Ontario runner tackles the Big Dog Backyard Ultra and tells the tale
In October 2006, Casey Thivierge, from Emeryville, Ontario, a small town near Windsor, started running after making a friendly wager with his sister-in-law. Not only is he still running, but he also spent the weekend tackling the rather daunting task presented by the Big Dog Backyard Ultra. One of the creations of legendary Lazarus Lake, of Barkley Marathons fame.
Thivierge, a father with two teenage daughters, is the director of engineering at a global tool shop for the automotive and aerospace industries, headed south to take part in the race for the third consecutive year.
The race is simple enough. At 6:40 a.m. at the Lake farm in Bell Buckle, Tennesee runners will have one hour to complete one lap of the 4.167 mile Big Trail. At 7:40, there is another race with the same parameters for this and every hour afterwards until there is one runner remaining. If no single runner cannot complete that last loop, there is no winner.
It’s meant to minimize the element of speed.
“Have you ever thought that you could not be beaten if only the faster runners were unable to run away and leave you? This is your chance to find out. Every surviving runner will be tied for the lead, every hour,” Lake writes.
Thivierge is one of a number of Canadians who took part in this year’s race along with Dave Proctor, who made it down to the final three racers before being eliminated after running almost 39 hours out of a possible 51 hours to that point.
The only finisher of the race and undisputed backyard ultra world champion is runner Maggie Guterl who raced for more than 50 hours besting the entire field in an incredible effort.
How did the race go?
Not as good as the previous years. My drive and passion were not there this year. After struggling with the last few trail loops I decided it just wasn't my day. My heart wasn't in it. I did one last road loop just to see if things would change for me mentally, but it reaffirmed I wasn't all in this time around. I came in with time to spare and physically feeling fine, but the mind was not willing to take on the challenge. The loop might be 4.16667 miles long, but the toughest distance to overcome is the six inches between your ears.
What was the highlight for you?
Any time you get to spend with Gary and Sandra Cantrell is a highlight. They provide amazing opportunities for runners to challenge themselves in unique ways, but more importantly, they are wonderful people that care about others and make you feel like family.
And the low point?
It's hard to find one, but if I have to I'd say not having my 'A' game was definitely my lowlight. I won't lose any sleep over it because I've run enough to know I made the right decision, but I do feel bad that I wasted a spot in this year's race that maybe someone else could have used and done better with.
How did it go in the previous years, and what made you decide to return?
In 2017 I got in off the waitlist two weeks prior to the race. I jumped on the opportunity but unfortunately didn't have any vacation time left at work so I drove there, ran 100 miles (24 hours), then drove home to make it back to work. I returned in 2018 with the intent of going much longer and the necessary time booked off of work. Everything went well but I struggled a bit more through the night than usual. It was cold and I fought to stay awake. Sunrise brought me back to life and I was feeling good again and liking my chances of going much further, but then on lap 27, I had severe shin pain that slowed me to a hobble mid-loop. I got timed out at 112.5 miles.
What makes this race unique?
The pressure of the whistle, the clock and the cowbell every hour is unlike any other race or format. Also, the opportunity to run with some runners that you would otherwise never run with other than the first few strides of typical race is a very special opportunity. A format like this also levels the playing field for many runners. It's not about speed or strength like most other races. In the backyard, it's more about the mind and the “want.”
How did you prepare, both for the physical and the mental side?
Keeping your fitness and speed up is important but only in the aspect of making the slower pace easier. Lots of run/walk training beforehand is critical in getting your body and mind used to slower miles is important. Also, the Big Trail is not exactly an easy one. It has just enough hills, rocks, roots, twists and turns to keep you on your toes. Being comfortable and capable on the trail is important. The other key element is the mental aspect of this race. It can become very boring to do repeated trail lollipop loops, followed by a flat, straight road out and back. You have to be able to shut your brain off and just keep moving forward. Training with similar mundane, repetitive runs can help harden the mind.
How long have you been running ultras?
I ran my first 50k in the spring of 2013. By the end of 2013, I had run my first 50-miler at JFK in Maryland. The following summer was my first 100-miler and I haven't stopped since.
What do you like about this style of racing?
Ultrarunning just suits me better. After doing lots of road racing and shorter, faster distances I was looking for a new challenge. Ultrarunning introduced me to more trails, more formats and more elements to running than I ever imagined. I really enjoy the mental aspect and the preparation it takes to succeed. There are no shortcuts. It's a long process to finally see the fruits of your labour. It's given me a better outlook on life. Ultras make you struggle. Doing something very hard is good for the soul. It reminds you to appreciate and love all the good things in your life. Ultrarunning has provided me with friendships, adventures and stories to last a lifetime.
Are you ready for another Laz race?
Yes, of course. I have already done all of his standard races including two Strolling Jims, one ARFTA (A Race For The Ages), one Vol State 500k, two Barkley Fall Classics, and three Big Dog Backyard Ultras. It's not the last time he sees me. I'm already registered for the 2020 Barkley Fall Classic and my wife and I are planning a return the ARFTA soon as well.