Monday, 5 October 2015

24 - Season 2 (Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 24 Hour Track Race, 19/20 September 2015, Tooting Bec)

Say what you see.
Psychology's a fascinating subject to talk over with friends.  But sooner or later someone will put a dampener on proceedings by getting out a piece of paper with a Rorschach ink blot on and shoving it under your nose.  'What can you see there?', they will cry.  You don't really want to get involved, but you feel obliged, so you mumble something about Kendo Nagasaki's wrestling mask, two ghosts sorting through a rubbish tip and Basil Brush not speaking to his brother.  Then there'll be a bit of a free-for-all and it's only a matter of time before one of the group asks you those two classic psychology questions, debated by students of the subject for decades:

1)  If a tree falls in an uninhabited forest, does it make a noise?

and 2)  Isn't running round a track for 24 hours just really boring?

You answer 'No' to both.  Most people will agree with you on the first question, but not the second.  It's counter-intuitive to them, they can't have it - it must be boring!  There's only one way you're going to persuade these poor, piteous souls of the truth of the matter.  Yes, it's time to wheel out your big gun - anecdotal evidence.

Here's mine.....

Yay, it was back to the Bec for the 24 hour track race!  I'd been looking forward to this all year and now it had rolled around, get in!  I'd had an unusual preparation, not competing at all at any distance since last year's race, more by accident than design, yet I was feeling optimistic.  The LVSD (Long VERY Slow Distance - patent pending!) training had gone pretty well, I felt a bit stronger than 12 months ago after 14 weeks of Plodville, Arizona high mileage, exclusively on the roads, and I was in the right place mentally for the fray ahead.

My plan was a simple one, to repeat what worked for me last year, when I managed 122 miles for 5th place on my debut at the format - no hard targets, apart from somewhere around 35/36 miles at 6 hours in, let them all go early and relax, think flow and minimal effort, no getting at it at any stage in the first 12 hours, remember there are big changes late on, stay positive, hold my nerve, believe and come back strong.  I hoped to improve my total by sticking to 2 minute (or less) walk breaks each half hour for the whole thing, and was only planning to stop for the loo or to stick extra Vaseline on my feet, apart from that, Relentless Forward Motion was going to be the order of the day! 

My brother Matt was my So Solid Crew and we had a game plan of how we were going to roll with drinks etc., so we set up our table (I'd decided against the ironing board this year!) on the backstraight outfield on Saturday morning, in a happy, relaxed and positive mood.  The weather was mild, no rain was forecast, we were set fair.  Game on! 

Roz Glover arrived and started setting up close by, waiting for her support crew, Mimi Anderson, no less - class!  Next to us was Gyula Sarosi from Hungary - one of 16 countries represented in the 45-strong field.  On our other side was Barry Bradley, who I first met in a double marathon in Kent last year, and who very kindly got me a chair at the end of last year's 24 hours, when I was feeling mucho fainty!

Shankara giving us all the gen. (Photo: Runandbecome)
Race Director Shankara gave us the briefing at 11.15am, and then we met our first lap counters (I'd have 4 during the course of the event), mine was Balavan, just like last year.  I was feeling quite relaxed, but there was an air of anticipation around and, as time ticked down towards the 12-noon start time and I lined up well towards the back, I fancied there might be a burn-up from some parties early on.  I may be distantly related to Nostradamus, or at least Doris Stokes.  There was!

Burn-up about to commence - and they're off!  (Photo: Runandbecome)
Straight away Jonathon Errington reprised his fast start from last year, and Damo Taylor was also tanking along.  I found myself being lapped by these and plenty of others more or less straight away, but I was content sticking roughly to 10 minute miles on the outer edge of lane 1, and watching them all steam past on the inside!  I ensured I fell a bit further behind when I made myself walk for 90 seconds on the half hour, start as you mean to go on!  After an hour, when Shankara updated the leaderboard, I was 16th on 6 miles.  Considering I was 17th at the halfway point last year, I'd started plenty fast enough, just needed to forget about pace for a while and run easily on feel.

Early days, leaving space on the inside for the burn-up merchants! (Photo: Matt Smith)
Over the next couple of hours, I chatted with Dave Richards, a fellow 2014 competitor, Andrew Saville, who was in the same Kent race as Barry, and Jon Fielden, who I'd been told to look out for by a mutual friend.  Each of us were steady starters and we were all feeling quite chipper at this early stage.

First 4 hours, everyone's feeling chipper!  (Photo: Runandbecome)
4 hours in we had our first change of direction, clockwise now for the next 4, which was a relief to me.  My right hip (an overuse niggle which had started 3 weeks earlier) had been bothering me for a couple of hours, but stopped as soon as we turned, result!  Luckily, it wasn't to return for the rest of the race!  I had 24 miles on the board at this point, happy days, even pace, more or less where I wanted to be, Jon was right behind me, we were both already 6 miles behind Damo, who was flying!

