The GB selection policy for the 24-Hour World Championships included a question: what can you bring to the team as a runner and as a person?
In response, I assured the selectors that I would do whatever it took to help the team. That I would be a positive force, and bring to the squad the proactive approach I followed in other parts of life. I also answered with passion about my determination to put in a big running performance during the race.
In international 24-Hour running, there are 6 athletes in a team. The scores of the 3 who go the furthest are added up and become the team’s score. I knew I was capable of being one of the 3 who would add to the GB total. And I wanted to go the furthest.
I want to run well over 260 kms, I said in my note to the selectors, and I am absolutely determined to score for the team. There it was: I would do a big distance and be one of the top 3 in the team on the day. Ambition and belief - that couldn’t fail to make an impact with the selectors, I thought.
I was selected, becoming part of the planning and banter in the buildup, and some months later heading out to the World Championships in France. My father had said to me, the moment the gun goes, whatever happens, you will have run for Great Britain. This is true and it will always be one of the proudest moments of my life. But I had serious ambition for the race too.
I set off strongly, and pressed on into the unseasonably hot day. I was half a lap ahead of my teammates early on, with the management telling me to slow down. After a few hours, one of our 6 was struggling, and had started to walk. Another of my teammates, the most experienced, decided that we should all stop running and walk with him to get him going again. This came as a shock to me and my ‘stop for nothing’ approach. Still, I joined the walk, my head screaming at me to run because I was losing distance with each second that passed.
It was probably about a minute we all walked together, and I remember it so clearly both for my anxiety, and for how connected I began to feel to the others as we talked, trying to soften the enormity of the occasion. Soon our teammate had been lifted and calmed by the gesture, and was able to run again. I felt relieved, both to be running, and that I had answered the call to walk with the others.
By the evening I was feeling very ill. There was a moment, not long before I started vomiting, that I was running between two of my teammates and I had this incredible sense of occasion. I’m wearing a GB vest and running with these incredible athletes. I feel like I am part of something in an utterly unique way. Please let me never forget this moment and how special this feels.
Soon after, I was vomiting so badly that just staying on my feet became challenging. I spent the last ten hours walking and throwing up. My role in the team became one of fighting to stay on my feet, and encouraging my teammates each time they passed me on the one mile loop.
‘They see your courage,’ said the team manager. ‘It reminds them how important it is to be running in that vest. It helps them when they see you staying out here’. In fact, although I had already run well over 100 miles, it felt humiliating to be walking in the biggest race of my life. But, unable to eat or drink, even walking had become so hard. I wanted to hide away, to make it end. But instead I walked. And walked. And what if the manager is right, I thought, and I am actually helping? In the small hours of the night I upped the effort to encourage the others as they passed.
Then I was told that we had a chance of winning a team medal. Before the race I had imagined the 6 of us standing on the podium. But what if I wasn’t one of the 3 who had scored? Would I deserve to be there? It was one of the reasons why I had felt I had to be one of the 3 scorers.
But that was then. Now the idea was amazing. I would be as proud as anything to stand with my team on a podium at a world championships, however we got there. As long as I did my best, it would be as special as anything. I tried to walk faster. Not that my distance would count, but I tried to find a little bit more in each step.
As we entered the final hour, the dream of a team medal had passed. One of our team, effectively our third counter, was in severe distress. He had started to turn yellow and was refusing to leave the course. It was agreed with the team management and the race referees that he could continue until the final gun provided he was actively looked after. I was asked to stay with him for the final 40 minutes. I would lose positions and distance as we slowly made our way around. But it didn’t matter anymore, and I was relieved to have something I could do to make a difference. It took the 2 of us all of the remaining time before the final gun to finish that one mile lap. My job was mainly to ensure he didn’t lie down somewhere hidden, perhaps behind the grandstand, which would have been extremely dangerous.
And then it was over. I was 6th out of 6 in our team, 130 miles, and a long way behind the others.
As we gathered in the GB crew tent, we learned that this was the first time ever that all the athletes in both the men’s and women’s GB teams had been out on the course for the entire race. In an event like the 24-Hour, where so much can, and does, go wrong, this is almost unheard of. It’s the kind of thing that builds culture and legend in a squad.
The team director hugged me.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, in tears.
‘Don’t you dare apologise,’ he said, ‘all I will ever ask is that you do your best.’
I had many mixed emotions in the days and months that followed. But one of the many things I came to understand, is that I had started the race as an individual, and finished it as part of a team.
The following year the selection policy included the same question: how do you think you can contribute to the team?
Once again, I explained how I would do whatever I could in the build-up. And then of course, I wanted to assure the selectors that I could put in a big performance. I want to run over 260kms, I said, just as I had the year before.
And, I added, with that performance, I want to be the 6th counter in our team.