Race to the Stones by Pat

It was 2019 when I first booked my slot to do Race to the Stones. I never looked at running long distance before, but it was a chat with a club member that first brought this race to my attention a couple of years before. It nagged away in the back of my mind – could I do that? How long would that take? How far is 100km anyway?!

I managed to injure my knee training for the London Marathon that year, so I had to defer that year’s RttS until 2020. Of course, due to Covid, that didn’t happen either, but it gave me the opportunity to do a few long distance runs just to see what it was like: The Saint’s Way, St Michael’s Way, Bissoe Trail, Smuggler’s Way and of course, Doug’s StARC Padstow to Charlestown Way. As those who ran them with me will know, I didn’t exactly ease through those runs. The longest was about 36 miles, the longest I’d ever run, and I just couldn’t comprehend how I could do another 26 miles on top of that.

I started my training at the beginning of February. A plan to slowly build up my stamina and strength over a 5-month period. All went well for 3 months until my left calf started to ache. At first the ache took a few hours to ease off but started to get worse and worse. Eventually I had no option but to stop running or run the real risk of having to defer the Race again. I didn’t want to do that. In all it took about 6 weeks of hardly any running to get to a point where I could run without any discomfort, or it didn’t take long afterwards to recover. My training was in a mess by now, but I wanted to get this Race done. I managed a couple of runs on the Saturday and Sunday before the Race without any problems so I decided that I would do it and take it steady. My first Race in my new StARC running vest.

I travelled up the day before the Race and stopped in a B&B in Avebury. I didn’t know when I booked it, but the B&B turned out to be about a 2-minute walk from the finish line, and from where I had to get the bus to the start line the following morning. Pure chance, but Avebury isn’t that big. I just thought because I got a room there it must be further away because surely all the B&Bs would have been booked by runners ages ago. I had a quick walk around the village, took a few photos and then went back to my room to sort my kit out. Dinner was pasta, the same as it was on Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday, etc, etc…..

It was a 5am start on Saturday, although I didn’t sleep that well. Desperate not to miss the alarm going off, I dosed pretty much all night! Just as well because when I looked at the clock just before I got up, the batteries had died in the night. My watch told me it was 5am. My Race start wave time was 8:50am, so I had booked to catch the shuttle coach from the finish to the start. It took 1½ hours to get to the start at Lewknor in Oxfordshire. I ate my packed breakfast from the B&B on the way.

The start at Lewknor was a very big open field. I picked up a couple of protein bars and High 5 electrolyte tablets, then my tracker. I got the tracker primarily so Wifey could watch me progress along the route, but I enjoy dot watching others when they do their races, so I thought I’d put it up on Facebook just in case others wanted to follow me. I’m so glad I did; the comments on Facebook were so hopeful to read when I stopped at the pitstops along the route.

Although my start time wave was 8:50am they were allowing people to filter through the start line when they were ready. So, after a quick toilet break, I ran across the line and started my watch. Immediately I was photographed by the official photographer which caught me off guard. There were a few places on the route where they seemed to appear out of nowhere. Thankfully, they always shouted first so I could put my smiley face on!!

The weather was perfect: overcast and not too warm. I passed the 1KM marker before I even left the starting field. This is going to be easier than I thought. Only 99KM to go. The route was marked in KMs along the whole route: every KM! There were also thousands of reflective arrow pointers along the route. It was impossible to get lost. At night there were glow sticks: it was very rare that you couldn’t see the next glow stick after just passing one, and then it would have been on a straight and obvious path. I kept having to translate KM into miles just so I could get an idea of distance.

The first part of the route was through trees and narrow paths. The Organizers had tried to string out the starters so that we wouldn’t all be falling over each other, but soon there were ‘congas’ of people walking/running through narrow paths. Once it opened out, I felt really good and got caught up with a couple of runners, completely forgetting Gemma’s advice (don’t go off fast and keep it steady…). That soon caught up with me, and Gemma and other’s advice did come back to me early enough that I didn’t wreck my race completely. The other most important piece of advice which again I remembered later than I should have done was from Dave Speake: Walk the hills; ALL the hills.

I got into Pitstop 1 before I knew it. It was only about 5½ miles from the start. Water, protein bars, crisps, High 5 gels & tablets, tea/coffee. Lots of stuff that could delay you, but I was told ‘don’t spend much time in the pitstops’ and ‘don’t sit down’. Grab and go, so I did. These bits of advice came from the RttS support groups on Facebook. I now realise that some are helpful, some are not. It all depends on you and what type of runner you are, and you don’t know what type of runner is giving out this advice.

After Pitstop 1 the route was mainly down hill so I could continue with the pace a little bit, towards Pitstop 2, almost 8 miles further on. The section took me through the ‘Field of Dreams’. In fact, it is 2 fields, but that’s being picky. Everyone stopped to take photos and video the runners running down the path with their arms out trying to brush the top of the Corn. Unfortunately, the path is quite wide nowadays and the corn a bit short, and therefore you need really long arms! A photographer was waiting at the end of the path and yes, I have a picture of me running down the hill with my arms out……….

