My last blog ‘one yard at a time’ shared the plan to participate in a ‘backyard’ run. Decided to do the Cow Shed Backyard Ultra which took place in Wheelbirks Parlour, a farm in Northumberland, England. As Sat 16th April drew near I found myself going through the familiar routine of what running gear to take, food to eat etc. Some things never change! The difference this time is that it was not so logistically complicated. Every hour I return to where I began. It is easier than in a single stage long distance race. In such races the challenge is to anticipate what clothing, food and drink might be needed at a particular time and in places many km apart. For a ‘backyard’ it seemed you just brought everything I conceivably need (!) and have it at my pitch near the start line. Also not needing to carry anything other than adequate clothing whilst running would be a help.
Once again Elisabeth kindly agreed(!) to support me. The prospect of her sitting in our car in a field was not very comfortable. In addition supporting me for a few minutes every hour for an unknown amount of time would be a challenge. Also there was my need for some degree of comfort to sit, rest and/or eat and drink each hour. These issues prompted us to hire a small campervan for the event.
We motored down on Friday the day before to stay in the aforesaid field belonging to Wheelbirks farm. There was no running water but organisers provided portable toilets and a few other basic facilities. The field filled up with an assortment of tents and vans as well as those roughing it in cars. The following morning more arrived.
The main twin-peaked tent beside the start/ finish line had a pavilion feel to it. It got me thinking it was the kind of place to watch a medieval jousting tournament.
As with other ultras I tapered off training in the weeks before. Planning for a race of unknown length and duration had been a novel experience. My maximum training length was 7 laps, rounds or ‘yards’ as they are known. A ‘yard’ being 6.7km. The actual route was not known so could not be surveyed beforehand either. However we were told there would be approx. 150m climbing and descent each yard. The race involved doing 1 ‘yard’ every hour on the hour starting at 12 noon. Why this distance? If one continued for 24 hours you would cover exactly 100 miles (160 km). In retrospect nothing really prepared me for it more than actually doing it. Pre-race I naively had some thoughts as to what would constitute a good effort. What would happen ‘on the day’?
Competitors also included men and women representing teams from the 4 UK nations – Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. It was nice to meet some of the Scottish team both before the start and during the race. As ‘backyards’ are very new to the UK long distance running scene most had never done this before. However several were very experienced in 24 hour lap races.
12 noon arrived and 115 of us set off. First round went well and had some good chats with fellow competitors. For most like myself it was our first ‘backyard‘. The route was very varied. Pathless routes round clumpy soft fields, gravel farm tracks, soft forest trails and muddy inclines and descents. It took me 50 mins which was what I had expected. On reflection I now see that my training rounds had not been on as rough, varied and often trackless terrain. I see now that 1 round in 50 mins. involved more effort than I had actually trained for. It felt hot on the trail yet the hourly ‘rests’ were chilling in comparison.
Walked from finish line the 50m to my ‘aid station’- a table and chair outside our van. Elisabeth proferring food but didn’t need. Just a sit down and rest. The routine for each hour was that a whistle blew three times at 3 minutes before start of next round. Then two whistles at 2 mins and one whistle 1 minute before 1pm. Rules were you had to be in start corral by 10 seconds before or you would be out of race. The other way to be disqualified is to take longer than an hour for a round. This pattern would be repeated each hour. No supporters were allowed on the course, they had to remain in the start / finish field.
Rounds 2 and 3 went by with roughly similar timings to my first round, 50-51 mins. This afforded me similar ‘rest’ times. I would start about 1/3rd back in the corral and let others speed off. Why do they do that? This race is not to the swift but to the consistent. By round 4 fatigue was setting in as my time slipped a few mins longer.
There is a lot of psychology involved in a race like this. Robert would always be right at the front literally jumping around at the countdown to each start. As if to emphasise how easy he seemed to find it he also carried a rucksack. Each to his own. I had heard that a key strategy with the elite in this type of race is to give others the impression you are doing fine when you are not. Anyhow Robert would usually speed off at a sprint to be a few hundred metres ahead of everyone, then ease off. For hour after hour he was usually first back in 40-45 mins. Impressive but as said speed is not what is required.
Back to my own race. Each hour became very hard to distinguish. By round 6 the effort involved mentally and physically was taking its toll. It was like starting a new race every hour but each time progressively more exhausted. Each round was becoming indistinguishable with the same views, people and similar emotions. Reminded me of the film ‘Groundhog Day’ – destined to relive the same experience over and over.
The peculiar knock out nature of the event was obvious at the start corral. Towards the end of each hour some were coming in to complete their round at a sprint. They were being cheered in by the other runners getting set to start again. Remember especially one guy who gave his all to make the hour sprinting very fast. As he crossed the finish line the 10 second countdown for the next round started!
Round 7 and think it took me about 56 mins. My margin for rest was getting very small! Think Elisabeth saw I was pretty spent and revived me by dousing in drinking water. It reminded me of a boxer getting battered by a better opponent (in my case the clock). Each round retiring to the corner for a few minutes only to get up and battered again until finally knocked out.
I managed to complete the 8th round in 58 minutes. Maybe I could have done another or maybe have failed to complete in an hour. However at that point I could not envisage a 2 minute break and doing exactly the same as the previous hour. It was enough and joined the 33 others who ‘did not finish’ at that point. These 33.3 miles (53.3km) left me more ‘done in’ than in 26-30 hours of running a ‘normal’ long distance race. To complete the humbling psychology of the event I was duly awarded a wooden spoon. It was marked DNF (‘Did Not Finish’). Also given a ’Cow Shed Ultra’ mug. The double meaning of the mug was not lost on me either! Elisabeth reckons that if I start to regularly make soup the ‘DNF’ on the spoon will go away! Not sure the psychological scars will disappear so easily (only joking!).
In most races the winner comes in first and is applauded by everyone present. In this ‘last person standing’ event the winner comes in long after just about everybody else goes home. We stayed Saturday night in the field with our slumber punctuated each hour by the 3, 2 and 1 minute bell. Leaving the campsite sometime after 1pm the following day we watched the 4 remaining competitors battle it out. 3 men (including Robert) and 1 woman moving through their 26th lap.
After 29 hours and 29 rounds there were 2 left; Sarah and Paul. They fought together for 3 more hours until Paul decided he could do no more and didn’t start round 33. The rules are that the last person starting must finish another round, otherwise there is no winner. So Sarah Perry set off on her 33rd round. Delighted to say that this English primary school teacher completed a staggering 137.5 miles or in metric terms 220km. The one and only finisher and winner of the 2022 Cow Shed Backyard.
Sara’s feat is extraordinary. Her resilience beating all the guys who thought they were tougher. It was completed not to the fanfare of crowds. Instead she was greeted shortly before 9pm on the Sunday evening by a handful of people and her dog in the dark. All patient enough to wait 33 hours for a champion. A big thank you to Mark and Hazel Marchant, the volunteers and Greener Miles Running. Their stamina and good humour throughout made this an amazing and not to be forgotten event. Once again a big thank you to Elisabeth for supporting with the discipline required to support me in this endeavour.
It will take a while to know what I have learnt from the experience. Afterward on Easter Monday we visited St. Mary’s Church of England in Barnard Castle. Inside the church there was something I had never seen before – a labyrinth. The ‘Instructions for use’ included the following…
“unlike a maze, it is impossible to get lost. There is only one way in and one way out. The only choice we have to make is whether or not to follow.“
No logic to the twists and turns of the labyrinth. Neither is there any reason to going round and round the same farmland.
…children have abounding vitality, they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say “Do it again”, and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.”‘Orthodoxy’ by G.K. Chesterton