The Pandemic’s First Socially Distant Ultramarathon Was Destined To End In Heartbreak

The Pandemic’s First Socially Distant Ultramarathon Was Destined To End In Heartbreak
Image: Gizmodo

It’s likely the last runner to learn Radek Brunner had been disqualified from the the pandemic’s first virtual ultramarathon was Brunner himself. For 62 straight hours, Brunner had been livestreaming his attempt, his treadmill lit by a single overhead bulb. But seven minutes into what would be the final loop, the event’s organisers appeared on the video feed to tearfully explain it was all over”Brunner was out. For at least another half hour, Brunner, his laptop on mute, kept running on his treadmill, either oblivious to what had happened or clinging to stubborn pride.

The Quarantine Backyard Ultra was challenge running’s answer to self-isolation and event cancellations all over the world. Anyone with a video camera and an internet connection could participate simply by running around their cul-du-sac or city block and livestreaming the results over Zoom. (One racer did laps around his living room.) There would be no roaring crowd, no photo finish. The backyard race format, by design, deprives its participants of a sense of triumph. The final runner, Mike Wardian, who completed 422.5 kilometres, survived more than won to beat Brunner. In the end, both racers hobbled away without the sense of satisfaction their two-and-a-half-day rivalry deserved.

The first thing to know about the Quarantine Backyard Ultra is that it was born from loss. “I’ve been training, diligently probably for the last five, six months,” elite runner Dave Proctor, who helped kickstart the event, told me. “To see it all crumble and go away because of the covid-19 disaster… it was heartbreaking.” Proctor had been preparing for a second attempt at breaking the speed record for running across Canada, which he planned accomplish 105 kilometres at a time for 67 straight days. Postponing a feat of that magnitude by a year or more is non-trivial, as age begins to catch up with performance. His prior attempt in 2018 ended halfway across the country in Winnipeg due to a back injury, and this one was now a wash before it even got started.

Shortly after calling it off, Proctor got a text from his coaches, Travis and Ashley Schiller-Brown, who suggested a virtual race. “Within probably six hours we planned out the entire thing,” Proctor said. “From there, we sent out invites to the world’s best multi-day runners and said, “˜Hey, there’s no other races happening in the world.'” This”along with free admission”was more than enough to convince 2,700 challenge runners of varying ability to sign up. By Proctor’s estimate, that makes the Quarantine Backyard Ultra the second- or third-largest ultramarathon ever held.

Ultramarathons already attract their share of oddballs, but the backyard format is several orders of magnitude stranger. The backyard ultra was invented by the pseudonymous Lazarus Lake (real name Gary Cantrell) who Proctor described as a “chain-smoking hillbilly.” Lake is best known for creating and hosting the ludicrously punishing Barkley race, which is only attempted by top-tier racers and for the past two years has still turned out no finishers. (Lake declined to participate in this story.) Where most marathons are continuous, runners at backyard events can”if they’re fast enough”take breaks between 6.7-kilometre loops. At the start of each hour, another loop begins, and it doesn’t end until only one exhausted person is left standing. As Lake told Outside Magazine, “It’s like a contest for getting punched in the face.”

With their short rests and focus on endurance rather than speed, backyard marathons give an advantage to less experienced participants. “Even my mum raced the race and she ran her longest run ever,” Travis Schiller-Brown told me, saying his mother’s two-loop, 13-kilometre attempt was a significant improvement on her prior personal best. But for elite runners, the sadistic backyard style adds additional hurdles”like sleep deprivation”and provides ample time to ruminate on dropping out. At the most well-known backyard ultra, which takes place quite literally in Lake’s backyard in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, he’s even been known to include “jeerleaders“ who urge the runners to throw in the towel. “It’s a total mind bend, right? Because every time you come in, you have the chance to quit and you don’t know when it’s going to end,” said Wardian. “I think the hardest part of the race is restarting every time. No matter how strong you feel, that first couple steps feels like death.”

Barely two weeks passed between Proctor sending out invitations and the Quarantine Backyard Ultra’s opening bell on April 4th. Before putting on one of the largest ultramarathons in history, the Schiller-Brown’s only experience with race directing was an annual 5k that coincided with Ashley’s birthday. “The biggest we’ve ever had it is 40 people,” Ashley said. Confined to their home in Calgary, two weeks proved to be just enough time to hack together some solutions.

