Race To The Stones had been on my radar for a few years. It’s the largest ultramarathon in the UK, with over 2500 entrants this year. The route follows the Ridgeway ancient footpath in a westerly direction from just outside Lewknor in Oxfordshire, finishing at the Avebury stone circle, Wiltshire.
Participants have the option to complete the event as 100km straight through, or as two 50km days back to back, camping overnight at halfway. You can also run either the first or second half of the route as a stand alone 50k if that’s your bag. It’s for both runners and walkers with generous cutoff times and well stocked aid stations open over the whole weekend.
Aside from the challenge, my main motivation for running this race was to earn the 4 UTMB points up for grabs for finishing the 100km straight through.
Skip the next section if you don’t want to read a rambling description of my UTMB obsession and just want to read the race report:
UTMB stands for Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, an annual series of races held in the alps surrounding Chamonix. Arguably one of the most famous ultra trail races in the world, the event attracts thousands of runners from all over the world and due to its popularity, it is necessary to earn a specified number of points from completing other ultramarathon events to enter the ballot. Currently the ballot process offers guaranteed entry if you have been unsuccessful on two consecutive previous attempts, meaning that it can take up to three years to get a place.
There are multiple distances in the series, the flagship UTMB being around 170km, the TDS 120km, the CCC 101km, OCC 55km and the amusingly named PTL (Petite Trotte à Léon) at 300km/25,000m gain.
More info here: http://utmbmontblanc.com/en/
I don’t remember when I first heard about the UTMB but I set myself a long term goal that I would run one of the races before I turned 40.
I love a challenge but the full UTMB distance is truly insane. 170km/105miles with over 9000m/30,000ft elevation gain seems like something I’d need to work up to over several years, so the 101km/62mile CCC seemed like a “sensible” option.
CCC is short for: Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix. The race starts in Courmayeur in Italy, you run up and down the alps into Champex in Switzerland, up and down more alps into France, finishing in the centre of Chamonix. 6000m of elevation gain and you need to carry your passport – AWESOME!
Anyway, that’s the reason for my running Race To The Stones this year, to earn 4 of the 8 points I need to enter the ballot for the CCC.
Anyhow, back to the matter at hand…
I’d been struggling with a calf strain prior to the race, having to cut short my last heavy training week, then have physio and basically not run for 3 weeks beforehand.
10 days out from race day I couldn’t run a mile without pain and was feeling very negative about the whole thing. I’d signed up for the race on the day that entries opened in September of last year and I’d been training specifically for this for months up until then without any niggles or injury. All I could do was rest, eat well, ice the crap out of my calf and hope for the best. I was going to take to the start line no mater what but I was not feeling confident.
The morning after a brutal massage.
Two days before the race I made a snap decision to go out and test the calf – 5.5miles around the local cricket ground on the grass, nice and easy. Miraculously there was no pain! My legs just felt a little rusty. Awesome! I’d worry about what the other 56 miles would feel like on the day.
The night before the race Beth and I stayed a mile or two from the start. She drove me down in the morning to save my legs, getting there with 3 mins to spare before the gun went off at 7:30am.
We cut it a bit fine but at least there was no time to get too nervous and I didn’t want to do a warm up anyway.
There were 7 start waves setting off every 15 mins, the latest starting at 9am. Given the weather forecast of high temperatures and sunshine I was glad I’d opted for an early start.
Just enough time for a quick start line selfie.
Bang, and we were off! Running through a field filled with smoke in the early morning sunlight with hundreds of other people was quite surreal. A right turn onto a flattish wooded trail and I tried to settle into a gentle, efficient rhythm over the first 3 miles.
My heart rate was far too high! I was conscious of not letting myself get sucked into other people’s pacing and let them come past, trying to calm down and take it easy. Normally at 8:30 – 9:00 min mile pace my heart rate would be down in the 130s but it was hovering around 150-160. Was it nerves? The lack of activity in the past few weeks? The amount of caffeine I’d had that morning? Was my watch playing tricks on me? (I opted to use the wrist, rather than chest HRM, for comfort) Safe to say I was quite stressed, which obviously wasn’t helping.
I still don’t know why it was so high or if it was a gear malfunction but it definitely stayed that way for the whole day. After around 25 miles I eventually gave up looking at it and managed my effort by feel and tried not to worry about it.
At around 4-5 miles there was a steep single track section through the woods where people sensibly started hiking. No point in expending any unnecessary energy yet! I’d planned on hiking anything steep or any prolonged incline from the outset.
