If you’ve read my blogs before this may come as a bit of a shock to you, as it doesn’t feature anywhere near the normal amount of self-pitying whining and excuses for a poor performance. That’s not to say I was out there breaking records, but I’m actually quite happy with how my weekend went for a change.
Extreme Energy’s Pilgrim Challenge is a 2 day event, which takes you the 33 miles along the North Downs Way from outside Farnham to Merstham for an overnight stop and back the following day. This is my third experience of an XNRG race having completed the Pony Express 2015 & marshalled Round the Island 2015 & I’m a big fan of their events. They are welcoming with a close-knit community feel with many regular faces among the competitors and support staff.
I took my motorbike, which I soon discovered wasn’t the finest choice. I struggled to get everything I needed for the weekend squeezed into the panniers & then got lost on the way to the start. I finally parked up at about 25 minutes before I was due to begin & had to get changed, stash my kit on the bike & repack my overnight bag before signing on, so I finally pushed my way through to sign on with barely 2 minutes before the race briefing started – not leaving a lot of time to say hello to Paul (@thomo74) or Sarah (@sarahcrunning) who were waiting at the front of the marquee.I got my number pinned to shorts & got to the start line in time. Just. Panic over.
The race starts by running across a field before crossing a road and heading onto the North Downs Way on a well-defined trail through a few stiles & over a couple roads. I ran along with Paul to start & we lost Sarah almost immediately, I then in turn lost Paul at a bottleneck only for him to rejoin me a few minutes later after he stopped for a call of nature. We ran together for a few miles on the varied trails that came to characterise the whole route, from blacktop, sand, hard packed trail & mud… lots of mud. We passed through Puttenham together before I lost touch with Paul and Sarah caught up with me again just before we blindly followed a runner the wrong way. We didn’t go far off track as the direction we took went nowhere but took longer to find our way back than anything. We finally arrived at CP1 where I wolfed down my standard XNRG fayre of pretzels at a standstill & handful of Haribo for on the go and went. Sarah had departed just ahead of me but soon pulled away into the distance.
It wasn’t long before making our way to the first proper ascent of the day up to St Martha’s Church – despatched with aplomb & the fast descent on the sandy trail leading to the open & cambered hillside and onto my least favourite stretch of the route, a 6 mile grind on pretty flat trail through woodland. Hills are hard but at least they break up the monotony of just running. Breaking free of the woods onto the hillside & past the WW2 Pill Boxes at least provided something of interest. I was starting to flag a little on arrival to the 2nd CP and a much needed fuel splash & dash. A long downhill section follows, (I didn’t realise how much, not until I was heading back up it on Day 2 anyway) Sarah jumped out of the foliage as I passed & we made the remainder of the descent together before she pulled away from me again on the soul sapping loop around the subway before heading to Box Hill. It was on the small detour that my head had a wobble for a while & my focus moved from enjoying it to the pain and suffering – not good timing as I was just about to complete one of the toughest ascents of the weekend! Heading into the car park I made my 2nd navigational error of the day & took the low track by mistake. Pulling up in front of the stepping stones a kindly passer by pointed out the rest of the lunatics were crossing the bridge higher up. So up I went, rejoining with a large procession that I had overtaken along the flat boring stretch… not what my head needed. And then we hit the 268 steps. Oh those 268 steps. If you read my Hardmoors 30 post you’ll know my thoughts on steps & climbing Box Hill brought on twitch inducing flash backs, but once up it was a great section of trail winding on single track through woods & out onto the hillside for parts. The undulating trail this late in the day soon became hard going and I was grateful to take the descent and turn to CP3.
Heading out after messing about trying to top up my soft flasks & emptying half of it back down my side the route went into the muddiest stage, with some sections really tough to get through with slow and heavy legs and when I finally got through the worst of the mud it takes a turn up the steep incline of Colley Hill, which became a death march to the top. Once there it opens out and the strong gusts of cold wind along the top to Reigate Hill was hard going and I was moving slower and slower as I took steps so was relieved to arrive at CP4, the final stop of the day. The noted MdS coach, Rory Coleman, was there when I arrived and having guzzled a cup of coke & gagged down a handful of Haribo I tailed him out but I failed to keep up with him for long and sadly he pulled away.
A lot of the last few miles are downhill before entering Merstham where I followed a couple who obviously knew where they were going into the school, the finish for Day 1 and our overnight stop.
There was no hot water in the showers due to a boiler fault, so I teabagged the sink before getting a shower and a much needed massage (thanks for the £10 Sarah). After a decent meal of chilli con carne we all went to the hall for one of the highlights of XNRG events, the speakers. This weekend was no exception with last year’s female MdS winner Elizabet Barnes giving us her story which was incredibly inspirational. Sadly we were all too tired to listen to Nathan’s story about winning the Kalahari Desert Ultra, something I hope to be regaled about on a later event.
I had been incredibly nervous about day 2 prior to the event because on Pony Express I had a brilliant first day, but suffered tremendously on the second. Knowing I wasn’t at full strength I feared the pain I was going to suffer & was concerned I wouldn’t enjoy it. So I was relieved to be fairly pain free in the morning lining up at the start with Paul, Sarah & Natasha (@NatashaElsdon) who joined us for the day. I felt reasonably loose & once running I was surprised how comfortable I was, taking the first few miles very easy it wasn’t long before I recognised the same faces that I had spent the last 15 miles with during the preceding day, giving me an opportunity to see how they were feeling.
I continued to go slow & steady for the entire ascent up to Reigate Hill but upon reaching the fast descent off Colley Hill I let my legs relax & dropped altitude rapidly, passing many struggling for grip or confidence. Immediately after this the route passes the very muddy stretch but with strong legs & upbeat attitude I trotted happily through it passing lots of others not maintaining the same pace & before long I was mixing with a load of faces I hadn’t seen before. I continued like this right up to CP1 at 8 miles were I remember bouncing in all smiles, I even passed Nat on her way out and I hadn’t expected to see her again all day. After heading on the route starts the long ascent back towards Box Hill but it was undulating so gave plenty opportunities to make some progress between climbs, before I knew it I was trotting down the steps off Box Hill leading towards the bridge.
After the mildly irritating detour under the subway the route starts to climb. And boy does it climb. The ascent felt far steeper than the descent had appeared to be the previous day and it went on for ages. Finally reaching the top meant arrival at CP2 and due to a chilly wind it was a definite grab & go before I got cold, pushing on along the hillside past the pill boxes and then heading into the woods which again were the least enjoyable section of the route, despite the people competing in an orienteering event popping out all over the place. I was flagging again by the time we started to make the ascent up to St Martha’s Church for the final time and Sarah caught up with me along the top staying with me until we arrived at CP3. I needed to top up my water but made the decision to sit for a couple minutes and take on a decent amount of fuel, so by the time I set off Sarah was long gone & I didn’t see her again until the finish.
The remaining 11 miles, very much like the first 11 on Day 1 disappeared into a blur of moving forward across the varied terrain & trails. Only this time the undulations were far more noticeable. Reaching Puttenham was a blessed relief as I now knew I only had a matter of 5miles to get through and knew despite tired legs I was going to finish. Reaching the field I plodded up the final incline before I ran fairly strong to finish, in a time just 3 minutes slower than Day 1. This I was happy with as it provides evidence of the improving strength from the hilly miles I’ve been putting in during training – something that will hopefully pay dividends as I undertake the SDW100 in June.
It was another brilliant event put on by Neil and the team at XNRG, the route is challenging but achievable and I’ll be back next year to improve on my time as part of my Marathon des Sables preparation.