By Jon Laye
The Race to the Stones 100km Ultra Marathon
Saturday 15th – Sunday 16th July 2017
Someone at work yesterday asked me ‘How did you manage to run 100km in 12 hours, and more to the point, why?’
The ‘how’ is surprisingly easy: next time you go for a run, switch on your Garmin/Timex/TomTom GPS watch to record your pace, and then run exactly one mile in 12 minutes. You will find that this is remarkably easy (I should imagine just about every Abbey Runner will be able to achieve this). Then simply repeat this process 61.4 times and you should be close to running 100km in the requisite 12 hours.
The ‘why’ bit is trickier to explain, but for me it is predominantly about my inbuilt competitive spirit. Imagine as you jog along for 12 hours at 12 min/mi pace you are going to have to stop for food or to go to the toilet or simply have a break (to relieve the boredom of shuffling along at what seems like a mind-numbingly slow pace). For every minute you stop, you have to run a little bit faster to make up for lost time. It seems entirely reasonable to stop for a least an hour throughout the whole process and suddenly you are confronted with having to make up that time by running quite a bit faster. Similarly, any hills that you encounter which require you to walk, result in yet more time to make up in order to achieve the magic 12 hours! And so, having arbitrarily set upon 12 hours as a good race target, I immediately put myself under pressure, to compete with myself and against the clock. And this is the ‘why’ I entered the ultra. I didn’t just want to see if I could finish it, but instead to complete it within a set of challenging boundaries I had artificially set.
The Race: a damp start
The Race to the Stones starts from a farm located at Lewknor, South Oxfordshire (used for filming Midsomer Murders) nestled at the foot of the Chilterns. The route follows much of the ancient trackway known as The Ridgeway, leading ultimately to the village of Avebury with its famous Neolithic Stone Circle (no, not Stonehenge, the other one that encloses the village). Along the 100km course the route passes Grim’s Ditch ancient earthworks, the beautiful small town of Goring, crosses the Thames and then climbs high up onto the Berkshire Downs passing Bronze age hill forts, burial mounds and the odd white horse or two.
The Race itself is popular. I heard an announcer at the start saying that over 2000 entrants were expected over the 2-day event and it is very much promoted as the UKs biggest ultra. And the organization matches the popularity, with large farms transformed to accommodate the start, midpoint and finish of the event. Some entrants choose to run or walk the event non-stop, but many elect to stop half way in an overnight camp (complete with inclusive food, drinks, a bar (!), free sports massage and with a huge field filled by swathes of identical tents). The race is sufficiently popular now that it is started in waves in the inverse of larger city marathons, with entrants starting position determined by their predicted finish times commencing with the slowest (walkers) beginning earliest at 7:30am and the fastest non-stop runners starting last at 9:30am. Presumably this is to avoid the race becoming incredibly spread out across the countryside, but this does mean that the route can become a little busy in places.
In keeping with the race’s size and appeal it attracts many novice ultra runners (like me) and its location relatively close to London means that it lacks the ‘hard as nails’ image of many ultra races, which is no bad thing. It is accessible, friendly and attracts many people who would never dream of entering an ultramarathon. For example, the farm field at the start was furnished with no less than 4 coffee baristas serving double-skinny-mocha-flat-white-chinos! This did not feel like the haunt of the mountain-hardened ultra runner!!
I had been placed in the 9th and final wave of racers and was nearly the very last entrant to cross the chip mat and set off at 9:30am, by which time a light drizzle had set in. Within 90 minutes this had become a thoroughly unpleasant deluge, but spirits were high and everyone was happy and excited. I soon settled down into running at a brisk but sensible pace alongside a local chap who worked in the renewable energy business (I was hoping to take some tips because I had the feeling I was going to struggle with a lack of energy very soon) but we seemed to be running much faster than all the other people in front of us. Despite the busy trails we were not unduly slowed by other walkers/runners and everyone was happy to let us through and bid us good luck. After a couple of hours of rolling hills and arable fields (and much shouting of ‘Coming through on your left….no, the OTHER LEFT, yes, thank you’), we descended to the Thames valley and I took 5 minute’s rest in a pit stop sitting on a fold-up camping chair in the pouring rain to check my feet for any early signs of blisters. A little bit of protective foot tape and quick bite of sandwich later and I hoofed it up the biggest climb of the day to make up for lost time and soon the rain had stopped and I was onto the whaleback ridge which undulated its way on and on across the Downs.
