There has been somewhat of a boom for the backyard Ultra format of racing. This consists of completing a set loop typically 4.1667 miles in length every hour on the hour until there is a single runner remaining (insert highlander reference).
I am by no means an expert on this format of racing, but I have coached several people to strong finishes and have won a race of this format myself. Recently Jason Bigonia posted on the ole Facebook looking for input as he prepares for Big’s Backyard Ultramarathon which is recognized as the World Championship of this racing format. This race attracts the crème de le crème of gluttons for punishment, so the top distances reached in this race typically far exceed distances met in qualifying races.
Below is Jason’s complete post:
“I need some help. Some advice. Some insights. From lots of people, not just fellow runners. I have the incredible opportunity to run Big Dog’s Backyard Ultramarathon, the world championship of backyard ultras. In October (as of today, I have run the 43rd most miles in a backyard ultra of the 44 registrants!). I want to start preparing and I am looking for ideas from my Facebook community. My goal is to run the furthest I’ve ever run (135+ miles) and have as much fun as one can while giving it my all. I want ideas on training, nutrition, sleep, gear, staying limber during the race (!), ibuprofen dosing and timing, etc. Any and all tips are welcome.
I have identified some of my struggles as a runner and I am looking to overcome them:
Running from the back of the pack where it feels like others are doing better than me and feeling the stress of slow loops- I’ve hiked an entire trip from the rear and plan to force myself to walk when others do at LMS and Big Hill Bonk (backyard ultras) to simulate the single track at Big’s where you cannot pass anyone.
When my goal turns into my mental limit (hitting 100 miles and thinking I can go no further (2018 at LMS)
I definitely train by feel. If I am hurting, I lay off and keep my mileage low. I’ve never exceeded 70 miles in a training week. Usually 20-30 miles per week in the winter, and 50 miles per week at my peak summer training).
I give up sugar once (Lent) or twice a year but wondering if I should just give it up from now until October 2021.
Fire away if you have anything that could be helpful. Thank you!”
It can be intimidating being 43/44 on the mileage depth chart of registrants but that is not really his fault as the guy has won the event in Maine 3/5 years it has been held. You only get to go as far as at least one other competitor is willing to go.
I do not coach Jason, but I am going to try to do a breakdown of this race and it will hopefully prove helpful.
Big’s Backyard Results
2019: Winning Distance -250 miles, Top 10 – 154
2018: Winning Distance -283 miles, Top 10 – 158
2017: Winning Distance -245 miles, Top 10 – 104
One of the main hurdles of a race of this format is the infinite feeling it has and that can wreak havoc on the mental state of a runner. Looking at past results can help create some goals for this race that can help break it down into more manageable chunks. Jason has run 135 miles but only because the race ended. That was not his quitting point so it would be reasonable to set a goal of 150 miles or making it to the final 10 runners as a starting point. This will help him stay focused on something as the race progresses and help manage the harder laps (typically between 2AM-6AM). From there you just focus on your plan and work on repeating it successfully for as many laps beyond 150.
Jason had 3 areas he was looking for input: Avoiding Injury, Training and Diet.
Jason would fall into the lower end of training volume if looking at just running miles (20-30/wk off season, 50/wk peak summer training). If this is his primary goal for the year, I would build the annual plan around this race and focus on building on his typical aerobic training to further develop the aerobic system. Strength would be the second focus as strength plays a critical role the longer the race goes on.
Training Focus Points:
- Aerobic training
- Strength training work both in the gym and on the trail
- Time on feet
- Specificity (Trail and road course so need to work on both surfaces)
- Race Day Prep (Success in this format relies on replication, and replication relies on planning for different scenarios)
- Become an efficient walker
I will assume this is in reference to race day nutrition versus Jason’s daily nutritional habits. General rule of thumb for athletes is eat nutrient dense foods, fuel after training to help with recovery, and make sure you are consuming enough calories as it corresponds with your output that given day. Race day nutrition in this format is more enjoyable than a typical race.
General recommendations are 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour (120-240 calories from carbohydrates) and up to 90 grams per hour (360 calories from carbohydrates). Those are general recommendations, and everyone varies metabolically, and an athlete can experiment with improving their metabolic efficiency.
If pacing correctly, the effort for each lap should be at or below aerobic threshold for as long as possible (this will change as the race goes on as the body accrues stress). In this race format you don’t have to rely on gels or typical racing nutrition as heavily as you will be able to eat whole food either in the time between laps or during laps as the effort is low. During my LMS race I consumed roughly 300 calories per lap (200 from tailwind so 1 bottle per lap and the other 100 +/- came from solid snacking). Every 4 hours or so I would eat what I would consider a small meal (wrap, sandwich, soup, etc.) as it was possible with the low effort needed for me to complete a lap.
Nutrition Focus Points:
- Eat nutrient dense foods, fuel after training to help with recovery, eat enough when training.
- Create a fueling plan for your race based on what has worked in the past and use training leading up to the race to experiment so there are now surprises race day.
- Have enough food/fuel for longer than you think you can go with this race.
Often when athletes either qualify or get selected for a big race they want to double down on what they have done in the past with their training. Set that thinking aside and look objectively at what you have done in the past. Have you struggled with injury in the past? What did total training volume look like leading up to other races? Did you feel under-trained going into race? Over-trained?
Ideally you build the biggest engine you can with an extended taper for this race. You should be less focused on peaking like someone would be for a marathon and more concerned that you feel healthy and rested. Assuming that is the case, race day focus should be addressing issues as soon as they occur (ex: don’t be the runner who waits to deal with debris in a shoe).
Race Day Injury Maintenance:
- Build a kit to deal with potential injuries (include athletic tape, bandaids, antiseptic, ice)
- Learn how to wrap both an ankle/wrist like an athletic trainer
- Prepare for weather scenarios
- Find a way to elevate legs when needed between laps
I think ideal pacing for a race like this is very close to 50 minutes per lap. When looking at data from last year, the average lap time was 46-48 minutes for the first 10 laps. This was obviously too fast and a waste of energy early on. If you look at lap times for runners who went the furthest, they stuck close to 50 minutes on average and would sometimes use a faster lap (43-45 minutes) to take a 10 minute nap. Planning laps where you might utilize small amounts of sleep would be helpful. I would practice this as it is a skill and easy to practice. Learning to shut down for 5-10 minutes could pay big dividends.
I would recommend taking the time and looking at your splits at LMS and then spend some time looking at splits from this: https://public.tableau.com/profile/gary.roberts5340#!/vizhome/BigsBackyard/TeamDashboard
These are surface level thoughts about this race format, and I could dive deeper but hopefully this is in some way helpful for Jason or anyone else as they begin planning their training for a race in this format. I can recommend Last Man Standing Ultramarathon here in Maine as it is an amazingly well run event by people that really care about putting on the best event possible.