16 hours and no sardines: The Suffolk Backyard Ultra 2020

Welcome to the Suffolk Backyard Ultra. Your mission is simple. Run (or walk) a 4.17 mile trail lap every hour, on the hour, until you are timed out, or ring the bell to signal that you are out of the game. The winner is the last one standing. If the last two runners ring the bell on the same lap, there is no winner. To win you must go one lap further than anyone else (under the hour of course) to claim your victory.

Potentially there could be a stalemate in which two people carry on infinitely, but the accumulation of time on feet and sleep deprivation ‘should’ stop the race organisers being out there for weeks! Apart from the winner, everyone officially is marked as a DNF (the distances are recorded though so you are ranked in order). This year the race was won in 41 laps or 170.84 miles. Needless to say, that was not I. Here’s my tale from the trail... Arrived 90 mins before the start. Threw my £20 pop up tent on the floor and it erected itself with a satisfying pop that made life very easy. Organised my possessions in order of most likely to least likely to be needed, and assembled copious plastic bags. One thing I learned from Redbull Time Laps last year (25 hour bike relay event) was the need to keep tidy and organised. With no crew, I had to be on top of this. It was to be a mini transition every hour - that part, at least, I was familiar with. One bin bag for wet clothes, one for food waste. Dry clothes in a sealed plastic box in case of highly-anticipated tent leakage. Backpacks with gadgets in other plastic bags for same reason. Food stored outside, clothes and electronic things in tent. Job done. There was no indoor area for this event despite the threat of ‘Storm Alex’ (he was a bit feeble so that was appreciated), so we were in the elements for the duration. Perhaps going in to a warm place would have made life harder; the fact we never got cosy meant we never had to steel ourselves to go back out there. It was always a case of wanting to get going to warm up properly again. Six hours in and I still didn’t know the course off by heart... praise be my simple brain. It was well-marked but I’d expected I’d be bored by then and that was not at all the case. After 7 hours the night set in which changed the environment completely. Boredom was not the key player I thought it would be. I didn’t make it to the nitty-gritty stage that is promised if you make it beyond 24 hours and certainly into the second night, but for me, pulling the plug at 16 hours or 66.67 miles was a decision forced upon me. A niggling hip issue was getting worse and despite my best efforts to postpone the inevitable DNF, it was to prove a bit of a lost cause. Often tightnesses ease, but once it shifted to my hips, there it stayed. It seemed a lot of people suffered the same issue. I came in on my last lap resembling a 'lolloping donkey' (the obvious analogy that came to mind when describing my current ability to the volunteers) and whilst I’d have loved to make it through to daylight (2-3 hours away), I knew I could be sidelined for months if I did that. And that’s not why I was there. Mentally and energetically, I was in a great place, which bodes really well for the future. But I fully believe now in building up the distance ladder, much like I did in 2010-2012... first tick off 50km, then 50 miles, then 100km, then 100 miles. A graduation, if you will. And I’m fine with that. I always thought I was a bit weak mentally. What I realise now is, I was doing a sport (triathlon) that I didn't fully 'believe' in. I’ve never found a rhythm on the bike, I can't think of a much more boring subject than aerodynamics, and the low impact nature of cycling and swimming means you get to do SO much of it as a pro. You do have to really love it. I embraced it as much as I was able, and I'm glad I took it as far as I could, but obviously I was going to come up against some quite hard psychological barriers. Mentally, running is much easier as I genuinely enjoy it. Which means now, when inevitably the going gets tough, I don’t have to dig quite so deep as I’m not halfway down that hole already. I certainly thought this event would be a case of psychological warfare and that I’d come unstuck with the monotony, but you never know unless you try, and it was surprisingly pretty, genuinely, fun. I love listening to music but I also made sure I connected with some people too as they all had stories to tell and of course, it often transpired they had completed incredible things. Ultra runners tend to be very humble. Now I’m in the bubble too, the 100km marker I passed is decent but it’s not such a long way now in my mind. This is partly why I picked this race - to see if I could get away from the socially-conditioned belief that a marathon is a long way. Now don’t get me wrong, it is, but if you commit a massive part of your life to run training, the main reason a marathon is a long way is the intensity at which it is raced. People who do one tend to aim for a time, be that 2 or 5 hours, and that will inevitably mean pushing their bodies to the limit for that duration. For me, a 5km can feel endless if I go too fast in the first 1km! It’s simply perception, experience, and intensity versus distance. Without excruciating full-body pain, you’ll find with time you can tick over quite happily for longer and longer. What triggered me to challenge my thought processes regarding distance perception was three weeks ago at the Chiltern Wonderland, where I had a good race in the final stages with the winner Laura. She has amassed a plethora of successful 100 mile races and stepped down in distance to race the 50. At the end, she commented that at 40 miles she couldn’t believe how quickly it was going and that we only had 10 miles left. In my head, 50 miles was taking forever in places! This is due in part to conditioning and training, but it was clear it was simply a mindset thing too, and I thought I should aim to tweak my outlook. It’s important to respect any distance, but there is no need to put barriers up that don’t need to be there. The fact my mind was willing and it was my body that stopped me this time (with my mind obviously making that decision - but being unquestionably the right one) was the perfect outcome. In ultra running, you usually maybe meet half a dozen people who go at the same sort of pace as you. This time, we all congregated again after every hour, which completely eradicated speed from the event, but gave a real sense of camaraderie and equality. It was a really interesting dynamic. Main learnings from the weekend: I won’t want the sardines I thought I might, and no one else will want them either. If I bring a ‘celebration cider’ on the premise I’ll have it if I make it to 24 hours, it will get consumed whatever the result. There can only be one winner at this event, but Ella’s Kitchen baby fruit pouches come a close second. Running in neoprene sounds a good idea at night in the rain, but it is not. 1 hr on the ‘backyard trail’ is much less than 1 hr in real life. Occasionally try things you think may not suit you: you may surprise yourself.

16 laps, 66.67 miles - DNF dog tag and proud!

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