Originally published in issue 11 of https://www.ultra-magazine.com
I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry, it’s quite normal.
24 hours is a long time to run, a 400 meter loop isn’t very far, the combination doesn’t make any logical sense. Only suitable for misfits and weirdos.
When you picture running an ultra, you see mountains, adventure, solitude in remote valleys, companionship on stormy peaks at 2 in the morning.
“I am physically capable of doing one”, you’re thinking, “yet with so much of the world still to see, so many unconquered summits, why should I squander my time and effort running in circles? Everyone would think I’ve totally lost the plot.”
“They wouldn’t understand. I don’t understand”
I’m here to tell you that there is so much more to it than you might think.
I accept that there are no mountains or breathtaking scenery, but are those the reasons you started running in the first place? Or are they a pleasant addition to something you love?
Bear with me and I’ll explain that it’s not just the preserve of the completely unhinged or international elites, there’s space for you and me too.
The concept of a 24 hour running race isn’t new
In fact people have been taking part in them for decades. Ottawa in Canada have been hosting one since 1981.
The current world record was set in 1997 by Greek running god Yiannis Kouros. He ran just over 188 miles (303K) on the track in Adelaide, Australia. There isn’t enough space on his Wikipedia page to list all his mind altering records, but don’t let that put you off. Let’s look a bit closer to home.
Why do you run? Why does anyone run?
Cast your mind back to those first few self-conscious steps, the start of a journey to lose some weight, to counterbalance the chaos of daily life, an attempt to slow the pace of the inexorable slide of cellular aging.
It was painful at first, but the hard earnt aches and endorphin fuelled satisfaction easily made up for that. Before long your ancient shoes were soon replaced with a much more serious pair, the cotton t-shirt turned into something technical, whatever that meant.
The results came surprisingly quickly, endowing you with a firm lean body and clear head. The new you faced life with head held high, everything was much more manageable after a blast round the park.
After a while your local routes weren’t holding quite the same appeal and the superhuman athletes you kept reading about in your (increasingly obsessive) trawl of race reports became an enigma, becoming harder and harder to stop thinking about.
At some point you think to yourself:
“I’ve run a marathon, of course there’s no way I can run 100 miles, but maybe 50. That’s not even double my longest run, I’ll just go slow and see how I get on.”
The lure of the challenge and associated superhero status takes hold, and before you know it …
Bam! Wine glass in hand, you’ve signed up for your first ultra
You love and hate the build up, every time you picture yourself on the start line your stomach does a somersault, but the questions of kit, food and navigation consume many happy hours on the internet. Your excel skills improve with all the lists and pace calculators, who knew there would be so many benefits!
Race day arrives, and nervously looking around on the start line you realised you’re carrying way too much / not nearly enough food / kit / maps / lube, but it’s too late and you’re off, trying not to get too carried away and keeping an eye on your watch.
The race itself is a blur of mud / hills / rivers / forests / canals, you forget about your carefully planned stash of food and binge on crisps and sweets from the aid stations, you make new best friends, discover the perils of running with a belly full of junk food and learn to do what bears do, in the bushes.
Everything is a bit sore afterwards, who knew your inner arse checks can build up such a chafe factor that you actually scream in the shower, but the elation floats you into work on Monday on a cloud of glory.
Nobody notices that you can’t walk properly as you regale the mortals with your epic feats of endurance, framed by the deep human compassion uncovered from rescuing someone who’d collapsed just before the finish line. Someone even cries a little bit.
You haven’t smiled as much since you lost your virginity.
You blog the race report and post it on Facebook, the likes come rolling in.
Fast forward four months and all your toenails have fallen off, but you’ve signed up for another race and are just about to start negotiating with your better half when they find your bag of rotting race kit. First things first, and you know they won’t deny you your new passion. Especially when you reciprocate with a weekend of looking after the kids on your own.
Life is good, the universe of ultra racing adventures has welcomed you into its domain, you’ve even got your own page on Statistik DUV.
And life is good
There’s a bit more juggling and negotiating but you find an inner strength that wasn’t there before, at the very least you’re much less reliant on a good night’s sleep. How bad can a Monday morning be when you’ve successfully navigated through the French alps on your own, in the dark, with a broken torch, and only owl droppings for sustenance?