The first of the 9 aid stations appeared at just over 10k. I’d planned to skip that one and push on to the next one at around 14 miles, just to feel that I’d made more of a dent in the total distance before a stop. It felt good to cruise past it and find a bit of space as the column of runners thinned out.
Just before aid station 1, only 90k to go!
I was carrying 2 x 500ml soft flasks on my pack each with 2 scoops of Tailwind in. 400kcal in total. I planned on drinking all of this and eating a Chia Charge salted flapjack before my first stop at 14.2 miles. Fuelling often and early worked well for me.
After another steep hike through more woodland I came out into the ‘field of dreams’. A spectacular field of crops with a long straight path cut through the middle. I felt like I had a good rhythm going (despite my elevated HR) so didn’t want to stop and take a photo.
The terrain over the next 7 miles was pretty varied:
- Straight through a golf course. Dodging bunkers and golfers.
- Lovely mile or so of downhill, flowing, rooted single track that would have been fun to hammer through on any other day.
- Weird couple of miles of narrow grassy path between hedgerows complete with badger hole trip hazard and a dense clouds of midges.
- A road section through the village of North Stoke to aid station 2.
All of the aid stations were well stocked with massive tanks of cool water, an array of food, chairs in the shade, toilets and a medic tent.
I quickly refilled my flasks with Tailwind, topped them up with water and stuffed my face with a few orange segments. I had a few swigs of water in my collapsible cup (mandatory kit for RTTS in an effort to make the event cupless) and took an S! Cap as I was sweating buckets already. On my way out back onto the route I grabbed an chocolate coated marshmallow bar (yummy!) to munch as I ran. It went down very easily.
The next section of the route was easy going and pan-flat along the banks of the Thames. I could really feel it staring to heat up, even though it wasn’t yet 10am.
Route profile: Despite how it looks, the only steep sections were in the first 10 miles.
At 15.5 miles I decided to do a Facebook live video. I felt like a bit of a cock but people had asked if I’d be posting updates during the race, so why not? A quarter of the way into the race and all was going great. Pace was slower than intended but it was hot and the terrain was actually more difficult underfoot than I’d expected. A 10 hour finish was ambitious anyway and would have relied on perfect conditions and a lot of good luck.
Off the riverbank and onto the road, the next section took us through Goring and Streatly. There were lots of people out on the route cheering and giving words of encouragement. It seemed to spur a lot of the other runners on as I got overtaken by quite a few and those in front pulled away from me. I kept things as easy as possible – there were still 40-odd miles to go.
A few more miles of road climbing towards the next aid station at 21 miles. I was starting to feel too hot now. There was very little breeze or shade and the heat was radiating off the tarmac.
Before the race I’d decided to allow myself a maximum of 4 mins at each aid station. This went right out the window at my second stop and only got worse later in the day.
I refilled my flasks, doused my hat in water, fished my buff out of my pack, soaked that too and momentarily water boarded myself pulling it over my head. After a split second of panic that I was drowning, the cold material around my neck felt amazing!
I tried and failed to stick some blister plasters to the balls of my feet. They’d been rubbing a tad and thought I’d take care of them now rather than later. In the past, for mountain races, I’ve put them on before the start but opted not to this time. I had nothing to dry my feet so it didn’t work anyway. The one plaster I got onto my left foot was halfway to my heel by the time of got my shoe back on, so I didn’t bother with the right. As it happened the rubbing seemed to disappear and I didn’t get any blisters for the whole race.
I picked up a peanut butter sandwich to go and hiked up the gravel road away from the aid station munching it and helping it down with a cup of water.
22 miles in, just over a third of the way through and another Facebook live.
Only 5 miles until the next aid station where I knew Beth would be.
At about 24 miles my right IT band suddenly decided to hurt. I’ve not had any ITB problems for years so I was a little surprised and annoyed when it kicked in. I hoped that it might ease off after a couple more miles – it didn’t. It stayed with me until the end of the race. I found it quite difficult to ignore at the low points during the race as it throbbed with every stride. I knew it wouldn’t cause any long term damage to push through it but when it was at it’s worst I had to concentrate on keeping my gait even and my form good.
Miles 24 to 27 we’re mentally tough. Knowing how far was left. Starting to suffer in the heat. Hurting more than I would on a training run. At least I’d see Beth soon.
Approaching aid station 4.
At the next aid station at 27.2 miles Beth helped me with re-filling and walked with me while I ate a cereal bar. As I started to run again the pain in my IT band was gone…great! It returned about half a mile later.
I don’t remember much of the next section apart from a lot of rutted grassy trail that was difficult to find a rhythm on. At least the next stop was the halfway campground. About 1k from the aid station I could see the rows of green tents set up for the runners and walkers doing it over two days. It seems to take forever to reach. Once there I was directed through the finish funnel for the 50k and branched off to a small aid station on the right.
