Can you run a 100km?
On Saturday16th July 2016 I ran the Race to the Stones over 100km (63 miles) between the village of Lewknor in Oxfordshire and Avebury in Wiltshire.
This is a breathtakingly beautiful challenge through 5,000 years of history along The Ridgeway, the oldest path in the UK. It is lined with Bronze Age hill forts, Neolithic burial chambers, Roman river crossings and culminates in the largest Neolithic stone circle in Europe at Avebury.
Registration with all the rules and regulations explained, trail map given. Plus some casual banter about how it was a good idea at the time of entry to enter the 100km non-stop.
We started at 8am on a glorious summer’s morning in high spirits. I was amongst over 2,000 other participants, the vast majority of which would be walking or running the route over two days. I, however, would be running the whole route non-stop. The mood at the start was upbeat as runners and walkers alike prepared themselves for the ordeal ahead. There was a pit-stop every 8-12km offering water, juices, food, rest and medical facilities and, at the half-way tented village where those doing it over two days would stop for the night. The marshals and pit-stop assistants were incredibly enthusiastic and supportive, throughout and this was a very well-organised event.
For the first 10k I ran at a comfortable 6:00min/km pace along a tree-lined track, enjoying the camaraderie and banter amongst the runners, still excited and full of energy at the start of our challenge.
At one point we crossed a golf course and then a narrow track through a field of corn with the cornsheaves reaching up to our waists. We even ran alongside a racecourse at Lambourne Downs, overlooking Didcot in the far distance.
Shortly after the first pit-stop we ran along Grim’s Ditch, a dead straight 5 mile path through overarching trees. Grim is the Anglo-Saxon word for the devil and his name was often attributed to unnatural features in the landscape. Grim’s ditch was probably built during the Iron Age to mark a boundary as it’s not big enough to be a defensive earthwork.
The going here got tough as you had to be careful to avoid the many roots sprouting up everywhere across the path. I fell really hard, enough said.
Suddenly we emerged from the trees and found ourselves running along The Thames. Without the cover of the leafy paths in the direct sunlight the temperature rose rapidly to reach 32 degrees at midday. We crossed the river at Goring-onThames, cheered on by the spectators enjoying a Saturday afternoon pint at the many pubs along the river. At this stage along the Thames path, country lanes and through the roads at Goring we were still keeping up a good pace of around 6:00min/km but that didn’t last long as, after 25k the route went steeply uphill and back onto the rockier trails of the Downs. In that heat we were relieved to reach the third pit-stop where a young boy was having a wonderful time dousing the sweaty runners with his water-gun!
The scenery up there was stunning, with long, sweeping vistas over the Chiltern Downs, capped by azure-blue sky-scapes broken only by fluffy white clouds. Underfoot the chalk paths were hard and unforgiving and many runners were complaining of blisters. Fortunately my long training sessions on the North Downs Way and Thames path, plus my wonderful Altra Lone Peaks saved my feet against that.
Shortly after completing the first marathon in just over 5 hours I reached the fourth pit-stop, suitably refreshed I set out again for the half-way village at 50k which I reached in 7 hours 30 minutes. A farmer’s field had been commandeered for a huge marquee and a tented village with toilet and shower blocks for the majority of the participants who would over-night there.
I made the conscious decision prior to the race not to stop here for a hot meal, but rather after 60km. I was pretty envious of those runners stopping here and enjoying a cool pint of cider, I set off on the second half of the challenge before my aching muscles seized-up too much. Now the trail got even hillier and rougher underfoot with the paths evolving into hard rocky tracks. My extensor tendons (top of foot/ankle) started to ache painfully but once I got back into our stride it became bearable enough to ignore.
What was amazing about this route was that, even though we were running through the heart of England, with the exception of Goring, we didn’t pass through a single town or village. Virtually the whole route was through farming land along the top of the ridge, high above the settlements in the valleys below. We rarely ran on, or even crossed, a road. There was a sense of peace and calm throughout; far from the madding crowd.
Also, having left most of the field behind at half-way, there were now fewer runners on the route so it was much lonelier than before. I’m afraid that serenity didn’t make the challenge any easier and, as the day drew on, so it became muggier and the route changed again, this time to rutted grassy chalk paths.
At checkpoint 7 (68km), I was now deep into my 12th hour of running, by which time in my ignorance before the start, I had imagined I would have been 15kms from the finish of the race!
I had totally underestimated how difficult it would be.
As I plodded on the race became an exercise of survival between pit-stops.
And then, after the 8th pit-stop at 78.4km it started getting dark! Things got even tougher as I strained my eyes to pick out roots and rocks underfoot in the beam of my head-torch. What was always going to be a physically draining challenge now became mentally draining too as I had to raise my levels of concentration. As darkness fell it also got colder and the atmosphere became moist with the twilight dew. This was where my spirit was at its lowest. My energy was dwindling, my mind scrambled and my muscles were screaming.
The final ridge run over the Marlborough Downs seemed to last forever. I caught up with a chatty bunch and we passed many runners on their last legs, now reduced to walking, but we were determined to run where the terrain allowed. The organisers had marked the route with tubes of luminous fluid every 250m, without which we would certainly have got lost.
I knew that at the point in the trail where we turned off The Ridgeway down into Avebury there would be a marshal with a torch guiding the way.
Hill after painful hill passed us by but still no sign of that torch.
The relief when I saw it bobbing like a firefly in the distance was massive!
Down the steep hill into Avebury my little group and I ran, picking up the pace and overtaking still more runners, now, with the end in sight, careless of the dangers of tripping on a rock or turning an ankle or a rut in the track.
Suddenly the majestic stones reared up eerily around us out of the dark, their ancient, mysterious and concentric bulk guiding our way to the Finish.
The group of runners picked up the pace again, I could not keep up this time.
I have frivolously used up my very last ounce of energy to cover the last straight, lined with luminous tubes and flood-lights, in a painful hobbling “sprint” – but in style, I ran up the final cruel slope to the Finish Line to the welcoming cheers of the many loyal supporters who had braved the night or rather early morning to witness the completion of this gruelling challenge.
At 01.32am on Sunday 17th of July (Carel’s birthday) I crossed the finish line and into the thankful embrace of my super supporter. There were medals, smiles and tears of relief; there was pain (especially in my foot) but most of all there was massive pride in my achievement. The sign across the Finish gantry read “More is in you”.
After 100 gruelling kilometres of physical and mental strain, I had to disagree as I had absolutely nothing in me left to give!
What a challenge!
This was a true test of endurance and determination. The fact that Race to the Stones is run on trails and partially in the dark raises the bar against an ultra on roads in the daylight. To have completed it is a major achievement.
It took me 17 hours 30mins and I finished in 549th place out of 956 (non-stop) runners and was the 125th Female of 286.
- Carel (my best friend and loving husband), for supporting all my selfish endeavours. Surprisingly showing up on your bike at crucial sections during the race between pit-stops, when I was really struggling and mentally low.
- To my parents – who with an hour ahead of UK time stayed lying awake till the wee hours of Sunday morning worrying about me. Love you guys so much.
- To all my friends and Blackline London family – I can’t thank you enough for all the support. Carel kept me updated with the social media happenings and all the messages. For all those who sent me a quote or lyrics – I read and listen my way through the event – each one meant so much to me at each stage. Thanks to Weronika and Dewet for waiting at the finish after (W) finished 4hours before me!
- Finally, thank you Lord for blessing me abundantly everyday, when the race seemed too tough – Isaiah 40:28-31 jumped to mind.
“He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”
I got asked this question many times this past week. “Would I do this again?” My answer for now, “It is too early to say really, probably”.