Health and Fitness Running

Loop racing is just like complex maths

In a little over a year, I have completed 5 loop races, 2 of them on the standard 400m track. Loop racing remains an intriguing format for an amateur like myself with a background of predominantly marathon road racing and about two years’ worth of ultra trails. So I thought I would unpack it a little bit. What I have gone through might be useful for other runners.

The first time I tried loop racing, at the Adelaide 24hr last year, I did not like it very much. I could not comprehend how such a running experience would be entertaining in any shape or form. It had nothing to do with the organisation or atmosphere of the race. In fact, Ben Hockings and his team did a stellar job with the race. On the plus side, I spent many hours being mesmerised by awesome athletic performances from Felix Weber, John Yoon, and others. I also had a generous running friend staying overnight to support. After covering about 127km, the right hip gave out a few hours away from the finish. I limped on until the clock struck 24 hours.

I had a long hard look at the race afterwards and decided that, given I disliked this format of racing so much, perhaps there might be something in it. I should persist with it. At heart, I have always been a contrarian.

So earlier this year, I made it a little bit harder for myself, attempting to run for 48 hours in Canberra. This time, the race was held at an athletic track, the 400m loop much shorter than in Adelaide, supposedly more monotonous for runners. I moved for 40 hours, clocking up 204km. In relative performance terms, that effort was probably on par with Adelaide. However, I had more time on feet – a factor that boosted my confidence in later races. The weather condition was more confronting this time, and despite the atmosphere being uplifting, I still found loop racing quite taxing on the body and mind.

Going back to my contrarian well one more time, I pushed on for Coburg24. While a few things went wrong in this race, I managed 142km – an improvement over Canberra and Adelaide. Most importantly, I got a glimpse of enjoyment out of this race. For the first time, I could feel why loop racing would be attractive to certain runners. It was only a vague feeling. Rationally, I still could not quite put my finger on what would lead to the enjoyment. I can tell you it was not the endorphin! A runner relying on endorphin for enjoyment could stick to much shorter distances; there would be no need for self torture over such a long time. It would be simplistic to say that loop racing provides a greater challenge to the athlete than the trail or the road. I find that each of these formats of racing provides a unique set of challenges, therefore would not say that one is particularly more challenging than another.

Carrying a more uplifting state of mind into my following loop race at Princes Park, I clocked up 155km – another improvement. While about half of this race was pure suffering, being able to enjoy the 24hr race nearly half of the time was way more than I could have ever expected. The enjoyment, I figured, came from two factors:
(1) the satisfaction of being close to solving a very hard problem. I recall feeling like this as a young mathematician when having cracked a complex maths problem after about 2 weeks without much food or sleep;
and (2) the peace and calm, which is inevitably a product of withdrawing deeply inwards – away from the senses – as the runner clocks up kilometre after kilometre, not rushing ahead to the kilometres yet to be run, not lingering over the kilometres already trodden. Whilst it is not the primary goal of meditation, an experienced practitioner would be able to recognise it as a by-product of a sufficiently deep meditation session.

After Princes Park, that hesitation when facing a loop race was no longer there. So turning up at the Clint Eastwood Last One Standing last week was an event I very much had looked forward to. The Clint Eastwood loop is much longer than the standard track loop of 400m or the 2.2-2.5km loop in Adelaide and Princes Park. But essentially the runner still needs to run the same loop over and over again, so the mental challenges remain similar. Going into the race half fit, I did have my moments of physical struggle; however mentally I thoroughly enjoyed the race. When I decided to pull out after 12 hours, failing to fend off a fever, for the first time in a long race, I felt a sense of longing to continue racing. I did not want to stop there and then. I finished the race thinking that I must carry this feeling into future races. It would be wonderful to, one day, race for hundreds of kilometres without a feeling of self torture. Such would be a dream come true, same same as my 14yo self’s dream of solving that maths problem, but different.

The lessons I have learnt from loop racing reaffirm that there is indeed some method in the madness of “seeking growth in discomfort”. Such an approach might seem contrarian to a lot of people, but I have found to be popular amongst endurance athletes.