Last Saturday, the 19th of July, I ran the Race to the Stones 100k ultra along the Chiltern Ridgeway in the south of England near Oxford. The Ridgeway is an area of outstanding natural beauty and has been a route for travelers in Britain for over 5,000 years. For me, it would mean extending my previous record running distance by over 30k on a hilly course with mixed terrain. While the course didn’t cover anything you might consider as a serious climb and the weather wasn’t anything too extreme, the sheer distance proved to be quite a test, both physically and mentally.
I arrived at the race having just returned from a conference in France so I was a bit tired, but I imagine there were quite a few folk who had traveled long distances to the race and I only needed a couple of hours to reach the start from my parent’s house in Stevenage. I’d been planning this race for a while and was well prepared with all the regulation kit and a good selection of snacks and gels. Rather than running with a backpack like a lot of the other guys I had opted for a minimalist approach using three belt bags for my kit with a spare warm top tied around my waist. I carried 500ml of suero in my running bottle with an extra 250ml in a belt bag tucked into my shorts at the back. This also held my gels and emergency food supplies. Round the front I had an emergency poncho for the rain, a map of the course printed double sided, a sandwich bag with sun-cream, a dinky head-torch to clip onto my cap, and a tiny mobile phone. I’d ordered the phone online the previous week especially for this race knowing it would be small and light. This was a specialized piece of kit modeled to look like a BMW key fob with low metal content. Apparently these are designed to be smuggled into prisons and the government are now looking at banning them for sale in the UK. So, I guess I was lucky to get one when I did.
I also had the luxury of starting the race with my own support team. These were my mum and auntie Anne who came along to the race and agreed to help me out with food, water and clean socks. While the aid stations at the race were well stocked and it would have been no big problem to run the race unsupported, being able to eat my own food and have my wet socks changed at the stations was a great help. I also appreciated seeing some familiar faces from time to time and it was great to have them there to cheer me on. There were more than a couple of points where this helped to keep me going when pulling out of the race might have seemed the more sensible option.
The atmosphere at the start of the race was friendly and it looked like a good turnout. There were just under 700 for the non-stop 100k race and about that again for the 50k and two day 100k races combined. I had arrived late so started quite far back in the field. While I tried to push a bit further forward toward the front before the start I could only make it so-far. This meant the crowd was moving quite slowly by the time my part set off and I had to take it easy for the first couple of k.
As it turns out I didn’t mind the slow start that much as over the course of the 100k I knew I’d be walking again sure enough. In fact, I didn’t even warm up before the race since I planned to use the start to loosen my muscles, picking up some valuable distance in the process.
After the start the course we passed down through some houses and spectators before moving into the country onto a single track lined with stingy nettles. This brought us to a near stop before moving uphill onto a wider path with a grass verge. I jumped onto the verge to skip past some runners and the grass felt comfortable underfoot but I was worried that I might be better off preserving my energy early on by walking the hills. I was probably right, but the adrenaline I would need to propel me through the next 99k wouldn’t let me slow down.
As we turned right and went downhill over a stony path I felt I was running well within my capabilities but I was flying past the other runners, often having to weave a bit to get past groups bunched up on the narrow path. So far, it was plain sailing. Physically, the start is the most comfortable part of an ultra-marathon. You can run quite slowly knowing that you can use the energy later on. There’s no need to push yourself at all, just concentrate on relaxing and running efficiently. Mentally, the feeling of having a lot more to go can be a bit more troubling. The important thing is to try and concentrate on pace and efficiency.
On reflection though I’m sure I ran this part of the race too quickly. I just kept moving forward passing runners and pushing myself just that little bit too much. At first this was out of necessity. If I ran with someone just in front of me I would find it difficult to see the ground ahead properly and would falter by hitting a puddle or stumbling into a tractor track. Eventually the field spread out a little. But this only started to happen after around 5 or 6k. This gave me a good idea of the size of the field and the overall standard of the runners, which was scary on both counts. I guessed that no-one would sign up to a 100k race without already being quite a well conditioned runner so the standard wasn’t any kind of shock. What surprised me was the sheer quantity of good runners. The field never seemed to end and it certainly wasn’t slowing down.
