Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids.
Which is how I got involved with running ultra-marathons. Our daughter Antonia talked me into my first one in 2010 and she has gone on to run several since then.
Her most recent event was representing New Zealand at the World 24 Hour Running Championships in Holland recently. The timing was great for me and Ann – we were going to be in Scotland for Antonia’s wedding in June, so we went a few weeks earlier which allowed me to join Antonia’s sister Olivia as support crew for the champs. It also allowed us to meet Antonia’s fiancé Scott for the first time, but that is a different story.
Antonia has written an excellent report of her race (http://www.petitefeetrunaway.blogspot.co.uk/), so I thought I would write this from my perspective on the crew.
Olivia and Antonia had crewed for the New Zealand team at the Commonwealth Champs in 2011 and the World Champs in 2012, so they knew what was involved and had met most of the kiwi team. This was my first time at a 24 hour race; it was all new to me.
The concept for a 24 hour race is reasonably simple – run for 24 hours and see how far you can get. The person with the most distance wins. It has been described as a bunch of crazy people running in circles to see who is the craziest. And yes, the support crew get to stay awake for the duration.
Antonia had found us a B&B that was located right on the race course, and it turned out to be quite handy having our headquarters this close, especially when Antonia collapsed at the end of race.
The race started at midday, and we sent Olivia down early to set up in the crew tent . The team was allocated one trestle table for the 5 team members, so space was at a premium. With 24 hours’ worth of food and drink and warm/dry/spare clothing for the runners and crew, the tent was rather cosy.
Antonia and I stayed at the B&B as long as possible, then wandered down to the start line. A few rushed photos, a short countdown, and the race was underway. We watched approximately 300 runners stream past, then finally spotted Antonia’s braids amongst the last handful of runners to cross the line. And she was already chatting to the people around her.
This year the World champs was held on a course of approximately 2.3km, so we would be seeing Antonia roughly every 15 minutes. She had prepared a very detailed set of lap-by-lap instructions for us, which was incredibly helpful, especially late in the race when we had all been up for 30 hours and my brain had turned to mush. The first few laps were exciting for me – we sorted out a routine in the crew tent, the runners settled into their rhythm, and I introduced myself to the other NZ support crews. Most of them had done this before, and they were a little more relaxed about it than I was.
Writing this several weeks after the event my memory of this section is a bit vague, so I have broken it into 6 hour chunks:
The first quarter – Midday to 6pm
The day started off cold with a very gentle but chilly breeze. Early in the race we got some light rain, and with the crew tents set back about 2 metres from the edge of the track we got wet every time our runner came around. The runners themselves seemed oblivious at that early stage, but I had wet cold feet for 20 hours.
Antonia had prepared sheets for us to record her lap times. She wasn’t worried about them herself, but she thought it would give us something to do. Olivia and I love that sort of thing; we were carefully recording Antonia’s splits and noting how consistently she was lapping. Antonia kept chugging along, quite happy and relaxed. It seemed that every hour she was running and chatting with a different person.
The organisers had a PA system going, with speakers set up all around the course. The announcer was excitedly calling out the names of runners as they crossed the start/finish line, and it quickly became apparent that he liked Antonia. She always got a special shout out, with a mention of her smiling and waving.
As the afternoon wore on the rain settled in and it got even colder. Ann bought us some warm food for tea, and a few more clothes. Antonia didn’t seem to notice, she just kept clocking up her laps, chatting to other runners and taking her food/drink every 3rd lap as planned.
With about 30 feed laps expected, it was important to get the food and drink to her as efficiently as possible. Stopping for a minute each time would mean that she would miss half an hour of running time. We soon got a good system going, with Olivia handing food and any messages, and me handing over the small drink bottle. Antonia hardly had to slow at all.
The second quarter – 6pm to midnight
Once the sun went down the rain got heavier, and the temperature dropped a few more degrees. Antonia kept clocking up consistent laps, and did not come in for her warm/dry clothes. I was worried that she would be getting too cold, but didn’t want to interrupt her rhythm. Eventually Olivia and I decided to pull her in and get her changed for the night. Antonia was a little surprised that we had deviated from our normal slick feed routine, but she appreciated it once we got her into warm dry clothes.
The rain did not let up, and the crew were all huddling in the cramped tent trying to keep under shelter as much as possible. And trying to keep warm.
