In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Mike Wardian added another title to his long list of obscure distance running feats. The 45-year-old American, whose accomplishments include setting a world record for running a marathon while pushing a stroller, outduelled Radek Brunner of the Czech Republic to win the first (and, hopefully, only) Quarantine Backyard Ultra. The event, which began on April 4, at 9 A.M. EST, initially had over 2,000 runners from around the globe taking part in a virtual-style competition that, depending on where you sit, is either an uplifting reminder of human resilience, or another reason to despair.
The “backyard ultra” format was invented by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, the creator of the Barkley Marathons, and requires all participants to run a 4.1667-mile lap—no more, no less—every 60 minutes, and to keep doing so until only one runner remains. Whoever can complete the most laps is the winner. (The event record is held by Sweden’s Johann Steene, who in 2018 ran 68 laps, 283.3356 miles, at Big’s Backyard Ultra—Cantrell’s own race, which takes place in October.) Typically, this event is held with a limited number of competitors sharing the same course. However, in response to the social distancing mandates of the current COVID-19 pandemic, a Canadian ultrarunner named Dave Proctor created a virtual event where entrants tune in via Zoom and complete the 4.1667 miles on their own—either on a treadmill, or outside with a GPS watch. After two days, or 48 laps, Wardian and Brunner were the only people left in the race; Wardian was shuffling around his local neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia, while Brunner was doing his laps on a treadmill at home.
In a “normal” backyard ultra event, where all competitors are physically present and doing the same loop at the same time, the most twisted aspect of the race is that the last-man-standing format means that nobody knows when the ordeal is going to end. But at least those runners are able to see one another in the flesh—an advantage when you are trying to measure your own fatigue against that of your rivals. (There’s also, presumably, a more palpable sense of shared suffering.) In a virtual backyard ultra, on the other hand, everyone is competing in isolation—locked into a prolonged struggle against an invisible adversary. It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for these anguished times.
In the end, Wardian won by completing 63 laps, or 262.5 miles. Although he and Brunner both appeared to be in good shape, all things considered, after two and a half days of running, the Czech athlete failed to start his treadmill right at the top of the hour—an automatic DQ. It was an appropriately cruel conclusion to a race where a certain level of sadism is baked into the general concept. One of the commentators was so upset by the unexpected turn of events that he began to cry.
After finishing his last lap, Wardian took a 45-minute nap and then had to work. (He is a partner in his own shipping company, Potomac Martime, LLC.) “As of now, I’ve gotten 45 minutes of sleep since Saturday morning,” he told me in an interview on Tuesday, “But I’m not a particularly awesome sleeper anyway.”
I asked him how he felt this race stacked up against some of his other achievements. (A prolific racer and multiple-time USATF Ultrarunner of the Year, Wardian once ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, with an average finishing time of two hours and 45 minutes.) “I’ve done some big things, but this was the longest I’ve ever been out on my feet like that. This has definitely pushed me to another level—and I’ve got to thank my competitors for that,” Wardian says.
Those competitors included 2017 Western States and 2019 UTMB champion Courtney Dauwalter, as well as Sweden’s Anna Carlsson, a Big’s Backyard Ultra veteran who plowed her own course in a landscape resembling a vast, frozen tundra.
“Anna was such a badass,” Wardian says. “Other dudes were running around barstools.”
Wardian, who was awarded a golden toilet paper trophy for his victory, added that, while he regretted the circumstances that had inspired this race to come about, it was nonetheless impressive that the event had generated so much excitement.
“It’s pretty awesome that with technology and a little creativity and desire, 2,500 people got together and were still a community even though we weren’t physically together.”