What do you visualise when you think about dehydration? Do you feel your mouth as dry as dust, stuck together with the last few drops of saliva, the only fluid left in your body? Is it seeing endless seas of sand in the desert and hallucinating about an oasis on the horizon? Is it an unquenchable thirst that you can’t slake even if you tip your head beneath a rushing waterfall?
For ultra runners dehydration is quite a bit sneakier than that.
Race to the Stones 2015
How do you spot dehydration? Of course when you exercise you’re a bit thirstier than usual. But most runners will naturally drink something during long runs, so a slight extra thirst isn’t a huge surprise or warning sign.
But then you start to notice that it’s becoming a bit harder to eat the food you’re carrying or that’s provided at the aid stations. But maybe that’s just a bit of indigestion from all the stomach jiggling that comes from eating and running.
And, of course, it’s kind of a blessing that you don’t need to pee. It saves you from having to find a sneaky bush / tree / portaloo.
And then, before you know it, your stomach is cramping, you’re nauseous, you can’t eat and your race is shot.
I’m not trying to make light of the risks of dehydration. Severe dehydration is a potentially serious condition. But the kind of dehydration that is common amongst ultra runners is the kind that leads to nausea, fatigue and cramps. And even though I know all of this quite well, dehydration was the biggest feature of my Race To The Stones 2015.
But let’s come back to dehydration in a bit and start, instead, at the start.
About The Race
It certainly tells you something about the rise and rise of ultra running that Race To The Stones has a major corporate headline sponsor that had nothing to do with running or outdoor pursuits. To give it its full title the “Dixons Carphone Race To The Stones 2015” is a 100km race that takes place along the ancient Ridegeway national trail. The Ridgeway is an 87 mile route that runs from Ivinghoe Beacon near the Ashridge Estate in Buckinghamshire, to Overton Hill near Avebury in Wiltshire. Race To The Stones takes in most of the trail and, as the name implies, finishes at the ancient neolithic stone circle complex in Avebury. As well as a 100km non-stop option, there is a two day version with optional overnight camping, and it’s possible to run 50km on one of the two days.
If your ultra running preference is for hardcore, minimalist, 30 entrants, 2 dogs, lashing rain, a cup of coffee in a polystyrene cup at halfway, full self navigation along barely identifiable footpaths or through open access land, timings by stopwatch recorded on waterproof notepads, and a pork pie at the finish line (if you’re lucky), then Race To The Stones isn’t for you. This is a superbly organised and supported event. The slightly corporate atmosphere may deter the “purists”, but it definitely does a brilliant job of making ultra running accessible to beginners and more casual runners.
Pre Race Preparation
One of the reason for enjoying longer distance events is because they tend to form more adventurous experiences. Pitching up to a 10km race, legging it round and being back home in time for lunch is definitely fun. But longer distance races require quite a bit more kit preparation, travel logistics and, let’s face it, time.
My own adventure started on the Friday afternoon with a coach ride (thanks to a First Great Western train strike) and a bus transfer. I stayed my Auntie and Uncle, who, conveniently, live around 20 minutes from the start site. With a rare opportunity to chat without constant interruptions from the three boys, it got the whole weekend off to a great start.
After a good night’s sleep, my alarm went off at 0545 to give me time for a bit of breakfast and last minute kit checks before heading to the start. I’d been carb loading for a couple of days and I was feeling pretty well stocked up. I kept to my pre-race breakfast ritual of a shake of instant oat powder + whey protein with a banana and some bread and jam. Well, technically, this is a minor deviation, because my absolute favourite pre-race brekkie is a bagel & Marmite. With 62 miles of running ahead, who’s quibbling about what you top your bread with?
We left in good time to get to the start site. Or so we thought. The traffic heading to the start site at Lewknor Farm was pretty sticky, even at 0700. Not wanting to sit stressing in the car, I decided to get out and walk the last quarter of a mile to the start. There were plenty of marshalls and the the queues at race registration moved nice and quickly. The baggage drop was expertly organised, with various baggage trucks identified by different colour flags to match your luggage label. My bag was cheerfully stowed on a transfer truck and I set off to recce the queue for the loos. With about 20 minutes before the race was due to start, it was pretty clear that it was going to be pointless queuing for the portaloos. The lines were huge.
