Self-Transcendence 24 Hour Track Race – Tooting Bec

Virtually everyone I know questioned my sanity when I decided to run a 24 hour track race. 24 hours running round and round a 400 metre track in South London. The question was always the same. Why?

It was quite a tricky question to answer. I’m a trail runner at heart. I love running in the mountains and on trails. That’s where I feel truly alive. I had run the South Downs Way 50 and the South Downs Way 100 earlier this year and they had gone really well. But I wanted to try something different. Something completely outside my comfort zone.

In my search for something different I came across the Self Transcendence 24 Hour Race. 24 hours to run as many laps of Tooting Bec athletics track as you could. I thought about it. I’d never run a 24 hour race before. I had run a total of three laps round a track in my entire life (the track at Eastbourne at the end of the SDW50 and SDW100). Well this was certainly outside my comfort zone. Why not?

With this lot, what could possibly go wrong?!

I applied for a place in the race and, despite my total lack of experience of this type of event, I was accepted. My training went really well. I recovered quickly from SDW100 and got back into it. Over the course of July, August and the beginning of September I logged 550 miles, which is high mileage for me. A big proportion were on the seafront as I tried to get in as many miles on the flat as I could in preparation for the race. I worked on pacing strategies and fuelling strategies and by the time that the race came around I felt great and ready to go. My target for the race was 125 miles (200K). Based on everything that I’d done it was realistic.

Not South Central Los Angeles.

We arrived at Tooting Bec athletics track on the morning of 18 September. It’s a part of London that I had never been to before. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting – probably an inner city grittiness somewhat reminiscent of South Central Los Angeles. I was pleasantly surprised by a running track with some tidy buildings at one end and a grassy perimeter, all surrounded by some sturdy looking trees. It was lovely. Really quiet and nothing at all like I had envisaged.

We drove onto the perimeter of the track and started to get set up. I’d brought a whole heap of provisions – certainly enough to put me into a sugar coma for several days if I managed to get through all of them. We got ourselves sorted out, registered, had a race briefing from the race directors (Shankara and Devashishu) and at midday myself and the other 44 competitors were off. 24 hours to run round a 400m track as many times as we could. I’m still not sure if it seemed like a sensible idea or not at that stage.

And they’re off!

I set off at an easy pace and went into a run/walk strategy from the start. I chatted to some of the other runners and cruised round the track. 17 minute run then 3 minute walk. Repeat. The first four hours flew by and I was going well, averaging around 6 miles (10K) an hour – bang on target. It was great fun. Some people started off at a heck of a pace while others began in a rather more relaxed manner. The age of the competitors ranged from 25 to 82 and they were such a lovely group of people, which was a very good thing as I had to spend 24 hours with them with little prospect of escape.

At the race briefing Shankara explained the race etiquette. Basically, you ran on the outside of lane one and the faster runners could overtake on the inside of lane one. If there was somebody in the way then you shout ‘track’ and the person moves to the outside so that you can overtake on the inside. Simple.

The only issue I had with this is that I am British and a fairly polite person by nature. I tried shouting ‘track’ a couple of times but it just felt rude. I tried a few different approaches. ‘Excuse me please but would you mind if I came through’ certainly ticked the politeness box but it was a bit of a mouthful and I had passed the runner before I had finished asking them to move. Eventually I compromised on ‘excuse me please’ which seemed to work fine.

We had the first change of direction after four hours (we changed direction every four hours throughout the race). At this point the referee put a cone on the start / finish line and we all went round it and started off in the opposite direction. I really enjoyed each turn as you got to see all the other runners going in the opposite direction as we all went round the cone. It also signified that another four hour block had passed.

I found the first change of direction quite disconcerting. I had got into a real rhythm in the first four hours and my legs became a bit freaked out by running round the track the other way. After twenty minutes or so they calmed down though and we kept chugging along as before (just with slightly different views). And to everyone who asked before the race if I would get dizzy running round and round a track – no, I didn’t. Four hundred metres is actually quite a decent distance. I always felt like I had more than enough space to run but also that there were people around for a bit of company if you wanted it, which is something that you don’t always get on a trail ultra.

Moving well at this point.

During the first five hours (except for the change of direction) I was in a real rhythm and having a marvellous time. Over the course of each lap I would say hi to my crew at one side of the track then on the home straight I would give a cheery wave and a thank you to my lap counter as they counted another lap. The lap counters were fantastic – thank you so much to all of them for giving their time selflessly to help the runners. They really added a huge amount to the event and their encouragement, smiles and enthusiasm were fabulous. I loved the fact that some of the runners were long-time counters who had decided to give it a go themselves. That really says something about the event to me.

