I wasn’t sure how to write this, it’s been 1 week since I crossed the finish line of Race To The Stones (RTTS), and I am sat on a balcony of a hotel on the southern Spanish coast. I am not sure how I feel anymore. I look around and no one really understands what happened, and why should they? People say that 1% of the world’s population have run a marathon, what percentage have run 100k then? let alone know these races exist? This is not a brag, but unless you have ran, or know people that have, then it’s just not on your radar. When I said goodbye to my colleagues at work on the Thursday before the race, I think it finally dawned on my manager what I was about to do, as he had watched a documentary on professional ultra runners. He seemed impressed. To me though I still didn’t know what it meant, I think I do now. This would be the place, where I put my mental running demons to bed.
In 2015 I ran 2x10kms, in 2016 I ran 3x10kms and 2 half marathons. Then in 2017 I ran my first marathon, I was already interested in trail running because the accessibility of local trails but it wasn’t until that summer post London that I started thinking about longer distances. I have written about this before, so wont go into too much detail on it. Suffice to say, I got the ultra bug even though I had zero experience, I wanted to run long and hard on the trails.
I signed up to RTTS with my friend Dana after watching other people experience it, (via social media) and following the UTMB live. I had already signed up to a trail marathon on a whim, so this seemed the logical next step. Dana and I then planned, trained, discussed, trained some more. Neither of us knew what to really expect though. One thing I was sure of, I wasn’t going to quit, I wanted this race to bring a bit of redemption after my Paris Marathon experience. In Paris I went to a place I felt I couldn’t get out of and missed my goal time. I felt I let myself down, even though I PB’d. I know that sounds crazy, but when you dedicate so much time to a goal, whatever that may be and you miss it and feel maybe the reason why was all in your head then that’s really bloody shite. I was going to approach this adventure very differently. Right from the start, when we booked the race, Dana and I said, these are our goals:
- Time goal: 12 to 14 hours
- Finish before we need head torches
- Enjoy it
Official “ultra training” started after I returned from my work trip to Monaco. I had still run a decent amount post Paris but I really stepped it up a gear. Putting in a trip to the Peak District, North Downs, South Downs, Serpent trail and a 50K race. I got to do my fav hills session with “Wild Trail Runners” on Mondays, tempo, interval and Fartlek sessions. It was during a WTR long run that I met Kirsty, who it turned out, was also doing RTTS and knew Dana from Midnight Runners (another London running group). We all got on really well and discussed ideas and thoughts about the race. Kirsty also had a similar goal to us, so even though nothing was said, I knew we would end up running at least part of the course together.
Something I learned early on is you need to plan for an ultra. There is sooo much to think about, whether its equipment, travel or accommodation. Jumping in blind could cause you trouble, so I suggest you do some research ask questions from people with experience. This is what I did, many times. RTTS is a point to point race, so Dana and I talked about how best to deal with this and we decided that we needed to stay somewhere near the finish as a 2.5 hour drive home after finishing would not be a good thing to do. There would be no way I would be able to drive that far after 100k! So we booked an AIR BnB near the finish (5mins drive), yes this would mean an early start but, a simpler finish. We booked the 5am shuttle and parking. We would drive down Friday afternoon, eat, pack and sleep before the early start.
Leading up to race day, I felt good. My legs, body and mind felt ready, more ready than I have felt for a marathon. I had the usual pre race weird dreams, not panicked just the kind of abstract situations I thought I might find myself in. We also knew it was going to be a hot one, so the original strategy of not having to get more fluids until 30k went out the window. Hydrating correctly was going to be the number one goal for survival, for everyone! The night before the race, we ate well, hydrated, packed and got to bed early with a 4am alarm call. I think we both got about 5 hours sleep with restless minds, lol but hey it was time to go.
The 5am bus from the finish was full of nervous and excited runners; we saw the stones covered in mist and a beautiful sunrise as we ate breakfast on the 1.5hour trip. Arriving at the start was a great feeling, we both got toilet trips done, bottles and bladders filled, suntan location applied. Then we started running into people. It’s now rare I turn up to a race and not know anyone but this was brilliant, so many amazing runners I knew all in a field near Oxford, ready to take on the Ridgeway. I think the hysteria was intoxicating and there were many photos and hugs!
Dana and I ran into Kirsty early on and we decided to try and run in her pen, (07.45), rather than ours, (08.00), as we were ready to go. After a small bit of negotiation with the organisers, we were in! Then 10mins later the horn sounded, the pink smoke was let loose and we were off. As you can imagine, it was quite a slow and steady start with many people all trying to squeeze into a tight trail. I almost tripped at about 2km, which wouldn’t have been a great start but it was a reminder to keep a safe distance between the runner in front and me, to keep an eye on the ever-changing terrain.
