A cycle ride around the Isle of Wight

When I offered my teen son a weekend away of his choice I didn’t expect him to request a cycling holiday. I’d had visions of us seeing the sights in a European city. But I couldn’t go back on my promise so after much deliberation we settled on a cycle ride around the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight promotes itself as a cycling island; no doubt helped by Lonely Planet announcing it as one of the ten best cycling destinations in the world. It has over 200 miles of cycle tracks and bridleways, it never rains (at least when I visit) and has smooth pothole free roads (Oxfordshire County Council take note).

Round the island cycle route map, Isle of Wight
Round the island cycle route map, Isle of Wight

I decided we’d tackle the round island cycle route, although we did detour from this a couple of times. Whilst road cyclists can easily complete the 65 mile route in a day we split it in two, with a halfway stop at Whitwell. Although I’m reasonably fit I’m not a regular cyclist and I didn’t fancy cycling from dawn to dusk just to get round the island in a day!

Day one: arrival in Cowes

It’s expensive to take your car to the Isle of Wight in peak season. And it makes no sense to drive over and then find somewhere to park for the weekend. Hence my first task was to research other options, from bringing our own bikes on the train, to parking in Southampton to alternative ferry routes.

Cannons at West Cowes
Cannons at West Cowes

The best combination for us, in terms of price and convenience, was to take the train from our home town to West Cowes. Actually the train only goes as far as Southampton Central but our ticket included the short bus ride to Southampton Quay and the Red Jet over to Cowes.

We then hired bikes from Wight Cycle Hire, based in Yarmouth. These were delivered to our Airbnb in West Cowes the night before our ride started. They weren’t fancy road bikes but they did the job and, a revelation, my saddle was much comfier than that on my own bike. The cycle hire shop also offered an island back up service which was reassuring as I didn’t have a puncture repair kit or tools.

Isle of Wight round island cycle signposts
Isle of Wight round island cycle signposts

Day two: Cowes to Whitwell

Our first day of cycling dawned. The Airbnb had a posh Nespresso machine but despite watching a YouTube tutorial I couldn’t work out how to use it. Fortunately Costa was only ten minutes down the hill. Half an hour later, and full of caffeine, porridge and bacon we were set to conquer the island.

Round the island cycle trail, IOW
Round the island cycle trail, IOW

I’d decided to cycle in an anti clockwise direction, to make use of the forecast westerlies. Although there wasn’t much of a breeze in Cowes I wanted the wind to be a help, not a hindrance, particularly along the south coast. It also meant we’d finish our cycle ride with a trip on the floating bridge from East to West Cowes.

Newtown saltmarsh, Isle of Wight
Newtown saltmarsh, Isle of Wight

It took us a while to get used to the bikes after leaving Cowes. Faced with the first short hilly section I changed gear and my chain immediately came off. Whilst it was easy enough to put back on it did dent my confidence a little. It also gave me an excuse to walk up the first hill of the day!

After our early drama, our route took us inland along quiet lanes away from the coast. At Newtown we took a breather, stopping at the salt marshes for a few minutes to take photos, drink water and put on suncream.

Yarmouth cycle hire and cafe
Yarmouth cycle hire and cafe

On again, along flat and quiet country roads. We didn’t see much traffic but there were a few other cyclists out and about, all cheerfully saying hi to us. We felt a little out of place as we were the only cyclists in non cycling gear carrying day packs on hire bikes. Everyone else looked the part, with road bikes and cycling jerseys.

Yarmouth old railway line, Isle of Wight
Yarmouth old railway line, Isle of Wight

We hadn’t yet paid for our bikes so stopped at the cycle hire shop in Yarmouth to do this and check route options. We also made room for elevenses at the cafe next door, Off the Rails. It would have been rude not to!

From Yarmouth we took the off road cycle route along the old railway line towards Freshwater. Although lovely to be away from road traffic the track was very busy with other bike hirers, walkers, dogs on extending leads and free range children. I almost wish we’d taken the road.

View towards West Wight from IOW round island cycle trail
View towards West Wight from IOW round island cycle trail

At Freshwater we turned east, hitting our first big hill of the day. I needed to stop for some photos (ahem, a rest) halfway up. My excuse was justified, as we had the best views of the weekend!

