After the huge success of the Druid Challenge last November I was really looking forward to the Pilgrims Challenge. The organisers XNRG popped up on the race organising scene a little while ago and have immediately won plaudits for great organisation and value for money. I think that it's great to have such a variety of things to chose from nowadays (I wish I could have also run the Thames Trot 50 miler but that was on the same day) and that there are guys out there willing to put themselves on the line to stage such events.
The format was simple. We start in Farnam and run 33 miles along the North Downs way until we get to Mertsam. Then on the second day we run back. 66 miles of hilly mud over 2 days, seems like a very British thing to do.
I was pleased with how many Serpies turned out for this and are doing so in greater numbers for all events like this. We are starting to take over these things.
The start was from a farm just outside Farnham. There were 3 waves, walkers, runners and super super fast runners. I started with the latter only because I wanted an extra hour in bed.
The first few meters involved a section where we were up to our knees in water and mud. There was no real way of avoiding it so right from the start we had soaking wet feet. At least it wasn't as cold as the Country to Capital.
I ran with a group of about 6 who were sort of "middle pack" of the fast runners. I felt good and the trails were great to run on. There was quite a bit of mud in places but most of it was the glorious trail that I love to run on in the UK. The first 20 miles or so were fairly easy, with a few hills bit nothing of note. There were a lot of downhill sections that we knew we'd have to come back up the next day.
The great thing about staggered starts (aside from the extra sleep you get if you can go faster) is that you are always catching up with people along the way. Events such as this were designed and used for those who are training for the Marathon Des Sables later this year. I think it's great that all the Brits train for the MDS by running miles and miles in the mud in the cold. It works though, better than all the gimmicky things you can do like heat chamber training. What most people struggle with at the MDS is the distance, running this kind of thing certainly helps with that.
I had managed to avoid any schoolboy errors in races so far this year and was pleased with the effects of losing a little weight (around 4kg in Jan) as I felt the hills easier than 3 weeks ago. I did however forget to cut my toenails and only remember when I kicked a tree root and the nail went right in my foot. Fortunately most of the proper running had been done in the first 20 miles, then came the bastard hills.
I was surprised to see the Picnic steps in this race (I don't know why). I have run up and down these 8 times before in 2 races but somehow they feel harder each time. What follows are more hills and then a really long hill which I recognise but can't for the life of me remember from what. I started to struggle breathing up some of them and have only recently started to use my inhaler on hilly runs. It does help to expand my lungs when working hard but I always use it too late. The sun came out and I still was enjoying the run but was finding it hard work. After what seemed like endless uphills I arrived alone at the last checkpoint (having lost Claire and the group at the steps) and was told that it was all down hill from there and only about 4 miles.
The 4 miles went quite quickly via a conversation with a chap as to whether I was still on the North Downs way or not. I never really got lost but I did spend a lot of time stood still and scratching my head trying to decide which way was best. We were told as a rule of thumb to always go straight on and keep the hills on our left. Not so easy to decide when you are up them.
The finish was at an all Boys School in Mertsam. I was glad I didn't have to ask for directions to a boys school while looking quite worse for wear, the markings were very good. On finishing I met up with those who had finished before me (Oli, Claire I, Claire S, Allan) and had some coffee while I waited for the rest to come in. There is a nice warm atmosphere in between runs at these kind of events. Everyone makes their way into the sports hall and does their own thing. Many just sit down and drink tea, others head straight for the showers. Some take advantage of the massage services which I always try to do but didn't this time, some start contorting themselves into odd shapes to iron out all the damage from the day. Most of us were just keen to get into the pub, I was anyway. We faffed around a bit and headed over back through the streets we finished in and to a nice pub called "The Feathers". A few pints of Guinness are as good as any recovery drink.
The experience of sleeping in a sports hall is relative. If you are used to nice hotels and B&B's before and after each race then you are probably going to find it hard. If however you are a veteran of multi-day races then a flat surface indoors compares favourably to a tent or bivouac where you are sometimes freezing and sometimes roasting in your sleeping bag. Ear plugs are a must in these situations. There are people who snore like tractors and people will always get up all night to go to the toilet, and stomp like elephants as they do so. I was a bit worried about Claire Shelley, she had had 2 pints of coke and was bouncing off the walls. I zipped my sleeping bag up to my neck...
I slept quite well and was reminded in the morning that I snored (I am certain I don't). There were 3 starts again, the latest at 9 for those in the top 25 from yesterday of which I, Claire I, Claire S and Oli were part of. We ate breakfast as provided by the organisers and then messed around for a couple of hours while everyone else had started running. I demonstrated how bad I am at basketball while everyone had left the hall and then started to get ready. My toe was still hurting a lot and it was a struggle to put my shoes on. Everyone else was doing their own preparation. Oli was putting on his womens clothing and eating flapjack, Claire I was filing her nails and Claire S was putting on face cream. Apparently a girl has to look her best when wading through the mud. I couldn't imagine either of them pulling along the way, not at the bloody speed they go at anyway.
At the start only about 12 of the 25 were there, most had snuck into an earlier start. We all marched off and my legs felt quite good, it was just my feet that were hurting and I was not really looking forward to a day of running flat footed.
The first 15 miles or so I ran with Claire S and Allan, the latter being a veteran of this kind of thing but the former making her first attempt at it. I have been amazed in the last couple of months how so many people have just dived right into the ultra scene. When I started 3 years ago I hesitantly stepped in and did one in January and then not another one till June. Now the approach seems to be "I'll do my first this week and then another next week, or better still - tomorrow". I have been really impressed with how at least half a dozen people I know have done this and it makes me feel a bit soft for being a bit cautious in my early days. Luckily I have outgrown such cautionary behaviour and these people have helped inspired me to think that doing Badwater, UTMB and Spartathlon within 10 weeks of each other could (and should) be done.
Claire was bouncing like Tigger for the entire 33 miles, looking really happy but saying she was tired. She did not look it at all. The other Claire was long gone. It was slightly less muddy than the previous day, the long downhills didn't really seem as long as they were up hill. I managed not to fall over though. The checkpoints were in different places and were more welcome than yesterday, I really gorged on them, eating the sausages, sausage rolls and lumps of cheese.
As I was running slower there was more time to chat to Claire and others in the race. There was a guy who from behind looked like Cyril and we yelled at him only to realise that it was not him but someone else training for the MDS. We chatted to him anyway and continued to call him Cyril.
The second half of the day felt quite hard as I just felt quite tired. Walking became too easy and it was Claire who was pulling me along, bouncing off into the distance. We got lost about 8 miles from the end and ran uphill into a village and then back down again and saw an obvious sign for the NDW that we missed. It didn't feel like too long till we were back running through the sludge next to the golf course that we started near. I don't normally look forward to sludge but it was quite welcome as it signalled the end. By the time I finished everyone I knew was already there drinking tea. There were great performances all round, Oli winning by miles, Claire I winning for the girls and Claire S coming second. Serpies are starting to take over this kind of thing in the results too. I am very pleased to see it, anything to prevent them obsessing about boring road races.
It proved to be another great success for Neil and the guys at XNRG. Everyone had a great run, Cyril put yet more miles into his legs for the MDS as looks a different man from the one I met 3 months earlier on the Druid Challenge. Jo Proudlove and Toby Melville had great performances (Toby running 54020 steps on Saturday and only 54010 on Sunday, maybe that was one less piss?). Dan De Belder also finished both days in good shape.
I was looking forward to the pub afterwards but the offer of a lift home from Dan Ashfar (who was 2nd I think) was too good to turn down. I was looking forward to getting off my feet and eating a lot of meat.