Seriously, grab a cuppa and a teacake. This is a long one…
I live in East Kent. The ‘Garden of England’ and possibly one of the flattest places in England too. You can see for miles. On a clear day, you can even see France.
The Cotswolds. Probably one of the hilliest undulating places in the UK. At it’s highest point (Cleeve Hill which, yes, we climbed) it reaches an elevation of 1,083 ft (330 m), just to the north of Cheltenham. We apparently could look out over 6 counties on top of the many, many hills we climbed. I spent most of that time a-top a mountain, trying to regain consciousness in the 23 degree heat (yes we’re not used to the heat over here).
HEINEKEN Race to the Tower, is the first in the Threshold Sports ultra calendar, but it is the newest of the three, only in its second year (2017). Considering that fact, the event seemed teeming with excitable and slightly nutty people, looking for a new challenge, or just grinding out another long distance run on the casual.
The thing I love the most about the Threshold events, is the diversity of the people it attracts. Ultra distances are still more of a niche than say a marathon, although it is coming up in the popularity stakes, but the clientele was broad. With the opportunity to do different weekend packages, you can take on the ultra distance in one go, over 2 days, or opt for one of the days, and complete a trail marathon. There are people in their early twenties looking for a challenge, people raising money for charity, ladies with calves the size of my head who CLEARLY do this sort of thing every weekend, power walkers with poles and backpacks, crazy fast runners (A woman won this year, the first woman winner of a Threshold event, she did it in 8hrs 56!) . Despite the different approaches to how you tackle it, everyone has the same ascents and descents to navigate, and everyone gets the same views to enjoy. And that sort of thing brings you together with the strangers around you. Naturally you sort of end up in a pack, where you play the overtaking game, sometimes for the entire distance with the same people!
So, let me get on with bringing you into my race day!
Hannah and I were staying nearby in Stroud, so we had a nice short journey to the start, after travelling up from Kent on the Friday night. This was really nice being so close to the start, as it took a lot of pre race morning stress away. I woke up at 6 and re packed my Salomon hydration vest with what i’d need. We were in a very fortunate position as Sarah’s boyfriend, Tom, was going to be following us along the route, with extra things we’d need. This meant I was able to take some of the weight from my bag and put stuff in the car with him. Things I wouldn’t need all the time like extra Trek bars, a change of socks and shoes, suncream, and head torches*
*more on that is a little while!
I scoffed down a customary bagel, filled my soft flasks, one with water, one with Tailwind, and we bundled into the car, all excited and nervous.
We turned up and everything was pretty casual – the way I like it at a race. I had a courtesy toilet visit, chatted with some friends and gave all our extra stuff over to Tom for the crew car. Andy presented us with a nice fat donut, which I popped in my drop bag (and then took 2 days to eat it…)
We were enjoying chatting so much, the noise of the briefing and the next wave starting was just background noise. Until Andy pointed out it was in fact, OUR WAVE.
We said Goodbyes/Good lucks, and ran into the back of the pen, as the MC counted down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… No time to think about it, we were off!
When you start a race like this, maybe it’s slight hysteria or nerves being released (and I remember it being the same when we started Race to the Stones last year) but you can’t help but laugh and goof around. It’s like all the nervous energy releasing from your body, and we spent the first few miles chatting with other slightly nervous excitable people, and being silly. There was a photographer just after mile 1, so at least we got one really fresh picture…
The first 4 miles are up and down, and my calves started to burn. ‘I am not used to this’… I started to wonder if my calves would systematically explode during the course of the race; I was feeling okay about the inclines but also very aware that this was only the very start.
We were already being treated to incredible views, hills all around, valleys and lush greens everywhere you looked. You really can’t fault the view. For all the horrible climbs (and there are some EVIL ones) you are always rewarded with the most breathtaking scenery, which for me, made it all worthwhile.
Pit Stop 1 was only 5.6 miles in. There was only one big climb to get there, which took you through a gorgeous little Cotswold village and lots to distract you with, so it came around pretty quickly. I was excited to get back to my first check point, with all the wonderful memories of last year, I couldn’t wait for the girls to have their first experiences. We didn’t plan on staying there for long. Grab some food, post an insta story and do a wee.
I noticed that we had picked up some guys to play overtaking with, and it just happened to be Chris from Threshold. We joked about how we felt about the hills, and he showed me his elevation transfer tattoo (which i’d missed at the start due to not being a professional ultra runner and being a professional procrastinator) – to which we decided we were idiots and if we were already feeling it in the calves, how would we make it through those SIX enormous climbs?!
