Imagine being in a strange new world where you could sleep whenever you wanted, but the only limitation is that you can’t sleep more than 20 minutes at a time. And when you are not sleeping you must walk. And walk. And walk.
Sounds like the plot for a Stephen King novel maybe?
This was my reality during the third week of April when I competed in the annual 6 Jours de France six-day race in Vallon Pont d’Arc.
I was competing in my fifth six-day race where the winner isn’t necessarily the person who walks (I was entered in the walking division) the fastest but is the person who finds the optimal balance between sleep, other downtime, moving forward, and nutrition. The less rest/sleep the more tired you would be and therefore the slower you would walk. But if you have too much sleep, is that wasted time that could be spent moving forward? And what impact does food have on this experiment. Should you eat small amounts regularly or should you eat bigger meals at the normal times – breakfast, lunch and dinner?
In 2016 I competed in my first six-day race, the 6 Jours de France in Privas, France. It was a terrible course and the weather was just as bad. A 1km circuit comprising of a gritty 400 metre track and a combination of stone and tarmac for the other 600 metres. The grit got in my shoes and tore up my feet. And it rained for the first three days before summer and 39-degree afternoons arrived for the last three days.
Yet somehow, I managed a respectable 614km (381 miles) which would be my best six-day result of the three times I raced at Privas.
Last year, the race moved to Camping Nature Parc l’Ardéchois in Vallon Pont d’Arc. The course was a tarmac 1,131.28 metres circuit with about 4 metres of elevation change per lap. I won the walking race comfortably, setting a new New Zealand and Commonwealth record of 667km (414 miles) and finishing fourth overall behind three runners.
But I felt like I had wasted a lot of time. I had approximately 14 hours of sleep and an additional 15 hours off the track – 29 hours of downtime in total. If I could reduce this downtime, I felt I could break 700km (435 miles) and maybe even challenge the three best six-day racewalking results of all time – 744km by John Dowling in the mid-80’s, 751km by Dominique Bunel at Privas in 2015, and maybe even the 787km walked by Ivo Majetic in Hungry in 2018.
My thoughts going in to the 2023 edition of the 6 Jours de France was that I would reduce my sleep to 10 hours with just 5 additional hours of downtime. If I could claw back 14 hours from last year, then at 6km/hour that would give me 84 additional kilometres and an end result in excess of 750km.
Publicly, I told people I was targeting 700km which only six people had walked previously. I didn’t want people telling me that it wasn’t possible for me to walk 750+ kilometres and therefore I didn’t tell them that that was my dream goal – and if I’m honest with myself I don’t know that I believed I could walk much further than 700km either. But I was certain that 700km was 100% possible and anything less than that would be a disappointment.
In order to reduce my sleep, my plan was to limit my sleeping to 20 minute power-naps three or four times a day during days two and three (no sleep on day one) and then add a longer sleep (maybe two hours) on days four and five, and then hopefully get through the final day with only one or two short power-naps.
The idea behind multiple power-naps versus less but longer sleeps was that I had noticed in all my previous six-day races that longer sleeps also end up requiring more downtime. For a 20 minute power-nap I wouldn’t even remove my shoes. The plan was just to lie on the bed, fall asleep immediately, and wake up when my alarm went off and be back on the track a couple minutes later. Whereas last year my two-hour sleeps would normally result in an addition 1 ½ to 2 hours of downtime – and I would generally require one or two laps to get back up to full speed again.
Vallon Pont d’Arc isn’t the easiest place to get to, nor the cheapest when travelling the week after Easter. This year, as with last year, we (Kathy Crilley – also walking – and Sarah Lightman – our support crew) flew to Marseille on the Wednesday before the race – which started on Saturday – and then caught the train and bus up to Vallon Pont d’Arc on the Thursday.
The holiday park is about a mile from the town centre, all downhill, and that would have been OK except for the wheel falling off my suitcase about half way. I has to carry my 20kg suitcase to the holiday park. Not ideal but with 48 hours until race-start, it wouldn’t have any impact on my race. We checked in to our cabin and then walked back to town to buy our groceries for the week. Doing all this on Thursday would give us Friday for complete rest and relaxation and hopefully have us in the best possible shape for Saturday’s race start.
One of the great features offered by the Vallon Pont d’Arc race venue is that all athletes get to sleep in cabins beside the course. At Privas we had to sleep in tents. This year our cabin was across the path from where we were located last year, but it was one of just a few cabins immediately off the track meaning just a short walk of about 10 metres from the course to the cabin.
On Thursday night I slept extremely well, getting over ten hours sleep and after doing nothing all day Friday I slept another seven hours on Friday night but woke up at 4am and wasn’t able to get back to sleep. I was happy with this amount of sleep though, and felt well rested and ready for the race.
