Sport Walk’s founder Roger Burlinson reports on his Race To The Stones 2017 experience.
Nine months ago I signed up for ‘Race to the Stones’, looking for a follow up challenge to my ‘Sport Walk New Forest 80’ solo ultra earlier that year. A year on almost exactly (RTTS was one week later than my walk last year) and I found myself at the start line ready to put all my training and preparation into practice. This was also a key point for this Sport Walk blog, as I would effectively be using Race to the Stones as the final test for Sport Walking as a concept.
If you’ve read any of my training updates on Sport Walk, you’ll know that I’ve gone into a lot of detail trying to make my training walks and kit selection as strong as possible. In a way, you could say that I really bought into the ‘marginal gains’ approach, so famously pioneered by Team Sky.
I’d focussed on getting every little detail right, from nutrition to the right shoes, even down to what kind of pants I was going to wear! I don’t think I’ll expand on the pants, apart from to say that I’d chosen a quick drying fabric and a low cut for rapid comfort breaks! You see, you can find ways to save time everywhere!
To very quickly recap on my plan then. I’d settled on 6kph as a comfortable speed (that’s 10 minute km pace) but had consistently been walking faster than that on all my training walks. I’d only gone up to 40k in training, which was less than I’d originally planned but with hindsight this was probably a good maximum single session distance for a 100k race. My target race speed then was comfortable, allowing me to keep everything steady and, more importantly, attack the climbs as this is the best way to gain position and time on others when you’re walking.
My target pace meant I could potentially finish in 16:40 but being cautious I set 18 hours as my goal. My time for 82k on my New Forest walk was 17 hours, so experience suggested that this was a safe margin given the higher ground we’d be covering.
I decided to do all my training from about 2 months out on the South Downs and this proved to be a really good call. The climbs were tougher and in most cases longer but most of all, the trail surface was more challenging on the South Downs than The Ridgeway, except perhaps for the final section at Race to the Stones about 5k from the finish, which was just horrible under foot.
By the time I reached the start line then, pretty much everything was exactly as I’d intended, planned and prepared for and so it was just down to me to deliver. The only thing I deliberately hadn’t done before this point was recce the route and that was quite an important decision for me on this occasion. Having trained on what I thought were harder trails, I felt confident enough not to feel the need to pre-walk the Ridgeway but in addition, I wanted the journey itself to be a discovery. This was my first 100k and I knew how long it might take, so I thought not knowing the route would help keep things interesting.
The forecast for the day was mixed but it looked like it would be a dry start. Temperatures were good enough for shorts and a short sleeved jersey but as we arrived a Lewknor and headed to registration the sky darkened and before I could attach my number to my belt it was drizzling pretty insistently. What to do? Tough it out thinking ahead to dryer conditions and the need to remove a jacket at some point or cover up and stay comfy. I opted for the latter, as being something of a scrawny individual, I feel the cold and I don’t like feeling cold!
I was in the penultimate start wave and there were already 2,000 people out on the trail. There were lots of walkers who’d started ahead of me, so I was a bit on edge as we lined up. I was concerned about getting stuck in queues as everyone made their way through some of the narrower sections early on, which would mean I’d be off pace from the start and would then have to work harder and use more energy.
The initial kilometres were on what I guess you’d call wide single track and although there were a lot of us, moving through the field was possible, so everything was going smoothly for all. The runners coming through from the last wave were able to get by us as well but I was still worried about things grinding to a halt on the first climb (I was still on edge I guess as it was really early in the race).
At the bottom of the first climb there was an opportunity to strike out, as two people in front of me seemed to realise that I was keen to get past and kindly waved me through. There was now a steady line of people snaking up the steep climb in front and I just buried myself to get up there as fast as I could and gain as many places as possible, to get into a clear space on the trail. I must have been pretty pumped up by what I saw as a real threat to my time goal because I discovered afterwards that I picked up a course record on Strava for that segment!
A little further on we all hit the ‘tunnel of doom’ (the worst bottleneck through a really narrow hedge corridor). Runners were trying to pass us walkers, I was trying to stay on pace but that had dropped from 8-9 minutes per km to over 13 mins and those in front were just going about their race as they’d planned. None of us were inconveniencing the others, it was just that it shouldn’t have to be like that. It should be possible to place people in waves that allow them to travel at their planned pace and not have to pull over to let someone through or try to pass where there’s no room.
This really was the only negative about the whole race though and as we reached the road crossing to head down towards the Thames at about 20k, things started to settle and space out a bit.
Down to the Thames
Goring was my planned first checkpoint with Aleksandra my wife, who was crewing for me. I went straight through the first feed station at 10k, as I had enough supplies to go about 40k and anyway taking on food and drink that early is a bit unnecessary. By the next feed station I’d used all my bars, so I did pop in and grab some raw date things.
This is where my race turned around really. Both the first two feed stations were hammered, so pushing through without any real break got me past a load of people. The trail widened a bit too and everyone was a bit more strung out, so even though there were a few gates and narrow sections, the bit down to Goring was great.
