First off, thanks to Sarah (RD) and all the amazing volunteers who helped put on this event. All of your hard work is greatly appreciated!

Capital Backyard is a Last Man Standing race put on over Memorial Day weekend in Lorton, VA. For those not in the know, backyard ultras consist of a 4.16 mile loop that must completed within an hour. The seemingly random distance results from dividing 100 miles by 24 hours. At the top of each hour, everyone starts off together for the next “yard” so there’s no possibility of banking time. Capital had two different courses with a daytime course (run 6am-8pm) through trails and a nighttime course on a paved bike path. The day course had a little over 300 feet of elevation gain on very non-technical trails. At night, you had less than 100 feet per lap to navigate.

Starting a yard early on with John.

I’ve wanted to do a backyard ultra for quite a few years, however this was the first one that seemed to fit my schedule. Running long distances is always physically demanding, but this format requires your mental game to be just as strong. How do you run a race that has no end? How do you continue running when you pass your car (and comfort) every hour on the hour? Short loop ultras are among the most mentally demanding because they make quitting so much easier. I knew this going in so shied away from setting distance or time goals. My primary goal was to get timed out on a loop instead of refusing to continue (RTC, aka quitting).

My son chilling at my aid station before starting his crewing duties. He was on his game early, which helped me settle down a bit.

I’m not the fastest or fittest runner in the yard so my strategy was to go slow, yet not so slow that I risked accidentally timing myself out. The goal was to conserve as much energy as possible since there was no way to bank time. I was targeting 55 minutes, which would give me plenty of time to swap out bottles and grab some snacks for the next hour.

My view from the back of the pack as we head out into the meadow.

The first loop was all about learning the course, which was marked with signs on the turns and blue flagging. I started out towards the back of the pack and pretty much stayed there for the rest of the race. My splits were a little faster than I wanted to be running, but I erred on the side of faster than slower as GPS isn’t the most reliable method of tracking mileage and I wanted zero risk of ending my race at 4 miles. Even knowing I was going a little fast, I was surprised to see my first yard end just inside 50 minutes. Whoops.

The trail sections were far from technical.

The extra time allowed my to plop down in a chair for a couple minutes. Unfortunately, this was counterproductive as my slightly sore left hamstring got really tight on me. As I limped off the starting line for only the second time, my mind started wondering how long my gimpy body would hold up. While I may not have the fitness of most others, I now have a decent amount of experience on my side. And that includes muscles getting tight or sore early in races only to loosen up as they day, night, or next day rolls around so I didn’t stress about it too much. It loosened up after a mile or so and while tight for the next couple restarts, eventually even that went away. I did rule out sitting down for the rest of the race.

Just about to exit the woods with the start/finish way over there on the other side of the meadow.

During my second yard, I started walking more to increase my loop time. I also began creating landmarks to compare my pacing from yard to yard since my Garmin’s accuracy was a little questionable. Six minutes to enter the woods. Twenty minutes to start the out-and-back. Twenty-five minutes to finish it. Thirty-one to the little bridge. Thirty-six minutes to the marshy area with pavers. Forty-one to the big bridge. And then 48 minutes to exit the woods. It only took a couple laps to note my splits and was kind of surprised that I didn’t have to change my effort much to keep hitting them.

Here’s the turnaround on the short out-and-back section. Do hairpin turns count as technical?

There are lots of people out there who can’t imagine running the same loop over and over again, but I love it. I never get bored seeing the same sections repeatedly. If anything, it helps me relax and get into a flow state since I don’t have to worry about where I’m going. I should probably mention it doesn’t hurt that I’m not the most observant person in this world. There’s a 100 foot section of trail that you cover in both directions right before you enter/exit the woods and it wasn’t until the 9th yard that I realized this.

I grabbed my headlamp for the first night loop, however it was light enough that I didn’t need it until the second. I went to turn it on as I left the starting corral, but it wouldn’t stay on for more than a couple seconds at a time. Disaster! Well, it would have been during any other race. Luckily, I was able to get around the loop without too much difficulty. I noticed a couple runners went all night without light, however I would not recommend it. I grabbed my backup and was good to go.

In case you were wondering, the night loop looked nothing like this.

I was joined on the next yard by Aaron who noticed my strong hiking pace and thought he would tag along for a while. Ben quickly joined the party as he was looking for some company to slay the sleep demons. Our triumvirate knocked out a couple yards together and it was amazing how having others to chat with can go a long way during the long dark hours of a race.

As the night progressed, my paces started to slow. What started out as 53 minute yards led to a couple 54 minute laps and then a 54:26 in the 19th hour. Uh-oh. I was starting to fade. This was my low point. It took me a while to figure out I was just low on calories. I typically get about half my calories from liquids and with the cooler temperatures I was drinking less. And eating less too if I’m being honest. I guess I just lost the motivation to keep shoveling things into my mouth. This occurred over a period of hours and wasn’t something I noticed as it was happening. Luckily, I noticed what was happening before I slowed too much.

The prompt was almost accidental though. I was about a mile and half into the 20th yard when it became evident I was going to need to hit the porta-potty once I got back. I upped the pace in order to have enough time to take care of business. As my effort increased, I started drinking more. The focus to move with more of a purpose also got me to eat more regularly on the lap. This lead to my 2 fastest mile splits during the race (11:50, 12:00) and my second fastest overall yard (52:05). This also gave me a boost of confidence to let me know I still had quite a bit left in the tank. I dialed back the effort on the last two night loops and was ready to attack the trails again for the day loop.

If you think running backyard ultras are exhausting, you should try crewing one sometime.

I was dreading the day loop a little. Since I was about a minute faster on the night loop, I was hoping this translated in reverse once I got back onto the trails. As I was going through my landmarks in yard 23, I was hitting times that were about a minute slower than the prior day. The bigger issue though is that I had to increase my effort level just to hit these. It wasn’t an all out effort by any stretch of the imagination, but I was definitely starting to work. Shocker, right? I mean, I had been moving almost continually for 23 hours at this point.

Now the mental games really started up. If I’m working harder now, then I’m finally going to start slowing down. And then it’s going to get hotter, which will slow me even more. So I’ll have to work harder. Which will then change what has been an incredibly fun race into a grind. And I came to the realization that’s not what I wanted. I signed up for CBU because I wanted to test my physical and mental limitations. I raced it to try out a new format. I finished it knowing that my passion isn’t just to run long distances, but to enjoy running long distances. That doesn’t mean every step will be rainbows and unicorns. There will definitely be ups and downs along the way. That’s part of the fun. But I’ve got better things to do with my time than to suffer just for the sake of suffering.

Pretty flat meadow section to end each yard.

So I decided to get to 100 miles since that’s a thing for me and then time out on the 25th lap. My primary goal was not to quit, however in reality that’s what I did. I easily had enough in the tank to keep going. I don’t feel too bad about this though as my bonus yard got me to 104.16 miles, which is a personal best distance for me. It may not show this in the official results, but that’s not keeping me from listing that in my running log.

My biggest takeaway from the race though was the strong community vibe among the participants. The backyard format really fosters this by bringing the entire field together every hour. So even though you’re not running with everyone, you keep bumping into them over and over again. My only suggestion to you on how to race a backyard ultra is to introduce yourself to as many other runners as possible when you’re standing around waiting to start your next yard. It’s one thing to receive encouragement from other runners, but it’s next level uplifting to get it by name. Unless you’re wearing your bowling league shirt, they’re not going to know it unless you tell them. Names have power. Use them.

Special shoutout to all the runners who helped make this one of my favorite races (in no particular order): Marty, Rick, Ben, Aaron, Jillian, AJ, Leah, Taylor, John, Christine, Travis, Hillary, and Olov. Happy trails, my friends!

Nothing but grimaces smiles from AJ and I after our 100 mile DNFs. “Weeeeeeeeeeee!!!!”