I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t really fancy this at all.
After my twin brother Dan had to drop at mile 50 last year I always knew we were coming back to Race To The Stones 100k. Which was fine by me. He obviously had unfinished business but the fact that we didn’t get to cross the finish line together was just as much unfinished business for me too. This was supposed to be our adventure together and we were supposed to cross that line together so I was well up for trying again in 2017. My training had gone ok in the lead up but I was very conscious that I’d put in less miles than last year so that was messing with my confidence a bit. On the plus side we’d done Country To Capital together in January so I was hopeful that the extra ‘ultra’ experience would help. I was totally looking forward to the race but about 2 weeks out I’d gradually began to dread it. I can’t explain what happened, just that I felt worse and worse about the coming event. After only feeling super excited in the build up last year I figured I felt worse this year because I knew what to expect, how tough it would be, how much it would hurt. But I think in hindsight I’d just got myself a bit worked up for no reason. We decided to stay at a hotel near the finish this year and get a coach to the start in the morning. Although this meant a stupidly early alarm call it also took the pressure off as we didn’t need to finish by a certain time to catch a pre-booked coach back to the start. We could just do whatever we wanted and take our time, safe in the knowledge that the car was there at the finish whenever we got there. I would recommend this tactic to everyone! So after a night in a hotel 15 minutes away (in a room I would describe as ‘Where dreams go to die’), we parked at the finish, got a coach to the start and were ready to go. Now when I say ready, I mean not ready at all. My last long run before this had been the Dartford Midnight Marathon where I’d had my first DNF due to major stomach issues (couldn’t stop heaving / throwing up for about 8 miles). Add to that the fact that I’d had about 2 hours sleep before being woken up by my alarm at 4am, meant that I felt like poo. Dan had had a similarly rubbish night of sleep so was probably feeling pretty crap too. The whole throwing up thing was really playing on my mind as we registered and filled up our water bottles. So much so that I actually heaved twice before we’d even started running! Dan seemed to be feeling pretty much the same as I did so we just tried to shake it off and headed for the start pen. Once in the pen I suddenly started to feel really excited for the challenge ahead! I was really physiqued, jumping up and down and couldn’t wait to start. After an entertaining speech from ‘matey in charge’ we were off and we were all smiles!
Even though the weather was slightly cooler this year I started to feel pretty hot and bothered pretty fast. I tried to not think about it all and just keep chatting with my brother but by mile 2 or 3 the excitement from the start had completely gone and the negative thoughts had already begun to worm their way in and I briefly felt stressed about how far we had to go. Thankfully these feelings didn’t last long and after another couple of miles I felt fine. I’ve always found the mental side of running long distances tougher than the physical side so I was pleased that I seemed to be getting better at it. We were both waiting for the massive hill with the kissing gate at the top but it never appeared. It’s seems the route had been changed slightly from last year and although we still had to go up a pretty steep hill it wasn’t quite as bad as before and the lack of gate to negotiate meant there was no bottle neck and the stream of runners continued to flow. After what seemed like too short of a time Dan said he thought we were coming up on pit stop 1 and after initially disagreeing I realised he was right. Happy days! The organisers this year had introduced a staggered start and the second I walked into the pit stop I knew it had been a brilliant move. I remember it being a bit busy last year with runners still closely bunched together at this early stage in the race but this year there was barely anyone there. And after leaving the pit stop in 2016 with no food due to the lack of choice I was so surprised with what was on offer this year. The organisers had really stepped things up and there was honestly something for everyone. I always struggle with my stomach on long distances (even as short as 13 miles if the Dartford Marathon was anything to go by) and it had really started to play on my mind and affect my confidence. But it was an area I’d really tried to work on and had decide before the race that I WAS going to eat and I WAS NOT going to feel sick. So with that in mind I just shoved down some banana before I could choose not too, topped up my Tailwind, and we were out of there. Dan had managed to find a knee support that was pretty comfortable so we didn’t have to hang around while he adjusted tape and things. He’d also decided, having been fully aware of my stomach issues and selflessly stopping with me at my DNF to make sure I was ok, to make sure I ate at least something at every pit stop. So although I fully intended on doing that anyway, if ever I wavered he was there saying ‘eat this!’ whilst trying to hand me something.