The next portion of the course was relatively ‘flat’ but it was quite a long stage, at 8.2 miles in distance. We encountered our first style to climb over, and joked about the amount of gates and styles we would encounter across the 53 miles (160 by the way). There were a few technical down hill sections in this part, for which I was grateful to have chosen trail hybrid shoes. I wore the Salomon Sense Rides for the first marathon, and the Brooks Cascadia 12’s for the second. We also ran past the bottom of that famous Cheese rolling hill, Cooper’s Hill in Brockworth. To be honest, I wouldn’t chase a cheese down it and you can see why so many people break things falling down it. I for one was glad to pass at the foot and not scale the thing!
We rolled into Pit stop 2 and I needed to check my feet. They were fine when we were climbing but as soon as we started to descend the hills, my feet felt sore, and I wanted to check for hotspots before anything blistery (it’s a word) happened. I stuck a plaster on the sore side, although nothing was visible. My feet were definitely feeling the elevation, not used to the repeated impact of meeting the toe box or the friction from the angle my foot was at for the decents. I wasn’t surprised they were feeling a little tender. We’d travelled 13.9 miles at this point, so were a quarter of the way through the distance. With only 4.7 miles to the next pit, we pushed on quickly, not realising the horrors that awaited us in just a few paces.
We’d decided for this next section we would have our music in to break it up a bit and i’m so glad we did. I needed the motivation. We passed under the motorway, and passed some farms and eventually crossed a road to meet what was like a single woodland footpath. The first incline (well it was one BIG incline for 2 miles, split into 3 sections) was a shocker. Soft dirt underfoot, surrounded by trees and bushes, like an overgrown alleyway. However this particular path (the climb up Crickly Hill) had an incline of 879ft over a couple of miles. Now I don’t know if that means anything to you, but it was STEEP. People were pulling to the side of this death alleyway for a breather, hands pushing down on thighs just for some extra power up. This is where those walkers and their poles came into their own. Boy I envied the poles…
I haven’t even mentioned that it was like a jungle in there. The temperature was in the early 20’s, but in that single file, claustrophobic environment, it felt like 40. The only way up was to keep putting one foot in front of the other, despite feeling like you weren’t making any progress at all. My quads were burning and I could feel the sweat dripping off my face. FINALLY we made it out, and took a nice, deep, breath.
Only to turn the corner to find another steep incline, and then another.
As I said earlier, the saving grace from these awful awful ups, is the view you are rewarded with once it’s over. Not one person came out of that ascent without taking precious time to drink in the view.
Pit stop 3 was the other side of the hill, so we jogged down to it, enjoying some distance at a nice running pace. Tom was meeting us around here, so Sarah refuelled and then ran on to find him, while Han and I devoured the watermelon! Oh sweet juicy goodness. It tasted SO GOOD. There were also a couple of Threshold people with water spritzers and I enjoyed having a bit of cool water sprayed over my head. Not sure it actually helped but it was temporary relief from the heat.
I just want to stop and say a big shoutout to the Threshold volunteers. I cannot fault them. They were all friendly, helpful, quick to help out like show you where things were or offer to take a picture for you (obviously VERY important) and I think that is part of what makes them such a good organisation. I don’t know where they find these people but I want to hire some myself.
The next stop would be base camp. We left the check point and carried on over the next 7.5 miles of ups and downs. One really big down, and one last up before we could grab some food, a breather and change clothes/socks/shoes etc.
I made a fatal error at this point. I’d grabbed a little Freddo, and 2 miles in, decided i’d eat it. This was just the wrong decision for me, and as soon as he hit my stomach, it leapt into action, alerting me to the fact it had some stuff it needed to get rid of.
Desperately I scanned the landscape for somewhere to duck in, I looked at my watch and worked out that we still had 6 miles to go to basecamp and quite frankly, I wasn’t going to make that. Trapped behind a line of walkers through an open field, i begged them in my head to ‘hurry the hell up’.
I ran round them, and shouted back to the girls with panic “I’ve got to GOOOO!”. I ducked into dense enough woodland to be incognito, but still able to see the road and the trail of people plodding up yet another steep inline, and questioned what on earth I was doing with my life. Well I guess there’s a first time for everything, and if it’s good enough for bears, it’s good enough for me.
Something happened as we hit 22 miles, and I just had a bit of a temper tantrum. Maybe it was ‘Bear-gate’ that had knocked my confidence (although much relief was had by it!) but I was hot and my feet hurt and i’d started to think about the fact I had no-one waiting for me at the end of this race. I had a little rant on ig stories, and just got on with it. Anyway, there’s no way i’d have made it to the end with that attitude. I set my mind on climbing the last hill to base camp, until we heard the loudspeaker and cheers for runners coming in, or finishing their races.
