The Suffolk Backyard Ultra is a fairly new event run in the UK, offering a Golden Ticket to Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra in Tennessee, US. This year, out of the blue, two runners went head to head; neither willing to give up until finally, 81 laps, approx. 63 hours and 333 miles later, Matthew Blackburn threw in the towel. One more lap gave John Stocker the win as well as the World Record.
Kate Allen talked to both John Stocker, the winner and Lindley Chambers, the Race Director, to get an idea of how this race turned into a record breaking event.
John Stocker has run many ultras including the Thames Ring, the Spine, the Arc of Attrition and Spartathlon. He is a father to three children, a husband and a coach.
Q. Who is John Stocker? What do you do, how long have you been doing ultras?
A. I’ve always been here. But mainly I’m a husband and a Dad of three. My children are everything and they mean everything to me. We got hit quite hard as a family with Covid. We used to own a health club and during the first wave of Covid we lost our family business of 10 years. We lost everything. But it reignited my life again. It gave me my life back with my kids.
I used to work 24/7, 7 days a week. I used to get up at 5.30am and not get back until 9.30pm. I saw my kids if they popped into the health club to say hello. So Covid gave me the chance to re-evaluate my life. I’m now a personal trainer and still doing what I love by helping people reach their goals and dreams, but I also get to see my kids in the morning and say goodnight to them at night. And I get to train as well!
Q. You said on social media that you entered the Suffolk Backyard Ultra to show your children that they don’t have to accept boundaries. Do you think that attitude towards ultras is what enables you to keep going?
A. I don’t think you should set a limit, especially for backyard ultras. A lot of people I spoke to during the race asked me how far I was planning. I was planning on running the same as everyone else, plus one more loop. A lot of people planned to run 24 hours, which is 100 miles, or 12 hours. But the problem with that is, you’ve reached that goal, you have nowhere to go to after that. I wanted to show my children you don’t have to be the fastest, but you’ve just got to give it a go and you never know, your mindset might be strong enough to get you a World Record.
Q. Did you start the race with winning or breaking the world record in mind?
A. There’s two there. One, I did go to the race thinking I’d win it. At registration you are asked how many laps you have come to do. My answer on both occasion [John did it last year too] was that I would do as many laps as everyone else, plus one. And that’s what I went there to do.
I had no idea before going to the race about the English record, and I had no idea there was a world record. That wasn’t on my radar.
Q. What in your strategy worked best for you?
A. To start with there were runners there I knew from the previous year. I love running with other people. For me it was a social thing to start with. We got through the first 24 hours, and it wasn’t until I then ran with Matthew. I knew Matthew before, from Spartathlon, and he’s a phenomenal athlete. I knew that if he had the right mindset, he would go far. With the rules of the race being you can only do one more lap after the 2nd place drops, I knew I had to stay mentally strong, I had to keep going because I knew Matthew would as well.
Q. Do you think without Matthew you would have stopped and won at lap 38?
A. Yes, that’s the rules, you can only do one more lap. So, if Matthew had stopped at lap 37, I would only have been able to do lap 38. So, it really says you need that number 2 to push the limits. Without Matthew there would have been no British or World Record.
Q. Do you think the format of the race depends on two or more competitors of a similar level/mind set who push each other?
A. Yes, evenly matched. Physically, but more so mentally. It’s the dark hours. This time of year is great. When we did it in October last year there was 12 hours of darkness. That was hard. This time of year there is only 5 hours of darkness. You can get through those with headtorches and it’s fun. On the 5th loop dawn is breaking.
Q. Did you have a specific time you allowed yourself for each lap?
A. I had a schedule on every lap. It was specific to what I wanted to achieve in that lap. If it was a lap that I needed to put quite a lot of food in or if it was a lap only for a drink and a quick sit down. Every lap was timed; if you check my splits you’ll see I was quite consistent. Apart from the last lap where everything went wrong!
I was on a video call with my kids. I had no idea it was the last lap. Matt had gone off in the distance while I was talking to my kids and I was 10 minutes behind schedule. Matt then appeared out of the woods towards me and I asked him if he’d lost something. No, he said, I’m out and he walked back to the start.
At that point I looked at my watch, I was behind schedule and I was trying to make up time. I wasn’t thinking and I was trying to find that one piece of music I wanted to finish on and I hit a small tree stump and went over. I hit the ground so hard I didn’t get up immediately. I couldn’t breathe. I finally got up and stumbled the last half mile to the finish.
Q. What have you been doing to recover?
A. I’ve been running again! I got back home early hours of Wednesday morning. I took 4 days off and then started running again on Sunday. 5 miles Sunday, 6 miles Monday and Tuesday and 10 miles today in Wendover Woods. The legs can’t rest!
Q. What’s next in your running calendar?
A. In four weeks I’m off to Wales to run in the 100 Dragonslayer with a very good friend, Bruce. It’s his first 100 and I’ll make sure he enjoys that. The following weekend I’m off to run the Lakeland 50 with my wife. Nothing in August or September but perhaps something big in October.
Q. How were you affected by sleep deprivation?
A. I didn’t sleep in the race. For three days I didn’t sleep at all. I couldn’t. I timed my stops to only have 13 minutes. Enough time to get food in, or tend to blisters, but no sleep. Since I’ve been home, I’ve suffered with the sweats again, which happened after the Spine race. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep yet. I wake up 3 or 4 times. Mainly with pain – I bruised my ribs when I took a bad tumble in the last lap. The system is out, the body is recharging but it’s getting back to normal now.