The Race: a tough middle
The sky remained grey and high humidity followed by a progressively stronger headwind made things tough, but not really challenging. At various points the route descended to very pretty little villages with seemingly every house thatched and set in exquisite cottage gardens, before climbing back up onto the ridge top. After 3 more hours of this though, I was getting tired. Looking back, I can see now that the weariness was a subtle mixture of physical exertion and mental exhaustion. Running at a relatively slow pace for a long time is hard work, but not that difficult. The hard part is continuously concentrating and getting your brain to override all the other signals you are getting and demanding your body to keep the running going.
To keep us entertained there were the magnificent ancient burial mounds, chalk white horses and hill forts. None of which I saw (except a bloody great hill fort which we ran through the middle of at about mile 54). My guess is I was so focused on the running that I simply ran passed them all without noticing! But what about the scenery? I am used to running up hills to get to the top so I can enjoy the view, but on the Ridgeway, we simply ran through an endless collection of fields along an undulating track (which remains open to 4-wheel drive vehicles for much of the year) bounded by dense hedgerows. And where we could see the view it was extensive, but just an endless spread of arable fields stretching into the distance. Frankly I found it all a bit tame and dull. Remember, this is just my opinion (probably somewhat biased by running in a state of weariness), and I am sure many would find the scenery stunning, but I think I have been somewhat spoilt by doing much of my running in The Dales and Lake District.
At this point I was simply running between the pit stops and ticking each one off as incremental steps getting closer to the finish. The pit stops were great though. They were located every 10kms or so. There were lots of seats and tents with music and arrays of different food and medics and physios on hand and more than sufficient numbers of portaloos. Each time I entered a pit stop the crews clapped and cheered and then quickly offered to help fill my water bottles or get me food. The staff were brilliant! At about miles 20 and 40 I removed my shoes and socks, cleaned my feet, reapplied lots of Sudocream lubricant and then clean socks before getting back into my trainers and each time the effect of that short foot pampering was to completely revive me: a trick worth remembering! Rarely have I been at a race where everything went so much to plan. I felt so under control that I cannot remember feeling happy, sad, miserable or elated. I was simply weary and getting on with the job of running and spending as little time resting as possible. Suddenly, I found myself at the last pit stop with less than 7 miles to go and I was well within my schedule. I am not a talented ultra runner, but I think it says a lot about how I had approached the whole event that even though I was travelling relatively slowly, I actually had the 18th fastest 50-100km split time. And then the whole race changed from something that was becoming a bit mundane to an event that was really inspiring.
The Race: an inspiring finish
Throughout the day, I had been constantly overtaking people. Some folks had then passed me whilst I had a foot pamper or an extended drink break at a pit stop, for me to then overtake them again 5 minutes later. I overtook some entrants 3 or 4 times! One such runner was a young lady who was really going for it. I overtook her one final time within 4 miles of the end as we were descending from the ridge towards Avebury. Except this time when I gave her a greeting, she barely managed to reply and she looked utterly awful. She had completely hit the wall and was starting to look very wobbly indeed. I stopped and made her finish all my remaining isotonic drinks. From there on, I slowly coaxed her all the way to the end of the race. I didn’t really care about my finish time anymore. We half ran, half jogged together for the last few miles. I hope she reads this because Alex (from Derbyshire) and the way she staggered home to finish the Race to the Stones was amongst THE most inspiring bits of running I have seen in years and was certainly the highpoint of the whole event for me. As we approached the final straight I told her that I was most certainly NOT going to do a ‘Brownlee’ and carry her over the line!! And so, despite being utterly exhausted, Alex of Derbyshire picked up her pace and charged down the track and across the line in front of me. Afterwards, once she was safely with friends and family there were a few tears and lots of ‘thank you’s but I honestly would not have changed the end of the race for anything. I know that her immediate response was that she had ‘messed up’ the finish, but she should really be utterly proud of herself. It was tough going.
For the record, the winners were Benjamin Poiraton (7:52:55, male) and Sarah Hill (9:23:04 female), whilst I managed a ponderously slow 11:42:50 (100th out of 961 total non-stop runners). Oh, and yes, I checked: Alex of Derbyshire was 3