Crawley was a last-minute entry. A fortnight prior, I’d seen a notice on Facebook that a few places in the 24h race had become available, and had jumped at the opportunity for some practice at track running, in advance of Cockbain’s 25h track race later in October. I just hoped I’d be recovered from my Enigma 7-in-7 in time for it.
In the days before the race, with a couple of lingering muscular issues around the right hamstring and adductor, and some general apathy and fatigue remaining, I had to admit I wasn’t in prime form for my first attempt at running around a track for 24 hours. Hopefully I’d be able to work through it.
The night prior, I assembled my kit, taking into account the potential for precipitation, and the particularly cold conditions we might face overnight. There was quite a lot to take as it happened. One bag became two, and this was without taking any of the recommended camping facilities. I began to question my plan to use public transport. I got to bed later than I ought.
My sleep was poor. I awoke tired, and still uncertain how I was going to get to Crawley. I made my breakfast, and prepared a very crude packed lunch of sorts. With time to make my train fast disappearing, I made the call to switch to driving, which gave me an extra hour to prepare, and allowed me to take some extra kit.
Nonetheless, I set off a little late, and thanks to the usual traffic jams en route, pulled into the car park at K2 Crawley with only half an hour to spare before the race briefing. Looping around the car park trying desperately to find a space, I didn’t feel I’d nailed the pre-race preparation.
I finally found a space, located the track, registered, and dumped my bags beside the track. It rapidly became apparent that I ought to have brought a folding table like everybody else. Fortunately the race organisers were able to free up a spare table for me, and a couple of other participants who were similarly unprepared.
With my nutrition laid out, I pulled out my flatbreads and guacamole just as the race briefing began. I listened along whilst munching my food.
There was only a short time after the briefing to pull off my overtrousers and switch into my Saucony Kinvara 12s. I noticed most of the other participants were crewed. In fact, most had elaborate setups beside the track, involving tents or gazebos, tables and seating, boxes upon boxes of kit & nutrition, and all their drinks.
I felt a bit underprepared in comparison. I dug out my empty soft flasks, and was looking around for the race’s water station, when we were called over for the race start. I’d have to figure it out on the fly.
I hadn’t planned pacing, so I started running to feel, taking into account the distance. My gait felt reasonable, so I allowed myself the leeway to slightly over-pace at the outset. If nothing else, this would help me to warm up on this rather chilly afternoon! I rapidly became aware I was running too fast, especially given some GB team members were behind me, so I started to dial it back somewhere around 10-15k. When I started to get lapped by Paul and then Brian, I felt a little more assured about what I was doing.
It was about this time I acknowledged I needed to figure out my hydration plan, and located the water station. It was just behind my table. So I had to veer off to my table to collect my flask, run a lap, veer off to the water station to stop and top it up, run a lap drinking it, and veer off once more to my table to deposit it. This was not a very efficient procedure. I soon refined the process, such that I filled up my bottle after drinking, and deposited it full, ready to go next time.
Nutrition was markedly simpler, but still – having to veer off to my table for every gel both cost me time, and more importantly took me out of my rhythm. I couldn’t really immerse myself in “pure” track running, as I had to veer off the track, stop, and faff around with containers of either nutrition or fluid every 15 minutes or so. I began to pick up a couple of gels at a time, and wondered whether it would actually be easier to wear a race vest. At least I’d be able to maintain a rhythm.
Before the race, I had wondered how inner lane track running would operate. Would slower runners permanently run outside lane 1? Would they be constantly shifting lanes to make way for faster runners? Or would everyone hug the inner lane, forcing overtakers to swerve around them? As it transpired, all approaches were on display. Some runners ran on the white line demarking lanes 1 & 2, some veered back and forth attempting to make way (assuming they heard a runner approaching), and some just stuck to the most efficient line throughout.
We were fortunate with the weather. Rain never seriously threatened, and instead we had cloud cover interspersed with sunny spells. The sun was surprisingly warm, and the shade was really quite cold. I saw various runners constantly adding and removing mid layers. I stuck to my baselayer with race vest, and simply rolled up and unrolled my sleeves, but had to admit it was pretty cold at times.
