Many of you will know of the Race to the King, Threshold Sport’s ultra-marathon following the South Downs Way national trail from near Arundel all the way to the doors of Winchester Cathedral, with the option to cover the 53miles over two days, or, as I did, covering it all in a single day.
As somebody who positively hates running and navigating I was beguiled by the promise of a fully marked route, across what I know from the races I have done on the South Downs is some of the most beautiful running to be had, and I was not disappointed.
If you’ve read some of my previous blogs you’ll know I’ve been working up to this race, and had begun tapering after the Stour Valley Marathon at the beginning of the month. Now I know I’m not the only one, but it always seems that the more I taper the harder my running gets. I lose my rhythm, I start to feel unwell, and I most definitely get very grumpy (as Nix will testify). But as Nix will also testify, my performance on race day always seems to be inversely proportional to how well I feel in that run up. And the days before the race I was not feeling good at all.
Standing on the start line I had 2 goals, firstly to pass through 50 miles in under 10 hours, and secondly to complete the whole race in under 10 and a half hours. I was running with a old friend Kim, with whom I’d raced a few triathlons and Ironmans in the past, but this was going to be Kim’s first ultra and I had resolved to take it easy at the start and run with him, trusting his better pacing would help me out.
And so the traditional race briefing was dispensed with, mostly drowned out by everybody chattering with pre-exam nerves, then the countdown, then we were away. As with many such races the first few miles were a slow trek as the field sorted itself into pace order. Kim and I ran single file then side by side as things opened up, chatting to catch up but also as a race tactic to keep the pace down. But then Kim started doing less of the talking and I started doing more until he dropped off the back and called at me to go on.
And so, from about 12 miles in I was on my own, running at what I hoped would continue to be an easy pace, reflecting that perhaps the terrain of the South Downs way wasn’t as bad as I’d expected until we hit what turned out to be the first of the increasingly big hills at about 15 miles. Not overly steep, but definitely not one I intended running. Now one piece of great advice I was once given is that yes, walking is absolutely an integral part of racing an ultra. But it’s still a race. And if you are going to walk then do so with purpose, with the intention of covering ground as quickly as is sensible. And so the next few miles were done at a speed march before finally cresting the hill, dropping down a short runnable section and then hitting a wall of chalk. No speed marching up that, in fact I barely avoided using my hands to get up it. But it was short, though followed be ridiculously steep downhill which I gave serious consideration to sliding down on my buttocks. And then another wall of chalk before finally cresting into the carpark at Harting Downs and meeting my crew.
A change of top, a BLT, a kiss and a cuddle and I was off once more through a lovely stretch of runnable wooded trail followed by some nice gentle downhill and feeling strong. Over a railway line, onto a road section before a steep but marchable hill up into the woods of the Queen Elizabeth Forest. Some more steady running through the woods and then I was at 30 miles, for my second crew meet, more BLT, cheese and onion crisps, and ice cold Caprisun and I was on my way again. Starting to feel a bit jaded but still running well. And then…
In the middle of a beautiful grassy field, children playing, horses galloping, I was faced with the mother of all hills, a behemoth rearing from the ground like something Jack might have climbed to reach the giant’s land if the beanstalk hadn’t been so conveniently available. I could see people at the summit, tiny in the distance, staggering as they walked slowly, wavering with exhaustion. There would be no speed marching up this one.
And so I settled in for a long, torturous climb, repeating as a mantra “stopping is not an option, stopping is not an option”, until, slowly but surely, the summit came into view, became something I knew I would conquer. You might think I exaggerate, but if I’d had a flag I would have planted it at the top of that damn thing!
Breath back, a bit more undulation, a long stead decline and another hill I barely remember, before another long descent which I was by now in too much pain to appreciate. The 40 mile point and my final stop for the obligatory BLT, before setting my lap counter for the final 13 miles and a target to complete them in 2 and a half hours to meet my race goal.
Looking at the profile those last 13 miles should have been a doozy. A long but steady climb up, and then an even longer descent; one final climb, and then a final 3 mile drop down into Winchester. But doozy is definitely not the best word to describe the torture I was now putting myself through. Exhaustion had reduced every slight incline to a zombie like shamble, the undead theme completed by the lacerated state of my inner thighs, which had reduced every step to wincing self-flagellation. But this is what ultra-marathoning is all about. Pure stubbornness translated into determination; camaraderie and community working to get to the finish. And nothing typified this better than coming into pit-stop 6 when I jokingly asked for pizza, only for one of the pit crew to vanish into their tent and to return with possibly the best slice of margherita I have ever tasted!
That pizza got me running again, and as another runner caught me, I jumped on his heels and we struck up brief conversations as we each exchanged position until we passed the 50 mile mark in 9 hours 54 minutes to achieve my goal of 50 miles in under 10 hours. But that left me with 36 minutes to complete the final 3 miles and achieve my race goals of 10 and a half hours. Now on fresh legs that wold have given me time in hand but in my state that was going to be tough, and I tried, I really did, but as I staggered into Winchester and began the circumnavigation around the cathedral grounds the only running I had left was for the final 20 meters to cross the finish line in front of the Cathedral doors in 10 hour and 37 minutes.
And so, Race to the King done. A spectacular though tough race along the beautiful South Downs Way. Though it’s a bit expensive compared to similar ultras, it does a good job of justifying that cost with some great organisation, perfect route marking, free photos, and well stocked pit stops, though these were perhaps a little infrequent in the first half. This is absolutely the perfect race for a first time ultra-marathon, and would I do it again? Absolutely!