A race of undulations and epic countryside along the oldest pathway in the UK, the Dixons Carphone Race to the Stones is one of Britain’s most breathtaking ultras and deserves a place on any runner’s Bucket List. Whether you’re taking on 100km of the South Downs in one hit or opting for the multi-day back-to-back marathon, you’re in for a treat, provided you approach it right. Here are my top Race to the Stones tips for surviving the Ridgeway.
I ran the race back in 2014, made some mistakes and learnt some hard lessons out on the hills. So I thought I’d share some firsthand tips from a Race to the Stones survivor who now knows better.
1. It is undulating. And by that I mean hilly.
People who’ve trekked around the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc will scoff at this warning. “Those aren’t hills!!” But if you’re doing your first ultra and you’re used to running minimal incline city marathons then you will feel the hills. They’re manageable but get some hill work done in training to prep you physically and mentally.
2. It might be hot (but it might not)
Last year we had fairly relentless humid heat, followed by a big rain storm, so be prepared with a decent hydration strategy and take a lightweight jacket. I used the inov-8 Race Elite 70 Windshell. It packs down to the size of an orange and weighs just 70g. Great piece of kit.
3. Don’t go out too fast
It’s an oldie but a goodie and a tip that takes on extra importance when you’re talking ultra. I made this mistake and by 20km I wanted someone to shoot me. Take it steady. The people who tend to come high up the finishing ranks are metronomic not meteoric.
4. Don’t attack the hills
Unless you’re out to win the race, there’s nothing to gain from trying to power up the hills. You won’t climb them much quicker and once you’re pushed your heart rate over a certain threshold, it’ll be hard to get it back down without stopping or dropping to a slow pace. Walk up and then use the energy you’ve saved to move faster on the downs and the flats.
5. Don’t trust the course markers
In 2014 the aid stations weren’t exactly 10km apart, despite what the course info said. Also after I passed the 5km to go marker I logged 3 miles on my GPS running watch only to be greeted with a 2km to marker. This is not something a the brain of someone who has run somewhere near to 100km enjoys.
6. Beware the Stones
This is really important. When you reach around 98km you will do a somewhat frustrating loop as you head past a farm and into the stone circle, around the the stone circle and then back on yourself before taking a left up to the finish. In your pre-race head this will be the magical moment with the sun setting behind ancient runes. The reality is that this little circling double-backing episode will annoy you. But don’t let it. Also don’t listen to any passers by who might try and tell you you’re going the wrong way when you head towards the stones. If you’ve not circled the stones you’re not done!
7. Walk out of the aid stations
If you’re using the aid stations to refuel, then walking the first 500m rather than running can be a big help. It lets what you’ve just shoved into your face settle a bit and can help avoid the tummy troubles and nausea you sometimes get if you run straight away.
8. The field of poppies will blow your tired mind
At some point in the 100km you’ll emerge from out of some woodlands to be greeted by a sweeping sea of poppies. The only break in this meadow tide will be the narrow path you run to reach the other side. If this was what greeted you when you die you’d be happy. Unless you’re out to win this race, you will stop and take photos.
9. Chunk it up
It’s a classic but when you’re looking at a longer event like this it helps to break it down into smaller chunks. Take each 10km at a time. And if you’re doing it over two days, take each day as it comes.
10. Recovery comes first for multi-dayers
When you hit the camp on day one, have a little checklist of things to do to help you recover and make sure you do those first. Get a protein recovery drink down you within 20 minutes; get out of any damp kit and into something warm; raise your legs for half an hour; tend to your feet if they need it, air them out, get them dry; keep rehydrating until your urine runs clear; eat a good meal but nothing too heavy and carb loaded, otherwise you’ll feel sluggish the next morning.
11. Eat right, run better
If you’re doing the two-day option your approach to fuel will likely be different to mine as you’re essentially doing two marathons in two days but making sure you think out your strategy and try it out in training is important. I’d recommend something other than gels. These can get a bit much two days in a row. Try 33Shake shakes. The Primal Pantry Paleo bars are also great bang for buck calories to weight. Also have some good savoury options as the sweet stuff will start to be too much.
12. Take spares socks (and use them)
Perhaps more relevant to the single day 100km runners than the happy campers but pack spare socks. Looking after your feet is a bit priority on longer ultras like this. Get blisters from soggy sweaty socks at mile 27 and boy will you know it by mile 55. If in doubt swap them out at the aid stations. Happy feet equals happy runner.
Race to the Stones Tips: One last piece of advice
Of all my Race to the Stones tips, this might be the most important. Be kind to yourself. It will get hard, you will have times where you feel like you’re running badly. The negativity is is just your stupid brain trying to stop you wasting energy. Ignore it. Work through it. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re slow for a few miles. The good times will come again. Roll with the punches. And enjoy it. Particularly the bit where you run into the poppy fields. It’s breathtaking.