Why on earth does anyone choose to spend a day running round and round a 400m track?
I am not sure that I have an answer to this question, maybe it is a strange type of self flagellation, or perhaps there is more to it than that. This format of race is perhaps ultrarunning in it’s purest form, there is no need to navigate, no need to stop to open gates or negotiate stiles on tired legs, and you have access to fuel every 400m, as well as crew to encourage, reassure, and moan at throughout, hence surely then can be no excuses. This is a pure test of how far mind and body can carry you in 24hrs, in fact it may be more accurate to say it is much more of a test of the mind than the body.
Earlier in the year at Crawley 24hr I had learned a lot of things about this format of racing and was keen to give it another go. At Crawley I stopped after 18hrs and 20 minutes having covered 101 miles, but I had wanted to stop a lot earlier. I was not physically or mentally ready to tackle this type of race in July and if the truth is told I should not even have toed the start line. Hindsight is a wonderful thing though and I was in a much better place this time around.
For the last 18 months I had struggled with injury, experiencing several false comebacks and subsequent recurrences of my issues. However with a few tweaks to my training, I had had a great 8 week build up to Gloucester. I had balanced running with gym work, worked a lot on strength and conditioning and had also made the necessary changes to my diet to ensure that I came into the event in the best shape possible. I would have liked to have done more, and if you were to ask me how far off peak fitness I thought I was then I would say I was operating around 80% of my potential. I was happy with that because I was injury free, feeling healthy and mentally ready to tackle the challenge. Surely this would go better than Crawley….
I was looking forward to the event, but was also a touch nervous of running in a field of so many experienced ultra runners. The line up was a who’s who of 24hr ultra running with some superb male and female athletes who were capable of huge distances. It had been almost two years since I had ‘raced’ properly and I knew I wasn’t in peak shape, however it was nice to not feel any pressure. I didn’t expect to be anywhere near the sharp end of this event and that suited me fine. I just wanted to do my own thing and see what happened, oh and ideally not come last.
Having a race plan and executing it should be simple on a track as you can can control so many of the variables, however there are one or two that you can’t control and these have an impact on both the runner and the crew. The main one is that there is nowhere to hide on the track (unless you nip in the Portaloo). You see your crew, and they see you every lap. You can closely watch what other runners are doing, how often they are fueling, how often they are walking, are they having a strong patch?, or are they struggling? and conversely they can see what you are doing… This messed with my mind at Crawley so I was ready for it here. Although as Chris and I started unpacking our supplies onto the table I couldn’t help but look around at all the stuff the crews around us had… I started to think I hadn’t bought enough food, and all the food I had was wrong. I decided to distract myself by running a couple of warm up laps round the track, earlier I had laughed at Norbert and Gergely who also warmed up, but maybe they were trying to escape this food envy themselves. Chris joined me and wanted to chat, but I just needed to be quiet and to focus on what was to come.
We were lucky as due to the small field of runners all the crews had tables under gazebo’s on the home straight, and this was testament to the efforts of the organisers to put on a race where people could achieve big distances, no stone was left unturned. There were also flags draped from each table, giving this race a real ‘world champs’ style feeling. I was paired on a table with Gareth Pritchard, with Samantha Amend and Jo Newens next to us. I was certainly in good company and our crews were to bond with some great banter throughout the course of the race. Chris and I had discussed a strategy for fueling me during the race, and also the importance to not over crew me. He was to let me just get on with things for the first few hours and try and limit contact to just passing me some food and drink every hour.
It wasn’t long before we were being given the race briefing by RD Paul Katsiva-Corderoy, and then lining up at the start. The clock ticked down to 10am and we were off…. at the most sedentary pace you can imagine. It was like starting a race with the handbrake on… the legs were fresh but it is so important at these events to adopt the strategy of the tortoise rather than the hare. If you have never seen the start of a 24hr track race then I can assure you it is one of the funniest moments of the whole event, all these great athletes capable of running pretty swiftly almost crawling away from the line at what surely must be an uncomfortable pace. A few athletes with lofty goals started pulling away from those of us who were just interested in survival, and it took a good few laps for everyone to settle down into their pace.
