The thing I both love and fear about ultramarathons is the complete unknown of it all. You have no clue at the start of a race what you are about to put your body and mind through. You battle the physical and tangible things such as the distance, the weather, the terrain and the time on your feet but the things that are sometime more likely to put a full-stop to a story that should carry on writing are the endless mind fields of mental road blocks you face. Race to the Stones was no exception but as I found along the way the endless months of Covid had taken much away from me but has also gifted me something I had never thought possible in-spite of the voices in my head screaming stop; optimism.
The first few miles I had an unstoppable smile on my face, the sheer novelty of running an ultramarathon like this again blinded me to any fear or trepidation I should have been feeling at the time. Besides having to stop to take off a few layers, our pace was steady and surprisingly quick and we quickly found a rhythm that sailed us on to the first aid station art around 10km in.
It was at the aid station I had my first inner checkup of how I was actually feeling and as I munched down on a packet of crisps like a hoover sucking up dust I mentally ran up my body to see if anything didn’t feel as it should. My legs, and crucially my knees, felt astonishingly ok. It was incredibly early on so I was undoubtedly going to worsen substantially as the kilometres stacked upon themselves towards triple figures but I felt optimistic and so did Charlie. Selfishly I was desperate for Charlie to continue past the halfway mark. I knew that as day turned to night I would benefit massively from having my friend by my side. My morale darkens as the sky does and my proclivity to tripping over absolutely nothing rises like the moon. Charlie and I work well as a team, when one of us had a morale dip the other would drag them up with awful humour and mindless chatter. From the first aid station onwards we would constantly check we were both doing ok, a check that would in turn make you check yourself before you wreck yourself (as the kids say nowadays) by pushing to hard past your limitations.
Looking back now a few months on from the race the first half of the race feels like it passed by only a few fleeting moments. The highlight of those moments is running through the field of dreams which is where the photo below was taken. It is a stunning field that the race cuts through and you can emulate Maximus Decimus Meridius running your hands through the crops as he did on his way to the afterlife in Gladiator as you head on your way to the second aid station and hopefully not death.
A sage bit of advice I was given before I ran my first ultra that I have carried into every race is; don’t sit down at an aid station. The warm comfort of food and hot drinks on tap will suck your strength and add time to the clock as you try to drag yourself away from the buffet. So at each aid station the plan was simple; go to the toilet, fill up the water bottles, grab all the food and head off sharpish. Not always in that order as I did have a sandwich on the toilet at checkpoint 3, who said ultrarunning wasn’t glamorous…
After about 8 hours the halfway point finally came into view. The 50km marker when I would either run on alone or Charlie would roll the dice and see how far her body could take her. I knew as soon as we ran the first steps that Charlie would make it to the finish line, she doesn’t like to admit it but she is one of the strongest women I know both in will and might. Despite her injury I never once felt like she was holding me up and instead she pulled me forward in times where I might have stayed at a checkpoint a minute or two longer or have walked instead of ran. As soon as we crossed the line though we were inundated by so many amazing Instagram friends who were supporting all the other amazing runners out there as well as us. Instagram gets a lot of flack these days but in that moment surrounded by such inspirational and kind people I would never have met without it I couldn’t even whisper a bad word about it.
Luckily as I strode off away from the halfway mark I was not alone and Charlie and I vowed we would get each other to the finish line one way or another. So we put in place a very simple strategy; get to the next sign then we run and then stop when we get to another sign. Rinse and repeat over and over until the finish line came into view.
Sadly we weren’t gifted bright glorious weather to celebrate our brave expedition continuing, instead the rain began to fall harder than it had through any part of the race so far. Despite the dampening of my underwear and socks my spirit remained undampened and our endless conversation darted from topic to topic making the miles pass at pace. Pick you friends wisely and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be lucky enough to end up with a friend like Charlie. We had each other’s backs every step of the way, through every down moment and fearful stumble. Simply put I wouldn’t have been brave enough to get to the start line without her let alone every step after that.