Just before I broke out of a narrow cut through to see Aleksandra waiting with fresh supplies, I was passed by another walker who took me totally by surprise. His name was Claudio Cadei and he was really travelling. “Did you see that guy in a blue shirt come through”? I asked Aleksandra. “Yes, he looked really strong” she said. “Great”, I thought!
Now, I’m not one to think I’m the best or fastest at what I do but Claudio really shook me up in that moment. I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect anyone else to really be walking fast, given the feedback I’d had from the organisers beforehand, so I’d allowed myself, rather foolishly, to think I could be one of the fastest walkers, maybe even the fastest. How wrong I was! Claudio eventually finished an hour ahead of me with a really impressive pace but what’s great about that is that it actually helped my other goal of proving that Sport Walking is viable and that was good enough for me! I’ve since made contact with Claudio and we’ll be hearing a little of his race story in a forthcoming blog post.
I quickly rationalised Claudio’s pace and told myself that under no circumstances was I to divert from my own race plan to try and chase him down. So I said goodby to Aleksandra, armed with fresh stocks of Tailwind sachets and Zipvit bars and I set off to climb up onto the high ground that was waiting ahead of me.
The clouds had run out of water by the time I reached Goring so I was able to pack away the jacket, although I decided to stuff it under some bungees I’d retro fitted to my vest, rather than packing it inside, just in case!
Climbing out of Streatley toward the downs, there were a load of kids lining the road outside their houses cheering everyone on, literally everyone. That was a huge lift to the spirits and turned me from a mildly annoyed muttering frustration monkey from the hold ups of the first 20k and into a man at peace with his lot and his challenge.
Hitting the higher ground
As I reached the next feed station I could see the climb stretch out ahead and it looked good! I like climbs, I really do and this was my kind of climb – long, steepish but not extreme, so you can get into a nice fast rhythm. I was up on time and I felt strong so although I didn’t go flat out like the first climb, I pushed on and began to catch runners who were walking up the hill. I began to pass these runners and then others and then others and then others. This was a great illustration of where Sport Walking really starts to play out on longer distances.
Their speed was higher than mine on the flat, obviously, but they were using more energy and sustaining more muscle fatigue. My speed on the flat was slower but come the climbs and I had plenty of energy and fresh muscles to attack and the difference in speed between us on the climb was almost a reverse of the difference between us on the flat. While they could then speed up at the top, the fatigue to their muscles would continue with the higher intensity that running demands, while I would be able to recover more. And so it proved for the rest of the race. Yes, it took me tens of kilometres to finally and completely overhaul some of these runners I’d passed on the early hills but the Ultra is a long game and all that matters is your final position.
Once on the high ground the weather and, in particular, the wind started to be a factor. The Ridgeway is pretty exposed in many places and it’s also a bit more open and rolling than the parts of the South Downs I’d been training on. Yes the ground is high but the slopes are gentler and that felt like you were more exposed to the wind.
The section from about 40k to 60k was the toughest for me. It wasn’t anything challenging in the terrain or hard climbs or anything like that, it was just that I went through that phase where you just kind of struggle to enjoy it. I’d seen Aleksandra again at Bury Down, around 44k in and had replenished supplies. I’d also had a bit of water melon from one of the support staff at the feed station and that was surprisingly good! Initially, I thought “water melon, what good is that?” but it was just a nice refreshing kick.
Aleksandra and I had agreed that she’d go straight to Whitehorse Hill, bypassing our next planned checkpoint at Sparsholt Firs because I was going well and there didn’t seem any point in her going there. After I left Bury Down though, there were fewer other participants around me on the trail to focus on and try to beat and with the trail just kind of winding on with not a huge amount of variety, I just zoned out and focussed on keeping my pace on target.
Winding it up
After I left Aleksandra at Whitehorse Hill, I decided now was the time to bring some music into play, so I got my iPod out and cued up some old school jazz funk to start with. I had a load of stronger, more motivational tracks from people like Deadmau5, Basement Jaxx and Knife Party, tracks that feel good to push hard to but I wasn’t in that sort of place mentally at that point, I just needed my spirits lifting.
You probably wouldn’t think of ‘Breezin’ by George Benson as a good sports track but at that point, in that place, it hit the spot perfectly. I started to smile to myself and in feeling more positive I started to think about how well I was going and that I might actually get closer to my 6kph calculation than my cautious goal of 18hrs.
It’s interesting that once you start to know that you’ve got it in you to finish more strongly than you thought you’d be able to, everything changes. I started to think about actually racing people. That might sound a bit silly given that this was predominantly by then a running race but it didn’t matter (most of the walkers and slower runners I’d encountered had stopped at the 50k base camp). I started to think about Claudio, who had passed me at Goring but this time, instead of being on the back foot and thinking about how blistering his pace was, I started to think “OK, if you blow up, I’m going to have you”!
