I wasn’t properly trained to run for twenty-four hours but I did a beef-fueled 52.5 mile training run in early May after not training for four months. 52.5 miles was the longest run by 12 miles I’d ever done at that point and it took me 9.5 hours.
While I realise my choice of fuel sounds weird, last year I did a dietary experiment where I ate nothing but beef for a month. 20 years of chronic and worsening skin inflammation went away within that month. At this point I’m ten months without needing steroid creams which is quite something since I previously couldn’t go a week. Additionally, I experienced a dramatic reduction in chronic, and worsening, IBS and extreme fatigue. My weight reduced to what it was when I was in secondary school and my exercise recovery increased dramatically. Was it all fun? Hell no. I experienced insomnia, breathlessness, dry skin, and tightness in the chest, but I had felt all these symptoms before – every time I gave up smoking cigarettes. Can I afford to eat beef all the time? Hell no, I can’t, and don’t, and after my one month experiment I opted for a more ketogenic dietary approach, which seems to suit me better in any case. Is it healthy long term? I don’t know, so I don’t recommend anybody tries it; but one thing I am sure of is, from a subjective standpoint, is that carbohydrates can be detrimental to good health in many ways.
My target for the race in Victoria Park is to clock 105 miles in 24 hours, which is exactly double the length of my longest ever run five weeks previously. I typically like my longest training run to be a greater distance than my race run but on this occasion I’m in uncharted waters.
Since I currently do about 50% of my training in barefoot shoes, it seems sensible to do part of Energia 24 in them and so I decide to do marathon distance in them.
Arriving in the park, I settle down in one of the tents provided by the organisers and spread out some bedding in the corner. Three other participants are sharing the tent with me and not one of them has any sleeping kit. “We came to run, not sleep,” they exclaim.
Before long the race is underway and I put Sigor Ros on my headphones as my intention is to float around the course in a trance.
Starting like an old man to finish like a young man is my plan for the race. When the race starts I wait till the pack have all got well on their way. This is not really a race, since I’m not trying to beat anybody. I’m just trying to hit my own personal target.
The weather is warm and pleasant. Many runners complain about it but I often like when the weather is warmer than what others find uncomfortable. I suspect I have some continental blood since I typically take on the appearance of a Spaniard when there’s any bit of sunshine, and am gripped with a sense of desolation in the deepest depths of winter.
Around and around I go. I’d planned on listening to some podcasts but end up listening to the banter of other runners instead.
I suspect every single person who enters a 24 hour is possessed of some demons and many are quite happy to talk about them.
There’s something unique about ultra runners. While in many other areas of life it feels like people want to box you up, categorise you, and put you on a pre-conceived shelf in an appropriate corner, with ultra runners you can just be. It doesn’t really matter who you are on the imaginary social scale, it only matters that you’re alive and perhaps like to have a bit of a laugh and a chin wag. Anybody who has ever done the Camino De Santiago or the Appalachian Trail will understand this.
The Buddha said life is suffering and during a 24 hour everybody suffers. The 24 hour is a microcosm of life.
At 26.2 miles my plan is going well and I hit my first target ahead of schedule with plenty of fuel left in the tank. My theoretical schedule is to run one marathon every 5 hours and have a steak break after each.
I spent half of the week pre-race feeling like I needed to wear a whiplash collar (I injured my neck about 4 years ago) but now that my engine is warm the pain and stiffness have subsided.
I was going to take off my barefoot shoes after 26.2 miles but decide to leave them on as I’m too lazy to rummage for my socks and shoes. This was arguably my first mistake.
The sun is hot at this point, and every body gleams with sweat. Aeroplanes from the nearby airport thunder over our heads intermittently, which I find adds to the atmosphere in a weird sort of way.
Round and around and round I go, and I start to think that maybe I’ll do the full 24 in my barefoot shoes but then I reason that the longest road run I’ve ever done in them is 40 miles and so decide that I should change into my “normal shoes” no later than forty miles.
Around 35 miles my feet start to hurt a little. By 39 miles I can feel my foot bones vibrate with every step, which has started to feel uncomfortable and so I realise it’s not sensible to keep them on a moment longer. The ground here, I realise, is concrete, which is somewhat harder and more unforgiving than the tarmac I’d previously run 40 miles on. And this is where things start to go downhill.
Putting on my Saucony Kinvaras feels like I’ve now got two big pillows attached to my feet and the pain that was starting to rear its head has lessened. I’m also picking up my pace again and am confident I’ll get my second marathon done in under ten hours.
