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For those who are unfamiliar with the backyard format (created by none other than Lazarus Lake), the race involves running 4.167 miles (or 6.71km) per hour, on every hour until the last person stands.
On the face of it, it sounds easy… however, what you end up with is a sub 24 hour 100 mile time and also not being able to bank time. Having started ultra running in 2019, I am keen to try everything and sometimes I watch things and get inspired…
While people keep saying there are no races, why do you still keep running bla bla bla… running makes me happy and I know some runs were a bit stressful at the start of lockdown but I think there is a lot of value of keeping your base. Let the haters hate, the moaners moan, just ignore them.
When I started planning my race calendar for 2020 (which has completely been screwed up), I floated this idea with my coach. He said it is definitely not as easy as it sounds and actually if you want to go far and long, it is a tactical game. I was signed up to the Suffolk edition in June, but it has been postponed to August. Of course, every ultra person dreams of running with their heroes like Camille and Courtney and there is no harm in dreaming of making it to Big’s to run alongside them.
The Quarantine Backyard Ultra is run out of Gather Virtual in Canada. They had an earlier edition in April which I considered but it was actually against the UK rules to exercise more than once a day PLUS I don’t own a treadmill. I signed up to this to test a few things before the postponed Suffolk Backyard Ultra at the end of August. The key was not to kill myself so I could recover in time for August (and we’re actually off to Yorkshire on a holiday this week to have some fun on the trails with some ultra running friends).
I wasn’t sure if my coach would’ve approved, but he actually sent his blessings for 100 miles and said that if you don’t scale up these things, how do you expect to race long races again? Yes, I know I went 2 hours over and 8+ miles over but I think he understands and probably knew I was going to do whatever I felt…
And yes, I didn’t talk about it too much because I prefer to get s!1t done before going on about it because anything can happen in an ultra, even more so for a format I’ve never done before!! It’s already a lot of pressure doing something new, talking about it makes it worse...
In typical training race style, there was no taper – having accumulated 100 plus mile weeks all throughout lockdown and doing a night run pacing my friend David Bone on his FKT of the London LOOP (153 miles) of 40 miles wasn’t really the best prep, but how can I say no to a friend!! We had fun running around random fields, getting chased by angry horses and getting our feet wet from the dew on the grass… and saw the sunrise – we have far too many of these runs tbh!
Picture after he had forgiven me for force feeding gels
I did the typical crash taper on the week leading up to it – no rest days just sliding scale from 7 miles to 3 miles on Monday to Friday. Technically in my coach’s books anything under an hour doesn’t count as a run so I didn’t actually run from Tuesday onwards… right?
What I did do was organise crew for the night, as lockdown has effectively ended here where I live and even on the best of days, it’s not really safe to be running around here… I am very lucky to have the support of many east London ultra and club buddies who gave up 2 hours of their time chaperoning me on bikes/tailing behind me while we manoeuvred the drunks….
I also spoke to James “Foxy” at Komfuel about nutrition and we refined some things over the phone such as caffeine and electrolytes. He also put together a package for me for the weekend as there was just waaaaaayyyy too much choice on his website!
When you don’t have to travel to races… THROW IN THE KITCHEN SINK!
On the day!
The race started at 2pm UK time (7am Mountain Time), so it was a little odd as I was mulling about from 8am. I do wish that it started at 7am as it would mean we had more daylight before hitting the night section. But hey, all good training isn’t it. I started to get nervous only around noon as I suddenly realised this could go on for ages. I knew that the minimum I wanted to do was 24 hours, anything else was a bonus and ONLY IF I didn’t think it was causing any damage.
The first few laps were tough. You’d think that having more time to run 4.17 miles would be great but it actually isn’t. My legs felt relatively fresh and wanted to go, but basically had to put the brakes on and enforce walking from the start. It was tough. The first lap was too quick and ended up sitting down for so long. I got slightly cold sitting around as well… I then understood why the pros always aimed for 55 mins so they didn’t hang around for too long.
I fuelled fine and drunk my electrolytes like clockwork, a far improvement from tooting (which we will not delve too much into). After the first 6 hours I didn’t feel like I did any running and was getting bored… But that’s ok, just getting used to the format really. My friend James Poole came to take some pictures of me on the last lap in the park (it shuts at 8pm) before I headed onto my picturesque night loop of East London’s wildlife.
