It is the day after the day (night and day) before and I am going to try to best describe the Race to the Stones 100K ultra without sobbing into my keyboard or shivering in a corner, rocking gently repeatedly muttering to myself “you weren’t there, man, you weren’t there. The endless dark, the fields, the cows, the glow sticks.”
It started so well, with a Twitter DM group that developed a great bonhomie and didn’t descend into the maranoia and race day panic in the same way marathon groups tend to. This was an endurance event, certainly the furthest most of us had run, and not a race where time really mattered. We knew this and therefore the pressure was to a degree off. We were just there to finish somehow, sometime, in a farm, somewhere near some stones in Wiltshire, an archaeologist’s dream apparently along the Ridgeway, on a Lay Line that bisects the country at an angle.
I did, actually, have a time target based on previous marathons and a disappointing Race to the King. I wanted to finish between 11pm and midnight, with what would be a 15-16 hour 100K and this became both a running gag and a realisation the day before as we traveled down to Avebury from London via Swindon. Every so often I would joke, “this time tomorrow we’ll be running” and whilst funny the first few dozen times it became apparent that this would be the case, whether I mentioned it over breakfast, on the train, at the B&B owned by a Germanic hippy, or at the pub, the next day at that time we would all be running, and then some.
The race starts in Lewknor in Oxfordshire and crosses Berkshire into Wiltshire finishing in Avebury following the Ridgeway as shown in the shiny map above. The Stones would be at the end waiting for us. They move apparently so this makes it impossible to count them, not that I would. I think this “movement” of the Stones could be the reason why so many people I have spoken to measure the course long, by up to 9K in some cases.
And so some people would stay near the start in Oxon and get a shuttle bus back from the finish. Others stayed at both the start and end. But I thought it would be more sensible to stay at the end, after all, I was not 100% sure of what time I would finish, and missing the last shuttle back would have weighed on my mind. And so on the day of the race I was up at 4am to shower, breakfast and then join bus loads of fellow runners taking a very long ride to the start.
If you do decide to run the Race to the Stones, the shuttle supplied by the organisers is definitely worth it. And as for the B&B? Lewknor has less to offer, but Avebury is still tiny. It has one pub, the Red Lion, so book dinner before and lunch after. The food is reasonably priced and you can always add extras too. I added pigs in blankets and cauliflower cheese to my already large roast the next day. The garlic bread to tear and share is under par.
Avebury has one shop, the Henge Shop, that sells henges I guess and was closed anyway for the entire weekend. There is little else there other than a few B&Bs including Avebury life, where I stayed with 3 other runners and a cyclist who was cycling to Bristol from London and back (as you do). And you need to drive. These are country lanes with no pavement guaranteed. And during my time there not a single bar of mobile phone reception. Modern conveniences? Not for the locals, They were living in an episode of fricking Time Team.
My race kit is ever evolving based on personal experience. I am always one to try new things. I like to give hydration tabs and fueling gels and other such running related items a chance before adding them (or not) to my race bag. After RTTK things were a-changing. Rather than a Camelbak I would take the Salomon backpack that did me so well . Except I was not happy after almost poisoning myself with too much Milton and so left the bladder at home. Instead I had an 800ml bottle and a smaller 200 ml bottle that was readily accessible in the mesh pockets of the backpack.
I also took sticks, that I had spied and coveted at RTTK and a lot other people had with them. But, I never used them and in fact will give them away. I also didn’t use half the stuff in my kit. The long sleeved top, the foil blanket, the rain jacket (definitely not needed), first aid kit, again not needed and thankfully, and I had pouches of baby food to eat that I didn’t want. That last one is a bit weird I know but I read of someone running a race using them and it made sense – healthy goodness in a pouch? What is not to try?
What I did use was the ReHydrate, and there was table salt and salted peanuts at the aid stations, but regardless of popping one of those every 10K this still happened.
The First Half – So how did I do?
The start was very familiar. A farm, inflatable start line, tents where you pick up your race pack and tee shirt. Food. Large water tanks that I was a little concerned about after hearing of a Tough Mudder-esque OCR the week before where hundreds of people ended up with some gastric bug, vomiting and pooping everywhere. There were trucks to take your bags to the half way point if you were doing the 50K or camping overnight, or all the way to Avebury if doing the full 100K in one day. And there was the #UKRUNCHAT team, a more supportive and inspiring bunch of individuals you will never find.