Q. How did you feel during the final 81st lap?
A. It meant so much. I could call home and tell them I’d made it. I could stop and not worry about that 82nd loop. The locals in the area had come to watch and were there at the finish. I don’t think it’s even sunk in now what happened. I didn’t go there to break a record. For me it was a long race.
Q. Looking at your past races such as the Monarch’s Way (615 miles) and the Thames Ring (250 miles), the Spine (268 miles) you clearly love the longer races. Why?
A. I seem to do better on the longer stuff. I’m not sure if it’s mindset; the ability to blank off the brain and not worry. If it’s tortoise and hare, I’m definitely the tortoise. But just a very stubborn tortoise. It’s pushing the boundaries to me. Not being told you can only do 100 miles – it’s trying to push the limits and I go out there to see how far I can go and to make my kids proud.
Q. Would you train any differently than, say, a 100 mile race?
A. I might do a bit more speed work for 100 miles. I try to do a minimum of 10 miles a day, with some longer runs at the weekend along with strength and core work. It may be slightly different on the taper but my 100 mile work isn’t much different. But it’s just consistency. As long as you’ve got the consistency in your training, and you keep those miles going in the week and at weekends and stay constant with your training.
Q. Are you going to use the golden ticket to the Big Dog Ultra?
A. There’s that October question! Like anyone I’ve had to wait until pay day but yes, I shall be accepting the Golden Ticket and I shall go over to Big Dog’s Backyard to see what I can produce over there. My hope would be to break 100 loops, but you need that second person. I think I’m strong enough and I think my head is strong enough. That’s the next goal. It’s only 19 more hours, 100 loops would be a lovely place to end on. I’m hoping there’s a second person over there willing to push that far.
Click to watch the whole interview.
The Race Director
Lindley Chambers is the man behind Challenge Running. He organises several other events such as the Stort30, a 30 mile out and back race, considered by many to be great for first time runners. At the other end of the extreme, he runs The Monarchs Way Ultra which is 615 miles. And if you ever enter the Spine, you’ll find Lindley is the man keeping you safe behind the scenes or popping up over the fells in his land rover to keep an eye on runners.
Q. What made you decide to run the Suffolk Backyard Ultra?
A. I originally teamed up with Atlas Running from Northern Ireland to create the first English backyard race in this format. I thought it was an interesting concept. I went out to Bigs to see how it ran and we set it up. After two years working together it was decided it was easier to manage with just me running it and we changed the name From Last One Standing England to the Suffolk Backyard Ultra. It’s grown in those two solo years.
Q. How did it become a Golden Ticket race to Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra? Are they somehow affiliated?
A. To become a golden ticket event it must be capable of at least the potential of getting high numbers of lap or yards as they are called. SBYU has scored consistently decent mileage each year and set itself up as one of the best and has earned that Golden ticket status. You must apply also for that status a year in advance.
Q. Has John and Matt’s performance set new expectations for subsequent races?
A. I think John and Matt’s performance has shown how far you can push in this format. It will be a tough number to match but everything can be beaten, and it has shown what is possible. People will expect good performances each year.
Q. Do you think the format of the race depends on two or three people well matched to pull it along? Had Matthew not been there, John Stocker would have won after 38 laps and the record wouldn’t have been broken?
A. I think it takes the right two people with the right fitness, determination and stubbornness to push hard and not give up. A good depth of field is needed to get a group of 5 or 6 far enough into the race for them to be invested in the race and want to win rather than come home with nothing for all that work. Two people who don’t want to be DNF is essential. With the fitness and ability to back that up. They both have a history of tough events.
Q. You are used to directing long events, the Monarch’s Way comes to mind, but how did you manage when these guys kept going? How are logistic affected; volunteers helping – did they stay on? Location – were there any issues with the event suddenly lasting for 3 days? How about you personally? You can’t have got much more sleep than the runners!
A. Sleep wise I am quite good on little sleep. 20 mins snatched here and there in a chair between loops helps. I missed starting and finishing maybe 2 loops in the whole event. I had Maxine, my other half, manage those loops so I could get 90 mins each time. That helped but you just snatch sleep when you can. The same with volunteers and ensuring they rest when they can.
As it goes on longer we luckily don’t need as much help to manage just 2 runners rather than 120. We plan for it lasting longer and permission for the location was open-ended, but some volunteers had to go, and some stayed on longer to help. Many from the running community came out to help and cheer as it went on.
We did have to do extra shipping though as they [the runners] were eating everything in sight as well as us and the volunteers.
Q. Now your race is in the world’s eye, I see next year’s event has nearly sold out already. Will you make any changes because of this?
A. We don’t need to make many changes. It’s not broke and we won’t try to fix it. It works as it is. We may add a bit of live streaming or better photography but otherwise it works.
Q. I’ve known you for years – you’ve always been a constant figure to me at ultras, either organising, running or providing medical support. What is your history and how did you start in the business of ultra running?
A. My history with races is similar to many. Ran a few Marathons like London. Then ran a few more and did a few shorter ultras before finding some long silly stuff like GUCR and enjoying those. I had a few training routes I liked like the Stort30 route and thought this would be a great race. I set one up and then another and now I have a bunch of them.
I like watching people succeed and finish stuff but especially when it is a real challenge and you might fail. There has to be a risk of failure to value any achievement.
Thanks to both John and Lindley and we’ll certainly be watching both the Suffolk and Big Dog’s Backyard ultras to see what happens next.
Can you help John? Because of Covid, the family fell on hard times and he needs a bit of help to get to Tennessee. If you would like to help, his GoFundMe page is here.
All images courtesy of Film my Run