I found myself running these early laps with Jennifer Wood, as we re-acquainted ourselves from Crawley 24hr. Jen had run a storming 12hr race at Crawley and was looking to take that big step further here. It was great to catch up as we chatted about race strategy, family support, and had a good bit of banter. It also ensured that neither of us went off like lunatics chasing down the rabbits. In fact I was feeling positive at how long it had taken the leaders to catch us and lap us. Norbert Mihalik and Michelle White had gone off strong, and they were followed by Tristan Stephenson and Sam Amend. As they lapped us the first time I was almost dragged along with them, but I checked my pace and stayed with Jen until she took her first walk break.
Banter was high during the first couple of hours, I had great little chats with Gareth Pritchard, Tristan, and Paul Maskell. I was also keen to say hi to everyone else on the track as fun time Hammy took over to try and break the inevitable monotony of running the same loop over and over again. We were like a little community, all with a single purpose, confined to this track bubble for 24 hours. Nichola Duffy remarked that I was far too enthusiastic, but I reminded her that she would miss ‘Fun time Hammy’ when he disappeared…. I had watched Nichola perform fantastically well at Gloucester 24hr last year where she ran a perfectly paced race and it was evident from the off that she was once again following her tried and tested strategy.
One major plus of doing this race was that it was close to where my Mum and Dad live so they could come and watch. I am lucky to have such great support from my parents and Dad has followed my running closely especially my ultra running ever since I started and they arrived just after 11am. I had no idea how long they would stay, but judging by the amount of food that Chris helped them unload from the car they appeared to be planning on staying for a while. It was great to see them and a real boost. I knew that Dad would prove to be entertaining in the crew tent, and judging by some of the comments I received post race, Papa H was the hit that he always is.
Settling into a nice rhythm and with the first marathon out of the way in around 3:38 the first change of direction beckoned and I found myself running alongside Samantha Amend, Sam is a great runner who holds numerous records and has represented GB on more than one occasion and whilst we have competed at events together before we had never had a proper chat. I can certainly say that for next 3-4 hours we made up for that, covering a multitude of topics we passed the time with banter, laughs and good conversation. At one point even our crews commented that we seemed to be having too much fun but it certainly helped us forget we were running round and round in circles. At one point we even treated ourselves to a synchronised loo break… although I was slower out of the traps and I shouted to Sam not to wait… I’d catch up with her later, or so I thought.
During the afternoon my brother (David) arrived with my two nephews (Luke and Daniel) to add to my support and whilst these types of races are not the most exciting to spectate they seemed to enjoy themselves, with my oldest nephew Luke deciding to stay until the bitter end with my Dad. They gave positive encouragement each time passed, including David and Daniel attempting a two person Mexican wave which took them a few laps to perfect. Luckily there was no rush.
8 – 12 hours seems to be a dark patch for me in these races, you have already run a long way (in a normal persons terms) and yet you are not even half way through the event. It is almost like Limbo… You’ve run for less time that you have left to go. This is hard to get your head round. I had gone through 50 miles in 7:08 and unbeknownst to me I was actually in third place, I knew that I was moving well and my pace was respectable but now the legs were getting heavy and a little tired. I passed Jen on the track and she asked if it was normal as her legs were hurting a bit too, I reckon everyone was starting to feel the strain on the body in some way shape or form and there had already been one or two dropouts.
At about 9 hours Chris offered me my music, but I declined. I wanted to try and get as far into the event as I could before switching on the banging tunes to help me get round. I went through 100km in 9:09 but much like at this distance in Spartathlon I was starting to have a bad patch. I put off having the music on for another 35 minutes before finally giving in to the need to be assisted by classics such as Ed Sheeran, Chesney Hawkes, and Hanson. Just before putting the music on Chris had given me some Coke (we had been waiting until it was dark to switch to the caffeinated super juice!) and I had also consumed half of a rock bun that had been freshly made by my brother. Suffice to say the concoction of those three elements acted like rocket fuel and I was soon flying round the track belting out the tunes to anyone who would listen.
