Herdy’s backyard ultra, probably the run of my life… so far.

  •  Posted by Marcus Ekenstierna
  •  Filed in Race Reports
  •  Published on 2021/04/27

Herdy’s backyard ultra, probably the run of my life… so far.

Posted by: bigkevmatthews@gmail.com

Herdy’s frontyard Ultra, https://www.herdysfrontyard.com.au/ , the sister event to Birdy’s Backyard Ultra, https://www.birdysbackyardultra.com/ , just about the run of my life I reckon, so far. Went into the event hoping to improve on my 24 hours at Birdy’s backyard ultra last August, with 36 hours being a stretch goal and 32 hours being enough to get bragging rights with the boys , taking out my mate Jon’s 31 hours at Birdy’s.

I figured 24 hours would be easier at Herdy’s due to the 4pm start, this meant you got to the night running early when you still had some company and energy, at Birdy’s due to the 10am start you got to the night running after nearly 10 hours on your feet. This took out a lot of runners, also Herdy’s would be warmer which was lucky as we weren’t allowed tents or caravans.  Getting through the night is a major hurdle for a lot of runners but if you can get to the sunrise you’re good for another 7-8 hours minimum, it is huge. Hirdy’s would give runners a good opportunity to do this and rack up some serious time on legs. The course itself was an unknown for this time of event, sure I’ve ran it many times but not for long distance and the worry was the hard limestone, combined with bike path and trails would be hard on the legs unlike Birdy’s which was mainly trails, albeit testing in places.

Some photos of the early starts and the DNF trophies and the winners trophy..

Anyhow at 4pm Friday afternoon myself and 146 runners set off on lap 1 and the event was started, when it would stop was up to the last two runners, who ever they would be ? The smart money was on the Birdy’s last two runners Phil Gore and Michael Hooker, both gifted young athletes in their prime. Michael Hooker was clocking 31 minute laps early and didn’t waiver bar lap 4 when there was $500 up for grabs for the fastest lap. He moved up through the gears and dropped a 22 minute lap , averaging just over 3min 20 seconds a kilometre, in the dark , on an undulating course, unbelievable. Needless to say no one tried to better that time during the event, well not on foot anyway?

Pre-Start with Rob, Scotty and Nancy and early photos pre-first night.

I had set up camp with Rob and Scotty and the reclining chairs came out together with a few bags of spare clothes for the event and an esky filled with all sorts of yummy treats and some serious food recommended by my favourite Dietitian David Bryant.  I highly recommend David who is currently training for the Triathlon event in the para-Olympics, he is a wealth of knowledge but above all recommends eating good food, and food which is actually ‘normal’. Check out his site for more details http://www.catalystdietitian.com.au/about.html I had used David’s guidance for the Birdy’s event and made 24 hours with no issues. My friend Nancy joined us who was just running a few hours as she had competed in a grueling long distance swim the previous weekend and had family engagements to take care off the next day.  As you can see in the images above she was a natural at this event and easily ran a distance PB before being called away to take care of her young family. Nancy will be back and I feel has a big future in this type of event if she chooses to concentrate on it. Scotty also ran a massive distance PB and also pulled in sponsorship from Osborne Mazda , which , with the event breaking the Australian Record was, in hindsight, a good move.  Finally Rob got his goal of running 15 hours and breaking 100km, again another distance PB and he’ll be smashing the 100 mile target at Birdy’s in August. He had to put up with some serious gamesmanship from Bart’s during the build up to the event as he had not been training as well as he could have,  due to various reasons,  and this result has put the onus back on Bart’s to back up at Birdy’s in August. It’s always good for some good old fashioned rivalry among good friends, makes the conversation at Yelo after our Thursday morning progressives so much more interesting !

First lap and , full of beans, Rob and I grab a top three finish.

As well as everybody bar one runner DNF’ing , Shaun also created a special prize for the first DNF, Dead f**king Last so to speak, Thomas Grobar was the excited recipient as he was the last to finish the first lap albeit in his defense he had a broken toe and never expected to complete a lap in the time frame allotted. Well done Thomas, kudos for even tuning up and getting round one lap.

Thomas with the DFL trophy and Wayne and Shaun, legends !

The first three laps are in daylight and as the sunsets you get some beautiful light in the trail section of the course. As you have just started the event these first three laps are more of a social run than a race and getting in under 40 minutes is a breeze, giving you plenty of time for eating and drinking and generally enjoying the whole vibe of the event village. On the first lap myself and Rob cruised home around the 5min/k mark for a top three finish, if only every lap could be so easy.  As you can see from the image above it’s all smiles early on….

