Backyard Ultra Wales

The first time I heard about the Backyard ultra race format I knew that I would love to have a go. It would appear that I’m not the only person as they have proliferated across the world. For those of you who don’t know what a Backyard Ultra is, it is a 4.167 mile loop that has to be completed in under an hour, and then you do it again, and again, until there is only one person left standing. There are hundreds of these races around the world with some of them taking days before there is only one winner, everyone else is a DNF (Did Not Finish).

Last October I took part in a similar event which was partly endurance and partly elimination (read about it here). However I was worried about being eliminated so ran quicker than I needed to, which ended up with too much rest and my legs seizing up. From what I read for the Backyard races, most people aim to complete each lap in 50 mins which leaves enough time to fuel and hydrate before starting the next lap.

Anyway, Backyard Ultra Wales was a couple of days ago, very well organised by Trail Events Co. The race was set in the grounds of the incredible Y Faenol Estate, which included camping with views across the mountains. The race started at 11am on the Friday, so me, my amazing wife Helen and our silly pointer headed off on the Thursday. We set up camp, chatted to a few other competitors, had sausage and beans followed by a beer and then an early night.

At 9am on the morning of the race I registered, picking up my race number and then placed a camping chair and my provisions near to the start/finish line under one of the provided gazeebos. Most people were using their own tents or camper vans, but we had pitched our tent at the other end of the field where it would be a bit more peaceful, especially as I doubted that I would run through the night.

After the race briefing we lined up for the first lap. I don’t know how many entered but it looked like there were at least 50 of us. The race ‘gong’ was banged and we set off, and what was weird was how slow we all went.

The first part of the lap was either flat or downhill, but at the first sign of uphill everyone started to walk, which did feel strange after less than 2 miles of running. It was also very friendly with people chatting and laughing. I caught up with an old friend from a Triple Ironman as we reminisced about how crazy that weekend had been (read about it here).

Part of the lap was along the Welsh Coast Path before heading up through a field, over a ladder stile and through some more woods, around a duck pond, past the estate mansion before finishing the loop. First lap completed in about 48 minutes, giving me time for a drink, some food and to fill up my small handheld 250ml water bottle. It was hot and the first lap was the only lap I ran without carrying (and finishing) the water in this bottle.

Three minutes to go and race director blows a whistle three times. Two minutes to go and it is twice, and the one minute with just the one blow. If you’re not in the starting pen on the hour you are DQ’d, no exceptions.

Lap 2 and we’re already into the routine. What was also pleasant was that unlike most races where the field completely spreads out, here we would all start at the same time again, so there was always someone different to chat to. With different sections of the route and 100m of climbing the laps weren’t boring. The route can be seen below.

Once I was off running my lovely wife and our pooch went for a long walk along the coastal path and across the Menai Straight Suspension Bridge before returning. They managed to miss the turning back to the start area and ended up walking along some of the race route, cleverly timing it so as to miss all of the runners. It gave me a much needed boost as I rounded the lake and could see Helen standing outside our tent.

Generally I would walk the last 100-200m of the loop, resting the legs and giving me chance to chat with Helen. Nelly wasn’t impressed that I was off running without her.

At the start of lap 5 there had only been one person to stop, and that was because of an old injury. To complete the marathon distance you had to do 7 laps, as 6 laps was just over a mile short. Lap 6 and Matt Pritchard, my old friend from the triple brought out a speaker to run with, blasting out Fatboy Slim at the start of the lap and Queen classics at the end of the lap. Best lap all day.

As expected there were a number of DNF’s after lap 7, although I tried to convince a couple of guys who had been sitting next to me in the gazeebo to start the next lap. Another five or six people dropped out at the end of lap 8. By this point I was feeling tired and set off lap 9 very slowly and soon found myself a long way adrift of the main pack. I chatted to one guy who wasn’t happy with himself as he had hoped to complete 24 hours and he knew he wasn’t going to finish this lap within the hour. Towards the end of the lap I pushed on and managed to finish with four minutes to spare. I was done. That was it for me. I watched as the remaining athletes lined up and witnessed the agony as one runner was less than 50m from the finish line when they set off.

