Tag Archives: ultra marathon

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.


Ultra blog 5

27 Mar


I am 9 weeks into a 24 week training schedule.  Without seeming too smug I haven’t missed a run in my schedule and am still enjoying the training.  I am embracing that because I know there will come a time when I am de-motivated and crying out for a rest.  Until then I will keep on running.  I am constantly hungry, constantly tired and constantly aching.  I am becoming a little obsessive – obsessive about runs, obsessive about my kit, obsessive about illness and injury avoidance.  I breathe a sigh of relief on completion of every run; I am one step closer to my goal.  Having a goal gives purpose to my obsession.

Key motivators

Friends and family: However, my social life is taking a big hit.  I have had to turn down a number of holidays, birthday events and nights out this year because they are in the middle of my schedule and I simply cannot fit them in.  I did warn all my friends and family that this would happen but I don’t think they quite realised I would be turning down invitations outright, just to run.  To them it seems nonsensical, selfish even.  Perhaps.  But equally, they are in awe of my challenge and despite my neglect they are very supportive.  Like you would be when faced with a self-obsessed hypochondriac eating machine.


Schedule: Here is my schedule if you’re interested.  It’s a hybrid of one I found in Runners’ World and one from the sponsors of Race to the Stones, plus my own intuition and experience.  But here’s the thing – I tweak it every week.  It’s a remarkably moveable feast as I judge how I feel against what I have to do and those unavoidable commitments.  Nothing in this game is set in stone.  Keep it flexible to stay motivated and to keep your friends (and your job).

5 REST 8K (Mitch) REST 6K SWIM 15K 6K
9 REST 6K SWIM 7K REST 19k 10K
10 REST 5K Mitch 5K REST 10K REST
12 REST 10K Mitch 10K REST 22K 8K
14 REST 7K Mitch 10K REST 10K REST
16 REST 9K 6 HILLS (Mitch) 12K 5K Rest 28K
17 Rest 10K 5K 10K SWIM 30K 10K
18 REST 8K Mitch 16K REST 16K REST
19 REST 7K 7K 8K Mitch 32K 16K
20 REST 8K 10K (hills) 10K REST 12K 35K
21 REST 10K 6K 10K Mitch 42K 12K
22 SWIM 8K REST 10K REST 21K 10K

Nature: The reason I enjoy running anyway is because it is an excuse to go outside on my own and be amongst the natural world.  I love nature anyway, but, call me paranoid, there is something slightly weird about a person wandering around on their own unless they are doing something purposeful like walking a dog, running or cycling.  Being outside in the open, breathing fresh air, looking at the birds, the plants, the wildlife calms me, makes me smile and is liberating.  Even routes I have driven round seem different when I see them on two feet.  I connect with and appreciate my patch so much more having witnessed it during all the seasons.  Running brings me solitude in nature which is my ultimate motivation.


Headspace: I know this will sound pretentious, but I practice mindfulness.  Or meditation, call it what you will and the reason is because it works.  I use the Headspace app which includes episodes on sport including motivation, focus and competition, as well as other principles.  Somehow, and I would love to know how, it has stopped me reacting to pain like I used to.  I no longer get post-run neck pain and headaches which is a marvellous result.  It may also be helping me get out the front door every day to run.  I have no idea, but I am happy with the results.  Other apps are available.

Podcasts: I love listening to interesting podcasts while I run.  I usually pick comedians or other social commentators or just subjects that I like and so it provides a light-hearted and entertaining means of escapism to drown out the pain and tediousness of long distance running, after having listened to all my music playlists a hundred times.  Yawn.  I might even learn something along the way.

Treats: After all this challenge and achievement, I have to treat myself.  After a very long weekend run I find a nice gin and tonic does the trick.  Quite simply, it’s a miracle cure and no excuses.  Sports massage is also something I look forward to, so it’s a treat as well as being physically beneficial.  Clocking up all those kilometres means constant hunger and so I generally eat whatever I want whenever I want.  I try to keep a good balance of protein, carbs and good fats just like they tell me but I eat a lot of chocolate too and I don’t care.  I’ve booked a dream holiday next year and somewhere hot for Christmas.  That’s always a good motivator.  I look forward to and enjoy my rest days and recovery weeks, and I love an afternoon nap.  These tiny things in the overall scheme of madness really help me carry on.

Besides, now that spring is here it’s simply much easier to get out there and run….