First few laps in daylight, racing the sunset, all smiles.

Once the sun set it was on with the head torches and into the night we went, round and round the lake. With the 4pm start it meant a large proportion of the field was still running into the early evening which made for great company as a snake like line of head torches weaved their way around the loop. The atmosphere at the event village was electric with excited runners returning and going about their business,  aided by attentive support crew eager to do their bit, it really is a team event. With 5 minutes to go Nancy Sinatra is blasted from the event PA’s, these boots are made for walking, what else? and the  activity kicks up a notch as everybody fumbles for their last few items before scurrying to the start line.  A siren for two minutes and then again for one minute before the final 10 second count down and off we all go again, into the night. Friday night really was a special time, so much going on and so many excited runners and crew, magical.

Friday night was perfect running conditions, so much fun.

Throughout the night runners dropped out , happy with their result and all saying they’d be back for more, in fact I don’t think I heard one runner grumble about the format or conditions , it was such a positive place to be. There were a lot of runner new to this format, as there had only been one previous event last year , but to a runner all said they would return and beat their current distance. It is that type of event, unlike any that have come before, it really is like one big team all working to a greater good, all wanting the best for their fellow runners and encouraging them to continue and just do ‘one more lap‘.  There isn’t that competitive feel about the event, each runner is testing themselves against what they believe they can achieve, even when it’s down to the last two runners both need each other to continue.  That is the appeal I suppose, well it is for me.

Rob smashes a missive PB before DNF’ing and retreating to his onesie with a well earned coffee.. I cruised through Saturday morning…

Friday night was spent running with Margie Hadley , amongst others, and man we laughed. Everything from saving Margie from elephant eating Herdsman Lake mini frogs, spiders that were big enough to put a saddle on and ride at the Melbourne Cup and Margie having no idea where her Husband was born. The things you talk about when you have 48 hours to kill. Other highlights was watching Thomas nearly run into the same spider’s web  every lap and then seeing that same spider on Friday and then Saturday night, he felt like part of the family.!  Every lap was eventful and due to the banter each one disappeared quickly and before you knew it you had ticked off another hour with sunrise fast approaching.

Sunrise is a massive boost in these type of events, if you can get through the night you will easily run another 6-8 hours after sunrise just on the boost from the sun alone. Of course it is always darkest before the dawn and the witching hour for any ultra runner is between 2pm and 5pm. Get through these three hours and you can bank another 3-5 hours just on the adrenalin rush.

This was the case Saturday morning and once the sun rose so did every ones spirts. Saturday turned out to be a beautiful day, little or no wind to speak about and the temperature was perfect in the morning before warming up but never so much as to be a problem. I had spent a lot of time in the local hills, post Christmas,  so was heat acclimatised , so although I was ok with the temperature I hear some people did suffer.  That being said the crew did a great job keeping me cool with Ice Packs and each lap they got their routine better and better. Big tip here for runners hoping to attempt one of these races, get a reclining chair. Worth its weight in gold trust me, lets your crew go to work while you give the legs a well earned break. Of course I’m assuming you have a crew , if you don’t you need one. These sorts of races are like a gran prix , as well as the driver and the car you need a pit crew or nothing keeps moving. Towards the end of the race you cannot think straight, actually you can think full stop no matter straight, when this happens a crew takes over and gets you from the finish line to the start line.  In my case, later in the race, they carried me between the two points , with a quick sit down to shovel food and drink into me. ! Do not under estimate the crew in this type of race, they are indispensable.

Enjoying Saturday..

The goal Saturday was to make it to 4pm and the 24 hour, 160mile mark. I had hit this target at Birdy’s and regretted  leaving to get home and babysit the kids as my current Wife was going out with friends. Truth be told Karen did say I was ok to stay later in the race  but I had mentally set a 24 hour goal and when I reached it I was happy to leave. I was determined to go one better at Herdy’s and leave nothing in the tank, how ever long that took.  As I said earlier reaching 24 hours at Herdy’s , in my view, is easier because you start late afternoon and run through the night early, with company. At Birdy’s starting at 10am means you hit the first head torch lap 8-9 hours later and then have 10 hours to get though when you are tired.  It is also a lot colder,  which is massive when you stop every hour.  Once we hit sun rise at Herdy’s the rest of the day was plain sailing, there was still around 20-30 runners so company was there if you wanted it and it helped having rabbits to chase if you so desired or alternatively there was solitude if you so  desired.  I used this time to reacquaint myself with the best sounds of the seventies, no everyone’s tastes but some classics just put a smile on my face and allowed me to drift away, lap by lap.

First milestone reached, 24 hour club. 100 Miles….4pm Saturday.

