In April I ran the Hermannslauf 31km trail run in Germany, but didn’t have anything else in the calendar for the rest of the summer. After moving to Dorset in May, I found out there were lots of local trail races close to our new house, but unfortunately most of them were so popular they had already sold out! So, on a bit of a whim, I decided to enter the Dixon’s Carphone Race to the Stones. It’s a 100km race along the Ridgeway trail that can either be run or walked, in one go or split over two days. The race starts in Lewknor (Oxfordshire) and finishes by the Avebury Stone Circle (Wiltshire). Obviously me being me, I thought it would be a great idea to tackle the 100km race in one go. Not one of my brightest ideas.
Now, for full disclosure, this is not the first ultramarathon I’ve run. Back in March of last year (2016) I ran the Green Man Ultra (GMU45) 45-mile (72.4km) race that utilises the community forest path encircling Bristol. It was a cold, muddy but bright day, and it was the furthest I had ever run in my life! However, I’d trained well for it, and was running at least two half marathons a week, either as my commute to or from work (and occasionally running both ways in one day!). It took me 9 hours 41 minutes to clock a distance of 73.35km, and I was pretty broken at the end. Fortunately my parents were there to scoop me up into the car and drive me the 20 minutes home.
It would appear that my memory of being in remarkable amounts of pain last year after the GMU, and not enjoying the last 20km or so had totally faded when I signed up for RTTS this year and somehow I must have thought it would be easier. Although I’ve been doing a fair few shorter runs (10-12km) fairly regularly since I came back from the row, I hadn’t clocked up anywhere near the training mileage for RTTS that I did for last year’s run. The longest run I managed this year was a 33km which I had to cut short from the planned full 42km due to GI problems, and a constant niggle in my hip area on both sides (right worse than left). I have a history of TFL and Glute problems (aka weakness) on my right side particularly, something which the row made significantly worse (as our S&C coach Andy discovered when I went for my post-row assessment). It’s something that I normally have under control, with physio exercises and regular sports massages…….. ‘normally’ being the key word here. Since I’ve started kettlebell classes in the last few weeks it has actually been much better, particularly with added glute activation exercises thrown in. Anyway, to cut a long story short, going into RTTS I hadn’t done enough training, and I definitely hadn’t done enough conditioning.
I had chosen to park my car at the finish in Avebury, and catch the shuttle bus (coach) to the start, as it meant I wouldn’t have to travel as far when I had finished the race as I was flying solo this time, with no support crew. The alarm went off at 0330, and I tumbled out of bed and into my race kit (already laid out, water bottles already full, bags already packed), put the kettle on for a cup of tea in my travel mug, grabbed a jam-jar of overnight oats from the fridge (for breakfast on the shuttle bus), and a little Ziploc bag with two mini pork-pies in (for eating on the run!).
Aside from the fact that I’d allowed myself too much time to get to Avebury at 4am in the morning (and could have slept for at least an extra 15 minutes), getting to the start line was a very straightforward process; my name was checked against a list of pre-booked names for the coach, I clambered on, promptly spilt my overnight oats all over my bag (too much milk) and then dozed for the rest of the journey. I’d booked on to the 0530 shuttle, which was due to arrive at the start between 0700 and 0715. They’d recommended allowing 45 minutes to do everything you needed to at the start, before your wave went off, so I’d added a little more than that, as I’ve fallen foul of recommended timings before at other races. However, in this case, 45 minutes really was plenty, and yet again all I could think about was that I could have easily caught the 6am bus and enjoyed another 30 minutes sleep). The weather was overcast, with a bit of drizzle; a bit too cold to be standing around in a pair of shorts, but perfect weather for running. Wave D was the fourth wave to go off, at 0815, with waves being started every 15 minutes from 0730 to avoid bottlenecking on the course. We were treated to a warm up by the guys at LDN Muscle, a quick safety brief from the route-setter, and an interesting fact for us about the course; for my wave it was a pointer to keep an eye out for a particularly impressive crop circle after we left checkpoint 9. Then after a countdown, we were off!
I trundled along quite happily at around a 6:00/km pace for the first 10km or so, before we hit the first big hill. Early on in a race it’s always depressing to see your average pace sky-rocket as you walk up a hill, but it was definitely the sensible option. We ran through the ‘field of dreams’; a crop field that is usually full of colour at this time of the year. It was a very nice field, slightly marred by the constant drizzle though. The route was pretty up and down between 10 and 20km, with a long downhill leading into the 20-30km section (I only know this from looking at the profile as I write this, rather than being able to remember it from Saturday!). Around the 20km mark, the route took us through Grim’s Ditch, which is a prehistoric bank/ditch/earthwork thing, with trees overhead, and nice soft earth underfoot.
As we passed through the first two checkpoints, I had just filled up my water bottle, had a wee, grabbed a flapjack or half a banana and then carried on. Much the same at checkpoint 3 (around 30km), except that instead of a flapjack or a banana, I stuffed a mini pork pie into my face and I was so happy. I saved the other one until the 60km checkpoint as a treat. There was quite a steep hill directly out of checkpoint 3, so that gave me a chance to gobble the pork pie at walking speed rather than running speed! The stretch between 30 and 40km was mostly up for the first half, then down for the second half and although I was beginning to hurt a little bit, it wasn’t too much more painful than the 20 – 30km mark.
I yoyo’d for quite a while with a woman that was employing a run/walk strategy; 15 minutes of running, followed by 3 minutes of walking. Her running pace was quicker than mine, so she’d overtake me, but then I would overtake her on the sections she was walking. This carried on until around the 40km mark, when her speed finally got the better of me and she disappeared into the distance.
Things started getting a bit bleak between the 40 and 50km checkpoints (halfway basecamp for those doing it over two days); now looking at the profile, I know why. Although I don’t remember it as a particularly uphill leg, it turns out that 40 – 50km was near enough a constant uphill battle. The thought of only being half-way when I got to the basecamp was pretty depressing; I sat and had a quick stretch (helped immensely), then got on my way again before I could change my mind and stop at 50km! I went through 50km in around 5 hours 50, so I was pretty pleased with that – I’d reckoned on the whole thing taking around 13-14 hours (assuming I didn’t have to walk too much, or get injured etc.) based on the time it had taken me the previous year to complete the GMU45 and the fact that I hadn’t done as much training on tired legs.
Fortunately it was only an 8km stretch to the next checkpoint at 58km; it might not seem much, but it meant about 15 minutes less running before I could stretch again (and most importantly, eat my other mini pork pie). My hips were hurting quite a lot by then, so I spent around 10 minutes at CP6, sitting down and having a decent stretch, eating my pork pie, taking a couple of paracetamol, having a wee (the portaloos were surprisingly clean considering the number of people passing through) and filling up my water bottle. Maybe it was the stretch, maybe it was the paracetamol, maybe it was even the pork pie, maybe it was due to it being another short leg, but the next stretch to checkpoint 7 was actually quite enjoyable and I managed to mostly run it rather than shuffle it. It probably helped that aside from a hill in the middle, it was mostly a downhill leg.
It was a very different story for the next leg though; a 13km slog to checkpoint 8 at 79km. This section included quite a long stretch running along the verge of a fairly busy road; not the most pleasant, added to the fact that there was again a fair amount of uphill (and some subsequent downhill) on this leg. My longest checkpoint stop was still the one I had taken at the 58km CP6, however I’d already had to stop once between CP7 and 8 to stretch, so I took a little break at checkpoint 8 (ate a chocolate bar, filled up my water, drank some coca cola[!]) and made sure I did some more proper stretching. Also did my good deed for the day and gave a lady a couple of my Compeed blister plasters I had with me and some micropore tape to try and keep her feet together for the last 20km. Fortunately, I seem to have finally found the perfect trail shoe and sock combo for me running long-distance, and even by 80km I had no feeling of any blisters trying to raise their heads and disrupt my progress. She was very thankful and kept saying to me “We’ve got this now. Only 20km. We’ve definitely got this. Haven’t we?” with a slightly panicked look in her eyes.
I also took the opportunity of being sat down to take out my little portable power pack (a freebie from Antigua & Barbuda tourism on my arrival into Antigua at the end of my Atlantic row), the charger for my Garmin and to plug my Garmin in to charge. I’m not sure it needed it, as it hadn’t started telling me it had a low battery, but I definitely didn’t want it to die on me in the last 10km or so. On the 310XT you can’t read the display whilst it’s charging (or if you can, I haven’t figured out how to yet), so I ran watch-free for a little bit. Whilst that’s normally quite a nice thing to do, after 80km, all I wanted to be doing was counting down the kilometres! My next mental goal was the 84.4km mark on my watch, signifying a double marathon distance; fortunately after about half an hour, my watch had risen back up to 50% power, so I could unplug it and put it back on to track the distance.
