“… a backyard ultra with Phil Gore is everybody runs as far as they can and then Phil does one more lap and wins!” – Kevin Matthews
The pressure was on to do well at Herdy’s Frontyard this year. Having won the event last year, plus two other backyard ultras since, I definitely felt the expectation that I would produce another good result. I held the current Australian record of 51 laps, and I set that as a minimum target, but I also prepared myself physically and mentally to go well beyond that. On paper, my plan actually went up to 120 hours, not because I thought I could get there, but because I thought I couldn’t. I wanted to have a plan for something so farfetched and ludicrous that I’d be prepared for anything short of that.
Before we go on, if you are completely new to this and don’t know what a backyard ultra is, you can read my previous blogs about Herdy’s *here* and Birdy’s *here* . I never got around to writing a race report for Hysterical Carnage, but this one *here* from Sputnik sums it up quite nicely (I highly recommend reading that one, you might get a couple of laughs out of it)
One of the hardest things this year was just making it to the start line. With the Covid situation kicking off in Perth, there was every chance you could catch the virus or even just become a close contact and have to isolate for 7 days, potentially missing the start time. 12 days prior to the event, I was unlucky (or lucky depending which way you look at it) enough to be deemed a close contact, which meant I had to go into isolation. I took this as a blessing, as the forced isolation meant I had no further risks of being exposed to the virus before race day. It also meant I got to maximise my rest time during my taper, and had heaps of spare time to finalise planning and packing for the event. Fortunately, I never tested positive, which meant 4 days before the event I could leave isolation. However, being so close to the event and not wanting to take any more chances, I stayed in a self-imposed isolation, only coming out on race day. Big thanks to my wife and kids who looked after me during this period, preparing all my meals for me and picking up my share of the housework.
On the day of the race, I got a lift up with Shannon Wakefield, and arrived at Herdsman Lake around 10am. The race didn’t start until 4pm, which gave me plenty of time to set up my home for the next few days and then have time to chill in the afternoon. I tried to have a little nap, but with all the excitement and activity around the race village, I just found it too hard. I just relaxed as well as I could and as 4pm got closer, I started to get myself changed and ready. I picked up my bib, which just happened to be number 85 (which is the backyard world record for those of you playing along at home).
After a race brief by ED Shaun Kaesler, a “Welcome to Country” by Tom Hughson, and a Taiko drum performance, the race was shortly underway. It was business as usual for me, aiming for 45-50min laps, with a mix of jogging and walking. With the huge crowd this year though, I did find that I had to go a little bit quicker for the first km or so each lap, just to not get caught up with the masses. Still not wanting to catch covid, I kept my face mask on for the first little bit until I could find enough space to social distance. I knew the risk was very low, but the last thing I wanted to do was catch covid at the start and have symptoms kick in 48 hours later when I hoped to still be running.
We had a couple of laps in daylight until the sun went down on the third lap. Then the headlamps came out. I was running with my mate Chris Martin at the time and although we had our headlamps on our head, we didn’t have them turned on. With the full moon that night, plus the headlamps of the many other people around us, we could see fairly well. By the third night lap, we just got rid of the headlamp all together (although I kept a mini torch in my pocket as a backup). We actually found it easier when we didn’t have other people with their headlamps on around us, as our eyes would adjust a lot better and we didn’t have flashing, inconsistent lights distracting us. We could do the whole course without additional light, and in a way, it was more relaxing. We weren’t hyper-focused on a spot of light in front of us, and instead we could look around a bit more and embrace the night-time surrounds.
As we settled into the night, and the chatter between runners died down a bit, I started my sleep routine. My first nap was after the 10pm lap and I aimed for about 15-18 minutes rest each time. As it was still quite early on in the race, I wasn’t tired enough for a ‘proper’ sleep but took it as a chance to just close my eyes and reset myself. When I have these “sleep laps”, I try to pick up the pace a little bit and reduce the amount of walking breaks, to try and maximise sleep time. This means I tend to be running on my own most the time, so these are the laps I bring out the audiobooks. I normally pick a book with a story that I’m familiar with, so if I tune out a bit it doesn’t matter. However, this time I opted for something new that was going to keep me engaged and make me look forward to hearing more of the story on the next lap. It turned out that “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir was the perfect choice as it achieved exactly that.