Around 2.5 hours, I started to become aware of some problems developing. Muscles around my left knee were starting to notice, and my right hip flexors were becoming really rather sore. I assumed this was related to the curvature of the track. We were running anticlockwise, so the right stride was longer than the left for 50% of one’s steps. We were scheduled to switch directions every 4 hours, which left me with 90 minutes of lopsided striding to go before I’d get a break.
This 90 minutes really dragged. My right hip flexor was deteriorating, quite fast as it happened. I popped into the portable loos next to the track to get some relief. Around 3.5 hours, in some desperation, I moved my ankle tracker from my left leg to my right, reasoning the extra weight on one side could be playing a role. Not noticing much difference, I switched from my Kinvara 12s, which were still relatively new to me, into my well worn (2000 kms!) but trusty Kinvara 11s. I wasn’t convinced either change actually helped my hip flexor problem, but I did feel more comfortable in my old shoes, and there was a lot to be said for that.
The 4h turnaround couldn’t have come soon enough. It didn’t take long before my left knee cleared right up, and I felt some relief in my right hip flexor. That never truly resolved though, and I was left with a restricted range of motion. Meanwhile, as I progressed with the clockwise direction, my left hip flexor quietly started to complain. The signs were building that this wasn’t going to be a smooth race.
Switching direction afforded a lovely change of scenery. Aside from briefly being able to glimpse the face of each runner (quite a fun experience, to contrast against the mental images one’s built up of them over the past 4 hours), the change – not so much of the scenery itself, but of one’s perspective of that scenery – can be a surprisingly rewarding experience.
I noticed the asymmetrical shape of parts of the track, and the subtle asymmetry in the design of K2’s spectator stands. I noticed the charming trees surrounding three sides of the track. A couple of the northern trees reminded me of bonsai trees, and I pondered the ecosystems that might exist in the shallow woodland to the south. Occasionally, I spotted flocks of birds soaring overhead, riding the updrafts.
The change in direction also changed the logistics of my water situation. The water supply was now just beyond my table, so I could pick up my flask, fill it straightaway, and run a lap drinking it. This was a bit simpler, for which I was grateful.
I had managed to settle into a slower, but reasonable – and theoretically perfectly sustainable – pace during this 4h stretch. But all was not well beneath the surface. My restricted range of motion, in particular on my right hip flexor, but also to a lesser extent my left, was a constant frustration. And the table arrangement, with it being offset significantly from the inner lane of the track, just wasn’t working well for me mentally. I’m used to having my nutrition on my person, able to intake as and when I need. Having to veer off course, stop and pick things up, was both a frustration and a barrier to consuming nutrition.
My lack of experience on track was also playing mental games with me with regard to nutrition. On trail, I’m fairly happy intaking nutrition at regular intervals. On track, this should be even simpler – after all, we run past a huge digital clock every 400 metres – but for some reason I was struggling to track my intake. Possibly because one didn’t really want to focus on the time (and the time remaining), but also there were no other milestones (other than the 4h direction changes). I really needed to have integrated my nutrition tracking into a regular mental routine – per-lap, possibly.
Whatever the reason – my poor night’s sleep, starting a bit too fast, not being fully recovered from my 7-in-7 a month prior, allowing myself to enter a fluid deficit very early on in the race, improperly tracking nutrition, the effects of unidirectional bends in the track, simply being unused to long distance running on the flat, or whatever else; I wasn’t finding this easy. Despite it being unnecessary, I frequently popped off for short loo breaks, and unsuccessfully tried to troubleshoot the situation.
I was approaching the next direction change at 8 hours: the dreaded return to the anticlockwise direction, which had caused my right hip flexor so much trouble earlier in the day. I was quietly concerned. If things picked up where they left off, my race could be about to go from bad to worse.
And so, when the direction change occurred one minute early, at 19:59, I was nonplussed! It didn’t take long before I felt an impact on my hip flexor. Then it slightly recovered, and I was hopeful… but not for long. My earlier problems started bedding back in, and I settled in for a difficult and painful 4 hours.
The sun was setting over the track, and the sky looked dramatic. My oversized bonsai trees on the northern perimeter formed majestic silhouettes, and one couldn’t help but be impressed. The track lights switched on, illuminating a miniature ecosystem of focussed runners; some running, some speed-walking, around this tartan oval. We were like ants, scuttling around, following the one in front, trapped in a loop which was going nowhere.
With the loss of the sun, the freezing cold set in. I pulled a mid layer over my base, and donned a pair of warm gloves. This would usually be ample for still, dry conditions; but I was still quite chilly.
At the 9 hour mark, we were joined by a group of 12 hour runners. Seeing fresh legs out on the track provided a marked contrast to our somewhat sullen 24h group.
Around 10:30, my right hip flexor rapidly deteriorated, limiting its range of motion to the point where I could only walk. This in turn made me very cold very quickly. I took the decision to head inside to the changing rooms, to see whether I could sort myself out. The warmth was an immediate relief, and I set about assessing my leg muscles. I couldn’t raise my right leg onto the bench, and gait poses revealed various significant restrictions stemming from my flexor-on-the-fritz. I set about trying to loosen it.
Also taking a break in the changing room was another runner, Ray, who was a friend of Roger Biggs. We chatted about my running club, Fairlands Valley Spartans, whilst I worked. By the end of it, I’d managed to slightly improve my range of motion, but not by as much as I’d hoped. I was starting to consider that it was unlikely I’d be able to complete the 24 hours.
I set back out into the cold, hobbling awkwardly back over to the track, and then filing up some Tailwind at the aid station. One of the volunteers commented I looked cold, and indeed I was. In these conditions, if you weren’t running, you were freezing. I set off again, dispirited that all I could do was walk. I stopped and pulled on yet another midlayer, a hat, and pulled up my hood. This was more comfortable; but even so, at walking pace, I was still cold. I tried to force a shuffle, to see which way my hip flexor was going to go. It took a lap, but I did manage to get a shuffle going, and so I tried to transition it into a run. With a little encouragement, this partially worked, and my flexor did loosen up a little. I managed to maintain a very limited run, interspersed with stretches of walking.
Paul, one of the volunteers, was standing beside the race clock, propping himself up with his crutches, shouting out encouragement to us as we passed by. (Coincidentally, I later discovered he recently ran a half marathon with his crutches – kudos!) He’s one of those people who knows exactly the right thing to say, and his words gave me strength at this point when it all seemed a bit hopeless. As slow and tedious as my progress was, Paul reminded me that it was nonetheless getting the job done.
Then, out of nowhere, some of the musculature or fascia around my left foot and ankle started complaining. I’d run mountain races and trail ultras on technical terrain; why on earth was I having a problem like this, on the simplest and flattest terrain imaginable? It was just pain, though, and I could easily battle through it.
But the final nail in the coffin wasn’t far off. Sudden shooting pains originating from my irksome hip flexor brought me to a standstill. Immobile and freezing, it was all too obvious that holding ground on the far side of the track wasn’t going to achieve anything other than hypothermia, so I forced myself into a hobble, around the far bend, straight off the track and back into the changing rooms. Back in the warmth, I briefly assessed the situation again, and undertook a superficial endeavour to loosen my flexor; but, frankly, I could tell this was going to be fruitless. I spent quite some time thinking through the implications, weighing the pros and cons of DNFing at this point. Completing the 24h looked borderline impossible in this state. So, a DNF, which would be my first ever, seemed inevitable. I talked myself through it from both angles: pushing on regardless, versus calling it a day.
