For most casual runners, running four miles in an hour isn’t very difficult.
Consider: the global average marathon time stands at four hours and 21 minutes. Over 26.2 miles, that equates to a 9:09 mile pace. It’s dragged down a bit by the two-hour phenoms, but go watch any major marathon, and the group finishing between four and five hours will always be the clumpiest. Invariably, that’s where you’ll see your friends and family finishing.
Why, then, is finishing a little over four miles every 60 minutes (around a 15:00 mile pace) such a draw for some of the world’s best runners? Well — when the challenge is to do so every hour, on the hour, for days on end, things get a little more interesting.
That’s the format at Bell Buckle, Tennessee’s Big’s Backyard Ultra, the original “backyard ultra,” a racing concept where ultrarunners have one hour to complete a 4.167-mile loop. Depending on when they complete those miles within the hour, they have the rest of the time to snack, stretch and even nap. Then comes the next top of the hour, at which point they have to do it all over again. The last man or woman standing wins. If no one can complete one additional loop, nobody wins.
This year, a a 45-year old Ohio social studies teacher named Harvey Lewis (who dabbles as an extremely successful ultrarunner) won the race after 85 hours of running, a diabolical total of 354.169 miles.
Lewis already had some serious ultra wins under his belt — most notably the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race through Death Valley — but a victory at Big’s had alluded him. He finished second in both 2017 and 2020. Not this year. Lewis outlasted Missouri’s Chris Roberts, and Japan’s Treumuchi “Mori” Morishita, after all three brought the backyard ultra into largely uncharted territory: a fourth day.
As Runner’s World reports, only two backyard ultra competitors have made it to the fourth day before, and never at Big’s. This race saw Lewis, Roberts and Morishita running together for over 90 miles, well after the rest of the field — grisled, accomplished competitors all — had called it quits from injury or exhaustion or both. Part of the madness of the design is that it starts to take longer and longer to finish the 4.167-mile loop, during the hours that you most need the rest.
(You can blame that madness, by the way, on Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, the race operator and designer of another notorious Tennessee race: the Barkley Marathons, a 100-mile race held on treacherous terrain in the Cumberland Mountains. Only 15 people have finished in the last 30 years.)
Big’s, at the very least, isn’t held entirely on trails. The “night loop” takes place on a nearby road, giving the runners a chance to experience a more stable surface when light is low. But that doesn’t stop them from falling, anyway. A tumble took Morishita out of the race, while Lewis actually broke his hand. He managed to stay in the race, though, and returned from his 85th loop to discover that Roberts had bowed out, and he was the official winner.
What did Lewis’s post-game look like? He fell asleep on a cot in his tent (mid-meal, reportedly — he slept with a plate of beans and rice on his chest), went to the emergency room to fix his hand, then ran to work the next day. He’d taken off, but the school needed a substitute. Coolest teacher ever.