I was hoping the temperature would drop a bit overnight, and we’d have a chance to cool down, but it stayed quite warm. It never got cold enough to require my buff or gloves, and the few laps I did bring a jacket, it really only stayed on for the first 500m or so (some of the blokes were even running without tops on, it was that warm). The biggest problem I had with the first night, as did a lot of other runners, was the humidity. It affected a lot of runners and caused many chafing issues and hydration issues. I don’t normally sweat a lot when I run, but I did this time. I tried to manage it as best I could, but around 1am I started to develop a few stomach issues. Nothing too major, but enough to prompt me to back the pace off a bit to allow it to settle. I stopped worrying about my lap times, and I just took whatever rest break I could get. If that meant only a 5-minute sleep then it was better than nothing (sleep isn’t as important on the first night anyway). Fortunately, the issues resolved after about 4 hours, but I still stayed with a slower pace just to be sure.
Getting through to the first sunrise was one of the first big milestones, and from 200+ starters, about 40 had made it through the night. The night-time is usually the hardest period of these events, especially those last few hours before sunrise – what Kevin Matthews would call ‘the witching hours’. To get through the night is generally a big deal, and I like to say, “if you can make it to the day, you can make it through the day”. It’s amazing what that sun coming up can do to your mental state.
I had a crew of 6 this year, but they took it in shifts so they could manage their rest. My crew who got me through the first night were Wayne McMurtrie and Amanda Bruce, and around 6am they tagged out with Gemma (my wife) and Emma Luscombe. Now that the sun was up and I wasn’t trying to fit sleep in anymore, I had the time to have a shower. Bringing a shower set-up was a last-minute idea of mine, and one that turned out to be a really good call. Basically, I had just brought along a short length of garden hose with a shower nozzle fitting, as well as some body wash and a flannel. There was a tap in the race village that I could hook it up to and it worked perfectly as an ad-hoc shower. After making it through the super humid night, it was so nice to have a cold shower and get on a clean, dry set of clothes, to start a new day refreshed. I can highly recommend adding a shower to your routine if you want to go far in a backyard ultra. It’s amazing the difference it can make, both physically and mentally.
After my shower, I settled into my day routine, which meant I was back to running slower laps and having more chats with the other runners. The day was still quite humid, though it felt to have dropped a bit since the night. I find the second day of these events is where it becomes very much of a grind. It’s the tough stuff you need to get through before the race really starts. It can get very boring and monotonous, and to get from where you are to where you want to be, can seem so far away. Not even being at 24 hours yet and thinking that I have to do at least everything I’ve already done, again, can be very demoralising. I have thoughts run through my head like “Why did I sign up for this?”, “This is stupid”, and “I’m not signing up for another one again”. I have to remind myself to just follow the plan, and keep ticking the laps off, and try not to think about how far I have left to go. When I vented to my crew about how much it sucked, they reminded me that I went through exactly the same phase around the same time in my previous backyards, and that made me feel somewhat better, and that I would get through that rough patch.
At the 24 hour mark, 20 runners completed that lap. Out of the five backyards I’ve run in, 20 is the greatest number of people that had ever made the 100 mile club. It just went to show the depth of the field we had this year, and I took it as good odds that there could be a few people there who could push 50+ hours.
Unfortunately, it would be the last lap for both Margie Hadley and Jen Millum. I had the pleasure of sharing a few laps with Margie earlier on, and I knew she had struggled with stomach issues, but she had persevered and made it through, and pushed on a lot longer than she previous thought. Margie was the female Australian Backyard record holder (38 laps) and I believe she can push beyond 40 at least. But it was just not to be at this event (maybe next time). Jen, another very capable runner, having placed second female at both Birdy’s Backyard 2020 and 2021, was also out after lap 24. Then one lap after that, Carl Douglas was out. Another experienced runner at the backyard format, Carl had done at least 24 hours at 3 previous events, with a PB of 33 laps at Birdy’s 2021. I knew from his posts on social media that he was aiming for at least 60 laps at this event, so I wasn’t expecting him to drop so soon. I’d made a list in my head of runners who I thought could help push me beyond 51 laps, and now it was shorter by three. These very capable runners dropping out all around the same time was a bit of a shock to me, but it is the harsh reality of just how relentless these backyard events can be. I was still feeling pretty strong at that stage in the race, but it was a stark reminder to me not to take anything for granted, as even the best runners can have a bad day.
