The Road to Nowhere: The North Face 24 hour Treadmill Race 6/7 March 2008
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Treadmills are not for me
I think it was sometime in early January this year when Ian Cornelius, President of the Australian Ultra Runner’s Association (AURA), sent around an email seeking expressions of interest for participating in a 24 hour treadmill race. The race was a promotion for the opening of a new store in Melbourne for The North Face (TNF), a global company in outdoor apparel and equipment that have recently committed to supporting endurance athletes and events in Australia (they have a great 100K race in the Blue Mountains coming up in May). I was one of the first to reply by email with a decline, stating that I had not enjoyed any of the limited treadmill running that I had done over the years. Moreover, the event was scheduled for the day before the 6 Foot Track 45K trail race and I had an unbroken run of 11 successive finishes with my 12th due this year for my special Buckle award.
Maybe treadmills are for me?
Somehow, between early and late January several of the original runners for the TNF event dipped out for various reasons and I sensed that I may need to step up to the plate. After a great deal of thought and two or three glasses of shiraz I decided one evening to volunteer, secretly hoping that my offer would be graciously declined and my 6 Foot track training (which was going really well) would continue unabated. Next thing I knew – myself, David Waugh and Deanne Nobbs were selected to race in the event on 6/7 March and I started receiving requests from TNF people for biographical details, photos etc so they could draft a media release. “This race is a face-off between Martin Fryer, king of the track and David Waugh, king of the mountains with current Australian 100km champ Deanne Nobbs to keep them honest” the media release promised, “with elite athleticism and stamina in a uniquely concentrated ‘fishbowl’ environment”. After reading this I wondered what the hell I was in for! My head was spinning with questions about training and event logistics and I tried desperately to formulate some strong personal reasons for doing the event that would keep me focused for the 5 weeks or so that I had left to prepare. What I came up with was a mixture of altruistic and non-altruistic reasons: Firstly, I wanted to help promote AURA and ultrarunning in general as there is little public awareness of the sport in Australia at the moment, unlike the golden days of Cliff Young and the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne races. Secondly, my dealings with TNF people made it quite clear that they were committed to supporting endurance athletes in Australia- in particular they would donate $5000 towards the Australian 24h team to compete in the World Champs in Seoul in October 2008. As I had been an Australian 24h rep for the past 2 years and had funded quite a deal of this from my own pocket I was delighted at being able to do something that would help this year’s team get some much needed extra financial assistance. Thirdly, TNF were offering $5K prize money for the race- so I could hope to get at least some of this which would help cover some of the debt I had incurred last year with my trip to the Western States 100 mile trail event in California and the World 24h Champs in Drummondville, Canada. Finally, after all was said and done, I convinced myself that doing this event was a bizarre but natural inwards progression from the 24 hr and 48 hr events I had done on a 400 m track over the last few years. Those events had restricted me to a track but this was going to claustrophobically lock me in a shop window, indoors, exposed to the public and TV cameras on a treadmill for 24 hours – surely a character-building mental and physical challenge that would make any future ultraendurance events seem easy! That was it – I was motivated to become one tough, focused bastard.
How do you train for a 24h treadmill event?
