Lets get this straight, running around an athletics track for 24 hours is not my idea of fun, in fact, its the stuff of nightmares. Race week I found myself waking up in the middle of the night stressing. It was the early hours of the morning and I could see myself trudging round and round in circles in the pissing rain, I was cold, miserable, and I was going insane with boredom. How the hell was I going to manage it?
I don’t have a great history with these kind of events, the last time I set foot on an athletics track was back in November 2013 when I attempted a 6 hour race. Running in circles wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined, it really hurt, and aside from that I was bored out of my brain. It probably didn’t help that I’d drunk 1.5 bottles of wine the night before and ended up puking. In the end the misery was just too much, I bailed at marathon distance after 4 hours and 20 minutes, swearing I’d never attempt another track race ever again.
So why did I enter?
Basically I wanted a Spartathlon qualifier.
To be eligible to enter the lottery for a place I needed to either, run a 100 mile race in under 22 hours or cover 170km (105.6 miles) in a 24hr race.
This needed to be done early enough in the year to give myself enough time to recover and then train for UTMB. Ideally I’d have attempted this at TP100 but I was too slow off the mark and the race sold out before I could enter. Crawley it was then.
I seem to do better at flat stuff, I had a strong run at TP100 in 2016 finishing as 4th lady in 21hrs 42mins. This had included a few bonus miles, tantrums and cow related incidents, so with the navigation and cows out of the equation (surely even I couldn’t get lost on a track?) I was quite confident in my ability to run the 105.6 miles. I know nothing is a given in long races but I honestly thought it would be pretty straightforward……. and it probably would have been had I not got ill.
The race I nearly never started
At the beginning of February my fitness was at an all time low, I could only run one mile at 8:30 minute mile, my old marathon pace, and following my DNF at the Arc of Attrition my confidence was in tatters. I had 8 weeks until Crawley but I just couldn’t see myself getting fit enough to get the qualifier, and I wasn’t prepared to spend 24 hours trudging round a track for nothing. I decided this one would be a DNS. Trying and failing to get fit for the Arc was so mentally draining and upsetting that I just couldn’t bear to put myself through it all again…. but, I don’t like to quit and eventually I came to the conclusion that giving up without trying would be even more depressing than failing. Crawley was back on.
Blood tests the week of the Arc had shown my hormone levels were back within the reference range but my energy levels were still low and I was still sleeping at least 11 hours a night. Training would be limited by this so I knew I needed focused approach if I wanted to be race fit in 7 weeks. For that reason I decided to enlist the help of a coach, fellow Likey’s ambassador Sarah Sawyer was an obvious first choice, she has progressed over the years into an incredible athlete and from following her training on Strava, I knew she’d set me an interesting and challenging plan.
7 weeks to get fit…….
During this time I had another increase in Levothyroxine which always makes me feel worse for a couple of weeks. This meant my weekly mileage totals were low at 29m, 42m, 43m, 50m, 55m, 50m and 32m but we focused on quality and consistency rather than quantity. There were speed sessions each week and lots of running laps to get me used to dealing with the boredom, which I actually ended up enjoying! By the end of my seven week training block I was able to run 6 miles at my old 8:30 minute mile marathon pace and was starting to feel real improvements in my fitness levels. I wasn’t sure it was enough for the qualifier but spurred on by my recent failures I knew I’d give it my best shot.
Basically start at 10:30 pace, run for 55 minutes then walk for 5 minutes while eating, repeat for 24 hours. I wanted to hang on to this for as long as possible but realistically knew I’d have to drop down to a 25 minute run, 5 minute walk at some point. It was all rather fluid though, I’d made the mistake of overthinking things at the Arc and didn’t want to make the same mistake here. Even though I’d set the bar low at the Arc, i.e the slowest times needed to make the cut offs, when I fell behind schedule my head imploded and I quit before I was even timed out. Luckily I’d started my new job the week before the race and was so preoccupied with that I didn’t have the time to sit around obsessing over paces/times. In fact, I was so disorganised I was still packing/faffing with kit at 9pm the night before the race.
For some strange reason Chris couldn’t be talked into crewing for the whole of this one, I did however manage to convince him that Crawley would be a good place to take his daughter for the weekend and found a Go Ape nearby to keep them occupied. We arrived with plenty of time before the midday start so I set up my table at the side of the track with hopefully everything I’d need for the next 24 hours.
