CONWAY, N.H. — To most, running the same wooded 3.5-mile course hour after hour without sleeping is not a preferred way to spend an autumn weekend.
But for those racing in the fourth Bubba’s Backyard Ultra Marathon, the experience once again proved to be challenging, fulfilling, and on some level fun.
A backyard ultra is a unique racing format with few rules and only one finisher. Runners must toe the starting line every hour on the hour and run a course that typically takes 35-45 minutes, leaving precious moments to refuel, change equipment, or rest between laps. The last runner to complete a lap is crowned champion.
“It’s a format where you don’t need to be fast,” said race co-director Monte McIndoe. “It’s not necessarily about speed, it’s a question of mental endurance.”
McIndoe has helped run Ski The Whites — a backcountry skiing outfitter in Jackson, N.H. — with owner Andrew Drummond since 2017. When Drummond’s father, Jim “Bubba” Drummond, purchased an additional 400 acres at Andrew’s childhood home in 2019, Andrew decided to build a trail through the property and put on a backyard ultra.
As trail running has grown in popularity, the event has quadrupled in size, drawing 88 competitors this year.
Brian Burke, the leader of Northeast Trail Crew, which hosts weekly social runs in Middlesex Fells, was one of 19 entrants from Massachusetts. He finished as runner-up for a second straight year to four-time champion Ed Clifford, 57, of Raymond N.H. After starting at 10 a.m. Saturday, the pair finished their 42nd lap around 4 a.m. Monday, but Burke missed the cutoff.
“When you gather with all these ultra runners, you don’t have to explain why we’re doing it,” said Burke, a 40-year-old garden designer from Medford.
“Everyone has a different draw. Some want to find out what their [mileage] number is personally, or they want to know what is going to make them quit. A lot are very competitive and can’t imagine having a DNF, so it’s an interesting dynamic when you show up and realize only one of us isn’t going to quit.”
Clifford is an accomplished sled dog racer who began utilizing backyard ultras as a training ground to prepare for a unique blend of suffering. The retired UPS worker went 25 laps in 2019, 34 in 2020, and 45 to beat Burke in 2021.
Those capable of running past the 24-hour mark and into the second night have their system down to a T, with crew members helping them recover at their personal aid station after each lap. But there is no lack of camaraderie among runners throughout their shared quest.
“We wanted to make it challenging, but not too challenging, so that it’s fun for everyone of all abilities, and that’s exactly what we saw,” said Andrew Drummond, who raced and finished third in 2021.
“We have people doing five laps and setting [personal records] and some doing huge endurance efforts. We all have the same interests. And in events like this, where you start every lap together, you really get to know people. This format lets you really bond and connect with people who are your so-called competitors.”
The past three winters, Ski The Whites also has hosted the “Last Skier Standing” event in a similar ultra marathon format, which drew some national interest this year when Utah’s Brody Leven spent 65 hours climbing and skiing down Black Mountain. Leven was so impressed with the community that he returned for Bubba’s, and former Olympic skier Douglas Lewis also traveled from Utah to run 32 laps (112 miles).
This year saw a women’s record of 35 laps set by Maia Buckingham of Richmond, Vt., who was one of three women (including Boston’s Sydney Dolan) among the top seven finishers.
To keep things interesting, race directors offered cash and gear prizes for winning some laps. There also was a lighthearted Beer Mile on Sunday afternoon for all spectators and crew members, in which everyone drank four adult beverages between quarter-mile sprints around one of the fields on Bubba’s property.
While he was skeptical at first, “Bubba” has become fully invested in the event.
What changed his mind? The inspiring commitment of the running community to support their hardy friends.
“One of our NTC members drove up from Medford at 10 p.m. on Sunday just to bring me a bag of cheeseburgers,” said Burke. “That level of support is just amazing.
“There’s something so unique about this event that encompasses the community aspect of trail running. We all do different things and have different goals, but we’re all there for each other.”