The run up to this has not been ideal, I’ve been struggling for consistency due to injury, first the broken big toe then more recently the inflamed achilles. The last week or two have been encouraging though, with more running and less cross training. I had ummed and erred about deferring this race but in the end I left it to the days immediately before to decide whether or not to pitch up at the start line. The weekend before I did 15k on trails and 10k on roads without much bother, then a 10k during the week issue free. Whilst those short distances are no real guide for how my rebellious tendon would perform over 50k, I did eventually convince myself it was a good idea to give it a try.
As has become my habit before a long run or race, the day before I did a kit check, just putting everything out on the table to make sure I took everything I needed. After my severe longing for a ham and cheese roll in the Jurassic Coast Challenge, I made myself some ham and cheese wraps to bring, then totally forgot them the next morning. The curse of the ham and cheese combo got me again!
‘Her indoors the non-runner’ gave me a lift to the start near Wantage, about 45 minutes drive from home. I had my race number in the post, so after a quick visit to the ranks of portaloos I took myself to the nearby start line and set off at just after 6:15am.
The forecast was for overcast skies and the possibility of some drizzle, but for the first couple of hours the sun was out. It was still quite cool in the early morning so this made for excellent running conditions. The trail was in good nick, mostly quite wide, a good thing as there was a bit of clutter for the first few km, with plenty of walkers already out on the trail, many completing their 2nd day after camping overnight. I set out a little quickly, with splits under 6 minutes per km. It felt good to be out on the trails, I must say, but I did have an inkling I might regret going out a little hot for pace.
I reached the first checkpoint (9.9km) in good order. Anticipating a warm and possibly humid morning out I had both soft flasks and the 2L bladder as I didn’t want to run dry between aid stations. With all that fluid on board I didn’t need to top up so just grabbed a trail bar and some High5 gels. I assume for reasons of access, the first aid station required a detour down a 600m rutted track with limited room for manoeuvre as runners and walkers were going in both directions. This was a little annoying but I was assured that the detour was all part of the race distance.
The sun was still out but it was pleasantly cool. There are sections of the Ridgeway that can seem a bit bleak, particularly on a grim winters day, but in the early morning sunshine this part was really lovely, with great views off to the north and rolling farmland either side. In my thus-far limited experience (like, once) of running anything longer than 50km, there are definitely times when the views and, you know, enjoying it, are somewhere down the list of things to be concerned about, just putting one foot in front of the other and slogging through it being at the top. Or it’s just dark. For a 50k though, there’s time and headspace to take it in and be glad.
The course wasn’t all that hilly, and for the most part very runnable, certainly in the early stages. To reduce the strain on my iffy achilles I had decided to take it easy on the ups (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!), so I mainly walked any that were beyond a gentle incline.
The second aid station (23km) was just off a short road section, to the south east of Swindon. I searched in vain for a ham and cheese sarnie, but made do with a perfectly acceptable cheese and chutney alternative, also grabbing some Freddos and a few more gels. I wasn’t aware of lingering, but my splits suggest I was there for a good 5 or 6 minutes. Over three or four aid stations that adds up and for a 50k that would be a significant portion of the race time. For future events I’ll be more disciplined, in and out stylie, but to be honest on this occasion I was not in a rush, not racing, just enjoying myself.
I headed out again, crossing the M4. It’s pretty hardcore expecting hundreds of runners to dodge 6 lanes of fast moving traffic. With minimal honking of horns and no injury to life or limb, I made it across safely, although the central reservation required a bit of hurdling to overcome. Phew! Well, this is what went through my mind as I ran over the footbridge, entirely without risk. What sort of ultra would that be, where DNFs were due to RTAs? I digress.
I continued on into the second half, still moving well and without any protests from the achilles. By this time I was running 5k then walking with purpose for 5 minutes, just recharging my batteries, using the opportunity to scoff a Freddo or a gel and to take in my surroundings. I noticed that my left hip was a bit sore on walking, but not on running. Odd. What’s that saying? If it hurts to run, and it hurts to walk, you might as well run! I decided to continue with walking the steeper ups and for 5 minutes every half hour or so, just to preserve some energy for the end.
The sky was becoming more overcast, a mist descending with a threat of rain that never materialised. It was warm out but with the sun in and a light breeze, it didn’t ever feel challenging. I often hear talk of the splendid ultra community, the band of brothers (and sisters), running together, taking on the elements and having a good chat along the way. Nuh uh, not for me, although not for want of trying. Aside from a cheery hello on passing, a quick “how’s it going?” there wasn’t any of that for me, and there never has been. I must give off “don’t fucking talk to me” vibes or something. I don’t mean to! Maybe it’s because I typically run alone and am quite happy doing so. Or maybe I’m just antisocial! At 30km I decided to retreat further into my shell, jamming on the earphones to catch up on a podcast. By this time the field was more strung out anyway, differences in pace and run/walk strategy adding up over time. Bah humbug.
My achilles, my actual weak spot, was beginning to protest by now, just stiffening up a bit and aching. Like a sensible person I stopped and hung up my trail shoes for the day. OK OK, I didn’t, I popped a couple of paracetamol and carried on, of course I did. There followed the most consistently uppish section of the route. Not that steep, but long, and by this stage I was walking all the hills so my pace dropped substantially in this section.
I hit the last aid station (38km) feeling pretty good from a fatigue point of view. My legs were still up for it despite the imperfect prep, but the achilles soreness was burning through the painkillers. I decided to carry on, but adapted my strategy to include more walking, regardless of the gradient, running for 800km then walking for 200m. I stuck to this rigidly through to the end and it worked pretty well, the 200m walking being enough to provide relief. Doing this I was able to maintain a respectable ultra pace – I liked it and will definitely use this jeffing strategy on the longer races I have left to do this year.
Close to the finish I was initially surprised to see runners coming back towards me, then remembered reading something about the titular Stones not actually being at the finish. I suppose “Race to the Stones and Then A Bit More” is a less catchy name for the event. I had a gander at the big stones when I got there then continued on my way, back up the road I’d just run down, then briefly across a field, a bumpy affair and not terribly easy to run on. The final stretch was dead straight and on a good surface.
I finished in 6:04:14. slower than the hillier Big Way Round back in May, but I’m happy I was able to finish it, hopefully without doing any lasting harm to my achilles. I had a few minutes before my lift arrived so I was able to grab a hot meal, a chicken and chip butty which very much hit the spot! I might come back for another go next year, perhaps the full 100km, hopefully without carrying an injury of some kind!