Some time in September last year, my good friend Sam pinged me on messenger and I think the conversation went like this:
Sam: “Fancy doing Race to the Stones with me next year?” (background, he’d run the last 10K of it with his cousin a few years back who did a very very decent 13:11!)
Me: “Uuuuuuh, maybe”
Sam: “Oh go on.”
Me: “OK then. Why not.”
2 minutes pass
Me: “The 50K or the 100k???”
Me: “Oh. The 2 day option or straight through????”
Sam: “Straight through”
Me: “OK. I’ve entered.”
Now, OBVIOUSLY I planned on doing a lot of distance training after booking it. OBVIOUSLY that didn’t happen. I did run Snowdonia Marathon in October and about 4 half marathons over winter/spring but that was about it. The week prior to race week I did 12km/day for 6 days on the bounce. Everything felt good, let’s go!
A few days before the race it dawned on me that the logistics were somewhat irritating. You know the puzzle with the river, you have one boat, a fox, a chicken and some corn? Yeah. That. It looked like it might involve public transport which made me spit my dummy out a bit. Ultimately I dumped my car at the finish the day before, got picked up by Lorna who was going to drop us off at the start and crew for us.
Start -> 10km
The registration process was pretty slick. Usual bib with integrated chip (gosh, RFID is very clever). There were a few bits and bobs on site but I was too busy looking for Susie Chan and Shaun but couldn’t see them. Suspect because I was hovering nearer the middle of the pack.
All the runners set off at 8am and the walkers at 8:45am. This seemed sensible (for now) and off we went. Nice and easy first 8km or so, sort of adjusting in the pack. At 8km though everyone just stopped. Not “Oh, this is a steep hill” bunching, but “Oh. There’s a very long British queue here” stopped. Got given a Haribo here by a very lovely stranger. After literally 10 minutes of queueing we got to the top of the hill to find a kissing gate causing the hold up. Through that and running again on nice soft grass for 200m to the next 10 minute queue for the next kissing gate. Brilliant. On this second gate, a few people tried queue jumping. After the abuse yelled at them the first bunch stopped and looked sheepish. The second bunch, all in the same running club with matching gear (M*dni*ht Runn*rs …. you silly sods) ran past the queue and climbed a fence. So technically, you guys cheated. And one of you had a backpack with a terrible stereo pumping out tunes you massively antisocial arse. Annnnnnyway. Really they need to stagger the start in waves based on estimated finish time. Having that many people just waiting was ludicrous. Split it in to 6 waves every 5 minutes or something.
10km -> 20km
At 11k was the first pitstop. Really slick actually. Water bowsers on one side, food on the other. Sam quickly taped his foot, I raided some energy bars. Really tasty stuff from http://perkier.co.uk/ . Highly recommended. I had one of each throughout the day. All nice. We saw Lorna just after pitstop one. The rest of this section was pretty uneventful other than running across a golf course, much to the annoyance of them lot. A lot of the path was very very narrow (single file really) between two sets of trees. Essentially running in the middle of a wide hedge. Not the easiest for me as I’m a bit rubbish on anything technical.
20km -> 30km
At 21.1km Sam had a little celebration of his first half marathon (yep!). At 23km was pitstop 2. There were huge queues here. People apparently had to wait 10 mins for food/water. The crew were bringing cups of water to people queuing up. I didn’t do anything apart from a little bit of foot maintenance (slapped a compeed on a bit that rubs after a while). The path then led to the Thames for a bit. My gosh there are some incredible houses on the side of the river. Time was spent dreaming and questioning my life choices. Also found a full unopened packet of PomBears in a field. SCORE!
30km -> 40km
This section starts in Streatley which seems to be entirely posh shops, Range Rovers and steep hills as you cross the Thames. Pitstop 3 at 34km I can’t honestly remember. We saw Lorna again just after too which was a welcome boost. It was then mostly quite boring hard packed path with endless fields. I know, it could be worse. I think by this stage we’d stopped running really on anything other than flat flat. I hope Sam doesn’t mind me saying but I think his running legs had entirely given up by now. Still a decent walking pace and we were still clicking off 9:10-10min kilometres. Consistent forward progress will see us to the end.
