Saturday 14 July 2018

Oxfordshire: Race to the Stones 100km ultra race recap

Race to the Stones is one of the largest ultras on the UK calendar, with over 2000 people taking part.  You can choose to do either 50k in a day, 50k on Saturday then another 50k on Sunday, or 100k in a single day.  I signed up for the latter as I felt that both my London marathon double and Convergence weren't "real" ultras as the distances were arbitrary and nobody had ever heard of them.  I thought it'd be nice to do one that people actually knew about!  I also thought that my training for Convergence would see me through so I wouldn't have to do anything extra to prepare as they were only five weeks apart.  RTTS is held on the Ridgeway, recognised as the oldest path in the UK.  It starts in Lewknor, Oxfordshire and ends in Avebury, Wiltshire.
Lewknor is a mere 25 minutes from Bray, and Bray contains two of the UK's five 3-starred Michelin starred restaurants.  As people who know me will attest, I love a good fancy dinner, and this was too good an opportunity to pass up.  Bray is in the middle of nowhere.  When will I next be that close?  Maybe never.  So the day before RTTS, I went to the Waterside Inn dressed up in my fanciest clothes for possibly the most fabulous lunch I've ever had... Delicate layers of potato gnocchi served warm with asparagus, crushed truffle and a light coulis of artichoke counts as carb loading, right?  How about Warm raspberry souffl√©?  How about pink champagne?
For a person who suffers with GI problems, this was surely idiocy, but I didn't care.  

The next morning I got up bright and early and headed to the start.  The race is run by Threshold Events, it's been going quite a few years now and is a very slick operation indeed.  Everything is well organised, aid stations were well supplied, medics were on hand, the route was brilliantly signposted and basically they make everything as easy as possible for you.   I'd say it would be an ideal first ultra, except for the fact it was looking like a very warm day.  The forecast said it'd be 26 degrees and I started out in shorts and a t-shirt at 8am.  Hmm...
The route was very pretty: rolling English countryside, with a lot more woodland than I was expecting in the first 10k or so.  I saw a surprising number of people trip and fall on tree roots - must've been half a dozen - luckily nobody (I saw) was seriously hurt.

To my surprise, the Field of Dreams (the RTTS money shot that's on all their publicity photos) came up very early in the race.  I stopped to take a photo but when I later downloaded the (free) official pictures they had taken some far better ones:
The route wound onwards through the countryside.  It was very warm.  By 15k I could already feel a  hotspot developing on my left foot. 
 The aid stations were absolutely epic.  I've never seen anything like it.  The joyous array of fresh fruit was a recurring feature but each aid station had a different set of goodies awaiting you, plus water, squash, coke, gels, High 5 electrolyte tablets, plenty of toilets and medical support if needed.  I scrounged some tape off another runner and taped my hotspot, though there was nothing much to see.  I was enjoying having the company of other runners after Convergence and ploughed on.
It was incredibly hot.  There were a lot of cornfields.  There were also plenty of long slow hills to walk up.  Here I am after the first marathon.  I'd forgotten to take my Garmin off auto-pause so it's showing it had taken me five-and-a-quarter hours *not including stops*.  Of which there had been many.  Did I mention how hot it was?
Finally I arrived at the 44k pitstop, where I knew Ian was waiting for me with an ice cold Calippo.  I have never wanted a Calippo more.  I'd been talking to a chap for the previous half an hour about how great my Calippo was going to be, he was very envious, then when I got there Ian had kindly bought two Calippos so I gave the other one to him.  The only thing better than a mid-race Calippo is a surprise mid-race Calippo :)

I knew that I should just 'grab and go' but I wanted to tape my feet as my heels were also hurting by this stage.  Worse, I had an actual blister, so Ian got the surgical spirit from the car and I faffed around for ages dressing it and taping it.  I was wearing trainers I've worn loads of times before with no issue, my injinji socks and 2Toms powder - I think the heat meant my feet slid around in my shoes more?  I finally set off, only 7k-ish to the mid-point and base camp but it felt like the longest 7k ever.  I was hot, grumpy and my feet still hurt. 

The first thing I did at base camp was get changed out of my sweaty kit into my 'hot weather outfit' including stupid MdS*-style hat.  Then I laughed at the fact they had HAIR STRAIGHTENERS for the people staying overnight and doing 50k tomorrow.  Despite the fact I wasn't really looking forward to heading out for another 50k in a minute, I think staying overnight and doing it all again tomorrow would be even worse.  I had some hot food - there was a whole giant food tent where you could pick whatever you wanted. 
 *MdS = Marathon des Sables - "the toughest footrace on earth" ~250 km through the Sahara desert.  Not a race I've ever had any desire to do, and after today, even less so!

