Last weekend, we travelled to Wheelbirks Farm in the Northumberland countryside so I could run my first ever Backyard Ultra. Since the first “Big’s Backyard Ultra“, hosted by the legendary Lazarus Lake in his literal backyard in Bell Buckle, Tennessee in 2011, hundreds of similar events have spawned worldwide, each of which gives entrants the change to qualify for the individual or national championships. If you’ve never heard of it, the format of the race is very simple. Taking place on a 4-and-one-sixth mile loop, runners must complete each loop and be ready to start the next before the hour is up. This repeats unless all but one runners have quit or timed out – leaving the last man (or woman) standing to complete one final victory loop, with all the others recording a DNF (Did Not Finish). The world record, set by Harvey Lewis at Big’s in 2021 currently stands at 85 yards – that’s 354 miles in a little over 3.5 days! The backyard is designed that it’s not too hard to complete a single loop, but gradually fatigue and tiredness creep up on you, making it truly possible to find your own limit. Sounds like my idea of fun 🙃
The race was due to start at noon on Saturday, but with registration and the camping field open from Friday afternoon we made sure to arrive early enough to grab a prime site, right next to the start/finish corral. Saving a few metres at the end of each lap could add up to quite a lot and make a difference as the race went on – marginal gains! Julie and Rhona were to be crewing for me (the rest of the kids were left with their grandparents for the weekend), and between us we quickly got our tent up. We brought our family 6-sleeper tent, which was more space than we’d need for sleeping but had plenty room to move our aid station indoors if needed. As the afternoon went on the field filled up with at least 50 or so other runners with tents and camper vans. At registration, I had a chance to chat to the organisers from Greener Miles Running who said that in addition to the nearly 100 solo entrants, there would be another 40 runners making up the Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales teams as the race was part of the Four Nations Trophy series. So it would be a busy start, and we could expect a long race!
After a hearty pasta dinner we settled down for an early night in the tent and slept well until morning. Good thing, as we were not expecting to be getting much sleep on Saturday night! The day dawned dry, hazy and cold – but the forecast was set fair all weekend, with a little bit of cloud. After several days of dry weather, the conditions looked pretty benign. By mid-morning, the campsite had filled up even more, plus there were runners who were planning only for a few loops. There was a real buzz about the place, and it was nice to meet to some of the Team Scotland runners – I’m sure we’ll cross paths again in future. Each entrant had been given a £10 voucher for the Wheelbirks Ice Cream Parlour so Julie and Rhona set off to investigate that, leaving me to have an early lunch and get changed ready for the race. After a few last minute photos, all the runners were gathered in the starting corral for a short race briefing, followed by the 3-minute, 2-minute and 1-minute whistle blasts, a 10 second countdown to the hour, and we were off!
The exact course was a bit of a mystery before the race. It’s on private, working farm land so we were asked not to recce it, and there were several changes to the previous year’s route as well as a different start/finish location. From the start line, we climbed gradually through a few grassy fields before crossing the farm access road and heading straight up a half mile climb on a gravel track. Turning sharply back at the top, a short descent through another field made up the end of the first mile. Rejoining a track, we continued back down towards the farm buildings before turning right and following a grassy track along hedge line out towards the boundary of the farm and a nearby forestry plantation. Zig-zagging through a clear-felled area with good grassy and heathery ground underfoot, we entered the forest itself, with dry, rooty and pine cone strewn floor to reach the end of the second mile. We came briefly out of the forest again before a short, wooded, plunging descent down to the Stocksfield Burn. The path here was very muddy in parts, but great fun to run down and actually quite easy on the legs. Crossing the burn on a narrow plank bridge led to a short but steep ascent on a very boggy and slippery path, which only got worse as hundreds of runners slithered up it lap after lap. A nice bit of single track through open woodland led out onto more fields, and a gradual descent to end the of the third mile. The fourth mile started with a large loop around the perimeter of a field, before another short descent on hard packed dry ground through trees to a tarmac road. Re-crossing the now larger burn on a stone bridge, we made a short, sharp climb on the road before heading back into farmland. Following yet another wide track around the edge of a field, we popped out at another plank bridge over a ditch. This led directly back into the lower corner of the camping field, and a short rise over the grassy ground back up to the start/finish line. With over 400 ft of elevation gain and loss on each lap, and boggy and rough underfoot in places this was definitely not an easy course! Nevertheless it was definitely achievable in well under an hour.
Loop by loop
Note that these recollections might not be 100% accurate! As you’ll imagine, it’s hard to tell one loop apart from another…
Loop 1 (47:19) The first loop was really all about learning the course. Feeling fresh, I was able to walk everything that was even slightly uphill, gentle runs on the downhills and still finish well under my planned pace of 12 minute per mile (which works out to a 50 minute loop). It was still overcast, with a little bit of a breeze and I started with a thin long-sleeved base layer. By the end of the loop the sun had come out and I was heating up! Off with the base layer, on with the sun cream and plenty of time to rest up before starting the next lap. One runner came in near the end of the hour, but was unable or unwilling to complete the next.
Loop 2 (47:25) The sun was fully out now, but there was a cool breeze on the higher parts of the course. My legs were still feeling strong, and I found I was able to start slowly, but pass a lot of people on the walk up the first big hill. Overall I was probably still going a bit too fast, but still feeling good!
Loop 3 (48:21) Managed to get the initial adrenaline rush out of my system and slowed down a little bit!
Loop 4 (47:52) Sweating bucketloads in the heat of the afternoon, but drinking plenty and eating a variety of food – mainly salty stuff like crisps, some dried fruit and nuts, and my all-time favourite – watermelon!
Loop 5 (47:35) One runner said that the furthest she had ever run before was a half marathon, but completed 4 loops (16.67 miles) and headed out for the fifth. Sadly, she wasn’t able to finish in the hour.
Loop 6 (47:48) 25 miles completed! It was dinner time in camp, and Julie had prepared a hot dog and roll for me, which I wolfed down.
Loop 7 (48:13) As we set off, the news went round that last year’s winner had dropped out with an injury! This loop passed the marathon mark so we were now officially running an ultra. It seems this was enough for many as this was the last completed loop for 13 runners.
Loop 8 (48:40) Still in short sleeves, but off with the sun hat and on with the buff and head torch. It was still light at the start of the loop, but dark enough to need the torch in the forest sections. While I was out, Julie and Rhona moved our aid station inside the tent, so I could sit down and eat in the warm.
Loop 9 (48:33) The first proper night loop. Although it was still quite mild, I switched into a thermal base layer. I was still sweating a lot so I knew I could easily get cold. A full moon rose in the East, glowing through the clouds that had rolled in.
Loop 10 (49:43) As night fell, I was hitting a bit of a low. I had 40+ miles in my legs and my glutes in particular were starting to feel it. Nothing else for it, I just kept plodding on – I wasn’t actually much slower than the previous lap anyway.
Loop 11 (48:32) The temperature was dropping a bit, and the breeze which had been nice during the day was still blowing, making it a bit chilly along the exposed second mile from the top of the first hill to the forest. I grabbed an extra buff to wear round my neck, which worked well.
Loop 12 (50:13) 50 miles in the bag, and again this was the point for many runners to call it quits, with 19 pulling out or failing to complete the next loop. This loop ended up being the my slowest so far (although only by a minute or so), so I gave myself a bit of a talking to when I got back to camp and resolved to work harder at the next loop.
Loop 13 (47:17) With some renewed effort, I put in a much faster loop – in fact faster than I’d done at any point in the race so far! So the legs were doing fine, I just needed to keep going…
Loop 14 (47:34) It was now 2am and the mid-way point of the night. Julie was having a hard time with repeatedly having her sleep interrupted by me turning up at the end of the loop. She was still making sure I was eating, and otherwise OK, but when the first whistle went and I got up to return to the corral, she managed to jam the zip of the tent and had forgotten to refill my hand-held bottle! In the end, both were solved in well under a minute with plenty of time to get into the corral.
Loop 15 (48:00) Completing this loop would mark the 100k distance, but it didn’t start well! On my way to the corral my stomach was feeling decidedly dodgy, and on cue I started throwing up 30 seconds before the bell. I couldn’t risk leaving the corral, so just hung my head over the edge and let fly! When the loop started I was still coughing up for the first minute or so, but after that I was OK again. The only good thing about being sick on an ultra is that you always feel much better straight after. It wasn’t ideal that I had another 4 miles to go before I could start replenishing the lost calories though. The rest of the loop passed without incident and I refuelled again back in the tent.
Loop 16 (47:56) At the end of this loop, I had my only proper sleep of the race. It only lasted a few minutes but I was sound asleep when the whistles blew. Julie woke me up and apparently I just stared straight through her, looking completely disoriented!
Loop 17 (48:35) The moon was now starting to dip towards the horizon, and the sky was beginning to light slightly, even though it was only 5am. After 8 solid night loops, dawn was within touching distance.
Loop 18 (47:39) It was starting to get properly light now and by the end of the loop I was able to ditch the head torch entirely. As the dawn broke, my spirits lifted and my legs came back to life – these next few loops around dawn were the ones I enjoyed most out of the whole race. At the end of this loop, Julie had cooked a bacon roll – but one nibble and I knew I couldn’t stomach it. More for Rhona!
Loop 19 (46:48) The first fully light loop of the morning – I had survived the night! Despite my stomach not being entirely settled, I ran my fastest loop of the race. When I finished the loop I had plenty of time to switch into day mode. Toilet stop, teeth brushed, off with the thermal top and buff, and on with sun cream and hat. The sun was coming up, and the forecast was for another hot day.
Loop 20 (47:11) There’s nothing quite like running in the morning after going through a whole night. This is the third time I’ve done it in a race, and it’s always a great feeling! I wasn’t taking in much food at this point – just a gel and picking at a few things in between laps – but had plenty of energy and was still keeping up a good pace.
Loop 21 (47:48) The field had thinned out by now, with only 14 runners left by the end of this loop. Those of us that remained were focussed on the next three loops that would take us up to the 100 mile marker.
Loop 22 (47:35) I was really not feeling like eating by this point. I’d been taking a gel each lap, plus whatever else I felt I could manage, as well as sipping on coke. Julie made a great discovery – there were Chia Charge bars being given away – which were 150 calories each, and seemed to be acceptable to my stomach.
Loop 23 (48:50) As the day really started to heat up, I started to slow again. More coke and chia bars kept me going. Sadly, a Team Scotland runner – one of the only two remaining ladies – couldn’t complete this lap and finished 8 miles short of the 100. The winner of Last Lady Standing was decided (although she was still going strong).
Loop 24 (49:31) The hundred mile loop was a strange one. I knew I was going to complete it, but I was definitely starting to struggle. Although I did make it in under 50 minutes, there were a lot of negative thoughts starting to creep in. One of the runners was looking very strong – sprinting ahead at the start of every lap, and looking like a shoe-in for the win. My right quad in particular was starting to hurt quite a bit on the descents. Not enough to stop me actually moving, but enough to be a constant niggle, and (since I’d effectively ruled myself out of the win) make me doubt the wisdom of carrying on.
Loop 25 (50:15) 6 runners quit after completing the 100 mile distance, leaving 7 of us in the starting corral to start the second day of racing. I was still moving OK, but starting to move with less speed and purpose, and in a really bad place mentally.
Loop 26 (52:24) 5 of us gathered in the corral to start this loop, but one stopped as soon as the bell rang to set us off, leaving only 4 remaining runners. Getting off the start line I was really stiff and sore, although I was able to break into a bit of a shuffle and get myself round the loop. By the time I finished, I was mentally checked out and ready to quit. Julie had other ideas, however! She pointed out I still had over 7 minutes spare – I should just keep pushing and see if I could turn it around. Who was I to argue? I made my way back to the corral to start loop 27.
Loop 27 (56:02) Julie could see I was really suffering as we set off, and was feeling pretty bad for sending me back out – but I appreciate it, and would have done the same had it been the other way round! I didn’t want to be out on this loop, and I knew it was my last. It was a strange making my way round the familiar loop, passing each landmark for what I knew was going to be the last time. On every other lap, I had walked all the way up the finish field, but this time I did my best to manage a bit of a jog. Crossing the line, I had an emotional hug with Julie and collapsed in the chair. Even now, she still had a gel ready and opened, and a bottle of Irn-Bru, but I was done!
As the whistles blew to count down to the start of loop 28, I did at least make it back up to the corral, but with no intention of running the loop. When the bell rang to start the lap, I clapped the last three runners off and dropped out of the race.
After lying on my back with my legs up for a while, we decided it was better to take down our tent and head home – the race might well go on for several hours (or even days), and apart from the remaining runners/crews, the Four Nations marquee, and the registration tent, everyone else had already gone. Plus we had vouchers for the ice cream parlour and it closed in an hour! Julie and Rhona did most of the hard work getting packed away, while I hobbled around and recieved my DNF memento. Before long, we were ready to go for a swift ice cream and head home.
I was keeping an eye on updates on the event Facebook page to see how the race panned out. The biggest surprise was Robert, who had looked so strong throughout, dropped after completing the 29th loop! The last two runners, Paul and Sarah, carried on until dusk, when Paul dropped after the 32nd loop, leaving Sarah to complete her 33rd and final loop for a well deserved win 👏👏👏
Looking back on the race a week later (still with sore legs!) I have mixed feelings. In one sense I’m happy to have placed as high as 4th (even if it still counts as a DNF), and while I maybe didn’t give quite my 100% on the day, I don’t think I could have gone on from how I was feeling on lap 27 to complete another 6 of more hours of racing. However, overall there definitely was room for improvement! Some of the things that went well:
- My crew were brilliant throughout. They had everything ready for me, when I needed it (even in the middle of the night), knew when to give me space, and pushed me that little bit harder than I would have pushed myself right at the very end. Thanks Julie and Rhona 😍
- Up until the last few laps, I managed to maintain a consistent pace of around 47-49 minutes per loop, despite the crowds for the first few laps, changing temperature and ground conditions.
