Race to the Tower 2022 Race Report

Cotswolds, hills, more hills and a DNF...

Race to the Tower 2022 Race Report
Regardless of the end result, the Cotswold Way can be utterly breath-taking.

This was the big one. The one that scared me.
52 miles over 2,200 meters elevation gain across the Cotswolds.

Beautiful and brutal, the furthest distance I'd have completed, with the previous being 46 miles over much flatter ground.

It was the main focus of the year and all my training was geared towards completing it.

It was going so well too.... where did it all go wrong? 🙈

Training & Goal

Strava Training Log for the last 5 weeks prior to the event

As discussed in the VOGUM report training had been a mixed bag of injuries (wouldn't wish broken ribs on anyone!) but all came together well in the last few weeks. VOGUM had given me a big confidence boost after what felt like 40 miles done at a solid clip without any real issues, whilst I was recovering quickly from long runs and the niggles that plagued April/May were all gone.

Only minor complaint is that I, as per usual, didn't taper enough before the big day, opting instead to do a few too many runs and hikes, even if I was sensible about the distance.

Goal was to complete, that's it. Sub 12 hours would be nice (and mean my partner wasn't having to hang around the finish line for hours!) but not essential at all.

Gear & Nutrition

Flat lay of my gear the day before, it was a LOT but most of it went into the drop bag to be fair

Why change what's working, my running pack, nutrition, shoes and clothes were all tried and tested by this point, was very happy with them.

2 new things for this run; 1 a lightweight packable waterproof coat that took up less room that my bulky Patagonia one, and a nicer collapsible cup for the aid stations.

Was still unsure as to whether I should have trained with and brought poles with me. The elevation sure called for it however I've never used them and it felt too late to start now.

Nutrition wise it was more Kendal Mint Cake, some Soreen bars & Tailwind in the bottles.

Conditions on the Day

Shiny happy smiles in the morning sun. Also alpacas.

Forecast really couldn't have been better. Sunny but on the cooler side, a bit of rain but spotty at best and lots of cloud cover.

It had rained a little the week before so the trails weren't bone dry, yet hadn't been stormy so they weren't muddy either.

Lining Up

Start line just above Whiteshill next to Haresfield Beacon

My parents live in Stroud (only a couple of miles from the start) so a good solid nights sleep was had before they gave me a lift up the road to Whiteshill.

As with most races we went out in waves. I had given a pretty conservative finish time and ended setting off in the last wave.

A note here on Threshold: they are absolutely fantastic event organisers, alongside Pegasus they are brilliant for taking care of their runners. There was water, bananas, snacks, hydro tablets and more, on the start line. I hadn't needed to bring any nutrition with me at all! Parking and line up was clearly communicated as well, just fantastic all round.

A quick briefing, a mini stretch, then we were off into the hills of the Cotswolds for roughly 12 hours of jogging!

Stage 1: Whiteshill to Buckholt Wood

Literally 2 minutes after the countdown it started raining, all of us scrambling to get jackets out our bags and onto our backs as it looked to be a heavy one.

No sooner had I got my jacket on, the rain slowed and stopped, bringing with it sunshine 🤦‍♂️.

Focused on keeping my heart rate low and the pace slow. Watch was configured to only show my heart rate zone, I wanted to keep it between 2.0 and 3.5 (easy to low aerobic) as much as possible.  All other stats were hidden (I have a habit of clock watching, if I can see remaining distance I usually break down into a blubbering mess!).

Felt strong and positive out the gate, passing a fair few folks as I went. The event attracts lots of people, including many walkers. That meant for the first 2 checkpoints there was quite a lot of congestion on the narrower trails, not helped by being in the last wave.

It soon cleared up though, and the forced slower pace in areas is always a good thing in the long run (stops me going out too fast too soon!)

First aid station was glorious, so much choice of food, fresh fruits, crisps, drinks, and each station had loos too!  This theme continued at every aid station, great stuff.

Stage 2: Buckholt Wood to Birdlip

Ran past good old Coopers' Hill (famous for Cheese Rolling), thankfully around it and not down it.

After here was a gradual climb up to Birdlip, lots of walking the hills here however it was steadier than I remember and we were soon into the second aid station at Birdlip.

Spots of rain on this section, however it always finished before I managed to wrangle my coat on. Ended up just keeping the coat close to hand but never really needing it.

Stage 3: Birdlip to Crickley Hill

After Birdlip was a long downhill before by far the longest uphill climb of the course. Very long, yet gradual. Used it as a chance to eat and rest a little.

