Race to the King and Race to the Stones are two events I’ve heard a lot about and from what I’d seen they appeared to be quite scenic. It was fairly early on I started considering doing at least one of these events, though I’d been in awe of those I’d seen complete Race to the Stones in 2015. Both of these events have a number of options:
- the full distance in one go,
- the full distance split into two days,
- or half the distance on either Saturday or Sunday.
For me, I thought the only option was to do half the distance – I couldn’t possibly do any more than that. When I started to consider one day running the Marathon des Sables my view on these races changed. I thought instead that if I was to do either of these that the better option would be to do the full distance split into two days – the perfect introduction into multi-stage events. I still wasn’t sure though if I had an ultra marathon in me – they’re crazy long distances, and I’d not been a runner long.
In the case of Race to the King, a race introduced in 2016, it is a run to Winchester – the former capital of Britain since the time of the Roman conquest. After the Romans left, it became the seat of power for the Kingdom of Wessex – one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Alfred, King of Wessex, envisioned a unified England and after fighting back against the Vikings it became the first capital of his new England. This race is so-called because it is a run to a statue of Alfred in Winchester.
After I completed Canalathon in 2016 I decided that one or both of these events would be a good ultra marathon for 2017. By the time the 2016 events had come and gone, I saw enough from people’s race report blog posts to know that I wanted to do both, and I wanted to do the full distance for both. Perhaps running Race to the King would be good training for Race to the Stones – and that’s how it began. When it came to book the events I was completely certain I’d try to do the full distance in one go, but was that unsure whether I was capable of it that I booked Race to the King first with the intention of booking Race to the Stones within a week or two (that would give me enough time to contemplate if I was doing the right thing).
With both of these races I found that if I wanted to drive that my best option would be to stay overnight on both the Friday and Saturday near to the finish. For Race to the King, a race going along the South Downs Way from Arundel, I booked a hotel just off the M3. I then prepaid £25 to get a shuttle bus from the park and ride to the start. After re-reading the paperwork, and an email to the organisers (which took 4 working days to respond to) I found that the parking at the park and ride was an additional £10 on top of that. This race was getting expensive very fast, and it didn’t help that everything was doubled due to having to pay the same for RTTS.
- Event entry – £119
- Parking – £10
- Shuttle to the start – £25
On top of this it was £130 for a hotel for two nights, and about £50 in petrol for travelling. This would be on top of any other costs such as eating out before and after the race. It certainly isn’t a cheap race to do if you’re not local, though it does include free event photography and there’s plenty you can eat on the route.
I later contacted them again by email and by Twitter and found that generally they don’t respond to queries via Twitter – they use it for marketing purposes only. I did however receive a reply to my email the same day which was a relief as the week before the race they issued the parking permits and I found they had car registrations printed on them. I’d just changed my car so now had a different car registration, but was told I could just cross it out and write in the new one. Lucky!
At least once this was sorted I’d only have the training to worry about – right?
This year I don’t think any training has gone according to plan as I’ve seemingly stumbled from race to race since I got back from Nepal in November 2016. To start the year off I built up to a marathon in Manchester and somehow, despite reduced training, managed to get a slight PB. Perhaps that wasn’t too bad a start, even if it hadn’t gone according to plan. Though I then had two weeks off running whilst I was travelling around a number of National Parks in the US. By the time I got back I had just two weeks until the Milton Keynes Marathon which I’d intended would be the start of ultra marathon training.
To start with I felt this went well – I did a 5K race on the Sunday and then ran back to my car afterwards (which was another 5K). On the Monday I then completed the aforementioned marathon. Every day that week up to and including the following Sunday I managed to complete at least a four mile run, and in a number of cases more than that. My legs were hopefully getting used to being tired at the end of this eight day run streak.
The following week I broke the run streak and switched to double run days – they weren’t all double run days though, but I felt that this switch in training would also help with training for Endure 24. On the Saturday that week I decided to do parkrun again for the first time since October 2015 – even though this was a parkrun PB I decided to follow it up with more running. By the end of the day I’d done four runs, though I had hoped to do a fifth. Sunday was a similar scenario – I’d intended to go out and run 26 miles, but after a tiring week I’d dropped this down to 20. This never actually happened though as I only managed 10.5 miles. I was getting in the runs, but I wasn’t getting in the mileage – it wasn’t going according to plan at all.
With just a few weeks left until Endure 24 I really wanted to start getting around 40 miles in over weekends, and to manage as close to 70 mile weeks as I could. Eventually I managed this at the end of May, though only because I did an extra long run during the week in addition to my usual two weekend long runs – I just couldn’t find the time to fit in 40 miles in one weekend.
