IV ENDURANCE 24 h
Esport Ratiopharm Arena Espoo
Photos Copyright – Jussi Riku
As I made my way home from Helsinki, I couldn’t help feeling both confused and a small bit disappointed about how my race had unfolded. Having said that, it’s almost impossible to dwell for very long on my own disappointments, given that other members of our group had achieved so much. After other races – when I had run well – people have been happy to tell me how pleased they are for me. On this occasion, it’s my turn to recognise the achievements of others and to acknowledge my own limitations. Both Valerie and Ruthann turned in absolutely spectacular performances in Helsinki. I’m very tempted to give you the inside scoop here on how their history-making races unfolded, but I think I should let those two fine athletes tell their own stories. I’m sure you’ll agree that they’ve more than earned that right. We were all a little shell-shocked in the hours immediately after the 24 hour track race in Helsinki, but as a week has now passed, I can look back over one of the most intense running experiences that I’ve ever been a part of.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, I believe that I went into this race as fit as I’ve ever been. I had certainly trained harder than I had ever done before, including for the first time twice on Christmas day. After running 2:44 at the Dublin marathon last autumn, I had taken a short break and had then dedicated a full ten weeks to being ready for Finland. In all significant regards my training had gone perfectly. I had no niggles, injuries or any other real problem of any sort. From week to week I was able to see improvements in my training times for hill sessions and road intervals. My tempo runs improved consistently in both pace and duration and, although my longer runs were never spectacularly long or fast, I had managed to cover good distances every week without fail. I had also lifted weights on a strict schedule without ever missing a single session over the entire build-up. Through good weather and through bad I got the work done. In short, I had no obvious pre-race excuses.
Eight of us travelled to the race – four to run and four to crew. The runners were Ray, Valerie, Ruthann and myself, all of whom are Athenry AC members. The crew consisted of Seb, Joanne, John (Valerie’s betrothed) and George (Ruthann’s husband). We arrived in Finland on Thursday evening via London. It had been a long but sociable trip. Our hotel was surprisingly luxurious given the relatively modest charge for the rooms. Only later would we realise that absolutely nothing else in Finland would represent the same good value for Irish money. Without going into too many details, take it from me that Finland is one seriously expensive place to visit. There are few of the usual tourist attractions in Finland because, I would imagine, very few people could ever afford to holiday there. After getting a bite to eat at the hotel late on Thursday evening, a few of us braved the sub-zero conditions to go for a walk and to marvel at the huge roadside snowdrifts and frozen seascapes. Even at this late stage in the day we were still as giddy as goats and both snow-angels and yellow snow featured prominently amongst our late night activities. It has to be said that Seb’s ‘Diving Angels’ were the most impressive and acrobatic.
Friday was a day to ‘chill’ – both metaphorically and actually. A spot of light shopping around downtown Helsinki preceded a brief visit to the race venue. The sports arena where the race would take place was a hugely impressive affair. A massive indoor track ran around the upper level of the building and another track – complete with a built-in hill encircled the lower level. There were a number of indoor courts that could accommodate hockey, basketball, soccer or rugby. There was a massive, and very well equipped, gym, a children’s play area, a café and countless other sports facilities that I won’t even try to list here. This was clearly a place for the ardently sporty. Having satisfied ourselves that we’d learnt as much as we could about the venue, we returned to the hotel and prepared for the morrow. A group meeting late on Friday evening allowed us to make a few final panicky tweaks to our plans and then it was off to bed to face an uneasy night’s sleep and to contemplate our impending fate.
Some of our dedicated crew went to the race venue to sort out registration, race numbers and timing chips early on race-day, allowing us lotus-eaters to lounge around at the hotel. I have to be honest and say I was very nervous. I think ‘absolutely shitting it’ was the phrase I used most often when asked about how I felt. Although I felt that I was physically well prepared for the task ahead, I wasn’t so sure that I was in the right frame of mind to surrender to the experience, which is what I wanted to do. To some extent I felt like I was fighting a circular battle with myself in those last few hours before the start. When we eventually arrived at the venue, I tried to get off my feet as quickly as possible and to that end lay down by the side of the track out of the way. I tried to ‘zone-out’ as much as I could, but it was difficult to do so with all of the organised chaos swirling around us. Trying to find some stillness in the midst of the pre-race storm isn’t ever easy, but even so, I wasn’t making a particularly good job of filtering out this particular storm. Soon it was time to drift over to the start-finish line and to get proceedings underway. To be honest, I was glad to be on the move. I think we all were.
