The Endless One More Lap of Matt Blackburn

At the recent Suffolk Back Yard Ultra Matt Blackburn and John Stocker ran and walked 333.34 and 337.51 miles respectively to crush the previous Backyard Ultra record held by Belgian Karel Sabbe. Basically in a Backyard Ultra there is no scheduled finish, but athletes go 4.167 miles every hour on the hour until only one person is left. Sabbe had managed 75 laps (or yards) and 312 miles at the Big’s Backyard Ultra - an event run by Lazarus Lake of the Barkley Marathons fame. Lake is also the person who came up with the Backyard Ultra idea.

But back to Matt Blackburn who shared his thoughts about racing, training, the preparation for the event, the crew, the gear, the setup, cotton underwear, and then missing out narrowly when the mind decided to no longer play along.

Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Matt.

Matt Blackburn: You’re more than welcome. It’s nice to be interviewed.

ST: You just signed up for the Big Dog’s Backyard in Tennessee, so it would appear that you still did not have enough running recently.

Matt: You would think running 333 miles might put you off running for quite a while, but it seems to have done the opposite and reignited my love for competition. The idea of running against some of the best endurance athletes in the world makes me smile on the inside.

ST: The effort of you and John at the recent Suffolk Back Yard Ultra was amazing, and following you was captivating, but it almost did not come to be apparently.

Matt: Yes, you are right. Training was going perfectly up until about 4 weeks before the race date, but my routine got thrown into disarray as I changed projects at work meaning I was losing an extra 3 hours a day because of the commute. I’m a self-employed site manager and carpenter specializing in office outfitting. We also have an Airbnb which we have to clean sometimes after work. I was really struggling to find decent training time mid-week. The constant loss of valuable training time was starting to get to me, that all my hard work was unraveling. And the week before I came very close to chucking in the towel, and I even started cancelling my crew.

ST: What had you sign up for that Suffolk race in the first place and what was the closest thing you had done to it prior, either in distance or time?

Matt: I signed up to the Suffolk Backyard as I did it the year before but pulled out on 35 hours. I needed to come back for redemption. A few things weren’t quite right last year. My frame of mind wasn’t right going in, in the sense that I wasn’t looking at the long game. I said I was, but we booked a hotel for the Sunday night and if I'm being honest, I was basically waving the white flag by doing that. It was also hard on my wife Vedrana (chief commander) as there was a strict bubble last year. Thus the crew couldn’t leave the campsite and with it being in October due to it being moved because of COVID-19 it rained constantly for the 2 days of the race. Our tent also leaked. And my left foot was also trashed and had a fissure due to me not treating it the day before. I can’t think of a race when we both woke up the next day and devised a race strategy for the following year, but that’s exactly what we did.

The furthest I’ve ran is an epic race in Greece called Spartathlon which is 153 miles long. You run in the footsteps of the messenger Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta and have a day and a half (36 hours) to do it. I ran the race in 2018 and 2019. With 2019 being the longest I’d previously ran 35 hours and 35 minutes after suffering from vomiting for most of the race - which caused dehydration. It was incredibly hot at 36 degrees Celsius. I was so severely dehydrated at the end they couldn’t get the IV needle in my arm - I had to suck on an ice cube before they could.

ST: Going into the event how did you prepare for both the time on feet and the sleep deprivation?

Matt: I feel like I’m sleep deprived most working weeks. Probably like most amateur athletes. I don’t get nearly enough sleep needed to recover properly. Which is probably perfect prep for a race like a Backyard. But weekends are my time to do a long run which is normally on the Saturday and I actually try to catch up on some sleep and have a lie-in on Sunday mornings.

ST: As you set up your gear and nutrition for such an event, you likely had some kind of number of yards in mind, even if just for planning purposes.

Matt: The minimum I wanted out of the race this year was distance and time personal best times and going through 2 nights. And my food and gear matched those aims plus. To be honest I turned up to win this year. I kept telling myself that, but did I think I'd be going over 300 miles, never in a million years. Luckily for me I had great crew and was helped along the way by great people.

ST: Talk about your crew and how you selected them.

Matt: My initial crew was headed by my wonderful wife Vedrana. She’s travelled everywhere with me running for some strange reason, but she knows me better than anyone else. There’s been more than one occasion she’s sent me back out, treated a war wound, made me see sense, calmed me down. The list is endless. I believe we make a great team, especially with a race like a Backyard Ultra. I also had running friend Graeme Boxall to bolster the team. He was selected because no one else was available. Only joking, he's one of the nicest blokes you can meet. I also had ultra-running god Ian Hammett at the end of a phone line to advise the team.

ST: What was your camp and aid station setup like?