At 50 miles my foot discomfort has rebounded and is slowing me down to an uncomfortable walk/hobble.
“Stupid asshole with his barefoot shoes, what’d he expect?” one might, quite logically, assert. However, barefoot running is one of the biggest reasons I’m here running today. I could not comfortably run before acquiring the form and stride correcting benefits of barefoot running. People think wearing them is attention seeking, but it’s not; it’s a crucial part of my training and always will be. My only mistake here was not factoring in the hardness of the surface I came to run on.
At 52.5 miles, which I hit in roughly 11 hours, my feet are hurting in a way that causes me concern and my shoes feel very tight which indicates my feet have started to swell.
I decide I may as well have a bit of a lie down but one of the other runners in my tent has hijacked my bed. I don’t mind because I’m not really tired so I just rest up a bit.
I feel like that part in Rocky where Sylvester Stallone’s eyes are so swollen he can’t see and he says “Cut Me Mick”. And I rise like a phoenix from the ashes and push.
“This is where your ultra really starts,” says another runner in the tent.
I hobble my way through the next lap, and hobble even more through the lap after that and I’m starting to suspect I may be on the brink of permanent foot damage.
I evict the occupant of my bed and lie down for about an hour. My mind is alive with an intense euphoria even though my target, I know, is gone.
I could pop some pain killers and carry on regardless, as a couple of well meaning runners suggested, but pain is your body’s engine warning light. Ignore it at your peril. Being able to run next week, next month, and next year are more important to me than a single event.
Since I’m not able to sleep, I get up and sit in a chair, my sleeping bag wrapped around me. My teeth start to chatter as the darkest hours of the night descend.
My shoes feel too tight so I undo them and sit there in my socks. While my original target has gone out the window I know I can hobble my way to 100kms and probably a bit beyond.
The cool night air calms my feet down and they eventually start to feel a bit less achy, though not great. My whole body is shaking with the cold now though and so my only two options are to sit and freeze or to hobble onward in an attempt to warm up a bit. As the saying goes – sometimes the only way around suffering is to barrel on through it.
My top and bottom teeth clattering off of each other, I push myself onward. My legs have seized up a bit from resting and lifting each one feels like lifting a big lump of concrete. I don’t really want to keep going but badly need to warm up. I put on some music to distract myself.
“Society, you’re a crazy breed, I hope you’re not lonely without me,” drones Eddie Vedder in my ears. “Why am I doing this?” I ask myself, and Bob Dylan says “The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind” and that “I’m knock knock knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
I get my body temperature up a little but I’m just getting slower and slower and slower. My shoes are pissing me off and I finally realise what some user reviews were complaining about when they mentioned part of the lacing system irritating their feet. It never bothered me before but I’d never run much further than fifty miles before either. Anything not quite right with a shoe is magnified in significance over the course of an ultra marathon.
In the dark of the night I start to think I see small bugs darting around on the path. The light and tiredness, I know, are playing tricks on me but it’s kind of an interesting visual display all the same.
In the next instant I look up and see a big Doberman standing there, as still as death, looking at me. “How could he be so still?” I marvel, as I come closer to it and then realise I’m actually looking at a park bench.
I chuckle a bit to myself. “Am I hallucinating?” I wonder, “Or have I gone irreversibly insane?”
Amused for a moment, a wave of extreme sleepiness hits. Usually I am asleep before I start to dream but on this occasion it seems the dream has started before the sleep, which is a new experience for me.
Like a big bear from Goldilocks, I resolve that no matter who’s sleeping in my bed they better be gone by the time I reach it.
Chattering a bit to another competitor who is also hobbling, a race official says to me “You can’t be assisting people on the course or you’ll be disqualified”. “I’m competing,” I tell him, but he can’t see my number because I have a jacket on. “Unzip your jacket and show me,” he says. “Do you not trust me?” I ask, about as irritable as a bear coming home to find someone has sat in his chair, slept in his bed, and ate all his porridge. “I need to see it,” he insists, and I begrudgingly unzip my jacket. “Just make sure you open it at the end of your lap or the lap might not be counted,” he advises with a friendly smile, which calms my rat bastard brain. I nod.
Getting back to the tent I discover my bed to have been vacated and I crawl in, sleep gripping me almost instantly. I think I feel little insects crawling on my face but it’s not much of a concern. “More imaginings,” I think, as I fade into oblivion. The funny thing is when I unpacked my bag at home, after the event, a bunch of little black beetles scurried out of it and across the floor. Evidently they weren’t the imaginings of a madman.
