You’ve probably heard about the backyard ultra-concept, an idea coming from Laz, the founder of the now legendary Barkley Marathons.
The last person standing
A Backyard Ultra (BU) is a race where challengers run the distance of 6706 meters (4.167 miles) in a loop and within 1 hour. Every full hour a new loop starts, and the challenge continues until there is only 1 person left standing and alone finishing the “last loop”. How time is spent during a loop is completely up to the challenger. It’s a game of tricks, psychology and endurance, both individually and within a group of challengers.
The swimrun sport sees the birth of a new ultrarace concept
Sprung from an idea during last year’s SAUC, a Last person swimrun-challenge was discussed. The swimrun Mecca of Hellasgården, in the backyard of the Stockholm archipelago where swimrun was born, was suggested as ground zero. During the winter 2018 possible loops were scouted and analysed.
Translating the backyard run challenge into an ultraswimrun format had to be negotiated as it needed to consist of at least 1 segment of swimming. For security purposes 1 day and 1 night loop were designed, with a more protected swim and run layout during night-time. The swim length for the day loop was set at approximately 500 meters and the run segment just above 5 km, on a hilly trail course adjusted to approximate to the timing on a regular run backyard. Similarly, the night loop swim length was set at approximately 400 meters with the run extended to 5.5 km. Both loops were designed to mimic the natural and varying swimrun on and off-road terrain.
World premiere of BuS
Before the world premiere of the swimrun backyard. I had no expectations. After finishing Transylvania 100 a couple of weeks ahead of this event, I would be happy if my body would be able to move forward …
The day before the event, me and Niklas were out to mark the course. It was a clear blue sky and just a beautiful hot summer day. If there ever is a time when you wish for some lousy weather, it’s probably before a 10 – 12-hour race in a wetsuit. Everything felt on top, even though it got a bit stressed to get all the food. All’s well that end well. I Woke up early on race day, felt rested and energized. The feeling was there, but I hadn’t really been swimming since SAUC 2018. So, a 24 hours race would probably be out of the question.
On site at Hellas my expectations started to grow. Maybe 12 hours was possible, so I anchored around that.
Niklas has talked about 24 hours and Ingemar had done 24 hours recently at TEC Backyard, so in my mind they would probably be the last two. With just a couple of minutes before the start, we were still missing two swimrunners and I thought that we would be like the three musketeers holding the flag up high. But with seconds to go they came running over the parking lot, ready for combat.
The starting gun went off and the first swim” the other” Niklas just disappeared, old championship swimmer. For the rest of us, it looked like we were treading water and it was a cold sensation. 14, maybe 15 C.
I had long dreaded this moment. Still with an injury in my heel, or somewhere around there, I hadn’t had a real chance to prepare myself fully for BuS. The normal heavy-duty training sessions had been changed into a minimalistic-style training whenever I had a chance, and without pain. I was counting on my finish sisu to help me through this ordeal. It didn’t get any better when I learned who were coming. Stefan, the recent TEC 100 miles and Transylvania finisher. Ingemar, the hard core runner coming of the TEC backyard ultra 24 hours and Bartos, the old water polo juggernaut with a really good finish at the recent Utö Swimrun. Ingmar had a friend coming, an old swimmer, and we all know how they perform both on land and in water, with 1 hand tied to their back.
When I was in the army at young age, we had a race, in the snow, like this last man standing challenge. Just go until you give up. That time I remember waking up in the snow looking at my commanding officer wondering why he was hovering above me in the sky. I only realised what had happened when he screamed at me – “GREAT KARLSSON! Not many people go until they faint, now get up and out of the snow and keep going”. I did. And perhaps this was the time to relive this experience, because I was not set on quitting, not this first ever challenge. Then the gun went off and I entered the zone.