“We had our little command centre set up at our house. So we had four separate computers, each running each of the Zoom meetings, one with the elites and then the other three”I think they had five to eight hundred people on each of those Zoom calls,” Travis explained. “And so we had those four computers going, we had two other computers going to monitor stuff. And then Daniel Bowie, who did the race clock side of things, he had four computers at his house as well, each of those set up and called in with the race clock streaming into Zoom as well.” Fortunately for them, the rules for backyards are relatively simple: you finish the loop in time or you don’t. “You don’t even rank people like first place, second place, third place, fourth place. It’s just when you finish, you’ve got your number of loops,” Travis said, which at least removed the impossible task of having to verify times remotely.

With that functional if byzantine setup, several thousand people all around the world started logging kilometres in a race absolutely none of them had trained for. The aforementioned living room runner dropped out around 10 hours in. Proctor himself made it through the first 31 loops, wearing what appeared to be a foam cowboy hat for most of them. (It’s a real cowboy hat he later assured me, stating, “It’s my running hat.”) Some stopped because they were tired or hurt. As the days wore on, others left simply to make prior commitments. The survivors ate, showered, or napped in 15-minute increments between finishing their more than 6.4-kilometre course and the next bell.

Like Proctor, Wardian had planned to run the length of his own country this summer”and similarly had to postpone that attempt due to the pandemic. For years he had successfully rebuffed fellow ultramarathoner Maggie Guterl’s attempts to nudge him into a backyard event. Now that he had finally caved, Guterl became the first on the elite feed to drop. Wardian opted to run his course in his neighbourhood in Arlington, Virginia, and pushing him soon became a group effort for his socially distant neighbours. “The whole neighbourhood started pitching in. They got a big table and someone got a pop up tent and then eventually someone ran a power line from their house,” Wardian said of the impromptu aid station that cropped up in his yard.

“The routine was I would come in, try to get something to eat. Sit down, put more lube on,” Wardian said. A slight chafe can become a blister, and in an event of unknown length, a small injury can quickly become race-ending. “It’s just a matter of taking care of yourself. You don’t know how long you’re going to be out there. You can’t exert too much energy, and you can’t get too far behind on calories.” Between daytime laps, he poured ice down his arm sleeves to lower his core temperature.

Over 6,400 kilometres away in Prague, Radek Brunner was embarking not only on his first backyard race, but his first virtual race of any kind. “I read about it on [a] Facebook page and it looks so much crazy,” Brunner, whose primary language is not English, wrote in an email. “Maybe, that in this time it will be only one solution how we can race against opponents.” Where Wardian took his race outdoors, opening himself up to elevation changes and weather, Brunner spent his race fighting the monotony of a treadmill instead”likewise cheered on by family members who also supplied him with food and fluids. And while most of the food he consumed was purely to sustain his inhuman level of effort, “my wife prepare every morning scrambled eggs and cappuccino and we had in small pause between laps time for family breakfast,” he wrote. Over the next 63 hours, he would wear out two pairs of shoes without leaving home.

Behind the scenes, the Schiller-Browns were fighting their own battles. “As people dropped out of the race and it got smaller and smaller you would have to take those people, send them new links and consolidate people down into smaller and smaller calls,” Travis said, a task made even more difficult because many of the racers were relying Google Translate to find out if they’d been moved to a new room. The race’s length created another problem for the increasingly exhausted race directors. “Zoom meetings can only go on for 24 hours. So we had to basically get everybody, while they were running, to leave the Zoom call. Then I had to restart the meeting. And then they would have to rejoin the Zoom call again,” Travis said. “The top elites had to do that twice.”

The broadcast side of things was no smoother. Stream after stream was mysteriously banned from YouTube. “We have four YouTube channels and they all crashed, and we don’t know exactly why,” said Proctor, speculating that, “We seem to think that somebody was playing music in the background.” The Schiller-Browns think it may have less accidental. “We don’t actually have any community violation strikes [anymore] so we think there might have been like trolls or someone, flagging things as we went,” he said. After four erroneous bans, the Quarantine Backyard Ultra’s skeleton crew moved things over to Facebook Live. By that point though, Brunner and Wardian were the only runners still in the race.

It’s difficult to dramatize the 16 hours that followed. Wardian overcame his biggest psychological hump at the 44-loop mark when his wife talked him out of quitting. It’s not clear if the runners, like Proctor, had been experiencing hallucinations. When asked where his mind was after so much effort and repetition, all Brunner told me was: “I dont know. I was in flow this race.” Wardian, too, seemed to be having the performance of his life. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a just complete state of being where I was. I was doing what I was meant to do. Like, I felt really purposeful,” he said. “It’s silly because it’s not like I’m saving people from anything or doing anything super important. But for me, it felt right. I felt like I could keep doing it forever. What’s crazy is, no matter how you try to seek that out, you don’t really find it all the time. I’ve had it a couple times in my career.”

