Ignorance is indeed bliss. Last year I had no idea what I was letting myself in for and so went about my life without a care in the world. Even up to the starting gun of Race To The Stones (actually just a countdown) I was treating it like any other race I had done (mostly half marathons and 10ks). If you read last year’s race report you would know that it all fell to pieces and I got my first DNF which is the only reason we came back this year. For a whole year this DNF has been bugging me and I have piled so much pressure on myself this year that I haven’t really been able to see past this race. Anything and everything in my life has been put on hold until I get past this massive wall. I still feel that I could have done more last year so have been reading about the mental side of ultra-running and trying to get a better understanding of how other ultra-runners get through the dark parts of races where you feel like quitting or even just feel depressed or overwhelmed by the task ahead. I really feel 100 times mentally stronger for this race. But, with a few days to go I was starting to get real stomach issues, I genuinely wasn’t sure if it was nerves or illness and as race day approached this didn’t get any better. This year we decided to stay at a B&B at the finish line and get the shuttle to the start as opposed to the way we did it last year. The last thing I wanted was to start worrying about a finish time this year, unfortunately this meant a ridiculously early start time. The B&B my sister found was outrageously cheap and when we got there we could see why; the first room was really bad and overlooked the beer garden which was as noisy as hell. Claire said that she would never be able to sleep with that noise so I said I’d have that room. When we went to check out her room it was even worse looking, she nicknamed it ‘The room where dreams go to die’. But we had to get our heads down so I went back to my room, had a quick shower and taped up my feet to save time in the morning then laid down staring at the ceiling for a few hours. I eventually managed to find some sleep but it couldn’t have been much as when the alarm went off at 4.15am it felt like I had only just nodded off. I tried to get a bit of breakfast down me as I ran out the door and off to meet the shuttle…half a bagel still in my hand, which was about as close to getting eaten as it came.
We finally pulled up to the start line with what seemed like too much time on our hands and my nerves were not getting any better. After a quick toilet break we grabbed our numbers, filled up our water bottles and were in the starting pen. This year they decided to stagger the start times to prevent any bottlenecking which explains the small queue for the toilets and the small group in the starting pen The guy from RTTS gave quite a funny little speech which helped relax me and before I knew it we had started. My nerves went almost as soon as my legs started to move and we found quite a nice easy pace to fall into. The first few miles felt a bit tiring but as long as you remind yourself that it is slightly uphill then you have nothing to worry about. I found that I couldn’t really remember any of this section from last year (and am struggling a little to remember it this year) however Claire and I agreed that it seemed like the route had changed slightly. I do remember a massive hill which is where the real bottleneck started last year but it seemed to take forever to get to it Finally at about mile 5 we hit it …. it was steep and we both agreed to stop talking whilst we climbed it. Although we didn’t actually take any longer to complete this section it did feel like it took a fair amount of time but finally we came into the first aid-station. Last year this aid station was packed and we had to queue for the water and the toilets, this year it was pretty quiet so the staggering of start times really was paying off. Also the choice of food on offer was much better as last year we struggled to find anything we liked which worried us slightly. But even though they had so much on offer this time I chose to shove half a banana down me. I don’t like bananas but they are good for these races and I can keep them down so after a quick-ish aid-station we were back on the move.
This next section was great, running through plenty of wooded parts, loads of single track and I felt like we were really relaxing into the race as well as having loads of fun. I caught a tree stump and started to dive forward into the dirt but amazingly, with Claire’s heels (feeling) only inches from my face, I managed to defy gravity and stay on my feet. FOLEY 1 – NEWTON 0. The single track didn’t seem as long as last year, or as fast and we soon got caught behind a group of women who were very slow. This became quite frustrating and it was a good 10 minutes before we found enough space to overtake. Usually I run behind my sister for several reasons, she has a better idea of pace, she usually knows where she’s going and I find it takes less energy to just follow somebody, but as I was feeling so good I decided to give her a rest. I’m not sure this was a good idea as she later moaned at me for being too quick and judging by how the race went later in the day she had a very good point. As with last year I can’t remember exactly when we reached the now infamous cornfields (Field of Dreams) but due to the bad weather it looked nothing like the advertising (or last year) but as I still had loads of energy I think I enjoyed it much more this year and we took the obligatory photos. We came to the golf course which I always find a bit odd and I decided to keep up my good eating habits with a nut bar. Unfortunately a piece of peanut got stuck in my throat and I couldn’t dislodge it until I coughed myself sick (hey, it’s not an ultra unless I throw up at least once). After more single track and then eventually a bit more mundane flat trail we came to the second aid-station.
