Race Recap: Race to the King (85km ultra)

Having enjoyed Race to the Stones so much in 2017, I knew I had to sign up to another Threshold event in 2018. They are not the cheapest races, but you get SO much value for money and they are so well supported. The views are always incredible, the pit stops are fully stocked and the volunteers are second to none.  Anyway, on this occasion I chose to do Race to the King over two days, which is a double marathon from Arundel along the South Downs Way all the way to Winchester Cathedral where the first King and Queen of England were buried.

With a cool 5,500ft of elevation, you can expect some cheeky hills and stunning views. Spoiler alert…. it definitely delivered on that.

Friday

The start line is a fair old trek from where I live in Bristol (3 hours+) so the lovely Clare agreed to put me and my ultra bae, Charlie, up for the night. Honestly, that made such a big difference to my race prep. I felt so relaxed arriving at 7pm, having an early dinner, playing with Clare’s (absolutely crazy) dog and chatting. Charlie and I were like little school girls, giggling in the dark before bed, re-watching our Race to the Stones videos from 2017 and getting emotional. I already knew it was going to be a good weekend.

Before we went to sleep, we exchanged Zero Point calf sleeves (a tradition of ours now), laid out our kit and pinned our numbers to our tops. We got everything we would need out for the morning and taped each other up with KT Tape. If you suffer from chafing, I HIGHLY recommend giving this a go. I literally put KT Tape everywhere now.

Day 1 – Saturday

6.00am alarm. A small bit of breakfast (porridge and 1500 precision hydration sachet) and off we go. Clare was simply amazing and drove us to the start. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining, the sky was blue. There was a slight breeze but it was warm enough not to need a jacket. We arrived at the start with 30 minutes to spare. There were lots of happy smiling volunteers welcoming us in. I knew immediately I was at a Threshold event. Basically a huge field with a lorry for baggage, toilets, a few registration tents, coffee carts, sponsor stands (High5 etc) and a big inflatable start area.

We did the traditional braiding of hair, joined the toilet queue and chatted to people we knew. We bumped into a few new faces which was nice, including an IG friend, Kirsty, who had come all the way from Australia! I felt calm. I knew it was going to be hard (because I was still recovering from a broken toe and was completely under-trained) but I also knew I could do it and that’s a nice feeling.

Shortly after 8.00am, we were in the pen waiting to go. There was a buzz of excitement as the MC gave us a bit of history about the route. He told us to look out for the memorial at mile 18 which belonged to a fallen solider from one of the wars. Then the horn blew and through a purple puff of smoke, we excitedly started running. We ran through a small field and then into a beautiful shaded avenue of trees. The light beamed through patches in the trees, glistening onto the runners in front of us. I was so happy.

We came out of the trees into a field. The path was narrow. People were darting about trying to get into a rhythm and I kept losing Charlie. As I tried to keep up, I ended up running around the crowds in the long grass. I could feel my calves starting to burn. I haven’t had calf pain for months but I knew it was going to be bad. We went through a small gate and in front I could see a massive hill. I told Charlie we would have to stop so that I could stretch my calves. Charlie crouched down and got her thumbs right into my calves. I could feel the pain all the way round to the front of my ankles. We walked it off. The hill was probably over a mile long and more than 600ft. As we climbed, the calves burned even more. Eughhh! I should have known this would happen!

We eventually got to the top and I was able to relax my calves. There’s a great camaraderie to these kind of events. We didn’t feel any pressure to make up time or sprint off. We just chatted to fellow runners (all of whom had walked up the hill with us!) and laughed about how crazy we were.

We were treated to a lovely long down hill stretch before we bumped into our friends, Andy and Sarah, at 5 miles. It was a lovely surprise to see them tucked into the trail. Andy told us he would try to see us later and asked if we wanted anything from M&S. Obviously we asked for Percy Pigs.

We carried on running into what we named “Stinger Alley” which was essentially a 0.5 mile long narrow path covered in stinging nettles and brambles.  As we tried to run, all you could hear was “oooh”, “ahhh”, “ouch!” as our fellow runners tried to dodge getting stung. Charlie and I devised a strategy to run with our arms in the air and make raptor noises. I’m not sure how effective it was, but it certainly made it more entertaining.

At approx 8.5 miles in, we made it to Pit Stop 1. We knew the drill from last year. Toilet, water, food, electrolytes. The selection of food was as good as always and this was just the first pit stop so it was fairly simple: bananas, Perkier bars, chocolate biscuit pots, Liquorice all-sorts, nuts, Haribo and dried fruit.

The next 8 miles were bitter sweet. There were some really beautiful shaded woodland stretches, but equally there were some killer hills which were exposed to the heat. If I could describe the route as a whole, I would say that the hills were infrequent but long and steep, akin to climbing mini mountains. The elevation profile really shows that.

By the time we got to Pit Stop 2, we had covered 17 miles. I remember I was suffering from backache and Charlie had a stitch. We saw Andy, who had delivered on the promise of Percy Pigs (what a treat!) and filled up our bottles etc. We took our time and ate a bit more food. This time there was more choice including crisps, chocolate, maoam, wafer bars, sandwiches as well as everything from the first pit stop too. We drank some flat coke and chatted to other runners. We could see that there was a huge hill in the distance so we agreed to take it easy and enjoy the final 8 mile stage before base camp.

The hill did not disappoint. It went on, and on, and on, and on. I lost count of the amount of times I complained that I wanted it to be over. By now, it was 12pm, the sun was beating down and I was hot. The sun reflected off the white chalky path. I didn’t want to climb a big hill. I FaceTimed my husband and pointed out how high up we had climbed (which was only about 800ft but it felt like more!).

That was just the start. The next few miles were a bit relentless. It was hill after hill after hill. Chalky, dusty, narrow. By the time we got to 20 miles, we were used to it. Big long downhill, followed by big long up hill. A few of the climbs genuinely required concentration so that you didn’t fall over (I went down one of the hills on my bum). Whilst I preferred the elevation of the Stones, the views at the King were without a doubt 10 x better. It looked like scenes from a postcard with the beautiful rolling green countryside hills and clear blue skies. The trails were mainly on chalky white stoney paths, woodland soil or flat grassy fields. There were a few road sections but not many. It wasn’t particularly technical but I can see why people might use walking poles in places.

As we approached 21 miles, we saw Andy again. He had packets of watermelon and more (melted) Percy Pigs. We hugged and he gave us some really lovely words of encouragement to set us back on our way. It was exactly what I needed. I was starting to flag with the heat and the lack of training. I remember thinking I wanted it to be over and wished I was doing the “straight through” option- which is unusual for me so early on. As we left Andy, there were members of the public waiting in a field with bottles of water and sweets. They sprayed the water on us as we ran past and it was heaven. Cool mist on my hot clammy forehead brought instant relief. As we ran into the woods, the breeze tickled my skin where I’d had water on it. It was heavenly. We used the opportunity to get our heads down for the final stretch before arriving at Base Camp at 2.30pm.

Base camp

Race to the King is not as popular as the Stones. I learned that quickly as soon as I got into Base Camp. I will admit, my first impression was that it was tiny. I later realised that this was a blessing in disguise because it meant that it was easy to walk everywhere and it felt more intimate.

The first thing we did when we arrived at Base Camp was go and find our bags. We grabbed our protein shakes and downed them before going to the desk to get our tents and spongey mats. We were lucky that our tents were on the front row. Prime spot. There wasn’t much of a view though. It was just a field of prickly short straw-like grass and big stones stuck in the ground. In fact, it was rather painful to stand on unless you had shoes on. There were also swarms of little black flies which gathered around the entrance to the tent and stuck to our clothing like glue (thankfully they went away when it got dark). We agreed to dump our stuff in the tent, have a massage and then shower. This routine works perfectly for me.

One of the other advantages of the King being smaller than the Stones is that we didn’t have to wait for a massage. We walked straight in and got allocated two lovely young students. The girl I saw really got into my calves and gave me a bit of extra time to work my quads too. We obviously timed things perfectly because there was no queue for a shower either. Classic Threshold had beauty stations with hairdryers, straighteners, mirrors and products.

Once we were clean, on came the compression gear and Oofos recovery shoes. We went into the large food/chill out zone tent and stuffed our faces with pizza, pasta, potato wedges and lemon meringue pie. We missed the Ministry of Cake but still enjoyed the food. This is a key part of the recovery process and not to be missed. Within reason, I find the more I eat, the better I recover. Full and happy, we spent a few hours chilling out on the beanbags, did a bit of yoga (essential for stretching out those tired muscles), and watched the most beautiful sunset before heading to bed at about 10pm. I genuinely felt chilled and calm. It was a lovely atmosphere.

Day 2 – Sunday

When I did the Stones last year, I didn’t get a single minute of sleep. Whilst it wasn’t great at the King, I certainly managed to get a few hours in. I woke up at approximately 4.15am as the sun started filling my tent with light. I quietly packed my bag and got myself in the right headspace for the day. The campsite had a low murmur of noise as people slowly started rising. I decided not to eat anything from the camp breakfast selection. I tried that last year and ended up being sick shortly after starting. This year, I was more conservative and slowly nibbled at a blueberry nakd bar.

We set off at 6.20am. My legs felt okay. I was definitely tired but I knew it would pass and the adrenaline would take over. Luckily it was a downhill start so we could ease into the pace. We spent the first few miles overtaking the walkers. There were some really beautiful trail sections with narrow tunnels of trees. We made the most of our energy and having climbed a HUGE hill, we were at pit stop 4.

It was only 8am so we topped up our water, grabbed some orange slices and salty pretzels and set off on our way. It was such a beautiful day. The sun was shining but it wasn’t too warm. We laughed and joked about whether the weather “hots up” or “heats up” (spoiler alert, you can use either). We knew we were making really good progress so we used that as motivation to run as many of the down hills as we could.

There were definitely some big climbs ahead of us and I used my frustration from day 1 to keep moving. I told Charlie to push me and we came up with games to keep me moving. The views were honestly breathtaking the whole way and I couldn’t help myself but use the word “beautiful” every 5 minutes. So one of Charlie’s ways of pushing me was to give me a forfeit every time I said it. She added 10 seconds of running onto the next hill, which sounds minimal but when you’re tired and want to stop, it makes a big difference!

We used the hills to drink waters, electrolyte and eat some food. The one mistake that new ultra runners make is that they don’t eat and drink enough. You might not necessarily feel like eating and drinking, but it’s absolutely necessary and you WILL suffer later if you don’t. It’s not just a case of pacing your speed, but also your fuel. I definitely wasn’t eating or drinking enough and I was paying the price. I won’t go into any great detail, but I was definitely making the most of the portaloos at each pit stop.

We got to Pit Stop 5 at 9:45am which was approximately half way. We couldn’t believe our progress. This was amazing. We went our separate ways and tucked into some food. The selection was much better than the previous two; Mars Bars, Yorkies, Hairbo, Perkier bars, bananas, crisps, nuts, sandwiches, oranges and more. I tried to keep it simple and stuck to oranges and half a bag of crisps. I thought I had put a bag of salted peanuts in my bag but I later realised I left it on the table.

We ended up hanging about a bit too long and my feet started to ache. I did that really silly thing where I sat down. It was just a minute or two but it was a minute or two too long because as soon as I stood up again, everything hurt 10 x more. We checked the elevation chart and we could see that the next section was only 6 miles: 3 miles down and then 3 miles up. Easy.

The next stretch was probably one of the most beautiful of the whole day. There was an amazing stretch on grass up to a trig point. The landscape was green 360 degrees. It was liberating running along an unbeaten path with views at every angle. This is exactly why I run these kind of events because in those moments, nothing else matters and i’m just so happy. I couldn’t remember how much my feet hurt or how many miles I had left. I just enjoyed being present – and that’s not easy in today’s world!

The course started descending and we got chatting to a large group of guys. We discussed which ultras we had done, how fantastic the Threshold races were and what we wanted to do next. The standard mid-run kind of conversations. They all had really interesting stories and we really enjoyed running with them- so much so that when we checked our watches, we only had 2.5 miles to the next pit stop!

At the bottom of the descent, we reached a pretty little village where some of the guys had family waiting for them. We left them there and started the ascent to the pit stop. Oh boy. It was a slog. A hill which spanned nearly 500ft over 2 miles. It wasn’t technically challenging because it was on the road, but we’d already done 18 miles and it was hot. Really hot.  We didn’t talk whilst walking up. We just got our heads down and tried to keep our legs moving.

When we got to the top, two lovely women were waiting with spray bottles of water and oranges. Honestly, it was so lovely and it made such a big difference. I can’t believe how many wonderful volunteers and members of the public contributed to the weekend. They had nothing to gain but the knowledge that they’d helped the runners. It has really made me think twice about what I can do next year to help out too.

Anyway, we trudged our way into Pit Stop 6 at 11:30am. Still making good progress. It was a very short stop just to refill our water bottles and grab some more food. We knew it was only 2.8 miles to the next one so we got in and straight back out again.

I went through a fairly dark patch in the next section. As the sun started beating down, I could feel the impact of the heat (and my lack of food). I made a conscious effort to walk in the shade whilst I tried to shake it off. I felt bad but I couldn’t seem to get the rhythm back and I had to walk the majority of those 2.8 miles into Pit Stop 7.

The final one! Pit Stop 7. We only had 7.3 miles to go and it was 12:30pm. We spent 15 minutes lapping up the last of the food, using the loos and chatting to fellow runners/volunteers. We realised we were slightly ahead time so we decided not to rush. I was fine with that because I was starting to struggle.

When we set off on the final stretch, I only felt worse. I no longer felt dizzy but everything hurt and the heat was slowing me down.  My feet were burning and I could feel a blister on my big toe. As we got closer, as much as it pained me, I ran as much as I could. I refused to walk because I knew it would take longer. We paused for a moment at 50 miles, took in the view and then set off again.  I was gritting my teeth by this point. Huffing and puffing and complaining with every breath. I really just wanted it to be over.  I think many people reach this point in an ultra. You’re still enjoying the surroundings and you’re still grateful that everything is moving. But you’re in so much pain that you can’t focus on anything else. I started to get emotional and Charlie told me to hold it back and focus on the last couple of miles.

When we finally saw the “1 mile to go” sign, I told Charlie I was going to run ahead and get it over and done with. Luckily, it was all down hill.  I ran ahead as fast as I could. I thought I was sprinting but according to Strava I fluctuated between 8 min miles and 10:30 min miles. It felt like that last section went on forever. Honestly. I knew we were going to finish at the cathedral but I had no idea they would make us run round the outside of it from a number of different angles. As I got closer, members of the public were shouting words of support from the pavement. I started to get emotional (as usual) and tried to count down the moments until I would see the finish line.  There it was. The final corner. And a crowd of people cheering and yelling at me. As I turned, I could see the finish line and my husband waiting. I couldn’t hold it in anymore and I burst into tears. I was too tired to smile as I crossed the line and fell into his arms.

It took me several minutes to work out what had happened. I had finished ultra marathon number 2, on practically zero training, in the sweltering heat, with nearly 6,000ft elevation. And I had done it in 14:31:17.

You can guess it only took me 10 minutes to decide that I wanted to do the full 100km three weeks later at Race to the Stones (rather than the 50km I had signed up to)…!

 

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