I apologize now to all the runners I sang at, and for anyone who I ignored as I blazed past them, but I was in a zone. The magical healing properties of music had made me forget about my legs and it was all about getting some strong laps in. I rode this wave for hours and felt invincible. I think several people wondered what on earth I was doing, but sometimes you just have to go with it. A group of friends and I have a funny saying from our first ultra together ‘Take what it gives you’.. and oh boy I was taking it. This strategy is usually destined to be followed by a spectacular crash but we will cover that later. For now I was keen to make the most of it and having never used music before in a race it was a bit of a revelation, even though it did make me run faster rather than easier.
After 12 hours we would be marking the official distance covered and so I dropped my bean bag in the appropriate place when the hooter sounded. I had covered about 131km by then and was well in the groove and it was at this time my mind started turning to the 100 mile split and whether they would be taking one at the race. I knew that my Sparta AQ had run out (they last two years), and for the first time it dawned on me that I was on for quite a swift 100 mile time. I checked with Graeme Boxall and Chris Mills if they were taking the split. The official split was due to be taken at 403 laps, but Chris kindly agreed to mark my split with the race referee at the exact distance. (I believe though that after the race this reverted to the 403 lap split as they only took the official distance for Norbert due to him breaking a national record and so they should). Prior to the race I never even contemplated that I would be in a position to run sub 15 hours for 100 miles and to be honest I hadn’t even been trying until 12 hours came and went. I now had renewed focus and a reason to push, and push I did. I even led Norbert round for a few laps and managed to move up to second place in the race before finally passing the 100 mile mark in 14:52:20. This was my second fastest 100 mile time and something I didn’t know was even in the tank.
The conversation I had with Chris pre race about the 100 mile time had gone something like this…. Me – ‘I reckon if I go through 100 miles in around about 16hrs that would be perfect, maybe 16-16:30 would be more sensible.’ Chris – ‘Yep that makes sense, nothing too fast’, Me – ‘Don’t worry I don’t think I am in that sort of shape anyway, and besides if I go through in less than that the it will be suicidal!’, Chris – ‘ Yes true, that would be nuts’. I’m so glad we had that conversation and I stuck to my 16hr 100 mile split plan.
Having passed the 100 mile mark, I decided it was time for a reset and took some fuel on board, treated myself to some minty leg rub, and walked for a few laps. This was the first time I had had a proper walking break and I was grateful for it. Some of you might be asking at this point why in a 24hr race did I care about the 100 mile split? well the simple answer is that I doubted my body would hold out for the full 24 hours, so getting a Sparta AQ in the bag would tick a box. I had gone through 100 miles almost 3.5 hours quicker than at Crawley, but this time I wasn’t sat on a chair pulling out of the race or battling the demons inside my head, I was walking round and resetting my goals/expectations. Wendy Whearity who was in the medical tent for the duration, told me to keep going and see what I could do for 24hrs now. This was solid advice, and perhaps some that I should of taken on board more seriously, however at the time I was just happy with the 100 mile time, and to be honest in a little bit of disbelief.
We were now 16 hours in and it was 2am. The wind was getting stronger, and the cold was beginning to take it’s toll on people. Layers went on, people disappeared for a sleep, some had had to call it a day as injury had prevented them from going on. A few of us continued to circle the track relentlessly. Limbs became heavier, energy levels dwindled, crews huddled in dry robes. Some runners emptied the contents of their stomachs by the side of the track, toilet visits became more frequent with people struggling to go…. as predicted the race was beginning to break down, and became real war of attrition. At one point I think there were only 7 of us on the track. Some runners slept in the clubhouse, some huddled in their crew tent trying to get warm, some sat with heads in hands wondering if they could go on.
