The 36th Chateau-Thierry 24 hour race-walking event was held on the 28th and 29th of March 2015.
For me, this was going to be a big event. My first race in six months and, with plenty of training miles in the bank, I felt that I could achieve my goal of going under 21 hours for 100 miles and completing a total distance of 115 miles – both of which would beat the current New Zealand records.
The weekend started off when Zac (my 14 year old son and support crew) and I collected Suzanne Beardsmore from the Richmond railway station for the drive down to Dover to catch the ferry to France. The drive to Dover was 108 miles. My current PB for 24 hours was 107 miles. Was this a good omen that a PB was on the cards?
The trip to Chateau-Thierry was uneventful, consisting of driving a total of 330 miles with a ferry trip in the middle, although I do remember that there was a group of motorcyclists on the ferry wearing Hells Angels jackets and we wondered whether their planned weekend’s activities would be harder on the body than ours.
We didn’t arrive in Chateau-Thierry until early evening and went straight out for dinner before getting a relatively early night. I slept soundly for 9 hours which was excellent. I remember struggling to sleep before my first 24 hour race in 2013 and only managing 2 hours sleep that night.
After eating as much as possible at the “all you can eat breakfast” in the hotel’s restaurant we headed down to the race village where we met the other two English speaking competitors, Karen Lawrie and Tony Mackintosh from the Isle of Man.
The four of us (Suzanne, Karen, Tony, and myself) set up our food tables within the “International Competitors Tent” and gave Zac our last minute instructions regarding support requirements. Zac would be our only support crew until Karen’s husband and brother arrived about 10 hours after race start, and I can’t comment for the others but I know that Zac did a fantastic job of looking after me during the race – thanks Zac.
Chateau-Thierry is a small town of just 15,000 people located about 50 miles north of Paris and the 24 hour race-walk is a big annual event for the town.
The race itself starts in the town square and competitors walk 1,300 meters before starting on the course that they will be lapping for the remainder of the 24 hours.
At the end/start of each of the 2,400 meter (1.5 mile) laps the walkers go through a local sports hall where they cross the electronic timing mats and see their name and current position/distance on the TV screen before walking through the “Village des Marcheurs” (race village) where support crew are located in large tents (which provide shelter when it rains from time to time).
This section is the only flat section of the course and is probably no more than 400 meters in total.
After leaving the race village we turn left and walk up a short, sharp, steep hill that seems to get steeper with every lap. But what is worse (at least for me) is that when we reach the top of the hill we then go down a shorter steeper hill before turning right and starting the gradual incline up to the top of the course about 1km away.
On the way up to the top of the course we pass the aid station which has a selection of drinks (water, sparking water, orange juice, coke) as well as food (fruit and a few other things although I can’t remember what was there as I only took water, coke and oranges from the aid station). When racing it France it would be nice to speak/understand French but as I don’t, regardless of what the people at the aid station said to me, all I could say in reply was “Merci” (thank you) which after 20+ hours sounded more like “Mercy”!!!
Shortly after the aid station we reach the top of the course which consists of some traffic cones in a circle that we walk around and a few men in a van noting down our race numbers (to ensure that we have completed the whole lap I assume).
And then it is all downhill back to the end of the lap, and through the sports hall, race village, and back up that short, sharp hill again.
This was the first time I had done a race of this length (or any walking race come to think about it) through suburban streets, and it enables us to focus on something other than the race itself as we watched people going about their lives as we walked past their houses every 20 to 30 minutes.
At the top of the steep hill at the beginning of each lap there was a church on one side of the road and a pub on the other side of the road a short distance further on. On Saturday evening people came from everywhere to go to church and it appeared that they were having an outdoor church service. But on the next lap everyone had moved inside – and I think it may have started raining shortly after that.
And then during the night you would see people coming and going from the pub right through to the small hours when the local baker arrived to open up his bakery. And then a few laps later people started arriving for church again.
For me, it was definitely a race of two halves. I had big goals and despite finding out on race morning that the course was much hillier than I had expected, I went out at my planned race pace and managed to hold that for about eight hours before starting to slow slightly. I passed through the marathon in about 5 ¼ hours and 40 miles in a shade over 8 hours.
The pace started to drop a little after that as it always does in darkness and I passed 50 miles in 10 hours and 12 minutes, and by 12 hours I had slowed to the stage where I knew I was unlikely to achieve my 185km (115 mile) target – 93.3km in 12 hours. But I still felt reasonable and was coming out of my bad patch.
But a while later my right shin started to hurt and progressively got worse through the early hours of Sunday morning to the stage where I was in serious pain every time I lifted my foot off the ground and every time I put my foot back down again. The short, steep downhill section near the start of each lap was probably what caused my injury, and after 18 hours I was really struggling to walk down that particular hill.