After quite a lot of research on treadmill running on the Web I quickly made up my mind that I was not going to do a huge volume of K’s on the treadmill, despite breaking the Principle of Specificity of training. This was in contrast to Deanne, who had emailed me saying that she was doing 160K/week on the treadmill with at least 2 hours per day- yikes, I was being pretty slack here. After my inaugural training run of 31K over 3h at the end of January it was clear that this was not “normal” running and that my sanity would be better served by continuing my hard 6 Foot Track training outdoors with one long training run on the treadie each weekend just to play around with gait, technique, pacing, hydration etc. So, from then on I would dutifully don my new North Face shoes and gear that I had been given and set off to do a string of five long runs over five weekends- ranging in duration from 3 to 4 hours and in pace from around 10 to approx. 12 K/h. I played around with different run and walk ratios and speeds, measured my heart rate changes at different duty cycles and ate and drank from the start of each run. 10 K/h was a dawdle shuffle, 11K/h was easy, 12K/h seemed faster than 5 min/K outdoors and most speeds faster than that seemed too fast for 24h running. On the walking side of things 7K/h was comfortable for eating/drinking, 7.5K/h was brisk and 8K/h required almost too much effort to be worth it. During this training period I regularly received emails from Deanne, informing me of her progress and asking me questions about pacing, hydration, food etc. She had a very supportive team at the local gym helping her with every aspect of her preparation, which was just what she needed if she was going to move up from her previous longest ultra run of about 6h to 24 h on a treadmill. I also had a phone call from David, who was recovering from some injuries after coming third in the Cradle Mountain trail ultra. We talked each other up into more enthusiasm, convincing ourselves that this was going to be one interesting but bizarre adventure that we should be thankful for having the opportunity to do.
The last few weeks before the event went quickly and I moved my training focus to lots of core work at the gym plus some short races at the track (a 10K track PB with 2 weeks to go) and with the ACT Cross Country Club. The approach of the event was brought home to me when I had to do a radio interview with a Melbourne radio station in the last week. With some short distance PB’s under my belt I knew my aerobic base was excellent and all I had to do was stay relaxed and focus on the task ahead. I tried to think back to a point in my life when I had been my strongest and leanest and I remembered how I felt a few decades ago after I had finished a month of trekking in Nepal on a diet of rice and dahl. So, in the last week before the race I not only went caffeine-free (which I always hate!) but ate mostly rice and dahl and tried to imagine myself as a tough, but austere, running Zen master, which I thought would be the right mental outlook for this upcoming event. I scanned the previous best World performances on treadmills – it struck me that they were generally a bit lower than outdoor distances achieved (perhaps due to the boredom or conditions?) so my low goal was 200K, medium goal 220K, high goal a distance PB (233+), very high goal 240K+, and ridiculously outrageous goal a World Record (248K).
The North Face shop, Melbourne: my home for the day
After escaping from all my work commitments on the Wednesday afternoon it was liberating to fly to Melbourne and arrive at the penthouse suite of the Medina Apartments, which TNF had arranged for us. I remarked to David what a waste this was on ultra runners before an event as it was the ultimate venue for a really good party, with views across the Melbourne skyline. A short walk to the TNF store revealed a much smaller store than I had imagined with a hive of activity of friendly, attractive TNF staff, half deconstructed treadmills and treadmill calibration technicians, cameras, plasma screens and a media console that was like the cockpit of an airliner. It felt pretty restrictive – the space was confined such that only two of the three treadmills could be in the front, streetside windows with the third placed at the back of the store which faced the inside of the Galleria shopping plaza. We decided that drawing straws was the fairest way to choose treadmills as each had its own pros and cons. The final set-up was David on the treadmill in the front window facing directly onto Elizabeth St, me on the other front window treadmill a few feet away, perpendicular to him facing the entrance to the Galleria Plaza, and Deanne about 30 metres away on the treadmill in the back of the store facing the inside of the Plaza.
Race day: running mannequins under the public eye
Race day started following a fairly restless night’s sleep with a brief walk to the store at 5:45 am with the other runners and Ian Cornelius. Media and publicity pictures were taken between 6 and 7am in what were really quite hot conditions. I was particularly concerned about getting a cooling fan focused appropriately on my treadmill as I knew the heat would really slow us down.
After some final calibrations and a countdown we were off. It was good to finally get going and I quickly settled into an easy rhythm of running, interspersed every now and then with some walking, during which I would take in some fluids and calories. David’s approach was different in that he kept a consistent but slower running pace going. The setup was such that each runner had a big fan blowing onto them at the distance and angle they preferred. Each treadmill had a camera permanently focused on the runner and there were big plasma screens in the windows next to each runner that alternated between live shots of them, various biographical photos and previous performance information, and the number of calories burned. Fifteen minute updates on the total distance covered by each runner were written manually onto small whiteboards and placed directly in front of each runner in the shop window so the public could see how far we had run.
