A loop eternal: welcome to the Big Dog Backyard Ultra


It’s a simple conceit – a slightly more than four-mile loop that you run once an hour until all your competitors have dropped out. All very straightforward, until you hear how far the winner ran ….






Guillaume Calmettes in action.
Photograph: Katie Grossman

Run a single loop measuring 4.16667 miles within a single hour. Now do it again. And again. Now keep doing it – starting a new loop on the hour, regardless of how fast you finish the previous one – until there’s only one runner willing or capable of doing so. Welcome to the simple – some might say sadistic – concept of the Big Dog Backyard Ultra in Bedford County, Tennessee.

“The apparently weird loop-distance has in fact been carefully chosen so each 24 hours equals running a perfect 100 miles,” says Guillaume Calmettes, the Frenchman who is the current Big Dog Backyard Ultra champion. “Another twist is that every 12 hours you change between a daytime trail loop to a night-time road loop, and because the road loop has less elevation gain – and is of course less technical – than the trail loop, then reaching the road loops gives you the opportunity to get a bit more rest time in between loops, and more time to take care of yourself before starting the next one.”

Calmettes winning distance was an incredible 246 miles. That’s 59 loops over 59 consecutive hours.

Obviously the Bad Dog Backyard Ultra isn’t for everyone. It’s leftfield events like this and the infamous Barkley Marathons – both devised by the savant of suffering, Lazarus Lake – that attract a certain breed of ultra runner. The 2017 edition had one of the deepest fields to date, or as Calmettes puts it, “everything you want for good entertainment: Barkley finisher; 24hr world championship medalist; Badwater champion; Vol-State 500k champion; six-day running specialists; 100-mile winners, and so on. It was pretty humbling being surrounded by greatness everywhere,” he says.

Starting a loop at the Big Dog Backyard Ultra.



Starting a loop at the Big Dog Backyard Ultra. Photograph: Katie Grossman

So how to approach a race with no discernible end – a race where your competitors dwindle as the physiological and psychological torment picks off victim after victim? Quite easily, it seems, if you’re Calmettes. “Because there is no predefined finish, you cannot think in terms of ‘how many miles do I have left before this thing is all over’, so in fact, I found it very easy mentally. I just had to think about the next loop. The next loop, always the next loop, it’s very easy thinking,” he says. “You’re never overwhelmed by what you have left to run, because you simply don’t know what you have left to run.” In this case ignorance is, without doubt, bliss.

Another unique aspect of the Big Dog that turns the traditional race experience on it’s head is position. It doesn’t matter if you finish a loop quickest or slowest. Once you finish it within the given hour, every runner begins the new loop tied for first place. In fact, it almost sounds easy. Until it sinks in once again that Calmettes ran for almost two and a half days straight – through storms and rain – to take the prize. It’s a measure of his character that the race’s highpoint for him wasn’t, in fact, winning but a moment when his last surviving rival, Harvey Lewis, finished loop number 56 with only two seconds to spare. The two took off into the next loop like a couple of sugared up school kids – ticking it off in just 41 minutes. “Pushing on a muddy and slippery trail loop with a friend after 57 hours is something special and pretty fun,” he says.

The end came soon after, Lewis quietly dropping out during the 59th loop – leaving Calmettes to unknowingly complete what was to be his final, winning lap.

The Big Dog Backyard Ultra.



The Big Dog Backyard Ultra. Photograph: Katie Grossman

“The problem when you win Big Dog Backyard Ultra is that it means that you did not really reach your limits; your race stopped because all the others runners called it quits, not because you decided that it was enough,” he says. “Now that I know that I can cover at least 246 miles and stay awake for 59 hours straight, I am even more curious of what I can really do. So yes, I am definitely coming back, and hopefully we’ll hit a third night next year.”

As a final, devious twist, the prize for winning is a starting place at the Barkley Marathons. Will Calmettes take up the offer? “Of course! You cannot say no to a Barkley entry,” he says.