The perceived loneliness of the ultra long-distance runner

Distance running is often looked at as a lonely pursuit, where the closest thing to conversation is the bleeping of a smartwatch. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Having spent the early part of the year training for the Milton Keynes marathon, I was looking for something completely different; something social, relaxed and visually stunning – without a roundabout in sight.

Race to the Stones ticked all these boxes. Starting in the Chilterns, the route heads west along the Ridgeway, believed to be “Britain’s oldest road”, before finishing at Avebury stone circle, the largest megalithic stone circle in the world. Runners can choose to complete the 100km distance in one heroic push, or in two 50km efforts, camping overnight at the halfway point in Wantage.

For reasons unclear, I went for the first option, convincing my friends Nick and Isaac to join me. We decided we would be “completing not competing”, an approach made necessary by our distinct lack of training. Worryingly, my longest run in preparation for this hilly ultra-marathon was a half-pint half-marathon (13 miles, 13 half pints) around the pancake-flat streets of south London.

At least we had the weather on our side. A mild, overcast day with some light drizzle – perfect conditions for ultrarunning. Our tactic was simple: walk the uphills, run the flats and the downhills. We’d start slow and inevitably get slower, but hopefully not so slow as to miss our pre-booked bus in 14 hours’ time.

The early part of the route is stunning, taking in the appropriately named Field of Dreams – a bright yellow crop field – and the not-at-all-grim Grim’s Ditch.

Moreover, unlike a road marathon, an ultra affords you time to strike up conversation with friends and strangers. After a quick game of Marooned 5 – a twist on Desert Island Discs, in which you name the five tracks you’d like to maroon on a desert island, never to hear again – we began talking with two Israeli runners, one of whom had accidentally left his usual running shoes in his hotel. “That’s the thing about ultras,” he said, cheerfully. “They rarely go to plan.”

Stocking up with some hot food at the halfway mark, a quick calculation revealed we’d have to do the second 50km in under eight hours if we were to bus back to Swindon station. Easy, right?

Unfortunately, what with ultras rarely going to plan, Isaac had managed to become separated from both his two water bottles and had become seriously dehydrated. An extended stop at the 70km aid station was required, while Isaac rehydrated and Nick and I attempted to eat our own body weight in bananas and watermelons.

With the clock ticking, we arrived at the 80km mark to be met by a volunteer who cheerily told us there were “only four parkruns to go”. With two-and-a-half hours left before our bus departed, you might think such news was met with relief. However, with our current speed roughly that of an arthritic tortoise, it instead confirmed that we’d have to get a move on if we were to avoid being stuck overnight in Avebury.

Yet, even in these testing moments, there’s the sense you’re in it together. Perhaps it’s a result of the preposterously long distance, or the fact that PBs are of concern only to the very front of the field, but the atmosphere here was one of friendliness and support.

Even so, those final “four parkruns” were agony. In today’s hotly contested game of ‘My Sorest Part’, my right hamstring was now just edging it from my left shin, and the finish line couldn’t come quick enough. Finally, thrillingly, Avebury stone circle came into view. Alas, Race to the Stones should really be rechristened ‘Race Beyond the Stones’, as exhausted runners then have to about-turn and head another kilometre to the finish. Rubbing one of the ancient boulders for strength, I shuffled onwards, crossing the finish line in a tad over 13 hours, with Nick and Isaac close behind.

Our preparation had been poor, our fitness questionable, but we’d done it. In doing so, a number of discoveries had been made. Firstly, 100Km is a long, long way to run. Secondly, the Ridgeway is one of Britain’s best-looking paths. And finally, ultramarathons – far from being lonely pursuits – are great places to form and cement some long-distance friendships.

Register your interest for 2018s Dixon Carphone Race to the Stones here

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