My first ‘walkers only’ race since June 2019 was the ‘annual’ (except for the last two years due to the pandemic) UK Centurions race which is held at a different venue in the UK each year. This year it was on a 974 metre cycling track in Middlesbrough with 39 walkers entered.
About a half of those entered, myself included, had previously qualified for UK Centurion status by completing 100 miles in under 24 hours at a previous UK Centurions race and the other half of the field were either walkers looking to add a UK Centurion badge to the badge/s achieved in other countries or were looking to completed a sub 24 hour 100 mile walk for the first time.
Centurions race-walking has a long history with the first person recorded as walking 100 miles in under 24 hours being James Edwin E. Flower-Dixon in London in 1877. Since then (and before this year’s race) 1,211 walkers have achieved this feat in the UK (I was number 1,131 in 2014) and another 700+ have achieved this in one of the other six countries where Centurion walking is recognised. Many have qualified as a Centurion in multiple countries with the legendary Sandra Brown being the only person to qualify in all seven countries (but that is because Malaysia have discontinued their race) and eight walkers having qualified in six different countries including three of this year’s competitors at Middlesbrough – Sharon and Justin Scholz from Australia and Kim Janssens from Belgium.
In my case, I have qualified in New Zealand (2013), UK (2014) and Netherlands (2016) and this year my aim was simply to walk under 21 ½ hours to break the NZ M50 100 mile record of 21:37.
My training hadn’t been going well though as I have been struggling with foot pain/discomfort since late April but having completed the first 100 miles of the 6 jours de France in May in 24:29 and the first 100 miles of the Warwickshire Ring Canal Race in June in 24:24, I was confident that I should at least be able to walk a sub 22 ½ hour race and if things went well, then sub 21 ½ hours.
I also had two other goals for the weekend:
Join Middlesbrough to my continuous line of everywhere I have walked since 2014, and
Complete my 141st different parkrun (and 489th overall)
Eventually I’m aiming to have walked contiguous lines to all corners of Great Britain but that is a lot of miles and I take every opportunity I can to build on my ever-growing map. In 2016 I was training for my first six-day race when the UK Centurions race was in Redcar. The cost of getting from London to Leeds was relatively cheap but for some reason it was much more expensive to travel all the way to Redcar (just 10 miles to the East of Middlesbrough) so I decided to walk the 70 miles from Leeds to Redcar the day before the race. This walk passed Middlesbrough to the South East, so on Friday afternoon after arriving in Middlesbrough I went for a two hour walk to join Middlesbrough to the line I had walked in 2016. I haven’t yet joined Leeds to the main part of my map yet, but hope to do that next year or the following year during another ‘adventure walk’.
And on the Saturday morning before the race I took the opportunity to walk an easy 5km at Albert Park parkrun, walking would I hoped would be my overall race pace of around 8 minutes per kilometre.
Goals 1 and 2 achieved.
I didn’t arrive at the Middlesbrough cycle circuit until about 11am, one hour before the race, due to a lack of organisation on my part and a long delay waiting for a bus from my hotel down to the race. When I arrived I met Diana Obermeyer who was supporting American walker, Ray Sharp, and had offered to support me as well. We found a space about 20 metres past the timing mat and set up our table. My intention was to eat the food I had brought with me and take drinks from the aid station which was positioned immediately after the timing mat, so I laid my food out and then made final preparations for the race start at 12 noon.
It was a windy day and looked like it would also be a hot, sunny afternoon so I placed my white towel over my food to both stop the food blowing away and also stop it from being cooked in the sun, taping my towel to the windward end of the table.
It was good to meet many old friends, some whom I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic, and I probably spent a little too much time talking and not enough time preparing which resulted in me still needing to go to the toilet at the time we were being called to the start line. So I put nature’s call on hold and lined up with 35 other walkers to listen to a few words from the race referee and also the local mayor, and then we were on our way.
As always, I started slow compared to many, but at a pace that I felt I would be able to hold for the first 8 to 10 hours, or at least until darkness anyway. My goal of 21 ½ hours would require lap times of about 7 minutes and 50 seconds, although a 7:52 average would actually get me to the finish about a minute ahead of the NZ M50 record of 21:37. I thought if I walked 7:40’s for the first 8 to 10 hours, then with a little bit of slowing down when it got dark I would still be in the high 80km range, maybe even 90km, at 12 hours and if I could do that then 21 ½ hours would be a strong possibility.
And for the first six hours things went well. The walk was proving to be a bit harder than expected due to the wind and a short dip and incline at the top end of the circuit. In reality, what was happening is that from the top end of the circuit there was a short incline of about 150 metres and then we turned into a strong head wind for the next 300 meters. After that we had a tail wind as we walked down over the timing mat and past the feeding tables followed by a short descent into the top end of the circuit. The combination of the incline and head wind was making us work harder that we should for the pace we were walking and after six hours averaging slightly under 7:40 per lap my pace started to drift out towards eight minutes.
After about eight hours the wind finally died away only for the heavens to open and heavy (torrential at times) rain arrived. Whilst most walkers put on waterproof clothing the combination of rain and the lighter wind was freezing and eventually I decided that, with no end to the rain in sight and my first change of wet-weather clothing already soaked, I would take a short break and change into dry clothes plus my Disneyland plastic poncho and also waterproof socks.
In taking about 13 minutes out of the race to do this my attitude towards the race changed and I felt that I was no longer ‘racing’ and was now just walking to complete the 100 miles in a respectable time. I had only completed 70km (43 miles) at this stage, and losing 13 minutes wasn’t the end of the world – although it wasn’t good either – but my mind had found an excuse to stop pushing the pace and when I resumed walking my pace immediately dropped into the mid to high eight minute range.
Interestingly, as often happens, it stopped raining soon after I donned my poncho but I walked for a few hours wearing the poncho fearing that if I took it off again it would start raining, and perhaps sub-consciously using it as an excuse to not walk so hard.
The floodlighting on the course was good and couldn’t be blamed for me slowing down. I just didn’t have the right attitude.
I had decided to walk this race without listening to any podcasts or music but by dawn I was now struggling to walk under nine minutes per lap so I decided to see if some music would get me going again. And it did, for a while.
A little after 8:40am I remember crossing the timing mat and seeing the time on the clock – 20 hours 42 minutes. My 100 mile PB. But on this occasion, I still had 19 laps to go – another 18.5km (11.5 miles).
For the first time (of another 18), I calculated 24 hour less 20 hours 42 minutes equals 3 hours and 18 minutes equals 198 minutes. 198 divided by 19 is about 10 ½ minutes per lap. That last minute was just over nine minutes. Even with a further slow down I should at least complete the 100 miles within the 24 hour time limit.
It was also about this time that my bladder decided it had had enough and every couple laps it decided it needed to empty itself immediately. About half of the time this meant a quick stop in the bushes at the top end of the course and on the other occasions it meant a quick visit to the toilet in the shed at the other end. To say I was struggling is an understatement, but strangely I was still enjoying the challenge. If it was easy, everyone would do it!
During the night a large number of walkers had stopped and by now the first three walkers had also finished. The rain had long gone, the wind was back but nowhere near as strong as yesterday, and it was just a case of going through the motions to complete the race.
Knowing that I would definitely finish the race in under 24 hours was both good and bad. The good part was the knowledge that I would finish, but the bad part was that with that knowledge I knew that I could walk even slower, and my lap times drifted out to the high nine minute range. Even when faster walkers passed me at 8 ½ or 9 minute pace I had no incentive to increase my pace to walk with them and so I just continued dawdling around lap after lap.
On a regular basis I would hear the bell for a walker and a lap later see them complete their race. Eventually it was my turn but even when I got the bell for my last lap I couldn’t be bothered picking up the pace and I just wandered around one more lap to the finish. My final time: 23 hours, 45 minutes and 21 seconds. My 39th walk of 100 miles or more, and my 17th sub-24 hour 100 miler.
Saturday afternoon – walking with attitude. Reasonable stride length, good arm swing, head up.
Sunday morning – no attitude, short stride, arms held low, looking down.
One final thought; I can’t blame my foot problems for my race failure. It was definitely a mind thing. In fact my feet didn’t hurt (much) during the race and didn’t start hurting again until Monday morning.
At the time of writing this I’m unsure what my next race will be. I have until July next year to break the NZ M50 100 mile (and ideally 24 hour) records but my focus for 2023 will be the 6 jours de France again where I want to attempt to break 700km.
This leaves the German Centurions race (if it goes ahead) in early October this year and the NZ 24 hour race in November – I will arrive in NZ 24 hours before that race starts. Alternatively, my only other option will be the Dutch Centurions race in June. That will require a speedy recovery from the six day race which is in mid-April.
Is my mind so strong that injuries don’t hurt during races? Or is my mind so weak that the slightest injury prevents me from training/living without discomfort? That is the question.
A week before the 6 jours de France in early May the top of both of my feet started hurting, and I put it down to being caused by having my shoelaces tied too tightly during a recent walk. The feet were sore but not painful and as soon as the race started, I forgot about the issue and didn’t feel any pain again until I achieved my goal of breaking the Commonwealth six-day racewalking record, which I did with 8 ½ hours left in the race.
And within an hour of breaking that record my left foot was in so much pain that for a while I didn’t think I would be able to complete the last eight hours of the race. A couple paracetamol tablets and the addition of a sponge in between the top of my foot and the top of my shoe and I finished the race.
Since then, I have been restricted to just two or three relatively short (under 10km) walks per week and have been having physio treatment (thanks AXA Health Insurance) twice a week. The discomfort is still there though and going into the Warwickshire Ring Canal Race I was concerned as to whether 111 miles (178km) might be pushing things just a little too far.
And then last Tuesday night, four days before race day, I hurt my lower back. I wasn’t doing anything at the time. The back just started to hurt and by the following morning the pain was so bad that I considered taking the day off work. On the Thursday morning I went for a short walk to ‘test’ my sore back – just to see if the pain meant I should cancel my weekend plans. It did hurt.
I really struggled through the 5km walk and later that day I checked whether I could get a refund on my accommodation and bus travel if I decided not to travel up to Coventry for the race – but they were both non-refundable, as was the race entry fee.
The Warwickshire Ring Canal Race (WRCR) was advertised as a one-off race, organised by the same team that organise the Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR), Kennet and Avon Canal Race (KACR) and Liverpool to Leeds Canal Race (LLCR) and with it being a ‘one-off’ I really didn’t want to miss the opportunity, so I decided I would travel up to Coventry on Friday as planned and decide on Saturday morning whether or not to start. Walking 111 miles with my sore feet was one thing, but with back pain as well?
After an uncomfortable 3 ½ hour trip to Coventry on the bus (with my back aching the whole way) I went for a slow sightseeing walk around Coventry (just an easy 5km) on Friday afternoon and the back wasn’t too bad. And the good news was that because the back pain was worse than the discomfort in my feet, I didn’t think about my feet at all.
With the two ‘injuries’ I decided that if I was going to start the race it would be an ‘adventure walk’ and not a ‘race’ and with this mindset I managed an excellent night’s sleep, waking when my alarm went off at 6am – 2 hours before race start.
My usual pre-race preparations were hampered by my back pain, and I struggled to apply the tape to my feet as per my physio’s instructions and putting my shoes and socks on was just as uncomfortable. I better not get any blisters, I thought, because there is no way I am going to be able to do any foot maintenance mid-race if my back was sore.
I had a quick trip around the corner to get some McDonalds for breakfast – my preferred pre-race high-calorie breakfast when available – and then walked over to the race start which was just a few hundred metres from my hotel, arriving with about 15 minutes to spare. While most of the other 67 competitors were standing around talking, I sat down to rest and took two paracetamol tablets to hopefully calm the back and enable me to at least walk as far as the first checkpoint (marathon distance).