The stretch between checkpoint 8 and 9 was another short-ish one in comparison to the previous, at 8.8km, but was a pretty savage section, with a very steep downhill almost immediately out of checkpoint 8. By this point everything was complaining on the steep downhills, so it was a case of run/shuffle/hop/limp/try and stay in control of my feet as I went downhill. After that, it was uphill again almost all the way to the last checkpoint. I’d managed to totally miss the White Horse at Uffington (between CP6 and 7), Liddington Castle (somewhere between 70 and 80km) and so far the most traumatic thing had been having to run (uphill) through a field of cows on my own. I hate running through fields with cows in. The folks at the last checkpoint were fab; they were obviously seeing a lot of pain passing through their checkpoint! I had another couple of paracetamol, another stretch, got my head torch out (just in case I didn’t beat the dark), ate some peanuts, a cup of blackcurrant squash and picked up a dried fruit bar for the last leg. Eventually I decided I couldn’t put it off any more, and had to get going for the last 13km stretch into the finish.
Despite my initial wobble around the 45km mark about whether I’d actually make it to the end, now it was just a case of head down and plod, knowing that I would get there eventually. By this time Niall had told me he was coming to meet me at the finish (hoorah!) and was already in the car on the way to Avebury after driving back over from the Isle of Wight in a RIB after a day coaching. I’d been trying to keep him updated with approximate ETA’s since the 60km mark, with each of them getting more and more accurate as I neared the finish. Generally speaking, I managed to run (or at least shuffle) on the flats and gentle downhills the whole race; towards the end it took me longer and longer to break into a shuffle after each little bit of walking uphill, but I tempered that by often running up more of the hills than other people before I started walking.
The last 10km were quite difficult, not just because my legs were one big hurt, but because a lot of the track we were running on was ruts in the chalk, with grassy sections either side; for how I run (aka both feet don’t follow the same centre line), the ruts were a bit too narrow to put both my feet in when I was tired and rather a lot of concentration was needed! For the last 2km of the course, you run into Avebury, to the stones, past a photographer (who tried to tell me to slow down so he could focus on me in the dusk – not a chance sir, do you realise how close I am to not having to run anymore?!) and then back along the path that you have just run down along the side of a few fields, with runners coming the other way, now 1.5km or so behind you distance-wise.
You then peel off left into a field (also had to concentrate quite hard in the dusk to keep my tired footing), then onto a road that leads straight into the farm where the finish arch was in sight, floodlit, with people cheering, smells of food and gloriously, ever so slightly downhill. I finished in 13 hours, 36 minutes and 29 seconds, clocking a total distance of 100.6km on my Garmin, just before it got properly dark.
After a little sit down (aka slump against the wall until I eventually reach the floor without having to use my quads, calves or glutes in any way), I got up (aka Niall had to drag me upright) and we shuffled around the corner so that I could use my hot food voucher and get some grub into me. I couldn’t face a pizza or burger, so opted for a jacket potato with tuna mayo and some cheese, before hobbling back to my car with it to put on some clean clothes and the flip-flops that I’d been dreaming about. After most of my jacket potato and most of a recovery shake, we hit the road in our separate cars, with Niall tailing me back home in case I was too tired to drive. I made it as far as Westbury before I had to pull over, and that was mostly due to the number of roundabouts there are in Devizes and how much my calves were now hurting when I tried to use the clutch! So I parked up in Westbury, clambered into Henry J and we got home about half past midnight, 21 hours after I’d woken up!
All in all, although it was relatively expensive race, I was really impressed with the pit-stops; the selection of food/drink, the friendliness of people manning them, the first aid teams (which I fortunately didn’t need to use), the signage was brilliant – even half asleep it would have been difficult to get lost, and generally a great race atmosphere at both the start and finish. My finish time put me in an overall position of 277 out of 961 100km non-stoppers, 49th out of 308 females, and 27th out of 129 senior females (no idea what age range that covers!) – pretty pleased with that!