I sat at the race briefing of the Self Transcendence 24 Hour Race at the Tooting Bec athletics track in a bit of disbelief as to what I was attempting to do in 24 hours. A few weeks ago, I had written to the Malaysia Book of Records to see if they were interested in recording my performance in this race as there are no official websites in Malaysia which properly lists the 24 hour running times and based on DUV, I thought that I stood a realistic chance in setting a decent distance over the 24 hours.
I started ultra-running this year (2019), being fed up of forever chasing times over the marathon distance because everyone did it. Truth was, I did not enjoy marathons, and I frankly hated the training. I wanted to be able to run freely, for however long or short I wanted, whenever I wanted, many times a day if I so wished. Having listened to Vassos Alexander’s book ‘Running up that hill’, a particular race interested me – Spartathlon. So I looked up the qualification criteria and set out to meet it.
I signed up to the Samphire 100, a trail looped course in the middle of winter to try and achieve this goal of sub 22 hour 100 miles. In typical British weather, there were gale force winds of up to 86mph gusts along the coast of Dover. I told myself, if I don’t reach it this time, it’s ok because the weather was bad. Cutting the long story short, I managed 21:36 and qualified for Spartathlon. So I set out to find my next challenge, as my qualifying time was too late for the 2019 draw.
I slowly met some friends in the ultra-running community in London who have done all the iconic races and they suggested the Tooting 24, which brings together 45 of the most experienced and promising ultra runners from all over the world to overcome the mental and physical challenge of running a 24-hour race over a 400m track. No navigation required – great, I get lost trying to find food, let alone running…
A week after I submitted my application, I got the acceptance email. So I sat down with my coach (Peter McHugh, Run Fast) to plan my schedule for the race. In his words – this will be a challenge both mentally and physically, so we need to get you absolutely ready for this. I have also been working with a strength and conditioning coach (Graham Ferris) to ensure that my muscles can take the load.
An example of a training week during the peak weeks look like this:
Monday: 10 miles easy
Tuesday: 7 miles easy (AM), 8 miles with 4-5miles of track effort (5-10k pace)
Wednesday: 8 miles (AM), strength and conditioning (PM)
Thursday: 18 miles tempo session (AM), 7 miles recovery (PM)
Friday:10 miles easy
Saturday: 12 miles hills plus warm-up and cool down
Sunday: 20 miles long run
Sometimes the week varies with extra-long training runs or racing fatigued. I do 45-mile night runs with my ultra friends starting at 10 pm and ending at sunrise; or a 30 mile run at the weekend.
Given that it was autumn and the previous weeks of weather were nearer 10 degrees, London had an Indian summer which saw temperatures rise to 26+ degrees. Whilst this doesn’t sound hot for Malaysia, everything is relative. Temperatures in September are normally around 17 degrees, which was more optimal racing temperatures. But the upside was, we won’t be freezing at night!
I was very nervous about the heat as the temperatures were due to remain high with thunderstorms forecast. It was also the longest, and possibly furthest distance I would ever run on a flat track. The most amazing part of the race was having a personal lap counter (as well as chip timing), who acknowledges you on every lap and lets you know when you hit key distances like marathon, 50 miles, 100k etc. It brings the race to a more personable level and it was really lovely.
There were many regulars at this race, including veteran Geoffrey Oliver, who at 86, still runs these races and maintains a consistent speed throughout the race. He is an inspiration to all and he set 8 world records in the race last year!
Early stages of the race
I ran most of the first 4 hours with my teammate, George Lloyd, who is a seasoned ultra runner. We kept the pace chatty, and it was good to have company because we were running around a 400m track and needed some mental stimulation.
My husband, Matt, was my main crew anchorman, accompanied by George’s wife, Laura. They kept on top of filling our bottles and making sure we were eating something every hour.
The direction changes every 4 hours, which was a relief on the hips and knees due to the repetition.
