Where’s the finish line?

Photo by Gary Butterfield on Unsplash

There Is No Finish Line. These are not the words you want to read as you’re running for a third day in a row, with no end in sight. “Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra” is a race like no other. Justin Goulding writes about it in this BBC article here.

Since its launch in 2011 Gary Cantrell stages Big Dog on his farm in rural Tennessee. Competitors run round (and round and round) his woods during the daytime. And at night? Well, that’s back and forth on the road so they don’t trip up on roots and die. Each lap is just over four miles long. If competitors are fast they get to sit, eat, sleep (and perform other bodily functions) for 10-15 minutes before they set off again, at the start of the next hour. If they are too slow, then it’s a continuous hamster wheel with no time off at all. 

Goulding notes that “‘ultra’ is surely the most apt title for a race in which someone can run for 300 miles yet still be classed as a Did Not Finish.” Tenacity is the middle name of the wild-eyed folks who take part. As there’s no set length, the winner is the last woman (or sometimes man) standing. 

Speaking of which, men and women compete fairly against each other. “When you remove speed and strength from the equation, you have women competing head on with the men” says Cantrell. For example, the 2019 winner Maggie Guterl, ran 250 miles in 60 hours. Her prize? A gold coin and the satisfaction that she’d pushed herself to her limit. As Guterl puts it “I enjoy some level of suffering… most ultra-runners don’t want to go to a spa for a relaxing break.” 

Gary Cantrell likens his Frankenstein of a race to “being punched in the face. Not hard, just a little bit. But you do it again, and again, and again. Eventually you start to flinch when you see the punch coming.” The current record for Big Dog’s Ultra stands at 75 hours/312 miles and is held by a Belgian dentist. That’s how much most of us run in a year… completed in three days and two hours.

The whole thing is run (get it?) on a shoestring (OK I’ll stop). There’s no fancy accommodation (just tents) and no technically crafted nutrients (tins heated on camping stoves). It lacks physios, massage therapists or sports psychologists. Competitors simply sit on camping chairs with their feet on cool boxes to get blood back into their legs. Kit ranges from cowboy hats to baggy shorts and old T-shirts. 

I expect most of us are in the 99.99% camp (the non-ultra-runner group), yet we’re running our own version of a Big Dog race. Take the finish line that says: “There Is No Finish Line.” Our lives in a nutshell. We’re racing towards an end that is, at best, unclear and at worst, entirely unknown.

Or take the “Jeerleaders.” As Goulding puts it: “mischievous fans who heckle runners every lap with songs reminding them how weak they are and how easy it is to quit.” Don’t we all have some of those in our lives? Nay-sayers, doom-mongers, worrywarts and misanthropes.

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Here is what the competitors think about this crazy mad-cap race: a hardy mix of Americans, Canadians, a Swede, a Frenchman and a Brit. As guides for life these quotes work as well for non-ultra-runners as they do for crazy Big Dog Ultra folk. Runner-Philosophers in the making. 

Courtney Dauwalter: “If we don’t limit ourselves, it’s pretty cool what can happen.”  She says, “it’s a fun mental challenge… finding out what’s possible.” 

Dave Proctor: “We’re crippled by the past and the future. What’s happening in the next 10 seconds is all that I can control.” 

Johan Steene: “Accept the pain – don’t be scared of it.”

Maggie Guterl: “If you’re in it for fame, it’s not for you.” 

Guillaume Calmettes: “You do it for the experience. It’s an adventure. But the story of this adventure, you don’t know.”

Andy Persson: “You go through big dips. That’s something I love about ultras – you learn a lot about yourself.”

And finally, from head honcho, farmer, sports-event manager and ex ultra-runner himself, Gary Cantrell. He thinks that running is “all in your head.” This plays out in Big Dog, which he created to reward the mentally tough, rather than the fastest or fittest. 

Ultra-runner or fair-weather jogger, we can all learn a thing or two from Big Dog:

  1. We don’t need fancy names, fancy kit or fancy lives.
  2. We can keep “running” on much less than we expect (money, validation, energy).
  3. Whoever we are, tenacity can be our middle name. 
  4. Others may drop out before us, some continue after us, but at the end of the day we’re all just running our own race.

My take on all of this? You don’t need to be fit or fast, you just need to believe in yourself. You really can do it.  

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This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. This week I’ve given my interviewees a break from their long-distance running over the past year.

If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here. Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog on the same site. 

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