I had trained hard and planned for many months to be at that starting line, but now that the time had arrived, I was struck with an overwhelming nervousness that I wouldn’t have it in me to last the course. It was a real help to know that I was in the company of friends, but at the same time we each had to do our own running. I forced a smile in a vain attempt to hide my increasingly gloomy outlook because I didn’t know what else to do. The moment arrived, passed, and we were on the move. Everyone shuffled slowly forward and I quipped to Valerie and Ray that it wasn’t a 24-hour race anymore. I felt in my heart however that there was a long, long way to go. The track was crowded and, knowing that there was absolutely no point in hurrying, drifted to the inside of the track satisfying myself with following the runner in front – no matter how slowly they went. My plan was to try to cover six miles per hour for as long as I could. In doing this I intended to take a walk-break every 13th lap. This meant that I would walk for about three and a half minutes every half an hour or so. Although I’d never adopted a strategy like this before in any race, I was confident that it was a solid plan. I didn’t feel that I could hope to run continuously for 24 hours and so I hoped that by building enough recovery into my routine that I could keep moving forward the whole time.
For a couple of hours my plan worked beautifully. I suppose it couldn’t have been any other way. Laps were coming and going in about two minutes and twenty seconds apiece, and it all felt very smooth. I did notice that I had developed a pain in my left heel quite soon after the start but I paid no real attention to it. I generally have a small niggle there and it usually dissolves after a while once my system has warmed up and stretched out. I either passed or was passed by the other Irish runners at various times – but also ran for long periods without seeing any of them as we orbited the track at roughly the same pace as each other. There was plenty of time to observe the other runners and take note of some of their little quirks. There was quite a lot to see, both on and off the track. In my mind I allocated names to some of the most flamboyant characters. There was a chap I dubbed ‘The Continental Culchie’ who wore what looked like a GAA headband and who flew around the track ducking, diving and weaving past runners like a lunatic. This chap wouldn’t last long at the start of the Streets of Galway I can tell you and I’d hate to see him behind the wheel of a car. ‘Pippy Longstocking’ was an altogether more attractive proposition from a male perspective. There’s something special about Nordic women in pigtails that never fails to gladden my heart.
And so we ran around and around. Despite what might seem obvious, it wasn’t an especially boring process. The sports arena was a busy place and there seemed always to be something happening. There were matches taking place on the courts below, flimsily clad gym-bunnies of both genders flexed their fashionable muscles, and various circuit classes came and went. Rather than us revolving around the track the arena seemed to be revolving around us. I was still a little concerned to notice that my sore heel wasn’t improving as I had hoped and that I was also developing a pain in my right forefoot to accompany it. There was little I could do except to plough on.
After six hours of running we changed direction. I had hoped that this reversal would help to alleviate some of my foot problems and I was happy to find that I was a lot more comfortable running in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, the improvement was only temporary and within an hour of so I was back to square one and reverted to moving gingerly around the track. Thankfully, I had maintained my planned pace and by the time the end of the second six-hour period was approaching, I had covered close to 70 miles. It was fairly clear however that I wouldn’t be able to keep the same show on the road. Both feet were now very painful and felt like they were blistering in various places along the sides of my feet and toes. More seriously, I had throbbing pain at the front of both shins that I knew from experience was unlikely to resolve itself any time soon. When I briefly stopped and ran my fingers down my shins the whole area felt extremely tender and spongy to the touch. From this point on, about ten hours into the race, I knew that I was involved in a damage limitation exercise.
