My Toughest 24 hours

Posted by on July 05, 2015 · 17 mins read

“I see you, Swagman!”, an encouraging voice shouts from the other side of the Platinum Rig. Good. That means I’m still here, I’m still running, I’m still climbing. The day isn’t over, but we’re getting there.

One week ago, Alexander Struijk, Rick Urban, Patrick Visser and myself raced at the Toughest 24h Extreme, a 24 hour obstacle course relay race at the Solvalla horse racing track in Stockholm. The idea came from our own “Platinum” Rick, who by running every Toughest race there is to run this year has turned into our personal Toughest (and Scandinavia) expert. It seemed like a tough but pretty surmountable task: run for approximately 6 hours during a 24-hour period, sleep little. It seemed wrong. Now I know I said earlier I wasn’t too keen on doing race recaps anymore, but this thing turned out to be one of the hardest things I have ever done so already it’s time for an exception.

We left for Stockholm on Friday. Our original flight that evening was overbooked, meaning we had to take an early morning flight and I needed to get out of bed at 4:15am. Luckily the 5am bus (which I had no idea existed before last week) made a remarkably punctual appearance and the trip to Stockholm went by without incident. Once we arrived at the hotel it was time to sleep, eat, get food and supplies for the race, then sleep and eat and sleep some more. The next morning we packed up our stuff and got a taxi to the Solvalla stadium, where we were one of the first teams to arrive. We found our spot in the big sleeping tent, which consisted of an awesome team flag, personal race vests and a stack of power bars and recovery drinks. After dumping our stuff we still had ample time to check out the course, which was not even entirely finished at that point. The obstacles induced some anxiety - this was serious shit. No symbolic jump-overs to ease you through the night but hardcore upper body work. Did I have to do this for 24 hours? Man, the penalties better be mild. Meanwhile the sun was slowly heating up the air to a temperature ideal for beach day.

At noon all teams were summoned to the pre-race meeting. In a room slightly too small (and thus too hot, okay we’ll call it cosy just this once) for the occasion the race details and rules were laid out and questions were answered. After this meeting there was a quick team photo for everyone, and race preparation could begin.

The course was a track slightly longer than 1km, with 10 obstacles. The obstacles, in order of appearance, were dip walks, rings, log step-ups, Irish table, the dragon’s back, monkey bars, weighted carry, walls, incline walls and the Platinum Rig. Each obstacle could be attempted as many times as desired. If you could not complete an obstacle, you had to take a penalty round to pass. For most obstacles this involved a weighted carry of sorts (logs, jerry cans or sand bags), though some penalties were just running a round. All in all the penalties were never favorable over passing the actual obstacle unless you had no choice - as it should be. For each team, one runner at a time was allowed at the track, switches happened by tagging in a different runner at the finish area after the Rig. The winner would be the team to complete the most rounds in 24 hours.

Alex tagging me in
Figure 1. Me tagging out Alexander not too long into the race.

At 2pm the race started, with Rick being our first runner. We decided our initial strategy would be to switch runners every three laps, but quickly found that due to the heat and the intensity of the round this was too much and dialed it down to two. Originally I was to be the third runner, but I got delayed getting my ankle taped and ended up starting fourth. My first rounds went by uncomfortably, not getting ideal grip and swings and using too much strength. After a while I developed a strategy for each obstacle and things were getting easier.

When several switches had passed everyone was getting the hang of the obstacles (pun intended) and we were setting good consistent though unremarkable splits. I quickly developed a rhythm: run, walk to the tent to get some food and drink, lie down and rest until my next turn. Resting was really a necessity, this wasn’t your average long distance obstacle run where you got into a rhythm with the occasional obstacle; you kept up the pace and the next obstacle was never far. This made it more like long intervals, and it wasn’t long until my stomach started to protest the continuous influx of food. After dialing down the eating it took a few switches and trips to the port a potties for it to settle down, and I could only hope the lack of nutrients wouldn’t get the better of me later on. In the mean time some teams were starting to feel the effects of their flying start and split times started to rise. The sub 6-minute splits that used to be a common sight started to disappear from the board. Our times remained rather constant though, and especially Alexander kept setting strong low 5” times which all of a sudden became much more remarkable. Slowly but steadily the name #SWAGMEN was moving up in the ranking, from the eighth position where it started to the sixth, fifth, then fourth… Shortly after midnight I noticed the name of the team above us in the corner of my eye as I was running and we settled in third position. Running was still going smoothly with no one on our team taking penalties or even second tries on obstacles. The race wasn’t even half-way through though so pretty much anything could happen.

