Two years ago I ran the London Marathon and vowed never to run another marathon. But, like childbirth, the pain slowly eases from your mind. Instead, you remember the good bits; cheering spectators (er, only in the marathon, not childbirth), unlimited chocolate and the sense of achievement you get from asking your body to do ridiculous things.
Or at least that’s how I justified entering the equivalent of two and a bit marathons, the 100km (60 mile) Race to the Stones. Although that’s only partly true. The phrase that swung it for me, in one of the many positive reviews of the event, was that it was a ‘running picnic’. How could I possibly resist?
The full 100km route runs along the Ridgeway from Lewknor to Avebury. Competitors can tackle it straight through, split it over two days or opt for ‘just’ 50km. I chose to run 100km with the overnight stop. Although I headed home for the night rather than camping.
Knowing this would probably be my only ultra marathon I didn’t want to spend a fortune on kit. With the exception of expensive Injinji socks and Brooks Cascadia trainers I wore cheap and cheerful kit from Decathlon and my free Parkrun T-shirt. I also gleaned an invaluable tip from the Race to the Stones Facebook group. Take a buff, soak it at each pit stop and wear it wet around your neck. This was a lifesaver!
I loosely followed the official Race to the Stones training plan. I completed the long back to back weekend runs but some of the midweek runs didn’t happen. And none of the cross training. Life just got in the way.
I live local to the Ridgeway so it was easy to acclimatise to the terrain. I trained with food too. The ability to stuff salt and vinegar crisps into your mouth when you’re not hungry is an important component of ultra training. But I was so sure the heatwave wouldn’t last that I never trained in the midday heat. Why would I? Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that.
Of course, the weekend was wall to wall sunshine. The army cancelled a similar event the same weekend citing adverse weather conditions. Ours went ahead. What had I let myself in for?
The race starts in a farmer’s field in Lewknor. I only arrived about ten minutes before my wave left so didn’t have a chance to get nervous.
In most races participants stream across the start line, often running way too fast. I know, I’ve done it. The Race to the Stones start was the opposite, and much better for it. We trotted slowly through the start and into shaded woodland for a few miles. A gorgeous start to the day.
The pit stops are located every ten kilometres or so with the first one at the top of a big hill at Swyncombe. These give participants a chance to fill water bottles, use the loo, patch your feet up and eat. I was stupidly excited by the thought of food but contented myself with just a banana, a cereal bar, a packet of dried fruit and some Munchy Seeds. Seriously, the run uses about 6000 calories so you need to fuel up!
Onwards I ran, still in shade. I loved running through the trees and beside the ditches but there were slippy roots to contend with. There was also a hidden badger hole right in the middle of the path. I’d smiled inwardly at the warning sign and then almost fell down it. That would have been the end of my race.
Between the first two pit stops there’s the famous field of dreams. I don’t dream about wheat but perhaps I’ve taken the name too literally. Anyway, it’s a nice field to run through and there’s a photographer on the far side to capture you still looking fresh.
Pit stop two passed quickly. I’m not one for gels or sports drinks so salty crisps, orange segments and bananas saw me through again. Along with lots of squash. After pit stop two the Ridgeway runs alongside the Thames until it reaches Streatley. There were a few golf courses. And some very big houses. How the other half live!
Checkpoint three was 34 km in. A new fruit on offer. Pineapple has never tasted so good. Marmite sandwiches too. And coffee. But even I, an eight mugs a day drinker, couldn’t bring myself to drink in the heat.
Leaving the checkpoint the going got tough. I hadn’t run further than this in training. It was also the distance that I’d started to suffer in the marathon. Hence my brain had already decided things would get hard. Physically the Ridgeway changes to a chalk trail. There’s no shade, the sun reflects off the white path and the temperature had risen about 10C whilst I’d been scoffing pineapple.
So I walked. There’s no shame in walking in an ultra. Indeed it’s the done thing on hills. Well, perhaps not for the racers but certainly for everyone else.
At checkpoint four there were boxes and boxes of chocolate. I love chocolate. But in the heat they’d have been liquid inside the wrappers. Instead I took another packet of crisps and a drink of flat coke and sat down, in the sun, for a while chatting to a fellow competitor. Getting up off that chair and moving again was one of the hardest things I did all day.
