In 2018, I took on Race to the Tower as my first straight through ultra marathon, 53 miles over 7000 odd ft of elevation gain, along the hilly, brutal but beautiful Cotswold way, starting in Stroud and ending at the Broadway Tower. I shared the experience with two other girls and we had a lot of fun, but the route was punishing and we just managed to pull ourselves over the line in the dark, with a time of 14 hrs 54.
This blog however, is going to fill you in on how it felt to do my very first solo ultra marathon, and what you might expect if you did one too.
Up until a month ago, I had only ever run ultras with friends. Enjoying the banter and distraction, the laughs and the pain made them such fun. It was basically a running picnic (I still stand by that) and a jolly day out with your mates. But how would I fare when it was just me vs me? Would my mind take me to really dark places, would I give up more easily being alone in the journey?
Always good to point out here that out of the MANY ultras you can sign up for, there are very different types. Threshold ultras are fully supported with pit stops, signed, safe and wonderful – challenging yes, but we’re not talking to the level of self navigated or self sufficient – something i’ve yet to venture into…
In the few months before, I tried to prepare myself mentally for what was to come. I knew what the course would be like, I knew myself and how I felt at different points of a double marathon distance. I knew where my head would go to and I was pretty sure of how I could get myself out of those spots too. I was keen to have someone there along the route and thankfully my lovely hubby Andy was up for crewing me along the route. Again, not really from the point of needing extra things, as the pits stops at Threshold events are pretty damn loaded, but more from the emotional support point of view. The one thing that hurt me the most last year was not having anyone at the end. I felt numb about what i’d done and to this day still don’t feel much attached to RTTT 2018.
This was was my chance to redeem the race and feel like I actually did a good job. So no pressure!
The only thing I wanted to do really was not finish in the dark. I hated that part last year, and I was with 2 other people, so there was no way I wanted to be out there in the dark alone, i’m just not ready for that yet (despite my new head torch I got for my birthday!)
I’d used some cheer points from friends and worked out where we would meet along the route, usually between pit stops so I had it broken up in some of those longer stages. From that point of view it all worked brilliantly. We met at each point, no dramas, and apart from one point where Andy had taken my phone to charge until our next meeting point, he could track my phone the whole way so he was only really waiting for me about 20 mins each time.
I’ll be honest – if Andy hadn’t been there, i’m not sure I would’ve been able to get it done. I wasn’t in the best place going into the race, I wasn’t sure DURING the race! But he was amazing and knowing i’d see him helped so much. So many people have little cheer squads along the route too, and if you’re the sort of person that wants to try a solo ultra but needs a bit of input, see if you can get some squad to meet you up the route. It does help.
On top of having Andy out there, you really do meet people along the way. I’d say there were 5 key people on the route that I ran next to/behind/chatted to for anything from 1 mile to 25 miles. You end up being with people wherever you are and the longer you go, you just find those going the same pace as you and you get it done and encourage each other on the way. Those are the moments that help lift you. Not to mention the incredible Threshold Crew at each pit stop. I’ve said it before but these people are gold dust. They really care, they want to help and they’re super chirpy and chatty. It really is amazing.
Total distance – 52 miles.
Total climb – 7,476ft.
Day 1 distance – 26 miles
Day 1 total climb – 4,147ft.
Day 2 distance – 26 miles
Day 2 total climb – 3,329ft
Unfortunately the Cotswolds had a rather meaty rainstorm the day before, and for the start we were out in the rain. This gave me a little anxiety – my previous 5 ultras had been in the glorious sunshine (lucky I know). It felt half badass, half nightmare to have to attempt 53 miles in the wind and rain. Luckily the rain cleared up around 20 mins in, and we only had one more very very light shower, however the winds were a little keen on some of the hills…
I knew I wanted to attack the day from the off, and try and get a chunk of distance under my belt to get to my first meeting point with Andy, which wasn’t until 14.6 miles. I’d re-read my blog and watched my stories from last year to give myself a refresher and it really helped. I knew where the first half marathon would take me (or just about) and that gave me confidence to get stuck in.
A lovely dousing of mud to start with as we weaved 5 miles through woods until the first little village. Calves fully woken up! but feeling confident. This year I’d had enough time at the start to pop one of the awesome elevation transfer tattoos on my arm so I could consult on what glorious incline was to come next!
What was nice this year was that there were a few parts of the route that were slightly different from last year. Most of it is the same but the odd field or turn was different.
I also made the effort to look around as much as I could. I knew I wouldn’t be storying on instagram as much this time. Partly because I wanted something out of the race instead of just running along for fun times, and partly because instagram has seen me story from every pit stop before and I just felt this time, they didn’t need to see each one!
I got through the first 14/15 miles pretty swiftly and soon got to our first meeting point just after the steep climb up Crickly Hill.
Crickly Hill Climb
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.Race To The Tower Blog, 2018
A brief hug and walk with Andy and I pushed on, the next checkpoint only a few more miles ahead. Pit stop 3 provided me with WATERMELON, nectar of the Ultra Gods! and I had my first loo trip, grabbed some sweets, filled my bottles and swept back out of there, my plan of being swift at pit stops was going well and I felt like I was making great time.
I next met Andy at 20 ish miles at a roundabout junction – last year i’m sure it was just Mel (Andy Chubs’ girlfriend) there, this year there were SO MANY CARS. People clearly had come out in force to cheer today! Andy met me along the road a little way from the car, but as soon as I started to walk with him, the need to go to the toilet hit me. I turned to him and said “I need the toilet. I need it now“.
Now imagine my predicament. Surrounded by cars and supporters and runners, on a busy roundabout, desperately looking for somewhere I could duck into.
I walked up the road a little and found a bush to park my backside in. I sat (well crouched cautiously above the stingers i’d flattened with my shoe) for a while and thought about my life choices…
Funnily enough, it was just shy of the same point from last year where ‘Freddo-gate’ happened. Maybe it was my sub conscious telling me that this was where we go to the toilet!
Finding some internal peace and relief, we parted ways again and I carried on for the next chunk of miles, which would see me into Basecamp. I’d planned to not go in and eat a meal or anything, but to continue my nutrition as I was already doing. Tailwind sips every mile or so, lots of water in between, a bit of flat coke here and there, sweets, salted peanuts; and the next stop I came to out of Basecamp, I planned to grab some proper food like peanut butter sandwiches, to keep me going.
My knee and my foot were already aching, as to be expected from someone who does NOT train on hills, but by the time i’d reached basecamp, i’ll be honest, I was ready to give up. My knee hurt with each incline. They just seemed to go on forever, each one I would move over to let people pass. I started to let myself drift into the dark place that told me I couldn’t hack it. I wouldn’t make it to the end.
I ran into basecamp in not a great way mentally (see pictures for full physical representation!) and grabbed new socks and a new top from Andy. While he filled up my bottles with tailwind and water, I made my way to another Plastic Palace to change and go to the loo.
I don’t know if portaloo’s are the best place to decide your life choices but they seem to be the place where I make many of mine. As I sat, I told myself that I COULD DO THIS. Maybe I didn’t want to right now and maybe I didn’t quite believe what I was telling myself, but I left that toilet knowing that at least I would try to carry on and see how it went.
The main problem was at this moment, I honestly wasn’t fussed if I carried on or not. I just felt like I was facing the impossible. The hills were taking it out of me, the elevation in the first half was 4,147ft. I’d had a pretty speedy first half (5hr 41!) This was the hardest thing because usually the wanting to get it done pushes you on to do it. I felt like i’d lost that drive, so really it was a huge mind battle to push myself out of Basecamp and carry on the journey. I had to remind myself of my ultra mantra ‘I CAN DO HARD THINGS’.
One WHOLE marathon to do, again, and 3,329ft more to climb.
I decided i’d leave Andy my phone to charge, and i’d pick it up in 7 miles time. There was a pit stop before then to break it up and surely not much would happen in that time. I was so wrong though. The climbs were hard. I went the wrong way AGAIN, same place we did last year. Luckily I realised before I went too far down. But I missed my phone. I couldn’t text or take to stories for support, or even photograph what was going on! I was naked, no technology could save me now…
Then, in a narrow section, I stepped on what I thought was a piece of wood or at least something firm, as seemingly the only safe way across a water logged bog, turns out it was foam…
Having just changed my socks, 2 miles into the second half, and about to take on miles of exposed, what was now gale force winds on a hilltop golf course, wasn’t really the best time for a sogger.
I walked past the photographer, to whom I laughed that I couldn’t even fake run for the camera. My legs were feeling every bit of elevation, however gentle, and I found myself slowing right down up any inclines. I started to walk much much more than I was running.
After a couple of miles across the top we started to descend back down this windy hill, towards a farm where the next pit stop was at 31.8 miles. I was feeling the lack of proper food (i.e not sweets or nuts or fluid carbs) so I beelined for the peanut butter sarnies. I ate one, swigged a cup of flat coke down and thanked Threshold they choose the most amazing volunteer crew, as I had a lovely chat with one of the girls there. They’re so encouraging and wonderful. Seriously can’t harp on about this point enough!
I’d also been playing overtaking with an older man who had caught back up to me at this pit, and asked me about my ultra experience. Filling him in, he said it looked like I ‘knew what I was doing’ which made me laugh. Even during my 6th, still didn’t really know much…
I spent a bit longer than planned here, the black mist caught up with me on, you guessed it, the portaloo, and I sat and gave myself a little pep talk while I waited to see if anything else might need to happen. This is the part of an ultra where I also start to worry if my gut is strong enough to carry me to the end. Being someone who has suffered many time with IBS and stomach issues in races, i’m always a bit nervous things are about to go wrong. To be fair i’ve never had an accident – only encounters with undergrowth! I grabbed another peanut butter sandwich and pushed on ahead.
At 34 miles, I made it out to my next meeting point with Andy. Everytime I saw him from basecamp I had to try and not be too emotional. This was such a big deal for me to be doing alone, and I needed to talk about it, but I also knew if I lost it with him, I might not be able to finish. I told him that this was the exact point the previous year I had felt so alone. It was next to a road we turn up called ‘Puck Pit lane’ and I couldn’t help but think it sounded like the sentiment I currently had for the race at that point…
We’d met one of the girl’s partners and i’d felt the sadness of not having friends of family at the end (or on route) for me. And it hurt! It was so hard. I told him how grateful I was that he was there for me this year as he filled up my tailwind again. I put some extra tape on my knee, which was pulling, and round my ankle to try and get some support.
I thought i’d done everything I needed, and we’d agreed the next meeting point would be optional, unless he could go and check in at the B&B in Broadway in time to be there. Otherwise we’d meet again after pit 7, at 48 miles.
But as I ran off, and then checked through my watch screens, I realised how low my Garmin battery was and frantically text him.
“My Garmin is going to die!”
The worst in a big race is to have your heartbeat taken away! What if I lost all this juicy run goodness?! He replied that he would get it to me asap and he zipped around and made it to the next (optional) checkpoint in time. It was still 8 miles away and I was so lucky that a trail angel appeared and we walk ran together for a bit, both feeling pains and tiredness – but she had MY Garmin charger and a pack. I clipped in and thanked her as we travelled a couple of miles together.
From 34 miles there are 3 more very large ups and downs before the finish, with a couple of flats in between. For the downhill sections, which were tough as my foot hurt, I wanted to claw some time back from all the copious amounts of walking I was doing, so I ran as much of them as I could. Apart from the foot pain I felt like I had enough energy and everything else was feeling good.
Another pit came and went, I didn’t need to fill up flasks so grabbed some sweets and left as quickly as I got there. Up another massive hill. Run as much as I can. Walk a bit more. Try and run. Walk a lot. Run…. and so was the pattern. I closed in on the village I was seeing Andy next, he’d walked up into the fields and had popped himself up on one of the many MANY gates, a la David Brent.
It made me laugh, I needed to laugh. I was getting very serious and I needed distraction. This is why i’d made him come. Maybe I wasn’t travelling the course with people but these interactions with him worked a treat.
I grabbed a swig of fizzy coke, and I needed water but he didn’t have any left in the car. I was low as i’d not filled up at the previous stop. I had a mega hill to climb before pit 7 so I just had to hope for the best and ration my gulps up the hill. Which went on forever. Again.
I hope this is getting the point across. The hills are LONG. And lots of them are ‘push-your- hands-into-your-quads-to-help-you-move-up-them’ steep.
I got to the last pit stop (Andy was waiting just down the road from it) and this was where things got dark for us last year. I’d been messaging my friend Lou (this was our pit stop from 2018, we’d met up there and for a brief moment, moved thought away from the race) and she just kept saying I was so far ahead of last year. I was so nervous though, that the sun would set fast and I wouldn’t meet my goal of finishing in the light.
However, I took my time. Had a final wee, grabbed a final pack of starmix and one peanut butter sandwich for the road, and made my way out of the pit to my last point with Andy before the finish.
As I pulled out of the pit, a lady that knew me from instagram, who i’d chatted to and been overtaken by along the route was making her way in. As we passed I said a massive well done – it was her first ultra (she was SO STRONG!) and she was welling up as we exchanged fleeting words.
It really brought home the gravity of the achievement. I’m so bad at really appreciating what i’ve achieved. I’m belittling and dismissive of my achievements. Even to that point. So seeing how much this meant to her, the emotion that an ultra marathon throws up, it made me consider my own race and achievement in that moment. I WAS going to finish in the light! I was going to come in with a PB. I just needed to keep going.
I saw Andy for the last time and he walked me across the final busy A-road. We worked out that I had around an hour and a half to finish the final 5 miles. It was 7:45 and sunset was at 9:20.
Those last 5 miles. I can’t explain.
Everything feels drawn out. There’s always another field to cross.
A caravan park that you run through.
You beg for the 50 mile sign to appear and then, there it is.
You take a selfie, obviously. It’s 50 miles.
You know that you have to run up Broadway high street. It’ll be amazing because everyone outside the pub cheer you and people stop you and ask what on earth you’re doing, and they can’t comprehend it when you tell them because, let’s face it, it’s not a normal thing to be doing is it? but you’ve become conditioned to think it is normal, because of the circle you now live in, but it’s not normal and it IS a BIG DEAL…
2 miles to go…
Why is the high street so long? It’s a mile long apparently, but it feels 10.
Finally, finally you turn off the high street (which is all uphill, obv) across the stones, a thousand more gates, a few more fields until you’re there. The bottom of the very last climb.
It’s the only thing between you and ending the misery. Between you and your glory moment. But there are SO MANY MORE FIELDS.
I think you cross through (vertically) 4 or 5 paddocks before you reach the crest and can see the Tower. For most of the climb, you can’t see it. At least this year I could see the ground and the sheep around me (as Lou said, no freaky reflective sheep’s eyes for me this year) but to be honest, it din’t make the climb much easier. Fatigue was strong and despite messages from Andy who was now waiting at the Tower, telling me I had x amount of fields left, it didn’t help. It was slow going, and I watched a sub 13 hour time slip by. Too tired to really be bothered, I knew I was safe with a massive PB as long as I kept putting one foot in front of the other.
The guy in front kept turning around, and when I decided i’d look too, well just wow.
Other supporters kept appearing and telling us we ‘weren’t far!’.
I made it through the last gate, walking up with a lady who told me her husband had literally been being sick since 20 miles. He’d carried on and just passed me – she was sweating trying to keep up and see him finish! She walked with me up to the final gate, where Andy was at the foot of the Tower. He told me he welled up at that moment, but ran off (like a good boy) to get some finishing footage for me.
Seeing that Tower come into view was redemption for me. The race in 2018 had been so hard on many levels. I felt like I’d let my friends and ,myself down, mentally, emotionally and physically. Things hadn’t gone how i’d wanted them to.
But here I was. I’d got myself 53 miles across Wiltshire. I’d climbed bloody mountainous hills and done it in pain. Done it, essentially, alone.
I told Andy I wasn’t going to cry until the end so I gathered myself as I walked through that last gate, and began to run towards the finish line once again.
I crossed and he was there.
He was there and I cried. Because all i’d wanted the year before was this. Because to be honest, all that matters to me in the end is that he, and my kids are proud of me.
They’re my biggest fans. My most devoted supporters (you guys are awesome, don’t get me wrong) but it’s about them, for them, ALWAYS.
I let it wash over me. The numbness of last years race was redeemed in that moment.
My 6th ultra marathon. Hilly as hell. And i’d smashed it. 1 hours and 53 minutes faster than last year, despite the walking.
I claimed i’d never do the Tower again…
…But Never say Never, right?
Here are the stats for those who enjoy them. But also can we just for a moment celebrate that the amount of women that took part has gone up by 57. Come on ladies. Ultras are OURS for the taking!