40km -> 50km
Just as the sun started to get fierce and the temps started to climb, the shade completely vanished. This was one of the main gains in elevation and it took us up on to what I’d describe as ‘plains’. I’m not sure they officially are, or even what the definition is, but there was little of anything. Really was just 10 kilometers that were completely unidentifiable from each other. At 42.2km we celebrated Sam’s first Marathon. At 42.3km we celebrated the furthest either of us had ever gone. Go us. Aid station 4 at 44km had Fudge bars, crisps and coffee. Perfect. Sam detonated a blister on his foot which made me feel a bit weird and I think Lorna a bit sick.
50km -> 60km
Right at the start of this section is the halfway basecamp. You can do the 100km as 2 x 50 with a night in a tent but for some reason in my head that seems harder. My enthusiasm to get up and run on day 2 would be exactly zero, especially as they had a bar, live music etc. There was hot food on offer but it looked fairly unappealing so I grabbed a slice of bread and a chocolate bar. Something was also up with the water there. I think they’d used some kind of cleaner in the water storage and not flushed it out. Had a hint of TCP to it. Leaving basecamp I walked into (almost literally) Sara from my swim club. I didn’t know she was doing it, and was very out of context so it was one of those ‘Let me walk in front and see if they recognise me so I don’t accost a stranger’. Her first words to me were “why the **** are we doing this in one go?”. Probably because I’d be in a beer induced slumber in my tent at 8am the next day if I tried it in two halves.
The path from the halfway stop got a bit naff over the next few km. Lots of sections where it was quite thick grass with two thin ruts on either side. I think this section was where we came across a lady who’d had a tumble and had a fair amount of blood. Some others were scrambling round for plasters. Sam pulled out a dressing big enough to mummify my 2yr old which did the trick for her.
59k was aid station 6 where Lorna was waiting along with Sam’s wife and child. Hurrah. Nothing like a completely unfussed child to lift the spirits.
10km of up and down path. Getting annoying now. Pitstop 7 I don’t remember in the slightest. I think I tried an Etixx Orange Isotonic drink and got terrible flashbacks to that one time I tried Sunny Delight. Probably old school Sunny Delight before stuff got banned. I probably washed it down with coffee as it was 8.30pm by now and I was getting a bit weary. Entirely unscientific but by now we seemed to be catching a lot of people who came running past us about midway of the race. Also a lot of people spending a lot of time in aid stations.
We caught up again with Lorna and Sam’s wife and child at the 74km mark outside what looked like a nice Indian restaurant. I think that was the closest I came to sacking it off. A nice curry, a beer and being taken home in a warm car. Mmmmm. Anyway, we didn’t. We put on our warm clothes, put our headtorches on and set off. Our support crew left us at this point so we were somewhat committed to finishing.
The next few KM were walking along a fairly busy road in the dark which was one of the least pleasant parts of the race. Beyond that it was a few KM up on to a decent sized hill. By now it was properly dark too so just a case of following the glowsticks. Still, only a half marathon to go. Seems a ‘relatively’ short way but given it’s now 11pm and we’re moving slowly along a grass track in the pitch black it was a bit soul destroying. Pitstop 8 at 78km was time for another very strong coffee, a lot of sugar and on we go.
Please make it stop. 10km of grass path and some slightly easier gravel track. Still taking 12-13mins/km here, probably due to head torches. Somewhere along this section was a dreadfully steep section of rutted 4×4 track. It looked easier to slide down than walk down. At 84.4km we had a “Double Marathon celebration”. At 89km we got to Pitstop 9, the final one at 1am. It appeared to be full of people who’d not quite managed to get home from a nightclub. Some were staggering around, some were delirious, some were asleep faceplanted in the grass.. Physically I felt fine. Legs were ok, shoulders a bit sore but fine. I was tired though. Really really tired. I don’t normally function much beyond 10pm so 1am after moving all day was a bit much. I briefly lay down on a mat to stretch my back but instantly felt my eyes closing and that strange sensation when audio frequencies get filtered out. I could hear voices but they were muffled as my brain started to remove outside influences to let me sleep. Mmmmm sleeeeeep. Argh. 10 more km and I can sleep then. I sank 2 coffees, a flat coke, some more chocolate, a seed bar and probably whatever else was lying around that looked like it’d give me a kick. I can see why various militaries use amphetamines. Probably cheaper.