Despite a lot of technical attention we were stuck with having to re-set the treadmills every 60 to 90 minutes or they would start to go into automatic cooldown mode and shutdown. My treadmill did this at 60 minutes so I quickly got into a routine of manually stopping the treadmill before the hour was up (normally at around 10.5 to 10.6K elapsed during the first 12 hours) and then re-starting it again. In between all this it always seemed to be pretty busy and I was surprised how easy it was to stay entertained by all of the distractions- in fact, I never used my mp3 player once during the whole event.
Inside the shop there were continual offers of help from our crew members from AURA (thanks Ian, Bert, Rob, Coran) and TNF (thanks Andy, Paul, Trease)- refilling drinks, spraying us down with water spritzer bottles, words of encouragement, and occasional conversations on a variety of topics. At various points in the race there were also photographers flashing shots of us from every conceivable angle and in the last hour we had TV reporters and crews crammed into our limited space as well. During all this I kept reminding myself that this was my “home” for the day and that I should just take it all in and enjoy the ride. The first marathon went by effortlessly at around 4 hours- one down and hopefully at least 4 more to go. David and I appeared to be almost perfectly matching our distances with me establishing a lead of barely a few hundred metres at this stage. We would sometimes stir each other up a bit with light-hearted banter and have a brief chats to see how each other was going. I remember one period where we concocted some trail running visualisations for each other for some amusement to pass the time.
The Time Machine: outside shenanigans and entertainment
Meanwhile, what was occurring outside the shop window was fascinating and entertaining in itself. Seeing a day go by in a shop window while looking out at the people reminded me of some of the scenes from the original black and white movie version of HG Wells’ “The Time Machine. It was like time-lapse photography where I felt the day change its moods according to the subtle transitions in the quality of light and shade outside and the ebb and flow of the pedestrians and their reactions. Early in the first day things were quiet and I could see the city slowly waking up- we stole a few half-interested looks from the early starters with their steaming cups of coffee. The pulse gradually increased to the morning peak hour commute but people were still pretty busy and only the occasional person would stop and have a good look at us and view the screens. Around the 5 or 6 hour mark it was the peak of lunchtime and now good sized crowds were building up and there was an increased sense of spectacle. Having all these people staring at you was quite strange at first and raised the question in my mind as to what sort of level of interaction I should have with the outside observers. Do I keep focused on the job at hand and keep my patented serious, stoic look? Or maybe ham it up a bit and joke around a bit? Throughout the day I ended up doing bits of both, according to my prevailing mood and pain and fatigue level. David was a lot more interactive and optimistic and was well suited to having the absolute street frontage view. I was facing the automatic sliding glass doors to the Plaza and would sometimes have someone walk by focusing on me, only to walk face first into the glass panels and return an embarrassed “DOH” type look and scamper away. Between the two of us we observed an intriguing array of responses to our presence including stares of pure disbelief, people raising their hands to the side in a “Why?” posture, lots of kisses blown, plenty of waves, a few claps, the thumbs up, looks of bemusement, supportive smiles, and some people just standing and staring. In the wee hours of Friday morning we caught the drunken pub/nightclub crowd which brought a different repertoire of responses ranging from rowdy cheering and banging on the windows through to grateful gestures such as partial stripteases and mammary imprints on the windows. All in all it was surprisingly entertaining, and made most of the time pass by quite easily.
The Rear Window: the Deanne Nobbs Fan Club
While David and I were caught in “Front Window World” we could hear a whole lot going on in “Rear Window World” where Deanne seemed to have a constant army of helpers and entertainment. Before the race I had suggested to her to try to aim for a fairly conservative 9K/h over the first 12 hours so that she could bring it on home in the second half to comfortably break the second ranked Women’s World treadmill distance of about 185K. Occasionally we would hear cheers and applause as she doggedly and systematically achieved her successive time and distance goals. Deanne’s continual stream of support and cheer squad came not only from her home town of Shepparton (family, gym managers, schoolkids she had taught etc) but also included several enthusiastic members of the Coburg Harriers Club, and even extended to an admirer from a nearby shop, who serenaded her with an operatic whistle to the classic song `I Did It My Way’ just after nightfall.
