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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What’s it like to run the London marathon?

Last weekend I ran the 2016 London marathon. When the ‘You’re in’ magazine landed on my doormat last October I was excited, nervous and frankly amazed (only 1 in 15 entrants secured a ballot place). I was even more excited and nervous six months later.

Getting to the start

I wasn’t the only one. The train to Blackheath was packed with runners discussing finish times, training plans and previous races. Chatting to each other helped settle the nerves but there was no getting away from the challenge of what we were about to do. As we disembarked a helicopter overhead was transmitting pictures of us streaming up to the start area. We were famous!

On the way to the blue start, Blackheath
On the way to the blue start, Blackheath

It’s hard to envisage how much organisation must go into getting 39,000 runners ready for the marathon but from my perspective it was seamless. Runners are split between three different starts; red, green and blue, which all join up by the third mile. Each colour has its own area, with luggage lorries, changing areas, information point and toilets.

Ah the toilets. Female urinals. I have never seen so many perplexed women holding up bits of cardboard and wondering how to use them. And what to do with them when finished. (Note to organisers, next year put the rubbish container inside the urinal area).

Decisions, decisions!
Decisions, decisions!

Fortunately there were alternatives to the ladies urinals, as long as you didn’t mind queuing. The portaloos certainly seemed the more popular option.

The baggage drop took seconds, as did the pick up afterwards. With time to spare I decided on one last cup of coffee before the run. This wasn’t my wisest decision of the day but I never say no to coffee.

The baggage lorries
The baggage lorries

Although I’d arrived early the minutes flew by and it was soon time to find my starting pen. I was in pen nine, the final pen on the blue start. It took about ten minutes from the race start to the time I crossed the start line. This doesn’t matter as your final chip time takes this into account. The five hour pacemaker was also in this pen but I stayed clear of the pacers as they were usually surrounded by crowds of runners.

So how did the race go?

London marathon miles 1-6

These were my novelty miles. Running past houses whose residents had come out to cheer us on. Hearing the race marshals shouting “Hump!” every few hundred metres to warn us of road humps. Spotting the Guinness World Record contenders and feeling relieved I didn’t have to run as a dinosaur or carry a boat. High-fiving the children beside the road and trying not to miss any of them out. I quickly learnt to avoid the plastic bottles in the road after the water stations and not to stand on sticky gel sachets.

The weather was perfect for running; cool, mostly cloudy with a slight breeze. I’d wavered at the start about whether to wear my jacket or start in a T-shirt. I chose the warmer option. Although if it had warmed up much more I’d have been faffing around re-pinning my number onto my T- shirt whilst running.

Six miles in and the crowds were out in Greenwich town, drinking beer at 11am and making lots of noise around the Cutty Sark. I don’t think many people heeded the information in the Spectator’s Guide about staying away from this area!

Waiting in the start pen
Waiting in the start pen

London marathon miles 6-13

These miles were great. I was still fresh enough to enjoy the experience and towards the end it included my race highlight, Tower Bridge.

However I was regretting my last minute cup of coffee. There were long queues at the first few toilet stops and I didn’t want to waste time. This didn’t appear to affect the men who were relieving themselves wherever there was a gap in spectators. I eventually took a break and queued for a few minutes but the relief was worth it.

As I ran one of my favourite diversion tactics was reading the spectator’s signs: “If Donald Trump can run for President you can run 26.2 miles” and “Smile if you’re not wearing underwear” (I was, but couldn’t help smiling anyway).

On to the best part of my race. Everything I’d read about Tower Bridge was true. It really is a fantastic experience to run across the bridge, cheered on by the crowds. I couldn’t resist another quick break, this time to take some photos.

Heading over Tower Bridge, London
Heading over Tower Bridge, London

London marathon miles 13-18

After Tower Bridge the route turns right along The Highway and you’re passed, on the opposite side of the road, by the fast runners approaching their 23rd mile. I looked over enviously. When it was my turn to run back I looked at those just passing their 13 mile mark and wondered if they had similar feelings. Particularly given they were being overtaken by the road sweepers and followed by coaches to pick up retiring runners.

Everyone who runs the London marathon talks about the support from the spectators and volunteer marshals. There’s music for all tastes too; brass bands, drummers, pipers and a street rave. Even a group of portable church bell ringers. But sometimes I relished the quieter parts of the route, away from the shouts and cheers.

Ben, the man running 401 marathons in 401 consecutive days, and attempting to raise £250,000 for anti-bullying charities was running near me for some of the way. Wow, I could hardly walk the following day let alone run another marathon. I also ran beside a man with ‘Sexy’ printed on his top. The spectators loved supporting him!

Towards the end of this section I’d eaten most of the food I’d bought along. Most runners used energy gels, and spectators were handing out jelly babies and Haribos, but I relied on my stash of Nakd bars. I liked them before the marathon but am not sure I can ever face one again.

London marathon miles 19-26

These miles were hard, very hard. I always knew I was going to finish but my running reduced to a shuffle, interspersed with bouts of walking. At around 19 miles I got stitch. I hardly ever get stitch! Added to this, my knees and shins were screaming with every step. Did I hit the dreaded wall? I don’t know, but my body had decided it was time to stop.

Almost finished
Almost finished

Fortunately my mind decided otherwise; I wanted my medal. I let the last few miles pass in a blur. Head down and one foot in front of the other. I almost missed Mo Farah running towards us at one point high-fiving the runners.

The finish

I counted down the miles, then the 100 metre markings and finally the last 385 yards (interesting mix of measurements). It was such a relief to reach the finish line and receive my medal, I really didn’t enjoy those last few miles.

Finished!
Finished!

After the medal came the goody bag queue. I received a huge T-shirt, a bag full of snacks (mostly distributed to the family later) and a welcome bottle of water.

Fifteen minutes later I received a congratulatory text from a friend who’d been tracking me. She let me know I’d run the London marathon in 4 hours 28 minutes and 2 seconds. I’d also raised almost £600 for Style Acre, an Oxfordshire based charity that supports adults with learning disabilities.

So how do I sum up my London marathon experience? If I had to define it in just three words, they’d be noisy, inspirational and painful. But I cannot miss out the cheering spectators and helpful marshals, perfect weather and world-class sights. I don’t plan to run again though; my knees tell me it was a once in a lifetime experience. And it’s only fair to let someone else take a chance with the ballot.

If you fancy running the marathon next year then pop over to the Virgin London marathon website for more information on the ballot and other ways to enter.

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London marathon training the wrong way: the long run

I hadn’t planned on writing this post today but after a memorable long run (for the wrong reasons) I wanted to write about it so I can look back and laugh in future months.

So what are the marathon training lessons I’ve learnt on my run today?

  1. Three mugs of coffee before you head out on a 2.5 hour run are not the best preparation.
  2. You should still take water with you.
  3. Due to number 1 you’ll need to find suitable outdoor facilities. Sadly every bush will have a dog walker, cyclist or Duke of Edinburgh group hiding behind it.
  4. If your partner tells you the track won’t be muddy ignore him. He’s forgotten how heavy it rained during the week.
  5. If a group of mud spattered mountain bikers tell you the track isn’t muddy ignore them too. They’ve just churned it up.
  6. It is easy to get lost within a 6 mile radius of home.
  7. When you have to retrace your steps because you’re lost it will invariably be uphill.
  8. Wear proper running socks. You’ll appreciate them when your socks are soaked after running the wrong way through a field of long wet grass. Alternatively expect blisters.
  9. If you forget to charge up your technology before you leave you’ll have no idea how far or fast you’ve run (or where you are).
  10. The countryside is beautiful whatever the weather!

Have you any long run tips to add to these?!

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Running the London marathon 2016: February update

Update: follow the link if you’d like to jump straight to my report of running the London marathon.

I cannot believe I’m already writing my February update. The month has flown by and the London marathon is now less than 60 days away, a scary thought. How am I getting on?

Training

On Saturday I ran the longest run of my life. 14 miles. Woo hoo! Two months ago I couldn’t contemplate running this far but I’ve trusted my plan and, dare I say, it wasn’t too bad at all. Although my legs are still a little achy.

I’ve missed out one training session. During half term we went to London for the day; I was supposed to run for 50 minutes that evening but we didn’t get home until 8pm and the thought of heading back out wasn’t appealing. In fairness I had been on my feet for most of the day and must have easily walked 6 miles.

The only other training I’ve changed was a speed session. To put it bluntly, I just couldn’t be bothered. I much prefer to pootle along at my own pace and although I know speed sessions are beneficial I don’t enjoy them. That said, I have managed to take 30 seconds off my Parkrun personal best this month so all the running must be doing me some good!

Touch wood I haven’t picked up any injuries from running yet. I do have neck and back problems but that’s more to do with age and years of bad posture. Aside from this I get niggles in my legs which last about a mile and then just as I’m starting to worry about them they’ll stop and something else starts hurting instead.

Gear

I’m slowly getting to grips with my new Garmin watch. It’s definitely more accurate than my phone app which was over-estimating both my distance and pace (pity). Despite the time it takes to locate a GPS signal I find it much easier to access and use whilst out on a run. The downside is that I’m having to carry my phone too in case of emergencies.

The trainers are still comfortable and the roller is being rolled on although I’m yet to be convinced it makes the slightest difference.

Food and drink

All of the marathon advice I’ve read stresses the importance of correct fuelling. Most seem to advocate gels and energy drinks but I’m not too keen on using these so I’ve been practising eating real food (Nakd energy bars) whilst I run. I haven’t choked yet!

Similarly I don’t generally drink much if I’m running but I know that if it’s a warm day I’m going to have to. I don’t normally carry a water bottle but will force myself to do so on longer runs so that I can get used to drinking on the go.

The month ahead

March is by far the hardest month of the training plan with four very long runs scheduled. I’m already struggling to find new and interesting routes so I think I’ll be pretty bored of running by the end of the month. I’m off to Belfast for a few days after Easter so will somehow need to fit runs in (and take all my running gear in my plane hand luggage) but at least I’ll have somewhere different to run.

According to the plan I should also be scheduling a half-marathon in. The organiser of the the local half-marathon I’m interested in obviously isn’t following my training plan as the date clashes with my longest run! I still haven’t decided what to do but am wondering if it’s a bad thing to delay my long run a week (into my taper period) or to run an extra 7 miles after I finish the half marathon. Watch this space…..

Are you training for the London marathon? Do leave a comment to let me know how you’re getting on.

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