All through these hours the crew were fantastic. They encouraged us when we needed it and left us to battle on when we needed space. Although I tried to keep my spirits up, I found myself staring at the track more often than not and avoiding eye contact with anyone else. I knew that my plans were falling apart but I don’t think I wanted to admit it to the others. Race volunteers distributed little messages of support and encouragement from home on little slips of paper and I was delighted to get about five or six such messages. I read each one of these precious missives over and over again before tucking them into a pocket, and then retrieved them again a few laps later for further consideration. The twelve-hour turnaround didn’t bring any relief from the foot and shin pain. I had still maintained my run-twelve, walk-one routine but I knew by that point that I couldn’t keep it going. I started to calculate how far I could walk in the final twelve hours if I stayed on the track non-stop. I still believed that a total well in excess of 120 miles was possible, even if I had to ‘walk it in’ from that point. What I hadn’t taken into account was how quickly the situation was going to deteriorate. I had assumed that, no matter how bad things got, I’d still be able to walk. Unfortunately, it was a false assumption.
Once I got past midnight, and into the wee-small hours, I changed to a run-two, walk-two strategy, but, after only a few cycles of this, I realised that it was more painful to walk than to run and so I tried to run-five, walk two. This seemed to suit me better and for an hour of so I went through a mini-revival. Although I was very tired I didn’t feel like I needed sleep. For that hour of seeming rejuvenation I clicked off my five running laps fairly easily and then tried to steel myself for the next five during my two walking laps. Inevitably I suppose, this strategy also started to fall apart and I had to go back to very short bursts of running and longer stretches of walking. When I ran, I was easily able to maintain the same pace as I had on the very earliest laps, perhaps even a few seconds faster, but when I walked, I was in agony. Something had to give, and it did. At first I stopped and changed shoes – no improvement. Then I tried compression socks – no improvement. As a last throw of the dice I tried getting some physiotherapy on my calves. Even though I couldn’t tolerate any work on the actual shins I hoped that by loosening the calves that I might improve – I didn’t.
As we were approaching the eighteen-hour mark I decided to try to stay moving until the final turnaround before taking a significant break. Once we had reversed direction for the last time I limped back into the pits and asked the guys to get me a place to lie down. Once I had been safely booked into the ‘Hotel Matonthefloor’, I tried to rest but it was impossible. I was mentally but not physically exhausted. I knew for certain that my race was shot and I presumed that I’d take no further part in the action but after about three hours of restlessness I limped back on and started to orbit the arena. It was funny to see my lap time pop up on the screen at well over three hours. Although I took no solace in the fact, I wasn’t the only racing casualty and there were bodies scattered everywhere. The ‘puking bins’ were getting great use and a lot of people were reduced to a slow shuffle. Having said that, many others, including Valerie and Ruthann were continuing to run strongly. I did my best to cheer both of the girls on, but I’m not sure how much use I was to them.
Between the eighteen and twenty four-hour mark I just about racked up enough slow, shuffling laps to pass the 100-mile mark. With about an hour to go I left the track, had a shower and changed into street clothes, which although it made me feel more comfortable, also made me feel even more like an imposter on the track. When the end came I think it was a blessed relief for all concerned. We were all elated for Valerie and Ruthann and equally thankful for our own sakes that the ordeal was finally over. Once more our incredible crew kicked into action and, with superhuman enthusiasm and unbelievable care, helped us to pick up the pieces that the previous day had left scattered over the track. I felt numb and I wanted to go home.
I think I’ve learnt more about myself and about ultra-running through this event than from any other race I’ve taken part in. I’ve learnt that humility isn’t just something that you can aspire to, but something that you have to live. I’ve also learned that there is genuine satisfaction to be found from accepting the strength and generosity of others. I don’t think that I was humbled by any of the other runners in the race but rather by my own exaggerated pre-race sense of security and physical strength. I suppose I didn’t really believe that things could fall apart as comprehensively as they did. Physically, I think that my problems can probably be attributed to both the difficult track surface and the continual turning – but that’s only half the story, and not the important half. When the crash came, it came slowly enough for me to watch it happen. I certainly came away from the race a less confident person but feel that that’s probably not a bad thing. Ultrarunning presents me with one of those weird situations where the more you learn the less you seem to be sure of. In the next week or so I’ll get back on the metaphorical horse, but perhaps with a little less swagger than before. If I can take anything away from Helsinki, apart from blisters and a large credit card bill, it perhaps should be that every time we line up we have no idea how it will work out and that when we start to believe that we have the situation under control that we are perhaps in danger of a fall.