Strap yourself in, as this story of Race to the Stones 2019 has a bit of everything!
I signed up for this race around 12 months ago. I had just completed an ironman and had enjoyed the challenge of an event out of my comfort zone, where the time was not really important. An ultra seemed the logical next step!
I'd heard mixed things about Race to the Stones - beautiful scenery, but overpriced and too commercial. But I gave it a go and had largely forgotten about it since, focusing on marathons in winter (Valencia where I ran 2:39) and spring (London).
The plan was then to bounce from London into ultra training, but after London (2:42) didn't go to plan I hastily entered Edinburgh Marathon, where I was able to run 2:36.
It meant I only had around 7 weeks to recover, and then build in some longer runs and practice things like running with a bag, eating real food and drinking electrolytes on the go.
Chatting to my coach Tom Craggs, we figured best to get out for time on feet rather than anything too race specific, particularly as living in South West London I'm fairly limited when it comes to mountains!
Things went great, a weekend in the Lake District supporting my fiancee Coralie nail another ironman at The Lakesman gave me the opportunity to run the UK's hilliest parkrun at Whinlatter Forest parkrun, and then the next day a 30-mile run around Lake Windermere.
My legs were totally trashed after parkrun (I ran 19:40 for 5k with 764 feet of elevation gain!) so the long run was tough 24 hours later.
My previous longest run had been 27 miles, but I set a target of completing a 30-miler. The lake was glorious, with some sneaky Cumbrian hills (plus crazy mountain bikers), and I ran out of water after about 12 miles, so it was good practice for Race to the Stones for sure as I now appreciated how important it was to keep drinking even when not thirsty.
It took me a good couple of weeks to recover so training was scaled back to include just easy runs (7:30 min/mile +) of varying lengths between 8-27 miles, with the only intensity coming in the form of parkrun each week.
I managed to run 17:03 at Hazelwood on longish grass, and then 15:44 at Kingsbury Water (which was around 100 metres short!) so I knew aerobically I was in a good place coming in to the ultra.
I am shamelessly ultra-competitive, so the key was going to be staying patient, not getting sucked into a race from the gun, doing my own thing, and then avoiding issues with nutrition and hydration.
I also spent a few days in the week in the run-up trying to get my starting wave changed as I had been incorrectly allocated into Wave B, which would make me ineligible from winning any prizes or competing in the main race. The service and communication left plenty to be desired (this will become a theme!).
We had a real group taking part in RTTS. Clare, Jason and Jake who I work with at parkrun were also doing the 100k non-stop. As was James, with Fiona running the 50k, and Doug & KC were running 100k split over two days.
Then Coralie and Russ, also from parkrun, were our amazing crew, supporting us at the start and halfway with more bags and kit than Sports Direct.
Having stayed over in High Wycombe on Friday night, we enjoyed "the last supper" in the bar, then off to bed with the alarms set for 4.45am. A couple of day-old cold toasted bagels were forced down and then we were on our way!
A minibus taxi arrived at 6:00am to collect us, and it was a fitting analogy for how the event was to pan out!
Having been assured several times we could pay by card, the driver then said cash only. And then midway through the half hour journey he asked us for directions, having taken a wrong turn. Honestly who does that...
We arrived at basecamp and shit was definitely about to get real. As with all things Race to the Stones, there were plenty of opportunities to spend your money, whether that be on drinks (yes those weren't free) or race t-shirts (neither were they).
There was no tracking for the race as that also cost extra (£30, of course) so we checked in our bags (that was actually free) and gave Coralie our halfway emergency supplies and rough arrival times.
And next thing I knew, I was in the starting pen ready for Wave A to go (after again explaining I had been put in the wrong wave).
Looking at previous results, generally it takes a time between 8:00-8:30 to win the race. Despite the lack of specific ultra or hill training, my coach Tom had said sub 9:00 was very realistic, and potentially sub 8:30, so I knew I was in the hunt.
Checking out the other runners, my eyes were drawn to a topless guy who seemed woefully unprepared. He was carrying no kit, no food and no drink, with only a collapsible cup in his pocket. And to round off the look, he had pinned his race number to HIS BARE CHEST. Yes he literally had pierced his skin with safety pins.
We got our countdown, but only after the CEO of the organising company had told us about the array of products and services provided by the race sponsor, and recommended we buy our Garmins from them. Slightly odd 30 seconds before the start of a 100k, but by this point, not unsurprising.
And then we were off. Shirtless man was dropping sub-7 miles and was soon out of sight, and I sat in a pack of 10 in pursuit. I worked my way up to second by the first aid station at 10k, and opted not to stop as I still had plenty of water and supplies, and simply had a gel on the go.
Any time I saw people sat supporting, I tried to get time updates. First he was 5 minutes ahead, then 10 minutes. The course was very runnable, even for me in my road shoes, so through 10 miles I was ticking along at around 7:15 min/mile pace, which meant the demigod must have been putting down around 6:30-6:40 pace.
I figured he was either a) Jim Walmsley or b) almost certainly going to detonate, so tried to run my own race. By the second checkpoint at 14 miles, his lead was now 15 minutes.
I had been caught by 3rd place, who jumped ahead as I stopped to fill two water bottles and go for a wee. Rather alarmingly my wee was orange! Not ideal with 77k still to go and temperatures rising.
Now in 3rd place, 2nd was soon out of sight and I settled into a rhythm, had another gel and drank plenty. The pace was still around 7:20 average by 20 miles. Quicker than I had planned, but I felt strong and was here to race, so I pushed on and a mile later we were back together.
We were informed the leader was now 20 mins ahead, meaning he must be running sub 6:30 miles. That was phenomenal running on a rolling course, especially when you add on time for stopping at aid stations.
We ran the next 5 miles together, chatting and speculating as to if and when the Adonis would come back to us. I had a Clif bar and then went through the marathon at 3:14 pace.
Arriving at the 27 mile aid station, we were greeted by our leader, who was kicking back chatting. His race was clearly done. A sad end to a heroic if not totally suicidal effort, but I weirdly admired his nonchalance and bravado!
My co-leader stopped to chat with his girlfriend who was at the aid station, and I got a move on looking to get time on him at we approached halfway. I never saw him again until post-race.
I hit the 50k in approx 3:50, and it was so nice to see Coralie and Russ with all our kit laid out ready. I did feel bad as I took none of it! Just topped up my water and away I went.
By this point it was now my longest run ever, and I had to got out and do it all again! I knew 3rd place was a long way back, so if I could put in a solid 5-6 mile section I could build a healthy lead and someone would have to run very well to catch me.
Now into the 40 miles, and into the afternoon, it was getting pretty warm. I had two 375ml bottles, but I found myself running out of water earlier and earlier and still hadn't been to the toilet since mile 14.
My pace began to drop and I began walking more of the uphills. Annoyingly some of the downs became quite steep, to steep to run down, so the opportunities to make up the time spent walking became reduced.
However I still felt motivated. Mentally I was just thinking about getting to the next aid station and fantasising about the water that was waiting for me, rather than the enormity of still having 15 miles to go! Also the feeling of being chased was always enough to keep me honest, and I just sure I ran all of the flat and downhill sections.
By the time of the last aid station at 88k, I was still convinced I was being hunted. I still refused to sit down or get food. However, it turned out the people tracking the 2nd place runner (who was the previous 3rd place guy) were there, and they assured me he was 30 minutes behind me.
I cannot put into words how happy that made me! I now knew where I stood - I had 8 miles to go, all mainly downhill and a 30 minute cushion. I left there with a spring in my step, know two good miles should seal the victory. Sadly this is where things turned sour!
Around 2k from the aid station, I came to a fork in the trail. The small red arrow was pointing right so I headed down the chalk white trail. I followed that for around 2k when I then came out onto a road. I thought this was odd, but lots of the course had been on country roads so I wasn't immediately concerned.
However I couldn't see any red arrows, so I was either lost, or had taken a wrong turn. But I had followed the arrows and there were no obvious points where I missed a turning.
I got out my phone, Googled the finish line post code, punched it into Google maps. It was 5.7 miles away - I had already run 57 miles by this point, so I knew it would mean covering 63 (one extra than the 100k). But it was what it was, and I started running.
I ended up on a busy national speed limit road with cars whistling by at speed and bibbing their horns at me. By this point my brain was frazzled, as were my legs, but the adrenaline was getting me through the undulating sections.
At 60 miles I passed a guy in a layby. He stopped me and pointed out that I was off the course (shock). He offered to drive me to the Ridgeway trail, but I was concerned that would mean I would be disqualified for outside assistance, so I declined. I just had to get back to the finish and explain what had happened.
A mile later I got a phone call. Coralie was with the race organisers - they were concerned as to my whereabouts. Once I told them what had happened, they said I just had to get to the finish.
I specifically asked the question: "If I cover the full 100k, and cross the finish line, can I still win the race, or will I be disqualified?"
The answer was yes, so long as you have covered the distance and get back to the finish line first, you will be the winner. What a relief! I had a surge of happiness and determination as I ran the last two miles safe in the knowledge I was okay.
I entered the finish area, run up the finish straight the wrong way, turned round and then crossed the finish line, where tape had been set up for me to break. I had won my debut ultra!
The CEO came over to me beaming, glad I was okay, assuring me I was the winner and seemed impressed I had run a mile further, and found my way back. He said I had nothing to worry about. I gave an interview, posed for photos, was reunited with Coralie and felt so relieved I had survived the past hour.
Then five minutes later the CEO came back to say could they see my Garmin activity as my time was under review. I was surprised as they already knew I had gone off-course, but I assumed the phone call confirming the situation, and his personal congratulations meant the matter was resolved.
He then confirmed that as my last miles were not on the official course, I was therefore disqualified.
I figured as I had run an extra mile, and still won by 8 minutes, I clearly had not gained an advantage. I had not missed any checkpoints, or overtaken anyone in the process. Not to mention the phone call confirming the outcome in advance.
As you can imagine, I took this decision with grace and acceptance 😂
After about 15 minutes of trying to explain the timeline of events over and over, it was clear the verdict would not be reversed (again).
As far as they were concerned, they believed the signage was correct, and I simply took a wrong turn, and then compounded my error by not returning to the course. I am 100% certain the sign was pointing right, but clearly had no way of proving the sign had been moved, and there were no Marshals on course as back-up.
The 2nd place finisher was declared the winner and that was that. I gave back my medal as it felt wrong to take one if they were not willing to stick to their previous commitment, and I trudged back to the Airbnb.
The CEO has since offered to refund me my entry fee, which is a nice gesture. But obviously the whole experience has left a bitter taste. To have run my first ultra, 100k in sub 8:30, plus an extra mile, gone through the embarrassment of being announced as the winner, then removed, and ending up with nothing to show for my efforts (finish time, result or prize) is a great shame.
But I can at least be proud of the way I ran, handled the new conditions, my race plan, executed my race and dug deep when faced with adversity.
I proved I'm capable of running ultras, and with more specific training I think I could go under 8 hours in future for 100k… it just won't be at Race to the Stones 😂
You can view my Garmin activity here: