As many miles as possible: what are 24-hour races like?

From the Glastonbury of running to hardcore concrete loops, 24-hour events inspire unbelievable camaraderie and take you beyond your previous limits

On a weekend in June, about 3,000 runners took part in a 24-hour running event called Endure24 near Reading. Just over a week ago, a similar number ran in the Thunder Run 24-hour event in Catton Park, Derbyshire. Thats about the same number of runners that an urban half-marathon will pull in. The majority of those 3,000 runners took part as members of relay teams, and not as solo runners, but these events are nevertheless drawing more and more people every year.

So what is a 24-hour race? Quite simply, its a race where you or your team cover as many miles as possible within a 24-hour time limit. The mass participation events like Endure24 and the Thunder Run are normally run around a nice, scenic circular route of five or six miles on trail, but at the more serious/hardcore end of the spectrum, the course can be a mile or kilometre loop or even a 400m track. So whats the appeal of running round in circles for 24 hours?

When run as a team, its essentially a camping weekend with your friends with a bit of running thrown in. The camaraderie at these events is pretty special as you all work together to achieve a collective mind-boggling distance (the winning entrants in the teams of six to eight people category covered 210 miles at Endure24 and the mens team of three to five an astounding 220 miles). You all rely on each other, encourage each other and do your bit, whether thats 10 miles or 50 miles.

Its
Its essentially a camping weekend with your friends with a bit of running thrown in.

I spoke to some runners who took part in teams at Endure24 and a common thread of their experience was that they achieved things they never thought possible. Mike Shepherd said: I run for fitness and friendship, and enjoy my weekly parkruns, having only got into running in my early fifties. I have never contemplated running a marathon, but I was persuaded to try a couple of laps of Endure24 as part of a team of six. I surprised myself at what I could actually achieve at this well-organised, friendly and fun event, eventually completing five laps.

Alison Gordon said: Running as a team makes these events accessible to any runner. I have never run more than a half-marathon at once but by running individual laps and then having a break I was able to run 20 miles in 24 hours. This is something I would never normally consider doing, so there is a huge sense of achievement at the end.

Endure24 calls itself the Glastonbury of running and its easy to see why. Glance around the site and you will observe a sea of tents and groups of friends hanging out, and you will hear music and much whooping and hollering. Once runners get about 12 hours in, you will also see hollow-eyed shells of people stumbling around in a stupor, and there is a definite morning after feel around camp once the sun comes up on day two. But day two is also where it really gets tough, with teams up against the wire to get one more lap in, before joining that final runner to all run across the line together. Lisa Martin says: That continual commitment to a goal and unwavering support throughout the 24 hours resulted in an incredible joint effort to ensure our anchor man could squeeze in a final lap with literally two minutes to spare! Crossing the line together, and being able to celebrate a shared success that we all feel proud of, is a memory that will remain forever with me.

And so, after 24 hours of running, with little or no sleep, with blisters, chafing and an overwhelming desire to just lie down, most runners will feel they have just experienced something very special. Many will have achieved distances they never thought possible. Their sense of where their limits lie will have been challenged and it might propel them on to try something else way out of their comfort zone. This year at Endure, one man in his 80s ran 40 miles and another 35.

Endure24
Endure24 at night.

Solo runners are viewed with wonder and respect at these events. You see the same runners pass again and again, each time deteriorating a little more. You think that this will probably be their last lap, theres no way they can go on, but they just keep going. These 24-hour races are a fantastic way to run ultra distance but in a controlled environment youre never more than five miles from dry clothes, food and your sleeping bag. Part of the challenge is getting past that tent every lap and not giving in.

Having done a few Thunder Runs, my first experience of the sharper end of 24-hour running was the Basel 24-hour race, which is run around a 1km, mostly concrete loop. The first lesson I learned was that you never, ever sit down. I had been used to doing a few laps then sitting down to eat and faffing with kit, but apparently this was a big no-no. To my horror, this was pointed out to me by John Pares, the legendary British ultra-runner who won gold in the 2013 Commonwealth 24-hour race, who had come down to support. At the serious end of these events, eating and drinking is done on the move and changing shoes, and even going to the toilet, is done with the minimum time taken off the course.

Other tips I have picked up from doing 24-hour events include:

  • Just keep moving forward. If you go through a rough patch and are reduced to a walk, or if you just cant run any more, you will be surprised by how much distance you can eat up over time if you just keep walking.
  • Keep eating. You need to take on calories even when you dont feel like you can stomach it. I make up a flask of soup before the race starts and I usually find I can get a cup of that down when solid food doesnt appeal.
  • Take plenty of spare shoes and socks. You cant overestimate the boost you get from fresh socks when things are getting tough.

James Elson, race director of Centurion running knows a thing or two about these races, having achieved 242km in the Athens 24 hour race this year. His top tip would be concentrating on fueling and pacing from the get go. The trick to a 24 hour race is to keep moving at a sustainable rate from the first minute to the last – and pacing and fueling together are the key to success.

However, I think Sue Henderson, whom I spoke to about her experience in a team at Endure24, sums up the 24-hour race experience best: What I like about the 24-hour race format is that, unless you plan to win it, it is not about being a speedy runner or walker. It is about having the will to run or walk for lap after lap, and for laps during the darkest hours; through rain, sun and hail. It is about still having tears in your eyes thinking about it two weeks past the event!

24-hour team races

Thunder Run

Cotswold 24 hour race

The Joust

Equinox 24

Endure 24

Solo 24-hour events

Basel

Barcelona

Tooting Bec

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-running-blog/2016/aug/03/what-are-24-hour-races-like-endure24-thunder-run