Running for 24 hours straight is one of those things that just shouldn’t be possible. To the untrained or uninitiated it sounds more like a tall tale than a serious sporting event. The public at large is taught from an early age that our bodies just can’t function without at least 8 hours a night. But there is a growing group of athletes who are proving just what you can do in 24 hours.
Robbie Britton is a big part of that group and the French based English runner is looking to prove just how good a 24 hour hour runner he is when he takes on the 25 World Championships in Belfast next month. During the planning stages of this interview with the phenom that is Robbie, I had a very clear question and answer format laid out in mind. As they say though no plan survives contact with the enemy and in roughly 90 seconds I realised my best bet was to shut up and just listen.
Chris Bland - Whereabouts are you?
Robbie Britton - Chamonix, just above it in a place called mount rock. It’s about 1300 metres up.
CB - How long have you been out there?
RB - We’ve been out here I believe about two years now. Yeah nearly two years?
CB - You’re originally from England though, I want to say London?
RB - Yeah South East London originally and then we moved around a bit and then we settled out here about two years ago, me the misuses and the dog.
CB - It’s got to be a lot nicer place, especially for those longer runs.
RB - You know what the weird thing is that it’s not the long runs that are the thing, you can always travel for a long run. It’s the easy runs. Every little easy run is nice. Just out of the door and you're on a nice trail. 80% of my running is less than an hour. So I love it. The long runs are also rather nice but yeah the easy runs are just fantastic, because just out of your door and you're onto a trail. Up a hill, down a hill, back home again.
CB- Have you noticed it’s made a big difference to your performance, motivation and training?
RB - When we first came out here I was training for the UTMBS and it meant that I was training on hills that were suitable for it. Especially for the downhill, I’m more comfortable on the technical side of things. There’s more varied terrain, that’s just the little bits but every run makes a difference. Uphill, yeah. Although when I first came out here, I didn’t understand how big the hills were. I did the UTMB coming from the UK and did stuff up in Scotland and then when I got out here I was like when does this hill end? I’d look back and just see switchbacks going on and on. Looking back to where I was then I couldn’t place it, but that wasn’t even a big hill. Now though it’s changed my understanding of the mountains, everything is relative. There’s always a bigger hill.
CB - How’s training going for the World 24 hour Championships?
It’s going well, I mean I do things slightly differently to everybody else. As I am training for a flat 24 hour hour race in the mountains. As a man who trained for a hundred miler solely Crossfit training I’m sure you can appreciate doing things differently. Just because they’ve done it that way for years doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it. So I’m training for the flat 24 hours in the mountains of Chamonix and it’s going alright. I think I’m in good shape. But we won’t find out until about 20 hours into it, on the 2nd of July at 8am I’ll have a better answer for you.
CB - But training has been going to schedule?
RB - Yeah spot on, I’ve come back from a knee injury and i had surgery end of November, early December last year and I’ve set pbs at 5ks, 10ks, half marathon and a few bits since. So I’m in good shape.
A lot of a twenty four hour race is built on experience, people talk about training for it and doing hundreds and hundreds of miles. But you can only be so fit on the day. The body can only be so adapted to burn fats and all that other shite. We all trained differently when we get to that start line, there will be people there who are faster than me, there will be people there who have run more miles than me, but on the day your fitness is such a small element of it. The other factors such as your pacing, your nutrition, your hydration, your mental strength, your coping technique, they all come into it.
To explain my argument I’m going to describe myself in the third person, I detest that but I assure you it’s necessary. Robbie Britton in 2:40 marathon shape and Robbie Britton in 2:20 marathon shape, over 24 hours the one in 2:20 shape will beat the one in 2:40 shape as long as everything else is the same. So people train differently and get different results for the race, but in the end I think the faster they can run a marathon the faster they will be over 24 hours.
Running for 24 hours is solely aerobic exercise, there is fuck all sprinting involved so why would we train any other energy system. When you see someone doing anything else, you think ‘hang on a minute’ what are you doing? ‘Well I’m utilizing my fat stores’ There’s only so much benefit you can get from that, only so efficient you can get.
