Went to Leeds, ran 31 yards, DNF’ed, went home again. That’s pretty much what our weekend at God’s Own Backyard Ultra amounted to, but at the same time it was so much more than that! Hours spent on the trail, time in camp catching up with our “backyard family”, seeing many people smash their own goals as the race went on and then finishing as we started – together – made this one of the best events we’ve been to in a long time. So here’s the full story…
After our first time at GOBYU in November 2022, we knew for certain that we’d be back. Iain had the course record of 37 yards to defend, and Julie knew she had more than 27 yards to give. We signed up as soon as entries opened and were looking forwards to ending our 2023 ultra racing season on a high. Both of us had won several ultras already this year, but this would be our first chance to race together – and we both wanted to go out in style. Spoiler alert: we had agreed beforehand that even though there can only be one winner at a Backyard Ultra neither of us was going to race for the win. Our only goal was to go as far as we could together, aiming to be the last two left in the race and then finish together, the only question was how far that would be?
We won’t repeat a detailed overview of the event format and the course – see last year’s race report if you want that. This year we both took Friday off work and after seeing the kids off to school and welcomed the grandparents who would be left in charge for the weekend (and more), we packed and set off for Leeds. We arrived by late afternoon and checked in to the Met Hotel which was just a block away from the train station. We were glad only to be staying here before the race, as the lift was out of service and we had a room on the 5th floor! Time for a final carb-loading meal at Zizzi’s (a favourite of ours as they have an excellent gluten-free selection), last minute shopping trip and then off for an early night by 9pm.
We both slept amazingly well for the night before a race, although we did hear the rain in the night – which more than justified the decision not to be sleeping in a tent! Unfortunately the 6.30am train out to Kirkstall Forge was cancelled, so we had to take a taxi but we still arrived in plenty of time just as dawn broke to the event HQ / campsite at Hunter’s Greave. It was really nice to see many people that we knew from last year’s event or that we had seen around at Orkney, Lionsgate and Golspie BYUs throughout the year. We managed to bag ourselves a decent table at the back of the competitor’s marquee – furthest from the corral, but more importantly close to the hot water urn, kitchen and the toilets! We had loads of time to have a couple of cups of tea, plenty of breakfast (including sausage rolls 😋), collect our numbers and say hello to folk before the 3 whistles sounded at 7.57am and we headed in to the corral for the first time. Funnily enough, we had race numbers 1 & 2 – but it wasn’t a seeding, just that we happened to be the first ones to sign up when entries opened – at least that’s what we were told!
We were still chatting away in the corral when the cowbell rang to signal the start of the race so we hastily started watches and set off onto the course. We had planned to adopt a run-walk strategy, aiming for an average of 12:30min/mile or roughly 52 minutes per yard. This was a couple of minutes slower than last year, but we felt that 8 minutes rest was just about long enough to do everything we needed as we didn’t have our own crew. Since we can both walk pretty fast, this meant that well over half the distance could actually be walked, which is a great way to minimise the impact on your body when planning to go a very long way. Several people commented on our walking speed (usually as we overtook them on the course 🤣) and while we’re sure having long legs does help it is also something that you can train for! Last year, Iain kept having to trot after Julie during the walking segments but this year we were both able to keep up a <15 minute mile walking pace throughout the entire first day and night. We also found that last year being dead set on hitting the exact same pace every mile is counter-productive – not only are some miles more difficult than others, it’s also mentally challenging when you eventually cannot hit your target pace any more. This time, we aimed to bank a faster 12 minute first mile on the canal, and allow for a slower mile or two then make up any time we needed in the last mile, back on the canal path.
This year, the second mile had a couple of obstacles – firstly a fallen tree which had to be climbed or diverted around (via a very muddy field), followed by a major course change as the section of Bramley Falls Park which the trail should have passed through was cordoned off and had been treated to contain an infestation of Japanese Knotweed. Instead, we headed straight up the Leeds and Bradford road for around 2/3 of a mile before entering the park. This was a bit of a blessing in disguise as although it introduced more elevation gain, the section of trail near the “Spaceman” was deep in standing water after the overnight rain and would have been hard going! The third and fourth miles were the same as last year, although the ground was very muddy in places in the park, and being a couple of weeks later in the year there was a lot more fallen leaves and slippery mulch.
It didn’t take us long to settle in to a good rhythm, although Julie was surprised by different niggles starting after only 3 or 4 yards – perhaps 5 weeks since Lon Las Cymru meant she wasn’t 100% recovered. The first day loops passed quickly – there were lots of runners on the course, many dog walkers on the canal path and in the woods, and runners from another local race were also passing by on the final canal section. Before we knew it, 8 yards were done and it was time to switch to the night loops.
Head torches on, we set out on the out-and-back-and-out-and-back night loop. It was still light enough not to need a torch at 4pm, but half an hour later and it was properly dark! We aimed again to average 12:30 min/mile but since every mile is almost flat we were taking it a bit easier on the first mile than we had been during the day. One of the nice features of the night loop is that at each turnaround point you get to see how many runners are still in the race, and how far ahead or behind us they were. As the night hours ticked on we saw the fast front runners gradually drop off the pace and eventually drop out, and runners at the back struggling to make it back within an hour. Several times, runners would make it back to the corral after the final whistle, and either head back out on a doomed final yard, or DNF there and then!
