Race to the Stones 2022

Readers might remember that Race to the Stones is a 100k walk along the Ridgeway from Lewknor to Avebury, which we completed in its entirety in 2015. Last year we re-did the first 50k. This year, we opted to do the second 50k: to see the scenery which we’d only walked through in darkness back in 2015.

We decided not to travel up on the day, which would have meant a ridiculously early start, but to stay nearby the night before and get a good night’s sleep. Thus we had booked to stay at the nearest Travelodge: “Newbury/Chieveley M4”. We needed to get up at 4.30 am, so when we finally arrived, around 9pm, we were ready to head to our rooms and begin to wind down. We would have got more sleep if we’d just driven to the start line and slept in the open air, as it was far from being the haven of peace and tranquility we’d hoped for. As late as 10.30 pm, there were people yelling, banging and crashing through doors, staff wheeling trolleys up and down and vacuuming rooms, and people standing talking in corridors while their rooms were cleaned. Eventually I resorted to bellowing a request for quiet, which seemed to be effective in bringing the noise down, although I was so shaken by the unfamiliar sound of myself bellowing, that it was counter-productive and kept me awake for even longer; as did my revenge fantasies of banging and crashing down the corridors in the morning.

(If you think I’m exaggerating, this month’s TripAdvisor reviews are entitled “Avoid”, “Worst Travelogue (sic) ever”, “Fawlty Towers”, “Terrible”, “Absolutely Shocking”, “Terrible Travelodge”, “Room had not been cleaned”, “Very tired Travelodge but lovely staff”, “Dirty, unkempt, stay somewhere else if you can”, “Check in staff was drunk on arrival”, “Avoid at all costs” and “Disgusting room infested with fleas would never stay there again”. Reading through these reviews, it’s clear that there have been significant issues with cleaning staff and the booking system for several months, and that I should be grateful that my sheets were clean, that the toilet had been flushed before I arrived, and that there were no noxious substances sprayed up the wall).

Despite the bellowing incident, sleep happened and then the alarm went far too soon. It always takes longer to get ready for an event then I expect: some of the required actions are challenging to do at speed after a bad night’s sleep: securing race numbers with safety pins; filling a water bladder from a shallow sink where it doesn’t fit properly, etc. Depending on your personality, you will be either relieved or disappointed to know that I did not bang or crash out of the room, but tiptoed courteously out to the lobby to meet Caralyn and Michael. From there, it was a short drive up to the start on the Ridgeway itself, near Wantage.

Due to the “open” start – people could just set off as soon as they arrived – it was a peaceful scene: no milling crowds. Chieveley Travelodge felt very far away indeed. The sky was the bluest of blues, multicoloured flags fluttered in the light breeze, and golden-green grass stretched in all directions. We set off westwards at 05:40, the sun already strong on the back of our necks.

If you know the Ridgeway well, you can probably identify all the landmarks, variations and nuances of its different areas. To us, this 50k stretch of it involved a long, undulating path through beautiful countryside, but there was little to help us identify one section from another. Field after field, hill after hill, it was one long unfolding vista of English pastoral scenery, punctuated by farmhouses and barns. At one point there was a pig farm. Much later we walked through a herd of cows, and I was so tired I felt not even the smallest flicker of adrenaline even though they were right next to us. Later still, the trail took us past a field of white horses, some of whom trotted alongside us, tails swishing. We walked along a bridge over the M4. We saw a little mouse on the path. We strode briefly through the village of Ogbourne and saw pretty cottages. There were few sounds other than birdsong and occasional greetings from other competitors. This was the kind of walk it was: simply beautiful, and restful on the eye, if not the body.

What became more important to us than what lay beyond the path, was the path itself. On a short, slowish walk, it’s probably not the sort of detail we’d even notice, but after hours of fast walking, we became acutely aware of details such as texture, firmness and camber. The Ridgeway has a lot of wide chalk paths, but also a lot of rutted, grooved tracks where you can’t walk with both feet at the same height or even in the same groove. On those bits of track, our walking poles were invaluable and saved us from twisted ankles on quite a few occasions.

Although some might wonder if it was these unpleasantly-ridged paths which gave the Ridgeway its name, I’m sure that readers will know that it is so called because it runs along the high ridges of hills. The problem with this, is that the route was therefore mainly devoid of trees and shade. This was bad news on a day when the temperature was above 30 degrees. As the sun got higher and hotter, the heat became harder to tolerate. The chalk paths became whiter and more dazzling, reflecting the harsh light back in our faces. The landscape shimmered around us in a haze. Every 10-15k there would be a restcamp offering buckets of water for cap-dunking, water sprays, plentiful drinks, and an awning or two, but then we would be back out into the sun again.

The heat made the last 20k of the walk very difficult. You can tell this because I stopped taking photos. Even if there had been a troupe of cartwheeling pink elephants on the path in front of me, they would have gone unrecorded. Taking photos just took much too effort and co-ordination:

  • Put both walking poles into right hand
  • Remove phone from bum-bag and put into right hand along with poles
  • Remove sunglasses with left hand (to enable face-recognition on phone)
  • Put sunglasses into right hand while passing phone into the left hand, all the while keeping the poles in the right hand and not dropping anything even though hands are quite sweaty
  • Look into the phone to enable face recognition while avoiding being dazzled by the sun
  • Swap enabled phone back into right hand and put poles and sunglasses into left hand
  • Take photo with phone
  • Put phone back into bum-bag
  • Replace sunglasses ASAP
  • Put right pole back into right hand.

Exhausting. Every bit of energy was needed for keeping going. Caralyn and I slumped into a companionable silence, though we did attempt an alphabetical list of adjectives to describe the experience. It began Awful, Brutal, and Criminal… and ended with ZZZ-I-need-to-sleep.

By the final ten kilometres, we resorted to a survival strategy of walking as far as the next tiny pool of shade under a tree and pausing there for about twenty seconds before setting off again. On we plodded, more dazzling chalk, more uncomfortable ruts, until at last we reached a point where we could see the finish, below and beyond us: miniature vehicles twinkling in the sunlight and colourful flags. It still took an age to get there, as we had to descend from the hills, and then – with the end so near, so visible, and yet so far – detour all the way down an unnecessarily long lane, round a traffic cone and then all the way back up the same lane, before finally heaving ourselves across a couple of fields to the finish line. Lovely as it was to be greeted by photographers and people giving out medals, a far more welcome sight was that of Caralyn’s Mum and Michael. They were armed with a big bag of ice cubes and ice lollies, which we put on our heads and in our mouths (respectively).

Was I interested in seeing the famous Stones towards which we had raced? No I was not. All I was interested in was getting into a cool dark room and out of the sun. Fortunately, Caralyn had taken a quick photo of a few of them as evidence that we were actually there. Even more fortunately, none of us had to go back to Chieveley Travelodge, and so a good night’s sleep was had by all.

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