I didn’t really know what to expect with this race. Maybe I went into it a little unprepared in that sense; I didn’t know the exact gradient of each hill, I didn’t have an hourly weather forecast, and the watch that I was borrowing had just run out of battery. But I guess if your mind and your legs are in the right place then that’s what matters most. I wanted to not give it too much thought, do my best to enjoy it, and most importantly get to the finish line. In the Spring I’d closed off the idea of running any ultras until my legs got a little older, wanting to focus mainly on speed. So with this in mind, I’m grateful for our team of TNF ladies in opening up a door that was half closed, and I’m fortunate to know a friend as willing as my pacer for the day, James, who ushered me into a challenge that I struggled to digest at first, and one that I wouldn’t have decided to do on my own.
Standing in a field filled with nerves and lycra, we said goodbye and good luck to the others, and calmly waited just behind the starting line amongst many athletic men, with an Iron Man visor here and a sponsor there. I started to wonder if I was out of my depth, but before I had time to give this much more thought, the horn sounded and we began sprinting out as a pack through supporters, and into a cordoned pathway. We were almost instantly into the country, and thankfully the pace, and my Darth Vader-esque breathing, settled. Coming up to a man in a kilt (Marathon Man UK), and within a short while running together, we discovered that he was actually in the middle of running a marathon a day for a year, and had had an hours sleep, so we couldn’t exactly grumble.
We spent the first half of the race enjoying the simple motion of running.Trying to take in the views, running down shaded trails, and marching up hills where we had to. Our legs set into a comfortable rhythm and we got through a number of aid stations. These really helped to break the race into more psychologically manageable chunks. They were placed at every 10K or so and were manned with staff that offered genuine encouragement and help every time we passed through.
At marathon distance we high-fived, had a celebratory walk, and for a good few miles I was more than grateful to be where we were. I couldn’t think of a nicer place to be running, and I felt lucky to be able to take my mind off what we were actually doing. We were almost halfway as we reached the 48K aid station, and we were in good spirits. I was glad to see that an American gent that we joined for part of the way was now making tracks. He contemplated pulling out at the half way point as he had a few chest problems. Instead, he casually sat in a chair, had a 20 minute nap, and went on to finish the whole thing.
At this point James told me encouragingly that we were on for a good time, and that I could maintain the position that I was in. One of the strongest aspects of the race was James’ ability to stay calm and re-route any negativity into something positive. He didn’t moan until the long stretches that we both hated were over, and he kept his own battles to himself in exchange for spurring on others. Upon seeing the second-placed lady pass through the barriers of the markers behind me, I took these words and changed a goal of finishing to one of bringing home some bacon to do our Still Waters and Run Dem ladies proud. I didn’t want to waste the effort James had gone to get me here, so now I really had to try.
With some kind words from the supporters, and a banana or two, we set off running again, but now, despite the scenery, and sunshine that I would usually call glorious, the pressure of having competition so close behind combined with the heat, brought a feeling of despair that came in waves. In an attempt to remove this negativity I tried to focus on more simple tasks such as sipping water, following the rhythmic motion of the red and white trainers in front, letting my mind float off at a tangent and mumbling some Fleetwood Mac to myself. I could feel that the lady behind was right on my tail and at this point I didn’t care what happened anymore. Even if I was last at least we were representing women in a predominantly male field, that was all that mattered. I began to warn Craig, a Welsh runner that we met along the way, that it was probable I would cry in the next 20 miles, and that I was sorry. I didn’t know if I was strong enough to maintain our stride, and all I wanted to do was get to the next aid station. He told me to remember where we were and how far we’d come, and with these words we hit a downhill trail. The rain that we had waited for all day started bucketing down, and that black cloud of despair lifted. Craig got ahead, and James and I mustered up a second wind as we sprinted through these showers for about a mile. We were soaked, but I didn’t give a shit if my phone got drenched. I didn’t care about the nettles on my legs, and I was over the nausea that came every now and then. All I wanted to do was to get to the finish, and with the final aid station ticked off, the last uphill done, it finally seemed like we had it insight.
Meeting the runners that we had seen at in the beginning was one of the best parts of this final stretch. Albeit we were all looking much more haggered and broken than 10 hours ago, but we encouraged our aching bodies as best as we could, and tried to get those that were walking to run again. One thing that I learnt on the Ridgeway in moments like this is that if we force ourselves, we can overcome many weaknesses that we face in life. Irrespective of running, or of miles clocked, when you’re faced with a mental barrier that you force yourself to overcome, I guess it enables you to understand a little bit more about the word strength.
With 3 kilometers to go and the Stones in sight we discovered our friend Ash on a hill, ready to run us home for the final part. I’ve still got no idea how he timed it, or how long he’d been waiting there, but this meant that we could paste on a smile and use the last of our energy to sprint finish the last 400m, crossing the finish line to a position of 19th and 20th, and a collective effort of first lady home.
The support for this event was second to none. From runners, to staff, to the repeat cheerers driving around in their cars to shout words of encouragement, I’m extremely grateful. I’m also extremely proud of all of our tnfultrateam ladies for taking on the challenge and showing the Chilterns who’s boss, with each team member finishing, as well as 3 more top 10 ladies.
Cracking views, wonderful support, and even better company.
Race to the Stones, you were a beauty.
Photographs – Phil O’Connor – Sportive Photo