Matt: Pretty basic. A pop-up tent and a camping chair. And a mat to sit on the floor. Everything laid out in the tent. As the race went on our camp seemed to get nicer and bigger as we picked up extra crew in 2019 winner Andrew Smith, fellow runner Hendrik Sporing and race volunteer Matt Parker was always floating around. I liked our camp towards the end - we had such a great bunch of people just hanging out trying to help if they could.

ST: Can you talk about what you ate during those 80 hours?

Matt: Day one and two I was mainly eating cereal bars, cake bars and the odd porridge pot. With the odd gel thrown in but I was careful with the gels due the heat. I have a history of gut issues in the heat and high humidity which has been my kryptonite in ultra-running. I have two types of races in ultra-running - ones which go well and ones which I spend most of the time vomiting. I'm a grazer and I don’t eat a lot fast. But recently I’ve been experimenting with salt tablets in training in prep for the Backyard. I decided to cut down on relying on getting sodium from gels and drinks and use tablets with a higher salt concentration. It seems we may have had a breakthrough within this race. On day 3 I’d ran out of salt tablets, but a fellow runner Rob came to the rescue and gave me his whole jar. The camaraderie within the camp was fantastic. I don’t know if sitting down and eating helped my gut or it was the salt, but I had no sickness issues whatsoever which is a miracle for me in a race that long and hot. Other than needing the toilet a lot after I started drinking caffeine, which I abstained from for nearly 24 hours. I had gone cold turkey with caffeine a few weeks before, seems a common practice in these races after I listened to a few podcasts last year. But it’s definitely a diuretic, that's for sure. Those portaloos were like a mobile sauna in the midday sun, topped off with the smell, Jesus! On day 3 I started to get an appetite for real food and ate a lot of Andrew Smith’s leftover mashed potato pots - delicious. Mixed in with cereal bars and porridge pots. On day 4 morning I was starving, and I'd had enough of everything I was eating, and had a big moan (not just about food but everything, mainly because the crown jewels were on fire)!

There were two great food moments on the Tuesday, Graeme went to Greggs and got me two vegan sausage rolls. I knew there was a reason why he was on team Blackburn. And secondly a lovely couple heard I wanted some real food and was partial to a potato and made me the most delicious little jacket potatoes with big chunks of sea salt - divine. Also made me this mashed potato type thing, divine again. Mr and Mrs Potato - I will forever be grateful. Fluid with this array of day 4 food mainly consisted of Red Bull or fake Red Bull. But I always drank water when I was running.

ST: And how often did you change shoes and clothes?

Matt: I changed my socks 4 times but wore the same Merrell MTL Skyfire for the whole race. Same shorts for the whole race but changed my top every now and then if I was wearing one. Think I changed my boxers once or twice to try and solve my chafing issues.

ST: Boxers underneath your running shorts? Explain.

Matt: Initially I started with a pair of 2 in 1 running shorts with plenty of vaseline. But when thing's started to rub I put on some boxers underneath my running shorts to hopefully try to reduce movement and to also create a barrier.

ST: As in underwear?

Matt: Yeah. Both just your normal cotton boxers. I believe if I started in some cotton underwear rather than relying on my 2 in 1 running shorts my chaffing issues would have been greatly reduced. It was the first time I'd used those 2 in 1 for a long ultra. I've never had chaffing issues downstairs before in ultra-races in cotton underwear. Maybe cotton underwear is no good after 36 hours. The past few years every now and then I'd use a brand called runderwear as I got some free for running Spartathlon. But it's never crossed my mind I should be wearing certain underwear.

ST: Back to the event itself, did you know many of the competitors and was there anyone you thought about as most likely to hang in there.

Matt: I knew quite a few from the previous year, so it was good catching up. I really enjoyed the first 24 hours having a laugh with the other runners. I spent most of the first 30 odd hours with ultrarunner and friend Andy Day, who I knew from Spartathlon, and we worked together knocking off the yards. I knew John Stocker was the one to watch as he was last year's winner, plus all his other monstrous accomplishments including the 615-mile Monarchs Way first place. I actually didn’t look at the starting line up before I went, so I didn’t know who was running. I was quite happy when I spotted John. I also knew John from Spartathlon 2018. I don't know about other runners, but I'd much rather be involved in n competitive race. And I just knew before I turned up that this year was going long.

ST: At what point did you think this might go longer?

Matt: Monday lunch time. John and I went head to head after 37 hours. By the time the morning had come and gone we were both still strong. It was getting hot, but I was handling it better than the day before, my gut was solid. You could just feel that neither of us was going to let this go very easily. I don’t know if John thought I may crack but in my mind I was preparing myself to be going for the long haul.

ST: Can you talk about your pacing during that race?