Last year this aid-station was heaving with massive queues for everything, this year it was perfect. Just enough people moving about to give it a vibe but no queuing. I grabbed a half a banana which apparently was my new early race thing, filled up with water and Tailwind and sat down for a really good stretch. Claire was eating really well even if it was forced but something that would put her in good stead for the rest of the race. We left the aid-station walking to let the food go down but was soon running as we hit the river. This section last year was during the peak heat of the day and having just thrown up my sausage role the next couple of miles were very rough. But this year there was light drizzle and it was cool and we continued to run really nicely for the next 3 or 4 miles. For me this was my first hurdle and a massive confidence booster. My morale was so much higher than last years and with about 18 miles under our belts I finally suggested a quick walking break. Just as we hit quite an annoying town section the rain really started to fall so the raincoats came on. This section is mostly very slightly uphill and would have been a walking section anyway so the miles were not getting knocked off as quickly as we would like but we remembered this section and was prepared for it. In fact, the heavy rain actually took our minds off running up main roads and we agreed that we couldn’t have wished for better weather. We eventually got back running and soon we were back on the trail. The rain had eased off a little and Claire mentioned that she was worried that wet socks would cause blisters. I had already decided to change my socks at the half way point but would check my feet at the next aid-station as I had some very hot spots already. The medical staff at this aid-station were great and gave me some more tape for my feet. They wished us luck as we left and after my new routine of downing 2 cups of flat coke and half a banana we hit the mountain massive hill that follows the third aid-station. Again, comparing it to last year this hill sucked all of my energy and morale, however this year it just didn’t seem as bad. It did use up a fair amount of energy but we made it to the top and I needed a few hundred yards to get some energy back and before we knew it we were running again. I can’t really remember much of this section which leads me to believe it was beautiful but having looked at beautiful for the last 4 hours I was totally over it…. I wonder if dating a super model is the same?
As we hit aid-station 4 I was running out of steam in a big way. We were also finding ourselves more and more exposed to the open which was cooling but the wind was starting to become a bit of a hindrance. Why is the wind never at your back? I was starting to struggle with bananas (I have never liked the taste but persevered with them), but I don’t think I could have taken any more. Luckily for me this was the first showing of the fabulous watermelon. It was amazing and definitely the easiest thing I ate the whole day. This was the first point at which we both sat down in chairs, something we avoided doing last year. But we needed to fish some stones out of our shoes and once we got up and started running again we really felt the benefit of being off of our feet for 5 minutes. The next section was about 8 miles (till the half way point) and I was really starting to struggle. We were really exposed to the wind and this was the third furthest I had ever run. In the 3 marathons that I had run leading up to this race I always found that after about 20 miles I had really had enough of running and although I had passed that mark I was definitely having the same thoughts now. I was in a much better place mentally than last year so just pushed the thoughts to the back of my mind and started looking forward to sitting down and phoning my family. Claire and I started planning our half way break. We didn’t want to spend too long off our feet but also wanted to make sure we took advantage of the free hot food and places to sit and sort ourselves out. I fear we may have put too much thought into it as when we finally got there, things didn’t go to plan.
