Roy Exum: The Last Girl Standing

Friday, December 6, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It’s about 90 miles from Chattanooga to Bell Buckle, Tn. Get on I-24 and go west, as you would towards Nashville, and you’ll see the sign. In mid-October about six dozen competitors turned off at the Bell Buckle exit to find their way to Gary Cantrell’s house. It is there that the Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra is held every fall under the watchful eye of ‘Big’ himself, who is better known as “Lazarus Lake” in ultra-marathon circles. It is harder to get an invite to the Big Dog’s race than it is a player’s badge at the world-renowned Masters Golf Tournament. You see, in Bell Buckle there is no finish line, no No. 18 green to signal the end of a daily round – the winner is the last athlete standing.

Just like the Masters, you must qualify in an earlier ultra-event and, again in a Masters’ comparison, nerves of steel and unyielding will power are among the common traits of each entrant. 

This year, the Seventh Annual Big’s Backyard Ultra took its place in the rapidly increasing number of ultra-races because a 39-year-old woman from Durango, Colo. was “the last man standing. In what is a clearly defined as “Run Til You Drop” event, a lithe, super-athlete Maggie Guterl ran about 250 miles in 60 straight hours to capture the winner’s trophy, a gold coin inscribed with the words “I survived.”

The way it works is real simple: On the land Gary owns in Bell Buckle, he has meticulously built a 4.167-mile loop to make his high school dream of a sheer endurance test a reality and, in the current issue of Sports Illustrated magazine, writer Jessica Smetana explains the rules are real simple:

* * *

Semtana writes, “the distinctive format of Big Dog's Backyard Ultra is especially diabolical. Runners must complete a 4.167-mile loop every hour. After finishing one hour's loop they can rest, eat and use the Port-a-Potties until the next hour's starts. Fail to complete a loop before time elapses, you're out. Complete one but fail to appear on time in the starting corral for the next one, you're out. During daylight hours the runners follow a leafy dirt trail in Lake's backyard. After dark the race moves to a road course, for safety's sake, then back to the backyard come morning. The race goes on—hour after hour, through daylight, darkness, sun and rain—for as long as there are still runners, plural, who can complete the loops. There is no finite distance to conquer. In other words: Run till you drop. The race has no finish line, is always tied, and is always sudden death. Of the 72 runners who have entered the event, only one will be credited with finishing. The rest declared as DNF (Did Not Finish.) The winner receives a small gold coin, inscribed I SURVIVED. Everyone else gets a silver one with I GAVE MY ALL IN BIG'S BACKYARD. – Jessica Semtana, Sports Illustrated

* * *

In other words, at the top of every hour, Lazarus rings a loud cow bell to start those still alive – technically and figuratively – to run another 4.2 miles. The competitors realize that the faster they cover the 4.2 distance, the more they can use the rest of the same hour to rest, eat, change shoes and socks, and tend to the extremely strenuous test of body and will.

This year’s winner – the female Guterl – was locked on two words – ‘Don’t Quit – after a long chat with the 2018 winner, Johan Steene. “He told me he told himself that he was just not going to quit,” Guterl told the magazine Runner’s World. She said when Johan refused to let quitting be an option, “He said that if you let the idea stew, you might drop. But, if you take this single-mind focus, you can be confident that you’re going to win because if you don’t drop out, you win.” (In 2018, Steene was the last standing after 68 loops (hours) and 283 miles run.)

In last year’s Big Dog, the well-known Colorado runner, (who finished sixth a year ago) said her plan to drink as much caffeine as she could backfired when she was unable to get the five or 10 minutes of sleep she had planned before the 4.2-run at the top of each hour. “This year my plan was to drink as much Tailwind as I could,” she plugged the energy-drink company she works for as a marketing agent. “When I would get back from (a revolution on the backyard course), I felt like a NASCAR driver with my crew massaging my feet, changing or adding KT tape, getting what food I could eat, before they would send me back out. That allowed me to stay focused and not worry about the little things.”

The weekend was warm and humid in Tennessee as the race went from one day to the next. When heavy rain fell the second night, runners who had all sworn they wouldn’t quit began to fall away. “Whenever I felt slow, I would say “Pace!” to myself out loud,” she told Runner’s World, “and if I stumbled I would day ‘Footing!’ out loud the same way … I probably sounded like some crazy person, but you can’t just think it, it helps (me) to actually say it.”

By Tuesday morning there were four runners remaining. At the 50th loop (208 miles) New Zealand runner Katie Wright stopped and then, after two more loops, Canada’s Dave Proctor decided he had had enough. Guterl and Will Hayward of Hong Kong went for eight loops together. The heavy rain made the trail slippery and the last round before darkness was miserable. Maggie fell at least three times she can remember and the mud with the slick rocks was a test. “I worried that if I fell again, I might be done so I slowed on the downhills and picked my speed up on the uphill climbs

With 60 loops done and the weather conditions cutting deeply into her rest time, she was at the start line for loop 61 when Will failed to show. “I was really wanting to see him, to see how far we could go,” she said but Hayward didn’t answer with his appearance, making Guterl the last runner standing.

Race director Laz, standing with his “big dog” of a very alive and very personable pit bulldog at his side, said to see a female win was “really inspiring. “It’s inspiring. I’ve been dying for a woman to win outright at this event, where men and women can compete on an even foot. In any other year, I would be rooting for Will between the last two runners because he looked so beaten up yet wouldn’t give up.”

Hayward, a psychology professor in Hong Kong, said before the race that “there is no one here who isn’t a stubborn SOB … that’s why we got into this stupid sport.” According to Runner’s World, ultra-events have skyrocketed in popularity. There are now 150 runs in 2019 that are 100-milers or more in the United States. Moreover, they are popping up like crazy in other countries;  this year there have been/are 19 backyard events in Sweden where the winner is the last one standing. And both male and female competitors enjoy that most races don’t have a male-female split. “Women have been holding on every year and they always prove they are dead even with the men,” Laz told Runner’s World. “Maggie is another example that proves it.” 

Some hours after her win, Guterl said, “A woman came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t want to tell you this, but you were running for all of the women and an entire gender,’” Guterl said, “That was in my head the whole race and it was so surreal when I was the last one standing.”

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* -- “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.' - Calvin Coolidge (1872 - 1933)

* -- “I'm sorry, if you were right, I'd agree with you.” -- Robin Williams

* -- “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” -- Henry David Thoreau

* -- “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.” -- Vince Lombardi

* -- “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” – Randy Pausch, “The Last Lecture”.

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