Dick Kearn (one of the founders of the Canal Race series 30 years ago) did a short pre-race briefing which included a statement along the lines of “… unsupported runners cannot drop out as we have no way of taking you back to Coventry …”. I was an unsupported runner (walker). And then we were off.
It wasn’t long before all the runners were out of sight, and I settled in to last place (68th of 68) for the first three hours. The course was very walkable with a wide paved path for the first hour or more before we moved on to the grass canal path, and even that was very walkable with the grass being short and dry. I made good progress, averaging 8:00 to 8:15 kilometre pace (13 minute miles), which is my current training pace these days.
In the other three canal races, the first checkpoint is about 10 to 15 miles (16-24km) after the start with checkpoints spaced every 10-15 miles throughout the race. Their total distances range from 130 to 145 miles (208-235km). The Warwickshire Ring Canal Race is only 111 miles (178km) and is a circular route starting and finishing at the Coventry Canal Basin and takes in sections of the Coventry, Birmingham & Fazeley, Grand Union and Oxford Canal towpaths, and there are only four checkpoints – at roughly every 25 miles (40km).
I caught and passed the first runner at about 15 miles and passed another two runners between there and the first checkpoint – at 26.5 miles (roughly marathon distance). I was feeling good, and the weather was good too – mostly cloudy with occasional sunny periods followed by occasional drizzle, and a total of three short but heavy showers during the Saturday afternoon/evening. Each time it rained I waited a minute or two to see if the rain would stop, then put my jacket on because the rain didn’t stop, and then the rain stopped within 60 seconds of me putting my ‘magic’ jacket on. Overall, I would say that the weather conditions were perfect.
Between checkpoint 1 and 2 (49.5 miles/80km) I passed plenty, or so it felt, of runners and was feeling fantastic. My ‘adventure walk’ was turning into a race. By the time I reached checkpoint 2 I was in 47th place and it had only taken me 11 hours 22 minutes whereas I had expected to take around 12 hours for the first two legs.
Whilst my back was feeling fine and my feet were also OK other than a dull discomfort in my left foot, I didn’t want to risk sitting down at the checkpoints and finding that my back seized upon standing again, so at both checkpoint 1 and 2 (and 3 later on) I put my dropbag on a chair so that I could access it without sitting down, and in each case I was in and out of the checkpoint in just a few minutes – after replenishing my food supplies, refilling my water bottles, and (at checkpoint 2) putting my warmer overnight clothes and head torch into my pack for when it got cold and dark later on.
Facebook live video shortly after half way
Other than one short section at around half way, the excellent walking terrain continued for a while longer, but as expected my pace dropped from 8 ½ minutes per kilometre to over 9 minutes pretty much as soon as it got dark. From memory I think maybe the terrain became technical single-track at around the same time it got dark. I can’t remember.
I was still really enjoying my walk and passing runners regularly though, and at some stage around 11pm I passed a Shell service station behind a hedge beside the canal and found a gap in the hedge that I could go through. I took that as an invitation to stop and buy a bottle of Coke.
It was one of those service stations which you can’t go inside at night and the attendant took forever to go and get a bottle from the fridge on the other side of the shop – no rush, I thought, it’s not like I’m in a race or anything!
After the service station it felt like a long drag along the canal looking for the expected diversion – a part of the canal path was closed and we were told that we would have to walk (even the runners, or most of the, were walking by this stage) an extra mile from the canal up towards a small town and then back again in a V shaped diversion. I was worried I would miss the turnoff and end up walking extra distance so I checked the map regularly to make sure I was on track. I needn’t have worried because the exit from the canal path onto the road was well marked, and after the short trip into town and back, it wasn’t too far through to checkpoint 3.
I arrived at CP3 at 1:51am (17 hours 51 minutes) in 32nd place and quickly changed my headtorch batteries, replenished my food and water, and also topped up my bottle of Coke for later on. And then I was off again.
The next leg was by far the hardest. Most of the 22 miles (35km) to checkpoint 4 was rough single-track, often potholed and with a camber slopping into the canal making it very difficult to walk at a fast pace, or even at a steady pace. And it was dark through until around 4am which made it even more difficult.
I walked most of this leg without passing any more runners, or so it seemed, and in the early hours once it was daylight, I would pass a runner or a group of three runners, and shortly afterwards they would pass me!
Once daylight arrived I was unable to pick up the pace as I had expected to do. Even when the terrain evened out at times, I was still struggling along at 9:45 to 10:15 kilometre pace (16 minute miles) but it appears that most other runners were struggling too beacuse I was surprised to find myself in 23rd place when I arrived at the final checkpoint – at 97 miles (98 miles – 158km – with the diversion).
This was the first time I sat down. I had taken two paracetamol tables before the race started and at 5 and 10 hours, but nothing since. My back was feeling OK. My left foot was uncomfortable but OK. And I was tired. I debated with myself for about an hour before arriving at the checkpoint – would I sit down or not?
I decided ‘not’, but I don’t know what happened first. Did I smell bacon cooking and decide that was a good reason to sit down for some breakfast, or did I sit down and then smell the bacon?
Regardless, I ended up sitting down, ordering a bacon sandwich from the awesome volunteers (all the volunteers were awesome, not just those at checkpoint 4) and then proceeded to remove my headtorch and empty my pack of everything that I wouldn’t need for the remaining 14 mile (23km) leg to the finish. The weather forecast was fine, so I got rid of my jacket and also my plastic poncho from Disneyland which I always carry as it is more waterproof than any jacket. I also got rid of all my un-eaten food and replaced that with anything containing high quantities of sugar that I could find in my drop bag, plus another half bottle of Coke. As soon as my sandwich was ready, I was on my way again.
I continued to struggle until just before reaching the turn-off onto the out-and-back section of the canal that we had walked at the start of the race the previous day. It was at this stage that I caught Russ Gardham whom I had passed earlier before he passed me. I think we were both struggling as much as each other but as we walked and talked our pace seemed to pick up again and we decided we would walk through to the finish together.
