Late on Monday evening, Maggie Guterl became the first woman to win the Big Dog Backyard Ultra, a race many consider to be among the hardest in the world. It took her 60 hours to cover 250 miles.
The race, put on by Barkley Marathons creator Gary Cantrell, is deceptively, painfully simple. Participants have 60 minutes to run a four-mile trail loop through the woods on Lake’s farm in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. At the top of each hour, anyone who is still able lines back up at the start line and does it again, until there’s only one person left. In 2018, the race went on for almost three days and 283 miles.
“It’s like a contest for getting punched in the face,” Cantrell said in an interview with Outside last spring. “Who will stand up and get punched in the face the most times? Because, after a while, it starts to hurt.” The race started in 2007, but Cantrell, himself a lifelong runner, conceived of it more than four decades ago, while he was in high school. He designed it to isolate pure competitiveness and mental grit: you don’t have to be fast to succeed. You just have to keep going.
Women have come close at the race before: Courtney Dauwalter was the last person to drop in 2018, after 67 hours and 279 miles (Johan Steene ran one more lap for the win). Guterl also ran last year, but bowed out 183 miles in due to IT band issues. She came back this year determined to keep running.
“[Cantrell] had said at Barkley this year that he would give anything to see a woman win the Backyard,” she said, “And I was like ‘OK, I can do this.’” This year, the 39-year-old came prepared with an army of massage tools, a smorgasbord of potato-based snacks (mashed potatoes, potato soup, pierogies), and a single-mindedness that she would not quit until she was the only person left on the start line.
It worked. According to Amelia Boone, who ran 112 miles (27 hours), Guterl was “solid and mechanical” for the entire race. Even after 100 miles, she maintained an average of 54 minutes per lap—she didn’t slow down, and didn’t speed up. “If anything went wrong, she did not let on.”
Indeed, Guterl says she felt like she could have run more. When Will Hayward, the second-to-last person left, timed out in lap 60, “I wanted to keep going,” she says. “I had this thing in my mind that it would be cool to beat what they did last year, and even break that 300 barrier. I’ve never run through three nights.”
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Correction: Amelia Boone ran 112 miles at the 2019 Big Backyard Ultra, not 100 as originally stated.