9 Things I Learned Running the Race to the Stones

Race to the Stones

I first ran the Dixons Carphone Race to the Stones back in 2014 and this year I’m heading back for a second taste of one the UK’s best ultras. The 100km course follows Britain’s oldest footpath from the Chilterns to the mystical Wessex downs and features some of the most spectacular views you can get. In order to enjoy those epic sights more this time round, I’ll be remembering the lessons I learnt last time around. Here are a few things I’ll take into my second run along the Ridgeway. 

A 38 minute first 10km isn’t a great idea

I know, I know. It’s an ultra marathon not a sprint. Don’t go off like a rocket. The real race begins with 20 miles to go. I know these words of wisdom all too well but then completely ignored them on the day. I didn’t even have the excuse of being a first time ultra runner. This was my second 100km. Still I went out like I was pushing for a Park Run personal best and felt brilliant for an hour. By the time I reached the 50km aid station I was all kinds of busted up. 

It can be muddy

It might be July but the many-faced God that is the Great British weather can’t be relied on to grant you those dry-but-not-to-hot running conditions that make it nice and firm under foot. In 2014, it’d rained plenty in the lead up to race day and that made for some sloppy, choppy sections. I’d banked on it being dry and wore my road shoes. I spent the first 20km slip-sliding all over the shop before changing to trail shoes at one of the aid stops. 

It’s hillier than the Race to the Stones official site says it is

Race to the Stones Route

Back in 2014, the website described the course as ‘undulating’ and while the hills in this race will barely register for fell and mountain runners who eat up races like The North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail or the UTMB for fun, if you go into it expecting it to be mainly flat, you’ll get the same shock I did. There are a few short, sharp 100m climbs and plenty of 50m climbs dotted along the course all of which slowly adds up to over 1200m of total climbing. One particular hill to watch out for comes around 82km, and represents about 100m total climb over 4-5km. This one will hurt.

Be prepared for four seasons in one day (ok, maybe just 2)

If 2014 is anything to go by, it will be cold at the start (particularly if you’re off in one of the earlier waves), it will get boiling during the day and at some point it’ll probably rain some of that torrential thunder rain. That’s just the way Britain works in July. You won’t mind the cold start, you’ll be screaming at the sun to go away during the burny midday and you’ll absolutely love the cool downpour, until you realise you’re now wet and fast on the way to a damp, chilly finish.

This sign will make you question your decision making

Race to the Stones Basecamp Sign

When you hit half way you’ll see the sign above. If you’re doing the 100km in one day this is the moment where you’ll probably wish you’d opted to run the race over two days instead of one. Because for those who go left bed, beer, food and recovery awaits at the Race to the Stones campsite. For those who go right? Another 50km of pain. 

You’ll always regret failing to change wet socks

Now that I’ve run a few ultras this seems obvious but back in 2014 I hadn’t yet suffered my first soggy foot blister battering. That happened at 97km while I was doing the out and back to The Stones (see below). At one point half the skin on the ball of my right foot slid backwards independently from the rest of my foot, accompanied by a burning sensation that felt like someone was ironing it. Damp socks and ultra running are a bad combination so do yourself a favour and take spare socks.

A cup of sugary tea can save a race

Back in 2014 I hadn’t quite got my race fuelling game in order and someway into the race I wobbled up to an aid station in a bit of a flakey mess. I now know that this was down to the fact I hadn’t really eaten what I needed to keep my engine running but at the time I feared my race might be over. Then my sister, who was crewing me, handed me a cup of sugary tea. It was an instant pep that snapped me back into the land of the living, restored my vision and set me on the way to finishing the 100km, albeit much more slowly than I’d hoped. 

Spoiler Alert: Circling The Stones is not the spiritual experience you dream of

One of the big draws when I signed up for the Race to the Stones was the idea that, provided I was quick enough, I’d be circling the ancient Avebury stones just as the sun was setting, with just a few kilometres of the race to go. This would be an almost spiritual experience. It would be what running dreams are made of. It wasn’t. In order to get to the stones you have to run a little out and back section at around 97km. At this stage, this little detour will feel like mental brutality and by the time you’re then made to waddle an enforced circle of the runes, you’re feeling far from in touch with Mother Earth. You just want it all to stop.

It helps to have a crew

Race to the Stones Crew

If I can, I always bring support. And not just because they can help you change your socks or remind you that YOU REALLY MUST EAT THAT BANANA but mainly because seeing friends and family at aid stations is a huge boost. I can honestly say that my crew got me through this race in 2014. I was suffering badly with the heat coming into 50km and I’d pretty much made up my mind that I was done. As I walked into the aid station, I was greeted by my dad. I’d been rehearsing my “I give up” speech for the last 10 miles. But before I could utter a word, he looked at me and asked how I was doing. “I’m suffering,” I replied. To which, without hesitation, came the response: “Well quitting’s not an option is it.” In an instant I knew I had no choice but to go on. It was just the kick up the arse I needed.

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