I think it's on the first episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that I got one of those transformative life lessons that always stuck with me (proving life lessons can be found just about anywhere, even comedies you watch on Netflix while putting off doing other stuff).
At one point, while describing how she survived the ordeal of life in a basement as part of a cult, Kimmy said something that very much describes my approach to long-distance running: "I learned a long time ago that a person can stand just about anything for 10 seconds, then you just start on a new 10 seconds. All you've got to do is take it 10 seconds at a time."
And now that I've basically compared ultrarunning to the despair of living in an underground bunker as part of a cult, hopefully I have explained why I think everyone should give the Riverhead Backyard Ultra and Relay a good go: because you can do anything - even this - if only for a little bit (and none of us actually knows how long that "little bit" is).
The premise of a backyard ultra could not be any simpler: runners complete a loop every hour, starting on the hour. There's no set end to the race, not by time and not by distance. The race ends when everyone but one person has quit. The last person standing wins.
Ever since I first heard of the Big Dog's Backyard Ultra - a race by the infamous Lazarus Lake (real name Gary Cantrell), founder of the Barkley Marathons - I've been fascinated by the concept of a race with no real finish line.
The backyard ultra concept, which Laz came up with decades ago, is arguably the ultimate test of human endurance, both physical and mental (mostly mental).
When Lactic Turkey's Shaun Collins announced he was teaming up with Matt Rayment (of Riverhead Rampage fame) and New Zealand was getting its own backyard ultra, I knew that was the terrifying challenge I needed to get me falling in love with hating running again.
How it works:
Runners will run a 6.7km trail loop over and over again, starting every hour on the hour. You must run the loop within that time. If you have time to spare, you can get yourself sorted, maybe have some food or drink, then line up to start the second loop. The race finishes when there is only one person starting a loop. That person then has to finish a loop all on their lonesome in order to win the race (a sort of lap of honour that, by that stage, will feel a lot more painful than honourable).
There are no finishers, per se. Well, there's one. The only finisher is the winner. There's a winner (the last person standing), and all the rest get logged as a DNF (did not finish).
The backyard ultra exploded in popularity last year when Johan Steene ran an astounding 283 miles (455km) on the original course in the US. That's 68 laps of the same course, over 68 consecutive hours. Steene broke the backyard ultra record for longest run. On that same race, Courtney Dauwalter broke the women's backyard ultra record by running an incredible 67 laps. For a few laps, it was just them two running together, while the world watched in awe of these people who'd been running virtually non-stop for more than three days.
So yeah, you could argue it's not easy. It's a Sisyphean type nightmare that will see runners going past the same place over and over again and never reaching an end. But it's also not that hard if you think of it as just a bunch of short loops in the forest - however many you set yourself to do. That's the beauty of the backyard ultra: its level of difficulty depends on what you set for yourself as a goal.
When I start running my first lap, I'll have no idea how long I'll be out there for. Could be one or two laps, could be 20 (unlikely) or 30 (unlikely to the point of laughable). And that's the real challenge: how do you keep going when you don't know how long you'll go for? How do you tell your brain to keep pushing when your brain knows it can stop at any point since there's no other limit but the one you've set for yourself?
I have no clue about the answers to any of those questions. As it stands, the last time I ran a long distance (50km) was in October last year. Because of work commitments, personal commitments and overall who I am as a person (a person who strongly dislikes getting out of bed), I very rarely run more than 5km at a time.
But, to quote Lazarus Lake, the founder of the original backyard ultra: "If you're going to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can't accomplish anything without the possibility of failure."
It's safe to say there's a fairly high possibility of failure, considering it currently takes me the best part of an hour to run that length on a trail and I mostly do it once every few days, not once an hour. But how often do we have the chance to get ourselves out of our comfort zones these days and truly test how strong we are? What with the Lime scooters and the Uber Eats and all those other things I love so dearly, I never really have to move far from my desk or sofa if I don't want to. Is that really how we want to live our lives? Ok, most of the time, yes. But also, sometimes, very much no. What a dull and lukewarm existence that is.
So I'm going to have a go at the ultimate test of mental endurance, in just a month's time (sure, I probably could have done with some extra time to train but here we find ourselves).
All I have to do is be able to run about 7km in one hour, preferably with a few minutes to spare so I can do things like refill my water bottle and all that. That doesn't sound too hard.
But I also have to do it over and over and over again, way beyond what I feel like doing (which, on a good day, is one lap, maybe two). And that sounds considerably harder, especially as I will get given the option to stop and sit down every hour when I see the finish line.
As it stands, I can barely cope with the idea of three loops (just under 21km).
But that's ok. Come May, I'll line up in Riverhead to run just 6.7km in under an hour. And then, once that hour is up, I'll do it again. And then again. And then again. And then again. And then again. Until the brain wins and I finally get to sit down.
The dirty details
Riverhead Backyard ReLaps Ultra and Relay
Riverhead Forest, Auckland
From midday, Friday, May 3
If you're not up to the last person standing event, you can enter a relay team with a friend or more and just run laps for a set time. You don't even have to do them within the hour, just take however long you want and the team who runs the most laps wins. It's the ultimate running party!
For more information, visit the event website.