Last August, I finished (or more accurately, did not finish) Birdy’s Backyard Ultra in 39 hours. I had pushed myself beyond what I thought I was capable of, and found new limits. I had absolutely destroyed myself and had to literally be carried away from the start line. My plan coming into that race was to always just keep going until I couldn’t anymore. I didn’t set myself a goal that I would tap out at. Yet I really only prepared myself for 24 hours. After that, I was just making it up as I went along. I never expected I would last as long as 39 hours, let alone be the second last one standing.
As much as that event destroyed me, I actually really enjoyed it. I just love the concept – just keep running until you can’t anymore. Its not about how fast you can go, its about how long you can last. With each new lap, everyone is in equal standing. When the new sister event – Herdy’s Frontyard Ultra – was announced, I signed up straight away. But this time, I was going to train and prepare myself better. If I could get 39 hours with winging half of it, I wanted to know just how far I could push myself if I was adequately prepared.
The format of Herdy’s is the exact same as Birdy’s. One 6.71km loop, on the hour, every hour (100 miles in 24 hours). If you don’t start a lap or don’t complete a lap within the hour, you’re out. The race keeps going until there’s one person left standing. That last person has to complete one more lap on their own to be declared the winner – and only finisher. Everyone else is a DNF.
A big thing I learned from Birdy’s is to plan for a lot longer than you expect to be out there for. At least double, I reckon. My plan for Herdy’s went up to 96 hours. Not because I thought I could get there, but because I thought I couldn’t. I didn’t set myself an end goal, I didn’t want to create a limit in my mind of how far I would get. Instead, I would focus on milestones, for example, 39 hours to equal my PB, 46 hours to equal the Australian record, etc. When I reached one milestone, I would then focus on the next.
My plan covered everything from what pace I would run each lap at, to when I would eat my main meals, and when I would try and sleep. This was drastically different to Birdy’s when my plan for sleep was just to stay awake as long as possible, and my plan for eating was just to eat when i got hungry.
All my food, clothing and other equipment was neatly organised and labelled, so my crew knew exactly where everything was. I had a menu written up with all my different options, and with instructions on how to prepare it.
With a plan that goes up 96 hours, you can’t expect to do it all on your own. Crew is essential. My wife Gemma did a fantastic job of crewing for me at Birdy’s, but she was as unprepared for 39 hours as i was. We came into Herdy’s a bit more prepared, and recruited experienced ultra crew power couple Wayne and Amanda. Cassie and Nathan joined us at about the 20 hour mark, and although neither of them had ever even been to an ultra run before, they did a fantastic job and proved to be invaluable.
The race would start at 4pm on Friday. My mate Chris drove me up to the lake and we got there a little early to set up what would be my home for the next few days.
4pm quickly came around and we kicked off. I would get a good 2 laps done in the daylight before the sun started setting on the third lap. At Birdy’s, I found the nights the hardest. It was cold, windy, and mentally tougher. At Herdy’s, I found the nights somewhat easier. The weather was warmer (I didn’t even pull out the jacket until about 3am), I had my audiobook (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami) to keep my mind occupied, and I had sleep to look forward to each lap. Night also came around much earlier on in the race – at Birdy’s we had been running for about 10 hours before night came around.
The sun rose during the 15th lap, and I felt refreshed, it was a good feeling making it through the first night. More spectators and supporters started arriving, which got everyone a bit more pumped up. The first couple of hours of the day were perfect conditions. I still needed to wear a jacket at the start of the lap, but it was coming off about 1km in. However, it wasn’t long before the temperature started to rise, and I had to be smart about managing the heat. I was using a run/walk strategy, and so I used the shade to determine when I would walk. Run the sun and walk the shade. There wasn’t a lot of shade in the first half of the course. I would run the first 1.5km, then get a bit of shade for about 500m, then into the sun again. The 2km – 3km stretch was by far the worst part of the whole course. Not only was it unshaded, but it was along a white limestone track which shone brightly due to the reflection of the sun. Not long after this section you would reach the bridge which marked the halfway point, and from this point to the end it was mentally a lot easier. I was averaging about 40-45 minutes per lap. My crew had got into the routine of waiting for me at the finish line with an umbrella, cooling towel/vest and cold drinks.
I was still just going through the motions at this point, sticking to the plan and ticking over the laps. I didn’t even look at the total km’s I had covered, my watch only showed the distance for the lap I was on. I didn’t pay attention to how many people still remained. I just focused on my own race and getting to my milestones.