Our pace continued to improve. We were now walking 9 minutes per kilometre (14:30/mile), and with about 2 kilometres to go we spotted two other competitors in front of us. They were really struggling so we took advantage of the situation and picked our pace up, flying past them both and walking the last 2 kilometres in just 16 minutes!
We finished together in 27 hours 16 minutes for 18th place. Much faster than I expected to walk before the race started. Even faster than I planned to walk if I didn’t have the back injury.
And speaking of the back injury, and the sore feet, well they were fine for the bus trip home on Sunday afternoon/evening. But when I went to get out of bed on Monday morning, what do you know, my back is in agony again, and the top of both feet are worse now than they were after the 6-day race in May!
So, is my mind so strong that injuries don’t hurt during races? Or is my mind so weak that the slightest injury prevents me from training/living without discomfort? That is the question.
A win, a Commonwealth record, and three New Zealand records. The perfect race? No, but probably the best race I have ever walked.
Ever since I first heard about six-day races I had a goal of breaking the New Zealand record for the greatest distance walked within six days. And if I could achieve that, I would also break the Commonwealth record because the NZ record holder, Gerald Manderson, was also the Commonwealth record holder. Gerald had walked 622.57km (386.9 miles) at the famous Colac six-day race in Melbourne, Australia in 1999.
I had been aware of six-day (and longer) races for many years as a runner, but it wasn’t until I met English racewalkers Kathy Crilley and Suzanne Beardsmore in 2014 that I realised that walkers also competed in these events. I met Kathy first, when I entered the Centurions 1911 qualification race (you must walk 100 miles in less than 24 hours to become a member) in August 2014, and whilst Suzanne was also at that race (as was Sarah, our support crew for this race), I didn’t meet Suzanne until the following month after Kathy told me about a 28 hour race in Roubaix and suggested that I might like to join her, Suzanne, and some other UK walkers at the race.
Well, one thing led to another and at the Roubaix race or sometime soon afterwards, Kathy and Suzanne told me that they were going to compete in a six-day race in France in August 2015 – the 6 jours de France. I decided that I wasn’t experienced enough to walk for six days but I joined them for the final three days, finishing second in the 72-hour race.
It was sometime around then that I learned about Gerald’s achievement which at the time (1999) was the fourth best distance achieved by a walker in modern racewalking history. And I decided that my goal was to break his record.
In October 2016 I entered the 6 jours de France and came close, walking 614.192km (381 miles) in terrible conditions – three days of torrential rain followed by three days of 39-degree afternoons – and on a course that I despised – a 1km circuit (reduced to 600 metres during the torrential rain due to flooding on the course) that comprised a mixture of a gritty track surface and tarmac with flooded potholes in various places. The grit tore up my feet and I blistered badly, but as the 6 jours de France is currently the only six-day race with race-walking judges (and therefore eligible for certified records) I went back in 2017 and 2018 where I struggled to walk 500 kilometres and 565 kilometres respectively.
In 2019 I decided to take a year off six-day walking and then the pandemic meant the 2020 race was cancelled and the 2021 race was not possible for most foreign athletes who were restricted from travelling to France at the time.
6 jours de France 2022 edition:
2022 saw the race move to a new location – Vallon Pont d’Arc, which is about 100 miles north of Marseille in the south of France. Not only was it in a new location, but the course was a 100% smooth tarmac (except for a couple road humps to reduce traffic speed) 1,131 metre circuit within a holiday park. The race organisers had reserved half of the holiday park meaning that the course was closed to other users and competitors had the luxury of sleeping in cabins close to the course (ours was just 15 metres off the course). Perfect conditions for a big performance.
I started training specifically for the race on 1st January setting out an 18-week training plan (which I called Project 700) that would include 3 x 4 weeks of 100km in the first week and 100 miles (160km) in the following three weeks. My training was all about building endurance but also included a weekly fast 5km at parkrun each Saturday morning. Overall, my training went well except for a couple of weeks when I caught Covid in early April. Fortunately, I recovered quickly, and I don’t think Covid impacted on my race.
I set my goal at 700km. A distance that only six walkers had managed in modern racewalking history, but one I felt I could achieve with the 2,000km (1,250 miles) I covered in training during January through April. I also thought that the new course, and the better sleeping conditions, would be worth at least 5km per day compared to the old course.
Kathy and Suzanne would be racing with me, although they were both planning on taking things a little easier than me, and we invited another racewalking friend, Sarah Lightman (ultra-distance walker and runner) to join us as our dedicated support crew.
The race was scheduled to start on Saturday 7th May but to give us plenty of rest before the race we decided to fly from Heathrow to Marseille on Wednesday 4th, and then travel up to Vallon Pont d’Arc on the Thursday. We stayed in a local hotel on the Thursday night and then moved into the holiday park on Friday morning.
The holiday park has a five-star rating, and the cabins were absolute luxury compared to sleeping in tents beside the track at Privas (the previous race location). The cabins slept four people in two bedrooms and had a fully equipped kitchen.
As the tallest of the four of us, I was allowed to sleep in the double bed, Sarah was in the foldup bed and Suzanne and Kathy were in the bunks in the second bedroom. We spent the Friday afternoon buying groceries and organising ourselves in our new accommodation, and I managed to sleep for somewhere about 7 to 8 hours on Friday night which is about four hours more than I normally manage before a race. This extra sleep would really help me over the next six days.
Day 1 – Saturday/Sunday:
The race started at 2pm on the Saturday afternoon, so for me each ‘day’ would be from 2pm to 2pm. My rough race plan was that I would walk for the first 24 hours without a break and then each new day would start with a sleep of between 1 ½ and 3 hours during the heat of the afternoon. Additional sleeping breaks would be ‘as required’ but my goal was to try and limit my sleep to around 15 hours during the whole race and I wanted to avoid taking any excessive breaks – I was aiming to walk for at least 124 of the 144 hours. This meant that lunch on Saturday would be the last meal I would eat sitting down until the following Friday afternoon and whilst I had the biggest bed in the cabin, it would be empty most of the time.
