Nick Mead battles dehydration as he gets slowly baked for 11 hours on the ancient chalk trail of the Ridgeway
The half litre of water I had just gulped sloshed uncomfortably around my stomach and the energy bar stuck to the roof of my parched mouth like wet cement – 30 miles into Race to the Stones and with another 32 miles left to run, I knew it was going to be a long day.
On the hottest, most exposed section of the Ridgeway on Saturday, I felt as if I were being slowly roasted in an oven – there was no shade and nowhere to hide. Despite smearing myself liberally with factor 50 sun cream I worried about getting horribly burned and although I was drinking 1.5 to 2 litres of water and electrolytes an hour, I still repeatedly ran out of liquid halfway to the next aid station, which took its inevitable toll on my pace. It wasn’t long before I was well and truly cooked. Everything hurt.
While the Ridgeway is not exactly Death Valley, running that kind of distance in 29C and 40-50% humidity was always going to be a battle to limit progressive dehydration for someone like me who, despite losing about five stone and getting pretty fit, still sweats buckets.
The 100km race route followed the undulating, prehistoric Ridgeway – Britain’s oldest path, usually walked in four-and-a-half days – from the Chilterns to the North Wessex Downs, both Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The mercury was already hitting 20C by the 8am start in Chinnor so I took advantage of my fresh legs and the shade to knock out a few eight-minute miles through beech woods and across cultivated fields and wild-flower meadows – all the while making sure to keep chatting to fellow runners and maintain a comfortable pace. By the time we crossed the Thames at Goring 20 miles into the race I was a few minutes to the good on my 9hrs 30min target pace, feeling relaxed and confident.
After Streatley, the Ridgeway opens out into a broad track as it climbs slowly but relentlessly for the next 20 miles over chalk grassland to the Uffington White Horse, and despite the menacing bulk of Didcot power station as an imposing reminder of civilisation to the north, the trail still has a surprisingly remote feel for somewhere so close to London.
With the effort of running steadily uphill it was soon clear that it just wasn’t possible for me to replace fluids as fast as I was losing them. While I was drinking up to two litres an hour and still feeling thirsty – meaning I was probably losing more than that in sweat – it is hard for the body to process more than a litre an hour during exercise. As my blood thickened, less oxygen was getting to my muscles – and my pace slowed dramatically.
The point soon came where I was out of breath trying to run a 12-minute mile on the flat and worried that pushing myself harder could lead to heatstroke – the only sensible solution was to walk. Striding out into a 15-minute/mile march meant I was no longer overheating so much, started to feel back in control and hopefully wasn’t losing too much time (around 45 minutes over a 15-mile stretch).
Six weeks before the race I’d visited performance coach Rory Coleman for a fitness assessment. A veteran of more than 760 marathons and ultras, he drew up a tailored 12-week schedule for next month’s Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc CCC – with the Race to the Stones at the halfway point. I stuck closely to his plan – including a tough weekly “power hour” (for me, one lap of a track at six-minute mile pace and three at 7:10, for 60 minutes), instructions to run the rest of my schedule at no slower than eight-minutes per mile, and with daily core exercises and three weekly strength sessions.
I also followed his list of banned foods – no pasta, no bread, no rice, no potatoes – in a kind of Paleo-plus diet (ie including dairy and lentils/chickpeas which are not allowed under strict Paleo). A quick analysis of my typical daily intake showed I was still getting about 40-50% of my calories from carbs (mainly through lentil soup, fresh vegetables and fruit), with 25-30% from protein and 25-30% from fat – so I was also hitting the targets of the 40-30-30 zone diet. Whichever diet I was following, it seems I had started burning fat rather than carbs for fuel, felt fantastic and quickly lost about 12lb. So I had been well prepared for Race to the Stones, and with my target time out of the window by almost two hours I felt I really should have been doing better …
The long drag to the White Horse and the 5,000-year-old neolithic long-barrow of Wayland’s Smithy now behind me, the trail occasionally passed through small plantations and blissful shade. I found I could pick up the pace once again and lumbered into a slow jog. As a gentle breeze cooled me further I concentrated hard on speeding up my turnover towards 180 steps per minute – pushing myself back up to 10-minute mile pace.
The well-organised race (Threshold Sports puts on Ride Across Britain and handled the logistics for David Walliams and John Bishop’s Sports Relief challenges) had checkpoints every 10km and at the mile-50 aid station I came across two runners who had overtaken me earlier. They had both suffered in the previous section and one was lying on the ground, soaking himself with sponges from a huge bucket of cool water. Feeling stronger now, I emptied a sponge over my head, topped up my bottles, glugged half a litre of water, grabbed an energy bar and sped out ahead of them. I’d jumped back up to seventh and my day was starting to get back on track.
I reached the final checkpoint at mile 56 in decent shape – grabbed a quick bite, topped up my bottles and sped off as the next runner, Damian Hill, came in. I was comfortably maintaining 10-minute mile pace now and knocking off the odd nine-minute mile – so I wasn’t expecting Damian to come past me as strongly as he did. I tried to hold on to his heels but couldn’t – and settled back into my steady pace, satisfied with a top 10 finish and enjoying a comfortable run around the Bronze Age stone circle at Avebury.
A wave of euphoria swept over me as I crossed the finish line and finally stopped running – and when a helpful marshall sat me down and sprayed me with a mist of cool water it was a beautiful moment. I had aching muscles, sore feet and nothing more to give – but at the same time there was no stress left in my body, just a zen-like feeling of calm satisfaction.
As it turned out, my race wasn’t such a disaster. I crossed the line in eighth place in 11hrs 15mins – nearly two hours over my target time but only around 50 minutes behind the winner, Ed Melbourne, and 10 minutes behind pre-race favourite Danny Kendall, who became the highest placed Briton ever in the Marathon Des Sables with his 10th-place finish this year. The brutal sun took its toll on the Race to the Stones field though, with 277 finishers and 70 drop-outs in the one-day race and 176 finishers and 66 drop-outs in the two-day challenge.
After my first ultra I couldn’t walk for four days and dosed myself with ibuprofen – not a great idea for ultrarunners given the reported risks of kidney failure – so this time I paid more attention to recovery. I wore compression shorts for the race, jumped into an ice-cold bath as soon as I could after the finish and then pulled on full-leg compression tights and socks from CompressSport, which aim to increase circulation, flushing out toxins and speeding up repair to damaged muscles. While some of the pseudoscientific claims on some compression gear remind me of shampoo packaging, all I can says is it works for me – my legs feel fine and after a couple of days cross-training on the road bike I’m now back pounding the towpath outside Guardian Towers at lunchtime. Next stop the Alps …