The lap counters had their own large gazebo by the start / finish line and you had to tell them every time that you were going to leave the track so they didn’t worry that they had missed a lap for you. That’s fine in principle but I was a little concerned that informing them every time I left the track to go to the toilet was providing them with a little too much information. They didn’t seem concerned though. No doubt they’ve seen it all before.

The lap counters and their gazebo.

It was in the sixth hour that things started to go south a bit. My quads were starting to hurt far more than they should have done at this stage of the race. It was becoming more difficult to get back to running after the walk breaks and I was starting to slow down. I stopped for a pit stop, which perked me up no end. One huge advantage of a race like this – you always had a toilet within easy reach (and there were no cows on the course – but that’s a different story).

The little spring in my step faded quite quickly and I was back with my very grumpy quads. They were getting grumpier and grumpier, to the point that running was becoming painful. This was not turning out as planned. At all. I knew at that stage that there was no way that I was going to hit my target for the day.

I think that it was around this time that I saw one of the other runners, Steve Campbell, walk off the track and get his foam roller out. He proceeded to roll his legs and feet, a process I saw him repeat several times over the course of the race. Now that hurts at the best of times, but during an event like this? It hurt to watch. I gained a new hero that day.

I stopped running and walked for a bit. I tried to run again but it wasn’t really happening so it was back to walking again. I walked round the track chatting with Jon Errington for forty minutes or so. There is a slight disparity in our heights and apparently it looked quite funny to anyone who was watching as we wandered round the track. Even though my race wasn’t going brilliantly I was still fairly positive and was having fun. Although everyone was running their own race, it really felt like we were all in this together. There was also great support from the other crews and people came along at different stages to watch and support (and thank you to everyone that did – I really appreciated it).

We were about 9 hours into the race now. I sat down for a few minutes, put my iPod on and tried to get my head together and refocus. The music really helped. I got up and tried to lengthen my stride and run again. I still can’t explain what happened next. I hadn’t managed to run at all for around forty five minutes as my quads had been too painful. Maybe a gentle walk round the track had freed them up a bit. Whatever it was, I started running again.

And the really odd thing was that the quicker I ran, the easier it got and the freer my quads felt. I didn’t think much about the ramifications and just went with it as it was fun. Adrenaline also started to kick in. I must have run around 50 miles or so by this stage and the last thing I expected to be doing at that point was cracking out a mile in a little over 7 minutes!

Me and the legend that is William Sichel.

My unexpected burst of pace lasted for around 45 minutes or so before my quads became too painful to run on again. Another 40 minute walk break followed by around 30 minutes of running (not as fast as the previous burst) and my quads were knackered again. This was around eleven and a half hours in.

The next couple of hours consisted of me walking round the floodlit track, unable to run as my quads were too painful. I sat down and chatted for a bit then got up and walked for a bit. This seemed to be a difficult time for a lot of people, as there were less people on the track. Unfortunately some had had to withdraw for various reasons and some were taking a break. Others however just kept chugging around that track like a metronome. It really was inspiring to watch. Personally, I was still in pretty good spirits but the quads unfortunately weren’t. I went to see the physio to see if there was anything that they could do to help. They massaged my quads but unfortunately it didn’t help. I kept trudging round the track and it was now getting painful to walk. It was around 2:30am.

It was all getting a bit much and this was certainly my lowest point. There were still nine and a half hours to go and I began to question whether I really wanted to slowly and painfully walk around a track for that amount of time. My race had gone to crap. My quads were killing me. I needed to stop and think, so I sat down with my crew and tried to work out what was going on, what the hell I was going to do about it and whether I wanted to continue or not. The glow had definitely faded at this stage.

During the 75 minutes or so that I stopped, I mentally checked out. The race had not gone well. My quads were shot – they just wouldn’t work the way I wanted them to. I was in pain and it hurt to walk. I just couldn’t face hours and hours of trudging painfully round the track. I had tried but it had gone wrong. My race was over. I was done. Other runners and my crew tried to encourage me to get moving again but at this stage I couldn’t or wouldn’t. I was finished and I told my crew this. I commiserated with another runner who had also had to drop out. The best thing to do at this stage was to call it a day.

But that wasn’t the best thing to do. After a while I realised that I couldn’t just sit here and quit. Yes, the race hadn’t turned out as I wanted or expected. But if I could still move forward and if I wasn’t going to damage myself by doing so then I couldn’t just quit. It wouldn’t be fair on the race, my crew or myself. There was still just over eight hours to go. I’d been in much worse states than this before and kept going. I got up, got back on the track and started moving forwards again.

Still going!

I tried to run a few times during the last part of the race but it was just too painful. Walking was doable, so that’s what I did. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty but I was moving forward. It was progress. With four hours to go, we had the last change of direction so I got the chance to high five and applaud the other runners, which was a fantastic moment. Everyone had been through their own trials and struggles over the event and we were now approaching the finish.

