In race-walking, a Centurion is someone who walks 100 miles in less than 24 hours in an official qualifying race. Centurionism (if that is a word) is recognised in seven different countries – the UK, Holland, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and most recently South Africa which will have its first qualifying race in October of this year. The first time that an athlete completes 100 miles in under 24 hours in a country they are given a unique centurion number. My numbers are C19 in New Zealand and C1131 in the UK – meaning that I was the 19th person to complete the feat in NZ and the 1,131st to do it in the UK. 1,131 might sound like a high number but it is significantly less than the 1,600+ people who have swam the English Channel, the 4,000+ people who have climbed Mount Everest. It is also marginally less than the number of people who have played ruby for the All Blacks.
Other than Malaysia, which no longer has a regular qualifying race, each country holds a qualifying race on an annual basis and last weekend 83 race-walkers competed in Schiedam, Holland to qualify as Continental Centurions.
There were a mixture of experienced centurion race-walkers (including the legendary Sandra Brown who is one of only two people to have qualified as a centurion in all six countries that have had qualifying races and has completed over 170 races of 100 miles or further!) and relative novices who were attempting to become a Centurion for the first time. I was the only New Zealand competitor. There were three Australians plus half a dozen from the UK and 12 from the Isle Of Man. The rest of the field comprised mainly of Dutch race-walkers with a few from other parts of Europe.
As with all big races, one of the highlights was catching up with everyone beforehand, and that started when I arrived at my hotel in Schiedam on the Friday morning to find that my room wasn’t yet available. I phoned Australian race-walker John Kilmartin (Australian Centurion C67 and UK Centurion C1137) who had arrived a few days earlier and dropped my bags in his room before going for a walk around the course with John.
After walking a lap of the course John and I headed back to the hotel for lunch and were mistaken by hotel staff as being a part of the conference that was happening in the hotel and as a result we ended up being served a free lunch. Who said that there’s no such thing as a free lunch?
During the course of the afternoon more competitors arrived including Peter Miller (UK Centurion C1159) from the Isle of Man who, during the race, specifically asked me to mention him in my race report. 🙂 He also told me that he had been reading my book so I guess he deserves a mention here, as does Michael Bonney (UK Centurion C1135) who also told me that he had read my book. FYI, I’m not going to mention the names of every single person that has ever read my book as that would add at least another 2 lines to the length of this race report!
By dinner time there were about 20 competitors/support crew at the hotel. We had dinner together and then I went to bed around 10pm hoping for a good nights sleep as I wouldn’t be getting any sleep the next day.
Over the last few years I have got to the stage where I sleep really well the night before a race. I don’t know what it was this time though, but I had been struggling to sleep all week and the Friday night was no exception. During the week the daytime temperature had increased from mid-teens to mid 20’s and I had put my problems getting to sleep down to the warmer nigh time temperature but I suspect it was more the pre-race nerves/excitement. I eventually got to sleep though and woke up the following morning to find that race day was much cooler than the last few days with a forecast 7 to 12 degrees, with cloud and showers throughout the weekend.
The Schiedam course was a 3.936km (almost 2.5 mile) circuit set within Prinses Beatrixpark with the first lap being slightly shorter so that we would finish the 100 mile race in front of the official timers; and for the last 30 minutes of the 24 hour race we would go on to a much shorter 991 meter circuit. It was set amongst the trees which provided shelter (from the sun, the wind, and the rain at different times during the race) for over a half of each lap and was almost dead flat other than a few small bridges crossing over streams.
The only problem I had with the course was that there were no ‘out and back’ sections which meant there wasn’t any opportunity to see any other competitors other than when lapping them, or being lapped, or occasionally when going past the supporters’ tent village at the end of each lap where you would occasionally see another walker sitting down for a rest or being attended to by their support team.
For me personally, I enjoyed the course and found that the distance per lap was almost perfect as it gave me the opportunity to get food and drink every 30 minutes throughout the whole race.
As well as the 100 mile/24 hour race there were also 50km, 50 mile, and 100km race being held during the weekend with the 50km race starting at the same time as us (but from a different starting point) and the 50 mile and 100km races starting later on. In total there were over 130 walkers competing with 83 of them being on the start line at 12 noon for the 100 mile/24 hour race.
My intention was to start off at a pace of 7 minutes, 30 seconds per kilometre (8 km / 5 miles per hour) and hold that through daylight hours and as long as I could through the night. I was able to start off at close to my target pace but I didn’t feel 100% comfortable and couldn’t believe how fast some of the other competitors were walking. According to the results, after lap 1 (which I completed at a 7:36 pace) I was in 37th place and by the end of lap 3 I was in 38th place and averaging 7:38/km.
From the 4th lap onwards I started to feel better, my pace started to improve marginally, and for the next 22 ½ hours I slowly picked my way through the field. My plan of walking a good pace during daylight hours was working and I was consistently lapping the circuit with times ranging from my fastest lap of the day (lap 7) in 29:28 through to 30:56 (with two laps in the mid 31 minutes).
I passed 50 miles almost bang on target at 10 hours and 19 minutes, and in 17th place, but then the wheels fell off. A 33 ½ minute lap was followed by a 35 ½ minute lap. And then a 34 minute lap followed by a 32 minute lap. What was happening? I couldn’t work it out. I was feeling fine physically and had been eating well throughout the race to date – mainly eating fruit but also some biscuits, and drinking water with the occasional cup of orange cordial.