Getting serious: Pain, Fatigue and The Business End
I was truly shocked to feel so good after the first 12 hours and had chalked up a big distance PB of around 127.5 K, with David only a few K behind at most. This had me thinking that my long sought after 240K+ goal was actually a possibility if I ran smart – with a quick bit of mental maths I realised that I had averaged about 10.5K/h so all I had to do was average 9.5K/h in the second half to make the 240. So, each hour, despite the gradually increasing pain and fatigue I tried to get to at least 10K in order to make things a bit easier at the end. David was pretty much aiming to do the same thing. My first 100K split was about 9h20 min and things went pretty smoothly until close to the 200K mark (reached just after 19h elapsed with a second 100K split of about 9h40min). Prior to this I had taken two very brief pee breaks but now I desperately needed a number two, despite taking in no solids whatsoever through the entire race. There was no toilet within the shop so this meant stopping the treadmill and walking out of the shop into the Plaza (which was now closed) and around the corner to some port-a loos which were in another unused shop space. Unfortunately, when I went to use these facilities they had been locked up by the Plaza security people. This meant that I had to walk up the stationary escalator steps to the next level and then find the Plaza toilet facilities. By the time I did this and had sat down I stiffened up terribly and had a hard time completing my ablutions. After what seemed like a lifetime (probably only 10 to 15 minutes) I eventually hobbled back down the escalator stairs plus the upper level North Face stairs to restart a much less sprightly pace on my faithful treadmill. So, in hour 19 to 20 I think I barely did just over 8K, which, in retrospect, was probably the defining point at which the Men’s World 24h Treadmill Record of 247.68K (which I had not been thinking about) was taken from my grasp.
Hours 19 through to 22 (2 am to 5 am) were bloody horrible: I was regularly getting powerful, overwhelming cramps in my left hamstring that almost had me fall off the treadmill several times before I could slow the thing down to a walk. This would have been a good time to have someone there that knew pressure point massage but alas it was not to be. I was able to walk these cramps out but they were occurring more frequently when I ran and had forced me to drop my running speed to barely 10K/h and later even slower. My support crew were doing everything they could to help with fluids and water spraying but the pain and fatigue were becoming overwhelming. During this period David was running really well and he was quickly closing the gap of 4K or so that I had built up over the race. He was remarkable because he managed to do this while giving several live radio interviews to a local Melbourne sports station, all in a lively, upbeat manner. I don’t think a radio interview with me would have been very good listening at that point, so I am grateful to David for his unselfish contribution to The North Face publicity requests. In stark contrast, my focus had turned very much inwards and I had reached that point that all ultrarunners reach where survival depends upon a pure focus on rhythm, tempo, and breathing as a way of escaping the overbearing difficulties. It was dark outside and I remember spending a long time focusing on the reflection of my legs from the window, trying to play around a bit with my posture and gait and foot placement in order to extract some relief. At this point even the normally bullet-proof David had taken to a very marked forward lean in his posture that had the disruptive side effect of him accidentally hitting the emergency stop button on his treadmill many times towards the end of the race. David’s strategies for dealing with this nasty part of the race included singing pop songs along with Renee from the TNF crew (I don’t think a recording contract is forthcoming) and asking Ian Cornelius to tell him stories about his epic Sri Chimnoy 6 day race experiences.
