Introduction to Last Man Standing and Backyard Events
Before we get into the strategy for last man standing and Backyard events, first we must answer the question – what are they?
A last man standing event is a “race” where runners complete timed loops (or out and backs) until, typically, only one person remains. Each loop is termed a “race” or a “yard.” For this blog, we will refer to them as “races.” If a runner is not back before the designated time expiring on any particular race, they are eliminated. If they make it back, they live to run the next race.
There are many different formats of last man standing-style events. Some are limited to a certain amount of time or loops, and some are open-ended. Typically during close-ended style events, when the time eventually expires or the maximum amount of races has been run, runners remaining at this point compete in an all-out race. The fastest time ran in the last race wins.
However, the most popular version of the last man standing event is the “Backyard” style LMS. The infamous Lazarus Lake created this race, the twisted mind behind one of, if not the most challenging ultramarathon on the planet, the Barkley Marathons. You can find the complete list of “Backyard” rules here, but the basics come down to this – each race is around 4.17 miles (100 miles/24 hrs), and runners have 1 hour to complete each race. There is no limit on how long this can go! It goes until there is truly only one runner remaining. The last runner MUST complete one more race successfully (within an hour) to be determined the winner.
The Backyard style took off, and as a result, there are hundreds of events following the Backyard format taking place all over the world now. The original Big Dogs Backyard in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, is now the world championship event – bringing qualifiers in from all over the world. Qualifiers can earn one of 15 U.S. spots by winning “silver ticket” backyard events. Examples of these events include the Ohio Backyard Ultra or the 4 fore 30 in Missouri, each earning runners a spot in the BIG race. There are only six such silver ticket events in the U.S., and as a result, they’re highly competitive.
The remaining nine spots at the world championship are filled with the best non-silver ticket winning performances from that particular year/qualifying period. These spots can be filled from any official backyard event. One such event includes The Eternal Damnation Backyard. The Eternal Damnation Backyard occurs in the appropriately named “Hell Creek” area located directly beside the beautiful Wilson Lake near Sylvan Grove, KS.
Whether you are looking to make it to the Backyard World Championship or just looking for a unique challenge, last man standing events are a great way to see what you’re made of! Many runners don’t know how to approach a last man standing event from a strategic perspective. For this reason, I have put together some strategies that I believe to be effective for such races. This is my two cents and is primarily evidence-based, and I fill in the gaps with what I believe to be common sense. That being said, you need to determine the best strategy that works for you. Experience and trial and error is likely the best way to do so.
Strategy for Last Man Standing and Backyard Events
So what is the best strategy in a last man standing type race? Simple math tells you that a pace of 14 minutes and 24 seconds is all that is required to finish each race in a Backyard-style race. While that pace may seem like a snail’s pace to many runners, what about after 30 miles? How about 60? 100?
Eventually, that pace will seem impossible for any runner. There haven’t been studies directly looking at last man standing events. However, it is practical to take things we DO know from running, walking, and pacing and apply them to this type of race. This is one way we can begin to create an evidence-based strategy for the last man standing style race.
Whether it be a Backyard style event or another form of the last man standing, for the most part, I think the strategy remains relatively close to the same. For this blog, we will focus on Backyard events. Still, unless the format is drastically different, the strategy should also be effective for other forms of LMS races.
Pace Strategy for Last Man Standing and Backyard Events
You will see a variety of different pacing strategies at last man standing and Backyard events. When one understands the physiological implications of running vs. walking (power-hiking), I think it is pretty clear what the best strategy is. Walk and stay at a relatively low intensity as long as possible while still getting back early enough to take care of business between laps. Don’t get caught up in racing other competitors. Just get across the finish line with enough time to do whatever needs to be done to prepare yourself for the next lap – use the restroom, change shoes/socks, take care of hot spots, etc.
Below are some considerations supporting this strategy.
Why Going Slow is the Best Strategy for Last Man Standing and Backyard Events
*Remember, “slow” is relative to the individual. What is slow for one runner may be fast for another. I’m suggesting that you should go as slow as possible while still arriving in time to take care of yourself between laps.
Impact and Muscle Damage
When you run, you are airborne between every step. When you walk or power-hike, you always have one foot in contact with the ground. Being airborne while running understandably results in far more impact forces when each foot comes in contact with the ground. These additional impact forces add up over time to result in significantly more cumulative muscle damage. Last man standing and Backyard events are just as much about damage control and mental toughness as they are V02 max, lactate threshold, or other running metrics.
The take? Walk as much as possible to minimize damage.
Glycogen and Refueling
The faster you go, the more carbohydrate, and as a result, glycogen is being utilized as fuel for your effort (as opposed to fat). The amount of stored glycogen is limited, while fat is virtually limitless when fueling endurance competition. Fat burns in a carbohydrate flame, so you need carbohydrates to feel your best. Deplete yourself of glycogen, and you “hit the wall.”
So, what does this mean? It means that going slow will allow you to burn MORE fat as fuel and spare your glycogen (carbohydrate stores). This will keep you feeling better, longer.
Additionally, going slow decreases your chances of gastrointestinal distress. This is a big deal since G.I. issues are the #1 reason people give for a DNF (Did Not Finish) during ultramarathons. The higher the intensity you exercise, the more blood is diverted away from the stomach to fuel working muscles. This redistribution of blood impairs your ability to digest whatever source of fuel you choose to take in.
So, going slower not only helps to conserve glycogen but also allows you to more efficiently replenish it because of its positive impact on your digestive system.
