We'd waitied 25 years for a woman to win this race, then 3 came along at once! A truely phenominal weekend saw the top three places go to women with Fionna Ross and Isobel Wykes recording distances to place them 5th and 6th respectively on the UKA Women's all time list.
In September 2013 Geoff Oliver had just turned 80 years young, and took part in the Self Transcendence 24 Hour Track race at Tooting Bec in South London. Like all experienced athletes who have been running for many years, in Geoff’s case over 60, he prepared as best he could, and came with a goal and a plan. He duly broke, or set, completely new marks for all the recognized ultra distances from 30 miles up to 24 hours, with the exception of 100 miles, which he fell some 5 miles short of.
Well, as runners, we all know the feeling you get when you are so close to something, and for whatever reason it doesn’t quite work. It bugs you somewhat! Sometimes you accept it and say to yourself, “I gave it my best shot, lets move on”.
In Geoff’s case, and at Geoff’s age, he freely admits you need a little bit of luck in staying injury free, and in good health to tackle life’s wee challenges, like the odd 24 hour race. In 2013 he had had a few issues in the lead up to the race, but 2014 seemed to have been going well for him. Whether last years race was still bugging him, I am not sure, but he was back for another crack.
In the early hours of the 2014 race, held over the weekend of September 21st 22nd, he set off steadily, as you usually do in a 24hour event. For those unfamiliar with a 24hour race, the idea is to cover a fixed loop that has been accurately measured, in this case a 400 metre track, and see how many laps you can complete in the 24 hours. Whereas, most running events are the classic set distance like 800m or a marathon, and completed in a certain variable time, in this case the time is set, and the distance is the variable result. It is as much an inner mental and spiritual challenge as it is physical. To do well you have to be fit, but also able to tap into all those intangible but also very real qualities, like determination, hope, being in the moment and just dealing with things as they happen minute by minute, or hour by hour. It is much like any event really, just that it goes on longer, and you usually have more to deal with!
Geoff has learned over a lifetime of running, to handle all these things quite well. Those of us who have known him and run with him in events or observed him, know he is an amazingly quiet, humble unassuming man.
Unlike many folk at a 24hour race, he doesn’t come with a support crew or helper or a car boot full of supplies. He turns up usually having taken the train to the race, with one wee kit bag that has a few spare clothes for the cooler nighttime running. During the race, he is happy to help himself to the refreshments on offer at the trackside feed station. Geoff has discovered though that the key to amassing a good distance in a 24 hour race, is to run evenly and just stay on the track, walking or running, with just short pit stops for calls of nature, or to change gear.
About 6 hours into the race this year, Geoff has just been running steadily. He seems to be locked into his own rhythm and easing into the race without any real idea yet how he is doing. My key role at the event is looking after all the race stats and timekeeping,
“How am I doing? “ he asks as he passes me standing at trackside.
“You are doing well” I say, “Slightly up on last year”.
“Oh really” he replies, “I felt I was going slower”.
Geoff has in fact already surpassed the world best performances for an 80 year old, at the 30mile and 50km points, as he continues to circle the track hour after hour. These are records he already holds, from last years’ event. Over the next 18 hours he will set another 5 world bests and one UK best.
With 4 hours to go and 20 hours of running behind him, Geoff is keen to know if it is possible for him to reach the 100mile mark in the 24 hours, if he maintains the pace he is going. I do some quick calculations after consulting his lap sheets. (Every lap, of every runner is being meticulously recorded).
I inform him, that it is possible, but as we are well aware of his age, just tell him to keep it steady, and no need to push it harder, and at any rate he is on course to set a new record for the 24 hour distance for an 80 year old.
With an hour to go, it could still go either way, but Geoff, now finally looking a tad tired, is still doggedly circling the track. The determination on his face seeming to proclaim that “age is no barrier”.
With 10 minutes to go, Shyamala, my daughter who has been monitoring the progress of the runners towards the 100mile point, informs me, that it looks like he will not quite make the 100 miles before the 24 hour hooter goes to signal the end of the race, but it will be agonizingly close. Her brain is obviously working better than mine, (I have had no sleep, she managed to grab a couple of hours!).