Once I hit 24 hours at 4pm Saturday the goal was 32 hours to go one better than my good friend Jon Pendse , who had ran 31 hours for a third place at Berdy’s.  Jon had turned himself into an Ultra running God the last few years but recently had felt the pull of the concrete and quicker marathons, to such an extent he had a free entry but declined to start as his BMW was getting serviced on Friday. I’ve heard some excuses to miss races but a car service is a new one on me.  It would be a big ask as I would need to run to midnight which meant once again running in to the night but this time with a lot less activity on the course and around the event village.  The village had turned into a ghost town in the early hours of Sunday morning, funnily enough,  and before long we were down to four runners. It was lap 34 I think when the race changed completely.  Margie had not gone out , unbeknown to me, and Michael Hooker, the unbackable favourite, came back to the start and pulled out due to stomach issues. I was also suffering from ultra stomach, when you have eaten so much processed food in the form of carbohydrates and sugar you just can’t stomach anything.  You know you need to eat but nothing is edible and this can be your downfall, remember the Porsche with an empty fuel tank, you just stop  ! Anyhow, on lap 34 it was a two horse race and my plans to sneak away quietly went out the window.

The last 2k of the loop through the trails is pretty special..

Once it had sunk it I was in a two horse race I settled down and just started to grind out the laps. We tended to run alone , Phil and I, and I was thankful for my Aftershokz Aeropex headphones ( https://us.aftershokz.com/products/aeropex ) and Spotify. My crew at this point consisted of Mark and Gary with a cameo from Gareth, while his six pack of Ginger Beer was available,  Darren and Adam. All encouraged me to keep on going when I started to crumble in the early hours of Sunday morning. As with the previous night the plan was to get to sunrise, everything would be so much better when the sun came up. I’d stumble into the finish coral , stagger to my chair and then let the boys go to work on massaging the legs and getting as much nutrition and hydration as they could into me. Once I heard Nancy Sinatra I was up and into the start coral for one more lap. This was repeated until sun rise when I must admit things did get better before Shaun , the owner of the company putting on the event, started to talk about breaking Western Australian and then Australian records. The goal was 41 laps for the West Australian record and 46 for the Australian. After that 48 hours would be the next goal before 50 and so on, you get the general idea. These numbers seemed alien to me as I had never contemplated anything with a four in front of it, ever.  36 to me was a massive stretch goal and once I achieved it I found it difficult to refocus on where I was, I decided to just keep on moving forward, one lap at a time.

Saturday night, probably around the 32lap mark, It's starting to get real. Four left at this stage I think. Phil, Margie, Michael and I.
Early Sunday morning, probably around the 32 lap mark, It’s starting to get real. Four left at this stage I think. Phil, Margie, Michael and I.

The next major milestone past 24 hours is the 36 hours or 150 Mile club. Myself and Phil would be the first to enter this exclusive club at Herdy’s in its inaugural year. Phil would have one more club to enter before the race was finished while , for me, this was to be the last club I entered this time around. As you can see from the image below the crowd support had thinned at three in the morning, funny that.  This was all about to change when the sun came up, big time ! The second night when you ae basically alone with your thoughts on the course is where you need to really dig deep. Night running takes away all the external stimulus , it’s just the head torch beam ahead of you. This can also be a calming effect of course and with my spotify as my co-pilot I was able to drift away,  one song at a time. This made a big difference and I highly recommend headphones , podcasts and music for night running in this situation. I relied on music this time but next race I’m bring out the Goggins if I think of quitting… ! ( https://davidgoggins.com/  )

150mile club… 36 hours, just the two of us.

The image below is probably my favourite of the whole event. It shows the grim determination of running through a second night and facing the new dawn after running for nearly 40 hours. No crowd support yet, just our crew and the race officials. The sun was not fully awake and the mood was one of trepidation. No words were spoken , we just ambled up to the start line , looked forward into another lap and waited for the tape to come down before we once again raced the clock around the lake. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, this picture is worth so much more, no smiles, no dancing, just the realisation of what laid ahead.

Sunday morning, probably just after sunrise, the lull before the storm really. Around 38 hours.

