A tiny TWO weeks on from my experience at Race to the Tower along the Cotswold way, and I was back for more Ultra goodness.
This time the scene was set along the beautiful South Downs, with a route stretching from Arundel to Winchester, with a total elevation gain of 5,284.32 ft. Not quite the 8,000 odd I was dealt in the Cotswolds, but still pretty damn meaty. There were some difficult hills out there…
This time, I was joining my Ultra BFF Martha, and we were going to tackle the course over two days, with an overnight stay in basecamp, which on this particular route, was positioned only 23 ish miles into the route.
There are a few reasons why this has to happen – the basecamp used to use a boarding school which now isn’t possible, and the best place along the route for basecamp is currently where it stands. It wasn’t awful, but as this is the only Threshold ultra without a title sponsor, you can definitely feel that this is the smaller of the three events.
SO let’s get to the race.
Luckily I have a very good running friend Clare who lives around 20 minutes from the start. She was happy for Martha and I to crash with her the night before and like the massive champ she is, also drove us to the start line in the morning.
Unlike Race to the Tower, we were slightly more organised and managed to catch a bit more of the briefing, after bumping into a whole bunch of different friends as we bag dropped, went to the loo and braided hair.
One friend in particular, all the way from Australia was Kirsty aka @that_running_nurse who was in the UK for a wedding and as you do, booked an ultra while she was here! She went for the straight through option though, so we said a Hi and a Bye all at once, and wished her luck for her race.
Once the briefing was done, we set off, ready for another adventure, starting off past King-holding-flare-and-flag and my friend Chris from Threshold.
I ran with – well – played the overtaking game with Chris, and his friends at the Tower – it’s amazing the community and friendships that form en route at an ultra. Sort of an inexplicable solidarity of experiencing something so crazy and draining with all these strangers, brings you together. That’s why Martha and I are bonded for life now #ultrawife.
The first 3 miles were interesting. The course pretty much started up a 2/3 mile long hill. Martha’s calves hadn’t warmed up and started to cramp, so we paused a couple of times for me to dig my thumbs into them to try and release them a bit. With some relief, we carried on our journey up the huge hill and tried to ease into what lay ahead of us.
The heat was already making itself known, and although I wouldn’t have wished for rain (this course is particularly chalky and loose underfoot) I was super grateful for all the stretches of shady woodland or covered footpaths.
Once we’d climbed the first hill we were both feeling a little more settled, and enjoyed a nice downhill section, before we started s slow climb again around 5 miles. It was this point we came across Andy who was crewing some others, but was also there to give out encouragement to all runners. He asked us what we’d like, if anything, and told us we’d see him again around the 20 miles mark.
We waved goodbye and turned to travel through what we would unaffectionately name, Stinger Alley’.
Stinger Alley was just that – a compact, overgrown single footpath, with stinging nettles and thorny bushes at armpit height. I was forced to carry my arms about my head to avoid swinging my arms into the overgrowth, something that was a bit hit and miss. I had never been more grateful for my Zero point calf sleeves, without which, I would certainly have been slathering on the sting relief. This was the section i’d read about on the Facebook forum, locals and Alumni warning virgin King runners about the section that is ‘very overgrown’. All I can say is i’m grateful we weren’t up front, and benefited from a few hundred people stamping down the weeds ahead.
The only reassurance was the equal amount of yelps and screams from others ahead and behind us, it wasn’t just us falling prey to the nettles. Either that, or we concluded there may well be raptors in the field.
Unfortunately this section was also tricky underfoot and we passed a couple of people who had succumbed to the undulating path and had a nasty fall. One lady we saw back at basecamp, she had been to the hospital and came back with stitches on her forehead and nose, after taking a gravel path to the face.
I have gone over on my ankle and had a few trips to the ground but luckily I haven’t had any major bust ups (so far!).
Now around 7 miles, we enjoyed a little decent before meeting our next vertical ascent. We knew Pit Stop 1 was close, and we both needed a break and a refuel (we were draining water like it was going out of fashion). This hill was a proper good one. Although it was only 0.32 miles, it was most definitely ALL UP, starting with tricky chalk path, then levelling out a little towards pit stop 1. However, as these things go, the view made it all worth it.
We pulled into basecamp to bells and cheers by the wonderful Pit crews, and made all the checks.
Moving on we had a little bit more up (a mile or so) and now on top of the hill at Mile 9, we could see the next climb! Thankfully we first had a lovely big downhill, where the breeze was blowing and it felt good to be a little cooler as we bumped our way down. Approaching the bottom of the valley, we crossed a road and began to ascend once more.
This hill was chalky path through a beautiful green field and once we’d made it to the top (everyone was walking this) it was the most incredible reward. The hill went reasonably quick as we chatted to some guys about the Stones and the Tower, feeling relatively smug when they were impressed that i’d only completed Tower two week previous. It was a great distracting chat and we ended up following and swapping places with this group for the next day too.
Hot and sweaty, we were super happy to then take a break from the sun and enjoyed a wonderful shady stretch of about 4.5 miles, before arriving at Pit Stop 2. As Day 1 of RTTK is quite short, there are only 2 pits, meaning they’re stretched out at slightly longer distance. Usually this wouldn’t be much of an issue, but as it was so hot, we were really getting through our water supplies, and trying to make them last until each stop. The next stop after this would be base camp, and our home for the night.
