The Counting Shed
Counting laps at a 24-hour track race
A change is as good as a rest, so they say. Never was it more true for the workers of Run and Become (Cardiff), as we finished our brisk, bustling Saturday trading, and headed to London for the annual Self-Transcendence 24-hour race.After enjoying a welcome pizza pit stop, we made our slumbering train journey to Tooting Bec track, in time for the midnight lap-counting shift.
The streets outside the underground station were fairly blank and lifeless, save for the neon strips of the odd fast-food joint or convenience shop, then a bleak stretch of road even less alive than that. This only added to the magical unfoldment of our destination as snatches of life and light were glimpsed through low branches. This simple 400 metre athletic track was transformed into a hushed theatrical arena, the air itself almost visibly coruscant with a fine, pure energy.
After piling on enough clothing layers for the Arctic, I was introduced to my two heroic runners, and took up residence by the track. To call it a counting shed is really to sell short our new, magnificent, blue and white, purpose-built marquee. One of my runners was in the lead for quite a few hours, which certainly kept my concentration keen. Every 2.5 minutes we would greet each other with a smile and a wave as he passed. I was absolutely amazed by his graceful, efficient form, unwavering cheerfulness, and unperturbed constancy, lap after lap. The other was spritely, conserving no energy in his broad grin and broad wave. Even sparing some for a little head dance to his Walkman, and enquiries after our welfare.
I find a modicum of silliness helps to keep me alert in such situations, except if I’m calculating an especially awkward split time. Too much silent soulfulness would find me slumped and snoring at a time like this. A little harmless jollity kept our smiles refreshed for the runners. The saintly servers supplied us with endless hot tea, essential for keeping warm and happy.
After 6 hours I befriended the concrete floor of the changing rooms. It’s surprising how almost any environment seems snuggly and inviting after being awake into the wee hours. I gratefully borrowed a mat and enjoyed a dream-filled intermission. 4 hours passed, and I could stay away no longer from the energy of the track. The counters could be heard faintly cheering now and then from my makeshift meditation area. The race was in its final miraculous stages.
For the last few minutes, each runner was assigned a person to act as a marker, so that their final distance could be measured by an official in their absence. I took my place alongside a fresh-faced lady with a light frame but a kind of poised, wiry strength about her. I did not even expect acknowledgement as I intruded on her journey by my very presence next to her. Immediately though, she started chatting to me as if we had already met a long time ago. I was most struck by her crystal mental clarity at such a late stage in the race. She recalled for me in fascinating detail facts and figures from her previous ultra-distance races. I was very touched as another runner suddenly had to stop for some reason just ahead of us, and she automatically stopped to check on him. After 23 hours and 55 minutes on the track, this selfless camaraderie almost moved me to tears. We soon carried on and resumed our talk. Mid-sentence the finishing horn was blown. She stopped, marked her place, and continued with her sentence as if nothing had happened. This level-headed, down-to-earth approach nearly floored me!
Some might think it a little eccentric to embark on such a race as this, but to me eccentricity could not be further from the truth. As I looked into her face, I was met by someone very open and natural, and I thought to myself, these are real people: very, very real.
Reality was most in evidence at the award ceremony. As they sat in their jumpers and jogging pants on a row of plastic chairs, there seemed nothing but humility about the participants. They all wore peaceful smiles, but also a look in the eye of one who has completed, on every level, a gritty voyage of the self.
An old lady came in from the street with two children and asked me,
“What did they do?”
“They have just completed a 24 hour race!” I exclaimed with glee.
“Why did they do it?” she demanded.
A stunned silence followed for a moment. Then I mustered a simple answer. I thought to myself, I suppose you either get it or you don’t. There are more reasons than there are questions, and more questions than I have words to answer.
Sumangali MorhallOctober 2004