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Chasing 100 miles
In September 2021 I returned to the Self-Transcendence 24-Hour Track Race, unprepared but with high hopes
I went back.
After the emotion, drama and transcendence of my first attempt at a 24-hour track race (see my book The Rise of the Ultra Runners), I’d had a slight itch to go back and try again. I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen, but then about six weeks ago an event I had planned got cancelled and I realised the weekend of the 24-hour race was free. I was already building up my training (but only to around 50 miles a week!) for my big running challenge next year, and so I thought … why not?
Memories of pain diminish. What I most recalled from last time was the wonderful atmosphere, the intensity of the experience, and the overwhelming feeling of camaraderie and tenderness, compassion - it’s hard to put the right word on it - between the runners, their support crews and the wonderful Sri Chinmoy organisers.
I also wanted to beat my distance of 89 miles. I felt I had given in to my mind last time, and had spent a lot of the race in a deep funk, complaining about this and that and struggling to even walk. Surely I could master that negativity this time?
It all looks so easy on paper. People tell me 100 miles is the benchmark of a decent 24-hour performance (decent, not great!). When you break it down, that’s only an average of 14 minutes per mile (or just under nine minutes per kilometre). That’s slow, right? I must be able to do that, you think. Until, that is, you’ve been running around a track for 10 hours and it’s dark, and every muscle aches like it is being slowly squeezed to death by some torture device, and you still have 14 hours to go.
Add to that the fact that it was blisteringly hot for the first four hours of this year’s race, and I felt like I had minor heat stroke, and I couldn’t eat anything solid for the rest of the race - food is crucial to keeping your energy up.
As the hours ticked by I started to make calculations in my head. I hadn’t set out with a pace plan. I had just trusted that if I got into my zone and kept running, I’d make it to 100 miles. I felt that as long as I kept my head together, then I’d do it.
But around 17 hours in I could feel it slipping away. I was just about making four miles per hour at that point. Some hours were better than others, as I rode the moments of doubt, just about managing to stop myself tipping over the edge of the cliff. I could see other people gone. Just like me last time, they had their jackets on and were making their way around at a painful shuffle. Others were lapping like machines, incessantly strong, passing me again and again. How were they doing it? It seemed impossible to be that focussed, that physically capable after so many hours.
I had moments of uplift too. Out of nowhere I adopted a mantra: “I feel no pain. I feel only joy.” It sounds cheesy now, perhaps, but in the heat of the moment, it was incredibly powerful. I’d look up at the city skyline and repeat it over and over, and the pain went. It really did. And for a few laps - sometimes even four or five laps - I’d feel almost euphoric. I was still only shuffling along, but I was running.
But each time it would only last so long before I ground down again, and the pain returned.
The long, chilly night
At 17 hours I realised I would have to average over four miles an hour to get to 100 miles. That seemed impossible. My pace was slowing, not picking it up. “When the sun comes up you’ll feel better,” people were telling me. I honestly couldn’t see how a bit more light could affect the pain in my body. The lap counters were encouraging me. One in particular, after about 18 miles, told me: “The 100 is on.” He had such a nice smile, so much enthusiasm, that I felt bad telling him I didn’t think so. “You can do it,” he said.
But I couldn’t. Four miles an hour felt impossible. I was stopping now and then to sit down. I felt I had to. I kept asking my daughter to put a timer on for five minutes so I didn’t get stuck there. But then I’d go to the bathroom, and then stop to pick up a drink or two. It left the actually running time at more like 45 minutes per hour. I was going to beat my distance from last time, but 100 miles just wasn’t going to happen.
And then, at 20 hours, it happened. I had my moment of transcendence. I had begun to rationalise how 98 or 99 miles was quite a cool result. A nice number. I felt bad about the lap counters’ misplaced optimism, but you can only do what you can do. (Later, Marietta told me that they had never doubted for a moment that I would do it. Which is quite incredible, because I had completely written it off at that stage.)
The dawn had indeed lifted my spirits slightly, but what really changed at 20 hours is that I realised I had 16 miles to run. Not four hours. Four hours felt overwhelming. But 16 miles? I ran that sort of distance all the time. I could smash that out in less than four hours. In fact, if I really went for it, I wouldn’t even have to run for 24 hours. If I did it in three hours, I could walk the last hour in blissful satisfaction.
And so I went for it. I caught a glimpse of the finish in the distance and I started chasing it. And as I did, I got a huge surge of energy. “Yes, looking strong,” said the lap counters, knowingly. You could tell they had fully invested in me making it to 100 miles. They were fully on my side.
I started overtaking people. The race leader came by and I ran with him, stride for stride, for four laps until he peeled off for some food. I was on the charge. My kind, gentle mantra from the night was gone and I was all pumped up energy now, “you’ve got this, you’re a runner, stop messing about and let’s get this done”. Stuff like that, but with lots of added expletives to make sure I got the message. I was even slapping my legs and fist pumping to the imaginary crowds.
I ran over 10km in that next hour, and suddenly the 100 miles was not only in sight, but I could hear the music and smell the post race food being prepared. I now had nine miles in three hours. But I kept pushing, willing myself on. The last few miles were so painfully drawn out and my body juddered and creaked. Perhaps I had overdone it a little, but I was going to make it.
At just past 23 hours they told me I had one lap to go. They all rushed over to mark the exact 100-mile point, cheering as I went by. I had bloody well done it.
I felt elated. I had actually done it. However, the race still had almost an hour to go. I sat down for a few moments. When I got up, I could barely stand. I didn’t need to stand, I had run 100 miles. The will to keep going had gone. I was done.
My Dad had turned up, and he managed to coax me into a few painful laps, walking with me slowly. And I’m glad he did, as it meant I was still going, just about, when the final five minutes came.
This is the most incredible moment of the race. All the family and friends get to run the last five minutes with their runners. The whole place is an emotional celebration. I hobbled around, clapping and cheering those still running, hugging Marietta and Lila who had sat there with me for 24 hours attending to my every need, encouraging me through that long, chilly night. I was in tears at their kindness.
After we stopped, I hugged everyone in sight. I felt like I loved them all right then. This was what this race does to you, and for that alone it is worth the pain.
I did it!
It’s Monday morning now and I’m still tired and aching, so hopefully this report makes some sense. I will expand on it and fill it out and post a fuller version on here as soon as I can as there were lots of other stories to tell.
But for now, I’ll sign off by saying thank you to everyone who ran the race with me, all their support crews and the wonderful Sri Chinmoy team who make the race so unique with their calm, efficient and loving organisation.