Self-Transcendence 24 Hour Race 2007 Tooting Bec 6th & 7th October 2007 by John Pares
Whatever the reasons, whatever had been said, agreed and done, I was disappointed with my own performance at the World Challenge in Canada in July. The physical breakdown at 16 hours I could live with, and learn from, but the fact that I'd given up, mentally, was praying on my mind. Immediately after Canada I'd decided to enter Tooting Bec to prove to myself that I could do better. Andy Smith, one of the GB handlers at Drummondville had offered to support me during the race and I kindly accepted his offer. I set myself a series of targets for the race:
* To go further than Canada (>131 miles)
* To record a decent distance for this year's rankings (>140 miles)
* A PB (>143 miles) o This was important as I had heard of several people who set a PB on their first 24 hour and never improved
* British and Commonwealth Number 1 (>147 miles) o Technically I didn't need to do this much for this year but I felt I had to pass Jim Rogers's distance from Verona 2006 to really make this claim.
* >150 miles
I also had three qualitative targets: to see whether I was the sort of ultra runner who could do a good race off a fairly quick turnaround; to gain more experience, especially in over-coming fatigue; and to finish strong. Training for this race had been interesting as I'd only had 9 weeks since Canada. In effect I'd had 2 weeks recovery, 4 weeks training covering 400 miles in total, then a 3 week taper. While this training had gone well the rest of my preparation hadn't been ideal: my diet had been poor (I'd put on weight) and all my strength training and conditioning had fallen by the wayside. On the day conditions seemed ideal: bright, cloudy and cool and, although my preparation hadn't been brilliant, I felt ready.
Unnervingly the race organiser had given me number 1, as last year's winner, and I felt like a target. As it was I set-off into the lead from the very start which also didn't suit me. I liked being the underdog! I found the first 4 hours quite tough. Running in a clockwise direction just didn't seem right and all the niggles of the last year started to show themselves, including some pain in my hips which was concerning me. Ian Champion, the race referee had decided that runners should run on the outside of the inner lane to allow overtaking on the inside. Faster runners had to shout "track" to ensure there was space to pass. I started doing this, and it worked quite well, apart from a few people who were reluctant to move over. It probably contributed quite a bit of distance to the overall race. Towards the end of this segment the result of the England victory over Australia, in the Rugby World Cup, also filtered through and was quite a morale booster.
Splits for the first 40km were: 49.45, 51.47, 53.42 and 51.54. We changed direction after 4 hours and I started to feel much better. I noticed during this time that Andy's awning was attracting a lot of visitors - Chris Finnill, Norman and Ann Wilson, Walter Hill - at one point I thought he was having a tea party and I wasn't invited! During this spell I took my first and only 'major' toilet stop and conceded the lead to Stephen Mason. This was Stephen's first 24 hour and he looked comfortable, moving at a steady pace but also moving quickly during his walk breaks. My food intake was going well - mostly cheesy mash and jelly babies. I thought my fluid intake was OK, and I didn't feel dehydrated, but was a little concerned at the time between toilet stops. I slowed to a more sustainable pace and splits for 10km in this segment were: 54.13, 58.31, 59.55, 60.30.
We were now into the evening with the overnight section ahead. The air started to feel much cooler and damper and I changed into long-sleeves and, a bit later, a lightweight windproof top, hat and gloves. I also started drinking some tea to help keep me warm. After my Canada experience I decided to deal with any problems early in the race and introduced some stretching around this time to keep loose as well as taking a couple of Ibuprofen (I hope this never gets on the banned list - that'll be the end of my ultra career!). However, after stopping for only a few moments I felt quite cold and realised I needed to keep moving. It was also at this point that my taste buds rebelled against the mash potato - I just couldn't eat it anymore and needed to find some alternatives. Custard, rice pudding, muesli bars and tinned fruit all seemed to do the job. 10km splits were: 60.22, 60.28, 56.58 and 59.51. This pace was still good although I was only at about 78 miles (125km) at half-way and my target had been >80 miles. I took stock at this point in the race as it was midnight and I was halfway through. The second clockwise segment hadn't seemed to cause too many problems. I felt in good shape, my hamstrings were a bit tight and my glutes slightly sore but otherwise no niggles, and mentally I was doing fine. Andy gave me some gentle massage and I can remember Ramona commenting as she ran past while Andy had his hands on my backside - I think she was just jealous! I found that the best stretch for my hips and glutes was lying on my back and pulling my knees up to my chest and outwards - a bit like the "dying fly" which didn't seem too far from the truth at times. I also took a look around and was pleased to see Stephen Mason still going strong and Ken Fancett also progressing well. I was particularly pleased to see Sharon Gaytor performing close to her best after her withdrawal in Canada. She had that look of determination about her that made it clear that she was going to finish well today. Ramona Thevenet-Smith, Andy's wife, was struggling with some lower back problems and had already been in for physio treatment. I hoped that she would come through it OK. During the next segment I started to feel sleepy. While most normal people would say, "John, it's 2am, of course you feel sleepy" it was strange to me as I hadn't experienced this before. It actually got to the stage where I was weaving a bit, even kicking the inside kerb a few times. Every few laps I kept saying, "Andy I feel so sleepy what can I do?" It actually got to the stage where I just wanted to lie down and sleep. All I could do was increase my caffeine intake (sweet coffee and coke) and keep going. At one point I noticed a bemused looking fox by the side of the track - just sat there watching the runners go round. Clearly he was having a surreal night as well. During this segment I passed 100 miles in 15.48.05, about 20 minutes behind target, and my 10km splits were: 71.15, 64.35, 63.20, 66.30.