Still, it was only a few miles to the end of my first day. And on a section I knew very well, it being my local training run.
However there was a sting in the tail. Although the sugary coke had an initial positive effect I soon began to regret it. I never normally drink the stuff so felt sick for much of the last section. Thank god it was a relatively short one.
Day one ended on a hill near Wantage. I didn’t hang around, instead headed home for a much needed shower, clothes wash and rest.
Forecast to be even hotter, up to 31C on Wimbledon centre court for the men’s final.
We had the option of an early start. I’d set my alarm for 4.15am but this wasn’t really required as I’d been awake half the night; partly in pain from the previous day and partly because I was convinced I’d sleep through the alarm.
It turns out that many at basecamp also had a sleepless night. As one of my temporary running companions mused, how can so many fit people snore so loud?
The Ridgeway put on a spectacular sunrise. I ran with the rising sun behind me, the day still relatively cool. Chatting to and passing the same people over and over again (we weren’t running in circles, just alternating walks and runs). Almost a perfect start to the day.
I say almost. All of the niggles I’d had on day one returned for a second day. A couple of new ones joined them. I knew it was only going to get worse. But, as I like to remind myself, I did this for fun so shouldn’t whinge.
Day two was stuffed with history. Aside from the ancient Ridgeway itself there was the chalk figure at White Horse Hill, Neolithic burial mound at Wayland’s Smithy, Iron Age forts at Barbury and Liddington and of course the stones at Avebury. But did I appreciate them? Not at all.
At pit stop seven I stopped to sort out my toes and met an old work colleague who was running the second day. Small world.
You’ll notice I’ve barely talked about food on day two. It stops being a novelty. More a chore. Definitely not my idea of a running picnic!
Have I mentioned how hot it was yet? I’ve seen a few comments likening the weekend to running through the Sahara. I’m not sure that’s fully justified but the ripe crops and yellow grass certainly contributed to the feeling of a desert run.
Despite the parched landscape, or perhaps because of it, the run was spectacularly beautiful. There are a couple of sections when you remember how close to civilisation you are (crossing the M4) but for most of the run you’re immersed in the countryside. Just skylarks and hundreds of runners for company.
I ran/walked for a while after reaching the village of Ogbourne St George. As I’d set off early I was still ahead of many other runners and at times completely on my own. I would say it’s impossible to get lost as there are so many signposts but then I met a chap who had taken a wrong turn and lost time. Whoops. We carried on together for a while; a rather incident packed twenty minutes in which he took a tumble and I got nervous of the cows blocking our path. Once past the cows we were out on a wide grassy down, fabulous running territory.
Sometime after checkpoint nine I passed the tailwalkers who had set out the previous morning and presumably walked through the night. They must have been shattered!
I’d been told the last few kilometres were all downhill. Whilst this would usually fill me with joy my legs could no longer cope with anything that wasn’t dead flat. I felt every stone under my foot. The end couldn’t come soon enough!
I already knew the race ended a mile or so from Avebury and that we had to visit the Stones then double back. Other runners have commented how tough this was but I quite enjoyed seeing all the faster runners coming towards us. Everyone was offering congratulations and words of support, and then the Stones were suddenly upon us. It was a little surreal running around them (only a couple) surrounded by American tourists and family day trippers. I managed to smile, well, grimace for the photographer. And then it was only a kilometre or so to the end. Yay!
Yes, I finished. My overall chip time was 14 hours 25 minutes; 29th out of 365 lady finishers on the overnight option. Much longer than an extrapolated marathon time but when you factor in pit stops, first aid, trail conditions and walking I’m surprised it wasn’t much longer. The real challenge was just finishing and surviving the heat and distance.
I’m not sure its sunk in yet. And, despite running an ultra marathon, I’d never class myself as an ultra runner. Even though my feet and legs said otherwise. And I’ve got the photos to prove I did it.
The organisation and support for this event was impeccable. If you’re thinking of running your first ultra I can highly recommend Race to the Stones. Just hope for cooler weather!
- If you fancy entering next year head over to the Race to the Stones website.