Last weekend Mark Longshaw and I headed down South to take part in the third annual running of the Race to the Stones ultramarathon. This is a 100k race along part of the Ridgeway, a 5000 year old track which originally connected the Dorset Coast to the Wash. The race starts in the Chilterns in Oxfordshire and follows the path through the North Wessex Downs, finishing at the Neolithic stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire. Most of the participants do the route all in one go, but we went for the softer option over 2 days with an overnight stay at the halfway ‘basecamp’.
Neither of us having had the sense or foresight to book the afternoon off work, we left Sheffield at 8pm on Friday evening for the drive down to Wiltshire. Arriving at the hotel just after midnight there was time for a refreshing two and a half hours sleep before being woken by the alarm at 3:45am. A bleary-eyed 40 minute drive later we arrived at a farm just outside Avebury to board a shuttle bus to the start line in Oxfordshire. The bus journey took 1 hour and 45 minutes and I decided it was probably best not to dwell on what this represented in terms of the distance we would be running.
A beautiful summer’s morning awaited us at the starting point, blue skies and light winds suggesting a warm day ahead. A lone red kite circled overhead in scenes that might have been reminiscent of Cider with Rosie were it not for the rows of portaloos and OneRepublic belting out of the PA system. After registration and the obligatory 3 toilet visits it was time to smother myself in factor 50 sun cream and insect repellant, fill the water bottle and head for the start line. After a short race briefing, the hooter went just after 8am and we were off.
The route is mainly off road on well-drained chalk paths of varying width. The first section through the Chilterns is softer underfoot than the later stages and consists of rolling hills and Beech woodlands. After setting of faster than I had intended, I soon settled into what I thought would be a comfortable pace over the distance. Chatting to fellow runners over the first few miles it was clear that this race attracts people from a wide variety of running backgrounds, from the grizzled old ultra veterans offering advice ( “Eat early”, “Don’t even think about running the uphills” etc), to clueless newbies like myself. At the ten mile point, one woman informed me that this was already the furthest she had ever run!. A couple of times we emerged from the woods to see the path stretch out into the distance through fields of knee-high barley. Pretty as this was, it had the unfortunate side effect of lodging Sting’s Fields of Gold in my head as an earworm until I felt like smacking my head against a tree to get rid of it.
Pit stops were provided every 10k or so, and I decided at the outset that I would make full use of these. Each had toilets, a range of snacks and drinks and water for re-filling bottles. These were a welcome sight along the way and also provided a good way of breaking the distance down into manageable chunks. I found that running at a relatively relaxed pace with no pressures of a target time was quite liberating, and I was really enjoying myself. However, the increasing heat of the day combined with the lack of sleep meant the last few miles were hard going and I was mighty relieved to see the halfway camp.
The base camp was at Lattin Down Kiln on a hill top with stunning views of the surrounding countryside. After several bowls of soup, a hot shower and a lie down in my allocated tent, I felt much restored and wandered a little way back along the route to wait for Mark. He had been unable to train properly and had decided on a walking/ running strategy which seemed to have worked well for him. We were provided with a very substantial hot meal followed by a staggering choice of puddings and cakes as well as some dubious ‘entertainment’ provided by a young lad with a guitar singing Simon and Garfunkel songs. The offer of free sports massage seemed tempting, but the allure of the sleeping bag won out and I was asleep by 8:30pm.
I awoke at 4:45 to the sound of rain hammering down on the tent. After a fine cooked breakfast, we made our way to the start and were off just after 6am. My legs felt quite stiff and I had no idea how they were going to behave over 31 miles but I had little choice but to try. After a mile or so, the stiffness had dissipated, the rain had stopped and I was running freely ( but slowly). I had already decided that I would walk anything that looked remotely like an incline from now on and run everything else to give myself the best chance of finishing upright. The second half of the route took us past several prehistoric sites of interest including Wayland’s Smithy and The Uffington Whitehorse and several Iron Age forts, I had never visited the North Wessex Downs before and I was really struck by the beauty of the landscape. Under foot the running seemed more difficult with fewer soft grassy sections and more hard chalk and rocky, stony paths, but it was much cooler than the previous day which helped a lot.
As the day wore on and the running became harder, I reminded myself how lucky I was to have the ability and opportunity to do something as life-affirming as this and not to take any of that for granted. In other words ‘man up and get on with it!’ For counting down the distance, I used the now internationally recognised ‘parkruns to go’ measurement. You can imagine then how pleased I was to see the ‘5k to go’ sign, especially as it was all downhill from there to Avebury.
As we ran into Avebury we were sent on a little diversion around the stone circle before heading along a farm track to the finish line. At this point I caught up to a woman in her mid twenties who was limping badly and had her knee strapped up. Shouting some words of encouragement to her as I passed, I noticed she had a white number, which meant she was doing the straight through race. She had been on the go for over 29 hours! That’s real endurance for you.
All in all a great event, the organization was slick and seamless, all the staff were very friendly, enthusiastic and supportive. Probably not one for hardened ultra runners as it might seem a bit ‘pampered’, but otherwise highly recommended