Why Getting Back Early Probably Doesn’t Help
I’ve heard people say they want to get back quickly, so they have more time to “recover” between laps. It could be argued that there is some amount of mental or psychological recovery between laps. But, when it comes to physical recovery, you are not doing yourself any favors by completing your race early. The body simply does not have enough time to make any sort of physiological recovery or repair in such a short time. Additionally, as I touched on earlier, the ACT of getting back early actually causes additional damage.
Therefore, In MOST situations, I do not subscribe to the recovery between laps theory, and I don’t consider it an effective strategy for last man standing and Backyard events. The exception to this rule would be when a participant is extremely mentally fatigued or sleepy.
Sitting around for 15 minutes instead of 5-6 minutes will likely increase the amount in which the body will stiffen up between races. As a result, it will probably be that much more difficult to “get going” on the subsequent next lap.
How Early Should You Get Back?
Early enough to get everything you need to be done before the next lap – refill fuel, go to the restroom, eat some real food (if desired), change socks/shoes/clothing, lube up, etc. Having a crew can cut down on the time that many of these tasks take. 5-10 minutes depending on what is needed after that particular race is a good strategy, in my opinion.
When Getting Back Early Might Be Beneficial
When the event goes into the night, and sleep deprivation and mental fatigue become an issue, it might actually benefit a runner to take it up a notch on a lap here and there. Of course, this depends on if they are actually capable of doing so at this point in the race. Coming in 15-20 minutes early may allow for a short power nap that could pay dividends to the psychological stress of sleep deprivation.
You must weigh the cost and benefits and decide based on what you believe will be most beneficial to your particular situation. What do you think is the more significant threat to you continuing the race? Mental exhaustion or physical damage? BCAAs have also been shown to help combat cognitive fatigue stemming from prolonged duration exercise – find out more on that here.
Nutrition Strategy for Last Man Standing and Backyard Events
During a last man standing or Backyard event, you should focus on preventing total glycogen depletion. Not much different from any other prolonged endurance event, right? The best way to do this is by taking some form of multiple transportable carbohydrate solution on course. Utilizing a multiple transportable carbohydrate solution instead of a single carbohydrate, like glucose alone, will allow your body to take in more carbohydrates/hr to better prevent glycogen depletion.
A runner should aim to take in at least 250 cal/hr (preferably more) throughout the entirety of the last man standing or Backyard. Amounts up to 400 cal/hr are achievable with some prior gut training. How many calories one can take in without causing gastrointestinal distress varies significantly by tolerance. Individual tolerance should be determined, if not improved upon, well before the last man standing event. See my blog- Gut Training to learn more about how to effectively train the gut to handle more calories while exercising.
Another helpful blog for preventing G.I. distress AND learning ways to overcome these issues in the unfortunate instance that they do come up is Top 15 Ways to Prevent and Overcome G.I. Distress During an Ultramarathon. Often, runners will acquire their calories partly from a carbohydrate drink on course and fill in the gaps with “real food” between laps. So, a good nutrition strategy for a last man standing event might look like this;
- 200 calories on course from a multiple transportable carbohydrate solution
- 100 calories of “real food” between races
This is just an example and is largely up to personal preference. Real food does not sit well with some, and taking in 100% of calories from a carbohydrate solution may be preferable. The longer the event progresses, however, the more some real food is recommended. This real food later in the event will prevent “taste fatigue” and fill in some nutrition gaps that carbohydrate solutions aren’t going to address. It will provide some protein, fat, and micronutrients that your body will be yearning for after taking in primarily simple carbohydrates for hours on end.
Mental Strategy for Last Man Standing and Backyard Events
Don’t Show Your Hand
During a last man standing race, it’s vital to maintain a poker face as much as possible, even when you’re hurting. I’m not saying to run injured, but it might be beneficial to hide that limp. Why? Because your competition sees you. They see you at the start of every single race.
If other runners see that you’re in rough condition, they may smell blood. That may be just the thing that encourages them to go out for another race. On the other hand, if they too are in the “pain cave” and look over and see that you still appear fresh, they may determine that another race isn’t worth it.
Don’t Judge a Book by it’s Cover
Just like you may be hiding some issues from the competition, so might they be from you. Just because your fellow runners look fresh doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. They might be on the verge of quitting, so don’t read too far into how the other runners appear. Worry about what you are doing, not the other runners.
Last man standing events are notorious for the mind games commonly occurring between competitors, especially when the competition dwindles to just a few runners. Participants do all sorts of different things to attempt to “get in the head” of other runners. One common strategy is to run a race “fast” on a lap or two to show the other runners that you’re still fresh.
Sometimes you will even see the other runners respond by picking up the pace and perhaps racing against the instigator. This is ill-advised for the reasons previously mentioned in the pacing section of this blog.
Crewing Strategy for Last Man Standing and Backyard Events
Your crew should act like a Nascar pit crew. For the most part, a crew should already know exactly what their responsibilities will be between each race so they can do them accurately and efficiently. This is especially important when the runner feels exhausted and starts to push the cutoff – perhaps getting back only 1-2 minutes before the next race.
Of course, the crew should also be able to adapt to anything unforeseen. For a great blog on crewing last man standing events and every other type of ultramarathon, check out Casey’s crewing blog. If carrying liquid fuel (recommended), then your crew should already have new handhelds or bottles mixed up and ready to go for the next lap. That way, your crew can focus on YOU between laps rather than things that could have been taken care of when you were out on course.
Summary of Strategy for Last Man Standing or Backyard Event
I hope you enjoyed my take on the best strategy for last man standing and Backyard events. What’s best for one might not be best for another.
You might be wondering – how does someone TRAIN for a Backyard or last man standing race? Does it differ from training from, say, a 100-mile race? Stay tuned.
I plan to cover this topic soon. When I do, I’ll add a link to the end of this blog.