Guide to 24 hour races

The format of a 24hour ultramarathon is pretty simple, complete as many loops as possible within 24 hours. The person who runs the furthest within that time wins.  Sounds easy, right?!

If the idea of taking part in a 24hour ultramarathon appeals, it can be a good idea to try out a ‘short’ ultramarathon event before taking the plunge into a 24hour event.

I ran my first ultramarathon in August 2016. The Devil O’ The Highlands race. The Devil is a 42mile point-to-point ultramarathon along the West Highland Way trail. This was my first ultramarathon and I was hooked. I loved the feeling of pushing myself to see how far I could take my body.

If you can train your mind to keep going, your body will follow.

In September 2017 I was looking for another challenge. I decided to dip my toe into the world of 24hour racing at Glenmore. Glenmore 24 was my first experience of this type of racing. Set in the middle of the Glenmore Forest within the Cairngorm National Park, the race takes place on a beautiful 4mile loop of forest tracks and trails.

There is no pressure in this race, some runners are testing themselves to find out how far they can run in 24 hours. Others have set their distance goals. If you hit the 100mile mark, a horn sounds to mark the achievement and you receive a commemorative medal at the finish. I set myself the target of hearing that 100mile horn for my first Glenmore 24.

It was not to be that time round and I bailed out after 68 miles with a rather inflamed tendon! I had unfinished business. I wanted that 100 miles.

In 2018, I entered Glenmore 24 again and spent the year training with a renewed focus.

I am by no means an expert when it comes to this type of racing (or any…!). Hopefully those reading will be able to take some tips from my experience at Glenmore 24 and put them to good use in preparation for any upcoming 24 hour races.

Set a goal

For me at Glenmore, my goal was 100 miles. I wasn’t going home without that distance showing on my Garmin, well, mainly Strava.  However, it’s not always about distance so ask yourself; what do you want to get out of this race?  Why is it important to you?  Keep this in mind – it helps to have a focus; both on the day but also during training for your race. 

You can start to get a little delusional after so many hours of not sleeping and your crew can step in when your sleep deprived brain starts trying to sabotage you.

Find your crew

I know some fellow runners who prefer flying solo at these events which works really well for them. If you are a first timer at 24hour racing, I would strongly suggest bringing along some of your friends and family.  At Glenmore I had an amazing crew. I genuinely could not have done it without them.  Nothing was too much trouble and they were always there after each lap with a smile, encouragement and in the latter stages, a kick up the arse when I sat down for too long! 

You can start to get a little delusional after so many hours of not sleeping and your crew can step in when your sleep deprived brain starts trying to sabotage you.  Make sure they know what your goal is. If it is distance-based then make sure they know when to push you on. My crew timed each of my laps so they had a good sense of my progress. Time can begin to stand still after a while in 24hour racing!

Efficiency is key

If you are going for a distance, then you need to think of your stops with your crew like a Formula 1 pit stop…except with more force feeding of gels/crisps/bananas than changes of tyres! Any stops you decide to have should be slick.  Allow yourself a set amount of time and get your crew to boot you out when your time is up.  During the early stages, and for as long as you can, try and give your crew a heads up if you want anything specific prepared for you on your next loop round so they can have it ready for you.

At a minimum, take some spare bottles and get your crew to have them topped up at all times so you can just grab one and keep going.  Same goes for food – bring along a camping table and lay things out for easy access.  A couple of thermos flasks with hot water in them can be really handy too if you want a hot drink during the night.  If you want to drink it quickly; remember to add some cold water (same goes for soup) to make it easier to drink. 

Preparation:  kit, nutrition and your mind

Kit

24 hours is a long time.  Make sure you don’t rock up to the race in brand new kit…it might be OK or, it could go horribly wrong and you could end up with some incredible chafing. (On that note, invest in some lube and apply liberally. You will thank me later!). Test your kit out before race day on your long runs.  Be prepared for all weather!  This is Scotland; the land of 4 seasons in one day.  Don’t let yourself get cold – once the sun starts to dip; get on an extra layer or two.  Get your jacket on BEFORE it starts pouring down with rain.  Don’t be tempted to keep going for “one more loop” before putting that jacket on.  These simple things can make all the difference as it can be extra hard to warm up again once you’ve cooled down.

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If you can train your mind to keep going, your body will follow.

Nutrition

You won’t know what your body will crave during this type of race until you do it.  This is why variety is key!  This isn’t an excuse to pull a supermarket sweep on Asda the night before the race but do have a think about what sort of food and drink you might like.  Try things out during your long runs.  Some people get away with energy gels and not much else; others like a mix of real food and sugary treats.  I would caution against anything too adventurous for your first race unless you want to spend a lot of time in the portaloos/bushes.  My favourites include: watermelon, orange segments, ginger ale, hula hoops, stoat porridge bars and when I was in the midst of a low, low at around 6am, Red Bull was my bestest friend. Sweet, sweet sugary caffeine goodness.

If you would like to learn more on nutrition for training and races, read Romain’s article: Fuel your runs: Develop a running nutrition strategy that works for you!

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Mind

Your mind will give up way before your body which is why it is important to stay in the present and keep positive.  This is not going to be possible for the full 24 hours but just remember that the lows WILL pass.  Smile, chat to the other runners around you, listen to some upbeat music or stick on a podcast and zone out.  Take a moment when it gets dark to switch off your head-torch and look up at the stars.  Look forward to that sunrise.  If you can train your mind to keep going, your body will follow.

Don’t be afraid to strike up conversation with your fellow runners – it can make all the difference!

During Glenmore I felt pretty good up until around 70 miles but from then on in it was a bit of a strugglefest.  Eating became a real effort but my crew stepped in and made sure I was at the very least drinking something on each lap.  I buddied up with a good pal for a few of the later laps which made the world of difference.  My chat was terrible i.e. non-existent, but he is a pro at these types of events and was able to keep me moving. 

On my very last lap a complete stranger asked at just the right time if I wanted some company and we chatted our way round in what felt like no time at all.  Don’t be afraid to strike up conversation with your fellow runners – it can make all the difference!

You should probably do some running too…

Everyone is different but generally speaking, time on feet is key preparation for 24hour racing (or any ultramarathons).  This doesn’t mean you have to spend all of your weekends doing endless loops of your local park but do try and get in some big days on your feet.  This will give you a good chance to try out any nutrition strategies and find out which kit is most comfortable.  Buy yourself a decent head torch and get out for a few runs at night – it will make everything easier on race day.  Take spare batteries / chargers for your head torch and learn how to charge your watch on the move in advance of race day to minimise any faff when the time comes. 

Final thoughts

In the end I managed 101.59 miles at Glenmore24 and I was beyond delighted.  I had a goal, a plan, an amazing crew and I can honestly say that I gave it my all.  I loved the format of the race and the ability to be able to come back in to the campsite with all the different support crews after each loop was just incredible.  The atmosphere was buzzing even during the darkest hours of the night. 

Just remember, during your 24 hours you are going to experience the lowest of lows and the highest of highs but neither will last. Embrace it and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

24hr races in Scotland

The Glenmore 24 trail race will take place Friday 4th to Sunday 6th September in 2020.

Brand new for 2020 is the Saltire 24 ultra trail race at Knockburn Loch in Aberdeenshire, taking place on Saturday 20 June. There’s also the Tyndrum 24 (staged in January) and the Edinburgh 24, a 24-hour loop race situated in the iconic Royal Holyrood Park staged in July.