I had to do it for closure. I had to do it this way for completeness.
Back in 2016 I ran Race to the King as my first trail marathon, I ran just day one as a tester for Race to the Stones as my first ultra, that I ran all the way though (100K) in one go. Some do give the Threshold series stick, saying they make ultras too easy, too accessible, too mainstream. But I run them specifically for that reason, because you are well supported, they are well organised, and have very generous cut offs (as hiking this race is a popular option).
For the three Threshold races you have options.
- Run Day One and go home (like I did at King)
- Run Day One and camp and go home
- Run Day One and camp and then Run Day Two
- Run All the Way Through (like I did at Stones)
And so I have run day one, and run all the way through, meaning I HAD to try the two day with camping option. Camping? Me? I have never been camping in my life. I am absolutely clueless.
This would be a team effort, with dear friends and new friends making our way along the length of the Cotswolds. I would meet Mind Over Marathon’s mental health advocate Jake Tyler at the last day one CP. I would play the overtaking game with Insta runner Whatcharliedidnext, and see the Selfie Runner team of Jo at the start and Dave at half way, an Instagram guy who’s name escapes me and I went bombing down a hill and missed the turn, and then there was this bunch: Drew, Whiffers, Jenni, JK, Clare, and Keith. Some of the loveliest people you could meet on the trails.
Hills hills hills there is literally nowhere flat in the Cotswolds. And this becomes pretty obvious within the first ten miles. The standard plan of walking the ups, running the downs and flats was completely off the table. The ups were steep, the downs were as steep and at times technical, and the only flats I remember seemed to be at the CPs.
After a disappointing RTTK back in 2016 I had decided to go for it. The things I did wrong there and at RTTS would be put right. I would leave the others at the start and then run. My CP stops would be minimal. I would refill my water bottles, eat no more than a mouthful or two of something, and then get going. And this, for the most part, worked like a dream.
Tunes cranked way up (hot patootie, bless me soul, I really love that rock ‘n’ roll), I sped off at the start. Country lanes diverted into fields of sheep. All gates and stiles were numbered and mile markers clearly marked the way. These were great devices for managing your own expectations and I was ticking them off CP1 appeared, then CP2.
At one point there was a narrow barbed wire edged severe incline that took a good while to climb. I pulled myself up that with the help of the fence below the wire and thought it would be very hard for others to get up. It would be impossible in the rain. Once at the top, heart trying to beat it’s way out of my chest, I was treated to wide expansive panoramic views, before heading down again, and a golf course before a road with cars way too close.
JK had met the first lady at St Wales who said it was hillier than Illtyds and it was. Sharp descents appeared from nowhere. After a long slog uphill, a prolonged time with a great view, you read a CAUTION sign before starting on a 30m descent on loose stone at the kind of angle that no one’s knee would be happy with. Controlling your descent your legs would be burning before you hit the bottom. As it was my right knee was still suffering from a little Tendinitis. And this terrain did not help. This was infinitely tougher than King and Stones. I was glad I came into it off the back of 5 marathons and a couple of trail 50Ks. It made me appreciate just how ill-prepared I was for King 2 years earlier. Hence me actually going for it (relatively speaking).
The route was well sign posted, something that was lacking at my last trail ultra, where I got lost 4 times!!! And it makes one hell of a difference when you don’t have to worry about getting lost. That can be quite tiring, not least with all the backtracking to find the right route.
Much like the other Threshold races the CPs were very well stocked, and manned by friendly marshals happy to make you tea and bring you anything you needed. Some people describe these ultras as a running/walking buffet. You eat your way through them. But knowing I spent 3 hours at CPs at Stones in total at least on this, day one, it was a minimal bite of something to eat, a cup of drink, bottle refill and then leave. And that was something they did here that I really can get behind. No single use cups. You had to bring your own, which was, as you will see later, quite fortunate.
I met Nige Smith at the next checkpoint. Well, he saw me. Somehow I missed the strapping 6 footer in baby pink and tutu. I have spoken to Nigel on Twitter for as long as I can remember and it was wonderful to finally meet up, although he was injured (Achilles) and he had been advised by the medical team to not go on. He was part of the charity running group raising money for Breast Cancer (link here) that included another Twitter/Instagram buddy (Geoff Shaw) and, despite being realistic, he couldn’t hide his disappointment.
After seeing Nige I kept on until the next checkpoint, the 3rd and final one before a push for home.
I was loading myself up with drink more than anything and watching the marshals make flat coke. They do this by pouring coke from one jug to another until all the fizz has gone. It was then that I heard someone behind me question “flat coke?” and then explain that he didn’t have a cup to the marshal. Being a helpful soul when I want to be I said I had one in my race vest and to reach in. He did and, on turning, it turned out to be Jake Tyler from the quite wonderful Mind of Marathon series from last year.
