I feel numb. Ever since 3am Sunday morning, when I crossed the finish line of the 100km Race to the Stones, I have been trying to process what I have achieved.
Part of me is incredulous that my own two feet carried me that far. 100km. 63.4 miles when you include the diversions to the pitstops which were off route. 20 parkruns. 19 hours on my feet, constantly moving forward.
Part of me is proud that I even had the guts to put myself on that start line. Many have told me they wouldn’t. I wonder why I did.
Part of me is angry at myself for having risked my health for the sake of a stupidly long race, especially when I heard a fellow runner had been hospitalised for kidney failure.
Part of me feels guilty at having dragged my husband down to Avebury with me to support me through the night, instead of us spending time with our daughter at home, when we are already very tight on family time.
Part of me just feels smug that I’ve run 100k. But how do you move on from that?
Like I said, I don’t know what to feel. I don’t have that post event high I expected; every time I think about it I want to cry with relief and incredulity and especially gratitude to the people who helped me that day.
Let’s rewind – I was offered a place at this incredible event in May, a few days before my first ultra at Dukeries. It had been on my radar for ages, as a must-do event. Something about it just captured my imagination; it seemed magical. So it was a no-brainer really – I had to say yes, I mean what an opportunity! The two day option entered my mind briefly, but really I wanted to see whether I could keep going non stop. I wanted to truly call myself a 100km ultra runner. So I signed up.
Training had gone to plan, but only in the sense that I didn’t have a plan at all, and after spending 3 weeks recovering from my first ultra, which I had done on the back of marathon training, I did a 20 miler, a few 15-16 milers, the Round Sheffield Run, and then commenced my taper. I could have done more running. I should have practised my fuelling more. But it is what it is.
Before I go into an account of my race, let me just clarify that this is not a review. This is a brain dump of my own experience of Race to the Stones so that I can try to understand what motivated me to tackle it in the first place, and what kept me going when I fell apart around 68km and was ready to quit. WARNING: This will always be the race where I shit my pants, so if you are of a sensitive disposition, please don’t read on. Ultra running is a bit grim like that. I’ve accepted it, I’m not ashamed of it, it’s just one of those things that happens when you push your body to its limits.
Saturday 15th July dawned cloudy with the chance of rain. I awoke in my B&B just outside Avebury at 5am, had a quick breakfast of toast and porridge, and a coffee, and then set off to the finish at Rutland Farm to catch the bus to the start. The overwhelming smell on the bus was of insect repellent, and I was trying to block out the loud and nervous chatter of other runners panicking out loud. I was nervous that my bowels appeared to be on strike, contrary to my usual 2PRP (2 pre-race poos). The bus took 1 hour 40 minutes to reach our destination – all I could think was how long it would take me to run all that way back.
Registering was a quick affair, with no queues for either number collection or the toilets, and after a brief chat to the baggage attendant about his own dreams to complete this race next year, I headed over to the start line to start 15 minutes later than planned at 8:15am and hadn’t managed to get there in time to meet the other UKRunChat guys doing the race, so I felt a little alone and out of sorts, although I did briefly see @moosenshoes and @jedi58, until I saw a madwoman run over to me waving frantically. It was Katy!! Katy had used to run with my club, moved away, and I hadn’t seen her for ages, so it was nice to have a hug and see a friendly face and wish each other well. We would meet up later in the race, but it was important we paced ourselves to our own abilities and not try to keep up with one another at the start so I said goodbye for now.
Tip: catch an earlier bus than you think you need. It’s a LONG way to the start line from the finish.
I take ages to warm up, so set off at a very steady pace. Even though we were in small waves, it was quite a narrow section so it still took a bit of stop/start to get running properly. I genuinely don’t remember much about this section except that it was undulating with a massive hill. Before I knew it, I was at the first pit stop, and I spent what seemed like ages deciding what food to have, as the choice was massive! In hindsight, I shouldn’t have stopped here, as I wasted a HUGE amount of time at pitstops throughout the race (3 hours in total), but breaking the distance into these small sections was really helping me come to terms with the massive distance in my head. I also made myself visit the loo – I had promised myself I would ensure I was well hydrated because the last ultra (Dukeries) I went a whole 8 hours without going for a wee, which is not good. This time I wanted to look after myself properly.
Katy caught me up shortly after that pitstop, and it was nice to run together for a while and have a chat as it helped the early miles pass quickly. Katy went on to run a fabulous 50k time, whereas I needed to save myself for the full 100km, so Katy soon ran on ahead. I didn’t talk much to others in this section, so I found it quite lonely. There was also about 3 hours of rain, which really dampened my spirits (pun intended!) However, the scenery was lovely, and the pit stops were very regular, so before I knew it, I had reached 40k. I stopped here and sat down to change my t-shirt which had got drenched in the rain of earlier, and my socks which were starting to rub my heels as they were sodden. I continued onto the 50k mark, hobbling a little by now with blister pain, but still feeling ok.