Now at RTTK I rushed off, focusing on my footing, weighed down in the heavy La Sportiva Raptors, up a few hills and was hating it within the first few KMs as everyone I knew blitzed past me. This time would be different, I decided, I would start slow and steady, realise they would all pass me and would just run/walk my own race. I also had a trump card. I packed my On Cloudracers too. They are super light at 7 ounces, pretty flat so can be carried without knowing I have them. If the paths were as baked as hard as concrete as advertised by the organisers I may have needed to change shoes en route.
And by 13KM as I reached the first checkpoint (these were well stocked and staffed) it was quite obvious the shoes thing was going to be a problem. A few sunny days had baked the ground. Whilst there were a few hill climbs through the woods, one in particular where a stile at the top caused congestion, the paths I was running were like concrete. Concrete with exposed roots and sharp stones, even those through pretty photogenic fields.
And so by the second stop, around 20KM, after a period of running on road I swapped shoes and applied the sunblock. And my God, it made a difference as the day was turning out to be a scorcher. So hot in fact that at 28KM we spied a pub that was open and all went in for ice cold cokes and orange and lemonade.
It was after then that I saw the red UKRUNCHAT tee of Becciwba and said hi at the third aid station, and trailed her as we went through a town (maybe two) where a river regatta was taking place.
With the heat I was sweating a lot. And so at each station I refilled both bottles, the smaller with either coke or squash (to limit my sugar intake and avoid too much crashing) and the larger with squash or water. And this seemed to work for me for the first half. It was a pattern. Run, hydrating at regular intervals rather than waiting to be thirsty, then reach the next aid station, reload up, take a ReHydrate, and move onto the next one. It was working too as the day went on and the KMs ticked over, right up until the point my Garmin gave up the ghost. But then…
DNF anniversary and the kindness of strangers
As I was running happily listening to my tunes I realised there was no way you can do this the whole day. You cannot sit in your own head with Kula Shaker’s sweet beats as the only company, not for 100K. The signs at each 10K offered advice, with the 40KM sign suggesting that you speak to your fellow runners, and it will keep spirits up. And so I did. I met a lovely chap called Richard, who was running this with his brother. They were experienced mountain marathon runners and the brother was dropping back so Richard and I kept each other company and enjoyed some good banter.
This was the one year anniversary of my only ever DNF (Did not finish) at a Hampstead Heath Parkrun on the day before the Great Newham Run at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium where I had to be as I was a Men’s Running Ambassador for the event. It did weigh on me and, as the RTTS day started to progress I thought that it may be the day of my second DNF too.
But the banter put a stop to that. We joked about it becoming the day I was allowed to DNF. I could DNF on that day each year but not any other. And this elevated my mood as we talked of running conquests, the Ridgeway Gypsy, a Boer War memorial, peeing into biolumiscent plankton to write your name off a boat, peeing in the snow to wish a friend happy birthday, and eventually parted ways at the half way point.
The Raptors are Extinct – Half Way and No Cake
Half way was a tented affair much like RTTK. I met up with Becci again and her other half, in search of a tent, as I chowed down on chicken pasta and a bean medley and drank a pint of cider (as they had run out of beer!). Looking back this was a turning point. I changed t-shirt as the shirt from the first half was saturated. I put on the RTTS issued shirt, repinned the number, went to the loo and then did what I had been wanting to do since the start. I binned the trail shoes. The trails here were concrete hard and the rigid shoes were bruising the hell out of my feet. I know it is bad. But carrying them was not doing me any favours, and I was not enjoying the race so much I need a gesture for myself that I would not undertake such an event again.
I also did not have any cake, and they had Ministry of Cake too. Not like me. Not like me at all.
Gps and bad guessing
My Garmin barely made it through Race to the King and I knew full well that there was no way it could keep GPS signal for so long (need to invest in a Fenix 3 as Spence’s lasted the whole way). I wanted some guidance but at 47K the low battery message made me turn off my only way of personally tracking progress. And this added to the mental anguish at the end I think. We just didn’t know how far into each stage (a stage at this point being the gap between water stations) we were. If I got to a station and it was 11K to the next, I could guess I would make it in 90 minutes, but not necessarily. And the only markers on the route that had distances on them were at each 10K and when the aid station was 1K away. Bloody Garmin. This added to the pain of the second half of the race.
In a Race of Two Halves – one is always more shit
Before I go into the second 50KM let me just say that there were NO photographers on the course from then. I did not see a single one after half way, not even for the next 3 hours of daylight. I find that unacceptable.