The fact was, I was injured, and wasn’t going to be able to do myself justice here today. I had only three goals in this race: 1) to learn about the timed track format, 2) to PB 100m in a time I’d be happy with, 3) to set a 24h distance I’d be happy with. Both 2 and 3 were out of the question now; and I felt I’d already accomplished 1, with precious little more to learn from doggedly continuing through my injury. The benefit of continuing would only have been to prove my own determination, grit and resilience – but I’ve been there and done that many times before. Meanwhile, the risks from continuing were obvious, and were quite likely to jeopardise my training in the short-medium term, along with my work schedule in the following week. This was before I considered the logistics of how I’d get myself back home. I wasn’t even sure I had enough layers of clothing to get me through 10 hours of walking in these freezing temperatures – this circumstance was simply not something I’d planned for when I packed my kit.
Decided on the DNF, I rose to my feet, then wobbled precariously. My flipping flexor wasn’t even letting me stand cleanly now. I hobbled back out into the cold, and made a beeline toward the race officials to declare my DNF. But when I reached them, the racing half of my brain overrode this logical decision, and persuaded me to go for another lap. “It loosened before; it might loosen again. Make sure you need to DNF…”
The hip flexor was limiting my stride so much that I was frankly embarrassed by my walking pace. The person I deemed to be the slowest walker on the track passed me at twice my speed. Meanwhile, I was having to stop periodically as my hip flexor refused to function. Halfway around the lap, I paused beside Sarah (crewing Tom Sawyer), who was speaking to one of the RDs, and explained my situation. This was my last lap, I said; I was DNFing. As I listened to myself verbalising how the problem with my hip flexor had developed over almost 10 hours, the prospect of carrying on sounded even more absurd on the one hand, but I felt all the more determined on the other.
As I turned away and restarted my unseemly hobble, I was bluntly confronted with the unmistakeable reality of the situation yet again. I could barely walk. I made it around the lap, and headed for the race officials. It was over. But again, my racing brain turned my body back around to face the starting line. “Are you sure?”, it teased. “Don’t do anything hasty you’ll regret”. And so it went for 3 more laps, with my continually gauging how my hip flexor was responding, and whether it might possibly be worth continuing.
On the last lap, I noted the time on my watch, formed my hands into fists, gritted my teeth, replayed Camille Herron’s “beast mode” mantra and painfully hobbled my way around the track as fast as my flexor would allow, noting the time again as I approached the race clock. Even in “beast mode”, the 400m lap had taken me over 6 whole minutes. That equated to slower than 15 minute kilometres, or 4kph. I knew I definitely had over 40km to go to hit 100 miles, and there were some 9.5 hours remaining. So, unless that hip flexor loosened and remained functional, I wouldn’t even reach 100 miles.
That was the final straw: there was nothing left to salvage, other than a medal I wouldn’t even feel happy accepting. There was simply no point in continuing. I ripped off the tracker on my ankle, and thanked the race volunteers. I’d learned a lot over the past 14 and a half hours.
As I was thanking them, a war was waging inside my brain. Half of it was insisting I ask for my tracker back. “You can still hobble round”, it was arguing, with a steely sense of determination.
“Why on earth would you stop now? Nothing’s broken. You’re still mobile.”
“You wouldn’t be backing out if you were 2500m in the air on an Alpine mountaintop.”
“You’ll regret this…”
But the logical half of my brain was no longer interested in the pointless ramblings of its counterpart. I certainly had the determination; but without there being any purpose behind it, the determination to succeed was without merit. I knew that, as the adrenaline died down, that stubborn half of my brain would quieten down in kind, and I’d be left in peace – with my eminently sensible decision.
As I turned away from the officials, I grinned. I already felt as if I’d grown from the experience.
I know that one’s first DNF is quite commonly a mental trauma, something that takes time to come to terms with. We see this so often in race reports, with people second-guessing their decision, and worrying about what it might mean for them in future races – will they start DNFing every race when they find the going gets tough?
Whilst it’s early days, so far I have no such concerns. I spent a long time lucidly weighing all the pluses and minuses before making the call, and was convinced it was the right thing to do at the time, and still am in retrospect. If anything, I’m quite happy to get a DNF on the cards. The longer one wears the “I’ve never DNFed” badge with pride, the greater one risks elevating that unhealthy sense of machismo that could result in a serious injury down the line. Sometimes stopping is the right decision; and when it is, the decision to do so can require just as much courage as any decision to continue.