Figure 2. Slowly but steadily, #SWAGMEN was moving up the board…​

For the night we had devised a sleeping strategy where each person would get 90 minutes of sleep while the other three continued the 2-2-2 switches. The person sleeping would also be able to eat some substantial food to be digested during that sleep. Patrick had developed a sore knee and was the first to go to sleep. Rick took his place after some time, to be relieved by Alexander later. Meanwhile the shorter rest periods and inability to eat much were taking their toll on me and I was starting to get severely fatigued and looking forward to my sleeping slot. However, a minor shitstorm was about to hit the stadium for team Swagmen. Patrick’s knee was giving way at an alarming rate up to the point where he could not continue (and was actually brave enough to admit that he couldn’t). This meant we were shortly down to two men while Alexander was sleeping. I knew that our third position would probably be unmaintainable with just two people and saw my oh so welcome sleep melt away before my eyes. It was at this point that the race started to get brutal for me. We were down to three men, I hadn’t slept or properly eaten, my stomach still cramped up every now and then and we still had 10 hours to go. My hands were significantly bruised from all the grip obstacles and hurted more every round. Also, it was 2am, dark and cold, and I was still only wearing the sleeveless race-vest because I was simply too tired to sacrifice rest by walking to the tent and getting extra clothes. A part of me just wanted to lie down, cry and give up at that time but rationally I knew this was going to end one of two ways: we would keep that third position, or I would collapse somewhere on the track while trying. Time would tell which option applied, and things were about to get even worse.

Figure 3. My hands were pretty messed up.

The second rotation after Alexander was woken up I found him instead of Rick waiting to tag me out. He told me Rick was completely tapped out and went to bed to get some sleep to see if he could return to running in a couple of hours. We were down to two again. I honestly don’t really remember how we got through these hours, except that Alex completely saved my ass by running four laps instead of two twice so I could get some extra rest. The rising sun provided a much needed mental boost, though it brought with it a quickly rising temperature which had already passed 20 degrees at 7am. We even managed to shortly overtake team Icebug/OMPU which had been ahead of us for the entire race with just the two of us, though I suspect they were taking it easy at that point.

After a while Rick resurfaced and we were back to a three man team. I was still feeling exhausted, but not quite as devastated as I felt earlier in the night. We still had a long, long way to go though, and this time it was Alexander who paid the price for using his energy to keep me in the game earlier. I found him flat down in a fatboy saying that this was it and he wouldn’t run anymore. I basically told him no - get some salt, get some sports juice, get some sugar and lie down in the shade, we’re not going to make this without you and you need to run, I don’t care if a round takes you 10 minutes. Miraculously this worked and his splits actually went from a one time 8:30 back down to 7:00 and even 6:45. We now had a 4 to 5 lap advantage on our closest competitor, Komatsu Forest, and I knew that if we didn’t lose too much time for a few more hours it would be impossible for them to catch up. This thought provided me with a much needed mental boost and slowly but steadily the race was crawling to its finish. I was on a sugar/caffeine diet which was the only thing my body would still digest in time and I could barely keep my splits below 7 minutes, but the Komatsu runners were also having a hard time and occasionally showed 8 or even 9 minute splits. About two hours before the finish the lap difference jumped to over 5 rounds and I realized that unless one of us was to collapse on the course there was no way we were giving away this lead. A sense of euphoria replaced some of the exhaustion in my body, and although my muscles were hardly cooperating anymore the final laps went by slightly easier than before. With thirty minutes to go we had secured the third place and I couldn’t be more happy. Patrick, feeling like he had let us down, decided he wanted to run the remaining half hour, despite our strong urging against it. In the remaining minutes he basically limped to four miraculous 7-ish minute splits, passing the finish line for our 213th round just before the 24-hour clock ran out. It may not have been the wisest decision, but it was fucking die hard and I salute him for it. I can only hope his injury subsides quickly.

After the finish there was a medal and photo-taking ceremony (which couldn’t go by quickly enough) and we took a cab to the hotel, where we all fell asleep with all the windows and curtains wide open. Needless to say we mostly rested and ate the day after and didn’t get to see much of Stockholm. There’s a time for everything I suppose.

So was this race as hard as I expected? No. It was much, much, much harder. I had no idea what I was getting into. I’ve been wondering why this is. I thought it would be like a 6 hour endurance run with little sleep, which is definitely not something I’d do every day but is quite doable nonetheless. Instead I ended up in a situation where it was four in the morning, I was feeling terrible and wanted it to stop, but we still had 10 hours to go. When you were running you were running fast, so like I said before the actual effort felt more like an interval training with a 1:3 work / rest ratio. Doing 24 hours of intervals sounds a lot worse.

Was it worth it? Hell, I don’t even know, will have to check the remaining physical devastation of my body in a while…​ I have experienced some tremendous will power and team spirit, with people really fighting for each other. A team which completed a total of 2130 obstacles over about 240km, not taking a single penalty. Despite all the misery we also had loads of fun (mostly outside of the race though, heh). Experienced immense support. Saw some sides of myself I wasn’t too familiar with. More clichés apply. I guess the experience was worth it, but it certainly was a fucking bitch to do it and I wouldn’t do it again any time soon. Fact of the matter is my brain is already going through the usual process of forgetting the pain, so who knows.

“I see you Swagman! You look way too fresh to be running this long!”

Figure 4. Me on the monkey bars. There’s blood on the bar, just sayin'.