A little later, at Compton Farm I made a bad decision. Faced with another hill and lots of fast traffic I decided a better option would be to go cross country. I didn’t have a detailed map but there was a byway sign pointing in the direction we wanted to go so we followed it.

Road out of Freshwater Bay
Road out of Freshwater Bay

The first section, to Brook Farm campsite, was flat and paved. Great. But upon leaving the farm the route took us up a very steep rutted track, not at all suitable for our bikes. We got off and pushed to the top to be greeted with spectacular coastal views and a field full of cows and calves.

Cows near Compton Farm
Cows near Compton Farm

We sat on a bench just in front of the field gate, hoping they’d move away but they were intent on watching us back. Eventually I gave in, shooed them away and pushed my bike through the field. They ignored me. My son had already decided he was going to avoid them, by lifting his bike over a barbed wire fence and walking through the adjacent field.

Crop fields near Brighstone, Isle of Wight
Crop fields near Brighstone, Isle of Wight

After the field of cows came a field of blue butterflies, literally three or four on every thistle head. I tried to photograph them but whenever I got near they’d fly away. It was an incredible sight.

A while later we reached a road and were finally able to get back on our bikes and head to our lunch destination, Chessell Pottery Cafe.

Our afternoon cycle from Hulverstone to Brighstone and on to Chale was almost perfect. Quiet country roads, a restored water wheel and pretty villages. We could hear, and sometimes see, the vehicles whizzing along the main coast road; it was a relief not to be on it.

Blackgang Chine viewpoint
Blackgang Chine viewpoint

However the day ended back on the main road with a huge climb up to Blackgang Chine viewpoint. I’m not ashamed to say I walked most of it. Up top we sat on the benches, enjoyed the view and listened to the screams emanating from the theme park below us. Thankfully it wasn’t too far to our B&B for the evening as I was more than ready for a shower and rest.

Overnight in Whitwell

On into Whitwell, for a perfectly located overnight stopover at Kingsmede B&B. They’re used to cyclists and have a handy bike storage shed at the front of their house.

It was bliss to have a shower, make a coffee (with a kettle!) and relax in our room. Later we walked to the village pub, The White Horse Inn, for our evening meal. Good food, relatively cheap and large portions. Indeed so large that I couldn’t face dessert!

Day three: Whitwell to Cowes

After a good night’s sleep and a filling breakfast we set out again the next morning.

Ventnor greeted us with a big hill (another photo stop required halfway up) and tantalising views of the coast. My only regret of this trip was not having the time to stop and explore the places we passed.

Isle of Wight cycling, near Wroxall
Isle of Wight cycling, near Wroxall

Between Ventnor and Wroxall we followed a lovely, but of course undulating, back road. At Wroxall we left the round the island cycle route to join the Red Squirrel trail.

Back in 2016 when I created my UK bucket list I included cycling the 32 mile Red Squirrel Trail on the Isle of Wight. My plans had moved on since writing that list but I still wanted to include a section of the trail on this ride.

Red squirrel trail, IOW
Red squirrel trail, IOW

For much of the route it follows an old railway track, but not the section we joined at Wroxall. We cycled along grassy tracks and through sandy fields. We’d been used to following the large blue and white signs and this part of the trail threw up a few route finding challenges. That was, until we discovered the route was still signposted but with much smaller signs. Despite this we missed a turning at Merstone and ended up cycling towards Newport rather than Sandown. Whoops.

Pedallers, cafe on the Red Squirrel Trail
Pedallers, cafe on the Red Squirrel Trail

Back on track, and finally on the old railway track, we stopped for morning coffee at Pedallers’ Cafe another cyclists haunt. It offers a cycle repair station which was fortunate for the chap who somehow punctured his tyre right outside the entrance!

We had another short stop at Alverstone. I have a mission to see red squirrels on the Isle of Wight. Although I’ve seen them in other places around the UK they’ve eluded me on the island. Alverstone Nature Reserve has a hide, frequented by red squirrels, so we parked the bikes whilst I took a walk through the woods. As expected they were once again hiding. My quest continues.