The PA shut down at 10.00, and although we missed the updates, I found the silence quite nice as we all hunkered down to see the night through.
With us living in New Zealand and Antonia living (and running) in Scotland, we had spent the last 3 years struggling to find updates while she was doing her events. With this in mind I had setup a Facebook page with the intention of posting updates for the NZ team. Antonia had given this her blessing, as long as I remembered that it was for the whole NZ team, and not just her. As it turned out the organisers had done a good job of posting live updates from the electronic chip timing system (why don’t more race directors do this? The data is all right there, just post it on the net!), so there was no need for me to post specific lap/distance/time info. Instead I posted a few updates on how the runners and crew were doing, with the occasional photo.
The flip side was that friends and family could post support messages, and I was reasonably busy passing these onto the crews for their runners.
With a short multi lap course there was a constant stream of runners going past the tent, I had no idea how the race itself was progressing or what runners were in contention for medals. I recognised some of Antonia’s UK running friends and gave them a shout when I saw them go past. None of them know me, so it probably confused them, but it kept me entertained.
Antonia just kept on going around, maintaining her consistent lap times. She doesn’t run with a GPS or even a watch, and doesn’t like to know what sort of progress she is making. I don’t think I could do this myself, but it works for her. Olivia and I were checking her lap times, partly to get an idea of how her race was progressing, and partly so we could estimate when she would be coming around for her next feed session. With the consistent lap times Antonia was doing roughly 4 laps per hour, and by the halfway point at midnight she had run about 110km.
In her only previous 24 hour race she had run 191km. None of us had spoken about a target for the world champs, but we were all thinking that 200km was a good target. It was looking good, and Olivia and I passed some time discussing it, but we still did not mention it to Antonia.
The third Quarter – Midnight to 6.00 am (roughly dawn)
It rained quite heavily in this period, including a hail storm around 3.00. I know I was miserably cold and wet, Antonia has since told me that she didn’t notice, she was just enjoying running through the night.
What became obvious to me was the increasing number of competitors walking past, and the reduced number of competitors on the course. The walking was starting to resemble the death march that I had heard of at these events, and I think that as runners slowed to a walk the cold and wet got to them, so an increasing number decided to sleep it out in their team tent until dawn. It wasn’t a huge exodus, but it was apparent that there were less and less people on the track as the night wore on.
Manually calculating lap times got harder and harder as we got tired. What’s 14 hours 7 minutes and 23 seconds less 13 hours 53 minutes and 48 seconds? After you have been awake for 20 hours? Just as well Antonia wasn’t relying on precise splits from us.
The other NZ team members were all doing well, with all of them still running strong. Each person had their own way of approaching the race –Antonia just liked to run past with hardly a pause, and only stopped the one time, when we put her warm/dry clothes on. Some runners took each feed session as the chance for a mini rest break, stopping for a minute to chat to their crew, others had scheduled longer breaks where they sat and had a quick massage or shoe change.
Wayne Botha would have to take the support crew award, he arrived at the feed station carrying two cups of hot coffee that he had picked up from the communal feed station – and presented them to his crew! Brilliant. Where was my hot chocolate Antonia?
By 4.00 am I was starting to fade, it has been a long time since I was up all night! I was only just hanging on, waiting for dawn – even though I knew that there still 6 hours to go from there. Olivia was strong through this period, and she carried me through it. Antonia was fantastic, still circulating at incredibly regular intervals.
The final quarter – 6 am to Midday
Dawn finally arrived, as it does. The rain stopped for a while and we actually had a bit of weak sunshine. There were significantly less competitors on the course now, although as things warmed up over the next few hours a few of them staggered out of the tents and started clocking up more laps.
The PA announcer started up again around 8, and it was obvious that his infatuation with Antonia had not faded during the night. She was still one of his favourite runners.
It was around this point in Antonia’s only previous 24 hour race that she had hit the wall and walked for 4 hours. Olivia and I checked her total distance and saw that she could afford to slow her average pace and still achieve 200km, as long as she didn’t have an extended walk break. After a bit of “should-we/shouldn’t we?” we decided to share this information with Antonia – even though she doesn’t normally like to know where she is at in a race. Once we mentioned it, Antonia admitted that she had been counting her feed laps, and that there was an enormous lap board at the start/finish line being updated off the timing chips, so she had known all along what her distance was. So much for us trying not to upset her with this information.
