24 hours running around a track doesn’t sound much fun but I honestly can’t recall many races I’ve enjoyed more even though I was literally miles off my targets.
The Sri Chinmoy 24 hour Self Transcendence Race is one of the UK’s longest established and popular 24 hour track races at Tooting Bec in London and I was fortunate enough to have secured one of the 45 places at the start line despite my relatively meager ultra running experience.
I was thrilled because after a few recent race disappointments – a poor mental effort at the Kirklees Way Ultra saw me retire after only 17 miles because my head wasn’t in the game and a wrong turn at the Toss ‘O’ Coin race that cost me the win – I’d long been seeking a “pure” running challenge. No nav, no carrying a pack – nothing to focus on but moving forward. This was my other A race for the year after London Marathon (another disappointing race).
My training for this event has been sporadic and in reality, non-specific so while I’ve been able to keep to somewhere between 45-65mpw it’s been largely made up of short run mileage and apart from a track marathon session my prep generally lacked time on feet that I’d need but I was confident from having done the White Rose 100 in the past I would at least be able to keep going for 24 hours.
Generally I feel I’ve reached a plateau training wise because I’m in that zone where I’m not focused 100% on speed or distance so while things like parkrun times are reasonably fast still, I’m not pushing through that sub 17 time regularly and without spending 3+ hours on long runs at the moment the distance stamina is not quite there either once I go beyond a marathon.
My goals for the race ranged from laughable (130 miles) to possible (100 miles in 18h) to specific (180km in 24h which would qualify for Spartathlon).
Pretty much anyone you speak to beyond the people who enjoy this sort of event look at you like you’re an alien when you tell them you’re looking forward to running around a track for 24 hours.
The benefits of a track race to me are obvious – easy access to food and drink at any time, lap counters who cheer you on through each lap as the hours pass and one of the best parts is that you’re sharing the track with 44 other competitors who are never more than a couple of hundred meters away.
The race starts at noon Saturday and you simply clock up as many laps as possible before the race ends at noon on Sunday. You’re free to stop and start as you see fit and your pace is up to you.
Without too much hassle, I’d registered on the morning, the pre-race brief took place and before I knew it we were all on the start line ready to go at 12 noon.
It’s hard to mentally break down a race of this size. When you’re running a point to point race you know the faster you run, the sooner you reach the finish. In a timed race your pace obviously counts but the clock doesn’t tick any faster and it’s all about zoning out for hours at a time and just keeping moving.
First 12 hours
I didn’t really have any specific pacing plan other than go slowly and keep it sustainable for as long as possible – ideally getting somewhere near halfway at midnight before really taking any significant break – at which point I’d hoped to be way past 100km/62 miles.
I felt comfortable running for the first few hours, somewhere around 9:30-10min/mile pace, no significant effort heart rate wise and legs felt alright but it’s a bit of a shuffle compared to normal shorter distance easy pace which is a couple of minutes faster but this was fine.
Laps were ticking off at about two and a half minutes and with all the other runners on the track it’s good having the distraction of all the other runners nearby to chat with or tuck in with and run alongside. Seeing the lead runners going out at somewhere around 7 min/mile pace and just maintain it for hours was mind blowing. The first man and lady ran more than 300 miles combined.
The forecast showers arrived not long after the start but only really lasted a couple of hours on an off so weren’t a massive issue and the temperature was perfect for running during daylight although as darkness came it did get pretty chilly and slowing down a bit meant about 11pm I changed into a merino base layer and kept my jacket on but stayed in shorts.
I’d had some stomach issues in the first couple of hours but it was just gas, but the old “never trust a fart” mantra rang strong and a couple of trips to the trackside toilets were needed but eventually it settled down and apart from that, I was able to eat and drink with absolutely no issues for the duration of my race.
I took 24 Gu gels which I’d planned to use for most of the race but ultimately with a refreshment table on the track with drinks and various bits of food I took 1 gel and just ate from the table every couple of laps.
From running to walking
I went through the 100km mark a little after midnight, not the fastest but steady enough and after having already figured my 130 mile goal was so far beyond my capability at the moment I’d focused on the 180km Spartathlon time as my only significant aim. With 100km on the clock in 12 hours I’d still need to move strongly for the second half but ultimately should have been able to do it in the time limit as I felt good at midnight with no issues beyond a bit of general fatigue.
Things went south pretty quickly in the hour that followed though.
My legs, feet and stomach felt fine, my head was in the game and I was having a truly excellent time but my hip flexors suddenly began to tighten and I went from moving comfortably to a power walk.
