24h endurance Helsinki

I’d entered the 24h endurance Helsinki track race as a warm up for the Viking Way. A 24 hour track race, 5 weeks out from my main goal sounds a bit silly. But in the past all of my best 100+ mile runs have come 4-8 weeks after a 100 miler. Plus it also meant I wasn’t putting all my running eggs in one basket; 6 months of hard work for nothing but another DNF would be gutting.

Since this wasn’t my main focus I wasn’t going in with any firm goals. However I was in reasonable shape, and when I’d set my 100 mile (22:52) and 24 hour (103.3 miles) PBs at the British Ultra Fest back in 2013, I’d walked all of the last ~20 miles. So provided I managed to keep up a decent run-walk I should be able to improve those numbers a bit. The one issue was foot-wear. I’ve got wide, nobbly feet and for the past few years I’ve been running in wide fit Brooks Adrenalines. However they seem to have changed the last and, despite trying half a dozen alternatives, I’ve failed to find an adequate replacement. I ended up taking 3 pairs of shoes out with me: very old standard fit Adrenalines, very new (they arrived from Germany 2 days before-hand) extra wide Adrenalines and my favourite trail shoes: Inov8 Race Ultra 290s.

As it was the middle of term-time my trip to Helsinki had to be a flying one (unfortunately since I’m a big fan of the Nordic countries). I got the train down to Gatwick on Friday afternoon and my delayed flight arrived in Helsinki after midnight. As I was waiting in the snow for the shuttle to the airport hotel an otherwise respectable looking bloke who was drinking spirits out of a bottle in a bag threw up, narrowly missing my feet. Nice and (I didn’t realise at the time) a portent of what was to come. I usually prefer public transport to taxis, but given a choice between multiple buses or a taxi and an extra hour in bed, I went for the taxi.

I arrived at the arena in Espoo at 10.30, registered and was (wordlessly) given my race pack. Much as I love the Nords, the Finns make me seem extravert and talkative. I found my way to the track though, and nobbled one of the few remaining spaces in the long row of tables set up along one of the straights. I set my food and kit up and caught up on email etc. to kill the time before the race starting at midday.

The arena was an interesting place. The main track ran around the outside on the upper level past a gym and a shop. There was also a running ramp down to the lower level where there was a soft play centre and also sports courts. Watching people come and go during the day helped pass the time.

With ~120 participants the 390m track initially felt quite crowded, but for the first half hour I settled down into ~2.35 minute laps. My plan was to walk a lap, and eat, every half hour and keep that up for as long as I could. In the 2nd half hour the constant stream of people ahead to over-take meant I sped up a bit and I had to make a concerted effort not to push too hard. In the UK this wouldn’t be a problem since everyone goes out far faster than me and I’m usually more or less last for the first few hours. But the Nordic people are far better at pacing and there were a fair number of people moving slower than me (looking at the results afterwards I was about 2/3rds of the way down the field initially).

1.5 hours in, during my 3rd walk break, catastrophe nearly struck. I was walking & eating out in lane 3. Suddenly there was shouting, in Finnish, behind me. Before I could turn around to see what was happening someone ran straight into the back of me, nearly knocking me over and hitting my right calf hard. Most of the runners were pretty considerate about not getting in each other’s way, but there was a small group (from a nearby, non-Nordic country) who were charging around with no regard for anyone else. I’m guessing this pair had been so busy talking to each they weren’t looking where they were going. I gesticulated angrily, but didn’t even get a proper apology. I felt like crying. Had I travelled all this way, and spent a lot of money, only to have my race messed up by a random fuckwit? Thankfully the pain in my calf eased off pretty quickly and I don’t think this incident had any significant effect.

One thing which surprised me was how warm the track was. I usually ‘run cold’ and happily run long races in Summer in a thin long-sleeved top and 3/4 tights. This was way too much clothes for here though and I stopped and changed into a t-shirt. I also changed from the old standard Adrenalines to the new, unbroken in extra-wide ones since my feet were already feeling squashed. Somewhere along the line I threw in an additional short walk break every 5 laps, so I could get enough water on board. I also met Geoff Russell, the other British participant who was breaking various British age group records, and chatted for a bit.