Just before sunset I had my second shower for the event and began to settle into my night-time routine. Gemma and Emma went away for a sleep (and took some of my clothes to wash) and tagged out with Wayne and Amanda. I brought the audiobook out again and attempted to speed up the pace to increase my sleep time. I say attempted, because it was around this time that I hit another rough patch and I was beginning to struggle mentally again. Ideally for me a ‘sleep lap’ would be under 40 minutes, but at that stage in the race I was only just keeping them under 50 minutes. I was stressing that I wouldn’t be able to get enough sleep (not that you can ever really get enough sleep at a backyard). About halfway through that night, I had Nathan and Cassie join on as crew, and with the help of Nathan’s hypnotherapy I was back on track. The second half of the night I was able to get my laps back down to about 41 minutes, and managed to get some decent sleeps in. I was at the stage where I could drift off properly and a 15-minute nap felt like a 2 hour sleep.
As we approached ‘the witching hours’ for the second time, I was actually feeling an increase in my mood. Everyone else, however, was showing signs of deterioration. The numbers had dropped dramatically during the night, and from the 11 runners that had made it to the second sunset, only 4 made it past 2am. This was the same point last year that it was down to two runners, myself and Kevin Matthews. Ironically, it was at this exact point this year that Kev dropped out, after completing 34 laps. Perhaps he started getting flashbacks of being left as the assist and thought he better pull the pin early? No, of course not, but in all seriousness, Kev was another one of the runners on the list in my head who I had thought would be able to push a big distance with me. He had been my assist at 2 previous backyards and he definitely had the potential to be up there with me again. I knew he had come into it determined to at least beat his PB of 47 laps, so I was a bit surprised when he dropped out well before that. One lap he was running with us and then the next he wasn’t. I had turned around to look for him as we assembled in the corral for lap 36 and couldn’t see him, I thought maybe he’s just leaving it to the last minute to get to there. But then the countdown started and I was saddened to realise that he didn’t make the cut off. He had timed out on lap 35. You can read his race report *here*.
At lap 36, the three remaining runners besides myself were Chetan Sadhana, Jessica Smith, and Chris Martin. These three runners were all on that list in my head, all proficient runners who had the ability to push beyond 51. There’s a special type of camaraderie that happens in a backyard ultra, and it becomes very much a team effort, especially as you get down to the last few runners. Going through the same painful experience together helps build a sense of solidarity. You need one another to keep each other going. This was very much evident in the way Jess and Chris had been tackling the laps, using the same run/walk strategy and staying together the whole time each lap. I stayed with them for the first part of each lap but after a kilometre or so I would leave them behind and follow my own plan.
As I talked to the remaining runners during the first part of each lap, I tried to gauge how many laps they thought they had left in them. I was still feeling strong enough to go for a while yet, but the other three weren’t thinking too far ahead. Chris and Jess had already gone well beyond their respective PB’s, and by the completion of lap 36, Chetan would equal his. Although I believed that each one of them were capable of reaching at least 51 laps, we were still a fair way off, so I encouraged them with a smaller target of sunrise (39 laps). The power of the sun coming up might be enough to spur them on a bit more.
All four of us made it to sunrise, and Gemma and Emma had returned to crew for me. I had another shower and felt refreshed and ready to tackle another day. As we started lap 40, Chris was having an issue with his ankle. He couldn’t run on it, but still attempted the lap with a hobble. I hung back with him to chat and see how he was going. Mentally he wanted to keep going, but physically his ankle was preventing him from getting any speed up. When it took us about 10 minutes to cover about 800m, a quick calculation made us accept that he wasn’t going to be able to make the finish in time. I had to leave him there and as he phoned someone to come pick him up, I ran ahead to the next runner. I caught up with Jess and let her know that Chris was dropping out, and we would be down to 3 on the next lap. She didn’t sound like she had too many laps left in her, and certainly didn’t seem to like the prospect of being left as the assist, but she was going to keep pushing on regardless. She had already gone a lot further than she initially thought. She had smashed her previous PB of 32 laps and had also just beaten the Female Australian Backyard record of 38 laps.