Adgestone quiet lane
Adgestone quiet lane

From Alverstone to Adgestone we cycled along a quiet road. This supposedly has a recommended speed of 15 mph but I’m not sure the two motorists we met along the lane knew this.

At least there were only two cars. It was a different matter in Brading. A constant stream of cars overtook us, some passing a little too close for comfort. I’d already decided that we wouldn’t take the island cycle route along the busy main road to Bembridge. Instead we detoured off through Brading Marshes, an RSPB reserve, to reach St Helen’s where we briefly encountered traffic madness again.

Seaview, IOW
Seaview, IOW

The round island cycle route splits at Nettlestone. We chose the seafront route rather than staying inland. It was an exciting moment to reach the north coast. Unlike the south coast there’s lots going on in the Solent; it’s easy to get distracted!

We cycled west along the seafront, looking for a lunch stop. As it was a warm sunny day the beaches and parks were incredibly busy. We stopped at one cafe but decided it would take some time to get served so carried on into central Ryde.

On the seafront at Ryde
On the seafront at Ryde

After lunch at the aptly named Cafe on the Hill we continued, slightly inland, to Fishbourne. The track was off road but with lots of downs and ups. It was almost depressing having a long downhill section as you knew you’d be paying for it as soon as you reached the bottom!

Quarr medieval abbey, Isle of Wight
Quarr medieval abbey, Isle of Wight

We passed Quarr Abbey, busy with afternoon sightseers. Not sweaty cyclists. At Wootton we crossed the creek and I decided the end was almost in sight. A slightly premature thought as there were yet more ups and downs to negotiate.

Chain ferry between East and West Cowes, IOW
Chain ferry between East and West Cowes, IOW

Yet, as we finally arrived into East Cowes I didn’t want the ride to end. We took the chain ferry across to West Cowes, parked our bikes in the Cycle Hub and went in search of an ice cream. We’d finished. We hadn’t fallen off our bikes, we were still speaking to each other and we hadn’t got too lost. I call that a success!

More info

  • We loosely followed the Round the Island Cycle Route, with added Red Squirrel Trail. We cycled around 70 miles, height gain (and loss) was around 4700 feet.
  • I used the printed Isle of Wight cycle map for planning which was good value (£4.99) albeit slightly dated. It does not include contours!
  • This cycle ride around the Isle of Wight is achievable by most of average fitness. Take your time (2+ days) if you can as there’s plenty to see along the way. If you’re unsure about the hills you might like to consider hiring an electric bike.

My 2018 top five – and the future of this blog

Another year over. Time to reflect on the year gone by and to think about what 2019 will bring. I love looking back at what we’ve done and deciding on my five favourite things of the year. In no particular order they were:

1. Running an ultramarathon – 100km Race to the Stones

Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

This wasn’t particularly enjoyable but running 100km along the Ridgeway from Lewknor to Avebury was a huge achievement. And one I’ll never repeat! Given that I swore I’d never run another marathon I’m not entirely sure why I decided to run an ultra instead. I guess I like a challenge. It was hot, it was very long and my toenails have only just grown back. But I did it!

2. Driving the Hardknott and Wrynose passes, Lake District

View from Hardknott Roman fort
View from Hardknott Roman fort

It’s a strange turn of events when I count a day sitting in a car driving the Hardknott and Wrynose passes as one of my favourite activities of the year. Despite our incredible summer we managed to coincide our Lake District holiday with a week of rain. All of our wet weather clothing was, er wet, so I decided on a driving tour, taking in the famously steep passes. Fortunately the drive wasn’t quite as hairy as I expected. Instead, the passengers were treated to great scenery (I could only watch the road), waterfall walks and a spectacularly located Roman fort.

3. Exploring Worm’s Head, near Rhossili, Gower Peninsula

View across Worm’s Head, near Rhossili
View across Worm’s Head, near Rhossili

I loved everything about our day exploring the tidal Worm’s Head. How can I fail to enjoy a day with all of my favourite things in? Rockpooling, scrambling over jagged rocks, watching seals and eating sandwiches with an incredible view for a backdrop. A fabulous day.

