100k “Race to the Stones” June 2014
This race was going to be interesting after a 4 week preparation diet of Belgium beer, French wine and goat’s cheese. Essentially Louise and I had been eating our way through Europe and arrived in England 2 days before race to 30 degrees and a forecast of thunderstorms for race day. Probably not the best idea to bolt on a 100k race at the end of a holiday but 2 pts were on offer. They would complete my required tally of 8 to qualify to enter the ballot for the UTMB.
The unique race is a 100km route following the footsteps of Romans, Vikings, farmers and traders along the 5000 y/o Ridgeway path. Passing Iron Age forts, ancient burial chambers, crossing the Thames and the mystical down-lands of Salisbury plain on the way to the finish line at the 3,000- year-old stone circle at Avebury (older than Stonehenge!)
Race day: Having stayed in a country pub we woke to predicted torrential rain at 4am. I wasn’t too concerned as this was due to clear and make way for a 25 degree day with afternoon thunder storms and a typical English Summer day.
6:30am we headed to a field in Chinnor in the Chilterns where 1500 competitors were going about their business of registering and final prep. I found my mate Jonny who had driven from Devon the night before, arriving at midnight to sleep in his bivi bag in a farmer’s field. It had leaked during the 4am downpour but Jonny was in good spirits! Despite being a fully supported race the organisers hadn’t secured a sports nutrition sponsor. So as well as mandatory kit one had to think about carrying gels and sports drink for the whole race (or trust you could get by on flapjacks and coca cola!). For me I didn’t want the gut to shut down so I loaded up with tried and tested gels and a tube of SIS sports drink tablets surprisingly sourced from a small local village.
By the 8am start the rain had cleared and the gun went off. Louise, my #1 support crew waved me through. I thought this would be the last I saw of her until the end due to the checkpoints (Pitstops) being in undisclosed hard to reach National Trust locations, the locations were kept secret so supporters wouldn’t congregate. I’d been advised to make a good start so as not to get caught up on single track for the first few K’s. But this wasn’t a sprint race so casually I eased my way through the field and was in a comfortable place for the tight start.
First 10k came and went in a cautious 50 min
We were through the 1st Pitstop with ease and shortly after greeted with the first significant hill. I shot up it overtaking several runners and losing Jonny for a while; clearly the North face training and some training I did in the French Alps between wine and cheese sessions was paying off. At this stage I felt really strong but then again I was only 17k’s into a 100k race.
This race is renowned for its beauty and stunning trail and we had the first real glimpse as we ran through a valley of White Poppy fields. Ah, the Chilterns, the Opium capital of Europe!
Second Pitstop Jonny caught up to me, I grabbed some bananas and a bag of Jellytots (any English reading this will remember Jellytots, once a child hood staple, now sports nutrition!) Shortly after, Jonny and I led a group of runners up a path which turned out to be a driveway to a farmhouse! The farmer kindly pointed out we shouldn’t be in his garden and we returned to the ambiguous arrow marker and the correct path. That would be the only wrong turn in what turned out to be a very well marked course
Here we entered a few K’s of woodland trail and we cautiously opened our legs up conscious it was early days and we were averaging 5min low k’s. The trees cleared and we ran along Grims Ditch, a long flat excavated pathway dating back to the Iron Age
25k’s in I started to cramp in my right butt and my whole right side was struggling to keep up with the left. A strange feeling and I was really running with discomfort. By 30k I was thinking there was no way I was going to make it and my mind was floating the idea of pulling the pin. I had another 2 salt tablets, kept up the sports drink and hung on to Jonny who I could feel was starting to hit his straps.
We ran through a very pretty village, crossed the Thames and hit the marathon distance in 4.10h. The cramps had receded however the quick pace across trail and muddy bridleways was taking its toll and I was tiring.
