In the past few years I have run some tough races in amazing places. The Susitna 100, a 100-mile race in Alaska in winter and the Atacama Crossing, a 250km multi-stage race in the Chilean desert, are my highlights. These races are so tough because they include a number of challenges to overcome such as the distance, the difficulty of the terrain, weather conditions and following the route. However, these varied challenges and the spectacular scenery also provide an opportunity for distraction and they don’t require a single-minded focus for hours on end. This past weekend I witnessed a race that is so specific and focused, that the challenge is only to keep running: 24 hours of track.
24-hour races are not new, but they are quite uncommon. In Chile the previous 24-hour race was held over 10 years ago and at that race the Chilean record was set (233km). The race this year was scheduled to provide a different and unique event for ultra runners in Santiago. The format is beautiful and brutal in its simplicity: run as far as you can during a 24-hour period around a 400m tartan track. The only change in scenery is when the runners change direction every 4 hours and run the other way around the track to avoid over-use injuries. In the race there were options for individual runners and a race for teams of two. The teams of two could choose how frequently to change runners throughout the period.
A great field of athletes assembled for the race. The previous winner and Chilean record holder – Erwin Valdebenito (over 10 years ago) was there. The well-known Matias Anguita, an ultra-runner, coach, 5-time Atacama Crossing participant who has run 15 marathons in 15 days in the 15 regions of Chile and most recently ran 40 marathons in 40 days to celebrate his 40th birthday toed the line. Also competing was Juan Pablo Muñoz who seems to have run almost every trail and ultra race in Chile with his video camera recording the race for his website (Mundorunning.cl). He won his last race which was an 80km trail race on Easter Island and he most recently spent 12 hours running laps around La Moneda in Santiago for training. In addition most of the running clubs were represented either by individuals or teams.
The race started at 7pm on Saturday afternoon and finished at 7pm on Sunday afternoon. With the current spring weather in Santiago this meant that the runners had to endure a cold night (10 degrees C) and then a very hot day (30 degrees C). I went to the track to support, take photos and find out how the runners were doing on Sunday morning. They had already run through the night and had passed the mid-way stage of the race. Amazingly a lot of the runners still looked strong and were running consistently around the track. There had been a few abandons, but most were persisting and appeared to be enjoying the challenge.
The most fascinating aspect of this race for me was the strategies of the teams and individuals running. In most races the terrain and conditions mean that the decision for the runner of when to walk or speed up are already decided. If you’re approaching a huge climb late in the race you walk. If it’s a downhill and you’re feeling strong you open up your stride and go with the flow. However, on the track every single lap is exactly the same. Do you run every lap at the same pace for as long as you can or do you vary your speed to use different muscles and vary the stress on your legs? I saw a little of everything on the track.
The first person I noticed was running really fast when I arrived. I couldn’t believe the speed he was going at so far into the race and assumed he must be part of a team and just starting his turn afresh. However, he was in the individual race and while coming third, he wasn’t winning. How could he be running the fastest and not in the lead? A few laps later I learned the answer: he was running a lot slower and then a few laps later walking and then later still running very quickly again. His approach was that of varying the stimulus and it seemed to be working as he was high up in the placings. Other runners were running really consistently at what appeared to be a slow pace, but I found out they hadn’t stopped running through the night and their pace hadn’t changed at all. Another runner appeared to be running slowly and in pain as she was hunched over, but it turned out she was the second lady and had run with the same form from the start of the race.
Race strategy also extends beyond just what the runners do on the track. Every runner was provided with a small one-man tent where they could rest and store their food and drinks. Some runners had stopped for short naps during the night and others never went to their tent at all, instead running all the time and relying on a crew to provide their drinks and food. The race also provided an aid station and only one was necessary as it was accessible every 400m! Here drinks were available and the runners were weighed through the race to ensure that they weren’t too dehydrated.
At the end of the day, the previous winner had dropped out, Juan Pablo came second overall (169.4km) and Matias was 4th (156.2km). The men’s winner Marcelo Fuentes managed 181.5km and the woman’s winner Loreto Elizondo was 5th overall with 151.1km. The winning team completed an incredible 258.6km.
I really enjoyed going to watch this race and supporting friends in it. It is a remarkable challenge as the duration is measured in time rather than the usual race measure of distance and the greatest difficulty is not a climb or tough footing, but rather the mental challenge of doing the same thing for so long and not stopping. It is also a very spectator friendly ultra. Usually the spectator can only witness the start and finish of an ultra, and maybe if lucky access a checkpoint along the way, but here it’s possible to see the runner every few minutes and really witness what they’re going through. The race was well organized, the competitors each challenged themselves tremendously and the spectators could truly follow the race. I think it was a very successful weekend in ultra running.