The race was scheduled to start at 2pm so I spent the morning doing nothing. I wasn’t planning on sitting down or lying down much during the next six days so I spent as much time as I could either seated or lying on my back, and even when athletes were mingling at the start line in the 10 to 15 minutes immediately before the race started I waited seated in our cabin before eventually walking towards the start and then sitting down again in the timing tent until just a few seconds before the start. I was not about to waste any more energy than I had to.
Unlike last year when the six-day athletes had the course to themselves until other shorter races (24 hour, 48 hour, etc) started, all races started together and the course was a little crowded for the first few hours. Included in the 24 hour race was one wheelchair competitor and whilst I don’t have anything against wheelchair athletes, and am sure that I would be one myself if I was confined to a wheelchair, with 130 runners and walkers and on a course that was slightly narrow in places with a slight uphill/downhill on the out and back section, I was not happy to be sharing the course with a wheelchair and was constantly worried that he might accidentally hit my ankle or lower leg when passing me – which he was doing regularly.
But as seems to happen with all the six-day races I have competed in, by midnight many of the six-day competitors and even some of the 48 hour competitors were having their first sleep, and sometime in the early hours of the morning the wheelchair competitor withdrew from his race. As the field thinned out, I was feeling better about things and I enjoyed the first 24 hours, especially given that after around 10 hours I had taken the lead in the Walking division. World record holder, Ivo Majetic, was struggling and took time out during that first night.
Talking about Ivo, one of the improvements this year, at Ivo’s insistence, was the inclusion of lap times on the TV screen that we walked past in the timing tent at the end of each lap. In previous years the TV screen showed us our elapsed time, which is also visible on the big clock beside the TV monitor beside the TV screen but not lap times and we had to remember our previous elapsed time for a whole lap in order to calculate our lap time at the end of the next lap. Or we could have used the lap time function on our watches but that would have been way too simple 😊
Anyway, this improvement to the timing made a huge difference to my race as not only could I see my own lap times at the end of each lap, but I could also see those of the 11 people who had completed their laps immediately before me, or just after me, and identify whether I was going faster or slower than them.
I wish I had taken a photo of the TV screen on either night 4 or 5 when my name was on the top and the bottom of the screen. At that stage there were only 10 or 12 of us still out on the circuit.
The only thing I didn’t like during the first day of the race was the wind. Coming from Wellington in New Zealand, I’m used to wind, but windy conditions in races are not desirable and we had a constant wind for the first two days of the race. That said, I would much rather have wind than the rain we had in 2016 and whilst I probably worked a bit harder that I should have walking into the wind, I completed 166km in the first 24 hours finding myself in third place overall and leading the second placed walker by 26km.
I also managed to complete my 20th sub-24 hour 100 mile walk – in a shade under 23 hours.
Other than a 2 minute break at 21 ½ hours (to get a can of Coke and change my earbuds) I walked non-stop for the first 24 hours. In fact, I didn’t take my first proper break until a little after 200km.
After last year’s race when I felt ‘great’ the whole way I had forgotten that day 2 is usually the hardest day of any multi-day race. Your body is tired after day 1 and your mind is coming to the realisation that the race hasn’t even begun yet.
I struggled through day 2 and during the second night I had two strange hallucinations which I had completely forgotten about until I watched this video that I recorded the following morning:
I had intended to record more videos during the race but I completely forgot other than this one occasion.
There isn’t anything to tell you about day 2 other than I attempted to have my first sleep at 7:30pm, shortly after passing 200km in a new NZ M50-54 age group record of 29 hours, 27 minutes and 32 seconds. The problem with trying to sleep at 7:30pm is that this is also dinner time at the race venue and at dinner time the race organisers put on ‘entertainment’. So I was trying to sleep with the noise of singers singing recognisable songs in French coming through the window.
After about 30 minutes I gave up but in total I lost an hour as I also took the opportunity to drain my first blister and wash my feet, change my socks and shoes, etc.
My plan for the race was to reduce sleep and downtime compared to previous years, and to do this I kept a record in notepad on my phone of every time I left the track – except for my frequent toilet breaks. My idea being that if I don’t record it, I can’t measure it. And if I can’t measure it, I have no way of knowing whether I’m keeping to my plan or not.
From a time-measurement point of view, every time I left the track to go to our cabin I would start my stopwatch. And then stop it again when I returned to the track. I would then note down on my phone how long I was off the track. And if I slept, I would lie on the bed, set my alarm for the amount of time I was planning to sleep, and record that in notepad on my phone too. In almost all cases, other than my first attempt to sleep, I would fall asleep within seconds of setting my alarm, and only on two occasions I woke up before the alarm went off.