The early loops
I do not get cold. I just don’t. 4 SAUC attempts, several ÖtillÖ:s and numerous hours surfing in the cold waters of Stockholm has proven this since long time. But when we hit the water, I was taken by surprise. 14-ish degrees close to shore and way colder in the middle was not what I had expected. This is going to be tough I thought but decided to paus that way of thinking. I’ll get back to it during night-time if need be, when having to enter the pitch-dark water for the first time. I decided to think about the now, the present and how fun it was to swimrun with so many wonderful people. Everyone was happy. Cheering. Together inventing something new in swimrun.
The original 4.
After finishing 2-3 loops, the atmosphere grew better and better. Ingemar’s wife Tua came to cheer us on and to give support, it was turning into a wonderful day. A swimrun backyard and a wedding party in the background or was it the other way around…!?
Loop 3 and Ingemar got inspired and finished the loop after 33:25, which was going to be the fastest loop in total. The weather went back and forward, mostly cloudy with a chance to see the sun and rain. Before we headed out on loop 4, Paula and Mikaela showed up to cheer and support us. It´s always fun to have a friend cheering, but now it started to feel like a crowd. 😀
In the middle of the swim, my shoulder started to feel stiff with a growing pain. Oh no! Not already…sure, I knew that my swimming was not where it probably should be but still…Started to think about a solution and how to get out of this condition, I tried to increase the frequency with a “shorter” stroke and it felt a bit better. But once on the other side, it stiffened up again. It went on like this for a couple of loops. It didn´t get any worse, but it didn´t improve much either.
In my mind nothing was happening. I was trying to get a good rhythm going. Kept fuelling up on energy. Drank a lot and hoped for some sun. I was deep in, analysing how to make a perfect loop. Time it to perfection with just enough time to do the stuff I had to, and still not have to wait for too long for the next loop to start. It was hard. Especially since the wind and rain showers kept playing tricks on us, cooling us off.
I couldn’t feel my heel and the swims were just regular slow training swims. Almost exactly 8 minutes 30 seconds. Like a clock. I felt strong in the water and played around with the maths of how long I would swim during 24 hours. I did NOT like the watch I had created for the challenge. The time zones had stuck to my mind and I involuntarily kept reminding me of which zone I was in during the loop, accompanied by AC/DC:s Highway to hell. Such a weird compulsory thought to have…
Mid-day and the loop count are setting in
The “other” Niklas and Bartos dropped out after 6 and 7 loops. “Other” Niklas just needed a good exercise, he and Ingemar are teaming up for Amfibiemannen later this year and Bartos was on his way to a birthday party.
Loop 8 Ingemar´s wife Tua and their daughter stood on the other side of the swim, cheering. They ran along and it´s not really clear if they were pacing Ingemar or not. That would have been a clear case for disqualification 😊
When we were waiting for loop 9, we were trying to talk Ingemar” out of the race”. He really wanted to be able to take a sauna and a shower.
The facilities were closing in just 45 min, but he decided to do one more loop. It felt a bit sad that people were dropping out, but we know that they are not dropping out because they are tired, so we started to look forward to another “All-in” race.
Loop 10 felt a bit weird. Niklas is a faster swimmer, so it feels like you´re going solo. Ingemar was seeing us off at the start of loop 11, and now it was just me and Niklas left. I felt that my energy was good, but we didn’t talk much now.
I kept updating social media after every loop and it felt good to have some connection to the outside world. Me and Niklas where talking about when to change into a full suit. I tried to convince him that the first one who changes will lose.
My heel started to say hello. I got angry and told it to go to hell. Changed shoes and that was it. In the back of the mental bus you go and stay there I thought. Happy with the result I kept on going. It was cold and, in a way, it was good, since it kept my mind busy with analysing this and that. The others started dropping off and soon it was just me and Stefan left.