I continued on to catch up to Chetan. As I chatted with him, he mentioned to me that he was having an issue with his ankle, but he still sounded like he had a lot more fight left in him. I informed him that we were about to be down to three, and he had a good chance of being the assist (and there was always the possibility of taking it out completely). When I casually mentioned the record to him, he didn’t seem to think it was out of reach, but he just said he was going to take it lap by lap. I suggested he speak to Susan Grober (physio at The Long Run) before the next lap to see if he could get the ankle sorted and keep him going for a little bit longer.
Two laps later, it was down to two. The three of us had started lap 42, but Jess had turned around at some point at returned to the start. This just left myself and Chetan. We were getting to the pointy end. I felt strong enough to get to at least 51 laps, but I wasn’t sure about Chetan. He wasn’t exactly running anymore, but he was managing a slow shuffle which still got him around the course with time to spare. He didn’t seem to be getting worse though; each lap he would consistently get in at around 50-51 minutes.
My crew spoke to Chetan’s crew, and together, they made the next target 51 laps. Chetan’s gear was moved to a closer marquee, and more food was brought in. Susan the physio had checked out his ankle and had done what she could to make it a little more comfortable. Chetan still seemed to be managing with his shuffle, but he was very stoic in his expression and gave up very little information about how he was feeling. Each lap he still consistently came in around that 50-51 minute mark, and he wasn’t showing signs of getting slower. I became convinced that that 51 laps was entirely possible for both of us, and his crew was on the same page. Chetan’s shuffle was too slow for my run, and too quick for my walk, so I thought it best to let him do his own thing. For the moment, I needed to stick to my own plan and my run/walk strategy. I decided I would run on my own until 51 laps, and then drop back to his pace to chat and help get him around. I knew that by helping him out I was running the risk of helping too much and him outlasting me, but then again, the backyard ultra is about finding your own personal limits. The winner is the only runner who doesn’t get to do that. As much as I come into these events with the intention of winning, I also want to test how far I can go.
I started thinking beyond 51 laps. 59 would put us in the top 20 in the world. 65 would put us in the top 10. I tried not to get too ahead of myself and focus on the lap that I was on. I brought the audiobook out at some point early in the afternoon, but as I started listening to Project Hail Mary again, I found that I couldn’t focus on the story and was losing track of what was happening. I decided I’d finish that book another day and switched to a familiar favourite instead – Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. This was now the third or fourth time listening to it, so it did the job of keeping me distracted and entertained but didn’t matter if I tuned out for a bit.
We approached the third sunset and I psyched myself up for another tough night. I had planned another shower for the break after lap 49, before the sun went down, but I couldn’t get my lap done quick enough to have the time. I just wiped myself down with a wet flannel and put on some clean, dry clothes. Not the same, but it would have to do. It still helped me get in the mental headspace of feeling refreshed and ready to tackle another 12 or so laps.
We got to lap 50, which was the last lap in full daylight before the sun would set on the next lap. We both started the lap as per usual – I ran off ahead whilst Chetan shuffled behind. It seemed there was nothing different about that lap, but unbeknownst to me, Chetan had just about reached his limit. At some point during that lap, he turned around to head back. It would have been at around the 42-minute mark that my wife saw him return, which gave her about a minute to process what had just happened and then rush over to the finish area to let me know. She got there just in time, and as I crossed the line for what would be the last time, she shouted excitedly at me “You won!”. It didn’t quite register with me what she meant; obviously she was telling me that I won, but I was in bit of disbelief. I hadn’t even stopped my watch because I wasn’t sure the race was over. I thought Chetan had still been going ok, and we weren’t at the 51 hours yet that I had convinced myself we would get to. As we walked back to the race village and it was explained to me what had happened, I finally allowed myself to believe it and accept that I had won. I had done 335.5km over 50 laps – just one lap shy of equalling the Australian record. I felt a range of emotions – disappointed that I had come so close to the record but missed, relief that I could finally stop, and ecstatic that I was last one standing. My fourth backyard ultra win and third time over 200 miles.
