A good ultramarathon race report is anchored by dramatic changes in the terrain or scenery; epic hill climbs; joyous arrivals at remote checkpoints…you know the drill. So what about a 24-Hour track race? Where’s the drama? Where, indeed, is the interest?
The 2014 AURA Australian 24 Hour Championships, hosted again by the Coburg Harriers Athletics Club in Victoria, was my first track event of any kind (in fact, walking across the track to set up my table next to Lane 1 was the first time I’ve ever set foot on a running track). It was also my first event longer than 100km and my first non-trail Ultra. I wasn’t alone in this – there were a few of us ‘trail bunnies’ who chose this event to step far beyond our comfort zones, you could spot us easily at the start: wide-eyed and blinking in the headlights of the oncoming train that was this race, as though it had only just occurred to us all that we were really going to try running/walking continuously on a flat surface all day and all night.
Now, ultramarathon runners are famously friendly folk, but one of the first things that struck me – even in the pre-race setup – was just how much more evident this was in a track event. And later, as the hours ground away, the reasons for this became ever more obvious. I found my support table consortium – consisting of David Overend (member of the winning team of all four Aussie Oxfam Trailwalker events in 2013), Jodie Oborne (2nd placegetter in the 2013 100km championships), Rob Knowles (24 hour barefoot world record holder), and myself (middle-of-pack pleb) – was bordered by another runner’s support crew of one, being well known campaigner Phil Essam, who apologised for his proximity and politely asked if he could shelter under our marquee in the event of rain. Phil was one of many ex-strangers to encourage me during the race – small gestures that add up to a big impact on outcome.
The camaraderie on the track itself began right from the start and carried on all the way through, surviving beyond the point where it had become largely non-verbal, after 16 or 17 hours – through the subtlest of gestures and nods – and then back into the very audible excitement of the last few hours. Because, of course, contrary to trail ultras, in which you may spend long periods with one or two people but almost always spend much longer periods in the absolute solitude of nature *sigh*, track events put all competitors within a very narrow time and space window throughout the duration.
Apart from being occasionally surprised by the appearance of competitors I hadn’t seen in what felt like hours, who I guess must have been in lock-step not far behind me for long periods (or had perhaps been trackside getting rest/massages), I otherwise was either regularly changing places with people, due to alterations in pace, breaks and fuelling etc, or was regularly being lapped by the faster runners. In other words, some form of relationship was created between every participant in the field. The practice of including names on race bibs proves invaluable in a race like this – people used the names and it helped reinforce the growing sense of familiarity. This meant that over-politeness or timidity could be bypassed, allowing, for example, the open acknowledgement of someone else’s weak moment, calling it out, and assuring them it would pass.
Personally, luck was against me in this race. My strategy was a game of two uneven halves. The primary goal was to cover the first 100km in the first eleven hours – only walking one lap in an hour, and not running slower than 6 minute kilometres – after which walking would then feature more regularly and running pace would slacken slightly (a 5:1 run-walk ratio, with the runs creeping above 6m30s pace). That first 100kms should have been achievable with a feeling of relative freshness, leaving me open to possibilities in terms of overall outcome, where my target was anywhere between 100 miles (160.9kms) and 200kms.
Instead, while trucking along at ease, I was suddenly hit in the 5th hour by a severe burning pain in my lower, right abdomen – not the type you can ignore and keep running through, the debilitating type. This is an issue I’ve had before, although it has become less and less expected, and I thought these days I could reliably manage it through slowing pace and either running or, worst case walking it out, for anywhere between ten minutes and half-an-hour. However, it soon became apparent that it wasn’t going away in a hurry. Walking did make the pain go away, but repeated attempts to start running again, even at snail’s pace, immediately brought it back. This went on for over three hours, in which time I must have recorded very few laps, especially as I stopped a number of times to see if complete stillness helped. There was plenty of support at the track during this time, with my parents-in-law and my Osteo on hand, which, despite making me feel embarrassed about my poor performance, definitely helped to keep me determined. A good friend and colleague, Sam, also turned up and walked around with me for a chat – a welcome distraction from the pain.
Eventually, very gradually, I found I could ‘run’ with very controlled breathing at a pace slower than 7m30s, and I very carefully got into this rhythm, to at least get my lap-rate back up a bit. I expected that I would now gradually increase my pace, but was continually disappointed to find that even getting below 7-minutes per kilometre brought back twinges of the pain. All the same, ever so gradually my pace was becoming at least somewhat effective. My wife, Rachel arrived before 9pm with soup, as promised, a huge boost to my spirits and my calorie intake, which was behind where it should be due to a sudden aversion to the Hammer Perpetuum that has been so successful for me in other races (attempting a more dilute concentration than previously used was not wise without prior experimentation). I changed to a looser pair of the Saucony Hattoris that were destroying my toes, and carried on towards that ever later 100kms. It can’t have been long after Rachel left that I noticed a pain on the inside of my left ankle. Not overly concerned, I figured it was one of those niggles that time and distance would work out. However, it quite rapidly got worse, to the point where I knew it wasn’t wise to keep running on it…and I suspected that physically I perhaps couldn’t have kept running on it if I tried.