I asked Ingemar to boil some water when he dropped off and make us some coffee, and such a treat it was drinking that hot black stuff. For a couple of loops, I tried not to think about anything, but it was hard because I got bored. Stefan, I think at least, was starting to play mental games with me, running a bit faster. I decided to stay in his vicinity, not to let him go completely, but to show that I was slowing down hoping to get him to think I was doing it because I was tired. But I was not. Far from it. I was happy.
I did not however remember where I had stashed my headlamp, and that bothered me. In the transit zone I never had time to dig around and a lot of time during the loops was spent trying to figure out where I had put it. Next time I will be more organised I though.
The sun refused to come out. Bloody hell.
The night session kicks-in
Loop 12 was the last loop before we were to shift to the “night-loop”. I could see that Niklas was pushing his swimming a bit harder, so I thought that he wanted to change to a full suit at the finish of the loop. I pushed my running to put some “psychological” pressure on him, letting him know that I would have more time to change and prepare for the night-loop. At the finish I grabbed my gear and headed straight for the toilet to be able to change inside. I had some pain in my left foot and I had been there for some time now. This could be the beginning of my breakdown.
I had been cold the whole day and switching to a full suit was something I looked forward to. Swimming in pitch black, at least covered, and warmer I thought. Then there was the issue with time. Each loop had started to eat bits and pieces of the time you had at your disposal in the transit zone, and I was fearing this. Not knowing how much time I would have during the night loop, only tried once, and in full strength and not after 12 hours of cold swimrunning. Stefan is a strong runner and he will just push during the night I thought. With his recent victories he will just keep going and going and this will be tough. And he kept talking (jabbering) about the one switching suits who would probably lose. I really didn’t understand what he was talking about, maybe the cost of energy running in a full suit? I was however preoccupied with other stuff and focused on mentally preparing for what would become my fastest loop during the whole challenge. Out of the water I pushed on heavily. I only walked 1 hill and kept a pace just under the threshold for cramping up. It was raining so I went cabbed-up, organising my approach to the camp in my head. Unzip, cab down, reverse back the arms, sit down, remove socks, eat, drink, new suit. Off you go. During the whole loop I didn’t see Stefan and thought I had lost him but when making the turn in the “friendly corner”, a segment where the challengers can overlook at least 600-800 meters of the course and see where the others are at, I could see he was pushing hard. Had he realised my game plan? I was a bit surprised to see him, since I was really going fast. Or was I really? I felt fast but maybe I was fast being slow? Entering the support zone, I had 18 minutes to change, eat and drink and find the headlamp.
In the zone, both in full suits, we looked at each other and laughed.
Loop 13, the first “night” loop and with a full suit. It´s very different to run in a full suit. It´s much warmer and you also feel there´s more resistance for the legs. It was getting darker and Niklas was complaining about the difficulty to run in a full suit. When we approach a flatter part of the loop, I pass him and increase my speed just to show that I have no difficulty to run in my suit. I finished the loop around five minutes before Niklas and it was now getting really dark.
What an oxymoron. Here I had been swimrunning the whole day, being really cold, dreading the cold dark night. And when I finally switched into the full suit, I immediately overheated and had to cab down not to collapse. The now approximately 100 meters shorter swim turned out to be against the wind and currents, taking 1 minute longer. It came as a shock. I had lost 1 minute having to run a much longer stretch and in pitch black darkness. How on earth would I manage to go fast enough to have enough time in the transit zone to switch back to the day wetsuit, eat, put socks on, shoes, the watch, googles and drink and and and…. F%¤& I thought. I need to re-evaluate for another loop. To see how much time, I have. The heat really slowed me down and I made it back with only 5 minutes to spare. This is not going to be easy.