Pretending to run for the camera (Photo: James Poole)
The night loops actually were pretty unnerving. There was a rave around the park and lots of stoned spaced out people hanging about on narrow pavements, broken glass bottles everywhere and drunk people being a little too friendly and grabbing my crew… At that point, I told Matt – no matter how fresh I feel later, do not let me go out for a second night. I didn’t bring a phone out with me as I didn’t want to get mugged.
And then I saw the zoom call and saw lots of men on treadmills and thought, wow, what is their excuse for being on a treadmill when I am running around these dodgy streets. Some people even commented saying – it’s a bit warm so I’m going to run on the treadmill. I could understand that the earlier edition was when people were actually in full on lockdowns and cant go out of their house… but as far as I am aware, no country is in lockdown right now… I didn’t think some of the competitors were doing things in the spirit of the race… I guess it is a virtual race. Even had people holding onto the handles of the treadmills…. wow. People were being passed fuel and water so they didn’t carry anything on the treadmills as well… i think that the people on treadmills should be carrying all their water and fuel on them to make it fair and in the spirit of backyard rules otherwise it was pretty much a different race altogether. I had lost interest at that point as well as who knew if the treadmills were calibrated? And a 0% incline is effectively downhill… while I trod around glass bottles and swerving from drunks…
Anyway, the daylight came and I felt safe again… until the sun came out and the entire east London descended onto Vicky Park by noon. It was quite hard to run without having to swerve e-scooters, kids running out of nowhere chasing bubbles, dogs etc. I tried to hold my nerve but I could sense myself getting more and more agitated. I saw some club members doing their Sunday long run, which was nice and a few friends popped by the table in our car park to chat with me at the end of my loops.
We got to 100 miles and I thought wow, why are my legs still working? They felt super fresh and I was still able to run on demand. Maybe this is what they talk about – staying in one piece until you hit 24 hours then you race! It clicked! I was so happy! Oh, and I think at this point I actually sprinted on the last mile as I needed the looo…….
After the 24h point (noon UK time), the park got busier and busier, and I was getting quite annoyed and shouting at people who didn’t look at where they were going… yeah, go me. But I hadn’t slept! And then at the end of my 26th lap, a fat child cycled over my foot…. I set out on the 27th lap and it was still pounding so I thought, you know what, screw this. Turn back, hide in my flat away from the crowds of VP. It was probably the best decision to make and I don’t regret it. 2 days later, I am finally able to walk on it with no pain (still a bit puffy) and will run tonight. I think if I had carried on and forced it through (if it were a race, I definitely would), I would not be able to train today. Maybe my chaperones should have continued into the day…
I guess the icing on the cake was being 3rd (technically 2nd as the ladies ahead of me had the same number of laps) female and 20th overall out of an international field of 1230 plus people… and still being in one piece!!
Lessons and Thoughts
The backyard format is harder than it sounds and requires a lot of discipline in pacing and being patient (my best qualities – not) but I am very excited to try this in a race now that I have tested a few theories out. Keeping the body temperature stable was also a lesson learnt especially at night and hanging around waiting to go on the next hour was something I had totally missed. So I am grateful for the chance to try it out and address it later when I race.
I do need to start learning how to run 10 min miles as when I tried that on the first few laps I was maybe altering my form… and I also need to calm the f down – at 10 hours in and we’d only just done 40 miles, I thought – wtf, I should have done 100k by now, what a waste of time?! Yes, definitely need help. I am cray. Need a chill pill.
I am also never taking for granted an aid station, marked course, safe running at night or chip timing again. With the virtual races, the onus was on you to log in and record your laps and for you to prove you set out on your lap at x:00 and back before xx:59. Having a set up in our car park made these little admin tasks take up time and energy but I didn’t really fancy climbing upstairs and downstairs on every lap.
It was a great concept and I think if we ever went into lockdown AGAIN, the backyard format would be a great virtual real time race rather than time trials (which I couldn’t get motivated to do). Maybe this time on a quieter course (not sure where – maybe the canal haha)….
Kit wise, my Coros watch had 58% of battery left after 26+ hours of charge, I wore my Hoka Clifton and Injinji socks, and my trusted T8 running shorts and survived with no chafing anywhere apart from under the sports bra (standard). I did not use my hydration vest as my soft flask was stuffed in my t8 shorts so I did not have to worry about neck chafe. As usual, no music and I only chimed in on the zoom call when I was asked to speak – was really hard looking into a small screen!!!
And on that note… WHO ELSE RUNS 108+ miles in and around Victoria Park???!!!!
Alison Walker, 14th July 2020.