Julie loves night running, which is just as well as Iain’s body likes to go to sleep during the night, so we were able to keep each other going throughout. Neither of us slept at all, although we both took turns shutting our eyes for a few minutes in a chair before returning to the corral to start the next yard. As the number of runners still in the race dwindled, the marquee became emptier and by the early hours of the morning, Iain was able to first commandeer some more comfortable camping chairs, and eventually an entire extra trestle table, which he folded flat and used as a bed!
16 hours of darkness is a long time, but eventually dawn arrived. Despite the (arguably) easier course change, and the relatively benign weather (no all-night fog, little rain, and mild temperature), only 10 runners were left at the 24-hour mark. Having said that, everyone was still looking strong, and it definitely seemed like the race had the potential to go on for a while. We managed the shift back on to the day loop pretty well – this was something that Julie had struggled with last year – going a little bit faster in the first mile to allow for slower second and third miles over the hillier and trail-y parts of the course. After the usual night of gels and energy drink, Iain’s stomach had woken back up, and there were pork pies for breakfast, and porridge for Julie!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a few more runners dropped after completing their 24-hour, 100 miles effort and by the 26th yard there were only six of us left in, all veterans from the previous year: Eleanor, Craig, George, Luke (last year’s assist) and the two of us. Craig dropped after yard 27 (looked like he’d taken a tumble somewhere on course), leaving the final five. George was having a great race, having at long last pushed past 24 hours and was looking strong. Eleanor after having a wobble on one of the first loops on day 2 was approaching a personal best, and Luke was (as usual) trundling round at the back of the field looking like he would keep running for days! We tried our best to ignore what everyone else was doing and kept banging out 52-ish minute loops. We reminded ourselves that in the backyard it doesn’t matter how far in front or behind you are of anyone else… you just need to make sure you finish the loop with enough time to take care of yourself, and keep doing that until everyone else stops!
On yard 29 things started to get interesting! Eleanor and Luke had generally been behind us for a few yards now, but George had been out in front and on this yard we left them all far behind as we pushed on up the hill on mile two. We didn’t see anyone behind us at any point during the rest of the loop, and just before the end one of the marshals said something about the others being picked up in a car and us being the the last 2 runners! We got back the corral to find Luke and Eleanor had indeed bailed out mid-loop but George was still out on the course. When the one-minute whistle blew we went to the corral and suddenly George came sprinting down the course and made it back with a few seconds to spare. His Dad thrust a fresh bottle of drink into his hands, a bit of food and he sprinted off again to start yard 30 😱
Not really sure what to make of this, we just kept to our pacing plan and sure enough we caught up with him part way up the hill in the park. We made it back to camp in about 52 minutes again, and this time George was back with a bit more time to spare. The three of us set off again on yard 31, but just around the first corner, George stopped, shook hands with us and headed back to DNF – we had made it to the final two, just as we had hoped and planned!
By the time we got off the canal path and started up the hill, we had made our minds up – we already knew that we were going to DNF together but decided we were going to complete this one and final lap. Just like a normal Backyard Ultra finish, we’d do one more lap than the next person and that would be the end of the race. Both of us definitely had the legs to keep going longer – much longer if it had been needed – but were both completely content to wrap up the race there and then. We enjoyed the final lap so much we were actually a little bit faster, even running the whole of the final tarmac section down in to the corral where we had a big hug and announced that we were both Refusing To Continue and the race would end with no winner at 31 yards!
It’s always a bit of a funny anti-climax at the end of a BYU as most of the runners have packed up and gone home. Luke, Eleanor and George were still around, along with crews, the marshals, medical support and the organisers so we had a nice little crowd for the presentation of our Yorkshire goody bags – including (rightly), a pair of DNF mugs! There had been a lot of speculation about whether we would race for the win, or how long we would go on for – so it was quite fun to be able to spring a double-DNF surprise – and we think most people agreed it was a fitting end to the race 😄
We both had Monday and Tuesday off work, and no return travel booked as we had been prepared to run as long as it had taken to outlast everyone else. As a result, we didn’t have to rush home that night – we had the luxury of a takeaway dinner, 12 hours sleep in a hastily-booked Travelodge, and an all-you-can-eat breakfast before taking the train back home on Monday, followed by a day of unpacking and recovering on Tuesday. A perfect end to a perfect long weekend!
It’s true of every ultra race, but GOBYU more than most is simply an amazing community of like-minded people. We have absolutely found our “tribe” and loved every minute of our time with you all (even Darren 😜). Thanks to everyone involved in putting on and taking part in the event, you make it what it is and although we don’t think we can make it back next year we’ll be watching with interest and are sure it will continue to go from strength to strength. If you’ve never tried a Backyard Ultra before be sure to keep your eyes peeled for when entries open – you won’t regret it!
Thanks to everyone who took photos and shared them to the GOBYU Facebook group, we’ve used many of them here!