Two weeks ago tonight I was in my hotel room in Privas, France looking forward to the start of my second 6 day race – the 2017 edition of 6 jours de France, the longest race-walking event in the world that has official race-walking judges.
Last year I walked 614km and finished third. I learnt a lot about myself and how much the body can cope with if your mind is strong enough. I also learned a lot about how to race multi-day events, and I was confident that this year I would walk at least 8km further than in 2016 – which would be enough to beat Gerald Manderson’s 18 year old New Zealand record.
In fact I was so confident that I fully expected to win the race and perhaps walk as far as 700km.
But it wasn’t to be.
I knew the race would be hard. I struggled with many highs and even more lows during last year’s race, but as soon as I finished the race last year I started planning and looking forward to my second attempt at a six day race.
It has taken me two weeks to write this report. Two weeks to write about what happened during the 144 hours between when the race started at 4pm on Sunday 20th August and when it finished at 4pm the following Saturday.
I keep finding excuses not to write this report. Excuses to avoid thinking about everything that went wrong. I’ve done many races or long walks where I have commented afterwards that “that race was the hardest race I have ever done”, but those races have normally been relatively shorter events, and whilst I might have suffered mentally during those events, they had nothing on what I experienced during this year’s edition of the 6 jours de France.
The 48 hours before the race:
Privas is in South East France, down towards Lyon. This year I traveled there by train along with the other two walkers from England, Kathy Crilley and Suzanne Beardsmore, as well as Suzanne’s son, Jamie. We met at Kings Cross St Pancras railway station on Friday morning and eight hours later we arrived at Valence TGV railway station where we were met by my father, Peter, and his partner Diane, who were taking a break from their European holiday to act as my support crew for the week. Little did they know what they were letting themselves in for 🙂
On Saturday we all headed down to the stadium, which would be our home for the next week, pitched our tents and positioned the motorhome (that Dad had rented for the week) amongst the other motorhomes at the opposite end of the course.
As with last year I spent the Saturday night back at the hotel, but unlike last year I had a terrible nights sleep. It was around 3am when I finally drifted off and I woke up around 5 hours later. After Breakfast I headed down to the track, Kathy and Suzanne were already down there, to register for the race and make last minute preparations.
I then walked up to McDonalds, about 1km away, for lunch with Dad and Diane. I figure that if Chicken McNuggets are OK for Usain Bolt as a pre-race meal, then they are OK for me too.
The rest of the afternoon was spent resting and waiting for the 4pm race start.
Day 1 – 4pm Sunday to 4pm Monday:
The first 18 hours of the race actually went OK. I started slowly but steadily walking almost exactly 8 minutes and 20 seconds per 1,020 meter lap for the first 4 hours, then walked a few slower laps while I ate dinner.
The interesting thing was that in the week leading up to the race my right hamstring had been extremely tight, and I remember commenting to Diane during lunch that if today was a training day I would have had a rest because the hamstring was so sore. But 4 hours into the race, and my hamstring hadn’t bothered me at all, and neither the hamstring or the other minor niggly injuries that had been bothering me caused any problems at any stage in the race.
After 8 hours I took the lead when the four walkers ahead of me all decided to take breaks, and I walked steadily though until 12 hours when my pace dropped below 10 minutes per lap for the first time. At that stage I sat down for the first time, and emptied some small stones and grit from my shoes, and also switched my nutrition from low sugar foods to processed sugar (coke and chocolate).
The sun came up around 7am and within minutes we knew we were going to be in for a hot day. I don’t seem to cope well in the heat and by mid-morning I was really struggling.
When 4pm arrived (24 hours) I had covered 147km – 82km in the first 12 hours but only 65km in the second 12. I hadn’t yet taken a break, other than to sit down for a few minutes two or three times, and whilst I knew I was slowing down, my intention was to keep going until I had a decent lead that would allow me to have a sleep and maintain the lead. At this stage I was still ‘racing’ and last year’s winner, Christophe Biet hadn’t slept yet either.
Day 2 – 4pm Monday to 4pm Tuesday:
I finally decided to sit down for a decent rest at around 8pm, 28 hours, when I had dinner. The heat had really taken its toll on me and I remember commenting that if today was a work day, I would be ringing in sick and going back to bed.
Dad got an ice pack from the freezer and we tried taping that to my body to cool me down, but without success. I was feeling the effects of the hot day.