Sunday was hot, there’s not getting around the fact. The loop was evenly split into three parts. The first 3k was open,  with little shade,  on bike path initially and then hard,  white crushed limestone . This was , for me, the hardest section of the course. It got hotter and hotter as the day wore on and the limestone path got whiter and whiter, luckily I had my goodr sunnies, ( https://goodr.com/  ) Dirk’s Inflation Station model apparently, very cool.  You then reach a bridge and this leads to a 2k section of pretty flat but open bike path before you meet the main road and enter the last 2k of offroad trails. The trail section is my favourite as at various times during the day you were just bathed in the most beautiful light and , for a moment, you could have been anywhere in the world.  There was a shower at the pony club where we had set up camp and this proved invaluable on Sunday as the temperature began to climb.  Keeping your core temperature as low as possible is paramount to continuing in this event. The lower the heart rate the longer you are going to be able to continue, keep adding the right fuel in the form of nutrition and hydration and then its only sleep depravation which will eventually scuttle you.

I knew this to be true as I had been hallucinating since Sunday night.  A herd of Elephants on the lake in the early morning which was just the reflection of the full moon through the foliage but oh so real for a few minutes. Various figures hiding behind signposts that would disappear as I neared them and leaves which would turn into crabs when studied closely.  Even though I was certainly hallucinating I didn’t feel tired, a few no doz tablets probably helped but I was wary of taking too many, but I knew the lack of sleep would eventually catch up with me. I’m not sure if hallucinating is a bad thing or a good thing really. I enjoyed the visions while always knowing they were just that but on the downside I knew these would come at a price. No matter, on I went, one more lap.

Sunday morning and into the early afternoon and things are really heating up now…

Through out the day Sunday word had got out that me and Phil were still running and every time we finished the event village seemed to get fuller and fuller. Even Channel 7 interviewed me as we neared the Australian record of 45 laps. It’s amazing how one can perk up when a reporter and camera are thrust into your face. I must have been semi coherent as I made the evening news, well some part of what I said made the news. As well as the crown growing my support crew also started to grow, hell my Wife even came down for the last few laps. I cannot thank my crew enough they were so good at getting me from the finish line back to the start,  albeit with me complaining the whole way and towards the end not really understanding what was going on.

Running gives you so much and one of the most important things is it surrounds you with like minded people,  who morph into good friends. I am blessed with the crew you see in the image below, I count all of them as true friends and am so , so lucky to have them in my life. Of course I never tell them that, remember I am a child of the seventies and we like to hold all our emotions close to our hearts but I love these guys… right enough of that.. on we go.

My crew that sort of assembled itself over the last day. Can’t thank them enough… so proud of these people.

Right, Sunday late morning into early afternoon. Laps 40 – 45, as you can see from the images below the sun came out, the crown came out and me and Phil just kept on doing our thing, one lap at a time. Each lap I promised Phil it was my last but each time either my crew or Shaun would persuade me just one more lap. Once I got on the lap I was still making the hour cut off with plenty of time to spare but each lap was taking something from me, physically and mentally.  I had promised Shaun I would get to the West Australian record at lap 42, so three laps to go.  The turning point for me was probably lap 38 when Shaun has offered Phil and I some serious financial incentives but all I wanted to do was go home. I remember I told Phil to go on and basically sat on a log , in the shade, about 1k into the loop. I was going to sit there until I knew I wouldn’t make the hour cut off and DNF.  Then along came my friend Trevor Van Aurich , on a Sunday afternoon run, he listened to my tales of woe and I think chatting to Trevor allowed me to vent my frustration at the situation enough that I got back on my feet and started to shuffle, then walk,  which turned into a slow jog before eventually picking up a waiting Phil a few kilometres along the loop. We made that loop and I was was now all in for the Australian Record at a minimum. Having a target allowed me to focus on finishing, three more laps, two more laps, one more lap, finally I could see an end. As I said earlier I never once imagined winning the event, Phil was too strong and I was just happy to be able help get a few more laps on the board in his push for 48 hours.

Sunday morning and things are heating up…

At lap 45 I had to change my clothes. Severe chaffing in areas where only a man knows the feeling had just about destroyed me on the previous lap. Thanks to Wayne and Amanda I had new shorts and virtually a whole tub of sudocream on board, and Michael gave me a white running top to help with the heat.  I was still running like John Wayne though at the start of each lap, funny to watch now.  I would stumble off the start line like an OAP while Phil would explode like a gazelle and disappear into the blue yonder, being chased by this balding, bearded old runner who looked like he had spent far too long riding horses ! I managed 46 laps to get the Australian record before being told one more lap and then my job was done, music to my ears.  I had no idea where I was truth be told at this stage, I just wanted to stop. So lap 47 was my last. I came in just under 50 minutes but it was a struggle, I had managed to run through the heat of the day and into the early afternoon but I was spent and had been for probably 5 or so laps.  Shaun had a word with me and told me I had done enough for the tribe and Phil and lap 48 was for me but I was gone, mentally I had used everything to get through lap 47 and there was nothing left for one more lap, nothing.