The halfway point is at the top of a hill and massively exposed so just getting to the big tent was a struggle. We both grabbed some pasta and what we thought were drinks and found a nice quiet spot to sit. On second inspection, as I tried my drink I realised that I had a cup of neat Robinsons blackcurrant (Claire had neat orange). Bizarrely with no water available in the tent we poured half out and topped up the drinks with our water bottles. I phoned my family but soon realised that I was in a pretty bad way. I spoke to them for about a minute, Debbie and the kids were very supportive but I was having trouble hearing them. I passed the phone to Claire (who had already devoured her plate of food and was starting on some cake) so she could get some benefit from family support but she noticed that I kept looking at the floor. As we finished the phone call and I forced the little bit of pasta into my mouth Claire asked if I needed to lay down. We both knew if that happened it might be race over so I suggested finding a nicer, lower chair to sit in so I could change my socks (the Drymax did a good job of protecting my feet and keeping them dry-ish but my little toe was causing me grief and the Injinjis would offer much better toe support…. but they are a bitch to get on). I started to feel a little more human again and I think it was me who suggested a quick toilet break and then we filled up our drinks and hit the road again.
The massive loss of energy at the halfway point had severely knocked my confidence and even speaking to the family didn’t lift me like it did last year. I use this as a last resort as I can’t phone them all the time and thought it was a guaranteed pick-me-up. We walked for a few minutes to let the food settle and then something magical happened….my body had started to turn that food into energy (who knew) and we started to jog slowly on. Our new plan was to run slower which should mean running longer, plodding along Claire called it and I have to give her credit for this as it actually worked really well. We found ourselves slowly ticking off the miles again and my mood got better and better. In fact it started going so well it almost felt like we were starting all over again, just slightly slower than the first half. I remembered the second half of this race being nowhere near as visually pleasant as the first half. But at this stage in a race it really didn’t matter, all that mattered was moving forward. Things were going well and we were both feeling very upbeat but had we both been at a really low point it wouldn’t have lasted long as the team at the sixth aid-station were so jolly and helpful that they must have cheered up any runner who passed them. The first guy we came across had a water spray in his hand offering to cool down the runners. I wasn’t that hot and was busy topping up my Tailwind but after Claire raved about it so much I had a bash and really did feel refreshed afterwards. Unfortunately they didn’t have my new goto fruit (watermelon) so I had to make do with an orange….and 2 small cups of flat coke (not sure how flat it actually was judging by my burp). We left feeling pretty great which was roughly how I was feeling at this stage last year so I wasn’t over confident. I just had to try and keep blister free for as long as possible and look forward to running out of aid-station 8 for the first time ever.
I don’t remember too much about the trail only it didn’t seem as bad as I had expected it to be, plenty of uphill but a surprisingly large amount of runnable downhill. I can’t think why I thought the downhill was so un-runnable last year. In fact we came to a huge downhill section that was so runnable I was actually sprinting down it as fast as I possibly could (came over all Kilian Jornet). Claire couldn’t keep up (slow twin) so I had to wait for her at the bottom. It probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do but it felt amazing and you have to take these highs as much as you can in these races. We carried on plodding along the flats at a healthy speed and did very little walking apart from the hills but I could feel myself getting very tired and I think Claire felt the same. We were soon climbing the hill into aid-station 7. Again, I was feeling ok at this stage last year but about half a mile out of this aid-station I got a massive blister which was the start of the end of last year’s race. To prove that I had learnt my lesson I asked the medical team to have a quick look at the hotspots on my feet but before I could rip off all my tape they stopped me explaining that I had done such a good job that anything they would do would not hold up as well as my tape had. I was a little proud of my handy work but equally worried that I could feel the blisters coming on but could do nothing about them. Oh well, I knew I was mentally stronger this year so blisters would not stop me. I don’t know if the aid-station staff are actually any happier and more helpful as the day goes on or if it just feels this way because we need them to be, but as usual everybody was great. I had my usual watermelon / coke combo while Claire dicked around with some cheerful chap’s camera and then we were off.
This next section is the worst part of the course. It’s one of the longer sections between aid-stations and starts pretty nicely with some short downhill sections and some very runnable flat. I missed the section where my foot exploded I got my massive blister last year and had to ask Claire if we had passed it …. we had. The extremely cheerful man went running past us on one of the hills and we were both amazed at a) how cheerful he was at this stage of an ultra and b) how he was running up the hill. It inspired us in emotion alone and you could see everybody he passed was smiling…I would like to hire him for all my races. Then came the rest of the hills, the busy main roads and the hills. It felt like, and probably was 6 miles of uphill. THIS was the section that ended my race last year. Luckily I was still feeling really positive (considering). We ran through a small town and along some busy roads, all of which were slightly uphill and I could feel the energy seeping from my body. As we left the town the hills got longer and steeper and we were left marching up them for what felt like hours (have I mentioned this section has hills?). I was getting a bit grumpy and very, very tired but didn’t consider quitting once… I just really needed the eight aid-station to come up soon. Eventually we reached the top of the last major hill (in this section) and managed to start running again but all to soon we were brought to a very painful halt. The massive blister had arrived. We walked (I hobbled) until we found a suitable spot to sit down and deal with the beast. I’m sure other people had worse blisters and finished so I’m not boasting about the size but it was like a golf ball on the inside of my heel. I popped it a few times with a pin and tried to push as much fluid out as possible and then re-tape it. I was very grateful to all the runners who slowed down or stopped to ask if I was ok, Ultra runners really are a friendly breed, especially after the half way point when everybody understands the things that can go wrong. I was soon back up and hobbling along. Claire asked if I thought I could run on it and as we were about to hit a slight downhill section I suggested we give it a try. To my joy it actually hurt slightly less when I ran so onwards we plodded. We tried to estimate the time and were both amazed that we were a whole hour faster than we had wanted to be and that was a best-case scenario. This really picked both of us up and we started to talk about finishing times rather than if we would finish. We continued jogging as best we could, surely the eight aid-station was just around the corner. It was at least another mile but I was starting to feel good again after eating a bag of Mini Cheddars (big dip in energy). The blister was hurting less and I knew at this stage I was going to finish the race. Unfortunately Claire started to go through a bit of a low point, I knew this by how quiet she had become and for the first time she had started to vocalise how tired she felt, this was not like her at all.
Finally, we arrived at quitter’s corner aid-station 8 but they had moved it from the nice enclosed comfortable position on the left to the not nice and open, massively windy and far less appealing spot on the right. Again, we had big plans for aid-station 8 that went to pot but this was a massive milestone for me and one I had been looking forward to for almost a year. We found some chairs to sit in and I phoned the family to tell them how great I was feeling. They were very, very supportive and my 4-year-old daughter just kept telling me to run fast and not throw up which made me laugh a lot, whilst my son and partner just kept telling me to get back to running. Claire wasn’t looking great so I tried to get her to eat something but she kept telling me she was fine and just needed to sit for a bit, so I took the long walk to get a coke and a fudge…think I even managed half a banana. As I got back to the chair a younger guy had sat down near us in tears saying he felt sick and didn’t know how he was going to continue. Claire went to grab him a coke to settle his stomach as I explained what happened to me last year and how much I regretted not finishing. But it was time for us to get back out on the trail. The hill out of aid-station 8 wasn’t pretty and prevented me from doing the cartwheel out of 8 that I had been threatening to attempt but as we turned the corner I couldn’t have been happier, 13 miles left and nothing was going to stop me finishing this race. Unfortunately Claire was still feeling rough so I nagged her until she agreed to eat a pack of Mini Cheddars which seems to be the only thing we can properly stomach at this stage of the race. She slowly managed to finish the pack and was soon feeling much better, just in time as we came to a long downhill section, the start of which was very technical with large rocks and tree stumps everywhere. I’d have hated to run this in the dark so our hour cushion was fantastic. The downhill wasn’t particularly steep and was followed by more downhill and more downhill for about 2 miles. The speed at which we think we took them was great, really enjoyable this far in (10 miles left) and I couldn’t stop myself smiling. Finally the trail flattened out but we were still running. It was my turn to start lacking energy and as we started to hit the hills again I was feeling really rough and the hills were not helping … or stopping.
