Monday 17 July 2017

The Peculiar World of 24 Hour Running + top ten tips

It’s a ridiculous concept, yet to some it’s intriguing and challenging.  On paper, it’s simple.  See how far you can run in 24-hours. Super slow running on mostly flat and looped courses, with copious amounts of support and no navigation or mandatory kit required.  But to those who have ventured into the crazy world of 24 hour running know that it’s an emotionally, mentally and physically challenging journey.

There is no finish line, so you can’t DNF.  There are no checkpoints to tick off and there’s nothing to strive towards.  It’s you against the clock.  A clock that you’ll be convinced doesn’t move.
Many great athletes can run 100 or 150 miles in a race, but don't have the head for 24 hour running. Without sections or a finish line it's hard to keep going. The clock keeps ticking regardless of what pace you're doing.  Yet people see big distances run by athletes they compete with in other races and want to give it a shot.  Often thinking they can run further, because the courses aren't physically demanding.  Unfortunately that bravado often doesn't see them through 12 hours.  In reality it's probably one of the toughest ultra-races and requires a high level of mental toughness - and stubbornness.

I’ve added some top ten tips at the bottom.  Not because I’m an expert, but because I have made many mistakes.  I’ve never had a 24-hour go right, but some have been less catastrophic than others.

My first venture into 24-hour running starting in 2011 at the Commonwealth Ultra Champs in North Wales.  I was selected for the Scotland team based on form from local ultra-races in Scotland. I was rightfully terrified of the concept and blissfully ignorant.  The course was a 1km loop in the seaside town of Llandudno, a favourite for those of retirement age.  It was 500m up one side of the road, turn 180 degrees and return down the other 500m into a head wind.  Always running clockwise, with a central reservation to the right and metal railing separating us from a cheering crowd of about 12. Repeat for 24 hours.  My ignorance stood me in good stead, because this was one of the most mind rattling courses I’ve even run on.
My calves ballooned, my feet nearly fell off and the next day it took me 45 minutes to walk a mile.  I ran 208kms, even after believing running over 200kms was way beyond my ability.  I had no idea what the qualifying distance for the GB team was.  I hadn’t bothered to look into that, as that was even further beyond my ability.  If my memory serves me right, it was 204.  I was just an average runner with a knack for pace management.  I had no major running aspirations and my life revolved around an exuberant two-year-old boy. I ran the furthest out of the Scotland team (including the boys) and finished 4th gal.
Fast forward a year, and I was in my first GB vest at the World Championships in Poland.  I felt like a complete charlatan and was woefully out of my depth. A mix of excitement, ignorance and nerves and I went off too fast.  I set a Scottish 100 mile record (which remains uncontested) in 15:48.  Despite a massive kaboom I also broke the Scottish 200km and 24-hour death marching round to a 217km. Both those records are currently held by Fionna Ross from Tooting Bec track.  

It’s a god awful strategy, but it wasn’t my intention.  I didn’t appreciate that slow meant super slow.  My feet were still suffering from GUCR a few months earlier and both my big toenails came off during the race.   At first I stopped to remove what I thought was a stone in shoe, which turned out to be a nail that wasn’t really ready to come off.  It was a pretty agonising few hours.  Not as agonising as going to the unlit portaloo in the dark and using my hands to lowering myself down… and not realising someone had missed the pan.  So my hand was covered in human shit!   

I was second counter in the team that won World and European silver.  We lost out on gold to the French team - by 42 metres!
The distance in Katowice meant I qualified for the team at the World Champs in Steenbergen, Holland in 2013.    This was probably the longest lap I’ve run on, at a hefty 2.3kms. The conditions for this race were pretty grim.  Quintessentially Scottish, so it didn’t bother me too much.  There was a strong wind along the bending back stretch and heavy cold downpours during the night.  I even put on a light waterproof.  Very comical seeing some of the Japanese team running wrapped in foil blankets.  

For me, mentally this was the toughest of all my 24s.  I felt flat the whole time.  And pre-menstrual, which causes massive issues. I was pretty bored early on and just found the whole race really frustrating.  At one point I was going to pretend to faint, so I didn’t need to continue.  Not my proudest confession, but at least I didn’t follow through with it.  Despite the mental challenges, I pushed on to PB with 220km.  The biggest positive I can take from this, was I still running in the final few hours.    Also second counter on the team which won European Silver medals.  

There was a break in championships in 2014, as various host countries pulled out. It was on, it was off, it was moved and in the end the IAU pulled the plug on all possibilities of a 2014 event and focussed on the World Championship in Turin, Italy in 2015.

So, Turin, a few days after I turned 40 I lined up for my third GB outing.  Prior to that I had two failed attempts at the Barcelona 24 track race.  The first year I was so ill I shouldn’t have even got on the flight out.  I lasted 12km.  I quit so early the organisers didn’t know what to do with my chip.  And the other competitors must have thought I was a complete lightweight after vomiting over the track railings - twice - within the first hour.  Marco was ill the whole journey home, so all in all a pretty successful mini break.