I downed an electrolyte drink and another banana and made my way to the starting area. I was expecting to be relatively towards the front of the field, so I figured it didn’t make any sense to loiter around with some kind of false modesty and then have to spend the first few miles picking my way past people. With the added thought that if I did do that, I’d almost certainly start running too fast just to keep overtaking other runners.
And They’re Off
A quick race briefing and then we were off at about 0805. It was a glorious morning, blue skies with a few fluffy clouds. But already fairly warm. I should have paid more heed to the early morning temperature. As we’ll see.
My race plan was to carry 500ml of drink and try to eat a bar and a gel per hour. With aid stations roughly every 10km, I was going to be reaching a pit stop roughly each hour. My theory was that I’d top up my bottle and down a little extra drink at each pit stop. I was hoping to improve on my pit stop strategy from the Brecon Beacons Ultra, where I’d spent several minutes each time I stopped faffing around with kit and drinks. As part of this strategy, I’d chosen to use an Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest 2.0. At the Brecon Beacons Ultra I’d used an old version of the Inov-8 Race Elite Extreme 10L Backpack. This is a super lightweight pack that’s ideal for a carrying a chunk of kit, but it doesn’t have much in the way of easily accessible pockets other than two bottle holders. So, I spent a lot of time at checkpoints taking the pack off, footling around looking for stuff and generally faffing about. The AK Race Vest has plenty of easily accessible pocket space, meaning I could carry half a dozen bars and gels and a 500ml bottle within easy reach. I could then pop a few spares and emergency items, including a soft flask with 250ml of spare water in the back pouch. Perfect.
The only problem was the decision to take just one 500ml bottle of fluid. Or, probably more accurately, the decision to take one 500ml bottle and then dash in and out of pit stops only quickly downing a small plastic cup of water or squash. It made for some very quick pit stops, but it quickly became clear that I hadn’t drunk enough.
Start Slow And Get Slower
The first few miles of the route are relatively flat with a nice mix of wide bridleway and woodland tracks. There’s one short climb up to the first checkpoint. There was a great greeting at this pit stop. I quickly topped up a water bottle, grabbed a cup of water and headed straight back on to the trail.
The route then got a little bit bumpier, but it was still just small ups and downs as we made our way up on to the Ridgeway proper and head into Grim’s Ditch to run along a lovely woodland track for a few miles. I definitely love running along woodland trails picking my way through roots and bumps, so I enjoyed this section and made pretty good time. As I was trotting along, I got chatting to a few people. One of the ladies that I was running with was aiming to do the race in “something less than 15 hours”. At this point, we were ticking along at about 8:30 min/mile pace and so I pointed out that, at that kind of pace, she’d be looking at more like 11 hours. She said she was happy to keep trotting along at that pace and so we covered a few more miles. When we reached a couple of steeper hill sections we agreed to go at our own paces, even though I was still hiking anything vaguely steep.
The last section of Grim’s ditch was slightly downhill and then the route continued through a golf course and along a road to checkpoint 2. We were at about 14.5 miles and I’d taken about 2:08. The pace felt comfortable and I was still moving along quite comfortably. Pit Stop 2 was another super greeting full of enthusiastic people. I made another quick stop, filled my water bottle, grabbed another quick cup of squash and headed straight back out.
It was definitely getting warmer now, with temperatures in the low 20s degrees Celsius. The route was pancake flat at this point though, as we followed alongside the Thames and headed to Goring. I actually found the going a little trickier along this section. Because it was so flat, kept feeling like I should be pushing on a bit. But the path was generally through that kind of calf length grassy field that tugs at your feet and the temperature was rising, which made me cautious about going too hard too early. Turning on to the road in Goring I found myself thinking that I do too much road running really, because I suddenly found the going much easier. We’d be climbing uphill fairly steadily for the next couple of miles. On the road sections, I was feeling strong physically, although a few of the early warning signs for dehydration would have been there if I’d been paying attention. I was starting to find eating solid bars a bit uncomfortable and I was getting through my water bottle a bit quicker than I had expected.
