Jason Bigonia didn’t enjoy much success running track at Noble High or in college. Now, at 44, he’s found his niche in ultramarathons.

The South Bristol middle school teacher has qualified for Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra in Tennessee on Oct. 16, the unofficial world championships of backyard ultras.

Ultramarathons, which have grown in popularity over the past decade, are any distance over a marathon, or 26.2 miles, with the most common distances ranging from 50 kilometers (31.1 miles) to 100 miles. Backyard ultras are a whole other breed of long-distance trail races, in which runners must complete a 4.167-mile loop within an hour – and then proceed to run the same loop once an hour until they can go no farther.

Founded by ultramarathoner Gary Cantrell in 2011, Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra is held on Cantrell’s property in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. The first year, 45 runners entered and the winner ran 19 loops in 19 hours for a total of 79 miles.

The annual race has since attracted runners from England, Australia, New Zealand, as well as from South America, Africa and Asia, Cantrell said. Last year’s winner, Courtney Dauwalter of Colorado, completed 68 loops in 68 hours for a total of 283.33 miles.

“I just thought I’d hold a race one day and didn’t even think people would show up. Now people are running insane distances at it. It’s going to be just madness,” Cantrell said.


Bigonia qualified for the Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra by winning the Pineland Farm’s Last Man Standing backyard ultra in 2020, when he completed 134.4 miles in 32 hours.

This summer, Bigonia is not only logging miles of trails around the Midcoast and at his camp in northern Maine, he’s testing his physiological weaknesses, finding ways to push himself mentally to make sure he can run at least 134 miles, and maybe farther.

“I’d like to get to 200 miles,” Bigonia said. “Then my dream, which is dreamt often, is to win it. I’m not leaving that option out.”

Big goals for a guy who didn’t enjoy running success early in life.

At Noble High School, where he graduated in 1996, he never ran cross country. On the track and field team, he ran the 800 meters, mile and two mile. But he only competed at the state championships once.

“I finished 11th out of 12 in the 800,” Bigonia said with a laugh.


He tried racing for the University of New Hampshire as a walk-on, but it took up too much time for the engineering major. So he left the team. It proved a wise move. He started running marathons.

“I discovered I’m a way better distance runner,” Bigonia said.

In 2000, at his first marathon in Keene, New Hampshire, he finished 10th. Then the next year he took third in the race. And in 2002 he was second, running a personal-best of 2 hours, 39 minutes, 54 seconds. That same year, he won the Sugarloaf Marathon in 2:40.53.

Jason Bigonia has won Pineland Farms’ Last Man Standing backyard ultra three times in the past five years, running 134 miles to win the race in 2020. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Bigonia took several years off before returning to marathoning for one last race before the birth of his first daughter.

“I figured it would be my last hurrah,” Bigonia said. “I went back to the Sugarloaf Marathon for the second time, nine years later. I ran the exact same time – 2:40.”

Bolstered by his success, Bigonia decided to try an ultramarathon on a whim. He tried a 50-kilometer race in Springfield, Massachusetts, and enjoyed it so much that he proceeded to try every distance in the Pineland Farms Trail Festival: 25 kilometers, 50 kilometers and 50 miles. Finally, he discovered the Last Man Standing backyard ultra race held annually on Labor Day weekend at Pineland Farms.


“At first I thought, that sounds really dumb. Then I thought, that sounds really interesting. I tried it, but had no idea I could win it. But I did win that first one,” Bigonia said.

He has won three of the past five Last Man Standing races at Pineland Farms, finishing 71 miles the first year; then 117 miles when he won in 2019, and 134 miles when he took the title last year.

“We have attracted people from all over the country – and other countries. A gentleman came from Germany a couple of years ago,” said Will Cobb, the manager of Back 40 Events, which stages the race at Pineland Farms. “These people have a way of tuning out the exhaustion and pain and the physical.”

As a teacher, Bigonia has plenty of time to train over the summer. His wife, Erica, and two young daughters – Helena, 10, and Liesl, 2 – support him at his races.

And he said his training is based around what works for him: listening to his body, running when it feels good, and avoiding trends and fads in ultra running.

“I’m a big believer in days off. I always take one to two per week. The worst thing for me are what people call ‘streakers,’ consecutive days running. It just breaks you down,” Bigonia said. “It’s cool if some people are motivated by that. It’s not for me.”


Cobb, who has watched Bigonia run a backyard ultra five times, can’t wait to see he does in Tennessee.

“I have not seen Jason done yet,” Cobb said. “I’ve seen people cross the line and they are toast, there is nothing left in the tank emotionally, physically – they have nothing. But even after 134 miles I have no question Jason could have kept going. I’ve never seen him not smiling. It really does beg the question: How far can he go?”

Cantrell, the founder of Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, says Bigonia has a shot at the title.

“I think he will surprise himself and go much farther than he ever expected,” Cantrell said. “With the field here, it is a legitimate world championship. There are 30-something countries represented. But he has no clue what he’s capable of.”

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