It’s 7.00am on race morning. I am at Race HQ in a field near Watlington in Oxfordshire with several thousand others. It is clear from the moment we arrived that Race to The Stones is a big deal and impeccably well organised.
I am feeling OK. I had spent the previous night in a hotel room with Nick a few miles down the road and had been woken by his version of the dawn chorus. More a trumpet chorus. No instruments needed, just an open window! A few rooms down the hall were Nev who was also running and Jacqui who was support crew for the day.
By 7.45am registration formalities are all done and we are standing in the starting funnel contemplating what was to come. The task? To run 100km (62 miles) along the Ridgeway to a finish line several counties away in Avebury near Marlborough and we had until 7.45am on Sunday morning to do it.
By now we had been joined by club mate Paul Venus and I had already bumped into my friend Louise Cross and her partner Mark. Nick had also seen our friends Stu and Jayne Crawford. Knowing so many people racing was to play a huge part in how things unfolded much later that night.
The starter didn’t feel he was doing his job until he had asked us half a dozen times if we were ready. But eventually he fired the starting gun. We were off. It was the start of what was to be a very long day, night and a small part of the next day!
The Party Miles
For the first few minutes no-one went anywhere fast as about a thousand people headed slowly along a small country track. That fitted in perfectly with our pacing plan! Most people just relaxed and had a chat with those alongside them. Everyone was in high spirits, excited to be underway at last and trying not to think of what was to come later.
Together with about ten others, I ducked behind the first hedge we came to for an overdue call of nature. But in leaving the pack I lost touch with Nick, Nev and Paul. I wasn’t too concerned. At this pace I reckoned I could get back to them quite quickly. As things turned out I wasn’t to see Nick for another 30 miles. I didn’t see the others again all day.
No problem. I was happy to run on my own at this point and get some rhythm and there was no shortage of people to talk to. The race was interrupted a few times as we came to gates and stiles as hundreds of people negotiated them one at a time. We seemed to spend a lot of time standing around in the first fifteen miles. It wasn’t till after the second aid station at about 20km that the field really thinned out.
My strategy so far had been to run the flat and downhills and walk uphill. It had worked well and I was feeling good. The only problem with this is that when you come to a hill that is three or four miles long, as we did coming out of Goring, you spend a long time walking and you feel as though you are letting the race tick away. But the words of advice from Enduroman stuck with me: “Play the long game”.
I got a huge lift halfway up the hill when I saw Jacqui waiting patiently at the road side. There were no fist pumping speeches, just a quiet determination to be of help.
“How are you doing? Have you got everything you need? How can I help?”
If Carslberg did support crews.
The hill eventually gave way to a long flat stretch that got me running again and took us through the marathon mark. A few miles later and I was running into aid station number 5 and the half way point. 30 miles down and although things were beginning to hurt, I felt OK.
I found Jacqui sitting on the grass reading her book, left my bag with her and headed for the big marquee which housed a restaurant. A plate of pasta was on the menu. Here I was reunited with Nick, Stu and Jayne. Nev had already left and sadly Paul had pulled out with a knee injury.
With food done, I took a moment to re-grease my feet, change my socks and shirt before Nick and I left together to tackle the second half of the race.
The Business miles
Despite a second wind after a change of clothes and a meal, leaving base camp was hard and the high spirits of the start line were long gone. Nick and I agreed to stick with the same run walk strategy, but during that leg I started to feel the first signs of wear and tear on my feet. I could feel a blister forming.
Every aid station had a medical tent and I headed straight for it as soon as we hit aid station 6. The medic didn’t seem too concerned and wrapped a length of RockTape round my food to stop the rubbing that had started the blister. A quick feed and some water and we pressed on.
The blisters and increasing sore feet slowed us down and our runs with occasional walks now involved more walking. Morale was beginning to dip a bit. We had been on the go for nearly 12 hours and we still had over 30k ahead of us. What better time for my club mate Rob Savill to be waiting for us at aid station 7. I think he was taken aback by how pleased we were to see him. For a second time I headed straight for the medical tent with my blisters as Rob swung into action bringing me a welcome cup of tea and food. Thank you Rob. You weren’t to know it, but your appearance could not have been better timed.
As we were sorting ourselves out Stu and Jayne arrived and we had a natter with them. We didn’t discuss it but we all left together and ran on as a foursome. As we left the aid station I remember clearly having a chat with myself agreeing that this felt like the start of the race. What had gone before was the build-up, albeit a long one, but the real challenge of Race to the Stones was just starting.
Miles of RockTape
The next aid station was 10km away and although it was fairly flat, the going was getting tough. We were clinging onto our run-walk strategy but the walks were getting longer. On top of the blisters, everyone had very sore feet. Old injuries were beginning to wake up.
We knocked off the 10km to the next stop slowly but without fuss, but there was a notable deterioration in everyone’s physical state. As we went about our feeding and watering business at the aid station it was clear we were starting to struggle. My blisters were becoming an issue, Stu’s old knee injury was troubling him. Jayne had fallen earlier and bruised her knee, the cure for which would normally be rest, not finishing a 60-mile run. She was in pain and Nick’s feet were ablaze. We discussed our options matter of factly and concluded that, if needs be, we would walk. At no point was the option of stopping ever mentioned.
