The Back Yard format is the work of legendary racemaker Lazarus Lake and has quickly grown into a global phenomenon – as charted in an excellent recent BBC feature. In a nutshell – Back Yards are 4.16 miles long and runners complete one lap at a time, on the hour, every hour, until only one person is still standing. Why 4.16? Its the distance what you need to cover per hour for 100 miles in 24 hours. But Back Yards go on for a lot longer than 24 hours.
If your mind is wired like mine (!), then the allure is simple. Everyone but the winner doesn’t finish, but they are rewarded by knowing that they have found the limits (on that day) of their endurance. The elite upper reaches of the discipline sees many great female champions, so there are no gender differential prizes. Back Yard distances are so long as to make them physical willpower challenges.
Typically, elite endurance athletes will win. A lap takes less out of them, they get more time to recover. But there is enough glimmer to give ordinary runners a hope. Can slower runners come up with a strategy that restores parity between the tortoise and the hare? There have been rare examples, such as Will Hayward, a runner I could keep up with if we trained together. At 51, my age, Will nearly won the global final, now annually held at Lake’s ‘Big Dog’ Backyard in Bell Buckle Tennessee. It is Will whose ‘war crimes victim’ portrait drew so much shareable attention to the BBC piece. But in that picture Will was far from beaten, indeed he recovered to a level where he pushed one of the world’s best ultrarunners Maggie Guterl through lap after slogged out lap.
When I start at Suffolk, Will’s heroics will be my focus, because I will be stepping out against an extraordinarily talented field all gunning for the one golden ticket to Tennessee.
My targets, starting with achievable and then aiming for the stars. 1 To reach my limits, whatever they may be 2. To outlast runners in the field with a better pedigree than me 3: To reach 150 miles 4: To reach 41 hours, the 2020 winning distance 5: To outlast any of the top-rated runners in the field 6: A top 5 finish.
The last one is a tough target. A recent Back Yard, the golden ticket for Northern Ireland, saw 4 runners break 60 hours.
You’ll notice reaching the distance of last year’s winner is buried in the middle of my targets. Isn’t that a bit ambitious for Mr Middlepack? Well, I have been 35 and 37 hours racing before, finishing calmly and strongly. The pace of those efforts was not quick enough for Suffolk, but the terrain was wild mountains and bogs. I could still run at the end of both, even pulled out a sprint finish in one of them. And I felt in good shape to keep going. I’m a better runner now than then, so in my mind it seems possible.
This year though, is all about that golden ticket. I have willingly pitched myself in with the best. In this sport, where being pushed is the target, why wouldn’t you?
With a handful of late entries still possible, some big guns have swung into town (well Knettishall Heath Nature Reserve). These are just a few of the names that I have been able to pick out from a quality field. There may well be more elite runners that I haven’t recognised, but this is enough for now!
- Carla Molinaro – GB 100K track athlete, Hoka One One athlete, Carla was the big story of 2020 when breaking the Land’s End to John O’Groats record clocking 12 days, 30 minutes and 14 seconds. That’s seventy miles per day.
- Guy Bettinson – 4th in the famous 260 mile Spine Race in 2019 clocking 104 hours. Guy is a ‘mental’ runner who competed in Mark Cockbain’s virtual Runderdome event this year, in one round clocking 128 miles in 24 hours on the same straight half mile of road.
- Mike Raffan – Experienced extreme distance runner and event winner, with many notable races. A win in Mark Cockbain’s 160 mile The Hill event – yes it is all on the same hill – revealed immense character as well as ability.
- Sam Heward – The founder and creator of the Ultra X World Series – Sam has also been part of the GB team at the 153 mile Spartathlon event.
- Andrew Smith – Team Altra – called time on himself last year at 40 loops when feeling capable of 50. Saving himself for this year’s event. Loves the format. Won with 33 laps in 2019.
- John Stocker – Physical trainer and sports therapist. Serial distance runner. Last year’s Suffolk winner and course record holder with 41 laps.
- Paul Mason – Multiple extreme distance finishes including 100 marathons and 200 ultramarathons and coached by ultradistance legend Ronnie Staton (see below)
- Alison Walker, innov8 athlete. Alison is a lockdown legend after her Fastest Known Time for the Smog Graham Round – a 300km route around the ‘peaks’ of all 32 London boroughs, clocking 54 hrs and 33 minutes.
- Cameron Humphries – Another GB team Spartathlete, Cameron also has 138 miles in 24 hours on his CV and 2 x Worlds Toughest Mudder.
- Andy Day, experienced Spartathlete – (the famous 153-mile Spartathlon race), the V50 police officer is certainly a force of nature.
- Ronnie Staton – the legend who organises the Robin Hood 100 as events company Hobo Pace, is an esteemed ultracoach, and enjoyed successful podiums in 200 mile+ races prior to a stroke. He’s still coming back from that, but it will be amazing to run with him and see his progress.
- Chris Spurling – 3rd place at this event last year, has an impressive winning ultras CV.
- Alice Hector, clocked ‘only’ 107 miles at this event last year, but that looks like a bad day at the office, or possibly a training run. Alice is a multiple 70.3 Ironman winner and course record breaker in triathlon events. She is a professional triathlete with Sundried.
- Andi Dunn – Multiple 100 mile finishes including 7 at Centurion events.
- Mike Abel – Extreme distance experience including finishes in Thames Ring 250 and Grand Union Canal 145 mile races. Mike’s ability to dig deep looks a bit like mine but with more experience, so he might be a useful ally.
In my checklist I have surely missed someone really good and will no doubt be editing my list. There will also be wildcards, people with unknown qualities. Everyone on the start line demainds respect. But this list should put my own chances in perspective. That perspective is only realistic. But it also means that I will be surrounded by inspirational runners many of whom I could not rub shoulders with at a point to point event.
That’s an experience that I want to last as long as it possibly can.