I loved the leaderboard! This is the final version.

The leaderboard was updated again with four hours to go, as it was every hour throughout. I loved the old school nature of the leaderboard, with velcro on the back of each runner’s name so we could be moved up and down the board as we moved up and down the field. The mileage totals were written on a sticky label every hour next to each runner’s name. Every hour I looked forward to the updated leaderboard to see how everyone was doing and it didn’t disappoint.

The last four hours was like the march of the broken. A few runners were still moving pretty well but for the rest of us it was now a case of just getting to the finish and I was now walking at a ridiculously slow speed. The camaraderie with the other runners (which was one of my favourite things about this event) was fabulous, as it was throughout the race. It felt like we were all encouraging each other and supporting each other in this endeavour. Towards the end, I was passed by Geoff Oliver and John Turner, who were walking quicker than me. John asked if I wanted to walk round with them for a while but I tried and I just couldn’t keep up with them. John then very kindly mentioned that he and Geoff did have a combined age of 147, so he entirely understood! I don’t have much of an ego generally but if that won’t teach you humility then nothing will…

The march of the (nearly) broken.

On the last couple of laps you are given a marker and you are joined on the track by a member of your crew, so Natasha walked (slowly) with me. The hooter sounded and we placed our marker on the track at the point that we had reached, so the race officials could measure my exact distance. One of the funniest moments of the race for me was watching Nici trying to keep up with Johnny Hallneby during these last couple of laps, as she had his marker and he was still full of running (to say the least!) and I don’t think she was.

We were done. I had run 95.32 miles. Only 30 miles less than my pre-race target but I was proud of myself that I had kept going. It really does show how the mileage can mount up if you just keep moving, even if your speed is a bit slower than usual. After a shower and some food, we had the presentation as the prizes were given out to the winners and each of the finishers was called up to receive their finisher’s trophy. There were some incredible performances, including Beth Pascall winning with 142 miles, Ali Young in second with 135 miles and Simon Smith in third with 131 miles. A particular highlight for me was seeing Ann Bath run 104 miles, which was an absolute triumph of persistence and determination – a total inspiration. The full results are available at
http://uk.srichinmoyraces.org/london-24/previous-results/2015.

Picking up my finisher’s trophy after I had persuaded my legs to move.

I can’t remember who it was, but during the presentation one of my fellow runners bounded across to pick up his trophy at the point that I was wondering exactly how I was going to be able to raise myself out of my chair. ‘Show some respect please. People are suffering here’ I muttered. The runner didn’t care. He picked up his trophy and jogged back as I tried to encourage my legs to obey even basic commands.

The most common question I received in the run up to this event was how I was going to deal with the boredom. Surely running round and round a 400m track for 24 hours would be a real struggle mentally? I can honestly say that boredom was never an issue during the race. During the daylight hours I watched planes fly by (Tooting is on the Heathrow flightpath) and there were various quotes from Sri Chinmoy dotted around the course that I read and thought about. I said hi to my crew (and they certainly kept me and the other runners entertained!), waved at the lap counters and chatted to the other runners. I had as much mental stimulation as I needed at every stage and I loved it.

And on the crew front, I owe them a huge thanks. Nici Griffin and Ashok Daniel very kindly offered to crew me a little while ago and I was delighted to have them on board with Natasha. They were (and are) fabulous. Encouraging, jolly and supportive throughout the event. We ended up amalgamating our crew with Roz Glover’s crew (Mimi Anderson and Stu Wilkie) and they helped Roz, Ali Young and I whenever we needed anything.

Part of the best crew ever!

As well as being fabulous, our crew were a little odd. At different points they took song requests from each of the runners, sang the requested songs, conducted a trivia quiz, planked for a lap and generally amused the runners and kept us entertained. I can’t imagine the amount of races that our crew have organised, ran and volunteered at between them but it must be a very, very large number. They gave up their time to help us run this event and I am incredibly grateful. Thank you.

Nici and Natasha planking for all they were worth.

This was such a fun event, despite the fact that it didn’t go at all according to plan for me. There was so much positivity, support and camaraderie from everyone involved and I absolutely loved it. The event had such a low key, chilled out atmosphere to it that really worked. You could tell that it was an absolute labour of love for the organisers and the volunteers. So many of the runners had run the event several times, which is always a huge recommendation by itself.

In the last couple of hours of the race, I had convinced myself that the chances of me doing another 24 hour track race were limited, at best. But since the event I’ve thought more and more about it and realised just how much I enjoyed it. It is partly the format of the race but more than anything it is the vibe and the atmosphere that the organisers have created. It is so supportive and so welcoming and I know that I will be back here before too long to experience it again.

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