Matt was doing a great job with the crewing.  We'd got a good little system going, I would tell him what I wanted apart from squash (gels, cheddars, malt loaf, yoghurt bars or salt tablets) a lap or two before my walk break, then he'd pass it to me as I started walking.  After 5 hours Matt told me I'd drunk 5 litres to that point.  That was good news, I was eating and drinking plenty early on, which I needed to - I knew I'd get less able to stomach things in the last quarter, but it wouldn't matter so much if I'd kept on top of the fuelling up to there.

In 2014 I broke the race down in my mind into 4 6 hour blocks, and I'd gone with that again.  6 hours came around and I was 12th on 36 miles, feeling pretty good, so all hunky dory, one quarter down, no dramas, still positive, still rolling.  Damo remained out front on 42 miles, but Graham O'Loughlin wasn't far behind him now in 2nd, followed by last year's first man Michal Masnik, Gyula Sarosi, Ali Young, Beth Pascall and Val Glavin.

Balavan, third left, me, furthest right - I may have just used my catchphrase!  (Photo: Runandbecome)
I got a new lap counter somewhere around this point, Dave, and I'm sure Balavan was relieved!  You can get a bit paranoid they haven't seen you and marked you down as you go past sometimes, and my catchphrase for the event could well have been 'Did you get me, (insert name of lap counter here!)?'  I hold my hands up to that one!  The lap counters do a great job.

Shankara updating the leaderboard after 7 hours.  (Photo: Runandbecome)
Not long after Shankara revised the 7 hour order, Graham was first through 50 miles in 7.15, a minute clear of Damo, who had run into trouble and would soon retire.  I was more than an hour behind them, but still plodding away ok.  Nathan Taylor and Chris Finill, both looking good earlier, would also encounter difficulty and withdraw before too long.  The race was beginning to change. 

Here are some things that happened over the next few hours.  I stopped for 4 minutes to recoat my feet in Vaseline, time well spent (no trying to chase it back, now!).  I had a chat on-track with the great William Sichel and the highly amusing Johnny Hallneby from Sweden, who both looked to be going ok.  I slightly alarmed the spectating James Adams, who I'd never met before, by blurting out as I ran past him, that his Twitter post about crapping outdoors was the funniest thing I'd read in ages.  The temperature dropped.  The floodlights came on.  I changed into a long-sleeved top and gloves.  And I slowed down.

I was sticking to the 90 second walk breaks, but could feel my run pace had eased and that was confirmed when the halfway mark arrived at midnight.  I was now on 69 miles, but was still making ground through the field, and had moved into 8th place.  At this point I was 6 miles ahead of my race last year, when I went 63/59 (funnily enough, 59 miles was the 4th highest back half total last year, which shows that for ordinary runners like myself, speed is immaterial, but strength over the second half is huge).  So I was happy with the way things were going and I thought I could hang on to the run/walk pattern for a while yet, and hopefully come back at least as strongly this year.  But it was still a long way home from here, so I knew I had to keep taking an hour at a time and stay in the present!

Graham remained in the lead at halfway on 77 miles, but was starting to come under pressure and would retire, leaving Michal as the third leader of the race, shortly after 2am.

Matt had played a blinder crewing and he filled up my drinks bottles on our table at 3am and went off for a well-earned kip.  Miranda took over my lap-counting duties from Dave.  Jon and Roz's crews were keeping us competitors entertained with trivia questions as we circled, both ones I could answer (Where was Martin Luther King assassinated?  Memphis, Tennessee.  Slamdunk!), and ones I couldn't (What is the capital of Croatia?  Errrrrmmm.  Don't dream!).

Matt made a quick return to trackside an hour later, he couldn't sleep!  I'd kept rolling ok, although my overall pace had dropped again to around 5 miles an hour.  The main thing was I was still in a good place up top.

Drama lay ahead as the leaders closed in on 100 miles.  Michal hit the milestone first in 16.26, with Ali and Beth now in 2nd and 3rd, within 12 minutes of him.  Val Glavin was 4th to the ton in 17.10, but she hit big trouble soon after and collapsed on the track.  An ambulance was called, but happily we heard later she was ok.

I passed 100 miles in 5th in 17.54, an hour and three quarters faster than 12 months earlier.  When Matt saw that, he started getting excited about 130 miles being possible for me.  I agreed it might be on if I could stick to the pace I was on all the way home and not cave. 

When they'd updated the 18 hour positions I was 4th, as Val was out, and we had another new race leader; Ali was now 1st, Beth 2nd and Michal had slipped to 3rd.  I could see Michal had started walking and he left the track for treatment a few minutes later.  The scores on the board said he was on 106 miles, with me on 100 and Gyula on 98.  I figured I could take back the 6 miles if Michal had to walk it in from here - first man might still be on!  Gyula had returned to the track after a break and must have done a similar calculation, as he soon started making ground on me, running strongly.

