How far can you run in a day? - Robbie Britton and the British 24hr record
Italy-based British ultra runner Robbie Britton recently took down the long-held 24-hour British record. Clocking 277.439 km / 172.392 miles – running at a mind-blowing average of 5:11per km / 8:21per mile for an entire day.
How did you approach training for the record attempt?
Training for longer ultras like a 24hr race becomes more about the journey over years, rather than one individual training block or year. But the build-up for the 24hr record in Torino this spring is probably best seen in two chunks.
Originally the plan had been the run the Växjö 24hr in Sweden, but eight days beforehand I caught COVID.
The build-up to Växjö had been near perfect, for me. Nine weeks of training, averaging 108 miles per week, with the biggest being around 125 miles. The longest training run was 3 hours, with a trail race right at the start of that block being longer (55k in just under 6 hours), I ran that race more for enjoyment, as we got closer to race-day the training became more specific.
Working with my coach Tom Craggs, sessions focused on marathon effort, a bit faster sometimes, a bit slower at others. The volume of the sessions was more important than the actual speed as race pace is 7:30 min/mile at the start. So, running 10-20 seconds faster on my efforts won’t make or break a 24hr race, but increasing the efforts in size might. The whole block was focused on consistency, with training often fuelled to mimic race-day, as fine-tuning the nutrition plan, and training the gut is key for longer stuff.
Fast forward to December and, after a break to recover from COVID, it was a slow build-back up to the bigger training weeks. The idea of another continuous block was daunting. It takes a lot both physically and psychologically, running road loops in the Alps in January. I was grateful to have two of my athletes, Rob Payne and Damo Carr, to share miles with.
The second block in Jan & Feb still worked out as 8 weeks averaging 103 miles a week, with a peak of 125 again and a drop-down week in the middle (nicely coinciding with regional XC champs in Piedmont so I could run for the club). The longest run was 2:45, with some mixed-pace intervals in the second half of that one too.
Looking back, I’m happy with how training went, and I reached the start line fit, fresh and with legs conditioned to the challenge ahead, as much as legs can be ready for 24 hours of non-stop running.
Can you tell us about your fuelling for the race?
The overview was that I managed 94.9g of carbs per hour over the race, the lowest hour being 75g, the highest 120g, but with most sitting in the 90-95g per hour range. It was PH gels, chews, and drink mix, with some rice and jam mixed together in bags and a couple of handfuls of sweets. Oh, and one cup of pasta. It was all weighed out beforehand and/or measured by my excellent crew of my wife Nats, and friends Jamie and Sarah-Jayne Pugh. Jamie is a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores Uni and an expert in runner’s guts. Sarah-Jayne takes no nonsense, which is something you need in the wee small hours of any race. Together they were an excellent team and made sure my fuelling was on point.
We had caffeine timed into the plan and the drinks had to be adapted as it was 85% humidity so I was sweating a lot less than one might expect so it ended up being around 350ml an hour and even then, it was possibly too much!
How does one develop the mental fortitude to run for nonstop 24 hours?
To start you break it down into smaller chunks, as even for me, the idea of running for 24 hours is intimidating. One hour of running in a loop? Manageable. So, I deal with each hour one at a time and even lapped my watch each hour to help with that.
The 24hr format is a strange one. It’s just “how far can you run in a day” and it’s all about finding balance between going too hard and dawdling the whole time. You can’t really relax too much, as the mind and body want you to slow down a bit, but you can’t overstep the mark either as you come undone. Simmer, don’t boil, is how I often explain it to our GB&NI 24hr runners. You have to simmer the whole time to get your best result.
I have a lot of love for 24hr running, and for once it’s reciprocated (unlike XC where it is a truly unrequited love). The “why” becomes important in the middle and latter stages of the race. It’s hard to motivate yourself to do something that can seem pointless, especially if your personal goals are slipping away. From 12-18 hours the record started to slip from our grasp and the team had to get me moving faster. Each hour from 18 to 24 got faster than the last and that was tough but totally worth it. I love to finish strong, so I kept telling myself I just had to get to four, two hours to go and give myself a chance at the record. It possibly worried my crew and coach a little more than it did me!
Which aspect did you find most challenging, the mental or physical fatigue?
