Xiqiao International 24 hour Ultra Marathon 2017

The 24 hour race had been in the pipeline for the best part of 2 years. It was simply a matter of timing and training. I'd contemplated a few different races having ear marked this one, pencilled in that one however, when the opportunity came to compete in the Xiqiao Mountain International Ultra Marathon 24 hr (in its second year) well, it seemed the right time. It's thanks to theInternational Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) and their encouragement and drive to bring Ultra Runners together globally, that I ended up in China for my first 24 hour race.

The race occurred  on 4th November 2017 and the venue is the National Arts Movie Studio, Foshan, Guangdong, China. The race organiser is Tony Chu and he and his team certainly know how to welcome and take care of their international race visitors. The event is sanctioned by the International Association of Ultra Runners (IAU) and is co-organised with the Hong Kong Ultra Marathon Association. There is alternative 12 hour, 6 hr and relay events within the competition.

The field comprise of local Chinese athletes, and a handful of International runners from Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Republic of Korea, Mongolia and Malaysia. When the internationals arrived in Foshan we were introduced to our host Suki who introduced us to and accompanied us on an adventure around the local area. The hospitality was outstanding and no stone had been left un-turned in terms of attention to detail and anticipating our needs.

Our itinerary looked something like this:
  •  Visit Big Buddha, Bodhisattva Guanyin on Mount Xiqiao. It stands 62m (203 ft) tall



Visit Wong Fei Hung Lion Dance Martial Arts Museum. This is an opportunity to observe a lion dance in a compound a little bit like a temple. The strength and precision of the performers is impressive.

    Janet and Kat
    Tony Chu :Tech meeting
  • Technical meeting: where Tony gave us the details of the race (in three languages) and where we met our helpers who had been assigned to us to assist during the race. I was lucky enough to have Janet and Kat. I had twisted the arm of my son Sam to come along to China and to his credit he had agreed to crew for me. He was in for an eye opener as it was his first experience of crewing, he had a tough job, however he was fully prep't and along with Janet and Kat, Team Dean was formed. The girls assisted Sam wonderfully I think they were amused by some of the behavior of an ultra runner like eating tomatoes dipped in salt, and taking a bite of a fruit bar all in one go, washed down with a sweet smelling liquid, in fact, I'm amused at that,(did I really do those things..haha). 
Sam pre crewing duties
The evening before the race included the 'Welcome dinner'/ come Pre race banquet or lavish pasta party, minus the pasta.
(none) pasta party

This involved a sit down countless course meal. Not so great for the vegetarian and vegans and in fact I found the endless amounts of meat and animal produce on the table quite distressing. There was an effort to try and offer my veggie loving taste buds an alternative however, it was clear that the caterers where inexperienced in accommodating for those who are meat free. We enjoyed entertainment from dancers and singers however I sneaked off for an early night.

So, the race: is in a  Chinese style Universal Studio which was interesting and certainly helped to alleviate some of the monotony experienced during 24 hr racing. The loop is 1.15 km on concrete ground and along with a small incline there are a few sharp turns. All of this may sound pretty uneventful, however after about 15 hours, that incline became the highest mountain in the world and those turns caused havoc in hips and knees.

remarkable Norbert

The race opening ceremony was 8am and again entertainment was provided to get folk in the right frame of mind for the start of the race at 9am. I made my way to the start line. I gathered my focus and thoughts and exchanged a few words with Norbert Mihalik who, only a few months ago in September had raced the Tooting Bec Self Transendence 24 hour and finished first male with a distance of 259.4k. 

For the Xiqiao race, I had a number of personal goals and had developed a few strategies that I aimed to use during the race in order to achieve them. I remained open nonetheless, for any goal to change during the race having learnt through previous experiences that just about anything can, and does, happen. To attempt to predict what will happen in a 24hr race is ludicrous yet having a tentative plan at least gives a starting point. 

I have learnt that different strategies work for individuals during the 24 hour race, for example some run a few laps then walk for a period of time or for part of a lap. Certainly, this was how Nikki Wynd a strong and consistent Australian runner, managed her race. She walked the incline and ran the flat, she had a great race and her relentless consistency helped to remind me to adhere to my plan and be consistent and patient.

