Race recap: Race to the Stones (100km ultra marathon)

Why?

In October 2016, I went on a weekend away with some friends and we discussed the crazy idea of running an ultra marathon. I spent a few months thinking about it, debating whether I was even capable of it. I hadn’t even run a marathon (?), why did I think this was a good idea? Anyway, I foolishly registered under some belief that it was. If you follow me on Instagram, you know by now I am not a seasoned pro. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just a girl, wanting to prove to the world that anything is possible.

Day 1 – Registration

So….. with little more than 5 hours sleep, Daryl and I arrived at the start at about 6.30am on Saturday, full of excitement and anticipation. I remember struggling with my suitcase as I tried to drag it across the car park (basically a field with long grass). There were jokes about my ability to run an ultra when I couldn’t even get out of the car park.


The start area was essentially a field with some tents. There was a coffee van, portaloo’s and lorries for the baggage. We walked towards the registration tent and I joked to one of the volunteers “Glastonbury festival this way then?!” They didn’t laugh. Oh dear, great start…

We went into the registration tent, picked up our numbers and found a spot to organise our bags. It was this moment I finally spotted my pal, Charlie. I hadn’t seen her since the London Marathon in April and I was so excited to see her. We squealed at each other for a few moments and then got down to business.

We shared hydration bag tactics. Charlie had a Nathan and I had a Salomon. We agreed we didn’t need waterproof jackets (big mistake) and put them in our suitcases. We checked our feet. Road shoes, yes. We applied our bug spray and swapped calf sleeves so that we matched. Then we found a quiet spot for Charlie to braid my hair.


Our families hovered around us as we nervously made small talk. It was an odd feeling. I hate anticipation and waiting for things so I just wanted to get started.  In equal measures, I was in my happy place and looked forward to what awaited us. We spotted some other friends, said goodbye to our loved ones and headed over to the start for the adventure to really begin.

 

Day 1 – 0-20km

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO!

Rather rare for a race, everyone was running at roughly the same pace (11 min miles). There was no pressure to run any faster. It was incredible and the views were beautiful. Wheat and corn fields everywhere. There was a lot of excitement as everyone discussed their training, whether they had done the race before and, of course comments like “are we there yet?”


I wasn’t expecting it but the the first few miles were through woodland trails. It was so beautiful and we realised we were all still running as a big group 4 miles in. My training tactic was to run the flat sections and walk the hills. So when the first hill arrived at approximately mile 4, I wasn’t surprised that the large group we were with started to disperse.

We got to the first pit stop just after 10km. Toilets, water tanks, food (cereal bars, bananas, nuts, electrolytes). We were excited, naive and conservative with what we picked up. We spent a lot of time just looking around, mouths open at the amount of choice we had. We didn’t really need any food at this point and if I do it again, I will definitely spend less time here. 

As we left pit stop 1, we braced ourselves for the infamous Field of Dreams. I had seen photos online before and was looking forward to running through the beautiful bright yellow field (as seen on the poster pic used by Threshold to advertise the race).  The only problem is that it had just started raining. Oh no. Please, not now. We’d left our waterproofs in the suitcase! It wasn’t forecast to rain.

So, the Field of Dreams? Well. It was not a beautiful bright yellow field. It was a murky green, damp and soggy field! After a moment of disappointment, we decided it really didn’t matter and spent a few minutes taking photos and feeling lucky that we were even there. And of course we still ran through it with our arms out, getting absolutely soaked. You would never know how dark and grey it was from the professional photo!

 

Day 1 – 20km – 40km

We made our way to pit stop 2, which was about 14 miles in. We still felt good so we grabbed some food (crisps, moaom, banana, flat coke) and used the portaloo’s. We agreed that we would try and eat, drink and use the toilet at every pit stop, even if we didn’t feel like we needed to. This turned out to be a really good strategy because I learned later on that you don’t always think straight when you’re tired.

Just as we were leaving, we spotted one of our friends (who had missed her coach and had to start in a later wave). She had managed to catch up with us. We ran over to her screaming and had an emotional hug. We all left pit stop 2 together in a bubble of excitement. We joked, laughed and pushed our friend on. She had a goal in mind and we would see her again soon.

We ran some really pretty trails after that. Long windy roads, small villages, more woodland paths. I can’t remember when but I somehow managed to trip and fall whilst we were on a narrow path. It didn’t hurt at the time and I laughed it off (because I tripped like 84938 times), but I was pretty bruised when I got home. In true ultra/trail race style, everyone came rushing over when I fell to make sure I was okay. This is why I love trail races. You wouldn’t get that in a road race.

By the time we got to 30km, we had started seeing big steep hills. And did I mention it was pouring with rain by this point? We ran through a town which was full of traffic and completely up hill. We were trying to keep our spirits high but we were really wet and the scenery was..well.. cars. If anything, I was just so grateful that my body was holding up and I had no aches/pains.

By the time we reached pit stop 3, we finally got some cover from the trees! We refuelled (I was having 500ml of water in my left bottle and 500ml of electrolyte in my right bottle between pit stops) grabbed some food, went for a loo break and off we went. Each pit stop was slightly different. Some were in fields, some by the main road, some in woodland coverings. But what they all had in common, was the friendly volunteers waiting to greet you. I had some lovely chats with some of the sponsors (perkier & high5) and the first aiders. They were all so happy and excited to be involved.  This was one of the highlights for me and I really looked forward to seeing what came next.

As soon as you leave pit stop 3, you climb a massive hill. It went on for over a mile. I found a fellow Bristolian girl to talk to. I wish I’d taken her name so I could look up how she got on. We had a lovely chat about racing, ultra’s, Bristol, life whilst we climbed the massive hill.  Once we had reached the top, I wished her well and she ran on (she was doing it all in one go). The people we spoke to on route were absolutely great and we met some incredibly inspiring people (like the 65+ lady who kept running past us up the hills). It really humbles you and keeps you moving forward when you’re feeling low.

By 35km, the rain has started to clear and we ran along a lovely canal where we managed to run 1.5 miles without walking. That boosted our confidence and we started talking about what would happen at base camp.

Day 1 – 40km – 50km

We got to mile 23 and looked at each other – “how do you feel?” “Good, how do you feel?” “Yeah I feel good too”. We were expecting to hit the wall at mile 20 but didn’t. We carried on running. The plan was always to walk the hills but we didn’t expect to feel this strong. We ended up running the small inclines and only waking the big ones. We were absolutely beaming.

At this point, the three of us had only reached marathon distance once (at the London Marathon). So we agreed that we would do a jump shot as soon as we got to 26.2 miles. A huge achievement in itself (the marathon not the jump)!

Having nailed our second ever marathon, we continued along the chalky white paths. The scenery was breathtaking. We climbed rolling countryside hills. The grassy roads were fairly wide with tractor markings (as above in the photo). It was bumpy and dry enough to make you think about where you’re putting your feet but not so bad that you couldn’t run.

We got to pit stop 4 in a really good time. We glanced at our watches and cheered to the fact we were nearly at the half way point! Charlie was desperate to see her family (she has two young kids) so we didn’t hang about. We had nailed the nutrition by now (little and often and lots of salt) and we only had 6km to go so let’s get this done!
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As we left pit stop 4, we bumped into one of Charlie’s friends who kept the rest of our group entertained whilst I ran ahead a little. Without intending to be selfish, I wanted to run on my own for a few minutes and have some time with my thoughts. Whilst we were all upbeat, I was trying to be the motivator to keep everyone moving and stay positive. I can’t help it. But that in itself can be quite draining and when I ticked over to 30 miles, the realisation of what we had already done hit me and I was suddenly very emotional. I enjoyed getting some speed in my legs for a moment and chatted to myself (it’s amazing what becomes normal after 30 miles). I saw a little red sign up ahead. I knew that could only mean one thing…

 

Camp life

We could see base camp up ahead. In that moment, it was like we were finishing the whole ultra. Daryl grabbed my hand and Charlie’s kids came running towards her and grabbed hers too. We all finished together with massive smiles on our faces – it was a special moment.

As soon as we finished, we spotted our friends who had already finished.  We had a catch up and went and got our tents. Of course they had to be in the field the furthest away from everything (at least that’s how it felt!) I took my shoes off and put my flip flops on. The feeling is indescribable. All the gritty stones and sand had collected in my shoes could finally be brushed off and suddenly there was air! I gave them a rub and wiggled my toes. Then I did a quick check for blisters. Only one. Phew.

We booked our massages and queued up to use the “posh wash” showers and vanity stations (where they had hair dryers, straighteners, creams etc). We went into the food tent (which was huge by the way) and tucked into the selection of mexican fajitas/tacos, Italian pastas, salads, soups, potatoes, breads, fruit. And did I mention cake of every variety?!

After food and massages, we decided to try something a bit different. There had been mumblings about yoga so we booked ourselves in and prayed we did nothing too embarrassing (let’s be honest you aren’t exactly supple after 32 miles). Actually, the yoga was incredible. It was very basic moves and we all survived. In fact, we felt absolutely incredible afterwards. Maybe this is the way to go?!

We rounded off the evening by sitting in the chill out zone, charging our million devices and braiding our hair for the following day. There was a very chilled atmosphere, with lots of laughter and smiling.

Day 2 – 50km- 60km

So I got a grand total of 0 minutes sleep. The wind was so loud and the tent was shaking all night. I couldn’t get comfortable on the hard mat (I was expecting luxury memory foam king sized mattresses, damn). On top of that, for some weird reason my nose was completely blocked and I couldn’t breathe properly.

We dragged ourselves to breakfast and packed up. I wasn’t so keen on the food this time. I had lumpy porridge and half a dry croissant which didn’t sit well. I think it’s just because I was tired. The only saving grace was that my legs actually felt okay. I didn’t feel stiff or achey so the elaborate stretching and compression wear obviously worked.

We started day 2 at a 9:30 min mile pace which was maybe a bit ambitious considering we had just eaten. We started overtaking the masses who had left before us. We were doing really well. And then…Uh oh. I was just sick in my mouth. Full on chunky sick (hey, you didn’t expect this to be an account of only the good stuff, did you?)

At first I thought it was sensible to walk it off. And then I got impatient and checked everyone was happy to keep moving. We managed to drag ourselves to pit stop 6 – but we all felt tired and a bit rough. We didn’t stay long at the pit stop as we wanted to keep moving to wake ourselves up and keep the legs ticking over. We set off at a walking pace and accepted it was going to be a long day…

Day 2 – 60km – 80km

This part of the route was completely monotonous. The tracks all looked the same. There was no break in the scenery like day 1. This was where the mental battle would begin. We found ways of keeping ourselves entertained. Run the downs, walk the ups. I couldn’t tell you what we talked about but the mood was a lot flatter. I tried to do what I always do and see the positive side of things. I made jokes, carried on making the “woop” noises. But I think we all knew it was in vain. We weren’t in lots of pain. But we were tired. And that completely zaps your energy.

Pit stop 7 came and went. We all started to ache. Charlie got cramp in her foot so we stopped at the 70km sign to take our shoes off and give them a bit of TLC. We all needed it. I gave Charlie a sweaty foot massage and we all took a moment to compose. We knew it would be hard today, but we underestimated how tired we would be from the lack of sleep and how that would affect our bodies.

The next 10km was a mixed bag. We had a good stretch running down hill listening to Coldplay. I was clocking 8:45 min miles. I started to feel good again. But that was immediately smashed to pieces when we met a MASSIVE hill.  Charlie and I tried to see the funny side of it and I offered encouragement. But I could see Charlie was deteriorating. I was tired too but I tried to focus on her. It’s so hard when one of your team hit the funk. You really want to help but you can only do so much. I tried to run slightly in front to keep her moving but she ended up getting further behind. I wonder whether a bit of tough love was the answer. I knew she had it in her.

