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Asia & Oceania 24-hour championships 2022

By Cassie Cohen 

After a week of sightseeing, nervous energy, team bonding and race preparation in Bengaluru, it was exciting to get to the opening ceremony the night before the IAU Asia & Oceania 24-hour championships would begin on the 400m athletics track at Sree Kantheerava stadium. This being the first international ultrarunning championship since COVID-19, there was plenty of hype, and it was clear how proud India was to host the event.

I started the race feeling like an underdog. While on paper, my PB (204.92kms) was among the strongest in the field, I knew that didn’t tell the full story. The Indian and Chinese Taipei athletes had got their results in hot and humid conditions as we would experience on race day. I got mine in Canberra in near-perfect cool conditions. PBs meant nothing once the flag was raised to start the race.

Even though we all knew we had 24 hours ahead of us, many started the race running at a solid pace, making the most of the cooler morning conditions. My “what great weather we’ve got!” bubble burst after about an hour when the sun emerged and it was time to unleash the bucket hat. To emphasise how quickly it got hot, one runner was vomiting on the inside of the track just 90 minutes into the race.

However, the intensifying heat seemed only to add extra spice to the pace at the front of the race. Even though I ran 30kms in the first 3 hours, which as the crew let me know was “way too fast”, I was still only battling for fifth place and had probably already been lapped by female race leader Kuan-Ju Lin (Chinese Taipei) in her pink tutu about 10 times. Some of the Indian men had already run a marathon in that time, which is not something I thought I’d ever see in a 24-hour race.

Starting to feel the heat and knowing I couldn’t continue to hold that pace, I slowed my speed to keep the heart rate down and save the legs for the cooler conditions at night. If race leaders Kuan-Ju and Kathia Rached (Lebanon) could hold their incredible pace for 24 hours, they deserved to win and cooking myself in the heat wasn’t going to help matters.

After 6 hours (2pm), I’d run 56.80kms (142 laps) for 5th female. Kuan-Ju, still in front, had already covered 64kms (160 laps).

With the worst hours of the heat ahead of us (it would get to 29 degrees and 70% humidity), everyone was focused on keeping cool throughout the afternoon. Ice bandanas became fashion statements and teammate Matt Griggs’ ice vest was the envy of all. A few squeezes and a sponge would be completely dry and ready for return. I must have run about 5 laps with a decent-sized sponge in my bucket hat at one point and only realised when Martin (crew chief sponge supplier) was about to send out a search party for it.

 

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At about 4pm, I turned to teammate Dan Symonds and gave an encouraging, “not long until sunset!” and he chuckled a little as if to say I was jumping the gun a bit. But I was really willing on the nighttime and the drop in temperature. I had it in my mind that the hardest part of the race would be over once the sun went down. We’d just have to get through the night, a couple of hours in the morning, and then ta-da, finished, right?

I started to feel this way more and more as the temperature did start to drop, we were teased with a sprinkle of rain, and the intensity of the sun weakened.

After 9 hours (5pm), I was still in 5th place with 82.40kms (206 laps) and was now 10kms (25 laps) behind the leader.

I’d been drinking electrolytes and eating gels, chips, clif bars and bananas all day and was ready for what felt like a real meal. I asked what was on offer at the general aid station and Penny (my main crew member) said “lentils and rice.” My face must have suggested I was unimpressed at the prospect of spending the rest of my race on the toilet because I got a few laughs. It was a relief then that I’d brought along some 2-minute noodles for dinner.

Starting to slow down, I stopped at the 11.30 hour mark (7:30pm) for ten minutes for a one-stop-shop to eat dinner, change into a singlet and into some fresh shoes and socks. I told Penny it was the best 2-minute noodles I’d ever tasted and I think she was glad to see her cooking skills recognised. She also offered some really kind words about how I was going that inspired me as I headed back out onto the track having lost a few laps on the competition but feeling refreshed and ready to go and take on the night.

I was now over 12kms (30+ laps) behind the leader but the optimist in me said “If you’re going to have any chance of being in the mix at the end, you’d better start now.” It might sound a bit crazy to believe that you’ve still got a chance when you’re 12+ kms behind in a race, but anything can happen in ultrarunning, especially in the last 12 hours of a 24-hour race. I gave myself an internal “LET’S GO!” (probably with some swear words in there) and began my ambitious comeback attempt in true Australian spirit.

