The Race to the Stones 2022 happened over the weekend of 9th and 10th July. It came in 4 flavours: first day only (50km), second day only (50km), both days with overnight camp or straight through.
Having done the second day last year I was one of over 900 souls tackling the 100km straight through this year. Training went pretty well and I ran 751km in 20 weeks – a little further than the training plan required. The main issue was that holidays and an injury meant that I did not do the two longest runs in the training plan – and everyone knows that those are the important ones.
The injury was caused by very tight quads just three weeks or so before the race so I got two sports massages to sort them out and that seemed to have done the job as far as the quads, ITBs and hips were concerned.
Although my confidence took a bit of a knock because of the injury, my bigger concern as the race approached was the increasing likelihood of hot weather which had been noticeable by its absence throughout the training.
My wife was kind enough to drive me to the start in Lewknor (Oxfordshire, not far off the M40 junction 6) for my 8:10 scheduled start. The organisers set people off in waves based on projected running speed. I had estimated 14 – 16 hours for the run but (apart from it not fitting in with my aversion to very early mornings) would have liked to get away earlier. Even the official starters were taken aback by the late starting time when everyone in the pen turned out to be on the 100km straight through option.
The safety briefing was good but as the countdown to the start began I realised that I had left my Gamin in my wife’s car. Hurdling the barriers to get out of the pen I had a run back to the car park and so started a few minutes after everyone else.
Despite the heat warnings it was very pleasant for the first few miles because of some cloud cover. There was also quite a bit of shade early on – just when it wasn’t needed – but as the cloud was burnt off, the temperature started to rise.
The race takes place along the Ridgeway (often described as Britain’s oldest road) – it has a few bit of tarmac and a few bits along roads, and I don’t think the route is very technical. There is an early section through a wood with innumerable exposed tree roots, which was lovely as long as you kept both eyes on the track, and a nasty descent into Ogbourne St George later on, but otherwise it’s fine apart from some sections where 4x4s have left ruts that need to be treated carefully.
The early part of the run went well. I kept to the ‘walk up the hills’ mantra and, despite the increasing heat and lack of shade, I was enjoying the section alongside the Thames when, at 27km, I got cramp in my left calf. I hadn’t had any cramp during training runs much longer than that so I assume, despite drinking on the move and at the two food stops I’d already visited (and where I’d had pretzels and crisps for the salt), I hadn’t been able to take in enough fluids.
I walked off the cramp but as soon as I broke back into a jog, it returned, sometimes in the left calf, sometimes in the right calf and sometimes, just for variety, in both.
There are 7 food stops but, because of the heat, the organisers had put an additional drink station in Streatley so I drank yet more and had the benefit of a walking section up from the river – about 135m of gain over 5km.
With a bit of experimentation, I discovered that by landing more on my forefoot, the stretching effect on the calf meant that I could run off the cramp – although it would return on recommencing running after any walking sections, so I had to run through it again.
I was also getting some cramp in the tibialis anterior muscles that run down the front of the lower leg. It’s particularly interesting when the front and back muscles in the lower leg cramp at the same time – deciding whether to raise of lower the toes is quite an issue.
I have my doubts that it was doing my cramping muscles any great favours but I got to the half way point in under 7:30 elapsed time (interestingly, over an hour faster than the fastest over 60s time for those doing just that day). That was about 6:20 moving time as I was trying to take it slowly at the stops to cool down and drink. Given the muscle problems I’d run with for 23km, and the increasing heat (over 26℃ – 79℉), I was happy with that.
I was very lucky at about that point because my friend and training partner (who was prevented from running the race because of an injury that had only just cleared) and his wife, appeared as support crew. Had they merely brought some extra supplies and encouragement it would have been great but, way beyond that, they took turns to run with me for the second half of the race – and that second half was tough.
I don’t know if it was age, the distance, the heat, the dehydration, or the wear and tear of constantly running through the cramping muscles (or, more likely, all of the above) but the running reduced and the walking increased over that second half.
Eventually, the late afternoon got cooler. By early evening I seemed to catch up with the necessary fluid intake and the cramps stopped but I think the damage had been done to my legs and the latter stages, in the dark, were more of a walk than a run – but the philosophy of ‘one foot in front of the other’ held firm.
I was doubting that I’d finish after the cramps started but as they eventually faded, I got more optimistic. However, at the last food stop, about 12km from the finish, the doubts returned in spades as I started shivering as a bit of hypoglycemia set in. Eventually, I managed to get a couple of chocolate bars and a banana down and those did the trick. The struggle to eat and drink enough was a constant issue – I think I needed much more than my stomach ever wanted.
I finished in Avebury (hence the Stones in the race title) at about 2am – on my 67th birthday. I took a little under 18 elapsed hours (15.5 hours moving), and was still accompanied by my friends whose support was absolutely invaluable – I do not know if I’d have made it without them. They were also kind enough to drive me home (my wife was at a concert booked 3 years previously and postponed at least twice due to the pandemic).
The shivers returned in mild form while I was getting ready for a bath at about 3 am but a coffee with sugar sorted that out – the first sugar I’ve taken in coffee for 45 years. I won’t pretend I sprung up the stairs but I got there and slept well. Although I’d set the following day aside for immobility and groaning, I got up OK and could move quite well, if rather slowly.
It was a very tough run. If we assume that the 20 odd people shown on the results website as still to finish (!) are actually DNFs, I reckon that about 20% of people attempting the run straight through did not complete it. The final finisher is recorded at over 35 hours.
Of course, the maddest part of me says that it would be good to do it again, in cooler weather and without the cramp, to see what I might be capable of. The slightly less mad part says that if I run any more ultras, it would be sensible to make them no longer than 50km – last year’s 50km, and even this year’s first half, were eminently doable and even rather enjoyable – but let’s wait and see about that.
On the Monday a friend and I drove down to the alps for a few days cycling up mountains. The drive was OK except that I was walking like an old man when I got out of the car having slightly seized up with the immobility. Yes, I know that I am an old man but, in general, I try not to walk like one. I managed the cycling (slowly) but it is possibly not the best way to treat very tired legs.
All in all, one heck of an experience and I think that the mere fact that I finished means it was a success. I got only one blister and avoided sunburn and heatstroke and I’m grateful for that. I ran with a hydration pack which was very good for carrying the necessary stuff – but I didn’t much like the bladder for drinking. I wish I had put more effort into practising eating and drinking strategies on long training runs
I ran in road shoes (being so hot the ground was bone dry) and used a short sleeved top with white arm warmers to offer a bit of protection from the sun, until they had to be jettisoned due to the heat.
I was in 478th place out of 746 finishers and over 913 starters (I know of some runners who did not complete the 100km but are not included in any of the results). I was (just) in the top half of entrants in the 60+ category – but I don’t think that is very important, just finishing was enough for me.
The event was very well organised, the volunteers at the food stops were magnificent and there was very good camaraderie between the runners. Next year I’m more likely to be supporting my friend who managed to defer his entry from this year and, I hope, his wife. She enjoyed the experience so much that she has entered the ballot for a place. I’m so pleased I wasn’t in too bad a state to have put her off for life.
The supporters who were driving around to meet runners at various points were terrific and formed a bit of a bond, I’m looking forward to experiencing that in 2023.