Crawley 24 Hours – Things I Learnt from Running Around a Track for 24 Hours

The Short Version

If you haven’t got the time or inclination to read about running round a 400m track for 24 hours, then the short version is:

I wanted to run a minimum of 120 miles, with my A target being 127 miles (Spartathlon female auto-qualifying distance) and I ran 127.8 miles, finishing as 1st female/2nd overall (out of approximately 40 starters). It was some of the best running I’ve ever done in a race. And most importantly I loved every single minute of it (even the last 4 hours when things started to get a bit hurty).

The Longer Version

Here’s what I learnt from running round a track for 24 hours:

1) 24 hour running is a game of patience and pacing

I had a simple pacing plan, which was to run 10 minute mile pace from the start, and hold this for as long as possible, rather than going off faster and fading more. I was going to walk one lap every hour, and review at 12 hours to see if I needed to introduce a second walking break lap per hour (I didn’t and ended up running to 20 hours with just the one walking lap break per hour and then added a second walking lap per hour in the final 4 hours).

When the gun went off, the pace around me was fast. There was also a 6 hour race starting when we did so I knew I’d be lapped by the 6 hour runners, but I assumed other 24 hour runners would have a similar slow and steady race plan, but I was being lapped by 24 hour runners after only a few laps in. It takes a lot of confidence in your training and race plan to ignore everyone else around you and stick to your plan. After the first hour I was in 23rd place (out of 40 starters), then moved up to 21st place after 2 hours and this pattern of creeping up the board continued, and after 12 hours I was up to 1st female/4th overall, eventually moving up to 2nd overall after 16 hours, where I stayed until the end.

2) At 12 hours you want to feel like your race hasn’t even started

One of the best pieces of advice I got was to make sure I got to 12 hours feeling like my race hadn’t even started. So  whilst I knew I wanted to aim for around 10 minute mile pace, if at any point it started to feel like I was putting too much effort in, I was to back off the pace a bit or add in extra walk breaks.

As it turned out, the first 12 hours went like a dream and everything just felt so unbelievably easy. Mile after mile ticked along at around 10 minute pace with the walking lap on the hour. I normally love a race plan, but Ian had told me not to focus on splits ie where I was at 12 hours or 100 miles, and just let the race come naturally to me. He did say though if I got to 12 hours in 70 miles feeling good, then I’d have set myself up for a really strong second half. And as if on clockwork, I arrived at the 12 hour point having covered 70.5 miles (average 10.12 pace), but more importantly my legs felt like I’d barely started running.

Sun setting over Crawley Athletics track. 8 hours in, 16 to go.

3) The first 20 hours were amazing

The first 20 hours were absolute running joy. I felt like I was bouncing around the track with a huge inane grin on my face. I’m quite a simple creature and I just love running, and this was running in its purest, simplest form – there was nothing else to think about; no roads to cross, no gates to open, no cows to avoid, no signs to follow. The most taxing thing you had to think about was timing your toilet stop and running the 30 metres from track side to toilet.

Quite possibly the happiest runner in Crawley

4) Running round a track isn’t boring

When you tell people you’re running around a track for 24 hours, one of the things they’ll inevitably ask is how will you deal with the boredom. I genuinely love running laps (anyone who follows me on Strava knows how much time I spend running laps of the velodrome!),  so I knew I wouldn’t find the mental side of it a challenge, and there really wasn’t one minute where I lost my love of running around a track.

But as it turned out, running round a track for 24 hours couldn’t be boring if it tried. From watching GB runners Dan Lawson (1st) and Tracy Dean (1st female/3rd overall) run the 6 hour race as part of their build-up for the European 24 hour championships in May and then stay around to support and help crew other runners; to witnessing Grant MacDonald’s masterclass in 24 hour pacing as he finished as overall winner with 145 miles; to Paul Ali (2nd) who lapped me endless times in his 6 hour race yet always gave words of encouragement as he passed me; to Paul Beechey (canal running champ) who I’d never met before but shared a few laps and some Spartathlon chat with; to witnessing Susan McCartney breaking the Irish 100k record; to meeting the super lovely and track ultra running queen Helen James (2nd female/4th overall in the 24 hour race) away from social media and in real life; to seeing Dawn Gardner run a perfectly executed race going from 25th in the first hour to finishing as 3rd female/5th overall with 110 miles; to meeting the lovely Karen Wallace (1st female in the 12 hour race) and sharing some skort chat like all fine female athletes do; to the family affair that was the Trundleys (Dad doing the 24 hour version, Mum doing the 6 hour version and Tony doing the 12 hour version)….and so much more. There was always something going on, and if there wasn’t, then you could just zone out and enjoy the blissful simplicity of just running.