Shyamala has worked out he will probably be less than a lap short of the 100 mile mark, so why don’t we let him keep going so he has at least recorded a 100mile time.
A quick chat with Shankara, the race director, and also a quick word with Geoff, and we have a plan! At the 24hour hooter everyone stops and drops the little marker they have been carrying the last few minutes so the final part lap can be recorded. Geoff will continue running to reach the 100mile point.
The hooter duly sounds and shattered runners come to a standstill, all relieved they can now finally stop.
For Geoff, he has literally another 200 metres to reach the 100mile mark, which he does in 24 hours 01minute and 18 seconds. It doesn’t matter that it is outside the 24 hours. We will still put the time forward for ratification, as we believe it is the first time an 80 year old has run 100 miles in a continuous effort. (It has certainly been achieved in a multi day race.)
To say he is unsteady on his feet at the end, is a bit of an understatement, but help is on hand, in the shape of his grandson and his wife , who have been here for the last 2-3 hours of the race looking out for him. The medical crew too, all too aware of what Geoff has been trying to achieve are monitoring from a distance, but seemed happy he is in good hands.
At the post race prize giving, after race winner Fionna Ross, Geoff probably receives the loudest cheers and applause of anybody, and asks to say a few words. He then says a few choice words of encouragement to the “younger runners“ and heaps praise on Shankara and her organizing crew. Then it is time to head off to catch his train home to Leicestershire. I feel sure we will see him again in 2015 though, health and fitness permitting. That minute and a half will bug him!
Here are Geoff’s respective times and distances for 2013 and 2014. All 2014 performances are (subject to ratification) world over 80 best performances, except the 100km* which is “only” a British record.
30 Miles 5:19:37 5:32:31
50KM 5:29:19 5:43:07
40 miles 7:51:26 7:55:45
6hours 52.800 km 52.265 km
50 miles 10:17:14 10:20:32
12 hours 91.413km 9.732KM
100km* 13:21:24 13:55:09
24 hours 160.745 km 152.295 km
100miles 24.01.17 not reached
The 25th running of The Self Transcendence 24 Hour race was held at Tooting Bec track on 20th /21st September 2014. Fionna Ross from Edinburgh’s Harmeny Athletic Club, who in her first attempt at a 24 hour event at Tooting in 2013 had impressed everyone with a distance of 216.214 km (134.1 miles) and finishing in second place overall, a new event record, was back to defend her title.
This year she went one better and beat all the men to win the race out right. In the process setting a new Scottish women’s record for 24 hours.
The whole goal of a 24 hour race is to see how much distance you can cover in a 24 hour time span. In this event it involved circling the 400metre track, with each lap of every runner being meticulously recorded.
Ross (34) managed to run 582 laps to record 233.018kilometres, or 144 miles 1391 yards, beating the existing Scottish record set by Sharon Law (Garscube Harriers) by over 4 miles. (Law had set this mark 226.107km (140m 872 yards) at the World 24 championships in Holland in 2013.) Along the way Ross also eclipsed Law’s 200km record by over 18 minutes as well recording 20 hours 28 min 41 sec.
It is not unique for women to win longer ultra races outright. Debbie Martin-Consani won the 144 mile Grand Union Canal Race outright in 2012 and British ultra legends Hilary Walker and Eleanor Robinson managed it several times in 24 and 48 hour races. Helene Diamentides, paired with Martin Stone, famously won the inaugural Dragon’s Back ultra in 1992.
This year though, in an incredible display of “girl power”, women filled the first three places in the race, with Ross’s fellow GB ultra international Issy Wykes (Truro AC, Cornwall) pushing her hard in the last few hours to record 230.100 km (142 miles 1757yds) and fellow Scot, Noanie Heffron (Kilbarchan) with 213.011 km (132miles 631yds) in third.
In the early hours of the race Ross, using the experience gained in last years race, started steadily. Heffron settled into a steady pace too and Wykes, cautious in her first 24 hour event, even more so. Ross reached the 50km mark (31.1miles) in 4 hours 50 minutes with fellow Scot Noanie Heffron in 5 hours 02 min and Wykes some 20 minutes behind in 5 hours 20 minutes.