In writing this race report I copied my notes into the applicable row of the lap times spreadsheet that the race organisers gave me. The combination of this from day 2 is below:
|Time of day||Distance||Downtime||Sleep||Comment|
|20:44||201.304 km||01:04:00||Body maintenance and attempt to sleep – no sleep|
|23:47||212.617 km||00:55:00||00:37:00||37 minute sleep|
|2:36||219.405 km||01:18:00||01:00:00||1 hour sleep|
|3:42||223.93 km||00:07:30||00:07:30||Short sleep in chair at timing tent|
|5:06||228.455 km||00:24:00||00:20:00||20 minute power-nap|
|6:55||234.111 km||00:25:00||00:20:00||20 minute power-nap|
|9:40||248.818 km||00:06:30||Change clothes|
In total, 4 hours 37 minutes of downtime including 2 hours 24 minutes of sleep. That was the most downtime I had in any day during the race and the second highest amount of sleep. And with a total of nine stops, it was the most stops I had in any day. I think this is a clear indication that I was struggling mentally all day.
The good news is that I finished day 2 with a total distance of 270.312km – a new NZ 48-hour record, and 7.9km (7 laps) further than last year.
For the purposes of this race report each day starts at 2pm (the time the race started) and finishes at 2pm the following day. It means that the day starts with an afternoon then goes into the night and finishes with the morning plus a couple hours in the early afternoon.
Last year my routine was to stop soon after 2pm each day for my ‘long’ sleep – usually about 2 hours but with downtime either side it was often a 3 ½ to 4 hour break. Last year this made sense to a certain extent because, with the race being in May, it was much hotter – high 20’s each afternoon.
This year we had much cooler afternoons. I think the highest temperature was around 23 degrees and I think this was on day 3 when the wind had finally dropped and with this, the cooling effect of the wind had also gone.
I also felt that I was handling the conditions much better, and my day two blues were now gone and I was feeling much more positive again.
My only memories of day 3 are that I was starting to get mouth ulcers which is a problem I have always had in races of 24 hours or longer. I had always thought that this was caused by eating too much high-sugar food and not my normal more balanced diet, but on talking to another competitor, the very experienced (130+ 100 mile and further runs/walks) Richard Brown, he told me that in ultra-distance races ulcers are caused by a breakdown of the iron in the body. This is more prevalent in runners due to the pounding that their legs go through but can also affect walkers.
Richard suggested that I take some iron supplements but given that I haven’t taken iron supplements for many years I didn’t want to take too much. And when Sarah advised that she had used Google Translate to read the packaging on the iron tablets she had purchased for me, and they were for pregnant women (!) I was even less inclined to take too many iron tablets. On thinking about it, it was probably day 4 that Sarah visited the local pharmacy to buy the iron supplements. I don’t remember exactly.
I do remember telling her a few laps after she announced “congratulations, you’re pregnant” and then explained why, that I was having contractions and they were 12 minutes apart – which was my average lap time 😊
It was around this time that we discovered that sucking on ice cubes helped relieve the pain of the ulcers and eventually, as the race progressed, it got to the stage where I would suck on an ice cube before most of my bigger meals.
The other memory I have from day 3 is that on the third night after taking the second to last turn near the end of the lap I found myself walking up the ramp beside the cabin next to that corner. I have no idea why I veered off the path and onto the ramp, but fortunately I realised before getting to the top of the ramp and jumped back down onto the track.
I finished day 3 on 382.3km – 111.9km for the 24 hours. I was 27km ahead of last year and had completed 54.6% of my minimum target mileage of 700km. The 355km I completed in the first 3 days last year was 53.2% of my total mileage that year, and with just 318km to get to 700km my confidence in my ability to achieve my goal was building.
I had six breaks during the day, which would be my average over the remaining days of the race and at 2am (60 hours into the race) I had my last sleep that would be longer than 30 minutes – a luxurious 1 hour and 20 minutes.
|Time of day||Distance||Downtime||Sleep||Comment|
|16:44||280.494 km||00:48:30||00:20:00||Blister repair and 20 minute power-nap. Tops of feet sore|
|20:58||303.119 km||00:28:00||00:20:00||20 minute power-nap|
|2:44||323.482 km||01:50:00||01:20:00||1:20 sleep and deal with foot pain|
|6:31||342.714 km||00:24:00||00:20:00||20 minute power-nap|
|9:49||361.946 km||00:12:00||Change clothes|
|11:45||369.865 km||00:30:00||00:20:00||20 minute power-nap|
In total, 4 hours and 12 minutes off the track. 2 hours and 40 minutes of sleep – the most sleep I had in one day during the race.
Regarding sleep, I was now in a pattern that was kind of working. After that ‘long’ sleep at 2am on day 3 I was now sleeping 20 minutes (sometimes 30) roughly every six hours. I had promised myself before the race that there would be no wasted downtime. If I was off the track, it would be for a reason – fixing blisters, changing clothes, massage if required, or sleep. Everything else would be done while walking including eating and cleaning teeth.
