What Is A Backyard Ultra?!
Originally the invention of Lazarus Lake, aka that guy that runs the infamous Barkley Marathons, Backyard Ultras are a strange category of events that I'd always wanted to have a go at.
They work like this: at the beginning of the hour you all leave the start line and run a 4.2 mile loop. For most runners comfortable with running 10k distance (6 miles), covering 4.2 miles in an hour is pretty achievable, right?
But here's the rub, you have to be back inside the starting pen for when the hour ticks over into the next, to go and do that same loop again. And you do that each hour, every hour, until you can't.
Your race may look like a little this:
- 09:00 - First lap starts
- 09:00-09:40 - You finish the first lap
- 09:40-09:58 - Rest, eat some snacks
- 10:00 - Second lap starts
- 10:00-10:45 - You finish the second lap
- 10:45-10:58 - Toilet trip, refill your water bottles
- 11:00 - Third lap starts
And so on. If you aren't in the start pen when the hour ticks over you are OUT. If you don't get back in time, you are OUT. If you are stuck on the toilet and your miss the starting horn, you..are...OUT.
This loop format continues until there is only 1 runner left. If you're thinking that must be a nightmare for the organisers, I'd imagine you are right!
The Dirty Dozen
The Narbeth Nobblers over in Pembrokeshire put on their own twist on the Backyard Ultra with The Dirty Dozen: it follows the same format with 2 changes:
- It is limited to 12 loops, 11 warm up loops then the 12th is a race. This makes it easier to plan for and more friendly to a first timer like myself
- They have a wheel of misfortune spun before the next lap which changes the direction you go around the loop (surprisingly impactful!)
The folks who run it were brilliant, full of smiles, cheers and support. I especially liked the volunteer who held the Bell of Shame up to runners as they completed their laps, with a cheeky bit of banter tempting folks to ring it, finishing their race.
It's also cheap as chips (£35) and all profits goes to local charities.
Rhod, Andrew, Tim, Sean and myself from the Running Punks all decided to have a go and see what it was like. Little did we know it was going to be a hardcore day out.
Starting at Townsmoor Car Park we all parked up close enough to the start line that we'd lose little time getting back to the cars for resupplies.
The starting pen was placed at the top of a hill so when the horn went it was a quick crowded descent down a sloppy, mucky hill with everyone trying to keep their footing (and a few failing).
Up next was a long steady mile to get to the loop itself. On the way out it's mostly flat or downhill and a good way to settle into things.
Reaching the crossroads most laps went right, but later on a few would go in reverse and turn left to go clockwise round the loop.
Going anti-clockwise a short stretch of fields led to a squeaky kissing gate, squeaky enough that when we bunched up queuing around it on those early laps it was annoying as heck 😅
The gate led to a short sloped muddy field, into a quick stretch of woods then to the highlight of the course: the Hill of Doom.
Steep, surrounded on all sides by brambles and a bit treacherous, a couple of laps in the organisers laid a rope which would become especially handy on the even more perilous descents when the loops reversed.
At the top of that lung buster was a woodland stretch, then a mucky uphill and a nice faster trail section.
That lead to a descent down a waterlogged but firm path that I swear got wetter throughout the day despite being sunny, before a stream crossing.
Now at the crossing you had two options: straight through, or go up onto a footbridge fording the stream. I'm happy to say I made a fool of myself every time and splashed right on over the crossing. Every..single...time.
After an uphill road that wasn't quite steep enough to walk but wasn't quite flat enough to run so we all did a bit of both.
Cut into a field then a long faster descent over grass, cut up by a rather perilous set of stone steps in between two kissing gates that had no purpose in existing, and ending in another knee busting stone stile before returning to roads.
Rejoining that first mile back to the start, this time with lots of uphill and an eye on the watch to keep pace.
Then, of course, an increasingly muddy uphill to the start pen to do it all over again.
Laps 1-4: This Is Fun, Though Pretty Tough
First lap, fresh legs and the lot of us going out harder than we should. Really it was about discovery, where the route is hard, where you can push a bit, and what sort of pace you'd end up doing. Tried to stick behind Andrew mostly who was pushing a solid pace throughout.
We ended up hitting a 06:43/km pace, getting back with 13 minutes to spare.
That was a big eye opener, we had to push harder than we should for an ultra to get that pace, and still didn't have loads of turnaround time when we got back.
Car boot was chock full of food, spare clothes and water bottles to refill mine quickly. For the first few laps it was pure picnic time getting back to the car, anything goes.
A few laps in the wheel of misfortune was introduced, though the first few times it was spun it still had us going the normal direction. They "tweaked" it a little later to make sure we had a few clockwise laps.
