Racing to the stones: a run along Englands oldest footpath - Halong Junk Cruises

Racing to the stones: a run along Englands oldest footpath

Before the Summer Solstice
Standing stones: the huge sarsens at Avebury, which is on the Ridgeway footpath. Photograph: Terry Mathews/Alamy

An almighty crack of thunder snaps me awake at four in the morning. It’s so close it feels terrifying, apocalyptic even. Dawn seems to have broken over me like a cold sweat and as I lie listening to the hammering rain, I can hear the voice of Private Frazer from Dad’s Army echoing in my head: “You’re doomed, sonny!” And then someone else’s, it might be my wife’s: “You’re mad. Totally mad!”

It’s not the inspirational pep talk I was hoping for from my psychic apparatus. But, then, they do have a point. In a few hours’ time I will be joining my friends Alan and Tom and 1,350 other deluded souls to run 100km through the heart of the English countryside. I get up and go to the loo, both ankles and one knee aching already… Awesome, guys!

Alan, Tom, the dodgy joints and I are all taking part in the Race to the Stones. It was held for the first time last year, but it already has the feel of a well-organised, classic event. The race has nothing to do with running with the Rolling Stones, as one friend optimistically thought. The stones in question are the monolithic standing sarsens at Avebury in Wiltshire, which form one of Europe’s largest Neolithic monuments. They weigh up to 65 tonnes each and the site is estimated to be at least 4,800 years old. More remarkably still, it is the only stone circle in the world to have both a pub and a chapel at its centre. It’s a truly mystical place. When Tom phoned earlier to book a taxi, the controller had asked if he was a druid – he’s not, he’s a stockbroker.

Three amigos: (from left) Alan Phillips, Tom Hartley and Martin Love at the start of the Carphone Warehouse Race to the Stones 2014.
Three amigos: (from left) Alan Phillips, Tom Hartley and Martin Love at the start of the Carphone Warehouse Race to the Stones 2014.

The stones are a dramatic finish line, but what makes this run so spectacular is that the route follows the Ridgeway – Britain’s oldest long-distance path. Cutting from the Chilterns in Oxfordshire across the Thames to the North Wessex Downs, the trail has existed for 5,000 years, and the sense of following the ancient tread of travellers, herdsmen and soldiers is quite surreal. The eastern end is only an hour from west London and yet it feels surprisingly remote. You’ll soon find yourself surrounded by chalk downlands rolling to the horizon, interrupted here and there by grassy burial mounds, primitive forts and the occasional white horse cut into the escarpment. Even on a hot summer’s day you start to wonder: “Hey, where is everyone?”

One hundred kilometres is a daunting distance, but the event’s organisers, Threshold Sports, have done everything they can to make the race accessible and inclusive. There is nothing elitist about the proceedings. You can run or walk and you can do it over one or two days. After some initial bravado, we opt for the two-day run with overnight camping at the 50km point.

This unusual mixture of runners and walkers, fast and slow, serious and silly, means we are a strange-looking bunch. There are scrawny ultras with their desert caps and ankle gaiters as well as jokey groups of walkers with sticks and cagoules. We seem to be somewhere in the middle. I spot a few guys grabbing a last fag by the baggage tents, then I see two Super Marios and a Roman centurion.

There’s plenty of banter as we register before the start. One fellow competitor earnestly advises me to stick corn plasters over my nipples if I don’t want the front of my vest “looking like a bloody Japanese flag”. Alan is panicking about the fact he’s mistakenly brought his young daughter’s tennis cap and it won’t fit on his head… There’s talk that the temperature will hit 34C.

Runners' high: competitors jog through a field of poppies on the Ridgeway.
Runners’ high: competitors jog through a field of poppies on the Ridgeway.

At 8am a klaxon sounds and, along with cheers, whoops and much back-slapping, we start our long trek to the stones. The first of us will be there in nine hours, the slowest in almost 30.

We follow each other’s footsteps up the gentle slopes of the Chilterns and into the first of two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There’s a gentle rain falling, but that doesn’t seem to have dampened anyone’s spirits. We plod on, eyes fixed on the muddy path, and find ourselves in an Iron Age cutting called Grim’s Ditch – it’s original purpose is unknown, but today it is home to the biggest nettles I’ve ever seen. A scientist named Sarah, over from Boston just to do this run, claims they don’t have nettles in America. Can that really be true?

The trail opens up and skirts a huge wheat field and we then climb on up through miles of unchanged beech woods. The sun makes an appearance at last and then, quite suddenly, we spill from under the green canopy into a massive, undulating field of poppies (apparently, a breathless runner tells us, the poppies are harvested and turned into codeine “in a drug factory in Edinburgh”). Running single-file through the endless drug crop, the hard seed heads butt at our knees and elbows. “Doesn’t half hurt when they get you in the nuts,” groans Alan.

Every 10km or so there is a pop-up pitstop with an upbeat crew serving drinks, crisps, sandwiches and fruit. Despite the heat, I find myself opting for tea and biscuits. Not sure why, but it seems very civilised. We chat with the others and collect tales of how everyone is getting on: someone claims to have seen a porcupine; another has fallen and broken their arm; a murder squad policeman has fainted at the sight of a bloodied blister. No one looks at their watch, no one is fretting about their time, no one is rushing to get to the end…

Keep on running: over the centuries the Ridgeway has been followed by soldiers, traders, herders and now joggers and walkers.
Keep on running: over the centuries the Ridgeway has been followed by soldiers, traders, herders and now joggers and walkers.

At the halfway point the grounds of a local school have been turned into a base camp with neat rows of tents bumping up across the playing fields like the handiwork of some massive mole with OCD. There is a chill-out zone, a bar, a canteen and a steel band. Volunteers walk around with trays piled high with Bakewell tarts. We even have a free massage from a group of friendly sports therapy students down from Birmingham.

“That was the best 20 minutes of my life,” says Alan as he clambers off the bench. The second-year student looks slightly alarmed.

We shower in the mobile “posh wash” unit, sit on beach chairs, drink lager and clap in the stragglers. People limp about on blistered heels with sunburnt faces and washed hair. It’s like a summer festival organised in a casualty ward.

Towards 10pm the rain returns and we take to our tents, the sound of snoring mingling with the distant thunder. Up on the ridge the hardy souls doing the 100km in a single shot are having a tough time – a hailstorm pelts them with marble-sized ice balls, and one of the pitstops is blown over.

At 5am we drag ourselves back to our feet and head back out on to the trail. Having crossed the Thames we are now on the North Wessex Downs. It’s stunning. The sun is high and the silent, empty trail is lined with foxgloves, thistles and cow parsley. Some see deer and hares. We almost step on a dead badger.

By now, deep into the second day, we are all so spread out that Tom, Alan and I find ourselves alone on the ridge. High above we spot red kites circling. “Maybe they’re vultures,” I joke as we stagger on under the burning sun – at one point it does reach 34C. On and on and… to be honest we’ve had enough – 75km comes and goes, 80, 85… past the tomb at Wayland’s Smithy, above the White Horse at Uffington, round Barbury Castle, 90, 95… and then finally, 99, and at last the finish and the magical stones of Avebury.

In the great flush of euphoria, I lay my hands on one of the sarsens and feel a strange pagan connection running back through the millennia…or maybe it’s just exhaustion. It’s been an amazing event, but the star has been this incredible footpath.

For more information on the Race to the Stones and to register an interest in the 2015 event, go to racetothestones.com. For more on Britain’s long-distance footpaths, go to nationaltrail.co.uk

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