Extreme Energy’s Druids Challenge is an 84 mile multi-day ultra marathon along the Ridgeway, Britains oldest road. Starting at Ivinghoe Beacon we were due to complete 29, 27 & 28 miles over the 3 days as we headed South West towards Swindon on the trail that has been in existence for at least 5000 years.
The weekend started on Thursday for me with a flight to the UK from Malta before the train ride to Tring, while waiting at Clapham Junction I spotted Jenny who I knew was doing MdS too so spent the remainder of the journey chatting with her about how preparations were going. Arriving at Tring station we went our separate ways as we were staying in different hotels & I made the short walk (in pitch darkness) to Pendley Manor where I met the guys who would become a big part of my experience, Andrew, Geoff, John & Kev (all taking part in MdS 2017) for a couple drinks and plates full of pasta before getting some sleep.
Race Day 1 dawns and as with all XNRG events there are 3 staggered start times, but unlike their other races the start time on the Friday are a lot later. I’d been assigned to the 12pm start, which is described as the ‘Elite’ group. I knew that my pace wasn’t fast enough for this and also knew that if I went in this group I would feel forced to go out too fast in an attempt NOT to be left alone all day but unfortunately the 11am shuttle bus to the start was full so I had to wait for the latest start.
We said good bye & good luck to John & Geoff who set off with the 11am start group and after the standard race brief from Neil, where he warned us that he worried about this group getting lost the most as they normally race head down & pushing hard we jumped on the coach for the short drive to the start. After piling off the coach we walk along the Ridgeway to the summit of the Ivinghoe Beacon for a couple photo’s before we’re given the off.
I try to reign myself in but the group is fast, too fast. Despite a lovely fast descent within the first few 100 metres I know I’m going too fast but feel good so continue pushing at 9min miles. I’m still in the middle of the main pack after 2.5 miles when halfway down a fast descent a shout goes out from the front runners that we’ve all gone the wrong way. And we have to go back up hill.
Not a great start.
Dejected, I turn with all the others and walk back uphill and after rejoining the correct route start to run again but I’d been shuffled to the back of the pack and everyone’s pace suddenly seemed to be far higher than mine. I continued pushing on but despite my miles splits staying at around 9-10mins I remained firmly at the rear, not aided by going off route again heading across a field the wrong direction after losing the trail running into the sun. In the first 10 miles I only pass 1 runner and 2 walkers.
I arrived at the first CP at 11 miles and reluctant to lose more time than absolutely necessary I pause only for a splash & dash before heading off to take on Coombe Hill with a handful of Haribo. I now started to catch some of the earlier starters & on the long ascent I passed Jenny who was really struggling with an ongoing ankle injury. I finally reached the top of the hill, but the early efforts & final climb had taken it out of me & I never regained the pace I had at the beginning again.
The next 6 miles to CP2 seemed to take forever, it was the most undulating stretch of the day and I struggled, with my quads already screaming in pain. I withdrew into my own head and doubts that I may have ruined the entire weekend by going to hard in the early stages started to creep in. With my experience doing ultra’s I know that these thoughts can be overcome, but I had also had a few months off racing so found it very difficult to pick myself up and make progress again.
After what felt like an eternity I wobbled into CP2, which just happened to be on top of a hill. I arrived at the same time as a small group of walkers including John who was having real problems with a knee injury which curtailed his performance. I took the opportunity to pull on a jacket and grabbed a variety of food before heading off downhill.
It took another couple of miles (only really struggled for about 8 in total) but eventually I started to feel comfortable again and I got back into a decent rhythm again for a while, I continued to pick off a few earlier starters which helps lift the spirits but as they were all moving noticeably slower than me & anyone moving my pace was obviously an hour or more up the road I was having a very lonely day.
As dusk approached I ran into CP3 at 23 miles feeling better than I had for about 20 miles. It was now just before 5pm and I knew it would be dark soon so pocketed my headtorch and carried on aiming for a sub 6hr finish. The next stretch was much flatter and followed a very clear track in pretty much a straight line. At least I think it did, it was dark for most of it and as the batteries on my headtorch were running out my visibility was restricted and my progress slower than it should have been on the rutted terrain. I spent much of the time cursing having to start at 12 or I would have finished in the daylight and would have been able to tackle this section much more confidently but I made the most of it and ensured I spoke to all other participants that I passed.
Finally reaching the end of the trail & seeing the big signs pointing down the road I turned off the Ridgeway for the 3rd time all day (and first time correctly) and immediately stopped. Did I head down the road? Did I take the trail across the field? Pulling out the route description for the first time all day (and the only time all weekend) it advised I would be directed by yellow arrows, glow sticks and paint on the road. Other than the arrows pointing left there were no other visible signs so I took a leap of faith and ran down the road. After a nervous wait I was relieved to finally spot another sign pointing the way and carried on down the road, I reached the 29.3 distance for Day 1 and carried on until reaching the bottom of the road followed signs left. Another ½ mile later I turned into the school that would be home for the night and passed the finish gantry in 5.57 averaging 11.54/mi.
I was shown through the school to pick up my gear and after bedding down near Kev, having a quick lukewarm shower, phoning home, wolfing down a bowl of lovely chilli and getting a massage it was time to snuggle into my luxurious new Alpkit Pipedream 400 and lie on my new Thermarest Prolite sleeping mat and not sleep for longer than an hour at a time.
At least I was warm and comfortable while not sleeping though.