It’s easier to say this in hindsight when the pain in my legs has been mostly forgotten and the overlying fatigue is starting to lift, but the psychological part of it feels the hardest. The strength to train for the event again, let alone race one, takes longer to return. The desire is there, from one day later, but I’m someone who always wants to give their best and I know I can’t do that just yet. Mainly because I know how much it takes to get there.
Physically it was tough, but that pain in the second half eases if you ease back. You have to battle with your own mind’s survival instinct. You’re doing damage to yourself, and you have to fight against your central governor which wants you to stop. The training and fuelling feel like it makes the physical side possible, but the mind games never stop. Even in the last couple of hours, you’re not sure you’ll make it. It wasn’t until the last hour that I let myself really believe and even then, I didn’t relax until the actual footstep past the record. Then I was able to open the legs a bit more for the last couple of laps, but before it wasn’t worth the risk of a strained muscle or fuelling bonk.
Talk to us about the gear you chose, and why?
As a runner, I heat up like a furnace when I get going, so keeping cool in any event is key. Even though all the Italians were in leggings, long sleeve tops and some even jackets, I knew staying cool would be key to my success.
Having tried a few different materials and heard a lot of good things about the SOAR Race Vest I opted to wear one for the event. The vests were a no-brainer, and I did intend to swap them out regularly, so adding a Race Vest or two into my rotation was an easy decision.
As any ultra-runner knows, shorts and socks are a more serious matter. Chaffing can be uncomfortable in a marathon, but it will destroy a 24hr race. I was able to test the Marathon and Race Shorts out during my lower runs in training, sometimes wearing them for a few days at a time to see how they fared when loaded up with sweat. The socks are the same. I wasn’t running big, long runs in training, but testing over days helped me decide to wear the SOAR Race Shorts and socks on race day.
Split shorts are a distance runner’s staple. You feel the part on the start line, they’re made to run fast, and I planned to run faster than any other Brit had in a day. Plus, the idea was that the shorter the shorts, the more cooling they’d be on race day. The legs create all the heat, so covering them makes little sense. Plus the style makes it easier to have a wee on the fly.
I changed into a super thin long sleeve (one I’ve had for 10 years and normally just sits as mandatory kit in my pack) and my Centurion Running team tee for the night, that was what I finished the race in. I had intended to change again as the sun came up, but the weather on Sunday was windy and grim, plus we had a record to chase, so it stayed on to the end.
As for the shoes, Alphaflys were my weapon of choice, in no small way influenced by Aleksandr Sorokin running the 24hr World record in a pair.
What’s the next challenge for you? Are any other records in your crosshairs?
For now, I’m happy with just the one, but I would love to try the British 100-mile record. It was the world record for quite some time, with 11 and a half hours run by the late, great Don Ritchie. Even my mate Dan Lawson’s LEJOG record would be fun to try (although I’ve no idea if I could do what Dan did there, it was truly astonishing to see what he did for just under 10 days).
After a long time trying to get back strong enough to race / train for ultras, I’m excited to get back to training and competing at a variety of distances. Trail races would be good fun too, as we live in a town in Northern Italy called Coggiola that is on the edge of the Oasi Zegna natural park and has tons of beautiful trails to explore with my wife Nats (who wouldn’t dream of racing ultras on the road).
I want to spend the next 10-20 years running ultras, on the roads and mountains, hopefully getting to represent my country a few times and achieving as many goals as I can. The British 24hr record is one of my lifetime ambitions (as was publishing a book) so honestly, if I had to settle for just that, I’d die happy. But as it is, there’s plenty more to come yet.
Tell us about a bucket-list race/event/challenge you’d like to do and why?
How long have you got? There are a lot of adventures out there and a new race every week!
The 24hr World and European Championships is high on my agenda and races like the UTMB and Spartathlon are a couple of races I’d like to return to (although generally, I prefer new events to see a bit more of the world).
I have a list of overseas adventures, like the Jordan Trail we did a few years back, that will be snuck back into the calendar and then there’s the Tor des Geants in Italy which will always sit atop my bucket list until I’ve done it. We go every year and Nats has finished it twice, it’s just something else.
You can keep up to date with Robbie's training and racing on Strava: https://www.strava.com/athletes/11957779?hl=en-GB