Race to the Stones 2017

Of all my races for this year, this was the one race I most had my doubts about. For a while I’ve been keen on one day doing the Marathon des Sables, and I thought doing some longer races would help see if I could cope with that. My original intention had been to enter Race to the King and Race to the Stones, both as two day events. When it came to booking I decided to book Race to the King first, and changed my mind to do it all in one go – it’d be the bigger challenge. When I told my Dad about the race he called me stupid, so I almost didn’t enter Race to the Stones – this being the longer of the two races.

For Race to the Stones it’s a 100km run along the The Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest road, from  Lewknor to Avebury – the site of the historic Avebury Rings. This neolithic henge was constructed in the 3rd millennium BC, but suffered a lot of damage over the years. Most of what can be seen today is a reconstruction created by archaeologists.

I’ve been to the rings before when sightseeing in the area, and have also seen the White Horse at Uffington which would be passed on this route as well. I knew they were a long way apart, and that wasn’t even the full distance. This would be long.

Thinking about it, 100 km is a little over 62 miles. Over the space of an entire week I’d never run more than this until a few weeks before Race to the King. Even during an advent run streak I’d not quite got to this. Though maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as it sounded – it’d be the same as doing a 7 day run streak of 9 miles a day. I could probably do that, so maybe that was the way to think about – 7 runs, just with them all happening on the same day, one after another. It might even turn out to be fun, though whilst running Race to the King I was regretting entering RTTS. I thought maybe it’s too much. By the time a full day had passed since the race I was actually looking forward to Race to the Stones – a complete turnaround. How soon the legs forget.

Towards the end of RTTK I’d started to forget about the end distance and was instead concentrating on the distance between pit stops. That had helped considerably so my plan was to do the same for this one.

For this race my only goal was to finish as that would be a challenge enough, though before training began I had in the back of my mind that twelve hours would be a reasonable time if I could manage it. I figured that I could run the first 26 miles in around 4 hours it’d still be a much slower than normal pace – this would then leave another 36 miles to cover in 8 hours. That would be 4.5 miles an hour pace – compared to my (almost) 4 miles an hour walking pace. It may be naivety, but it sounded like it might be doable. Of course though, you can never predict what is going to happen on the day. After RTTK I realised this was very unlikely if the hills were anything alike – three to four miles per hour would be more like it. In fact, chances of covering the first 26.2 miles in 4 hours also seemed incredibly unlikely.

It would be more likely I’d be out there for at least fourteen hours so planned ahead and figured out where the nearest pizza place was, made a note of their postcode for use with my satnav, and then what time I’d need to finish by to make it there.

Training

The training for this one consisted mostly of the training for Race to the King – I only had a few weeks in between the events. 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.

It’s okay though, we have to adapt our training to circumstances – it’s not advisable to be completely rigid. As this wasn’t my only big race of the summer it meant that by the time race day arrived I’d know roughly what sort of level I was at – Endure 24 and Race to the King would see to that. In fact, they’d act as training for this – what is likely to be the longest race I’ll ever do. Never say never though.

At Endure 24 I ran a fairly quick 5 miles on the Saturday and then did six back to back laps on the Sunday which should have been 30 miles – if the course had been measured correctly. Instead this was actually about 29 miles, and I’d walked most of the last 9 miles of it. This didn’t help with my confidence going into Race to the King at all.

When the time came for Race to the King I wasn’t sure if I could finish that or not, even though I figured there was time to walk most of it if I had to. The hills had been incredibly tough, and I’d heard that Stones would be a tougher one. I may not have run much of this 54 mile race, but I did at least finish it, so that was another step closer to being ready for Stones. In the weeks in between I barely ran, and didn’t do anything longer than 10 km. I did do a 5K race before work one Friday, and found I hadn’t really lost that much speed at all. I just needed to hope my endurance would be okay on the day.