You have to understand how out of character this kind of fighting talk is for me! I’m normally not competitive at all but I think that’s because in other sports I really know my limitations, whether they be physical or technical. Sport Walking is my thing though and, in this, I know my strengths, so perhaps that’s why I suddenly became very competitive, with everyone, not just Claudio. Either that or it was the sugar kicking in!
The last phase
At 72k I saw Aleksandra for the last time before the finish. I stocked up on more juice and food to take me all the way through, I dumped a few things from my vest into the car that I knew I wouldn’t need anymore and made the decision not to take poles for the night section, fearing that they would just slow me down. I’ve seen this kind of pit stop loads of times in YouTube videos about Western States or other races and it really felt great. I wasn’t fatigued, I wasn’t struggling (quite the opposite) and we did a great turn around.
As I headed off, I knew I had this race licked. OK, 82k was the furthest I’d ever walked before but by this point on that challenge I was really quite tired. This time I felt great, despite the obvious aches and pains that you really can’t avoid when you go that long.
I started up the steep climb after the M4 bridge and again kept passing or at least maintaining position alongside runners who were still progressing a little faster than me – running as long as they could and then walking for a bit. What was fascinating to me though was just how easy it was to close back down on them when they walked, as if they were on a bungee cord.
I wasn’t feeling cocky about it though, just interested, as it was confirming what I had suspected and hoped for about the potential of Sport Walking – that by going more steadily at an even pace for the whole distance and attacking the climbs and descents, you can make up time and places on people who are running. Basically, walking can be faster than running at a certain level. OK, not at elite level but for anyone who’s a weekend warrior, Sport Walking could actually deliver them a better result over the 100k distance, possibly even for some people the 50k too.
The further on we went, the shorter that bungee cord was getting and after the 80k point I started to pass practically everyone I encountered on the way, which was a surprisingly large number of runners. In fact I wasn’t overtaken by anyone at all from 80k until the final 100 metres, when one guy dug deep to run across the line. If I’m honest I was a little disappointed to have my ‘no pass in the last 20k’ status broken but good on him for finishing strong!
Finishing strongly was increasingly my mantra during those last 20kms through the dark. Every bit of lamp light I saw in the distance became a target and failure to catch and pass was simply not an option.
The trail was awash with glow sticks, a really fabulous feature and this, combined with the superb course markings and the really supportive crew at every feed station (even though I didn’t really use them much) was really creating this great feeling inside me. The trail was a piece of cake to navigate, everyone else seemed to be getting slower the further we went whereas I felt I was just getting stronger and faster and the ease with which I was passing people had the effect of giving me a little adrenaline shot with every scalp.
On the last section of trail with just over 5k to go the trail just seemed to give up and became a horrible multi lane rut fest. Up until then, even when it had been a bit rough it was OK but this section was a real challenge and you had to focus hard to maintain your speed for fear of twisting an ankle or slipping a foot into a rut and falling.
I could see the finish line though and my energy levels shot up, in fact I had my fastest kilometre of the whole race at kilometre 98. I was flying! The final section in to the finish was psychologically quite tough because you go all the way down to Avebury where there’s a turn around point at the stones before going all the way back, then across a field and finally back down towards Avebury again and the finish line at the farm.
A further indication of just how consumed I’d become with smashing my own goal and burying myself came when I reached the turn around point at the stones. There was a photographer there taking pictures of competitors standing in front of a huge stone and there was a queue of people waiting to have their picture taken.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! I was shouting at them in my mind, saying “People, WTF are you doing? This is a race and you’re standing there queueing to have your photo taken next to a rock? You’re losing minutes, minutes I tell you…” I was pretty animated in my head by this point. Again, I blame the sugar! Of course, it’s their race and their result, so who am I to get upset a this profligate use of time?
I was also getting myself ready for a fight when I first saw them all. I thought, If I’m going to be stopped and told to wait to have my picture taken I’m going to hit someone! Luckily it was an optional service.
As I hit the final 90 degree turn onto the finish straight there was one last guy for me to pass and then it was all over.
I’d managed to get home in 15 hours 57 seconds, not just smashing my goal but even my 6kph calculation time too. I’d finished in the top 50% of the non-stop race and the top 50% of my age group (V50) and that’s out of both runners and walkers.
What was really great about it all though, was that I could clearly see exactly how I’d managed to achieve this. I knew everything that had contributed to it, nothing was a surprise or a mystery. I’d made a plan, carried out tons of research, trained hard but smart, tested different pieces of kit to see what worked for me and then I’d simply executed the plan.
The really interesting thing though, looking back on it all, is how each of those small pieces of planning, the structure of my training, the precise benefits of kit choice actually impacted on my performance, all for the good and that’s what I’m going to go through in the second part of my Race To the Stones report. I’ll list all the key pieces of kit and outline the modifications I made to some of them to make them work better for me. I’ll talk about my nutritional choices and how that all worked in the race and I’ll also talk about the structure of my training plan and what I’d change next time.