Cowshed Backyard Ultra – 29/30th April 2023

by Kieron Day

The Wheelbirks Farm in Stocksfield set the stage for an unforgettable weekend at the Cowshed Backyard Ultra. In this unique race format, each runner had to complete a 4.16-mile loop every hour until only one was left standing. Any leftover time between completing a ‘backyard’ and the start of the next one could be used for rest, refuelling, or a quick visit to the portaloo!

This event was my first introduction to endurance running and was completely uncharted territory for me. However, I knew that more ‘seasoned’ athletes such as Sam Etherington, Jon Rose, and Martin Harbisher were also there, and they had previous experience and had already shared lots of useful advice with me leading up to the event.

The rain-soaked course was very technical, with some steep uphill and downhill sections and a few small wooden bridges to navigate. The race director mentioned that, combined with the constant onslaught of rain, these were the toughest race conditions he had ever seen and expected a relatively short race weekend compared to previous years.

Everyone seemed to have different strategies, but all of the Crook AC cohort appeared to be on the same target pace at the beginning, completing the first few laps around the 47-50 minute mark. This pace seemed to be the sweet spot in terms of having enough time to get organised for the next lap. However, as darkness approached and the thought of a long slog through the mud in pitch black conditions crept in, Martin decided to call it a day. Despite having completed 7 loops (over 29 miles), it certainly was no mean feat!

Running through the night was very difficult. The course was tough enough during the day, and the amount of footfall had caused the mud to churn up, ‘Harrier-League style’. I preferred to run through the night on my own so I could ‘switch off’, but 50 miles in, my brain started playing tricks on me. In the wooded areas, there were large blue containers with reflector strips on them, and I kept mistaking them for other runners, thinking they must have gone the wrong way!

Unfortunately, both Sam and Jon threw in the towel in the early hours of the morning. Both put in an absolutely fantastic shift and completed 15 laps each (covering over 60 miles). Had it not been for injuries and such tough conditions, I know they would have had no issues getting to sunrise and receiving the morale boost that daylight brings.

People started mentioning that the 24-hour (100-mile) marker was within reach. I’m not sure if I wanted to fool myself or the other runners, but I saw this as an opportunity and began to pick up the pace, recklessly completing laps between 40-45 minutes. I think part of me hoped that those who targeted 24 hours would catch wind of me still being ‘fresh’ and wouldn’t even attempt to continue. It also allowed me to try a few ‘power naps’ between loops, although I’m not sure I slept at all!

Four runners hit the 100-mile point, and after completing the following lap, we were down to two. However, no amount of ‘mind games’ were psyching my final competitor out; he was very experienced, and my crew told me he had won lots of ultra races previously. We had a couple of chats around the start, and he told me he just wanted to ‘assist’ me in getting as many laps as I could. At this point, I was running on fumes and wanted it to be over, but I also didn’t want to show any signs of weakness, so I just thanked him and took off. I had set the bar high with my pace and had been the first runner back since lap 13, which was probably my eventual downfall.

I don’t remember the exact laps but my left achilles was the first to go, the pain was a slow onset and thankfully one of my friends was able to strap it up with sports tape and it felt ‘as good as new’. Next on the decline was my knee, again nothing a bit of sports tape and determination couldn’t fix. The other final runner was starting to cut it fine, getting around in about 55 minutes and just heading straight back out. I tried to slow my pace right down so he could always see me in the distance still looking ‘fresh’, including on my penultimate lap which he only had 1:30 spare. I knew he was on the ropes, but he just kept going like an absolute warrior!

I set off on lap 32 (128 miles covered) thinking, just one more lap and I’ve got this, but my knee had other ideas. At the end of the starting straight, my knee completely cramped up. I’ve never felt pain like it, but every time I bent my leg it would spasm and as much as I wanted to keep going through the pain, I physically couldn’t, absolutely gutted! I was already ahead at that point so I was able to tell the other runner as he came past that I was done and told him to give everything to just complete this lap (otherwise there would be no winner). He managed to get around with enough time to spare and was crowned the winner, despite being very modest and telling me I deserved the win on numerous occasions!

What an event – I hit my target of ‘finding my limit’ and probably pushed a bit too far past it – as I’m sitting here typing with a pack of frozen peas on my achilles and a strap on my knee! I’ve had the honour of being asked to represent the England team in June, but I’ve had to decline as I won’t be recovered in time. However I’m pleased I’ll get the honour in April next year when the Four Nations Trophy is being hosted at Cowshed so I’m looking forward to going through all of this again!