The second Barcelona race, I had GI problems, which followed me for the remainder of my 24-hour running journey.  I was in Barcelona to run a specific distance, not just to finish a 24 hour race.  I called it a day around 11 hours, as I already had a qualifying distance for team for the next championships and didn’t want to jeopardise that.  Well, at the time that was my bullshit excuse.  

So, back to World Championships in Turin.  It was April in Italy.  Which is like the height of summer in Scotland.  It might have possibly been the worst designed course, with a hairpin bend and a hill.  Now I do enjoy a good hill, but after 12 hours it was a mountain.  It wasn’t without it many dramas, but it was an ok race.  I sat in last GB position for a lot of the race and finished 2nd counter for the team (see the pattern here) prize and 12th lady.   I scraped a PB of shy of 222km.

Then came the tragedy that was the European Championships in Albi France in 2016.  I’ve well documented that my heart and head wasn’t in the race.  I also expected it to all in line with the fun stuff I wanted to do.  My stomach fell apart, I started peeing red, my feet and quads were destroyed.  When it all started to unravel, I just didn’t have any fight left in me.  My amazing support, Eddie squeezed every last ounce of me to complete an agonising 178km. I learned so much from the experience.  Mainly I never want to get to end knowing I haven’t given my best again.  I love running, but my god it sometimes breaks my heart.  

And last but not least, the recent World Championships in Belfast.  I had aspirations of this being a killer swan song.  The pièce de résistance of my 24-hour running career.  Unfortunately it was a lesson in digging deep and finding the will to continue when everything went out the window (via the portaloo) pretty early on.  I was obviously disappointed with my distance of 204km, but I’m not disappointed with how I handled the situation.  I could have easily given up when I PB was off the table, like I did in Albi.  But I knew I never wanted to feel that way again.

So, five GB vests later, I have met some amazing people and pushed my mind and body beyond breaking point.  I have laugh and cried and experienced lots of pain and suffering.  “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change” Fred Devito.  Running 24-hour races is certainly character building.  They haven’t made me a better running, but have made me more resilient.    I can withstand much more and push through some dark times in races.  Maybe not dark portaloos though. Nothing is as tough as a 24-hour race.  It takes a special breed of crazy.
Top ten tips for running a 24-hour race

  1. Focus on lap splits or one hour at a time.  Or split the race into day-night-day sections.  If you’re lucky, your race might turn direction every few hours.  Which, will literally, blow your mind!
  2. Don’t count the laps.  You’ll go nuts.  If possible try to avoid looking at the clock too.  It doesn’t actually move.
  3. Make the challenge to run (or at least to stay on your feet) for 24 hours - with the goal distance being secondary.  You will be torn between the drive to stay on your feet and the devil on your shoulder screaming at you to stop.  Once your you start drifting from your target goal, the devil will win.
  4. Be prepared to reassess your goals.  Possibly about 17 times.  
  5. When you get to 8 hours you will probably want to die.  That’s normal.  Embrace the darkness:  The night-time is always my favourite as I enjoy the cooler temperatures, the peace and the fact that a bit chunk of the field are now off the course.  Usually due to bad pacing.
  6. Races are won and lost in the last four hours, so don’t worry if someone is running Yannis Kouros pace for the first few hours.  The make-up of the race completely changes after the first six hours. Japan's Yoshihiko Ishikawa who won this year's World Champ with 267km, was in 90th position after the first hour. 90th! That's what you call moving through the field.
  7. Things happen in 24-hours that don’t happen in other ultras.  Feet take a real battering.  You will be using the same muscles to the point of destruction.  And nausea will be your friend.  You will probably witness more peeing, farting and spewing than you can imagine.  
  8. Treat yourself:  Keep your iPod for desperate stages, have a walking break on the hour, save the pee stop for the next hour.  Trust me, it’s the best seat in the house.   It’s the little things that make a big difference
  9. Smile and be polite to crew/volunteers.  It forces you mind stay positive.
  10. You have to really want it.  If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse

Friday 7 July 2017

World 24 Hour Champs, Belfast

Always an honour and privilege to wear the GB vest.  Always a pleasure to be part of a tight-knit and super-talented bunch of wonderful people. But more so, it was a huge relief to be selected to represent GB at the World 24 Hour Champs in Belfast.  After my tragic effort at last year’s European 24-hour Championships, I needed some redemption.  Some closure. 

With Nigel Holl and Donna Fraser from British Athletics
Running for 24 hour around a one mile loop - weaving between 400 people on the course – is an acquired taste.  As a race concept, it’s probably the most physically, mentally and emotionally demanding of them all.  It’s a massive battle of will.  Just you and a clock.  A race with no finish line requires a lot of drive to keep moving. 