Nice views from the top (and a good excuse for a selfie).

Next aid station, feeling positive and going strong. Saw a lady smother a banana in nutella and had to try it. Immediate fan, will have to remember that for future races.

Stage 4: Crickley Hill to Basecamp Mid Point

This last stage was the longest gap between aid stations, leading to the mid point, marathon distance, where some of the folks would be finishing the day to camp over and do the remaining distance on Sunday. By the time I got there that sure felt like a sound plan!

Getting ahead of myself though. Was starting to tire here and really felt that 9 mile gap between aid stations. The heat of the day was increasing and the terrain became unrelenting in places. Notably once reaching Dowdeswell Reservoir there is one huge very steep climb to the base camp that just...kept...on...going.

Was eating well and still drinking plenty, however could feel my stomach starting to shrink up a bit.

The basecamp had a big tent with hot food & drinks. Here's where I think I made my first big mistake. I should have sat down with some drink, let my stomach settle and body rest a bit, then go and eat a solid bit of real food before setting off.

Instead I tried to eat some food immediately and really struggled, only getting down a handful of pasta and some sweets.  I'd made the right call sitting down, but assuming I could keep going fuelled by Kendal Mint Cake and Tailwind alone was a bad shout.

Stage 5: Basecamp to Postlip Warren

Despite that, I did come out of base camp feeling good for a break and still jogging well.  Next up was Cleeve Hill. My last visit here was marred in heavy rain, winds and a generally miserable training run, so it was nice to see it in sunshine.

The farm checkpoint came round quickly. I was starting to feel very hot though. Didn't eat well here, just lots of fluids.

Next mistake I think was here. I recognised that Tailwind wasn't really working for me anymore, so switched my bottles to 1x water, and 1x "flat" coke (wasn't that flat). Coke is like rocket fuel, all that sugar in one hit, but it's also hellish on your stomach, especially if, like I did next, you drink it on the move.

Stage 6: Postlip Warren to Hayles

Left the aid station eating Kendal Mint Cake, from memory I think this was the last piece of food I ate properly.

Next up was a tough woodland climb that sapped more energy out of me. Still jogging as we went through Winchcombe though.

I passed a fella who was having to walk down the hills backwards due to his feet being shot. He was in great spirits though, pumping out some music and laughing away. Next mistake I think was that I'd passed a few friendly folks who I'm sure would've been happier for the company. Should've teamed up.

As we went over the hill to Hayles I was jeffing more and keen to get to the next checkpoint. Seeing it approach I downed my coke and came over the line into Checkpoint 6.

Here, I was still feeling good. Exhausted sure, but an expected level, at this point it all felt in the bag.  Was even starting to get emotional imagining the finish line, that glory of completing only a few hills away.

I grabbed some pineapple, took 1 bite and immediately ducked off into a bush to throw up something fierce.

Not sure why the pineapple triggered it, I think it may be a mix of downing a fizzy drink (silly) then eating something acidic (silly) without sitting down to rest at all first (silly).

This was the big turning point, I could feel energy disappear out of me as my morale following suit.

On advice from a marshal (thank you marshal) I saw the medic team. They were happy I continued but gave me dehydration signs to watch out for.

Stage 7: Hayles to DNF at Stanton

Drank some squash and tea at the aid station, but didn't eat anything really. I did try to eat some crisps, think I managed two before they noisily got scrunched into my pack.

Continued jogging for a bit, even passed some folks on a downhill, but neither food or water was going down easily.

Had an especially funny moment trying to eat some Soreen, an internal argument with my body that didn't end well:

  • Me: I'm going to eat something solid
  • Body: Don't you dare bite that Soreen
  • Me: Dude you gotta eat, I feel empty and there's 11 miles left
  • Body: I swear to god you'll regret it
  • Me: I'm doing it, you've just got to deal with it
  • Body: I warned you
  • Me: Chewing the tiniest sliver of Soreen Get ready
  • Body: Don't even...
  • Me: Attempts to swallow the smallest bit of Soreen you've ever seen
  • Body: Warned you
  • Me: Gags uncontrollably, spits out Soreen, spends the next mile spitting bits of it out of my teeth cause I can't swallow it

Hit a real dark spot at Stanway, energy fully gone and unable to eat anything. I resigned to walking here but importantly I was still determined to walk it in. There was about 10 miles left at this point.

Was passed by the folks I saw earlier, they were blaring out My Chemical Romance on a phone speaker. This is how dark my mood was at this point, I freaking LOVE MCR and would have done anything to keep up to have that boost over the line, but I couldn't bring myself to do it, just saw them jog off over the hill.

Reached Stanton still walking, slowly. My knowledge of the course worked against me here. Out of Stanton is a long arduous climb with no road access. I was feeling nauseous and dizzy here, and got it in my head that it was dangerous to go onto the next section as, if I collapsed, I was far from help.

In hindsight it was such a silly, dark thought, but I felt absolutely no hope here. Crashed onto a verge on the edge of the village and decided then and there that I had to listen to my body and DNF.

After some kind fellow runners asked if I was ok, I ended up moving off the course towards the village pub. Couldn't take folks checking if I was ok when I knew I was pulling out. Rang the event team to let them know, then my folks to get a lift. Hauled myself into the pub to slowly nurse a pint of coke and a cup of tea.

Here's the rub, the absolute worst thing

My body, specifically my mind, when it was telling me to quit at that point as I couldn't go on?  IT WAS LYING TO ME. After letting my stomach settle, resting and having a drink, I started to feel better. I felt a bit of energy return, I could have continued.

Had I just realised I could have stopped, rested and forced myself to take on some more energy, rather than immediately thinking "well that's over then" and giving in to the feeling, I could have finished. All it would've taken was the mental fortitude to say "no, I can still do this, I just need a break to recharge".

But the DNF was called in, I'd gone off course, and so I found myself in my folks car, driving to the finish line to pick up my drop bag, and walk away otherwise empty handed. It was a short bloody drive too.

After Action Report

I felt better over the next few days, especially with the overwhelming and thoroughly undeserved support I received from the Running Punks on reporting the DNF. I realised I'd still covered 44 miles over a huge amount of elevation (the equivalent to hiking up Snowdon from sea level ... twice)

However the hindsight, knowing that I had a battle with my mind and lost, is still tearing at me.


Nothing major to report, main one is my big toe, which was already a bit bashed from VOGUM, is now looking worse for wear. Nail is still on, I have no idea how. No pain, just funky lookin'

Other then that there's a large pressure mark along my lower back from where my pack sat, a new point to lube for next time.

Was running again 2 days later, gradually built back to usual volume by the weekend after.

What Worked

  • Until roughly 30 miles I'd say the nutrition was going pretty smoothly
  • Making heart rate zone my big focus, ignoring pace, time, distance, just focusing on keeping it slow and steady
  • Spending a bit longer at aid stations, making sure my water was always topped up and I had plenty of snacks to continue with

What Didn't

  • Not sitting down, stopping to eat at aid stations, I'm still too focused on getting out of the station quickly
  • Related to this, respecting the digestive process more. Had I sat down, ate something more substantial, then walked calmly out the station to help the food digest, I would have had much more energy for the later stages
  • Sugary, carby foods are all well and good up to marathon distance, but after that you're body actively starts rejecting them. Need real food, varied food, I'm talking sandwiches, crisps, pasta. Too focused on sweet, I also need salty and bland food

Big Lessons

There's a commonly held theory that your mind has this sub-conscious process called the "central governor" who's job is to stop you doing harm to yourself, or exhausting yourself so much you can't escape danger if it was to come your way.

It's said that this is the voice in your head, that gets stronger and stronger, telling you to start walking, then stop altogether, as you push your body further towards it's limits.

The first and biggest lesson for me is that I need to recognise that voice, and know that I can push past it, I can ignore it and keep going. Because ultimately I wasn't that done in really, I could've kept going.

Next up I need to improve my eating in the late game. Be more knowledgeable and respectful of my body's digestive process and be sure to supply my body with all it needs, in a way it can absorb it. Currently my running "lunch box" is all sweets, it needs to have sandwiches, crisps, fruit, all the stuff you'd actually put in a lunch box.

Finally, recognising that having to stop isn't the end, I was so quick to call the DNF when I felt I couldn't go on. What would the harm have been if I sat down, spend 20 mins letting my body settle, waiting till I could eat? It's so strange that I didn't feel like I had that option at the time.

The End?

Ultimately I'm going away from this with an understanding that I have many lessons to learn for next time, but, importantly, there will be a next time.

I've signed up to do the EDDUM in August. It's 50 miles. It's over 2,200 meters elevation gain. Bring it on.

Courtesy of James Bradbury