Dave Proctor loves pie. His favorite types are Saskatoon berry pie, pecan pie and pumpkin pie. On Saturday, Proctor is going to race thousands of people virtually on his treadmill, while eating pie. “I have a favorite bakery in town. I'm going to go by and get four pies on Friday, so I’ll just have those sitting next to the treadmill,” he says.
Proctor, a 39-year-old running coach and ultramarathoner, had his entire summer planned out. In 2020, he was going to break the TransCanadian speed record by running across the entire country, coast to coast, in 67 days. Proctor runs unimaginable distances to raise awareness for rare diseases. He spent months training for his transcontinental run, spending hours at a time on his treadmill. The start of his big run was less than 100 days away when his plans, like most that were made in spring 2020, came to a screeching halt in March, as COVID-19 began spreading throughout Canada. Suddenly, Proctor, a professional runner at peak physical fitness, had nowhere to run. Sensing that many of his friends in the running world would be in the same boat, Proctor and his running coaches Travis and Ashley Schiller-Brown, hatched a plan: Why not organize a virtual ultramarathon?
The Quarantine Backyard Ultra will begin at 7 a.m. MDT on April 4, and by nature of the race’s unusual format, it can end at any time. Unlike many ultramarathons which are defined by their distances (100 miles, 200 miles, etc.), a “backyard” ultra is a race that has no end distance. The winner of the race is the last runner standing.
The “backyard ultra” format is daunting, but simple: each runner has 60 minutes to complete a 4.167 mile loop. If they finish before the 60 minutes is up, they can eat, sleep, use the restroom, etc., but they must be at the starting line when the 60 minutes is up so that they can start the next 4.167 mile loop. If you can’t make it to the starting line in time: you’re out. The race ends when the last runner is standing. That means you might only get 10 minutes to sleep, use the bathroom, eat and get back on the starting line before you have to run another 4.16 miles. The race doesn’t stop at night, either. Last year’s world championship race ended after 60 hours. Crazy, right?
Since this is the “Quarantine” Backyard Ultra, participants must adhere to their local rules on social distancing and self-quarantining. Instead of running together on a course, each runner will map out their own 4.167 mile loop, whether it’s around their house, in their neighborhood, or on a treadmill, like Proctor plans on using. Travis, Ashley and the race organizing team set up a massive Zoom meeting that runners will be able to join remotely to livestream their runs. The organizers also plan on using the running app Strava to keep track of participant’s completed loops and mile times. The organizers will stream the Zoom meetings to YouTube, so that people around the world can tune in and watch the event from home, as well. If you have been sitting at home, desperate for live competition, this race could save you.
The diabolical backyard ultra format was invented in 2012 by a self-proclaimed “hillbilly-geezer” in Tennessee named Lazarus Lake. Backyard races have become extremely popular in the ultramarathoning world in the years since, with races in over 30 countries. Proctor felt that the backyard ultra format would be perfect for his quarantine race. “I believe that Lazarus Lake's Backyard style format is the most accommodating for all runners. Anyone can participate if you can run 4.17 miles in one hour,” says Proctor. “It's a format that challenges everyone mentally because it's about not quitting.”
In October 2019, I traveled to the small town of Bell Buckle, Tenn., to cover the de facto backyard world championship, called Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, for Sports Illustrated. I watched in disbelief as more than 50 elite runners from places like Canada, Hong Kong, Ecuador, and Brazil battled extreme exhaustion, the elements, and their own minds to be the last runner standing. Backyard ultras are uniquely unforgiving and also highly entertaining.
Proctor, in his signature cowboy hat, finished in the final three at Big’s Backyard Ultra in 2019, bowing out in the 52nd hour after running 216 miles. He has a chance for redemption in the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, where he expects the race to last over seventy hours. “I have a feeling it's going to last a hell of a long time,” Proctor says. Since he began recruiting runners to participate in the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, more than 1,700 people from 53 countries have signed up. That means, to win the race, he will have to outlast thousands of other runners.
Just like at Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, runners will be eliminated if they can’t finish a loop on time. In this case, elimination will mean getting booted from the Zoom stream. “Whenever you drop out, you leave the meeting and then those few thousand videos will go down to a thousand, then 500, then 100, then 20, then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” Proctor says. The race organizers will also have a separate Zoom stream reserved for the elite runners who have signed up, like Maggie Guterl, who came in first at the 2019 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, and Joe Fejes, who is the first modern-day American runner to run 600 miles in six days. These aren’t your everyday minivan drivers with 26.2 stickers on their rear window.
Proctor did not put a cap on how many runners can sign up for the event. He sees this race as an opportunity to introduce more people to backyard ultras. “There are a lot of people who want to try this for the first time. When else do you go out and run a loop slowly?” he says. “Backyard is for everybody. If your longest run was a half marathon, you could go do four loops and that's the longest run you've ever completed. And then you want to go do another one! Or not!” Proctor estimates that as many as 50% of the runners signed up for the Quarantine Backyard are first-timers who have no idea what torture awaits them.
There are some upsides to competing in a virtual backyard ultramarathon. For one, runners can stock their homes with all of the ultramarathoning food essentials. The more calories, the better. Proctor’s pies should keep him satisfied for a few days of treadmill running, and he will not have to worry about them being exposed to the outdoor elements. Another upside: runners will not have to make a mad dash to the race site’s port-a-potty between loops like during a typical ultramarathon. They can just use the bathroom in their home.
The affable Lazarus Lake is getting involved with the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, too. Lake plans on joining Zoom to cheer on (or heckle) racers from the comfort of his home in Bell Buckle. Proctor is prepared to run as many miles as it takes on his treadmill, for as long as it takes. Like many athletes, he had a rug pulled from under him while at the top of his game. Instead of quitting, he decided to get creative and do something that could uplift other runners looking for a race.
“The world economy is failing,” Proctor says. “We wanted to give back to people in something that does some good. And gives something people to look towards.
“We all took it for granted that we would all run these races and have a goal and an achievement ahead of us. And it was stripped from us. Something that runners have in their core is chasing tomorrow. We wanted to have a tomorrow for them.”