After about an hour the call of nature wakes me up and so I drag myself out of the bed, go to the loo, and hobble through another lap only to find someone else sleeping in my bed. I’m awake now, and a bit less frozen, so just sit in a daze watching other runners go by.
I take a pint of milk from my bag and it tastes like the most lovely thing in the world and life feels grand.
After a time my bed is free again and so I get in and sleep a bit more before pressing onwards.
By now the sun is coming above the horizon and a sense of new beginnings washes over me as my body soaks up the sun’s rays as if they had been sent by God himself.
I feel like a baby cocooned inside its mother’s womb. Safe, protected, warm, hopeful, wanted. There’s no past here, no present, no future, no worries, no anxiety, only the warm embrace of dawn accompanied by the chorus of birds awakening from their respective slumbers.
“Are you enjoying it now?” another runner, who had started in barefoot shoes asks me.
“Yeah, I’m happy enough now that the sun has come up,” I reply.
Filled with a renewed sense of optimism I increase my speed and in the next instant am hitting 8 minute mile pace. “If I can keep this up for the next few hours I might hit my 105 mile target,” I think. But then, after about four minutes of renewed optimism, my feet feel like they are being pounded with a hammer and both my achilles tendons feel a bit sharp. Slowing to a hobble is my only course of action.
At this point I’m hitting 18 minute mile pace and even at that need to take many breaks. I feel pretty good though. Several competitors have dropped out and others have taken rather ill.
Fatigue and euphoria pulse through me in equal measure. Each lap might be my last but I’m okay with that. Earlier on I had a moment where I felt like a failure for not being able to keep pace to get my target 105 miles and had resolved to not even write this blog post since it would not be a triumphant one.
As each lap might be my last each day could be my last day on earth. In the duration of the 24 hours I learned to accept that each lap could be my last but I gradually learned to slow down and accept each lap as a bonus.
At 11 hours into the 24 the race was already over for me. I realise that now. I could blame my choice of fuel being wrong, wearing my barefoot shoes too long, my bed being hijacked, or any one of a number of other things, but none of them would be true. The fact is I hadn’t done enough appropriate training. Having done a personal best marathon of 3:09 only 3 weeks previously, and a Pb on a mountainous course the week prior to that, I sabotaged my ability to log long mile training runs in the final stages of my time before Belfast.
Still, thinking back over the last two months I realise I improved my finish time by 2 hours on one marathon course, knocked one minute off my marathon personal best, and ran, walked and hobbled the furthest I had ever done in my life prior to now. I did this while following a diet which was mostly devoid of any carbohydrates and without having trained for the first four months of the year.
Hobble a lap, rest, chat, eat, repeat is how the closing laps of the race proceeds for me as the end moves ever closer.
Last year’s champion, Aidan Hogan, who ran over 150 miles to win is looking all set to win again this year even though, since about halfway through, he has been running with a sideways tilt which looks to me like he is very seriously injured. The incredible thing is that he somehow manages to maintain his pace, only slowing down slightly in the closing hours. It’s worrying to watch but also morbidly fascinating and inspiring. I feel the organisers should make him stop, that he should make himself stop, but they don’t and he doesn’t and in the end he seems more devastated that he was beaten by five miles than the possibility he may be seriously injured. His mile count was 141.
At the close of the race there are many spectators clapping and calling out my name; it’s on my bib below my number. It feels like having died, gone through hell, and waking up to an enthusiastic welcome into heaven where all your deceased friends and family are there to welcome you.
The last few minutes of the race eventually arrive and I decide to up my pace so as to complete one more lap before it’s all over.
“1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5,” I say to myself, out loud, as I ramp up my speed to get that last lap in. It’s as if by breaking the last mile down into step bursts of five at a time makes the task of going that last lap psychologically more achievable. I hit around 10 minute mile pace and it’s probably the fastest lap I’ve done in 12 hours. “The donkey always runs faster on the way home” is a saying that springs to mind.
My plan was to start the race like an old man and finish like a young man but what actually happened is that I finished more like an even older man.
A sense of relief and joy fill the air now that the race is over. Hugs, handshakes, and smiles are exchanged. New friends have been made, new bonds have been forged, old psychological boundaries have been overcome.
Today is a new day, and the first of the rest of our lives.