On paper, it looks simple.  Everyone thinks they can run qualifying distances.    Super slow running on mostly flat and looped course, with copious amounts of support and no navigation or mandatory kit required.  How hard can it be?  Most who venture into the crazy world of 24-hour fall way short of their target.  Not because they’re not talented enough, but because they don’t respect, understand or require the mental strength. 

I was mentally prepared for the race.  Well, I wasn’t dreading it, so that was a pretty good start.  I was fired up and ready to give it everything.  One last time.  Bow out with style - like Obama’s drop the mic.  Last year, if I’m honest with myself, I’d lost my heart and head for 24-hour running.  I just expected it to fall in line with all the other fun races I wanted to do.  I wasn’t complacent, just now committed. When things started to go wrong, I just didn’t want it anymore.  Stupidly I thought anything less than a PB was a waste of time.

Bombing out was the kick up the ass I needed.  I was distraught for weeks after that and vowed never to feel that way again.  Of course races are always going to go belly up, but I will never walk away thinking I hadn’t given it my very best. 

The race started well.  I was relaxed and in control.  I was placing last in the team ranking, but that was fine.  I was sticking to my plan and was confident and experienced enough to know if would come good in the end.

After a few hours, my stomach problems started.  Again.  I can’t get to the bottom of this (pardon the pun) but running in circles and on roads kills me stomach.  From about 4-8 hours, there were quite a lot of emergency stops.   Last year, I caved to it and let it destroy me.  This time, there was no way it was going to break my spirit.  With Renee we did everything we could to work through it.  Medicine, ginger and lots of fluids.

I was losing time/distance, but I tried to stay positive.  Unfortunately with a 24 hour it’s about control, staying strong and then hanging tough at the end.  I was hanging tough from four hours. 

I felt wiped, but my head was good.  I didn’t get the angry/frustrated mental way I can usually do on looped course.  Whenever anything nasty crept into my head, I took a few deep breaths, cleared my mind and brought everything back to a neutral zone. 

I’m a firm believer you can control your mood.  I didn’t necessary need to be in a great mood, just not an angry or sad one.  Smiling.  I made sure I smiled a lot.  I made an effort to communicate with people or even acknowledge words from spectators.  I was all out of internal energy, so I was taking it from external sources. 

The support around the course was amazing.  There were a huge bunch helping the open race who were on their feet all night, expending way more energy than those in race.  Dancing, high-five, Mexican waves and playing the best party tunes ever!  Of course Johnny Fling and Noanie’s makeshift Woodstock festival was just brilliant. 

I was having a really tough day out there, but some of my team mates were having it much worse.  The carnage from around 12 hours was the worst I’d ever seen.  Marco, James, Robbie, Sharon and Beth were all having problems and would either stop or drop back considerably.

I didn’t get annoyed with the loops.  Actually I thought the course was the best I’ve run on.  I’ve heard a few moans about the camber and the hard concrete surface, but I’d be lying if I used them as an excuse for poor performance.  My feet paid the price of the flat surface, but no more than usual.  My quads ached, but no more than usual.

The final hour
The timing system going down around didn’t help the situation.  I was wearing a Garmin, but it’s unreliable for distances on looped courses, so I was just working on lap splits.  But the lights also went down at the chip mat, so couldn’t see my watch.  It did cause a lot of stress, but mostly for crew and management. Surely the runners had the simple job.  Just run.  I was aware that runners were getting quite upset about it.  If I’d have known there would be no stats for the duration of the race, I might have too. 

The only split I got was at 22:15 hours.  I had spent the previous few hours’ power walking with Sharon.  I guess in the latter stages when your brain doesn’t work on a rational level and you look for comfort and it’s easy to get into company.  Justifying by moving well and not taking the easy option of sitting it out because you’re race wasn’t going well.

Sharon stopped to get something to eat before 22 hours and I started running again.  It hurt so bad, but I had to try.  I was the third counter on the team, but it wasn’t going to make much difference.  The best I could have hoped for was 200km.  Big deal.  But it was a big deal to me, as I didn’t want to fall below that.  Mustering up the enthusiasm to break 200 when your PB is 221 and target was 230+ involves some deep digging.  Those seats were looking mighty comfy too. 

I ran 204.118 kilometres and finished 39th in the women’s race.  Even considering this was the crème de la crème of ultra-running and the world record was smashed, I would have been bitterly disappointed with that.  I probably wouldn’t have turned up. All things considered, I did the best I could on the day.  

Thanks Emily Proto for the insta quote you posted… “You never fail until you stop trying”

No ultra-race is an individual achievement and I was part of an amazing troop.  Meeting with old friends and making news ones.  Thanks to team manager John, my GB team mates and the rest of the crew.  Big thanks to Renee for smashing her crewing debut and putting up with me.  You were amazing.   Thanks to my Mum and Sister for looking after our boy, so Marco and I can do these crazy things.  Last but certainly not least to my great coach, Paul Giblin who got me to the start line in the best shape ever.  All good training for better races to come.

...  I’m off to the hills now.