The first 20K passed fairly uneventfully for me. There was lots of tree cover and nice wooded sections. We skipped the first pit stop. Then ran through the scorched “field of dreams”. I failed to get a decent photo as we were all so bunched up, never mind. I tried to keep us to an even pace around 6min/KMs, which was hard at times as this section was quite runnable, Dana had a fall though on a tight wooded path just before the 20K stop. It wasn’t too bad but there was a little blood, and a reminder to us all to keep our concentration on the trails. We then saw Martine, (a friend who I have run the South Downs with); about 200m later and she had also had a fall and was walking it off. I also ran into old college friend Craig and Sarah, (another fellow SD runner); with her BF Tom at pit stop 2, where we all refilled our bottles/bladders. It was pretty dam hot and everyone needed to be careful and to drink enough and take on electrolytes. With the heat as it was I had planned to take a salt tab every hour (which I did), plus drink 500ml of SiS Electrolyte roughly every 30km. I had been taking a gel every 45-50 mins but wanted to start adding in real food to keep the hunger at bay. So I ate a sausage roll at 20km and it tasted dam fine! Who would have known this would soon change! We left the pit stop in good spirits.
Something happened over the next 10k though, well a couple of things. For some reason I hadn’t set my water bladder in my pack correctly after refilling and it became uncomfortable and started digging in and riding up. After a short while I stopped to see if I could fix it but it just didn’t work out and it was making running tricky. In hindsight I should have spent more time getting it right but I didn’t want to get too far behind the others. Then some fatigue set in, which was weird. When we reached CP3, they asked if I was ok, I said kinda. I said they should just run on and I would do my own pace. The next 10 were incredibly hard. Mentally I was confused, a few weeks before I had run 50K easy and here I was coming up to 40 a bit ruined and alone.
I had a wobble, a moment where I wondered if I could do this, should I just call it a day at 50K, I am no good at this, what was I thinking. These were the thoughts that passed through my head in that brief moment. I snapped out of it and remembered why I was here; I was going to do this, no matter what! From now on I was going to break it down into chunks like Claire had said on the RTTS What’s App group.
I arrived at CP4. I took 5mins to sit down, probably less but I took a moment and decided on the plan. Make it to Basecamp, try and eat some food, take 20mins, change T-shirt and just chill. Then go out and smash the 2nd half. It was at this point I decided, this was my race, no one else was going to run it for me, so I should run it how I wanted.
The next 10 or 12 KM’s to the halfway point, (base camp), were so hard. I was running and walking on my own after telling the other two to just go and run their own races. Even though it was hard, there was something nice about just being out there on my own. Jon vs. the Ridgeway! I thought back to my friend Dai’s recent blog, where he battled the evil end boss that was the Serpent trail a week before, I thought about why I was out here and why I loved trail running so much.
This was the longest section of the race in my mind, at one point I thought I could see base camp but it wasn’t, it was just some tents. Then, there was 1km to go and gawd that was horrible, I made it but felt rough as hell.
I went straight to the toilet. Each stop I had been doing a little wee, which was good and the colour, (sorry for the over share), was ok, I was staying reasonably hydrated. I was feeling a bit constipated though, which was an uncomfortable feeling.
I then headed towards the food but literally couldn’t even look at it, I stopped for a moment and then turned around, which was the weirdest feeling ever and very confusing. My body was just saying no!
I sat down, took my pack off and tried to eat a sausage roll. It started off ok, but then I almost puked. It was at this point was a bit worried because now I had to adjust my fuelling strategy. I think I counted 3 gels. I had some Tribe and Cliff bars but they just were not appealing either.
Anyway, I put my positive boots on, swapped T-shirt to my Wild Trail runners one. Drank some more water and squash. I also realised I was carrying a load of crap that I just didn’t need, too prepared! Very kindly, Kirsty’s awesome BF Andy, who was there to meet her and would be at the finish agreed to take it! Gawd I wish I had put in two extra gels, doh!
Then after another visit to the toilet, I was good to go. 25-30mins spent at camp. More than I planned but I needed that break for my mind and body.
Boy did it work, because as I left camp I was feeling ready to get this run done.
Then a funny thing happened, just as we were leaving camp, Dana came up to me and said Sarah was here and she was alone. That was strange as she was supposed to be running it all the way through with Tom. It turned out he got an injury and it was hurting, so much so he made the correct choice to not carry on. I said I would happily run with Sarah for a bit, she could run off when she wanted to but it would be nice to have someone to talk to for a while.
For the next section we had a good natter on all kinds of things. Sarah was obviously very upset about Tom having to stop. Things changing like this can really throw you and I mentioned to her about how we both had talked about wanting to be finished before head torches were required. She came up with a time of 13 hours as a goal, she did some calculations, which was funny as I had no way to even think about this. I could see the KM’s beeping away, the total elapsed time and ETA on the race screen, (this changed constantly though due to walking and running lol), but I couldn’t do maths at this point to figure out an actual time. After the period of readjustment she set the goal then focused on how to achieve it, I love seeing this in people and it helped my spirits too. We then ran and walked the steep hills into CP6. It was here that I decided to eat a banana and some watermelon. Surprisingly the banana went down really well. Could this be the food to keep me going? Worth a try right!
We spent about 4-5mins max at this pit stop then headed out again. Both feeling great, I think Sarah was really energised as about 4KM in to the next section she pulled away from me. That was cool, like I said before, people should run there own races and I was more than comfortable being on my own now and happy to see her feeling great. The only thing really bothering me was the uncomfortable feeling of being constipated. I guess from not being able to eat. I tried not to let it get me down too much though.
Over the next 16 or 17 Km I had a lot of joy to be honest and some of it was because I must have been on a sugar high, lol! I met some really lovely runners. Some walking, some running. Some I walked with, some I ran with. I would chat for 5 or 10min then either I would leave them or they would leave me. That’s how it is out there, everyone is so spread out, and a little company is nice, if only for a few minutes. Support is offered and received. During this section though there was the worst bit of the whole route, running down the side of an A-road up hill for a couple of KMs. Where you are basically on a grassy side trying to stay safe, while cars whizz by. The only good thing to happen here is a friendly runner offered me a gel, not my brand but the one given out at the aid stations. To be honest, I hadn’t seen them but was willing to give it a shot as I only had one of mine left and I was saving that for the last 10km. I was relived that it didn’t make me throw up, or worse! It also had coffee in it, which gave me a bit of a buzz, so basically I was off my head on sugar, caffeine and adrenaline.
When I finished this road section, the course cut back onto the trails and straight to a steep hill! This kind of pissed me off after the road hills but you know what, keep on trucking! Then of course when I got to the top, there was a photographer, again! No way was I going to run for the camera, so I just threw some shapes, then stopped to ask her why she was on the top of a bloody hill, when everyone would look knackered. Her answer, “turn around”, and there it was, a stunning view across rolling hills. Ok, I’ll let you off this one, lol!
The next sections of running I really enjoyed. The hills were not too steep so I could run quite a bit. Who would have known that I would still have this much in me! I also caught up with Dana, Kirsty and Sarah by CP8. It was awesome to see them again, we had a quick chat before they left. I took a few more moments and had another banana and more water melon 🙂
The rolling grasslands continued and I loved it. I walked some, ran some, took a few pics and even had a chat on the phone with Louise; she was at Basecamp after finishing 50K with Elisa and Carlie. Having them cheer me on virtually was awesome. There were so many messages on my phone, some I had answered some I hadn’t but the support was immense and I can’t thank everyone enough. As I felt like I was running more than walking this point, I seemed to catch up to Dana and Kirsty. I could see them about 200m in front. Then we were all together in CP9, the last one.
This time we headed out together, Andy even joined Kirsty for 1KM, which was lovely.
Dana, was hurting though, we all were a bit but I think more so her and of course it was the time when the terrain turned to evil deep rutted hard chalk. This was the stuff that could do you some serious ankle damage if you got it wrong! So we ran when we could but walked quite a bit and gave each other lots of support and encouragement. The sun was setting though, and it became a game of “chase the sun”, to the finish. Kirsty had somehow found bonus energy and she legged it off to the finish, which was amazing.
Dana and I stuck together, we started this journey together and it was only right we should finish together.
The last section of the course messes with your mind though as you come down off the chalk to a farm road, then you see runners coming towards you. This is when I remembered that you have to run up to the stones and back down and off to the finish. Dana hated this, a lot. With some encouragement we ran some sections of the road and made it to the stones! A little loop round for the photographer and we were on the loop back to the final section. There were high fives and congrats going around to all!
We turned on to a rutted grassy path, decided to walk it for safety. The finish was on tarmac though. I said to Dana that I wanted to run it in hard and off I went.
Now a little plot twist happened earlier. I got a message from 3 lovely ladies, (Becca, Lizzie and Tasha), that they would be at the finish when I arrived. I was shocked, I knew they were coming but didn’t think it would be until much later as they were there to support Derrick and get him home because he would have been stranded. They decided to come early though, which was the best thing I had heard all day. I mean I would have known some other people at the finish but a cheer squad bringing me in, like wow!
So there I was, pushing hard to the finish, camera flashes going off, a jump shot, (because why not), looking for the ladies. Then I spotted them through the bright lights, massive smiles, Lizzie had my medal and I leapt into their arms.
I ran (and walked) 100KMs in 13 hours and 23 mins
There were hugs and tears and more hugs and more tears.
Dana came in just behind me and Kirsty had come in before after her little Duracell bunny moment.
That finish line was full of emotions. I saw Sarah and was pleased for her even if she was a little narked to have just missed out on sub 13 hours lol. I also saw Ged, Krysia and Katie, which was amazing. That finish area had such a buzz about it. Also, sharing it with Becca, Lizzie and Tasha was amazing. We all chatted, had recovery shakes, ate junk food. Me chips and ketchup, lol. Those moments were really special and I will never forget them.
As I sat there though, and as I sit here now finishing this up, I am so bloody proud of this achievement. Not because of the time, not because I finished it but because of the way I did it.
I ran with my head and heart, when things didn’t work out, I found a way to make it work. I learned that I can do this and will do it again. Probably not on the Ridgeway but there is another 100KM race in me for sure because there is something magical about this distance and the people who run and support it.