The long road ahead

Ultra blog 3

24 Mar

Kit bag

The other reason for this challenge is the excuse to buy more stuff. My new obsession is browsing and shopping for running kit.  It’s my porn.  There are so many items you can persuade yourself you need to sustain you during an endurance event and all the training beforehand.  My current favourite new item is the race pack.  It is basically a backpack or glorified vest with  tonnes of pockets  and places to store litres of water in bladders with tubes that have “blister valves” (the geek in me loves all the terminology) maps, a whistle (for real!), gels, phone, whatever you many want while you’re out there running.

I have also discovered the difference between a trail shoe, as opposed to a road shoe, gaiters, buffs, compression clothing, Garmin. It’s all so exciting.  I want it all but it costs a bomb so just like the training, I have to pace myself.  Luckily, Race to the Stones is well-organised and I don’t have to lug around a sleeping bag and overnight kit, but one day I probably will and it will just mean more shopping!

Shoes, shoes, shoes

By far the most important item has to be your running shoes. Duh! I have gone through a manic buying spree of trainers after my faithful old Ravenna 7s had to be put out to grass at the beginning of this year.


They were essentially a road shoe as I do a lot of road running.  Mainly because in winter when I’m running in the morning or evening around work hours it’s dark and wet so I have to stick to well-lit tarmac.  Also, roads are even and not pitted with ankle-busting divots and holes so I find I can run a lot easier and lighter.

Now that spring is here and my race is off-road in summer and I will be able to train over the fields and on the Downs, I decided to invest in some trail shoes (that can also transition to road use if needed).

Cue feminist rant – Women’s shoes have been designed by manufacturers who assume we all have tiny, narrow feet and don’t run more than a mile or so.  In reality, women’s feet come in all shapes and sizes (amazingly) and we can run vast distances so our feet swell and we need wider bigger shoes.  But none of the manufacturers, in the UK at least, will supply a wider fitting women’s shoe.  The answer for me is to buy from the men’s range, that starts at size 7, width D.  I am a 6.  At least it means my feet get more room overall.  The next trick is to tie the laces to secure the shoe but allow the toes plenty of freedom, and there is a whole world of lace-tying technique out there.  Thank you internet.

That problem solved, I have far fewer blisters and have not lost any toenails. During the last marathon training I lost three, but that was because I had my actual size 6 – always go larger.  It has also meant fewer leg niggles and therefore fewer visits to the expensive physio, which just goes to show.

I’m in men’s Brooks Pure Grit 5 and they now provide the perfect running machine.  I tried Brooks ASR 12 GTX (good support) and New Balance v610 (wonderfully waterproof) and they would have been fine if the assistant at Run and Become hadn’t suggested a neutral shoe would do, and recommended the ones she uses.  So remember, get advice from those in the industry.  They know their stuff.  And good shops allow you to return trainers even after a little use if they are not quite perfect.

Enough about shoes.

By the way, about five years ago I trained myself to fore-foot run and have since had no knee pain whatsoever. I do get calf strain and tight hamstrings and quads but they just need some good stretches, ice, foam rolling, intermittent sports massage and/or Rocktape to put them right.  No blinding pain or long term cartilage damage to deal with.

See you for the next one…

Ultra blog 2

23 Mar

The next instalment

What is an ultra-marathon?

That is the first question every non-runner asks when I tell them my plans for this year. It is any distance above traditional marathon distance.  So yes, you could run, say, 27 miles or 43 km and call yourself an ultra-runner.

After hearing my explanation with a look of horror, the next comment is, “You’re mad.”

I didn’t think so when I signed up but now I definitely do. That realisation dawned on me after the fifth run in a week where I had run a three-day run streak, had a rest day, then done a long run and a shorter one back-to-back.  That killed.  Now I am building on that pattern but with longer runs each week.

Why an ultra-marathon?

Good question. My first ultra will be Race to the Stones on 15 and 16 July 2017 – 100km (62 miles) over two days. That’s the distance from the surface of the earth to the edge of space!  It will be an adventure.  I enjoy running.  Eight weeks in and I am still enjoying the training although it is relentless.  It is very different to training for the marathon distance.  First, you do a lot more running on consecutive days and find I run naturally slower because I’m running on tired legs.  Secondly, marathon running is a competition to beat a specific time.  Ultra-running, for us amateurs, is just about eventually finishing.  And eating cakes at regular pit-stops.  And walking up the hills.  And camaraderie with fellow runners.  And getting a medal.  And the kudos.  What’s not to like?