After an hour or so I decided I needed to lie down for my first sleep of the race, but as I was still ‘racing’ and still leading the race (but only just – Christophe was only 1 lap behind me), I decided 90 minutes was all I could afford.
When I woke up Christophe was ten laps ahead of me and I was in second place. When Christophe finally decided to sleep I recovered the lead and opened up a gap of 8 or 9 laps myself before he woke up.
I was struggling though, and was extremely tired. 90 minutes sleep hadn’t been enough and at 6am (38 hours) I was ready to through my toys out of the cot. I was taking about 16 minutes to walk each lap and was in a very unhappy place.
I slept for two hours and then visited the medical tent for the first time. My feet were a mess, or at least they were in my mind. Looking at the photos I took while waiting in the medical tent, I had two big blisters and a couple smaller ones, but given the surface we were walking on, they weren’t actually too bad.
I realise now that it was at this stage, maybe earlier, that my mind gave up on me. Long distance race-walking is more mental than physical, and I didn’t have the required mindset to get through this race. Not this year. But I didn’t know that yet and after leaving the medical tent I tried to get back into it. I was in 5th place now, and managed to get back to walking at a pace of around 11 minutes per lap.
On Monday night I had posted on facebook that the heat was killing me and several people made suggestions about coping with the heat. I decided to wear a buff around my neck and another one on my head, and keep them wet in an attempt to keep my temperature down. This process worked well. At the end of each lap I would grab a cup of water at the food tent, take a mouthful and then hold the plastic cup upside down on my head to allow the water to slowly filter into the buff, which meant it then stayed wet for most of the next lap. Sometimes I would stop at the motorhome where Dad and Diane had a bucket of cold water, and I would dip both buffs in the bucket and then put them back on. Soaking wet, the water would then run down my back, and this meant that for the majority of the day my head, neck and back were wet and cool.
Mentally, I had a much better day in the heat than I had the previous day, but looking at the detailed stats that Dad maintained, I only walked 82km on day 2. (229km at 48 hours). Not particularly great (although only 11km down on last year).
Day 3 – 4pm Tuesday to 4pm Wednesday:
Once I reached 250km (at 11:30pm) I decided to have another 90 minute sleep. I was still thinking reasonably clearly and decided that I needed to avoid the hottest part of the day, so the plan was to have a sleep now and then walk until lunchtime when I would take a much longer break, to avoid the afternoon heat.
So that’s what I did. After waking up, I walked another 33km (in 10 ½ hours) before stopping for lunch. I then had a four hour sleep in the shade at the top of the grandstand, although the sleep was broken by the need to visit the toilet twice. I had drunk too much water to sleep without emptying my bladder.
My day 3 mileage was only 54km! Total mileage in the first 72 hours – 283km.
Day 4 – 4pm Wednesday to 4pm Thursday:
After waking I had a shower and then hobbled around to visit my friends in the medical tent – I thought I could possibly walk faster if I had my feet re-taped – and then hobbled another few hundred meters around to the motorhome for dinner. It was like I was on holiday. A nice and relaxed afternoon. Lunch, a sleep, dinner.
I was actually in a race though, so after dinner I decided to try and put in a bit of an effort. I walked a few laps at an easy pace just to get my legs moving again, and then slowly increased the pace before putting on some high-tempo music and turning it up as loud as my phone would allow.
Before long I was walking 10 minute laps and feeling on top of the world. 10 minutes per kilometre isn’t fast, but compared with where I had been, I was ecstatic!
I started thinking that I could turn this race around and start working my way back up the field. I had slipped down to 8th place by this stage.
But the good patch only lasted an hour or so, and before long I was back to walking 17 and 18 minute laps.
I walked through to 6am when I decided I needed another short sleep so that I could repeat yesterday and walk through until early afternoon before my longer sleep.
I only slept an hour and when I woke up it was trying to rain. It didn’t, but the cloud cover remained throughout the morning which was a nice change from the last few days. I wasn’t looking forward to having to keep my head wet all day again.
At 10am I recorded this video and in the video I say I have ‘accepted’ my situation. I wasn’t mentally strong enough to walk fast, but I wasn’t going to give up either.
I walked through to 2pm when I had another 3 hour sleep at the top of the grand.
My day 4 mileage was 67km. Total mileage in the first 96 hours of the race: 350km.