Into Pitstop 2 and it was at this point that I thought I’d better get some food on board so a chicken sandwich, a bag of crisps and a top up with water and High 5 tablet and I was off again. This sandwich was a mistake. It was just solid and sat there in my gut making me feel heavy and gave me a mild stitch. I could tell I was starting to slow down. The initially euphoria was waning and the realisation of another 50 miles to go hit home. That’s when I started hearing Gemma and Dave’s advice in my head. The best advice being remembered too late?

Out of Pitstop 2 there’s a nice long flat bit, but due to the overnight rain the path was very slick mud. It was hard to run on which sapped more energy. I got into Goring and then over the River Thames to Streatley, and then there was a hill. It was a long hill, a very long hill. A relentless climb for 3½ miles. Not stupidly steep but steep enough and long enough to make me review my life choices. I came into Pitstop 3 a mess and seriously considered whether this Race was really for me. The almost 9 miles from Pitstop 2 had really taken it out of me. It was at this point that I started to go against some of the advice from other runners on the Facebook support groups: I sat down. Thank God I did. I was told ‘if you sit down you won’t get up again’, ‘It’ll be too painful to start running again’ and ‘keep your legs moving’. No. I’m sorry, that’s rubbish. For me anyway. Sitting down gives you a chance to get the blood that’s pounding away and working hard in your legs to divert to your stomach and start to digest food. This is one of the biggest lessons I learned in this Race. I deliberately sat down for a good 10 to 15 minutes at every pitstop from then on. It saved me. That and the revelation that are Oranges, Salt & Vinegar crisps, and a cup of tea. Flat coke is another one. I’ve tried flat coke before and yeah, well, ok, but now I realise this stuff is amazing. Two cups and off we go again. Many lessons learned at Pitstop 3.

I didn’t go out like a rocket; I took it steady. I walked the hills, no matter how short. I started to talk to people, not just snatches of brief conversation. I took in the views and oh my god, the views. The Race is along the The Ridgeway, an ancient footpath. It sounds obvious to me now, but unsurprisingly the path is on a ridge (who’d have thought!). The views out across Oxfordshire and Wiltshire are spectacular and endless. The Race is worth it just for this alone.

Coming out of Pitstop 3 the route drops a bit and then a steady climb for 8 miles, plenty of time for talking and taking in the views. I met one guy who happily told me his life story and then when I bumped into him again about an hour later, he told me all over again! I didn’t have the heart to tell him we’d met before, and I didn’t want to freak him out by relaying his life story back to him!

It was a little bit of running and a lot of walking on this stretch, all the way into Pitstop 4, the halfway point or Base Camp, at 31 miles. This is where the Weekenders stopover in tents to carry on the rest of the Race the next day. It’s also where those doing the Saturday 50KM finish and get their medals, and where the Sunday 50KM runners start. There was an ultra large size TV with the tennis being shown, a bar, showers, and a Dixons Carphone Warehouse tent (the sponsors). More importantly there was hot food. I wanted to get there in time for the soup and I thought I’d done it. This was a motivator for me: something easily digestible, hot, and energising. The cut off for the soup was 5pm which was when they started the full meal menu. I arrived at about 4:30pm to find the soup had already stopped and dinner was being served. I think the disappointment must have shown on my face when I asked at the info desk where the soup was! I followed the volunteer around as she made enquiry after enquiry to try to help me. Empty handed in the end but there’s helpful and there’s dedicated and my god she was dedicated. In the end I decided to look at the full menu and chose southern fried chicken nuggets, pasta with vegetables and a massive dollop of guacamole. Bit of a weird mix I know but every part of this hit the spot. I was worried that I’d overdone it and a stitch would materialise again on the next leg, but no such thing. I had more tea, and then as the rain started to come down, I stood out in it, taking in the views across the miles and miles of Oxfordshire countryside whilst eating an orange ice lolly. Heaven. This was halfway. I felt so much better and of course wanted to carry on. I had a chat with a guy who wanted to call it a day. I don’t know what his final decision was, but I can remember thinking ‘why not carry on?’, ‘why not see how far you can go?’, but really that was me thinking about my situation, not his. Only he knew what was the right decision for him.

The flags marking the next leg stretched out across the field in front of the main tent. Everybody could look down and see those carrying on to do the ‘straight through 100KM’. Many people I spoke to said they couldn’t conceive of doing the next 50KM straight away and were stopping over. There was however a steady stream of walkers and runners setting off in the pouring rain following the flags across the field and out of sight. I drank 2 cups of flat coke, grabbed a bag of crisps and set off to follow them.

The next leg was a surprise to me. I’d done half of the Race and after walking to let my food digest a bit I felt great. I got into a steady rhythm of walking and running which I wouldn’t have thought possible at Pitstop 3. It was during this leg that I suddenly realised ‘I can do this’. There were far fewer people on this half of the Race, and I saw many people dropping out at each Pitstop from here on. The rain slowly petered out, but I kept my waterproof on to let it dry out before going back in my pack. It was only just over 6 miles to Pitstop 5.

Pitstop 5 was a bit of a weird stop. To get to the Pitstop the Race took you off the main Ridgeway for 600 metres. All the necessaries were there (Oranges, tea, flat coke and, oh my god… soup), but you met the runners coming back from the Pitstop as you were going down to it. They all carried cups of tea with them, all of them, all wanting to save time getting back to The Ridgeway. The 600-metre excursion was all incorporated into the overall distance, so it had to be done because of the timing mats. The pathway was narrow with 2 deep ruts you had to walk down like walking a tightrope. That was hard work at that stage of the Race, and then doing the same with a cup of tea in your hand on the way back was even more of a struggle.

After packing my waterproof away, I was off again balancing my cup of tea. The sun came out. It was such a beautiful evening, and this perfectly captured the views off into the distance. It was dry for the rest of the Race. There was only about an hour of rain or drizzle at the halfway point. We were so lucky with the weather.

I ran the flat and downhills and power-walked the hills. I felt so full of energy at this point, no doubt from the food at Base Camp. This part of the Race reminded me of the clay trails. Very similar underfoot. Eventually the route left the trails and I walked on a road for some way to get to what seemed to be the entrance to a large stately home: Pitstop 6. Just as I was coming into the Pitstop I started to feel my energy levels dropping again. It was starting to get dark, and I felt colder. More tea, soup and flat coke and a quick phone call home to check in and check everything was ok. I realised that I was getting tired now.

When I started out again, I had to put a top on to warm me up. When I got back onto the Ridgeway proper it really got dark. The head torch came out and the idea of running lost its appeal. The Ridgeway is pretty much a track from here until the next Pitstop: very rutted and uneven, making it very hard to run on at night. I realised when I looked at my watch that my best-case scenario of getting the Stones by midnight was well out of the window. It was already 10:30pm with 15 miles to go. There were times when I was completely on my own with no sound around except for the odd owl, in the pitch black except for my head torch, walking in the middle of nowhere. The glow sticks came into their own along this stretch just to confirm I was going in the right direction. I’d love to see what the route was like in daylight from here to the end, but now it was just head down and keep going. At times I could look back and forward along the Ridgeway and see a trail of head torches following or leading in the distance. What a memory.

Getting to Pitstop 7 seem to take forever, most probably because I couldn’t see any scenery. Runners were scarce and when they appeared from behind it made me jump! It was nice to see head torches up ahead and slowly make progress on them. A quick chat: checking we were all ok, and then we separated again at our different paces. Pitstop 7 was at the top of a longish hill, and you could see the lights of it for some way off, but it just never seemed to get any closer. My calculation to get there was off by about a mile.

Coming in to Pitstop 7 was very different to other Pitstop. It was roughly about half past midnight and very quiet. People were sat around in quiet conversation. Unlike all the previous Pitstop there was no one in the Medic tent which was stark contrast to the Medic tent at Pitstop 6 which reminded me of a small World War One hospital! The volunteers at Pitstop 7 were chatty though, trying to perk everyone up, making tea, coffee and soup. Yes, more soup and tea and I was off again. The last leg and the Stones (almost) in sight. As I was leaving, I stupidly asked a volunteer how much further, when I should have realised that this was the last Pitstop in a 62.2-mile Race, so I could have calculated the next stop came at 62.2 miles on my watch! I was very tired though. He didn’t laugh, he just told me I had about 12KM to go and even translated that into miles.

Back out into the dark and no idea where I was going except towards the glow sticks. There were some really treacherous parts of the path here. Some very steep downhills and very uneven. It was brutal on the quads and keeping balance was a real task. About 2 to 3 miles out from the finish there is a section of path that could be a real game changer for those not paying attention. Proper leg breaker or at least twisted ankle holes, ruts, dips, roots and stones. There was no chance to get a rhythm of walking going; it was just one step to the next and hopefully avoid falling. This went on for a mile, and the few conversations with people after this section confirmed my worries with stories of them falling and scraping legs and knees. There was no option but to take it slowly and swear.

Then the long downhill to the Stones. More head torches appeared ahead, and I got closer and closer to the end. The route takes you to the Stones (or 2 of them) but then you double back to do the final mile into a farm for the finish. This meant that I saw head torches coming towards me as I was going to the Stones, and they were coming back before they turned off for the final part to the finish. There were lots of ‘well done’ and ‘congratulations’ back and forth as I passed them. Reaching the Stones meant a quick walk through a field, past lots of curious sheep staring at me, and around the 2 Stones before a photographer appeared out of the darkness and took my photo. I then did the walk back up the lane saying ‘well done’ and ‘congratulations’ to all those coming down. It was surprising how many people I saw at this stage bearing in mind only about an hour before I seemed to be on my own, or just one or two others. I turned off the lane to walk across a field and then turned left again down a lane for the final ½ KM. Lights, cheering, cow bells, clapping all awaited as I crossed the line. I managed to smile. That was real. The photographer took his photo and I now have it as proof.

I finished at 3:20am, some 18 hours 59 minutes and 13 seconds after I started, including Pitstops. This was 4 hours longer than I’d hoped it would take but did that matter? not a bit. I’d done it, I’d finished. I’d officially run and walked 62.2 miles, my longest distance ever. I had Raced to the Stones.

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