God’s Own Backyard Ultra 2022

Where to even start this post? Julie and I went to GOBYU planning to go a long way, exactly how far neither of us quite knew. This way my second Backyard Ultra (after the Cow Shed BYU in April – read that post for a quick intro to the format) so I aimed at a minimum to beat my 27 loop result, and it was Julie’s first go – but we were focused, well organised and worked together as a team. In the end, Julie stopped after 27 loops of her own and I pushed on into the second night of the race, eventually finishing as the last man standing with a total of 37 loops (154 miles) – a new GOBYU course record, not to mention smashing my own longest run by nearly 30 miles! I could stop there, but that would make a very short post indeed. We had such a great time at GOBYU that I thought we’d give you a tour of the event, the route, and of course what I learned along the way to the finish.

For those wondering where the name comes from, GOBYU is held in the outskirts of Leeds, in Yorkshire (“God’s Own County”). The race is based on a Scout campsite at Hunter’s Greave, sandwiched between the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the River Aire, just a few hundred metres from Kirkstall Forge train station. This makes it feasible to get to the race by train – we did, carrying all our food, race gear, tent and sleeping bags. While it was quite a lot to carry, most of the food got eaten and it avoided one of us having to drive back home afterwards. As a bonus, you also get to see lots of trains passing by during the race. The site has plenty of room for tents, a small toilet block (better than portaloos, but only just!), a kitchen and importantly a massive marquee/gazebo for runners to use between laps. The race is organised by 12 in 12 and supported by an awesome team of volunteers – marshals, timekeepers, and tail bikers – all of whom are the friendliest, most welcoming and supportive people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. We went to the November edition of the race, but they also run one in May, the only difference being the number of day and night loops (which use different routes), depending on the available hours of daylight. In November, the race started at 8am with 8 loops in daylight, before switching to the night loop for the next 16 hours and returning to the day loop again at 8am the following day. You can see both loops clearly on Strava below, and the day loop even has its own segment but let’s take a proper tour…

GOBYU day loop

Starting from the corral when the cowbell rings, the first half a mile is on a narrow tarmac path which runs past Kirkstall Forge station before making a short climb up to the canal towpath (I had previous run past here during LLCR – although I don’t remember much of it). Although we didn’t want to have to run too fast at any point, this part can easily bottleneck so we found it worth starting out with a run to get ahead of the crowd in the early laps. A short section of level towpath heads East, leading to a descent of two locks before half a mile of flat. We walked most of this section, letting plenty of people past on the wide path. The first mile ends with a shorter descent down one more lock, before a few hundred metres to the road bridge.

Here you leave the towpath and follow a muddy, gravel track (sadly strewn with fly-tipped rubbish) to reach the road before doubling back and crossing the canal on the bridge. Follow the road for a short while before turning right over a metal barrier – easy at first but required a little effort to “get you leg over” after several laps. It was also possible to squeeze between the barrier and the wall, or duck under the neighbouring, higher barrier if you preferred. A nice section of single-track trail takes you back down to the canal and through some trees before popping out in a field. This was a lot of fun to run along (watch out for the roots hidden under fallen leaves!) but a lot of people went slowly here if they were not confident on trails, or perhaps had road shoes on so again we found it worthwhile either speeding up or slowing down while on the road to ensure their was a good gap ahead before the trail section. An easy run across the field (there were horses in it but they stayed well away) then back in to another twisty, wooded section featuring a shopping trolley, several car tyres, a pylon, a ditch, and another metal barrier to be crossed. In between there was lots of nice twisty trail to be enjoyed! On one loop a rogue swan came wandering off the canal blocking the trail – fortunately we managed to sneak past him without incident. This mile was often the slowest as the trail was muddy and it was hard to avoid getting stuck behind other runners at one point or another.

The third mile begins with the “Stairs of Doom” – a flight of 20 or so large steps that mark the start of the climb up into Bramley Fall park. A very brief level section is followed by a long climb up a tree-lined avenue, eventually topping out about 150 feet above the canal. Good walking speed meant that we often powered past people on this climb. The way back down is a fantastic run, zig-zagging down through open woodlands on soft, easy, leaf-covered trail. I’d thought this mile was going to be the slowest but it was easy to make up for the slower pace of the climb without having to push too hard on the descent. Reaching the canal, you pass by an old concrete pipe section which it seems the neighbourhood dog walkers have designated as a poop bin – this became known (to us) as Poo Corner! Turning hard right, you run along a level embankment, parallel to the canal to complete mile 3.

The first half of mile four consists of a gradually rising (but very runnable) wide trail, before two short flights of stone steps and a little rooty path lead back to the bottom of the Stairs of Doom. This time, however, you turned left and crossed over the canal on the top lock of the flight we ran down in the first mile. Heading back along the canal to the West, you pass the end of the path that leads back to the start and instead continue for almost half a mile to reach the next pair of locks. A short but steep climb to the top before doubling back into the woods to the left to complete the mile.

The final section back to camp was my favourite – a short, twisty trail which was an ideal opportunity to stretch out your legs, before a steep slope down to the Hunter’s Greave access road – a wide, easy, gradual descent back to the starting corral. Most loops we just walked this in, getting ready to have our numbers checked in and head back to do out interloopal tasks.

GOBYU night loop

We had barely got our pacing dialled in on the day loop when dusk fell and it was time to don head torches and switch to the night loop. On the first night (Saturday 5th November), of course we also had a LOT of fireworks to keep us entertained and awake! Fortunately, the weather had been kind and although a thick fog developed, the rain and wind stayed away so it didn’t get too cold and an extra layer and a pair of gloves were all that was needed to stay comfortable. The night loop avoided the technicalities of the trail and the potential danger of the canal crossing on a narrow lock bridge, and stuck mainly to good tarmac paths. The first half was an out-and-back, following the same route as the first mile of the day loop. Passing by the camp, we then continued up the access road to rejoin the canal towpath via a short muddy/grassy section and a few steps. Passing under a bridge, there was a little over half a mile to the turnaround. This section felt quite long (especially in the fog) although there were a few features of interest, including a house on the other side of the canal where the occupants watched us runners with increasing admiration and incredulity, especially when they found us still going on after 36 hours! One marker we used to judge our progress was a metal Heras fence – can’t say I’ve ever had a love/hate relationship with a fence before, but at least once it loomed out of the fog it was only another 0.2 miles to the end of the third mile. From there it was only a short distance to the turnaround, where we retraced our steps to return to the start.

During the night loops, we were followed by a tail biker, and since the course consisted of two out-and-back segments, you got two chances to count lights at the turnaround and get an idea of how people were maintaining (or not) their pace relative to us.

My thoughts

Hopefully the course descriptions give you a good idea of what’s involved, and if you like the sound of it I’d encourage you to come and give it a try. While it’s definitely not flat, it’s a lot easier than some other UK backyard courses, and the night loop gives a good break with much easier underfoot conditions. As I said at the start, I managed to come away with the win – so of course a lot of things went right, but there are also things to improve for next time (!)

