Race To The Stones is a trail ultra marathon that takes place on the stunning, historic trails between Oxford and Swindon every July.
I can’t explain the meaning of this race to me; I find I am drawn to the lure of the combination of stunning scenery and brutal distance and terrain and the challenge of going as fast as I can for as long as I can.
I did this race for the first time in 2016, shortly after the realisation that doctors could do nothing more to help my mum with her cancer which had spread from her bowel to her liver. This cancer had been diagnosed after emergency surgery in 2012 around the time of the Queen’s Jubilee. So we had endured 4 long years of chemotherapy and surgery and never any remission, but my mum battled on and was so strong.
I used running to deal with my pain and could easily do back to back long runs, so I signed up for this ultra marathon even though I had not run more than marathon distance.
In 2016, at just past the 90km (55-mile) mark, I was feeling great and was first lady. Sadly, by 60 miles, I realised I was hopelessly lost and had a DNF by the side of a busy main road.
2017 saw me complete the 50km route which I did with confidence and crossed the line second overall and first female having run a few other ultras in between Race to the Stones 2016 and 2017. I was determined my failure in 2016 was not my final chapter.
Roll on 2018 and the challenge was finding a way to train whilst also being a single mum with no support, so babysitters and taking the kids with me to training was the only option. I was not intending to do the race as I thought I couldn’t get anyone to look after the children, but my friend said she would look after them for me... Amazing!
For the 2018 race, it was a hot day and the heat was relentless. Thankfully, I love the heat! I was running well and I thought I was hydrating well as I had my hydration vest and I was sipping on water and taking electrolyte tablets regularly. However, after leading the whole race and being 2nd/3rd overall for most of the run, at 80km I started to feel unbalanced. Something wasn’t right.
Running suddenly felt much more of an effort, my chest started to hurt, and I felt a bit light headed, so being sensible I slowed my pace. I then got a stitch and had to slow for that and so getting from 80km to 90km was a real struggle and seemed to be mostly uphill.
After 90km, I tried to push on (this time the signs were a lot better and I went the right way!) I was determined to finish but my mental strength was starting to fade and I had a few grumbles to myself, but I thought, "Come on you’re nearly there." Time was slipping off what I had hoped to run and I felt very uncomfortable; each step felt like an eternity to the finish.
But, I did it! After finishing some electrolytes that were given to me by the medics, I felt a lot better and drove back home to collect my children and put them to bed.
I felt a sense of achievement that I had finally done the whole 100km. The only thing is, I went out to win it and did not achieve that so I’ll have to try again!
About the author: Sophie Carter is a personal trainer, ultra runner, and Sundried ambassador.
Lulworth Cove Ultra Marathon was not only my first ultra marathon, it was my first time doing trail running. I had signed up for a different team event but it was cancelled at the last minute due to safety reasons. I was determined not to let my training go to waste so I went on the hunt for a replacement race. A friend of mine introduced me to the Trail Events Co Lulworth Cove Ultra Marathon trail running race and without hesitation I signed up! Registering very late (three days before the race) meant that there was no time to get apprehensive about it. I just packed my stuff and got down to the south coast.
As the horn sounded at the start of the race, my naivety shone through and I hit the front with another chap, albeit at a pretty modest pace. By about 5km we had settled into a rhythm and a group of about 5 or 6 of us had formed and broken away, inter-changing positions with each km that passed.
By 8am the sun was already beating strong and the air temperature was climbing. I had slapped on a load of sun cream before I left but I wasn’t sure it was going to be enough.
As soon as the race started, we were into the climbing. I remember laughing out loud at a scramble up from the beach. “I thought this was supposed to be a trail run,” I said to the guy in front of me when we got to the top. He asked me if this was my first trail ultra and when I said that it was, he simply smiled and said “you sure picked a good one to begin with!” I took that to mean I was in for a hard day and he wasn’t wrong!
The route itself was varied, from coastal path, beach (sand and stone), steps, steep climbs and descents to forest and open country, it had it all! By 21km I felt good and was in about 6th position, which was totally unexpected and I was just waiting for something to go wrong. I didn’t have to wait long!