Tweeting when I finally managed a 70 mile week did however bring about the wrath of some runners who believe that a 70 mile week for an ultra is too much. The implication there was that a 62 mile race (which is my next one) doesn’t warrant that number of miles. However, when you consider a lot of the faster marathon runners would run in excess of that number for a marathon – is it wrong? I don’t think it is, I think it’s important to do the training that you feel best prepares you for whatever your goal or event is, and that’s what I was doing. Just because someone has a different opinion, it doesn’t change the fact that everyone is different. They then went on to judge the quality of sessions, without actually knowing what sort of sessions I was doing and at that point I decided they were either just a troll, or someone who has nothing better to do than to complain. Best ignored.
When Endure 24 happened I found it far tougher than I expected which resulted in me walking the majority of the last ten miles I did. Once this was over I was no longer feeling ready for Race to the King, despite having done thirty miles in one block. In the weeks after this event I didn’t really feel like doing any long runs, in part due to the hotter weather, so kept them short up until the day.
When I did Canalathon, my only previous “official” ultra marathon, there was a mandatory kit list that I had to comply with. I didn’t use everything I took with me, but I understood why it was necessary. With an ultra marathon you don’t know how long you’ll be out in the elements for, or what you’ll encounter, and it’s very likely you’ll be out longer than you expect. You have to be prepared for survival. For Race to the King I figured I’d be out for at least ten hours – that’s a lot of time to encounter issues, or for the weather to change drastically. So after some deliberation, I came up with my own kit list:
- Salomon Agile² 7 Backpack with whistle and 2l reservoir,
- Saucony Omni 15 trainers,
- 2 x Garmin ForeRunner 235,
- #UKRunChat #oneteam technical t-shirt,
- Nike running shorts,
- More Miles running socks,
- Running cap,
- Waterproof poncho,
- Unilite PS-H8 headtorch with new batteries,
- 3 x Compeed plasters,
- 2 x large plasters (in case my backpack rubs),
- SPF 50 sunscreen,
- a small mixed bag of cashew nuts and pretzels,
- cereal bars,
- and a small bag of jelly babies.
Most of this had been tested previously at Endure 24, and even on some of my longer training runs so I felt this would work.
For this event I decided that I’d work on the basis that at the end of the race I’d be tired and would want as little travel as possible. So I booked two nights in a hotel not far from the finish in Winchester and drove down there after work on the Friday before the race. What I hadn’t realised though was that it was on the southbound side of the M3 with no access from the northbound side, so any trips to Winchester would be followed by a twenty mile round trip to turn around at the next junction. Such as the return journey after the race.
I’d started work an hour earlier than normal so I could be on the road to Winchester as soon as possible. This allowed me to get to the hotel for 17:30, and into the city centre shortly after. I found a short stay parking that I think may have been free after 18:00, but it also said you had to display a valid ticket. Unsure what to do I paid for an hour to get a ticket, and found it’d give me until 09:00 the following morning.
I’d decided to eat at Prezzo as it was easy to find, and I knew they did spaghetti bolognese. Being on my own also meant service was incredibly quick as I’d ordered and finished within fifteen minutes of entering. It took another ten minutes to pay, but I still think that was pretty good going! Unfortunately Winchester Cathedral was closed for the day so I couldn’t see Jayne Austen’s grave, but I did wander over to the statue of King Alfred to take a photograph – hopeful that despite an upset stomach that I’d still get to see it the following evening.
I was back at the hotel by 20:00, and ready to finally rest ahead of what would certainly be a long day.
I didn’t sleep much, but this was it – today I’d be running over 50 miles if all went well. Crazy. I got up at 04:45 and quickly had breakfast – wanting to make sure I’d digested it as well as possible before setting off. I’d gone for my normal breakfast of crunchy nut cornflakes and a cup of tea, but added a third of a banana to the mix to recover some potassium from the last 24 hours. I also decided to add immodium to my race kit just in case. I was at the nearby park and ride by 06:10 in time for the 06:30 shuttle to Gaston Farm in Arundel. Fortunately I’d asked others about the location of this park and ride before the event as Google listed two, and neither the event website or the booking website indicated which of these it would be (though the parking permit I later received did). I noticed that the parking that had cost £10 would normally be £3 for the day if the car park hadn’t been commandeered for this event.