I remember getting to 24 hours and thinking to myself, physically I feel a lot better at this point than I did at 24 hours in Birdy’s. But mentally, it felt like I had been going a lot longer. 24 hours at Birdy’s brought us to 10:00am on Saturday; at Herdy’s it was 4:00pm. Even though I had run the same distance, I had been awake for a lot longer. I think that plays with your mental state more than the fatigue from running. 24 hours was also just over the halfway point to the Australian record. I remember thinking, I’ve spent so much time out here already, and I have to do all that again to get to the record. Another full night and day. At Birdy’s by this point, I was just playing it lap by lap. Anything after 24 hours was a bonus, so only thinking one lap ahead was easier mentally. But now at Herdy’s, I had to think at least another 23 hours ahead if I wanted to get the record.
It was only 2 more laps until the sun would go down, and I was actually looking forward to it. Not just for the cooler weather, but for the chance to get back into my sleeping routine. Getting to sleep on the second night would prove much easier, not only because I was a lot more tired (surprise, surprise), but I also had hypnosis from Nathan.
It was halfway through the second night, that one of the biggest shocks happened. Michael Hooker, winner of Birdy’s and favourite for this event, had dropped out. This was very unexpected, as Michael and I had talked before the race about getting to Australian record together. Margie Hadley had also dropped out the same lap. They both hadn’t started lap 34, and I didn’t realise until I got to the end of the lap. As I approached the last corner before the finish line, I saw Margie standing there and I knew it meant she was out. The first thing she said to me is that Michael was out too. I crossed the finish line and saw Michael, and he confirmed what I had just heard. It was now just Big Kev and I remaining. I had three feelings immediately come to mind, all at once – bummed that the record now seemed improbable, relieved that this run may be over soon, and excited that I was now in with a very good chance of Last One Standing. Kev is an incredible runner with a wealth of experience, but I had learned from previous conversations with him that he hadn’t really had planned on going for much more than 36 laps. And to get to 46 laps was still a long way away from where we were at that point. We were only halfway through the night and we were thinking about getting to the middle of the afternoon the next day.
I had a big, involuntary mental shift at that point. As much as I had planned for big milestones and to not set any end goals, my mind had decided at this point that this race was now reaching the end. I had written off getting the Australian record, but was excited at the prospect of being the Last One Standing. I was now only thinking a few laps ahead each time.
During the laps that followed, Kev had confirmed what I had been thinking. On lap 35 he told me he didn’t think he would be able to do much more than 5 more laps, that he would do his best to get me to a new PB. But as much as I kept encouraging him, I was also telling him not to worry about how far I get, just to worry about himself. And if I’m being completely honest, a part of me was hoping I couldn’t convince him to push on anyway. If he was to pull out or time out, then that would mean I only had to do one more lap, and that was starting to sound appealing. As I said, my mind had already made the mental shift that this was going to be over soon.
Despite the condition he was in, Kev was still making good time. He had the energy and enthusiasm to dance at the start line. We got to lap 39 and the sun came out again. Big Kev and I both finished this lap, which meant I only had to do one more lap to get a new PB. At this point, I thought Kev was either going to drop out, or, now that the sun was out and more supporters were starting to arrive, get a new surge of energy and continue on for many more hours.
It turned out to be the latter. Spectators and supporters were starting to wake up after good nights sleep in their comfy beds at home to see that there was two of us still running. As more and more people turned up to cheer us on, it created an electric atmosphere. The excitement was uplifting.
So as Kev continued to push on, each time he said was going to do ‘one more lap’, in my head I was telling myself I had to do just ‘two more laps.’ By this point, I was starting to lose track of what lap I was on or where I was up to on my plan. I relied heavily on my crew to tell me what I had to do each break. I would come in from a lap and sit down, and my crew would bring me what i needed.