4. GR221 walks in Majorca

View from Coll de L’Ofre
View from Coll de L’Ofre

This is is the year I finally made it to Majorca. And it was everything I expected. From the moment we left a grey, cold UK at Easter and flew into the warmth of sunny Palma I knew I’d love the island. Things that I remember? The smell of the citrus groves, incredible mountain walks, a Tardis of an apartment (with its own lemon grove) and freshly squeezed orange juice. It was one of those holidays where every aspect was perfect. Even the teens loved it!

5. George Ezra at Truck Festival, Oxfordshire

I’m not much of a festival person but when it’s local (as in, I can sleep in my own bed) and features my kind of line up (read, suitable for middle aged person) then I make an exception. I didn’t actually buy a ticket but volunteered for a few hours and got to watch George singing one of my favourite songs on one of those hot sunny weekends. Pretty memorable.

Blogging in 2019

Regular readers will notice two things – I don’t blog as often as I used to and the kids don’t feature as much. They’re both teenagers now; one is in their GCSE year, the other is Xbox obsessed. We still go out and I’ll continue to write about our walks, holidays and day trips. But I’ll be focusing less on family attractions and more on ‘grown up’ activities, sometimes without the kids.

What will I blog about? Well, I’m still working through my UK bucket list so I’ll be posting about these trips; in fact I have a couple to still write about from recent months. And, in a little over 12 months, I have a big birthday coming up and am planning a year of mini adventures so I’ve plenty of ideas up my sleeve.

How about you? What are your plans for 2019?

Five things to do with teens around Coniston, Cumbria

It can be hard work holidaying with teens. Even more so when your destination is a soggy Lake District rather than the Instagram perfect beach of their dreams. Fear not, if you’re in the Lakes, and you’ve managed to lure them out of bed before noon, why not try one of the following:

Walk up a mountain

Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston
Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston

Climbing to the summit of any mountain gives a great sense of achievement, even if there are a few grumbles along the way. From Coniston, the 2634 ft Old Man of Coniston is the obvious target. The tourist trail paths are well marked and there’s plenty of legacy mining activity to add interest.

We booked on to a guided walk with Lake District volunteer leaders. Our route was originally designed to summit both the Old Man and Dow Crag. However the incessant rain put paid to this and our leader suggested an alternative descent instead of Dow Crag. Although slightly disappointing we were all soaked through and it was the right decision. Of course the rain eased off not long afterwards!

Route down from Old Man of Coniston
Route down from Old Man of Coniston

Walking with a guide offered us the opportunity to learn more about the area and its industrial history, which I wouldn’t always appreciate if walking alone. The National Park offers a variety of walks for all abilities which generally cost £10 or less per person (many are free). Highly recommended.

Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston
Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston

Go gorge scrambling

If there’s one thing that gets teens animated it’s the chance of an adventure. Something completely different from their day to day routines. Gorge scrambling definitely offers this.

We booked a half day gorge scrambling and canyoning trip with Adventure 21. This was a somewhat unusual activity for me as, unlike the rest of the family, I do not like water. I can hardly swim and I hate getting my face wet. I was way out of my comfort zone.

Gorge scrambling - photos courtesy of Adventure 21
Gorge scrambling – photos courtesy of Adventure 21

After manoeuvring ourselves into wetsuits, waterproofs and helmets we walked from Coniston Water up through the village to Church Beck. Here we entered the fast flowing water and I was relieved not to be immediately swept downstream. Despite my fears an almost enjoyable two hours ensued. Gorge scrambling is as it sounds; we climbed up through small waterfalls and negotiated the rocky river bed. If you’re used to scrambling on dry land, this is technically easier but the water makes it ‘interesting’.

At the end of the scramble there’s a chance to try canyoning. Better known as scary big jumps into water. The non-swimmer in me opted out. There was no way I was going to put my head under water.

Despite my reservations everyone survived. And, as predicted, the teens declared this the best day of the holiday.