As we descended into PS2, we met Andy again, who handed us some Percy Pigs, and took and filled up our bottles for us. I grabbed a packet of ready salted crisps and a flat coke (oh my gosh, salt and flat coke is EVERYTHING)
We had another 8.5 miles until we reached base camp, before which things would get a little technical, terrain wise. At the 16 miles point, we started up another long hill climb.
The hills on this route are somewhere between The Tower and the Stones. Mostly, they’re long and reasonably steep. The Tower has lots of short sharp inclines, rather than long drawn out ones (although there are a good few of those too) and then Stones is mainly rolling hills, with very few sharp ascents/descents.
So this particular hill, aptly named ‘Cocking Hill’, was around 133ft elevation gain over 1.8 ish miles. It had a very long first part, up a small farm road, thankfully reasonably compacted tarmac with a few loose stones this time. It soon turned into woodland, which again was a wonderful respite from the heat and the sun. We made some videos to send to my kids and then we enjoyed a good section of running with a shady downhill.
The crazy terrain was only about to get worse though. Another large uphill section through the wood, which then made a turn at the top out into the sunlight, to a crescendo of steep incline to finish things off. The kind where every step feels like you’re not really making any progress forwards…
Martha and I laughed at how we had appeared to have swapped places from last year. She was fully trained for Race to the Stones but I wasn’t and she helped me through. This time, it was my turn to help an injured friend through this mountain climbing hell we were in!
No sooner than we had found the 20 miles sign for a selfie, we then saw what awaited us next. A downhill leading to an immediate, very sharp climb. This was to the top of the hill (Beacon Hill to be precise). It would be climbing more than walking, so we set to it and hauled ourselves up to the top of the other side, where we found the Trig point to indicate we had reached the highest point. Pretty cool.
The other side the craziness continued, and now, having been caught up by Clare who was making amazing progress on her straight through attempt, we descended the hill together. It was so so steep. You probably can’t tell from the picture (bottom left, above) but it was a very technical decent, quite a few people slipped in places, and I could only imagine how treacherous it would have been had it been a wet or icy day.
Unfortunately we had another straight up the opposite side of the hill, another chalky path, which was slippery and had plenty of lose stones and ruts to fall into if you weren’t completely looking at where you were going!
Martha was struggling with the heat and her poor broken toe, but we tried to push on as now it was all down hill and reasonably shady.
We knew Andy was going to be close by, and then there he was. Fully equipped with Percy Pigs and WATERMELON! Oh gosh. Race to the Tower changed my life with Watermelon. I prayed there would be watermelon at some of the Day 2 Pits as we hadn’t had any up until that point. I loved seeing Andy there. It was such a boost to see a friend, and more so a friend with supplies!! We only had a couple more miles so on we went.
Before long we could hear the loudspeakers of basecamp, and finally we knew that we could relax. 24 miles in total, but what a 24 miles. We knew Day 2 had a couple of bad climbs, but we had got the worst of it out of the way, now we could relax, stretch, take the yoga class, get a massage, hot shower, hot food and just chill out for the evening.
We grabbed some food – pizza, pasta, chips, oh my gosh it was all so good.
The massage tent wasn’t too busy so we took our massages straight away, and because there wasn’t many waiting, we seemed to have a decent amount of time in there. I had some pretty sick knots in my calves, which the trainee very meticulously smoothed out, much to my discomfort! I also got my quads done which was amazing. We had a roll and a stretch too, and then had a nice hot shower before heading up to do a yoga sesh.
People often ask me or are worried about doing these events over 2 days because they think they’ll cramp up, or find day 2 harder etc. Having done the events both ways, i can honestly say, as long as you make sure you go through recovery steps at basecamp, massage, shower, roll, stretch, eat, rehydrate then sleep, there’s no reason why you can’t have a wonderful day 2. Last year at RTTS, I had no issues, and followed the same course of action for the King to the same effect.
The one horrendous thing was the little storm bugs that were EVERYWHERE. It was so gross. They just swarmed on the tents and it was hard to get in and out without them following you in there! Luckily come nightfall, they seemed to go back to Hades from where they came from. But, eurghhh.
The field hadn’t long been harvested either, so there was a lot of uneven ground and straw like stalks sticking out from the ground. Again, not Threshold’s problem – but was just unfortunately timed harvesting I guess!
After yoga, we hung out a little bit more – everyone was encouraged to welcome in the last 2 people on course. It was amazing actually. Everyone seemed to come over, there was a proper crowd of people who had finished their day, or maybe were there for other people, cheering in these two people. They looked so happy for the support. It just made me feel so proud of our running community and just goes to prove the family spirit that you get at these events.
We made ourselves a little snack to end the day, and turned in around 10.30, after catching the MOST beautiful sunset. A big part of me now felt spoiled for the straight through option – I did the last one straight through, and there was a part of me that felt like I was cheating by not pressing on, but I was also glad of the rest! 30 miles to cover in the morning, we tried to get as much sleep as we could before nature turned the lights on around 4.30am.
Day 2 to follow…