Exploring the World of Backyard Ultra: Insights from Hellevation Co-founder Tom Owens

February 21, 2024

Backyard Ultra, an intriguing and challenging format of ultramarathon racing, has gained immense popularity among runners seeking to push their physical and mental limits. In this interview with Tom Owens, co-founder of Hellevation, we delve into the unique characteristics of Backyard Ultra races, shedding light on the format, strategies, and the unparalleled experience it offers to participants.

At its core, Backyard Ultra is a test of endurance and strategy. Originally created by Gary 'Lazarus Lake' Cantrell, the race is set on a 4.16-mile (6.7 km) loop, which must be run within an hour. The challenge lies not only in completing the loop but also managing the rest period before the next one begins. If a runner finishes a loop in 40 minutes, they enjoy a 20-minute rest. The rest time decreases as the loop time increases, with the next loop starting on the hour every hour. The race continues until only one runner remains standing, making it a battle of physical stamina, mental resilience, and strategic pacing.

Owens emphasizes the diversity in approach among participants, highlighting the personal preferences that shape their strategies. Some runners opt for a brisk pace, completing each loop in 40 minutes to maximize their rest time. In contrast, others, including Owens himself, adopt a more measured approach, aiming for loop times around 50 to 53 minutes to balance exertion and recovery. The rest period becomes a crucial window for activities such as nutrition intake, clothing changes, or even brief naps for those covering extensive distances.

While the Backyard Ultra may seem deceptively simple—completing a loop repeatedly—Owens points out the mental and physical toll it takes on participants. The rest period introduces unique challenges, and as the race progresses, sleep deprivation becomes a significant factor. Despite the demanding nature of the race, many runners have achieved milestones like their first 50k or marathon through this format, showcasing its versatility and accessibility to various skill levels.

Backyard Ultra races on these shores can typically extend anywhere between 30 and 45 hours, with some remarkable exceptions. Owens mentions Keith Russell, an Irish record holder who completed nearly 90 loops, showcasing the extraordinary feats that can be accomplished in this format. The world record, according to Owens, stands at a staggering 106 loops, underlining the limitless possibilities within the Backyard Ultra world.

Backyard Ultra stands as a testament to the resilience and determination of ultrarunners. With its unique format and diverse strategies, the race offers an opportunity for both seasoned athletes and novices to push their boundaries and achieve remarkable milestones. As the popularity of Backyard Ultra continues to grow, it remains a captivating and unpredictable adventure, challenging participants to go beyond their perceived limits and embrace the thrill of the unknown.

Stay tuned for more from Tom, as we preview his upcoming Hellevation Backyard Ultra in Munster, the first of its kind in the province.

Featured Image: The Irish Team in Wales, courtesy of Tom Owens.