Just a Training Run Backyard Ultra Race Report
I feel strongly that all runners have a race format that they struggle with even though they want to do good on those races. Mine is the Backyard Ultra format. The Backyard has exploded in popularity across the world, but the vibe is also real fun. Their tent cities are so fun, with everyone hanging out experiencing the camaraderie between runners and crew on and off the loop. There’s really nothing like it out there. I feel like they all reflect the local run scene, where they are held so well. But as fun as it is at one of these events, they are hard. You really have to want to want it and be ready to go all in to do well. I haven’t written a race report on a Backyard yet, and Just A Training Run’s (JATR) Backyard Ultra is my third, so I have a lot of thoughts I am going to try to unpack here for everyone to read. I hope this report really helps those considering doing one of these; people who love doing them; and/or maybe people in a similar spot as myself.
Thoughts on The Backyard Ultra Format
On the surface, one hour to do 4.1 miles seems pretty easy. I have done other area Last Man Standing events, such as Charlottesville’s Andy’s Backyard Ultra and the Capital Backyard Ultra on Mason Neck in southern Fairfax County, and I can say without a doubt this format is by far the hardest thing going in ultras. After running at both Andy’s and Capital, I was destroyed, and both times I also told myself I would never do one of these again. I feel like it’s not necessarily doing a race that doesn’t end, or doing the same loop over and over, or having to be that consistent for such a long period of time but like most people, I really struggle getting proper rest because I stay busy. I really like doing a lot of stuff, I load up on things to do, and enjoy staying busy.
Running in a Backyard Ultra you really need a crew person, food, drinks and be extremely well organized to keep doing the loop over and over. The prep, organization, and getting good rest leading up to the race is difficult in itself. Part of the reason I do so many races is I do not run ultras fast. I have only finished a sub-24 100 miler once, and that was at an iconic place: Tunnel Hill. I like running 26-hour to 32-hour 100s, because if things get rough I like to hike and regroup. I’m fairly certain a lot of my problem with the Backyard format is constantly doing races (and not just ultras, but marathon and shorter distances). It would probably benefit me a lot to just dedicate the proper training specific to doing a Backyard, but I enjoy doing different types of races with my family and to be a part of the local running clubs. I am an extremely social runner. That’s why I do as many races as I do; I love to connect with the community.
If these things kick your ass why do another??
After my experience at Capital Backyard in 2022, I swore off doing any more. Not that it was a bad event or anything, I had an absolute blast! My girlfriend, Denise Freeman, got to meet the format’s creator, Lazarus Lake, and my Mom and daughter watched me run some yards. Tracy Cooley, who was amazing, helped crew me and I got to hangout with some of the most kickass runners in the sport. It was great!
The thing that got me was just under performing. It was definitely a concern going in to Capital after just running MMT and other races but I really wanted to do it and I definitely paid the price. I battled all day in the dead zone finishing loops with 5 min and under to spare. It was rough. Looking back at my yards from Capital I finished somewhere under 50 miles I believe I DNF’d right before the switch to the night loop. At Andy’s Backyard Ultra the year before I did much better finishing a little over 100k.
Going on a vacation to Williamsburg with my daughter, I talked on messenger some with my friend Karen Sanzo, the race director for the Just a Training Run races. We talked about her Backyard race and I thought, you need a redeemer, John. So, because I’ve run a few of her races, I said I’ll do this again. JATR Backyard is held at the 4-H Runway, which has a pavilion to put gear under, places to charge electronics and set up a good spot for crew. Karen also posts great updates via Twitter, keeping everyone informed on what’s going on.
Karen is a Mom and a Professor at Old Dominion University. The races she puts on with her Just a Training Run organization are extremely fun and inexpensive, but the thing I respect most about Karen is that she’s won the Jarmans Invitational Marathon. If you know what this is and means you know she’s on the level. I met her running The JIM in 2019. Karen has run many races and really cares about the running community in her area and beyond.
Leading Up to the Backyard
I have been battling allergies this year. My rough patch started a month ago, At the Blue Ridge Half Marathon I was a phlemmy mess, then at C&O 100 I was basically Zombie John-I could barely talk. It’s been better but I still get into really bad coughing fits. I was very worried about this going into the backyard because you need to be firing on all cylinders to continue being consistent on the loops.
I’ve been real busy with a lot of projects right now (for all involved you know this!). So, I was all over the place. I was also dreading driving from Manassas to the Williamsburg area on Friday evening after work, and setting up camp at night when I got there with my girlfriend, Denise.
It was a lot to do! Packing for these things and unpacking alone is a lot, because you need so much gear.
We got the tent setup and were done, I think, at 10pm or so. The night before I was so tired and sounding sick and cranky that Denise was basically already crewing me before the race even started. because I was just exhausted. When we got up I walked over with her and picked up my bib. Karen took my picture, then I went into the mad dash of all the stuff that goes into getting ready for a race. Eating, getting on clothes, laying stuff out etc. I saw Mike Bailey there and we hung out before the race started. He told me right away he didn’t want to go far. As time drew closer I told Denise bye and I’d see her soon and I lined up.