Antonia had also picked 200km as her target, and was starting to worry that she would not get there if she hit the wall again. 20 hours into the run, and it was finally getting serious – everything up to this point had just been the warm up, now the hard work was going to start.
I have to admit that I found these last hours quite tedious. I have no idea how the runners managed it, I was just over the whole thing and wanted it to finish. I was felling the lack of sleep, and starting to fumble around like a zombie – Olivia was running the feed sessions single-handed. I decided that a change of scenery would help me, so I walked a few laps in reverse to get photos from a different angle and offer support to runners at the back of the course.
I saw Antonia and she confided that she was terrified that she was going to end up walking and miss her 200km target. I offered some pointless words of encouragement, but could not really help her much. Although she was showing the strain and had slowed marginally, she was still lapping nicely, going better than a lot of competitors. By now there was a large number of people walking slowly along on the death march, obviously just hoping to keep moving forward until the finish hooter sounded.
During one of these laps I was approaching a supporter from behind as he watched New Zealand runner Kim Allen come towards him. He called out “go Kiwi – how is Antonia doing?” Kim replied that she didn’t know, but he could ask her father. I introduced myself and stopped for a chat, assuming that he knew Antonia from her UK running. It turned out that he had only met her in this race. He had run several laps with her during the night before he retired, and was so impressed by her that he was very keen to know how she was doing.
Olivia and I had another talk and agreed that Antonia was likely to get 200km, and could probably get close to 210 km if we could keep her moving at the same pace. Being as tired as we were, it took several attempts for us to calculate the required laps, remaining time, average lap time required. We decided not to share this with Antonia, but to just do what we could to keep her going. It was obvious that she was fading, so we made the call to change her food schedule, to try and get more instant energy into her. With hindsight, we should have made some different changes, and probably earlier. This might have improved her energy levels, but we will never know.
Antonia’s lap times had slipped from an incredibly consistent 14 or 15 minutes for the first 20 hours, to 16 or 17 minutes by now, but they were not getting any slower than that. At around 23.5 hours she came past to start what we knew would be the lap to clock up 200km, and we excitedly calculated that if she maintained her pace she would get close to 210km. We decided to share this with her when she came around again, to see if it would give her a mental boost.
We watched the clock while we waited for Antonia to finish that lap – 16 minutes, 17 minutes, 18, 20, ….. I got quite concerned and set off around the course to find her and check that she was OK. I caught up with her just as she walked over the start/finish line for her chip to record that she had in fact done over 200km. She was delighted, and shattered. She saw me and mumbled that she had done it, she could stop now. I tried to encourage her to keep moving, still thinking that we could convince her to try for 210km, but it soon became clear that she had run out of mental energy once she had achieved her target.
Although it had stopped raining, it was still quite cold, and Antonia was cooling down now that she was not running. I wanted to give her my jacket, but in my diminished mental state worried that this would get her disqualified, so I just convinced her to keep walking to the crew tents. During this 300 metre section she was joined on the course by her new friend Pieter. Another bloke that she had met and run with during the event, he was delighted that she had made it, and happy to walk her home. As we walked past all the crew tents, everyone seemed to know Antonia’s name and called out congratulating her as she passed. I am pretty sure she would take the award for “Personality of the race”
We got Antonia back to the NZ tent and it was obvious that she was not going to be doing any more laps. We bundled her up in warm clothes and blankets as the effort caught up with her quickly and her body started to shut down. This threw me into a panic, and Olivia had to get some help for her. We wrapped her up and Kim’s support crew kindly helped me carry Antonia to our B&B where we could get her warm and dry.
Ann fed and showered Antonia while I crashed out and had my best sleep in years.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Ultra runners and their supporters are a great bunch of people, and the kiwi contingent are (of course) better than most.
This was a World Championships, and the runners were serious about running some ridiculously long distances, but they were also relaxed and outwardly calm about it all.
Olivia was fantastically strong throughout. She could have done the whole thing on her own, and she certainly carried me for the last 4 hours.
Antonia clocked up a staggering distance of over 200km. To put this in perspective, if you are from Nelson, it is the distance from the cathedral to Springs Junction. If you are not from Nelson, play on Google maps to see how far it is from your home. Think about driving that, then try to imagine running it. It still makes my head spin.
Ann and I are incredibly proud of her, and I would love to write an even longer essay, but I have to go and write my Father of the Bride speech now.