Loop 14, Niklas didn’t know it. But this was going to be my last loop. The pain in my foot was still there and I didn´t want to suffer any severe consequences from that. At the swim Niklas was really pushing it, I thought he was trying to make a statement and to give himself some margins on the run. I tried to keep a steady pace and check my watch after swim, not faster or slower just steady. I caught Niklas after 20 minutes and increased my speed. I knew that he was behind me in total silence. When there was 200m left, I started to walk and Niklas passed me shouting – “I´ll open your bag of chips now”… Back in the camp, Niklas was in a hurry to change into another suit to make the running easier. Now it was completely dark, so the headlamp must come on. He is swearing and trying to eat and change at the same time. The clock is ticking…TICK TOCK. I was drinking beer (non-alcoholic of course) and tried to make fun of him…
Loop 14. If I am to make the whole night, I need to change suits again. I will have to swim hard and run as fast as I can without cramping up. Hitting the water, I left a small opening on my back to let water trickle in to cool off. I pushed hard hard hard. Out of the water I double checked on Stefan swimming behind. He’s ok, lets go then. I started to run, as fast as I could. I checked my watch regularly to evaluate time and then Stefan passed me. Damn he is strong I thought. I was heating up, so I decided to cab down to cool off. I ran through the tunnel and hit the tarmac, this is it, here we go I thought and started to run lifting my underlayer to cool off even more. It worked. I placed myself behind Stefan, with a little distance but when he started walking, I didn’t want to stop running. If I stop now ill never start running again. My feet were hurting, especially my heel. I passed him shouting I would eat his chips and quickly made my way to the tent with 11 (!) minutes to spare. Wetsuit off. Cold wet wetsuit on. The rest of the stuff. Headlamp on. No time to eat, quickly quickly. With one minute left I ran to the starting line swearing how hard it was to put back on wet neoprene.
Loop 15. With 30 sec to go, we positioned ourselves at the starting line. With 10 sec left, I congratulated Niklas and wished him good luck on his final loop. He looked like he didn’t understand that it was up to him now, to become the last man standing and the winner of this world first swimrun type backyard. Bring it home! There was not much I could do except from crossing my fingers that he wouldn’t hurt himself and make it across the finish line in time.
I estimated he would be back in about 45-50 minutes and could only imagine what was going through his mind out there in the darkness.
At the starting line Stefan turned to me saying “this is your final loop”. I looked at him trying to figure out what he knew, that I didn’t know. Had he seen my sort of limping gait? Was it my choice of switching back to a shorty wetsuit? Had he been holding back on the run just to let me think he was tired and would now start running like a madman for the next 12 hours? What did he know that I did not? My mind was racing, and I just blurted out – what do you mean? Stefan said – I’m stepping out and all I heard was – I’m stepping up! I was like, oh no, this is going to be much tougher than I thought. Then Stefan again repeated his message -I’m quitting, and my response was ‘Why the hell are you quitting? still not getting the message. Then the clock struck, and he stayed behind the line. Only then did I realise I had to go by myself and still a bit taken by surprise I started running.
This final loop was not going to be fun, on the contrary. Swimming alone with the headlamp in the dark was quite cool, running was not. I suddenly felt super-tired. I felt like I was going to cramp up at any point, ran slow and had massive pain in my feet. I struggled and really hated the internal loop as Stefan had called it. Long flat and enduring and long, long. The small ascents were now big ascents and I forced myself not to walk to much just to have some spare time. Just in case.
Finally, I see the headlamp in the distance and a couple of minutes later Niklas was dancing across the finish line…Wohooo, great effort! Congratulations, you are the last man standing and starting a new page in the history books of endurance sport. The winner of the first ever swimrun backyard… This had really been an amazing experience and hopefully just the first of many similar events to come.
When I came over the top and could see the camp. I felt relived. Finally, I could relax and slowly ran towards the finish line. 15 hours in. When I crossed Stefan was cheering and I wanted to talk, but I suddenly felt like puking. Strange how my body just relaxed like this during the last loop, letting everything out. But it was finally over now. I had done it and felt relived. The first try and it went well. Better than expected.
Next time I will go even longer I thought, because I now know that the challenge starts after 12 hours. Everything up to this point is just a transport distance.
What a race, what a challenge!