Culture

Inside the Quarantine Backyard Ultra

A race for the times: thousands of runners around the globe in a test of endurance with sketchy videos, tech glitches and a familiar, feel-good champion.

it can be easy to forget

after going thru hell together apart

that those other morons have to quit,

or you cannot!

—Lazarus Lake, mastermind of running’s version of Gladiator and honorary race director of the Quarantine Backyard Ultra

What better way to bring the ultrarunning community together during a pandemic than suffering—or as Lazarus Lake calls it, an opportunity to find greatness in ourselves—together, apart, virtually! It’s free! It’s fun! Run 4.167 miles every hour until you can’t anymore! On a treadmill! Around the couch! Above the Arctic Circle! Throw down with Courtney Dauwalter! And #LivingroomGuy! Prize is a roll of toilet paper spray painted gold! Also, there’s nothing else to do!

That’s what endurance coaches Travis and Ashley Schiller-Brown at Personal Peak and Canadian ultrarunner Dave Proctor were thinking when they hatched Quarantine Backyard Ultra. It proved pretty compelling.

On Saturday, April 4 at 0700 MDT, 2,413 runners in 56 countries started their first lap, the YouTube grid of live streams showing people running on treadmills, recently vacated houses, and puzzled dogs.

“We’ve had community stripped from us [by the pandemic],” Proctor said. “We thought we could create community virtually. There are so many parallels between this last-person-standing format and what’s going on now in the world. It’s about grit. As humans, we endure. We don’t know when it’s going to end; all we can do is get up and fight one more day.”

Proctor had planned an attempt at a transCanadian speed record starting May 18, Personal Peak crewing the effort, and Stephanie Gillis-Paulgaard of Take Root Consulting handling media. That event was, of course, postponed. Within a few hours, these people became the organizing committee for a Big’s Backyard-style virtual ultra.

That was in late March. Posting a Fastest Known Time for organizing a worldwide virtual race in a pandemic, two weeks later, Quarantine Backyard Ultra was underway. Proctor, who owns a number of multi-day Canadian records, reached out to his contacts in the ultra community, serious competitors whose race calendar had also abruptly cleared. They recruited Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake, who had just canceled his infamous Barkley Marathons, to serve as honorary race director.

They tried to make it accessible to anyone in any situation. “You didn’t have to be on Zoom. We knew there might be technical glitches so we asked runners to at least take a photo of their watch or treadmill console [to prove they’d run the 4.167 miles],” Stephanie Gillis-Paulgaard said. “Ultimately, we just wanted people to have fun with it.”

Or as much fun as you can have, safely, in a pandemic. The race website warned participants not to start if they felt sick, not to push to the point of needing medical assistance or trashing their immune system, and to abide by local distancing restrictions.

Thus, we got #livingroomguy, an icon of the Quarantine Backyard. Online followers, squinting at the tiny Zoom frames, started talking about one runner who appeared to be completing his 4.167-mile route entirely within the confines of his Dubai apartment, a figure-eight around the couch and through the hallway. Sometimes his kids did it too. Dubai is in total lockdown. Livingroom Guy, aka Rinat Mustafin, a triathlete, made it 20 hours. 83.34 miles.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B-FNHeip7z4/

Thirteen-year-old Ben Tidwell, the youngest Quarantiner, completed 25 hours, 104.1 miles.

The preponderance of entrants were from the US and Canada, so followers were surprised by some unfamiliar names from Europe. Clearly this was not their first rodeo. Anna Carlsson is well known in Sweden. Running on a frozen lake 300K north of the Arctic Circle, her Quarantine race ended after 45 hours, 187.5 miles, due to a snowstorm. At the time, she was one of three people left in.

The elite field held many names familiar to US viewers, like the 2019 Big’s Backyard champion Maggie Guterl. She held off entering Quarantine until the Wednesday before, when pals Courtney Dauwalter and Sally McRae threw their lot in too.

“This [Quarantine] was connecting the whole world, which was cool, and I love the Backyard format,” she said. From her home in Durango, Colo., the choice of routes was a boring ¾-mile loop in her neighborhood, or a stout 4.3-mile lollipop up a dirt road—1300 feet of elevation gain each time. She went with the lollipop.

Guterl, Dauwalter and  McRae had agreed beforehand, 24 hours, 100 miles, and in Guterl’s case, Everesting (racking up 29,000 feet of gain at one go) seemed pleasing goals: “We were not in it to win it.” As it turned out, running the downhills irritated a lower back injury she thought she’d put behind her in February, and Guterl’s race ended after nine hours.

Running from her home in Golden, Colo., Dauwalter looped around the neighborhood for 24 hours, 100 miles, “before I was unable to continue.”  Dauwalter said it was a “cool way to bring people together, and a fun way to get in some miles.”

Since he’d been training for the Barkley Marathons, Phoenix-based Jamil Coury’s long history with the sufferfest was uppermost in his mind. Coury identified himself on the elite list as having “failed five times at the Barkley.” He signed on to the Quarantine Backyard Ultra because “it sounded like fun, being part of a community.” It also serves as a trial run for his company’s virtual race, Aravaipa Strong, coming up on April 17. Though he’d intended to go 25 or 30 hours, Coury experienced some dizziness, erred on the side of caution, and called it quits at 100K, 15 hours in.

On Monday, April 6, Dave Proctor was watching what had, since Anna Carlsson’s exit after 45 hours, become a two-man battle between Mike Wardian, an affable, Abe Lincoln-ish ship broker in Virginia, and Radek Brunner, an impassive Czech machine, who had purchased his treadmill the week before due to his country’s lockdown. Proctor had been in great shape and hoped to go 72 hours, but overstretched his back during a break, and eventually threw in the towel after 31 hours, 129 miles. While personally disappointed, the gladiatorial format was, he thought, everything he could have hoped for as an organizer.