If the first half of the RTTS story is the stuff of buddy movies the second half is taken from the pages of a horror novel, turned into a movie, with a lot of gore. I was actually making good progress up to and beyond half way. If you look at my tweets (and I wanted you all there with me because, well, I NEEDED you all there with me) I went through the aid stations at regular intervals and was on for the 15-16 hour time as planned.
But then the Garmin died. As I said. And, with no banter buddy Richard to keep the spirits up, and the heat of the day wearing me down I got slower and slower. My time at each aid station increased, with cups of tea and Soreen malt loaf and Walkers crisps being enjoyed as twilight set in.
Twilight for me a dangerous time. I can barely see anything. I ended up running with a small group where the leader, a lady (yes, it all sounds very post-apocalyptic movie now) , was talking about how she loved that light when she was camping as a little girl. I HATED it. I needed to focus on either the person in front, but then would miss seeing trip hazards, or leave my eyes on the uneven farmland and hopefully not run into them. And this was all before night inevitably fell and the pitch darkness and silence of the remaining 25K happened to me.
The long dark teatime of the soul aka Quitting talk
I was now sore. The RTTS t-shirt sleeves were shorter than my Adidas and the straps of the backpack rubbed my underarm raw. It was clear too that I was sunburned at least on the left arm, neck and possibly my left leg. The next shower would be challenging.
I was very thankful for the Unilite I won during some giveaway or another. But at this point, getting on for 11pm I was having a hard time. My place had slowed to a crawl. I was still running on downhill slopes, but there were so few of them it mattered not. My targeted time was out of the window. I would be coming in hours after everyone else and I was hurting. Odd how 15 hours of running on hard terrain can do that?
After an hour crossing fields with a group of limping runners who questioned why we were doing it, who were walking with torches rather than wearing head torches, where every footstep could mean cow pat up to the ankles, a trip over twisted long grass, or bruised soles of the feet on sharp, hard flint I made it to 80KM and just sat down. It was pretty much here where I tweeted I wanted to give up. I was beaten. People around me were done too. Goodness knows how long some of them had been there, but they were not moving.
For me I do love to manage expectations, especially my own. So not having any clue about distances as you are walking because of my GPS being dead, and not knowing how far it was to the next aid station until the sign telling you it was in 1KM, destroyed me. Endless fields and pitch dark stony paths through wooded areas with no one in sight, following glow sticks that showed you that you were at least going the right way, hurt emotionally as much as the route did physically.
You found yourself trying to search in the middle distance for the next glow stick, for it may have be illuminating the sign that gave you a KM marker or told you the next cup of tea and sit down was 10 minutes away. The 1000 yard stare with huge nighttime pupils.
Knowing the others would be done (and thankfully so, as I didn’t want any of them to be going through what I was), I resigned myself to the idea of being the slowest BUT fuck it! I was going to finish. So I said screw it all, didn’t bother to refill my water bottles as an incentive to get my curvy arse in gear and headed off into the darkness. There was no one around at this time. In my head everyone was either broken at one aid station or another or had finished. The next station was 11KM away. I gave myself 90 mins to do it and just kept plodding. I even decided not to stop at the next one and plough through, but I am truly, truly glad I did not do this.
The Final Stop – You know that bit in the 3rd Lord of the Rings when the Gang are Reunited?
At 89KM I found the final stop. I was so tired at this point I was barely walking in a straight line. A steady footing was hard on the uneven ground at the best of times but tiredness made it worse. I had, originally, decided not to stop but I grabbed some coke and sat down on a bench away from the sitting wounded. I wanted to catch my breath and then go. It was then, as I stood up, ready to plough on and into the unknown that I heard someone call my name. It was the #UKRUNCHAT supremo Jenni, who was sitting, shoes off on the lawn chairs. Now, this was a game changer for me.
Not only did I find out Chelsea and Nat were running together and were ahead, and that Jenni had seen Sean a stop or two back, it meant that I now had a travel buddy on our journey Into the Darkness. So, after a pause to put ourselves back together again we were off.
The last 11KM? More like 15!!!
Did the last 11KM feel like 11KM? No. A majority of it was along dirt paths, and troughs dug into rock hard farmland by heavy machinery. The amount of times I stepped down too far and jarred my back (insert expletives here) I lost count. The paths were uneven too, and so much so, that you had to hop from one to another to another just to keep forward motion. And all the while desperately looking for the glow sticks in the distance showing us we were going the right way.
