The world’s fastest backward runner smashes his own record

Last Friday morning, 34-year-old Aaron Yoder ran down a stretch of road near Marquette, Kansas to hit his latest goal: finishing 1 mile in less than five minutes and 54 seconds.

He intentionally chose a road with no potholes and little car traffic because he couldn’t see where he ran — that’s because he would be running backward.

Since 2015, Yoder, a track and field and cross-country coach at Bethany College, has held the Guinness World Record for running the fastest mile in reverse, in that 5-minute and 54-second pace. His goal on Friday: to beat that record, as part of the 2020 New Balance 5th Avenue Mile, a New York Road Runners event that takes place in Manhattan each September, but is being held virtually this year.

On Friday, soaring down that Kansas road, he beat his record by 24 seconds, finishing his mile in 5 minutes and 30 seconds. The longtime forward-motion runner now races in reverse due to knee damage but wanted this effort to show that not only can you keep pursuing what you love, but you can also prove it to others.

“I hope this can inspire others to set goals and go for their dreams, I am proof of that,” said Yoder. “Despite injuries and setbacks, I am making a strong comeback, so can everyone else!”

Yoder was born with running in his blood.

“It definitely, as I say, runs in the family,” said Yoder of his family’s shared passion for running. The Kansas native’s parents are both runners and Yoder and his three brothers, including his fraternal twin brother Daniel, all attended Fort Hays State University in Kansas on track scholarships.

Growing up on a farm, the family had a 4-mile route surrounding their property, on which they’d run — and Yoder got hooked on it around age 5. “I knew that I just loved it,” he said.

But years of running, including 100 miles per week in his college years, led to Osgood-Schlatter disease, tendonitis, a torn meniscus and arthritis. It reached a point where he not only had issues bending his knee, but also difficulty walking. After college, when Yoder was 24, a doctor told him that he should never run again — but if he did, to train like a sprinter, as that activity puts less stress on the joints.

“It was so frustrating because . . . I [didn’t] see a future,” said Yoder, whose running specialties focused on middle to long distances. “But I found this other avenue that I started pursuing, and it ended up being greater in the end anyway.”

All he had to do was turn around and start running in reverse.

Yoder traces his backward running origins to his middle school years. A portion of a former dairy building on the farm gave way to a weight room, and Yoder worked to save the money to buy a treadmill for himself, but he soon found out it didn’t go fast enough for running forward.

“I was probably thinking of different ways to make it harder . . . ‘Oh, I can run backwards on it!’ ” he said.

About a decade down the line, on a day when he had particular difficulties in walking, he decided to give a backward trek another whirl.

“I just turned it around that day and went 4 miles,” he said. “On that day, the dream died of running forward.”

The reason it’s easier to go in reverse, said Yoder based on research he’s read, is that the impact puts more pressure on the ankles — and shortens strides. Not only does it alleviate knee pressure, but it also strengthens the hip flexors and improves posture.

“The one challenge is you can’t see behind you,” he said, later adding, “I’ve fallen down quite a few times, I’m not afraid of falling, either . . . I’ve always just bounced back . . . The reality is you don’t want to look back behind because that slows you down.”

Yoder runs daily, and after running up to 1 mile forward, he’ll do the rest in reverse. He totals between 10 to 12 backward miles weekly — either on a track, a treadmill or a country road.

Moreover, he’s run a marathon fully backward in six hours and, in non-official tallies for world records, has beaten his record 5:54 mile pace by up to 32 seconds. He knew his Friday record would be doable.

“Even this week I did 5:39 on the treadmill . . . and I know I can go significantly under it,” he said, adding that — to train for this event — he would wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning for a backward run.

It’s a quirky skill, but Yoder said he simply aimed to perfect it in an effort of ongoing self-improvement.

“It’s simply showing people when you’re doing what you’re born to do, it’s just like recess,” he said. “When you’re passionate about what you do and you’re guided by whatever you believe in, it’s not a chore. It’s enjoyable.”

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