Big’s Backyard Ultra World Championship (Pandemic Edition) was a microcosm of 2020 and it’s struggles, with a voice that stands strong on how we can thrive in uncertain times. The format is simple. Complete a 6.71 km loop every hour, on the hour, until you no longer have the physical capability or will to continue. For most, the mental drive will govern the result, not a physical limit. Those who find the most mental fortitude to complete “one more loop” will be most successful.
This year, it’s a bit different with satellite races held around the world. Each runner scores a point for their respective country for each loop they complete to see which country has put together the strongest group of Backyard runners. This time around it’s not just about the strength of the individual, but we have a unique opportunity to measure the strength of the community.
I’ve made the conscious decision over the last couple of years to separate myself from much of social media’s pull to focus on myself – to ensure I keep meaningful connection in my life while maintaining sanity through a very challenging period of intellectual and emotional growth (i.e. completing my PhD). This has forced me to make tough decisions and to set boundaries. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not someone who can sustain many “active” friendships at the best of times. In our new pandemic-world, this has forced me to accept that some relationships may have to wait until I am capable of picking things up where we left off at some point in the future, without expectations on what this looks like. For now, this has given me motivation to focus on putting greater value on those in my circle and the value I can add to those relationships.
How does my personal struggle with friendship, boundaries, and thriving in uncertain times fit in with the recent world championship put on by the infamous Lazarus Lake? For one, lifelong friends were made during a weekend of pain, suffering, camaraderie, and mutual goals achieved. We all have our own circles, though – our own friends and family that do not include one another. Yet there is no expectation placed upon us. When our paths cross again, we will pick up where we left off; we shared in a once-in-a-lifetime experience that has enriched all of our lives. This bond only asks us to appreciate what we’ve invested to create it, and nothing more.
I’m not going to recount all the race events, nor provide a summary of the results – these details don’t matter much. The real story that needs focus is what led to our success as individuals and Team Canada, and how that message can be used to add value to the community more broadly.
First, I want to thank everyone who made Team Canada’s event a reality (shout out to the City of Kelowna and the Regional District of Central Okanagan for the quick and painless permitting process!) and all of the crew that was dragged along for the ride. In some ways, crewing for an ultra is like participating in the race yourself (especially for this Backyard format) so it’s always appreciated. Thanks to Delilah who put up with me during the race (and the post-race recovery!). I also need to thank my parents for coming down last minute to help crew two out of town runners. They’ve become seasoned ultra crew at this point, especially with a resume that now includes crewing the Canadian Backyard Ultra Champion, Stephanie Simpson!
I want to thank Ryan Kershaw and others involved in putting our team together. This was undoubtedly a tough challenge, given no pre-existing national rankings for selection of such a niche event, nor any precedent for what goes into making a successful team. He undoubtedly leaned on others with some modicum of Backyard experience to shape the intended “feel” of the team. Ryan translated that idea into something tangible. Leaning on others was common throughout this adventure and was practiced right from team conception.
My initial thoughts when first approached for the team was that my Backyard resume wasn’t superb, and that my other past results don’t show anything spectacular. Were they sure they wanted me on the team? The response from Ryan and others was a resounding yes. This was more than a physical challenge and each person selected for the team was being selected for a reason, to fit a key piece of the puzzle and arrive at a team that could compete on the world stage. This gang was going to excel at developing a strong community to take everyone as far as we possibly could go.
We had two team meetings leading up to the race. The theme was clear, simple, and set the tone for our preparation and race strategy. Be your best, so that everyone can be their best. And each team member will be their best so that you can be your best. I am, because you are. This is a philosophy adopted from Nelson Mandela and the South African anti-Apartheid revolution, Ubuntu. In other words, be a net contributor and we’ll go far.
And far we went. Throughout the entire race, we were within the top three positions out of 21 countries, occasionally in the lead, even. It took the final two runners on the American team (the uncontested favorite to win), pushing a superhuman distance, to overtake our team totals due to teammates that dropped early in their race. Our team stood strong as we fostered an incredibly powerful sense of community and shared purpose to prevent Canada from having these same early drops that the Americans experienced.
We had many instances where runners vocalized potentially race-ending difficulties. The team came together through swift calls to action, to address those mental or physical challenges. Check-ins were routine to ensure no one was hiding their struggles. Offers to share resources were made for those that came less prepared (you can only bring so much on a flight from the other side of the country). We embraced each other’s hardships to navigate these perceived barriers as a group. The most impactful team members, those that made the difference in placing our country as high in the field as we did, ran further and dug deeper than they would have if we didn’t develop such a strong sense of community; imagine thinking you’ve reached your limit and then being lifted by your peers to a point where you complete another marathon or more. We did that on more than one occasion. We were running for each other, being the best we could be, for others to be the best they could be. Ubuntu.
This experience showed me that we must communicate our struggles, not to compare or complain, but rather to let it be known that a struggle is present – to create an opportunity for others to help. Assistance came in different shapes and forms. Sometimes it was active help and sometimes it was giving space. The most detrimental energy came with subtle thoughts of comparison or expectations. Perceptions on how I should be approaching my race, how others were being perceived to run their race, or how someone could be supporting the team differently. For me, dwelling on these thoughts served no purpose and were quickly and intentionally replaced by a strict focus on running my best in support of everyone else. We must do away with expectations of others, focus on being the best that we can be, given our circumstances, and trust that our best will allow others to be their best. Ubuntu.
This is not a concept isolated to running, and I believe this is critical in fostering strong community to navigate these unprecedented times we face. Focus on being the best you can be, given your circumstances, and know that everyone in your community is trying their best in pursuit of common goals – health, happiness, and contributing to the enrichment of our communities. Sure, our circumstances have changed drastically in 2020, and these goals may be more challenging to strive for, but that does not affect our ability to be our best. I hope these experiences show how we can replace outward expectations with an inward focus on communal goals to allow ourselves and others to succeed and to be our best together. Ubuntu.