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Photo credit: Sri Chimnoy Races.

Tooting 24hr Race review

09-Oct-18

Last updated: 26-Oct-18

By Susie Chan

Its raining. It has just started and the forecast is more rain. I’m standing on Tooting Bec track on the outskirts of London contemplating the grey skies and what is about to happen.

This is Tooting 24hr Self Transcendence race. It has been going since 1986 and is so simple. It’s the antithesis of a mountain ultra, or a trail ultra, these races that take in the sweeping beauty of the landscape around you as you move through it from check point to check point.

The rules are thus: You have 24 hours to do as many loops of the track as possible. You are not allowed to stop or be off the track for more than 3 hours. That’s it. 24 hours of the same 400m loop over and over, from day to night and back to day again.

What’s not to love? I have always wanted to tick this one off the list, and when my entry was accepted, I looked forward to the day, although it is one of the harder ones to explain “why?”.

When the day arrived, I had rather hoped for more clement weather and a better build up. Injury treatment meant my mileage had dropped off a cliff in the lead up. Ahh well. There really is not much I could do about that or the weather, and for me, this would be a test more of mental strength than ultra calibre.

I just wanted to stay on the track for the full 24 hours, with a personal mileage goal quietly set.

As you can imagine the field is not big, and also attracts some extremely able ultra runners. It is a IAU Bronze Event, and the elites use it as a qualifier race. Each runner has their own “Lap Counter” a hardy person who takes on shifts throughout the race to count each time you pass.

For the first year ever, we had chip timing too, although the diabolical weather was not really helping the technology. Each runner has a crew car or tent, set up next to the track, and the race organisers have a hot meal rota and a single stationary checkpoint.

The plus side is runners are no further than 400m away from anything, the down side is after the one lap, you have kind of seen the scenery.

Round and round we went. Round and round and round. A jolly wave, or small cheer of encouragement from the lap counter. Round and round. Lighter rain, heavier rain, lighter rain again. Slowly the day shifted to night.

The loops were actually not as bad (for me) as I thought they would be. Every four hours we got to change direction. This was a huge highlight! Anti clockwise to clockwise! A brief single lap of people’s faces. The other leg slowly going rigid with the curve of the track.

Round and round. More rain. A change in lap counters. The track was not a soft one, but very hard underfoot. It hurt the feet more than any race I have every done. Slowly, the number of people on track diminished.

When 22 hours in, the rain really started to come down in a torrential downpour, that was the moment it suddenly became extraordinarily difficult mentally. My personal target of 100 miles suddenly seemed unreachable, as the cold had set into my bones and I simply could not move fast enough. The realisation of that hit me, and the rain fell hard.

I might have shed a tear coming into the 100m straight for the 385th time. . I was kind of done running round a track and being soggy.

Then, three things happened that changed my race. A friend turned up with multiple sugary espressos in a cup for me. An extraordinary gesture from a bystander; “You look so cold! Please, please take my trousers!” She got undressed right there, trackside in the rain and gave me her trousers.

Then the race director, seeing I was struggling, told me “Susie, it’s only 18 laps to 100 miles. You can do it”.

Warmed up, I started to run. Round and round and round. The crowd slightly swelled as the end of the race drew near. Each time I went over the lap counter the cheers got bigger. Fellow runners on the track all yelling words of encouragement to each other.

When finally the finish klaxon went off, every runner on the track stopped dead and clutched their legs. I ended up next to runner Sarah Morwood, she had just run a staggering 132 miles to come in 5th overall and first female. We did a feeble but victorious high five.

What a unique race. Yes the weather was terrible, and yes it is just loops around a track, but there is something quite special in it. The continued support was second to none I have ever had in a race. “The purest form of ultra running” a friend told me the night before the race.

Just you, your legs, your thoughts and not much else. Yes at times it was agony, most of the time to be honest. But in between those moments it was raw, running bliss.
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Susie Chan clocked 102 miles, 3rd female and 16th overall. Full results here.

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