By Katie Grossman
On October 23, 2017, Guillaume Calmettes ran 245.832 miles to become the last man standing at the Big Dog Backyard Ultra. Here’s the story from the woman who cooked him a lot of soup.
It’s five minutes to the start of the 2017 Big Dog Backyard Ultra, and Guillaume Calmettes is laying on an air mattress trying to bank two extra minutes of sleep. He plans to do this every hour, and is very proud of the hat he has brought to aid him in this endeavor. A box from a local liquor store holds all that he plans to eat for one, two, maybe three or more days.
Herein lies the macabre beauty that is Big’s. The premise is simple: every hour, participants are required to run a 4.16666667 mile “lap.” They can go as slow or as fast as they like, so long as they are back in the starting corral for the start of the next hour. This continues for as long as it takes to leave only one man or woman standing, and everyone else loses.
I knew that Calmettes, 33, of Los Angeles, CA by way of Pau, France would be that guy. Either that, or he’d cripple himself trying. I’d like to say that it was my sole desire to help my dear friend that had me on a flight to Nashville, TN, but I’ll be honest here. The field was stacked with runners the likes of a Badwater 135 champion, USA and Swedish 24-hour team members, a Barkley finisher, former Big’s winners, and of course, Calmettes, who is both no slouch and also the most insane person I know. The morbid curiosity in me wasn’t going to miss the bloodbath.
And so I find myself sitting in the backyard of one Gary Cantrell on a warm Tennessee day, watching mostly nothing at all. Perhaps better known as the infamous Lazarus Lake of Barkley Marathons fame, Cantrell is the mastermind behind this little game. It takes place on his land by day, the country road it sits on by night, and the entry fee is just enough to pay his property taxes. For now, he mostly sits near the timing tent, smoking cigarettes and updating his Facebook status with little pieces of poetry as runners drop each hour.
Speaking of which, we’re only a few hours in, and already, the attrition has begun. Each lap, at least one runner fails to cover the distance in the allotted time, or refuses to continue. By eight hours in, just over the 50k mark, nearly half the field has dropped. By nightfall, only 26 of the original 58 remain. A friend has fallen victim to this madness and walks to our car to rest, while I begin what is to be my new, sole purpose in life: cooking soup every hour, on the hour, for what feels like the rest of my life.
Calmettes looks unfazed. Each lap, he alternates jogging and brisk walking, and each break he alternates pounding calories and napping. While the air is filled with audible complaints from other exhausted competitors, my friend simply smiles, drinks his broth and eats his beloved black licorice, which he hilariously attempted to purchase from a liquor store. Trying in earnest to navigate Calmettes’ thick French accent, the sales clerk had led him to a bottle of Jäegermeister. Calmettes doesn’t drink.
The first night continues, mostly uneventfully, as many of the remaining runners are simply holding out to try and hit the 100-mile mark. The 4.16666667 mile distance of each lap is set as such to account for running a perfect 100 miles every 24 hours. For most athletes, this feat alone is a huge accomplishment, and by the next morning they will be wholly satisfied. But they will technically be considered a drop, a did-not-finish, a loser.
Dawn of day two brings a fresh slew of quitters. The last woman standing, Francesca Muccini, 49, of Nashville, TN succumbs to stomach issues, leaving only ten men to continue past the 100-mile mark. Among them are last year’s final two, Andy Pearson, 33, of Santa Monica, CA and the reigning champion, Babak Rastgoufard, 44, of Missoula, MT. There is also Badwater champ, Team USA 24-hour member and online crowd favorite, Harvey Lewis, 41, of Cincinnati, OH, and the seemingly unfaltering Alex Ramsey, 32, of Benbrook, TX, who is running each loop slow and steady, in sandals. But mostly, there is Johan Steene, 43, of Stockholm, Sweden, and everyone knows exactly of what he is capable.
Steene has become a bit of Backyard lore on account of his 2014 duel with Lafayette, CO runner, Jeremy Ebel. The two had gone mano a mano for just over two days when Steene, about to miss his flight home to Sweden, was forced to pull the plug. Rather than win on account of such an unfortunate time constraint, Ebel chose to also end the race at the top of the 49th hour alongside his competitor. The result was not a tie, but rather a “no one finished that year.” Not to make the same mistake, Steene had given himself a full five days for this year’s event. In short, he was not messing around.
“This is harder than I thought it would be,” Calmettes tells me during the first lap of the new day. “I mean, look at these guys. He is not going to stop.” The “he” is clearly aimed at Steene, who is finishing each lap consistently three to four minutes ahead of the rest of the field, eating a bunch of yogurt, and then napping for the remainder of the hour, sitting in a chair, with a blanket over his head. He is a pro. He looks unbreakable. Assuredness of his victory fills the air of our ever-shrinking encampment.