The first yard is always really weird, trying to dial in to a comfortable pace. My goal is always to try to have 7-12 minutes to spare every loop. Like I mentioned with Capital, if you are getting 5 minutes and under every loop its rough, so I try to stay out of that territory by not pushing anything too much, because you need to save energy as best as you can.
I ran with Mike, and we didn’t pass anyone. We had some people following us but basically it was a feeling out loop. The course during the day has you do 2, 2ish mile loops to get the 4.1. I believe for the first yard we came in with like 10 min to spare. Denise had a great setup waiting for me: our nice chair that reclines, food, lots of cold drinks. I ate some food and waiting until about a min until the start of the next loop and slowly headed out there. Mike had this down the best of any runner: he got up with like 10 seconds before and got there just as the loop kicked off. I was jealous of this and told myself moving forward this would be me.
I feel like this is where things really came together. Mike and I started running with Jeff Jordan. He ran 100 at this race last year and got 2nd place. So I was like yeah, let’s stay with him! Jeff’s pacing was perfect. We did a great run walk to minimize effort but still be back with plenty time to get rest, nutrition, gear swap, bathroom and anything else that might pop up.
Yard 2 was really the blueprint we basically rolled with. We were all doing great. Denise was the real all-star here, too. It’s very hard to keep someone happy on these races especially when I was already not feeling the best going into this race. She did everything she could to keep me feeling good when I came in each yard.
Doing the same loop after loop, things almost go in fast forward. The funny thing about doing these loops is that when you look at your watch you know if you don’t get in at your target time things are going to happen. It’s strange you are under the gun but also the choice is clear. You can make something happen loop to loop and get in on time or you can not and be done. We had great weather up to the 50k point so it was just a blur knocking down yards. The 50k was notable though because Mike was done. I didn’t want him to stop because he was helping with fun conversation and the combination of running with Jeff and him was just nice; it felt like an autopilot was engaged.
This is when things got rough. I should have known that it wasn’t going to be easy all race. We had a massive storm with thunder and lightning and heavy rain. Karen had to make the difficult decision of pausing the race for an hour. As soon as she made this call there was lighting striking close to the pavilion. She made the right call. This is one aspect that JATR stands out the pavilion really saved us so we could shelter there and avoid the bad weather. During the pause Karen had Papa Johns for all the runners and crew. Weather was still dangerous and bad so she paused one more hour. I’m not going to name races but there’s been a lot of questionable decisions made by races recently. Karen managed this one perfectly and did this by looking out for the runners. She’s a great RD and I am glad that she was the one making the calls here.
This was tough, thunder and lightning stopped but here was some rain so initially I put on a poncho to do the yard but smartly took it off and just used a short sleeve shirt. Almost the entire day I had been running shirtless. As the yard began it was so muggy but spots were cold; it was strange weather I told myself I was going to take the shirt off when I got back to camp. I ran this yard pretty fast because I wanted to get back and toggle my gear. When I got back I was really gross. I was sweaty and couldn’t stop coughing and was having major problems. Denise helped me get right as best she could, helped get me out to the corral and we headed out., I ran this one kind of fast trying to just get back and get more hydration and rest. This was a good yard but when I got back same thing I was not looking good, resting, coughing, sweating, just really out of it.
I did not think this was going to be my last loop but I started running and everyone got ahead of me I wasn’t going practically slow but I just settled in. I got ahead of a few people but about 1.5 miles in I just knew I was done. I was coughing, it was raining, and I felt really bad. My legs still felt good but I was such a mess coughing and regulating my body temp that at 2ish miles, instead of doing the loop again. I went in and DNFd. It was frustrating and I felt bad but I knew that with the rain and the stuff going on with me it was the right call.
Karen and my friend Michael Horner, who was so nice, helped all day and was giving the runners encouragement and helped crew people, talked to us and let us rest until we were ready to drive home. Denise and I rested until we felt it was safe to drive. We packed up the car and headed out.
This is tough. I did better than at Capital but it kicked my ass just as bad as the other 2 Backyards I’ve done. Will I do another? Like when I ran the previous ones, my answer right now is %^& no!! I also know deep down, I love these races just for the social aspect-they are really cool events. I have to accept I may never get 100 miles at one, as much as I want it, but the reward is being a part of it. There’s so many popping up. I also can’t believe I’ve done 3! The really cool thing is if you suck at them, like me, or are just not a competitive runner, there’s options. Both Andy’s and JATR are not expensive races and are a lot of fun. If you end up doing well then there is a pathway to get in to Capital. As brutally hard as this format is, its an amazing experience. I hope at some point we have one here in the Fredericksburg or Culpeper area. Maybe I should just put one on instead of trying to kill myself running them! That way I could still be involved or maybe I should volunteer. Who knows?
Final Note: The Results of the 2023 JATR Backyard Ultra
Mike Kapetanakis won the race this year; he was the Last Man Standing with 137.5 miles. This was his 2nd win at the JATR Backyard Ultra, and he now holds the record for the most yards at this event, breaking his own record from 2022. The assist went to Mark Manny. Both Jillian Breitweiser and Kellie Seaton got in 24 yards to complete their 100 mile Backyards, top among the women for the 2023 race, and the best efforts by any women at this event to date.