Orkney Backyard Ultra was my third big race of the year and I had deliberately taken it easy since Ultra Scotland 100 four weeks before. This felt quite strange and left me nervous that I wasn’t doing enough, but was definitely the correct approach for me as my final two runs felt great and I felt strong on the day. We were combining OBYU with our family holiday so lots of planning was needed for the race combined with a week’s camping for 6 and a dog! But all was squeezed into the car and trailer and we set off early Friday morning for the 4hr+ drive to Scrabster for the ferry. We were a little early but everyone was quite happy waiting in the car as the sun was shining. The bonus of having the trailer was we went in the large vehicle queue which meant we loaded first (and unloaded first at the other end). The ferry was all straightforward and we spent some time outside on deck and then the rest of the crossing in the dog lounge! We met a couple of others travelling for the race and I began to get a little nervous. The crossing is less than 2 hours so we soon arrived at Orkney and drove straight up to the race field on Twatt Farm with only one small detour when we missed the turning in Twatt!
We arrived late afternoon as the course was being set up and a few others had already arrived. Sarah, the race organiser, was really helpful and we found where we could camp and soon had the tent up and car & trailer unloaded. I was getting quite nervous now as you can see the route from the camping field and it looked like quite a big hill! We sorted tea – pasta, tomato sauce and cheese with apple pies for pudding and then took the dog for a leg stretch. The kids were happy to be out of the car as well! The portaloos deserve a special mention as they were an eclectic mix of what was locally available. The children were particularly horrified by McLoo and his interesting door fastenings!
I had two aims this race, the first was to believe in myself and not let the self doubt monsters take hold and the second was to win (or come as close to winning as I could). I intended to keep starting every lap until I timed out or won and I wanted to do it in as positive a way as I could. Too often my races are affected by doubting myself and questioning my ability and I really wanted this race to be different.
The weather forecast for Saturday was surprisingly warm (and windy) so I planned to start in a vest top and skort and then adjust my top layers as necessary. I wore a buff on my head when the sun was high and there was no cloud, and loads of sun cream was needed. The race didn’t start until midday so we planned to get up and have breakfast and then Iain took the kids and dog for a walk so I could get a couple of hours to myself. I slept surprisingly well on the Friday night considering we were in a tent and got up feeling ready to go. While Iain was away I managed another hour’s nap and then got up and registered picking up my goody bag of local treats, t-shirt, and buff. I also got my race number (no. 8).
By the race briefing at 11.45 I was more than ready to start – it had felt like a long morning and I was desperate to get going and get the first few laps under my belt. The 3 minute whistle was blown at 11.57 and we were in the corral ready to go. At exactly midday the tractor horns sounded and we were on our way, everybody with their own strategies, plans and goals. It was also great to see a nearly equal mix of male and female runners, a pleasant change from most of the races I have done where there are only a handful of women compared to the men.
My plan from the outset was to average 12 minute miles for the lap. With the elevation of the course this meant the first two uphill miles were slightly slower and the last two quicker. The route itself is an out and back. You start by running to the bottom of the field, along the bottom fence back up the side of the field and then down again to the gate in the corner. The field had a few inches of stubble in it and was fine for running although I think a few people were finding it hard on later laps when feet were sore. Once out of the field gate you turned back on yourself to head back up a farm track. This had two deep tracks that were quite stoney and a slightly grassier middle section for about half a mile, just before the track improved and became steeper there was a very overgrown section where it was tricky to see where you were placing your feet (this did get easier in the later laps when it was more trampled down). The track then becomes less rutted and hard packed for a shortish steep section to “abandoned car corner”. A right hand turn here, a more gentle incline and the one mile point. The track continues for a short way before another right turn onto a dead end road. This road passes a few houses and several fields of cows that were very inquisitive and fun to watch / have a chat with! This road is a gentle undulating uphill to the turn around point around a milk churn at the end of the road. Just before this point is the party caravan where amazing volunteers were there to give a morale boost, great music and some fun dancing! There was also water for those that needed. The second half was a reverse of the first. I found I was able to walk most of the ups, run/walk the road to the turn around point and then run back down the road until the turn off onto the farm track. I then tended to run the hardpacked top section of track before walking most of the rutted lower section. I ran the downs in the field and walked the ups. This strategy enabled me to keep to between 49 and 51 minute loops for nearly every lap (a couple were nearer 52 minutes).
Iain and the kids were an amazing crew and Iain was always waiting at the field gate to find out if I had any particular requests for food and drink. He would then nip back across to the tent to get everything ready while I ran the rest of the yard around the field. There was always a lovely welcome as we runners headed back up to the start/finish line and then headed to our individual crews. The first few laps were busy with some fast and some slower runners but the course doesn’t have any bottlenecks so everyone can just do their own thing. During the event I consumed lots of beans and sausages, banana and custard, crisps and sweets, and cups of tea and coke were my go to drinks. I was also making sure to lie down between laps whenever possible and stretch out my legs. The 3 minute whistle would soon sound and by the last whistle I would be ready in the coral. The tractor horns sounded on the hour and we would be off on the next lap. I soon settled into the rhythm of the event and although I enjoyed a few short chats with other runners I made sure to keep to my own pacings and do my own thing. The Saturday afternoon very much felt like I was just getting it done ready for the race to really get started over night and into the next morning. There were a few laps that felt a bit boring but overall I was really enjoying myself and started and finished every lap with a smile on my face. It was too hot for my ideal and I was looking forward to the night and it cooling down!