Ran with Sean a few times during the event, it was great to catch up and talk all things Dragons Back, along with an obligatory chat about trail shoe choices.
Was still feeling good here, experimenting with Tailwind at half consistency to see if it was easier to digest over longer runs, chomping what I like back at the car, and trying to maintain that sub 07:00/km pace to keep a good chunk of rest time.
Laps 5-7: This is Just Tough
Approaching the marathon point things were still going well, though it was starting to get tough maintaining the pace and quickly eating before heading out again.
One thing I've learned to do more of during ultras is take my time. Take walking breaks to eat some real food, let it digest, give myself a reset, in order to keep going for longer distances. I've got better at relaxing a little at aid stations and making sure I was ready before leaving, rather than rushing.
You absolutely, positively, cannot do that during a Backyard Ultra, by the time you've settled a bit the horn is being blown warning that it's 2 minutes until the next lap begins. You could walk a little more on the loop itself, and I wish I'd done this more, but every second you spent slower is less time back at camp, it is anxiety inducing!
The reverse loops were good and mixed things up; when reversing there were lots more long steady climbs where we walked, which felt like a nice reset, but then we had to get down the Hill of Down without falling so swings and roundabouts.
Things really started to crumble around loop 7: tale as old as time for me now, fuelling went to pot, just didn't want to eat anything, and none of the food I had was appealing to me. I'd switched to plain water and salt caps, but was rushed at camp so got confused about how many caps I'd been taking and I couldn't tell you if I'd had too many or too few.
Laps: 8-9: I Don't Like This Anymore
Here's me regretting my life choices.
Lap 8 I really struggled, and getting back to camp I was trying but failing to eat a Clif bar that felt like eating gravel.
Going out on lap 9 my stomach was in tatters and Food == Mood, so down the mood went. Dropped the pace here with more walking breaks, but was still keen to get back on time.
However by the halfway point I was adamant that I was tapping out at the end of this lap. I knew how this story ended: 3 more hours of being in a dark place, burning fat (and muscle) for fuel because my carb stores were gone and at least 1 bout of throwing up were in store.
Sean pulled alongside me on the last mile and talked about pulling out t0o, to my surprise. We both agreed we could push on, but neither of us wanted it badly enough and were happy with 9 laps.
Climbed up the mucky hill, smiled at the cheeky fella holding the bell and rang it for all to hear.
9 laps out of 12 done: 64km (39 miles) covered with 1,723m vert gain.
Rest of the Punks
Tim completed a very respectable trail marathon before withdrawing for some well earned drinks in Solva.
A huge shout out to Andrew who completed his first ever ultra on the day, smashing in a whopping 8 loops and pushing through some dark patches, like taking a selfie with me whilst we were in very different mental places 😂
The star of the show is the one and only Rhods who completed all 12 loops, that's 50 stonking miles, and was still smiling at the end of it.
After Action Report
One diamond for every completed lap, with 3 blank spaces for the laps I could have finished. This is one of the coolest medals I own, a big fan of what they've done with the design.
I was testing a few things during this event:
- Tailwind at half consistency with salt caps: absolutely didn't work, but I can't help but feel the salt caps were the issue, pushing me over the edge. Also turns out Clif bars have 3o0mg salt in too so a cap and one of those wasn't a good vibe
- Merrell Agility Peak 5s, longest event for them and glad to report they held up, the heel lock didn't cause me issues and I didn't have to re-lace them once (well...after all the initial lace faffing before race start)
No damage to speak of except a) a wounded ego from not finishing and b) coming away once again unhappy with my fuelling plan.
Thoughts On Backyard Ultras
If this has peaked your interest in any way I would strongly recommend the Dirty Dozen as an event. It had a local trail running club vibe to it, everyone there was lovely and made it a fun event.
It doesn't matter what distance you've done before, the field was a huge range of folk. I met one person who did his first marathon, AND his first ultra that day, another who had unexpectedly hit 10 laps last year and was back to beat the score, and countless others who'd pushed themselves just that 1 lap further than they thought they could do.
The format itself is great if you want to test things out; being that you use your own car boot as an aid station it's a great chance to play with things, try different strategies or gear. Worst case scenario you only have to stick with it one lap and switch it up next time (if you get back in time!)
I didn't realise quite how tough it was going to be from a pacing perspective; I thought 4.2 miles an hour was easily achievable and the challenge would be more mental and balancing pace with exertion. I hadn't considered the route being tough and hilly, and how much of a difference it would make.
I can't wait to do another one, and last longer than Rhod next time 🙂