It was finally time, today, to take a closer look at the Race to the Stones course. The aim is to complete it all before the race, for no other reason than because the first time I did any night running I missed the easiest of turns and ended up completely lost. So it was off to the Ridgeway for 10 miles to get things started. That’s Didcot Power Station in the background – or what’s left after they downed most of the iconic cooling towers that used to be what those of us who came to Oxford at the start of each term had in the late 20th century instead of dreaming spires.
It’s the first time I’ve properly experienced trail running. Yes, it really is all that new. I’ve done similar distances of walk/running on roads, and I’ve figured out the “different shoes for different surfaces” thing, noting with interest that when I tried my trail running shoes on the local pavements the bottoms of my feet hurt like hell and I was better off running on verges. But it was still something I’d been vaguely trembling about. I knew that 10 miles on hilly mud would take way more out of me than the same distance on Oxford’s rather gently rolling pavements. I knew that times on the trails could feel like armies of mocking demons eternally laughing at the folly of road runners who in their hubris imagine their speeds translating to the softer surface. But I had no idea what agonies awaited ankles and thighs and damp, dilapidated toes.
It’s too early, of course, to be asking questions about what time I’d like to take for the 100 kilometres of the Race to the Stones. I have, after all, been running for 2 months. Any benchmarks I throw down now will need reevaluating on an almost weekly basis. It might, just might, be the case that the things that feel like other people’s possibilities right now, things like, say, finishing, inch their way to the centre of the radar as months go by. It’s all completely in the air, but of course you wonder. There are various targets that go through your mind. 24 hours is the obvious one. Is that possible? By then sleep deprivation will be taking its toll. So maybe it’s actually easier to do it quicker – maybe by sunrise, which would be about 20 hours? Or what about 18 hours? Maybe, just maybe, 4 miles an hour is possible. That’s 15 and a half hours. I can walk/run 10 miles on the roads at 4 miles an hour without wrecking myself – and in the race itself I most certainly do intend to wreck myself.
I got some answers today. The Ridgeway isn’t all beautifully-drained chalk tracks for one. The few miles west of West Ilsley, for a start, are churned and rutted mud slicks that afford griplessness turned up to 11, and a little extra weight training courtesy of the pounds of mud that clump themselves around your shoes. Every step had to pick its path amidst the mud to find anything resembling a foothold. Running was reserved for the tiniest slivers of track that still had some semblance of grass cover, and the occasional shady patch still icy from the frost. The trail wasn’t harder than the road. It was measured on a different scale.
Nearly 10 miles passed. Hilly but not exactly climbing. Muddy so that every stride nearly sucked the shoes from your feet. Almost entirely walked, but at a steady 4 miles an hour. And by the time it was done my muscles felt like they’d done something they’d not done before. A good thing. Something they could learn from without carrying too many scars. The Ridgeway certainly isn’t anything to fear in itself. That’s the comforting lesson. At night. After 12 hours plus on the run already? That’s very much an unknown. But a reasonable pace is possible, and with seven months still to go, finishing certainly doesn’t feel out of the question.