We left pit stop 1 feeling pretty great and headed on to what I think is the best part of the race. The route between pit stops 1 and 2 is amazing! There’s loads of single track, loads of technical trail through woods (my personal favourite) and also the participant named ‘Field of Dreams’. During this stretch it started raining which coincidentally is my favourite weather to run in so I was in my absolute element! We got held up a bit by slower runners in front of us but all in all we were both having lots of fun. Pit stop 2 appeared pretty quickly and again, due to the staggered start, it was so much less busy than last year. We both shoved down another bit of banana, grab a cup of coke, topped up our Tailwind and headed out again. Dan was in a massively better place than he was last year and was still really positive. We hit the river stretch where he’d been sick last time and I’d started to feel tired and we just breezed through. Granted, the temperature was cooler and yes, it was still raining but things were going well. Goring seemed to arrive sooner than I expected and there was lots of support which was nice. This is also where it started to absolutely hammer it down, so much so that Dan and I both got out our waterproof jackets. Even though it was still warm I think we just didn’t want to be drenched through. As you leave Goring and Streatley the route goes up for a while so we walked this section. As things levelled off and the rain eased we packed away our jackets and began running again. And before we knew it, there was pit stop 3. I remember this being my favourite pit stop from last year so I’d been looking forward to it. But to be honest all the pit stops had been amazing this year and the crews had been so supportive and encouraging, I honestly wouldn’t change a thing. Dan suffers with blisters anyway and had his feet tapped up pretty good but we knew we’d have to keep a close eye on things. I’d gone on and on at him about getting the medics to look at them the second he felt some discomfort so he got them checked out here (and the medics were great by the way). As expected I’d started to struggle getting solid food down so the banana I picked up here didn’t get finished. We walked out of the pit stop with the full knowledge that there was a massive hill to come so felt prepared. I remember last year that Dan was feeling really low at this point and my constant battle to stay positive, try to take his mind off things and to perk him up was so draining. That was not even an issue this year. His mental state was still so positive and even the hill felt much shorter than before. We were still having fun and feeling good.
This is the point where the route gets less fun. It’s still great but just a bit less great than the route we’d been spoilt with in the early miles. Dan had started to feel a pain in his little toe and his energy levels had dropped a bit. But we made it to pit stop 4 in pretty decent shape all in all. There was no banana here (which was good as I’m not sure I could of forced it down) but as we ran in there was someone with a plate of watermelon right at the entrance. It was awesome! Dan and I both grabbed some then Dan went to sit down to try and sort out his little toe issue and kept telling me to sit down as I’d said I thought I had some dirt in my trainer. I’m very much aware of the ‘beware the chair’ rule but ultimately gave in seeing as I’d spent so much time telling Dan to stop and sort out any issue the second he felt it. I emptied my shoe of grit then grabbed some coke for us both. As the trail led out it was really exposed. I got the feeling we were pretty high as the view was amazing but the route seemed to only go up. Dan was still low on energy so we walked a fair bit, just marching on to the half way point. We’d already seen the base camp in the distance by the time we passed the 50k sign but I was feeling great anyway so didn’t mind that we had a bit further to go. Dan’s low energy was completely understandable so I wasn’t worried at all. I figured once he got some food inside him at the half way base camp he would feel loads better.
We finally arrived and headed straight for the food tent. As I put a pretty large portion of pasta on my plate, and thought of how little I ate at this point last year, I looked at Dan and said ‘pretty ambitious right?’ I think at that moment, even though I felt ok, I never expected to be able to eat much. We sat down and Dan phoned his family. We’d both set the half way point as a time for a bit of a reward; Dan was going to phone his family and I was going to turn my phone back on to check messages. It was amazing to see lots of messages from friends but what meant the most to me was that the 4 great people that had let me join their team for the last 20k last year had all left messages of support for me. It meant so much. As I checked my phone and watched Dan talking to his family, I looked down and realised my entire plate of pasta was gone. I’d inhaled it! And even better, I was still hungry! I jumped up and walked to the tables behind us to grab some ‘Ministry of Cake’. I remember last year feeling sooooooo disappointed that I hadn’t managed any cake at the half way point so was chuffed to bits to grab a big slice this time round. I sat back down and started on desert when Dan handed me his phone. I thought this seemed a bit strange at the time but started chatting regardless. But after handing the phone back, Dan hanging up very shortly after, then seeing his face, I realised something was wrong. Everything happened pretty quick after that. I suddenly saw how rough Dan looked and asked if he needed to lay down. His positive response sent my heart into my stomach and as he eyed up the floor directly beside us I became aware of how urgent the situation was! I really wanted to get him laying down as soon as possible so as we left the food tent and went back outside I suggested finding a spot nearby. But it was a bit chilly and Dan, even in his state was thinking straighter than me and having realised that laying down would be bad and not wanting to be cold he pointed to a tent off to the side. We went in, found a load of chairs and sat down. Dan started to change his socks (which is no mean feat at 32 miles into a race) but already seemed a bit better. We were probably sitting in that tent for less than 10 minutes but the change in Dan was amazing. He suggested a quick restroom break then hitting the trail again and that was music to my ears! As we headed back out of the halfway camp I was amazed at how much better I felt than at this point last year, and also by the fact that Dan seemed totally back to his old self again, and seemed even perkier than before the halfway point!