We both completed lap 41 to get a new WA record, beating the 40 hours that Michael Hooker had set at Birdy’s last year. It was at the start of the 42nd lap that Event Director Shaun Kaesler started offering incentives in the form of Ultra Series credits. (Although I don’t know why he thought signing up for another ultra marathon was going to be a motivating factor at that point in the race)
On lap 42, I was running with Kev until about the 1km mark, when he told me he couldn’t keep going. I tried to encourage him, and he said he just needed to walk for a bit and that he would catch up. I had to choose between running my own race, and sticking with Kev to support him. We were still so early into the lap, I felt I couldn’t afford to walk at that point, because we might fall too far behind and then we would both time out. I left him there to walk by himself. He said he would catch up but I felt that was just his way of making me feel better for leaving him. I got to about the 2km mark and start walking. I had been feeling bad about leaving Kev behind and decided I would keep walking to give him a chance to catch up. I kept a close eye on my pace, and was doing the maths on how high I could let it get before I had to start running again. I passed a group of spectators, who asked where Kev was, and after I explained, I asked if one of them could head back towards Kev and give him a kick up the butt. I asked them to pass on the message that I was going to keep walking until he caught up. And I did. I kept walking and my pace crept up beyond the point I had planned to start running again. It was probably around the 3km mark that he caught up to me. We ran together to get the pace back down to a reasonable speed. As we ran, he was telling me he absolutely could not do another lap. He was going to cross the line and head straight for the DNF bell and ring it before anyone could talk him out of it. I told him I was ok with that. I had already got a new PB, new WA record, and would soon be the Last One Standing.
We crossed the line in about 53 minutes. My slowest lap yet. The spectators had been getting worried. My crew had come up to me with food that I had planned to eat for this break. I told them not to worry about it as I was only doing one more lap. I told them what Kev had said to me. I made my way to the marquee and prepared myself for my final lap. But as I did, I noticed that Kev was hanging around at the finish area. Wait, was he talking to Shaun? Maybe he’s not done yet. I waited for him to come and ring the bell, but it didn’t happen. Somehow, despite being convinced he was done, he had been talked into another lap. And as it turned out, it was actually another 3 laps he had been talked into. He would push on to lap 45 so i could do lap 46 and equal the Australian record.
As we started lap 45, I mentally prepared myself for just 2 more laps. As Kev and I ran, he gave me way too much information about the degree of chafing he was enduring to certain parts of his body. This conversation confirmed to me that this was definitely going to be my second last lap. As I crossed the line and spoke to my crew, I explained Kev’s situation and that there was no way he was going to be able to do another lap. I said I was pretty happy with being able to equal the Australian record, but Wayne was not satisfied with that. He organised a new pair of underwear, shorts, and a whole tub of sudocream for Kev, and that got him to the start line of lap 46.
We both got through lap 46, and it was on lap 47 that I made the mental shift back again. After half a dozen laps of Kev telling me it was going to be his last lap, I finally accepted that as long as he finished a lap, he would be lining up for the next. I started mentally preparing for the long term again. The sun would go down in just a few more hours, and the weather would start to cool down. The race could possibly go on well into the third night.
So as I finished lap 47, I finally got around to some things that I had been putting off for a while, because I had kept thinking the race was going to end. I washed my feet and changed my socks. I charged my watch. I planned my meal and a change of clothes for the next lap. I mentally psyched myself up for a long night. I got to the start line for lap 48. Big Kev was there standing next to me. This lap was for the 200 mile club. We started the lap and there was a big cheer. I got about 100m down the track and i heard another big cheer. I stopped and looked back. I didn’t see Kev, and I assumed he must have pulled out. Shaun came running up to me and told me that yes, Kev had rung the DNF bell and I was doing this lap on my own. After a big hug, I took off, relieved and ecstatic that this was actually my very last lap.
I finished the lap in about 36 minutes. Not my quickest overall, but still pretty quick compared to my more recent lap times. I didn’t need to leave anything in the tank. My wife was waiting for me with open arms, along with Kev, all my crew and all the other supporters standing around her. i had done it. Last one standing. New Australian record. And the newest member of the 200 mile club.
All of this could not have been achieved without Big Kev. I have much greater respect for the assist after this race. I was on that side before, coming runner-up at Birdy’s last year. But I didn’t see that role for what it was back then. I just saw myself as second-best. The assist truly pushes themselves to their breaking point – and then keeps going a few more laps. The Last One Standing can only go as far as the assist pushes them, and that’s what makes this event so special and unique.
Since the race, when people have asked me about it, there’s three main questions that come up. So I thought I’d answer them for you here.
How much did you sleep?
The first night I was having naps on the breaks between 11pm and 6am. I was running laps at about 35 minutes to give me about 20 minutes of sleep time. The second night, I started earlier at 8pm, but my laps were slower so i probably only had time for about 10-15 minutes each time.
What did you eat?