Day 5 – 4pm Thursday to 4pm Friday:
After my sleep I walked half a lap of the course around to the motorhome and sat down for dinner, and then walked another almost full lap of the course around to the massage tent where I had a full leg massage to get me ready to attack the night session. The word ‘attack’ might be a bit of an over-statement. It was more a case of getting ready to go through the motions for another 8 or more hours.
By the time I got going again it was around 7pm. I walked for six hours but not very fast and decided to have another short sleep (90 minutes) at 1am.
I then walked another 3 ½ hours but every lap was getting slower and slower to the extent that I was now taking over 30 minutes per lap – less than 2 kilometres per hour!
At 6am I told Dad that I was going to sleep again, and “don’t wake me”. My intention was to sleep for up to five hours, maybe even longer, but at 9am I woke up and believe it or not, it was like the previous four days hadn’t happened. Mentally I felt great!
It no longer mattered how fast I was able to walk. I was now down to 15th place (of 32) but I wasn’t interested in the race any more. It was about getting through to the finish in 30 hours time, and I felt like I could do that.
I felt so good that for the first time in days I ate breakfast (porridge) while walking. No sitting down feeling sorry for myself.
Looking at Dad’s stats, it looks like I spent the majority of the next 7 hours walking laps of between 10 and 12 minutes each. The fastest I had walked for days.
I walked through lunch, my second meal in a row where I walked and ate, and decided to keep walking until I got to 400km – which happened just before 4pm.
Day 5 mileage: 50km, with 25km in the last 5 hours! Total mileage so far: 400km
The last day – Friday 4pm to Saturday 4pm:
I felt so good that I decided a 90 minute sleep at the top of the grandstand was all I needed, and as soon as I woke up I was on my way again. I set myself a goal of walking another 100km in the 22 hours I had left. I figured that 500km would be a lot more respectable than 4xx kilometres.
Last year when I reached 500km I got to walk a lap of the track carrying the New Zealand flag after breaking the NZ record. This year, all I wanted to do was get to 500km and get a photo of myself holding the 500km sign.
The previous few days, after my afternoon sleep I had delayed starting walking again by sitting down for dinner, visiting the medical tent, etc, but tonight I was on a mission. I ate tea while walking, and got down to the job of walking 5km per hour through the night, figuring that if I could maintain that pace I would have time for a sleep if I needed it in the morning, or have a small buffer if the heat got to me during the final day of the race.
I walked 30km during the next six hours during which time the weather started to change. We were ‘entertained’ by an amazing thunder and lightning storm. I have never heard such loud thunder, and I was really enjoying the night.
And then just after midnight the heavens opened. We had a huge downpour. It reminded me of the downpour we had on the Tuesday morning last year, but the difference this year was that I wanted to make the most of it and keep walking. I changed into my wet weather gear but was already drenched, and started walking again. I hadn’t even completed a full lap before the rain stopped. I was disappointed. I was looking forward to walking in the rain.
I kept walking, holding a steady pace of between 10 and 11 minutes per lap and by around 4am I was walking between 8 and 8 ½ minutes a lap! As fast, or even faster than I had walked during the first four hours back on Sunday afternoon.
With 12 hours to go I had 52km to go to reach 500km. I had walked 48km in the last 10 hours. 500km was definitely a possibility. Maybe even 515km – less than 100km short of last year.
This was one of the few ‘highs’ I had during the race and like the other highs, it didn’t last too long. At some stage, I can’t remember exactly when, I decided I needed a 15 minute sleep. I was feeling tired and thought a short break would help. Last year, every time I had a break my feet were so sore that it took me 45 minutes to get back into my rhythm, but this year my feet were feeling much less painful so I figured a 15 minute sleep would be OK and wouldn’t significantly impact on my progress.
At 10am I had 29km to go (to get to 500km) and 6 hours left. It was getting hot again, and I needed fast energy. I decided to switch to 100% Coke to get me through to the finish. 100 to 150 mls every second lap (every 25 minutes). It took me a while to convince Dad and Diane that Coke was the best fuel to get me to the finish, but I figured that liquid calories would be best. I’m not sure if I was right or not, but my thinking was that if I ate solid food, my metabolism would have to break the food down before I could utilise the energy, whereas if I just consumed Coke, it would turn into energy immediately. Anyway, we agreed on the Coke diet and I kept walking as fast as I could.
I was wearing my buffs and trying to keep my head, neck and back as cool as I could, but it was hot! At the bottom of the grandstand there were some water taps and on at least two occasions during the afternoon I sat under them for about 30 seconds at a time, drenching myself completely. I was struggling and was regularly doing the math to work out whether I would get to 500km.
With four hours to go I had 19km remaining. With three hours to go I had 14km to go. With two hours left, 9 ½ km. It was going to be close.
I picked the pace up the best I could, and managed to do a few 10 minute laps – 6km and hour.
Last year I managed to ‘sprint’ the last 30 minutes, completing 3 laps in the last 18 or 19 minutes, but I didn’t want to have to do that this year. I really wanted to get through to 500km with time to spare so I could get the photo I wanted with the 500km sign before the race finished.
With 57 minutes to go I only needed to complete four more laps. I double checked the scoreboard and worked out that on completing 4 laps my total mileage would be 180 meters past the 500km mark. I only needed to walk 14 minutes per lap. I was averaging 11 minutes. I was becoming confident that I would make it.
I checked again at the end of each of the next two laps. I now had 31 minutes to walk two more laps. I decided to ease the pace a little, although when I passed the motorhome Dad told me I was going too slow and to pick the pace up. I guess it looked like I had slowed too much. I told him to get Diane and meet me at the timing mats.
When I completed the next lap I stopped at the scoreboard again to make absolutely certain that I was on 499km. Fortunately I was. I had 18 minutes left. Plenty of time.
And 143 hours and 54 minutes after starting the race I completed the next lap and passed the 500km mark. I stopped for some photos with the 500km sign, and with Dad and Diane, and then convinced them to walk with me until the horn blew to signal the end of the race.
We managed to walk as far as the motorhome, 200 meters. My distance for the 144 hours was 500.403km.
Last year I finished on a high, went to the awards presentations, had dinner, and a great nights sleep.
This year I felt terrible. After the race I had a shower and then went to the awards presentations but found it almost impossible to sit still. I was feeling very hot and very sick. Dad got the ice pack again but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. After the awards ceremony I was planning on attending the post race dinner but it was all I could do to get back to the motorhome where I lay down and put my feet in cold water (both to reduce swelling and try and cool down).
Diane cooked something for me to eat and I then went down to my tent where I slept soundly for the next 10 hours.
When I woke up the following morning I felt great, and was walking with almost no pain!
After breakfast we packed up and Dad and Diane dropped Kathy, Suzanne, Jamie and I back to Valence TGV for the trip home. Kathy and Suzanne had both had good races, and had both exceeded their expectations for the race. It was only me that wasn’t happy with my result, but believe it or not, within an hour of getting on the train we were already talking about our plans for next year’s race!
Post race analysis:
I think I slept a total of about 18 hours during the race, but I had many more hours off the track eating and resting. Last year I had 14 hours sleep and a lot less time off the track.
My Fitbit shows that I walked 640,000 steps. Last year I walked 765,000 steps.
My average 5km took 1.44 hours (86.4 minutes) including sleep. Last year my average 5km to 1.17 hours (70.5 minutes). So my average speed was 22.5% slower than last year. Looking at it another way, it’s like aiming to walk a parkrun (5km) in 30 minutes and taking 36 ½ minutes to complete the walk. If that happened, I would just put it down to a bad day and forget about it. Unfortunately my ‘bad day’ lasted for almost a whole week.
Firstly, I want to thank my father and Diane. Whilst I had a bad race, I am certain that it would have been much, much worse without their support during the race.
My wife, Ruth, is my biggest supporter. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be able to walk these ridiculous distances. And whilst the rest of my family think I’m mad, they are also great support. Thanks.
I was posting regularly on facebook and twitter and received plenty of support from many people via these social media channels. I haven’t looked back to see who it was that suggested the wet buffs as a way of keeping cool, but to whomever it was, thanks.
And the other athletes on the track. Many of them offered their support when they saw me suffering. I remember two occasions in particular. One was when I stopped to take a photo of the three leaders (in the walking section) who were walking together at the time – I think it was Thursday morning – and one of them, Christophe I think, said “we feel sad for you”. None of them spoke English so it was difficult to communicate, but I told them not to feel sad. I was just having a bad race. And the second occasion was on the last day (I think) when Sylvie (one of the runners) stopped me to say that her feet were sore. I looked at her feet and burst out laughing. Then she asked “how do you feel now?”. I felt much better than I had a few minutes earlier.
In the end I finished in 13th place. Not what I wanted, but I’m sure that the memories of what happened this year will drive me on to a much better result next year.