We walked for a bit then started running again. It was very start stop by this point but it felt like we were doing a really good amount of running and both our mental states were really positive. I was remembering loads of the route which I thought would be a drag but it was actually really nice and helpful to know what was coming up ahead. We made it in to pit stop 6 with no problems and was greeted by an awesome guy offering to spray water in our faces. I accepted immediately and it felt amazing! Dan declined but after seeing my reaction took a hit too and was rewarded with instant refreshment! All the crew here (as always) were really upbeat and helpful and after a quick chat, a slice of orange and cup of coke we headed back out. A couple of miles out from the pit stop we came to a pretty steep downhill section that I remembered from before. The surface is solid, uneven chalk which is rubbish to run on but Dan was getting his second (third? fourth?) wind and sprinted down it like we were at mile 3 rather than mile 40 odd. I tried to keep up with him but he was on fire and left me for dust! I ran as fast as I could and it felt great and when I finally caught up with Dan I saw that it was just what he needed too. As we approached pit stop 7 I started to think about the fact that it was shortly after this point last year that Dan’s race went to pot. I didn’t mention it to him and hoped he didn’t remember the exact point. His feet were getting really sore now so he got the medics to take a look but they said he’d done such a good job of taping them anyway there was nothing they could do that would be better. While he was in the medics tent I topped up my Tailwind then took a sit down. I was right by the entrance and watched a guy come in and try to take a selfie with the pit stop board (every pit stop has a cool board at the entrance with distance covered, distance to next pit stop and an inspirational message). I jumped up and asked if he wanted me to take the picture for him. He was so upbeat and smiley it really made me feel good! I had a quick chat with him and it turned out this was his first ultra and he was loving every second. He was obviously totally nailing it too!
The route out of pit stop 7 goes up for a while and as I was telling Dan about the positive man I’d just met he went running past us. Running uphill at mile 45-ish. What a legend! Dan and I were both aware that the worst part of the course was coming up but neither of us mentioned it. As we got to the point where Dan stopped last year to try to ease the foot problem that was the start of the end of his race he thankfully didn’t remember it. We made it to the start of the section that goes up FOREVER before he even asked if we had past the point so that was good. This section of the race sucks. A lot. It’s pretty much only uphill and a lot of it goes up the side of a really busy road. We marched on and tried to stay positive. The closer we got to pit stop 8 the more worried about Dan I became. I knew this would be a huge mental barrier for him as this was where he’d had to stop last year. We made it through the busy road section, back onto the trail and up the massive hill. When we got to the top I knew the scary hills were over for a while but Dan’s feet were still causing him a lot of pain. I suggested we stop to try and sort it but he said he’d rather wait until we made it in to pit stop 8. I reminded him of what happened last year and the fact that we needed to fix problems the second they turned up and he agreed to stop. While we sat on the side of the trail it was so nice and a true reflection of every ultra runner I’ve ever met that every single person that passed us stopped to ask if we were ok. What an awesome bunch of people. I was amazingly still feeling great and even fired off a couple of text messages while Dan taped his feet. But shortly after we got back on the trail I began feeling a bit rubbish. I was feeling pretty sick and starting to feel a bit light headed. I really felt like it was nothing serious though and all I needed was a bit of a sit down!
