I wonder if I can stay awake for 48 hours. Actually, I wonder if I can walk for 48 hours without needing any sleep. This is what I was thinking as I prepared for the 2018 edition of the Royan 48 hour race.
After finishing the 6 jours de France 6 day race in Privas, France six weeks earlier I had decided that my last race of 2018 would be an attempt to walk 200 miles (322km) in 48 hours on the fifth anniversary of my first 24 hour race – the Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race in Auckland, NZ, in 2013. 200 miles is a hell of a long way but if you don’t set big goals, you will never know just how far you can go.
I had never competed in a 48 hour race but had an ‘official’ 48 hour PB of 241.1km from the first 48 hours at Privas this year, and an unofficial PB of 254km which was the distance I walked in 44 hours when circumnavigating the M25 motorway last year.
Based on those results I figured that I should easily be able to walk 290km and if I had a great race, then I thought I could go significantly further.
I had an experienced crew supporting me too, and that would make a big difference. Kathy Crilley, an experienced long-distance race-walker and fellow Privas competitor would be supporting me before and after the 12 hour race that she was doing on the Saturday, and Jim Hanson, supporter of many athletes in many races including Privas, would also be my support crew. There job being to ensure that I lost as little time as possible when it came to eating, changing shoes and clothes, etc, and to give me encouragement when I needed it.
There were 34 runners and 17 walkers entered in the 48 hour race, starting at 10am on the Friday morning, plus another 67 runners and walkers in the 12 and 24 hour races starting on the Saturday.
Our hotel the night before the race was just a couple hundred meters away and after a restless night’s sleep I went into town in the morning to buy some last minute suppliers before going to the stadium to prepare for the race. Because my feet hadn’t fully recovered from Privas I decided to use a combination of tape on my heels and 2Toms Blistershield on the front of my feet, and would wear just a single thing pair of Injinji toe socks rather than the double layer pairs of socks that I often wear in races. I sat in the sun and prepared my feet. It was already starting to warm up but the temperature wasn’t forecast to exceed 25 degrees – a cool day compared to what we had endured in Privas.
The course was interesting, to say the least. Based almost entirely on a 400 meter track with an ash chip surface similar to the one that rips my feet apart every year in Privas, the 1.1km circuit included two 180 degree U turns and three sharp 90 degree turns per lap. The only time we left the track was just before the end of each lap when we walked down a gentle incline, turned a sharp right followed by another sharp right 5 meters later, then up and over the gentle incline again and a sharp left over the timing mats and into the 60 meter stretch of the track that was like a tunnel through a long marquee where all athletes had their food tables. It was not going to be a fast course.
The race started at 10am on the Friday morning. As usual I started near the back and let the runners and some of the faster walkers go ahead of me. At the end of the second lap I was in fifth place amongst the walkers and without increasing my pace it was only a few more laps until I was in second place with three other walkers, including last years 48 hour winner, Dominique Delange, whom I had raced in Dijon in April, and last years 24 hour winner, Gerard Durand, not far behind.
As the race progressed it became clear that a) this was a slow course and any chance of 200 miles was highly unlikely (I passed 50km in 6 hours 47 minutes which was below the pace I thought I would need), and b) the two walkers I needed to concentrate on were Dominique and Gerard.
I reached 70km in 9 hours 47 minutes and had lapped everyone in the field except for Dominique who was about 50 meters ahead of me. My shoes were beginning to fill with grit from the track so I decided to stop to empty them. This was my first stop in the race, and whilst it only took less than 5 minutes, by 80km Dominique had not only caught me but had passed me and put almost 5 minutes on me. I wasn’t feeling great. The 20km from 50 to 70km had taken 3 hours – 9 minutes per kilometre – and I started to let the negative thoughts creep in to my head. Thoughts like “I’m not cut out for these long distances” and “This race is too close to Privas and that is why I am struggling”. It was way too early in the race for negative thoughts, and in an attempt to get me out of my slump I had my first coke and some chocolate at around 10 hours. Much earlier than I would have liked but I needed the sugar boost.
Fortunately, the bad patch didn’t last too long and then it was Dominique’s turn. I noticed that although I wasn’t walking any faster, the gap between myself and Dominique was decreasing with every lap. After walking over the timing mats at the end of each lap the electronic scoreboard would show your name, position and the distance between you and the competitor ahead. Slowly the time between Dominique and myself decreased until I had almost caught him at about 88km, and then a blister on the baby toe of my left foot popped. I have been having trouble with blisters on the small toes of both feet all year. I think they are caused by my shoes having a little less toe room since I got my orthotics, and this is something I am going to need to address over the winter – either larger shoes or a different model. Anyway, I hobbled around to the end of the lap and changed my left shoe for the one that I had cut the front out of at Privas. This meant for the first time in my life I was going to be wearing unmatching shoes. They were both Brooks Adrenaline but how would I account for this in my spreadsheet that records how far I have walked (or run) in every pair of trainers I have owned since 2006? I headed back out onto the track worrying about this and working to close the gap on Dominique again.
I caught Dominique somewhere before the 100km mark (passed in a slow 14 hours 36 minutes – over an hour slower than what I was hoping for) and we began walking together. Dominique is shorter than me and without speaking we quickly worked out that it worked best if he walked behind me rather than in front. Walking side by side wasn’t really possible due to the five tight turns every lap, and given that Dominique didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak French, there was no real need to walk side by side anyway. Walking with me behind him often resulted in my lead foot touching the back of his trailing foot, so we moved into a position whereby I led and he sat right in behind me.
We walked together for over 10 laps before I realised that he had stopped briefly at his food table as we completed a lap. Without looking back I started to increase the pace and between 110 and 120km I managed to lap Dominique, and everyone else in the field, twice. I was feeling good and during the next eight hours I grew my lead as my competitors took breaks and possibly had short sleeps.
At 131km my mental problem with wearing shoes from two different pair was resolved when a blister on the baby toe of my right foot popped and I decided to change my right shoe as well. I also put a folded up sock on top of my left foot to give some additional padding between my foot and the shoelaces as I was feeling some pressure in the top of my foot. Nothing too serious, but enough to make my foot a little uncomfortable.
By around 7am I started calculating whether I would make 100 miles before 24 hours was up. I had 21km to go to get through to 100 miles (161km) and three hours to do so. I was walking 10 to 10 ½ minute laps (9 to 9 ½ minutes per kilometer). 9 minutes per kilometer would mean that I would miss the 24 hour target by about 8 or 9 minutes. I needed to walk 8 ½ minutes per kilometer or faster so started to pick the pace up a bit. The faster I went the better I felt, and by the time the 100 mile mark arrived I was well ahead of schedule, passing 100 miles in about 23 hours and 44 minutes – which was just a couple minutes slower than the time I walked for my first 100 miler five years ago this same weekend. In that race I completed 162.885km in 24 hours and today I completed the 24 hour lap with a distance of 162.554km, just 331 meters short of my very first 24 hour race. To think that I could do that in the first half of a 48 hour race shows just how far I have come in the last five years.
I checked the online results on my phone and was surprised to see that Gerard had now passed Dominique but more importantly, they were 20km and 21km behind me respectively.
I knew it would be highly unlikely that I would achieve my goal of 200 miles, but 300km was well within my reach. Jim mentioned that the race record was 307km and I worked out that 9 minute kilometers would be sufficient to get the record.
I reached 200km in 30 hours and 18 minutes. I was still leading Gerard by exactly 20km and Dominique was a further 13km behind Gerard. If I walked 10 minutes per kilometer I could still go close to the race record. I stopped for a celebratory coke and chocolate bar and that is when the rain started. Not just light rain, but a heavy downpour.
