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
- 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!
- Don’t count the laps. You’ll go nuts. If possible try to avoid looking at the clock too. It doesn’t actually move.
- 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.
- Be prepared to reassess your goals. Possibly about 17 times.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Smile and be polite to crew/volunteers. It forces you mind stay positive.
- You have to really want it. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse