Race to the Stones 2019
Two weeks ago, I ran Race to the Stones. A 100km trail from the start of the Ridgeway footpath in Oxfordshire to Avebury Standing Stones in Wiltshire.
It starts, as these things always do, with being nervous in a field. And lonely. The sky is clear blue, bright flags waving in the breeze and encouraging words from a tannoy drift brokenly over the line of portaloos, carrying with them wafts of Deep Heat and anxiety shit. Just like every organised run ever.
Most people are restless and chatting in groups or pairs. Luminous socks. Headbands. Big knees. Bony knees. Walking poles. Selfies.
I’m on my own, sizing up how some people can have got such a good tan already and how much more runnerish their legs are than mine.
Which feel like they’re in a Victorian diving suit, by the way. I clank my way to the starting pen, dragging my tangled breathing hose and seaweed behind me.
My general pre-race preparation isn’t so much pep-talk as anxiety monologue. I call Mum who is nervous for me and hopes I don’t ‘get into trouble’ (die) on a footpath.
When I can cross the start line, I’ll relax. It’s just a jog and some snacking. That’s all. One foot in front of the other. The wolf from a motivational poster joins me, ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey…and so on’. Imaginary motivational wolf sounds just like Ralph Fiennes, but off of Bond not Harry Potter.
For the first 10km I end up chatting with a really lovely man called Ru (or Roo?). We’re not going fast, but we’re going faster than I planned and because we’re talking and it’s interesting, I don’t end up eating or drinking to my plan either. In training, I’ve practiced what I think will work to protect me as long as possible from the harder bits later, which is:
Eat little and often
Drink all my carried water (700ml) between every pit stop
Keep heart rate below 150bpm
Walk up hills
Grab food and refill drinks at pitstops, no hanging about. Eat food on way out from pitstop.
Sadly, for that reason, I say goodbye to him at the first pitstop and go back to running alone. I don’t necessarily prefer being on my own, but I can’t think of a way to keep myself in check otherwise and I’m less likely to have to rely on anyone or feel like a burden. I won’t get into what this says about my psychology, but I presume it’s Not Good. MOVING ON.
The kilometres pass on dry, dusty single-file footpaths, through gnarled wooded sections, under brick bridges and along riverside fields with summer grasses brushing our ankles. I see a swan honk aggressively at a PA system being tested for an imminent wedding, and the kind of leafy Oxfordshire villages where on a weekly basis ex-lovers die in crimes of passion and rich relatives get murdered for insurance payouts.
I prefer trails to roads, but it’s a bit of a lie to say it’s because you can check out the scenery very often. Footpaths hold all sorts of opportunities to fall over spectacularly. More often than not, you need to pay attention to what’s under your feet and it takes energy to hold onto that concentration for a long time. What’s great about trails is the smells and the light and the sound of birds in the hedgerows.
At the third pitstop (approx 30km in) I go off-plan and get a sandwich, crisps and a Mars bar to eat as I walk away. Turns out that even though I’ve run off nearly 2000 calories already, a full Sainsbury’s Meal Deal is not something my body wants and, rather than give me energy, I become sluggish and kind of sad. It takes a proper mental bum-kicking to get me jogging once I’ve digested it all.
At the 50km basecamp, most people are stopping for the day to stay there overnight. They get a beer, they rest, they stretch, they celebrate running 50km, as well they should.
You can tell by our faces who is carrying on to do the 100km non-stop. I change socks, congratulate myself on getting a great tan already, clean my face and legs, discover the tan is actually a caking of fine dust, eat some watermelon and rejoin the path towards the unknown. Feeling pretty fresh (no, really).
The next section is hot, it is dry, and the path is a blinding chalk white. It’s an assault on all senses, like someone hammering a saucepan behind my eyes, and there is absolutely zero shade. The man in front of me has a Calippo stuffed down the neck of his t-shirt LIKE A LEGEND and I follow it as though it’s a mirage, wishing I had done the same.
I dream of shade. To lie down in a patch of soft grass like a fawn and have small birds come and land on me, tweetling gently while I sleep. To float on my back in a cold paddling pool listening to the squeak of it against the lawn. I’m drifting well away from the touch of reality and it takes the unpleasant body-warm temperature of my drink to bring me thumping back to the harsh truth of the path ahead.
Despite my claims in the previous twelve paragraphs, up to 75km I’ve been doing ok. That’s over 45 miles! Into uncharted waters! I’ve been jogging most of it apart from uphills. I’m where I hoped to be time-wise and if I’d have been able to maintain that for the remaining 25km I’d have got round in 13 hours-something.
But no. No no no no nopety nope, no.
The gap between checkpoints 7 and 8 is the longest and somewhere between 75 and 80km I lose it. Maybe in a hedge. Maybe it’s left leathering in the sun like a squashed frog on hot tarmac. Whatever it is that I need to keep going, I do not have it on me anymore. And I can’t really describe when it went or how it feels, but the worthlessness is complete and it is DREADFUL. And, to top it off, I feel sick and definitely like I need to ugly-cry quite loudly.
Pitstop 8 at 80km is like a scene from Dawn of the Dead. People in foil blankets are slumped in chairs or lying on the ground. People are crying (me). I tweet a distress signal, I call Mum, I text Jon. ‘I don’t think I can go on’. And I really don’t at this point. Everything in me is saying ‘that’ll do, pig. You’ve done enough. Have a lie down over there by that hedge’. I honestly think my feet are broken, or I hope they are so that I have a genuine excuse to give up.
It takes a power sob, Twitter support, my sister texting me ‘Ruuuugaaaaaaa’ (which I think was her interpretation of John Fashanu), and the man sat near me who reminds me I’ve run twelve miles loads of times in training and can definitely do that again even if I have to cry-walk it.
And isn’t this why I did this thing anyway? For the breaking bit? To feel the edges of my physical self?
It kind of is.
The remaining kilometres are in dusk, gloaming, then darkness. I cannot tell you how long each one feels. It takes all the concentration I have to get to the final pitstop and twelve kilometres from the end. And I know I’ll do it now. Whether hallucinating or not.
And, oh, I am definitely hallucinating. The air is sparkling in front of my torch as the light catches the whirling dust particles and I have to not get sidetracked looking at that instead of the ground.
The last section is really tricky. It’s mostly downhill, but a rocky path with enough room for one foot directly in front of the other, high grass hiding deep ruts either side. Moths dive-bomb my head torch and I feel unsteadied by them. We’re all trudging single file, following each other’s feet and torch beams. There are frequent swears as people lose balance off the path. I’m pretty sure I’m not entirely containing all of the whimpering inside my head and some might be getting out. And then, we hear from up ahead:
‘Those are the stones!’
“Are you lying to us? Or imagining it?”
He’s not though. In the far, far distance are some spotlights. The ones which sit around the standing stones. And after a while there’s some road. Sweet, sweet, smooth road surface! Forget what I said earlier about trails and birds and nice smells, those bastards. I like road now.
And then the stones are there.
Huge monoliths lit from below, which we circle and touch like an old friend. They’re still strangely warm from the day’s sunshine. I can even jog again, back down the road and through a freshly mown field with hay balling up on my trainers. I can’t tell if the muffled cheers and lights really are the finish line or if I’m imagining things again.
They are, they are.
Mum. Hug. Medal. And stop.
101km: 15hrs 37 minutes. Not fast, but done.