Back in February I entered Threshold Sports’ Race to the Stones, a 100km race from the Chilterns in Oxfordshire to the North Wessex Downs. This would be my first event since running 32 miles in the Dorset CTS last December. My training started in April and gradually I upped my weekly mileage from 50 to 100, hitting my maximum distance 2 weeks ahead of the race. Usually I would allow myself a longer taper period, ideally 3 weeks, however, I didn’t feel I had enough miles in my legs so I pushed an extra week to up my endurance. Whilst my training went pretty well, I didn’t feel entirely race-ready due to the gap between this and my previous race. Plus I was having a difficult time preparing mentally. RTTS would be the longest distance I had ever covered, surpassing my previous maximum of 92km during stage 4 of the 2015 MDS. Despite not being much further, the MDS wasn’t really comparable as there had been 3 earlier stages, it was in the desert and I carried my food and kit. Back then I was just trying to make it through the stage but I was entering RTTS to compete, not just complete! I told anyone who asked that my target time was 9 hours, however secretly I was aiming for 8.5. Plus, I felt more confident in how I’d handle the first 50km so had a sub-target of completing that in under 4 hours. But, as this would be the first time I had run over 35 miles in a race scenario, I was unsure of how my body would react. This uncertainty played on my mind in the week leading up to the event and cost me quite a bit of sleep.
On the day of the race, after a first-breakfast of cereal, I set off from London at 6am with my support team. The race was incredibly well organised and within 2 minutes of arriving I had my race number pinned and was ready to go. This organisation was maintained over the course of the race, with well-stocked checkpoints and very supportive marshals. Plus there were over 600 signs across the route – a fact that my wife found reassuring as she consistently doubts my navigating abilities. After registering I had my second-breakfast – a bowl of porridge to fuel my first few hours – and checked over my kit. I use a Salomon race vest with plenty of pockets for energy bars and electrolyte tablets, and had chosen to wear Adidas Ultra Boost trainers. They’re a road shoe but as conditions had been dry I knew the trails would be hard underfoot and I wouldn’t need too much grip. Plus they offered more cushioning than my second choice – the Adizero – which would come in handy due to the length of the race.
I began the race with a friend who was completing the 50km section. We ran together for the first part and kept a nice pace but I chose to hunt out the front-runner who had set off a little quicker than us. I caught up with him at the first checkpoint and despite our different styles – his stride was longer than mine which meant he was more suited to downhills and flats and I had an advantage on the uphills – we were quite evenly matched and continued to run together. I reached the half-way point 2 mins ahead of him, and within my goal of 4 hours. Looking back I think the first half went quite well. It was maybe a little quicker than I would have liked as I was aiming for 7.30 min/mi but actually came in closer to 7.20.
After 50km the race really began for me as I made my first big mistake: I missed the water-station at the half-way point and had just 250ml of water left, which ran dry between 50-60km. Unfortunately, by this time the sun had made an appearance and I was running across an exposed section of The Ridgeway. I began to really suffer. My morale took a dent and I became worried. I was so relieved when I saw the marker telling me the next checkpoint was just 1km away. I took some time there to rehydrate with some glasses of squash, ate a little and filled up my water bottles. My morale picked up and I felt good for having made it to the 60km mark. Unfortunately, this feeling was short-lived! I had taken on too much food and drink in too short a time and was left feeling nauseous by the time I reached 70km, hitting a bit of a blip, both mentally and physically. I was expecting to experience both at some point during the race – just not at the same time! My legs felt like jelly and I started to question my ability. Had I bitten off more than I could chew?
It was at 70km that my running companion, the eventual winner Rob ‘Wyclef’ Forbes, left me. It wasn’t a case of him upping his pace, I just couldn’t maintain mine and we slowly drifted apart. Once I’d lost sight of him I pushed him from my mind and focused on running my own race. 70-80km was a real battle and I re-evaluated my race plan. I counted down the miles and aimed for the 80km mark where I told myself I would break the remaining distance down into two 10km races. At the 80km checkpoint I received a much-needed boost from the volunteers – I must have looked as though I needed some encouragement and they certainly gave it. Once I’d passed 80km I took my mind to my 10km training route at home. Mentally I took myself around its landmarks, focusing on the smaller stages and pushing the bigger picture and longer distances from my mind. Then I hit 90km. Only 10km remaining. Just 6 more bleeps on my watch. I directed my thoughts to the rewards that I would get at the end – food, drink, a lazy recovery day, all just within my reach. I told myself that I could actually achieve second place. I didn’t know where my nearest challenger was and wouldn’t allow myself to turn around for fear they were just over my shoulder. I had to run my own race.
Whilst there were many tough points to the race, one of the hardest was the route for the last 1km. The path looped around the Avebury Stones, meaning that we had to run past the turn-in for the finish line to complete the final section of the race. Seeing that line and having to push on past it was so, so difficult. It was at this point that the winner ran past me in the opposite direction. I knew then that he was too far ahead for me to catch but it didn’t matter as I was almost done. After passing the stones I headed back towards the finish line and, having spent much of my childhood being put to work on our family farm, I can honestly say that this was the happiest I have ever felt when running in to a farm-yard! I crossed the line at 8 hours, 26 minutes and 36 seconds, smashing my target of 8.30 and achieving second place. I had allowed myself to consider a top 5 position before the race but I didn’t think 2nd place was within my reach. I am more than happy to say that I was beaten by a better person – Rob broke the course record and was a phenomenally strong runner – his win was well deserved.
Looking back there was just one thing I would do differently. I should have built some events in to my training schedule. Whilst I put in the mileage, training runs are completely different to running in a race scenario and having some of these in the lead up to RTTS would have allowed me to reacquaint myself with race-day nerves and anxiety ahead of the main event. It’s a piece of advice I often give to my clients, I just need to start applying it to my own training. However, on the whole I’m incredibly pleased with how the race went and I’m already looking forward to next year!