Checkpoint 3 was at about 21.2 miles. I arrived at 3:07. Dehydration was starting to become a bit more of an ominous reality at this point. I had a quick visit to one of the portaloos and I could already feel that I wasn’t peeing enough. Even though I downed a couple of glasses of squash and took my time a bit, with hindsight I still take enough fluid on. I should add that this pit stop was one of the most entertaining of all of the stops. There was plenty of music, lots of people and generally a fantastic atmosphere. There was a huge table groaning with flapjacks, granola bars, crisps, nuts and more. It was fabulous. I could have stayed there for ages. And, perhaps I should have done. But, instead, I topped up my bottle and started trekking up the hill. I tried to walk and give the drink a bit more time to settle in my stomach while I tried to eat another bar. I’d kept to the bar and gel per hour routine up to this point, but now eating solid food was getting harder and harder. My stomach just felt a bit tight and I knew I wasn’t really digesting the food properly. I was having to wash it down with extra fluid, which meant I was getting through my bottle even faster.
Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot!
The temperature was still steadily climbing and was probably getting up towards 23°C at this point. We were climbing up for a couple of miles on to what I kind of imagine as the “Ridgeway proper”. We were starting to look out over the surrounding countryside from our elevated ridge. The path was a wide, dusty and firm bridleway. Good footing, albeit a little unforgiving on the legs. Most crucially, though, the trees were clearing away and there was soon very little shade and respite from a pretty sunny day. As the trees cleared and route climbed, the consistent headwind became more noticeable. On the one hand, it took away some of the heat. But, of course, on the other it meant I was sweating more efficiently (i.e. losing even more fluid) and running into a headwind.
I was starting to really struggle to eat at this point. It began to feel that if I ate anything my stomach would cramp up or worse. Pit Stop 4 was at around 27 miles. I tried another visit to the portaloo to see if I could clear my stomach. I wasn’t peeing very much at all by this point, which I knew was the clinching sign that I’d stuffed up my hydration. I was kicking myself, because this was totally avoidable and I also knew that it meant I was in for a long slog of getting rehydrated. When you’re running, it’s not really feasible to knock back a litre of water and get back on track. You have to pick it off in small stages. Of course, what I should have done is knock back a good slug at an aid station and take a 5 minute break. But, equally obviously, the early stages of fatigue and dehydration cloud your judgement and you just think about not wasting time and keeping moving forwards.
As an aside here, it’s interesting how fatigue and dehydration can combine to affect your mental awareness and focus. From the start I’d been annoyed that my heart rate monitor hadn’t picked up on my Garmin. It wasn’t a particularly big deal, just slightly irritating. It also meant that I was wearing a pointless chest strap. I kept meaning to give this to my parents, but kept forgetting. Similarly, I kept finding that I was forgetting to chuck my bar / gel wrappers away at checkpoints. I’d end up with two or three hour’s worth of rubbish and eventually remember.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen
Leaving Pit Stop 4 meant I was now heading on to my first meeting point with my family. My parents had kindly agreed to spend most of their day trekking between three meeting points and the finish, carrying my spares, providing a bit of encouragement and generally helping me to keep things together. Our first meeting spot was planned for roughly 32 miles, about half a mile before the halfway point of the race. It’s definitely very motivating knowing that you’re heading towards meeting up with someone. I was really looking forward to it.
I had told my parents that I’d aim to reach halfway in about 4:30. I’d figured that if I wanted to get close to 10 hours (which I did), a time around here would allow me to slow by about an hour and still finish at about my goal time. I’d done a bit of research and a second half about an hour slower than the first seemed to be a pretty good average. Plus, the first third of the course is definitely the flattest part.