At about 25km something didn’t feel right. I had planned on fuelling with solids as they had worked in training and out cycling so I thought I would stick to what I knew. However, in the heat, I just couldn’t face the dry oat and energy bars. So I stuck to blocks and gels which is not an unusual fuel source for me and I was used to them, but something wasn’t quite right. Whether it was the direct sunlight, high air temperature, or something else, my stomach was in turmoil by 30km from which point I couldn’t keep anything other than water and electrolytes down. But as long as one foot went in front of the other, I kept moving forward: walking up the hills and jogging down and on the flat.
And so the kilometres ticked by, unrelenting inclines and unrelenting declines, the downs hurting as much as the ups. Being passed by a few other runners along the course went to both demoralise and spur me on in equal measure.
Aside from a couple of navigation errors, the finish line was quickly approaching and with 55km (34 miles) and 2,050m of cumulative climbing complete, I crossed the line and felt an incredible rush of both exhaustion and elation. I haven’t felt that sensation since my first Ironman back in 2014 and the sense of achievement still hasn’t faded... I want more of this!
Having no real benchmark to hit for that type of run as it was my first, and knowing that I wasn’t going to be competitive, I wasn’t too fussed about my result. I finished in a touch over 7 hours and was told I should be pretty happy with that. As it turns out, of the 74 starters I came 11th... I was over the moon!
Overall, this is a brutal race with some very hard climbing and descending, over a great course through beautiful countryside. I would recommend this race to anyone wanting to really challenge themselves. I know I will be again!
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, traditional 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.
The North Downs Way Half Marathon is organised and run by Hermes Running who provide organised running events in Surrey and London. This challenging trail half marathon follows the North Downs Way with a climb up Box Hill thrown in for fun.
This event is organised by Hermes Running who organise runs in and around Surrey, Kent, and London. The North Downs Way Half Marathon and Marathon are overseen by David Ross who has been organising events since 2012. He is an experienced marathon and ultra marathon runner himself so knows what runners want and expect from a race and his mission is to make sure his runs are scenic and enjoyable, something I'd say he's definitely achieved with the North Downs Way Half Marathon.
This event sees a half marathon and a full marathon run concurrently on the same out-and-back course. The start is at The Bridge House Hotel in Reigate which is a great venue as it means runners can relax in the comfort of the hotel lobby before the race starts, and make use of the facilities instead of queuing for portaloos in a field! For the 2019 race, despite it being the beginning of July, it was raining profusely so it also meant we were able to stay dry and warm before heading out to the race start.
The race start is in a field near the Reigate Hill car park and David gives a short race brief before the off. Parking is a bit of a pain as there are only a few spaces at the hotel and the next nearest place to park is a very long walk down Reigate Hill to the station. It acts as a decent warm up for the race though! But it was quite a sight seeing hoards of very wet, chilly people slogging up this hill before the event had even started.
Overall the race is organised very well and it's all very straight forward.
This race is advertised as being 'challenging' and challenging it is! Not for the faint-hearted, the half marathon is once out-and-back while the full marathon is twice out-and-back. This is a trail run and gets very technical in places. There are some sharp, steep descents and ascents as well as stairs and single-file sections, tree roots and rocks to jump over and thick foliage to push through.
Despite the challenging nature of the run, the views are superb and the route is beautiful. You forget how much your body is hurting because you're focusing on your footing as well as enjoying the views.
The turn around point is right at the Box Hill lookout so your reward for making it up Box Hill and to the halfway point is a quick respite with some snacks and drinks provided by the aid station while enjoying the views out over Box Hill.
The route goes through various different sections including open fields, woods, and tracks. There is a very short section on a pavement next to a road as well. Many sections are single-file which means overtaking is a challenge however by this point most of the runners had settled into a steady rhythm and so this wasn't a problem at all. You do have to be careful when the faster runners are coming back the other way and us slower runners always stepped to the side so they could get past quickly and easily.
If you're a recreational runner like me, this is not a half marathon you would do for time. There are some sections where running is simply impossible due to the technical nature as well as one particular hill that is so steep even the fastest athletes were having to walk. This is definitely a run you do for fun instead of a PB but it really is great fun and I loved every minute of it.