I had been struggling mentally with the pressure of walking 9 minute kilometers on what was becoming an increasingly hard course. My feet were so sore that every one of the five sharp corners per lap was hurting, especially the two U turns. With the rain being forecast to last all afternoon and night I decided that this was my excuse to stop chasing the record and simply concentrate on winning the race. I had a lead of 20km (18 laps) and there was just under 18 hours to go. All I needed to do was walk at a speed no slower than 1km an hours slower than Gerard.
For the rest of the day the rain was extremely heavy and blowing sideways for about 10 minutes at a time. It would then stop and the wind would dry us all out again. And then it would rain again. It took over 5 ½ hours to walk the next 30km. An average speed of slower than 11 minutes per kilometer, and that was without taking any significant breaks! I wasn’t enjoying myself, but I wasn’t not enjoying it either. It was simply a case of walking around a track and making the most of what we had. I reached 230km just before the 36 hour mark and Gerard was still exactly 20km behind me. He was walking faster than me, but was also taking more breaks than I was. We now had 12 hours to go and if he was to beat me he would need to walk 1 ½ laps per hour faster than me. I was becoming increasingly confident that I would win and wasn’t at all concerned about the distance. In fact I was now at the stage where I was thinking I would try and win by walking as few laps as I could.
Often in races of 24 hours or longer I have seen walkers (and runners) develop a lean either to the left or the right. This is caused by weak core/abdominal muscles and can be quite comical to watch at times. During this race a couple athletes had developed leans and had a lot of difficulty navigating the U turns, and in other races I have seen two walkers walking together with one leaning to the left and one to the right. I don’t think I have ever had this problem in the past myself, but for some reason I developed a forward lean during the second night of the race, and whilst I was fully aware of it, there was nothing I could do about it. I kept trying to walk tall, but would quickly end up leaning forward again. Not badly, but enough for it to make my lower back sore. I don’t know what caused this. It could be due to not having fully recovered from Privas, or perhaps it was due to the many tight corners I had navigated. By the end of the 48 hour race I had completed 250 laps. That is 500 U turns and 750 sharp 90 degree turns. 1,250 turns in total, or one turn every 2 minutes and 18 seconds for 48 hours! No wonder I had developed a lean!
Whilst Gerard didn’t speak much English he spoke a little, and at about 6am he told me that at the end of the next lap he was going to stop. Thank God, I thought. We had gone far enough that I would win and he would finish second even if we didn’t walk another step in the next four hours. He sat down at his food table and I did the same. After about ten minutes I walked back to see him and to confirm that he was definitely finished. Fortunately, Charlotte, a runner from London who spoke French was at the table next to him. She translated for me and the response was that we still had four hours to go and he was just taking a short break. Bugger!
Daylight arrived around 7:30am and there was no sign of the rain letting up. It was also bitterly cold and we were all saturated. Many runners and walkers were off the track and I had convinced myself that it was actually dangerous for us to be out on the track as we were all so cold and wet. I thought the race organisers should abandon the race. I also, for some strange reason, thought that each lap was 5km in length and that in the time it took to walk a lap we could suffer severe hypothermia. For some reason I had forgotten that we were walking on a 400 meter track and could easily make it back to the warmth of the marquee and adjoining hall if things got too bad. I wouldn’t call it an hallucination, but I was definitely struggling to think clearly. I have no idea what speed I was walking but the pain in my feet meant that I wasn’t walking fast enough to keep pace with Gerard or to burn enough energy to keep warm.
At the end of the next lap I decided that I had had enough. I was too cold and if Gerard could walk the 12 or so laps that he was behind me in the time we had remaining, then he could have the win. I was done!
I walked in to the hall and compared to outside it was like a sauna. I changed out of my wet clothes, putting a thermal top and dry long sleeved top on, and also changed my socks and shoes. My feet looked terrible. Huge blisters. But I was quickly warming up and decided to go back out and walk some more laps. I had noticed a plastic table cloth on the ground beside our food table, and with Jim’s expert tailoring we made a jacket to go over the top of the jacket I was already wearing.