I actually got to my meeting point at about 4:54. My split times for the 4 miles between 27 and 31 were around 10 min/mile. The route was pretty much steadily uphill all the way through this section. Although it was a very shallow gradient, barely getting about 1% incline at any point. I was starting to really struggle with eating and couldn’t even face taking gels at this point. Before the race, I had visualised still moving at around 8:30 – 9:00 min/mile pace during this phase. I realised I couldn’t push that hard though because it was getting really warm and I wasn’t rehydrating yet. Despite my hydration problems and stomach discomfort, I actually felt mentally fine. I was still enjoying the race. My muscles weren’t feeling particularly fatigued for 30 miles of running.
It was really uplifting coming up to the arranged meeting point and seeing my parents there. My Aunt had taken a bit of a detour to come and see me as well. That really made me feel even better. The sun was shining and I felt pretty strong all things considering. I picked up a fresh drinks bottle and replenished my food supplies, although I favoured picking up a few extra gels to see if they would help. After a chat and a few photos, I got back on with the race.
Our meeting point was only about 2 minutes easy running from the half way checkpoint. I ran over the timing mats, turned down the option of visiting base camp and doubled back on myself to pick up the trail again. The route was opening out now. There was very little shade. But that was compensated by the glorious sweeping views looking down from either side of the ridge. The vista was one of quintessential English countryside. Miles of rolling fields with neat hedge boundaries. Small villages dotted here or there with little church spires visible. Aside from the fact that I just wasn’t able to pick the pace up as I’d have liked my spirits were high.
I also knew that over the next bit of the route, I’d have some short intervals between break points. Pit stop 6 would be at about 36.8 miles. I was meeting my parents again near Uffington White Horse. We’d estimated it would be at about 42 miles, but it was nearer to 40 miles. Pit Stop 7 was only at about 42 miles.
Because our meeting point came a bit earlier than planned, my parents thought I was cracking along at a really good pace. I didn’t feel too inclined to put them right, because things were starting to feel like a bit of a slog at this point. The trail just felt like it was going continuously uphill, into a headwind, with a fairly unremitting warmth. I hadn’t really eaten since halfway and I knew I was starting to develop a bit of a fuel deficit.
I Feel The Need, The Need For Feed
After leaving my parents at our meeting point, I decided it was time for a “kill or cure” moment. I felt my hydration was starting to recover and I wanted to get at least a few gels inside me. I picked out a Blueberry Roctane GU gel and figured that if it stayed down I was sorted. And if it came back again, I might actually feel better for having emptied my system. It certainly didn’t feel like I had much to lose at this point, because not eating wasn’t really going to be an option.
The gel went down surprisingly well. I don’t think the lesson is that I could have taken it all along. I think I had finally got on top of my hydration and was starting to rehydrate. Alongside taking on some gels, I started to take on some of the Coca Cola that was on offer at each of the fantastically well stocked aid stations. It wouldn’t normally be my preference, just because I find the taste to be a bit sugary when I’m running. But I wanted some easy calories in my system and I’ve found in the past that Cola does have a settling effect on my stomach if its uncomfortable.
What Goes Around, Comes Around
The payback for the short intervals between stops from halfway to Pit Stop 7 was a relatively long section to Pit Stop 8.
The steady incline and the calorie deficit I’d been developing really took its toll through this section. I was walking almost anything above the shallowest uphill gradient and just trying to plod along at a jog whenever I could. The track was a consistently firm bridleway. This meant it was solid footing, but also pretty unforgiving on tired legs. There was still no shade. Although there were a few clouds in the sky, the sun was still unremitting. And there was a constant headwind.
I was picking away at a Chia Charge flapjack in the hope that it would give me some Tarahumara power. At least I found that I could eat it in smallish infrequent bits. I still didn’t fancy trying to chew on anything firmer like a normal energy bar. I really wanted to have the flavour of a MuleBar Eastern Express bar I’d packed specifically for late in the race, but I just didn’t feel like chewing. At least I knew I could now take the occasional gel, which was a relief.
Pit Stop 8 finally arrived just after 49 miles. Although I felt I’d started to recover my hydration, I knew I wasn’t completely sorted yet. So, partly just through sheer fatigue, and partly in an attempt to get things back on track for the last stage of the race, I decided to take a decent break at the Pit Stop. I made sure I stayed on my feet, but I stayed long enough to drink two or three small cups of coke and a couple of slugs of water. In all, I probably spent about 10 minutes at the station. I didn’t feel like eating much still and started on a gel as I left the station.
