I’m sure most of you that are reading this are aware that I managed to complete Race to the Stones on Saturday 11th of July. It wasn’t easy or pretty but it has to be up there with one of the biggest and best things I’ve achieved. This is going to be quite a long post and I’m going to try and describe how I felt along the way, aiming to give some tips to those of you thinking about doing ultras.
I’m going to start by explaining why I signed up to this 100k in the first place. There are quite a few reasons, one of them being that a few friends ran RTTS in 2014. After hearing about other runners experiences of the race I did some research and found out about the great organisation of the race, large number of aid stations (mini heavens) and lovely route along the ridgeway. After looking on the website, almost every time I was online the ad for the event popped up. It was as if something was telling me to sign up and of course I couldn’t resist. Another reason I chose to sign up was that it was relatively easy to get to from London. I wanted to do an ultra almost instantly after finishing the Manchester Marathon in 2014. That’s quite strange given the fact that I didn’t look into nutrition, had a rubbish taper and paced myself terribly for that run. However once I knew I could run 26.2 miles I started to wonder how far I could run. I enjoyed the long runs in training for Manchester, using them as a way to explore London and therefore I wanted a greater reason to go out and do larger mileage weeks.
Although I didn’t have a specific training plan for RTTS I began running more seriously again on the 1st of January. This was after not really running for the second half of 2014. The main reason for this was work. I was working long days including weekends and wasn’t making running a strong enough priority. My fitness deteriorated drastically after doing so many races in the first half of last year. I flicked a switch moving into 2015 and decided to start running more seriously again no matter how tired I was feeling before or after work. I found almost instantly I started to feel better and that combined with eating more healthily and sleeping more I started making swift progress. It has been a long journey to what is now the best shape I’ve been in. I still had a certain level of fitness but it was a struggle to do a 5 miler at 8-9min/mile pace.
Soon after gaining a bit of fitness I signed up to a few races including various 10ks and half marathons. I found this a good way to gauge my fitness and see the gap between where I was and PB shape. I gradually upped my distance with a few key races like Reading Half and Brighton Marathon in the not to distant future. Luckily I had enough time to get in PB condition, managing 1:17:01 for the Reading Half and the GFA qualifying time for London at Brighton doing 3:02:48. These races acted as stepping stones towards Race to the Stones. Having rekindled my love of running again I raced a lot in May equalling and bettering a few PBs over some shorter distances. If you want to hear about them I have written about most of them earlier on in my blog. In hindsight I maybe should’ve prioritised RTTS more and done bigger mileage weeks in May but I’ve had such fun racing various distances and on various surfaces.
June was a big month for me. I decided to only do a few races and up the mileage. Some weeks I got in 90 miles. Luckily the running community in London is huge and amazing so I have run with so many awesome groups and people so not to get bored with my own thoughts. The longest run I did was with advent running. It was 58k along the river and you can read about it in my “Stepping into the unknown” post. This was a great run and gave me a lot of confidence having already done around 50 miles in the week before that. However in hindsight running 58k on road doesn’t really prepare you for 100k on trail which has a lot more elevation gain. Had I started training for RTTS earlier I would have gone further than 58k because jumping from that to 100k is a fair way. When I say jumping it’s more like shuffling thousands and thousands of small steps. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, it can’t improve my time of 13:28 but it will help me achieve greater things in the future. In training I regret not hitting the trails more often as I underestimated the mental and physical strength required to negotiate even the not so technical trail.
In the build up to the race I lowered my mileage quite drastically doing 60 miles two weeks out and about 20 miles the week before. For once I enjoyed the taper, probably because I hadn’t really rested since Brighton Marathon. I also booked the day off before the race so I could relax and pack thoroughly (and watch the tennis). Here’s a quick lowdown of my race kit:
Bag/vest – Salomon S-Lab Adv Skin 3 12L. I decided on this race vest because it has room to store a waterproof jacket aswell as all the necessities. The pockets are well positioned and the soft flasks are comfortable and easy to refill. The soft flasks carry 500ml each so I took SIS lemon electrolyte in one and water in the other and drank 1L per 10k+ section of the course.
Waterproof jacket – I bought an OMM Kameleika jacket (which I’m sure I’ll test out soon) however due to the weather I left it behind.
Headtorch – again luckily not quite needed but I went for a Petzl Tikka XP which has four settings and is extremely bright. Looking forward to using it soon but worried now I have the possibility to run 24 hours a day haha
Vest – Salomon S-lab sense tank. Really lightweight and super comfortable. Have to confess it was my first time wearing it but luckily no issues.
Shorts – Adidas split shorts. Due to the weather opted for my lightest and shortest shorts, all common sense.
Socks – I opted for my Hilly Supreme socklet mainly due to good padding and breathable on top. Also good fit with my trainers.
Trainers – Decided to wear my Salomon S-Lab x-series which are a light citytrail shoe. Proved to be a good choice, really comfortable and no blisters or any issues. Saw lots of runners wearing Hokas and maybe a bit more cushioning would’ve been good, I will be trying out the Cliftons soon.