This in itself wasn’t an issue, I’d planned on walking spells but in between running laps rather than an hour or two at a time. Still – in-race management of issues is part of the challenge I guess and I switched mindset to thinking that even if I had to power walk at 3.5mph I’d just about make 100 miles in 24 hours but I assumed that at some point after a spell of walking I’d manage another hour or two of running which would bring the 180km goal back into focus.
I’d accepted this and spent the next couple of hours walking around the track listening to 6Music on the little DAB radio I’d bought with me although to be honest, Jethro Tull for 2 hours in the middle of the night wasn’t my bag.
Eventually my hips settled and I felt good enough to start running again and was clocking off about 30-40 minutes an hour of running mixed with walking for the remainder. Felt good enough but somewhere around 16 hours a deep fatigue started setting in and I was struggling to stay awake, yawning constantly while following the white line around the track.
I’d not planned to really stop for anything other than toilet breaks and clothes changes during the race (the clock never stops right!) but I figured a 15 minute power-nap would be more beneficial than falling asleep on my feet and I could reset and get back out there.
A quick lie down in the room next to the track was welcome but when I woke up, I simply couldn’t move my left leg!
Somewhere in and around my hip abductors the pain was immense. I had to pull my leg up with my hands just to get to my feet. As I rejoined the track at a hobble, the pain made it clear something had gone wrong while I’d laid down and my plans of power walking or running weren’t going to happen. I couldn’t make it round another lap.
Another benefit of the track format is there’s a physio on site so I went to see her and she recommended another hour of rest to see if it settled. Back to the room for a lie down and actually sleep.
When I woke, the pain was still as intense as before and sitting down on the chair in the physio room for a checkup I literally couldn’t lift my foot off the floor. My race was done with about 7 hours remaining on the clock.
Ultimately I managed to walk one more lap a couple of hours later as my hip settled down a bit and there will probably be a fraction of doubt as to whether I should have just waited a couple of hours instead and decided then or whether an hour was enough to know but ultimately that single lap ticked me through 130km and I figured that’s alright for now.
Frustrating in many respects because my legs and feet still actually felt fine and mentally I’d had no significant lows or doubts at any point.
“Running offers us the message of transcendence. In our running, every day we are aiming at a new goal….. … every day we are running towards a goal, but when we reach that goal, we want to go still farther. Either we want to improve our timing or increase our distance. There is no end. Running means continual transcendence, and that is also the message of our inner life.”
I have to say that for me the biggest success of this race after missing all my goals was that I feel I’ve embraced a little of the spirit of self transcendence. Not just in that I’ve come away feeling I have so much more I can put on the line in races and so much more I can do in my training.
My Suunto died only a few hours into the race and I have to say it was refreshing to make the choice to run without it. I had planned on it needing charging on the go and had a power pack but I couldn’t be bothered – it was a decision I’ll probably stick to in long track races because there’s a beautiful simplicity in just running until you break or someone says to stop.
Issues and improvements
To be honest, despite finishing early I still covered 80 miles/130km in about 17 hours. Not the fastest but was comfortably on target to hit 100+ miles on what was my track ultra debut so although my initial big goal was comically out of whack, I think the 180km would be well within reach.
Training wise – I think despite reasonable mileage I lacked time on my feet in the form of some decent long runs and hadn’t done any core and hip strengthening which ultimately was my downfall so easy enough to rectify in training for next time.
Food and drink wise, with a table of refreshments on the track I only used one of my Gu gels and didn’t really have any issues on that front. It was easy to take really small amounts of food and drink regularly.
I also only ended up changing top once from a tech tee to a long sleeve merino when it got dark and colder and had my waterproof jacket on for the showers and I found the swapping race numbers a bit of a faff – I’d get a race belt next time because on another day, if it were warmer or more changeable weather I could see going through a few tops or changes of shorts so a belt just helps minimise hassle.
Would I do another track race? Absolutely!
I can honestly say that despite everything not going right goal wise, this was one of the most interesting and fun race experiences I’ve ever had.
It’s a very social race, with the counters, other runners crews and race staff combining with the fact you’re in close proximity with everyone for the duration means the time ticks by a lot quicker than you’d think and you really do get into a rhythm as the hours pass.
A massive thank you to Shankara, race team and of course all the lap counters for making a truly memorable race experience. I’ll be signing up as soon as the ballot opens next year!
Last, but no means least, a massive congratulations to my club mate Sam who covered 100 miles with a half hour to spare!