Race to the Stones

14 Aug

The big weekend arrived. After a very fitful night’s sleep in a comfy hotel bed, I was up at dawn psyching myself up for the performance of my life.  This was to be my Everest.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t too nervous. The organisation of the race was spot-on so that took a lot of worry and nerves out of the whole event. We arrived at the start line with plenty of time to spare.  The place was not packed, but the calibre of entrant was apparent. This was no fun run  This was serious.  We set off in the first wave, me and Bruce, and everyone was in high spirits, not really sure what to expect, but just doing what we did best – running.

The first 20K was undulating, with some nice views, but with a bunched up crowd still feeling their way.  It meant that between pit stops 1 and 2 I found myself running slightly too fast than I would have liked and knowing I couldn’t sustain that pace for 50 km.

The pit stops were amazing. We had self-righteously vowed not to eat anything we hadn’t tried in training (on all the usual advice) but at the second pit stop we were stuffing our faces with Tunnock’s Tea Cakes and Caramel Wafers, tea, coffee, fruit and biscuits!  The staff were brilliant. So friendly and encouraging, handing out advice and metaphorical back-slaps.  I found myself really looking forward to the next pit stop, not just to check out what was on the menu, but for the camaraderie and a chance to sit down!  Plus each one felt like another step closer to the finish line.

We ran though woodland, valleys, the Field of Dreams (really a big field of wheat), a golf course, along the slow and lazy Thames, some impossibly picturesque villages, massive country estates, along country roads, A-roads, through Goring, along endless chalk Downland, more massive wheat fields, a race course, through torrential rain (so welcome) with spectators cheering intermittently along the way to finally reach the Halfway Hub.  A gin and tonic was waiting for me as I crossed that first finish line, followed by foot inspection, foam rolling, race analysis, frantic texting and social media updates, a massage, a shower, tent set-up and finally FOOD and REST!  The atmosphere at the half way mark was one of palpable exhaustion.  Everyone was a bit shell shocked. We were the walking wounded wandering tentatively on blistered feet and battered legs, trying to refuel and ready ourselves mentally and physically for the same again tomorrow.  It all felt a little surreal.  A sudden and unexpected pain in (what I later found out to be ) my TFL in the last hour of running had made me seriously consider whether I could make it through tomorrow.  Another G&T convinced me I could.

All was dark and quiet on the campsite by 9.30 pm and I fell into a deep and exhausted sleep in my tent, listening to the wind batter the fabric around me, intrigued by what tomorrow might bring.

Up at 5.30, I immediately got dressed: I had a fresh top, underwear, socks and a change of shoes. We had breakfast in the communal marquee – the atmosphere even more subdued than last night – and watched as people started to set off for the second leg.  We were in awe of those who had done the whole course non-stop, thinking that they had been running all afternoon, all evening and probably all night whilst we were relaxing, drinking and sleeping.  But they were done and we had it all ahead of us.  So we set off at 6.45 am, and our legs were surprisingly willing.  It took about 10 minutes to get into a good stride and then it was business as usual.

There was more interesting scenery, more exposed than yesterday, out on the Ridgeway. It was also sunnier and we slapped on the sunscreen as we trudged in a line up the first steep incline. We watched the infamous Red Kites circle us ominously, but they were really just curious. The first pit stop was only a relatively short distance away but proclaimed that we had a marathon left to run!  That was both inspiring and daunting in equal measure so I did some stretches and layered on the plasters as my feet were beginning to complain already.

The crowds started to thin out as we left that first pit stop. Nobody was chatting as much as they did on the first day.  Fatigue was really starting to hit us all now.  We tended to find ourselves running with certain others of the same level.  When we walked they ran past us and then vice versa. Some went way ahead and some dropped back but we were all familiar with each other as the day progressed.  There was a silent acknowledgement throughout the day of knowing someone but not really knowing them.  I was alone in my own small world of pain but perversely satisfied in knowing others were in exactly the same place.

My sister, our “domestique” for the event, met us at pit stop 3 and it was lovely to see a familiar face and to hear her words of encouragement and amazement that we had come so far, literally, already. We had a good chat, filled up our water bottles, enjoyed the watermelon slices and orange quarters, and were off again.  It was very sunny and warm by now, hilly, with uneven ground, but spectacular.  We were all now very tired and we passed some broken people as we progressed.  We exchanged words of encouragement but the look in their eyes said they had had enough.  I hope they all made it.  My TFL was agony but I had to run through the pain. I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) stop now.

After the last pit stop at Barbury Castle the miles seemed relentless.  But then we started to see countdown markers on the route, the best one proclaiming we had run 90KM, with a footnote telling us we were almost there, keep going.  So we did.  We took our last photo then started running again and we didn’t stop until we reached the end.

The last kilometre was pure pain.  A new blister on my right toe started up and later revealed itself to be a toenail eager to leave its mooring.  But I kept going, trying hard to absorb every second, every sight that I could, to remember those closing moments as the culmination of all those long months of training.  All those schedules I designed and re-designed; all those hours of running and thinking about running and talking about running and reading about running, researching, preparing.  The end was nigh.

We ran through the ancient site of Avebury Stones, then out again on a non-descript straight, narrow field path with the finish line now in plain sight.  Cheering and music greeted us and the announcer called out our names over the tannoy as we finished.  A medal was placed around my neck.  I stumbled off, dazed and confused, relieved, in search of food, my bag, a sit-down, grateful not to be running any more.  It was actually a bit of an anti-climax.  The challenge ended so soon, as I feared it would.  Despite the last 14 hours we had just spent running, it was suddenly and most definitely all over.  But now…

I am an ultra-runner.

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One Response to “Race to the Stones”

  1. cat h bradley 14/08/2017 at 5:23 pm #

    Amazing! Congrats!!

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