Nutrition – Took Clif Bars and SIS lemon and lime isotonic gels as back up if I didn’t get on well with food at aid stations but it was fine.
On the Friday evening we got into High Wycombe and went for Pizzas and Pasta to fuel up. The next morning I woke up at about 5 o’clock, this gave me plenty of time to get organised and have some porridge. Surprisingly those Quakers oats pots are quite good. Helena (@the_fitadvisor) was crewing Matt and I for the day, she was a great help. Before we got picked up by Matt (@thebaldrunner) to head to the start we watched a couple of Salomon Running (your probably recognising I like what Salomon do) inspirational videos. In a positive state of mind ready to take what RTTS had to throw at me Matt drove us to the race village. Being our first 100ks we didn’t really know what times we would be capable of. We got our race numbers etc and headed to the start line.
In the crowds me and Matt ended up going separate ways. Matt had a phenomenal run and finished in 11:58, massive well done!! I on the other hand had a tough and much longer day running. I started in the middle of the pack and stuck to a plan of going off really steadily trying to conserve energy for the second 50k.
To think I could conserve energy and push on in the second half of the race was an incredibly naive thought to pass through my mind. Especially considering I only knew what it was like to run 58k on flat road. Things went to plan through the first 3 or so aid stations. I was a bit slow out of aid station one but once I learnt to put my electrolyte tabs in the soft flask first instead of fiddling etc I learnt to be more efficient as the day grew older. I picked up bananas, ready salted crisps and granola bars and ate whilst running and walking some of the hills. I was fine with eating on the go but after aid station four I didn’t really want to eat crisps or bananas anymore and my stomach was a little dodgy (kind of as expected). Next time I will probably vary the food a bit more and have a clif bar or two. I’m not sure if the exact mileage but it was good to see Helena relatively early on. It was nice to see a friendly smiley face on the course.
I was really enjoying the run. The first few miles were kind of mesmerising following so many legs it was as if looking through a strange kaleidoscope and this meant having to focus on your every step especially through the trees. Things were going well but then around the 18 mile mark my right hamstring became quite tight. I think this was due to running on a softer surface than what I’ve trained on and because of the ups and downs of the route. The overall elevation gain for the whole course wasn’t huge but running on flat road in London probably wasn’t amazing prep. This means in the future I will head out of London more frequently when training for trail races. When approaching inclines it’s funny to see what everyone else does whether they think “this is runnable this!” or “this is definitely a walking section”. What I found is that your emotional ups and downs very rarely match the course profile and therefore if you feel good run some ups and maybe even walk some flats if you have to.
What made these constant decisions harder was the tight right hammy. I had to keep the finish line in mind for more than 44 miles and coax it home. It was frustrating for this to be the case but I felt lucky that it was great weather and I had some awesome views to take in along the way. Having been running in London for the last year and half plus, it was nice to run a route that reminded me of home. I also kept reminding myself of how lucky I am that I can cover that distance.
Luckily fellow ultra runners (I’m an ultra runner now!!) are like minded and are the friendliest bunch of people you will meet. I ran alongside more than 10 people throughout the whole race. The guy, in the photo above, behind me and the other runner passed me about 20 times and we finished roughly together. We discussed trainers, past and future races and he was also struggling with the fact he wouldn’t make his goal time of around 11 hours (that wasn’t my goal time btw). We could both still appreciate the fact we could make progress and get to the end.
I saw a groups of friends at aid station 8 and they went on to finish in a great time. It’s great to share running experiences with inspiring people and runners that are pushing their limits. Aid station 8 was probably my favourite, I now know why lots of ultrarunners love flat coke and bread. It tastes so good! Putting yourself through 100k makes you appreciate the little things. I slowly shuffled my way to within about 4 miles of the finish. Helena having seen Matt into the finish ran out to join me for a few miles before the loop around Avebury Stones and the straight to the finish. It was great to have company and once I started running my legs actually loosened up and I managed the last few miles at the quickest pace I’d run all day. I could hear the crowds at the finish line from a few miles away, including Sorrel Walsh (judging by the awesome reception I got from her, WMN Run 100 founder and 2nd female finisher in 10:20!). Also thanks for the support and photos Stephen (London Brunch Club). The run through the stones was cool and then a couple of turns to the home straight, I felt energised hearing the support from afar and I stepped on the gas (probably 9min miling really) to see the finish line.
I took a couple quick looks behind me thinking of how far I had run and what an enjoyable day it had been.
I couldn’t help but put my arms out and smile my way across the line, it was done. The journey from a slow 5 miles to 100k complete.
I recommend those of you thinking about stepping up to ultras to think carefully about why you want to do it. If the reasons are strong enough your body will be strong enough. As Scott Jurek (just broke the record for the Appalachian Trail running 50+ miles for 46 days) said “Every single one of us possesses the strength to attempt something he isn’t sure he can accomplish”
On that note, what’s next!? I’ll keep you posted!
P.s. Thanks for all the good luck and well done messages. Also thank you to those of you that have put up with me running alongside you talking rubbish and making terrible jokes/puns all the time.