Thursday, April 16, 2015

2015 24 Hours World Championships, Turin. Part II, The Race

After going through the pre-race check-in and having a nice little chat with American runner Maggie Guterl we assembled at the start line. The Austrian team consisted of Heinz (national champion as well as the team's character), Klemens (12 hours champion but has yet to run a decent 24 hrs race), Andreas (rapidly improving youngster), myself (what the f*ck is he doing here), Georg (veteran), Gerhard (grandad) and Tom (48 hours specialist) for the men and Ulli, Alex and Pauline for the far better looking gender.

At 10 o'clock we went off. A couple of hundred metres behind us the open race, which would be held over the exact same course, would start as well. A couple of Latvians and one Lithuanian did a Billy Holden and took off at almost sprinting pace but some of the real favourites like Germany's Florian Reus and Japan's Yoshikazu Hara were moving rather rapidly as well, except they were expected to keep that going.

I started at whatever pace felt comfortable, which turned out to be about 9-minute miles, right where I would have expected it, really. Eoin Keith was right in front of me, chatting with a Serbian runner he had met at TdG last year, and when I went past them I quickly found myself right behind 4 of the Americans. That definitely surprised me. The American team is very strong (I would not have a hope of making it) and such a conservative start was not what I would have expected. In marked contrast, the American ladies for most of it started rather aggressively and were way ahead of the gents.

1 lady, 4 strong runners and me.
Photo by Franco Varesio.
I then found myself running beside the one American girl who did not seem intent on flying out of the blocks. Her name was Jennifer Hoffman and she was a bit disappointed about not being one of the 6 ladies on the scoring panel despite being the national champion. However, she very much appreciated being here at all and we ran together for 2 or 3 laps until she started moving ahead of me. At that point I realised one major difference between this race and the likes of Belfast - the runners were almost all running in silence instead of the constant chat that goes on in the races I am used to. Maybe it was time for me to shut up and get going as well.

The first lap of the course had been just over a mile and all subsequent ones were exactly 2 kilometres long with a few corners and one u-turn. It featured a lap through the stadium itself, which was great because it provided facilities for the supporters and provided some great atmosphere, but we had to pay the price for it by having to run down a fairly narrow, winding ramp with an elevation drop of about 6 metres to get into the stadium and then up again to get out. All the national support facilities were on the backstretch of the track, a very long line of white tents, most of them covered in national flags for easy identification even when the runners were tired. My own crew was Petra, who also looked after Georg. It worked very well but caused a few panicky moments when we both arrived at the tent in very quick succession.

National champ Heinz had lapped me a couple of times already and each time made a little joke. He also called me Bubi, which made me laugh because while that had been my nickname all throughout school I had not been called that for about 20 years. The one joke I could have done without was whispering into my ear "this is going to get really, really tough today" because as soon as he said that it all felt tougher straight away, but I managed to get over it quickly again. Unfortunately, that was the last time I saw him and when Andreas started talking to me a couple of hours later he told me that Heinz had ruptured his Achilles and literally had to be carried off the track (it eventually turned out to be a muscle problem - either way, his race was over). Me: "That's the team score gone, then" A:"It's down to us now" Me:"That's the team score gone, then!" I guess Heinz wasn't the only one with silly jokes on the day.

I never knew my place in the field but I was 115th after 5 hours. There was a screen at the far end of the stadium that displayed your name and number of laps completed when you crossed the timing mat but you had to be quick to look because you would drop off the screen in a matter of seconds. I did noticed that my number of laps was always amongst the higher ones amongst the ones displayed but since we shared the course with the ladies as well as the open race this obviously did not mean that I was doing all that well in the men's field, which was all that counted today.

Due to logistics, my feeding strategy had to be changed from Belfast. I was unable to get some proper spuds, and even if I had gotten some I still would have been unable to cook them, so that was my most tried and tested food stuff off the menu straight away. Instead I brought a lot of sweets and dates (best replacement for potatoes I could think of) as well as a couple of gels and 2 kinds of sports drink (High 5 and Perpetuem). To get some more variety going I started to take some stuff off the general table, especially once I started getting tired. There was one drink that I thought was grapefruit juice and I must have taken close to a dozen cups over a few hours when I overheard one of the helpers explaining to a runner that it was alcohol-free beer! Oops. I decided to hold off for a while.