After almost an hour (!) I set off again.  It was quickly a series of relentless long uphills on chalky paths.  My shoes were covered in chalk dust and my legs were filthy.  There were rocks all over the path which I had to dodge or they jabbed me in my painful foot.  It was still boiling hot and the chalk reflected the heat.  With still more than a marathon to go, it's fair to say I was NOT loving it at this point.  
Finally I arrived at the pitstop at 59k, which had protein Yorkies: these were definitely a highlight.  I ate A LOT of chocolate at checkpoint 6 which gave me a sudden burst of speed!  On to some more cornfields!
I think this is coming into the checkpoint at 66k. I remember Ian asking if I was OK, and me responding that I wanted to take off my running skirt, set fire to it and then throw the ashes into the sea. I changed into my longer length leggings and took my rucksack and speaker.  A bit of Kylie would surely help cheer me up. 
It worked for a while but eventually the sugar rush wore off and I just felt really tired.  There were just infinitely more same-y hills.  My feet were really killing me, they just felt like one giant blister, and I started walking sections that couldn't strictly be considered hills.  It was gone 9pm and the heat was finally starting to go (AT LAST) but my energy was disappearing with it.  I never even considered quitting, but I was pretty miserable.
At one point I was half-running, half-shuffling through the woods on my own and I came across a large gathering in a clearing.  The adults were all sat at a big table carved out of wood in the middle of the forest drinking wine, and their Boden-clad children were hanging out in the middle of the path.  As I approached, the children started running alongside me, shouting in posh voices, "Just keep going til you get to the finish line," and "You can do it, I know you can!" and "Keep going, lady!"
It was absolutely adorable and it was the highlight of the whole day.  In retrospect, I seriously wonder if this was just a hallucination as it seems so bizarre and unlikely...

A few kilometres later was the penultimate pit stop.  I went straight to the medical tent and got them to re-tape my feet.  The medic put Compeed on top of the existing tape then taped over the top.  My feet looked like a total disaster area but I was really grateful.  She also had some freeze spray which I sprayed all over my calves to numb the pain.  The sun was starting to go down so I didn't stay long.  Not much further there was a really steep downhill - this was where I saw the last of the sun but I wasn't paying much attention as the downhill was total agony.  It's a never a good sign when downhills hurt as much as uphills...
I met Ian before the next uphill and he gave me my headtorch and walked about a kilometre with me.  The sun had almost completely disappeared by now.  It was pretty, and for the first time all day the temperature had dropped to something bearable.  Ian took the pic on the right of me disappearing into the distance (click on it to make it bigger) - I had a red light on the back of my backpack and another runner said to me later, "No wonder you're having trouble, you've got your brakes on!" which raised a smile.
 It wasn't long before night fell.  The final check point was at 88km so I just needed to hang on til then.  When I got there, I stumbled a bit, and a marshall saw me and said, "Are you ok?"  I said yes and quickly ate some watermelon and then left, feeling a bit shaken.  It's not like me to have balance issues.  I hoped there was nothing seriously wrong and thought my best bet was to just crack on and get this finished.  I was a bit scared as it was pitch black and I didn't want to get lost.
I met a girl and chatted and ran with her for a few km, which helped a lot.  Eventually she was too fast for me and I had to let her go around 91k.  I slowed down still further as the path was really uneven and at one point I tripped.  There were no lights ahead or behind me, high grass on both sides of the path, and I felt alone and scared.  This isn't fun.

Eventually a guy caught me up, but unfortunately I can't remember his name.  He was also having a bit of a rough day.  This was his first ultra, but he'd never even run a marathon before.  He'd stepped up from half marathon to 100k on the hottest day imaginable.  How hardcore is that?  In any case, he was hating the surface as much as I was and we agreed to walk together for a bit.  We ended up walking the whole of the last 7k.  I probably could've run a little bit more, but I was grateful of the company and didn't want to go it alone any longer.  Besides, the ground was so uneven it would have been dangerous - no one wants to turn an ankle this close to the end. 

The stones after which the race are named are a World Heritage site, so you have to run down to them and then re-trace your steps a further 1.5km to the finish line.  I had been warned about this final cruelty but the walk up to the stones, with people streaming past us back towards the finish line, was still pretty unpleasant.  By the time we got there, I didn't give a monkey's about the stones.  I didn't take a photo, I didn't stop and I barely even looked at them.  My companion said he was grateful there was only 2 of them as he was expecting a great big stone circle like Stonehenge.  Here's the official pic, as you can see I look thrilled...
We walk on.  Eventually the finish line looms into view.  I steel myself to run the last 100 metres or so and we do.  Ian is there, taking pictures.

I'd hoped to finish in 16 hours but it took me 16 hours 28 minutes, but by then I couldn't care less.  It is after midnight and starting to get really cold.  Ian gives me my hoodie but I'm still shivering so we head to the car.  I can't be bothered to do any stretches so get straight in and head to the hotel. 
When I get there I take off my trainers.  My feet look like this:
The next day I look at the results.  I came 349th.  Only 895 people finished the 100k continuous, and 98 of those were after the 24 hour cut-off.  A further 51 DNF'd.  And 34th female in my age category, out of 125.  Not bad!  The stiffness from skipping all my stretches and the state of my feet when I took the tape off were less good, however...

 The other thing that was interesting was the temperature data from my Garmin.  This was the average temperatures throughout the day:
Garmin noted that the highest temperature reached was 36 degrees - not actually that far off Sahara temperatures...  I drank over 8 litres of water and electrolytes over the day - which sounds insane but works out to approx 500ml every 2 hours, and burned over 6000 calories.  I've done marathons in high temperatures a few times, but they're manageable because you know it's only 4 or 5 hours and you're finished.  This race was really tough.  

In August I'm having a break from marathons - recovery is critical and after two big races in a row, it's time to put my feet up.   Or maybe just put them onto the pedals of my beautiful new bike, whcih oh-so-appropriately is called Ridgeway....

Addendum 1: I was right that having trained for Convergence, I didn't need to do anything additional to prepare for this one.  My legs just remembered what to do and got on with it. 

Addendum 2: I had no GI trouble all day.  Perhaps I should eat Michelin-starred cuisine before all my races.  Ian, please take note ;)

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