Ultra running is about trails, long-winding roads, steep ascents and taking time to soak up amazing views. Track running, on the other hand, conjures up images of super-lean, whippet-like athletes, high up on their toes, running at full speed. But what happens when you combine the two? I know, the mere idea of an ultra-distance race on a 400m track would have most endurance runners choking on their banana bread… but, trust me, once you’ve overcome the mental hurdle, it is conceivable.
This month I’ll be in Spain to compete in the 24 Hores D’Atletisme Barcelona – and yes, it’s on a track. The concept is simple – run as far as you can within the 24-hour time limit. Hopefully I will complete over 600 laps. I will, quite literally, be running round in circles… all day and all night. Training has gone well and physically I feel ready, but I know that will count for nothing if I don’t have my head in the right gear. If I go into the race anything less than 100 per cent mentally prepared, I will join many others in failing to complete the full 24 hours. To run around the same 400m track so many times requires physical tenacity, heart and soul, but above all else it requires mental strength.
24 hours running around a track? Even my ultra running friends think I’m crazy
The one question I get asked more than most is ‘how do you spend hours in training running round and round a track at race pace?’ The answer is, I don’t. Yes, I’ve done one 20-miler on the track, just to get a feel for pacing, but the truth is, unlike in the case of say mountain running, I don’t need to train on a track to know I can race around one. I’ll save that excitement for race day! Ok, the excitement won’t last, but at least it will be a novelty for a few hours.
I actually do most of my 24-hour training on a long, flat canal path here in Scotland. There’s a 55-mile stretch of it between my office in Edinburgh and my home in Glasgow. Ahead of the Barcelona race, I’ve been doing back-to-back training runs on the canal path. Starting on a Friday night, I’ve been leaving work, donning my head torch, and running for hours, usually in rain, sleet and fierce winds. Then I’ve been getting up on a Saturday morning and doing it all again… but in the opposite direction. People at my office think I’m crazy. Even my ultra running friends think I’m crazy. And, to be honest, I think they’re probably right.
At the same time, I love it. When I’m out alongside the canal I find solitude and the perfect environment in which to train my mind. Mentally, I imagine being in the race. I think about what it will feel like after 8, 16 and 22 hours. I visualise the endless laps and think about the emotions I will feel. I also think about the difficult situations that will arise and how I’ll deal with them. The time I spend on the canal allows me to formulate plans about how, when things start to really hurt in Barcelona, I will get through them.
So, over years of racing, what tricks have I devised to mentally get through 24-hour races? Firstly, I switch my GPS watch to lap time only. By doing this I become blissfully unaware of time and distance, and focus only on the present. Oh, and I definitely never count the laps. If I try and do this I know I’d go nuts before dusk.
I’m also a bit of a stats geek, so to maintain focus I time each lap at 2:10 pace. Then at the 200m mark, I check I’m on 1:05. I know it’s a bit much for most people, but it keeps me focused on the job in hand, one lap at a time, and in a strange sort of way it also keeps me entertained. After 16 hours, the mental arithmetic required to calculate 300 laps multiplied by 400m takes, well, ages… when I’ve finally worked out the answer I’ll have run another 25 times round the track!
By dark, half the field will have dropped out, usually due to bad pacing
Pacing is, as you would expect, crucial. And while I can’t control what’s going on around me, I can control what I do. In that sense, I always let other runners take off ahead of me from the start… and then watch when the wheels fall off later on. Usually in a 24-hour event, the make-up of the race changes after marathon distance. By dark, half the field will have dropped out for some reason or another, usually due to bad pacing.
One thing I never do is allow myself to think about the full 24 hours. It is such a long period of time, that to do so can be daunting. As well focussing on consistent lap times, I also split the race up by the hour and food breaks. On the hour, every hour, I take a four-minute walk break, which usually sees me cover one lap of the track. I use this time to eat properly and fuel up with something substantial. I don’t dally around, but instead take big strides to stretch out my legs. This helps to loosen the muscles off, as my running stride can often shorten, especially when I’m tired. After those four minutes, it feels like I’ve hit the reset button. Then I simply re-focus on the next hour.
On top of that, I also split the race down into blocks of four hours. Often in 24-hour track races, this is when you change direction on the track. Believe me when I say this literally blows your mind! When you run around the temporarily placed traffic cone, it’s like stepping into a parallel universe. For some reason people smile and laugh. It’s like an entirely new race, so much so that I often find it tougher running in one direction than the other.
Changing track direction every four hours blows your mind. It’s like an entirely new race
Part of my mental strength game also comes from being competitive – with both others and myself, although those ‘others’ don’t necessarily have to be on the track at the same time as me. I often run to try and beat a rival’s achieved distance or improve my own position in an all-time list. Sometimes, for me, the position in the race isn’t actually that important. When I won the Tooting 24-hour race, I finished 20 miles clear of the runner in second place. But, driven by my own competitiveness and a desire to achieve a place in the Great Britain national team, I kept going long after my legs had given up.
But there is a balance. While that competitive nature drives me on, I ensure I don’t let things boil over. Running round and round the same track can grow massively frustrating and it’s very easy to get angry. To combat this I constantly remind myself that I’ve chosen to be there. No one is forcing me to do it; the choice is purely mine. I try to chat to people, smile and be polite. In point-to-point races it’s rare to talk to anyone, but in a 24-hour track race I try to talk to everyone, regardless of their pace or position.
It’s these things that keep me going… at least until the 20-hour mark. That’s when the real fun begins!