24 Hour Race 2004
In 2004 I competed for the eighth time in the Self-Transcendence New Zealand National Championship 24 Hour Race.
There are those who hold that the Holy Grail was a stone which fell from heaven. The Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, spoke of such a stone and exhorted believers to seek it out, to make pilgrimage across the perils of the world to stand before it. There are others who hold that the Holy Grail was a cup, that it held the blood of the Saviour Christ. Whatever it was, it was something to be sought - but it was not something to be found without struggle. The quest would be long and arduous and dangerous and at the end only the pure of heart might be finally admitted to the presence of the ineffable object which could heal a blighted world - the cup, the vessel, the womb from which life itself proceeds. "What is the Grail then but the inexhaustible vessel, the source of life continuously coming into being, energy pouring into creation, energy as creation, the unquenchable fountain of eternal being?"
The night before the 2004 Self-Transcendence New Zealand National Championship 24 Hour Race I sat in my room with a bottle of Silvo and an old t-shirt and polished the Richard Tout Perpetual Trophy. That big silver cup had sat in pride of place in my room for twelve months, since that day when I so unexpectedly won the 2003 National Championship 24 Hour Race. Now it was time to hand it back again.
The next morning was cold and windy and raining. I arrived at the track early. I sat in my tent. The canvas cracked in the wind and I watched the water seeping in and running across the floor and pooling in the corner.
There is a romance to the quest, to overcoming the dragons. But each knight pursuing the Grail must have quickly realised that though the hardships of the quest seemed alluring whilst he was stretched out in the castle four-poster, they very quickly lost their appeal when he was stranded in the dark woods with rain falling, soaked to the skin, cold, chaffed, and aching from hours in the saddle.
The Race Director introduced each runner as we lined up at the start line. We paused for 'a moment's silence' - a drawing together of those powers that might sustain us through the next twenty-four hours. And we were off.
I had my expectations, but if there is one thing one cannot run with, it is expectations. My first expectation was that Michael Simmons was going to win the race. For once it looked as if my expectation was correct - he drew consistently ahead of the rest of the field to a seemingly unassailable lead.
One starts out such a race aware of all that is going on, but as time and distance increase one sinks deeper into some remote personal space, some blind-eyed trance. It took me some time therefore to realise that Michael had left the track. He had - as the saying goes - fallen into a big black hole. If there is one thing that I have learnt in a decade of ultra-running it is that the man who stops running very rarely ever recovers and catches up again. Could it be that the race was mine?
I carried on but just as I finally caught up with the distance that Michael had achieved before he stopped, he emerged from his tent - his squires had reconstructed him. He was back and not going to relinquish the lead to the likes of me. For several hours into the darkening night he pulled away from me again, but once again faltered and disappeared. This time!
Ultra-running is always about challenging oneself, about overcoming one’s own fears and limitations, about pushing beyond one’s previous achievements, about exploring one's potentials. But let’s be frank - beating the other guy is nice!
Sri Chinmoy has said of the spirit of competition:-
Competition is good Provided it is the competition Of self-transcendence And not the competition Of ego-demonstration.
Ultimately one is united with one’s fellow competitors in an indissoluble band of oneness founded on one’s shared experience. Years after racing with people, one feels a sense of brotherhood with them unlike that which one might have with others.
Despite this, along the way in the course of the race, one can use the inevitable urge to competition as a spur to increased effort - ‘can I draw closer to the runner ahead? Can I keep ahead of this guy who is closing in on me?’. Mr New Zealand, who was at the time my masseur, once advised me to ‘get out there and grind them into the dirt’. It has always stuck in my mind along with his other sage piece of advice which I have tried to apply in my ultra-running career - 'just toughen up!'.
Michael was gone. The track ahead was clear for me.
By now however we had been running for more hours than I cared to remember. I was starting to fade myself.
There is one competitor in the New Zealand 24-Hour Race who has, over the years in which he has competed, earned the love and admiration of the lap counters and race organisers - Albie Jane.
Albie is a dairy farmer from the province of Taranaki. The expression ‘the salt of the earth’ may well have been invented with Albie in mind; ‘Strong as an ox’ as well, probably. Albie has always been famous for doing well in the first half of the race and then disappearing into his tent in the middle of the night only to emerge with the sunrise. Not this year! Michael Simmons was off the track, Barney McBryde was faltering. Albie caught the whiff of victory awaiting him. He was off.
The Great Albie Jane
I put in a big burst to try and ‘burn him off’ but it only worked for a while. Inexorably he closed in on me. At the same time we became aware that newcomer Paul Andrewes was also closing in. I put in one of my famous midnight bursts of speed in an effort to shake him off as well. Again to no avail.
I commented to the Race Director as I struggled by - ‘looks like I polished up that cup last night for Albie Jane.’
As I sat briefly in my tent in the depths of the night eating cold rice pudding out of a tin, the world looked bleak. I had had a plan of how far I needed to run each hour. I was falling increasingly behind, I was being passed by two runners, I was sore, tired, chaffed, and totally dispirited.
It was time to toughen up!
After 22 hours of running I was 5 km behind the leader, who was, by now, Paul Andrewes.
Every week I compete in a two-mile race. I am notorious in this race for having no ‘kick’. With a few hundred metres to go, when everybody else in the field ‘digs deep’ and puts in the big dash for the line, I carry on at the same speed I have run the rest of the race, no extra speed left. At the end of a 24-hour race on the other hand, I have a reputation for being able to resurrect myself from the deepest pit and run hard and fast at the end. Sunrise definitely helps.
The sun came up. I staggered on. Garbitashri was lap-counting. She asked the Race Director, ‘Why’s he still hobbling along? He’s supposed to start running about this time.’
I bided my time, and then, when some mysterious inner prompting told me the time was right, I gave a couple of little hopping steps and set off at a brisk trot.
There was a twelve-hour relay race running concurrently. I fell in with the fastest relay runner - a tall, rangy, athletic man who was enjoying his second outing of a couple of hours on the track. We hammered around the track together much to the delight of his team-mates track-side.
First place fell before the onslaught. Personal best fell. Finally that most welcome of sounds - the hooter for the end of the race - rang out.
The awards ceremony was held on the start/finish line. By now the weather was beautiful. There, on a blue cloth-draped table sat a range of trophies and medals. . . and that ‘holy grail’ of the 24-hour race - the Richard Tout Perpetual Trophy - glittering silver in the morning sunlight. The great man himself, Richard Tout - New Zealand's greatest male ultra-runner - presented it to me.
You have only one right place To keep your victory trophy And that place is Your heart’s gratitude room. - Sri Chinmoy
And so it shall be.
Afterwards, at home, I crawled off to bed with two hamburgers and a bottle of vegetable juice.
As the Zen master said, ‘Before enlightenment - chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment - chop wood and carry water.’