Mentally I was really struggling to keep going. I was feeling very tired (having been awake for about 22 hours already) and another 6 hours of this torture was not a pleasant thought. But I thought I still had a chance of at least achieving a PB and I had put a lot of training into getting this far. I wasn’t going to stop now.
The pain got worse, and worse, and worse. Painkillers weren’t helping and a few hours later I was finding myself stopping involuntarily every few hundred meters to try and reduce the pain. I remember thinking that a grandmother on a Zimmer Frame would be able to walk faster than me right now.
After a steady but conservative start that had seen me lapping in 20th/21st place for the first 1 ½ hours before slowly moving up to 10th place at 9 hours, I was now gradually going backwards through the field.
But one of the great things about a race like this is that everyone becomes friends. For several hours during the night I had battled against #34, Jeremy Dandoy. At one stage he apologised to me for not being able to speak English. I was too stuffed to try and apologise back for not being able to speak French. But without being able to say more than a word or two to one another, we enjoyed each others company for what seemed like several hours. In reality it may have been much less than that as in a 24 hour race you start to lose all sense of time. He would get ahead of me occasionally and we would acknowledge each other as we passed in opposite directions at the turnaround at the top of the course, and then I would catch him, we would walk together for a bit, and then I would get ahead of him for a while. It was good fun and a distraction during what was becoming a long race.
But as the pain got worse and I started slowing to a speed of less than 5km (3 miles) per hour, walkers whom I had lapped hours earlier were passing me and many of them, regardless of the language they spoke, would try to give me encouragement.
Three of those walkers were my English speaking friends, Suzanne, Karen and Tony. Suzanne had been leading the women’s race from early on and Tony and Karen had been walking together from the start. I had lapped Suzanne once and Tony and Karen twice, but during the last six hours not only did they all unlap me, but they started to lap me several times over. Whilst I was getting slower and slower, they were all getting faster (or so it seemed to me). They were definitely walking strongly and would finish the race in 9th, 10th and 13th respectively, with Suzanne taking the overall women’s honours and Karen finishing second in the women’s race. A superb effort by all three of them.
At 23 hours we were diverted on to a smaller, dead flat, 500 meter lap for the last hour. This was so that we would all be within a short distance of the sports hall when the 24 hour finish siren sounded. I remember arriving at the hall at the end of my last big lap just a few seconds before the 23 hour mark to find about 3 or 4 competitors waiting outside. Not being able to understand what they were saying I continued into the hall and was the first person to be diverted on to the small loop. Immediately I realised that the walkers waiting outside were waiting until they knew it was safe to enter as they, like me, had had enough of the hills on the big lap.
I finally passed the 100 mile mark at 23 hours and 42 minutes and was in so much pain that I wanted to stop then and there. But Zac talked me in to continuing and I hobbled another mile over the next 18 minutes to finish with a total of 162.514km – exactly 101 miles.
This was my worst result from my three 24 hour races – 400 meters less than my first attempt – but I am proud to have completed the full 24 hours. It was definitely my most painful race but I am hoping that the mental toughness that I needed to get me through the race will help me in future long distance races.
In the end, the race results show that Chateau-Thierry wasn’t a course in which I would have achieved my 115 mile target, even if I had had a good race. The race was won by Eddy Roze with an impressive 197.757km, from Cedric Varain (193.607km) and Pascal Bunel (182.901km).
Only nineteen of the fifty starters managed to complete 100 miles or further, and I finished in 18th place. 18th place also happens to be the same placing I got in my last race – the Roubaix 28 hour event last September (when I passed 24 hours with 171.212km – my current PB), and is my worst placing in a race-walking event.
I am writing this race report five days after the race. My right shin is recovering slowly – today is the first time I have been able to stand without pain – and to a certain extent, writing this and creating the two videos below has been therapeutic and helpful with the mental recovery.
I am looking forward now to competing in the Thames Tow Path 100 mile race from Richmond to Oxford in another four weeks time, and three weeks later I will be doing the 145 mile Grand Union Canal Race from Birmingham to London. So April will be all about recovery. Hopefully I will be back training in another week but there is no rush.
Videos and photos:
Before the race I decided that it would be fun to record short ‘selfie’ interviews with myself every couple hours during the race. My intention was that they would record the ups and downs that an athlete goes through during a 24 hour race, but in the end they recorded the downs and downs. There were no ups.
This video shows the suffering that I went through and if you are contemplating doing a race of this distance I recommend watching it. An ultra-marathon is as much, if not more, about mental strength than physical and as this video demonstrates, I really did have as much mental strength as I thought I did.
And this video comprises of all the photos I took during the race plus a few that Zac took, along with my commentary on the race. The background music is “Walk Away” by Anthem In.
And these are some of the photos I took during the race: