Karel Sabbe and Belgium win the 2020 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra World Championship
Posted on October 27 2020
Author : Tom Baekelandt, Fastest Belgian Trail Runner in Hong Kong
2 weeks ago marked the 2020 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra World Championship. The event is held every year by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell – the creator of the Barkley Marathons – in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, in the actual backyard of Laz. The concept of a Backyard race is as simple as it is cruel: starting on the hour, you run a 6.706 km loop, every hour, until you’re the last person standing. That immediately explains one of the biggest challenges such a race brings: there simply is no finish. All you have to do, is run one more loop. And then one more. And one more. And… you get the picture.
Last year, having won the qualifying event in Hong Kong (which was held on Bowen Road and organized by Race Base Asia’s Steve Carr) and thus having secured his ticket to the event in Bell Buckle, Tennessee; our very own Gone Runner Will Hayward surprised the world (and himself) by beating most of the entire field – including some of the finest ultra runners in the world – to come in second overall after US legend, Maggie Guterl. Will managed to finish 59 loops (yes, that’s over 395km!), while Maggie did one better, finishing 60 loops.
This year, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it has brought about, the US event was limited to US runners only. But Laz, being the creative (and slightly cruel) race director that he is, decided to switch things up. He made the event partially virtual, which meant that more than 20 countries would participate (with a maximum of 15 runners per country), having a real life race in their respective country, whilst everything was being tracked and live-streamed online. There were two competitions: the first one was an individual one (as everybody would be trying to win their respective country’s race), while the second one was a team one (each person’s finished loop would get them a point and the country with the most points would be crowned world champion). Important to note that if you would be the last runner standing in your country, by default your race would end and you’d no longer be allowed to carry on (in order to secure more points for your country).
Overview of all countries participating in the 2020 event
There were some stellar performances from various countries, both from elites as well as non-elites (although in my eyes all people partaking in such event are badass running superstars by default). After Mexico had crowned their champion (64 hours into the race), it came down to 2 US runners (Courtney Dauwalter and Harvey Lewis) and 2 Belgian runners (Karel Sabbe and Merijn Geerts). While the Belgian runners were at a disadvantage initially – having to go into the first night sooner than team US and as such also having to go through the third night sooner – after they had successfully managed to survive said third night, they were now at an advantage compared to the US. That advantage proved crucial. Courtney (68 loops) managed to do one better than Harvey (67 loops) and thus also tied the course record set in 2018 by Johan Steene from Sweden.
Three Ultra athletes toeing the line at 2020 Big's Backyard Ultra. Courtney Dauwalter, Harvey Lewis and Maggie Guterl.
But the Belgian event was still ongoing and Karel and Merijn kept having at it, one loop at a time. Given the nature of the Backyard race, it’s crucial to determine very early on what your strategy is going to be. Some people like to take it slow, leaving themselves little time to recover and replenish. Others like to go a bit faster, so they can rest longer. There is no right or wrong and it comes down to personal preferences. However, after last year’s event, when Will Hayward was asked what he’d do differently, he did mention that he would try to sleep more in between loops. This is exactly the strategy that Karel decided to apply. He averaged 43 minute loops (6:25 min/km), allowing him to sleep for 12 minutes and still leaving 5 minutes to eat/drink and get ready for the next loop. Karel decided to implement that strategy as of the first night, which proved crucial in hindsight.
Merijn (74 loops) was taking a different approach than Karel, as he did the loops slower, leaving him less time to recover for the next loop. As a result, he barely slept throughout the entire event. The lack of sleep caught up with him in the end. When Karel finished his 75th loop, the clock kept ticking away and unfortunately for Merijn he did not manage to finish his 75th loop in time, crowning Karel Sabbe the 2020 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra World Champion. To put this in perspective, that’s basically 12 marathons back to back (503 km!).
Important to note as well is there are (at least) two insanely strong runners needed in a Backyard race, in order for a spectacular winning performance such as Karel’s. If Merijn would have stopped 60 loops in, Karel would have won ‘only’ having run 61 loops. So big credit should go to Merijn and the rest of the Belgian team who all put in amazing performances.
To most people, the name Karel Sabbe probably doesn’t ring much of a bell. However, his victory shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Karel holds the FKT on both the Pacific Crest Trail (4,265 km – 52 days 8 hours 25 min (2016)) and the Appalachian Trail (3,500 km – 41 days 7 hours 39 min (2018)). Karel is a full-time dentist, but somehow manages to squeeze in the odd training run. Fun fact: last year the city of Ghent dubbed one the hills (where Karel trains a lot) “Sabbe Hill”. The hill’s stats:
- Elevation gain of 38m
- 184 steps
- Average gradient of 22.4%
Quite often Karel runs the hill up and down 100 times as part of his training!!
For those looking for more information on Karel, some useful links below:
- Strava profile: https://www.strava.com/athletes/13185267
- Strava log of his 2020 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra World Championship run: https://www.strava.com/activities/4221838467
- Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/karelsabbe/
- Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/karelsabbeultrarunning/
- Out There - A Journey to the Barkley Marathons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jt3XPQFLOF8&t=598s
Great documentary in which Karel talks about his previous ultra running experiences (Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, Marathon des Sables and of course the Barkley Marathons).
When the Belgian race had finished after 75 hours, Karel looked fresher than I do after a 3h run. He was drinking champagne, having a beer, doing live interviews on Zoom with the organizers all over the world. Social media picked up on how composed and fresh Karel looked quite quickly:
A final but important remark to make about this year’s special edition is that it’s very difficult to compare performances across different countries. As pointed out above, time zone differences have a big impact, but also weather conditions (heat, humidity, rain, sun, shade, tree cover, …), surface conditions, etc. Courtney looked relatively fresh after having won the US event after 68 hours, as did Karel after winning the Belgian edition after 75 hours. It would have been amazing to see these two runners go head to head. Perhaps next year?
In the meanwhile, this Belgian will remain extremely proud of his fellow countrymen’s performances. After all, we did win both the individual as well as the team’s title in the 2020 Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra World Championship so I feel like we’ve got every right to enjoy that!