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Going ultra in Burnham's backyard

It’s a case of keeping going until one remains, with Army personnel pushing themselves to the limit for Burnham’s first Backyard Ultra endurance event.

03 July, 2024

The Backyard Ultra format has competitors run a 6.7km loop every hour, with no set end. If they complete their lap in under an hour, they can use the remaining time to eat, drink, sleep and recover. They must begin the next loop at the start of the next hour, and keep repeating this until they can’t continue any longer. The last one left is the winner.

Civilian Physical Trainer Todd Andrews organised the event, advocating it as something that would push New Zealand Defence Force personnel past their known limits. Mental endurance would be pushed to the limit as participants fought through physical pain to race for as long as they can.

Staff Sergeant Geoffrey Smith took out the individual title, crossing the finish line for the last time 19 hours after he started, having run 127.3 kilometers.

Teams were also allowed to compete, running alternating laps, with Staff Sergeant Samuel Shutkowski and Lance Corporal Jesse Bennett completing 19 laps together. Lieutenant Mikayla Bigwood was the winning female, completing 12 laps.

This wasn’t SSGT Smith’s first race, having competed in Backyard Ultra events in Christchurch twice before, reaching 15 and 13 laps respectively.

“What kept me going this time was the support from people around me and watching other people succeed; we all just wanted to see people keep going,” said SSGT Smith.

He also credited the set-up of his base, having everything he needed which including plenty of carbohydrates, a jar of gherkins, Gurney Goo and a foam roller.

“The set-up is critical, you only have a short amount of time to get yourself ready for the next lap.”

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With 29 years in service, SSGT Smith was able to lean on his military training, both mental and physical.

“Over the years whether on exercise locally or deployment overseas, you are taken away from the luxuries of life. It builds up your resilience and your ability to stay strong.

“Along with the ability to train, also means we have a good level of fitness. I have been using the Zone 2 Training method and it has really made a difference.”

This is the first time a backyard ultra has been held at Burnham and Physical Trainer Staff Sergeant Brent Clearwater said it is the perfect test for soldiers.

“The race was all about how far you could go. The first thing to go will always be your mind, it was all about mental resilience,” SSGT Clearwater said.

“The course was very flat, so you had to pace yourself and run at a speed which you could keep up for hours on end – which was a lot slower than people would naturally want to go.”

New Zealand Backyard Ultra champion Sam Harvey, whose record is set at 101 laps, was there at the starting line to pass on some advice.

“It important to break it down into little chunks and don’t let it be anything bigger than it really is. If you focus on the scale of the endeavour that you have ahead of you, that’s when you get into your own head.”

“Generally the best people in ultra or backyard marathon there not the youngest or the fastest but the ones that have been through a few hardships or challenges and then are able to use that to dig deep.”