(Race To The) Race To The Stones

Fair warning: this is a long story.

I woke up Friday morning after a sound night sleep in the old tent. I’d been up to the main road the night before to have a look round and found one of those premier inn/pub hybrid type places that open for breakfast at 7am. I got my shit packed up and headed over to make a sign. I’m about to do some hitchhiking.

I’ve hitchhiked before but never further than about 30 miles. I figured that in order to make it to the start line of Race To The Stones (the 100km ultra marathon I was heading south to take part in), I’d have to give myself the whole day in order to get picked up, wait around at various roadsides, allow for complications etc. So I knocked a quick sign up on a flat packed cardboard box, had a quick look at my map to get my bearings and set off east along the A65, anticipating an erratic and interminable day ahead.

I walked a good 4 miles before I found a decent enough spot to get my sign out. There are definitely hitchhiking rules you should adhere to if you’ve any chance of getting picked up. One of them is to ensure you’re on a long stretch of straight road with an area close to you that drivers can pull into. Drivers experience a very specific thought process when contemplating picking up a hitchhiker, I can see it in the way certain people drive. The intention of the long straight road is to allow said driver enough time to complete said thought process by the time they reach you. In this case it took my first ride, Nathan, that little bit longer, as he’d passed me on my side of the road and then double backed to pick me up. I’d only been standing there about 5 minutes, “this is gonna be a piece of piss”, I remember thinking to myself as I excitedly stuffed my pack on Nathan’s back seat and then jumped in the front with him.

I rode with Nathan for about 25 minutes, in which time he told me about his life as an army mechanic, and about the time a friend of his was dragged out of his tent by a hyena while they were on manoeuvres in Kenya. He dropped me at Tickle Trout services on the M6 and sped off and out of my life forever (as is tradition with people you meet on the road). I positioned myself in a half decent spot by the exit to the services and pulled my sign back out. I was there for a good 45 minutes before I got picked up by Peter, a 60 year old mental health worker and recovering heroin addict, who was on his way home after an uneventful fishing trip.

Peter reminded me of all the reasons why hitch hiking can be so good for the soul. When you connect with someone so much by complete chance, it makes you think about how many great people there are out there. Peter and I obviously had a lot to discuss about mental health, but he was just a good laugh as well – that counts for a lot, and breaks the awkward hitcher-driver ice nicely. His recovery story and how he’s used it to give his life such positive direction really touched me and I really do wish him all the best. He dropped me at the next services, I really felt like I’d found my rhythm by this point and that it wouldn’t be long before I’d be cruising along the M40 on my way to the start line.

My luck continued as within 15 minutes of standing like a prat (which you have to accept is what you are, and get over it within the first 30 seconds) at the services exit, a little car pulled up alongside me.

“Where you heading, duck?” the bright-pink haired driver called out to me, before realising she couldn’t actually stop there and pulled into the car park. I jogged over as Phoebe and her dad, Simon, got out the car and introduced themselves. They were heading to Stoke and were happy to take me that far down the M6, which was a result as it would mean I’d made it about half way by late afternoon. We went into the services for a coffee, and as I sat chatting with Phoebe and Simon I was struck by how similar their relationship was to mine and my mums. Lots of chatting, lots of laughter and just more of a ‘good friends’ vibe than a father/daughter one. I liked them both immediately. We finished our coffee and bundled into the car, where I wish I could have stayed a bit longer to be honest – it had been the funnest ride of the day, no question. They dropped me at the next services and, again, it wasn’t too long before I got offered another lift. Only this one turned out to be memorable for a different reason.