Being a French race with just a few English-speaking competitors (six-day race-walking world record holder, Ivo Majetic, and elite multi-day runner Bob Herne from the USA plus ourselves) the pre-race briefing was only in French, so I decided not to attend the briefing and rested in the cabin until about 1:30pm. And then whilst most competitors (38 runners and 25 walkers) stood around the start line, in the sun, for photos and formalities I found a seat in the shade behind the timing tent and continued to rest right up until a few minutes before the race start.
For me, the first day went pretty much to plan. I thought a good first day would be somewhere between 150 and 160km (93 to 100 miles) and I had no intention of being anywhere near the front of the field (of walkers) for at least the first 12 hours.
And that is pretty much how it went. I settled in to 9-minute laps (1,131 metres per lap) from the start which saw me walking a little over 7.25km per hour. A nice easy pace, and I settled in to about 6th or 7th place amongst the walkers, not that I was concerned about placings this early in the race.
I had briefed Sarah beforehand about what I needed in the way of support. Like all my races, my plan was to eat a small amount every 30 minutes throughout the race and during the first afternoon/evening Sarah handed me food every third or fourth lap. We had purchased some sandwich bags and Sarah would put a handful of various foods into sandwich bags so that she could simply hand me a bag and I could eat while walking, put the empty bag in my pocket and either hand it back to her when I passed her next or drop it on the table that we had put beside the track.
The course comprised of two rectangles, one at the top of the course and one at the bottom which was the start/end of each lap, and in between there was an out-and-back stretch that went past the ‘side-street’ where our cabin was just a short walk off the course. This meant that I passed our table twice each lap, and also on the out-and-back stretch we passed some well maintained and hygienic (unlike Privas) toilets which meant that athletes lost very little time when they needed to answer the call of nature.
Sarah has written her own report about her experience supporting us, so I won’t repeat what she has said. Her report is a great read.
And if you have read her report, you will now know that she found that each of us, Kathy, Suzanne, and myself, had different eating requirements. For me, it was eat something small every 30 minutes and eat two dinners, two breakfasts and a lunch.
So, as we arrived at the first evening Sarah made dinner for me. I don’t remember what, but it was probably pasta, and then a while later she went to the onsite restaurant and purchased pizza. A process she would repeat every evening throughout the race.
About 11pm Sarah decided it was time for her to get some sleep and she laid out the table with enough food and drink to see me through the night.
Suzanne had stopped walking due to some problems she was experiencing, and Kathy was also turning in for the night as some parts of the course were dimly lit, and she struggled to see. The organisers improved the lighting on the second night and have promised to improve it more for future years, but we needed to wear headtorches each night throughout the race.
The first night was uneventful. At some stage I moved up to second place behind Ivo, but that improvement was because everyone in front of me decided to sleep.
Morning came and Sarah gave me my first breakfast – scrambled eggs with ham – and a while later, my second breakfast – three croissants from the onsite bakery – and I continued walking.
I had slowed a little overnight. I always walk slower in the dark, and the poor lighting didn’t help. But overall, I was feeling OK other than a little discomfort in between my shoulder blades which was causing issues with the way I was carrying my arms. Normally I would have my elbows bent at 90 degrees and would be driving with the arms, but I was finding that I often needed to let my arms hang a bit straighter to reduce the discomfort.
At 9am I stopped for the first time since the race had started and asked Sarah to rub some ibuprofen gel into the sore area and that seemed to make a difference. Reviewing the lap split times, it didn’t make any difference to my speed, but I felt a little better.
And by the time the first 24 hours was up I was in second place, just 1 lap behind Ivo who had also taken some time out during the night. My total distance for the first 24 hours was 158.3km (98 miles) so I decided to continue through to 100 miles (160.9km) before stopping for my first sleep at 2:30pm.
Day 2 – Sunday/Monday:
Day 2 started with me trying to sleep. I completed the 100-mile lap and then walked the part lap back to the cabin, took my shoes off and lay on the bed with the intention of sleeping for 1 ½ or 3 hours – I forget which, but it was probably 1 ½ hours that I planned for my first sleep.
Regardless or my plan, I just couldn’t get to sleep. I wasn’t ready. I may have dozed a little, but I didn’t sleep. Sarah massaged some more ibuprofen gel into the area between my shoulder blades and according to my lap splits my 144th lap took 2 hours 55 minutes, meaning that I was off the track for a little over 2 hours and 40 minutes. In my analysis (see the bottom of this race report) I have recorded that time as ‘Lost Time’ – time that I wasn’t moving forward.
My experience in my previous three six-day races, and all the other multi-day races that I have done, is that day 2 is always the worst – both physically and mentally. But this wasn’t the case this time. I had a good day two.
I never had any negative thoughts or bad patches although I did finally stop for a sleep at around 4:30am. Having the cabin just a few metres off the track made life extremely comfortable compared to previous six-day races where I was sleeping in a tent and compared to other multi-day races where you either need to sleep rough or wait until a checkpoint, this was luxury.
Ivo started having problems on the Sunday night. He had also taken a break at around 24 hours while I was trying to sleep, but he found that he needed another, longer break that night and at 33 hours I moved into the lead, which other than when I had my sleep at 48 hours, I held throughout the rest of the race.
Bob Herne was also off the track for most of the Sunday night and by Monday morning I was leading the walkers and in fourth (or maybe third) place overall. I have always found that the longer the race, the better I go compared to runners. I have placed in the top four in running races several times (as a walker) and even won a running race once (without running a step), and I was hoping to do the same here (place in the top four overall) – although it was too early to ‘race’, and I was solely focussed on my own progress and not that of either the other walkers or runners.
Sarah and I had got into a good pattern now. When she was sleeping or otherwise unavailable, she ensured that there was plenty of food on the table for me – in my sandwich bags. I also had a water bottle and a jug of water as well as a second bottle containing a protein drink – more for when I wanted a drink with some flavour than for any other reason.
