The Road to the North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc: The Race to the Stones Ultra
Never more have I wished I was doing an Artic ultra-marathon than when standing at the start of the inaugural Race to the Stones in Chinnor in Oxfordshire, the temperature already in the 70s at 8 o’clock in the morning. Ahead lay 100km in furnace-like heat along the ancient Ridgeway footpath, ending – for those who made it that far – at the ancient stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire.
There was another Race to the Stones that day – the one to see the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park – and so hot was it that for many of us on the run it was very much a case of As Tears Go By. I’m not sure I’ve felt despair like it. When it was finally over I just wanted to put the experience out of my mind. Anyway that’s my excuse for taking a couple of weeks before writing about it!
The challenge was organised by Threshold Sports, which Olympic rower and all-round superman James Cracknell runs, and it offered entrants the chance to “run it, jog it, stomp it or walk it”. Us runners just ended up “suffering it”.
Ultras – anything over a standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles – are run as much in the mind as in the legs, and as the day went on more and more runners decided that enough was enough and bailed out. I somehow kept going. It was a mental battle and the irony didn’t escape me as the run went past Dragon Hill, a natural mound where legend has it George slayed his dragon. No dragon’s breath was hot as this.
I got through by counting down the miles. The terrain was quite varied – narrow tracks, fields and trails – and the undulations meant you had to maintain your concentration. In 2012 I ran the Marathon des Sables across the Sahara desert – a multi-day ultra – and I never felt as hot as I did in on the Ridgeway. That’s because it was a dry heat in the Sahara, even when it was 52 deg. Here in England, temperatures in the high 80s meant it was just stultifying. I spent the whole day drenched in sweat.
It was a good training run ahead of the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc at the end of August, and useful in that I made several mistakes that I’ll learn from. I went in with too relaxed an attitude. Two weeks before I’d run the 100-mile South Downs Way ultra, with a lot more climbing. Maybe I got over-confident as a result. I underestimated, even without factoring in the heat, just how hard the Race to the Stones would be.
I didn’t really pre-plan or calculate how long it would take me between aid stations, so I didn’t know how much fluid and calories I needed to take on. A couple of times I ran out of water with a couple of miles still to go to the next aid station. Plus I only took a tiny head torch, arrogantly assuming I’d be finishing well before dark. When I eventually reached Avebury at 11.25pm – nearly 15 and a half hours after I’d set out – it was pitch black and I was stumbling about and couldn’t even see the stones.
But while I may have been at fault, I also think the organisers could have done a better job. A well-stocked aid station is crucial to one’s morale and chances of performing as well as possible. I’ve run a number of ultras, and by comparison the Race the Stones’ aid stations lacked the quantity and variety of sustenance that one needs. I wish I had taken more of my own supplies. Good on Cracknell for introducing another ultra to the calendar, but I think there are lessons for the organisers too.
There were 273 finishers and over 70 non-finishers. That’s how hard it was. The fastest time was 10 hours 23 minutes, with the last finisher crossing the line in just under 32 hours – at least he got to see the stones in daylight. It was the English countryside at its best but I’m afraid this was one run I just wanted over with.
Of course, it will stand me in good stead on the UTMB, now only five weeks away. The Race to the Stones was my last big event, and it won’t be long till I’m tapering. Months of training are nearly over. Will it be enough? We’ll see.
Follow Gail on Twitter @Norsemouse
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