Race to the Stones 14 July 2018
By Mark George
Race to the Stones is a 100km race along ‘The Ridgeway” which is apparently Britains oldest road/trail. It is part of the Threshold Trail series of Ultras and 2018 was the sixth year it has taken place. 2018 also sees a record number of participants taking part. Just under 2500 in all.
The event takes place over 2 days and there are various options you can sign up to. You could choose from Day 1 or Day 2 only (which would be 50km), Day 1 & Day 2 (Which would be 50km each day with camping overnight at the halfway stage or you can do the whole 100km in one go.
Having never done anything like that distance before, I was favouring signing up for the 2 Days with an overnight camping option. However, I was told to pretty much “put on my big boy pants” and aim to do the full 100km in one go.
The race starts at Lewknor in Oxfordshire and finishes at Avebury in Wiltshire which for someone living in Leeds presents something of a logistical challenge. (It should be said not as much as it did for some as some people had travelled from as far as New Zealand to compete!).
Since I had a 5 hour drive to get there I had decided to drive down the day before the race and camp somewhere close to the finish line. This would then mean that if/when I finished the race, I wouldn’t have far to go before I could collapse in a heap and sleep. Luckily the organisers offer a “shuttle” to get runners from the finish (where the cars are left) to the start. The downside is that I would need to be on a coach at 05:30 to get to the start.
As I was going to have to get up at 04:30 it was important that I arrived at the campsite early so that I had time to pitch the tent and get an early night. After a (relatively) straight forward drive to Wiltshire (just one wrong turn incident resulting in an hour sat in traffic in Oxford) I arrived at the pub to which the field I would be camping in was attached. Checked in with the landlady and tent successfully pitched by 20:00. Result! Time to kick back and crack open the M&S pasta I had brought with me (and maybe a cheeky glass (or 2) of red wine to help me sleep.
The clock passes 21:00 and it’s time to start thinking about turning in. Only the pub and the other patrons have other ideas about that. Turns out the pub had hired a band for the Friday night and they were using the worlds loudest speakers. To be fair they were making a pretty good fist of Kings of Leons “Sex on Fire”.
Operation “sleep” was now postponed until midnight when the pub shut and the revellers sodded off home. Only they didn’t go home, did they? Noooo. They poured out of the pub and into the next field where they had booked ALL of the camping pitches and carried on the party. Maybe I should just be glad they called it a night at 02:15 or that I wasn’t the guy in the tent next to me (who was also running Race to the Stones) who had forgotten his air bed and sleeping bag and was just laid on the floor of his tent. I found out the following day, he’d ended up sleeping in the back of his car as he was freezing in the tent.
It’s 04:30 and my watch buzzes softly and I wake up feeling well rested and ready to take on the challenge of running twice as far as I had ever run. Well that would have been nice.
In reality it’s 04:30 and my watch buzzes angrily on my wrist and I wake up with a head full of cotton wool and feeling I need a crowbar to separate my eye lids and wonder if I’m up to the challenge of walking as far as the bathroom to brush my teeth.
Surprisingly, I do manage to get my teeth brushed and have a small breakfast before getting in the car for the 15 minute drive to the finish at Avebury.
Before driving off I suppress the urge (not for the first time) to drive over the tents in the adjacent field with the probably still drunken occupants sleeping/passed out inside.
Arriving at the finish, I’m directed where to park and am bang on time for my 05:30 luxury coach ride to the start. I fully plan on using the 90 minute journey to almost double the amount of sleep I’ve had.
However, the gods are not finished having a laugh at my expense yet. The luxury coaches I’ve seen leaving are not for me. No, I’m special (along with 7 others) and we have our very own 8 seater converted sprinter van (taxi). And out of the “special 8” I am the most special of all and I end up sat in the middle seat on the front row which would maybe be “just” big enough for my 5 year old to sit comfortably on. Instead of a 90 minute power nap, I spend 90 minutes hunched over with my knees not far from my chin, hoping the driver is careful when changing gear so he doesn’t whack me in that most tender of tender parts.
The Coach / Van, pulls into the farm where the race starts and I have just under an hour to sort myself and my kit out before “Wave C” gets underway at 08:00.
The sun is shining and it’s already very warm. There’s loads of people slapping on the sun cream, filling water bottles, queuing for toilets (to be fair, queues were pretty short), queuing for coffee and bacon sandwiches, or just laying on the grass enjoying the sun. I join the queue to fill my water bottle and it’s evident that the place is buzzing with nervous energy. Mostly the conversations are started with “Have you done this before?” There is also a “high 5” stand offering more gels, powders and tablets than anyone could possibly need. Good job then I’d brought my own. Doh!
After a lovely 15 minutes lazing on the grass, its time for me and the rest of “wave C” to make our way to the start area.
There’s the usual rent a local radio DJ type guy on the microphone trying to keep everyone entertained, but it’s too early in the morning and people seem preoccupied with the scale of the distance we are about to attempt to cover. The count down from 10 blares from the speakers and we are off.
“The Ridgeway” incorporates a combination of all of the different types of terrain you would expect. Wide in places, narrow in others, woodland, open fields, farm tracks, tarmac paths, riverside paths and even some roads and pavements. The one thing all of the different under foot conditions had in common was, they were firm! very damn hard in fact. The recent weather conditions had baked the ground into a surface with even less cushioning than concrete.
The 100km route contains “pit stops” at roughly 10km intervals. So in the same way as pretty much every one else I spoke to on the day, I was focusing only on getting to the next pit stop which would split the race into ten 10k races. Hopefully this would avoid “oh my God!, I’ve still got (insert your high number here) miles to go, I’ll never do it!” entering my thoughts.
The first 10k went by pretty harmlessly as you would expect. There was quite a lot of walking, most of it enforced due to the numbers of people on the course and the single file nature of some of the tracks through the woods. Even when I did have the chance to run, I was deliberately trying to slow myself down. What feels like a very easy, even too slow pace at this point in the race, may still be too fast to maintain in the later stages. As we approached the pit stop you could hear the cheering which was akin to some race finishes. I’d been on the course for a few minutes over an hour, which was a bit quicker than I had planned. Once into the pit stop area, it was time for a look around and see what was on offer. The place was like an Aladdins Cave of running food and drink. There was huge tanks of water to refill your bottles along with flat coke and cordial juices. A whole raft of High 5 energy products, bananas, crips, sweets and energy bars. All you had to do was help yourself to whatever you fancied and you were on your way again.
The run to the next pit stop was an almost identical repeat of the first 10k. Lots of enforced walking due volume of runners alongside trying to “rein it in” and to be fair, failing to do so enough. Before long pit stop 2 came into view. I’d been going for 2 hours 20 minutes, still too fast! The temperature was also rising and when it didn’t take much to top up my water bottles, I also realised I may not have been taking on sufficient fluids. I decided from then on, I would drink and eat a little every 2 miles whether I felt I needed to or not.
I still felt strong as I set off for my 3rd 10k. Half a mile out of the pit stop, the route runs along side the river Thames which we follow for about a mile before crossing the river and running through the town of Streatley. This section was stunning. The river on one side, rolling fields or woodland on the other, and it was flat. The field had also spread out by now and I was no longer taking enforced walking breaks. In hindsight, I really wish that hadn’t been the case, as I was to regret not taking those extra breaks. I did however try and stick to my new resolution for taking on fluids and food. As we passed through Streatley, there was no shortage of people just going about their day who would stop and offer encouragement as we trundled on. One very kind gentleman was in his front garden with hose pipe out offering a showering to anyone who wanted. Which was pretty much everyone. I do hope he wasn’t on a water meter! Once through Streatley it was back onto the trails and onto pit stop 3.
By the time I arrived at pit stop 3 I was getting tired and felt like I had been running the 3 hours and 40 minutes it had taken to get that far. I made 3 mistakes at this pit stop. 1. I added salt to my blackcurrant juice which nearly made me vomit when I tried to drink it. 2. I ate a peperami which repeated on me constantly for the next few hours and 3. I took a back of pretzels to eat. Once in my mouth the pretzels just absorbed what little moisture there was in there before becoming a sticky mass that took a real effort to swallow.
Setting off on the journey to pit stop 4, the route climbs a stoney track for a good half mile or so. I took this as an opportunity to walk some more whilst “trying” (see 3 mistakes) to take on fuel and fluids. The ground underfoot had changed from predominately rock hard soil to dusty stoney trail. This made stepping onto sharp stones a regular hazard and I was repeatedly questioning the parentage of these stones/rocks. By the time I arrived at pit stop 4 I’d covered just under 44km in 4 hours and 40 minutes. I was really starting to feel it and knew I had been and indeed still was going too fast and it would just be a matter of time before I was forced to slow down by running low on energy and would then suffer all the more because of it. I guess it must be common for runners to be feeling it at this point as the board at the pit stop contained these motivational words. “Run when you can, Walk if you have to, Crawl if you must, just never give up!
The next pit stop would be the halfway point or “base camp”. As a bonus, this stretch was only 7km long. Much of the going now was in farm vehicle rutted tracks baked solid by the sun. This made footing difficult and the going slow. I was really starting to suffer now and hoped that I would receive a “second wind” after a bite to eat at base camp. As you approach the basecamp, there is a huge inflatable arch with “Finish” emblazoned across it. If only! I’m directed by a marshal to cross a timing matt before being directed to the marquee where all manner of food and cakes are available. I’d chatted for a while with another runner who had predicted that in this heat the last thing I would feel like was food when I got there. He was spot on. By now, just the thought of food was enough to make me feel sick. He did however, also advise that at the very least I should take a cup of soup and a roll to get vital calories in. I helped myself to some tomato soup and a coffee, to which I add 4 sugars. I don’t normally have sugar in my coffee, but this one tasted delicious. I get to the rows of tables and chairs and wonder if I should sit down. Up until this point I have avoided it in case it was too difficult getting back to my feet. Needing a rest gets the better of me and I take a seat. A look at my watch shows that I have reached half way in a touch under 6 hours.
After managing half of the soup, I decide to change shirt and treat my feet to a new pair of socks. I’d read that doing this can make all the difference to how you feel setting off again. I have to say I just felt like I had unnecessarily carried an extra top and a pair of socks for 100km. 🙁
After spending just under 30 minutes at base camp, it’s with a heavy heart (and heavier legs) that I lift myself out of the chair and head to the water station for the obligatory water bottle refill. The temperature is now at it’s hottest and the footing gives way from farm tracks to rutted and dusty chalk path making running at pace difficult since it’s hard to trust your footing. Not that it mattered to me in the slightest. By now, my run / walk strategy had become more of a shuffle / walk strategy.
It’s only 8k from base camp to the next pit stop so I find I’m shuffling into pit stop 6 a little sooner than I envisioned. As I arrive a lovely lady runs towards me with a bottle of water which she proceeds to spray into my face. It was delightful! This pit stop had all of the usual offerings but in addition to the standard old trusty banana, there was also water melon and pineapple. The refreshing taste of the watermelon and pineapple was such a welcome relief. The sign at this pit stop was congratulating on the distance covered and happened to mention the 42.3km until the finish. Crap! I feel almost spent and I still have a whole marathon to go! I’ve been on my feet now for over 7 hours and it’s not going to be over any time soon.
Between pitstops 6 & 7 and 7 & 8 I think my mind went to a dark place. I’d come a hell of a long way and still had a huge distance to go. Someone asked me how I was holding up. I think I replied something about at least my face wasn’t hurting. Every step was hurting in multiple places, from foot to knee, to hip, to back and ribs. But like I say, on the bright side, my face felt okay. To make matters worse, I was now paying the price for the short distance between pit stops 5 & 6. The distance between 7 & 8 was nearer 13km and incorporated a pretty big hill. Walking no longer gave respite from the pain in my joints so short of stopping altogether and laying on the floor there was no escape.
But, as the saying goes, pain is temporary and as long as I continued putting one foot in front of the other I would reach the finish where I could stop. Bizarrely it was only halfway between pit stops 7 & 8 , some 9 and a half hours and 75km after setting off that I remembered I had my iPod with me. Maybe some music would take my mind off of the pain of each step? Whilst I can’t say it worked a treat, it definitely made a difference. I found the periods of time I ran were getting longer and the walking periods didn’t seem to hurt quite as much. During one such running period down a hill, waiting at the bottom was a lovely family no doubt out to support a family member or friend. They gave me such a cheer I almost burst into tears and blubbered like a baby. Only the thought of losing more fluid and salt stopped me. I may have been a bit emotional by this point.
After almost 10 and a half hours and 80km I arrive at pit stop 8. Only one more stop to go before the run to the finish line and I can now see the end is in sight. Well still almost a half marathon away but in my mind, I was nearly finished.
I found the next section a bit easier. I wasn’t really moving much quicker, but I had definitely moved on from the near despair of a while earlier. The rutted terrain gave way to more hard packed earth in fields which made the demands on the legs a little less. Finally pit stop 9 materialises and I allow myself a smile. I’m really going to finish this and it’s not going to be that long. More water melon consumed along with fresh water and I’m away with a spring in my step. Maybe a bit of a rusty broken spring, but a spring non the less.
There is only 12k to go now and quite a bit of it is down hill. Normally that would be great. But when your feet and quadriceps are busted and the terrain is back to deep rutted tracks it hurts and whats more, there is a very real risk of taking a tumble. Surprisingly after spending most of the time between kilometres 65 and 80 going backwards I find I’m now overtaking people. I can almost taste the finish, I can definitely hear the DJ at the finish line. The last few kilometres are a little cruel as you have to run past a track which leads to the finish line, do a lap of the “mini stone henge” at Avebury, then trace your steps back to the track to the finish. The final few hundred meters are on a nice grassy track with a slight downhill gradient. I feel like I’m sprinting, and then 13 hours and 7 minutes after crossing the start line, it’s all over. Someone hangs a medal around my neck and everything starts to hurt some more.
The finish area is very congested with supporters looking out for their loved ones. Right now, I wish they would all get the hell out of my way so I can find a chair. Again, there is plenty of food and drink available, but I can’t even face the beer offered to me by another runner. Things must be bad! After helping myself to another cup of sugar with a bit of coffee in it, I find a chair and fall into it. I don’t find it particularly comfortable, but I can’t imagine getting up either.
My aim at the start was always to complete the run and get back to the pub at the campsite before last orders. With this in mind I drag myself up and into a hot shower. The shower makes me feel almost (but not quite) human again. After the shower, I’m in the bar well before last orders talking to the landlady. Mission Accomplished. She asked the question “would I do it again?” at that time 22:15, less than 2 hours after finishing I wasn’t so sure. If I had been asked about 5 hours earlier the answer would have involved a few expletives. I then realised that of course I would do it again. Time has a habit of glossing over the bad periods in these events, leaving us with warm glowing memories of how wonderful it all was.
After my celebratory pint, it’s off to my tent for some well earned sleep. On the way, I notice the party crew are still in situ quaffing prosecco and desperado. There is no way they will be able to stop me from sleeping this time!
Race to the Stones is billed as “An unforgettable 100km along Britains oldest path” and to be fair, is pretty accurate. The organisation is also pretty much flawless.
If you would like to see the route, have a look here.
A few things I would try to do differently next time.
1. stay in a (quiet) hotel
2. don’t stay in or next to a pub
3. start much slower, even if it means walking when I don’t feel like it.
4. ditch the gels etc, loads of options at pit stops
5. eat more early on as the longer you go, the harder it is to eat.
I wonder if anyone will read this far?