As I’d got to the park and ride early they let me on the 06:15 shuttle to the start. If I hadn’t been in such a rush I’d have remembered to pack my sunscreen – I’d taken it out of my bag to apply some before boarding the coach, but then never did, and left it behind in my car. I suspect though that it’d have been faster to have gotten on the 06:30 coach when our driver went the wrong way and came face to face with another coach. She then had to reverse along a winding country lane no wider than the bus – that was some impressive reversing skills! Eventually I made it to the race village, and collected by number. I was asked my name a few times, just in case I didn’t know my own name, as it took them a while to find my race pack.
Once I’d attached my race number to my shorts I spotted @SamABaxter so went over to talk to him as we watched the first two waves start off on their Race to the King through clouds of purple smoke from some flares. I’d hoped to say “hi” to @Mazzie1111 though once again we managed to miss each other as she set off in the first wave. Just before the third wave, the one I was in, was due to set off we bumped into @JenningsNicola and had a quick pre-race photograph. Apparently my race pack should have contained a map, but hadn’t – fortunately I was told that the signage is really good on this course. During the course of the day I found this to be completely true.
At last this was it – I was off on the start of a 53.5 mile run back to Winchester. I’m sure there must be an easier way to get back there. Instead we were all setting off across the field which soon takes a sharp right onto a trail outside of the field and from there it was a steady run along the South Downs Way.
After about a mile I’d warmed up enough to take off my jumper and tie it around my waist, though in doing so I managed to stop my watch and didn’t notice for almost a full minute – by which time I was on an uphill section, struggling to pass walkers swinging their walking poles around in the air. I’m not sure if it was that they didn’t want people passing them through the narrow path through the grasses, or whether they were just not thinking about what they were doing. In any case, it became a bit of an obstacle course to avoid them – but I realised I’d already caught up with the back of the second wave. Perhaps if I was lucky I could catch up with some of them from the first wave so I could say “hi” to @Mazzie1111 after all.
Once passed the narrow trail I was able to pass the walkers and start running again, and did so for the next three miles – occasionally talking to some of the others around. It was a very different experience to road races I’ve done as normally people around me don’t talk – they’re concentrating too much on running. In fact, another difference here was seeing people call out which side they’re passing on to make sure they don’t run into anyone – much better sportsmanship I think. Everyone is working together to get through the race.
At around 7 miles into the race, after the first of the really big hills, I saw a sign for Winchester that said it was 45 miles away – great. Thanks for the reminder. I’d been tempted to take a photo of the sign, but my phone was tucked safely away and would have taken too much effort to get out. Maybe for the best, at least at this point I was still mostly running.
The first pit stop was at only 8 miles into the race. Normally, if it had been a marathon and I’d not had an upset stomach the day before, I’d have started eating jelly babies from this point. However, I slowed down to see what was at the pit stop but carried on through. I’d not even sipped at the 1.5 litres of water I was carrying in my backpack at this point. In fact, by the end of the race I’d only used half a litre of what I was carrying. Why drink water when there’s tea on offer?
Even though I wanted to carry on running, I had to stop when we reached another narrow trail through stinging nettles and thorns which people were walking through. I was eager to run, but had no choice but to walk for the next mile. Another thing that kept breaking up my running was the need to open and close gates as the route passed from field to field. Though, for the next few miles I decided to walk for the up-hill sections, and to only run where it was flat or going down hill. My thought was that this would conserve much needed energy for when I’d really need it.
Even though there had been spots of rain throughout the morning it hadn’t been that bad. Eventually there was a downpour strong enough to warrant me getting my waterproof poncho out of my backpack. It turned out it’s really difficult to put on when it’s windy. After a few miles though I was able to take it off, and then tied it to my backpack. The running was becoming incredibly hard work, though just when I needed it a song on my iPhone kept me going that little bit longer.
May this lift you up,
When you feel you’ll fall again,
You cannot win, no,
Hope these words are enough,
For you to be strong, my friend,Sometimes you fall before you rise,
Sometimes you lose it all to find,
You’ve gotta keep fighting,
And get back up again.
I then turned my music off to save battery power for my phone – thinking I’d want that later. Though after mile 14 I didn’t listen to music again for the rest of the course. It’s odd though as I looked at my watch at mile 14.9 – the second pit stop, and the next time I looked at it, after some big hill climbs, I was at mile 22. I couldn’t believe that eight miles had just disappeared like that. At the second pit stop I didn’t stop for fuel or drink, but I did quickly nip into the portaloo for the only time during this race. After that I decided to try eating some cashew nuts, almonds, and pretzels during the long climb after stop. To get to this climb we had to cross a public road for the first time on this course. This next mile was one of the biggest overall climbs for a mile split in the entire race – it was 357 feet of climbing over one mile. Around this time we summited another peak and found a photographer waiting for us next to a cairn there – possibly the last photographer until the end.
At mile 23.4 I reached pit stop 3 after a slight diversion off the course to cross timing mats. This was where 1-day and 2-day runners would stop for the day. I envied them – it felt a shame I couldn’t stop there and carry on tomorrow, but instead I grabbed what I thought was some flat coke (as advertised) but turned out to be fizzy pepsi (noooo!) and half a banana. I felt the fizzy drink was a bad idea and then walked for most of the next mile along the quiet country road – a trend that continued to the eventual finish.
The hills continued to crop up on us, but with every climb it gave us views of the countryside around and of villages in the distance. It was starting to feel like every pit stop was down hill after one of the big hill climbs. This trend continued with pit stop four where I stopped for a cup of tea and a packet of crisps – and for the first time I actually sat down. This turned out to be a bad idea though as I found it difficult to get going again and it felt like 31.4 miles was going to be my limit. I’d run this distance before at Canalathon, and wasn’t far off this at Endure 24. I needed to keep going so I pushed on through it and eventually got my legs moving properly again.
Finally I got running and started to enjoy some more running through a wooded area. I found it fun whenever I got the chance to dodge tree routes, but along this section I also had to jump over a high tree root, and climb over a fallen tree. I was feeling incredibly tired, so much so that when a wasp landed on my glasses I did nothing. I just accepted I had a wasp now and that it’d be with me until it got bored.
I kept on running as I reached another field of wheat though eventually I found that once more I needed to walk. Sometimes in tough races you wonder why you’re running, and question running ever again. This was one of those moments where I even thought doing Race to the Stones would be a stupid idea.
I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, …
— King Ælfrēd the Great
The course was getting tough again, and this time I got my phone out and tweeted about how hard the course was. This resulted in a few tweets of encouragement that did help me to get running again, though I didn’t run that many of the miles through Queen Elizabeth Country Park. I’d also tweeted @Mazzie1111 who’d set off in the first wave and I found at some point I’d overtaken her without having realised it. I guess we’d meet at some other race, unless she caught me up whilst I was walking.
The hill climb up to pit stop 5 was unlike any before it – I found myself wanting to stop, but I pushed on and eventually started pushing my hands onto my legs to try and help with the climb. It seemed to go on forever and one of the others I was walking passed was on a mobile phone and commented that it felt like she’d been walking up this hill for ten minutes. It was a big hill, but not quite that bad – at least I didn’t think it was but time has a funny way of passing during an ultra marathon. At this pit stop they had camping chairs – far more comfortable for sitting on so I sat and had another cup of tea which I’d been wanting for the past couple of miles, a cup of orange squash, and a fudge chocolate bar. Maybe it wasn’t the best fuelling but I was hungry and felt I should eat something.
For a while I spoke to another runner who had set off in the first wave and was nursing an injury. I can’t imagine what it must be like to run with an injury over this sort of distance – hopefully he was able to finish. I eventually left him behind, but over the next few miles we did switch places occasionally until I’d run for long enough to stay ahead. It wasn’t intentional, I was just running whenever I could.
At around 42 miles I got to the top of Beacon Hill and this was the last of the big climbs, though it wasn’t the last climb on the course. Not long after this was pit stop 6 where I sat down once more, had another cup of tea, some orange juice, and another fudge chocolate bar. This time I also picked up a second with the intention of eating it on the course if I needed to. Around this time I also stopped thinking about how far was left and started to think how far it was until the next pit stop – it may have helped me to keep going.
Whenever the downhill sections appeared I ran for the majority of them. The ones that were riddled with tree routes and felt like very technical areas were the ones I found to be the most fun – and powering down them also got comments from runners who then passed me later about how brave it was to go at those speeds down the hills. I didn’t feel it was, I just felt it was fun – I don’t mind the concentration it takes! After the race I did find that some of these sections I’d taken that quickly that I’d hit 2:53min/mile pace on the descent. I know on one of them though I had to jump out of the way for two mountain bikers that sailed passed me from behind.
I wasn’t sure when as I’d stopped looking at my watch for sometime, but I found that eventually I got to a railway line, and with it were steps to go up onto the bridge and over the tracks. It feels a little sadistic to throw steps at someone after they run over 40 miles. Not long after this though I stopped at mile 44.5 to help a runner who had cramp in his calves. He couldn’t ease them off however, and even offering to help him to the next pit stop he decided to pull out of the race. It’s a shame to get so close, but then have that happen.