I try to eat ‘real’ food that i would normally eat on a daily basis. Although I packed gels and energy bars, I didn’t really use them (I think I had like 2 or 3 Clif bloks). I had main meals breaks every 3 hours, and little snacks on the other breaks in between. Meals included risotto with salmon, fried rice, porridge, rice cream, hash browns and avocado on toast. Little snacks included grapes, oranges, kiwi fruit, salted boiled potatoes, chips, glucogel jelly beans, lollies. Icy poles weren’t originally on my menu, but people brought them down for me and they were so so good in the heat of the day.
How long do you reckon you could keep going?
I’ve been asked this question a lot, and the honest answer is I don’t know. Physically I was in fairly good shape for someone who had just run 200 miles. I hadn’t yet reached the point where I thought I was done. At Birdy’s I reached that point at about lap 34. And I still held on for another 5 laps. So let’s say at least another 5, but probably more.
I’ve put together my top tips for anyone planning to tackle a backyard ultra. Not your standard sort of advice like nutrition and training, but the little things that no one thinks of, and can make all the difference
Plan, plan, plan: I’ve said this already, but I’ll say it again – plan for a lot longer than you expect to be out there for. Bring more stuff than you expect you’ll need. Schedule meal breaks and sleep breaks. Write it down. Make sure your crew understands your plan. This plan becomes indispensable in the later stages when you and/or your crew can’t think straight and all the laps start to blur into one.
Elastic Shoelaces: Such a simple thing made such a huge difference. I only put them on my shoes to save time on changing my socks every few hours or so. But because it made it so simple, I ended up slipping my shoes off at the end of every lap just to give my feet a chance to breathe.
Foot baths: a last minute decision for me was to bring a bucket and a flannel so i could wash my feet. In the past I had just used wet wipes, but washing them properly was a game changer. Every few hours when I changed my socks, I would get a foot bath, and also use this opportunity to check for blisters and replace Fixomull. I would then put on a clean pair of socks and my feet would brand new. I only got 2 blisters and I didn’t lose any toenails. I had comments after the race on how good my feet looked, and I put this down to my foot care routine.
Underwear: Invest in a good pair (or 4) of underwear. The last thing you want to be dealing with is chafing, especially in your groin area. I used T8 commando underwear (from http://tribeandtrail.com.au ) and changed them every 6 hours or so. I had minimal problems with chafing. Keep a tub of Vaseline and/or Sudocream handy too.
Now I can’t sign off without thanking all those who made this possible.
First of all my lovely wife Gemma. She has always been so supportive of my running and I love how she gets actively involved in these events and enjoys it as much as I do (well nearly as much).
The rest of my crew – Wayne, Amanda, Nathan and Cassie. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew, and it really was a team effort to get to 48 hours. I’d also like to acknowledge everyone else who stopped by to help out, to bring icy poles, Gatorade, moral support, and anything else to help get me through.
Big Kev – I won’t keep harping on about him because I’ve probably mentioned him enough already (although I probably didn’t talk enough about his dance moves), but I wouldn’t have got this far without him. If you want some more reading, check out his take on the event. http://runbkrun.com/2021/04/04/herdys-backyard-ultra-probably-the-run-of-my-life
Shaun, Emma, Simone, Vlad and all of the team at USWA for putting on another fantastic event. And all the volunteers who help make events like this possible.
Coach Tony Smith http://tonysmithruncoaching.com for working with me to achieve my goals. His training and advice was exemplary; the result speaks for itself.
Marco Noe at mnfilm for the awesome photos, and documentary that is still to come.
Shannon and Justin at OC Clothing Co. http://occlothingco.com, for their support as a sponsor, for the awesome Team Gore tops they got made up at the last minute, and for the loan of their marquee and tent which became my home for 2 days and nights.
Chris Martin for being a great training partner on my longer runs, and for driving me to the event on Friday and helping me set up.
My parents Chris and Karen, and mother-in-law Julia, for looking after the kids and coming down to support me.
All the other runners who took part, whether you DNF’d on the first lap or made it beyond your initial expectations. You were part of this event a part of its success. Special shout out to Michael Hooker and Margie Hadley for making it to lap 33. Thank you Michael for the ice vest which definitely came in handy for the hot days, and thank you Margie for our chats and for giving me a bit of positivity when i was feeling low.
And of course, every single one of you who came down to watch or who offered support via Facebook or messages. Thank you to the crowd who created such an extraordinary atmosphere, especially on the Sunday. You made me feel like a rock star.
You can view Phil's original blog here