The set up here was quite odd – I think the whole event is very much geared up to those covering the distance over two days, so they made me run through the finish line for a halfway chiptime, and then I could simply loop round and back onto the course, or I could go for some refreshments. By this point, my tummy was bloated and painful, so first stop was the loo, and I then went to see the medic who looked at my blister and put some rock tape on it to stop the friction. He did warn me they would have to lance it if it got bigger. That done, I went to see what hot food was on offer as it was 4pm and I had eaten breakfast at 5am. I wasn’t that hungry actually, so I opted for a cup of soup and a bread roll, a cup of tea, and a small slice of carrot cake from the Ministry of Cake. Then I thought I’d better get on my way. I felt a bit sad to leave, as there was a musician just setting up to play something, and a lady from FitBit was encouraging people to join a yoga class starting in a few minutes. For the first time, I questioned why I was putting myself through the ordeal of a 100km, and hadn’t opted to camp overnight and complete the rest in the morning, but I guess that’s just not me. I wanted to really challenge myself.
As I left base camp, Dan phoned to ask where I was, and said he’d meet me a little further down the road. For the first time I got chatting to a fellow runner, as we were in the grown up race now, and then I saw Dan waiting for me at the bottom of the road. We walked together for a while, and he asked was it what I expected. I thought about it, and no, it wasn’t. I had expected more magnificent views. I had expected more cameraderie, but I think the fact some were doing ‘just’ 50k today, others were doing 100k over two days, and some like me were tackling 100k all in one go, meant the entire field didn’t really feel like a team. Plus, until you get past marathon distance anyway, you don’t really need to dig that deep. It looked like a lot of people had signed up to run the event together, whereas I didn’t really have anyone to run with, so I was feeling a bit lonely, and worrying about the last section, especially in the dark. We reached the car, I dumped my wet kit with Dan, emptied some foodstuffs out that I really wouldn’t need as the pitstops were so well stocked, and went on my way. Dan promised to see me again shortly after the 60km pitstop.
From here, it was pretty much uphill for MILES. My race plan was to run where I could but always walk the uphills, but this was endless uphill! It seemed to take me ages. I was doing around 15 minutes per mile, marching as best I could, but then every time I tried to run, my bowels felt like they wanted to explode and my tummy felt uncomfortably bloated. It was agony. I don’t know if I had eaten something that had disagreed with me, or if I hadn’t drunk enough water or taken on enough salts, but it was so painful. At the next pitstop, I tried unsuccessfully to have another poo, and then had the medic there dress my other blisters, and shortly after that Dan was waiting again. Chafing had also started by then, so a good dollop of vaseline, some salty crisps, and I was on my way again. Very slow progress. The next pitstop seemed to take FOREVER to reach. I was reaching a real low point by now, and turned to Instagram and Twitter for a boost, and wow, did that help! Messages of love and support poured in; so many I am still working my way through them. What a community we have there. By the time I reached pit stop 7, I had a good cry to the medic there who told me I probably needed “a sweet cup of tea, plenty of water and a good fart.” I carried on anyway because what else could I do? But I was in agony. At that point I really just wanted to see Dan for a hug but because I couldn’t run for fear of exploding bowels, it seemed to take forever! After a few tearful phonecalls to him, he promised me he was not far down the road where I would run shortly, and he was on his way to get me some food. I ordered sausage and chips. It took forever. I felt like I was moving backwards I was going so slowly! Eventually I reached a road and we turned left to run down it. There were loads of people on it cheering runners past, and all I could do was cry at them! One really kind chap walked with me for a bit and asked if I was ok. I told him my husband was meeting me with food, but I couldn’t find him, so he promised me this road was only another mile and a half max, so he was sure I would reach him soon. Eventually, I saw him! 68km. I wanted to lie down and cry. I had reached a true low point. Dan made me sit down in the boot and eat some sausage and chips. Honestly I felt queasy and not hungry, but I forcefed myself with as much as I could manage, then told him I really didn’t want to carry on. “You volunteered for this,” he said. He’s very wise, my husband. “I’d be disappointed if I gave up,” I said, “but I’m in a lot of pain”. At that point I stood up and tried to let out some of the gas building up in my stomach, at which point my shorts exploded. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I shit my pants in a layby near the M4. I had reached a new low. Dan’s face when I asked him for a tissue was a picture, and made me laugh so hard. Thank goodness I had packed a spare pair of shorts. And tissues. To be honest, I was laughing so much at that point that I didn’t care how utterly pathetic I must have looked, soiling myself at the side of the road. I found it hilarious, and it actually got me over that really low couple of hours I’d just had. As I changed my shorts, I could overhear Dan talking to somebody just around the corner, who was giving up. I could hear him offering her a walking partner in me, for company, but she declined. (Maybe she heard the explosion?) Anyway, I knew then that I didn’t want to be that person, looking for excuses to quit. So I got up and left. A rowdy bunch of people in funny hats had just marched past us, so Dan ordered me to catch them up and walk with them. So onwards I went.