As for Calmettes, this is the single time I see a chink in his armor. It is a small seed of doubt, I sense, not in himself, but rather the statistical probability that he might outlast these other men, namely Steene. Cantrell had told me this might happen. “With these faster guys, it’s not going to be fatigue or anything that takes them out,” he said. “They’ll quit when they no longer think they can win.”
Pearson, along with two others, makes this determination on the very next lap. Having run himself into long-term injury at the prior year’s event, he is determined not to make the same mistake, and besides, he isn’t going to win anyway, right? His words, not mine. We lose another runner the next hour, and a few later see the drop of the seemingly unshakable, sandal-clad Ramsey. The camp is shocked, but not nearly as much as when reigning champion, Rastgoufard, bows out gracefully and green colored two hours later. His stomach is toast, and there is no time to take a break to get it back together. After sitting for a lap, the color returns to his face and he, no doubt, could go back out for more if he wants. But it doesn’t matter what he wants, because this is not how this twisted mess of a race works.
As for Calmettes, he continues eating his soup and his licorice, and lines up hour after hour. He continues to express incredulousness at the toughness of the event, the competitors, and the thought of going back to the road laps the second night. But he also continues to smile, which is exactly why I still have all the faith in my friend. The effort has seemingly become futile, and herein lies the crux of the race. It’s one thing to believe that you will win. But to believe you won’t and continue anyway is, perhaps, the exact mindset one needs to become the last man standing at Big’s.
Chris Robbins, 32, of Eagan MN calls it quits after 30 hours. Well, at least, he tries to. The entire camp, now a close-knit group, goads him into “one more loop!” and deliriously, he shuffles back into the woods. We all know he wouldn’t make it back within the hour, but that isn’t the point. Having run until he simply could no longer do so, Robbins gets exactly what he came for.
And then the unthinkable happens. With little fanfare, and before announcing his intentions to the camp, Steene approaches our area. In a hushed tone, he tells Calmettes that he is having some issues that require he stop, and that his money is on the Frenchman. And that’s it. Steene is out.
After dropping from the event, Pearson and the Swedes – Steene and Max Själin, 27 – have taken to crewing Calmettes with me, and I am thankful. We’ve all managed to knock out in our chairs for a moment. Sleep is fleeting, as the cold is biting and our shelter creaks and groans, the wind loudly snapping the tarp every few minutes. We are suddenly awoken by a loud gust, followed by the tarps hitting us in our fallen heads, nearly knocking us out of our chairs.
Själin and Pearson spring to opposite corners, I to the one between, but it is too late. Another gust snaps the frame, and a deluge of trapped rainwater releases straight over my head and onto all of my gear and all of our diminishing supply of food. Mercifully, Calmettes’ bag is left mostly dry, and he has packed his clothing and socks in waterproof bags. I, on the other hand, am soaking wet with nothing but a soaking-wet bag of clothes. We are running out of cooking fuel for the second time, so I don’t dare treat myself to a warm cup of tea, reminding myself that my friend, having now run for 45 hours straight, is much more miserable than I.
Only he’s not. Calmettes enters our crumbling shelter, laughing. None the wiser to the debacle that had literally unfolded moments prior, he is surprised when we spring to our posts to prevent another collapse. Just as we had hoped. Calmettes has enough energy on his own, and so our challenge, as a crew, was never to provide motivation, but rather to temper the stoke while he was in camp. Any excitement was perceived as a threat. I get to serving him his 30th cup of soup and before long, he’s on his way again with his equally jovial compatriot, Lewis. There’s a twinkle in his eye when Cantrell tells me this just might last beyond 300 miles.
According to Laurence Gonzalez in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, And Why, a key characteristic of survivors is that they create tasks for themselves. Something to give their life a purpose. The rain had finally stopped long enough to let our belongings dry a bit, we had procured a festive breakfast of French toast from a nearby town, and our two little metronomes were becoming almost boring in their endeavor. We had now cycled through an entire music library four times, and I began to think a single, shitty version of a Counting Crows song might be my undoing. Fortunately, that’s when Pearson, who lest we forget, had just run 105 miles, decides we should rotate the shelter. He has been studying the wind patterns and notices that moving the broken side to its 180 degree opposite might help our collapsing problem should the winds pick up again. It’s becoming clear we might be here another night, and we have already begun shopping for new flights.
After discussing between ourselves, we decide we also needed ropes. Asking in the timing tent produces more bodies, all now focused on solving this tent problem. Between the seven of us, we now have the collective, sleep-deprived brainpower of about a human and a half, and so we set about securing our fortress. Sensing a project, the others came over to observe. Runners who had dropped over 24-hours prior are now returning to camp; one had even changed his flight to return to the bloodbath. For a brief moment, we all have a purpose other than sitting here, waiting for the unknown.