By 50miles (7:46:20 to 8:17:00) Ross had increased her lead over Heffron and Wykes, and was steadily passing all the men who had possibly started a little enthusiastically!
When 100km was reached in 9:43:34 Ross was lying in second place overall behind race leader, Ireland’s Brian Ankers (9.35). Heffron (10:23) and Wykes (10;27) were also closing in.
Just before the half way mark at 12hours, with Ankers taking a short “time out” Ross became outright leader. The 12 hour leader board showed Ross with 122.4km (76.06mls) Ankers, 120.4 km (74.8mls), with Wykes in third 114.8km (71.33ml) just a lap ahead of Heffron 114.4km (71.08 mls).
Competent 24 hour runners often talk of the long hours, usually mainly in darkness, between 12 hours and reaching the 100mile point. It is a long haul, when your body is often by habit trying to convince you, you should be asleep. You are getting totally fed up with drinking the same drinks, your digestive system is pretty much in hibernation, and you don’t feel like eating anything, but you know you have to keep nibbling and sipping away, or a big crash is awaiting you a few hours down the road.
Ross, and the other runners were no doubt having similar feelings, but relentlessly she, Wykes and Heffron were circling the track, edging closer to that 100mile mark. Ross slipped past the 100mile mark first in 16 hours 11 minutes 32 seconds. She is slightly slower than her 100mile split of last year (15h.58min) but this is all part of her plan to eventually achieve a better overall 24hour distance. Izzy Wykes, although 30 minutes behind, at the 100miles in 16h 45m 05 sec, is looking strong though and moving well; the experience gained in placing first lady in her first “long” ultra this summer, the Grand Union Canal Race, now standing her in good stead. Noanie Heffron reaches the 100 in 17;37;35 and is now comfortably in third place after trading places with Slovakian Michel Masnik, the leading man for an hour or so.
All 24 hour runners know that if one wants to achieve not just a good distance, but a great distance, the 100mile mark is just a stepping stone, and now the foundations have been laid, one just has to summon up that hidden will to keep up that steady, relentless, effort for a few more hours. All the time, you are just dealing with all manner of thoughts and feelings that are trying to pierce your concentration, and convince you to ease back or take a wee break. Taking a wee break is the last thing on these three ladies minds, they have all come into the race with their own personal goals, and slowly, lap by lap, they are edging closer to them.
Slowly the first signs of dawn appear, with chinks of light appearing in the sky beyond the glow of the track lights. There is a distinct autumnal chill in the air, at this early hour. With dawn, as always, comes hope, or in the runners case, the knowledge that the race end is in sight and achievable, albeit a few hours away still.
As the day gets brighter some runners, who have left the track for wee breaks start reappearing. For our leading 3 runners, there is no let up. Ross is checking how close she is to 200km, (124.5 miles) and when I tell her she is getting close, and, but for some unforseen imminent disaster, is sure to break Sharon Laws existing Scottish 200km mark, she looks as if she doesn’t quite believe me at first, but reassured, seems to renew her focus.
The 200km mark is duly reached in 20 hours 28 minutes and 40 seconds, 18minutes inside the old mark. That time was also set in a 24 hour race where Law went on to set the existing Scottish 24 hour record. Ross now has to refocus and set her sights on another 16 miles ahead to achieve that. She now has something else to occupy her thoughts though, for slowly, Wykes has been gaining ground and is just over 20 minutes behind. 20 minutes seems a good enough cushion, but any thoughts from Ross of “just cruising” through the last 3 hours, have also to be dealt with, and readjusted.
Wykes has her own goal in mind, and has come into the race with the aim of surpassing the GB 24 hour qualifying standard of 210km. She reaches 200km in 20:53:08 and seems quite emotional to realize she has 3 hours to cover 10km. I calmly tell her it is a 24 hour race and just to try and concentrate on 3 hours more running, as it now obvious to those watching, that Ross and Wykes, along with Heffron, are all feeding off each other, and if they can indeed keep their momentum going are all destined to not only reach their pre race goals but surpass them considerably. All three of them still look remarkably focused although the first glimpses of fatigue are now showing.
