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For Ukrainian Runners, a Brutal Race Made Sense When Little Else Did

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On Oct. 11, under the sound of air raid sirens, a scraped-together band of 15 Ukrainian ultrarunners met on Telegram with a decision to make.

The question was posed on Day 230 of the war, as Ukraine reeled from a barrage of cruise missiles: to run or not to run?

On Oct. 15, there would be a race like no other: Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra Satellite Team Championships, a grueling last-nation-standing competition with no set finish line or time limit — no definitive end to the pain. To run in such a race would be to mirror the trauma the Ukrainians had been enduring since February.

The meeting was short. All 15 athletes were adamant, defiant; no man, no missile was going to take away their freedom to choose.

Backyard ultramarathons are medieval in concept. Entrants have an hour to run a 4.167-mile loop. At the top of the next hour, they begin again. A winner is declared when all have faltered but one, and these sleepless brawls can last days.

The race was created by Gary Cantrell — known to most as Lazarus Lake — in his own backyard, hence the name. In its first year, in 2011, the winner completed just 18 loops. The individual contest evolved into a semiannual team competition in 2020, with participants across the globe. Each country forms a team of 15 runners and chooses courses in its homeland. A country’s score is the sum of each runner’s completed loops. In two years, this international battle royale erupted from 25 countries to 37 and now features qualifiers, hype videos and a livestream broadcast.

This year, the Ukrainian backyard record-holder, Viktoriia Nikolaienko, was planning to do great things with her nation’s team. Then war came, and the best runners went to the front lines. She vowed that Ukraine would still compete, and she recruited a team that included three runners over 50 and one 66-year-old. They were the least experienced nation on the roster. Winning wasn’t their goal, though; showing up was.

Training for most Ukrainian team members was nearly impossible between curfews, work and volunteering.

“Every day we ask ourselves, what did I do today to win?” said Oleksandr Slipets of Kyiv, a bank manager. On Feb. 24, he was awakened by a call from his brother. The war had begun. “My brain couldn’t accept it,” he said. “To sort out my thoughts, I went out training.” As he ran, he watched thousands of cars leave the city. He debated whether to flee. The next morning at 5 a.m., a rocket flew into the residential quarter near his house, and more people left. But he resolved to stay and helped build fortifications in residential areas. “We unloaded tons of sand,” he said. “And I forgot what running was.”

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

In Odesa, Dmytro Voytko, 47, sat in his running clothes at home. “It felt dangerous to even go to a grocery or drugstore,” he said. “I saw a rocket in the air hit the airport.” Still, he didn’t give up on his training. He would wait for the air raid sirens to stop, then dart out to run.

They would all join the team. But Nikolaienko, the team’s organizer, wouldn’t be there after all. Twice, Russians soldiers came to her parents’ home in Kherson, a port city in Ukraine occupied since March. The second time, they arrived with long guns in dark-colored cars, and her father was taken. He was released, but the war was relentless. The bombs and stress exacerbated her husband’s epilepsy, and the mother of two injured her Achilles’ tendon. Nikolaienko pulled out three weeks before the race but continued to manage the team.

When race day finally arrived on Oct. 15, nerves and expectations were high around the world. In Vietnam, runners digested big dinners in a large pavilion near the start — the mood festive with Christmas lights and dancing. In New Zealand, they were having midnight snacks, while the U.S. team had a small breakfast before gathering in a corral in Bell Buckle, Tenn. In Germany, the rain was falling and “Hells Bells” by AC/DC was blaring over the sound system.

At exactly 7 a.m. Central time, Lake rang a cowbell and yelled out “happy time,” and teams representing 37 nations from Malta to Mauritius to Mexico jogged simultaneously across starting lines and onto their first loops.

Ukraine started under a bright fall sky at 3 p.m. near a fortification of concrete blocks and sandbags in the Zhytomyr region. To not draw attention, the crew captain, Polina Melnyk, merely said, “One, two, three, start,” and the team, wearing uniforms hand-sewn in Kharkiv, ran out from under a camouflage tent lined with Tibetan prayer flags. An hour later, the police arrived, and the race was ordered to halt. But they kept running.

Oleksandr Olivson, one of the runners and the local organizer of the course, pleaded with the authorities as runners continued. It was safe, he said, and he had the paperwork cleared with the Territorial Defense Forces to run after the curfew. The debate went on for hours until a compromise was reached, and base camp was moved deeper into the forest away from the eyes of self-destructing drones — the time clock covered with a tent.

Elsewhere in the Backyard World Championships, runners plodded along too. Japan would run into darkness as daylight greeted Ecuador. In Mexico, members of the Indigenous Rarámuri tribe, considered to be some of the greatest ultrarunners in the world, lined up alongside their fellow countrymen. There were windswept courses in Malta and Morocco and dogged runners in India and Iceland crossing the line and regrouping.

The U.S. team would end up winning the team competition with a score of 860 combined loops. But as the race seemed to wind down, all eyes were on Western Europe. When Merijn Geerts and Ivo Steyaert of Belgium outlasted a stubborn Japanese team and surpassed the individual world record of 90 loops, it seemed the pair would run forever. The hashtag “break100” began to spring up on social media, and soon they reached it. In the starting corral as the clock ticked down for Loop 102, the two men turned and embraced each other, letting time expire. A round of applause erupted. “This,” said Lake, the mastermind of the toughest races on the planet, “is the first time the runners defeated me.”

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

Yet there is a common belief among backyarders that the runner who comes up a loop short of the winner deserves equal, if not more, respect. This they call “the assist.” The winner can run only as far as the next best runner, plus one loop. While he or she may be able to go farther, the second runner has truly spent everything. For Ukraine, this runner was Slipets, 38.

He finished the 27th loop with a smile that never seemed to leave his face. There was less than a minute to recover when he turned to his friend Nazar Hnat, the only other remaining runner. “Nazar,” he said, “you still need to run one more lap with me.” The sun seemed to fall at that moment, and he put on a headlamp before lumbering forward. They ran together initially, on the same trail they had shared for over a day, a leaf-covered footpath dotted with evacuation trenches of timber. Soon, Slipets began to fall back, and time became his enemy. But he had pushed his teammate forward for the win.

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

It became clear to him, after the atrocities seen in Bucha and Irpin, that the war was an ultramarathon with no end in sight. In that respect, the Backyard World Championships made sense when not much else did. The more it hurt, the more he wanted to run. But the idea that Ukrainians are to be pitied is repugnant to him. “We are strong,” he said. “We chose our way. We chose freedom.”

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