As we approached the final hours the three of us were building up some good totals- Deanne looked safe to make her 185K+ goal and David and I were joking that we now had to next focus on beating another North Face sponsored athlete, the one and only Dean Karnazes, who we thought had a 24h treadmill best of 233K (which we later found out actually turned out to be 238K). 233K was also my PB for 24h road set in Taipei at the World Champs in 2006 so it was the next obvious milestone for me. Like all of the 24h events I have done, the onset of daylight brought a final renewed burst of energy, along with the realisation that there were only a few hours to go. David had reduced my lead to less than 2K with 2 hours to go and had clocked up another 10K in the 3rd last hour whereas I had slumped to near 9K/h. Rob Boyce was one of my handlers during this last stage and told me that it was time to unleash the “Mongrel” in me for one final push. With about 90 min to go the World Record was realistically out of reach but Rob told me that I still had a chance of breaking into the top three World performances if I could bang out close to 10 K/h through to the end. I downed a can of caffeinated “V” energy drink and dug deep to eliminate the usual walking breaks I had used through the rest of the event for relief. David seemed to hit a very bleak patch in this last period and his pace had slowed considerably. Approaching the final hour I was busting for one more pee break before all the TV crews and reporters were due to arrive at the shop. To save time for pee breaks we had convinced the TNF people to have a few plastic bottles (large necked, of course!) available in one of the store’s change rooms, so I quickly stopped the treadmill, raced to the change room, and proceeded to anxiously fill a bottle or so with a disturbingly brown-coloured urine. The last hour was a procession of photographers flashing photos of us from every angle and local TV reporters and film crews doing their thing around us. There was a big cheer from the back of the shop at one stage so I knew Deanne had made her goal of busting 185K- awesome! I kept the treadmill set on 10K/h, normally such an easy pace but now a concerted effort to maintain and I was hanging out for that walk break. With about half an hour to go I had a two minute walk break then vowed to run it in from there. I had broken DK’s treadmill distance of 238K and was somewhere close to 240K at that stage. Rob told me that the 3rd all time distance was about 245K plus a little so I set that as my final target to beat. There was a palpable buzz building throughout the store in the last 15 minutes and a real sense of anticipation that it would all be over soon. With 5 minutes to go I moved the speed up to 10.5K/h and then with 2 minutes to go moved it up to 11K/h, just to extract that last bit of distance, but wary of the hamstring cramps that had been dogging me. The last 30s had everyone shouting and clapping, with the final 10s countdown being the most joyous, anticipated moment of the whole day. We had done it! I finished up with a completely unexpected distance of 245.92K which placed me 3rd on the all time World rankings for 24h treadmill for males- an agonising 1.76K short of the World Record, but clearly now an Australian all time record (probably because very few people had been stupid enough to try this). David ended up with a staggering 241.00K which placed him 5th on the male World rankings and was all the more remarkable given his downtime for radio interviews and his background in running mainly trail events. And, of course, Deanne recorded 188.07 K, the 2nd all time World ranking for female 24h treadmill performances, astonishing given that she had never run longer than 6 hours on any terrain prior to this event.
I was very proud of our performances and couldn’t have found two more charming runners to do such an event with. I was particularly pleased that we were able to do something special for our sponsor, The North Face, as well as for AURA. Many people from both of these organisations worked tirelessly and selflessly to make it a unique, unforgettable and highly successful adventure: From AURA- Kevin Cassidy, Bert Pelgrim, Coran Lang, Robert Boyce, David Eadie and many others. From TNF-Paul, Trease, Renee, Andy, Russell, James and many others whose faces and support I remember but not their names- sorry! Thank you also for all of the words of encouragement and congratulations from my fellow runners on Cool Running and ACTrun. And last, but not least, thanks to my family, Lynn and Luke for their patience, love and understanding.
This has been a long and rambling report and yet it still just doesn’t seem to convey how an event like this deconstructs you, forces you to explore parts of yourself beyond your normal, “real world” limits and permanently changes your perceptions of the world. Perhaps the effect of 24h on a treadmill is just as well understood by the following excerpt from Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, in which he experiences life-changing insights about reality after taking mescaline:
“The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.”
Martin Fryer, 2 April 2008