And it was at some time during day two that I allowed myself to start switching from a diet of mainly fruit (dried and fresh), crisps, and other lower sugar foods to start eating and drinking more high sugar foods – chocolate, sweets, Coke, etc. There was still a long way to go though, so I tried to keep a balance and not overdo the processed sugar.
Sarah also bought us the occasional ‘treat’ from the onsite shop. With it being so hot (compared to England) Magnum ice creams were much appreciated and I remember one day eating Gelato.
I finished day 2 with a new New Zealand 48-hour racewalking record of 262.410km (156.9 miles). This wasn’t my best 48-hour distance though. In 2018 I walked 278km (173 miles) when I won the walking division of a 48-hour race in Royan, France, but that race didn’t have racewalking judges and therefore wasn’t eligible for record purposes. However, it was my best distance for the first 48 hours of a six-day race, and I was feeling confident that at a minimum I would complete the 623 kilometres (386 miles) I needed to beat Gerald’s record.
Day 3 – Monday/Tuesday:
At the end of day 2 I started what would become my daily sleep and maintenance routine.
The routine I got into was as follows:
I recorded my daily video during the last lap or while soaking my feet in an ice bath outside the cabin.
On arriving back at the cabin, I removed my shoes and socks and soaked my feet in an ice bath that Sarah had prepared for me, for ten minutes to reduce swelling.
I then had a shower. The cabin had two bathrooms and my bathroom door was immediately next to my bed. While in the shower I would sit on the floor and remove the tape from my feet (the tape was used to prevent friction and therefore prevent blisters).
I would then lie on my bed with my feet elevated – to reduce swelling – and would set my alarm for either 1 ½ or 3 hours depending on how tired I thought I was.
I would always wake up before my alarm went off. Usually within 45 to 60 minutes. I think my longest sleep was around 90 minutes.
In the last three days I then soaked my feet in the ice bath again. In writing this race report I can’t remember why I thought it was a good idea to soak my feet again, but I guess they must have been sore.
Each day I got one or two small blisters. Nothing too serious but I would drain blisters and retape my feet after my afternoon sleep.
On one day Suzanne was in the cabin when I needed to do this and as a former nurse, she loves to drain blisters and has proper equipment to do a proper job (whereas I just use a sewing needle – a brand new one each time for hygiene reasons), so I asked her to do the honours. From memory I had a biggish blister under the ball of my foot that day.
And then I would change my shoes. I alternated between two pair of shoes – both Brooks Adrenaline GTS extra wide fit.
And as I was leaving, I would say to Sarah “my clothes are over there” and leave her to clean up after me like I was a child, and she was my mother. If you read her report, you would have noticed that she referred to the three of us as her children 😊
And regardless of the length of my sleep I found that I could start walking again without any leg fatigue or pain in my feet unlike my experience in most multi-day races I have done in the past. At Privas, for example, I always found that it took me about 30 minutes to get walking without pain after even a short rest, but I had no problems at all in this race.
The problem with my 48-hour sleep break was that after I had showered, I checked my phone before going to sleep and had a message from one of my colleagues at work asking some questions about a project that we were about to go live with for one of our largest customers. I decided to call her to answer her questions but with little sleep in the previous 48 hours I wasn’t 100% certain of the answers to my questions so I offered to join a call with her developers the following morning if required.
And then I promptly fell asleep and dreamed about the project, working out the answers to her questions in my sleep – so after I woke up I sent her some comments via WhatsApp which answered all her questions.
I also noticed that I had a very sore left eye. During multi-day races I wear monthly contact lenses so that I don’t need to change them during the race, but I must have either got some grit in between the lens and my eye or scratched my eye somehow. I decided to remove the left contact lens, which actually worked out well to the extent that I need contact lenses to see long distance but when wearing contacts, I need reading glasses to see my phone. So, with only one contact lens I found that I could see long distance through my right eye, and short distance through my left eye – probably not ideal, but that was the best I could do.
In total I was off the track for just under four hours, which would be my second longest break of the whole race.
And day 3 ended up being my worst day of the race with a total of 7 hours and 20 minutes of ‘Lost Time’ – including my 2pm break. The main issue was that I ended up with an eye infection from whatever the issue was with my contact lens. My eye was sore overnight and after another sleep at 4:30am it was weeping. I walked through until mid-morning when I asked Sarah to have a quick look at it. She said it was red and suggested I visit the medical tent. I visited them just before 11am and they gave me some anti-biotic eyedrops (or at least that is what I think they did – my French is non-existent) – and asked me to come back in two hours. At 1pm I was given more eyedrops and asked to come back again in another two hours, and at 3pm I was probably given more eyedrops (I can’t remember) and was asked to come back before they closed for the night at 8pm. In total, it looks like I only lost an hour between all those visits to the medical tent, but that is another hour that I could have been walking.
I also experimented with powernaps. Over the following days I played with ten-minute powernaps and 20-minute powernaps, and longer sleeps at the end of each day. For a ten-minute powernap I walked into the cabin, set my alarm for ten minutes, lay on the bed, and then three seconds later (or that is what it felt like) I would wake up and start walking again.
For a 20-minute powernap the only difference was that I would take my shoes off but leave my socks on. 20-minute powernaps also felt like they lasted three seconds. I also had my feet elevated during powernaps but didn’t do any foot maintenance during these breaks. On a couple occasions I had pain in one of my knees and on each occasion I would stop at the cabin to rub in some ibuprofen gel and would rest the sore knee for a brief period by having a powernap. This seemed to work well as the pain was always gone when I resumed walking.
I finished day 3 with a total distance of 355km (221 miles) and a 15km (9 mile) lead over the second walker. My total mileage for the day was only 92.7km (57.6 miles). At the time I was disappointed and had my one and only negative thought of the race – I wasn’t going to reach my goal of 700 kilometres. With only 355km in the first three days, I couldn’t see how I would manage 345 more kilometres in the next three days.