I walked for an hour or so. Nothing fast, and with a few short rests at the end of most laps. Once I got to 47 hours I decided that was definitely enough. I still led by about 8 laps and didn’t think that Gerard could possibly walk 8 laps in the final hour. I also rationalised that if I finished early, I could see the medics to get my blistered feet dealt with without having to wait in a queue, and I could have a shower and then a short sleep before the awards ceremony.
I was sitting talking to Jim and Kathy and to a French race-walking official whose name I don’t know, but I have seen him at many races over the years, and they suggested that perhaps I should go out for just one more lap. I would look silly if I stopped an hour early and Gerard caught me before the 48 hours was up.
So I walked another slow lap and then came back into the marquee to sit down again. “What about one more lap just to make absolutely certain”, someone said. I agreed. What if Gerard could walk 10km in the last hour? He would catch me. So one more lap it was.
And then on completing that lap I only 30 or 40 minutes to go, so no real point in finishing early. Why not just walk another couple laps?
So in the end I walked right through to the 48 hour finish. Somewhere on the last lap Gerard caught me and we agreed to walk through to the finish together. A fitting end to a great race.
My final distance was 278.466km (173 miles) against Gerard’s 271.784km. A win by only 6 ½ km, but a win is a win.
Some thoughts about the race:
- Whilst I won the race, I am a little disappointed with my attitude and mental strength during the last 18 hours. It is easy to say afterwards that I could have gone further, but I do think I could have achieved 290km if I had been mentally stronger and continued to chase a distance rather than just the win. Given the weather conditions, 300km might not have been possible, but I’m disappointed that I didn’t push myself to find out what I could have done.
- I can say with absolute certainty that I will never do this race again. The surface, combined with the 500 U turns ripped my feet apart. The only thing I liked about the race was that because of the compact out and back nature of the course we got to see how the other competitors were going. Twice per lap you could see where you were compared to others and unlike other lap courses where I have focused on my lap times, I spent most of the race focusing on whether I had gained or lost ground on the various walkers I was watching during each lap.
- At Privas I found that I was unable to eat any chocolate. I just couldn’t face the idea. At Royan it was the complete opposite. After around 34 hours I found that I couldn’t swallow any food. Regardless of what I tried to eat, I would chew and chew and chew, and then have to spit it out. But chocolate – I couldn’t get enough.
- I managed a new single day PB for the most Fitbit steps in a calendar day – 167,000 steps between midnight on Friday and midnight on Saturday. This beat the 156,000 steps I walked in the same period during my M25 circumnavigation last year.
- In total I walked 316,000 steps during the 48 hour race.
- From when I woke up at 7am on the Friday morning (6am UK time) until I went to bed at 11pm on the Sunday night after arriving back home, I had been awake for 65 hours with just a 5 minute nap before the awards ceremony and a 45 minute restless sleep on the flight home. This has given me confidence that I can do races of 48 hours or even longer with no sleep in the future. My next race will be the 214 mile (344km) Belfast to Dublin to Belfast race in March next year and based on this I think I could possibly do that race on no sleep.
- I need to create a checklist of all the equipment I should be taking to races. For this race I forgot to take cotton T shirts for the hot weather on the Friday, although that wasn’t really a major issue, and didn’t take a jacket to survive the cold and rain on the second night. I also forgot my elastic belt that I attach my race number to.
- From my first race of 2018 in Dijon in April through to this race, I have competed in five races this year, totaling 11 ½ days in duration. I have finished with three wins, a 4th and a 5th Not a bad year.
- Full race results are here: http://www.48hderoyan.fr/resultats
This is my last race of the year. I need to have a proper break to recover from some minor injury complaints and most importantly, to give my feet plenty of time to full recover.
I’m unlikely to do a six day race in 2019 and instead I would like to do six or seven races ranging in length from 24 hours through to 250 miles (400km), but other than Belfast to Dublin to Belfast I’m not yet committing to any races for 2019.
My blisters – click on the photos if you want to view the bigger image: