Why was I contemplating running 100km nonstop?
Before I booked Race to the Stones I had only run marathon distance (42.2km) so why did I book it and what made me think I could do it?
Honestly, my main 2018 goal was a Middle Distance Triathlon (70.3) in June so I didn’t feel like I particularly needed a new one (in July) but my boyfriend wanted to sign up and the simple answer is... I find it really hard to say no! This trait has led me to getting involved in lots of challenging and amazing experiences, and this was one of them.
When I actually planned out my year, I figured if I could squeeze in an of-road marathon before my triathlon and a couple of long runs following it, I’d probably be alright. The down side is it would give me no rest after my triathlon and I’d miss out on a lot of run training because of the time I needed to spend on the bike and in the water.
From what I’d heard, the biggest part of an ultra marathon is the mental game and this actually gave me confidence rather than put me off. The more time you spend out of your comfort zone, the better you are in it and it’s is something I like to test.
When you spend time outdoors you are dealing with things out of your comfort zone: the weather, the terrain, nonexistent health and safety, food and water shortages, creative sleeping arrangements. I’m lucky that my life has been filled with weekends camping, sleeping in the back of a car, trad climbing, big wall climbing, parents getting us lost on long walks/rides as kids, but I had also battled darker challenges such as mental health (anorexia) and loss of a parent. Most challenges will make you stronger, make the next challenge easier and offer life fulfilment. Hold on to your achievements and learn from life’s tests.
What is Dixons Carphone Race to the Stones (RTTS)?
The Route is 100km and can be split across two days. I thought if I’m going to do it, I may as well get it done in a day. The route is from Lewknor along The Ridgeway, the oldest path in the UK, to Avebury where lies the largest Neolithic stone circle in Europe.
My boyfriend and I chose RTTS as some of the ultra running community who we had become friendly with advised it was a good first ultra: the event was well organised, well supported and the route was interesting and scenic. What else was there to worry about! (And where did worrying ever get anyone!) Turns out my boyfriend got injured but my mind was made up, I’d do it anyway.
Triathlon training towards an ultramarathon
My training mainly consisted of cycling, swimming, and some running - consistent with a triathlon training plan! Once my triathlon was done on 10th June, I cut the cycling and swimming and had 2 weeks of running before I had to start thinking about the taper. I was cautious about staying injury-free, so on the long runs I focused on keeping going rather than pace, running technique (bad form can do a lot more damage across many miles), staying positive, working the mental strength and not worrying about how long I was out for. I figured time spent on my feet was a good thing. Day to day I tried to stand rather than sit which may seem a small alternative, but every little helps.
If I could apply ‘endurance’ Sophie to ‘life’ Sophie, how I treat myself and cope with adversity, ‘life’ Sophie would be more confident and self-assured and life would be pretty stress-free. Note to self to keep working on that!
Race week - it’s a holiday!
A well-timed family holiday in Southbourne meant that race week consisted of an exhilarating day out at Pepper Pig World, a dip in the sea, coastal walks and a massive night out for the World Cup semi final. I think the lack of focus on the ultra and general family entertainment meant that I was well on the way to being so relaxed I’d forget how to tie my shoelaces. But what was there to actually worry about? I’d done all the training I could so I now just needed to get it done.
I’d slept the best I ever had pre-race in a lovely B&B near the race start of Lewknor and woke up without the usual butterflies and stomach rumblings. This was going to be a good day. Though it was set to be a hot day (up to 30 degrees) with no rain. The positive was that the wind was pretty calm and steady.
I wore shorts, t-shirt, a running vest with two 500ml soft water bottles (plus on empty spare), trail shoes, running socks and bra, sunglasses and my Suunto Ambit 3 Sport watch. I also carried a blister care kit, spare hair bobble, a buff (read on to hear why), a couple of energy gels (which I didn’t use due to excellent feed stations), electrolyte tablets, phone (which died), and a head torch (which I didn’t end up needing).
Lessons from the start
I’d chosen 12-14 hours for completion when I’d booked it many months before with no idea of what I was capable of. At the start line I hung at the back of the pack as thoughts were on being surrounded by a pack of ultra-runners who were faster and lighter than me with mindsets akin to Forrest Gump. If I had my chance again I would have had more confidence in those few moments as what I didn’t know was that the first 20km is through small trail paths and forests and uphill. I spent the first 20km waiting for spaces to overtake. I just had to stay happy and think ‘it's probably doing you good to take it a little easier’.
I had discovered in my training research the rule of walking the steep hills. The key is to walk fast. You do so much work running the lesser inclines, flats and down hills, it feels like you're undoing the hard work by taking the uphills too easy. This would also be my advice to those training for their first ultra.
George of the jungle, watch out for that...
The second thing I’d do differently is not fall over a tree root. One second I’m running, the next I'm flat on the floor. The next second I was back on my feet shouting back to some kind men ‘I’m OK’ and ‘nothing to worry about here!’ I don’t mind feeling a bit of a clumsy joker, however I did mind the niggling pain that started in my knee.
By 25km I was hobbling and the downhills were pretty unbearable. My boyfriend-turned-cheerleader was carrying an old knee support that I hadn’t needed for years so I called him, but unfortunately he couldn’t get to me for another 15km. So that became my next focus: getting through the pain to the 40km mark. So that was it. All I had to do for now.
Once I got the knee support (and took some painkillers, which I never do normally) it was a bit of a mental boost, but I really had to focus on my running form and my downhill running was completely affected. I managed to work out a sort of limp run for the downhills which put a lot of pressure through my good leg but more forgiving on the other knee and more forgiving in terms of losing pace.
The next hurdle then was getting to 50km where I was so happy to see two friends and their new baby with my boyfriend! The fact that they had come out in this heat to see me for a few moments whilst I did this meant a lot. It was great just to chat normally with them and have a bit of a laugh in the food tent. They also provided me with a mango ice-cream which was the best, most satisfying, thirst-quenching, cooling thing I experienced all day. If you have on-the-day support, I highly recommend you request one!
My friends told me how surprisingly good I looked (we camp together often so they had clearly seen me in much worse states!) and I told them the ultra was in the bag. How could I be sure I would finish when I still had 50km to go and a painful knee? My knee was painful but not broken. I already hurt so what was a bit more pain? All I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other. And as bizarre as it sounds, the first half really didn’t seem that long.
I didn’t realise that I already knew what mental strength was before I started looking into it the last year or so. The things that kept coming up I was already doing and I thought everyone else was too. I say ‘come on Sophie’ to myself regularly. I think about the positives of how the event is going not the negatives. I deal with the pain in the present and not worry about the rest of it to come. I think the biggest one is thriving in the situation and enjoying it – after all you’re the one that put yourself there!
To the end!
And so, with an iced body, ice cubes down my top and in my running vest, I set off on the final 50km. I ended up having a better second half than the first. There was more space with the crowds thinning and more open paths, and as I started to group with runners of a similar pace there was more opportunity to start conversations and run side by side with other interesting ultra-runners. One lady chatted about how the ultra was a ‘treat’ as she had a young family and had been given a ‘pass’ to sign up and spend the many hours training for it. With another gentleman we spoke about Ironman triathlons, getting older and going further and our technique of ‘getting to the next tree/sign/rock and then I’ll run/walk again’ as a way of pushing a little harder and keeping the mind in check.
The terrain was more testing, rocky and broken paths, painful on the knee downhills, a few long climbing slogs. But each step was a step in the right direction. I started to notice a few people running with sagging heads and caught a few disheartened conversations so I’d make a point of arms up physically cheering when I got to a point that I thought was worth celebrating - ‘20km to go!’ ‘another hill in the bag!’ ‘it’s not dark yet!’
I do wish I'd spent a little more time looking up, but with the early fall, my knee and the uneven terrain I did have to watch my feet. I also decided to take no photos on the run. Besides knowing there would be official event photos and not wanting to lose time, I knew it’s the feelings and lessons learnt that would stay with me long after the images mean anything.
The final few km
By 80km I knew I'd make it home in the light and beat the 14 hour mark. I usually love the downhills and make good time on them so it was a little frustrating I had to hold back as I felt I had more to give. But the feeling of getting to the Stones and the last km to the finish was simply great. ‘I’ve done it’ on repeat. My boyfriend’s face at the finish as he was allowed to present me with my medal was the thing that made me realise what I’d just achieved more than anything else. He collected my finisher's ticket and I was surprised to see I was the 102nd person to finish. It later transpired I was 19th female overall. Whenever I see results I'm always shocked and end up thinking ‘oh if I’d just done this or that I could have done better’ but at the end of the day, I didn’t, so be proud and get conjuring up the next challenge!
The pain I hadn’t heard about
Why did nobody tell me that the pain when you stop running is more than when you are running? I could deal with the pain when moving, but pain when sitting was quite unbearable! ‘My legs hurt’ was about the extent of my conversation on the drive home! This may sound crazy, but I recommend cycling to work (or similar) 2 days after the event, it really helped my legs get back to normal.
Fueling, hydration and blister strategies
I filled a litre of water at each of the 9 feed stations, which equates to a lot of sweat, so 1 electrolyte every other litre. I also soaked my buff in cold water and squeezed it over my head a few times before heading off with it soaked around my neck. That worked a treat - for 3 minutes. I ate some pasta and an ice cream at 50km, but apart from that I took 1 item (such as an energy bar) and 2 slices of fruit (deliciously amazing!) from each feed station to keep me going and found that was enough.
I lost my toenail to a toe-sized blister after a marathon in May so I was prepared to lose a few more. I took the time to tape up some hot spots and blisters at 50km, but after that they felt ok. I came off with at least one blister on every toe, but I honestly didn’t notice them on the day. A few other painful distractions to think about!
As I was running, I thought this is probably a tick box job and back to triathlons and shorter running events. Whilst I do love the variety from a triathlon, the sense of achievement and joy was pretty big after the ultra. Maybe a shorter but steeper ultra. Maybe doing this ultra will help me if and when I sign up to a full distance triathlon…TBC
- Anyone can do this race. If you want to do it enough, you can. The Dixons Carphone Race to the Stones really is a good first ultra-marathon.
- The more you look at the race as an exploration, adventure or fun day out the easy it is and the better you'll be. Embrace the discomfort and accept it’s going to be tough. Your mind has the most power to make or break your day.
- Keep it fun and injury-free!
- Staying injury-free is so important. If you decide to do an ultra, it’s because you really want to do it. Incorporate some strength and mobility work into your training. You can find videos to do this at home, attend a class, get a plan from a gym (many offer this for free), seek advice from friends/fitness groups with more knowledge, or find a personal trainer.
- Keep doing the things you love. If you’ve had a few weeks of your training plan and really fancy getting on the bike instead of running one day - go for it! Don’t automatically say no to things because you need to go for a run - can you do both? How can you make it work for you?
About the author: Sophie Kennedy is a personal trainer, runner, and Sundried ambassador.