Meet the Winner of the World’s Cruelest Ultramarathon

Guillaume Calmettes smiles in the middle of the Big Dog Backyard Ultra Katie Grossman and Terry Miller

The woman was standing at the bend in the road, smiling. This surprised Guillaume Calmettes. It was pouring rain in the middle of the night on a country highway in central Tennessee. He had turned off his headlamp because the reflection of the light against the deluge of droplets created a blinding white wall.

Calmettes didn’t really question why the woman was out here. He had run nearly 150 miles and hadn’t slept in over 24 hours, so he wasn’t really in a position to question things. She was wearing pants and a long sleeve T-shirt. Maybe she was here to cheer for him? He didn’t know. He didn’t really care. She made him happy. He smiled back.

Except it wasn’t a woman. It was a tree. Her grin melted into foliage about 100 yards out. Calmettes was hallucinating in the middle of one of the cruelest footraces ever devised—The Big Dog Backyard Ultra.

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The rules are rather simple, devilishly so. At 6:40 a.m. (precisely) on October 20, runners began a 4.166667-mile loop around a dirt trail north of Bell Buckle, a town of 500 people just one hour south of Nashville. They had an hour to finish the loop. At 7:40 a.m., another loop began, repeating every hour on the hour. During the night, the race moved to a 4.166667-mile out-and-back section on a road. The race ended when one runner was left standing.

“I always want to know what my limits are,” he said. “This is a great way to find out because it has no finish.”

Calmettes was that runner. Over 59 hours he completed 59 loops—245.835 miles. His only rest came in the minutes between crossing the finish line and the hour cutoff. He outlasted 57 others. On the official results, he is listed as the only official finisher. Everyone else received a “DNF” (Did Not Finish).

Three days after the race, Calmettes was back in Los Angeles, where he works as a research scientist at UCLA. “Actually, I feel great,” he said, claiming to not feel the slightest bit sore. “For the last two days I was walking like a grandma, but now I am fine.”

Calmettes, a 33-year-old Frenchman, did not sound like someone who skipped two nights of sleep earlier in the week to run more than 200 miles at once. He tended to laugh a lot, especially when he talked about the pain he endured.

He signed up after reading a race report from the prior year’s edition from a friend. “He wrote that it was a nightmare with no end,” Calmettes said. “I thought, ‘Now that is my kind of race.’”

Calmettes had already completed the prestigious UTMB ultramarathon in France, running 105 miles in 31 hours. He wanted to see how much farther he could go. A race with no end, he thought, was the perfect test.

“I always want to know what my limits are,” he said. “This is a great way to find out because it has no finish.”

His goal was 300 miles. He believes he could have done it had the second place runner, Harvey Lewis, not dropped out in the middle of loop 59.

“The funny thing is, mentally this race is easier to run than a 100 miler,” Calmettes said. “If you are running 100 miles and start to hurt, you realize you still have 70 miles to go. You can get overwhelmed by what you have left. In this race, because there is no official finish, you just have to do one more loop. You can’t be overwhelmed.”

Even when he twisted his ankle at mile 105 and experienced hip and foot pain through mile 150, Calmettes said he never came close to quitting. His only barrier was a flight he had to make at noon on Tuesday—three days after the start.

“I never let the smile go,” he said. “It is like I was so focused on just ‘the next loop’ that I was avoiding listening to my body.”

“But one of my friends told me he would pay for a ticket to leave when I wanted, so I didn’t have to worry about that,” Calmettes said.

So he kept running. Through two nights, a rainstorm, and 57 runners who couldn’t keep up. Each lap, Calmettes tried to stay consistent and slow, averaging between 47 and 52 minutes to complete the four miles. He became so familiar with the course, he knew exactly what time he needed to pass certain landmarks—like a tree shaped like a V, a field, and a stream.

“I never let the smile go and all the pain began to disappear by the end,” he said. “It is like I was so focused on just ‘the next loop’ that I was avoiding listening to my body. It’s hard to describe, but fun to live, I guess.”

At the finish line (which is literally in a backyard) Calmettes was greeted by his crew, who provided hot soup, French toast, and plenty of fluids. Also there: Lazarus Lake, the race’s creator and an infamous (and enormously popular) character in the ultramarathon community. Lake is also the creator of the Barkley Marathons, known as the most challenging ultramarathon in the world.

At the race progressed, “Laz” as he is known, posted updates to Facebook. In his last, he gave homage to Calmettes’ performance.

For his 245-mile effort, Calmettes received a necklace in the shape of a dog bone (the race is named after Laz’s own dog). Inscribed on the front, it read “I survived the Big Dog Backyard Ultra.” His is the only one with the description. Others have snarky phrases, including “I got my ass spanked by the Big Dog Backyard Ultra.”

Calmettes was also awarded free entry into another last-man-standing race in Ireland, as well as a guaranteed entry into next year’s Barkleys Marathon. 

“Of course I am going to do it,” he said. He laughed, seeming not too worried about the pain that would come.