Still buzzing from the noodles, I was running at a faster but comfortable pace (around 6 mins/km), and started taking laps off Shashi, the Indian runner ahead of me. I’d hoped to keep my step up in pace a bit subtle, but clearly, it wasn’t going unnoticed as my Australian teammate Allicia Heron turned to me as I passed her at one point (her still being 15+ laps ahead of me) and asked, “what happened to you?!” in an “I’ll have what she’s having” kind of way. Being teammates, I of course shared my secret that noodles are a superfood, and she was soon chowing down on noodles too (for which I am definitely taking way more credit than deserved given she had brought noodles all the way from Australia for this exact purpose).

At the halfway mark (8pm), I’d run 107.2kms and by 14 hours (10pm), I was up into 4th place, now with 124.40 kms (311 laps), still 10.4kms (26 laps) behind Kuan-Ju and 8 laps behind Allicia, who was still killing it in 3rd place. As much as I wanted to get onto the podium, I didn’t really want to be knocking Allicia off it, but I knew that it was too early to be thinking like that.

I was managing to hold the new pace quite consistently, and to my surprise, the crew weren’t telling me to slow down when I ran past on each lap, but to “keep pushing” and to “keep it up.” I took a bit of a risk surging 12 hours from the finish. I didn’t know if I could hold this effort level up for that long, but I knew I wanted to give myself a chance and not leave it until it was too late.

16 hours (midnight) came around and I’d caught up to Kathia, who unfortunately started feeling unwell and had to slow down to a walk before she eventually withdrew from the race after some incredibly strong running. 

Kuan-Ju was also having a rough time and looked very unwell. She was still walking and moving around the track, but she looked upset, and her teammates were putting their arms around her to provide some comfort in her distress. Although she was having a tough time, she certainly didn’t look like she planned to stop any time soon, despite what my teammates kept telling me to encourage me to keep pushing.

I was still feeling surprisingly strong, especially after round two of No Doz, and the cheers of encouragement from my teammates and crew and the pumping Indian tunes and live music kept me positive. 

Around the 18:30 hour (2:30am) mark, I was in 3rd place with 167.2kms (418 laps), still 2.4kms (6 laps) behind Kuan-Ju and 2 laps behind Allicia. It was suddenly getting very tight and I’d almost closed the gap, but I was also really happy to be in third and just wanted to keep going at a consistent and comfortable pace and let it unfold given we still had more than 5 hours left. By this stage, Kuan-Ju had made a full recovery and was somehow back running, almost as if she’d never stopped.

It was around this time that a kind volunteer came to help out at the Australia crew tent and started enthusiastically servicing my requests for food and water. As I ran past one time he said, “I’m betting on you to win.” I figured (or maybe hoped) it was a turn of phrase and no money had actually been wagered. As I’d later discover, he’d bet $100 (not rupees for those playing along at home) on me winning, which probably demonstrates more faith in me than even my family would have shown at that point. 

At 20 hours (4am), Kuan-Ju and Allicia were on the same number of laps (451 laps/180.4kms) while I was just over one lap behind.

20 hours is the final turnaround point. For those unfamiliar with the sport, every four hours, we get the luxury of changing direction to keep things more interesting (we sure do live on the edge…). This final turnaround was particularly interesting, with the top 3 women in the race all now within two laps of each other. 

Although I really wasn’t far behind, Kuan-Ju and Allicia were both looking so strong that I wasn’t sure I could catch them. As we turned around, I high fived my teammates as they came past in the opposite direction, and when Allicia came past I cheered for her to go and catch the leader. 

Soon, they were racing quite strongly at the front of the field. I did go a bit harder initially too, until women’s team captain Nikki Wynd (who was doing a great job keeping us in the running for team gold for Australia) wisely reminded me that four hours is still a long way to go and there would be plenty of time for a sprint race in the final hour. It’s crazy how four hours can suddenly feel like the home stretch when you’ve already been running for 20 hours, but she was totally right. So, I backed off a bit and kept going at a strong but comfortable pace. Although I have no idea what pace that was because my watch battery had gone on strike for the day so I was running blind.

It was only when the crew started yelling, “You’ve got this!” and “It’s yours to win now!” that I realised I’d overtaken Allicia, who had unfortunately hit a bit of a wall after the increase in pace with Kuan-Ju, who had very much been up for the challenge. 

