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.
I’m a Top 10 kind of guy, occasionally Top 5. I don’t win races. I enjoy the buzz of racing but it’s not the reason I train. I like to think that if there were no races I’d still be out running or riding my bike. It’s my hobby and my therapy. An escape from life’s responsibilities. I raced my first ever ‘ultra marathon’ earlier this month.
Technically, an ultra marathon is any race longer than a marathon, but at 30 miles this was a baby of the ultra world. In fact, there were two distances being run for this event – The Green Man Ultra 45 & 30 miles. The 30 mile version is affectionally known as the Green Boy. I had a ‘proper’ ultra coming up 6 weeks later – the 50-mile Butcombe Trail on the Mendips (before everything got cancelled in 2020).
I had picked the Green Boy as a stepping stone to the big boy. It felt a bit like swallowing a spider to catch a fly… Anyway, to my surprise I only went and won the race. I took the lead in the first few hundred metres and never saw my competitors again. From the times at the checkpoints, I set an early lead and continued to extend it throughout. It’s a strange feeling to be racing solo for 4 hours and 15 minutes. You have no idea what’s happening behind you and have to just keep pushing on. I felt like I was running well, but in the thickest of mud or on the steepest of hills when my pace dropped, I had to keep telling myself that it was the same conditions for everyone and that I had to just focus on maintaining my same effort level. The 45-mile race started at 8am and the leaders started coming through Checkpoint 2 (also the 30 mile start line) at around 10.15am.
By the time we started at 11am, around 40 participants of the longer route had passed through. This at least gave me some people to chat to as I passed them, sharing a few words of encouragement. My family came to the final checkpoint to cheer me on before heading on to the finish line. I’d told my wife that I expected to be through between 2.15 and 2.45pm based on the previous year’s results. I had no real idea but guessed I’d be somewhere between 5th and 10th out of the 75 participants in my race. The looks on their faces when I arrived just before 2.15pm in first place was a mixture of pride and confusion, mostly confusion! I gave them all a brief high-five before running on. I felt like I got my kit and nutrition right on the day. I wore Inov-8 Roclite 315 trail shoes, and my Sundried t-shirt and socks of course!
The route was a mixture of trails and road so I opted for cushioned trail shoes. They soaked up the shock of the tarmac better than my lightweight trail shoes, however they do have a tendency to soak up the mud and water from the puddles too. But it felt like the right compromise. Nutritionally, I ate an energy gel every half hour, in the second half of the race a couple were caffeine gels to give an extra boost. At the first checkpoint I grabbed a chocolate biscuit and half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But after a few bites I started worrying about getting a stitch so ended up running along with a sticky mess in my hand for a few miles, taking tiny nibbles! I drank about 3 x 500ml flasks of water during the race. And lots before and after. I stopped a couple of times mid-race to wee in bushes – I remember being really relieved that I could go as soon as I’d stopped. I was saying to myself, “I’m a runner, a runner who can wee and can run.” It’s weird the stuff you do during such a long race. Maybe it’s just me!
The final 7 miles were tough. Loads of hills where I had to walk briefly to catch my breath. Each time I counted down from 5 and then started running again, fearing that a longer break would result in losing the lead. Looking at my heart rate data from the race I only spent 20 minutes at ‘threshold’, for me this is above 157bpm. Most of the race was at ‘tempo’ (between 140 – 157). I think the higher efforts were at the end where I was pushing hard on the hills. The fact that I could push hard at the end makes me feel like I’d paced it well.
I overtook 3rd place in the 45 mile race about a mile from the end. I set a bit of a gap but then started looking over my shoulder and convinced myself that he was actually second place in the 30 miler and was catching me! I needlessly raced hard to the line. My kids were waiting at the finish, my eldest waited until I was near and then sprinted to beat me to the line! She was super chuffed and kept hold of my trophy all evening – I let her have this one!
About the author: Mark Jerzak is a regular contributor to 220 Triathlon Magazine, an athlete, father, and Sundried ambassador.
The 'Deangate turns Meangate' race is an overnight trail endurance race consisting of 2.5 mile laps of Deangate Ridge Sports Complex in Kent. Unfortunately, this was the one and only edition of this event as the site of Deangate Ridge has now closed.
The weather was cold, wet and windy. Combine all that with the fact the event was through the night and it was still my idea of a walk in the park. Although not so much for my girlfriend who sat in a tent freezing cold all night to support and act as pit crew for me!
The race started at a fairly fast pace. This was my first ultra marathon and I had decided to do 10 miles at a time before pitting for food and a hot drink. The first 10 miles I did in under 2 hours; I realised at this point I was going way too fast!
The most challenging part for me was the boredom of doing laps. One part of the lap went on for around a mile and I can only compare it to the stretch of the M20 going from Maidstone to Ashford. Yes, it really was that boring! However, this was part of the challenge and I had to find a way to deal with it. Singing to myself, listening to music, trying to establish the meaning of life, they all happened at some point.
At the start of every lap there was a ridge that was very windy and cold! I layered up for this every lap so as not to get too cold, forgetting every time it was only half a kilometre so had to take my jacket off every time I came of the ridge from getting too hot! The Katy Perry song 'Hot And Cold' springs to mind!
What I found a little odd was people turning up to do 30 miles then going to sleep in their tent for a few hours before doing “the big push” for the last 2 hours. Saving energy is one thing but they fell well down the pecking order. I decided not to sleep, but I knew how I was feeling after 6 hours- tired cold, aching and in a fair bit of pain- so I walked for the majority until the last 2 hours when I jogged again.
The best part of the night was around 3am when a group of around 6 runners, the real ultra-runners I called them, came past me with a speaker blasting the song “Red Red Wine”. It was awesome as we all sang at the top of our voices and it was such a lift to spirits.
I ended up finishing 31st out of 150 runners covering 40 miles, not bad for my first ultra!
I will definitely be looking to do more ultras in future, I think night ones are my thing, there is an aura of running at night that I find calming.
Next up for me…..Europe's Toughest Mudder – Midlands May 2018
About the author: Scott Gray is a personal trainer and Sundried ambassador.