I was therefore disappointed in myself, but at the time I couldn’t avoid it, when I started day 4 by taking a 15 minute ‘rest’. It was my second unproductive rest of the race after I stopped for 16 minutes near the end of day 2 when I was still struggling mentally. On reviewing my lap times while writing this race report, the 16 minute rest near the end of day 2 resulted in me improving my lap times by about 1 ½ minutes per lap for the next five laps (56 minutes for five laps after the rest compared to 64 minutes for the five laps before the rest) but this second rest had the opposite effect and I took 76 minutes for the five laps immediately after my rest compared to 58 minutes for the five laps beforehand. There must have been something else going on at the time because after those first five laps post-rest I appear to have found my rhythm again and got back to a 12 minute per lap average pace. It just annoys me that I wasn’t mentally strong enough to keep pushing and let myself have an unproductive rest.
A few hours after that rest break it started to rain. It was around 6pm and within minutes the weather went from no indication of rain to a torrential downpour. Fortunately, I was near our cabin at the time and managed to get into the cabin without getting too wet. According to my notes it took me ten minutes to change into my wet weather clothing (the rain was so heavy that I put on waterproof trousers as well as a jacket) and no sooner had I re-joined the race than it stopped raining.
I continued for an hour before taking another break to remove my wet weather clothes and then a couple hours later I stopped for my first power-nap in ten hours. In hindsight I should have stopped for a power-nap when it rained. It would have been a much more productive use of my time but we had no idea how long the rain was likely to last.
During the night I was really struggling with the sleep deprivation, and I remember on one occasion feeling two hands on my shoulders as one of the runners reached out to steady me, thinking I was about to fall over. When I look at my lap split times while writing this report, I think that was at about 1:30 in the morning when I appear to have had a very slow lap. I can’t remember who it was, but he tried to tell me (in his language) to have a sleep, but I had only just returned from a power-nap not too many laps earlier. Soon after this I decided to put a message on facebook asking anyone who was awake to call me as I figured that I would be able to stay awake if I was talking.
And this worked. I was inundated with calls and talked to people for about 1 ½ hours or maybe more. And I had so many missed calls that I had to message some people back and asked if they would be available if I needed to talk the following night. A huge thank you to those people who responded to my request for help, and while I am at it, also to both my wife, my mother and my father who I also spoke to on a regular basis throughout the race. Isn’t technology fantastic?
One of the things I have noticed since I started competing in multi-day races is that time really has no meaning. At times I could be walking for hours and it feels like minutes, and at other times two laps feels like hours. I had started listening to music during day 2 (after listening to podcasts for the first day or more) and I was now finding that my play list was repeating. And the music wasn’t really having the impact that I wanted it to. When listening to music during races I prefer high-tempo music as I find that helps me walk faster, but I was at the stage now where it didn’t matter what I was listening to, I just couldn’t walk any faster than 12 minutes per lap – 5 1/2 km per hour.
Sometime ago I had downloaded some stand-up comedy onto my phone with the idea that if I was ever in a really bad place during a race, some comedy might make me laugh and get me back into the right mindset. I had tried it once, when I had a miserable race in the Continental Centurion 24 hour race in Weert in 2019 and it hadn’t worked, but at some stage around about day 4 (I actually have no idea what day it was) I decided to listen to the rest of what I had downloaded – and whilst it didn’t help me to increase my speed I remember laughing out loud on several occasions and thinking to myself that the other runners and walkers would wonder what on earth I was laughing at.
I ended up closing out the day at 486.3km, 104.0km for the day. Not ideal as I needed to average 106km per day over the last three days (to reach 700km), but I also knew that I should be able to make up additional distance on the last day by sacrificing even more sleep.
I had seven breaks during the day (two for changing clothes due to the rain), with four power-naps.
|Time of day||Distance||Downtime||Sleep||Comment|
|18:21||402.672 km||00:10:00||Change clothes for rain|
|19:20||407.197 km||00:08:00||Change clothes – rain stopped|
|21:33||412.854 km||01:00:00||00:20:00||Massage and 20 minute power-nap|
|1:05||428.692 km||00:37:00||00:20:00||20 minute power-nap|
|6:39||455.842 km||00:36:00||00:20:00||20 minute power-nap|
|12:20||478.468 km||01:30:00||00:30:00||30 minute power-nap and foot maintenance|
In total, 4 hours and 16 minutes off the track. 1 hour and 30 minutes of sleep.
One of my goals going into the race had been to pass 500km (actually 501.093km because the 442nd lap finishes 38 metres short of 500km) within 4 days. I would love to see a time of 3 days and x hours in the NZ record books for 500km, but by the morning of day 4 (91 hours into the race) I realised that to achieve that goal would require me to walk 33km in five hours – 6 ½ km per hour and I was averaging about 5 ½ km per hour. So I decided not to risk the overall race goal for the sake of an interim goal and rather than pushing the pace I continued walking 12 minute laps and ended up having a 30 minute lunchtime power-nap before finally passing 500km just before 4:30pm – a new NZ 500km record of 4 days 2 hours 29 minutes and 52 seconds.
My biggest memory of day 5 is the pain. As well as the mouth ulcers which were making it painful to eat and to even talk at times, every muscle and bone in my body as well as 95% of my brain wanted to stop. But a little bit of my brain kept telling me that I had to keep going, and not only did I need to keep moving forward but I had to walk as fast as I possibly could – which wasn’t very fast.
