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Wandering the World

Stories and tips from around the world.

Threshold Race to the Tower

I would originally have done this race in 2020, but the pandemic put paid to that. Fortunately, despite the delay, I still had Guernsey Ultra 36 as a way of preparing for this, and I just needed to find it in me to do another 16 miles on top of the distance I'd done for that. Even if I walked that extra distance I figured it'd be not much more than four hours, so if it turned out the terrain was anywhere near as tough then I could be looking at around eleven hours to complete it. In 2017 I did Race to the King in the build-up to Race to Stones, and that was of a similar distance. Of course, I had no idea how the terrain would compare to 'King' either, but I'd done that one in 11:25:06. If I could at least match that, I would be happy with the result for this race.

A map showing the route for Race to the Tower

Just as with the other 'Race to…' events I've done, this had the option to run:

  • the full distance in one go,
  • the full distance split into two days,
  • or half the distance on either Saturday or Sunday.

Maybe days of consecutive marathons is something I'll try one day, but right now running a marathon on two consecutive days sounds like hell to me. So of course I was going to do the full distance in one go - my legs would prefer that! The race is a pricey one at £139.50 (should be £145, but had a £10 voucher and there's a £4.50 processing fee), and then parking at the finish is £10 for the day, and the bus to the start from there is a further £25. As this is one of those 'special' events, I decided to also pre-order the photographs from the day for £25 as well. So already, before anything else such as accomodation and travel, it was costing £199.50 to put my legs through this torture. If the other two in this series I'd done were anything to go by, it'd be worth it. This sort of race really does push me to my limit, and challenges what I'm capable of. It's races like this that help us to grow.

By the time I'd entered this one (January 2022) the options for accomodation were slim. What was left was expensive, but I didn't really want to drive too far on the morning of the race. I also wanted to avoid a room over a pub if I could help it - when I've done that in the past for other races I've had very little sleep, so felt it worth paying more if I had to for somewhere I'd get sleep. When the wave information and shuttle times were published four weeks before the event, this proved to be the right decision as it'd be a 04:00 start to get to the race start. I decided on staying in Evesham at the The Northwick Arms Hotel. The name sounded like a pub, but it did say 'hotel' so was hoping it'd be okay. It would be around a fifteen minute drive from there to the finish, at a cost £85 for the night. I did consider staying there after the race too, but also realised that I'd only be 90 minutes from home anyway. By the time I'd reconsidered it was too late as they were then full on the Saturday night. I did eventually come up with alternative plans, and booked a hotel in Oxford instead.

Training

My training could have been better, but that is probably always the case. It could certainly have been worse too! The majority of the training for this race was actually my training for the Manchester Marathon in April, and after (not doing) that I did not do many long runs at all until the Guernsey Ultra 36. Between Guernsey and this race I continued my run streak and the only runs of over 10 miles I did was a 13 and a 12 miler which didn't go that well. The reason for this is the month in between was just about recovering, and then maintaining fitness whilst also trying to think about what I could do for the first couple of weeks of London Marathon training, knowing it'd be interrupted to taper for Race to the Tower. I did include hills on my route as often as I could as well, and was back to cycling several times a week. There was also a 10K race mixed in there too for good measure, just to check what speed I'd lost (most of it).

My running in the week before the race wasn't quite what it should have been as I'd had a bit of a dodgy stomach since the Monday, and with thinking about that I didn't think about carb-loading at all.

Kit List

I decided for this one I would use largely the same as I had for Guernsey Ultra 36, with a few exceptions. This list consists of:

  • Salomon Agile² 7 Backpack with whistle and 2l reservoir †,
  • Saucony Omni 19 trainers,
  • Nike running shorts,
  • Karrimor running socks,
  • #UKRunChat #oneteam technical t-shirt,
  • Racecheck #visorclub visor,
  • Flipbelt,
  • Buff,
  • Garmin ForeRunner 235,
  • Mobile phone with NOK/ICE contact stored †,
  • Unilite PS-H8 headtorch with new batteries †,
  • Face mask †,
  • Hand sanitiser †,
  • Waterproof poncho †,
  • 3 x Compeed plasters,
  • 2 x large plasters (in case my backpack rubs),
  • SPF 50 sunscreen †,
  • Reusable mug †,
  • a small mixed bag of cashew nuts and pretzels †,
  • and a small bag of jelly babies.