I can’t remember the blokes name now but I got a weird vibe off him as soon as he pulled over. Another big hitchhiking rule is to trust your gut – if you’re not sure about the person offering you a lift, don’t take it. You’re not obliged to take it. I decided to break this rule because the day was getting on and I obviously wasn’t sure when the next opportunity would come along, and as I closed the door behind me after jumping in the back seat, I got the feeling I’d made a mistake. The guy was manic. I mean so fucking wired and wild-eyed that for a second I thought he’d picked me up just so he could start a fight. Luckily this wasn’t the case, he was just a very intense bloke: talking indecipherable shit and not listening to a single word I was saying. When we got to the roundabout to get onto the M40, which is where I told him I was headed, he shot me the most terrifying look in his rear view mirror and instead turned off at the exit headed towards Derby. I got really panicky and just said “mate, drop me on the hard shoulder just here”. He looked at me as I put my hand on the door handle, looked him in the eye and said very firmly “let me out”. He pulled over and I leapt out, barely able to whisk my pack out and shut the door before he sped off. I don’t really know what happened, or what was about to happen, or if it was just a combination of him just being a bit weird and me being a bit jumpy, but the whole thing really shit me up, and I was now on the hard shoulder of the M6 with no barrier between me and the hundred of cars bombing past me. I desperately held my sign up, forcing the look of panic I already knew was all over my face onto the windscreens of passing vehicles, praying that one of them would rescue me before they ploughed into me. Luckily, I was spotted by a young lad called Tim, who was able to drop me at the services just up the road. I don’t remember what we spoke about but I’m so grateful to Tim for taking the chance to save a stranger from potential hitchhiker road death.

After just 10 minutes waiting at the services exit I got picked up by Richard, an engineer who took me as far as the next services just off the M5. It was gone 8pm at this point but all I needed was to get a lift onto the M40 from someone heading to London and I’d be sorted. But it didn’t happen. After waiting 2 and a half hours at the exit I admitted defeat and pitched my tent on a patch of grass at the services. Not my finest hour, and not a great sleep either.

I woke the next morning feeling more like a semi-organised tramp than ‘Jake Tyler – adventurer-hiker’, and headed to the roundabout exit that lead onto the M40. After about 15 minutes I got picked up, and after 17 minutes I was out of the car because the guy was completely off his tits. Back on the hard shoulder of the motorway, I noticed cars beebing at me – the sign over the road had lit up and asked that drivers reduce their speed to 50 as there were ‘pedestrians on the motorway’. I felt sick. I bunked over the barrier and up the bank before noticing a field right next to the motorway. I threw my pack over to squash the very sharp, prickly bush on the other side and hopped over. I got my map out and decided that I didn’t want to be anywhere near a motorway again as long as I live, and plotted a new route along a few B-roads. The next few hours were miserable and embarrassing, as I held my sign up to the one car every 30 seconds that passed me. I could tell it was an affluent area as well – this was going to be a long wait. And I saw a dead dog.

Nearly 4 hours later (yep, 4 hours), I got picked up Val and Pat, a lovely couple who dropped me on the M40 south exit at a roundabout near Longbridge. There I stood for a further 3.5 hours, smiling at drivers as they approached me and shouting abuse at them when they drove past. I was experiencing the worst afternoon of my life and there was no way out other than to just keep trying, keep going until someone stops. In the end they did, and it was lovely Kyle who eventually took pity on me. He drove me to the next services where I made straight for the exit and was picked up within 5 minutes by a bloke heading to London. Get in!

He dumped me at the exit I required and I trudged the final two miles along a B-road, all the way to Field Farm – the start point of Race To The Stones. It was 9 in the evening, the race had began 13 hours ago and everything had been taken down, but I thought I’d been through so much already, I had to race. A very lovely official by the name of Mick pointed out where the start would have been and agreed to look after my pack after hearing about the nightmare two days I’d just had. And as the sun set over Shirburn and the sky turned pink, my distress turned to excitement and I started to run. I would lose light in an hour, so I followed the Ridgeway about 10km to a golf clubhouse and set my alarm for 4am. I tried in vain to get a bit of sleep on a golf buggy before then, and when my phone went off at 4 I set off.

I can’t go into exactly what I went through mentally and physically between then and the time I crossed the finish line without writing the same amount of guff again, so I’ll try and sum it up quickly. I ran the entire race alone, without markers, pit stops and without suggestion that any sort of official race had occurred until I caught up with the markers at the back of the pack at 90km. I was amazed that my body could handle the stress I was putting it through, and found myself galvanising inwardly by repeating the words ‘just keep going’ over and over to myself for hours, and hours, and hours. I eventually completed the 100km course in 16 hours and enjoyed the one part of the course that hadn’t been dismantled and packed away, the finish line. As I approached it there was a small crowd who had heard about how I’d got there, and as I received my medal I allowed myself to feel proud of my staying power and I had a nice cold pint.

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