The sun sets late on Orkney in July and we didn’t need head torches until very late in the evening. It was an amazing sunset and I loved seeing the sun set over the sea as we headed up the hill to the top road. It was stunning! It got windy as you headed up the hill and along the top path. This didn’t really bother me too much but I know some of the other runners weren’t enjoying the wind at all. The night soon passed with only 4 or 5 hours that were actually dark, some runners didn’t even use head torches. I used a head torch as I don’t have great depth perception in the dark and didn’t want to fall over. Into the evening and night it was great to see many runners really pushing themselves and reaching new distance PBs. The field was gradually thinning out and in fact by morning there were a lot fewer runners left than I expected. I was still really enjoying myself and feeling really strong, eating well and drinking plenty. In fact I probably drank too much through the night as I was needing to pee a lot in the morning! I need to give another shout out to the party caravan who were an amazing boost through the night and in fact on every lap.
By the 17th loop there were only 5 of us left running which was a surprise, Ella Corrick had finished 2nd female on 16 yards so it was me and 4 men left in the race. I was pleased to be the last female but also still very confident I could win and most importantly of all was still enjoying myself. I remember saying to the men in the coral that it was now down to me to win it for the girls! Adam “Tango” Holland completed lap 17 and then turned back on loop 18 – we were down to 4 and still a good few laps away from the 24 hour milestone. Martin Gordon turned back at the start of loop 19 and then we were down to 3 runners. The course was now really quiet which was strange, but we had had a nice sunrise and I was still enjoying every lap. The cows were still entertaining me and good for a chat 🤪 Iain and the kids were still keeping me well fuelled and hydrated and all was good. Don’t get me wrong, I was tired and the legs were feeling the miles but I was definitely still having fun and enjoying myself. I had short chats with Mark and Allan during the next few laps but this was now getting serious and I was determined to win so I stuck with my pacing plan and stayed focussed at the task at hand. Mark was doing amazingly and reached his first ever 100 miles at midday and then stopped – we were down to two. I knew Allan was a strong runner and had previously run 31 yards so I was fully expecting and mentally prepared to run into the high 30s of yards. I was slightly nervous as we ran through the afternoon as it was becoming harder work to stick to me lap pacing. But I was still managing it and decided the best strategy was to keep running at the same pacing with a smile on my face and hope that Allan would decide to stop sooner rather than later! By lap 29 my I was beginning to develop shin splints which I was a bit concerned about but I still wanted to stick to my pacing for a few more laps so I walked some of the rougher down hills and made up the time on the top road. This meant the overall lap time was still much the same and I was still smiling.
I have to give a big shout out to the amazing couple who lived on the top road and started coming out on the Sunday morning to give us a cheer each lap. This was amazing and gave me such a boost each lap. I would look forward to seeing them as I came up the hill and then would look out for them as I ran along the top road. Every hour they stopped what they were doing and came to cheer three (and then two) crazy runners on as we pushed to see what we were capable of. Thank you it really helped make a fun event even more special.
When you are down to two runners I discovered it becomes more of a mental as well as physical challenge. The unknown of how long you will be running for is really strange and makes it an guessing game as to whether you should slow down or stick to the same pacing. I was sure we would run to at least 32 yards as I felt certain Allan would be working towards a new PB. So when we started lap 31 and Allan stopped, shook my hand and said that was him done I couldn’t quite believe it. And then the final lap was the strangest of all! I was really worried I was going to do something silly and time out or fall over or somehow mess it up in the final lap! I was also an emotional mess – Iain was at the gate as I ran round the field and I was crying my eyes out shouting at him how much I loved him and the kids. I then had a final run up the hill and passed the lovely couple who had saucepan lids to bang itncelebration of my final lap. It was really special, although the horse in the field opposite wasn’t as impressed! A final thank you to the party caravan and I even stopped for a quick drink (the first time in the race) and then back on down to the field and the finish line. By the time I reached the finish line I was slightly more composed!
It was lovely to run back into the field on the final lap with everyone clapping and cheering (even with it having started to rain). A run over the finish line and I had done it, I had won Orkney Back yard Ultra with 31 yards. I got a fantastic horn trophy and a bottle of gin and a big hug with Iain and the kids. It was a truly fantastic well run event. A huge thanks to Sarah and the team for making it all happen. To Allan as the assist for a great race and to all the other amazing runners and crews – you were all amazing.
It was my favourite race to date and I enjoyed (nearly) every minute of it. I don’t think I have ever smiled so much during a race! Things I learnt from this race and will take forward into future races:
- enjoying yourself makes everything feel easier
- pacing is really important
- smiling makes everything more fun
- celebrating other runners successes makes the whole run more enjoyable
- eat and drink every lap. But not too much fluid through the night!
Foods that worked for me included:
Hula hoops, baby bels, banana and custard, Kellogg squares, beans and sausages, shrimp and banana sweets and KMC gels. Actually I seem to be quite lucky and can eat most things as long as they are gluten free! As for how much I just ate something at the end of each lap and didn’t worry at all about number of calories etc – it worked for me!
I wore my Flanci shorts again and found them really comfy the whole race (as always), I also always wear Runderwear which I find very comfy and I wore Hoka Torrent 2 shoes which I have been wearing more and more for longer runs.
I did get mild shin splints but I think this was mainly down to not running enough hilly trails in preparation (something I will be working on this winter). It was a week later that I went for my first 5k and one ankle was still slightly sore but was ok to run on. I then had a couple of quiet weeks before getting back into a training block mid August when the kids went back to school. I find running during the school holidays really tricky so always planned a quiet few weeks. I only had a few small blisters that soon sorted themselves out. All in all my recovery was straight forward. My only thing to note is planning a family camping trip the week after a big race isn’t the best idea – sleeping on the floor with just a bed roll was not the best!
Some photos by event photographer Peter Fay – thanks!