† These items are mandatory as part of the kit list, and the plasters form my 'medical kit' requirement.

I'd also take a long-sleeved top with me just in case it looked like the weather could get cooler, but hoped that I'd be able to leave that in my car too. Ultimately, I could have done with that at the race start, but I actually forgot to pack it.

Race Day

The day before the race was a normal work day for me which meant I was off my feet for most of the day. Once done, I then quickly made a tuna pasta bake as my last pre-race meal, using the last of some pasta I'd bought in Limassol. I wanted something as normal as possible as my stomach had felt off since Monday, and was only now settling. The drive to Evesham unfortunately was during rush hour, but that couldn't be helped - I wanted to get there as early as I could so I could settle in, and rest before the big day. I realised whatever sleep I was going to get, would not be enough.

The drive there wasn't too bad, and the check-in was nice and easy. The room was situated overlooking the River Avon. After I'd sorted myself out for the morning, I went for a short walk along the river, and then settled in for the night.

A narrowboat moored on a canal

With my alarm set for 04:00, it was too early for breakfast. I got ready as quickly as I could for day 780 of my runstreak, and then drove to the Broadway Tower to park-up and get the 04:45 shuttle to Bird in Hand Farm in Stroud for the start of the race. Although the paperwork said the shuttle would be leaving at 04:45 - it was fifteen minutes before it left as it would only leave once full. Amusingly, the driver was using Google Maps to find his way to the start, but at one point you could see his confusion when the sat nav told him to turn left, but there was only a right turn. Just before arriving at the start, the driver stopped, and said he now needed a 30 minute break, but he was about half a mile from where we needed dropping off. Eventually he kept on going and took his break after we’d arrived at 06:10, taking just over an hour. An hour of driving. Some of it on fast roads too. It was clear just how far this run was.

On the journey there I'd eaten a bag of granola I'd packed. It wasn't my usual pre-run breakfast, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. After I'd said "hi" to @GirlHucknall and @mutley6969uk, I went and bought a cup of lemon and ginger tea to try and keep warm. I talked to them for most of the time waiting at the start, but it was cold. After speaking to one of the other runners I decided to join the back of the 07:30 wave instead of waiting fifteen more minutes for my actual wave. I put one earphone in so I'd be able to hear my surroundings, and would still have one fully charged should this one go flat. We were told to look out for white arrows on red card, and was warned that there were at least two other events out on the route today and so should try not to join the wrong race. At some point along the way I learnt that one of the other events was some sort of ‘three peaks’ event. We were also warned that there would be 142 gates to open and close on the route, and stiles to climb over. That sounded like an awful lot, but at least they'd be spread out evenly across those 52 odd miles. Right? Right?

The start line for RTTT

I started off with trying to keep my pace down, and was sure to take some photographs of the views. From the very start I was walking anything that was even the slightest incline, and making sure I ran the flats and downhills not too fast. Even then, I still got through the first mile in 9:14. Slow for a marathon, a bit too fast for a hilly ultra. My plan was to get as many miles between 10-12 minutes so that I could have an easier second half and still be sure to finish before sunset at 21:30 as I'd not packed any batteries for my headtorch. I knew in that scenario I’d be taking 14 hours, and was hoping for under 11, so things would have had to have gone very wrong. For the first few miles you're heading in the 'wrong' direction, and by 2.7 miles, in terms of latitude, it's like you're back where you started! A lot of this is a descent, and some of it in woods, until you leave them to run up through Painswick. It seemed a nice little village, or town, I couldn't tell which, but it wasn't until I saw the official photographs later that I found I was walking behind @paul_addicott without even realising he was there. He even said "hello" to me and I hadn't a clue. Talk about oblivious. I think this early on, even though I'd only got one earphone in, my mind was elsewhere for a lot of it, but also trying to take in the scenery. I think at some points I was even thinking back to Guernsey and the stops for photographs I had there. So far, that was a nicer experience.

Walking up-hill through Painswick

It's not until almost 4.5 miles into the run that you get to find out what the hills here can really be like. This first of the monster hills lasts for around 2 miles and at one point was a 14% grade, having just come down a very steep 16% gradient. We'd had some very light rain as well, but nothing that would mean needing a waterproof. So far, no matter how steep it got, or how tough it got, I wasn't going to stop moving.

After leaving Pope's Wood (named for Alexander Pope, not the Pope), I'd got 8 miles behind me and had the choice to either stop at pitstop 1 for some sustenance, or keep on going. I was trying to decide up until the last minute and as I drew level I turned left into the woods to keep on going, sliding a little on the ground. As I walked I took my backpack off and rummaged around the the jelly babies, taking two in my hand to chew on as I went along. My phone was trying to unlock, so readjusted it, and carried on. At somepoint not long after this it also tried to make a call which I quickly cancelled using my earphone. I'm not sure how it decided what number to call as it seemed to be the telephone number for the B&Q in Stroud, a place I wouldn't have known even existed. Bizarre. I was now wondering if my phone as going to keep trying to make calls or not, or whether it'd just been a one off.

I got back to listening to my music, and just kept on moving whether it was walking or running and before I knew it I could see another pit stop ahead. This one was in a field, and had a timing mat in front of it. This made me wonder if there'd been a timing mat at pit stop 1 I was meant to cross, and whether it would void my result as I'd not bothered to stop. It wasn't until the third pit stop later that I realised not all of them had a timing mat, and so realised I was okay. At this second pit stop I did actually stop briefly to get a flapjack and half a cup of coca cola before continuining on. The sign at the pit stop tells you how long until the next one, so this was useful. Instead of thinking - I've got 75% of the run left to go, I was thinking, it's only 4-5 miles until the next stop. That's not far, I can do that. If the paperwork was to be believed, the next one was basecamp, however I knew that it was a typo.

Once leaving the pit stop it soon goes out onto Green Lane, a narrow country lane onto a bigger road, under the A417 and onto what I think was Dog Lane. The reason I remember that bit is that this was a long hill, and just when you think it's finished, there's a hairpin bend to continue the ascent a bit longer. This was definitely over a mile of climbing. I could only see two other runners at this point, and they too were walking. Considering I was almost 17 miles into the run, I wasn't feeling too badly, and so far was mostly being fuelled by the water in my backpack, and the little I'd had at pit stop 2. When I reached the third one I hesitated, considering to keep on going, but decided to grab a bag of mini cheddars, ate a couple and put the bag in my pocket for later. These took quite a few miles to eat as I found them to be quite dry eventually. I probably wasn't drinking enough water even though I was having a sip every mile or so.

A male runner heading towards a wooden bench with a view behind

I think it was sometime after the third pit stop when it started to rain heavy enough whilst I was in an exposed area that I decided to find a tree to stand under for a few minutes whilst getting my waterproof poncho out of my backpack. A runner passed me by, cursing the weather. Of course, I never got to wear the poncho as the rain immediately stopped, so I stowed it in one of the side pockets where it'd remain for the rest of the race no matter how much it rained now. There were times when the descents were fast, technical, and fun, but there was the occasional one that I had doubts about and went down at more of a shuffle pace.

A race like this gives you a lot of thinking time, especially during the times when I'd find myself alone with nobody else in sight. Some of the time, all I was thinking about was finishing, and sometimes it seemed like I was thinking of nothing at all, but the music playing in my ear and moving forwards. The sooner I'm done, the sooner I can start recovering. I also thought a little about how quiet this race can be, but how strong the support is when you go through villages or pit stops. The pit stops are staffed by some fantastic people volunteering so much of their time, and are so helpful and caring. I also thought a little about hopes for the future.

Between pit stop 3 and the base camp, the half way point, there was one hill that was so steep that I actually stopped moving for a few seconds to catch my breath. Eventually it levelled out once more and I got running again for a while. There were some walkers that seemed to be wondering what was going on in the field they were passing - it was our basecamp. There was a wooden pallete to step up onto to cross into the field where basecamp was - just what you want after 26 miles. I did realise though that if there was 142 gates to pass through, more than half of them would be in the second half.

I ran towards the (not my) finish, and turned right around to the pitstop just before reaching it. It'd have been nice to have finished and relax a bit, but I'd got more to do. I was now 50% of the way around, and had done it in less than 5 hours so far. I had some more coca-cola, and a chocolate Freddo for fuel. I sneakily took a photograph of them for the Phoenix Running group. Maybe they weren't the best choices for fuel, but I figured if I took the next bit slow to start with then perhaps it wouldn't be too bad.

The exit for the basecamp was back over the pallete and to the left. I walked then until I reached a road, and then got running again for a while, thinking that if I could do the second half in around 6 hours that would be perfect. I did the maths in my head of walking tending to average around 15 minutes per mile, and thought - 6 hours, I can just walk to the finish now, and maybe run every now and then to account for any steep hills. There were two things wrong with this, but I was already tired enough not to realise:

  1. 15 minutes per mile would have meant 6.5 hours, so would be very close to my RTTK time,
  2. Actually achieving a 15min/mi average over the next 26 miles requires accounting for some steep hills, and so running is needed.

The running break from walking, as it now was, didn't last long at all, and I must have walked the majority of the next few miles up hill, but I'm sure I did get some more running done before reaching the next pit stop around mile 32. My first earphone had gone flat, but fortunately had the other one which should last me until the end of the race. I'd never listened to music for so long whilst running before. As I got into the pit stop a marshal told another runner that we'd finished the 'flat' bit, and had the hills ahead of us now. That was not encouraging at all. What we'd already faced was steep enough for me!

At this one I decided to have a cup of tea, and because I tried to figure out how to get the hot water before looking for tea bags, one of the marshals decided I should sit down as I must be tired. I actually just wanted to make sure the tea was weak as I really didn't want milk in there whilst I'd got more miles to cover, and I wouldn't want anything stronger than semi-skimmed anyway. I did however have a slice of pineapple, having not eaten since that Freddo, and found it to be the tastiest thing in the world at that moment of time - it provided food, and it provided liquids. It was perfect. The tea on the otherhand wasn't great and I poured most of it away.

Whilst sitting down, my phone rang for the second time (it having rung about 30 minutes earlier for the same number). I noticed my watch saying the call was from Castel, Guernsey - which seemed odd. It'd not been long since I'd been there, but that was a part of the island I'd only run through, and cycled through. I answered it this time, and heard nothing before the call cleared down. I did wonder if it'd actually been the Card Factory in St. Peter Port and if my phone had dialed them at some point as I'd called them once, but it wasn't like they were the last people I'd phoned.

I then left the pit stop behind, walking away slowly. It was some time before I wanted to use my phone again, but this time I saw it said 'Security Lock' and had a countdown form 43 minutes. It was going to be about 8hr 30 into the race before I could use it again. It wasn't letting me take any more photographs as it was, so this meant I just had to appreciate how the corn field looked as I walked through it, knowing I'd never have a picture. Now I wasn't just counting down miles between pit stops, I was counting down the time to the next piece of pineapple. The running now was so rare I'd be lucky if I was averaging what I needed, and so far I was, but after the penultimate pit stop I'd have some very slow miles ahead. I'm not sure whether the ocassional bouts of rain helped or not either.

I couldn't say exactly when it was, but I also remembered one descent that was so steep I wasn't even that sure about walking down it, forget running. I took that very slowly. There was even one bit of the path that was rocky and I used my hands to help climb up. On the two ocassions when I passed horses, I took that as an excuse to walk for a while. Would someone running towards the horse startle it? I didn't want to find out.

A male runner walking amongst people on horseback

There were times when walking, not even up the hills, just felt too much. I'd stop, hunch over, and just pause to breathe for a few seconds before carrying on. Gates were becoming hard work as it started to feel like I had no strength at all, and after opening them I'd lean on them for a second before going through and closing them behind me. I even sat under a tree for a minute at one point, and when going up the penultimate big hill I sat on a log, and then walked and talked with another runner for a while. He thought I'd overtake him again - though I was that tired I couldn't say who I'd been talking to already in the second half, but it seemed I had already spoken to him before as we talked about RTTK, and he'd insisted that everyone says RTTT is harder. When he ghot running again I wished him luck, and he said I'd see him at the last pit stop in Buckland.

On my way to that final pitstop I was dividing the race up further, thinking of it as a milestone when there was just 5 miles left to the pit stop, knowing there'd be 5 miles after it too. That one is a little off the road, so if you use it, it does add more distance on. I felt it was a good idea to refuel, and use the loo before continuing on one last time. I'd sat down for a while at this one too. The other runner was leaving just as I arrived, so wished him luck again for the remainder. I thought maybe there was a good chance I was massively underfuelling for this run - I'd felt hungry since about 13:00, but also didn't feel like much. I'd tried some jelly tots a few pit stops earlier, and had kept them with me, but they were sticky and so sweet.

There was just five miles left to go now. There'd been times when I wasn't sure if I was going to cover the distance. I'd felt aches in my legs that were uncomfortable, but they went away. I walked from there, unsure when I'd feel ready to run again, but now knowing that with five miles to go, one way or the other I was going to finish. I felt it was going to be a close call getting just below 11hr30 - I'd forgotten it was actually 11hr25 I wanted to beat.

49 miles. I could see Broadway Tower now on the hill in the distance as I was crossing a bridge. My watch was still going. I was still going. A few minutes later I was coming up to some portacabin-like houses and I noticed that my watch battery had finally died so I got my iPhone from my bag so I could record the rest directly with Strava. 'Security Locked'. Not again! I then noticed that there was no countdown time this time - I fiddled with it a little, but I soon realised it was permanently locked. I wondered if this meant my only choice was going to be to erase my phone and start again (spoiler: it was), but then I started to think of things such as how was I going to get to the hotel after the race? I didn't know the address to find my way there. This filled my thoughts for the majority of the remainder - thinking of a plan, and what I was going to do tomorrow if I didn't have a working phone.

Broadway is a fairly nice looking place, and throughout this town there were people encouraging me to keep going and saying 'well done'. I would have liked to have run, but I had no motivation left to do so. At some point there was a right turn up a gravel path that led to a field and another gate that said 'see you at the top'. This was only gate 138 or something like that, I was sure they'd said 142. Sure enough, there were more gates, and another stile to get past.

A male runner looking despondetly at the ground as he walks up the hill towards the camera

Every runner around me was now walking, and as my walking pace tends to be faster than average, even in these circumstances it was, and I overtook four or five runners also walking up the hill. I didn't care for position, I just wanted to be done.

I paused a few times going up that hill, hoping it'd leave me with enough to have a strong finish. I was surprised how far a mile up hill actually feels, but eventually I saw a camera at the second to last gate. This stretch was a narrow fenced off area that passed alongside the Broadway Tower. I paused briefly, leaning against the fence with people around Broadway Tower watching, and encouraging me to get going. Then after not having run for 5K, I started to run once more. At the end of this was a tall gate, and for a second I figured out how to open it. The final gate. I could see the funnel for the finish ahead so started to pick up speed, and then rounded the corner into a sprint to cross the finish line.

A male runner sprinting over the finish line

"Look at that finish!" I heard the commentator say, whilst I was then stopping as quickly as I could on the other side of the line. It was over.

When someone put a medal around my neck, they added that it was the best finish they'd seen so far. I guess that's one advantage to having walked for so long - my legs were perfectly happy with short bursts of speed. After having done the first half in under 5 hours, I finished the entire race in 12 hours, 2 minutes, and 32 seconds. It would have been nice to have come in under 12 hours, but without my watch or phone, I had no idea what I was aiming for. I was done though, and felt certain it'd be a long time before I'd be running over 50 miles again. At the half way point I'd been in 36th place, but by the finish I'd dropped to 83rd out of 500 finishers for the non-stop double marathon.

At the finish, Peter, who I'd run with at various times during the race, offered to take some photographs for me at the Tower, and later emailed them to me. It was really kind of him, and ensured I'd at least have a photograph to remember what I'd achieved today. The post race food was a vegan menu. They had fries, some sort of burger I was unsure about, and pasties. I decided to have a pasty, but found the wooden cutlery wasn't strong enough to cut into it, so just ate the fries, drank some tea, and ate a doughnut on the way back to my car.

After over two years of preparing for it, I could start thinking about other races. Now was however, was the challenge of finding my way to my overnight stay…

Tags: race running sport trail ultra ultra marathon

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© David G. Paul