This article originally featured in issue #1 of Like the Wind Magazine.
When I said I was going to run a 24-hour race, the reaction of most non-runners was: “Why would you want to do that?” Some runners understood, but when I added the words “round a one-kilometre loop”, even they tended to recoil in horror.
I fully appreciate that a lot of us run to see beautiful countryside and experience a variety of environments, enjoying the distractions they offer. Granted, there’s not a lot of that on a one-kilometre loop around a park. Some people run to see how fast they can go. Again, this isn’t going to come into it during a 24-hour race. It’s not always the fastest who prevail here; it’s those who can just keep on running who succeed. There was one simple reason I entered a 24-hour race around a park: I wanted to see how far I could run in 24 hours. I’d had reasonable success on a couple of 24-hour races around a 10k, undulating, off-road loop and I had a nagging thought that I wanted to find out just how far I could go in slightly more forgiving conditions.
I’m never going to be the fastest runner out there, but I seem to have some kind of aptitude for running a long way. I honestly don’t think that this has anything to do with my physical make-up. I don’t have a particularly high threshold for boredom and I don’t have military levels of self-discipline. What I do have is a horribly stubborn streak and a dislike of letting people down. I love a challenge and when I say I’m going to do something I’ll give it my best, for my own sense of achievement and to try to make others proud of me. There’s definitely a bit of an addiction going on too.
Every time you extend your longest run, you reset your preconceptions of your capabilities. You run a half marathon, then move on to marathons, then you start dabbling in ultras and you realise that your limits aren’t where you thought they were. Your legs still hurt and you still get tired and hungry, but you possess the comforting knowledge that you can keep going, that it won’t actually get much worse and – most importantly for me – that there will be highs and lows. You know there will be rough patches, but you also know that you will come out of them and, at some point, this whole thing will end.
Armed with this knowledge, 24-hour races around a short loop don’t seem so daunting. They are, however, a rollercoaster of experiences and emotions. It feels like a whole series of races. The first hours fly by – a marathon, 50km… it all feels fairly easy at your nice, slower-than-normal pace. Then it starts to bite: there’s still a very long way to go. This is when the mental toughness kicks in, because your body will be begging you to stop. Push on through this rough patch and by now it’s probably dark. Now you face a different sort of challenge as your body is telling you to go to sleep. (This is the toughest part for me, but I know that if I can get through the tiredness, I’ll get that second – or maybe third, fourth or fifth, by this point – wind.) When the sun comes up, it lifts your spirits with it. The sunrise means you’ve got through the night, the end is in sight and supporters will be around again. It means you’ve very nearly done it and, at moments like this, you find new energy that has been hidden beneath all that tiredness. You go through more emotions than you normally manage in a month, but you know that it will all end in total and utter elation. Not only that; in running for 24 hours you will have achieved something massive.
Chasing this feeling is what keeps me going. Maybe it’s the addiction thing again.
People ask what I think about to get through the monotony, but really it’s a case of what I don’t think about. Rule number one for me is never, ever to think about how much further there is to go. If I do, my brain can’t cope with the enormity of it. Other things not to think about include: quitting, sitting down, whether that’s a bit of grit in your sock or a lost toenail, what walking will feel like tomorrow and how nice it would be to sleep. I think about that next lap; when to get food and drink; if I keep going at this pace, how far can I go in 24 hours? I do the maths on how far behind me the next- placed woman is and whether she can catch me. I think about how proud I’ll be when I finish, and if any negative thoughts invade my brain I just try to kick them to the kerb. It’s a good experience to stay in the moment, run the lap you are on as best you can and try to empty your head of any other noise. I wish I could do this more in life.
I actually found a lot of comfort in one-kilometre laps. I was never far from food, drink and support and while, in a 24-hour race with longer loops, there’s a decision to be made every lap about whether you’re going for another, when it’s only 1km there’s no question until the very last bit. My race also assigned a human lap counter to the runners and it was a huge boost to have them encourage me on every lap. There was also a webcam and I knew that people would be watching at home – and possibly worrying if they didn’t see me for a while.
I’ve done several races where I’ve run for 20+ hours, but they’ve generally been in incredibly beautiful places and they’ve taken me on a journey from A to B – sometimes between countries and over mountains. I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in that. A 24-hour race around a 1km loop is an entirely different kind of challenge: one that tests your mental strength, your powers of concentration, your ability to silence the negative thoughts and keep on going when there’s an opportunity to drop out roughly every five minutes.
So I guess not only did I want to see how far I could run; I also wanted to test my psychological limits in a different way.
And sure enough, they weren’t where I thought they were.