All the enjoyment had gone by now. Seeing the 90km sign should have made it better. Nearly there, nearly done. On a normal lazy run that’s an hour, max. Except we were now doing 12-14 minute kilometers on what was the worst terrain of the race. I couldn’t do the maths in my head at the time but I knew it was going to take “a while”. Strava tells me that it took 2hrs20 to do this section. Let that sink in. 2hrs 20 for 10km. I don’t remember much about this at all other than trying to think of fresh topics of conversation. We passed a few people who seemed to be struggling but there’s not a lot that can be done to help when you can’t think of proper words to say. Towards the end of this section my eyes were closing as we negotiated the downhill section in to Avebury and to the finish. Not really surprising as it’s now 3:30am. Still, we’re finished.
You have got to be kidding me. At the end there’s a loop you do through Avebury stone circle and to get to it you go past the entrance to the farm where the finish line is. Argh. 2.5km sounds trivial. A jog to go get the paper. A quick run with the dog. A little warmup before Parkrun. 2.5km at 3:45am when you’ve just had enough and you’ve switched off entirely? It was hideous. 30 minutes later we cross the line to applause of the 6 lunatics waiting there and get our finishers medal. Done. Never. Ever. Again.
Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, even compare to iron distance triathlon. Physically it wasn’t too bad due to the lower pace but mentally there was no letup and I’ve not experienced exhaustion like it (even with small children in the house). Even though it wasn’t ‘running’ it still feels like an achievement and I’m glad I did it. Some good scenery (though that wore thin after a while), some quality time with Sam and a medal to hang on the wall. On that subject… I have a few issues with this race (he says, speaking as an ultra veteran).
- Route markings were excellent. I can’t see how you’d miss them. Red arrows every few hundred meters even on paths with no turnings. It meant that if you’d not seen an arrow in a while you were lost. Glowsticks every 100m or so in the dark too.
- Plenty of variety at the aid stations, different crisps/chocolate bars. Some had trail mix, almonds, fruit etc etc. Aid stations were decently spaced too. The 11km spacing at the end was a bit tough but I think had there been another one I’d have just slept at it anyway.
- Have I mentioned the terrain was quite hard? Road shoes were fine, but the surface was way more technical than I though with ruts etc. Not their fault, but just something to think about if you do it again
- They could possibly have done with a couple of volunteers on a nightshift between aid stations towards the end. There were some very exhausted people doing odd things and things could easily go a bit sour. Just maybe checking people are ok as they pass?
- Leaving your car at the start or the finish was £10. That’s fine, but there was no charge for people ‘dropping off’… so they could park there free for many hours. Given that it’s just a huge field it doesn’t make any sense to me to charge for it. They’ve done exactly the same work in terms of parking everyone.
- They MUST stagger the start if they keep the route via the kissing gates. Infact, stagger it anyway just for the better traffic through aid stations.
- No free event T-Shirt / finishers T-Shirt, you have to buy them at £15 a pop. Even tiny local events manage a free shirt. Ultimately it’s cheap publicity for the event. Given the event was £120 I’m sure there’s wiggle room there especially with the Dixons Carphone sponsorship.
- The finishers medal has no mention of the distance. They’re the same for everyone regardless if you did 50km, 50km+50km or 100km straight. They knew how many people had entered each event and could have even just have had the distance on the ribbon (so a single batch of actual medals). Feels very cheap. Their excuse afterwards was nonsense too: “We didn’t know the exact distances until the week before”. Yet the T-Shirt has them on. Uuuuuuuh.
- No finish line photo. They’d outsourced the photos to Pic2Go and are saying they couldn’t have coverage at all times. Hang on, they know it’s a 24hr race and people will be arriving at all times. If Pic2Go said they couldn’t do it then you find a volunteer, give them an SLR (remember Dixons are title sponsor) and you at least get SOMETHING. Utterly shameful and even worse to just blame it on the fact they’d outsourced it.
I quite enjoyed this attempt an an ultra, but I think next time I’ll pick one that’s more ‘runnable’ for my limited ability!
Here be Strava . It’s woeful.