So why would you turn to 24h track races? Why, when there are countless far more exciting and beautiful routes and races out there?
Maybe your new found food obsession needs a testing ground, somewhere with convenient (and flushing) toilets.
Maybe taking a whole weekend away from the family is trickier, now that you want to do it once a month, and all that travelling does take a toll on the wallet.
Maybe you’ve become intrigued by how fast you could go without any obstacles and a heavy pack on your back, to be able to compare your performance across different races and conditions.
Maybe your family will come and cheer you on, they might even pitch a tent and have an adventure of their own.
Or maybe, just maybe, you fancy something completely different
You’ll still get all the good stuff of course, the chafing, the crisps and sweets, the delicious pain that comes just before serenity.
You’ll still make new best friends, only this time they won’t be just the people who happen to run at the same pace as you. Even the fastest runners have time for a chat every now and then. Who knows, it might even be you slowing down for a few laps to give someone else a mental boost.
Granted there might not be that much to look at, but you won’t get lost, providing you don’t wander off looking for a Macdonald’s.
If it all gets a bit too much, don’t despair! Have a cup of hot soup, a hug and a lie down. No DNFs here, just head back out when you’re ready, or don’t. The race finishes at the same time for everybody.
“Ah, but, yeah, but, no, but … It’s a mental game this isn’t it? Psychological torture I’ve been told, time slows down, you go mad?”
I hear you. I won’t deny it, all true. But, how is that different from any other ultra? You can allow the inner demons into the forefront of your mind on any long run. Anyone can do the death march, it’s nothing special and we’ve all been there.
“Yes but, surely it’s really boring?”
That, my friend, is the first good question you’ve asked. Before I answer it, because I can tell you’re not convinced, you should ask some others why they think it’s such a good idea, but that takes time, so I did it for you.
Robbie Britton, more first place medals than you can fit in a rucksack:
“It’s truly about how far you can run in a day with as few variables as you can.
It can often be a mental battle from the start and it’s not about overcoming a low point, but constantly convincing yourself that the effort is worth it, when you reach the finish line at the same time as everyone else, regardless of speed.
I love it and dislike it rather strongly at the same time.”
Paul Katsiva-Corderoy, no stranger to track or trail:
“On the track there is always someone watching and cheering (read motivating) you.”
Pam Storey, RD of the Crawley 6, 12 & 24h track races:
“I have done 15 of the ‘beasts’ … you are never more than 400m from help.”
Markus Mueller has a simple and insightful view:
“It’s just you and your running shoes. The nice thing is that you don’t have to be fast but consistence gets you very far.”
“Auto qualifier for spartathlon”
Mark Cockbain, RD of The Viking Way and other brutally minimal ultras:
“Just to see how far and fast you can go with no x-factors (terrain or conditions)”
Stuart Shipley, survivor of the Spine Race and many others:
“…a cheap weekend in London parking the camper on the track and eating every 400m”
Thomas Bubendorfer, an Austrian with a penchant for long Irish races:
“In a mountain point to point race you will most likely be running entirely on your own for hours and hours, barely seeing anyone else. A 24 hours race is highly sociable and you’ll have chats with dozens of runners”
Noanie Heffron, who seems to place in the top 3 of every race she runs:
“My first 24hr was on a 4 mile loop, I didn’t much fancy it but was talked into it, furthest I’d run at that point was 50 miles, thought it would be a nice ‘safe’ way to run a bit further, secretly thought I’d hate it but turned out I loved it. Entered a 24hr track next on the logical assumption that condensing the loop would obviously cause the essence of the event to become super concentrated, like squeezing a lump of coal to get a diamond. And I was right!”
Pretty convincing stuff don’t you think?
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you’re still worried about it being boring
Consider this with an open mind, because you are open minded aren’t you, apart from hokas and marmite? It’s a prerequisite to throwing yourself at the mercy of any unknown adventure.
What is boredom exactly? Possibly a bit hard to define objectively, but one could say that it’s a feeling of lethargy brought on from a lack of internal or external stimulus.
The week in the middle of childhood summer holidays when everyone you know has gone away? Midway through a long journey with nothing to read, drink, watch, or talk to (animate objects of course, you can always talk to your shoes, if that’s your thing)?
My simple answer to your excellent question is …
When have you ever been bored whilst running?
Desperate for it to be over? Many times. Hungry? Nearly always.
In pain? Too often.
Fed up of being on your own? Check.
Fed up with being in a crowd? Yup.
Fed up that time has slowed down so much that every step on the treadmill takes an age? Of course.
Bored? Truly truly bored? Mind numbingly, lie on the floor, dribbling, staring into space bored? Never.
(Apart from the lying down dribbling bit).
If anything you develop a fondness for the track, and an acute awareness of everything going on in and around it. Details that would otherwise pass you by become, captivating.
There’s a new lap counter, they look nice, I wonder what their name is. That bird, I can’t see it but, gosh, what a beautiful sound, maybe I’ll spot it on the next lap.
Oh wait, is that a lost hedgehog?
I hope that cleared things up, dispelled a few myths, uncovered a few secrets. Perhaps I even went a bit overboard and you’re thinking that 24 hours of loops isn’t going to be enough.
Did you know that 6 day track races are a thing?
No? Ok, let’s leave that for another time, sorry I mentioned it. Now you know, you can’t forget it, just saying.
There is one more thing before I finish, possibly the single most compelling reason so far, and one that until this point has evaded discussion.
It is of course: The Zone.
I’m pretty sure you know it, elusive and yet attainable, if you know what it needs. It can’t be chased down or forced, but when the conditions are right you don’t realise you were there until afterwards.
Calm and peaceful, you’re simultaneously hyper aware of your entire body yet floating through the air effortlessly. Everything moving in a perfect rhythm and harmony. Nothing distracts you, there is no pain, just your whole self, flowing along an exquisitely perfect trajectory, never stumbling, never taking a less than optimal path.
You could run all day
(Until you get hungry.)
I still don’t know the exact formula to be able to get there on demand. Sometimes it happens the day after a night of beer and pizza, sometimes only when I finally accept the screaming suffering of my body, slipping into the peaceful haven beyond it.
What I do know is that there is a reason why Sri Chinmoy tagged his races with the words Self Transcendence. There is something about a flat loop that sets up the right conditions almost perfectly. Provided you allow yourself to relax and dampen the voice that is moaning and chattering about what a daft idea this was.
For me, that’s really the number one reason for doing a 24h track race. I didn’t realise it would be, but after prolonged reflection I’m convinced, I hope you are too.
But before you reach for the Tooting entry form …
Here are a few words of warning from 5 time GB representative Debbie Martin-Consani:
“People are drawn to the race concept because of the perceived simplicity. It’s flat and very super slow, so how hard can it be? In reality it’s probably one of the toughest ultra races. It requires a high level of mental toughness – and stubbornness.
Many great athletes can run 100 or 150 miles in a race, but don’t have the head for 24 hour running. Without the drive of checkpoints 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! 24 hour runners are a weird bunch of zombies really.”
So there you have it, the full picture
If you really want nice scenery, then head to the Lake District. Set off from Keswick towards Skiddaw at midnight, catch the sunrise on the top of Blencathra. Make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, sit back and admire the splendour of nature.
Slow down and talk to your companions, not everything has to be a race. Don’t travel to the far corners of the world for an event where you spend the whole time looking at your feet.
If you want to test yourself, in an environment specifically designed for a person to travel as far and as fast as they can under their own power. Somewhere with no physical obstacles, nowhere to get lost, loads of support, and a table chock full of goodies.
If you want to see just what you’re really made of …
Then head to the track
You’re guaranteed a PB.
5 thoughts on “The hidden secrets of 24 hour track races”
Love it Luke, doing Jura AC proud. Inspiring read as always
Thanks Grant – go Jura!
This is v amusing! I’ve found the Spine Race report(s) now too (so fully up to speed!) I’ve never read a race report in my life … testament to your writing that I’ve just binge read 5! Well done on your race!
Glad you’re enjoying them 🙂