Lapping it up…

Lapping it up…

For most of us, the thought of taking part in a 24-hour ‘runathon’ would fill us with dread and despair. Not so for Michael Stocks, who loves to run all day and night.

When Michael Stocks stood at the starting line of a 24-Hour track race in Tooting, South London, he knew he was in for a long night. It was noon and he would be running on the same 400-metre track until noon the following day. After 24 hours in torrential rain, he had run 623 laps of the track and a total of 155 miles – approximately six marathons – without stopping. Michael had also won selection to run for Great Britain at the age of 50. On the release of his book, One-Track Mind: What Running 150 Miles in a Day can Teach You about Life, Sorted spoke to him about his incredible run.

For anyone not familiar with ultrarunning, can you give a quick intro?

An ultradistance race is really anything longer than the marathon. It could be a specific distance that’s run in one go, for example 100 miles, or the distance might be broken up into a number of stages over multiple days. Then there are events based on a set time, the most high-profile being 24 hours.

And how does the 24-hour race work?

The idea is to run as far as possible in the 24 hours. So everyone starts and finishes together, and whoever has run the furthest when the final hooter sounds, is the winner. Most 24-Hour races are held on short, flat loops in parks or on athletics tracks. So the course is typically between 400m and 1 mile long, which makes it easy to get food and water. It also makes it possible to measure any partial lap done by a runner in the closing minutes, to get an accurate final distance. The 24-Hour race is a unique challenge. A lot of ultrarunners talk about it as a ‘pure’ form of racing because there’s no variation in elevation or scenery and nowhere to hide. It’s just you, your body and your mind.

Who does these races?

An incredibly diverse range of people! In my race there were runners from all walks of life, with an age range from 27 to 85. At the elite level, the 24-Hour event also attracts the top ultrarunners because of the opportunity to win international vests. Many countries, including GB, send teams to the 24-Hour World Championships.

Do you sleep during the race?

I get asked that a lot! Most runners won’t sleep at all, or even stop for a rest. The only time I stopped was to pee, and even then, I ran into the toilet block and back out again. Every second you’re not moving forward on the track has a cost. When I ate or drank, I did it running or during the 100m walk break that I took every half hour.

What kind of support do you need during the race?

The organisers supply food and drink, but most runners bring their own supplies and one or more people to crew them. The crew set up in tents and gazebos at the side of the track. I was fortunate to have an amazing crew, with my wife Jane and three close friends trackside. It was a long sleepless night for them, too! My coach and his wife were also there to help me. It was their wedding anniversary, so I hope it was memorable!

How do you face a challenge on the scale of running for 24 hours?

Before the race, when I thought about what I had to do, it often seemed impossible. But as with any major challenge in life, the first thing is to simply begin. Then to focus on one step at a time and know that those steps will add up. During the run, I tried to stay in the present, rather than think about the enormity of the end-goal. I also did my best to think about what I had already done, and to feel good about that, rather than think about what was still left to do.

And what else do you think about for 24 Hours?

There’s always something going on! There are plenty of other runners on the track whom you have to steer around, almost like a video game. You need to be thinking about the pace, and whether it’s too fast. There’s a lot of problem-solving, like what to do about nausea, pain, being wet, being cold, feeling spaced out. At times, seemingly random thoughts and realisations arrive, some of which feel really important and profound. Mostly there’s the inner dialogue we all have, which is heightened as the hours pass and the circumstances become more extreme. I also spent hours managing the negative voice in my head that used every trick it had to try and make me stop.

The negative voice is something we all experience at some point. Any tips?

The key is to take control of the narrative in your head. When the negative voice says something, counter it with a deliberate thought that is more helpful. You might even need to think it ‘loudly’, or imagine it in a funny voice, to command the attention of your brain and drown out the negative voice. It’s important to practise in normal day-to-day life, and to make it a habit. It can be as simple as something like hearing the negative voice say, ‘I feel exhausted this morning, it’s going to be a rubbish day’, and countering it by deliberately thinking, ‘Actually, it might take me a little while to get going this morning, but it’s going to be a great day.’ Any mental technique has to become second nature so that you reach for it automatically on those big days when you need it most. If you have diminished the frequency and volume of your negative voice in normal life, it will be easier to win the argument when you’re in a difficult situation and the stakes are high.

And in your book, you talk about visualisation: how did you use that?