Suddenly, with Allicia more than 5 laps behind me, the pressure was on me to catch Kuan-Ju and try to claim individual gold for Australia. I was pushing very hard, to the loud and enthusiastic cheers of my crew and teammates around the track, but I was not making up any ground. It was astounding to me that Kuan-Ju had managed to come into this race with a PB of 180.33km, have such a huge setback during the night, and could somehow now be running at this speed at this stage of the race in sandals and a pink tutu. It blows the mind. 

Still four laps behind with an hour to go, the odds were getting slimmer for the win, but I had now surpassed my own PB, was going to claim the under 30 (F25-29) Australian age group record for the 100 miles, 200kms and 24 hours and had managed to cover slightly more ground in the second half as I had in the first. Not to mention I was going to win a silver medal, Allicia was going to get on the podium too and we were on track for team gold for Australia! I was satisfied, even if my new gambling crew member may not have been…

For the last hour, I kept pushing to get as many kilometres as possible for our team and got to run with Allicia for a few laps. I’ll never forget her turning to me quite emotionally as we were running and saying, “I’m so proud of you – you really deserve this.” I’m not sure if I had the wherewithal to reciprocate the thoughts in that moment, but the sentiments were totally mutual.

As always, the finishing feeling was one of huge relief and excitement at what we’d just achieved. Running the final lap holding the Australian flag around my shoulders was extra special and the feeling in the Australia tent in the moments after the race was incredible as we all celebrated each other’s achievements and got ready for the ceremony. We were thrilled to win the team gold in the women’s race, and the men claimed silver too!

As the photos will attest, I wasn’t feeling the greatest at that stage, which is what led to the iconic seated podium shots. I’d like to thank everyone for stooping to my level (although I think Kuan-Ju was also on board with this movement).

It all still feels like a crazy dream, but I am so grateful to the Australian Ultrarunning Association (AURA) for giving me my first opportunity to join the Australian Emus.

The biggest of thanks to the support crew team of Penny, Craig, Martin, Justin and David, who worked just as hard as the runners finding ways to cool us down, keeping us fed and watered, and cheering their hearts out.  

To Penny, for managing the team logistics as our Team Manager, Stephen and Nikki, for being great team captains who welcomed us newcomers into the team experience, and to Martin, for being a great coach.

To our wonderful Indian hosts and the International Association of Ultrarunning (IAU), who went above and beyond to help us have a brilliant experience and perform our best on race day.

To Peter and Julien at the University of Canberra Research Institute of Sport and Exercise (UCRISE), for dedicating so much time early in the morning and late at night to run a full program of heat sessions for Allicia, Matt and I in the lead up to the race that made a huge difference on race day. 

To my amazing family and friends who cheered from home and sent through the most amazing messages that made me feel way better when I was feeling a bit worse for wear after the race… I can’t wait to celebrate with all of you!

Finally, I really hope my race can inspire others to give things a go, even if they seem outlandish or far-fetched. I was 12+kms behind halfway through this race, but eventually managed to work my way into second. I still see myself as a ‘plodder’ and certainly never thought I’d be labelled ‘elite’ in anything running-related, let alone run in the green and gold. 

For you, that thing might not be running or sports-related, but everyone’s got a dream, and I hope you’ll chase whatever it is like you’ve just had a big bowl of noodles.

  1. Allicia, Nikki and I decided to use our race to raise funds for Free to Run, a leadership initiative giving women and girls in conflict zones the opportunity to experience running and the outdoors in safe environments. I am an Ambassador for Free to Run and am very proud to support the organisation’s work. More information is here if you’d like to donate.

Official IAU race report: https://iau-ultramarathon.org/2022-iau-24-asia-and-oceania-championships-results.html 

Final results (women’s team)

GOLD – Australia (605.628kms)

SILVER – India (569.501kms)

BRONZE – Chinese Taipei (527.882kms)

 

Final results (individual):

GOLD – Kuan-Ju Lin (216.887kms)

SILVER – Cassie Cohen (214.590kms)

BRONZE – Allicia Heron (210.640kms)

Bio

Cassie Cohen is a 27-year-old ultramarathon runner based in Canberra, Australia. At 22, she ran 4000kms in 100 days down the east coast of Australia for a project with a friend called Bounding Plains to Share, where they shared 100 stories of people who had arrived in Australia as refugees, migrants and asylum seekers to celebrate multiculturalism in Australia. In 2021, she was the youngest female to complete Australia’s premier ultramarathon, the 240km Coast to Kosci. She holds 4 Australian F25-29 age group records. Cassie works in the humanitarian and development sector in the Australian Government and spent 6 months of 2021 supporting COVID-19 response efforts in Papua New Guinea.

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