“I don’t know Radek,” Proctor said. “I have no idea who a lot of these people are. A lot of them wouldn’t do well in a 50K, but they’re very good at not quitting. These guys [Brunner and Wardian] are having a good day, or three days, but they’re hurting a lot more than they’re showing. They’re unlocking their mental prison—it’s fun to watch that.”

In the way of technology, it was amazing while it worked—truly connecting the world—and hair-tearingly bad when it failed. Eventually, all of Personal Peak’s YouTube channels were closed down, victims of YouTube’s copyright algorithms. Even a Bruno Mars ringtone on one runner’s phone flags copyright infringement. Through the North American day on Monday, the two contenders answered the starting whistle, watched by up to 1400 Facebook viewers.

It was easy to connect with Wardian from the curbside camp he set up outside his suburban Virginia home. He chatted with race directors during breaks, and answered viewers’ questions. A cellphone camera showed him taking off his trucker cap, redoing his signature ponytail, putting ice in his running sleeves, putting on a puffer jacket, eating, and drinking. Sometimes as he looped the neighborhood, the camera remained fixed on the pleasant empty street, and sometimes the camera was off during his 4.167-mile lap. Wardian shared with viewers that he nearly quit at 3am Monday morning, 42 hours in. His wife convinced him to continue. Open and chatty, amazingly fresh, conversant in English (relevant under the circumstances), Wardian brought viewers along on his adventure.

That was never the case with Brunner. Even after 63 unblinking hours on the screen, viewers knew almost nothing about him. According to his Instagram, he’s an ultrarunner and running coach. Whether due to audio problems or language barriers (Brunner once said, in English, that his English was not good, but his skills seemed more than up to basic conversation), the race directors rarely spoke to Brunner, and he didn’t interact with them or race followers. He did not smile. He did not chat.

The fixed camera focused on a treadmill set up in a room. Towels were draped over the treadmill, a water bottle on the console, an overhead light. Clothes and shoes were neatly laid out on the floor. As the seconds ticked down to the starting bell, Brunner got up from his chair or emerged from another room, changed his shirt—he changed shirts every loop—stepped onto the treadmill, checked his watch and broke into an efficient mechanical stride that was remarkably unchanging.

He didn’t listen to music; he didn’t wince or frown or look around or smile. When the loop was accomplished, in metronomic 40-ish minutes, he wiped his face, stepped off the treadmill, sat, and ate. Did he sleep? We don’t know. What was he eating? We don’t know. While the video never stopped, the audio from Brunner’s room seemed always to be on mute. Only occasionally in the 63 hours did someone else pass in front of the camera—a somewhat comforting sign that Brunner was not alone.

Hour after hour through the North American day on Monday and into the third night, the two Quarantine cams didn’t blink. Wardian was pointedly chirpy and unfailingly fast, usually finishing his loop before Brunner. The Czech, he looked as if he would be hitting this routine for another week.

Then, as the seconds ticked toward the start of the 63rd loop, 10pm in Virginia, 4 a.m. in the Czech Republic, something strange happened. With about 10 seconds to go Brunner’s treadmill was empty. Finally, he emerged from another room with a cup in hand, unhurried, expressionless as always, and stepped onto the treadmill.

The bell rang for the start of the 63rd lap and Wardian tottered off into the night. Brunner stood on the treadmill. The nameless person in the room handed Brunner an iPad and he stood on the treadmill fiddling with it. Lucid and alert, Brunner seemed unaware that the 63rd hour had started. His companion gave no sign that anything was amiss.

Urgently the race directors told him he needed to get started but he didn’t look up. It’s apparent he didn’t hear them. A minute passed. Brunner’s companion handed him a cellphone and he talked somewhat animatedly on the phone, and started the treadmill. About 100 seconds passed. Brunner finished the phone call and kept running. He did not look like a person who had intended to quit. And that’s the last the public saw of Brunner. Still running.

According to “last person standing” rules, runners must be in the start corral and must leave the corral at the start of the hour. Sharing the Facebook screen with Brunner running on his treadmill and Wardian’s empty camp, race directors Travis and Ashley Schiller-Brown tearfully announced that Brunner was disqualified for failing to start at the hour, and that Wardian was the Quarantine winner. When he finished his loop, Wardian was confused, partly because he hadn’t slept in 63 hours, but partly because he could see his nemesis on the screen running.

Then the race’s Facebook feed went blank. Several hours later, Personal Peak posted a recording Wardian made thanking them for organizing and thanking Brunner for pushing him to an amazing personal record—262.5 miles, 63 hours. His last lap was the fastest of the battle —an amazing 31 minutes.

Brunner posted on the race’s Facebook page: “My tablet was delayed and I wait for the start. Btw. If I looked for strava.com for confirmation Mike’s run. He not start evevy loop directly in start hour. It is ok???”  He’s made no other statements to date. Which, with all the technology available, left fans confused and unsatisfied.

Uniformly, followers praised Personal Peak’s heroic efforts in organizing and staging Quarantine Backyard. Participants called it a mammoth success—it was fun, it did bring the whole world (of ultrarunners) together, it did create a sense of community without sacrificing safety. But recalling Stephanie Gillis-Paulgaard’s admission that the technology might not be universal, that it might fail, that ultimately this was just for fun—it was obviously hard to know when the fun stopped and the rules began.

Technology is able to make a hair’s breadth call in live performances, but there will be no world records in virtual races. For the time being, distanced and strange as it is, virtual races will do what they’re very good at—bringing people together to have fun, safely.