As we await our heroes’ return from lap 56, I casually mention to Själin that I think the ending is going to be anti-climactic. At this point, we have all come to expect that the two men will return each time only to line up and leave again, an infinite loop of madness. Of course, nothing of the sort could ever be infinite, which is exactly why I’ve come to believe that one of these loops, one of them will simply not return on time. There will be no warning.
I have the general idea. As we hurry to ready Calmettes, three whistles fill the camp, signaling that both men have three minutes to be back in the corral for the start of the next hour. Neither runner had ever returned after the warnings. Seeing how Lewis had been so methodical and strategic throughout the last few days, we rationalize that he is doing this to somehow mess with his competitor. Or perhaps, he is simply peeing in the trees to save himself the walk to the porta-potties. This seems like the exact sort of thing he’d do. But then Laz blows the whistle twice. Lewis still hasn’t come through the clearing in the trees, and it is at least 45 seconds to the line from there.
This is where the real buzz begins. Returning this late will give Lewis no time to rest and refuel; he’ll be forced to remain in the corral for a few seconds and start again immediately. It’s a slow bleed from here, as the runner simply can’t catch back up on the recovery time. I had witnessed the decline plenty of times throughout the last few days, and so had Lewis’ crew. They bring a handheld bottle and some food next to the starting line, hoping these items can somehow stop the hemorrhage. And then Laz blows the final whistle. No Lewis.
Calmettes enters the corral and the rest of us stand around in shock, our eyes all transfixed on the clearing. Ten seconds pass, then twenty, twenty-five – it is impossible now, this is over, thirty… “There he is!” Lewis is bounding down the trail, arms flailing, full sprint. He isn’t going to make it.
We all scream; wild, primal pleas, straight from the gut. Even Calmettes. You see, we all know that the only way these men can achieve the impossible-to-perceive is with each other. Once one man is done, it is over. There could be no running just to see how much farther one could go. Down to a duel, each man determines the other’s fate.
Arms pumping, visage twisted, Lewis surges with everything he has. In the final second, he crosses the timing mat, then instinctively falls back into the corral. The bell rings, he stumbles back to his feet, and takes off for lap 57, stride-for-stride with Calmettes. With no margin for error, we are all thoroughly impressed with Lewis’ thought to immediately lunge back into the corral, as not doing so would have ended the race. But in retrospect, of course he did. He had been returning to the coral before the final tick of the hour, every hour, for 56 straight hours. This was his only task, his mind’s singular focus. Of course he did.
Our minds have also become resolute. We are going to be here another night, and maybe even another day. Our main concern at this point is that we are going to outlast the camp’s three porta-potties.
“You get one of those every 24-hours,” Steene scolds Calmettes, whose eyes are wild with mischief. “So no more of those today, ok?” Miraculously, the near-miss loop for Lewis has not broken, but rather emboldened him. He and Calmettes have just run a blistering 41-minute loop on the trail, while we are all sitting back at camp expecting the whole thing might be over.
Was Lewis trying to send a message to Calmettes? Was the flying Frenchman trying to break the American champion? I suspect it is a little bit of both, and at least for our friend’s part, he tells us as such. While the camp still views both men as incredibly strong and unfaltering, Calmettes has noticed progressively more labored breathing in his competitor. He wanted to see how hard he could push him.
It seemed not to matter though. Lewis was soon back on the line and goading Calmettes, “Hey, you only have 15 seconds,” referring to the amount of time his rival had to get back into the starting corral. “That’s more time than you had,” replies the steely Frenchman, and with that, they are off.
If we were at all uncertain about the probability of this going another night, we are now sure of it. There are only three hours left until our abiding two hit the road, and the road is much more forgiving. No one will quit there. Pearson offered to pay for a new flight home for our unrelenting friend. Steene gave him a dry pair of underwear. A brave soul takes it upon himself to tamp the porta-potties. We are in this for the long haul.
Just like always, the two men come in smiling from the last lap. Just like always, they line up smiling for the next one. Just like always, they complete the short out-and-back on the road before hitting the trail, with Calmettes coming through first and Lewis behind. Only this time, Lewis stops. He throws his hands up over his head, crossed in an X and concedes that he is done.
I can imagine what my friend is thinking out there, alone, on what is to be his final lap.
Because, after all, he has no idea that his competitor has stopped back at camp and that all he has to do is finish these last few miles. What I can’t fathom is a more fitting end to the journey. Calmettes’ mindset had remained singular in its aim: one more hour, one more hour, and so on and so forth for as long as it took. And this is how long it took.
Guillaume Calmettes crossed the finish line of the 2017 Big Dog Backyard Ultra in 58 hours, 52 minutes and 12 seconds, having run a staggering 245.832 miles. He was ready to eat and head out for another lap.