Over the halfway timing mat.
There was no shade so I wolfed down a couple of slices of watermelon, had a cup of flat coke and set off. It wasn’t obvious where the route went but I found a marshal to guide me back to the trail and tried to pick up the pace a little.
I seemed to be moving a bit better despite my screaming IT band and caught a few people up over the next few miles on a fairly smooth white clay track. It was so hot though. My hat and buff had completely dried from the last time I’d soaked them and I could feel my skin starting to burn.
The track gave way to more rutted grass trails. I caught up to two guys running together. It was hard to overtake without jumping around between the grooves in the trail so I walked for a bit and let them move away from me. I started running again and caught back up to them and found somewhere to pass. I just wanted to get to the next aid station to cool off.
When I got there I was immediately sprayed with a cool mist of water by one of the aid station crew. It felt incredible! I quickly dipped my hat and buff in a bucket of cloudy, warm water and put them back on. I wasn’t bothered, the cooling effect was instant and I was loving it! I switched one of my drink flasks to some caffeinated green tea Tailwind for a bit of a buzz, slapped on some sun cream and sought out some food. I caught a whiff of another runner eating salt & vinegar crisps…perfect! I then realised they’d picked them up somewhere else on course and all that was on offer in the way of savoury food was some French bean, sugar snap pea and edamame “crisps”… I skulked onwards eating my bag of crunchy, green disappointment.
On the upside:
- The aid station I was leaving was at 36.4 miles, meaning that I only had about a marathon distance to go.
- I felt cooler than I had done in hours.
- Beth would be running with me in a few miles time.
These thoughts lifted my spirits a bit and I pushed on, recording another Facebook Live whilst passing a couple of other runners (and feeling like a bellend).
The heat was pretty relentless and my damp head and neckwear dried off fast. My pain cave was hot and bright and I wanted out of it. Such is the up and down nature of ultrarunning, at 38 miles or so I had my first thoughts of dropping. The next aid station would do fine. My pace had gone down the toilet. My right knee was slowly trying to finish me with each stride and I felt like I was melting.
Struggling on I saw someone in the distance running toward me. There’d been plenty of people out running and hiking on the Ridgeway all day so I didn’t think too much of it until I clocked the gait. An up-on-the-toes scamper I’d recognise anywhere. It was Beth.
I was so relieved to see her. I really needed a lift at that moment and she was it. We chatted a bit about how her day was going and what she’d been up to while since I’d set off which gave me a nice escape from my own head and reminded me that it was only a race. The pain I was feeling was my own choice, of my own making. I’d chosen to do this to myself and I needed to suck it up…because deep down, I do this because it is difficult and because I love it.
We walked a bit, even though I didn’t really need to. I think I wanted to prolong the time we had together. My watch beeped – 40miles in the bank. I felt like I’d broken the back of it. Just a decent training run left and less hilly than I’m used to. My drive was restored.
Beth headed off back to the car and I carried on to the next aid station, which wasn’t far. I arrived, refilled my flasks, wet my buff and hat…then I spied crisps! Proper ones made out of fried potato – not in the slightest bit green! I grabbed 2 bags, put one in my pack for later and took a seat in the shade to savour my sublime salty snack.
Rambling, crisp-munching maniac!
As I was eating I did another Facebook Live which may have looked like a cry for help more than a race update. Anyhow, I left that aid station feeling pretty good. A bit of a drag to the next stop which was 7.8miles away but after that, there’d only be a half marathon left. Manageable chunks. I said to a fellow runner: “this is in the bag now, time to grind it out”.
A fairly uneventful section of the course followed. A fair bit of downhill on wide gravel tracks, then a couple of miles on the road with a climb crossing a bridge over the M4, then onto some lovely gentle uphill on grass. I hit a good patch at this point and made some decent headway. It had clouded over a little and it was cooler up on the rolling hills. I’d pulled away from a few other runners and was loving the solitude.
The next aid station was at just shy of 50 miles. I did the usual with flasks, cap and buff and tried to eat a piece of toast with peanut butter on. Well, I think it was toast but it could well have been a piece of bread that had been sat in the sun…either way, it wasn’t going down, my mouth was too dry. Straight in the bin and onto a bag of salted pretzels. They needed lubrication with a few cups of water. I sat on the grass in the shade and took my time. I figured that finishing in under 12 hours would take a big push to the end and I wasn’t sure if it was that much of a big deal to me anyway. I peeled myself off the ground and got moving again.
I passed the 50mile marker, checked my watch and acknowledged a handsome PW. I’d only run 50 miles twice before and this was by far the longest it’s taken me. Probably the toughest though too, so I wasn’t bothered.
Then a steep bit of downhill on a rough trail really hammered my tired quads. It was hard to change direction quickly and pick the best line. I’m sure I didn’t look like Kilian Jornet but I survived it.
I was then on the roads again. Into a quiet village, out the other side and started climbing. I decided to see if I could run the uphills as I no longer needed to save my legs with under 10 miles to go. They still worked! The route then went over some nice rolling grassy hills again and I just kept on running. I felt pretty good. I was catching people that I hadn’t seen for hours!
The final aid station just before 55miles came into sight at the top of a the hill. I knew Beth would be there but had the lovely surprise of the whole Cann-clan cheering me in too. Bec, Matt, Emily and Ethan just back from their holidays. I momentarily welled up behind my shades when I spotted them but managed to pull myself together by the time I reached them. I stayed and chatted a while as I refilled with fluids for the final 7.5miles. I felt really calm. I think it was the mixture of seeing familiar faces with words of encouragement and the fact that I knew I had the race in the bag. I was going to finish it and finish it soon.
I set off down a hill from the aid station and nearly threw up. Standing around chatting I must have drunk too much. I kept running but managed the effort until my stomach emptied a little. There was a nice undulating gravel track for about 3 miles and I was making good headway. Then came more of the rutted grassy terrain that I’d grown weary of earlier. This seemed to go on for ages. As my concentration wavered I caught my toe on a stone, started falling and managed to right myself just before my left hamstring cramped. I needed to be more careful. I watched the ground ahead of me like a hawk. Then came the ‘5k to go’ sign and I didn’t feel too bad.
A downhill stretch on a bumpy clay path, then a flat tarmac section to the Avebury stone circle itself. This section is an out and back. I knew this but I was still confused when I saw people running towards me. I wondered to myself: “who does a cool-down straight after 100k?” That’s what 12hours of running does to you I suppose.
When I arrived and came off the road a marshal explained that I had to follow the many, many arrows on a loop around the stones, pose for the photographer and head back up the road they way I’d come. To be honest, I just wanted to get to the finish line about a mile away so didn’t pay much attention to the stones. I might need to take a trip to Avebury to look at them properly.
The stage-managed run round the stones.
Despite having just run down this road in the opposite direction, it seemed twice as far on the way back. I could see the road heading down to the finish line way across a field and couldn’t wait to get there. Off the road to my left, through a gate and up a very grassy track…nearly there. A final upward slope and then a left turn onto the finish straight. It was slightly downhill and I could see the barns at the farm where the finish line was waiting for me in the distance.
“Just keep your eyes on the ground ahead.” I told myself. It didn’t work, I kept looking up to see how far I had left. My watch beeped 62 miles…still not there. I passed the 100km marker…still not there. I ran on and looked up. There was around 100 metres to go. At last! I straightened my back, fixed my eyes on the top of the finish arch and sped up. Not a sprint, just a purposeful pace, concentrating on my form. I wanted to look good when I crossed the line. Through the arch with a little jump to finish with a flourish. How I didn’t cramp I don’t know!
100km. 12hrs 27mins 50secs. Job done.
That could have gone embarrassingly awry.
Beth and all the Canns were there to congratulate me. The atmosphere at the finish was lovely. It was especially nice as I knew all the cheers were for me as there was no one else finishing within a minute ahead or behind.
Reflecting on the race as I write this I have to be happy with how I performed. No, it wasn’t the time I was aiming for but the temperature was too high for me. 26°C in the middle of the day. Not a lot of shade on the route. These things take their toll. 56th place of the 895 who finished wasn’t too bad. Comparing the results with last year, 39 people finished in under 12 hours this year in contrast to 117 in 2017! Confirmation of the tougher weather conditions I believe.
I fuelled well. No bonk at all. I didn’t get too dehydrated. Zero cramp, which has been a problem for me historically. My calf held up well. The amount of rest in the weeks before the race clearly allowed it to heal only at a slight expense to my race fitness.
And the main thing. The reason for running the race in the first place – the UTMB points. I’ve now got 4 in the bag. Halfway to my goal for this year.
A cracking race. Well organised. Great marshals. A fully marked, easy to follow course. A proper challenge. I’d highly recommend it to both seasoned and new ultra runners.
Salomon Trail tee and shorts
Salomon Air cap
Drymax ultra-thin socks
Hoka One One Speedgoat 2
Ultimate Direction Ultra Race Vest
Compressport V2 calf sleeves