Matt: Pretty simple: I aimed to have between 10 - 15 minutes breaks. After a few hours you get settled into a routine of where to take the walking breaks. Most runners would take their walking breaks at the same places. After my Garmin died, I just used a state-of-the-art digital Casio watch, which told me the time and day of the week. By this point I knew what pace to run at and what points to walk to get back within a certain time without all the other non-essential data.

ST: Did you have to call into work to tell them that you might be in a few days later?

Matt: I learnt from the previous year and booked the whole week off work. And made myself unavailable to everyone. My crew had to call in to get the week off though.

ST: People often talk about mind overcoming matter, but at the certain point even with the body willing and able your mind is maybe no longer playing along. When did that start for you and what were the first signs?

Matt: I had a rocky patch on the Sunday during the hottest part of the day. I was struggling a bit with humidity. This was about 110 miles plus. For about 5 hours I was finding it hard, wishing for the sun to go down but then I had an epiphany that if this was Spartathlon and I had 30 odd miles left to go, and felt like this and I'm not vomiting, I’d be over the moon. My mind could grasp that and started to get slowly more positive.

But my mind truly went on day 4 (Tuesday) after we broke the world record. I had had no sleep up till this point. I was running behind John and had no idea why I was running behind him or following him. I just couldn’t find the answer, but I carried on running as I knew it was the thing I should do. The whole concept of doing this same lap over and over was becoming quite surreal. For the four hours after 76 yards, I was a space cadet. Struggling with the concept of time, the concept of the race etc. On lap 79 I was doing the final walking section just before you run home. I was looking at dog walkers then I just stopped, didn’t have a clue where I was, what I was doing, went to put my hands on my knees, spotted my race number then realized I was still in the race. That moment sent me under a little on the run back to camp. I was really paranoid that people could see I wasn’t all there. I decided to run yard 80 quick so I could get back and have some sleep, last chance saloon. I ran it in 44 minutes. My legs felt fine just keeping focused was the tricky bit. I started to listen to a podcast to keep my mind at bay which seemed to work, and I can still vividly remember the podcast about a former boxer being interviewed.

ST: You spent a lot of time with John Stocker and what did you 2 talk about?

Matt: Quite a bit about running obviously. I wouldn’t say we had any philosophical discussions. Mainly about the race itself and what's going on. Were there mind games? Yeah. I learnt quickly from last year. I think we were both in the present moment most of the time though. There would be times when we were running together, especially at night, where we wouldn’t say anything. We just both knew what to do, when to stop, when to take the lead. When we ran together through the night to take the British record, I thought it was just a beautiful moment; 3 days of running and we were running sections we would normally have walked earlier in the race.

ST: Once you both had broken the 75 yards World Record by Karel Sabbe, and with that carrot gone, describe what it took to push on?

Matt: The win. We both had the discussion before about it being unfair that there’s only one winner, like we did when we broke the British record, but there was literally nothing we could do about it other than to carry on. Once the world record fell, you knew and everyone else knew we must carry on. I think it had just become second nature now to carry on running but like I said previously, after 76, my mind started to slowly turn itself off.

ST: When you turned back on lap 81, what was going through your mind?

Matt: If I'm being truly honest, I was thinking 'I've failed'. Three and a half days for a DNF. I was pretty gutted, but I was losing it mentally. I’m not sure what I could have done differently. Maybe the next time I experience running around the woods while I get what felt like the early stages of dementia, I can hit myself with a stick and it’ll wake me up, who knows. I actually felt a bit embarrassed with the thought of walking back into the campsite now there was a large group of people watching us finish. Obviously after a few beers I felt differently.

ST: How well did you sleep after?

Matt: Not great- it took a few days to switch off and when I slept, I was getting quite hot. I think it took a good 5 days to get a good night's sleep.

ST: What is next before the Big Dog’s Backyard?

Matt: A little break first. Then I’m heading to Berlin in August for the Berlin Wall 100. I was supposed to do it last year but like most races, it was postponed to this year.

ST: Anything else we should know?

Matt: I was once an extra in a Bollywood film in Mumbai! Also I want to thank and recommend James Ellis of Endure Fitness and nutrition ( James is also an ultra-runner and is a 5 -time finisher of Spartathlon. He has helped me greatly with my gut issues and also provided me with training plans for the Backyard Ultra using innovative ideas, looking at your HRV then adapting your training around it. I recommend to anyone looking for an all-round running guru - hit this man up. He’s great at analyzing stool tests as well. I have also been doing a lot of yoga the past couple of years with yoga Paul, specifically for runners (YouTube Paul Oakley) which has improved my core massively but also my breathing.

Images 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 © Andrew Smith
Image 2 courtesy Matt Blackburn