We ran in together and then split off to do the bits we needed to do, as quick as we were able. I changed my socks and top, and put my Brooks Cascadia’s on. I needed a wider toe box and they actually made a big difference. I also taped up my instep with a compeed, but wrapped round my foot with a layer of K tape to hold it in place. This worked so well and I didn’t have any other issues with my instep the rest of the day.
The food in basecamp wasn’t to my liking (in fact probably the only downside of the whole event. Whether we were too early for some of the food or for some other reason, this was the only thing that let the side down.) I wasn’t fussed as I only wanted a Trek bar anyway! so I went off and had a little bit of a foam roll, a trip to the loo, and we were good to go once more.
One marathon down, one to go.
My first mistake on leaving basecamp, was mis-reading the distance to go until the next pit stop.
At this stage, it’s literally life or death to me to know how far between each station. It becomes less of a physical challenge and much more of a mind game.
This is where, potentially, I let those little demons in my head, tell me i’m gonna get sick and have to stop. I read the distance to the next stop as being 6.6 miles. I read it wrong, and it was actually 5.7. This should be a good thing as we’d reach the stop sooner than expected. The funny thing is, at this point, every mile feels like a rather long time, and unfortunately we missed a marker arrow just after we’d left basecamp. We ended up doing an extra mile or so and an extra incline to kick off our second half!
The fact i’d read and processed there were three more sections, and then finding out I still had three to go, was a little stressful. Reader, note that from this point on, things get ridiculous, childish and totally unreasonable. Much like this incredible article I read the other day. (please read it if you’ve ever run or are considering running an ultra. It’s so true!) ‘Ultra runners vs Toddlers’
I’d warned the girls that i’d probably get a bit cranky once I was tired, and to just keep short accounts with each other. We had a couple of disagreements on the way but we sorted them out. We had all started to feel the mileage and were dealing with things in our own ways. The landscape had stretched out at this point and we ran for a few miles across rolling hills, past locals who were so supportive, past sheep napping in any cool spots they could find, and yes, still hobbling it over styles and through A MILLION GATES (which by now, was getting pretty boring).
As we came into Pit stop 5, 31 miles in, we worked out timings and tried to do some maths based on how much ground we were covering and when we might expect to get to the finish. If there’s one thing I know about running an ultra, it’s that I have no idea how my body will respond, and certainly I didn’t know how it would respond to an extra 22 miles from this point in. This was officially the furthest i’d EVER gone. We were a mile or two ahead of the course markers thanks to our detour, so it was a constant mind battle to remember we were further than the signs were telling us. Sometimes this felt really hard to take, and it was a mental battle to carry on past those signs, knowing we were ahead.
Our next worry was that we hadn’t picked up our head torches from Tom, and now it was looking more likely we would need them before we met him around the 50 mile marker. This threw up a bit of anxiety, but thankfully Tom was able to come and meet us earlier on the route, and basically saved the day!
On the way out of Pit stop 5, we were treated to another steep section, weaving us through woodland, and up a very steep path which twisted back on itself three or four times. I had to be careful where I was stepping as the tiredness was making me feel a little unstable and a wrong footing up there would have been rather unfortunate.
A speed walker who we had been doing the Do Si Do with, strode up the hill past us with his massive backpack, and I asked in disbelief how on earth he was doing it. He mumbled something back and disappeared off again. Until next time, giant walker man!
We had agreed to meet Tom around 36 miles, so we could pick up our head torches. Sarah and Hannah had been running together for a while (this is what seems to happen for 3’s – and what happened with Daryl, Martha and I last year, you just swap places about) while I had dropped back to have a little space. We did what we needed to do from the boot of the car, and I told the girls I needed to keep moving. What I really needed was 5-10 mins alone to regain control of my feelings. I was thinking more and more about the finish line. Seeing Sarah with Tom along the route, and knowing Han would have her partner at the end, made me feel super gutted that this time round, my family weren’t going to be there to see me in.
I carried on up the route at a walk, and took a moment to scoff down another Trek bar. I knew it was important to keep up my energy with some food, as at this stage it’s easy to start feeling pretty sick. What i’ve not mentioned is the Tailwind. What a game changer! I bought the stick pack, so it was easy to top up (every 10 miles I would refresh with a new stick and water) and I would alternate between a big lug of tailwind and plain water. It worked perfectly and I didn’t cramp up or feel sick the whole time. I really rate it. And it’s kind on the stomach.
