The day started at 5.30am as I was woken by the sound of music, a phone ringing and a loud bang which was quickly followed by “ARH, F**K!” Our phone alarms had gone off and my twin brother Dan had promptly sat straight up, banging his head on the low ceiling above his bed. A very amusing way to start the day … for me, not Dan. We were staying in a hotel about 10 minutes from the start of todays race and having read online that we should aim to arrive at least 90 minutes early we were up and out by about 6:30. But when we got to the entrance of the farm there was barely a queue so we found ourselves parked up and walking towards the registration tent with over an hour to kill. Registration was very quick and smooth, we picked up our numbers and route maps, dropped off our finish line bags, filled up our bottles (one water, one Tailwind) and we were ready to go (after a couple of trips to the portaloos). It was drizzling a bit and was fairly chilly so we’d both put on our waterproof jackets but as we stood waiting for the 8am start the rain had stopped and the temperature had risen so we packed away our jackets and were ready to go. After the obligatory selfie and a quick speech by the organisers we were off! Our first ultra, the 100k Race To The Stones!
I was expecting to feel a bit nervous about the mammoth task we had ahead of us but I honestly didn’t at this point. I had really committed to the training and was pleased with how it had gone. I had done a couple of 20 milers and had run 4 marathons in the 11 weeks leading up to my taper, the last of which, although slow, felt really easy and I definitely could of kept going. Dan’s training was a whole other story though. He had barely done any due to a knee injury he had picked up towards the start of the year. We’d even had a serious chat about whether we should try to sell our places and run it next year instead. But Dan had finally started seeing a physio who thought he could manage the distance (albeit with a bit more walking than planned) so we decided to go for it and with three weeks until race day he’d managed to run / walk a 20 mile route which we really hoped would help.
So here we were, running along the Ridgeway with over 1000 other people on what was turning out to be a beautiful day. Dan didn’t seem nervous at all either and we were both enjoying ourselves as we covered ground and chatted constantly. I remember after what seemed like 5 minutes my watch beeped to indicate we’d covered two miles and I joked to Dan ‘two miles already, this is going to be easy’! The early miles were some of the most enjoyable trail I’ve ever run on, a real mix of terrain including open fields, country lanes and wooded areas and I loved every minute of it. There were lots of ups and downs but nothing major except for one very steep hill which had us all queuing to ascend due to a kissing gate at the top. A few people were moaning about the hold up but I thought it was a nice way to slow everyone down a bit and conserve energy. Being half Irish Dan and I had decided to walk all the down hills. It was actually because descending hurt his injured knee more but people must of thought we were a bit stupid.
CP 1 appeared at the 7 mile mark and was a welcome site as I really needed to use the loo again. There was a strong chance I could break the ‘most wees in a day’ world record so I was really going for it. Our fuelling plan was to try to drink one 500ml bottle of Tailwind between each checkpoint and to top up with some solid food once we got there. I knew my ability to eat food would not last all day but was hoping I’d be able to force solids down as long as possible. We refilled our bottles, Dan adjusted the strapping on his knee and we went to grab some food but was a bit disappointed with what was available. Dan took one of the nutty bar things they had but I left empty handed and chose instead to munch on two of the ginger biscuits I had brought with me. We were both still really enjoying the run and were feeling good. The route continued to be varied and beautiful and we were having fun. I remember one section of single track where it felt like we were moving at a decent speed and yet it also felt effortless. It seemed as if my training had paid off and that our pace was spot on. The day was starting to get hotter and as we ran through the first village on the route I enviously looked towards the garden of a pub and realised how much I wanted a beer. I found out a bit later that a few people had stopped in pubs along the way for a sneaky pint! It was in one of these villages, at 15 miles that we arrived at CP 2.
As we walked into the check point we saw queues everywhere so joined the queue for the water simply because it was the shortest. After refilling our bottles I spotted a sneaky way we could slip into the food queue right at the front and I’d like to take this opportunity now to apologise to the people we cut in front of! Sorry. This check point had much better food than CP1 so we grabbed a few bits, sorted out our bottles then headed back out. We walked and ate to save time and although the Fudge bar went down ok I really struggled to force down the small sausage roll which was a bit of a worry this early in the race. The temperature was really starting to rise now but as we took a few turns we found ourselves running along the river, a section I’d been looking forward to since checking out the route. But as we began the river stretch I suddenly started to feel too hot and too tired. It seemed to of crept up on me so fast I didn’t quite know how to deal with it apart from badly. Dan seemed to be struggling too and we’d both fallen pretty silent. I’m not sure what Dan was thinking but for the first time since deciding to do the race over a year ago I wondered how I was going to finish it. For the briefest of moments I let that doubt into my mind but then pushed it out and promised myself I wouldn’t let it back in again. As we moved away from the river I started to feel a bit better but Dan still seemed really low. He’d briefly been sick which I’m sure didn’t help but I was starting to worry about him. Lots of other runners had begun talking about flat coke and although I can’t stand coke I found I was suddenly craving it. I really hoped that a rest at the next check point, some solid food and a sugary drink would help perk Dan up.
CP 3 suddenly appeared at the 22 mile mark and it was a very welcome sight. The volunteers here were so upbeat and lively it was just what we needed. After a couple of cups of coke (which tasted like liquid heaven) we sat down for a few minutes to reapply suntan lotion (god damn Irish skin!), sort out our bottles and adjust the strapping on Dan’s knee. The support had started to cause lots of little blisters where it had been rubbing so it had to come off along with some of the tape. Not wanting to linger too long Dan grabbed a slice of orange and I grabbed a flapjack (that I couldn’t get down and threw after one bite) and we headed back out. I felt like a brand new woman as we left the aid station, I felt so positive and excited about the challenge ahead I couldn’t believe what a change it was from just a few miles ago. Even the hill that just seemed to last forever couldn’t dampen my spirits. Dan on the other hand was still in a bad place. As we walked up and up his mood seemed to go down and down. I kept chatting to him, joking around, trying to take his mind off it all and cheer him up but nothing seemed to be working. But I know how quickly your mood can change in a race, I’d experienced it myself only a few miles previous, so I just stayed positive and kept chatting, hoping that he would feel better soon. The furthest Dan had ever run before this race was 22.5 miles so I was keeping a close eye on my Garmin for when we passed the 26.2 mile mark. As we completed the marathon distance I turned to Dan with a big smile on my face and my hand raised for a high five and said ‘Your first marathon! Well done brother!’ And as he half heartedly high fived me back without even a smile I knew we were in trouble. As we finally reached the top of the hill the path turned into some nice, slightly undulating track between some fields. It was the most exposed section of the route so far but as it was pretty hot by now the stronger breeze was welcome. We still seemed to be heading slightly up but CP4 appeared fairly soon at the 28 mile mark.
The check point was right in the middle of a wide track and surrounded by fields as far as you could see so it was very exposed and windy. But we didn’t stay long at all and after sorting out our bottles and drinking a shot of juice with a spoonful of salt in it (not something I’d ever try again!) we headed back out munching on a bag of Pom Bear crisps that went down a treat. Dan’s mood seemed to be swinging between ‘a bit rubbish’ to a full on ‘end of the world, cats and dogs living together’ kind of doom. I was starting to find the constant battle to cheer him up really mentally draining but I could tell he was really trying to lift himself out of it. The route still seemed to be heading up and I think it was about now that Dan felt his knee go for the first time. We were expecting it to happen but he’d managed to get so much further than either of us expected which was brilliant. I knew we would be walking for a while from this point on and didn’t know if Dan would be able to do any more running at all. I was starting to feel really tired myself and my legs were getting pretty painful so the thought of having to walk the entire second half was not good. I was also starting to feel sick which is what always happens when I run long distances so I was a little concerned with how I would fuel the rest of the race and really hoped the Tailwind would be enough as I knew getting any solid food down from this point on would be almost impossible. Dan had done so amazing to get this far on virtually no training at all due to his injury and as we got closer to the half way point I wondered if he would stop there. To be honest I was going through a low period myself and the thought of stopping started to enter my mind too but I just tried to ignore it. It seemed to take far too long to get to CP5, the half way camp, but at 32.5 miles it finally appeared.
One of the options for this race is to do half the distance so there was a finish line we had to cross. To see people complete their challenge and get their medals with huge smiles on their faces was great but it was the last thing I wanted to see when I was feeling so low and still had so far to go. We walked over to the toilets and Dan nipped into a shower cubicle to change his socks and tights and sort out the strapping on his knee. He seemed to be in there for so long and I started to get myself really stressed and wound up about the time ticking by. I really didn’t want to spend too long here as we’d booked places on the 2am shuttle to take us from the finish back to the start and seeing as we would be doing a lot of walking from now on I didn’t want to linger too long in any of the check points. It didn’t matter at all if we missed the shuttle as I was pretty sure we could catch a later one or even just get a cab if we needed to but my brain clearly wasn’t working correctly at all and I was really getting myself worked up. I didn’t let Dan see how stressed I was getting as I knew it was irrational and I knew he was battling his own mental problems which I just wanted to help him through. If I’d known at the time that Dan was also starting to get blisters on his feet I would of made him go to the medical tent to get them seen to but even though we’d said so many times before that at the first sign of a hot spot we deal with it, he never told me about his feet. When Dan finally emerged from the cubicle we walked over to the food tent to get some pasta. We both sat there in silence as we ate and as I forced down as much as I could and tried not to be sick with every bite thoughts of stopping were still trying to fight their way through. I think we both kind of went into auto pilot mode as thinking about it all too much was not good. Still conscious of the time ticking by I hustled us along and as we started to walk back out of camp for the second half Dan made a quick call to his family. While he was on the phone I just walked along in silence. I was feeling terrible, my legs and feet were really painful, I felt really sick and I was really mentally low. Walking back out of that camp was definitely the hardest point in the whole race for me and was definitely when I felt the lowest.
When Dan finished his phone call there was an instant change in him. Just hearing his families voices and realising they were 100% supporting him gave him a massive boost. Although I’d been telling him he could do it for the last 32 miles apparently he’d only believe it when it came from his kids and not his twin sister! If I’d know that I would of made him call them miles ago! But his new positive outlook completely snapped me out of my low mood and thinking that we would be walking from this point onwards I couldn’t believe it when he said ‘shall we try to run for a while?’ Hell yeah!! And just like that we were back in the game. For the next few miles we ran as much as we could, walked when we needed to and chatted a lot. The race was back to feeling like fun. The route wasn’t as nice as it was in the first half and although the views were still stunning the terrain had become difficult. The clay trails were much harder to run on and the loose rock everywhere was like running through a mine field. It took a lot of concentration to avoid all the stones and after booting one with a kick that Gazza would of been proud off, I found myself being much more careful as my toenail screamed obscenities at me!
CP 6 arrived at the 38 mile point but we didn’t linger long. After a quick refill of our bottles, a couple more cups of coke and a few minutes for Dan to adjust his knee strapping we were back on our way. I’d attempted to eat some malt loaf but had once again failed. But by this point I was no longer worried about not being able to get down any solid food as the Tailwind seemed to be doing it’s job admirably. The next section continued much as the previous one had and we carried on our same routine of walking, running and chatting. Our positive moods had also remained and with less of the race to go now than what we had covered already it felt like the worst was behind us. The trail was also noticeably less busy since the half way camp as many people had stopped there. Although you can finish there having completed 50k there is also the option to camp overnight and finish the second 50k the following day. So all that remained on the trail now were the 100k non-stop participants. After just 5 more miles (43 miles in total) we arrived at CP7. Again, the checkpoint was located on a pretty exposed section but wasn’t too windy at all. I grabbed a bag of Mini Cheddars that I actually managed to eat and we were back on the road. It felt slightly ironic that the only food I’d been able to eat for hours were Mini Cheddars, of which I had about 4 bags in my backpack as emergency food and hadn’t even attempted to touch yet!
It was about a mile and a half out of CP7 that disaster struck. Dan suddenly stopped, seeming in a lot of discomfort, and said he had a bad blister on his foot. I just couldn’t believe it. After all our talk before the race of dealing with problems the second they appear Dan had totally kept his foot problems to himself and done nothing about it. I do understand how he could of done this as your brain really does act in a strange way after running so far but I found myself feeling so guilty about it, like I should of know that he was getting a blister and it was my fault that I hadn’t made him get it seen to. It felt wrong to turn around and head back 1.5 miles to the checkpoint and seeing as CP7 had arrived so quickly we pressed on and hoped that CP8 wasn’t too far. Dan was in a lot of pain and we were moving at a pretty slow speed but still, the checkpoint just wouldn’t arrive. The route had turned pretty grim as well with a section that was along a really busy road and then up a steep hill. A lot of fellow runners were asking if we were ok having seen Dan hobbling along and I could see Dan trying to stay positive and exchange some bants but his mental state was rapidly deteriorating. He started really obsessing about making the 2am coach and kept asking me if we still had time. I insisted we did but he seemed unconvinced. We were walking along in silence and every so often Dan would say he was going to stop at the next checkpoint. I kept telling him to not make any decisions now, wait until we got to the checkpoint and to get his feet seen to then see how he feels. He started telling me to go on ahead to make the coach and every time other runners went past he asked me to join them so I wouldn’t be on my own. But there was no way I was going to leave him until I knew he was ok. As time went on and his mood sunk lower and lower it seemed to me that not only did he feel physically defeated but he was mentally defeated too. I think we both started to get a bit emotional at this point as we struggled on.
We finally arrived at CP8 at the 50 mile mark. I found Dan a chair and sat him down straight away. I asked him what he wanted to do but I knew he had already decided to stop and that nothing I could say would change his mind. By this point though I just wanted him to be safe and out of pain. I found one of the aid station crew and while fighting back tears gave them my brothers details and arranged a lift for him to the finish. I grabbed some soup but couldn’t even get a sip down so gave it to Dan to drink. It was probably just gone 9:00pm by now and was starting to get dark so Dan began pointing out groups leaving the checkpoint and telling me to quickly go and join them. He really didn’t want me running on my own in the dark, which is something I didn’t want to do either! I kept promising I wouldn’t run on my own but didn’t feel quite ready to leave him yet. After a while he seemed a bit more himself so I finally dug out my head torch, gave Dan a hug, then headed back out. There was only about a half marathon left to go but by that point it could of been another 50 miles, my brain just couldn’t work anything out and the end still seemed so far away.
As I walked out of that checkpoint feeling so upset and low the most randomly lucky and positive thing happened that completely changed the remaining miles of my race. As I re-joined the route I knew I had to keep the promise I made to Dan to not run alone so just randomly turned to the person who happened to be walking next to me at that very second and asked if I could tag along with them. The man’s response was ‘how are your feet?’ I replied ‘f**ked’. He then smiled and said ‘welcome aboard!’ He asked me my name and after telling me he was Nick he then turned to the three people behind him and said ‘this is Claire, she’s joining the team!’ I didn’t even realise Nick wasn’t on his own and the fact that a group of 4 friends would without hesitation welcome in a complete stranger still blows my mind today. The remaining members of the group were Stu, Jayne and Peter and I’m so grateful at how friendly all four of them were to me. At this late stage in the race the group had decided to walk the remaining 20k so with Nick and I in front we marched on. There was an almost constant chatter which really helped to take my mind off the pain and after mainly talking to Nick for a good few miles he dropped back and Stu took his place at the front with me and the chatting resumed. It was totally dark by now and it was a bit surreal to be walking a path I had never been on in my life, completely surrounded by darkness broken only by the beams of our head torches. There were times when I felt ok but would often fall silent for a while as I fought the urge to throw up. I remember walking through a field of cows and although the darkness hid the animals from our view, the route was littered with their cow pats and yet again I was thankful for my total lack of a sense of smell! The concept of time seemed to completely disappear and the only thing my brain could process was the need to just keep moving forward. After what felt like somewhere between and hour and 2 weeks we found ourselves at the 9th and final checkpoint at 56.5 miles.
The atmosphere at CP9 was really different from all of the others, with hardly any talking taking place and those that did speak whispered in hushed tones. It was all very quiet and calm and to be honest I don’t think anyone there had the energy left to even attempt a conversation. I still felt really sick so didn’t even bother attempting to get any food down and instead made myself a coffee. But after failing to drink it I just grabbed half a cup of coke and left it at that. I’d managed to get a signal on my phone and had texted Dan to see if he was ok. After a while he texted back to say he was fine and that apparently the coach would be picking them up soon. I’d been keeping my eye on the time as the 2am coach back to the start was now going to be cutting it a bit fine due to walking the remaining distance rather than running. I was really eager to get moving again but obviously didn’t want to make the rest of the group leave before they were ready. I briefly contemplated heading out alone but quickly realised there was no way I was leaving without my new friends. Besides, Dan would of killed me if I broke my promise! Just before we did leave a woman arrived in a bit of a state. She was shaking and said she’d had to travel the entire distance from the last CP on her own in the dark and she was scared of the dark. I felt so bad for her as I would of been in the exact same position if I hadn’t of been lucky enough to have found my amazing team mates. It would of been great for her to join us but no one really wanted to wait any longer and just really needed to get to the finish now. We told her to stay at the CP for a while and get some hot food and drink inside her to calm her nerves then to make sure she didn’t leave on her own. People were arriving and leaving all the time so she would have no problem finding someone to walk with. We wished her luck and headed back out.
Shortly after leaving CP9 Nick pointed out that we were walking through the remains of Banbury Castle. It was the one and only landmark on the entire 100k route that I had so far been made aware of so I was grateful to have finally seen one of them. I remember the path briefly dipping down then after a left turn we found ourselves walking along a ridge that went on for miles. The five of us were a bit more quiet now but the more time I spent with these people the more amazing I realised they were. Nick was so positive and upbeat the entire time. Whenever he spoke he always sounded happy and full of energy and was probably the most chatty out of all of us. He didn’t even seem like he was struggling or low on energy at all. Stu had a toenail hanging off but I was completely unaware of this as he never complained about it once and I only found out when he very matter of factly declared he would need to stop for a minute to pull it off! Jayne chatted a bit less but was always smiling and although her longest training run had only been something like 15 miles and she must of been in a lot of pain, like Stu she never complained once. Peter was at the back of the group for the whole time and every so often someone would look back then shout out ‘hang on a minute, lets wait for Peter to catch up’. He was suffering with terrible blisters and although he must have been in the most pain he never once complained about it either. Every so often as we walked along in the dark Peter’s voice would appear. ‘You ok Jayne?’, and after a positive response he would continue ‘you ok Stu?’ working through us all individually until he had checked that the four of us were fine. Then Nick would ask ‘you ok Peter?’ to which he always replied yes. The fact that he was in the most pain out of all of us and yet he was the one who kept checking that the rest of us were ok is the perfect illustration of how amazing this group were and how lucky I was to be with them.
I think it was just gone 1am when I got another text from Dan saying the bus that was supposed to drive him to the finish had to suddenly take someone to the hospital and now the people at the checkpoint didn’t know how long the next bus would be and if they’d even make it to the finish by 2am. I didn’t mind about missing our coach back to the start as I knew we’d be able to get a later one but I was so worried about Dan and hated the thought that he’d had to sit there in the cold for over 4 hours with his body going in to shock. I so desperately wanted to get to the finish, not for it to be over but so I could see my brother and make sure he was ok. Just past 61 miles we started to drop down off of the Ridgeway and into Avebury. A mile later we began the cruel 1.5 mile long loop that takes you past the finish turn off and up the road to the famous stone circle that the race is named after. We got our photo taken at the stones then started to head back down the road we’d just come up. Although I really didn’t want to leave Nick, Peter, Stu and Jayne I realised that I’d have to run the last 2k if I had any chance of getting to the finish before 2am. They completely understood and after promising that I would see them at the finish I began to run. Everybody was walking at this point and people seemed amazed that I was running. But to be honest I had only trained to run this race, I hadn’t done any walking training and once I’d started running again I actually felt a lot better. Everyone I passed were saying ‘well done’ and ‘strong finish’ and it really gave me the boost to keep going. At 64 miles the finish line came into sight and I kept running until I’d crossed it, desperately scanning the faces there to find Dan. I remember someone putting a medal around my neck but I barely stopped as I moved away to look for him. A man who was at the finish cheering runners in went out of his way to walk over to me to tell me that it was an amazing finish and that I’d done really well which I thought was very sweet.
I found the place where the coaches were organised and asked the woman there to see if she could track down my brother. I gave her his race number and she phoned up someone who then tapped into the tracker on his number and said he was just arriving at the finish! I looked at my watch and saw that it was 1:58am, talk about perfect timing! I grabbed our bags from the baggage area and as I came back out Dan was walking towards me. I was so relieved to see him and gave him another hug. Just then my four team mates finished the race. I went over to say well done and gave them all a hug and Dan thanked them for looking after me. I was so pleased I’d managed to see them finish. After waiting around for a while the coach still hadn’t turned up so we were put in a massive shed to rest and given cups of coffee, blankets and mats to lay down on. As I looked over at Dan laying next to me he was shaking so much and yet it looked like sweat was pouring off of him. I really wanted to help him but I just didn’t have anything left. I didn’t even have the energy to take my backpack off so was laying in a really strange and uncomfortable position. As it turned out the coach driver had misunderstood the time and thought that 2am on Sunday actually meant 2am on Monday! So after waiting for 2 hours in a cold shed (apart from a brief shuffle to the toilet where I finally managed to throw up), laying uncomfortably on a mat while shaking uncontrollably, the driver finally showed up to drive us back to the start. I know it’s not the organisers fault that the driver was an idiot, and they did go out of their way to make sure we had whatever we needed, and even gave us all a free RTTS hat, but it still felt a bit dangerous that people in such a state were left to lay in the cold for a couple of hours. I kinda feel they should of done a bit more to get us on our way home quicker. But we finally made it back to the start at about 5:45am and after driving back to the hotel and a couple of hours sleep we headed home to London.
It’s hard to describe how I felt after the race as I kind of felt nothing. I definitely felt traumatised by the whole thing but I also felt really empty. It didn’t feel like I’d achieved anything amazing, I felt no sense of pride or relief at finishing, and looking back to the moment when I actually crossed the finish line I even felt nothing then, just empty. I think it may be because this was always supposed to be mine and Dan’s little journey, our adventure, so the fact that we didn’t finish it together made me feel like I hadn’t really properly finished at all. I still felt guilty about not being able to help Dan get to the end and although he’d started to question his decision to stop when he did I’m still 100% certain it was the right thing to do. He just hadn’t trained enough because of his injured knee and to push on any further would have been dangerous. I’m still amazed and so impressed that he managed to get to the 50 mile point after the struggles he’d had leading up to the race! One thing I did feel though was so lucky to have met up with Nick, Peter, Stu and Jayne for the last 20k. If I’d left the checkpoint 10 seconds earlier or 10 seconds later who knows who I would of ended up running with and how different my race would have turned out. Looking back on the whole experience, and even knowing how traumatised I’d feel afterwards, I’m so glad I did it. Race To The Stones is a brilliant race to do as a first ultra due to the amazing support throughout, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone. After all our talk of ‘one and done’ during the race, as we drove home to London I was already starting to feel like I wanted another go at it. And knowing my twin Brother I was confident he’d want another crack at it too. It took him a few days more but I was unsurprised when less than a week later he emailed me and said ‘Hey sis, fancy going back next year and smashing it?” Hell yeah!
DATE: 16 July 2016 DISTANCE: 64.1 miles TIME: 17:49:53 ELEV GAIN: 1,139m