How had it come to this ?
Staring into the hot blue sky, lying on my back covered in leaking gel packs, nettle rash and blood from cuts to my hands and legs. Halfway through a mad attempt to run the Race to the King – 53 miles over 2 days. I'm a 10k road runner with no marathon pedigree and 35 miles in, a stumble, a trip and a heavy fall onto a flint path, bounce, roll and skid to a stop.
Ohhh, that smarts.
Roll back to December 2017.
Joint 50th birthdays approaching and discussion turns to doing a big bucket-list race. A glass of wine and an internet browser leads us to the Race to the King, a fully supported 2 day ultra-marathon across the South Downs. The other races in the series '...to the Stones' and '…to the Tower' have great reviews and even walking the 53 miles would be a satisfying achievement, but running is what we do. One click, and its done, we've entered. Training starts in January.
The format of the race is simple enough – competitors enter as either 'straight through' or 'weekenders' with the majority entering as 'straight through' - doing the whole course on the Saturday, with the a further split into runners and walkers. Walking 53 miles of the South Downs way in a single day is a big achievement in its own right, and running the whole way is a very serious prospect, but one beyond my abilities or ambition.
The 'weekender' option we chose splits the race roughly in half with overnight camping on the Saturday evening. The course is the same for all competitors with aid stations roughly every 8-12 miles fully stocked with water, gels, food etc. and a fully catered marquee for the overnight camp.
The training plan followed a typical marathon training schedule over 5 months, gradually building up to 48-55 mile weeks for a period. Untypically the two long runs per week were on Saturday and Sunday to try to build the stamina necessary for the two race days. This didn't leave any room for races – the training plan was stamina, not speed; and every race risks injury so I had to wave goodbye to all my favourite local haunts – Deeping 10k, Grand Prix 5ks, Solstice 10ks, and even the back end of the Frostbite season.
The single most difficult part of the training was finding 'my pace' - the cadence that I would be able to continue for two days of steep and undulating terrain without getting exhausted. I eventually found around 9m/m to be sustainable over two long runs on consecutive days when training around Rutland Water. This proved to be a mistake since, although it has lots of undulations, the Rutland loop is not a trail – the ground underfoot is almost wholly flat (even where its unmetalled, the paths are smooth enough that there is no real 'trail effect' to make you slow down). When it came to the race the surfaces were very rough and required a lot more concentration and a slower pace to avoid tripping; they also tested my calves much more.
The race was from Arundel to Winchester with Gaston Farm hosting the start and parking. The organisation was excellent – clearly signposted around the region's main roads and with plenty of marshalling for traffic and a massive car park in the farm fields. Lots of portaloos and kit concessions and a unique race tattoo showing the course profile and aid stations. Other races have course maps - this one had a course profile. This should have been a warning.
The race started in four waves, which were indicated on the race number (sent by post prior to the race and containing the timing chip) with the 'straight throughs runners' going first then graduating by expected pace. This enabled the gazelles to have a clear run at the path and avoid congestion for them. As the podium places would all be decided on gun time (first past the line) this was a fair arrangement – for the rest of us our combined chip time would decide our position.
The start was a little congested and there were a good number of trips and stumbles in the pack of runners, with some unfortunates being invalided out of the race before the first 10m. Slow and steady is the correct attitude at the beginning. The field did thin out at around 5m, and the route followed the South Downs Way (augmented with over a thousand additional waymarkers) over wheat fields, hills and track; with the occasional short stretch of road.
The aid stations were placed every 10 miles or so and provided portaloos, water, gels, flat coke, … food, and medical aid. I couldn't praise the organisation enough - there was absolutely nothing lacking. A quick turnaround at each aid station is encouraged and I was fresh enough to get in; fill up, and get out again without any real pause. As my watch gradually wound its way to 20 miles I began to feel the effects of the summer heat and the continually challenging terrain; particularly suffering from calf cramp as the morning wore on. I was taking regular does of salt tablets every 10 miles and didn't stint on drinking from the bottles I carried. Stupidly I ignored all my pre-race training and didn’t scoff down the pork pies I was carrying because I was too keyed up to do so. By the time we got to 22 miles I was bushed; until an angel at the top of a hill approached me and offered me ice cubes and watermelon. The ice went under the hat, and the melon didn't touch the sides when I ate it.
It was that kind of a race.
The last 2 miles of day 1 were downhill though a lovely shaded woodlands and a straight farm track. Once I crossed the line into the camping area I'd clocked my furthest ever run. Admittedly the hills were not runnable and needed to be walked up - but this seems to be normal for trail marathons - don’t kill yourself on the hill because its just as fast to walk them; after all Day 1 and Day 2 each had the same height gain as Scafell Pike.