Pit stop 8 took an age to appear but when it finally did it was on the other side of the trail from last year. This was a bad choice as it was so much more exposed, windy and cold than before. As we walked in Dan went to fill up his bottles but I headed straight for the chairs. Dan then went over to grab some food and a cup of coke then as he came back over I asked if he’d got me a coke. Nope. Boys eh, useless! In his defence he offered me his but I got up and grabbed my own cup. I was really hoping it would settle my stomach as I suspected I’d reached the stage where no more food was going down. As I sat back in my chair a young guy turned up and sat down and I could see how emotional he was. I asked if he was ok and he straight away got a bit teary and said he didn’t know how he could finish. I tried to reassure him that it was normal to feel this way at the 50 mile mark and asked him how he was feeling and what I could do to help. He said he felt sick so I jumped up and jogged over to grab him a coke while Dan chatted to him. Turned out he’d never even ran a marathon before this, which is the exact position Dan was in last year so hopefully Dan’s chat helped. I came back with his coke and said it would help with his sickness and he thanked us as we left. I’m not sure what helped more, the distraction or the brief sit down but as we left the pit stop I felt myself again. Dan seemed in an awesome place which was great and obviously meant my worry about him getting past pit stop 8 was a complete waste of time. He’d been trying to get me to eat something for a while but I was feeling too sick. But I knew he was right and the second I thought I could, I forced down another bag of Mini Cheddars. I don’t think he expected me to finish the pack but those cheesy little biscuits of delight are my weakness so the pack was devoured pretty sharpish. As I’d left this point last year it was just getting dark and I was so worried about my brother that the last 20k (route wise) is a bit of a blur. But this year was a whole other story. We were over an hour in front of where we were last year so it was still light and Dan was totally nailing it! He even suggested running before I could suggest it and as we hit a downhill section we put in a massive stretch of running that actually felt great. I was back to feeling good again and Dan seemed in a great place too.
Anyone who has run an ultra knows how quickly things can change and the second the route started to go up again Dan started to struggle. We passed a guy on the side of the trail being violently sick and had the person in front of us not stopped to check on him we would of, but the fact that there was someone with him and the fact that Dan was struggling meant we carried on. I wasn’t really worried at this point as Dan just seemed a bit pooped, which was understandable seeing as this was now the furthest he had ever run. We hit the cow field and it was so different this time around. It was dark as we came through this section last year and I remember feeling a bit freaked out that we were surrounded by cows and yet we couldn’t see a thing. I kept expecting one to jump out in front of me! But it was still light this time so it was nice to see that the cows were a healthy distance away. And although the route was still heading up it was also nice to be able to see just how far we had to put up with it as the hill felt like it had lasted forever in the dark. I noticed that Dan had become really quiet so I just started waffling a load of total nonsense to try to take his mind off things but he suddenly just stopped and bent over, hands on knees. He was totally done in and had no energy left at all. I remembered that I had a full pack of Clif Bloks Energy Chews with me so grabbed them from my bag and told him to eat one. As we slowly started walking again a guy caught up with us and Dan asked him if he was the one that was throwing up earlier. Turns out it was and we were amazed by his recovery! We had just met Chris and the three of us chatted and walked the remaining mile and a half into pit stop 9 together.
As we walked in to the final pit stop Chris went one way and Dan and I went another. Dan really needed to sit down and as all the chairs were occupied we found a picnic bench nearby. As soon as Dan sat down he looked terrible, really pale and sweaty, kind of waxy looking. I was immediately worried and as he rested his head on the table my worry got worse. I kept asking him if he wanted me to get a medic but he kept saying no. It was only after a while that he told me he didn’t want a medic because he didn’t want them to pull him from the race. We were only 8 miles from the finish. As soon as he said that I got up to talk to the medic. I knew they wouldn’t pull him from the race, I’d seen people in a much worse state than him walk out of this aid station last year. So I walked over to the medical tent and noticed some guy laying on the floor on a mat. I asked if there were any more mats as my brother really needed to lay down. They said that was the only mat they had but maybe Dan could lay down on the ground sheet near the picnic table he was sitting at. I didn’t like the sound of that as although it was still light, the sun was going down and the temperature was dropping so I didn’t want Dan to be cold. As I turned around to check if Dan was ok he was standing right in front of me. His need to lay down had become so urgent that he’d walked over to the medical tent and seeing the lack of mats just dropped down and laid on the floor. This is when I realised our race was over. There was no way I was leaving him and my mind starting thinking of whether we would end up at the hospital. He was shaking and even though he was sweating he looked really cold so the medic got him a foil blanket. She asked him if he had a buff but he said he forgotten it. I told her I had one and she said it would be good to get his head covered. I started to dig out the buff from my bag while two medics went to grab the ground sheet from the other side of the pit stop so Dan wasn’t laying on the wet grass. He looked so cold laying on the ground as I crouched at his back to keep watching him. Let me tell you, crouching is hard after 55 miles or so. The light was starting to fade and I was feeling chilly but I was just about to take off my jacket to put it over him when the medics came back with the ground sheet and Dan suddenly jumped up and said he needed the toilet! Off he went at a speed I would of said was impossible 30 seconds before. As I crouched there (it’s also hard to get up from a crouch after 55 miles or so) I suddenly noticed the guy laying on the mat again, who was now being violently sick into a bucket, and realised it was Chris! Bloody hell, they were dropping like flies! After waiting for Dan to return as long as I could, I walked round to the portals and stood outside the bank of 10 shouting ‘you alright Dan?!’ He came out shortly after and we walked back to the medic tent. He looked a lot better and sat in a chair rather than lay down. This was a dramatic improvement. He said he just needed food and started to eat some Mini Cheddars while I went to get him a coke. He started to put his long sleeve top on over his t-shirt but I said his number still needed to be visible and getting a wet top off and a dry one on would be better. So he took off his t-shirt and I switched his number on to his warmer top. To be honest, I was pretty surprised that only 15 minutes before I was thinking we’d be going to hospital and now Dan seemed pretty much fine and we were getting ready to get back on the trail. By this time Chris had rallied a fair bit. He’d stop throwing up and was sitting up. He definitely wanted to continue but the medics didn’t really want him going back out on his own so I said he could walk with us and we’d make sure he was ok. Chris said he needed another 5 minutes but I said to just take his time. To be honest, I thought another 5 minutes of Dan sitting down could only be a good thing.
As the three of us walked out of pit stop 9 together it was getting dark so we put on our headlamps. I was reminded of last year when I left this pit stop with my 4 new team mates and I was so glad that we’d met someone else this year to join our team, it just felt right. That’s what this race, and ultra running is about, meeting people and sharing the journey. Just 8 miles to go and Dan was looking good. We had this! Although it started to become apparent that Chris didn’t have this. He seemed really low on energy and had to stop every once in a while to throw up. I was so worried about him but he kept insisting on continuing. Every time Dan or I suggested phoning a medic he said no, he wanted to finish. It was slow going but his determination was inspiring. The way he kept getting up and carrying on when he had nothing left, and without a single word of complaint, it was true grit. Loads of people stopped to check we were ok, which again shows the true spirit of this race. After a long time we finally made it to the stones and after the obligatory photo we were on the home straight. Chris insisted that we head on and although neither of us wanted to leave him we knew that there were loads of people on this stretch now so he’d be ok. And we kind of just needed a bit of a run! We were probably less than 2k from the finish and we promised him we would wait for him at the end to make sure he was ok. As we left and started to run I was amazed that Dan was totally mad for it, if fact he’d suggested running! He was back and totally enjoying it again. We ran most of the way to the finish line (with a brief stop to take off our jackets) and even managed a proper sprint finish. We were probably running super slow but it was fast compared to the rest of the race! We crossed the line and got our medals and I hugged my brother. I thought I’d be emotional but I really wasn’t. I knew we’d get to finish together this year and Dan was so strong at the end I wasn’t worried at all. As soon as we’d finished I grabbed us some water then we waited for Chris. I think he probably crossed the line less than 15 minutes later and he seemed pleased to see us and grateful that we’d waited for him. I grabbed him a cup of water and we ushered him to the medical tent so they could make sure he was ok. I felt so much better than last year and was even eyeing up the free food! I could of murdered a burger! This just goes to show how much better my nutrition had been this race. But unfortunately Dan was in need of his hotel room and a bed so we found my car and I drove us back to the hotel. I got Dan back to his room (where he didn’t sleep) and headed to my room (where I didn’t sleep either).
When I returned home on Sunday I spotted a message from Chris who was trying to track us down via Facebook. Turns out when we left him at the end the medics had called an ambulance and he was rushed to Swindon ICU with impending kidney failure! Dan and I had no idea things were that serious and makes Chris’ finish even more gutsy and inspiring. It was really great to hear from him and find out that he was on the mend and being well looked after.
When I think back to how I felt after last year’s race, how traumatised yet somehow empty I felt, I am simply amazed by the difference this year. I honestly felt great at the end, I could of carried on. My legs were sore but I think I was walking ok. And the fact that I could of eaten something is a massive step forward! This has easily become my new favourite race, I pretty much enjoyed every single step of it. The fact that the weather was perfect probably helped. The fact that Dan not only finished, but finished strong probably helped. The fact that I seemed to have nailed my nutrition probably helped. But that said, this is still a beautiful, perfectly organised race full of amazing participants and even more amazing crew. As soon as we finished I knew I wanted to go back next year. Dan says no and I’m not sure I want to do it on my own but I’m still very tempted. Let’s see what happens…
DATE: 15 July 2017 DISTANCE: 63 miles TIME: 17:19:30 ELEV GAIN: 1,120m