All I wanted was for the pain to stop, yet I knew that if I stopped the mental pain I would feel for years to come (about letting myself down) would be far worse than the temporary pain I was suffering.
Not that I want to quote Lance Armstrong, but …
My race almost ended in catastrophe on night 5. I stopped for my midnight power-nap and shortly after going to sleep my phone started making this strange noise that I couldn’t stop. Eventually I managed to stop the noise and then I rolled over to go back to sleep. My memory is that immediately upon rolling over I woke up realising that my alarm had just gone off and I needed to get walking again. If I hadn’t realised that I could have slept for hours without anyone knowing as both Kathy and Sarah were asleep as was Laura (Ivo’s wife) who was sharing our cabin. And if I had done that, then 700km would have become unachievable.
Or maybe a long sleep would have put me in a different mindset and I would have managed to walk much faster during the remaining 36+ hours of the race. We will never know.
On writing this and reviewing both the lap times and my notes on my phone, I was actually off the track for 50 minutes, so did I actually sleep longer and wake up after 45 minutes perhaps? Or did I muck around after my 20 minute sleep before getting back on the track. I have no idea.
On discussing with Sarah and Laura the next day we came up with a plan for the final night. When I was ready for what I thought would probably be my last sleep at midnight, I would wake one of them and they would also set their alarm to ensure I woke up when my alarm went off. As it happened, we didn’t need to implement that plan because I didn’t sleep on the final night.
I think other than that, day 5 was uneventful.
I haven’t yet talked much about eating during the race. A multi-day race is all about finding the right balance between sleep, moving forward, and nutrition. In all my races I have found that what works best for me is to eat small amounts regularly and I try to eat something every 30 minutes. And this is one of the reasons why having Sarah as our support crew was so important to me.
I didn’t have an eating plan as such but starting from when Sarah woke up each morning, usually around 6:30am, my eating process would start with a multi-course breakfast with each course ‘served’ to me every half hour. The first course was usually yoghurt to sooth my sore mouth. This would be followed by scrambled eggs and then something else 30 minutes later. And then once the onsite bakery opened, I would eat one or two croissants.
Officially all food needed to be given to the athlete in the feeding zone or in the athlete’s cabin. This was unlike last year when we could all have our food tables anywhere we wanted beside the course. With our cabin being about 10 metres off the course, this wasn’t ideal, so Sarah made countless trips from our cabin down to the feeding zone about 100-150 metres away to feed me each of my main meals.
Throughout the day she would keep our food box in the feeding zone stocked with a range of foods for me to snack on. During the first day or two these foods were mainly fruit, flapjacks, and crisps, but as the race progressed the contents of the food box changed to more high-sugar food as well as cans of Coke.
For lunch we would normally have another multi-course meal of fruit (fresh strawberries or canned peaches), and something else. At my request Sarah even taught herself how to make cheese toasted sandwiches in a frying pan – delicious!
And dinner would be boiled potatoes with cheese in them, pasta, and probably other things that I can’t remember.
Before going to bed each night, Sarah would normally make me another ‘meal’ and thanks to the kindness of Bob Hearn and Amy Mower who had the cabin next to ours, which was only two steps off the course, Sarah would put my night-time snacks plus additional warm clothing, a jug of water, etc, on the deck of their cabin. This was probably breaking the rules slightly, in that I wasn’t feeding from my own cabin, but there were also competitors with tents or motorhomes who also had the benefit of being able to access their food immediately beside the track so we figured that if we complied strictly with this new rule during daylight and bent the rule slightly at night, that would be OK.
I finished day 5 with a total distance of 593.8km, 107.5km for the day, and needing a minimum of 106.2km in the final 24 hours to reach 700km.
I had six breaks during the day. One where there was a bit of wasted time because I wanted a photo taken upon reaching 500km and four power-nap breaks.
|Time of day||Distance||Downtime||Sleep||Comment|
|17:45||502.225 km||00:57:00||00:30:00||500km photo and 30 minute power-nap|
|1:00||532.769 km||00:50:00||00:20:00||20 minute power-nap|
|7:17||559.92 km||01:02:00||00:20:00||20 minute power-nap and blister repair|
|9:11||570.102 km||00:07:00||Change clothes|
|11:20||579.152 km||00:29:00||00:20:00||20 minute power-nap|
In total, 3 hours and 50 minutes off the track – my lowest of the four middle days of the race – and 1 hours and 30 minutes of sleep.
In the later stages of day 5 I decided that I needed a spreadsheet to enable me to easily calculate my required pace to get through to 700km, or ideally 711km (to become the 4th best six-day walker in modern race-walking history) as every time I calculated the required pace in my head or using the calculator on my phone, I would get completely different results.