The thing is with this event, it was important to get the pacing right  and one that I could work with for the duration. Getting complacent and going off too fast is near guarantee that you will pay later for losing that control so early on. I observed from the onset, competitors who set off at a blistering pace (relatively speaking). They came blasting past lapping, and then lapping me again and again and continued in this vein, some, for a good few hours (race suicide in the heat). It is hard, being of a competitive nature, to mentally sit back knowing that others are putting km's into you. This is where I simply had to remain focused and use my strength and trust in my own capacity if I was to complete one of my goals which, lets face it, was to finish the race. 

 In terms of my personal experiences during the race, there was a pretty mixed bag. I'd completed some homework and learnt that it's pretty standard and common to have gastric issues during a 24hr race. It wasn't too long before I started with the trots. Rather than panic, I continued to keep myself fueled (with both Mountain Fuel and solid food) and deal with the frequent toilet visits. I didn't want to get too nutritionally/carb/calorie depleted but was aware that this could prolong the toilet visits if I kept eating.  I was jumping into a portaloo aproximately every 2nd lap. This obviously added time into my km’s and required a rethink about how to manage the it. So to make it work for me I increased the pace slightly to allow for the toilet breaks. Not only that, I used those toilet visits for stretching. Probably not a pretty; sight me stooped over a 'squat toilet', crap out one end and the yoga  'Sky reaching pose' the other. Somehow though the issue subsided with the bowels righting themselves after about 8 hrs and I had managed to stay hydrated and fuelled thanks to the well organised and established crew of Sam and his helpers Team Dean.
Son and mother, abeit son was doing the mothering

In relation to Team Dean, by 8 hours, we'd learnt how to roll and function as a team. We had all settled into the roles we were playing and I felt lucky to have a great team who I could trust. There is no doubt having that support helps and more importantly, having someone who understands and can anticipate your needs, keep you focused when you start to waver, spot the subtle behaviors and excuses that that could lead to faffing and stopping, is advantageous. All the while Sam was checking, reminding and encouraging in his gentle way. Apart from an hour to go when he asked me 'what the hell do you think you're doing' as I stopped for a prolonged chat and faff, 'get out there'. He went the duration and was with me for 24hrs with little respite, thank you son
Faff faff, fuel fuel

Luckily, the weather was manageable at 26-27 degrees with partial sun and cloud. The evening dropped to a cooler 17 degrees. The race organisers had provided a cooling station on the course so whenever I felt overly heated I'd get a spray of water and drench myself with the sponges.  

Every 6 hours there was a direction change on the course. Believe me, it was a welcomed occurrence. Boredom, was always going to be a factor during a 1.15km looped 24hr race. We had it easy I guess with the backdrop of the movie studio visually there were distractions. Sam and I agreed that i'd remember a name of one of the movie set shops and then he'd write them down, one for every lap I completed. It lasted three laps, good job I had other strategies as a back up plan. Potentially, boredom was going to be an issue. Fortunately I managed to stay upbeat and entertained. I selfishly, adore my own company, I know how to entertain and motivate myself and yet, I take great pleasure in the stillness, the quiet and the peace. But, those six hour direction changes were like Christmas Day. I entertained myself with the excitement of the direction change approaching and processed the even for about an hour after. 

So, into the night and this was where I didn't know how I would fair.
Usually during the darkness, on mountain and trail I'd be extra alert, watching footing and scanning ground however, with the comfort of knowing the route, the quietness and the monotony of running laps I was interested to see if I would actually fall asleep mid run. 
Fortunately I didn't and am convinced it's due to having 80’s/90's pop and rock on the iPod with the odd dance track, melancholy singers full of angst and a couple of new tunes blaring into the ear drums. Now obviously just because I could hear loud music doesn't mean everyone else could. However, be assured they could when I was done belting out the songs, like an angel (to me and your worst nightmare karaoke singer to everyone else). 

It's oh so quiet, other than a loone singer
The evening past and I'd managed to keep the pace fairly consistent. The 12 hour race competitors had been running the laps since 8pm however even that field was thinning out as dawn threatened. Runners were dropping one by one, some rejoining later after a few hours rest; others had called it a day. 

Someone who hadn't called it a day was Katrina Kasparova. She was a capable runner from The Czech Republic who was leading the women's race. Norbert had moved into first place in the men's race and comfortably held it to the end. Katriana had started hard and fast and had put a good fast km’s in during those early hours. Being a first timer I had drawn the conclusion that it was fruitless to go with her early on as I simply knew I could not maintain that pace for the duration and with certainty, I was not going to run someone else's race. Her early efforts caught up with her later as she struggled to keep her consistency and speaking with her later she revealed a number of incidents that had a negative affect on her race. I was impressed with how she came back during the latter hours as it seemed after having a rest she was able to race again strongly. Again her pace was swift and threatening for a short time. By this time however I'd moved into the lead by about 2 km. My pace remained consistent and I felt great. The hours and laps ticked by and the dawn threatened to bring a fresh feel that served to keep me on track. 

