24 hours in Bernau was actually meant to be 24 hours in Verona. I’d always planned to run a European 24 hour race this autumn and had a shortlist of a few 24 hour races, my first choice being Verona, mainly for the fact we could go on holiday afterwards to eat pizza and drink beer in the sunshine!
Like a lot of runners, with no races to taper for and recover from, I’d had a brilliant 6 months of interrupted training, where in my first race back in COVID-times, 3 weeks before Verona, I ran a 1:28 half marathon PB so knew I was in good shape.
However, from the word go I felt awful at Verona. I think I must have picked up some stomach bug before the race as within the first hour I had to make two emergency toilet stops and then in the second hour was sick. I took a mix of medicines and managed to get things to settle down for a couple of hours, however as soon as that wore off, the sickness and diarrhoea came back with a vengeance. I threw up everything I’d consumed in the previous few hours, but even then thought if it was just sickness, I’d be able to manage it and just jog/walk 100 miles in 24 hours, however everything was going straight through me and it got so bad I was having to make emergency toilet stops every 1,200m lap! After 6 hours I sat down with Tom for half an hour to see if I could do anything to make me feel better, but nothing worked and I was still running to the toilet every 5 minutes, so in the end I had to call it a day. There was no disappointment – I’ve been running for enough years to know that you can go into a race in fantastic shape but things can still happen out of your control, and I’m a big believer in not dwelling on bad races – life is too short to not spend it smiling and happy!
At the start of 2020 when the world was normal and we could travel freely, I’d planned to go to America in December for Desert Solstice for my final race of the year, however the fact that we still can’t fly to America has kind of curtailed that! And then beyond that I had no ultras planned for months. Therefore, when I spoke to Ian post-race, whilst I’d never normally book another race so soon after a race that hadn’t gone to plan, with so much uncertainty over races still for months to come, Coronavirus has taught me that you’ve got to jump on any race opportunities you get this year. I knew there were other 24 hour races in October, and I knew from when I ran Berlin 100 back in 2016 that the Germans put on a brilliant race, so that was how Bernau 24 hours came to be.
10am – 4pm (Getting into my 24 hour groove)
There was a little part of me that was scared I couldn’t run ultras anymore after what happened at Verona (even though the rational part of me knew it was just a one-off illness), so I just wanted to get started in Bernau and to settle into that early 24 hour groove. Because we’d only arrived in Berlin the day before, and our hotel was a 15 minute drive from the race, I hadn’t done a pre-race ‘recce’ so the 1,844m course was going to be a surprise. To be honest that’s probably a good thing as I was hopefully going to be seeing it 100+ times over the next 24 hours so I would become more than familiar with it! The course consisted of 400m track and then 1,444m around a tree lined university campus on mostly smooth tarmac – I’m not the type of runner who runs for views but as 24 hour courses go this was quite aesthetically pleasing.
Any pre-race concerns disappeared within minutes, it was a beautiful sunny autumnal morning, and as soon as I set off, everything felt right in the (running) world. I never run to pace on ultras and always just run to effort (this is especially relevant on a lapped course where gps watches can’t cope with all the turns and overmeasure) so I was just checking the time on my Garmin to remind myself to eat every 30 minutes. And this pretty much set the scene for the next 24 hours. I ran, I smiled a lot, and Tom crewed me to perfection handing me bottles of Mountain Fuel, Mountain Fuel jelly’s and Longhaul Ultra-Fuels every half an hour. I took a 30 second walk break from time to time when I grabbed a pot of custard from Tom and showcased my custard speed-eating skills as I walked and ate, but apart from these short planned walk breaks I ran every step.
4pm – 10pm (Time to get this party started)
One of the race rules was that we couldn’t have headphones on until 6pm (when the 6 hour and faster 100k runners had finished). I’m generally not very talkative when I run (which surprises people as I’m the complete opposite in day to day life) and there’s nothing I love more than putting my music on and disappearing into my own little world for hours and hours. I thought the early hours might drag with the lack of my own music but the atmosphere was brilliant; there was lots of support from the organisers and other crews, and I chatted to a few other runners, but mainly I was just in my own little happy running bubble. As soon as 6pm hit, I put my music on and kicked off the next 16 hours musical interlude with a playlist of 80s and 90s favourites from the likes of the Stone Roses, Pet Shop Boys and The Jam.
After an unseasonably hot afternoon, by early evening the sun had started to go down and temperatures were perfect. Well perfect to me, most people put extra layers on when it got dark, but it felt like a balmy summer’s night to me. People ask what I think about when I’m running for 24 hours and I really don’t know. I can remember the occasional high fiving and support of runners coming in the opposite direction, I know I gave Tom an inane grin and wave every time I passed him, I can remember the organiser giving me my own special shout-outs every time I passed the timing mat (“this is Sarah Sawyer from Brighton and look how bright she is!” and “Sarah is from the UK and we think she’s great even with Brexit!”), but mostly it’s just a blur of lap after lap of running joy.
10pm – 4am (High on running life)
The next few hours were my favourite of the race. House classics were blasting out courtesy of Erick, Fatboy and Carl Cox and the miles were flying by. Sometimes you run races and each mile passes painfully slowly, here I almost felt like the hours were passing me by too quickly.