And here is where the magic happens. Ultra running (or in my case, hobbling, walking, marching, whatever you want to call it) is about finding your limits. My limit is not 68km. I know that now, because I made a conscious decision that I would carry on and not quit. I spotted that rowdy bunch 5 minutes further on, as we hit another hill, and waiting at the gate for me to access the field was the same man who had just shown me such kindness 20 minutes ago when I was a babbling mess looking for Dan. “Did you find your husband?” he asked? Yes, I replied, and he’s fed me, and given me a good talking to, and told me I’ve got to carry on. “Walk with this lot,” he said, gesturing uphill to the behatted bunch. He shouted for them to wait, and told them to look after me. He was my angel that day – without his kindness I may well have quit as half an hour previously I really wasn’t enjoying myself any more.
My new companions introduced themselves as Swindon Shin Splints running club. Verity was wearing a Captain’s hat. It was Verity’s 1st ultra, and first marathon, and she was completing the event to raise money for a friend who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Rod, Chris and Chris had just joined her to complete the final 20 miles with her as support. Instantly I learned Chris was a vegan, as I told him how I’d just enjoyed sausage and chips. He wasn’t offended. They were all taking part in Jo’s Hilarious Hat Challenge to wear a silly hat each day throughout July to raise money in support of her battle with cancer. We got a march on up the hill, chatting easily about ultra running. Chris told me stories of his epic challenges, most recently the GUCR, and exchanged race stories and training tips and before I realised we were at the next checkpoint. It’s incredible how your mood can change so dramatically during an ultra. I was riding that rollercoaster, and I was on top of the world again.
Through the evening, we walked. We snacked. We stopped regularly for cups of tea and sandwiches. I didn’t care that I had slowed down; I was grateful for company. And it was enjoyable company – I had a few belly laughs that evening with my new companions. Emotions ride high towards the end of an ultra, and these guys were so experienced that they knew exactly how Verity and I were feeling. They cracked jokes, they told stories. Verity had dedicated each mile of that race to somebody, as a mechanism to help her through mentally, so every time my Garmin beeped another mile, she told us a story about somebody different, somebody who had inspired her, or somebody who needed support, or remembering. It made each step very meaningful indeed. The wonderful support didn’t stop with our companions; between each checkpoint we were met by the Swindon Shin Splints support crew who had Uncle Simon on hand who was boiling water out of the boot of his car to make us cups of tea in porcelain mugs. We were treated like royalty!
The only thing I am a little sad about is that I missed all the wonderful scenery as we did the last 20km in the dark. (The field of enormous snoring dairy cows was terrifying in the dark!). We walked right through Barbury Castle but I couldn’t see it. Nor could I see the magnificent views from the Ridgeway. Nor did I see the Stones until I literally tripped over them. And that wasn’t even the end. Although the event is called Race to the Stones, you have to cover a whole extra mile BACK THE SAME WAY YOU HAVE JUST COME to reach the finish line. This section seemed to go on forever. By that point I was basically just grunting every time my blister hit the side of my shoe, and I was SO tired (it was 3am) and I remember asking how much further, and the reply was, “If they moved the finish line another 10 miles way, would you carry on?” Of course I bloody would. And then I mustered a run – well, a grandad shuffle – to the end together with Verity, because I didn’t have to run another 10 miles, but I knew that I would if I had to, and that was enough for me.
So that is my story. As I said earlier, it’s not a race review, it’s a very personal account of my own experience, and even writing this now I know there are things I have already forgotten and that makes me sad because I want to remember everything about this magnificent, brutal, epic, emotional day.
I said earlier that I knew I hadn’t reached my limit at 68km because I got up and carried on even though I was trying to talk myself out of it. But nor is 100km my limit, because if I did have to run another 10 miles or whatever if they moved that finish line as some kind of sick joke, I’d do it. I’d do it because I started it. I’d carry on. I know that now. I’m quite proud that I’ve put myself out there to test my limits, and I still don’t know what they are because I succeeded this time. I could easily have reached my limit at 90k, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that I was prepared to fail, because there was a chance I would succeed. So many people have told me that they wouldn’t even put themselves on the start line. Why not? Don’t fear failure. Fear never having the courage to step outside your own comfort zone and find out what you are truly capable of. There were moments, hours, up on that Ridgeway where I cursed myself for having put myself through this agony, but it’s the extreme highs and the extreme lows that enable us to really experience living. Life is about feeling, and ultra running is a truly sensory experience. The views, the blisters, the belly laughs, the gut bombs, the magnificent flavour of a cheese sandwich after 100km of pure agony, the acute agony of bum chafing, the power of a hug, the tears of misery, the tears of joy. I would go through all that again because life is about feeling. We have a duty to challenge ourselves. If you have even a tiny desire to find out whether you are capable of more, then go and try. Threshold Sports’ motto is “More is in you”, and it really is. Go find it.
Here is the link to the Race to the Stones website.
Here is the link to Racecheck so you can read actual reviews – I will get round to adding mine there too.
Here is the link to Verity’s friend’s fundraising page.
Here are my Strava stats
Thank you for reading.