As we reached 58km a thought popped into my head and my optimism soared; we were a marathon away from the finish line. I had done 25+ marathons at this point, I knew what a marathon felt like internally and externally. Sure I had never done a marathon having already done 58km but at that blissfully ignorant moment I felt that 100km would finally be conquered. I began to visualise that finish line and the emotions of that sparked through my body in rippling goosebumps.
As we entered checkpoint 6, aka our final checkpoint in the light, we were met by Derrick and Jess which made us all jump around like school children and fuelled us onwards and upwards up the climb that came uncomfortably close to the checkpoint as I was still digesting my crisps and marmite sandwich. There is a running joke that an ultramarathon is a lot of eating with a bit of running and it isn’t far off. Through the 100km I consumed the following; 6 marmite sandwiches, 5 packets of crisps, 8 gels, 2 flapjacks and 6 packets of Rowntrees Randoms aka my new favourite sweets. I don’t know if I finished having consumed more calories then I had burnt running but I can’t imagine I was far off!
It was at the 50 mile buzzer on my watch that in a Samwise Gamgee, from Lord of the Rings, kind of moment I realised this was the furthest I had ever gone on a race. I began to tear up as there have been many points in my running that I thought I would never go further than this. I ran behind Charlie and let the tears fall in shy pride and then to break the emotions the song from the epic cult classic; Frozen 2 came into my head and I burst out in tuneless glee; “into the unknowwwwwwn”. Charlie found it funny for the first mile but my insistence on singing it every mile until the finish line probably wasn’t her favourite part about the race.
As we moved further into the unknown the sun finally began to threatening set in golden splendour. While the sunset may have been beautiful it was tainted with the sharp anxiety jarring my mental strenght as I knew darkness was coming. I stupidly dreamed of finishing the race before darkness had truly set in. Night was coming fast and from what I had heard from Charlie and other past participants is that the most changeable and ankle knackering terrain was still to come. I was starting to tire both physically and mentally, I knew I would be weak against the darknesses devouring.
At the final checkpoint, we were now in pitch darkness and I could deny the head torch no longer and as we staggered through the aid station picking up my 6th and final marmite sandwich of the day I felt like the finish line was within touching distance. However what I learnt was that the final 10km would be the longest and most morale destroying miles I had ever done. The numb whisper of pain that had accompanied me for the last few checkpoints was crescendoing in to full blown agony. I had three blisters on my left foot; on my big toe, little toe and heel creating an unholy triangle of pain.
With the finish line finally coming into view we then had to undertake the worst part of the race by a mountainous margin; the actual Stones. In the final 3km you are forced to run away from the finish line to loop around the stones that give the race it’s name. I can promise you that running to these stones will be the most mentally battering part of the entire race. Charlie was storying as we finally ran around the stones and my response to being asked how happy I was to see the stones was laced with expletives and sarcasm. Each kilometre stretched into eons, the darkness blurring time itself.
It wasn’t until the 99km marker came in to view that my mood picked up. 1km to go, 1% remaining to a race that I had doubted for so long that I would ever finish. Doubt is a powerful thing, it can knock you down more often than not, it will make you stay within the warmth and safety of your comfort zone but if you challenge it and use it as fuel to push you further absolutely incredible things lie on the other side of it.
As soon as we got across the finish line we were swamped by two amazing friends Eric and Jess, Covid regulations went out of the window and I hugged them tight, tears rolling down my face. In that hug were three people who utterly inspire and support me in equal measure when it comes to running and life in general. I closed my eyes and held them tight, utterly thankful for their friendship. It was close to 2am and the last time I had hugged friends like this I was incredibly drunk on a night out at university for my birthday, which incidentally was the same night I told them all I would run a marathon before I was 30 and here I was at the age of 33 having run 2 and a half marathons in one sitting.
Pride is a strange emotion for me, I struggle with it and always have, I feel unworthy of its warmth. However, as I sit here writing the story, reliving the emotions all over again, I feel proud of myself. 100km felt so insurmountable for so long and yet crossing that finish line I once again proved that the limits I have put upon myself are but fog and mist. It begs the question as I look to races for 2022; where do my limits lie?