I had to do something or my goal of going under 21 hours for 100 miles and more than 182.648km (the current New Zealand Record) for 24 hours would not happen. I had already gone through the stage of telling myself that missing the records would be OK as I have another 100 mile race scheduled for August, but I don’t have another 24 hour race scheduled for 2016.
During training, and also long races when I am walking alone, I like to listen to podcasts as they give me something to think about during all those hours that I am on my feet, but I realised that listening to podcasts for the next 12 hours wasn’t going to do me any good. I switched to music and what a difference that made! It was like I had flicked a switch. My next lap took 30 minutes and 40 seconds and the next three were all under 30 minutes.
I also switched my nutrition. I remember walking past Jim who was supporting a few of us along with Suzanne and told Jim that for the next 9 hours he had to give me chocolate every lap! I also had some cans of coke stored in the tent for when I needed them (I had already had a can of coke and a bag of crisps as a ‘reward’ for passing 50km and 50 miles) and when I passed Jim at the end of the next lap he had a can of coke and some chocolate ready for me. At 100km (18th place in 13 hours and 4 minutes – 9 minutes slower than my pre-race target) I had a whole chocolate bar along with a can of coke, but other than that it was four pieces of chocolate washed down with water every 30 minutes .
Once again, I am 100% certain that if it wasn’t for my support team I would not have achieved my goals. Thanks Jim and Suzanne.
100 mile NZ record:
I remember getting to the stage where I had 10 laps to complete to get through to 100 miles. The time on the clock, at the end of the lap, was 15 hours and 50 minutes meaning that I had to average slightly under 31 minutes per lap and I would complete 100 miles in under 21 hours and would beat Peter Baillie’s 10 ½ year old record (21:04:59) by at least 5 minutes. “I can do this”, I thought.
And then a 32 minute lap! Or so I thought. The clock now read 16:22:06 and I couldn’t remember what the number of seconds were on the clock at the end of the last lap, but it was definitely slower than the sub-31 minute laps I needed. The next lap took 31:19 and then I managed a sub-31 minute lap but only by a few seconds. As I lapped the course I watched the minutes go up and it was looking more and more unlikely that I would break 21 hours. I still had 5 minutes up my sleeve to get the NZ record though and I rationalised that 21:02 would be OK.
But I really wanted to get under 21 hours, and I managed to start reeling off some mid 30 minute laps. I had another Coke with two laps to go as well as another chocolate bar and gave it everything I had.
As I came down the finishing straight for the last time Suzanne handed me the black silver fern flag and I powered down the last 60 to 70 meters holding the flag above my head. It was an emotional moment. I had finally broken the NZ 100 meter record which was something I had targeted since I first started race-walking in 2012. My time was 20:58:27. I had managed to get under 21 hours! And I was in 7th place overall, and became the 432nd Continental Centurion.
I crossed the finish line ready to celebrate but Jim grabbed the flag off me and told me to keep moving. I still had 3 more hours to walk if I wanted to also break the NZ 24 hour record.
24 hour NZ record?
It’s not every day that you break a national record though, and while I kept walking I slowed a little and rang my wife, Ruth, to tell her the news and then posted on both facebook and twitter as I casually walked the next lap in a very slow 36 minutes.
John caught me at some stage during that lap and we started to pick up the pace a little, walking a 32 minute lap and then a 30 minute lap. John then decided to ‘race’ his last lap (through to 100 miles) and left me for dead. He walked 28 ½ minutes for his last lap (faster than any of my laps and his fastest of the race) and I started to feel the strain of the previous 23 hours slowing to 31 ½ and then 32 ½ minutes a lap – but still on pace to break Peter Baillie’s 24 hour record of 182.648km.
With 30 minutes to go, as each walker completes their lap they are directed on to a smaller 991 meter lap and this occurred for me at 23 hours and 41 minutes (180.614km). I walked two of these shorter laps and when I passed the finish line with just 2 minutes and 59 seconds to go until the 24 hours was up I asked one of the officials whether they would sound a horn at 24 hours and we would all stop (as is traditional in a 24 hour race) or what? And to my surprise he said that we had to complete the final lap – which I did, finishing the race in 24 hours, 5 minutes and 18 seconds, and covering a total distance of 183.587km. This was 939 meters further than the NZ record, but it had taken me 5 minutes longer than 24 hours.
Go back one lap: my time was 23 hours, 57 minutes and 1 second and my distance was 182.598km – just 52 minutes short of the record. Based on my average speed for the last lap, this meant that at 24 hours I had covered a total distance of 182.950 meters – beating the NZ record by 302 meters.
Unfortunately, while this maths makes sense to me, it doesn’t meet the official rules regarding records and as a result, I cannot claim the NZ 24 hour record. Looks like I will have to try again!
I am claiming this as a ‘New Zealand Best’ however, and for the time being I’m happy with that. It means that I now have a goal for 2017 as I don’t intend having another attempt at a 24 hour race this year.
One upside was that I ended up winning the 24 hour race, but this was because 5 of the 6 walkers who finished the 100 mile race in front of me stopped walking at that stage. It did mean, however, that I came home with two trophies instead of just one.