Are you ultra curious? The popularity of ultra-marathons is on the rise in the UK with many runners wanting to challenge themselves to run beyond 26.2 miles. How hard is it to train for an ultra when you are a busy working mum? Jen Benson tells Run Mummy Run about her experiences of running and training for the iconic ultra Race to the Stones..
Race to the Stones takes on 100km (62 miles) of the 140-km (87-mile) Ridgeway National Trail. Starting at Lewknor in Oxfordshire, it’s a real journey through time, with over 5,000 years of history scattered along the undulating chalk escarpment. It includes the Uffington White Horse, Neolithic Long Barrows and finishes at the World Heritage Site of Avebury, home to the world’s largest stone circle.
I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for the race, only discovering I had a place with about 6 weeks to go. My training had been pretty consistent, with a marathon in my sights later in the year, but my long runs were nowhere near long enough.
I kept my daily runs at around the same distance but increased my mid-week run to 16 miles and my long run to 20+. My biggest day was 30 miles – split into a morning run of 25 and an evening 5.
As the day approached I started tapering to allow my body to recover as much as possible. It wasn’t perfect but I felt like I’d fitted as much as I could in the time I had. Running, as always, is such a fine balance between enough and too much.
As well as being the furthest I’d ever run – by nearly 20 miles – Race to the Stones was my first race since our youngest child arrived. My first race, in fact, since the London Marathon in 2013. I’ve really missed it – racing, whether running, adventure racing or triathlon, has always been a big part of my life – and I couldn’t wait to be back.
Race to the Stones seemed like a perfect first race back in many ways too, with no previous time to beat and, I hoped, a finish before the kids’ bedtime. I also liked the race organisers’ aim to encourage more women to take part. Running is such a great sport for time-strapped parents and I know it’s helped me through the challenges of being a mum.
I also believe it’s really good for the kids to see both of us competing and they love coming along to races and cheering on the runners. I had a few concerns though, the main one being whether my body would withstand 100km with so little specific preparation. But there’s only one way to answer a question like that…
Race morning dawned bright and extremely early. After less than an hour’s sleep (thanks to a restless two-year-old and a looming work deadline) I crawled out of bed at 3.30am and was away by 4. The finish at Avebury is pretty near where we live so it wasn’t long before I was joining a long line of nervous runners boarding the coaches to take us to the start.
Everything was impeccably organised, a theme that continued throughout the day. The start was buzzing: people were everywhere, there was music and commentary and registration was smooth and efficient. I sorted out my kit, drank coffee and rubbed coconut oil into my feet, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the day.
My nerves faded, replaced with an overwhelming feeling that I was incredibly privileged to be doing this: to have my family’s support; to be fit and well; and to have a whole day ahead of me, in a beautiful place, with nothing to do but run.
At exactly 8am we set off: a long, brightly-coloured line moving along the trail that snaked away into the distance. The course is unrelentingly undulating. There are no big hills, but not much in the way of flat running either. The trail rises and falls with the escarpment and we fell in with its rhythm: walking the uphills, trying to relax on the downhills.
I started too fast and by 20km was already hurting, a worry as I regularly run that far in training. Perhaps it was lack of sleep or not enough of a taper. The most daunting moment was passing the 20km marker and realising I still had 80km to go.
But it’s funny – not all kilometres feel the same. That’s a big lesson I learned from running my first 100km: don’t be scared of the big numbers. It’s much easier to simply focus on running all day, letting the hours pass rather than obsessing about splits and distances.
The day gradually got hotter, with the sun reflecting blindingly off the chalk trail. But I wasn’t the only one suffering – all around there was the amazing camaraderie of the other runners. It made me realise that nowhere is it truer that strangers are just friends waiting to happen than in long-distance racing, where strong bonds are forged between random strangers who happen to end up moving forward at roughly the same pace.
All around there was encouragement: from the other competitors, from the race crew who smilingly offered food, drink and assistance at the pit stops, and from the folk who lined the course and cheered us on.
I’ve run enough ultras in the past to know I need to eat regularly and eat real – gels and energy drinks don’t work for me over anything more than a marathon. Fortunately there was plenty of choice, and I stuck with bananas and fresh orange segments, flat coke and water, as well as the very welcome hot meal at half way.
The 50km point was definitely one of the toughest bits. You can do Race to the Stones as a single 50km or over two days as well as the non-stop 100km option I went for, so there’s a big finish gantry and marquee at half way. Running through the ‘finish’ was a bit depressing, however it was incredible to sit down in the shade with a bowl of pasta. I arrived feeling like I’d never manage the second half, but left feeling a lot more positive.
As it turned out, the second 50km was in many ways easier than the first. At least the numbers were reducing now. With 40km to go I finally thought I might be able to finish – ‘only’ a marathon to go and I know I can run one of those! I had a bit of a low at 80km, sleep deprivation, heat and the sheer length of time I’d been out really getting to me.
At one point I nearly dozed off on my feet. I sat down at the final check point with only 11km to go, had a cup of tea and a banana and rang my husband. It was so good to hear his voice and the kids happy in the background and was just the boost I needed, and I ran the whole of the last section, longing to see them all waiting for me at the finish.
In the end I crossed the line in a bit over 13 hours: longer than I’d hoped but with a lot of lessons learned. I definitely started off too fast and was overtaken by a lot of women between 80-90km, all of whom had paced far better than I had. I also need to prepare better, with more long runs, more of a taper and – ideally – a good night’s sleep before the race.
But, overall, it was an incredibly positive experience for my first 100km – and a big confidence boost for the next one. Massive thanks to all at Threshold Sports for brilliantly organising an excellent race that I’m sure has encouraged many, many people to give ultramarathon running a go and discover they’re capable of far more than they imagined.
Jen Benson is a runner, writer and mum of two. Along with husband Sim, she’s the co-author of the guidebook Wild Running (wildrunning.net) and has written extensively on running and family adventuring. Jen and Sim are contributors to Running, Trail Running, Trail and Country Walking magazines. In 2015 they spent a year living under canvas in Britain with their two young children. Read more at jenandsimbenson.co.uk
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