Monday, 17 June 2019

RACE TO THE TOWER 2019


Race to the Tower 2019 – My second ultra-marathon, but this time an extra 18 miles!

My first ultra was an endurance life event along the Jurassic Coast. It was a brutal 35 miles I took on solo in relentless stormy weather. I learnt so much about myself during that race, mostly how determined I can be as I still look back and wonder how the thought of quitting never actually entered my mind… the weather was so unforgiving and miserable, it made the climbs and descents into a theme park of slippery mud slides and running all that way alone was a challenge in itself. I decided this ultra would be different, threshold events are busier so I was going to socialise with other runners and it was going to be more about having fun than about ‘getting it done’.

THE LEAD UP


The lead up to the race was mainly spent of evenings building up irrational fears in my head. Will I finish? Will I be broken by 14 miles? (Which had happened on my previous 2 long runs). Will I incur an injury? Will I be alone the entire way? Will I recover in time to attend work on Monday? All this anxiety pushed me into telling myself I would run to basecamp (halfway) and call it a day. I was okay with this decision too, because I knew I had another 2 ultras ahead of me to have another go.
I honestly felt so worried and scared because all I was thinking about was the total distance and elevation. Other experienced ultra-runners told me to stop thinking about the total challenge, and to think about it pit stop to pit stop. So in 10-20k chunks. This is the best advice I have ever been given! By switching my thought process to this, I immediately felt more positive. I spoke to my fiancé Dom about it, and agreed I would just play it by ear and see how the race goes, but if I wanted to stop after the first marathon then I would.

THE START

It was a 6am departure from Bristol to drive out to the Cotswolds. The weather was wet and windy and so flashbacks from my first ultra started to build up fear again. I really didn’t feel I had the mental strength to endure stormy conditions for 53 miles. On arrival, it had calmed down and was just a bit drizzly. So on the waterproof jacket went and I hunted down some running pals from Instagram – Carly (@girl_run_the_shire) and Katie (@katie_jayne_the_runner). We all decided we would set off in the first wave at 7.30am so we weren’t hanging around getting cold. Threshold aren’t strict on starting waves and you can change on the day. We ensured we stayed right at the back so that we weren’t in the way of any speedy runners.



The race started off going downhill…. How lovely! But I think we all knew that going down meant we would have some big ‘going ups’… however we were using our ‘pit stop to pit stop’ mantra, and so all I was thinking was I just need to run 10k through the glorious Cotswolds. Easy right?!
It was pretty slippery underfoot and I was grateful I chose to wear my trail shoes. We approached a big incline, which we thought must be the first ‘big’ hill (there are 7 large climbs throughout the course). This turned out not to be one of the big ones though…
The first big climb did soon come around, which rewarded us all with stunning views and then we were at pit stop 1 where Dom decided to meet us (and every pitstop thereafter!) Quick banana and a pack of sweets in my pocket we were back to running.



PIT STOP 1 TO 2

Pit stop 1 to 2 was another 6 to 7ish miles but I remember it going quickly.  Katies Dad popped up en route and ran alongside us all for a bit with words of encouragement. Carly’s knee was giving her some jip going downhill, so Katie’s Dad stuck by her into pit stop 2 where we all regrouped and refuelled. 

The next pit stop wasn’t very far away, however I was very aware we had another big climb coming up so I made sure to refill my water bottles and eat some food (I munched on some salt and vinegar crisps and had a couple of slices of orange). At this point, Carly told Katie and I to carry on without her. She was still going to keep going but decided to walk the sections causing her any pain. This was a hard decision, and Carly knew both Katie and I wanted to finish between 14 and 15 hours and so told us to go and chase that.

*side note…times really don’t worry me too much, especially in ultras. But I wanted to finish at a reasonable hour so I could get back to Bristol for a good night’s sleep and so that Dom didn’t have to be waiting forever. Also by setting myself a realistic time goal, it gives me something to work towards and keeps me going mid race!

