Long-distance running is peculiar. Each step up in distance requires a sea change in expectations and attitude.
To a marathon runner used to loping at an 8-minute mile pace, a half marathon can seem both painfully fast and oddly unsatisfying. To ultramarathoners used to walking or jogging for 50 miles, 100 miles, or more, the marathon distance can be too predictable and, yes, potentially more difficult than these epic events.
The 24-hour race is something else entirely. Whereas a conventional race takes distance as its constant with time as the variable, 24-hour races (and their variants) flip this arrangement. In a time-limited event, runners can run as far as they like or can. However, when the final bell sounds or the counter ticks over 24 hours later, they must stop if they haven’t already.
This rule change isn’t the only difference between these events and “normal” ultramarathons. What must change most significantly is the mindset of the runner. I learned this the hard way over five such events, ranging from a gentle romp around the grounds of the Bathurst Estate near Cirencester to multiple grueling ascents of Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales.
Below are a few things I learned from these traumatic yet compelling races, factors that make them utterly unique.
8 Reasons to run a 24-hour race
1: There’s no such thing as a DNF.
Since it’s entirely permissible to stop running whenever you like, there’s really no such thing as failing to finish.
Whether running on a track (full disclosure: I’ve not attempted any such events; I’m afraid of the boredom) or on trails, most 24-hour races occur on looped courses, with competitors completing multiple circuits.
The only way to fail a 24-hour event would be not to finish a single loop. Since loops tend to be 10k or shorter in distance, such failures are rare indeed. In a sense, everyone’s a winner.
That said, in my most recent 24-hour event, the fearsome Snowdon 24, I had aimed to run at least five times up and down the mountain from Llanberis.
However, I managed only four and pulled out with many potential hours of running remaining. That felt a little like a DNF, except that my thighs hurt like they’d been beaten with mallets, and I simply couldn’t cope with another descent.
I realised I’d run more than 36 miles and climbed over 14,000 ft during my four summits, and that would have to do. To put my efforts into perspective, that year’s solo winners, David Shearer and Christine Caldwell (a V40 competitor), managed eight summits each.
2: You don’t have to go at it alone.
Most such events allow both solo and team participation.
In my first 24-hour race, the inaugural Cotswolds 24 at the Bathurst Estate, there were two encampments – one cluster of tents for the bright-eyed, naïve optimists sensibly running in relays of two, four or six competitors and another for the handful of crazed loons attempting the race alone.
For a solo runner, the regular experience of being overtaken at ludicrous speed is mitigated by spotting an armband indicating a relay runner. This mix of soloists and teams provides encouragement to both types of competitors, oddly enough, and the sense of camaraderie both within and between teams is palpable.
I haven’t competed in a relay event yet, but I’d guess the biggest challenge might be the downtime between loops, especially with a large team. That cozy sleeping bag might prove too much of a dangerous draw in the wee, small hours.
3: It’s surprisingly sociable.
Ultras are often the most sociable of running events since you’re spending hours, or even days, on your feet in the company of fellow endurance runners.
24-hour events take this up a notch because you’re constantly returning to the same starting point to recuperate, refuel, and reassess. Even if you turn up entirely alone, as I did for my first event, you’ll end up with impromptu supporters and running mates as you encourage one another and engage in low-key rivalry.
Of course, you won’t always be running, and certainly not briskly. This pace allows for conversation, sharing of strategies, anecdotes from the trails, and the comparison of blisters.
4: You will get blisters… but that’s okay.
Bring all the plasters, embrocation, and medication you like; your feet will suffer nonetheless. Expect that going in, plan for it and proceed accordingly. Crucially, don’t do as I do and run all day and night in wet shoes without once taking them off to inspect the damage.
At the end of my 2015 Cotswolds 24 race (I managed 102 miles and came 4th), I had been running for two hours in the pouring rain at the limits of my endurance. When I finally decided to call it a day, 22 hours in, I discovered I could no longer walk.
Embarrassingly, I had to ask the race organiser for a lift back to the station (ludicrously, I’d been planning to walk it). During a 100-mile ultra a few years later, absurdly, I did the same thing, running until the soles of my sodden feet resembled the hide of a particularly elderly and diseased elephant.
So do take your shoes and socks off every few miles, pop those blisters, bandage, dry, and air those feet. They will thank and reward you for it.
5: You’ll get to know that route like an old friend.
Even the most stunningly beautiful trail races offer fleeting charms – vistas you grab in your mind’s eye or preserve with a quick snap before moving on. Not so with a 24-hour race, where you may be circuiting the same route many, many times before you’re finished.
You’ll start giving pet names to those rocky slopes, brutal hills, and sylvan forest glades. Five minutes more on the Road to Nowhere and you’ll turn into the Faery Forest before attempting the Mountain of Mud. You’ll grow oddly fond of even the most technical or monotonous stretches as you tick them off each time you pass.
You’ll also have plenty of time to spot furtive deer, inquisitive robins, clusters of magpies, and circling kestrels as you watch the evening’s light fade to a fireside glow before twilight falls and the stars come out.
