Race to the Stones

In an ideal world, where I ran in a race, finished with a good time, grabbed a medal and went home, this post would actually be a pretty simple review of the Dixons Carphone Race to the Stones. Unfortunately I didn’t do all those things. I mean, I did some of them, but not in the way I’d want to. No. Instead this post is going be about my experience of taking part in the Race to the Stones this year, and what I learned from it. Because trust me, it did not go as I hoped it would.

Before I start my cathartic release of woe (stick the kettle on) I’d better give you a bit of background on what the Race to the Stones actually is, and why I decided to do it. Most of you have probably heard of the event. It’s a fairly big deal in the running world and a hell of a lot of people annually since it began in 2013. As somebody firmly entrenched in that world, I’ve heard an enormous amount of people talk about it – every time that happens I want to do it a teeny bit more. It’s an ultra marathon, which basically means it’s longer than a marathon and takes place largely off-road. There are three options to take part: you can do 100km in one go, 100km over two days or 50 km in one day. Oh yeah, it also takes place largely in the Chilterns countryside – one of the many reasons its such a popular race.

Anyway, enough about that. Let’s get back to me and my problems (scroll to the last bit if you want my general review of the race itself).

To be honest I hadn’t planned on doing the Race of The Stones at all. My year was basically mapped out with a load 10ks and half marathons leading up until the Leicester marathon in October. It wasn’t until ManVMiles invited me along a few weeks ago that it actually became a reality. A good reality though. I was ridiculously stoked when I found out I was doing it. I’ve done a hell of a lot of races in 2018 (RTTS is number 40) and I’m enjoying running more than I ever have in the past ten years or so. Fitness-wise I’ve been feeling on top form and the opportunity to test myself properly was massively exciting (cheers ManVMiles). We decided to do the 100km over two days option, which I was really pleased about. The most I’d ever ran was a marathon in the past, so finding out if I could successfully pace 50km and do it again the next day was a nice chance to see if I was up to a full 100km at some point.

As the days lead up to the race my levels of fear and excitement were growing. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt like this before an event. Probably not since a very early marathon I did where I was pushing myself to hit a certain time. I mean, I didn’t even know if I could finish it. That’s pretty exciting. I did my race prep, spent ages reading through websites trying to find out what I’d need to pack for an ultra, I got a new running backpack, and a shedload of first aid stuff. I was a beginner again, I didn’t have a clue how to get ready for something like this, and for an avid runner, learning something new is pretty cool.

After heading to the start point in Lewknor, sorting out race packs and whatnot, we were off. ManVMiles, as expected, disappeared into the distance before I’d even started my Strava. I instead set into a nice steady pace with the aim to be feeling comfortable for as long as possible. I had no idea what was a good time for me (not had that sensation for a while) and if I could finish at 50km and still feel relatively content, I’d be happy. It was also as hot as the depths of hell, so I I had to take that into consideration as well.

For the 10km leading up to first food and drink stop, I felt great. Hot? Big time. But that was the only discomfort. I grabbed some snacks and water and headed out for the next chunk. I was loving it in fact. The scenery was beautiful, I was actually working slightly below my marathon pace and the heat wasn’t bothering me. I ruddy love ultra marathons, I gleefully muttered to myself. Sure, there were a couple of hills that I took it easy on – something that I previously didn’t realise was the done thing in an ultra, but other than that, plain sailing.

That was until 20km. With almost a half marathon under my belt I felt great. I’d be at halfway soon and I was only 2 hours or so in. However, just a couple of hundred metres into the 20th kilometre (a place called Grimm’s Ditch apparently) I hit my back foot on a tree root and shot forwards. I was running way too fast to fall over in that sort of terrain and ended up doing a forwards roll into a tree stump. Adrenaline running through me I just got up and carried on, checking myself as I moved. A slight pain in my bum cheek a graze on my shin and a sore hand – I got off lightly. I carried on at the same pace as before, but within about a minute I stuck my foot in-between some more roots, rolled my ankle and fell to the floor. I was in a lot of pain. I knew instantly that I’d done some damage. I’m no stranger to rolling my ankle, having done it half a dozen times in the past. Some I can shake off, hopefully this would be one of those.

I walked along for a kilometre or so to see if the pain would die down, but it didn’t for at least another hour or so, then it went kind of numb. I tried to run on it a few times but it was clear that wasn’t an option. All I could do was keep walking at a pace it felt okay. At 23km in my only options were to duck out at the next stop of try to finish it by walking. Based on the fact I have a ridiculously stubborn personality, I went for the latter.

