The 24 Hour Race: A counter's perspective by Bhasini and Arpita of the Sri Chinmoy AC
After a hard day's work in a specialist running shop on the busiest day of the week all you want to do is go home to bed. On a recent Saturday, however, that was not an option. It was the annual Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race at Tooting Bec track and I was counting the runners for the 2nd shift - midnight Saturday to midday Sunday.
After a brief stop at home to shower and put on all the warm clothes I possess, I headed to the racetrack. As I approached I could see the floodlights through the trees illuminating the unique scene on the track. By then, the runners had been going for nearly 10 hours. Some had dropped already, some looked like they were about to and the rest were resolutely plodding on. Relieving the weary day shift counters, I took my place beside my cheery night shift companions, all of whom had also finished a busy day at work. And so the counting began.
Concentration is essential. You can laugh, joke and sing with the other counters but just don't miss your runners. It also helps if you're not too mathematically challenged as calculating multiple lap splits at 4 am can get a little tricky. I made it my aim not to miss my runners even once even though at times they tried to fool me by changing clothes or putting on a hat. Their favourite trick was to come round in exactly double their normal lap split. For example, if they were doing steady 3.30 minute laps, they would occasionally throw in a 7 minute lap just to make me think I'd missed a lap. The excuses were normally something like "I had to change my shoes" or "I was getting something to eat". Once when I shouted "Where have you been?" I got the reply "None of your business!"
And so the night went on. In spite of our regular repetitions of "It's getting light now", "Don't you think it's lighter than it was before?" and "I think it's getting lighter", it remained dark for a very long time. When the dawn eventually came it was magnificent. Striking pink and orange. Suswara (chief lap counter) announced to the counting shed "You can't see it but there's a beautiful sunrise happening behind you" and then panicked as we ran out to watch it, leaving 30 or so runners unattended. (We were back at our posts within seconds - we're professionals after all).
When my fellow night shift counters started to be replaced so they could grab a few hours well-earned rest, I found I was too wired to follow them. Either the inspiration of watching all those runners pushing back the barriers was keeping me awake or it was the coffee, tea, chocolate, sandwiches and biscuits I'd been consuming all night. I was also much too attached to the runners I was counting to even dream of letting someone else take over. I'd been with them this far and I was going to stay with them until the bitter end.
My female runner reached the 100 mile mark and my male runner reached the 100 km mark at exactly the same time. It was a beautiful thing. But for me perhaps the most beautiful moment of the whole event was at 8 am on Sunday morning, when a Starbucks Grande Americano materialised on the table before me. Sahadeva, patron saint of coffee drinkers was responsible, and I offer him my everlasting gratitude.
Finally at midday the gun was fired to signify the end of the race and we all stood to applaud the runners heroic achievements, many of us with tears in our eyes. Physically and emotionally exhausted they thanked us for counting them and we praised their courage and determination. Happiness, gratitude and satisfaction were the prevailing emotions at the award ceremony.
The winner of the women's race turned 63 that day and when we gave her a cake she said, "This is the best birthday I've ever had."
There is a runner who we call "Smiler" because at previous 24 hour races he smiles throughout. And this race was no exception. After the event, looking through the many photos that had been taken, I couldn't find a single shot of him with anything other than a huge smile on his face.
When I left the track that Sunday I was smiling just like him. In the words of Sri Chinmoy, the founder of the event:
Runners are smilers, runners
Theirs are the victory banners
Runners are smilers, runners
A new world builders
Arpita's reflections on just being a helper:
As far as challenges go, running round a 400 metre track for 24 hours must rate amongst the toughest. Unfortunately, this particular running experience is not for me, but I play my small part by helping out in any way I can.
Having worked the usual busy Saturday at Run and Become in Edinburgh, I flew down to Heathrow, endured the hot and stuffy London tube to arrive at Tooting Bec track around 9pm. The race started at 12 noon. It's such a sharp contrast between the hectic rush of the day and arriving at the track.
The patter of runners' feet as they run lap, after lap, after lap, after lap, after lap creates an oasis of calm. Not what you would expect from such a gruelling race, and make no mistake, these runners are all pushing themselves well beyond the comfort zone. However, the oneness between the runners and helpers all working towards the same goal: to create the perfect race for each runner, really gives this race its unique atmosphere.
Runners include the immortal Don Ritchie, the amazingly sprightly 71 year old Geoff Oliver and the ever cheerful poised Dan Coffey (73 years old) and Peter Zuidema, from the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, Holland. The women include the again immortal Hilary Walker as well as Jill Green (63 years old) Susan Clements and Helga Backhaus from Berlin who chat away while they run effortlessly round the track. It seems a pity to select some runners and not others because each runner has their own story and their own inspiration, but I do so only because some of these runners are familiar to me from previous years and others definitely deserve a mention.
My husband, Tarit Adrian Stott definitely deserves a big mention from me as I know the time and commitment, which he gives to his running but this year he wasn't at his fittest and had just come to see what he can do! Famous last words from a competitive ultra runner! He managed 100 miles, which in the circumstances was great. He would probably say otherwise!
Behind the scenes the calm efficiency of Ongkar Tony Smith, the race organiser; the encouraging cheerfulness of the counting crew; the caring service of the refreshment crew all combine to make a flawless race. No ultra would be complete without a timekeeper and a statistician and Don Turner as usual worked selflessly behind the scenes to provide his customary excellent services. Also Ian Champion, the Race Referee, with tireless perfection ensured that as runners reached their 100 miles (a significant goal in any 24 hour race) they were recorded.
This race is truly legendary and definitely leaves you inspired to train more for whatever your particular goal is, whether it's two miles or "beyond the marathon".