I was on about 514 or 515 laps at the time, and I knew I needed to get to 619 laps to complete 700km or 628 laps to get 711km. I also knew that I would need a couple more sleeps and needed to build in a contingency for if I blistered or had another medical issue, and also given the forecast of rain for most of the last day I needed some contingency in case I lost time due to rain.
And as I say, every time I tried to calculate my required lap pace based on all these variables I came up with a different answer.
So I decided to create a spreadsheet using Excel on my phone while walking. Interestingly, when I check my lap times now, I was able to maintain the same walking pace while creating the spreadsheet as I was walking prior to this – around 11 minutes per lap. I don’t know how long it took to create the spreadsheet. If I had done it on my computer with a fresh mind, it would probably have been a five or ten minute job, but Excel on an Android phone is not like Excel on a desktop computer, and the whole process probably took an hour or more, but when I completed Day five I knew that going in to the last 24 hours I needed to average 12:40 per lap to reach 711km or 13:52 per lap to reach 700km – easy!
And then it rained. And my whole world changed.
As with day 4, it didn’t rain for too long – or at least I don’t think it did. My ‘downtime notes’ show that I stopped to put wet weather gear on, including waterproof socks, at 8pm and stopped to take some of that off at 10:30pm and the rest at 11:30pm.
But from then on it was one hallucination after another. I could have sworn I had never been on the track before. The course looked completely different and I didn’t recognise anything.
By this stage I had walked well over 550 laps of the course but for a few laps I remember thinking every time we came back from the top end of the course and passed the toilet block that I was walking towards a luxury hotel and conference venue. And at the other end of the course as we walked past the new adventure playground that wasn’t there last year, I remember thinking that we were walking past an industrial site. And then there was the final left-hand turn to walk over the timing mats – there was a fence to stop us walking straight ahead and on the other side of the fence, about 10 meters away, you could see the runners and walkers going in both directions on the out and back part of the course. Well, for me, the fence was a barrier to stop me walking on to railway tracks.
Whilst I can remember these hallucinations now, it was only when writing this race report that the luxury hotel hallucination came back to me, but at the time I was absolutely certain that this was my reality.
Looking at my lap times I can see that I went through a really bad/slow patch from about midnight to 2:30am – 2 ½ hours when I only walked 12.4km (an average of almost 14 minutes per lap or 12:15 per kilometre), so I assume it was during this period that I was experiencing those hallucinations.
And again, looking at my lap times I can see the exact moment that Richard Brown caught me and told me that I had to sit in behind him and he took it on himself to get me out of the hole I was in.
After 11 laps at an average of almost 14 minutes per lap we walked the 577th lap in 11:45! The next lap was 11:17 then 10:59 and then 10:47 – my fastest lap in 16 hours.
Richard, and also his wife Sandra, are very experienced ultra-distance runners and walkers having both completed races up to 1,000 miles and both have held the Jogle (John O’Groats to Lands End – 874 miles) record. During our four laps together Richard proceeded to tell me that I had been mucking around and that I should be ‘well up the road’ (I can’t remember his exact words) and to a certain extent he was right. I probably spend more time on my phone while walking than I should, but at the same time, six days walking can get a little boring without something else to keep your mind occupied.
As well as that small lecture, which I took the way it was intended, he gave me lots of advice based on his years of experience and really gave me a confidence booster, not just for this race but for future possibilities – see more at the bottom of this report.
We only walked together for four laps because Richard decided he wanted to stop at the food tent for a coffee and immediately my lap times dropped back to 12 and 13 minutes before eventually slipping to 15 and 16 minutes which is when I was probably experiencing my final hallucination of the race.
I could swear, even now, that I was somewhere I had never been before. I thought the cabins were ski chalets or similar and I was walking through a small village competing in the Paris-Colmar race (a famous French walking race from long before I took up race-walking).
It was now a little after 5am and as well as wondering where I was and what I was doing in this strange place I was starting to feel cold and somehow I found myself walking into our cabin. Given that I didn’t know where I was, I don’t know how I managed to find our cabin, but I knew it was the middle of the night and I thought I could just sneak inside and find my hat and gloves.
Fortunately I woke Laura, and when trying to explain to her something about the Paris-Colmar race Sarah also woke up. Sarah asked if I had put my warm overnight clothes on. I hadn’t. I was still wearing a jacket from when it rained earlier and under that I was just wearing a t-shirt. No wonder I was cold.
I remember Sarah telling me that maybe I should have a sleep and I insisted on entering my lap count and time into my new spreadsheet to calculate whether I had time to sleep. I decided I didn’t so Sarah went and collected my warm clothes from Bob’s deck and ensured that I was dressed warmly before I returned to the track, walking 13 minute laps for the next 3 or 4 hours.
At 9am I came in for my last break, to remove my overnight clothes and then it was like I was a new person. My first lap after my 5 minute break was completed in 9 minutes and 56 seconds! That was my fastest lap time since Tuesday morning, and it was now Friday morning.