Of course, I had to get a selfie with him and send this to the peeps. Jake is well liked among the running community so this was a no-brainer. Jake was running the first day only, my RTTK method, and was happy to take the time and chat with people at the CP. I, however, was on a mission and so with a spray of water in my face from a marshal, I was out of the CP and back on the road heading for the finish.
A few more climbs and probably the most complex descent of the day and I was at a cafe getting my water bottles filled. It was 5K to go, just a parkrun and ahead I saw a runner stop and literally roll onto his back. He was absolutely beaten. He crashed then sat up as I reached him. He was Welsh (I see them everywhere since St Illtyds). He told me he had run this race before and doesn’t know what happened, he felt like he had no strength. I told him it was 5K to the finish, a short walk. An hour at most. A parkrun. This seemed to hit home and he got up and we talked as we walked for a bit, until he was moving again freely and we caught up with the guy in front. I checked to make sure the Welshman was happy to walk with him, and he was, and said I was going to run the last bit, if that was okay, and would see him at the end. (And I did, in the tent at half way, after one hell of a hill that he had warned me about, and then a sprint finish).
And that was it. Running over the line, coming in strong and wiping out any negativity I still felt for the shambles that was my first Threshold event at Race to the King 2016. Including getting a bloody finish line photo! Now, to get over the disappointment of Stones.
Carry on Camping
But before Day 2 I was now in the camp. I collected my sleeping bag (that was certified down to -13 degrees) and holdall (complete with mini LED lanterns, Limoncello and viking helmet) and was assigned a tent. I dumped my stuff off before rushing to the toilet as the day tried to fight it’s way out of my system. You know you are dehydrated when your portaloo poop is so round and hard it sounds like when you have released the balls to start a game of pool. Thud-roll-thud-roll-thud-roll.
Now I did have a game plan here. Step 1: wait for Jenni, Clare and JK to arrive.
Step 2: Get beers!
Step 3: Eat dinner (awful Mexican rice, but yummy fruit crumble and custard).
Step 4: When the others are showered and changed meet them for dinner, limoncello and Cards Against Humanity.
This was hilarious. I have never played before but I think my sense of humour lends itself to the game because I won. Then, with a 5am alarm call in the offing, we all turned in for the night. My first ever night in a tent. And those plastic domes have no soundproofing at all. Zips constantly opening, a fart that caused a fit of the giggles, the truck sucking all manner of shit out of the portaloos ready for morning, and worst of all, my chatty Kathy neighbours.
So camping? It’s a no from me. I had the worst nights sleep ever, maybe grabbing 2 hours with a smattering of minutes here and there when every tent zip, or fart, belch, cough, snorer, cow mooing, and voice from another tent woke me up. I hated it. And in the morning, after a night on a plastic Rivita, with a plastic pillow, and a constant worry about bug bites, I woke feeling (and looking) a little like this.
At halfway from the first person across the line to the last finisher a couple of MCs pumped out loud music, singing along, attempting often noisy unfunny banter with each other and the runners and the crew. This went on into the night when the last person made it home at whatever time it was. I want to say 10pm. It made for constant noise in the camp. After being awoken by campers at 4.30am for a morning shit, shower and choked down breakfast, bags dropped to be taken to the finish, the last thing I wanted or needed was unfunny noisy banter and I think I managed to convey how I felt through the mist of a 6.30 start in this photo.
JK, Clare, and Jenni had stayed together for the entire first day, coming in roughly an hour after I did. Their photos are wonderful and it looked like they had a grand old time, adding Whiffers and Drew to the mix at times, and having a laugh the whole way around. And I joined them for the start of day two, leaving the camp in mist and watching it slowly burn off as we ran the downs and walked the rest along country lanes. A deer poked it’s head up above a field of crops then bounced away. Hardly any other runners were seen as we ticked the first 5 miles off relatively quickly and easily.
It was at the first of three day two checkpoints that we were told they had stayed there much later than planned. The cut offs were not being adhered to, and so the 12 hours per day became nearer to 16. It was a long weekend for the marshals and everyone was very thankful for them as we loaded up on tea, chocolate spread and peanut butter sandwiches and some weird shaped meat snack that I dropped in a sheep field later. I pity Flossy if she eats that one, as I didn’t read the wrapper and it was chilli flavoured. Saying that, all sheep do is eat grass, make little sheep and shit all day anyway, so it would help the latter.
It was around here that we we made our way through picturesque villages, oddly full of tourists taking photos of the cottages, and Pic2Go photographers, taking photos of us. Just a word about this. Pic2Go are great. The photos are FREE, and are sent immediately to your Facebook page. You just register and by the time you get home everyone has already liked and commented on them before you have even seen them.
You can’t get through this kind of endurance race alone, well I can’t anyway. I ran a chunk of St Illtyds with JK and Clare, Stones I ran from the last CP with Jenni Morris. This time on day one Jk, Clare and Jenni ran together as I did my own thing. Day 2 and after setting off together Clare and JK surged ahead so I stayed with Jen the whole way. It is good running with someone you know well. You can put the world to rights. I enjoy this camaraderie. But sometimes other voices invade your space. On day 2 the field was spread out. We pootled along through fields, and woodland, small towns, over any of the 160 stiles and gates we needed to clamber over, but then every so often a small group passed us, or we passed them. One of them, “Stating the Bleeding Obvious Northern Velma” as I labelled her, was noisy, she could be heard from a mile away and just wouldn’t shut up. We even ran hard a couple of times just to get some distance from her.