I’d been in walk/run mode up to the aid station. Afterwards, I knew I was pretty much on the home stretch and that helped mentally.
What Would Kilian Think?
I’d been reading Kilian Jornet’s book “Run or Die” in the lead up to the event. Aside from being interested to see Kilian’s story, I was, of course, looking for sources of inspiration. In the book, Kilian talks several times about how bad he was physically at key points in races. And how he willed himself to push through those feelings. I’m not Kilian! As much as I tried to hold those thoughts in my mind and exert some will and mastery over my body, I was struggling mentally. Getting dehydrated had given me a great “excuse” and I wasn’t pushing myself as hard as I could. Whenever I heard footsteps behind me, I was willing them to come past me, because I wanted some kind of vindication that I was struggling. I suppose I also wanted to run at my own pace and not let my competitive instinct push me too hard.
My next meeting point with my parents was planned to be at around 51 miles. But, in a reverse of our planning for the previous stop, this time it turned out to be nearer 52 miles. This had an interesting effect on my psychology. I kept expecting the meeting point to be around the next corner. The route had finally taken a bit of a turn downhill after what felt like nearly 20 miles of almost continual up. I’d got a bit of energy in my system and I found I had some running legs again. I’m not claiming I was fully restored. Nor that I was experiencing one of those euphoric phases that people describe late in tough races. But I was running again and I managed a couple of miles at about 9 min/mile pace.
My pace seemed to keep picking up as I kept finding the meeting point wasn’t around the next corner. But eventually it arrived and I stopped for a few minutes to have a good chat and another photo or two. I knew the next few miles were back uphill again. Although by my normal training standards, the climbs would still be relatively small, I knew it would be hard after 50+ miles of running. I settled in for a walk/run grind and just got on with things. I was now at about 13 min/mile pace. I knew I wasn’t travelling particularly fast, but I was starting to be able to enjoy the afternoon again.
I knew I was going to finish. I knew I wasn’t going to be close to my original target times and I’d reached a point of acceptance. It was now a case of pushing myself along at a reasonable pace and grinding it out.
Pit Stop 9 was about 55.3 miles. This meant there was about 6 miles / 10km to the finish. I actually didn’t spend much time here. I’d refilled my supplies when I met my parents. And I’d swapped a few things around so that I could carry two 500ml bottles of water to stay on top of my hydration for the last couple of hours. I made sure to take on a decent slug of extra water at the aid station and then got on the move again.
My legs were now feeling pretty tired and sore. I was still a long way from things being a death march, but I was definitely getting twinges of cramp in my calf muscles regularly. Other than that, I wasn’t in bad shape. I was still in walk/run mode, with an increasing emphasis on walking. The hardest thing about these final few miles was that in my head I’d imagined them being relatively flat, but there still seemed to be more climbing and fairly regular little hills. By about 60 miles I was definitely to get the stage where I’d had enough of slogging up hill. I just wanted a decent running phase and a head to the finish line. I was pretty ready to finish now. I wondered if I’d started to find my limit. It’s certainly fair to say that heading on for many more miles would have been difficult. But then, if I’d set out to do a much longer distance, I’d have paced and approached things a bit differently, so who knows.
I got my wish at about 60 miles and had a couple of miles of decent downhill running. Although that would have been a lot more enjoyable on fresh legs, I was still able to get my pace up to below 10 min/mile. Then we hit the flat again at about 61.5 miles. I knew I had around a mile to a mile and a half left. I had another walking break and then tried to steel myself for a final push through the finish line.
The Big Finish
We’d been well warned throughout the race that the final couple of km involve turning back on yourself at the stones, with the actual finish being about 1.5km from the stone circle that we ran through. So I was well prepared for this. I was glad that I was, because it could easily have been quite frustrating otherwise.
This was the first time that I’d visited the Avebury Stones and there are majestic. The huge towering rocks are an inspiring sight as you come to the end of a decent day’s running. I stopped to walk through the stone circle and take it in fully. Then I trotted on to the finish line.
