On Friday morning, around 20 runners are expected to toe the start line on Bowen Road for a race, just as many hundreds do every weekend of the trail running season.
But this race is unlike the others in one fundamental way: there is no finish line.
Dubbed Big Boar’s Backyard Ultra, this new race organised by Steve Carr of Race Base Asia is not about being the first to cross the line, because no such thing exists.
Rather, it is a race of attrition driven by a single question: who can keep going for the longest? The last person standing wins.
Based on, and serving as a qualification race for, the legendary Big’s Backyard Ultra hosted each October since 2012 in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, the race format is simple.
At 9am, competitors set off from Bowen Road Park to run 6.7-km . They have exactly an hour to do so. At the strike of the next hour, and then every hour after that for as long as they can continue, they must embark on the same 6.7 kilometre loop. Any time left over from the hour is theirs to use however they see fit – eat, stretch, nap, use the toilet – with only one condition: be on the start line at the next hour, or be disqualified from the race.
“The majority of people that you and I know, running 6.7 kilometres in an hour is relatively simple. We can pop that off in maybe 45, 50 minutes,” said Carr. “But then to do it again 10 minutes later, and then again, and then again.”
“You either finish it or you lose,” he added.
While the inaugural Big Boar’s Backyard Ultra has no predetermined end beckoning runners forward, it does have a highly attractive prize for the winner: a ticket to the original Big’s Backyard Ultra in six months – so long as the last person standing manages to exceed 24 hours.
There are 27 such “golden ticket” races around the world, with 17 in the USA, according to Carr, but this is the only one in Asia.
Carr is excited to see the action unfold.
“It’s going to be hell,” he said.
Setting the course on Bowen Road kept net elevation gain to a minimum, and also made the event logistically easier to plan, especially given that Carr expects the race to go on for at least 30 hours.
“I’m hoping not two or three days,” he added. While Carr wants to see great things happen on the course, he wants to go home at some point.
The location also adds to the mental challenge of the endeavour.
“You could walk off Bowen Road and be in Wan Chai within minutes and be on a taxi back home within 15,” Carr said. “I quite like the idea that at any point they can just go home.”
The winner of the Big’s Backyard Ultra in the USA lasted for 68 hours, running 455.983km in the process.
Quoting Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, the founder and organiser of Big’s Backyard Ultra, Carr added: “The easier it is to quit, the harder the race is.”
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Carr is betting on Tom Robertshaw, a top trail runner here who has a sub-60 hour Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (HK4TUC), a 298-km race, to his name.
“Effectively the theory is the person who should win it should be Tom,” said Carr. “But it’s in concrete and it’s flat. So it’s not his habitat.”
“But then you’ve got people like Chris Kwan as well, who I’ve never seen in a negative mind space,” Carr said. Kwan survived the HK4TUC this year in a time of 66 hours 10 minutes.
Also running is Will Hayward, who has a lot of experience competing over very long distances, including ‘surviving’ 2018 HK4TUC in 71 hours 51 minutes. He also has two Western States 100-miler finishes to his name. As Carr put it, “Will is a grinder.”
But beyond the mental last-person-standing aspect of the challenge, Hayward is also excited for the complete novelty in race format, and also the camaraderie of running in a group.
“I think a really interesting aspect will be everyone running together,” said Hayward. “Normally I only see people running my pace all day, but here I’ll see the fast guys, the slow people … and everyone else for as long as we all keep going,”
Chris Kwan is hoping to last for 24 hours.
“I haven’t done specific preparation for the Big Boar’s,” Kwan said. She has also been dealing with a skin allergy this week, for which she is taking medication that is making her drowsy, but the day mark remains her aim.
For Elliot Froidevaux, another competitor, this race will be far out of his comfort zone and unlike anything he’s ever done before.
“In short, I am a ‘home by dinner’ ultra-runner,” he said.
If things go smoothly for Froidevaux, he’ll have to break the dinner rule for one night. Or two, or who knows when there’s no end in sight?