Day 4 – Tuesday/Wednesday:
Because I needed to visit the medical tent to get my eye checked at 3pm I didn’t stop for my 2pm sleep until after that visit. Again, I woke up before the alarm went off and I was back on the track before 6pm.
I completed the 400km lap a little before 2am (official time for 400km 83 hours and 42 minutes) just as one of the runners was completing his 300km lap. His support crew was taking a photo of him holding the 300km sign, so I stopped and asked her to take a photo of me with the 400km sign, not that 400km was significant for this race. But given that last year I entered two 250-mile (400km) races and didn’t officially finish either of them (the Thames Ring 250 in June was the one where I hallucinated that I was in a Covid concentration camp and asked German farmers – who were actually railway workers – to rescue me, and they called an ambulance. And the 250-mile Lon Las Ultra across Wales in which I finished in 90 hours which was two hours after the race cut-off time), I had a little celebration that this was my longest walk since my London tube station walk in 2020.
During the night I had three powernaps of 10 or 20 minutes each and I walked throughout the day to record 101.8km (63.3 miles) for the day. Back over the 100km per day minimum that I was aiming for throughout the race, but after accounting for ‘Lost Time’ my average speed was my slowest of the race at just 5.26km/hour. See analysis at the bottom of this race report.
By the end of day 4 I had walked 457km (284 miles) and had an 27km (17 mile) lead over the next walker. I wasn’t assured of the win. Anything could happen in the last two days. But with several of the walkers behind me leaning to one side while walking, and Ivo really struggling, I thought I had a good chance.
Day 5 – Wednesday/Thursday:
My 96-hour break was my longest of the whole race, at 4 ¾ hours. I don’t remember why it was so long but from memory this was also my longest sleep of the race at somewhere between 2 and 2 ½ hours. This was also the day that Suzanne became Nurse for a few minutes to attend to my blisters and I think it was on this afternoon that I also had a three-course meal before resuming my walk. This was the first time I had eaten a meal while sitting down since the race began. All other meals and most snacks had been eaten while walking. And when I say, “three course meal”, it consisted of apple slices, scrambled eggs, and yoghurt for dessert.
I didn’t really experience any hallucinations during this race. Eating regularly and being able to powernap when I needed to made a significant difference compared with my experience in other recent multi-day races, but on a few occasions during the second half of the race, and mostly at night, I would briefly think “I haven’t been here before” and be slightly panicked that I was lost – on a 1.1km circuit that I had walked several hundred laps of already.
I was also learning to sleepwalk. There were two parts of the course near the end of each lap which were dead straight and smooth tarmac with no possibility of tripping over. On the right was a hedge and on the left was grass. And over the last two days I often closed my eyes while walking along these two stretches, opening one eye every 5 to 10 seconds to check that I was walking in a straight line. I wouldn’t say I was ‘sleeping’ but mentally I felt I was getting some micro-rests.
In 2016 I had walked 500km in a New Zealand record time of 4 days, 16 hours, 55 minutes (and 8 seconds) and my aim going into this race was to reduce that time to under 4 days – or as close to 4 days as possible – figuring that that would means on 100km per day over the last two days to complete 700km.
That wasn’t to be though, and I finally reached 500km at just after 2:22am on the Thursday morning. The only problem was that in a race of this type, the official time for record purposes is only recorded at the end of the lap in which you pass the distance marker, and this meant I needed to walk another 1,110 metres of a 1,131-metre course because the previous lap had finished just 21 metres short of the 500km mark!
Therefore, my official new 500km NZ record time is 4 days, 12 hours, 34 minutes, and 23 seconds – a 4-hour improvement over my 2016 time.
As per 25 hours earlier when I reached 400km someone took a photo of me holding the 500km sign, and as I continued walking, I found myself feeling very confused. I had walked 100km in between photos, but the two photos had been taken at about the same time of night and in the same place. Where had I been? For some reason I couldn’t comprehend that I was simply walking laps of the track. It was just tiredness messing with my brain.
I allowed myself to have the second of my three powernaps for the night shortly afterwards, and then a third powernap just before dawn – and then walked through to my 2pm afternoon break.
With total ‘Lost Time’ of almost seven hours, day 5 was my second worst day of the race, only 1km better than day 3. I finished the day with a total distance of 552km (343 miles), and just 70km (43 miles) left to my minimum goal of breaking Gerald’s NZ and Commonwealth 6-day record.
Day 6 – Thursday/Friday:
One last decent sleep, some foot maintenance, and I was back on the track before 5pm and by 7pm I was flying – relatively speaking.
Reviewing the lap times, I see that I completed my 499th lap just after 7pm in 9 minutes and 57 seconds (8:48/km pace). It was my fastest lap since 8:30 the previous night, and a couple laps later I walked 9:01, my 11th fastest lap of the race! And the 10km I walked between 563km and 573km was only a couple minutes slower than the 10km pace I maintained during the first few hours of the race.
I was feeling awesome, and even started thinking that perhaps, just maybe, 700km might be achievable after all. It is amazing what your mind can do. I knew I was in the final stages of the race, and I was feeling good. But as with every night of the race, when darkness arrived at 9pm my pace dropped. After averaging 9 ½ minutes per lap, I was now averaging 11 ½ minutes per lap.
I had a short powernap at 3am, and then at 5:27am I completed the lap that took me past Gerald’s 6-day record. Sarah had woken up a few minutes earlier and as I walked past the food table near our cabin on that final lap she was there, so she grabbed her camera and ran over to the timing tent at the end of the lap where the race organiser presented me with the NZ flag (for my record victory lap).
Some of the people following my progress online had already messaged me a lap early congratulating me, because the previous lap ended at 622.157km. But the record was 622.570km. After breaking the record and having some photos taken, I walked a lap carrying the NZ flag, and then a second lap during which I posted on social media and sent a message to my family (who were mostly asleep), rang both my parents in New Zealand to tell them the news, and received a call from my son in NZ.
And then it was time for a well-earned short break.
