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It is Oct. 29, 1979. I feel remarkably calm for someone about to set off on a 24-hour run round and round a 400-meter track with other lunatics in an attempt to see how many miles we can cram into our allotted time. But after waiting a year for a single day's appearance, it is better to get on with it rather than speculate an instant longer. Today when I awoke, after one of the more troubled sleeps I have had, the English morning was still cold and gray. I had a splitting headache that did not leave me until I carried my gear onto the sunbathed running track at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in south London. Only then was it real. I could relax, for whatever would come of it would finally happen.
Official 24-hour races are always held on a track for purposes of record-keeping and simplicity. Runners in the terminal stages of exhaustion would be hazards on the roadways. Even navigating the straight lines and the double set of curves on a track can become difficult for those able to last the full measure of one of ultra-marathoning's longest trials.
Before the start I shake hands with a few runners I know and a few who introduce themselves, like Joe Record of Australia and Jan Knippenberg of the Netherlands. As for the others, I realize there will be time enough to make their acquaintance. There are 17 of us lined up now, everyone's quiet. All were invited by a special subcommittee of England's Road Runners Club, which considered us each capable of covering a minimum of 130 miles. At 4 p.m. a starter raises his arm. Dark shapes at the sides of the track remind me of the tiny cluster of spectators and handlers gathered to watch. I wonder if they will not be quite sick of us by the next afternoon. The gun goes off. After months of training, anxiety, swings between hopefulness and apprehension, I am in motion at last. It feels, of course, completely normal and unremarkable.
As we round the first curve we are all in a bunch, except for Don Ritchie, a Scot who storms into the lead in his customary style. Within 200 meters he has opened up a lot of daylight, but he is the world-record holder for several distances, including 100 miles, and is entitled to run the way he considers best. Less than a week before, Ritchie was in America competing in the New York City Marathon. He then returned to his home in northern Scotland and, after a week's work, came down in a second-class railway car last night for this day's labor. Peter Hart, a rosy-cheeked farmer who is also in the race, had been out digging potatoes on his farm near Coventry till three in the afternoon yesterday, when rain forced him to stop. I feel as if I had pampered myself by lying around a hotel room for a week.
We get to see Ritchie very frequently, for at his pace of 5:44 per mile—the rest of us are doing 7:30 to 8:30—he shoots by every few laps. I wonder whether I should move into the second lane every time someone passes me, but mixed in with a genuine goodwill toward my fellow competitors is a measure of prickliness. Let them go round me, I think mulishly.
The spectators near the starting line watch us, and some of them snap pictures. My sister, Harriet, is there with some English friends, and I grin inanely every two minutes as I flit past. I can't help it. Harriet told me before the start I looked radiant, and I know I am buzzing along with the needle jammed up on a full tank. The delight can't last but it's legitimate to be goofy for a bit.
In a while the little crowd of watchers begins to dwindle. The bright sun on this clear, cloudless day begins to fall perceptibly toward the edge of the roof overhanging the stadium seats. Although the sky is wide and open overhead and trees and grass can be glimpsed at one end of this complex, there is nothing specially interesting to look at.
I had twice come down earlier in the week to run on the track and get a feeling for the place. On an empty gray day, with the unlit floodlights and distant television towers visible through the drizzle, it resembled nothing so much as a sterile astronaut training center. The rattle of a beer can driven by the wind carried from one end of the stadium to the other. At least with all of us here, the place and the enterprise has an element of cheer. From a nearby zoo comes the witless braying of a donkey.
The sun dips further and the tiny faces of the recorders in the press box recede into obscurity. One man, or woman, is assigned to each of us, to do nothing but chart our progress. Each single revolution we make is recorded and timed down to the second. We are playing for keeps, knocking ourselves out for the sake of numbers and lists that only we and a few dozen others around the world bother to read and remember.
What do I think about in the early stages of the race when 22 or 23 hours loom ahead? What ennobling declarations of will do I review in my mind? It must seem to an outsider that one would go mad with boredom or anxiety, going round and round like a lab animal frantically spinning a treadmill before expiring. I have to admit to having had such fears myself. I am a road runner. I love mucking through the streets of my hometown of Manhattan or scooting out the door with a day pack to head due north with a pal or two for whatever faraway training station we have decided to get to. I love the joy of being on the road, moving steadily toward a goal. Something always happens, and there is a bit of fullness at the end of such a run, nothing of stunning spiritual dimensions but all the same deeply pleasurable. There are worse hobbies.