After several hours I noticed that my watch had rubbed my left wrist raw. I probably could have prevented that by tightening the strap by one more notch. It wasn't a big problem, I just switched it over to the right arm. Thankfully that was fine for the rest of the race as I didn't have a third option.

John and me
Photo by Niamh Swan
I reached 50 miles/80k after about 8 hours and pretty much immediately had my first major slump of the day. That is to be expected. Everyone, and I really mean everyone, including the elites, will suffer at times in a 24 hours race and it is the way you deal with these lows that makes or breaks your race. I felt absolutely awful and I was only a third into the race! The main thing that kept me going was the fact that I knew I would be feeling better eventually so I just kept my head down and plodded along, most likely at a slower pace though I never paid too much attention to the watch. It was soon after that point that I took my first dose of paracetamols. I absolutely hate taking pain killers, it can lead to serious complications and long term health problems are clearly not worth it, but there was a point where I would have done anything to lessen the pain. They did work - it is usually a once-off shot - and I soon felt better again. Had I felt better without the pills? Who knows.

It had become apparent that Eoin Keith had troubles today (apparently an old injury had flared up) and when I passed John O'Regan three times in quick succession I knew that it wasn't his day either. I paused to ask what was wrong; he said his stomach was acting up in the heat and he was basically waiting for the sun to go down to get going properly. Eddie, the third man on Irish team, just did his steady laps without any fuss, as he always does. On the Irish ladies side, Susan had started rather aggressively and was starting to show the strains but Ruthann was looking imperious. I knew she was in incredible form and had told anyone who wanted to hear it, and a few who didn't, that she had a realistic shot at a medal, and nothing I had seen so far had changed my mind.

Eventually it got dark. This was another change from what I am used to, Belfast starts in the evening and you do the night first. The temperatures dropped and most runners changed into warmer tops. I did not. I figured that we now had finally reached the conditions I am used to. I have trained all winter mostly at 6/7 o'clock in the morning; the cold was a permanent companion through the months.

I reached 100k in about 9:50, which was a couple of minutes slower than Belfast. It was at that point that I figured that today's total would not match up to my best performance. Maybe I should have run a bit slower during the daytime heat? Too late now anyway. Just do the best you can.

By 11 hours I had made some progress through the field and was now in 94th position. With 179 men at the championship race, I was honing in on the top half. Having said that, I was blissfully unaware of any of that. What I did know was that Hara, the Japanese favourite, was leading by a big stretch. He looked untouchable. He is very small and can't weigh much but half his weight seems to be in his quads, which are absolutely gigantic. He looks like they took the quads from a weightlifter and grafted them onto a particularly wiry runner. There might be a lesson in there, though I very much doubt I will ever resemble anything like that, no matter what.

By now I still had not gone to the toilet! I had drunk buckets of fluids but most of it came back out as sweat during the hot day (hot for Ireland that is! I'm sure the Australians are wondering what the heck I am talking about). Once the sun went down and the temperatures dropped I could slowly feel my bladder filling up, but it was a rather slow process. As I was getting close to half time I decided to pay the portapotty a visit. I still wasn't exactly desperate to go, I just wanted to make sure that some urine had indeed gathered in my bladder by now. If not that would have been a serious sign of kidney problems. Thankfully there was no need to worry. My kidneys had indeed been working,

12 hours
Photo by Franco Varesio
The open race was really starting to bother me. While there were clearly some very good runners in that race (the top 2 finished ahead of me and the winner particularly would have been better off in the championship race), many were not. While I am obviously delighted that ordinary people attempt extraordinary feats, the World championship doesn't seem the obvious place to do so. Some of them were walking 3 abreast at times and especially on the narrow tunnel they did cause a few problems. We constantly had to weave around these runners, and after a few hours it really started to get to me.