I struggled to fuel in the heat and was trying not to throw up (like many in the race), so kept the pace to feel. I changed kit when salt started to crust on my tops to try and mitigate chaffing.
My fuel consisted of – Precision Hydration sachets, Maurten Fuel (especially in the hotter hours when I didn’t want to eat), mochi, jelly babies, plain sandwiches and a few Chia Charge bars.
The early stages of the race flew by. As the race was in London, friends from my running clubs came to watch and it was fun chatting to them (interspersed with completing the lap).
When night fell, things got a little harder as the sleep chimp emerged! I had other friends helping Matt with crewing so that he could have a nap/eat dinner. I’m not quite sure what happened in those hours as it was a truly self-transcendence experience. I was moving well even though I had to stretch a few times. My physiotherapist, who was also a teammate and great friend, came to support and gave my legs a little refresh shake, which was really nice about halfway in!
I hit 100k in 10:56 and it was in line with what I thought I could achieve sensibly.
I had many chats with the participants overnight, hearing their inspiring ultra running stories and feeling inspired!
I found the sunrise the hardest bit, even though logically it should be the refreshing bit! I think it throws your body clock a bit. As this was my first overnight and into the morning race (I finished my 100 miler in the dark), this was a new experience for me.
I hit a few lows in the later stages – mostly questioning why did I sign up to run hundreds of laps around a track and also feeling a little tired of the scenery!
My crew rotated every 4 hours as my friends were all keen to help and I didn’t want to impose on them. So having them rotate every 4 hours also brought cheers!
My coach turned up to support at 7 am (I think), and as I was close to the 100-mile point, I picked up the pace and achieved a new 100 mile PB at 19:46. I was warned by many friends that people often go off too fast to nail a quick 100-mile time and basically give up after. So I was keen to be sensible with the times I was after so that I could last the full 24 hours.
There were a few scattered showers in the morning, which was refreshing for us runners but not so good for the crew!
More of my club friends turned up, putting on some tunes and dancing to them to entertain me. However, I hit a low after about 22 hours of running. My feet were very sore from the hard track, and I could feel them screaming at me! George and I had also regrouped at this point so it was a bit more bearable.
I think I had lost my sense of humour at this point, and I also cried a few times (no idea why, just did). We kept moving, which was key.
I went into the race saying I’d be happy with 180km, which is the IAU National standard. No idea how or what it would feel like, but it was a lofty goal. I roughly worked out when I should be hitting key distances so I knew I was on track.
My feet were in so much agony that I had to change into my slippers in the last hour. So, yes, I walked the last hour quickly and managed 185.9km. I was delighted to finish, and I also swore I never want to see a running track for a long time! My friends gathered around at the finishing line and it was such a beautiful thing to be surrounded by people who have supported you in the journey.
It wasn’t my finest race, but I was glad with the outcome. I had underestimated how mentally tough it would be running around a flat 400m track for 24 hours.
I came 3rd lady and 11th overall, which was a surprise as I stopped looking at the leaderboard and told my crew to not tell me so that I could run my own race!
This was a Malaysia Book of Records achievement, and according to the race organisers and what they could find on DUV, I broke 6 Malaysian records (6hour, 12 hour, 24hr, 50k, 100k and 100 mile). I had achieved a quicker time earlier this year on a 50 mile race so did not break that time!
As this is still my first year in ultrarunning, I am still on the learning curve of what works and what doesn’t. Having friends in the community can help with suggestions, but ultimately, you have to try it out yourself to know whether it works or not!
So the key things I need to fix for the next long ultra (hopefully Spartathlon) would be – how to make sure I have sufficient calories in the heat, sorting out how my feet feel in the latter stages of the race, as well as the elusive solution to chafing!
Until then, I will be having an active recovery and eating all the food…
Wow wow wow Alison. I’m speechless 😶 I’m in awe! I’m so so so proud of you. Congratulations again!