People are looking for this marginal gain, when there are these huge gains to be made in the other areas. I’ve done it before, worried about wearing the lightest possible shoes but stuffing my face with sweets. It’s like the businessman with his ten grand bike and a beer belly.
We are not surpassing the records from the 80s and 90s, so why the fuck are we trying to do things A) differently and B) complicated. The 100k world record is 37 or 38 years old, the 24 hour world record was set in I think 93. Its 24 years old, why are trying to do things differently to these guys, why are we trying to look for these marginal gains when clearly they were just doing the basics better than us. The 100k world record was set by a 2:19 marathoner and the 24 hour record was set by a 2:23 marathoner. So why are we getting guys going in at 2:30 or 2:40 trying to tweak their diet when they just aren’t fast enough. We don’t need to reinvent it, it’s been done before, it’s been done better than it is now. Just copy what they did in the old days.
CB - So what were the core foundations of that old school training?
30 years ago there were more people running fast. The top of this pyramid of running, you didn’t run for fun, you were a runner. If you were running 2:30 in the 80s and 70s you weren’t a good runner. Now if you join a club and you run 2:30 for a marathon you are looking at being one of the top runners in the club and people will be putting you on a pedestal. It’s a trickle down effect if the guys winning UK marathons back then were running 2:10, low 2 teens then the guys who got into ultra running were posting 2:25s, whereas these days the guy who won the Manchester Marathon got a 2:23 I think. You can win a marathon now, where you wouldn’t of back in the 80s. This means the guys we have coming down to the ultras are running 2:30s to three hours. There are some fast people doing it but there are a lot less. I can’t complain about it, because I wouldn’t have succeeded in the world of Ultra running in the 80s. I wouldn’t of got into 24 hour racing because there would of been so many guys better than me. Whereas now I’m high up on the list, I think I’m sixth or seventh on the British all time ranking. But I don’t think it’s because I’m a better runner than those guys, I just think I reached more of my potential.
I currently run a marathon in about two and a half hours and I 261, whereas Don Ritchie who holds the 100k world record is a 2:19 marathoner and he ran a 264 for 24 hours. I think I was probably at 95% of my potential, whereas Don was at 75 or 80% of his potential, because he’s the 100k world record holder. Therefor he would do pretty well over 24 hours, he’s still the 2nd best Brit of all time. But he should of been the best Brit of all time in 24 hours, so he didn’t reach as much of his potential as I have of mine. And that’s not a boast that means I do all right with what I’ve got. And I’m proving it whereas these guys had an abundance of talent in 24 hours, but it’s not just about the fitness and the training. Which allows people like myself to excel at it without being as physically able as the people I’m competing against.
If you can run a half decent time for 10k, you’ve got that cardio base and your strong and then you have someone telling you how to eat, how to pace maybe alongside you telling you to slow the fuck down then you can go along way. Obviously a lot of other factors play into it.
CB - Talk hills...
When you think about running up a hill, short hills is like sprinting, so again you’re working on that strength, which for me is a big part of 24 hour running. I do my tempo stuff uphill because you're working your lactic threshold, so while it may be slightly more specific to do it on the flat (so you may lose a slight efficiency bonus) doing your lactate threshold work uphill is still going to increase your lactate threshold. Your body can’t tell what terrain it's on, it’s not going to produce less lactic because you’re on a hill. It doesn’t know it’s working to a certain percentage and it’s reacting to the percentage of effort and will adapt accordingly. There is obviously an argument that if you much too hard going uphill you are going to push yourself into that anaerobic zone, which would change the benefit of the session but you just have to be sensible about it. You can get those same gains with lactate threshold that you get on the flat and the impact is less. If I run at 90% effort up a hill I’m not actually going all that fast but if I did that on a track you are just pounding your body. I’m still going down to the track once a week for that more specific work.