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Are 24hr running events for ‘super-athletes’?

Stephen Dunnett attempts to bust the myth that you have to be a super-athlete to have a go at one of the increasingly popular 24hr running events. In the spirit of having a go at ‘something new for 22’, he suggests that this may not be as hard as you think and you might even enjoy it!

You enjoy a walk, jog or run, but what is the longest time you have been out for? Have you walked, jogged or run into the night and still kept going until you saw the sunrise? Did you then call it a day or did you keep on going? Have you ever wondered how far you could cover in 24 hours and if not, why not?

The answer in your head may be ‘because I am not that stupid’ or ‘no-way could I keep going for 24 hours’, but more people are entering 24-hour running events and enjoying it so much they come back for more.

The night laps can be beautiful
The night laps can be beautiful

I do a lot of running and walking. I enjoy distances from 5km to multi-day hikes but most of all, I enjoy variety. I enjoy taking my time over walks but I also enjoy challenges, which is why I race and take part in challenge events.

Challenge events are something of a trend at the moment but have been around for a long time. The Long Distance Walkers Association was founded in 1972 by Chris Steer, Alan Blatchford and Barbara Blatchford.

Each year around 500 people enter their annual 100-mile event. I have completed a few of these and each one took me considerably longer than 24 hours, but I often wondered a) how much further than 100 miles could I have kept going for, and b) how far could I cover in 24 hours.

Well, I haven’t got around to a), apart from when a 100 route turned out to be ‘long’ or I did extra miles getting lost, but in the last few years I have started to enter 6, 12 and 24-hour events.

I am not setting myself up to be an expert and I am not providing a guide to ‘how to complete a 24-hour event’, but hopefully I would like to inspire a few people to think ‘this sounds different, perhaps I could do that’.

There are also recognised 24-hour mountain-biking events but, having been involved with these as well, in my opinion you do need a certain level of technical ability to remain safe and, of course, a decent bike.

The 24-hour running events I am suggesting are generally very safe, requiring little technical ability or expensive equipment.

What are 24-hour running events?

They tend to be from 12 noon through to 12 noon the following day. Most are on a 5 to 8-mile lap course so you are rarely too far away from the start/finish area and this is a big attraction if you are not sure how you are going to cope.

The course will be over a variety of terrain depending on where the event is held. Some specialist events are even held on running tracks but I am not proposing specialist events here. There is no pressure to run; the serious competitors will but many people walk far more than they run.

As these events increase in popularity, a web search for ‘24 hour running events’ will probably give a good choice close to your area but it is also a good excuse to visit a new area. All of the events that I have taken part in have been extremely relaxed and do not feel elite in any way – it is just up to you to do your own thing.

I suggest that you have a go entering as a ‘solo’ (you will get used to the encouraging shouts of ‘well done solo’ as shown by your race number), but most events have entries for pairs and larger teams. This is a good way to get a taster if you have a few friends that can be persuaded/bullied into joining you or just enter them anyway and tell them afterwards that it is a birthday present – more common than you may think!

What can you expect and how do you go about it?

With an article like this, other people will say ‘I wouldn’t do that’, but it works for me and I do get events completed so these are merely my suggestions. Read the race instructions several time so you are clear on the organisation.

If an event starts at noon on a Saturday, there is often on-site camping from Friday afternoon. I like to arrive early so that I can get a decent camp spot as this will also be your supply point during the race. It is really annoying to find you have a 200 metre walk off the course each time because you put your tent in the wrong place. There is often a designated area for ‘solo’ runners, which does make life easier.

I don’t usually walk the course before the race but many do – I take the view that I will have plenty of time to look at it in 24 hours!

The organisers usually provide a selection of food and drink on the course and although I do use this, I also like my own tried and tested supplies. On the morning of the race, I make sure I have everything I need in easy to find places and you will be so glad you did in the middle of the night when you are tired and need a quick Mars bar. Plastic boxes with different foods and drinks keep things well organised.

I am lucky that my wife ‘crews’ for me and having a supporter who can get snacks sorted and make you eat when you don’t really want to, is invaluable. Also have warm gear, waterproofs, first aid, spare shoes etc set out where you can find them easily. Make sure your lights are ready to hand for the night sessions and there is usually a designated time when lights must be carried so don’t get caught out.

nerves at the Equinox 24
Start nerves at the Equinox 24

There is always a buzz of excitement and nerves as it gets close to noon. Decide how you are going to start and stick to it, whether that is walking, jogging or mixing it with the potential winners. You will find me with the joggers.

My plan is usually to jog for the first 2 laps, enjoying the atmosphere and having a look at the scenery. Runners in teams will usually run one lap at a time and that at a fast pace, so it is pointless to mess up your own event by racing them!

After two laps, I will get some food and drink in and then I aim to do this at regular intervals throughout the 24 hours. Most people will know what they eat when they are out walking so go for that but also throw in a few treats.

In August 2021, Aleksandr Sorokin from Lithuania, set a new 24-hour record of 192.252 miles and he said ‘junk food is my fuel – chips, chocolate, cookies, candy and coke’. I assume by chips he means crisps but, in any case, full on fish and chips may not be the best plan! Whatever you go for, moderation and frequent is the key for food and drink.

The aim now is just to keep knocking off those laps. Most events are chip timed so make sure you go through the control gate at the end of each lap and make sure you know how to return to the course if you are going to your tent between laps. Apart from getting this right (and, obviously, following the correct course!) there are no rules to follow.

Knocking off the laps
Knocking off the laps at the Suffolk Trail Fest 24

It's your challenge

Walk, run, rest, it is all up to you how much of each you do. Many people will have a couple of hours in their tent during the dark and some, much longer. However, at the risk of being controversial, I think the challenge of a 24-hour event is to keep going for 24 hours.

It is a much different prospect to two 9 hours with a 6-hour sleep in the middle, but it is your challenge so anyone can do what they want and that is what makes these far from events for super-athletes.

The dark hours can be difficult but a good light helps and many people find someone else to walk/run with. It is possible to hire good lights at some events but I would never rely on this and prefer my own tried and tested lights.

Always take a spare. I often listen to music during the night, which I find passes the time, but as soon as I feel too sleepy (yes, it WILL happen) I try to find someone at my pace to chat to for a while.

Finally, it gets light and 12 noon is in sight. This will give you the final choice before your celebrations, beer and sleep. Make sure you know when the event ends! – not so obvious as you may think.

Some events require your final lap to be completed within 24 hours but many will allow you to complete your lap if you cross the line before 12 noon. Oh joy – you can actually keep going for more than 24 hours!!

However, some events then have a time limit to complete that final lap so make sure you know. Some people will have the ‘golden’ 100 mile target in sight so that final lap is crucial but I am not close enough to that for it to bother me.

If you have kept going for 24 hours, I can guarantee that whatever distance you have achieved, you will feel so proud that you have completed a 24-hour event. I can almost guarantee that you will also say ‘never again’ but in my experience ‘never again’ lasts until the end of the pint you are holding in your hand (recovery shake of course!).

‘Newbie’ or ‘never again’ you better get that entry in as soon as you have finished reading this. Good luck.

the end of a 6 hour
You WILL feel so proud. My wife at the end of a 6-hour, and she has entered a 24-hour this year.