As I progressed and the field thinned I fell into my usual race strategy of slowly and methodically catching up with each runner ahead. This was a l-o-n-g race however and before I knew where I was I was pushing on too quickly and trying to catch up with runners who were clearly a lot faster than me or in better shape. The terrain was also getting rougher. There was more climbing and the plants and roots were becoming more of an obstacle. The plants and stuff were annoying but the hills were starting to become a real problem. I train in the hills all the time but never seem to race well on them. I would’ve liked to have speed-walked a few the steeper ones but I just don’t seem to have this ability. If I run up a hill I can normally edge up on the walkers but if I walk then just about everyone seems to drift away from me quite rapidly no matter how hard I push. That includes the other walkers. I was pushing on the hills for now but later I would be pressed into a more sensible paced strategy through attrition and muscle fatigue.
The next 10k had a lot more climbing and some fantastic scenery, through forest, corn fields and poppies. The poppies looked nice but bruised the soles of your feet when you stood on them and bashed into your knees and ankles. The path could also be quite snaky at times but the arrows where quite well placed and easy to follow. When I had no-one close in front it was normally quite easy to find my way to follow the route. I fact, I only really got lost twice, first over this section for just a moment when I started running down a gully parallel to the path and later around 45k where I had to turn back 300 odd meters to rejoin the course.
I didn’t spend a lot of time at the second pit stop, just taking time for a couple of crisps, half a banana and a gulp of water before re-filling my water bottle and heading back out onto the track. There seemed to be a lot more runners around at this point and I was beginning to feel the strain a little, although I was happy to have almost a quarter of the race under my belt. What followed was around 5k of good track before my group of runners fell down the track onto a busy road.
This was my first sighting of my pit crew since the start of the race. I had my water filled and they handed me a couple of tortillas and a banana to eat on the hoof. I decided not to change my wet socks until later, figuring I might wait until the drizzle stopped and we reached higher ground for a better chance of them staying dry for longer into the race.
It was now past the 25k mark and I was feeling good so I picked up my pace to reach the runners I crossed the road with. I knew the slow burning calories from the tortilla would serve me well as the race progressed but it was a bit heavy on my stomach so I really needed to force it down. I had the banana for dessert. This was a bit easier to eat but I now needed to stop for an après mangé sit-down toilet break. This proved to be a bit tricky given the lack of well placed foliage and I ended up having to squat with the backs of my legs in a patch of nettles. Ouch!
The 3rd pit stop was a bit further off at 31k with a 1k to go sign to welcome us in. I spent a bit more time at this stop, filling up my water bottle with a mix of cranberry juice, water and salt. It was only a third of the way the way through the course but I was already starting to feel the strain. Part of this was likely down to the apprehension of the 70 remaining kilometers, the rest was the distance and the terrain I’d already covered. I knew this would only get worse so to gee myself on I set a preliminary target of 42k, marathon distance. After this, piece-by-piece by continually reassessing the target I felt I could finish the race.
The terrain would get better after the third checkpoint as we moved onto tarmac roads going into the small town of Goring on Thames. It was nice to see so many of the locals out to support the runners. This continued almost continually across the entire 100k. I tried to pick up my pace a bit from the encouragement but was beginning to fade a bit at this point and starting to have doubts about finishing the race. Just before going into the town I suffered a mild hallucination. It was nothing much, I just though I saw someone was doing a bit of a disco dance in the middle of the road but I was getting worried and starting to wonder when the energy from the food I’d eaten on-route would kick in.
At the top of the hill coming out of Goring I came across an Irish guy who had already slowed right down. We discussed how we both might have set off too quickly. This was his first ultra and I tried to reassure him that he might get a second or even a third wind as his body starts to process the calories from the food at the aid stations (although I was starting to doubt this myself a bit). Then, just at the right time my pit crew appeared and I was able to take some water, a gel and have my socks changed. It felt really good to have dry feet again and the boost from seeing my mum and auntie would carry me on for at least another 10k in good spirits.
Pushing on toward the 4th checkpoint at 38k the field was thinning out again and I was regularly picking up places on the downhill and losing them again on the uphill. It seemed that I kept seeing the same runners over and over again. Over all, I was just trying to keep going without too much variation in my pace. The climb toward this checkpoint was over 300 meters and by the time I got there I was exhausted.
The first thing I did when I arrived at checkpoint 4 was to use one of the porta-loos. When I spied myself in the small mirror on the door I was shocked to see my face was as white as a sheet. This was only after 40k and I really thought I might not be able to continue. Then I realized, I was still covered in sun-cream. Before the race I had made the mistake of checking the weather forecast in Stevenage rather than Oxfordshire, so was looking forward to a heatwave rather the rain and slathered myself with sun-cream. The white sun-cream was making me look a shade paler than I normally am. I’m also a shade or two paler than a normal white person due to my Scots and Irish lineage.
The medical team at the pit-stop were also a bit concerned about my complexion but I explained about the sun-cream and they let me go on after insisting I fill my belly and water bottles. This pit-stop was at the bottom of a hill and I set off walking and losing places. Shortly after this I picked up my pace but took a wrong turn following the runner ahead. This meant we had to turn back about 300 meters to rejoin the course. The walk back, and the following hill, were taken very slowly. The tops of my legs started to ache and even after the other guys started to run at the end of the hill I continued walking. Runner after runner filed past me and I felt like a beaten man.
Up until this point I had convinced myself that most of the runners around me were only doing 50k. I was wrong. When the course split for the 50k overnight base-camp everyone else ahead of me and behind turned with me to go toward the 5th pit-stop at 48k. By the time I walked off the tough grassy trail into the almost half way checkpoint I was aching and demoralized. To compound my misery I’d stood in a puddle just after the turn and my feet were soaked. The medical staff had a good look at me at the checkpoint and let me know that 48k was already something of an achievement if I decided not to go on. Sure, it was an ultra-marathon distance, but I had already ran 70k, in the hills and in the altitude and heat of Oaxaca! There were a couple of guys sitting down who had already thrown in the towel. I had some pasta and sat down with them for a bit. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to stop but I had to get up and keep going. I had a pit team and everything. I couldn’t let them down, so I told myself I should continue on until 70k, then I could walk or crawl the rest – anything but stop.
I started back off on my stiff legs and it seemed to take an age to get going again. But once I got going it didn’t feel so bad. It was the move between walking and running that felt rough to start with, but whenever I knew this was coming it didn’t feel so bad. It was as if my body had somehow accepted the pain I was going to inflict on it and was now just getting on with things. The faster I went, the sooner it would be over. I also sensed the other runners around me starting to slow down. This was reassuring, maybe the energy from my pasta or tortillas would start to kick in soon too for the second wind.
Moving along toward pit-stop 6 at 61k there was a lot of climbing and my pace dropped right down. I was doing alright against the other runners though. By this point I had developed a new hill strategy of stopping running early on the climb and starting up again right before the crest. This saved me time over some of the other runners who tended to stop and start running later taking the start of the hill running but continuing to walk long after they passed the crest. I also took careful note of when and where the other runners stopped and started to try and gain back some meters by starting earlier or stopping later. The hard-core guys who still ran the hills, and I noticed there were still a few of these maniacs left, had my total respect but I was in no way at all tempted to join them let alone attempt to race them.
The last bit toward the 61k pit-stop was painful. It was now quite hot and I took to wearing my wet long sleeve top over my head to cool me down a bit. When I reached the stop I poured a bit more water over my head to try and wake up. When we left the stop there was a bit more uphill before crossing a big road. Then some downhill and my second wind. It was great to feel I was racing again and picking up some places. I also had a moral boost with the knowledge that we were entering the ultimate stages of the course.