We noticed a poor guy on his knees throwing up in a bush. The group of runners ahead of us had gone over to check he was ok but he looked really bad and I was sure his race was over, poor sod. I would have loved to have helped him but at this stage my race wasn’t in the greatest of shapes either and with a good few miles of uphill until the next (and last) aid-station I was starting to stress. For the first time in the whole race my mood got really dark and having been conscious not to vocalise any negativity all race I explained to Claire that the rule was out the window and I really began to moan. We were fully exposed to the now quite strong wind so we put out jackets back on and miserably carried on up the hill past some massive cows. I suddenly had to stop, I was lightheaded and could have easily laid down but knew that would have been the worst thing to do. Claire remembered she had some Shotblocks in her pocket and a few of them did just enough to get me moving forward again. At this point we were moving so slowly that a guy with walking poles had caught up with us. I noticed it was the runner (Chris) who had only 2 miles back been on all fours throwing his guts up. I was so pleased to see him back up and running that it lightened my mood and we began chatting and walking all the way into the final aid-station together. We somehow lost Chris as we entered the aid-station desperately looking for chairs. We found what looked like a pub bench and I climbed over the seat to sit properly at the table and rested my head on the wood, which only made me feel worse but I just couldn’t lift my head. This was the worst I had felt all race and I had real concerns. Claire was also concerned and went to speak to the medical team to see if there was a mat I could lay on but I had followed her up to the tent and just softly collapsed onto the floor (next to Chris who had stolen the only yoga mat to lay on…but in all fairness, he looked much worse and was throwing up again). The wheels hadn’t just fallen off but they had exploded. I remember the very pretty medical lady lean over me and all I could say was “please don’t let my race end here.” Then the greatest response I have ever heard came back at me “don’t worry, we will have you back in the race.” I was shivering but equally covered in sweat as they put a foil blanket over me and then went to get some tarpaulin to get me off the wet grass. At this point I anticipated a bowel movement and was not going to end the race fouling myself so with energy I didn’t know I had I sprang to my feet and jogged off to the portaloos. Without wanting to share too much information it turned out to be trapped wind. I walked back to the medical tent and found a deck chair to sit in as the kind medic went to grab me a drink. My sister was swapping my race bib onto a warmer, long sleeve top and I slowly forced down some more Mini Cheddars (BBQ, oh yes) followed by another coke. I looked up and Chris was now on his feet asking if he could stick with us for the last 8 miles. Of course he could, we wouldn’t leave him on his own, besides I’m not sure I was much better off than him at this stage.
So, having thanked the medic (I could have hugged her but I probably stank) the 3 of us left the last aid-station with our headlamps on for what was going to be the longest 8 miles of my life. It was slow going but I was starting to reap the benefits of the food I had eaten. Poor Chris couldn’t keep anything down so had no energy at all and every mile or so he would end up back on the floor dry heaving. Every runner who passed checked he was ok and checked that we were with him (so he wasn’t left alone), and every time he got back on his feet I was amazed. I checked that he was ok to continue or I could call the emergency number and get him picked up but he was determined to finish the race and was even talking about the race he had lined up next weekend. We had started this section chatting but we soon got to the stage where Chris was more comfortable in silence. I was leading the way but my headlamp went out. Luckily I was prepared with back up batteries (note to anybody looking to run an ultra; spare batteries). The trail was horrible with narrow paths and huge deep gaps either side of it so you really had to concentrate, but it was mostly flat until the end when it’s downhill off of the ridgeway, but that was still miles off. I had a tendency to unintentionally march ahead too quickly and had to consciously keep slowing down as I didn’t want Chris to feel like he was holding us up. I know he was feeling guilty having to stop so often to throw up but there was no way we were going to leave him and besides, had we all been running there was a huge chance my race would have blown up again. I received a few phone calls from my son who had been allowed to stay up to make sure I finished and although he and Debbie were surprised we hadn’t finished yet, were both very supportive. We eventually got down off the ridgeway and onto some flat path leading down to the stones. It was so nice not to have to worry too much about your footing but the out and back nature of this section was heart-breaking, you could almost see the finish but you had to run away from it to get to the stones.
We eventually reached the stones and had our photos taken. We asked Chris if he wanted to be in our photo, having spent the last few hours with him he felt like an honorary member of Twinibago, but he declined probably thinking he was intruding which was definitely not the case. So we waited for Chris to have his photos taken (which actually came out well consider how rough he was feeling) and off we marched to the finish line. This section of the course was now quite busy with people going both ways so Chris felt safe and urged us to leave him and finish the race strongly. I felt really guilty and we both promised we would wait at the finish line to cheer him in. And with that we started running … not sprinting, but quick enough that people were commenting and praising us. We turned off the path, back onto the grass and slowed to a quick walk up a quite steep hill (removing our jackets as we went) and then we could see the home straight (slight downhill). I’d like to say we sprinted the whole way down this part but I may be exaggerating. It was definitely as fast as our legs could go and faster than we had run the whole race (excluding my Kilian hill). There was a point when I worried we had started our sprint finish too early, turns out this home straight was a lot longer than it had seemed (this reminded me off the Windsor Half Marathon where the same thing happened and I nearly keeled over). Claire noticed a group of runners ahead and mentioned that unless we overtook them we would all end up in the same finishing photograph. This didn’t really concern me but the competitor in me loved the idea of sprinting past them so we went for it. The group cheered us on with joking remarks that we had way too much energy left for 63 miles. I assured them that we had been saving ourselves the whole race for this. Finally, we were at the finish line. There was a small crowd who were making loads of noise cheering us all in and it felt great, I really appreciated all of the support throughout the whole race but to finally finish felt amazing. I thought I may get emotional but I didn’t, I think I still felt a bit guilty for leaving Chris and as promised we hung around waiting for him. I called the family and we took a post race selfie and cheered all the other runners in until we noticed a guy with walking poles, it was Chris. We cheered him in loudly and he genuinely seemed pleased that we had kept our word and stuck around. We showed him into the barn of the walking wounded (that we knew so well from last year) and made sure that part of the medical team looked after him. He was in safe hands so we said our goodbyes and made our way back to the rooms where dreams go to die.
I can’t say I slept at all what was left of that night, my legs actually hurt more laying down than when I was running on them, but it was quite late so I didn’t have that long to lay there in pain. When I decided enough was enough and got up to shower I noticed that my right leg wasn’t actually working and I had to pick it up with my hands and move it off of the bed. We checked out of the weird hotel and had the painful drive home to my family and the congratulations / mocking-my-walk that I deserved. I still can’t work out how Claire was walking so normal, without a single blister on her feet. Claire later found a message from Chris on Facebook saying he was in ICU with impending kidney failure and wanted to thank us for looking after him. I can’t say anybody would have thought of leaving him, besides he was so inspirational that it was our pleasure to have had the opportunity to run with him and see him finish.
Looking back fondly I don’t actually think this race could have gone any better. The weather was perfect, the hydration and nutrition was almost spot on, our mental strength was really good with both of us staying positive for about 97% of the whole race and most importantly we both finished. We were actually quicker than last year and could have been even quicker still had I not bonked so badly in the last aid-station. I think I fooled myself into thinking I was eating well when all I was doing was drinking food like watermelon and oranges. They were lovely at the time but I should have taken proper food as well with them. All my melodrama was lack of fuel, although had I not reached that level of exhaustion I may have felt like I didn’t quite put in enough effort. All in all it went 100% better than I thought it would and I would totally recommend it to anybody. People say that ultra-running is 90% mental and I couldn’t agree more. Although I had trained pretty well for this race it was the work I had done on mental strength that had really helped me finish. It only took Claire about a week to suggest that we come back again next year … erm, you know what, I loved it but I think I will pass.