As we left the aid station with 20km remaining it was starting to get dark, so it was head torches on to avoid fumbling round with those after dark. As we were doing this, we met Claire. I say that like it was a significant moment. That is because it was.
Claire had been running the race with her twin brother who had dropped out with blisters. Claire didn’t want to run alone in the dark and asked if she could run with us.
We didn’t even have to think about it. Claire became the final member of our team. The team that was going to take on the hardest 20km of the race in the dark. She fitted in seamlessly and instantly.
And on we went into the night trying not to think that we still had a half marathon to cover.
By now it was almost all walking. Nick was at the front with Claire and the pace was brisk. Walking fast is not my strong point and I regularly found myself dropping back, usually with Stu or Jayne for company. As we entered the last kilometre to aid station 9 the route pointed uphill. By now it was pitch black and not only was I behind the others but the curse of the blisters was back with a vengeance. A new one right on the ball of my right foot made every step like walking on glass. That slowed me further and I lost sight of the group in the dark. I wasn’t too worried as we were about to hit an aid station but I felt myself going downhill. I hadn’t eaten much on this leg and now I couldn’t be bothered to take my pack off and get food out. My lack of motivation was not a good sign. As I approached the aid station I found it hard to walk in a straight line. With my feet and blisters screaming at me, this was the lowest point of my race.
I got to the aid station a few minutes behind the others and headed straight for the medical tent for the third time that day. The medic said nothing but I could tell from the look on his face that it wasn’t pretty (or maybe it was the smell). More RockTape. I think Nick spotted that I was struggling and brought me over a cup of hot porridge laced with maple syrup. At that moment, in that state, it was better than sex!
I took a few minutes to let the porridge do its work. I took two Nurofen and grabbed two chocolate bars which I kept in my hands so they were always available. No repeat of the nutrition fail on this leg.
We did a quick check that everyone was OK and had all they needed and then we set off on the final leg. We were 11km from the finish. One last push.
I think as we left the aid station I knew we would all finish. In fact through all my tribulations during the day, I never thought that I wouldn’t finish. With each new blister I just resigned myself to the fact that it was going to be a little bit harder. As we headed back on to the Ridgeway I took up the conversation with myself again and was unsympathetic. Something along the lines of: “You wanted a challenge, well here it is”
I think we were all thinking the same. Everyone was near their limits, but there was a resolve about our team. Stu’s mantra of “No-one gets left behind” (expect me at the last aid station obvs!) reflected perfectly how this individual challenge had become a shared team challenge for us.
Take a group of people who joined up by chance, some of who were strangers, each of whom added an energy that made the group better and what you get is a team that is stronger than the sum of its parts.
Something magic happened on the Ridgeway in the final 20k in the early hours of Sunday morning. Left to soldier on into the night alone, I expect some of us may not have finished, but together we were never going to fail.
It took an hour or so before the lights of the finish became visible in the distance. And then in the first sign that we were heading for the finish, the route took us down off the Ridgeway. But agonisingly it took us past the finish and on into Avebury to the Stones. In their wisdom the organisers thought this was a great photo opportunity and so we went through the bizarre process of posing for photos in front of the stones of the Avebury Ring at about 1.45 in the morning.
All that was left then was to make our way back to the finish line. Claire had a deadline. Her shuttle bus back to the start left at 2.00am. At a walking pace it would be tight, so after a quick round of goodbyes, she did what any Englishman would do, she ran for her bus. We all stood their open mouthed as she picked up a respectable pace without a single groan.
We followed at a walk retracing our steps out of Avebury, along a farm track, then a sharp left and there it was. We were 300 metres from the finish. Inspired by Claire’s example we spontaneously broke into a run all the way to the line. Even at 1.55am there was a crowd of well-wishers and several endlessly enthusiastic volunteers handing out medals.
For our part, there was no punching the air or extravagant celebrations. Just hugs and handshakes all round. As much as anything else, we were just pleased it was all over.
It is hard to generate any atmosphere at 2 in the morning when runners are arriving sporadically. Behind the finish line was a farmyard with buildings full of inert bodies curled up in sleeping bags waiting for morning. After retrieving bags and a quick cup of tea, Nick and I packed up and headed home.
I pored over the results the next day. I had assumed our official finish time of 17.56 hrs would be at the slow end of the field. So I was pleasantly surprised to see I had finished 566th of 1164. Just in the top half of the field! My team mates occupied the four places above me. But the most striking statistic was that of the 1164 competitors 208 had failed to finish for some reason – nearly 1 in 5 people. That may be due to the heat which hadn’t been in the forecast. But I think a lot of it will be because this is a big challenge.
And what of Nev, my club mate who I ran about 3 minutes of the race with? He showed us all a clean pair of heals and finished in 14.51hrs and placed 276th. Impressive.