When I spoke to another runner he described the last kilometer toward the stop at 70k as the longest in the race. I hadn’t seen the 1-kilometer-to-go marker he was referring to but the kilometer sure felt long to me too. Then again, by this time all of them did. He suggested we power-walk to the pit-stop but I could only run. It was actually less painful than walking at this point because of the cramp in my legs. Onward to the stop.
This would be the first time I met my pit-team since before the 38k and it was fantastic to see them again. I left my spare water container and wet warm top to run a bit lighter onto the finish. I ate a bit of Dundee cake (I think) and off I went. Two more stops to go!
The 70 to 80k section had a lot of downhill and gave us all a good chance to speed up again. Although, I’m sure at this stage my pace was terrible at least I wasn’t walking. To be honest this part of the race is a bit of a blur. I can remember crossing a few busy roads, some brutal hills and a torrential downpour. I had my socks changed again, probably at the 81k pit-stop, and I kept overtaking and being overtaken by a guy in a white top who was supported by a girl on a mountain-bike. This seemed to last for about 5k or so before he jogged up an incline that I could only consider as steep enough to walk. I was also overtaken by two girls who were chatting among themselves and seemed to be finding the race a lot easier than me.
At the final 89k checkpoint I was shattered but buoyed by the prospect of finishing the race before it got dark. I spent a while at the aid station taking on fluids for my final assault on the finish line. At this point my ankles as well as my thighs were sore but thankfully I had my race team with me to give me some encouragement.
When I set off it took an age to get running again. The uneven ground seemed to be molded just the right way to inflict the maximum torture on my legs and there were just enough other runners around to push me into an undesirable pace. My ankles were now killing me. I was trying to power-walk to keep up with two guys in front who seemed to be in good form chatting away. When one of them broke away to run the last part of the race the other guy stuck with me and gave me an outline of the remainder of the course. He told me it’d be mostly downhill from here on in. This was music to my ears.
This guy then broke away with another runner and I stayed walking until the ground leveled out. After this I was running again. Straight along, then a right turn down the hill toward Avebury. I was near the end but had lost 2k somewhere and would finish up clocking over 102k on my Garmin. On the way down the hill another girl runner overtook me. I had lost another place but was happy to still be running and felt strong for the finish.
Coming into Avebury we would run towards the Avebury stone circle, go round a few of the standing stones, turn back on ourselves then turn left to head up toward the finish line with 500 meters uphill on grass followed by another left turn and 500 meters downhill over tarmac toward the finish. On the way up toward the stones I crossed a few familiar faces including the Irish guy I spoke to coming out of Goring and the the chatting girls who passed me at around 70 to 80k.
As I passed through the stones I felt a wave of relief coming over me. I’d surely make it to the end now. Filled with confidence I closed in on the runner in front who was herself closing in on another runner who I recognized from earlier in the race. It was guy in the white top who was supported by the girl on the bike. I passed them both running up the hill before sprinting down the finishing straight to cross the line.
There was a good crowd at the finish line to cheer us in and a warm meal to help with the recovery. It was great to see my mum and auntie Anne who had been so kind to help me out throughout the race. I’d made it, and could finally stop for a rest. I’d finished in 81st place out of 695 with a time of 12 hours 41 minutes and 35 seconds. After 5 minutes sitting to eat my pasta I could barely move my legs again but I was happy. I’d done it.
On reflection, if I were to do a race like this again in the future I would concentrate more on pacing myself, especially during the early stages. Over the second half of the race I lost around 30 places in all and really slowed down drastically for some sections. I did however achieve my main objective to finish the race and my overall placing looked good. I’d definitely like to try this distance again to build on this performance. Maybe I’ll even try to step up to a longer distance if I can find the courage.
See you back on the trail sometime soon!