At one point we, joined by more survivors from this particular meteor strike, post-nuclear, alien invasion, left one field to be confronted by another. There was no obvious direction, we could go right, or left. In the far, far distance a glow stick suggested we may need to go straight through. But no, a couple of stoners, getting wasted, resting against their boy racer mobiles (clearly there is little else to do there) told us we had to go right, and so we did, picking up the trail as it led up a couple more hills that ended up separating the survivors yet again.
By the time our head torch beams fell upon the sign for 5KM to go I think we had gone crazy. Neither Jen or I could walk in a straight line. Both of us considered SOS as we were feeling like vomit was on it’s way to join the worst party ever, and each glow stick seemed to piss us off even more.
The next glow stick after 5KM mark did lead us from the difficult paths and onto stone. We were heading down too, and in the far distance intense light hinted at the finish. Was it the Stones (those mobile bastards!)? Was it the farm and the finish (knowing you pass the farm and then double back to it)? Or something else entirely ready to dash our hopes and what little motivation we had remaining?
A steady stream of head torches suggested that it was indeed the farm, and we could see lights heading straight into the distance then turning and coming back, then turning at right angles to our right. This was indeed, the end. Only…
A 2KM sign appeared. We had been walking for an hour, it was now gone 3am. We had been moving (sitting, eating Tunnocks tea cakes, drinking tea, talking to strangers, meeting Twitter friends for the first time in the real world, and swearing a lot) for 19 hours and now we needed one final push.
Up the hill towards where we assumed the stones were, going by the farm gate and it’s glow sticks and arrows. To everyone we passed we wished congratulations and they responded, “not far now” and up to the village where a murmur from a parked car said “well done, guys.” The car was parked next to a gate and the other side of the gate the silhouettes of stones, oh, and sheep, a flock of sheep we had to walk through to continue before looping back and down to the farm gate. No photographer, no light even, just sheep. I would have thought for a race called Race to the Stones at the actual Stones there should be someone there at all times.
Moving on. The field that led to the final straight was terrible, flattened long grass, trippy, hard on the already beaten feet and ankles and up hill (of course) to the final turn. The odd ripple of applause kept us going. Jen had planned to dance over the line. I had planned to run over it, and then add the finish line photo to my collage of marathon finishes. Neither of us had the strength to do either. And there was no photographer there anyway. It was all quite demoralising really. I know we had taken longer than planned but nothing? A medal, a pat on the back and then moved on to limp around the farm as dawn broke.
No photographer at the end or at the stones, no transport, no hot food, a triage area of sleeping broken people, the bag area had food spilled all over it. It was a massive let down. The fireworks and cheering crowds, the interviews and celebration must have ended much earlier as this was the ultimate anti-climax to a race. A medal, ripple of applause and a well done followed by a desperate struggle to take a photo to commemorate what was my greatest running (endurance) achievement to date. I even needed to ask a couple of guys (the survivors from the two fields and stoners situation) to take the frame photo for me after I had taken theirs, before bumming a taxi ride back to the B&B and a very unfulfilling 3 hours sleep.
Still, what do I expect? After finishing the first half in a little over 7 1/2 hours I somehow clocked up another 12 on the second half. Shameful really but there was just no way I could have done much better without serious physical consequences. Although thinking back about 3 hours of that was spent at the second half checkpoints.
The DM group is still active and people are starting to discover injuries, ailments, cuts, bruises, blisters. Me? A day later I feel fine, if a little sleepy and the quads ache a little. My biggest physical complaint is that I have a One armed Farmer Tan on my left side. Nothing else.
It is okay. It means to me more than a pretty generic medal suggests. I think it is even the same one as last year too.
This is the tricky part, trying to sum it all up in a string of words that can not do it any justice, but I have to try so I can move on. So here goes.
Race to the Stones was the most difficult thing I have ever done. And it both humbled and crushed me. It is amazing how well everyone did and I would not have done it if it had not been for them and their support. Baking chalky trails and hot sun, managing fluids and sugar intake. I think the ReHydrate worked. The sticks were pointless (no pun intended). Twitter, oddly, as I gave the #UKRUNCHAT community updates really helped. And if I had not met up with Richard and Jenni when I did I would probably still be out there, in a field, staring wildly into the middle distance looking for glow sticks.
Would I recommend it? I don’t think I would, unless you do the two day or are so fast you can get the big finish whilst they are still bothering. I would rather advise on the Race to the King double marathon instead for a similar experience. The ending scarred me as it was such an anticlimax.
Would I run it again? Abso-fucking-lutely not!
NEXT UP: The SVN Punk Run 6 Hour lap race