On a busy weekend with many Croft members out enjoying different races my curiosity got the better of me and I headed to the flatlands of East Anglia to try out a backyard ultra on Knettishall Heath.
The rules are very simple, it’s basically a trail run, each lap is 4.1 miles long and there is a mass start at the top of every hour. As long as you complete each lap in 59 minutes and 59 seconds or less you get to start the next lap, if you’re more than a minute late starting a lap you’re excluded. That’s 100 miles every 24 hours, the race is open-ended with no time limit and only finishes when the last one standing is declared the winner.
After studying the form from other races I had concluded that I needed to aim to complete each lap in about 50 minutes allowing 10 minutes to refuel at the amply stocked snack table and enjoy the hot food that was served every 6 hours.
48 runners crossed the start line at midday on Saturday and most seemed to be adopting a run/walk approach on the first lap as we all tried to gauge the pace. Copying their strategy my first lap was completed in 46 minutes, just a bit too fast for the miles ahead. On the next lap I slowed back to a brisk speed walk and came in exactly where I wanted in just over 49 minutes.
Laps 3 to 10 flew by and I was pleased to set consistent times ranging from 49:06 to 50:05, still happily using my height to my advantage and continuing to “poer walk” whilst all others were running significant portions of the course. You quickly learn to set mental time checks at fixed points around the course, 10 minutes to the junction at the end of the riverside path, 16 minutes to the first road crossing, 20 minutes to the top of the first hill…..
The steady pace allows everyone to chat with the other competitors, enjoy the tremendous sense of camaraderie that exists when you are all in equal first and last place once every hour and to learn what each runner had set as their target for the event. Some just wanted to complete a single half or marathon distance, others were chasing the 100 mile target and some quite obviously had their eyes on the win. My target was quite simply to go as far as possible and I had absolutely no idea how far that was going to be.
As darkness dropped and the headtorches came out my lap times dropped to 52 minutes, but there was no need to panic, you expect to be slower in the dark. Then suddenly on the midnight lap my time dropped to 57 minutes, I tried to speed up but struggled to complete the next lap in 56 minutes. My legs still felt fine and worked well but the exaggerated arm action of my speed walk was aggravating an old shoulder injury. I confessed to the timekeeper that I may not be starting the next lap and was urged to use the 3 minutes that I had free to think it over. Preferring to enjoy the food on offer I headed to the snack table gulping down a large mug of coffee and a huge glass of Coca before heading back to the start line with both hands full of Jaffa Cakes. In my eagerness to eat I had forgotten my planned retirement and as the caffeine and cakes worked their magic my next lap was completed in just over 50 minutes. I was back on the pace!
The sky was already lightening and it was now just 8 miles to sunrise, Muntjac and Roe Deer were standing just feet from the path watching us pass by on each lap and my spirits lifted. I decided to lift my pace slightly and stretch some different muscles by running for just 20 paces after each path junction. This worked well on the first attempt as I recorded my first sub 50 minute lap since dusk but on the last lap before dawn thus tactic was my downfall.
Walking along the path through the woods I was looking for the expected right turn. Spotting a gap in the trees I dived to the right, ran 20 paces, walked a few more paces, turned left ran 20 paces and realised that I had never been on this path before. Sighting headtorches to my left I ran along a narrow twisting path to rejoin the course but with mere feet to go I tripped over a tiny tree stump and a dull ache in my ankle told me that I had done some damage.
At first it didn’t seem so bad, the sun came up, the birdsong was glorious and I continued for 2 more laps. It was only 28 miles to that 100 mile mark, I felt good, the field had dropped to 19 runners and I knew that many runners were planning to stop at 100 miles. Maybe I was in with a chance of lasting to join the final shoot out for the win?
Then approaching the end of lap 18, eagerly anticipating the hot bacon butties that were promised for breakfast, the dull ache in my ankle suddenly turned to a sharp pain and for the first time I had to stop whilst out on the course.
Making the finish of the lap with less than 3 minutes to spare, I grabbed a bacon buttie, a can of coke and some tubigrip from my drybag before heading straight back out on lap 19. After a couple of hundred metres I paused to enjoy my bacon buttie, whilst slipping the tubigrip over my ankle. I set off again but after 100 metres I knew that I was risking serious damage and slunk back to the start to collect my DNF medal and allow the photographer to capture a photo of a grown man trying very hard not to cry.
Whilst I crawled off to grab a few hours sleep in the back of my car, the rest of the field continued. 13 runners broke the 100 mile barrier, 7 of those retiring on the next lap leaving 6 to fight it out for the win. After 32 hours and 39 minutes of running the winner was Andrew Smith who completed an amazing 33 laps totaling over 135 miles. His reward is the chance to do it all over again in the Tennessee backwoods at the Original Big Dog Backyard Ultra this October.
A few days later, now that the disappointment has subsided, I realise that 17th place and 72 miles in 18 hours is no disgrace. I think I may be hooked on a race format that is a mental roller coaster ride of emotions from start to finish and where even I can dream of winning. I’ve got loads of ideas to improve my chances next year, maybe I should test those ideas on the summer edition of Last One Standing Ireland in August?