It’s funny how the mind works. Before the start of the race, the tops of both my feet were hurting. They had been sore for a few days, and I put it down to possibly having my laces tied too tightly at some stage. Anyway, for over 5 ½ days I had been walking around this track and my feet hadn’t hurt (or at least not the top of my feet) but as I came into the cabin for my break my left foot was so sore that I didn’t know how I would be able to continue in the race.
I rubbed some of the ‘magic’ ibuprofen gel on the tops of both feet and put a sponge in between my sock and the top of my left shoe so that the laces didn’t put too much pressure on the sore part of my foot – my left foot hurt much more than my right – and after a 15-minute break I resumed walking.
Every day during the race the temperature started to rise from about 9am through until 2pm (when I took my break), and for some reason I really dreaded the idea of walking the final five hours of the race. In hindsight, I suspect that my brain was telling me that the job was done, I had achieved my goal of breaking the record, and I wasn’t going to reach 700km.
But in reality, I still had a lot of work to do. My next target was 400 miles (642km), a distance only achieved my 14 men plus the women’s world record holder. And then once I passed that distance, I needed to move myself up the list of the best distances walked in six days.
I had the list on my phone. My next target was the 643km walked by Patrick Cailleaux in 2016 – someone I had raced and never beaten in all my previous three six-day races. Patrick finished 5th this year.
Then the 649km achieved by Christophe Biet in winning the 2016 edition of this race. I had never beaten Christophe either, and he wasn’t racing this year. Then the 650km achieved by Philippe Clement when he won in 2017 – the year that my father and his partner, Diane, came to Privas as my support crew and I had a miserable race, only barely making 500km. Philippe finished second this year.
Once I had passed 651km I was the tenth best male, and eleventh best overall, in the history of modern racewalking. It was only just past 11am. Three hours to go. But it was getting really hard now. It was hot and I was tired, and I didn’t want to keep pushing any longer.
Ivo was giving me plenty of encouragement, but he was also really annoying me. I had had enough and just wanted to stroll around the course, or maybe even take a bit of a rest. But he kept telling me that I had to keep pushing and make it as hard as possible for the next person to beat my NZ/Commonwealth record. I knew he was right, but I didn’t like it.
Once I passed 658km there was only two more previous results ahead of me that I could reach. A French walker whom I didn’t know who had walked 665.225km in 2011 and the Women’s world record holder, Yolanda Holder, who had achieved 665.182km in 2019. If I could beat those two distances, I would have the eighth best distance in history and seventh best was 687km.
Ivo was continuing to annoy me. Every time I saw him, he would give me encouragement. I know he meant well, and I thank him for his encouragement, but at the time he was really pissing me off!
So, I played a game with him. With about an hour to go I worked out that I would ‘easily’ pass 665km and maybe even get as far as 667km, so every time I saw him, I would pretend to be really suffering, and make comments like “It’s too hard” and “I can’t keep this pace going” as I walked slowly towards him on the out and back sections. And then once he had passed me, I would laugh to myself, feel better, and continue on my way. It was just a game to amuse myself, and I told Ivo about my game after the race so hopefully he isn’t upset with me when he reads this.
I passed through the timing tent for the last time with 8 minutes and 24 seconds left on the clock and I don’t know what happened (mind over matter again) but I took off. The further the lap went, the faster I got.
I haven’t mentioned that the dead flat course that we started on six days earlier had actually become a course where you went uphill as you headed towards the far end of the course and then downhill towards the end of the course where the timing tent was. It was only about a 2-metre elevation change between the lowest and highest point of the course, but by Friday afternoon the uphill part was really making my life hard.
But on the final lap I flew up the hill. I had previously told Sarah and Suzanne that I would time my finish to be outside our cabin at exactly 144 hours, but I sped past them going up the hill and a few minutes later I flew passed them as I headed back downhill.
And in the last 8 minutes and 24 seconds I walked an additional 1,080 metres – which is 8 minute 48 second lap pace, 4 seconds faster than my fastest lap of the entire race!
Just shows what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.
My final result was 667.357 kilometres (414.75 miles).
NZ record tick
Commonwealth record tick
8th best distance in modern racewalking history tick
700km goal met cross
Unfinished business tick
On analysing my lap times I was surprised to discover that although I only slept for 10 ½ hours during the race, I had over 29 hours off the track. Some of this was for ‘admin’ – repairing feet, showering before sleeps, etc, but there was plenty of additional ‘Lost Time’. If I could have kept this to the 20 hours I was aiming for, then that is potentially another 50+ kilometres (31 miles). That would have put me well over my 700km target.
What I don’t know is whether I could have slept for longer each day and with more sleep, perhaps I could have walked faster. Or should I have avoided the 2pm sleeps altogether, and just had 10 to 20 minute powernaps throughout the race. If I had done that then I may have ended up walking a slower average speed, but potentially I could have walked even more hours as I wouldn’t have had so much time off the track each day for ‘admin’.
The problem is that I can’t do too many six-day races per year. Maybe two at the most, and even two six-day races per year may be too much. This makes experimentation difficult.
I will definitely be back next year. The race will be in April, so hopefully the weather will be a little cooler.
My goal next year? I’m not sure yet, but more than 700km, definitely!
Some random photos of me:
And lastly, my two UK racewalking buddies – the two people who got me in to this really long stuff in the first place!
A big thank you:
Lastly, I want to thank some people.
Firstly, Sarah, without whom I would never have managed to achieve the distance I did. Thanks so much. You did a fantastic job.
Suzanne and Kathy whom I have done many races with over the last eight years. Two of my favourite people in the racewalking world.
My wife Ruth, who without her support I would never make it to the start line of any race. She allows me to spend a huge amount of time out training (272 hours of walking between January 1st and April 30th, plus time in the pool and gym) when she would probably prefer that I was at home spending that time with her, and then I use some of our holiday time to go to the South of France and walk around a holiday park for six days!
And to everyone else who sent messages via social media or the race website, the other competitors – this race is such a friendly event – and of course, the race organisers and volunteers without whom this race wouldn’t happen.