It was a very lonely part of the route. We saw hardly any people and there wasn’t much to look at. And then suddenly I saw pit stop 8 in the distance. We all started running again and I ran into the pit stop full of emotion. There were people cheering on the side of the street. I was fighting back tears. We had less than a half marathon to go. It was bitter sweet. I was having such a good time but I also wanted it to be over so I could see my family and cross that finish line.

Day 2 – 80km – 95km

We tried to find positives in everything but it was hard. And we’d been told that there was an epic hill up ahead. Oh great. Another one.

We started off climbing a massive hill on the road. It flattened out a bit as we turned the corner and we thought we’d got to the top. Then we entered a field (which looked a bit like Dartmoor). A dog walker passed us and wished us well. I could see an incline up ahead and said “surely we are nearly at the top”. They just laughed. Oh. Right. Maybe not then..

The hill across the moor extended for 3 miles. And it was boring and windy. I had previously been trying to hold the group together mentally (if you’ve ever done one of those ridiculous psycho-analytical tests, you’ll know what I mean when I say I’m a sunshine yellow). But everything went to pot up there. I was in so much pain. My shins. My calves. My glutes. I told Charlie and Daryl that I didn’t want to do anymore and Charlie instantly flipped roles and kicked me into shape. She was so encouraging. It was a complete role reversal as she distracted me with funny stories and positivity. Daryl came and held my hand but I could see he was starting to hurt too.

I had officially reached my dark place. I couldn’t motivate anyone. I couldn’t motivate myself. I knew we’d get to the end but it felt like it was going to take all day. I just wanted to cry. As we got to pit stop 9, all the volunteers were cheering and welcoming us in. We got sprays of water in the face and a renewed sense of energy from the buzz. We knew we only had 12.9km to go and the chart said it was downhill. Our thoughts turned to our families who would be at the finish. We had to do it now.

We set off again and tried to calculate what time we would get to the finish. We got our heads down and focused on the road ahead. It wasn’t easy to navigate due to the tractor marks (which weren’t quite wide enough to run in). We soon realised the elevation chart lied. It wasn’t downhill at all. I felt a bit cheated. How many more hills could there be?!

We passed 90km without really caring. To be honest, by this point we were so exhausted we weren’t even talking. We just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Together, but alone. Wishing it would all be over soon.

Day 2 – 95km-100km

The ground was so difficult. We navigated narrow chalky paths where you had to run really carefully. I tripped for the 483828th time. But we decided to keep running as quickly as we could because we were only 5km from the finish (allegedly).

We started overtaking people left right and centre. We were on a roll. We started going down hill. I didn’t even care about my feet anymore. I just bounded down the hill. Before we knew it, we had just over a mile left and we could hear the cheering from the finish. I could feel my eyes welling up with water. Not now. I need to get to the finish.

They make you run past the finish so that you can go and see the Stones. It adds another mile on. I’ll be honest, I would rather have just gone to the finish. The Stones were a bit of an anticlimax by this point. All I really cared about was seeing my mum and friends. I smiled for the camera and put my head back down to concentrate.

We turned left and there was one field to go. The anticipation. We can hear the finish. We can almost see the finish. Would our families be ready? We’d tried texting them but there was no signal. We couldn’t believe we were nearly there.

We turned the corner out of the field. It was a straight flat road. Approximately 500m to go. We could see the black finish arch in the distance. It was a really special moment as it dawned on us that we had done it. The pain. The tears. The doubts. The laughter. It was all about to be over. We were silent for a moment as we soaked it all in.

I could see all the people waiting for us at the finish and I hoped that my family were there.  I was choking up big time. So was Daryl. We let Charlie go on ahead and Daryl grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. We bolted for the finish, tears streaming down our faces and flew into the arms of our friends and family.

Everyone was crying and hugging. We couldn’t believe we had done it. Three people who had all run their first marathon in April had just conquered an ultra marathon.  We worked together as a team to pull each other through the darkest of moments. It’s hard to explain the bond you build with someone when you share an experience like this. I can honestly say it was one of the best weekends of my life. Warts and all.

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