The last few pit stops had been fairly close together, and this next one was only 2.8 miles after the one before. This was the last pitstop and I made a conscious effort to run as much of the mile before it as I could. My calves and my feet were aching so much at this point and I didn’t think I could do anything other than walk for the just over 10K that remained. I quickly drank some orange squash, some blackcurrant squash, and then stretched out. As I was getting ready to leave the pit stop I was offered some warm minestrone soup so accepted graciously and took it with me. The support at every pitstop had been amazing and they were eager to help and to motivate.
I hadn’t thought it through though as although it meant I could take on some much needed salt I’d need to carry the cup with me to the finish (though I found a bin in Winchester I could drop it into before the actual finish). It seemed that after crossing an A road that most of what was left would be down hill so I ran as frequently as I could.
After crossing the M3 bridge I was then in Winchester, I just had 3km left to go but didn’t have any running left in me. I tried to run for short bursts, but felt that if I ran too much of what was left I may end up walking over the finish line. This was mostly down hill though so I ran when I could. Eventually I got to the road that runs passed the Bishop’s college and under the arches of St. Swithun-upon-Kingsgate Church. It’d started to rain, but by this point it didn’t bother me. I saw a crowd ahead and they started to cheer – I thanked them as I rounded the corner and realised the finish was in sight! At last! Wanting it to be over I sprinted to the finish and then realised that there were a few steps I’d not seen – some people also shouted this out as a warning; but I’d already got this covered by a leap that took me clear of the steps. When I landed I turned on the spot and sat down on the stonework at the base of the cross in front of Winchester cathedral. I’d finished, completing an overall climb of 5,456 feet, and had earned myself another 4 UTMB points. Not that I’d ever use them.
The photographer at the side of me commented that if I’d had that left in me at the end that I’d not run hard enough. I had though, it’d taken a lot to get to the finish. The finishing medal was put over my head, and I got up to see where I could get food. I’d thought there might have been something to eat at the finish, but there was nothing. At least I didn’t think there was, but when I went passed the following day I found a sign to the food hidden behind the information tent – impossible to see if you weren’t collecting baggage!
I finished 160th out of the non-stop 53.5 mile runners with an official chip time of 11:25:06. Of those that started there were 581 finishers (which meant I’d somehow managed to walk into the first 27.5%) but there were many that had been unable to finish. It was a tough course though and I could totally understand it – I was surprised I’d been able to finish. I was even more surprised I’d finished with 20% of power left on my running watch – I hadn’t needed to use the back-up one I’d borrowed from my sister!
I saw some coaches parked up to take people back to the park and ride, and found that they’d leave every hour on the hour. I decided this would give me enough time to eat, so I hobbled up the hill to Ask Italian for pizza. It was uncomfortable sitting there, but after stretching a little I found I could sit long enough to eat my pizza. I couldn’t quite finish it though as it took 15 minutes to take my order, and I’d got limited time if I wanted to be on the 21:00 shuttle.
After the 20 mile drive from the park and ride to the hotel, and the climb up the stairs I was done. I could relax in a steaming hot bath, and start thinking about my next race.
I woke up early and tried to stay in bed for as long as possible, but by 06:30 I’d decided I’d get breakfast. My plans for today had been for a bit of Winchester tourism, and to look around the cathedral I’d missed the opportunity to see when I’d last been in Winchester. With it not being open until 12:30 I had quite some wait ahead of me, but at least my legs had recovered from yesterday’s efforts – I didn’t even have any blisters. I guess walking most of it had it’s advantages – I’d even come out of this blister-free.
Before heading back to the city I sat around the hotel for a few hours and found that a photo of me jumping to the finish had made it onto Race to the Kings favourite photos of the day list. When I got into town I parked up in the same place as before and spent some time cheering in the first of the day 2 runners whilst eating a Subway sub, and waiting for the cathedral to open.
For those finishing on the second day they now had someone dressed as a knight you could have your photo taken with. As I’d missed out on a post-race photo, possibly due to it spitting with rain when I finished, I got my photo taken with the knight whilst I was there. I also heard after the event that there had been cakes at the finish from the Ministry of Cake – I guess that’s what they had for finishers who had spotted the hidden sign. I finally got my chance to go in the cathedral as well – and surprising it was free!
Having had time to reflect on the race it didn’t seem so bad. Sure it was the hardest race I’d ever done, and some of those hills were immense. I’d walked a lot, but I’d seen a lot of places I’d not seen before. I wished I’d taken more time to photograph some of the route – any of it in fact, but I’d finished. All that remained now was my final challenge of the year – Race to the Stones. At least now I’d completed a run that would give me an idea of what it would be like.