If you’ve ever driven along the M40 from Wycombe, you will know the Stokenchurch Gap, where the motorway cuts through a chalk ridge and suddenly, there’s a panoramic view of the Oxfordshire plains below. I must have driven that route hundreds of times without ever imagining that one day I would be standing in the middle of a farmer’s field down beneath the motorway, along with several thousand lycra-clad people, all about to set off on a 100km race along the Ridgeway to Wiltshire. However, this is exactly what I ended up doing last weekend. Caralyn and I had been keen to try “Race to the Stones” since she saw it advertised last year. After traipsing through the more suburban sections of the route from London to Brighton, who could fail to be captivated by the idea of a scenic walk along an ancient footpath to a stone circle?
My experiences on the London to Brighton event meant that I took nutrition very seriously this time. Although the organisers had assured me there would be gluten free food at the pit-stops, I was leaving nothing to chance and I stuffed my little backpack with as much food as I could fit in: oatcakes, wraps, nuts, cereal bars, bananas, sandwiches etc. I also decided I would eat something every half hour. As we estimated the event might take up to 24 hours, that meant carrying enough for 48 snacks!
Standing at the start line, we were both struck by how very fit and young everyone else looked. We are now in one of the oldest age groups at these events, a fact made obvious when we try and fail to read the small print on maps en route. Still, we felt quite euphoric as we waited to set off. The sky was blue and clear and the whole landscape was bathed in early morning sunlight.
Unlike most events we’ve done, everyone began at roughly the same time, so for the first stretch of the route, runners and walkers collided and jostled for space on the path. Usually we like to get away from the start line quickly so we don’t feel too hemmed in, but this time we recognised that we were among the slowest people and so we gave way and took it relatively easy. There was a long way to go but the morning passed quite quickly. The sun rose slowly and steadily in the sky as we walked down chalky lanes bordered with flowers; pastures spreading to the horizon on both sides.
After the first pit stop at 11km, we came to Grim’s Dyke, a 5km stretch of earthworks dating back to the late Iron Age. This involved walking down a long, straightish path beneath overhanging trees. The shade was welcome. What was not so welcome was the fact that everyone had to walk in single file. The pace slowed and we were surrounded by groups of walkers on “broadcast” mode. As a result we were treated to high volume indecipherable Welsh banter for a long period. This was only relieved by equally high volume discussions of long-haul holiday destinations from what sounded like the cast of Made In Chelsea. (I realise this sounds a bit uncharitable. I also realise that someone, somewhere is probably complaining about us in their blog, as we are certainly able to talk the hind legs off a donkey). Still, on this particular occasion we kept quiet, put our heads down and gritted our teeth.
By lunch time, we’d arrived at pitstop 2 in the picturesque village of North Stoke. As predicted, the gf options ranged from a banana to a banana, with perhaps an apple in-between, so I got out my sandwiches, glad that I’d come well-prepared. Unfortunately a fellow-coeliac had not come so well-prepared. He said he’d phoned the organisers in advance and they assured him there would be gf food. He was understandably angry: “There’s 15 stone of me and I can’t run 15 stone on fruit!”. I offered an unappealing looking sandwich but he declined politely and instead had a bit of a rant at the officials who, I later learned, drove off to buy him some rice cakes. Meanwhile we got talking to a very inspiring woman, known by regular marathoners as “Tyre Lady”. This woman runs marathons dragging a tyre behind her, raising awareness about environmental issues. You can read more about her here. I just had to get a photo as my Dad used to work with the European Tyre Recycling Association and he is always interested in creative uses of tyres.
By now, the sun was really beating down so we set off again through more impossibly beautiful villages, past thatched cottages, stone churches and massive houses. Every twist and turn of the road delivered a view that would comfortably sit on the front of a chocolate box, birthday card or jigsaw puzzle. As if this were not beautiful enough, the path arrived at the bank of the Thames. We turned left along the river, walking through grassy fields as the sun made dappled patterns on the water – it was like walking through an Impressionist painting (except for all the lycra). Eventually we arrived in the Thameside villages of Goring and Streatley where we had to endure the torment of walking past pavement cafes where people sat enjoying the sun with ice-cold pints of lager and chilled white wine. Wondering why on earth we’d opted to wear so much black on such a hot day we struggled on towards pit stop 3 (34km), where we applied lashings of sun cream and sat in the shade for a while.
From there, the route took us uphill and before long we were walking along the top of the Chilton Downs with sweeping views to left and right. The sun was offset by a strong headwind which made it tough going. In fact, this was pretty much what it was like for the rest of the day: chalk paths, beautiful views, hot sun, strong wind. This could have got a bit boring after a while but any sense of monotony was relieved by Caralyn’s brother Mark, who appeared on his bike, bearing cans of pepsi and bananas. He kept us company over the next 20kms, which was a great morale-booster. At pitstop 5, the halfway point, we were joined by Caralyn’s parents, so it was a real family affair.
Pitstop five was definitely a highlight – not just because of the moral support but also because this was our opportunity for a hot meal. When Caralyn and I have been walking for hours, we often fantasise about the sort of food we’d most like to eat and on the run-up to this stop, I’d had intense cravings for bolognese sauce. So you can imagine my delight that there was loads of gf pasta with a really delicious bolognese sauce – and ice cream to follow. It was at this point that many of the more sensible competitors stopped for the night, as it was possible to do the 100km in two segments. So not only was there a huge marquee, live entertainment and a tent selling beer but there were rows and rows and rows of identical green tents for the aforementioned competitors. There were even portable washbasins and mirrors – a veritable luxury. Alas, we had not opted to camp and so before long we were off again, this time with far fewer walkers for company. Ten kms later, Mark left us at pitstop 6. The air was cooling and the light was fading. Night was on its way and we were going to have to walk all the way through it.
Walking in the dark is fun at first. It’s quite exciting to have your path lit only by the beam of your head-torch; to be surrounded by unfamiliar sounds – the rustlings and stirrings of nocturnal creatures. About ten minutes later, the excitement begins to wear off as you long for visual stimulation to keep you awake. Unlike our previous night-time walks, this one involved hardly any roads or lights – unless you count the vague orange glow of Swindon on the horizon to our right. Somehow we kept going, plodding on in the pitch dark, our footsteps thud thud thudding. After a long period of nothingness, there was a surreal moment when a man suddenly appeared just a few feet away, coming towards us – which was a bit of a shock. He turned out to be a very nice chap who was on his way to meet some other walkers and needed directions. He was carrying a large punnet of strawberries and asked if we wanted any. I took one and it was delicious. The fact that my spirits were so boosted by a simple gift of a strawberry gives some indication of how difficult and boring the night was becoming.
Hours passed. Hours of trudging. A fine mist of drizzle turned into persistent rain. Pitstops came and went. Unlike earlier stops, where there was a sense of hustle, bustle and cheery chitchat, these ones were characterised by a kind of traumatised silence as fellow walkers slumped in camping chairs, massaged weary limbs and tended to blisters. We forced down morsels of food, fighting the nausea that inevitably comes with a sleepless night and 16+ hours of exercise. We couldn’t even allow ourselves the luxury of wallowing in self-pity as at each pitstop, we would see the Tyre Lady who was presumably having an even tougher time than we were.
Through the long night, we kept ourselves going with the thought that by 90kms, things would seem easier as the end would be in sight and perhaps there would be a beautiful sunrise. In fact the last 10kms were the most difficult. They seemed to go on forever. The drizzle returned and there was no beautiful sunrise – just a gradual shift from black skies to murky grey. The path became increasingly difficult to navigate as we hit a deeply rutted section that had been churned up by vehicles. It was at this point, just 5kms from the end, that I twisted my ankle and went flying to the ground in agonising pain. There I lay on the soggy grass, having to face the horrible possibility that I would not be able to finish. Every fibre of my body screamed “NO” at the very thought and after a few minutes I dragged myself up. Miraculously (as I had damaged what seemed like every ligament in my foot) the pain subsided and Caralyn and I set off again. By the time we finally reached Avebury, we had lost all desire to see the famous stone circle. We just wanted to stop, but no – the organisers had planned the route in such a way that although we could see the finish line, we first had to do a deviation round the stone circle. Round we went, giving the stones only a cursory glance before we hit the final strait, finishing moments behind the Tyre lady at 5.20 am. Tearful hugs were exchanged and then we collapsed on the floor of a barn until Paul arrived to drive us home.
In the hours that followed, we both felt a deep sense of “NEVER AGAIN”. Caralyn had a lot of kee pain and stiffness and my foot had turned a fetching shade of purple. But, just like childbirth, the painful memories soon began to recede, especially as we recalled the stunning scenery of the daytime section of the race. Caralyn had some physiotherapy and I returned to the excellent Betafeet clinic. Now, just one week later, we are feeling a lot more positive. All being well, we’re looking forward to September, when we’ll attempt the Thames Path Challenge. As always, I will keep you posted.
If you know us, please do consider sponsoring us as all this crazy walking is for good causes. Caralyn is walking for Macmillan cancer support and I am raising money for the orphanage in Mozambique where we used to live. Thank you!
PS A big “Thank you” to Caralyn, who bore extra weight in her luggage by carrying a camera and taking all these photos!