Such thoughts were a clear sign that I was headed into negative thoughts territory and just after half time I asked my crew for my ipod shuffle. I never ever run with a music player - expect in races of at least 100 miles when there comes the time when focusing on your body is no longer advisable. Music players had specifically been permitted and I noticed that the American ladies were all tuned in right from the start. My player is a fifth generation shuffle. It is with this generation that Apple have finally managed to miniaturise a gadget past the point of usefulness. The thing is so tiny that the clip is very hard to use at the best of times. Now imagine attempting the same after 12 hours of running and in the dark. I kept trying. I had already been swearing loudly in 2 different languages and was about to start on a third one when I was finally able to clip it onto my shirt. Almost an entire kilometre away from the stadium I was finally having some Sex on Fire.

For the next few hours I was cruising along relatively comfortable. The music did help to distract my mind, especially when AC/DC was blaring through the earphones. I'm not sure what the pace was but I think it remained reasonably constant. What I did seem to notice was that I was one of the slowest runners in the men's field. I rarely overtook others out on the road. However, many others took a lot of little breaks, some even bigger breaks; many stopped completely at the food tables. I, on the other hand, always tried to keep running. Food and drinks were handed and consumed on the go and there wasn't much reason to ever stop running. The one part of the course where I did overtake other championship runners was the ramp - in either direction I was able to run faster than most and the downhill especially seemed to work in my favour. I just let gravity pull me down and it even helped to keep the momentum for the tiny little subsequent rise onto the track itself.

This got me to 15 hours and then my world just seemed to collapse. From one lap to the next I was virtually unable to lift the knees any more. A look at the watch told me that I was shuffling along at a pathetic 13 minute miles. I can walk faster than that so I decided to do just that. Turns out, after 15 hours my walking pace suffers as well and it wasn't faster after all, though it did not hurt quite so much. At the tent I told my handler that I thought my race was over, I could not run any more, before slouching off despondently into the night once again. I figured I might recover somewhat if I ate a decent amount of food, just for energy, and was barely able to contain my excitement when I saw a big plate of spuds on the general food table. The one bit of magic food I had been lacking! I took a massive amount - one of the German coaches even commented on my appetite. When I passed our tent Reinhold, the team manager, ordered me inside and told me to sit down and have the physio try her magic. This was completely against my instincts; as I said, I prefer to keep moving at all times, but I knew straight away that we really had to try something else. She started to work on my quads but I told her that the problem was with my hamstrings. I'm not sure what exactly she did next. She pushed her thumb very hard into my hamstrings and told me to stretch the leg. She tried it on 3 or 4 subtly different positions and knew she had hit the right spot when I started screaming. Then the procedure was repeated with the other leg, with the same results. Reinhold also made me eat a bit of raw ginger to settle the stomach. At least my face when chewing that disgusting root caused plenty of merriment in the busy Austrian tent. She also insisted on putting some bandage around my knees. They had been rubbing together and it looked rather gruesome with plenty of smeared blood but I could not even feel it. Once the bandage was on I looked okay again and was finally allowed to leave the tent. Despite all the activity it had been an extremely efficient stop and had only taken about 4 minutes.

The team was in a bit of trouble. Our number 2 runner, Klemens, had once more been unable to transform his incredible 12 hours ability into the longer distance and Gerhard, who never had managed to get going at all, had dropped out as well. Time to get going and rescue what there was left to rescue, I suppose.

I walked for about 5 steps and then started to run again. This was a miracle! I was able to run again! I had the time lost during the enforced stop made up within 2 laps and was able to resume my happy cruising pace for a while longer (I was doing 10-ish minute miles around that the time). 100 miles were reached at some point after 16:30 (not entirely sure) and I was now comfortably in the top half of the field in 76th position, not that I knew anything about that.

At some point I took another dose of painkillers but they just puffed away empty into the void and provided no relief. I was past that point, I suppose. Time to HTFU.

Around 3 or 3:30 am I once more dropped down the ramp into the stadium and something felt differently. As soon as I turned the corner I could see the problem. Or, I couldn't see a thing. What! The! F*ck! The stadium was pitch dark!

