Technically speaking, I have only one more big race to go in 2021 – the Clint Eastwood LOS in Brisbane next month. Until May when I completed the Lighthorse Ultra 24hr in Perth, my A race this year had been the megarace 1,001km in Germany. While it is still going ahead in September with only 17 runners, instead of 100, and a much more limited course than the originally planned, it’s going to happen without me, and most probably without any competitors from outside of Europe.
After a quiet 2020 filled with virtual racing, the 24hr races have kept me ticking along this year. There has not been much else that I could run in … the trail milers, none of them fit into my schedule. In June, I had missed the inaugural Irrational S.O.U.T.H. 200 miler during the Victorian lockdown #4. During these covid times, we are living in bubbles with the risk of another lockdown just around the corner. So I felt great, if only for a short time, to be able to move freely without restrictions, and to take another flight interstate to Adelaide over the weekend.
In the 24hr running world, Adelaide is special, right up there with Coburg in Victoria. Here in 1997, Yiannis Kouros registered a world record of 303.5km, a mileage that will probably remain untouched for a very long time. I had run my first 24hr here in 2018, a deer-in-the-headlights effort of 127km. It would be far fetching to say that I enjoyed that race. There were moments of enjoyment for sure, but the pain far outweighed the pleasure. But I’ve kept coming back to the 24hr format ever since. This would be the 8th time I tried. In a world of pain known as 24hr racing, I sensed there was something there for me. But it would be up to me to find out, and the least I could do was to make the effort.
Coming into Adelaide, my best had been 155km at a race winning effort at Princes Park in 2019 (in a very small field). Having been conditioned with a 12hr run at Princes Park a week prior, I felt fit enough to reasonably expect somewhere between 160 and 180km. To do that, I would need to fix a number of mistakes I had committed in previous 24hr races:
- I would need to give myself a good night’s sleep after interstate travel, rather than catching a red-eye then going straight into the race.
- I would need to keep on moving and not sitting down except when change of socks is called for.
- I would need to supplement my haphazard nutritional intake with something more structured like Tailwind. I would burn about 13,000kcal over the course of the run, and would need to take in at least half of those calories while running.
- I would limit caffeine intake to prevent stomach issues.
The race started in fog, but the weather improved quickly. Throughout the race, especially at night, the weather god smiled on the runners. The race up front heated up quickly with Sonja and Darren putting laps on the rest of the field. I was sticking to my conservative pacing, even taking walking breaks quite early on, maintaining an 9km/hr average for a few hours. I had planned to consume 1 packet of Tailwind per hour (200kcal) but it was just too much given the cool weather. So I averaged about a packet every 2 hours, supplemented with light snacks such as fruits and nuts.
The first 12 hours were methodical. I hit 95km at the half way mark. I could have hit 100km had I pushed, but coming into the cold night, I wanted to have something up the sleeves. By that time I had burned about 7,000kcal, and the Tailwind had only given me about 1,500. The food I took, 2 slices of pizza and a few boiled potatoes kindly shared by Dean Metcalf’s partner, were not enough to provide me with the short-term energy I needed to push on. I was at risk of walking for the last 12 hours, exactly the same scenario that had played out in Canberra and Coburg earlier this year. That would be the last thing I wanted to do. I had come here to achieve a personal best, and walking it out was not going to give me that result. I took a walking lap and tried to eat whatever I felt the body could digest within 20 minutes. Then I willed myself into lifting up the heels, running when the body wanted to walk. It was not easy to find a running rhythm when tired, the hunger and exhaustion lurking in the background, but I kept them in check to not fall into a sugar crash situation. If you’re an endurance runner, you know this well. It is quite a delicate balance. Eating too much, and you become either bloated or just sick of food in general and need to slow down for digestion. Eating too little, and you crash. At 2am, at my lowest and sleepiest point, I asked for a cup of instant coffee, my only coffee consumed over 24 hours. It worked instantly (pun intended!), and I was alert enough to keep jogging through the night. While I was fighting my own battle, a few leading men had pulled out of the race, Sonja had put an ultra distance between her and the field, and the men’s race was clearly going to be decided between 3 runners.
When the sun came up just after 7am, to my surprise, I found myself only about 2 laps away from the third position. So I put in a couple of fast laps to get within 1km of the third spot. But Tamas, a chirpy runner who had just come out of an excellent Irational S.O.U.T.H. effort, was too strong and consistent for me. He put on another gear and put the result beyond any doubt. I had achieved the miler and was clearly not going to make the 180km. So in the last 2 hours, I rewarded myself with the pleasure of walking it out, to reach a total of 167km in the end.
Sonja went within 5km of the national women’s record to win the race. Having raced here twice, I was fortunate enough to witness two world-class performances: Sonja this year (233km), and Felix in 2018 (260km).
A lot of things had gone right for me in this race. I had achieved a good result considering my conditioning largely relies on organic improvement through my weekend runs. It is the reason why it has taken me 8 tries to hit the miler mark in a 24hr race, while many achieve it in their first try.
During the race, I realised I could achieve a bit more here and there, potentially adding 1-2km average to each hour. There were still niggling errors that I could fix, in the running gait and in my mental capacity. There was still an opportunity to improve on my cruising pace. There was still a big nutritional problem to be solved. Tailwind seemed to help. But I’d need more than Tailwind to run out the 24hr strongly.
At heart, I’m a problem solver, and these realisations gave me joy and inspiration to set my sight on the next target – 200km over 24hr. I had originally set myself such a target for this year, but it was too far reaching given everything else that had been going on. Let’s reset it to 2023.
So the curtain has drawn on this wonderful Adelaide event, with RD Ben Hockings bailing out after years of stellar effort. I hope someone picks up this race from next year, but nevertheless, I am grateful for this beautiful city, the volunteers, organisers and all runners and supporters who came together for a wonderful weekend of running. Special thanks go to beautiful Jane for looking after the troops and running the household while I afforded myself enough time away for proper rest before and after the race.