I met up with Chetan in the race village and we shared a beer together. Even though I was a little disappointed that we just missed the record, I was still in awe of how far Chetan had come. He had been struggling for a while, but he just kept soldiering on; his mental strength was amazing. It was one thing for me to get to 50 hours when physically my body was holding up ok, it was something else for him to get there (or just shy of). His official count was 49 laps, 13 laps more than his previous PB and the third highest result ever in Australia.
Here’s a few new things I tried this time around which worked really well.
In and Out boxes – the concept is simple. One box to put stuff in when I return from a lap, and one box to take stuff out of when I leave to start a lap. As I came in from a lap, my crew would have the “inbox” ready and I would put anything I was carrying in there – phone, headphones, water flask, sunnies, hat, etc. Then during the break my crew would organise what I needed to go in the “outbox” for the next lap. Often this was just a lot of the stuff I just put in the inbox, but stuff like empty water flasks were swapped for full cold ones, sweaty hats changed for dry ones, etc. This was just a great system for making sure I didn’t forget anything. It worked really well and will be implemented in all of my future backyard events.
Shower – I have had showers during backyard ultras before, but it was during this event that I truly realised the impact of them – especially in humid conditions. If you have the time and the ability, I highly recommend it. The difference it can make to your mental state is remarkable. You almost feel as fresh as if you were on lap 1 (ok, maybe not that fresh, but I did notice a marked improvement). This was the first backyard ultra where I’ve had more than one shower (3 to be precise) and I added it to my plan as a priority.
“Snackle” Box – this was just a tackle box I filled with lollies, chips, nuts, muesli bars, dried fruit, etc. It was just perfect for my break time when I couldn’t decide what snack I wanted, or even remember what snacks I had. Having this made it easy to see at a glance what I had and then grab what I wanted. It saved my crew rummaging through boxes trying to find a snack I asked for or what they thought I might want; all they had to do was have this snackle box ready for me. Such a simple thing but made a big difference.
Of course, I couldn’t have done any of this without the support of many wonderful people, so on that note I’d like to thank:
My crew – Gemma, Emma, Wayne, Amanda, Nathan and Cass. All having experience at crewing for me previously, they have really come to understand my particular needs and nuances. It always gets to a point in these events where I can’t think for myself, and this team of people does an awesome job of thinking for me and getting me through each lap. All I have to do is focus on running. Thank you also to my parents, Chris and Karen, for coming down to help and for looking after the kids.
The team at Ultra Series WA – Event Director Shaun Kaesler, Race Directors Ben Treasure and Simone Watkins, and all the volunteers for putting on another fantastic event. A lot of work goes into these events and they always run really smoothly. They must be doing something right because even though halfway through it I am swearing to myself that I will never do another one again, I still somehow end up signing up for the next one.
Shannon and Justin Wakefield at OC Clothing Co for their continued support and generous supply of running tops and hats. They are super lightweight and comfortable, and I love the awesome designs (particularly my custom designed “Team Gore” top). It definitely came in handy having a few dozen tops on hand when I had to constantly change due to the humidity. Thank you also Shannon for also driving me to the event and staying on to crew for my good mate Chris Martin.
Ross Johnson and the team Tarkine for supplying me with a few pairs of running shoes. Initially the Tarkine Goshawks made up just part of my shoe rotation, but they turned out to be a favourite by the second half of the race. The wider toe box was more suited to my swollen feet and took a lot of the pressure off my swollen toes.
Wayne McMurtrie at Tribe & Trail for the T8 Sherpa Shorts, T8 Commando underwear and Steigen Socks. This gear has always been a favourite of mine and is just the best for ultrarunning.
Marco Noe at noeko.film for amazing photos as usual. You really have a talent of capturing the rawness and emotion of these events.
And of course, Chetan, thank you for assisting me to get as far as I did. Congratulations on an incredible performance. The assist is by far, the hardest job of the event, and you really stepped up to the task. I really look forward to seeing how much further you can go at the next one.
And one last thank you to every other runner who took part, whether you did 1 lap or 41 laps. I love how social a backyard ultra can be, with everyone coming together at the start of each hour and always having someone different to talk to each lap. I love seeing people test their limits and achieve things they may have once thought were incapable of.
Thank you to Phil for allowing RT post and share his superhuman effort with our readers. For more visit: https://phil5kaday.wordpress.com/