  • Team work – while there can only be one winner, this was very definitely built on rock solid team work during the first 24 hours. While we had originally planned on slightly different pacing schedules, on the first loop we decided to stick together and ended up having the best day (and night!) running together that we have ever had 😍 We had a great time out on the loop, and the miles just seemed to fly by! Julie pulled me though my one really tired spell between midnight and 3am where my body was just trying to shut down and go to sleep. In hindsight, I don’t think I returned the favour as when she started to struggle in the morning and eventually decided to quit, I didn’t do enough to convince her to come back out for “one more loop” (and another, and another) as we both think she had more than 27 loops in her legs. Even once she’d quit, Julie got stuck straight into crewing me and made sure I was looked after right till the end.
  • Pacing – we maintained a rock solid 12 min/mile pace for the entire first 24 hours, finishing every loop in 49 or 50 minutes. Keeping to the same pace meant we quickly worked out marker points at which we knew we could run or walk, and meant we didn’t have to think to much about pacing, just sticking to the plan mile by mile. Having 10 minutes spare each loop seemed about right, we had plenty of time to eat, drink and do whatever else needed done (loo stop, change of socks etc.), and during the night loops time for a few minutes of shut-eye before the 3 minute whistles signalled it was time to get ready to go again. The only issue we had with pacing was that when Julie was tired and struggling to stick to the same consistent pace at the start of the second day, we decided to split up and do our own pacing, when in fact we had plenty of time in hand and it would have been better to stick together at a slightly slower pace (only a couple minutes per loop slower), get through the day loop, then go back to the original pacing plan on the night loops. Need to balance consistency with adaptability!
  • Fast walking – Julie has been ‘encouraging’ me for a long time to spend more time practicing walking fast. She can easily hold a pace of under 15 mins/mile, but if I take a walk break in an ultra it would normally be about 17 mins/mile. I ended up taking a couple of weeks off running in the lead-up to GOBYU, to give me knee time to properly heal up and put this to use practising my walking. I’m definitely still slower – I had to break into a trot periodically to keep up with her – but I’m getting closer. One thing that helped was my ‘imaginary poles’ i.e. using my arms like I was walking with poles. This definitely helps to avoid ambling and instead walk with purpose and pace. Walking is much less demanding on the whole body, so the faster you walk the less you’ll have to run, and the longer you’ll be able to keep going overall.
  • Food and drink – Whether it was the slightly slower pace, or the chance to stop and sit for a few minutes, but this was the first ultra where I’ve really felt like I was able to eat whatever I wanted without it making me feel sick. Over the course of the two days, I ate 6 pork pies, several bananas, lots of home-made chia bars, several packets of crisps and biscuits, a bag of dried mango, and of course an entire watermelon! I organised it so I was eating more substantial foods (pie, crisps) at lunch (12 noon) and dinner (5pm) time, and in between snacking. I even had a mid-afternoon tea (cup of tea and chocolate biscuits). As night fell food started to feel like not such a great idea again (as usual), but I switched to taking one gel per hour and that got me through until morning when it was time for a breakfast pork pie again. I drank around 3 litres of KMC Isomix, as well as lots of cups of tea. Hopefully I can replicate this at other ultras – it worked really well!
  • Foot care – I opted to run in my Sense Ride GTX which worked really well, although the grass and leaves were damp my feet stayed dry. I changed socks about half way through, and the only real issues I had were one toenail which dug in to the neighbouring toe – lots of blood but didn’t hurt too bad – and some blistering on the balls of my feet. This seemed to be caused mainly by the combination of repeated towpath pounding, and then switching back onto the trail loop and having my feet move around a bit again. We managed to get them patched up and they were no bother during the second night, but might have got quite sore if I had ended up back on the trails for a third day. Another argument for taking it slower on the day loop!
  • Mind games – having solid pacing for the first day was the foundation for everything. We could see people ahead of us slowing and then gradually dropping out, which gave us both a lot of confidence we were doing well. On the second morning I got a massive buzz as the sun came up and switching back onto the trail loop felt like it gave me a new pair of legs, and of course I made sure everyone in the corral knew it! Even after she dropped, Julie was making sure to sow the seeds of doubt in other runner’s mind and point out at the start of each loop that I was still looking great. Whether it made any difference or not I don’t know, but it was fun to try! Once it was down to two of us, I just made sure that I was always going to be in front, and gradually ground down Luke (the eventual assist) over the course of the 8 or so loops that we ran as the final pair.
  • Camping – logistically it all worked fine, but the night after the race neither of us slept well with sore bodies in small sleeping bags and basic roll mats. I eventually got up in the night and curled up to sleep in the scout hut! Next time, we might book a room somewhere for the night after – the only challenge being if that should be the Monday or the Tuesday night…

Julie’s thoughts

I came away from GOBYU having had a brilliant weekend, I loved running with Iain and everyone was so welcoming and friendly. The day loop wasn’t my favourite but I loved the night loop (apart from the run to the fence) and luckily there were a lot more night loops! The whole event was well organised and great to be a part of.

However a week later and I can’t help but feel disappointed not so much with how I ran but how I finished! I knew going into the event that backyard ultras are a mental game as much as about running and I was confident that after crewing Iain at the Cowshed Backyard Ultra earlier in the year I had learnt a lot about keeping going. I knew my weak spot would be at daybreak when for whatever reason having happily kept going all night my body decides it is time for sleep! This also coincided with swapping to the day loop which I didn’t enjoy as much and then on top of that Iain got a second wind and spent the first 2 day laps super excited and happy.

Rightly or wrongly I was left feeling that I was holding Iain back and I decided it was time for us to run seperately. I think this could have worked but for the fact I hadn’t put a plan or structure for the lap in place, everyone else still looked strong and at that point I mentally quit. I had decided I wanted to match the 27 laps that Iain ran on his first backyard and when that target was met I just stopped. In hindsight I should have had many more mini goals in place but I had lost the mental game by now. I was still easily finishing the loop in the hour, nothing was broken and I was still eating and drinking well. So why did I stop??? In that moment I was 100% certain that stopping was the right decision – that’s the danger of a backyard ultra! Looking back I am certain that I had a good number of laps still in me and the fact that I could walk normally the next day and had only one small blister on a toe supports that.

GOBYU is an event that I need to come back to as I am certain I have more to give. And before next November I need to work on building my own internal self drive and determination so that when external factors are a challenge I keep pushing on!

That’s a wrap on the blog for now – I still can’t believe I managed to pull off my first race win since 2019 😃 We’ll be back at a GOBYU next year to see if I can defend my title, but first Julie is planning to do a solo race at the Highlander BYU, and see if she can go further with my support as a full-time crew. Let us know if you’re planning any Backyard races in the coming year – we might see you there 👋

Some photos are taken from the GOBYU Facebook group – thanks to everyone who posted them 🙏 Apologies for the blurred ones which are mostly mine, taken on the run!