The tortoise and the hare race strategy
The 24 hour race set off with the 6 hour race so the pace upfront was fast. I’d been lapped by the race leaders Dan Lawson and Paul Ali before I’d even finished my second lap! It would have been easy to get swept along faster than I’d have liked so made a real effort to stick to my plan. I find long races a bit like The tortoise and the Hare, I’m clearly no hare and my slow and consistent chugging means I’m always at the back at the start but that’s fine by me. My patience usually pays off and I tend to make up places towards the end. After the first hour of chugging away nicely the tortoise was right at the back as expected and in 25th place.
I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but at no point in the race did I ever feel completely bored! There was a great sense of camaraderie between the runners and seeing the 6hr and 12hr races unfold and then finish was great to watch, there really were some phenomenal performances on the track that day and it inspired me to keep going.
I put my iPod on after 6 hours and just got on with it. I think I’d accepted my fate for the 24 hours that lay ahead so instead of whinging about it I focused on the small things, a 5 minute walk break every hour and then changing directions every 4 hours were things I really looked forward to. Watching the seagull stealing a packet of Roz’s mini cheddars before pecking them open and eating them was one of the most exciting things I witnessed my entire race!
I’m not going to describe every detail of my race, but essentially I continued to move up the leader board. I went through 50 miles in around 9hrs 15mins and 100 miles in a new PB time of around 20hrs 20mins. By this time I was pretty much broken so walked another 10 miles to make sure I got my Spartathlon qualifier and had enough miles banked to finish as third lady and 5th overall! I didn’t complete the full 24 hours but I was happy to have achieved what I’d set out to do and to go home with a trophy was the icing on the cake.
What went wrong
Don’t get me wrong, I’m over the moon with my result but many things derailed my 55 minute run, 5 minute walk plan. I’m sure without these issues then I’d have completed well over 110 miles but I did the best I could given the circumstances and managed to avoid any meltdowns.
- Nutrition – I’ve been following a gluten free diet since Christmas as its supposed to help thyroid problems. In everyday life this is fine, in races I’ve found out its not. The cheese and ketchup sandwiches that have always fueled me so well in ultras when made with gluten free bread just don’t work. Aside from being dry and disgusting they just don’t give me the same energy. I ate mainly Nakd bars however these upset my stomach so badly that even immodium didn’t help. I wasted a ridiculous amount of time going in and out of the toilet before eventually giving up and surviving mainly on water from mile 80. By morning I felt so awful I relented and ate some porridge which probably contained gluten but I felt like I was going to pass out without some real food.
- Palpitations – A side effect of my thyroid problems which aren’t very pleasant and reduced me to a walk every time I had an episode.
- Old injuries – If you’ve got any slight issues then running in circles for 24 hours will seek them out and magnify them. I’d pretty much forgotten about my old ITB issues but after 6 hours I started to feel that all too familiar stabbing pain in the side of my right knee. I stopped to tape it and it seemed to help but on changing directions at 8 hours it started in my left knee. Again I stopped to tape it but it was there annoying me for the rest of the race. I also had issues with my left hamstring which basically tightened up so much it ended my race. I kept stopping to roll it out which helped for a short while but it eventually tightened up so much that it reduced me to a shuffle.
- Getting cold – It started raining at about 8pm and continued all night and through to the finish at midday. Those nights I’d woke up dreaming about the race weren’t nightmares, they were in fact premonitions! The rain was fine when I was able to run, but after 100 miles I was mainly walking and despite wearing every item of clothing I had with me I couldn’t get warm. I stopped every couple of laps and drank hot sweet tea but I reached a point at 23 hours where I just needed to stop so called it a day.
I’m not going to lie, I’m absolutely over the moon with this result. Its been just over a year since I started feeling ill and finally I feel like I’m getting myself back on track. The last few months have been really tough, I’d started to believe that I’d never be able to do the things I used to and so many times I felt like giving up. I’m glad I persevered though, it was worth it in the end.
Will I do another 24 hour event?
I can’t believe I’m saying this but yes! I know I can do much better than this so I’ll have to go back and give it another go one day!
To Pam Storey and her volunteers for putting on a brilliant race.
The other runners for their support, camaraderie and making it more fun than I’d expected.
Lindley and Maxine for looking after me in the medical tent.
Chris and Rosie for coming with me and popping back to support every few hours.
Sarah Sawyer for her fantastic coaching and getting me back on track.
Likeys for their ongoing support