We passed Sudbury Castle (ish), through a field of cows, with a Bull right in the middle of the herd. They were literally across our path so we sidestepped very carefully, praying this wouldn’t be how we ended our day! More fields that felt like they went on for ever, at this point everything hurt. Shoulders, feet, knees, brain, heart! I was tired and bored of fields. Clearly the organisers knew this is how we’d be feeling as we came up on this sign…
Pit stop 6 came and went, same old routine, new water, loo stop, check in with the girls and on we’d go. Now the sun was setting and there was a haze across the sky. It really was beautiful. One thing I really love about being out for a whole day, is getting to experience outside at all times of the day.
We were also grateful for the drop in temperature, which gave me a little bit of a boost.
We climbed another two incredibly steep inclines. One in silence, the second with another guy we’d picked up halfway up said hill. We walked and ran with him for a couple of miles, which was so good because it was quite a long stage, 8.6 miles, so to have someone else in the group perked us up a bit. We watched the sun setting from the top of the second hill, everything now bathed in an orange tint, the last bit of warmth from the day disappearing. I suddenly realised JUST how long we’d been on our feet.
We put our now much needed head torches on our heads, and left Pit stop 7. The next time we stopped would be the finish, but not before one last ridiculous climb.
We tried to run as much of the next 5.3 miles as we could, just to get it done. Things looked so different in the dark, and it was now getting pretty chilly. We needed to keep moving from that aspect alone. I’ve not really run in the dark. Not like this anyway, but knowing a few friends were finishing around us, it felt ok, like it was just one last big slog together, despite there being no-one really around.
I didn’t enjoy the tunnel vision I got from following my head torch, I could only see the girls’ legs in front of me, and I was really conscious of where I was placing my feet. A turned ankle at this point was not on the agenda. I also hated the fact that the moths and midges and whatever else kept flying into my torch and face, and also that we had to run through some spooky looking woods and cornfields. I have a rather overactive imagination so I was grateful it didn’t seem capable at this point, of imagining my very grizzly demise…
When we ticked over to 50 miles, it was sort of a bizarre feeling. It was such a big distance I couldn’t really process that we’d come that far. I still can’t really.
‘Fif-ty miles’ I said to myself. ‘FIFTY! That’s ridiculous…’
We came out into the town of Broadway. Walking, running, dragging our feet and trying not to trip over or vomit, tiredness was in full force. We wanted it to be over and this town seemed to go on for ever. The one redeeming factor was people outside the pubs cheered as you ran past on the other side, and it was the most wonderful thing to hear “Keep going! You’re amazing!” or “well done!”… doesn’t read like much but it was everything at that time. We had less than 2 miles to finish this thing.
We knew there was this one last evil climb, and when we finally got to it, boy it did not disappoint. 2 miles and 313 meters up to the Broadway Tower. In the dark. With sheeps’ eyes reflecting all around you (it’s weird). That hill, in the dark, it went on for an entire lifetime. We feebly kept encouraging each other to carry on, met with a mix of emotions at each statement. One moment i’d be happy for the encouragement, the next I just wanted to just ignore the fact that we still. weren’t. there.
A few more gates for good measure, a set of stairs, and the Tower popped out from the horizon, all lit up in green, like something out of the Wizard of Oz.
Once again, we could hear cheers, and the announcer welcoming people to the end. It was so close! Sarah called to us and said let’s run! – my response was “I can’t!”. But Han reached her hand back to me, “Come on Sweetheart!”
I grabbed it and started to run. What we didn’t realise was that about 15 seconds into this triumphant last dash to the finish line, THERE WAS ONE MORE GATE! 160!
160 styles and gates.
8,042ft elevation gain.
14 hours, 54 minutes, 53 seconds.
Fumbling our way through the gate, we grabbed hands again, and used the last fragments of energy we had to run ourselves, together, over that finish line!
We’d made it.
And we all had our own way of responding to that finish…
As I said, I had no family at the end. I had a few hugs from people I knew running, and the girls, but it was really hard that my husband and kids weren’t there. (ps this is not a guilt trip to them in any way!) so as the girls were with their partners, I wandered off to find my bag, because all I wanted was my Oofos! At least my feet got a nice hug.
I think i’ll leave it to another post to talk through what I DO post ultra, but in short, and emotionally; right there in that moment I guess I just felt numb. Like I couldn’t quite believe what i’d done. The magnitude of something like this is hard to process, and now, 5 days on, i’m still struggling with doing so. I suppose when you leave your comfort zone to do something beyond yourself, it leaves you slightly beyond mentally, too.
I hoped writing this blog post would be cathartic, and bring some release, but i’m still waiting…perhaps my emotions are still back at mile 36.
They’ll catch up.
You can register interest for Race to the Tower, 2019, HERE. Entries open on September 5th, 2018.