Kit List

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 Stones I figured I’d be out for at least fourteen hours – that’s a lot of time to encounter issues, or for the weather to change drastically. I knew as much from my previous ultras. So after some deliberation, I came up with my own kit list:

  • Salomon Agile² 7 Backpack with whistle and 2l reservoir,Salomon Agile 7
  • Saucony Omni 15 trainers,
  • Garmin ForeRunner 235,
  • #UKRunChat #oneteam technical t-shirt,
  • Nike running shorts,
  • More Miles running socks,
  • running cap,
  • Flipbelt,
  • buff,
  • waterproof poncho,
  • Unilite PS-H8 headtorch with new batteries,
  • SPF 50 sunscreen,
  • 2 x Compeed plasters,
  • 2 x large plasters (in case my backpack rubs),
  • a small mixed bag of cashew nuts and pretzels,
  • and a small bag of jelly babies.

This was a list that had mostly been tried and tested first at Canalathon, and then again in full at Race to the King. I felt this would be everything I’d need to get me from pit stop to pit stop. I’d reduced the number of Garmins down to one as well as I felt that would be extra motivation to keep pushing on to finish before the power runs out.

Pre-race Day

As I’d be racing on the Saturday it meant driving down to Avebury on the Friday. It’s a long drive, but it was better to be doing it the day before than on the morning of the race. This is even more true when long delays could be expected getting passed Silverstone due to it also being the weekend of the British Grand Prix. My planning for this day had even gone as far as to have the postcode of a Prezzo in Marlborough I could go to for pasta in the evening.

For this race I was checked in to an AirBNB place in Avebury Trusloe – not far from the rings. It’s the first time I’ve used this company so it was a completely new experience for me. The place was really nice though and had even left some milk in the fridge for me to use. The stones were only a twelve minute walk away so I decided it’d be good to get some photographs of them in daylight – next time I’d see them it’d almost certainly be dark.

There were more stones than I remembered seeing before in Avebury, but last time it was raining so I likely missed some of them. After the walk back I then drove to Marlborough for some spaghetti bolognese – the typical carb-loading meal. Parking here was free after 18:00, and I got lucky to get the last spare table they had before 20:00. I’d be able to get an early night.

Sleep isn’t always easy before a big event though – at 01:00 I looked at the clock, closed my eyes for a while and after what seemed like hours when I next looked only fifteen minutes had passed.

Race Day

I’d booked parking at the finish, and a shuttle to the start so had to be parked up before 06:00. This meant a 04:15 start to give me enough time to have breakfast, get ready, and to get to the finish. With rain being forecast I removed the sunscreen from my backpack as I didn’t want to carry unnecessary weight.

For breakfast I had crunchy nut cornflakes and tea – what I’d usually have before a race, but also decided to have half a banana. The car park for the shuttle was that close I should probably have walked it, but I chose to save my legs and paid the £10 parking. The shuttle then took two hours to get to the start – a journey I thought only took ninety minutes. During the early part of the coach ride I was talking to the person next to me who had run Marathon des Sables twice, and was preparing for his third time. He was also encouraging me to try the race soon.

The longer than expected journey meant that I missed out on the group photo at the start, but had enough time to collect my number, attach it, and get to the start. I saw the 8:15 wave go, and then saw @outrunninghills – we stood at the front of Wave E (8:30) all ready to go.

When we set off I was leading the wave, but soon lost sight of them. For the next six or seven minutes I was on my own – I could see nobody behind me. Nobody in front. Just as I reached the first mile I caught up with the last of the walkers from Wave D. Calling them walkers makes it sound like The Walking Dead… which by the end of the race would probably be appropriate. For the next mile I overtook more and more people, and accidentally did this mostly downhill mile at a sub-7:00min/mile pace. Not something you want to be doing during a 100 km ultra marathon.

At around four miles I must have overtook SophiaS1 (from Fitocracy), as she caught up with me and we talked briefly before I carried on running ahead. When I reached another hill, one which I walked up, I caught up with @shellmoby. I was walking up the hill too quickly though so didn’t get to talk for long, but wished her well and carried on.