Before the run I would imagine myself on the track, and how I’d be feeling. The virtual me would then accept the pain and tiredness, know he could handle it, and acknowledge that there was nowhere else he would rather be. I also had a psychologist take me through some visualisations. I would sit with my eyes closed, imagining as much detail a possible, and she would conjure up different points in the race and say things like, ‘You look at the light shining on the track and think what a privilege it is to be doing this run.’ Then, when you’re in the real situation and struggling to keep going, hopefully you look at the track, see it’s brightness under the light, and part of your brain says, ‘I’m grateful, this is what I want to be doing,’ instead of ‘Get me out of this, now!’ I literally heard the psychologist’s voice in my ear a few times during the night, as if I was reliving the scene my brain had already experienced during the visualisations.

And do those kind of techniques flow into normal life, too?

Definitely. If we have something challenging to do and we’re a bit nervous or stressed, there’s a tendency to imagine things going wrong. But if you’ve done some visualisation and imagined yourself doing it well, then when you are there for real, you are just acting out what your brain has already done before. It’s very powerful. The key is to imagine it as clearly as possible when you do the visualisation.

You must cover a lot of miles in training, how do you work and get the runs in?

I have my own business, so I’m fortunate to have quite a lot of flexibility. It takes a lot of discipline, though, because no matter how bad you feel, you have to work, or nothing happens. In reality, unless you’re a full-time athlete, there are always compromises to be made. But normally if there’s something really important, I can move the training around so I’m mentally sharp when I most need to be. I often do my longest runs on Saturdays, so I have Sunday to recover before work on Monday. Where possible, I also save time by running to and from places instead of getting in a car or taking the tube.

How old were you on race day?

I was 49. Fortunately, ultrarunning is one of the sports where the older runner can be successful. If you lose a yard of pace, it’s less relevant in a race over 24 hours than in something a lot shorter. What matters most is mental strength and the maturity to not start too fast. We gain a lot of perspective and coping skills from our life experience. Some pick this up early, and there are 24-Hour runners who have excelled in their twenties. But most often the runners on the podium at the 24-Hour World Championships will be in their thirties, forties, or even fifties.

Presumably being an older runner does still have its challenges?

Yes, you need to train more intelligently when you’re older, with more time for recovery from hard training runs. You need a fair bit of luck with avoiding serious injuries, but a lot of it is about attitude. I’ve met plenty of people who think they’re washed up at 40, or even younger. We all have preconceptions about how we should feel or act when we’re a certain age, perhaps from watching our parents, or even from TV or advertising. It’s great when people are willing to test those preconceptions and see what’s possible for them as unique individuals. The key is to be cautious though, and build up slowly.

And earlier you said there was someone of 85 years-old running?

Yes, the amazing and inspirational Geoff Oliver, who ran 77 miles in that race! Five years earlier, when he was 80 years-old, he ran 100 miles in 24 hours. To my mind, that’s one of the greatest sporting achievements of all time. In the race we also had another legend of the sport, Patricia Seabrook, who ran 73 miles at the age of 78. These athletes really are incredible examples of what’s possible if we can stay healthy, have a bit of luck, and do our best to keep active.

And what was it like to make your debut for Team GB at 50?

A very special day. In my mid-thirties when I started running, I never even dreamt of such things. I suppose it’s a classic case of opening doors because you never know where they might take you. To be part of the GB team was a life experience. I remember at one point running with two of my teammates and thinking, ‘I never want to forget how this feels. It might be the only chance I get, but I will always have this.’

For anyone inspired to try, how do they become an ultrarunner?

The training for ultramarathons is not that different to normal marathons, so doing a marathon is a good first step towards ultrarunning. Most people who have recent experience with the marathon can then run further by increasing the length of a few of their long runs. A short ultramarathon, like a 50km, is just five miles on from the marathon. All that’s required is a mindset shift and some intelligent pacing! From there a whole new world will open up.

What’s the toughest race in the world?

A lot of races like to make that claim! It seems like every week someone creates a new event to try and outdo the others. In reality, it mostly depends how hard you race. A shorter or notionally easier event is much tougher if the athlete is racing to the edge of their ability, than something that looks more epic on paper but isn’t raced hard. Still, if I had to choose one race, it would be the world’s longest recognised event, the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. The competitors have only 52 days to cover the distance, so at worst they need to average 59.6 miles every single day! They also run around the same city block the entire race.

Finally, what’s the biggest thing you took away from your 24-Hour race?

I suppose if I had to choose one thing, it would be the sense of connection: connection to the other athletes and the ultrarunning community, but also to life. Extreme experiences tend to strip away the artifice and offer clarity on what’s important. I feel a little bit closer to understanding life now than I did when I stepped onto that track.