in a backyard ultra provided him with an opportunity to test himself in a different way.

“In theory, the fastest ultra runner isn’t necessarily going to be the one that keeps going,” he reveals.

“And that’s always been something that appeals to me about ultras – it might have taken you twice as long as the frontrunners at an event, but they’ll often have a chat with you afterwards because they respect the fact you’ve been out there twice as long.

“It’s almost a levelling of the playing field, so to speak, when it comes to backyard ultras; but there’s also a need for strategy to be completely different, so you’re mentally changing your game.”

The LOS format is almost like seeing the ultra move its way back to basics, and with only one winner at the end, appreciating the fact that most of those racing a backyard event are aiming to be that winner.

In today’s running society, we are used to seeing every entrant receive a medal for participation when they cross the finish line, and yes, it’s great to recognise the hard work they put in pre-race.

And let’s face it. Gone are the days when only the winners received a medal, and people raced to really race. The mindset behind LOS is definitely ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it’, with everyone targeting the title, and it provides a much wider opportunity for middle-of-the-pack and back-of-the-pack runners to achieve it.

There’s no doubt that with the emergence of backyard ultras in Australia this year, we are bound to see more, but will an increase result in the format losing its cemented roots?

Will mass numbers of people registering create yet another race-type that sees an overload of entrants, and then runners requesting participation medals?

The backyard ultra is certainly here to stay, and as word spreads, the hope is that they remain lucrative and ‘exclusive’ to the serious runner who wants to win.