At some point Lake and his wife Sandra were brought into the stream to watch Wardian and Brunner heap on kilometre after aching kilometre, just in time for the format to deliver a gut punch to both runners.

The first part you already know: Radek Brunner was disqualified for failing to start his 63rd loop when the bell rang.

“When I looked at him, it just seemed that maybe he was he was zoned out, he was falling asleep standing up,” Proctor said. Wardian agreed it might have been delirium causing his opponent to forget. “Everyone knows it starts on the hour. No matter where, that hour is anywhere in the world. So as long as you have even like a Timex or a regular clock on your phone or your watch, if it’s a minute past the time, you should have gone,” he said. “So I don’t know what happened.” Radek, for his part, claims his stream had become delayed, and rather than risk putting words in his mouth, this is his version, unedited:

I had all time stream from my laptop. And on treadmill I had ipad and follow there stream on FB. But in final situation I had on my laptop muted volume and on screen I had Mike`s stream. So I had my tablet on treadmill and waiting for bell-start for next loop. But on FB stream was delay. And I missed regullary start. I was one minut before start on treadmill and wait. Bell starting race but I still wait for bell in ipad, because I dont hear it from muted laptop. And after it some guy from HQ Personal Peaks [the name of Travis and Ashley’s coaching company] calling me and said me why I dont run? I said, that I wait for start. But after it I looked that time on ipad is delayed and race started before one or two minutes. I confirmed him that my ipad stream had delay and he say: OK, go to treadmill and finish this lap. Afer it we make decision. But after it they say me, that I lost start and I am disqualified. It was very sad for me. But I am runner, he is race director. And if he say that this is rules and there is no other way, I must agree with it.

“Radek are you on mute? The bell just went,” Travis says on the stream seconds into the loop that only Wardian had started. Silence. “It’s been a full minute with no response. I think he’s done,” Lake says. As Travis announces Brunner has been disqualified, a friend photobombs Brunner’s feed, holding up a small dog, apparently also unable to hear the bad news. Brunner takes several phone calls over the next half hour, one of which seems to cause him enough distress that it’s visible, although his feed remains muted. “I hear you” are the only words Brunner gets out 45 minutes later before the race directors state they’re having trouble with the stream. A new one never begins. That’s the first gut punch.

The second one is arguably crueler: the winner in a backyard ultra can only beat their last opponent by one loop. After two and a half exhausting days, this might seem like a blessing. For Wardian, who was within spitting distance of the backyard ultramarathon record of 68 loops, losing Brunner meant losing a potentially once-in-a-lifetime shot at breaking the record. “When I was [disqualified], for Mike ended race too. Only one runner is not allowed to continue in race and so he get no chance to try beat this record. I think, that for me it was very sad, but for Mike too,” Brunner wrote. Wardian offered, in the moment, to continue, but was told it wouldn’t be possible. “I would have rather he got to continue and we got to keep battling,” he said. “I didn’t care about winning. I just wanted to go far. And we did go far. And it would have been even cooler to go a little bit further.”

In the aftermath, Lake’s comments on the stream caused an uproar within the community. He was accused of making a bad call and of influencing the Schiller-Browns’ identical decision. A cryptic Facebook message he posted about half an hour after the race ended”maybe in the world of people who are absolutely certain they know the right answer i am the only one who is glad to not be in charge today””did little to clear things up, although Travis and Ashley have since stated the decision was theirs and theirs alone. “Because this was the first really big virtual race with that livestreaming component we wanted to make sure that we were upholding the integrity of the race format of virtual racing. Because if the first big virtual race waivers on things, the community can’t do these races in the future and feel good,” Travis said. “It was probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do in my life, but we fully agree with it and stand by it […] Thats just the way that these races go. There’s always some kind of heartbreak at the end.”

For Wardian, those 422.5 kilometres were the longest distance he’d ever gone in a running career that stretches back to his college days. Last Sunday, he turned 46, a year older than Brunner. Every year, the damage adds up and the body can’t maintain the same levels of punishment. It’s possible this race will be the farthest either runner travels in a single race for the rest of their lives.

Anyone would be upset. We crave tidiness and resolution, and we expect effort to be rewarded. But fairness has nothing to do with it. Mike, Radek, and other elite athletes are already living proof that ability is not distributed fairly”the backyard ultra might be a way of demonstrating that satisfaction isn’t either.

“It never ends well. It may only end gracefully,” Travis and Ashley said in their first post after the race ended. Wardian appeared on their Facebook page with a re-recording of his victory speech three hours later. His initial video thanking family, friends, viewers, and Radek never made it onto the stream due to “one last technical glitch in the saga.”