The journey of a thousand miles might begin with a single step, but Race to the King (53.5 miles) began with a 4.25 am alarm call, a bowl of organic Greek ginger yoghurt with blueberries and oats and a long car journey to West Sussex. We were about to undertake a trek along the South Downs from Arundel to Winchester (burial site of the first Kings of England, hence the event’s name).
Last year we vowed there would be NO MORE ultramarathons. Having done three over five months, we were weary of overnight walking and 100k distances. But then Caralyn heard about Race to the King which, at a mere 80k seemed much more do-able. The exact route wasn’t released until just before the event so we didn’t know what to expect, although we’d heard that it would be hilly. We didn’t see this elevation map till after the event. Maybe that was just as well.
The sun was shining and we felt naively cheerful at the start line, unaware of the ordeal to come. The fact that it began with a slow incline should have been a warning, but we were oblivious and soon found ourselves striding out across rolling farmland.
The route was divided into sections with 8 rest stops. The first eight miles passed quickly: we had company in the form of “Pete from Birmingham” (though his lilting accent revealed Swansea origins). He was planning to overtake us but instead decided to walk alongside for a while and, in doing so, realised that he had met us before, on the Thames Path Challenge. It turned out that Pete was a big Shakespeare fan and he was keen to see if we could recall any verses to pass the time. Caralyn dredged up a simple but powerful “Out damned spot!” from Macbeth. I managed to recite a few bits of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dimly remembered from schooldays: “Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania!”.”What, jealous Oberon! Fairies, skip hence: I have forsworn his bed and company!” Pete, channeling Richard Burton, delivered a passionate and entire rendition of Richard III’s soliloquy (“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious by this son of York…”), gesticulating to the heavens and getting quite lost in the moment. He also recited some walking-inspired verses from The Winter’s Tale: “Jog on, jog on, the footpath way…” From there, he led us into a discussion of the concept of solvitur ambulando and then on to the previous day’s referendum and our relative political viewpoints. It was all wonderfully stimulating and our minds had a great workout.
Unfortunately, the darkening skies coincided ominously with the onset of knee pain and shin cramps for Caralyn. We were glad to reach the first rest stop, though this meant parting company with Pete, who was keen to keep going.
The second section passed in a blur of chalky paths and sweeping views in all directions, the sea clearly visible on the horizon. The fields were full of wild flowers and the grass was an intense green, becoming greener by the minute as the clouds gathered and darkened. We knew that a soaking was inevitable sooner or later.
As predicted, persistent heavy rain arrived in section three, and we ended up thoroughly wet, cold and miserable, picking our way up and down steep hills for what seemed like hours. Approaching the third rest stop, we were at a very low ebb. Yet just in time we were cheered by a friendly and familiar face. We’d met the man below at various rest stops on Race to the Stones last year: he was one of the medics and he’d kept people entertained with cheery Irish humour. Caralyn had hoped we might see him again and now here he was, just when she needed a bit of propping up.
Our Irish friend persuaded us not to give up and to take it one rest stop at a time. After all, there were just a few miles between rest stops 3 and 4 so it would only be an hour or so to the next one. Off we went – but we were dismayed to find that those few miles ended up taking a very long time. Although the rain had eased up, there were endless stretches of boggy woods, where the combination of rain, earth and hundreds of competitors meant the ground was one big quagmire. This was bad enough on the flat, but on the hills, every step had to be taken carefully. There was a lot of slipping and slithering. Caralyn’s knee was increasingly swollen and painful and it took us ages to travel a really short distance. Clearly, we were wrong in our assumption that this would be a short event. We would be walking all night.
We arrived at rest stop 4 feeling very despondent, seriously wondering whether we should give up. Fortunately, Michael (Caralyn’s partner) was there to offer his usual bucket-loads of moral support, which helped. What also helped was the fact that this was the half-way point. Most rest stops involved portaloos, a simple semi-circle of camping chairs and a makeshift stall with snacks. This one was much more serious: there were tents, for those who’d decided to do the event over two days; there was a proper building (a school – with a roof and everything) and there was hot food, even if it did take nearly 15 minutes for the gluten free option to be cooked. There was also a young man with a guitar who serenaded us with a number of inspirational ballads. How could we give up now? We changed our socks, burdening poor Michael with our soggy, smelly ones, and swapped our heavy cagoules for Walk the Walk rain ponchos. We felt refreshed and ready to go!
Section 5 was surprisingly pleasant with very little mud. Instead, tarmac roads and well-drained paths led us through woods as the sun dropped lower in the sky. We realised we could still walk fast as long as the ground beneath us was flat and hard. It really brought home the fact that we had not trained properly. Twenty-mile canal-side training walks were all very well but they were no preparation for even a few miles of muddy hills. Speaking of hills, this gentle section was ruined by a prolonged ascent at the end. We had to take it in stages, stopping to gasp for breath while pretending to admire the view. On finally reaching the rest stop, the lovely volunteers made us cups of tea and gave us a pep talk, encouraging us to keep going.
Section 6 was hard. Caralyn was now in a huge amount of pain (shins and knee) and I had a whopping blister on my heel. Our spirits were lifted by the company of Sharon, a woman walking alone who caught up with us as our pace dropped and then stayed with us through sections 6 and 7. Sharon had done a number of Walk the Walk events so there was plenty to talk about (though no politics or Shakespeare). Actually I think our brains were really disengaging by then so even uttering “Out damned spot!” would have been a challenge. The light was fading and it would soon be time to get out the head torches.
If section 6 was hard, section 7 was utterly miserable. By now it was dark and we set off under black skies, only able to see a foot or so in front of us. I led the way down a steep, winding and very muddy path.Our bodies were exhausted and our eyes strained to avoid hazards: low hanging branches, twisted roots and the ever-present mud. It took forever to reach the bottom of the hill, where we continued to stumble and slide through a wood. A stream ran perilously close alongside the slippery path. The next thing we knew, we were wading in the stream. It had burst its banks and flooded the path: there was no escape. The only way forward was to walk in shin-deep icy-cold water. The air was filled with our squeals and howls of frustration.
Now wetter than wet, shoes sloshing, we stomped on in the dark, making very slow progress. Sharon and I chatted away but Caralyn was rather quiet as we trudged up an endlessly long hill towards the next rest stop. I wasn’t at all surprised when she announced at the top that she was going to pull out. In fact I was rather relieved, and without hesitation said that I would join her. It was midnight, we had been walking since 8.30 am, she was in a lot of pain and there were ten more miles to go. Those ten miles could easily take four hours in the dark and neither of us felt that we had four more hours-worth of energy left.
Bidding farewell to Sharon, we sank into camping chairs with cups of tea, our legs covered in mud, bramble scratches and nettle stings, and waited for the wonderful Michael to rescue us. How magnificent it would have been to descend into Winchester and to arrive, victorious, on the steps of the cathedral! Yet, like guided missiles, our thoughts had locked onto the prospect of clean sheets and sleep awaiting us in the Barton Stacey Travelodge.
So thus ends the tale of Race to the King. We walked for 43 miles and saw some stunning scenery. We learned some valuable lessons about training and preparation. We met some fantastic people and – most surprisingly of all – I returned home with a new-found appreciation of Shakespeare.
“Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream