Would you like salt with that? My Race to the Stones journey

I’ve given this blog a lot of thought, and a bit of time and space. I tend to suffer from a massive low after big runs and didn’t want it to cloud my review of what is, after all, a spectacular race.

My first marathon was last year’s London Marathon. Like many first timers I was overwhelmed by the amazing experience and couldn’t wait to do another one. So I did. Another 4. In the same year. But pretty quickly something changed and I found I wasn’t running them just for the pleasure of running but, inevitably, to get quicker. Almost immediately I was putting pressure on myself (not a bad thing) to do better than my last run.

And then I stumbled on the evil that is GFA. My Good For Age, the magic key that unlocks all the treasures of the world (well a London Marathon place) is 3 hours 15 minutes. This arbitrary number has become my focus and near obsession since then. True, I haven’t done an awful lot training wise to accomplish it but it is there, at the back of my mind, at the start of each race.

Then I discovered the crazy, friendly, depressurised world of the Ultra. (which should always be capitalised!)

The main attraction for me was that it is pretty impossible to compare one Ultra to another. Terrain and profile can vary wildly so chasing a time is fairly irrelevant. The experience is everything.

Before Race to the Stones I had only done one previous Ultra, a 40 mile race around Henley organised by LDWA and apart from the beautiful countryside the most memorable thing was the fantastically well stocked check points. I wanted more of that!

I was lucky enough to have a couple of friends coming with me to the race; Steve who was running it with me and Helena who would be crewing, cheering, driving like a loon and generally keeping our spirits up. I picked them up from their hotel on race day morning and we set off. The race start was only a few miles from my house so it wasn’t a particularly early start and the journey pretty relaxed.

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I only had about 40 minutes from parking the car to the start gun so no time to think about much other than getting all my kit on and getting to the start line.photo 2

I’d packed as little as possible as I wasn’t sure how I’d hold up for that length of time on my feet.

My kit list was:

  • Ashmei running jersey
  • Ashmei road socks
  • Nike shorts (about 10 years old but I still love them!)
  • 2XU calf guards
  • Mizuno Ascend 8 trail shoes (at least 2 years old and no idea how many miles but feel like slippers)
  • Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Race Vest (swapped hard bottles for soft ones as bottles dug into my ribs)
  • inov8 Race Elite Windshell (unused)
  • Karrimor long sleeved running top (unused)
  • Alpkit Gamma head torch (unused)
  • Buff (unused)
  • SIS gels (x4) 3 unused
  • iPhone
  • Headphones (unused)
  • Jelly beans
  • Sun cream
  • Body glide (unused)
  • Small first aid kit (plasters, blister plasters, pre cut rock-tape)

As you can see the majority of the kit I carried I didn’t actually use but, not knowing how long it was going to take me I had to be prepared for running at night in dropping temperatures.

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Almost immediately at the start line, before the race had started, I lost Steve. He seemed to know pretty much everyone taking part so was chatting with everyone! I wasn’t to see him again until 13.5 hours later.

The race started and for the first few miles it was pretty congested, on narrow shaded paths. This was perfect for me as it kept me to a good, slow pace. During training I had struggled to comfortably run at 9.30-10 minute pace. This wouldn’t be a problem later!

The views were pretty stunning and at this point I was still comfortable enough to appreciate it. One bit was particularly memorable. Running downhill through a cornfield, hands out brushing through the ears of corn. Just beautiful.

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Checkpoints came and went. I took nothing at the first one and just filled up my water bottles at the second. As the feed stations were pretty regularly spaced (around 10k) there were no worries about stocking up and I kept pushing on.

By the 3rd feed station (around 34k) I thought I’d better have a bit to eat so grabbed half a banana and a granola bar. Almost as soon as I finished them I got bad cramps and felt pretty rubbish. I kept drinking pretty steadily as it was getting hot and hoped the stomach problems would go away.

I past marathon distance in around 4 hours 30 and reached halfway in 5.31. At half way Helena met me and it was great to see her ever-smiling face. This was also the overnight basecamp for people completing the course over two legs stocked with food, drink, chairs and tents. It was a struggle to leave!

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There was a lot of food on offer but I couldn’t face anything. I grabbed a coffee and finally decided to have a sandwich. I ate half of one but that was all I could manage. Another very strong milky coffee and I was off again.

At this point I decided that I would try to run 25 minutes and walk 5 for the rest of the distance. I was feeling OK but it was getting pretty hot and I thought this would be a sensible way of pacing myself. Ironically, from this point until the last pit stop at Barbury Castle, 12k from the end, there wasn’t a 25 minute stretch of track that didn’t have a hill on it so I was always having to walk the hill, reset the 25 minutes and hit the next hill. Still this kept my mind active trying to add 25 to whatever my watch showed. Not easy!

