For Ukrainian runners, a brutal race made sense when little else did

On October 11, to the sound of air raid sirens, a scraped group of 15 Ukrainian ultrarunners met on Telegram to make a decision.

The question was asked on the 230th day of the war, when Ukraine was rocked by a barrage of cruise missiles: to run or not to run?

October 15th would see a race like no other: Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra Satellite Team Championships, a grueling last-nation competition with no set finish line or time limit — no ultimate end to the pain. Taking part in such a race would reflect the trauma Ukrainians have endured since February.

The meeting was short. All 15 athletes were adamant, defiant; no man, no rocket would take away their freedom of choice.

Backyard ultramarathons have a medieval concept. Competitors have one hour to run a 4.167-mile loop. At the beginning of the next hour they start again. A winner is declared when all but one have faltered, and these sleepless brawls can last for days.

The race was created by Gary Cantrell – known to most as “Lazarus Lake” – in his own backyard, hence the name. In his first year, 2011, the winner completed just 18 laps. In 2020, the individual competition evolved into a biannual team competition with participants from all over the world. Each country forms a team of 15 runners and chooses courses in their home country. A country’s score is the sum of the laps completed by each runner. In two years, this international battle royale broke out from 25 countries to 37 and now features qualifier tournaments, hyped videos and a live stream broadcast.

This year, Ukrainian backyard record holder Viktoriia Nikolaienko planned to do great things with her country’s team. Then the war came and the best runners went to the front. She vowed that Ukraine would compete anyway and put together a team consisting of three runners over 50 and one 66-year-old. They were the least experienced nation on the squad. However, winning was not their goal; emerge was.

Between lockdowns, work and volunteering, training for most of the Ukrainian team members has been next to impossible.

“We ask ourselves every day, what did I do today to win?” said Oleksandr Slipets from Kyiv, a bank executive. On February 24, he was awakened by a phone call from his brother. The war had begun. “My brain couldn’t accept it,” he said. “To sort my mind, I went to training.” As he ran, he watched as thousands of cars left the city. He considered escaping. At 5 a.m. the next morning, a rocket hit the neighborhood near his home and more people left the house. But he decided to stay and helped build fortifications in residential areas. “We dumped tons of sand,” he said. “And I’ve forgotten what running is.”

Ramina Dadasheva, 37, tried to ignore the air raid sirens. A run always relieved her stress. Now it has created them. In Stryiskyi Park near her home, a rocket flew overhead and exploded in an apartment building in front of her. As she sprinted home, all she could think about was her two children.

In Odessa, Dmytro Voytko, 47, sat at home in his running clothes. “It felt dangerous to even go to a grocery store or drug store,” he said. “I saw a missile hit the airport in mid-air.” Despite this, he did not give up his education. He would wait for the air raid sirens to stop and then run.

They would all join the team. But Nikolaenko, the organizer of the team, would not be there after all. Twice Russian soldiers came to her parents’ house in Cherson, a port city in Ukraine that had been occupied since March. The second time they came in dark cars with long guns and her father was kidnapped. He was released, but the war was relentless. The bombs and stress aggravated her husband’s epilepsy and the mother of two injured her Achilles’ heel. Nikolaienko retired three weeks before the race but continued to lead the team.

When race day finally arrived on October 15, nerves and expectations ran high around the world. In Vietnam, they digested big dinners in a large pavilion near the start – the mood was festive with Christmas lights and dancing. In New Zealand, they ate midnight snacks while the US team ate a small breakfast before gathering at an enclosure in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. In Germany, the rain was falling and AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” was blaring through the sound system.

At exactly 7am Central Time, Lake rang a cowbell and shouted “Happy Time” and teams from 37 nations from Malta to Mauritius to Mexico jogged simultaneously across the start lines and onto their first laps.

Ukraine took off at 3:00 p.m. under a bright autumn sky near a fort made of concrete blocks and sandbags in the Zhytomyr region. To avoid attracting attention, team captain Polina Melnyk just said, “One, two, three, start,” and the team, wearing hand-sewn uniforms in Kharkiv, ran out from under a camouflage tent lined with Tibetan prayer flags. An hour later the police arrived and the race was stopped. But they kept running.

Oleksandr Olivson, one of the runners and the local organizer of the run, contacted the authorities as the runners continued. It’s safe, he said, and he’s cleared paperwork with the Territorial Defense Forces to track the curfew. The debate went on for hours before a compromise was reached, and the base camp was moved deeper into the forest, away from the eyes of the kamikaze drones – the time clock covered with a tent.

Elsewhere at the Backyard World Championships, runners also trudged along. Japan would fall into darkness as daylight greeted Ecuador. In Mexico, the indigenous Rarámuri tribe, considered one of the greatest ultra runners in the world, competed alongside their compatriots. There were windswept stretches in Malta and Morocco and tenacious runners in India and Iceland crossing the line and regrouping.

The US team would end up winning the team competition with a score of 860 combined loops. But as the race drew to a close, all eyes were on Western Europe. As Merijn Geerts and Ivo Steyaert of Belgium overtook a stubborn Japanese team and surpassed the individual world record of 90 laps, it seemed like the pair would run forever. The hashtag “break100” started popping up on social media, and they soon got it. In the starting pen, as the loop 102 clock ticked down, the two men turned and hugged, letting the time pass. Applause broke out. “This,” said Lake, the mastermind of the world’s toughest races, “is the first time the runners have beaten me.”

Both Belgian runners would be officially listed as DNF (did not finish). In a fitting twist of solidarity, there would be no singles winner, but both men would hold the world record. There’s no second place in Lake’s backyard races. You either win or you DNF. There are no ties.

However, there is a general belief among backyard riders that the runner who is one loop behind the winner deserves equal, if not more, respect. This they call “the support”. The winner is only allowed to run to the next best runner plus one lap. While he or she may be able to go further, the second runner really spent it all. For Ukraine, that runner was 28-year-old Slipets.

He finished lap 27 with a smile that never seemed to leave his face. With less than a minute to recover, he turned to his friend Nazar Hnat, the only other runner left. “Nazar,” he said. “You have to walk with me one more lap.” The sun seemed to be setting at that moment and he donned a headlamp before trudging forward. Initially, they walked together along the same path they had shared for over a day, a leaf-covered footpath dotted with wooden evacuation ditches. Soon Slipets began to fall behind and time became his enemy. But he had pushed his teammate to victory.

In March, Slipets had handed over its trail runners, thermal gear, socks and gloves to Territorial Defense. In May, he donated more running shoes, shorts and T-shirts to the displaced, who were increasingly arriving from liberated and occupied cities.

After the atrocities in Bucha and Irpin, he realized that the war was an ultramarathon with no end in sight. In that regard, the Backyard Worlds made sense when not much else did. The more it hurt, the more he wanted to run. But he resents the idea that Ukrainians are to be pitied. “We are strong,” he said. “We chose our path. We chose freedom.”