About 6 hours in (probably not coincidentally the duration of my longest long run) I started to struggle. I questioned why I’d thought a 24 hour track race was a good idea, and why on Earth had I been thinking about doing a 6 day race in the future? Idiot! This soon passed though, and not long after I was marvelling about how easy it felt. The one issue was pain in my left knee when switching from walking to running, but it only ever lasted a couple of strides.

The race web-site allowed supporters to send messages to runners. I was a bit jealous of the other runners being passed their messages, but I couldn’t expect any, because I hadn’t told anyone it was possible. But then I got one. The OH had discovered it and sent me a message from our pet rabbits asking if I’d found any cabbage for them. I once stopped to buy them cabbage on the way back from a long run, so it’s now a running ‘joke’ that I’m going cabbage (or cabbige as it’s spelt in “bunny”...) hunting. The guy who gave me the message seemed slightly perplexed, so he’d presumably read it. At least the OH hadn’t tried to wind me up by sending “you go girl” or something similar.

I passed through 50 miles just inside 10 hours (9:53 according to the excellent post race splits), slightly faster than in my previous 24 hour track race. I ran a couple of extra laps to make sure my maths was right, and then had a proper stop. I borrowed a chair from the couple next to me, changed into a pair of shorts, stuffed my i-pod in the back-pocket (I’d been saving it as a treat for the night section), texted the OH and changed into my Race Ultras. I felt silly running around a track in trail shoes, but my feet felt so much happier. (The extra wide shoes were wide enough across my forefoot, but too wide in the heel, so I had to lace them overly tightly to stop them slipping).


photo by Petteri Jokela

A lot of people were fading or stopping, but initially the night went OK, albeit with more regular walking laps (now every ~15 minutes). But then things got tough. I often feel sick after 12+ hours and struggle to eat, but I’m rarely actually sick and gels are usually the one thing I can always force down. Not this time. One mouthful of gel led to two bouts of projectile vomiting. I wasn’t the only one. I’d laughed when I read “In case you need to throw up during the race – please use toilets, litter baskets or plastic bags. in the race instructions. But now I understood why: there was a lot of puking going on.

The puking wasn’t the only problem. Usually I can run through one night OK. But I was struggling to stay awake. I don’t know if this was the boredom of the track, or being tired from the journey. Several times I stopped for a 5 minute power nap, which would perk me up for a bit, but not long enough. I tried another, caffeinated, gel, which led to more projectile vomiting. For the rest of the race I stuck to 2 slices of tangerine every 30 minutes. And prayed that the organisers didn’t run out of tangerines.

With 3 hours to go the end was in sight. At this point I was running 3 laps and walking 1 every 15 minutes. So I decided to count down these blocks from 12. After an hour I went through 100 miles (taking nearly an hour off my PB). But unlike last time I didn’t stop or celebrate it in any way, 24 hours was the name of the game. When I got to zero there was still 20 minutes left on the clock. But this was a good thing, more time for another mile and a bit. I pondered ditching the walk breaks, but decided to stick with a strategy that worked rather than risking crashing and burning. I tried to ‘sprint’ the last couple of laps, but only managed to bring my lap times down from 2.55 to 2.45. When the gun went I collapsed on the track, in relief as much as exhaustion.

I managed 108.9 miles (a 5.6 mile PB). This was good enough for 8th out of 38 women, which I was happy with. The field contained lots of strong Japanese and Nordic women, so I hadn’t even bothered thinking about my position. I’d assumed this would put me 30-40th overall, but I later discovered I was in fact 20th. I got another taxi back to the airport and (thanks to rail engineering works) spent a night in the Yotel at Gatwick before getting a 6am train back to Nottingham for work. I missed the prize giving ceremony, but the organisers very kindly posted my medal to me.

I was initially very happy with the 100 mile and 24 hour PBs. A few years ago I’d set an ambitious 24 hour goal of 110 miles. And I’d come close to that in a race which wasn’t my main focus, and which hadn’t gone entirely smoothly (puking, sleeping and shoe problems). But then I started wondering whether I’d really needed the power naps. Without them could I have got the 110?? And I’m dying to have another go. On a good day how far could I go: 112? plausible. 115? probably not, but maybe. I’ve already got running plans for this Summer, but I’ve been pondering another track race in Nov or Dec. The big challenge will be getting the training in during the Autumn term.