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My main concern from now until pit stop 8 was fluid intake. I was getting through both bottles every 10k plus what I was drinking at the feed station. I decided that this was probably being a bit excessive and worried a bit about hyponatremia. I decided to cut down on fluid intake and try to take on some sort of salts. It was now that I discovered something that is well known to Ultra runners – flat coke and salt. A couple of cups of this from stop 7-9 sorted me out and tasted ridiculously good. I shan’t be trying it outside of a race. I can’t imagine it will taste as good without my body craving it.

Just after pit stop 8 with just over 20k to go something above my left knee started to feel odd. Just a little pain but nothing terrible. A few miles later and it was worse, much worse. I took some paracetemol and struggled manfully on. Unfortunately it was worse on downhills and there was a lovely mile long downhill before the ascent to Barbary Castle and the final checkpoint. I was pretty trashed by the time I got to the Castle. I’d pre-cut some Rock-Tape for my calfs so after more coke and salt and more paracetamol I tourniquet’d above the knee – rugby prop-forward style – and got on my way. The strapping did absolutely nothing but made me feel like I’d done something proactive.

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The final leg was great: I’d run a lot of it a couple of times before recce-ing for the Ridgeway relay so knew the terrain well. This was probably the best I’d felt for a couple of hours and I’m sure most of it was psychological as I was getting closer to the finish. I quick tour of a very few of the stones at Avebury and I was turning onto the final straight and the finish line.

I can’t really describe the feeling. I was elated I’d finished, elated Helena was there with her ever beaming smile (seriously, she never stops), obviously exhausted, but almost sad it was over. Both my Garmins had run out of battery (really need to address this for my next Ultra) so I had no idea what time I’d done. Then I saw it was 8.04pm. While I had no expectations of getting a specific time, to miss a sub-12 hour 100km by 4 minutes was a bit gutting.

Until…

There was a chip-timing printer in the corner.

Helena punched in my race number and there it was  -11 hours 58 minutes 29 seconds!

Elation again  -so fickle.

All that was left was to have a few manic-looking pictures taken, eat some veggie chilli (or curry- no idea, didn’t care) and wait for Steve, who had struggled since mile 18 with a hamstring niggle.

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It was the most awesome, painful, beautiful, horrible, wonderful, hideous thing I have ever done.

Apart from the knee everything else held up really well. Calfs were no problem thanks to a lot of massaging and my feet were perfect. I’m sure this is the combination of really good Ashmei socks (which sadly I put a hole through sometime during the race – toenail not short enough I guess) and great shoes that really do feel ridiculously comfortable. (I am not paid by Ashmei or Mizuno!)

On Sunday I couldn’t think about anything except eating, constantly.

On Monday I was definitely never doing another run that length – definitely sticking to marathons.

On Tuesday I signed up for the Race to the Kings Ultra in 2016.

Go figure.

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One sentence reviews of my races since April – a quick way of catching up

To say I’ve been a bit rubbish in keeping this blog going over the last few months is a bit of an understatement. Since my last blog I’ve run 4 marathons and two ultra marathons plus a two hour stints round a track for charity. In order to catch up before a detailed blog about last weekends 100km Race to the Stones I thought I’d attempt to review each race in one sentence and record the times so I have them for posterity.

My calfs have become a bit of an obsession for me since injuring them in December so apologies if I bang on about them during the reviews. As ever, thanks to Poppy Bowler, (www.poppybowleracupuncture.co.uk) who seems to have become my personal masseuse over the last 6 months, for patching me up enough to get through each race.

Paris Marathon 13th April

The most architecturally beautiful marathon I’ve run – due to injury took it slow and took in the sights, the laid back atmosphere and the great weather; I’ll definitely be back.

3hours 48 minutes 15 seconds

2015-04-12 14.09.082015-04-11 17.28.592015-04-12 07.46.14

Oxon 40/20 Ultra 2nd May (40 miles)

1st 20 tough, 2nd 20 harder but with great company and as a result became a BOSHer- undulating but beautiful countryside and amazing checkpoints that probably added half an hour to my time!

7 hours 43 minutes

2015-05-02 16.00.08

Milton Keynes Marathon 4th May

Hated last year so back to try again, loved it this time, beat previous time by 3 minutes – even after ultra two days before

3 hours 48 minutes 12 seconds

2015-05-04 14.18.57

Liverpool Marathon 14th Jun

PB’d by 9 minutes so all positive, although crowds were smaller than I expected  – final 3 miles into headwind was a bit brutal and 3.30 pacer was all over the place but can’t complain as I smashed my Abingdon previous PB

3 hours 26 minutes 59 seconds

Cheltenham Challenge Marathon 21st June 

Brutal two lap trail marathon with huge hill (twice); ran with full race pack and trying to keep to 9.30-10 minute miles in preparation for Race to the Stones 100km and felt pretty good throughout.

4 hours 15 minutes 15 seconds