5) Teamwork makes the dreamwork

It’s certainly possible to do this type of event without a crew (Grant MacDonald ran 145 miles without a crew), but having a crew makes everything so much more simple. Tom’s role encompassed everything from the fairly straightforward at the start like making me up Mountain Fuel drinks and recovery shakes and passing me food as I ran past, to updating my Facebook (considering prior to this weekend Tom has only posted on Facebook twice in his life, he excelled with his social media updates!), to the more needy like helping me change some of my clothes after it had rained through the night and doing the maths for me in the final few hours so I knew what pace I had to be hitting to reach 127 miles, and then reaching an all-time low where in the final 4 hours he had to help me onto the toilet (more on that later) as simple tasks like pulling my running skirt down without getting tangled up in iPod wires were beyond me! Basically a good crew will act as your brain and your keeper, and I certainly wouldn’t have had such a smooth race without Tom.

6) Don’t underestimate how amazing it feels to change direction

The other thing people will always ask when they know you’re doing a track race is do you change direction? And yes you do! Every 4 hours. And I can’t tell you how amazing it feels. For a start you’re using slightly different muscles so it feels like you’ve got a new pair of legs, and also it almost feels like you’ve just started a brand new race. You’re seeing everything from a different angle and a different viewpoint, and even the headwind which was on the home straight was now a tailwind, and the tailwind on the opposite side was now a headwind. It was mind blowing! Really.

7) My well-thought our nutrition plan went out the window from 6pm

I’d got a nutrition plan which worked down to a tee with Tom passing me whatever was on the list every 30 minutes….until I got to 6 hours in and nearly threw up a Nakd bar. After that I couldn’t eat solid foods, but I knew I had plenty of Mountain Fuel, Recovery Shakes and Longhaul Endurance pouches, so I basically survived on that diet for the remainder of the 18 hours. I didn’t suffer any sickness so it worked for me, and I never felt like I was lacking in energy.

The only downside to living on a mainly liquid diet was the amount of toilet stops I needed. However if it came down to getting enough calories inside me to still be running well or having to take a few extra toilet stops, then the calories would win every time. It just meant I did lose a bit of time in the toilets faffing, which goes back to Tom having to help me to the toilet in the last 4 hours as he thought he could save me approximately 30 seconds a trip!

8) In the words of ABBA, ‘Thank you for the music’

I haven’t listened to music whilst running for years, but I started listening to it again when I was doing my long slow runs for Crawley, as I figured if ever I might need a music pick-me-up, it would be in the middle of the night running round a track in Crawley! So at midnight the headphones came out and IPod shuffle came on, and a mix of musical delights like the Stone Roses, Pet Shop Boys, David Bowie, plus house and trance from the 90s/00s powered me through the night. And at 10am with 2 hours to go, it was down to bring out the big guns and a Paul Oakenfold classics mix got me to 24 hours.

Two particular moments will stick with me forever, Firstly, Ian hold told me not to focus on getting a 100 mile PB as I was there to race the full 24 hours, but if I was running well, a 100 mile PB would happen naturally, so I thought I might run 100 miles in about 18:00 hours, which would have been a 30+ minute 100 mile PB on my 18:39 from Berlin 100. As the board got updated after 17 hours (like it did every hour) I saw that I had run 96.9 miles and I was going to get a 100 mile PB starting with a 17 (later confirmed as 17:36, average 10:33 pace). As if on cue, the unmistakable intro to the Stone Roses – I am the Resurrection (my favourite song in the world) came on my iPod and I spent the next few laps feeling like I was invincible, flying round the track with a shiny new 17:something 100 mile PB to my name.

Similarly, as I approached the final half hour, Tom was giving me regular updates on what pace I needed to run and how many laps I had to go to hit the magic 127. And as we approached 11:50pm, I knew as I ran past him and a group of lovely friends who’d come down to support, I had hit my 127 miles target, and the Paul Oakenfold remix of U2’s – Beautiful Day came on. I’d been running for over 23:45 hours, it had been raining pretty much continuously since the middle of the night, I was sweaty, my skin was so dry it felt like it was going to fall off, and I probably stunk of wee….but it really couldn’t have been a more beautiful day.