It’s easy to get fixated on your 100 mile split in a 24 hour race, but in the bigger picture of a 24 hour race it’s not that important, and the last thing you want to do is push too hard for a 100 mile PB and have nothing left for the final few hours. I was still running entirely to effort, but Tom and the leaderboard was keeping me up to date with my overall distance at various times. Because I’d gone through 50 miles in 8:17 (vs my 50 mile split when I set my 100 mile PB at Basel which was 8:09), I thought I’d be a little way off my 100 mile PB, but that didn’t bother me as I was here for a 24 hour PB, not a 100 mile PB. However, apart from needing an unfortunately timed toilet stop at 99 miles (bad timing or what?!) my miles got quicker, and I hit 161k in a new 100 mile PB of 17:07. My benchmark for running a good 100 miler is that my second half should be no more than an hour slower than my first (any more than an hour and I’ve gone off too fast) and here there were just 33 minutes separating my 8:17 first half and 8:50 second half. More importantly, whilst the PB gave me a boost, after 100 miles of running I still felt great with lots of running left in my legs.
Ian has taught me not to think about distance/finish time in an ultra until I get to the final third of the race. And at both Crawley and here, I had a target that I was aiming for, so whilst I wasn’t focusing on it until the later stages, I think with 24 hour racing it’s a good idea to have a goal, so if it gets to the early hours of the morning and you’re questioning your life choices and why you’ve been running laps for 18 hours and still have another 6 hours to go, you’ve got a good reason for it!
At Crawley my target was to get Sparta auto qualification (205k), and in Bernau I wanted to run over 208k, which would give me qualification for the Centurion Track 100 (an elite level 100 miler with a 17 hour cut-off). To be honest though, I’ve never needed that why – I smelled of wee, I’d got that weird blurry vision thing in one eye, if I thought about it too much I could feel my left ankle was starting to feel sore from the repetitive nature of some of the tight corners of the laps, but there really was nowhere I’d rather have been in the early hours of Sunday morning!
4am – 10am (Getting the job done)
It was time to get my head down, bring out the big guns with some trance classics and grind out the miles for the final quarter. A lot of 24 hour races start at midday, and as someone whose body clock is programmed to wake up and run at 5am, I’ve found the final few hours on the second day dragged as I’d feel like I’d been awake forever. Here it got light about 7am and it was a big psychological boost to know that there was only 3 hours to go. I’d struggle with the most basic of sums by this point so Tom was doing the maths for me to tell me what I needed to run to hit 208k, and even though I knew nothing is ever a certain when it comes to ultra running, I was pretty confident that short of a disaster I’d hit 208k.
I discovered in the final couple of hours that I don’t have that killer competitive edge which really good ultra runners have. Exactly the same thing happened at Crawley, and it happened again in Bernau, once I knew I was going to achieve my goal, I made sure I just did exactly what was needed to reach 208k, so this meant I could just shuffle along for the final couple of hours. Don’t get me wrong my legs were really tired and I was ready for a sit down at the finish, but if I’d needed to run 210k I think I could have, but because I didn’t need to, I’m either a bit lazy or a bit of wuss and I’m not prepared to push myself to go that extra mile!
It’s hard to describe the final minutes of a 24 hour race; all I was looking forward to was a lie-down and to give my poor legs a rest and when 24 hours is up, lying on a cold damp track has never felt so luxurious! I had to wait track-side whilst the organisers came to measure my final distance, but I wasn’t moving anywhere, if someone had covered me with a big fluffy blanket, I’d probably still be laid there now!
My final distance was a 208.645km/128.6 mile PB for 3rd female and 5th overall. It had pretty much been the perfect 24 hours in Bernau.
I’ve said it before, but over the years I’ve dabbled in most types of ultras and I do think 24 hour racing is the hardest. I don’t find the mental side of them hard, but physically I think the repetitive nature of running laps for 24 hours takes a lot out of your body. In the past I’ve finished mountain races like CCC and GRP and after a sleep have pretty much skipped to the pub, and last year after Spartathlon I ran the Spartan mile the morning afterwards, yet here I spent a couple of days post-race feeling like my legs had been run over multiple times, and it took me almost a week for my legs to feel like they’d forgiven me.
So at the moment I don’t have any immediate plans to run another. I feel very happy and content with how Bernau went – I wanted 24 hours of running happiness and I wanted to run 208k and both boxes are ticked and there’s very little I would have done differently. I will do Desert Solstice at some point in the future as Coronavirus scuppered it this year, but for now, I’m going to focus on trying to get a bit quicker over 100 miles and enjoy the fact that my next ultra is going to take under 17 hours and I’ll get to sleep in a bed that night!
Thanks as always to Ian for the coaching, Mountain Fuel and Longhaul Endurance for top notch nutrition, and the biggest thank you to Tom for being the best crew in the world – I really can’t think of anything more boring than watching me chug round and round a loop for 24 hours yet he stands track side for 24 hours lovingly attending to my every need (if I put emojis in my blog I’d finish with a big heart emoji here!).