The Self Transcendence 24 Hour Track Race London (popularly known as the Tooting 24) is an ultra-marathon race in London, England, which takes place annually in September, organised by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, and takes place on the Tooting Bec Athletics Track, on a 400-metre track.
Running constantly and repetitively on a 400-metre track for 24 hours is a real test of your mind as well as your body. However, ultra runner, Alison Tay decided to take up the battle with her mind and body by racing the Tooting 24 and running with a selection of 45 of the most experience and promising ultra runners from all over the world.
She just started ultra running in January this year.
The Johor born Alison did not start ultra running for a very long time. Interestingly, she went into ultra running because she got bored of “chasing times”. She is part of two running clubs – Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets AC and Run-Fast.
Having just started ultra running in January this year, Alison was listening to Vassos Alexander’s book, “Running up that hill” on his experience at spartathlon. She had a 100 mile race coming up and his experience of spartathlon intrigued her. So she quickly googled the qualifying criteria – sub 22 hours for women, sub 21 for men.
It was her first 100 miles and she had no notion of what was a good time or what she was capable of. The sub 22 seed was sown, and that was her A goal. B goal was sub 24, and C goal was just to finish. “I was also told that Malaysian female has neither attained the qualifying time before, nor participated in Spartathlon, which made me very determined to achieve that time,” said the very determined runner.
Race day for her 100 miles was less than ideal.
The wind gusts went up to 60mph and it was very, very cold. As it was on the coast, the waves were coming over the sea wall. Competitors were faced with a dilemma – do you get wet early on in the race and battle chafing, or do you run a bit more to avoid the waves crashing on you? She chose the latter. At the night, participants had freezing rain with a windchill factor of -3.7degrees.
Despite all of that, Alison finished the race in 21:36. Whilst she hit her A goal, she felt she could do better without the many full change of clothes due to the weather and trying to fight the wind. She was also shivering for the last 10 miles of the race and resorted to a death march in two down jackets.
So, within the next week, she applied to compete in Tooting 24, an event that brings together a selection of 45 of the most experienced and promising ultra runners from all over the world. She didn’t think she would get in given her short ultra running experience, but she did!
Specificity in training is key.
Alison is coached by Peter McHugh, a highly regarded coach and runner in the UK. His training schedules are tough and volume driven, what you would term an ‘old school’ coaching plan.
Working full time as a Senior Director in FTI consulting, Alison finds time to juggle her miles by commuting to and from work and plan social events in advance. When you truly enjoy your training, you make it work!
She also has a strength and conditioning coach (Graham Ferris at Pure Sports Medicine) who focuses on key muscles such as hamstrings, glutes and plenty of proprioception work like doing weighted arabesques on a bosu ball.
Growing up in urban spaces like Johor Bahru and now living in London, Alison chooses to do ultras with runnable trail/road as that is what she is used to and is able to train on.
The standards this year were very high, with 30 competitors achieving more than 100 miles in the race!
Given that it was autumn and the previous weeks of weather were nearer 10 degrees, London had an Indian summer which saw temperatures rise to 26+ degrees. Whilst this doesn’t sound hot for Malaysia, everything is relative.
Temperatures in September are normally around 17 degrees, which was more optimal racing temperatures. But the upside was, we won’t be freezing at night! Alison was very nervous about the heat as the temperatures were due to remain high with thunderstorms forecast.
It was also the longest, and possibly furthest distance she would ever run on a flat track.
The Self Transcendence 24 Hour Track Race London was well organised. To enter the race, participants had to submit an application form and await acceptance. The standards this year were very high, with 30 competitors achieving more than 100 miles in the race!
There were many regulars at this race, including veteran Geoffrey Oliver, who at 86, still runs these races and maintains a consistent speed throughout the race. He is an inspiration to all and he set 8 world records in the race last year!
The most amazing part of the race was having a personal lap counter (as well as chip timing), who acknowledges you on every lap and lets you know when you hit key distances like marathon, 50 miles, 100k etc. It brings the race to a more personable level and it was really lovely.
Alison ran most of the first 4 hours with her team mate, George Lloyd, who is a seasoned ultra runner. “We kept the pace chatty, and it was good to have company because we were running around a 400m track and needed some mental stimulation,” recalled the ultra-runner.
“My husband, Matt, was my main crew anchorman, accompanied by George’s wife, Laura. They kept on top of filling our bottles and making sure we were eating something every hour,”
The direction changes every 4 hours, which was a relief on the hips and knees due to the repetition. “I struggled to fuel in the heat, and was trying not to throw up (like many in the race), so kept the pace to feel. I changed kit when salt started to crust on my tops to try and mitigate chaffing,”
Alison’s fuel consisted of – Precision Hydration sachets, Maurten Fuel (especially in the hotter hours when I didn’t want to eat), mochi, jelly babies, pork scratchings, plain sandwiches and a few Chia Charge bars.
When night fell, things got a little harder as the sleep chimp emerged! Alison had other friends helping Matt with crewing so that he could have a nap/eat dinner.
“I’m not quite sure what happened in those hours as it was a truly self-transcendence experience. I was moving well even though I had to stretch a few times. My physiotherapist, who was also a team mate and great friend, came to support and gave my legs a little refresh shake, which was really nice about halfway in!”
The determined runner hit 100k in 10:56 and finished 119km in 12 hours, which was in line with what she thought she could achieve sensibly. She had many chats with the participants overnight, hearing their inspiring ultra running stories and feeling inspired!
Alison found the sunrise the hardest bit, even though logically it should be the refreshing bit! “I think it throws your body clock a bit. As this was my first overnight and into the morning race. I finished my 100 miles in the dark, this was a new experience for me,”
Her coach turned up to support at 7am, and as she was close to the 100 mile point, I picked up the pace and achieved a new 100 mile PB at 19:46. “I was warned by many friends that people often go off too fast to nail a quick 100 mile time and basically give up after. So I was keen to be sensible with the times I was after so that I could last the full 24 hours,”
“However, I hit a low after about 22 hours of running. My feet were very sore from the hard track, and I could feel them screaming at me! George and I had also regrouped at this point so it was a bit more bearable,”
Alison went into the race saying she’d be happy with 180km, which is the IAU National standard. No idea how or what it would feel like, but it was a lofty goal. She roughly worked out when she should be hitting key distances so she knew she was on track.
Alison’s feet were in so much agony that she had to change into my slippers in the last hour. “So, yes, I walked the last hour quickly and managed 185.9km. I was delighted to finish, and I also swore I never want to see a running track for a long time!,”
“It wasn’t my finest race, but I was glad with the outcome. I had underestimated how mentally tough it would be running around a flat 400m track for 24 hours,” the runner concluded.
Alison came 3rd lady and 11th overall.
This was a Malaysia Book of Records achievement, and according to the race organisers and what they could find on DUV, Alison broke 6 Malaysian records (6hour, 12 hour, 24hr, 50k, 100k and 100 miles). She had achieved a quicker time earlier this year on a 50 mile race so did not break that time!
As this is still her first year in ultra running, the ultra-runner is still on the learning curve of what works and what doesn’t. Having friends in the community can help with suggestions, but ultimately, you have to try it out yourself to know whether it works or not!
So the key things she needs to fix for the next long ultra (hopefully Spartathlon) would be – how to make sure she has sufficient calories in the heat, sorting out how her feet feel in the latter stages of the race, as well as the elusive solution to chaffing!
Until then, the new born Malaysia Book of Records holder is having an active recovery and looking forward to racing her next long ultra.