The sun came up halfway through the next hour and I grabbed some porridge from the brilliant Sri Chinmoy volunteers. At that moment, in my state of deep fatigue, and quite unexpectedly, this was possibly the loveliest food I have ever eaten in my life! Words can't describe how good it tasted!

Dawn has just broken, coming up to 5 hours to go.  (Photo: Runandbecome)
Michal didn't return to the track so, with 5 hours to go, Beth had become the 5th overall leader of the race on 113 miles, with Ali just behind, I was 3rd on 105 miles, and Gyula next on 104.  The front two were out of reach, but 130 was still feasible.  First though, there was a bit of a battle coming from behind!

Over the next hour Gyula tried to close and I responded - we spent the whole 60 minutes surging against each other.  Of course, when I say surging, I mean it in the context of the 20th hour of a 24 hour race - what that translates to is two men running through treacle slightly less slowly than they did during the 19th hour.  Gyula would overtake me and go half a lap up, then I'd reel him in inch by inch and go clear myself, then he'd come chugging back past, get the picture! 

Are we suiciders?  (Photo: Runandbecome)
After we'd played the hour out doing this, I caught him up for the umpteenth time and thought I'd run with him for a bit.  We looked at each other and laughed.  'Are we suiciders?' Gyula asked me, 'We still have 4 hours left.'  'Yes', I said, 'it's going to be 4 hours of hell!'  We both laughed again.  The laughter of the mad by choice! 

Gyula then left the track to get changed and I gained a couple of laps - I kept tabs on him when he returned.  And gradually, the final few hours ticked down. 

Matt kept trying to get me to drink small amounts, though I was getting less keen to, particularly as I was feeling light-headed every time I stopped.  I was also getting a bit warm as the morning temperature rose, so we performed a moving t-shirt swap, which was a wonder of logistics!  At the sharp end, Beth had asserted and forged well clear, and Ali had changed into flip-flops to walk out her last couple of hours!  I'd run through a few scheduled walk breaks to establish a comfortable cushion over Gyula.  The first 4 positions looked settled with 60 minutes left.

Inside the last hour  (Photo: Matt Smith)
In the last hour I hooked up with Johnny Hallneby - we were in good spirits, the end was in sight.  I told him about my battle with Gyula, and he said he was keeping a similar eye on Adriano Scaglione, who was duelling with him for 6th (eventually this would come down to a sprint finish, you couldn't make it up!).  With half an hour left, I checked my mileage with my final lap counter, Nandante, and she told me I was over 128 miles.  I was running very slowly, but the 130 was in the bag - beautiful!

I plodded out the remaining time, Matt joining me for my last couple of minutes.  The hooter went, Matt dropped my numbered marker for the part-lap measurement, and we were done.  I immediately felt a bit faint-tastic when I stopped, so had my traditional 10 minute sit-down, then I was ok.

The final standings  (Photo: Matt Smith)
Beth had won with an amazing 143 miles, all bar a few yards, Ali had run a great race in 2nd, ending on 135, and I'd come 3rd on 131.  I'd done 9 miles more than last year, improved in both halves of the race and learned a bit more about the event - happy days!

At the prizegiving with Devashishu  (Photo:Runandbecome)
There were 33 of us left on the track at the end and everyone got a trophy or memento at the prizegiving, which was a lovely way of rounding things off, and quite emotional.  The shared experience aspect of this event is difficult to convey, but it is more powerful than in any other race I've done since I started in cross-country as a kid.  Maybe it's because it all unfolds over that 400 metre space and you see everyone else's triumphs and disasters, or perhaps because you never get marooned alone during the rough patches in a way that can happen in other ultras.  Most likely it is due to the happy energy the volunteers give out to the runners, all the way through the 24 hours.  Whatever the reasons, that side of this event is a little bit magical.

I particularly liked the races run by Natasha Farid and Jon Fielden.  Neither of them came away with what they were looking for at the start, but both adapted to adversity early in their races and battled away in a good-humoured way for a long time, to bring home results that will hopefully pay them back in future.  Both very impressive.

Thanks from me to Matt, you were fantastic, bruv!  And a massive thank you to Shankara, Devashishu, Tarit, and all the lap counters and volunteers - the affection we competitors have for the event is testament to your enthusiasm and professionalism - you did us proud!

So no, not boring at all! 

45 people turn up to run round a track for 24 hours.  Admittedly, it doesn't sound a very attractive proposition.  But if you're thinking of having a go, I'd encourage you.  I don't think you'll find it boring.  You may well find it brutal but, if you play the cards you have patiently and well, you'll most likely find it joyful.  Either way, you'll remember it.

Finally, thanks to my fellow 2015 competitors - I salute you all!  What a blast it was!  We shared something which was greater than the sum of its parts - I'll treasure the memory.

Same time next year?

Official Results Page


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