The finish line actual comes at the end of a nice straight driveway. It’s a great set-up. I didn’t have the energy nor inclination for a sprint finish. Even so, it was a great relief to run down to the finish line.
The greeting at the finish line was incredible. There were 30 or 40 people there. The noise was enormous. And, because the race is spread out, the cheering is just for you. It’s definitely the most emotional and uplifting finish line experience I’ve ever had. Big events like the London Marathon have crowds all the way around, but the finish line itself is something of anti-climax. Not so here. If there was one single reason why I’d do the event again it would be to experience this another time.
I finished with a chip time of 11:06:30 and 37th position. I learnt a lot from the race and I know I’m capable of achieving a much better time if I get things right.
Rewarded With Food
Through the finish line, I collected my heavy medal, stopped to meet up with my folks briefly, but I was desperate to get to my drop bag and retrieve my post race shake and have a lie down for a bit. There was a big covered chill out area with loads of mats, foam rollers, and chairs. Having a 5 minute lie down was bliss.
There were warm showers available. I showered and changed and started to feel a bit human again. My legs ached, but I was upright and nothing felt damaged.
There was free hot food available for competitors and I treated myself to a pretty good quality sausage baguette.
Then, it was time to head home. The bigger feel of the event and the tougher toll it had taken on my body meant that I didn’t really have the energy or desire to hang around for too many other finishers. At lower key events like the Likey’s Brecon Beacons Ultra, I’d stayed behind to cheer almost every other finisher in. It was all part of the experience. This time, I was absolutely ready to head home, get even more food (a kebab felt like it might be a good idea) and then get some sleep.
What Have I Forgotten?
There are lots of moments and images that I’ve completely forgotten to cover during my notes above. The ones that occur to me on quick reflection are:
- The several sets of supporters that you’d see every few miles. As the race went on, I found myself feeling really grateful. Even though they were supporting someone else, they always provided encouragement and it was easy to say thank you very genuinely. Towards the end you realise how much time and energy they’d put into to the day as well. It’s not easy being a support team.
- The chap that I saw about 5 times, always running in the opposite direction to me. He was supporting his partner, meeting up at particular points, running with her and then jogging back to his car to drive on to the next meeting point. It was like a glitch in the Matrix and it made me smile every time. He was a thoroughly nice bloke and his partner finished 3rd lady, which was immense!
- Every aid station was cheerfully marshalled and well stocked. I wish I wasn’t driving myself on for the best time I could muster and that I’d stopped to enjoy the food and company a bit more. Maybe another time.
- Loads of signs around the route and I never once felt that I couldn’t find the way.
- Brilliant other runners who were up for a chat even in the later stages of the race when we were all obviously tired and hurting.
Overall Thoughts and What’s Next
Race To The Stones certainly lived up to my expectations. It was really well organised and the quality of support available was brilliant. Aid stations were superbly staffed and stocked with everything you could want. The route was clearly marked and easy to follow. I’d wanted a 100km that was basically runnable, just to see how well I could push along it. Race To The Stones is definitely that.
Would I do it again? Interesting question. Although the scenery around the Ridgeway is glorious for most of the way, the actual running surface is quite dull. There is mile after mile of gentle uphill on wide simple bridleways. I think I personally prefer the variety of scenery that you get from mountainous or forested environments. I loved the atmosphere and quality of the aid stations. I think that if my racing calendar had an empty window in the middle of July, I’d definitely consider again. I suspect that next year, I’m going to spend my racing time on a few new experiences, but I’ll certainly think about Race To The Stones again. And I can certainly recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a runnable, well supported 100km event.
So, with 100km in my legs, the near future holds rest and gentle rebuilding of fitness. I’m doing the Purbeck Marathon in September. This will really be a training race ahead of my final big event of the year: a return to the Brecon Beacons Ultra in November. I finished 11th last year and I’d like to see if I can better that this year. I’ll be doing lots more strength work over the summer, plenty of hill work and trying to build up some decent length tempo running. I’m already looking forward to the challenge. Bring it on!
If you’re interested, you can find my race info on Strava.