Last few laps… and Channel 7 interview.

So lap 48 I stepped over the line and asked for the DNF bell and rang that bell for all it was worth, I was finished. Phil was left to run lap 48 on his own and get into the 200 mile club and win the event, well deserved. He could have gone on and I am under no doubt will go on with the right assist, I had done as much as I could. All I had to do was collect the last DNF trophy from the  Emma, the lovely Race Director, a few choice words to raise a laugh and then retire to my chair, a beaten but ultimately happy man. The event had been so much more than I could have ever hoped for and as I type this post I’m so excited for the next one , Birdy’s backyard, in August. As my Wife commented after the event she had never heard me be so positive about a race so soon after it, no comments about ‘never again‘ and ‘I’m retiring‘, which is the norm these days after grueling events. No, a backyard ultra is different, even when you are destroyed you yearn for more and just one more lap.

The last DNF trophy…. standing next to the winners trophy… about as close as I got !

So for all the readers that have managed to wade through this monster of a post I have saved the best to last. My top tips to excel at a last man standing event.

  1. Break down the loop into smaller sections. For Herdy’s this translated to section one from the start to the bridge at around 3k, then the section from the bridge to the road, around 2k  before the final trail section to the finish. Thus rather than a start to finish, one goal,6.7k, you have three smaller sections to work towards and thus you’re never more than 3k from achieving a goal. At the start the laps seem to disappear in the blink of an eye but towards the end of the race a loop can take forever so breaking it down means you hit targets quicker and can use these smaller goals to keep moving forward as they are more achievable.
  2. Hydration and Nutrition is pivotal to success. As we all know an ultra is an eating and drinking competition with running between aid stations. With a last man standing event you get the opportunity to run further than you ever thought possible but to do this fuel is so important.  A Porsche without fuel will not move, similar to Michael Hooker’s challenge. The engine was firing on all cylinders but bad fuel put an end to his race.
  3. Crew is so important. You cannot possible win this event without a motivated crew. Phil has a cast of thousands helping him and my crew grew and grew but the usual suspects got me from the finish line to the start line in my semi-conscious state. Without them I would have crumpled many hours earlier.
  4. Whatever gets you through the next, it’s alright.  John Lennon hit the nail right on the head with this one. When the suns out the world is a beautiful place to be , at night it’s lonely, cold and dark. So many competitors charge the daylight hours but when night falls they are tested and buckle, watch out for the witching hours 2-5am , this is where you are at your weakest and the little voice inside your head at its loudest.
  5. Change of clothing , shoes and socks. I learnt a very painful lesson during Herdy’s, change your shorts often or wear cycling shorts and have a tub of sudocream or Squirrel’s nut butter. Even typing this my eyes start watering. !
  6. Get a comfortable reclining chair and a quality sleeping bag / onesie.  You crew need to be able to get to work while you relax and a reclining chair is a must , don’t scrimp on this as you’ll spend a lot of time in it ! Also in the evening it will probably get cold, a good sleeping bag or onesie is another must have, you can’t have your temperature yo-yo’ing between your running temperature and your ‘resting in your comfortable chair’ temperature.
True Herdy legends…and Frank.

Finally a big thankyou to Emma, the Race director, all her crew (and there was hundreds!) and Shaun , the pied piper to the Ultra Series running catalogue. These people are just so awesome and their hard work makes what myself, Phil and all the runners achieve possible. They are the true heroes of this event.  Also special thanks to my crew over the two days, you know who you are and what you did, I am eternally grateful.  Wayne and  Amanda get a special mention for just being themselves, so genuine and also for the ‘pit stop’ at 45 laps to change my shorts, you will never know how good that felt! Michael Hooker also gets a massive thankyou for being so supportive after he had dropped out earlier in the event when looking so strong. Michael would have been so disappointed at dropping out when he was hands down the favourite for the event and running so well. It takes a special kind of person to put that disappointment behind them and get on board to help a fellow competitor.  Next to  Phil , the deserved winner of the event, your calm during the chaos of Sunday morning and afternoon was liberating and once we got on the loop your encouragement was enough to get more to the finish. I look forward to when you have an assist who can take you to the next level of this sport which I’m sure you’ll be able to step up to.

Couldn’t leave without thanking No1 Wife, Karen, who came down for 15 minutes and stayed for many hours on Sunday worrying about me (and increasing the life insurance hourly!) . My  family allow me to follow my dreams and any sacrifice I make for them was more than paid in full for this event. They understand what I do and allow me to follow my passion and achieve goals like Herdy’s. I am a very lucky man.

Some random DNF images, notice one thing, they’re all smiling ! This event is infectious.