When I reached the bit that people refer to as the “field of dreams” it was back down to single file. This was slow progress though as people were stopping for selfies which was holding up the people behind. Taking a selfie is fine but it might have been an idea to have done it at the start of the field, at the end of it, or to have stepped off the beaten track momentarily for it. Instead this bottleneck caused a queue.

The first pit stop was a little over 10K into the race, and at first I thought we had to go through it. When I found out I didn’t need to I ducked back and carried on running. Up until this point I’d not been overtaken, I’d only been overtaking. I knew it wouldn’t last, nor that it actually mattered, but it was a great source of motivation to keep on going whilst I could. I tried to drink from my hydration pouch as I was ready for water, but found the water wasn’t flowing at all.

During a walking break I took my backpack off, uncoiled the tube for the hydration pouch and put my backpack back on again. Fortunately that was enough to get the water flowing, and I could stay hydrated on this humid day. Though with the rain that was to come I could probably have just run with my mouth open.

At about 14.2 miles was the second of the pit stops – for this one I ran in, grabbed a cup of orange juice and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. Rather than wasting too much time I grabbed a handful out of the packet, binned the rest, and kept on going. One of the things that really affected my time in Race to the King was wasting time in pit stops at points when I didn’t really need to. I’d not walked that much up to this point, but I had enough to mean that around this time I hit the two hour mark. If all went according to plan I’d be on my feet for another twelve hours. Half a day. That’s a long time.

I can’t remember when, but early on in the race we were treated to a fine mist of rain that was for a time refreshing. It kept me cool, and allowed me to push on for longer despite getting warm. At some point, it had stopped, but sometime after the second pit stop it returned as a more constant rain that instead started of being refreshing was causing the race to become more effort. I didn’t want to stop and get my waterproof poncho out so I kept on going, getting quite wet in the process.

Running was becoming less frequent, but I was making sure that some of every mile involved running. It had become something a little faster than what the Rifleman Light Division would have done during their march to Talevera during the peninsula war. Their method of marching was to march quickly, and then light jog, and then back to marching. It’s what allowed them to cover 250 miles in just 6 days. I figured using a similar sort of method would keep me going.

Through Streatly I found it was beginning to feel like a miserable race. Unlike Race to the King this one hadn’t been as scenic so far, and was going through towns and country roads with quite some frequency. There’d even been a few points where I’d had to stop for cars that were messing around trying to half pass runners and then changing their mind and causing an obstruction instead.

For quite some time, almost from the start, it seemed like this race was lacking in the camaraderie of Race to the King. I hadn’t seen many people talking, people were walking or running alone, they weren’t helping others. It felt like a typical road race… just far more tiring. After 20 miles I started to notice that wasn’t entirely the case, and as the race went on this image completely disappeared – possibly around the time the rain eventually subsided.

After 21 miles The Ridgeway was back to being traffic free and was soon broken up by the third pit stop. At this point my iPhone started playing “Running” by James Bay. When it go to the verse:

I’ll keep running,

To the place where I belong

I laughed and turned the music off – and didn’t use it again this race. At this one I grabbed a cup of tea, decided it was too warm and didn’t want to wait for it to cool down so reluctantly discarded it to carry on running. Or at least, to carry on moving.

Eventually I caught up with @runningmiker and for a while we walked and talked. He was having a hard time with piriformis and was needing to take painkillers. Eventually we went our separate ways – both having our own plans about how to cover the remaining miles.

When pit stop 4 arrived I’d been hopeful I could carry on going through, I didn’t really want to have any long breaks in the first half – but at 27 miles it was now passed the marathon point and the next stop would be base camp. I decided I needed to stop for a bit. I grabbed a drink, and took my phone out to to go on Twitter for a while. I was careful not to sit down for too long though as I didn’t want it to become too difficult to get going again.

For every other pit stop I’d run into it but when pit stop 5 arrived, the half way point, I walked to it then when I realised I needed to cross the “finish” line and get snapped by the photographer I started to run at the last minute. Here I was told that I could go towards the tents and get some hot food, or loop back around and get a cold snack and a drink to carry on. What I hadn’t been told was this was where the Ministry of Cake was… otherwise I might just have stayed that little bit longer.

At this stop I sat on the grass for a while and spoke to a lady that had arrived at around the same time as me. I’d seen her at the previous pit stop too and she’d commented that she’d been needing to stretch. I saw her at pit stop 8 as well later, and at that point she’d said that she’d even had to stretch between pit stops (understandable – the distance between 7 and 8 was to be one of the longest on this course).

I walked from there, and started to have another go at “riflemans” pace. It didn’t go that well though as I was now very tired. At some point after this the route passed the Uffington white horse… though I never saw it. I’m not sure if it was because it couldn’t be seen, or because I was concentrating that much on the path in front of me. I did notice though that my clothes had dried off from the rain, mostly, though were now starting to be saturated with sweat instead.

The miles had long since started to blur together and nothing really stood out. The only bit I found particularly memorable was the point where the course takes an unexpected turn through a golf course (I think that was in the first half).

Pit stop 6 was only 5 miles after the half way mark and I realised I was quite hungry. I’d not used any of the food I’d got in my backpack, and so far all I’d eaten was a handful of crisps and a “Titan” chocolate bar. I decided, as I had before unintentionally longer-than-planned stops at 4 and 5, to have a proper break at pit stop 6. Here I took the time to make some tea, and then sat down on the floor eating a peanut butter sandwich whilst waiting for the tea to cool down.

After a ten minute break I got going again and found it difficult to get going. My walking pace was no longer a “march” but was around 17min/mile – far slower than I’d normally walk. I forced myself up to a run for several strides and that loosened my legs up enough to get walking at 13-15min/mile pace again.

I found myself thinking about Race to the King. That one had bigger hills, though this one seemed to have more of them – just not as severe. I was also thinking of things like calculating paces and times, and my estimate of finishing in 14 hours no longer seemed likely. I was thinking I’d lost about 2 hours of time somewhere plus whatever I was yet to spend in future pit stops. It annoyed me a little as finishing in 16 hours would mean even more nighttime running; but the main thing here was to finish.

At pit stop 7 I sat in a chair with a Nutella sandwich and another cup of tea. Once again I was wasting a lot of time – but over the past 8 hours I’d covered 41 miles. It seemed like I was going really slow, and I thought another 21 miles could easily take me 5+ hours depending on stops. I realised at this point my earlier calculation had been wrong and made an effort to keep on going, running when I could, and trying to make sure any slower miles I’d walked were compensated by a quicker mile from running. I heard that someone had tripped over at an earlier pit stop and wanted to carry on even though they now needed stitches in their head – sadly they were made to pull out. Understandable really.

This next stretch seemed to last forever though even though it was only about 8 miles. Halfway between pit stop 7 and 8 I had to stop for the first time between pit stops to get a stone out of my shoe whilst leaning against a fence. When I did it I thought my leg was about to get cramp so I quickly relaxed it and all was good. Just to be on the safe side I then walked most of the remaining distance to the next pit stop. This one couldn’t come quick enough. A long section of this, or at least what seemed to be, was on a busy road and the cars were not giving the runners distance meaning myself and two others were having to periodically hop onto the tight grass verge.

Pit stop 8 was a welcome sight. I had a bar of Cadbury’s dairy milk, and a drink and sat on the floor after finding that my legs didn’t like being bent on a chair. I sat and looked on Twitter again, and commented that even though it was less than half a marathon to go it felt like it was too far. I was tired and it felt like 12 miles could have been 1,000. When I tried to stand up my right leg got cramp and it was painful trying to relax it. Eventually I did though, and I managed to stand and hobble away from the pit stop.

For a while after leaving the pit stop it was very slow going, but keeping moving was easing my leg. Eventually I was able to run on it again which got me back to walking at a march. I wasn’t going to give up yet, I needed to finish what I’d started. The support on Twitter from the #ukrunchat community had been incredible and I didn’t want to let them down.

Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.

― Dean Karnazes

I got through 53 miles in just over 11 hours so thought I’d beaten my Race to the King time… though I’d forgotten that on that race I’d covered 54 miles and so in fact hadn’t. At least I didn’t realise that at the time though so was able to use that as a positive to keep on going.

Pit stop 9… the final pit stop before the finish with under 8 miles to go. Here I got a drink of coke and just sat and drank it slowly whilst replying to some tweets. I really couldn’t reply to them all as it was becoming difficult to concentrate. One of the people manning the pit stop commented that if I could do the remainder in under two hours that I’d be finishing without a headtorch. I hadn’t expected that – my assumption had always been that I’d be using it for some of the race since the sunset was around 21:20.

I was exhausted now, but tried to get back to running whenever I could. For the first few miles after the pit stop I couldn’t manage anything more than a walk – even when going through fields that were reasonably flat. After mile 59 the down hills became more frequent and I was able to get some long stretches of running in – it had been enough for me to catch up with @runningmiker again as I ran passed. The terrain was uneven, but I had no intention of slowing down whilst my legs were still moving.

With only two miles to go the end was almost in sight, but then the route goes passed the gate to the finish and disappears down a country road. I wasn’t sure of this initially as I could see the signs pointing in both directions so stopped briefly to look, but when I realised the sign on the gate said “1km to go” it must be the wrong way so carried on into the tree covered road ahead.

At this point the sun had been set for a while, and twilight was starting to fade. There was still enough light to see but it seemed possible that it may fade before I finished. The lady I’d spoken to at a few of the pit stops passed me in the opposite direction as she was returning to the gate following a brief loop. She yelled that it was just 600 metres to go until the return journey.

I eventually recognised the village in Avebury and was then directed off the road and through the Avebury rings. For the first time since the base camp there was a photographer waiting there for runners. He had a light shining on the grass with a remote flash set-up. He was shouting directions of where I needed to run, and then told me to slow down so he could take a picture. I slowed to half a jog, but apparently it was not enough as he told me to slow even more so I was barely doing more than walking. He’d had difficulties focusing his camera in the fading light.

Going through another gate I was back onto the road and heading towards the gate I’d seen earlier. Not long left, and perhaps not too many more walking breaks to go. The grass through the gate was uneven and uphill so I decided to walk all of that, and once I’d turned at the top I realised that other than some light from a farm building ahead it was now dark. I should probably have used my headtorch at that point – and would have had I any further to run. Instead I started to pick up pace down the long straight once I realised that the lights in front were the finish.

By the time I reached the farm I reached a sprint and was relieved to have finished the Race to the Stones. I don’t think the photographer was quite expecting people to finish fast as she had to run backwards to take my picture as I finished. One quick high five to the crowd there, and I was given my medal. I was done – and it was another 4 UTMB points. Never again would I need to cover 100 km on foot in a single day.

I was handed a voucher for free food and was told to go over to the van to collect it. I think I may have misheard though as it turned out to be a stall behind the van. They had a good selection of warm and cold food so I decided to get a hotdog, some pizza, and a doughnut. Rather than hanging around though I went back to my car and took it back to the AirBNB to microwave it and relax.

It seems that 961 finished the 100 km non-stop event, with almost 100 more not having made it to the finish. It was a tough event, and it could easily have caused many more DNFs over that distance. I was glad to have finished, and I’d done so in position 264 – somehow in the first 27.5% of the finishers. I’d lost 77 places in the second half as well!

After Race to the King I felt I could finish this race no matter the time, and at points during this day I did wonder if I would actually finish. I did though, and I managed to beat my predicted time too – I finished with a time of 13:24:26. Threshold Sports say “More is in you”, but I think after that run there’s nothing left in me.

None of that really matters though, as I can now say I’ve ticked off my first goal for 2017 – I’ve finished a 100 km event.

Post-race Day

With the AirBNB not having a bath it meant that my legs couldn’t recover quite as quickly as they normally would. This meant a very sleepless night, and a brief moment of further cramp in my leg. I decided on an early start though and went walking around the nearby Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow so I’d at least have some more photos from the weekend. I had to go back to the finish line as well though as I realised I’d forgotten to pick up the finishers t-shirt I’d bought.

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