As you can imagine the other racers felt like familiar friends by now and how the different characters coped with the race was enlightening. Walking, running, eating, singing, chatting, shuffling, resting, drinking, over and over and all the while the field getting thinner and thinner. 

Like Trojan’s my support crew were on the ball, I had the easy part and whilst yes, I was always aware of my race, these guys were thinking for me. They remembered if I got complacent and they were still going fresh faced as the sun came up. During the night, the girls had had to fend off thieves and robbers as some 12 hr racers thought my stack of mountain fuel and food was for everyone so they filled their swag bags. 

By now 6 am ish I allowed myself to start to think about the finish. I had been managing an extremely painful knee (co-lat ligament, picked up during the race) and nothing was giving me respite from the severe agony I was in. Distractions that had helped earlier including the acknowledgement and praise from Edit Berces no longer took the edge off the injury. Edit is a Hungary's most successful ultra runner.
Remarkable Edit
During her career she set several world records and holds virtually all Hungarian records from 100 km to 48 hours. Throughout the race she gave a subtle nod here and an understanding word there. I felt she had a 'knowing' that only those who have taken the journey can truly appreciate. I had the utmost respect for her and it was her presence that played a huge part in my own performance. She is one of the ultra running greats and I wanted to prove to her that I have what it takes and she wasn't wrong to invest her effort into encouraging me. Like I say these are the kind of distractions that kept me going. 

I had widened my lead on Katrina and all I had to do to win was to keep moving in the closing hours.
Just keep moving, just keep moving
In spite of the pain I kept on and became a mixture of relieved that the race was coming to an end, eager for the pain to stop and desperate for my bed. The 12 hour racers finished at 8am and during the last hour on the now extremely quiet route, I don't think I stopped smiling. Norbert was walking now as having reached his own personal goals he intended to just walk until the finish time.  In fact, most were walking by now, yet I kept running. I didn't walk a single step during my laps only in and out of the aid station area. I had a goal to remain consistent and to onlookers I was shuffling and hanging in there. To me, it felt like I was running the consistent pace I had started with. 

The Dean face of happiness
The countdown was on.  IAU Vice President Nadeem Khan (who was supporting the race along with other IAU colleagues including Robert Boyce ) was helpfully telling me how this race would end. I was informed that I was to keep running until the 24hr time and the referees who were running with me now would drop my number and verify my distance as I made my way to the finish line.

Helping me get up from one knee
Short Video post race

‘You did it Deano’ as a tear welled during that solitary .75 ish of a km back to the start. Fatigue, relief, pain and elation were all too much and I swallowed that emotion as I was met by the claps and smiles. It was all a little blurry however I recall being asked to get on one knee, 'jeez how would I get back up' is all I recall thinking. I was met with a beaming son and I don't know who was the proudest. I was shown a chair, had a brief interview with half a dozen reporters (yes really, I felt like a superstar momentarily). I had to make my way to the presentation stage and then collapsed. I hit the concrete with some velocity and remember thinking what the f..ck just occurred. My knee had completely given way and combined with the sudden stopping post race my body was in meltdown. Ambulance crew were involved 
Even on a stretcher I wasn't letting go of my Trophy

and in spite of putting my game face on when ushered to collect my trophies I was really not on this planet. I couldn't walk unaided and was stretchered to my hotel. I managed to get a few pals in the taxi, erm I mean ambulance and we were blue lighted back to our digs. 

Both Katrina and I couldn't stand up, so a podium moment with a difference

I won the race with 226.376km. (Race results)
Katrina Kasparova was 2nd lady with 201.830
3rd Lady was Battsoog Jargal with 191.131

In then mens race: 

Norbert Mihalik 246.171
Ondrej Velica 232.326
Lukasz Sagan 228.665

I am elated with my performance and I am excited to see what I can do with this type of race in the future. Thanks to the ongoing support from my sponsors Raidlight whose kit and accessories worked perfectly. To Mountain Fuel whose nutritionally loaded products meet my every needs and LCF socks which prevented feet issues and great compression.
Homeward bound