It felt like I'd gone off the boil and my race plan showed that I was tailing away. The fifth segment, from 4am to 8am, was the most eventful of the race. One of the floodlights went off like a giant firework and started leaking smoke over the track. Combined with the morning mist this was quite a heady cocktail to be breathing after running for so long! The fire brigade arrived and failed to deal with it, deciding instead to just hang around and wait for it to stop smoking. I was concerned that they were going to stop the race and I was preparing my, "You'll have to kill me first" speech, but it didn't come to that thankfully. It was also in this segment that Ken Fancett, running very steadily, passed Stephen Mason and took a mile out of my lead in just one hour. Suddenly I didn't feel so sleepy any more. I was aware that I'd backed off a bit as I wanted to save something for the strong finish that had been one of my objectives. It was now about eighteen-and-a-half hours in and I hadn't planned to push on until about twenty. However, Ken's progress had shaken me and I started to feel a bit down about the race. The way he was going, and the way I felt mentally, he could be ahead by twenty hours and it might be too late for me to do anything about it. I needed to draw on my reserves, find some mental resources and win the race. I actually went through the mental process of identifying resources that I could use. My competitive instinct was one - I was not going to let Ken beat me. Secondly; my need to achieve my targets, and to be successful. Thirdly; I hate myself when I give up, it's so lame and I didn't want to feel like that again. Fourthly; I thought about the Lance Armstrong book that I had read recently and remembered, "use the pain, embrace the pain". Well, I had some pain I could use! Fifthly, I remembered a book called, "The Monk who sold his Ferrarri" and the author had talked about the power of mantras - repeated phrases that focus the mind and can drive performance. Well, I had one, "I am strong, I can do this". Finally, Andy walked onto the track and quietly, confidently and forcefully said, "Remember what we discussed yesterday". It was like one of those triggers that you see on hypnotist shows - that one sentence seemed to engage me back into my race plan and access all of the other resources I needed. I took off. The lap counters immediately spotted my increase in pace and started yelling encouragement, I was on my way. 10km plits for this segment were: 67.25, 77.10, 63.35 and 53.50 (the last one took me just over twenty hours).
I had thought that 150 miles was beyond me in this race but, just after the final change of direction, my lap counter announced, "200km" which meant that a 3.55 marathon would get me there. Challenging, but not impossible. I pushed on, chanting my mantra (interestingly it changed to "I am strong, I will do it"), completely focussed and feeling like the energy was just flowing through my body. The added bonus was that the sun was up and I could take off my windproof jacket and start to feel some warmth from it. I was alive. My next splits were: 55.03, 59.39 and 59.59. I had only been able to sustain the very high pace for a couple of hours but was still going well and had passed my PB (143 miles/ 230km) at 23 hours. This meant I had to cover about 7 miles in the last hour - that was a stretch but not impossible and I intended to give it a go. Then it all fell apart. I was suddenly aware of this deep, deep fatigue in my legs. I decided to walk a lap, regroup, and then push on. I walked but, when I tried to push on, the communication between my brain and legs just didn't seem to be functioning. I tried a few times and then resigned myself to walking. The race was effectively over and I just tried to clock up as many laps as I could in the last hour. In the end I covered about 4 miles for a total of 147 miles 357 yards (236.889km). A PB, GB and Commonwealth number 1 and a likely top 20 world-ranking. I was happy. This year, as well as receiving the winner's trophy, I was also the recipient of the Ongkar Tony Smith memorial trophy for the highest-placed Road Runners Club member. This was a very nice touch and a great tribute to Tony who had contributed so much to the running community in the UK. The after effects? I had some of the worst chafing ever - do not wear briefs under skins, it doesn't work! Apart from that two blisters and sore legs but I recovered very quickly. What next? Well, the Commonwealth 24 hour in 2009 is my main target so I want to double my experience and complete three more 24 hour races during 2008. Hopefully UK athletics will send me to one of the major championships, I would also like to do one of the continental races such as Appeldorn, and then I just need to find one other. It just remains to say, "thank you" to Shankara Smith and her Sri Chimnoy team, for organising another great race, and also to thank Andy for the great support he gave me during the race.