I chatted with some amazing athletes during the race, often about how far they wanted to run. For many people it was just to run further than they had run before, while others had set more ambitious targets. My targets were a little more modest. Firstly I didn’t want to be the first person out, and then I wanted to log my longest run on Garmin Connect (before the race at 36km), then my longest run on Strava (before the race at 52km), then go further than my longest run only run (currently 62km) and then ultimately try to complete 12 hours or 50 miles. In the end my 9 laps came to 61.6km (Strava activity can be found here), not quite my run only longest run, but I was happy. Nice piece of bling and my race number almost survived being washed.

The start of lap 10 was the first where head torches were required and back at our tent, sipping a beer, we watched most of them return, before we headed for an early night. During the night we would sometimes hear the runners, but as we were making an early morning coffee I chatted to one of the organisers would told me that the winner was just about to complete her solo lap. That’s right, to be declared the winner, you have to do a full lap on your own. Sarah from York completed 20 laps, but had been expecting to go much longer. We all applauded her as she finished, and I marveled at how she had completed her 20th lap in 48 minutes, managing over 80 miles in total.

A couple of days later and as my legs begin to return to normal my thoughts on the race are how well organised it was and how spectacular the venue was. I also liked the camaraderie involved. It is also a great type of race for someone’s first ultra. Would I do it again? I probably will, but not in Wales. Not because there was anything wrong with the race, but because I like to race different places, and with races all over the world Helen has already mentioned that she likes the look of us going to Frankfurt.

Garmin Troubles

Back in March I wrote about how Wiggle had let us down with a new Garmin (read about it here). Once my lovely and amazing wife realised how jealous I was of her Garmin Fenix 6, she promptly went and bought me something equivalent, a Garmin 945. Apart from battery life there is hardly anything between the two watches, and I will hopefully get around to reviewing many of the features of my new watch. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing.

The first swim with my new watch killed it. Blank screen and total failure. It had to go back. Garmin didn’t send me a new one as a replacement, instead it was a refurbished one. I wasn’t completely satisfied but when I complained I was pretty much told ‘tough’. Less than a week into owning this replacement watch it was obvious that there was a serious problem with the battery. One of the selling points of these new Garmin smart watches is the long battery life. Mine was suffering from severe battery drain. I would have to charge it every day, even when I was hardly using it. Garmin agreed to replace it.

Garmin sent me details of how to return it, and UPS lost it. Eventually it turned up at Garmin HQ, and a new 945 was dispatched; brand new not refurbished. This one I am pleased to say is working fine and despite me thinking that I would never need all of the extra functions from a smart watch, I absolutely love it. As I said earlier, indepth product review and function analysis will follow.

Toyko Olympics – Mixed Relays

I’ve not watched much of the Olympics, but what I have watched has been brilliant. I watched the mixed relays. The 4 x 400 athletics relay was a mess with a few teams not taking it seriously, which made the win by unfancied Poland even more amazing.

The triathlon relay was absolutely nail biting stuff with only seconds separating the top few teams. Great Britain were favourites but it was by no means assured, although it was great to see Jonny Brownlee pick up a gold medal to go with his silver and bronze from previous Olympics.

In the pool the 4 x 100 Medley was one of the most incredible races that I have ever watched, made all the more exciting because the women and men were racing together. In the triathlon and track relays the men race the men and the women race the women, but in the pool each team can utilise their strongest swimmers, no matter what leg they do. This lead to the amazing spectacle of seeing four men and four women lining up on the starting blocks. The triathlon relay is definitely missing a trick here, and should let each team race in whatever order they like. A female triathlete with a strong cycling discipline might be able to keep up with the men as the races are draft legal. I will suggest it.

I’ve also liked the fact that for the first time ever there have been more female athletes than male, and that there are no male only or female only events. It isn’t complete parity yet. In gymnastics on the floor routines the women are judged on how their moves are in tune with the music, but the men don’t have music for their routines. Maybe the men should also have to do their routines to music.

I was disappointed to see Novak Djokovic criticise Simone Biles for pulling out for mental health reasons, and then two days later he smashes his rackets on court, storms off and pulls out of the doubles in a hissy fit. I’ve not seen him apologise yet.

Anyway, I would like to see more mixed events.