PIT STOP 2 TO 3

I really wish I could remember more of the climbs to describe here. But in all honestly, with every hill I just got my poles out and we marched up them without stopping determined to just get to the top, and then we would appreciate the views. They have all kind of blended into one giant hill now…but they were steep. A lot of them were also narrow so you were in single file. I remember one in particular being very humid and hot because it was extremely overgrown and jungle like! None of them felt as tough as what I endured on the Jurassic Coast, but the conditions were kinder and my poles became my best friend! Tough and challenging, but stunning rewards and doable!
Pit stop 3 saw me make use of my collapsible cup and I had a cup of flat coke. I munched on a wedge of watermelon and a flapjack in my pocket I felt ready for the next section. The next pit stop would be basecamp….half way. I was feeling good and at this point knew I basecamp was not the finish line for me.



PIT STOP 3 TO BASECAMP

We had another technical and rocky downhill followed by half a big climb where Dom met us and ran into basecamp with us. Here I was ready to eat some real grub and honestly wanted to sit down…but after taking some top tips from ultra-runner Jon (@jayz_runs_and_cooks)…one piece of advice was to not sit down if possible. So Katie and I grabbed some pasta and made a PB sandwich and decided to walk around basecamp whilst eating to keep the legs moving. We stayed at basecamp for around 30 minutes and I started to get a bit cold so we made a move again to finish off the big climb.



BASECAMP TO PIT STOP 5

It was weird thinking there were only 3 pit stops left…they were ticking off so quickly. However pit stop 5 seemed to never come. A big climb led us to an incredible 360 degree view of the Cotswolds where Dom was waiting for us at the top. He stayed with us for a couple of miles and I took another sachet of tailwind and flapjack from him as well as my head torch and Garmin charger. Dom wanted to carry on with us to pit stop 5 but it just wasn’t coming so I told Dom to head back to the car and I would see him at some other point before the finish.



My legs were feeling tired and I had got through a lot of water since the last pit stop so was desperate for a refill. The ‘1 mile to pit stop sign’ never appeared and we started to think we must have missed the entire station. We climbed a slight incline and then at the top could see a pit stop flag…Katie turned to look at me looking so happy, I think we both were on the verge of tears, happy, relieved tears!



PIT STOP 5 TO PIT STOP 6

I refilled one of my bottles with the tailwind I took from Dom only to discover he had handed me a caffeine sachet and not one of the regular ones. He had been so amazing that day I of course couldn’t tell him it was the wrong one and at that moment, I didn’t have a choice, it was take it or leave it and I knew there was another big climb ahead so I decided to go for it. That and a quarter of a marmite sandwich we powered on. This climb felt like a beast. I mean, they all felt like beasts, but we were fatiguing now. A guy behind us decided to run up the hill…absolutely mad. You would think you were at the top, turn a corner and there would be more. It felt never ending. Katie looked so strong and was storming it (she stormed all the hills!) and once we reached the top I think my caffeine kicked in because I had so much energy and felt re-energised.

This was the moment I knew I was going to finish. My legs picked up the pace and I remember looking down seeing we were at 36 miles, I was running at a sub 10 minute mile pace and I felt strong. It was the most bizzare feeling I have ever felt…how was I feeling so good? I decided it must have been the caffeine. We were running through a village and briefly saw Dom but I was feeling so good I didn’t want to stop so he clapped us on and said he would see us later on.

We had to ensure we fuelled well at pit stop 6 because there were another 2 really big climbs approaching after this and pit stop 7 was 10ish or so miles away. You start to feel a little bit iffy in the gut by this point, so it’s hard to eat or drink but I forced a little bit down me and took some for the road.

PIT STOP 6 TO 7


The climb began almost immediately and Katie and I decided this was the time for our headphones. Some motivating music to get these climbs DONE! As we started the climb, Katie dropped half her rich tea biscuit and her face was a picture of sadness, like a kid dropping their ice cream cone. I then thought, if this is the lowest point of the race so far, then we really aren’t doing so bad at all! It was actually a really good push to keep going.

We stormed these hills, Katie stayed ahead and we just took it step by step and climbed away. The downhills were slippery and rocky, and I briefly remember having to cross a huge puddle where there was some foam stepping stone…I stepped onto it and my entire foot plunged into the muddy puddle. 40 odd miles of keeping my feet dry and now I manage to soak an entire foot…



It was inevitable; these two big climbs took it out of us. As we descended into another town I saw Dom ahead by a Manor house and ran into his arms and had a little cry. I don’t know what causes emotions in these long distance events…I don’t cry because I’m sad, I wasn’t in pain (well maybe a little) I think it’s more tears from the realisation that you’re completing something you once thought impossible. 24 hours before this moment I thought ‘no way can I do this’ but here I was at 42 miles, 10 miles away from finishing my second ultra.

PIT STOP 7 TO THE TOWER

Dom was waiting for us at pit stop 7, neither Katie or I were very talkative. We just needed a bit of fuel, refill and toilet stop and we just wanted to get this done. I thought we had only 4 miles left to go, but we in fact had 5. Finding out we had an extra mile was a little disheartening  but a mile in the grand scheme of 50 odd I guess really doesn’t make a difference by that point.

We both wanted sub 15 hours, but all the time spent at the pit stop although short, had started to catch up with us, that and the inevitable slowing down in the second half. I didn’t think at this point we would make it because it meant maintaining some faster even splits and we were both pretty beat by this point. I knew how much Katie wanted it though, and knowing someone you are with wants to chase a goal makes you more determined. I thought back to leaving Carly and how guilty we felt, we didn’t leave her to bumble our way through, we left and said we would chase our goal as best we can. 

So the shuffling commenced. I tapped Katie and said come on… I know you have a shuffle in you. I decided I was running to the finish line now, well, until the last big climb (they put the finish at the top of a huge hill!) Katie and I took it in turns to pace each other, and would just follow the lead.
We spotted the Tower about 3 miles from the finish and could see how high it was, it began getting dark so out came our head torches. Running through Broadway was lovely, people were coming out of restaurants to clap us on and it made you feel like a superhero!  This really helped and my legs started to speed up some more. I couldn’t feel much at this point, I remember everything just being a bit numb and not allowing myself to stop until I reached the hill.

We got to the hill where a sign read ‘Bragging rights ahead’. Out came the poles for the last climb and I think it may have been my fastest climb. I wanted to see that tower so bad. So many false promises where you thought you were the top, so many gate and stile crossings. A lot of cursing and some serious heavy breathing…there it was!



When I saw the Tower I let out a few more happy tears. Dom was at the top, I threw him my poles and I called to Katie behind me to come and cross the line together. I had forgotten about time by this point. I grabbed Katie’s hand and we crossed in 14.57.57! We had done it!

53 miles, 162 gates/stiles, 7454ft!



I have to thank Dom my fiancé for being absolutely amazing that day, and Carly and Katie for the epic company and making this race one to remember. I also am shouting out to my poles! I am so glad I chose to invest in these, after a hip injury post first-ultra I have an inbuilt fear that it will return. It was a repetitive strain injury from all the stairs climbed and also from an on-going weakness which I still have to work on… but I was advised to give poles a go to take some impact off my joints for climbing and descending and they really helped! I have the black diamond  Z poles which I purchased from Amazon…they aren’t the cheapest but in my opinion are a worthwhile investment if you plan on using them multiple times.


I also thought it might be helpful to show you my packing list! So here it is below, the green tick means I actually used it but everything below is what I packed.


Here is also the pit stop food list Threshold provided us with which might be useful to some of you planning any of these races. The pit stops also had gels and energy powders to mix with water. Basecamp had sports massages, and I was hoping there would also be some available at the finish but there wasn’t. There was however, a lovely warm shower I made use of! Also another side note, food at the finish line was fairly limited and not included with entry, so be sure to have some cash or your card at the finish if you want to eat something (I grabbed a pizza to have with my chocolate milk!) All the food at pit stops is included though, as are your pictures which I think is great!


If you're thinking about taking on the Tower next year...I highly recommend it! It is up there as one my favourite races I have taken part in! Thank you Threshold Sports for an unforgettable experience.



*my race place was gifted by Threshold Sports however this is in an honest account of my experience!

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