With 2 hours to go Ross is just short of 133 miles (214 km 535 laps) 5 laps short of her 2013 distance, and a new PB beckons. Wykes, is 9 laps behind with 130.75 miles (210.4 km) and has achieved her goal of reaching the GB team standard. Heffron, now certainly feeling the effects of 20 hours on a track at 196km, is closing in on 200km. With the understanding that a 24 hour race is all about distance over time, they all know, that they can push their mileage up some way, in those last 2 hours.
In the penultimate hour, when many of the competitors are now reduced to a walk or a shuffle
Wykes covers 24 laps, just under 10km, to reach 136.7 miles. Ross, determined not to let her advantage get any smaller, manages 25 laps, to total 139.1 miles and looks like victory is secure. Both of them now certain to go beyond the 140 mile barrier, a distance only achieved by 9 British women. Heffron has gone through 200km (22:27:30) and is also closing down on 210km.
With the clock showing 23 hours and 15 minutes, Ross starts lap no 565. It is on this lap that she will surpass her good friend, Sharon Law’s current Scottish 24 hour record of 226.1km.She would probably like to stop and celebrate, but that will have to wait, as the nature of a 24 hour event, is that the new record is now ever evolving with each lap Ross covers. Wykes, like many of the other runners, seems galvanized that there is now under an hour to go and looks the stronger of the two. Indeed she is actually lapping the track faster than anyone.
Heffron, achieves her goal of 210 km with 20 minutes remaining, but getting the drift of what this “24 hour stuff” is all about, is showing a steely determination to run right to the hooter at noon.
When the hooter goes at the end of a 24 hour event, there is a sense of total relief that you can now actually switch off, and stop pushing yourself. For hour after hour, all the runners in their own way have had to summon up something almost beyond physical capacity, as they strive to achieve their respective goals. It is no different on this occasion.
A very tired Ross, who was running her second 24 hour event, and earlier this summer won the 95 mile West Highland Way race, commented afterwards, “That was the hardest race I have run yet, I knew Izzy was closing on me, slowly in the last few hours, so I couldn’t afford to let up at all, but it probably helped both of us to achieve the final distances we did. I had hoped going into the race that if all went well I could get close to Sharon’s record, but you never know how these races will evolve. I am absolutely shattered, but very, very happy. I am so happy for Izzy, she ran such a strong race. I also realized just how important a good support crew is. Karen (GB 24 hour international Karen Hathaway) was just outstanding and I was so grateful for all her experience”
Wykes (36) was running her first 24 hour event after wining the 145 mile Grand Union Canal race from Birmingham to London earlier this year. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet, I am absolutely thrilled. My goal was to try and achieve the GB team qualifying distance for the World 24 hr champs next year 210 km (131 miles), but just didn’t expect I could run over 140 miles.”
Noanie Heffron, who was actually nursing a minor calf issue throughout, said “ I ran the Glenmore trail 24 hour last year, at Aviemore, and really enjoyed that. (She covered 203 km). I wanted to see what I could do on an accurately certified course, and am thrilled to reach the GB team Standard. Whether it will get me in the team, I don’t know, there are several other girls with the standard too.”
For our three exceptional ladies, who have all achieved something beyond their original expectations, it will be a day or two before the true reality of what they have done, sinks in.
Ross and Wykes distances are indeed exceptional. As well as putting Ross as no 1 in the Scottish all time rankings, it puts her 5th all time on the GB 24 hour lists, and Wykes into 6th place. In perspective, only 4 of GB’s outstanding ultra runners of recent years, Emily Gelder, Hilary Walker, Eleanor Robinson and Lizzy Hawker have run further in 24 hours. Good company to be in indeed. Heffron too, is now in the GB all time top 20.
What is also exceptional too, is these three ladies, are all so very down to earth. Absolutely set on bringing the best out of themselves and each other, but always just totally enjoying there running.
Race report copyright Adrian Tarit Stott and Run and Become.
This report shows a breakdown of 10K spilts for each competitor.
This report shows distances recorded at 6 hourly intervals