- Fuelling and hydration. I do seem to get a dodgy stomach when it’s hot, but with the variety of food I had available, I was able to keep to my plan of around 200 calories and 250 ml of electrolyte drink per lap. I was never hungry, low on energy or cramping up.
- Shoe choice. After having major foot issues on the Lady Anne’s Way, I bought a pair of Salomon Sense Ride 3 GTX and had run about 50 miles in them before the backyard to wear them in. I used to run in Gore-Tex shoes a few years ago, and while they’re no use if it’s really wet (like very heavy rain, river crossings, marshy ground) as water will get in one way or another, they are great when there is a little bit of damp, like the few squishy patches and lots of wet dewy grass overnight. My feet stayed dry and had no major blistering, even though I managed to wear through a brand new pair of socks at the heel!
- Race prep. With the Friday off work, we were able to get our tent pitched early, no stress, a solid night’s sleep and plenty of time to fuel up in the morning. As a result I think I was in pretty much top form for the race and had no issues staying awake through the night.
- My watch. I recently reviewed the Garmin Fēnix 6, and although this time I did charge it a little bit after loops 22 and 23 – there was enough battery left to easily reach 26 or 27 hours. The better battery life was probably due to not using navigation mode, and having less hours of night (so less use of the backlight). The “Ultra Run” mode was also great as I was able to use the split button at the end of each loop to start a rest period and the split again to start the next loop. With pace and elapsed time displayed each mile (re-starting at each loop), it was easy to know how I was pacing myself throughout the loop.
Some points for improvement:
- Choice of pace. In hindsight, I think aiming for 12 minutes per mile (50 mins per loop) was a bit too fast, plus I was actually slightly faster than that overall anyway. Having around 12 minutes rest each loop was more than I really needed. Although I sat with my eyes shut for 5 mins quite a few times, there was only once that I actually slept, and even then only for a couple of minutes. I ended up getting quite stiff and cold by the time I had to return to the corral to start each loop. I think it would be better to aim for something like 53 or 54 minutes per loop, and only putting in a faster loop if I needed the time for a loo break or a sleep.
- Being more adaptable. For most of the first day, I was hitting pretty close to 12 minutes for the first mile, but as night fell and my walking pace started to slow I was getting closer to or over 13 minutes. My response was to speed up on miles 2 and 4 (which have the most downhill) to make up time and hit my goal pace. In fact, as I just mentioned I had plenty of time to spare so it would have been better to be more relaxed about the pace, let my lap time slip slightly but conserve energy by walking more rather than running needlessly to make up time. I believe it’s also quite normal to slow a bit at night anyway – so not something to be overly concerned about!
- Goal setting & motivation. Coming into the race, in my head unless I picked up a major injury, my minimal goal was to get to the 100 mile mark, something I’ve done before (albiet not with this much elevation). Apart from that my next goals were to get to 150 miles – further than I’ve ever gone before (not to mention further than Julie will go when she does the KACR 145 in July 😳), and then finally I had hoped I might be able to challenge for the win. I’d already found the going much harder than I had expected quite early in the race, and after passing the 100 mile mark, I was thinking about what I should be aiming for next. I definitely wanted to do a few more loops, just to see how things went, but 150 miles seemed a long way off – another 12 hours of running, and the other 3 remaining runners looked much stronger so I didn’t believe I had a real chance of winning. Firstly, the strongest-looking runner dropped only 2 loops after me – so I should learn not to care about what everyone else is doing. Secondly, I need to find goals that are more achievable, or bite-sized. I realised afterwards that my longest ever running duration was 27 hours and 12 minutes, so doing the 28th loop would have beat that. Then I would have only been 3 more loops to beat my longest ever distance… and then the 150 mile might have been within reach after all. Ultimately, it’s about getting yourself in the zone to keep pushing out one more loop… and staying there!
Overall, I had a great time at the Cow Shed – thanks to all of the other runners and supporters, the marshals, organisers and of course my own crew for their part in that 👏👏👏 As it was my first time in a backyard, it’s definitely given me an itch to scratch. Unfortunately I can’t make it to either the Welsh or Scottish legs of the Four Nations Backyard Trophy – but there’s always next year, plus a couple of other possible events I have an eye on! If you’ve never tried a Backyard Ultra before, I totally recommend it, no matter how far you think you can go.