Hobbling round a 24-hour track race
Happiness is a fickle thing: ever-changing, rarely predictable. I was reminded of this a few days ago, when an unlikely instruction made me just about as happy as I’ve ever been in my life. That instruction was: “Stop running!”
For the past 24 hours, you see, my entire existence had been based on completing laps of a 400m track. The event in question, Run and Become’s ever-popular Self Transcendence 24-Hour Track Race, takes place in Tooting Bec, south London, and, if it sounds like your idea of hell, let me tell you that in many ways it was. But that’s not really the point, because although pain and tiredness played leading roles, many lessons were learned. Among them, I discovered the unbreakable nature of the human spirit, the power of positivity and the indigestibility of fig rolls at four in the morning.
Before all that, though, I arrived at the Tooting Bec track on Saturday morning, the compression-socked embodiment of ignorant bliss. My phone was well-stocked with podcasts and feel-good music; I had enough food to sustain a small village – as long as it had a collective preference for peanut butter and malt loaf; and, critically, I was safe in the knowledge that I could always just walk. Because 24 hours isn’t that long, and walking is easy ...
A pre-race briefing at 11.15am detailed the basics: every runner has a designated lap counter; you must tell your lap counter every time you leave the track; there’s a change of direction every four hours; a physio is on hand at all times; pace yourselves! And then, after some aimless stretching that I hoped wouldn’t reveal that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, the clock struck noon – and the journey of self-discovery began.
With the sun mercifully cloaked in cloud, and everyone’s spirits not yet dampened by monotony, the first few hours were, dare I say it, good fun. I spoke to as many runners as possible, trying to get a sense of what drove them to take part in such a race, but mainly to poach any clever tactics they might have. This had the adverse effect of making me realise just how woefully underprepared I was. One runner, Nick, said that for six months he had been doing double and sometimes even triple-run days. For my part, a recent triple-run week was considered an achievement. But I didn’t say that to Nick; I nodded knowingly, muttered something to suggest I felt his pain, and jogged on.
After four hours, it was clear who the “competitors” were. Not content with just finishing, these steely-eyed runners had kept a sustained pace from the off and it was they I blamed for the slight pang of guilt I felt every time I left the track for a wee or a Jelly Baby – or, as an hourly treat, a wee, a Jelly Baby and a handful of chocolate buttons. High old times.
Alas, the high old times were not to last. As the hours ticked by, signs of mental instability began to creep in. I found myself repeating the phrase “Just keep running” à la Dory of Finding Nemo fame, and the track began to take on a life of its own: the corners dark and gloomy places, the 100m straights far more positive.
Then, eight hours in, signs that my body, too, was beginning to falter. A trip to the on-site physio resulted in a heavily-strapped knee and the non-assurance: “I wouldn’t think you’ll do any permanent damage if you continue.” What had started out at 30 minutes of running and five minutes of walking had gradually decreased to ratios of 25:5, 20:5 and 15:5, before plunging dramatically down to 300m of running and 100m of walking. To add to the woe, darkness had fully descended and whatever limited scenic distractions there were before – some trees, a steel fence, the odd pigeon – were gone. If ever there was a time for the promised self-transcendence, this was it.
Fortunately, inspiration was in no short supply. A couple of runners in their 70s and several in their 60s ran, plodded and walked on – many of them having completed the race numerous times previously. Plenty of others kept up a remarkable, unrelenting pace, and every single runner offered words of encouragement. There’s something uniquely motivating about being told, “You can do it” by someone you don’t know; something that makes you think: You’re right, anonymous stranger, I can do it!
The on-track support was echoed by an endless stream of cheers from lap counters and race officials, and eventually – after much coffee, cake and mental strife – the endless night did indeed come to an end. I can’t pretend the new dawn brought renewed energy (running was now out of the question), but it did at least bring with it the knowledge that I was going to finish – a victory, I had come to realise, in itself.
And, after much clock-watching and an obscene amount of sugar, finish it I did. A 24-hour survivor, if not runner (I came, I saw, I wandered). Many others, though, put in some incredible performances. Take the winner, James Stewart, who, in clocking 160 miles, broke the longstanding course record. Or, even more astonishing, 68-year-old Ann Bath’s 115.9 miles. If this race confirmed anything to me, it’s that runners are the kindest, happiest, most hard-as-nails people on Earth.
At time of writing, I can’t move my legs, and my feet are just about visible through a sea of blisters. I’ve come to learn, though, that there is always a silver lining. At 7pm, with boredom setting in, a change of direction was just an hour away. At 3am, in agony and reduced to a walk, I was at least over halfway. At 6am, overcome with tiredness, the sun was at least beginning to rise. And now, despite being temporarily unable to move, the simple fact that I’m not doing laps of a track fills me with unbridled joy. Happiness, it’s a fickle thing.
This article was originally published on theguardian.com.
Photo credit: istockphoto.com