Take a boat trip on Coniston Water

Coniston boat trip
Coniston boat trip

I’d been looking forward to a boat trip in the Lake District (particularly as it’s one of my UK bucket list items). Truth be told, this was one of our less enjoyable days. It didn’t help that I’d read the wrong timetable and arrived just as the steam gondola I’d planned to catch left the jetty. Or that it was raining. Again.

We took an alternative boat which, although perfectly serviceable, wasn’t what I’d envisaged. Our 60 minute cruise took us up to Wildcat Island, of Swallows and Amazons fame, before returning via Brantwood. This was the home of John Ruskin and makes for an interesting stopover. There’s a cafe, museum and, on dry days, gardens to explore.

Brantwood House
Brantwood House

For a little more excitement we could have hired a canoe, kayak or rowing boat from the Coniston Boating Centre. But I’d had enough of water over the previous couple of days. And at least our boat trip was weather proof.

Go on a road trip

I was running out of ideas to occupy another wet day. Sitting in a car for much of the day wouldn’t normally feature on my list of activities. But when your drive includes a route over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes it’s a lot more exciting!

View from Hardknott Roman fort
View from Hardknott Roman fort

We drove a circular route via Coniston to Broughton-in-Furness, up to Duddon Bridge and Ulpha, onto Eskdale then over the passes to Little Langdale.

We stretched our legs in Eskdale with a walk to Stanley Ghyll Force waterfall and again at Hardknott Roman Fort. The fort is in an incredible setting but I didn’t envy its inhabitants. The winters would have been so harsh; no amount of Roman plumbing could convince me to live there.

View across Wrynose Pass
View across Wrynose Pass

From the fort a single track road zigzags up and over Hardknott and then Wrynose Pass. It’s one of the steepest roads in the UK so you’ll be lucky to get out of second gear. My advice? Give way to drivers coming uphill (and locals), concentrate on the road and don’t be scared by the TripAdvisor reviews. If you’re a confident driver in a decent vehicle you’ll be absolutely fine. Believe me, it’s one of the best drives in the UK. Even the teens stayed awake for it!

Explore caves

There are lots of abandoned quarries, mine workings and caves in this area. Many are dangerous and shouldn’t be entered. However Cathedral Quarry, a short walk from Little Langdale, offers you the opportunity to explore a man made quarry and tunnels in a relatively safe environment.

Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale
Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale

Cathedral Quarry is, rather surprisingly, owned by the National Trust. It is not your usual NT property. It’s free to visit and always open but there are no facilities or cafe. You’ll need to bring a torch for the tunnels and waterproof footwear for clambering over rocks and wading through puddles. Great fun for an hour or two. Oh, and watch out for the goldfish!

Important

All of the above suggestions are at your own risk. As in, they might be dangerous. But how boring would life be it was perfectly safe?

We visited in summer (I use this term loosely); a winter visit is a completely different undertaking.

Race to the Stones – a 100km jog along the Ridgeway

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?

Race to the Stones
Race to the Stones

The route

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.

Kit

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!

Race preparation

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?

Day one

Just after the start - Race to the Stones
Just after the start – Race to the Stones

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.

Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

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!

Pit stop one, Race to the Stones
Pit stop one, Race to the Stones

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.

Beside the Thames, Race to the Stones
Beside the Thames, Race to the Stones

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!

Pit stop info, Race to the Stones
Pit stop info, Race to the Stones

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.

My favourite pit stop, Race to the Stones
My favourite pit stop, Race to the Stones

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.

Afternoon on the Ridgeway - day one, Race to the Stones
Afternoon on the Ridgeway – day one, Race to the Stones

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.

Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

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.

End of day 1, Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
End of day 1, Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

Day two

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.

Just after sunrise - day 2, Race to the Stones
Just after sunrise – day 2, Race to the Stones

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?

Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

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.

Early morning on the Ridgeway - day two, Race to the Stones
Early morning on the Ridgeway – day two, Race to the Stones

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!

Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
Race to the Stones Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

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.

Cattle in the way!
Cattle in the way!

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!

Only 14km left!
Only 14km left!

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!

The end (almost) at Avebury Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography
The end (almost) at Avebury Copyright: Sussex Sport Photography

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.

After

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!

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