Still, Velma did prompt what was a push all the way to the last CP, as the sun baked down and my knee started to feel better muscularly, but worse on the outside. I had started the weekend (scrolls up) with K-Tape holding it together after a bit of tendinitis. Camping really didn’t help this at all and so I put a neoprene support over it for day 2. By mile 40 my joint felt great and so I took off the support. By mile 47 at the final checkpoint I couldn’t work out if the growing soreness around the back of my knees was the aging K-Tape, the welts caused by running in the support, stinging nettle stings, long grass whipping, or sunburn. All I knew is that I had an “owie”.
From this point on, with 5 miles to go, the bastard Tower was always on the brow of a hill in the distance. It was painful to see it, knowing how far you need to go, especially when the route turned and was leading us away. I was told once of a marathon in Vegas where it starts and ends on the Strip. You loop the city in the desert. But, as the Stratosphere (big pointy thing) is the tallest building for hundreds of miles, it is always visible and defeats you mentally. The Tower being always there, atop the hill the other side of the valley as we edged fields of crops, prompted much swearing for this reason alone.
And then we were across a road and one last hill stood between us and the Tower. A hill that went on FOREVER! It started, like most, with a numbered gate that led into a field of shitting sheep. We climbed this slowly, sipping drinks as we did, looking around for Stating the Bleeding Obvious Northern Velma, trying not to step in shit. At the end some trees and a stile with another number. 155. We still had 5 more to go as we climbed over and into an empty field. We climbed more. Another gate. Another field. This one with a flat top, benches, tourists looking out at the view behind us that, at the time, we didn’t give a flying fuck about. There were steps. We climbed them but rather than the Tower, there was another gate, and beyond another field. Then another, then the last and we finally saw the bastard target of our 53 mile run, Broadway Tower. Quite nice really.
Jen and I did not get finish line photos at either RTTK or RTTS. This time, by God, we would. So to space us out so we could have our own glory I ran on ahead and let Jen have her moment with the Tower in the background.
Emotional finish for Jen, there were tears (bless her). JK and Clare already there sitting on a beanbag, buses being called to take crew and runners to various cities, and I needed to get ready so I went into the changing room to finally get out of running shorts and back in civvies. The changing area was seductively labeled THE PAMPER ROOM and in the men’s area there were 3 guys. This is how it went down:
and with that I had changed, Wet Wiped, deoderised and was heading into the beer tent to make myself a cheese burger and cheesy chips all washed down with 2 Fantas, a Coke and 2 Heineken, satisfied in the knowledge that this was a job well done; day one putting King in the past and day two putting Stones to bed.
I was never a huge fan of the Threshold medals, but these three together mean more to me than probably any individual medal I have. I have closure and now these three are on the rack at home.
The Scores on the Doors
You know, it was good. It was upper mid table, the Everton of the marathons so far. I loved the scenery and my personal enjoyment was high on both days, with both those days being wildly different (one solo, one in a group). There was no goody bag, but that is expected. Once you complete the series you get a hoodie. I had applied months ago for this, then more recently again when I forgot. Regardless, as we all queued to get the hoodies that we would undoubtedly wear to death the following week, none of us had our names on the list. Something had screwed up and, of the dozen people around me at the Merchandise tent, only one got a tee, and NONE got their hoodies. It was the only sour point for the entire weekend, so not bad really.
That brought up 100 MARATHON Club number #26 and #27 as well as putting to bed any residual disappointment I still felt from King and Stones. It was a race of two halves. The first I felt strong, confident and determined. A game plan of just keeping going, with minimal stops at CPs really worked and I am actually, alarmingly, proud of the first day. Second day and running with JK, Clare and Jen was special too. Chatting for hours, and good company is always a grand way to spend a weekend. The people around you get you through. They really do. I look forward to running with them all at St Illtyds 2 next year, because they will ALL be there. And I think this weekend can be summed up using the quote on the back of the St Illtyds tee, as worn on day one by JK and Clare (awww, matchy matchy cute)… “never underestimate the strength of an ultra runner.”
WOULD I RECOMMEND THE RACE TO THE TOWER? I ABSOLUTELY WOULD. I would, however, add that it was by far the toughest of the three based on personal experience and so would recommend King if you only want to do one. That starts in Arundel and ends at Winchester Cathedral, which is pretty cool.
WOULD I RUN THE RACE TO THE TOWER AGAIN? NO. Not for any other reason than there are so many great races out there and I don’t know how long I will be able to run.
The Asics Flumprunner Count
Star Runs Episode IV : A New Run
(7 hour lap race)