The floodlights had gone out! A few dozen people had brought along headlamps, something that had not even occurred to me, and those was the only source of light. You could just about make out the shadowy shapes of runners right in front of you and it was really hard to find the right food tent, and of course the handlers could not see us either, so I shouted every time I was near the tent. To add to the spooky atmosphere, there was a strong smell of burned plastic in the air. The scoreboard was not working, obviously, but thankfully the timing mats were, so at least the lap data was not lost.

The lights in the park were still on, it was just the 400 meters in the stadium itself that were in the dark. After a while 2 big fire engines came blaring along and after 3 or 4 laps in darkness I turned into stadium once more and Happy Days! the floodlights were back on.

The next time I could not believe my eye was when Hara was walking! Up to then he had looked untouchable and his lead at that point was well over 4 laps. Maybe he is human after all. He dropped out soon after.

Another top class runner in trouble was Ivan Cudin, the reigning Spartathlon champion. Maybe the fact that this was a home championship for him had put too much pressure on him? He may not have been fully fit coming into today, which is a problem in a 24 hours race.

Team mate Tom told me that he was taking some time off. This was so much against my own instincts that he had to say it twice before I could comprehend the meaning. It's the mentality of the 48 hours runner, I suppose. They do take rests.

One part of me kept telling me to start making deals when it would be acceptable to start walking. I managed to shut it up but it came back more and more frequently. I passed 18 hours, the point when I had started run/walking in Belfast, and I was still running, albeit quite a bit behind the mileage I had done that day, but at least there was some progress being done at some aspects.

Another couple of hours later I went down that ramp again, this time to be greeted by a cloud of very thick smoke and more burning smell, this time from the other side of the main stand. The race, of course, just went on. Another while later we heard the familiar sound of the big fire engines once more. The boys were back for another visit. We certainly kept them busy that night!

At 19:26 my watch stopped recording. I should not have worn the HR strap. Ah well. It still kept going as a normal watch.

Faking it after 21:36, almost 200k
Photo by Martin Mayrhofer
By 20 hours I was in 64th position and the team manager seemed happy enough. I know I am not a fast runner, but this really was a classic hare and turtle scenario. A lot of runners had gone off too fast and now the turtle was crawling past them as they were taking their rest breaks.

At that point I was finally unable to keep running. I switched into run/walk. In Belfast, that had been easy, just run the straights and walk the curves. Here it was a bit more complicated. For about the second half of the course it was marked every 50 meters, before that I had to mostly guess. Also, my legs threatened to buckle every time I had to step onto the track after running down the ramp. I had to be careful.

At some point I no longer took the food from my handler. I think she was still relatively inexperienced in regards to ultra runners and when I just waved her away she looked really confused. The rest of the Austrian crew had seen it all before, of course. I think they told her to badger me into taking some drink at some laps, because that's what she did from here on until the rest of the race.

Unfortunately, at around the same time Ruthann finally started to falter after looking incredibly good for most of the race. She gradually lost her medal places and with 45 minutes remaining her husband eventually dragged her off the track - quite literally from what he told me afterwards, and against her will but with her health in mind. She is an absolutely awesome runner. She came so close to a medal this time, but there will be more championships in the future.

The sun arrived much later than I expected it. My watch said 7:09 am when I finally saw a red fire ball rising between two houses.

It was just a question to keep going. Don and Brian, the two Irish lads who were running in the open race, both finished very strongly but both had to take some time off during the night which cost them in their totals. I know Brian especially really wanted to beat me (that's ok, I wanted to beat him as well), but when at some point late in the race I saw my name with 95 laps and his with 85 it was clear that he would have to wait for another time. He is a damn good runner - it is absolutely inevitable that one day he will finish a 24 hrs race ahead of me. He asked me if I thought he had a realistic shot at 200k and I told him to go for it. For a while I'm sure he hated me for saying that and he came so close, 199k, which was good enough for 5th place in the open race; well done!

With about 22 hours gone I visited the portapotty again, only for the second time in the race. May I just say that whoever had left it in that state was a complete and utter pig! Sitting down was out of the question but I could still use it (as long as I managed to ignore the utterly filthy surroundings) - this was a good time to be male. The one thing I noticed straight away were the streaks of red blood in my urine. Bloody urine is almost always caused by running for hours with an empty bladder and the walls of the bladder rubbing against each other, causing some blood to seep into it. This is completely harmless as such - the problem is when the blood is caused by other things, especially kidney problems, which can be very dangerous. I figured that since I had indeed been running with an empty bladder for many hours earlier today this was almost guaranteed to be the case and ventured on. I decided not to take any more painkillers, though, just in case - not that they would have done any good at that point anyway.