We hit 50k in 4:58h, it was 1pm, the sun was fully in the sky and England was turning on a sultry summer’s day in the mid 20’s. The humidity was really kicking in and I sensed this would be a game changer for many competitors…..but this was the point where the hardy soldiered on and a majority of the field called it quits for the day, a rest, a night sleep and completion of the second 50k on the Sunday. I was wishing I could join them and be part of the “2 day” racers. Alas I was in the 100k nonstop and there was no getting out of it.
The support crews at the pitstops were great, taking your water bottles and filling them up whilst we refuelled with butter flapjacks, chocolate cake and for me bananas and half a dozen cups of Coke. It was humid and I was drinking like a camel.
At this stage in a 100k race I find it’s all about the mind because the body is telling you it has had enough. The pace gets slower and I’m aware of every K. Jonny couldn’t eat any solids but despite not much fuel going in, I could sense he was feeling strong and I struggled to keep in touch with him from 60k onwards. The terrain was mixed and tough, rutted bridal ways, long, long sweeping downs and long gradual climbs. The scenery was stunning and I was having to make a conscious effort to take it in.
72k another Pitstop was looming. I knew this because markers were placed before the stops “1km until Pitstop”. It became clear someone’s Garmin wasn’t working or the organisers were getting km’s confused with Miles. By the 3rd 2km trot from marker to Pitstop we realised you could only take the markers as a rough suggestion of the next Pitstop. They were screwing with our minds!
And then I saw some people, in fact I saw a t-shirt I recognised………..it was #1 support crew (wife!) who had just worked out where a checkpoint was and literally just arrived. The planets were aligning! It was great to see her and she ran with me in her Haviannas for a km. Louise had heard I was in somewhere near 25th place. This was all I needed and the competitive spirt was awakened. A few salt tablets, some paracetamol a few more cups of coke washed down with some blackcurrant drink and I was out of the checkpoint with renewed vigour.
At 80k I felt good and started to pass a few runners who had passed me earlier. Jonny had gone and I wasn’t to see him again until the finish. Strewth it was getting hot and the air was thick with humidity. Big black clouds were on the horizon and as I ran atop a sweeping dale torrential rain could be seen in the distance. And then a thunderclap like a bomb going off broke the tension and it absolutely pissed down. I ran along like Fred Astaire lapping up the cooling rain.
Last checkpoint at 91k. Instructions were given to the end – we were told the race didn’t end at Avebury Stones but 2k after at a nearby farm. The Stones were at 98k and we had to double back for
a k and turn left off the track up a hill to a 400m road to the finish. I was briefed, fuelled up and ready for the final push. I was also feeling nauseous!
At 96.5k according to my ever reliable Garmin I had 3.5k to go, that is 1.5k to the Stones and then the home straight. Psychologically I was ready. I passed an English runner (#843) with whom I had exchanged positions for some 15k’s. A sign appeared in the distance; surely it would be the sign that said 3km to go……………..but no, ”5km to the Finish!” it read. The straw had broken this Camels back and like a Tsunami I threw up a mixture of bananas, gels, coke and blackcurrant. Adding insult to injury the English chap seized the opportunity and passed me as I fertilised the pathway without so much as a “are you alright old boy?”. He thought I was broken. I thought I was broken but the surprise vomit relieved the nausea and I now had my sights on the finish and finishing ahead of runner 843. I had passed a 110ft high, 1000 y/o “The White Horse of Uffington” carved in the hillside and not even noticed it. I had white-line fever and new found drive to run down 843. Pass him I did
Finally Avebury Stones were in sight; I was ushered to weave through them and return along the same footpath to the final straight home. I passed 843 again on the way out of the stones and gave a quick nod of respect.
A big inflatable finish arch welcomed me in, #1 support crew and Jonny among the cheerers. I had finished a really incredible race in 36th position in 11:20h
Footnote: Jonny had never run further than a marathon before the event and finished in 27th place and 10:48h!
Footnote 2: recovery = bowl of pasta, 4 pints of beer and a live band down the local pub!