The race is held at the beginning of July so I expected it to be very hot. However, it just so happened to be fairly chilly (14 degrees) and raining the day of the 2019 race so this made it a lot easier but also meant the route was slippery under foot at times. If it had been very hot, it would have been a lot more challenging.
The support at this race is absolutely outstanding. Because it's an out-and-back route, you see the faster runners on their way back and everyone smiles and says, 'Well done! Keep going!' to each other. Then on the way back you see the marathon runners heading out for their second lap and so cheering them on and congratulating them on an insane achievement is a real mood booster, especially when they smile and say well done back.
At no point was I on my own: there were always other runners around me the whole time which really motivated me and kept me going. The camaraderie between the runners was the best I've ever experience during a race; it was the friendliest race I've ever done.
There are two aid stations on the course, one at roughly 3 miles and one at the turnaround point. This means the half marathon runners get to pass an aid station three times (twice for the first one and once at the turnaround) and the marathon runners will pass an aid station six times. The aid stations are stocked with water, juice, dates, Chia Charge bars and various other snacks.
As this race is so challenging, you can expect to add on around an hour to your normal half marathon time, and up to 90 minutes to your marathon time. Because of this, some of us slower runners didn't finish until over 3 hours after the start. I was really impressed that there were lots of people at the finish to cheer us on and support us as we finished. It's great that they all stuck around for so long, 3 hours is a long time to wait! There was an aid station at the finish with plenty of provisions and the addition of a big bag of electrolyte powder which was well needed and appreciated.
Overall the support at this race was outstanding and the best at any race I've ever done. I really enjoyed this race even though is was so challenging and physically demanding and I'd massively recommend it to anyone. Just make sure you do lots of hill training and don't skip leg day at the gym!
This is Sundried ambassador Vanessa Cullen's race report from her first marathon and ultramarathon at the Great Ocean Walk Trail Run in Victoria, Australia where her and teammate Rohini finished as first female team overall.
My First Ultramarathon
My longest run to date had been 38km (23 miles) so I had plenty of questions in my mind whilst waiting for my relay team mate Rohini to finish her 55km (34-mile) leg before I could commence my 45km (28 miles) in the Great Ocean Walk Trail Run 100km event (100km is roughly 62 miles). It was hard to know when to eat, not knowing when Rohini would come through the exchange checkpoint, but I got lucky with a gel, a piece of banana and a lolly snake timed to perfection just before she appeared.
Once I was off and running alone, in the quiet of my mind, all the questions and niggles evaporated. After the initial 5km climb I really settled emotionally and physically. After 10km I felt gloriously happy, in command and confident I would complete the race. The course was very testing with 'shark's tooth' elevation changes, sand, mud and stairs but it was also incredibly beautiful. There were so many breathtaking moments at the crests of hills and as we emerged from single trail onto coastal headlands and lush green paddock clearings.
I loved every single moment, even the most gruelling, and did pause a few seconds to savour the world renowned views quite a few times! I was very happy to see our crew at the 25km mark but was feeling strong and was in and out of the checkpoint in barely a minute. At 37km I felt nauseous but settled it with food, recognising the sensation as just hunger. The iconic Twelve Apostles stone formations came into view and I exclaimed out loud "Wow!". No one was there to hear but that didn't matter.
My watch hit 40km (25 miles) exactly as I clambered over a fence stile. I had a brief moment of personal cheerleading at the excitement of seeing those digits for the first time! 2.2km later I was beaming and celebrating again at having cracked my first marathon. The remainder of the distance to the finish line seemed to drag on because I was so excited to have nailed the race and wanting so bad to see my relay buddy, crew and friends. The final finish was a brilliant celebration as I accomplished our aim of beating nightfall and Rohini ran down the finish chute with me, hand in hand. My partner and crew were all there and it was a moment that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
But what really stood out for me, in this race, was:
- The pure fun of the training process in preparing for the race.
- The incredible peace, joy and sense of being 'at home' I flowed in over the course.
- Confirming that I can run so far beyond physical pain when my soul is in control.
I can’t wait to take on my next trail ultramarathon experience now. I’m hooked!