That moment in a 24 hour track race when you know you’ve reached your A target of 127 miles

9) The last 4 hours hurt 

The first 20 hours had almost felt too ‘easy’, but I knew it was inevitable that things would start to hurt at some point. And from 20 hours, I did have to dig in and push hard to keep racking up the miles. I was still moving relatively well, and although I added a second walk break per hour in these final 4 hours, this was mainly to just try and do something different with my legs, not out of a desperate need to walk. Also walking hurt as much as running, so it made perfect logical sense to me to just keep on running for as much as I could. My only worry was anything going wrong in these final 4 hours (ie feeling sick, needing any extra toilet stops, falling over!) so I just really had to get my head down and focus on the task in hand. It did hurt. But I kept telling myself, if you’ve raced to your maximum, then the last part of any race will always hurt – I mean there’s no pain in the world like the final mile of racing a parkrun flat out!

10) When the final whistle goes your body will well and truly give up on you

Tom accompanied me round on what was to be my final lap. The horn went. I’d run for 24 hours. And I’d covered over 127 miles. I dropped the beanbag on the track to mark the spot where I’d finished which would be  subsequently measured by the race official (official finishing distance of 127.8 miles, average 11:16 pace) and my legs stopped working and I crumpled onto the track. The next hour passed in a blur with the awards ceremony (thank you to Pam for the wonderful trophy and Ultra Marathon Store for the Ultimate Direction prize), trying to stay upright, and needing Tom and friends to help me do the simplest of tasks! But it was worth every single bit of pain.

24 hours. 127.8 miles. Game over!

Post-Race Thoughts

People have already been asking if I’ll run another 24 hour race and I’m genuinely not sure (although Tom has got footage of me laid on the track at the end saying definitely not, as it’s too far for one pair legs to run!). I absolutely loved everything about the race, and it goes straight into my top three favourite races ever. I thought the format of 24 hour track racing might suit me and I couldn’t be happier with my performance and finishing distance.

And I think that’s the reason why I’m not sure if I’ll do another one (well at least not for the foreseeable future). It’s rare that your first attempt at a race distance goes so perfectly, and I’m normally my own harshest critic after a race, but this time I just feel so happy and content with my whole race, that I just don’t know how I could top the experience. If the only criticism you can make of your race is that you wish you hadn’t needed to go for a wee quite so much, then that’s probably the sign of a pretty decent race.

Running hard round a track for 24 hours does take a lot out of your body – I could barely walk unaided the following day, although saying that the body is truly a wonderful thing and apart from a tight left hamstring I felt pretty good by Tuesday. However, I’ve never been the type of runner to rack up lots of long races a year (you’ll never catch me doing multiple 100/100+ milers a year) and I have a ‘rule’ of a maximum of two long ultras a year, so I don’t want to start doing 24 hour track races regularly, chasing elusive numbers. At this moment in time, I’m just very happy to sit back with a big smile on my face and feel very content with a 127.8 mile 24 hour PB.

A few quick thank yous:

To Pam and the volunteers for a truly fantastic race which I can’t recommend enough for anyone wanting to try a track ultra – whilst I may not do another 24 hour track race for a while, I’m definitely going to do the 12 hour race at some point (and 12 hours does seem like a much more civilised time to run for!).

To Ian Sharman for the superb coaching, brilliant advice and making running laps so much fun.

To Likeys and Mountain Fuel for their continued support. A race of this nature has minimal kit requirements, but special mention has to go to the Hoka Cliftons which worked perfectly over 24 hours on the track (and my feet came away pretty much unscathed which is pretty impressive considering I asked them to cover quite a lot of miles). And nutrition wise, alongside my Mountain Fuel drinks, Rupert had given me the tip of having a Mountain Fuel Recovery Shake every 4 hours, and this worked an absolute treat and definitely helped my legs and will be something I’ll be adopting in future long races.

To Dawn and Alexandra at Body Rehab for keeping my legs in tip-top shape – I promise no more running round in circles for a while!

To all the friends who came down and supported, special mention to David and Tracy (and their 2 hour Pilates show!), Zoe and Liam, Mandy and Scott, Jamie and Emma, Nick, and everyone else who offered me encouragement over the 24 hours.

And finally the biggest thank you of all to Tom. I had the easy task of simply running for 24 hours, he had the much harder job of making sure everything ran smoothly for me over those 24 hours, and he played a massive part in me having the race I did and I wouldn’t have had such a successful race without him.

Now it’s a well-earned 10 days off running, and then it’s time to say farewell to the flat running and hello to the next few months of getting back into the hills and mountains.

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