Race to the Stones 100k (and a little bit more)
I am not going to tell you about the training, the nerves or even why I did it. That would take too long; if you really want to know ask me about it when I have a drink in my hand. I do want to tell you why I love this event.
RTTS is the third and final race of a series of events known as the Threshold Trail Series. They are so good they have won national awards. Each event has the same options. You can run all of the route in one go or you can stop at a base camp on the Saturday night and finish on Sunday. There are also one day options to run either the first or second half. The first two events are back-to-back marathons (53/54 miles) but RTTS is two 50 kilometre ultras – it’s official distance is just under 101 kilometres. Most people consider RTTS to be the best event of the series. It certainly attracts the most people. I have wanted to do this race for more than two years – it’s been on the top of my bucket list races from the moment I found out about it. There were people from 26 countries attending this year. That’s how popular it is.
The straight through option is £124 and you have to buy the t-shirt. I could buy at least 4 half marathon race entries or two entries to the London Marathon or Brighton for the price I paid for it. Oh hang on a minute, let me check my maths – 100k is 2 marathons and nearly a half marathon on top. In fact I would say that having been to quite a few races this was probably the best value for money race I have ever been to. They even throw in the photos for free. Bargain!
If I had to describe Threshold in one word it would be glamorous which is a bit of a contradiction because there is nothing glamorous about ultras. They generally involve sweat, tears, mud, dust, blisters, pain, blood and occasionally vomit! Somehow Threshold pull it off. The website is attractive and informative – it has a great section called Participants Information which really covers everything. There are also the normal monthly emails with training plans, nutrition advice etc., and there is a Participant Forum which you get the link to after you sign up. There is a lot of hype on Facebook and social media in general. Like I said glamorous, this ultra running business is so much fun! Everyone should do it, you don’t even need to run. In fact Threshold don’t seem to use the word run. Instead they like to call us Walkers – that is so much more me.
I only found one thing to criticise about the whole experience; there is not a midway drop bag facility. Not a problem for me because I have a husband who is willing to crew for me but not everyone has a Jon! If you can get someone to be your crew I would recommend it. That man deserves a medal for what he did.
Race Day itself is a very slick operation, every aspect has been thought through and from start to finish you feel looked after. There are several different parking options with shuttle buses from either end of the route although they do charge for this facility. The race village was in a field with all the normal items you might expect, but with over 2500 participants it didn’t feel overwhelming either just a feel good vibe that made me smile. There was a small queue to pick up my t-shirt and to have a pre-race photo but nothing to make me fretful. I was even able to jump into an earlier wave to get going – perfect!
There is a lovely glossy booklet with the route nicely printed out but you don’t need it as there were about 1000 route markers to follow. Not sure when they started but there were also glow sticks to follow in the dark – almost impossible to get lost. Just don’t forget your head torch if you think you are going to take longer than 14 hours.
So by now you are probably thinking it all sounds good but nothing to make it outstanding and you would be right. The value added that makes this race special starts at about mile 36.
At first when you start there is a bottleneck- I knew this and was happy to walk at the back of my wave until I reached the top of the small hill and turned onto the Ridgeway path. The route follows this pathway almost entirely with only a few deviations. It’s a beautiful route with landscape that changes dramatically as you cross through the counties. The whole Ridgeway is 86 miles long and is the oldest known path in Britain. It ends at the stone circle in Avebury. There is an ultra called the Ridgeway Ultra but you have to have qualifying times to participate in that one.
The first five miles are fairly gentle through pretty woodland then you hit the first hill. It’s a bit steep but you know the first aid station is just around the corner so it’s still all smiles. I have to say that the selection on offer at each station was excellent. Packets of crisps, biscuits, flapjacks of all varieties, fruit, nuts, chocolate bars, cake, sandwiches and later on hot food. The midway base camp also offered a real meal of either fajita or taco I think. Huge vats of water so no chance of that running out, coke, squash and hot drinks too. At every station, all of them, plus the free hot meal at the end – yes I had a cooked breakfast it was awesome.
Never seen so much food. Plus there were motivational and informative signs – like ‘only 89k to go’. By the time you get to the third station you really started to appreciate how much thought had gone into the organisation. All the volunteers were really well briefed. I was stopped at every station and my well being was checked on. They offered to fill up water bottles, pointed out chairs and mats to rest on plus there was a proper medical tent with trained first aiders who could tape up knees and pop your blisters. Sun tan lotion, insect repellent and freeze spray were freely available and people were using them.
Until about mile 18 you could fool yourself you were just out for a normal run but after that it gets tough. It is a lot more up than down from this point forward, as you leave the Thames valley and climb back onto the Ridgeway, the trail is more exposed and becomes more technical in places. Then there is the small matter of the remaining 45 miles. Experienced ultra runners tell you not to think about the whole distance but to break it down into smaller chunks so those aid stations become beacons to move towards at whatever speed you can muster.
I spoke to many runners that day, everyone was feeling the heat, those who had run RTTS before said that this year was the hardest. The met office had forecast about 27 degrees in the shade for Wantage which is the nearest town. Up on the Ridgeway we were getting readings of about 35 degrees. The paths are white chalk that had been baked to a solid concrete in the heatwave with huge rutted tracks.
There was a lot of reflected heat. I saw a lot of people sitting down in shaded areas just trying to escape the heat for a minute or two. Everyone around me walked more than ran. Lots of people became ill towards the end. I stopped to check on one woman being violently sick late in the evening. I was paranoid about heatstroke and sunburn and took every precaution I could think of. Again Threshold proved their worth by putting buckets of water out making people soak their hats before leaving each aid station. It’s those simple things which make all the difference. I had my PRR buff around my neck which I drenched at every station – it makes a lot of difference by keeping the back of your neck covered and cool. I might invest in a French foreign legion hat next time.
At one point going up a long exposed hill I was trudging with my head down trying not to think about anything when a shadow crossed my path. When I looked up there were six maybe seven birds circling 20 foot above my head if I hadn’t known we don’t get vultures in this country I would have been more worried but they were kites looking for an afternoon snack.
The base camp at the halfway point looked amazing, much bigger than expected, with a finish arch, music, a DJ and plenty of volunteers to help direct you to where you needed to go. I could see the tents for the overnighters off in the distance – that was where the party was. There was a huge circus marquee with hot food, showers, yoga tent, massage tent as well as a quick snack stop for anyone who didn’t want to linger. Maybe next time.
Getting going again got harder at each aid station but at the same time due to the large number of participants I was never alone as I mostly walked into the setting sun. With every mile the landscape seemed to become more dramatic with ever higher hills. One of the most recognisable landmarks is called the Field of Dreams – you run down through a crop field – it’s quite nice and happens around mile 8 when everyone is still smiling. For my money climbing up onto the moorlands as the night came closer and you got your first glimpse of those glow sticks was simply magical. It was so still, very peaceful and the colours in the sky deepened to bands of purple and orange. Just stunning.
It gets dark around 10 pm – I had crossed over the M4 and passed the White Horse at Uffington by that time. Even if I had been able to run at my target pace I would still have had to finish in the dark. I was prepared for it. It is harder, you have to go a bit slower if you are running trails. There was one downhill section that would have seen me coming down on my bum for 200 meters if I hadn’t elected to carry my walking poles. Steep, heavily wooded, broken track in the pitch black is not fun. I snivelled to myself a tiny bit but cheered up almost immediately when my lovely husband popped up out of nowhere.
The last two aid stations were filled with slightly shell shocked and injured runners. Nearly everyone was in pain from one thing or another. 50 miles in the heat will do that. People were huddled under foil blankets as the temperature rapidly fell. Hot soup, pasta and porridge were all available – I had hot sweet tea for the second time in one year and was grateful. People who had passed me on the way waved and nodded as I came in. We tried to make a few feeble jokes at AS8 but by the last one no one was capable of anything. The volunteers were amazing, the camaraderie was fantastic. We all looked out for each other, sharing in this incredible journey. It was truly the experience of a lifetime.
From mile 53 there is a continuous hill that goes on for about 7 miles with the occasional little dip. I kept looking back to glance at the string of lights following me up the hills, it was reassuring knowing they were just behind me. I knew if I needed encouragement there would be plenty on offer. It was just that kind of day. The final aid station was at mile 55.8 and on we all trudged through the darkness.
Okay that was a dramatic last sentence but not as dramatic as the meltdown I had when I saw Jon at the final aid station. I was so tired and in pain from blisters and my right leg was on fire. I needed him to make it stop. I totally lost the plot. Instead he got me warmed up, fed, watered and pointed me towards the portaloos. Then he dressed me in a fleece, reset my torch and pushed me out of the gate to shuffle the final 7.7 miles to the finish. My hero!
Within five minutes of leaving that last pit stop I fell in with a man who had completed RTTS twice before. He refused to leave me behind but walked steadily by my side telling me about the path ahead and where to expect the really hard bits. The next six miles would be tough at the start of any run but after fifty plus miles it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. I think we were passed once in the next five miles. Jon popped up again to check on me and then said he would meet me at the Stones for the final run in.
The last three miles are mostly downhill but again more deeply rutted, uneven, overgrown, chalk track which even if I had had the energy I couldn’t have run down. Neither did anyone else that I saw. I did go a bit faster especially when Jon popped up again – he does get about a bit you know. By that time my friend had pushed on a bit because two women were with me as well as Jon and we made our way down towards the Stones.
It would be nice to say the route ends at the Stones but unfortunately as it is a national monument access is restricted. You run past the 99k marker pointing towards turning which leads to the finish line and have to go down a road a bit then into the field. The Stones are lit up with fairy lights then you have to turn around on yourself and go nearly another three kilometres to the finish line, passing other runners coming in, back to the turning and then up and over a uncut field. A hill in the last kilometre! That’s a bit rude! The final approach is downhill and I did jog over the finish line.
At 3 am it was very busy. Lots of family and friends waiting for loved ones as well as the lovely volunteers. Hot food, showers and a barn to sleep in if you need to. It was quite something to sit and eat with other runners and chat about the day; I think we all needed to decompress a bit.
So why do I think this is such a good race apart from value for money, great organisation, fantastic volunteers, amazing aid stations and the most stunning route? There are plenty of 100 kilometre ultras in stunning locations that are probably just as well organised. However most of them are not accessible to mediocre runners like myself. There are cut off times – normally 16 hours – the routes are much more challenging generally and the field of runners is much smaller. I would finish last if I finished at all and be alone at the back for all of the run. RTTS is about finding ‘the more is in you’. They want walkers and runners alike. There is a generous time limit; the last aid station closes at 9am on Sunday for the non-stop runners. It’s smart really, because Threshold get a lot of repeat business from people who want to do it all again but better or run another one of the series or in some cases attempt all three events in one year (you get a free t-shirt for this amazing achievement).
I believe in people, that we can do amazing things if we believe in ourselves. 100 kilometres is a huge distance, utterly ridiculous in fact. However, with the right mind set, commitment and training it is achievable if you choose the right race. So with that in mind if you are ever feel crazy enough to give it a go this is a good place as any to start.