At one point I opted for a sit in the chair. My ankle and shin were starting to niggle me and I was becoming paranoid about reinjuring myself. The last thing I wanted was to be out for months on end again, so my caution was understandable. I think at one point I told Chris that I would stop at 20 hours. He pretty much ignored me as all good crew should and just gave me something to eat and kicked me out of the tent. The magical motivational properties of the music were well and truly wearing off. There is a video of me at 18hrs giving a fake smile and a thumbs up to Dad, even telling the camera it was fake. Sam’s crew shouted to me ‘Fake it to make it baby’ and I tried my best to deliver.
My nephew Luke and my Dad had stayed all night to support me, but even tiredness had bested Luke as he headed for a sleep in the car. Papa H though continued to defy belief, staying awake throughout. He watched me relentlessly circling the track through the early hours and that was motivation enough to keep going. Anyone who has done a track ultra will tell you that those hours between 2am and 6am are tough. The body is telling you that it wants to sleep, so you try and fool it with sugar and caffeine, but the only problem is that by this time you are sick of food and just don’t want to eat anything. Chris asked me at one point what I wanted…. I couldn’t answer… I didn’t know. If the truth be told I wanted to stop. He offered me a chocolate at about 5am to which my reply was ‘Chocolate? It’s 5 in the morning Chris.. why on earth would I want chocolate?!’ which is what any reasonable person would think, it makes sense. Yet next lap I took a chocolate and scoffed it down! Chris obviously knew what I needed more than I did.
I plodded on round the track conscious that I was in 3rd place and not that far behind Gareth who was running really well. I passed the 200km mark just before 20hours which I felt was another huge achievement. I had only gone past 200km twice before and both times were at Spartathlon. What’s more is that I was still on pace to average roughly 10km per hour. 240km in 24hrs would have been a nice target to hit, but the reality was that I was getting slower. I was struggling to get food in and even the porridge at 6am didn’t lift my spirits. I jogged/hobbled round for another 30-40 mins before returning to the tent and sitting in the chair. Even walking round was now causing significant discomfort and I didn’t want to make it worse.
Chris, Dad and I discussed the best way forward and I decided to put on my tracksuit bottoms, and a hoody, and walk a few laps. This was a case of me gradually admitting I was done. I wandered round the track as the sun began to rise in the in the distance. It was a beautiful sight. The sunshine seemed to breathe new life into some of the runners and suddenly the track was busy again. Sam and Michelle were flying round, whilst others also seemed to find their running legs. Maybe they had been saving some energy for the final push, or maybe they were just rejuvenated from the promise of the finish line being within touching distance. I however knew it was time to call it a day though and wandered back to the table one last time.
Yes I could have walked/shuffled/hobbled for another 3 hours and topped the distance up to around 220km or maybe a little more, but at what cost? As it was when I removed my shoe the swelling around the top of my ankle was evident. I was happy with the 100 mile split, I was happy that I had been on track 21hrs, and I was happy that my Dad got to see me run again, but now it was time to pack up the stuff and hand in my chip and live to fight another day. There were a lot of positives to take from the race and I needed to remember that.
There were some stellar performances on the track with Norbert winning by a distance despite his own struggles in the last two hours, Gareth Pritchard took second place with an excellent performance and Jo Murphy ran a super controlled race to take 3rd place (1st female). I also want to mention Gergely and Nichola. Gergely didn’t have his best day at the office, but marched round and stayed on the track for the full 24hrs, what a warrior he was. Nichola was once again inspirational, pretty much staying on track for the full 24hrs to cover an amazing 204km.
I want to say a huge congratulations to everyone who took part, it was an honor and a privilege to share the track with you all and I feel very lucky to have been able to do so. I know not everyone had the day that they wanted, but this 24hr track racing lark is not easy and rarely goes to plan. I urge you all to focus on what went well on the day, and learn from the things that didn’t go to plan. I have no doubt that I will see you all at an event again very soon.
A huge thanks must also go to my good buddy Chris who crewed me expertly throughout. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you my friend. Thank you to my family, especially Papa Hammett and Luke who stayed until the bitter end, and thank you to all the race volunteers for your support during the event. It was a fantastic occasion to be part of, and who knows I may just be back in the future… I still feel that I have some unfinished business with this format of racing.
Full Results from the race can be found here: