The last time I went to Avebury was about 20 years ago, living down south and studying Geology, then Geo-Archaeology. I’ve always liked rocks and being outdoors, it seems Joe did too, as we met on the same course all those years ago. If you’d told me then that the next time I’d see the stones, it would be as a sweaty, grumpy ultra runner, I’d have thought you’d been affected by the strange atmosphere in this weird place!
It’s been a week since crossing the Race to the Stones finish line. 100k (and a smidge more) after setting off from a farm south of Oxford, we reached another farm near Avebury stone circle. Thinking about it, there were a lot of farms, and farm tracks, and fields and unusually large livestock. I suppose this is the story of our agri-archaeological adventure…
The Ridgeway is Britain’s oldest path; people have been walking it’s length for a very, very long time, although I suspect our ancestors did it at a more leisurely pace and with a bit more purpose than a personal challenge! I accepted the RTTS challenge last autumn, knowing that having my first marathon and the Six Dales in the diary for 2018, my fitness should be good enough to take it on.
That was a mistake. Having had Multiple Sclerosis for the last 13 years, I know not to take my health for granted, but I hadn’t anticipated on picking up an injury on New Years Day, resulting in initially being unable to walk and meaning I couldn’t run for the next 4 months. With hindsight, I think the physio and strength work I did to get back on track probably helped me last weekend, but it would have been nice not to have put it to the test!
Looking back at it, although Joe, Vicky and I signed up to the same race (100km with an overnight stop at the halfway basecamp) the race we did was very different. Joe was going for a time (and a very good time too) and Vicky and I simply wanted to finish. We all achieved our goals, but I think we all underestimated it too – you can read more about Joe’s race here.
When Vicky and I set off in the wave after Joe and our clubmate “One Day” Tammy, we tackled the first 10km according to our plan; running the downhill and flat bits at marathon pace and walking the hills. We were in good spirits at the first Pitstop, where we tried not to be greedy when faced with all those “free” goodies, had a light snack and topped up our water bottles (whilst laughing at our tiny collapsible cups).
After a brief chat with one of the volunteers, a fellow MS-er who’d clocked my MS Trust t-shirt, she wished us luck and we trotted off to take on the next 10k feeling good and nattering to the other competitors we passed or who passed us. It got hilly, and it got woody, and it got narrow, and we got stuck behind “techno beard” who thought we all wanted to listen to his music. We were having a good time, but agreed the terrain was a bit more technical than the “field of dreams” photos had lead us to expect.
At the next Pitstop we really could have done with some shade; the sun had been beating down, but the leafy cover along Grim’s Ditch had protected us a fair bit. Now it was hot, very very hot. We thought we’d pick up some time along the next section as it looked nice and flat, running along the stretch of the river Thames that inspired “The Wind in the Willows”… we were wrong!
The heat was pretty unbearable, we were trotting along initially, but soon realised we were dehydrating faster than our pace warranted, so there was an unconscious decision to walk a bit and look at the amazing properties and families messing about on the river. Could we swim this bit?
By Pitstop 3 I knew I was struggling when the village name of Mongewell barely raised a titter. I think my naivete with regards to fuelling had come home to roost and I needed to eat. A lot! Joe had finished (informed by the obligatory sobbing selfie I expect after every marathon, and now understand firsthand) so I knew I didn’t need to expend any energy worrying about him. After our longest stop so far, I was feeling a bit more human thanks to Vicky’s insistence that I shovel everything freak-friendly into my mouth (I follow the Overcoming MS lifestyle, which is akin to a vegan diet with fish) and we set off again.
It was a long hard slog to Pitstop 4, but we got there feeling relatively good, and took shade by the side of a car with our Pitstop picnic – this one was all about the nuts! Knowing we only had 6k to go to reach Basecamp, we toddled off expecting the last few kms to fly by. They didn’t. We knew it wasn’t just us struggling when we saw two burly blokes sobbing at the base of the monument about 1km out. Trail Tourettes kicked in with a vengeance when we saw the 1km to base camp sign – we thought we were much closer.
Thankfully we got to basecamp without a full on tantrum and were greeted by a smiling Joe and the lovely lady from Pitstop 1 who’d been keeping an eye out for us. Joe mentions in his blog about being ready to be our personal assistant, after having longer to recover… We’d already decided that he’d be our slave on arrival, and he did us proud, sorting out the tents, bringing water and snacks to the chillout tent and booking us in for a massage.
We all wondered how we were going to take on Day 2, but didn’t dare share our doubts…
The showers and massages revived us, and carbloading commenced in the food marquee. We made very good use of the excellent catering facilities! Anticipating an early start to beat the heat, we had an early night, I retaped my toes, and realised that I probably shouldn’t have taken rehydration quite so seriously after my third trip to the porta-loos… at least I didn’t get chance to seize up overnight!
Sun rise over the camp was really magical, completed by a Red Kite circling, looking for his breakfast. We had no trouble locating breakfast, and after the day before, shoveled in as much as we could. We set off together, but Joe was soon a dot in the distance as Vicky and I had decided that our completion depended upon us walking Day Two. The steadier pace gave us more time to appreciate the scenery and natter about what we’d learned on Day One. The first Pitstop came around surprisingly quickly and we were greeted by my new MS friend and had a bit more of a natter; she’d seen Joe earlier (who’d opted for his MS Trust t-shirt) and said he was looking strong. Git.
The terrain was a lot easier, there was more shade and we seemed to be gobbling up the km markers, possibly lullled into a false sense of security by the closer proximity between the basecamp and the first two pitstops. Pitstop 8 rolled around after what seemed like a never-ending uphill section, with the obligatory photographer at the top. We were feeling good, got the message that Joe had finished and even threw in a few stretches before setting off.
Next came the toughest bit of the challenge for us. Despite the walking and dilligent attention to hydration, the heat had still taken its toll. The lack of shade on the exposed gallops had sent body temperatures rocketing and my attention turned to how we could quickly cool down at the next pitstop; completing the challenge was starting to look in doubt.
Pitstop 9 was a Godsend. We took on water and electrolytes, took advantage of the shade (and barely noticed the midges), drenched t-shirts, buffs and hair and stuffed our faces as we started to come around a bit. This was our longest, but most important pitstop. There was only 12 km to go before we’d see Joe and my parents (who’d been warned what kind of state we’d be in!).
The last section dragged, the rutted paths were hard work and even the sight of a crop circle in the valley below barely roused our interest. We just wanted to get to the end. We tried to trick our tired minds over the last 10k by visualising our favourite parkruns. The switch back to see the stones was a killer, not made any easier by meeting a chirpy Joe. I don’t think the photographer quite knew what to say when we propped ourselves up against the biggest stone and said we weren’t moving until he’s zoomed in (sorry for messing up your settings if you’re reading this!).
Finally, after being given our complimentary stone momento by more smiling marshals (a bit of gravel that’s still in my day sack), we set off for the last km. The change of terrain to a long uphill slope of grass wasn’t welcomed, but turning onto the finishing straight certainly was. Emotions were running high, as Vicky and I turned to each other we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – so we did both. At once.
Joe finished 17th, an incredible achievement for his first attempt at anything over marathon distance, and Vicky and I were in the top two thirds, finishing without any ill effects. Maybe this is our niche? It’s been an incredible feeling to have the runners I look up to congratulating us on our achievement; as a plodder that’s never really happened before. So week on, after saying never again, we’re thinking about the next challenge.
Race To The Stones is without a doubt the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, and I know that I couldn’t have done it without Vicky’s support; we made a great team, and thankfully my fear that we wouldn’t be talking by the finish was unfounded. Not letting down the people who were kind enough to sponsor us played a big part too.
Since we started fundraising for the MS Trust in 2015, we’ve raised over £20,500 which goes a long way for a small charity. They do an amazing job supporting families affected by MS in the UK through the provision of information on diagnosis and the training of the MS nurses that give us the care we need, when we need it. If you’d like to donate, you can follow this link.