And I followed that up with four more sub-10 minute laps before that wave of mental wave of energy dissipated and my lap times drifted back out to 11 and 12 minute laps. But it just shows how much of a mental game these races are. There was no physical difference between the me walking 13 minute laps before 9am and walking sub-10 minute laps after 9am. It was just something that changed mentally for me.
This is what high-tempo music has done for me in many races in the past. Each time a new song starts I feel the mental energy and can pick up the pace which might slowly decrease during the song, but three minutes later and I get that mental boost again.
If only I could work out how to manage that so that I could keep the pace faster for longer.
I had actually passed my PB (and current NZ and Commonwealth record) of 667.357km from last year on completion of the lap immediately after putting warmer clothes on at 5:30am, but that was never a goal and went completely unnoticed by all of us.
But at almost exactly 12 noon, with two hours remaining in the race I completed the 700km lap – 700.199km to be precise.
I have a recollection of Sarah handing me the 700km sign and I remember holding it above my head and stopping for Virginie (one of the race organisers) to take my photo. One of the proudest moments of my life and this 700km photo is now my profile picture on Facebook, Twitter, WhatApp, etc.
From memory Kathy was also there and there were hugs all around and an announcement over the loud speaker about me breaking the NZ record. The NZ national anthem was then played as I walked the next lap carrying the New Zealand Flag and receiving plenty of congratulations from all the other runners and walkers.
I had actually hoped that my 700km achievement would go unnoticed because my goal with two hours left was now to get past the 710.060km walked by Christian Mauduit at Privas in 2014. Christian’s distance was the fourth best distance recorded in a six-day race and I knew, or at least I thought, I could beat that.
After an 18 minute lap carrying the NZ flag I then walked the next five laps in 11 and 12 minutes before either Sarah or I decided that we had miscalculated. We were talking about celebrating 710km (it would be the lap ending at 710.380km) and we thought we worked out that I would only complete that distance with about 2 or 3 minutes to spare.
With that in mind, I immediately went into overdrive and picked up the pace with a 9 minute and 15 second lap. That was my fastest lap since Sunday morning! And was my 41st equal fastest lap of the race with all the other laps of 9:15 or faster being in the first 21 hours of the race!
It shows again how much this race is a mental challenge compared to physical. Other than the concern that I may not reach 710km, nothing else had changed, but suddenly I was walking significantly faster.
In fact, of the 628 full laps I completed during the race, only 119 of those laps were completed in under 10 minutes, and of those, 108 were on day one, 4 were on day three, and 7 were in the last five hours of the race.
I am certain that if I can work on the mental side of things I can walk a faster overall pace, get more sleep, and complete the 6 days with a much greater distance.
Anyway, I pushed the pace for that lap and 1 ½ more laps before Sarah met me outside our cabin as I was heading towards the end of the next lap to tell me that this was my 710km lap. I didn’t believe her and asked her to go and double-check on the leaderboard while I completed the lap.
After completing that lap upon reaching our cabin, not only was she able to confirm that I had completed 710km, but she was all dressed up to walk the final lap with me.
At some stage during the last 24 hours of the race Sarah and asked me if I wanted to change clothes for the last lap of the race. I told her that I wanted to wear my New Zealand silver fern t-shirt, and then for some completely unknown reason I asked her if she was going to change for my last lap too. It was as if I was asking her if she was going to change clothes before going out to a restaurant or something.
Anyway, she went overboard and borrowed some of the clothes that Laura had for their upcoming holiday to surprise me. It is a moment that I won’t forget.
We didn’t finish the last lap but that didn’t matter because in most timed races, this one included, the last partial lap is measured after the race finishes. So when the bell rang to tell us that the 6 days was finished, we stopped and removed my timing chip from my ankle leaving it on the side of the track to mark the exact place I finished.
I also asked Sarah to take this photo of me claiming my spot on the track.
When the partial lap was measured my final result was 711.299km (442 miles). The 4th best distance recorded in a six-day race and I finished the race in second position overall, beaten only by one runner – Bob Hearn from the USA.
My distance on the final day was 117.4km. As expected, this was my second best day due to the knowledge that I didn’t need to sleep much because the race would soon be over and I could then sleep as much as I wanted.
|Time of day||Distance||Downtime||Sleep||Comment|
|16:38||604.04 km||00:48:00||00:20:00||20 minute power-nap and blister repair|
|18:43||613.09 km||00:20:00||Groin strain|
|20:00||618.747 km||00:07:00||Change clothes for rain|
|22:33||632.322 km||00:05:00||Change clothes – rain stopped|
|23:38||636.847 km||00:05:00||Change clothes – rain stopped|
|5:40||666.26 km||00:12:00||Minor hallucination. Change clothes|
|9:02||682.098 km||00:05:00||Short stop – remove some clothes|
I only had one 20 minute power-nap and a total of 1 hour and 42 minutes off the track.
This was the second year that the race was held at Vallon Pont d’Arc meaning that I can compare this year’s result to last year. The big difference between the two years was the temperature. Last year the race was in mid-May and afternoon temperatures were in the high 20’s versus the low 20’s this year making the afternoon sessions much harder (last year) and as a result I took the opportunity to have longer sleeps each afternoon last year.
Night-time temperatures last year were also much warmer meaning that I didn’t need to put warm clothes on each night and lose time changing out of those clothes in the morning. This year I wore tights most nights which required a few minutes to put on and take off.
Last year I didn’t measure my downtime and could only guestimate it based on a review of my lap times after the race had finished. I did record my sleep time though and in total I had approximately 14 hours sleep and 15 hours of additional downtime.
This year I had 8 ½ hours of sleep and 10 hours of additional downtime, but this resulted in my overall average walking speed been slower this year than last year – 5.68km/hour versus 5.82km/hour last year. That difference may not look like much but it is approximately 20 seconds per lap. This year I walked 628 laps. At 20 seconds per lap, if I could have held the same average speed as last year I could have either had an additional 3 ½ hours sleep during the six days, or walked an additional 20km.
The last two days of the race is where the biggest difference in average walking speed is. Even although I walked 14km further on day 5 when comparing 2023 to 2022, and 1km further on day six, my average speeds were significantly slower.
I have mentioned above that with a flick of the mental switch I could switch from walking 12 and 13 minute laps to walking 10 and 11 minute laps. If I had the mental strength to walk 166km on day one, as I did this year, and then maintain an average pace of 11 minutes per lap – an average speed of just 6.17km/hour – then with the same amount of sleep I had this year, I would finish with 785km. The world record is 786.744km.
What if I could increase my average lap times to 10:30 by increasing the amount of sleep I have each day. If I still completed 166km on the first day without sleep but then slept 3 to 4 hours per day with one hour of downtime except for the last day when I only have 1 hour off the track in total. That would be 21 hours off the track with about 14 hours sleep perhaps, an average speed of just 6.46km/hour and a massive 805.5km over six days – or 500 miles!
Another possibility might be to break the whole race down into twelve sets of twelve hours each. If I walked 67km every twelve hours at an average speed of 7km per hour, then that would mean walking for 9 hours and 40 minutes and reasting/sleeping for 2 hours and 20 minutes every twelve hours. Possibly twelve sleeps of 90 minutes each with downtime. End result – 500 miles.
I think 500 miles is possible. The question is how, and can I achieve it ?
I also can’t help noticing that 500 miles is 711.3 laps of the Vallon Pont d’Arc course and this year I walked 711.3km. Is that a coincidence or a sign about the future?
On the negative side though, it is worth noting that the course record for a runner on the Vallon Pont d’Arc course is the 760.480km (472.6 miles) that Olivier Chaigne ran last year. So no one has yet completed 500 miles on that course in six days.
US runner and author, George Sheehan, is quoted as saying that “Every runner is an experiment of one” and that is so true. In previous six day races I haven’t really had a sleep plan although last year I alternated between 2 hour sleeps and 20 minute power-naps. This year I had a sleep plan which helped me to improve my distance over last year but was extremely painful and I don’t think it is ideal. So I need to experiment again.
Enough rambling and wondering.
This is my analysis of this year versus last year:
And then look at this. I wanted to analyse my steps per day from my Garmin with the distance I recorded each day. Saturday is the first 10 hours and Friday is the last 14 hours, but look at the distance I walked between midnight and midnight on Monday through Thursday! How’s that for consistency?
Now look at my steps per minute and my average stride length. The drop-off during the race is too much.
If I averaged 124 steps per minute with an average stride length of 88 centimetres, then with 21 hours of downtime, I would end up on 500 miles.
And now for some graphs:
52% of my laps took less than 12 minutes and 90% took less than 15 minutes.
There are two people that I especially need to thank.
The first is Sarah Lightman. It goes without saying that having a support crew saves a lot of downtime, but Sarah went over and above. She did an awesome job and there is absolutely no way I would have achieved my goals without her. Thanks Sarah.
And my wife, Ruth McChesney. The race doesn’t just happen over a six day period. There are months of training that go into an event like this and I started my build-up to this race in early January. Without Ruth’s support it would not have been possible to get myself into the physical and mental shape that I needed to be in when we started the race on the 15th April. Not only that, but I spoke to Ruth on the phone at least twice a day during the race, and one particular conversation when I was struggling on day 2 really helped me. Thanks Ruth.
And then there is everyone else that has supported me in the build-up and during the race. I received plenty of messages during the race as well as the phone calls I mentioned on nights 4 and 5. Thanks everyone.
My focus is already on next year’s race and everything I do between now and next April (the race will start on the 20th April) will be focussed on putting myself in the best shape for that race – both physically and mentally.
I’m planning on competing in a 48 hour track race in Gloucester in August in which I want to see if I can walk 200 miles (322km) in 48 hours. Other than that, I don’t yet know what races I will do this summer – but watch this space.