On Friday, March 19, 2021, I drove four and half hours from Pittsburgh to Lucasville, Ohio, to compete in Ohio’s Backyard Ultra (OBU). The venue was McChesney Ridge, a nature retreat, boasting single-track trails and a picturesque pond.
The all-important pre-race set up for OBU happened the afternoon before the event. Access to the “runner space” was granted at 2 p.m., prompting a mad dash of runners and crews vying for spots closest to the starting line. The majority of us had a 10x10 canopy that would serve as a mini aid station for the long hours, (or even days) of the event. In the competitive spirit of the day, I threw a few elbows in order to land a prime spot, 20 feet from the starting line. I was bookended by Harvey Lewis on my right and Jennifer Russo on my left. (More on those two later.)
Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m., 108 competitors toed the line, most of whom were hoping for a distance PR. My intention of using this race as a training run for an upcoming 50-miler was short-lived. I quickly succumbed to the group mentality of running as long as humanly possible. I lasted 104 miles before “refusing to continue” (RTC), a term specific to Backyard Ultras.
As I watched a pack of runners press on into the 26th hour, my 104 miles began to feel like a 5K fun run. My self-absorption soon shifted to a full-on fascination with following the remaining contestants. I witnessed a caliber of effort and fortitude difficult to comprehend.
By the 30th hour (mile 125), there were 15 runners left, two of whom were female. I admit to invariably pulling for the women in any race. One runner at this stage was Jennifer Russo, a 55-year-old from Cincinnati. She had bagged 150 miles at last year’s OBU, serving as “the assist” to Tanner Lee, a 23-year-old who won with a final tally of 154 miles. This year’s OBU included “celebrity” runner Harvey Lewis. His participation immediately placed everyone, including Jennifer, into an underdog status.
At 7:30 p.m., 36 hours into the event, eight runners remained, with the two females still going strong. Watching Erin Brady, a 49-year-old woman from Fort Wayne, Indiana, refuse to continue at mile 150 was poignant and inspirational. OBU race director Michael Owen had a mantra for any runner who attempted dropping out. “I think you’ve got more miles in you,” he’d say. Brady firmly replied to Own’s pep talk with, “Thank you, but I’m done.”
Owen’s encouragement came from years of experience. You can feel pretty crappy at mile 60 and yet, somehow have a burst of energy at mile 80. Some runners clearly needed coaxing to continue. I witnessed a visibly haggard athlete attempt to call it quits. In a matter of seconds, Owen’s persuading prompted him to keep going. Observing and participating in these races reinforces the notion that willpower becomes a dominant factor as the race stretches on.
By sunrise on day three, it was down to Jennifer Russo and Harvey Lewis, all other competitors had dropped by mile 166. The handful of mesmerized spectators who remained seemed to share a sense that, despite having eclipsed the 200-mile mark, the race wasn’t over. Watching Russo’s daughter hug her mother after each lap was particularly moving.
By mile 210, Russo was showing major signs of fatigue, including a discernible side-lean. Remarkably, Lewis gave the impression he had gained an actual spring in his step. While appearing a bit haggard at mile 90, he looked refreshed at mile 200. Was his vegan diet giving him an edge?
After 225 miles and 54 hours, Russo completed her last loop with time to spare. She looked to be in rough shape, but I didn’t see it coming. She decided to call it a day. (Or three days, to be precise.) Lewis handily completed his victory lap. In describing this race to my friends (and anyone else who would listen), I had difficulty capturing the combination of drama and emotion evoked by the event. Jennifer Russo will always hold the position of “winner” in my mind.
Finally, despite the misgivings of my family, I have placed myself on the wait list for the Capital Backyard Ultra on May 29. I guess I have more to give.