I decided that once that elusive 250th lap was counted (100kms), my only option would be to walk out the remaining time on the clock, to achieve whatever outcome that amounted to. I started on the mental arithmetic. On averages, a fast walk should still make 100 miles a possibility (in about 11.5 hours), but it required absolute consistency and a highly disciplined approach to stoppages. My reasoning told me this was doable, though, as I would surely need less fuel and drink if I was only walking. I worked out that 13-14 laps an hour was enough to do it. That supported a 5kph-6kph walking pace – my normal walking pace – with one slow lap per hour in which I would quickly grab a snack and a drink. On lap 251 I changed shoes into the wide toebox and slightly more robust sole of the Merrell Flux Gloves – great walkers – and I began to stride it out.
By this time I had fallen from 17th to 22nd on the leaderboard. However, through that long night, with my resolve hardened on the new strategy, I grimly stayed the course. Watching the Garmin Fenix on my wrist, I never let my pace fall below 10 minutes per kilometre, and a lot of the time it was below 9 minutes. I hardly stopped. Gradually, attrition, the late hour and the pre-dawn cold and damp began to make my steady walking pace feel relatively fast compared to some of the other participants, as their walking/running ratios became more haphazard, and their stoppages more frequent. The early hours’ cold and dew was a bit of an issue for me too, especially as I was unable to find the rain-shell I was sure I had packed (it later turned up safe and sound in my commuting bag at home!), but an improvised face mask using a golf towel kept my ears warm and face dry enough to push on through.
The constant, unchanging, round-and-round never really bothered me as much as I had expected. On each lap, various milestones were a welcome acknowledgement of progress: a random guy from someone else’s support crew who almost never failed to make some supportive comment, despite the repetitive nature of my appearance; the progressively tireder-looking but admirably constant visage of Brett Saxon, managing the timing gantry he supplied through his Trails+ venture; the words of encouragement from quasi-teammate David Overend each time he overtook me on his way to a robust debut of 215kms. I was sad to see a couple of the competitors I had interest in fall by the wayside – Sam Weir, who I had met in the pre-race scans for the Monash Unversity study we both participated in was reduced by a lower leg injury from running with the leading pack to a painful-looking hobble. Rob Knowles, after demonstrating a shining example of running form, failed to break his own world barefoot record – I never learned what issues had plagued him.
Before dawn a fresh face suddenly appeared trackside, out of the darkness – my frequent trail-running companion and Oxfam team member Ben, who commenced fast-walking laps with me and chatting away. His characteristic positivity and humour had an instant effect on me, and my growing excitement at the prospect that I might achieve at least the low end of my target reflected his usual buoyancy.
By first light I had clawed back four spots on the leaderboard, to 18th place, and my lap count was bang on where it needed to be for the 100 miles. However, there were still a few hours to go, and pretty much zero contingency (I worked out that if I could maintain 14 laps per hour up to the last hour, I would only need 12 laps in the final hour – that was the only leeway in my strategy). Amid the increasing excitement and late bursts of speed around me, I had to remain focused and constant. I did try a couple of times to break into a jog, but this was clearly not an option, as my legs had adapted to that unremitting fast walk to the extent they could now do nothing else.
In the last hour I spotted in the centre of the track the full contingent of my family. This meant that my wife had managed to get all three kids down after all, along with my mother and father, who had arrived the day before on a visit from England. I was overjoyed to see them all and waved madly from across the track. They handed me a takeaway coffee and a hot-cross bun, both of which I managed without dropping too much pace. I was beginning to feel elated, as my family took it in turns to walk laps with me, and pre-emptively congratulated me. I passed the timing gantry to record my 402nd lap (about 100 miles), and pumped my fists in joy, as Ben snapped a pic of me. There was only time for another couple of laps before the gun went and I dropped the sandbag with my name on it. I had done it…just!
A few minutes after stopping my legs gave up the ghost almost completely – I could barely walk for a couple of days. I perched on a fencepost in the carpark and enjoyed a cold bottle of Asahi at nine in the morning, before hobbling into the clubroom for the presentations, where I was amazed to find that finisher’s medals were handed out (not something I expected in this type of event). Seeing Barry Loveday receive his trophy for First was almost as satisfying as seeing him pass me at speed countless times over the last day and night – his result of 265kms was a material improvement on the last near-record to play second-fiddle to the legendary Yannis Kouros’ >300kms longstanding Australian record.
For my own part, I went home reasonably content that I had squeezed out an outcome from what was really a bit of a disaster. The challenge of this race was always going to be mental, and I felt I had more than stepped up to that, overcoming the negatives and avoiding any descents into despair. Credit for this must largely go to my supporters and the other people present at the event, who created such a positive environment. This was originally going to be a once-off attempt at a 24 Hour track race, but what I learnt was that on a less unlucky day the ideal goal of 200kms is in fact very achievable for me, so it looks like I will be returning to Coburg, probably next year, chasing those 500 laps.