Team mate Tom had eventually rejoined the race after 3 hours of break but was obviously not going to end up in the team scoring positions, justifying the manager's decision to leave me in there. Tom is a very nice guy but if he had beaten me while not being used as a scorer, that really would have stung.

Almost there!
Photo by Niamh Swan
At some point me and Andreas were pretty much level but he was having a much stronger finish than me and pulled away significantly in the final few hours. He was one of the few athletes today who set a new PB - a remarkable feat on such a difficult course. I have to mention team mate Alexandra, who achieved a new PB as well. Respect!

My legs picked it up again when they started sensing the finish and I was finally running more than walking again. With 11 or 12 minutes to go I left the stadium for a final time. An entire lap did not seem possible but I would at least be back very close and Niamh might see me actually finish.

It's amazing how this works. I actually managed to run the entire final lap and while I do not have the lap splits I am pretty sure that it was the fastest lap of the entire second half of my race. I was racing down the ramp when the one minute to go signal came and did my best sprint impression to get to the timing mat one more time to just add one more lap. I got there with a couple of seconds to spare.There were three runners just ahead of me, including a Japanese and a Czech runner, and if I'd had 10 more seconds I would have gotten them but I didn't and I finished just behind them. As it turns out, they both had been on the same lap - position 58 would have been achievable.

Ah well. 60th in the Worlds is hardly a bad result for someone who started running with a 4:06 and a 4:36 marathon! There were plenty of hugs and tears, for fellow competitors, team members, crew and of course family. I was so glad that I had brought Niamh and the kids along. This was one of the undisputed highlights of my life and having them part of it made it all the sweeter.

Is there a word to describe an athlete who has taken part in a world championship?


  1. Nice one Thomas! Great to see a successful end to this part of your journey! Looking forward to seeing how the rest of it pans out.

  2. There are probably many words to describe that athlete you speak of Thomas. Dedicated, committed, unique, passionate, outstanding, talented, even heroic maybe. It is certainly an achievement many billions of people who occupy the planet will never experience. So privileged might be a good word I think, and in your case, deserved fits well also. Congratulations, great reading as always, great inspiration too. Hope to meet you again sometime to say hi.

  3. An epic adventure Thomas and a fantastic achievement. 60th in the world - simply amazing.

  4. Those foolish Lithuanians & Latvians....nobody does a Billy Holden like Billy holden�� great report Thomas, you've been on some journey, a worthy chapter in your autobiography��

  5. Good write-up Thomas. I guess now that you've proved yourself your whole year will revolve around preparing for the World Championships. Maybe they'll be in Australia one day and I'll get to cheer you on. Well done again.

  6. Best report ever Thomas. Loved the not having a third option for the watch line, and the last paragraph about having the family there almost brought me to tears! Nice job old son!!

  7. The answer to your final question has to be: Elite :-)

    And you totally deserve that word, gutsy performance and write up Thomas, well done. Recover well.

  8. Fantastic stuff Bubi60 - what an amazing accomplishment!

  9. Inspiring stuff Thomas. It might be true that all great achievements require a little madness. If so I want some. Amazing stuff. I assume the painful physio on the hammy's was worth it.Well done.

  10. Way to go Thomas ! Wonderful read, great running commitment to the very last moment and a very well deserved placing. Very well done.

  11. Congratulations Thomas on your well-deserved success. A fantastic achievement. Thank you for sharing the experience. BH.

  12. Herzlichen Gl├╝ckwunsch zu dieser sensationellen Leistung! Richard und Maria

  13. Another great report on another truly magnificant performance. To see you evolve from a 4+ hour marathon to the WCs is inspirational. Hope you enjoy your recovery time and the glory that you've earned. All the best, Marty

  14. Well done on your progress, keep it up and bettering yourself on future runs.