27km is a long way to walk when you’re hobbling. It’s a hell of a lot longer when you feel like you’ve let yourself down. Basically I spent about four hours angry with myself. I knew I’d gone too fast, I knew I should have stopped after I fell over the first time and calmed myself down, I knew I should have paid more attention to the ground when I was running. All of these things were so obvious in hindsight. And what made it worse was that this race actually meant something to me. I remember doing the same thing in my second London Marathon after tripping over a bottle. I hobble-ran my way to the end and got an awful time. I didn’t care though, I’d done marathons before, one crap one didn’t make a difference. I’d never done an ultra before though. I wanted to finish it. I wanted to come home knowing that I’d done the full 100km. For that long walk I felt more down than I had in any race before. I even tried to talk myself in to carrying on the next day. I hoped I’d get to the 50km mark and realise I was fine.

Thankfully when I got there the swelling was heavy enough that I knew I couldn’t run. Christ knows what I’d have done to it if I had done. I couldn’t let myself get properly injured, I already had a load more races to do in the next few months. Luckily I came into the camp to find my running crew there waiting. Had I been left alone to mull over my annoyance I would have had a pretty rough night. A couple of beers, a bit of light humour, sunshine and a yurt (cheers again ManVMiles) can do wonders though. And now I had a nemesis race. Race to the Stones is my Moby Dick now and I’m not the kind of guy that goes down easily.

So in terms of races, yeah, it was a bad one for me. But now, two days later in the comfort of my flat, I realise that it was pretty damn important. I know a lot more now about my weakness when it comes to trail running, I know I packed a hell of a lot more into my backpack than I needed to, I know I didn’t carry enough water, I know I had the wrong setting on my camera and I know not to book into that damn hotel ever again. Most importantly though, I know a bit more about running on off-road terrain. After the bit where I fell over, the remainder of the first 50km was relatively flat and free of tree roots. If I’d just slowed down for 10 minutes I would have been fine to pick up the pace afterwards.

I know I should have stopped and composed myself after falling over the first time. I should have sat down and had a drink and waited for my heart rate to fall. Perhaps most importantly I know my ankles need some balance work to be better equipped for the trails. Much like when I started road running, it took me a while to understand the rules. Trail has different rules. I don’t know all of them yet.

One day I’ll do it again. Maybe next year, maybe the year after. But like Andy Murray after his first few Grand Slams, I’ll come back having improved and I’ll eventually see those stones, and I’ll have damn well ran there too. Hell, it may even beat me again, but not without me learning a bit from it for the next time.

Oh yeah, nearly forgot. The race itself. I can only speak for the first 50km, but…

As running events go, Dixons Carphone Race to the Stones is an impressive affair. With over 3,000 entrants, it’s a big one. Organisation covering the event is pretty much spot on and both the marshals and the multitude of rest stations along the way couldn’t be better prepared.

Based on the fact that I’d never done an ultra before, I had visions of desperately trying to make my way across the route with hardly any food and little to know water. Race to the Stones couldn’t be more different though. As ultra events go, it’s a very nice option in terms of safety and support and a perfect starting point for anyone pushing onto the more difficult ultra events. As well as the well stocked food and drink stops, there are people positioned all over the course offering aid and assistance, so even if you’re unsure about your abilities, you’re pretty secure in the knowledge that you can get back pretty easily should problems occur.

The route largely utilises the beautiful Ridgeway path with spans 87-miles across the south of England. Because of this the course it relatively easy to follow and very little is tricky in terms of terrain (obviously there are some bits… see above). Yep, there are hills, but they’re not too bad and often make up a nice short break from running.

Basecamp was a ruddy lovely place to spend the night, situated up on the hill at Lattin Down Kiln, near Wantage. Piles of food ranging from pasta to red velvet cake, beer, entertainment and phenomenal views across the countryside. If I wasn’t running I’d be tempted to just spend the night there anyway.

So there you have it. A wonderful event for most, a sobering experience for me and a challenge to  take on going forwards. Thanks ManVMiles for bringing me along, Thanks Dixons Carphone for the opportunity and thanks Salomon (review coming) and Iffley Road for the kit.

For more information on the event and to find out about the other races in the series, head over to the Dixons Carphone Race To The Stones website here.

And if you want to read about the race from the point of view of a man who not only finished it, but came 6th, see what ManVMiles has to say over at his website. It’s a very different account of the weekend.

Ah yeah, and before I forget. A bit of evidence – apologies for the graphic nature of the picture, but if I’m going to pull out of an event, I’m sure as hell going to show the evidence why.

 

Picture Credits (race photos): Sussex Sports Photography