It can be a magical and genuinely transcendent experience. The scenery remains magnificent even after suffering the indignity of falling into the same river twice, as I did during the Tyndrum 24, held rather brutally in midwinter in the Scottish Highlands.
6: Supporters can do as they please.
Supporters are usually free to come and go from the race site. Given the event’s duration, it’s quite possible to drop off your running partner or friend, have a full day and night to yourself, then return for the last few hours of their effort (i.e., when they need you most).
Courses are looped, so you won’t miss a chance to cheer on your runner(s), and you’ll be able to cajole them into completing yet another circuit when their willpower wanes. Runners will generally sport a removable armband or device to indicate their presence or absence on the course, and there will be downtime for runners to recover or even sleep if they so choose.
During one of my 24-hour races, my partner had theatre tickets back in London, so she jumped in her car once I’d set off and had a night out before returning in the small hours to help me through my doldrums. Events usually provide entertainment, food vans, and places to escape the rain for supporters who choose to linger.
7: Night-time is the right time to gain an advantage.
If you do choose to go without sleep and have a bright enough headtorch (part of the mandatory kit), I’d recommend staying the course. Running after dark is otherworldly and a little magical, as foxes and badgers’ eyes gleam back at you and bats flutter overhead.
Since quite a few solo runners choose to catch some shut-eye, those who keep running can earn a competitive advantage.
I’ve never been one for cat naps; anything less than a full night’s sleep leaves me feeling woozy and confused. Therefore, I tend to slurp a few caffeine gels and push through until dawn.
If you choose this option, don’t do as I did and misread the warnings on those caffeine gels. 12 sachets in six hours are approximately four times as many as recommended. I had eyes like owls and the shakes before I finished.
8: You’ll learn a lot about yourself.
Ultrarunners talk about “digging into the pain cave” when discussing their 100-milers, but there’s little as mentally challenging as a 24-hour race.
Constantly returning to base camp allows multiple opportunities to bow out or malinger. It became vital for me to time my breaks since time tends to accelerate horribly in the pauses between loops. A five-minute shower and food break can easily stretch to half an hour.
Making yourself embark on an 18th loop when you’re barely capable of a jogging pace is exceptionally tough, even though you know those legs will loosen off and allow you to run. Still, in my three Cotswolds races, I managed a sprint finish for each set of laps.
The body is a remarkable machine, and the mind is its miraculous engine.
24-hour races, more so than almost any other type of event, test your willpower, endurance, grit, and determination to the max. A long-distance obsessive’s career is simply incomplete without one.
Six of the Best UK 24-hour races
Here’s our pick of the currently available 24-hour races in Britain (plus, for real maniacs, a 48-hour event).
#1: Snowdon 24 – Llanberis, Snowdonia, July 8 – 9, 2023
As well as being one of the most stunning beautiful races in the 24-hour calendar, the Snowdon event from Always Aim High offers UTMB index points, should you have ambitions to circle Mont Blanc.
For those of us with more modest goals, graded medals on local slate are available for three, five, seven, and 10 summits. Five equates to Mont Blanc in height, seven to Kilimanjaro, and no soloist has so far claimed the Everest award for 10 summits. You could be the first!
#2: Endure 24 – Leeds, Yorkshire, July 24– 25, 2023
One of the longest-running of 24-hour events, the Endure series (there’s another in Reading two weeks before the Leeds event), has something of a festival vibe.
An 8km route around Bramhall Park near Leeds offers plenty of historic landmarks and exquisite scenery, as well as camaraderie, a beer tent, and the chance to compete in teams of anything from 2 to 12 competitors.
#3: Glenmore 24 – Aviemore, Highlands, Sept 2 – 3, 2023
For those who prefer to have gorgeous mountain summits as a backdrop rather than part of the course, the Glenmore 24 should be more than satisfying.
Run entirely off-road through the Glenmore forest surrounding Loch Morlich; the race offers 12-hour and 24-hour incarnations. It’s also very reasonably priced compared to many such events.
#4: Equinox 24 – Belvoir Castle Estate, Leicestershire, Sept 16 – 17, 2023
The Equinox race is highly recommended for runners seeking a gentler introduction to the world of 24-hour running.
A 10-km route around Belvoir Castle Estate offers forested sections, hilly fields, a picturesque river crossing, and fantastic views of the castle as you approach the final stretches.
#5: Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 24-Hour Track Race, London, date TBC
Held annually since 2000, this race, named after the celebrated guru of self-transcendence and extreme physical exercise, is not for the faint-hearted.
2022’s winner, James Williams, ran a phenomenal 149.45 miles around the Battersea Park running track. But if you’re a Londoner who really wants to test your mettle, here’s the place to do just that! No teams for this one – soloists only, with the race typically limited to less than 50 entrants.
#6: Gloucester 24- and 48-hour Invitational Track Race, Gloucester, 11-13, Aug 2023
Don’t be put off by the invitational moniker – the organisers require only that you have participated in a marathon or ultra to apply to run this race.
That said, only 60 participants are selected each year for this track event, which has been held for over 40 years. Remarkably, the current 24-hour hour record of 170 miles plus was set here back in 1982! Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to express interest.