Race Day 2 started at 6am with the lights in the hall going on. Happily I was now in the middle group who were starting at 8am so had plenty of time for breakfast and packing my kit before heading off in the heavy rain to retrace our steps back up the road we’d come down the previous evening to pick up the Ridgeway again. I felt surprisingly comfortable as we set off and I enjoyed the first stretch a lot, it featured a few big climbs but these were followed by long descents with good going underfoot. I was near the front of the main group and making good progress but much happier with a slower average pace. I got chatting to an Italian runner who was good company for a couple of miles and helped point out the correct way over the golf course as I was tiring. He had pulled ahead as we closed in on CP1 but after another quick pit-stop I set off before him and a big wave of other runners behind me.
I plodded along OK for a while but reaching the long flat stretch that follows the Thames my quads started tightening up and I struggled to maintain good progress on terrain that should have been providing a quicker pace. To make matters worse I was being swamped by other runners who were managing to make faster progress on the flat and as I hobbled into CP2 at 14.5 miles and sat down to ease my sore legs the wave that had been behind me all streamed past.
Setting off again I continued to push myself forward, despite it being uncomfortable. After another couple of miles we reached the road through Goring, the first of the 9am wave breezed past as I tried to force down a Peperami and some painkillers. After winding through Goring we headed up a road that seemed to go on (and up) forever, particularly as I needed a piss but eventually we turned off onto the classic chalk trail of the Ridgeway again so I could relieve myself. I was still having to fight my body to maintain progress, particularly on ascents which caused my quads to scream in discomfort but the painkillers started to kick in and I began to push on again.
Arriving at the final CP I was given the psychological boost of finding out we only had 3.8miles to go – less than I’d expected and I realised I could finish in less than 5.30. I ran on but the ground underfoot was probably the worst it got all weekend with heavy clay like mud that covered the entire track clinging to your shoes & weighing down already heavy legs. I know the best way to get over this is using fast feet and short steps, but this is easier said than done 25 miles in & following 30 miles the previous day! Thankfully this didn’t stretch for too long and finally breaching it we made our way up to the top of the downs where we could see the finish about 1.5 miles away. It was at this point that Andrew passed me, then walked until I almost caught him before running again. He continued to do this for the remaining mile towing me on towards the finish, which I finally ran past in 5.27 and a more comfortable day at a slightly easier (and much more consistent) pace averaging 12.19/mi
We had to wait a short time for the shuttle buses to take us down to the school that would be the night’s lodgings but it had stopped raining so it wasn’t an uncomfortable wait. After getting back to the school I bedded down, had a massage and slightly warmer shower and sat around shooting the breeze with Andrew and James who we’d got talking to over the last couple days. It turned out someone had taken Kev’s shoes and he’d been forced to run in Neil Thubron’s Speedcross 3. This didn’t work out as Kev turned up after taking 7.19 having got lost and having to walk for 2 hours due to excruciating toe pain due to the shoes.
We had a decent meal of lasagne before enjoying a presentation from Marina Ranger. I departed during Rory’s talk and tried to settle for sleep. Unfortunately it turned out that we had a snorer nearby. And not just any snorer, a stop start snorer and despite having earplugs, this combined with 2 marathons plus in 2 days and the chemicals released associated with this I got even less sleep on the 2nd night. James who was between me & the snorer actually got up & moved early on!
At least I was warm and comfortable while not sleeping though.
I was almost grateful to give up on sleeping and crawl out of my bag at 6am and start preparing for Race Day 3. Kev was off in the early wave after his exploits the previous day, with me & James at 8am followed by Andrew at 9am. Breakfast was followed by packing kit for the final time, this was all much more difficult now I was exhausted and my legs were incredibly sore. I feared how I was going to complete this final day but come 7.30 we piled onto the bus to return to the Ridgeway for a stunning start to Day 3.
I set off slowly. Particularly ascending the hills, it was tough watching so many moving away into the distance but I had to stick within my limits, trying to manage the pain as my legs were complaining so much. Running on steadily, I ensured I took on nutrition every 3 miles and was trialling Shotblox for the first time. Taking one of these every 6 miles.
I reached CP1 at 7.7miles comfortably but comparatively slowly, there was a long ascent directly after the CP but once over this my legs started to feel OK for the first time all day and although still incredibly painful I could make a bit faster progress on them. I moved away from the runners I’d been mixing with all morning and caught others that had got away from me early on. I passed John & Jenny while I was feeling strong on a couple descents, Jenny was using poles and it was great to see her making good time & feeling fairly comfortable. I was loving the route on the final day, it was continually undulating giving the muscles in my legs much needed changes so they continued functioning without seizing and to my surprise I threw in a couple sub 10min miles. After a very fast steep descent into CP2 there was a horrible section on the road which I struggled along before we climbed again around fields to the Ridgeway proper. It wasn’t until we got back into the rhythm of this trail that I got my legs back again but once there I started to make good progress again but despite sticking to my strategy of nutrition every 3 miles I was tiring by 20miles.
Finally CP3 arrived and I sat briefly, downing a water & coke to lift my spirits (and hydration) but with less than 6 miles to go pressed on. I suffered in the next stretch as the short sharp and continual ascents pounded my quads and I tired. Frustratingly Andrew caught me again with less than 2 miles to go just before we turned onto the road but despite doing a 9min mile down the hill I couldn’t keep up with him and he pulled away. Again. The last few 100 yards seemed to go on forever but I finally turned into the hotel & under the finish in 5.28 averaging 11.31/mi easily my best paced day of the weekend.
I had a great weekend, although the running itself didn’t go as smoothly as I would like (mostly due to my own stupidity) as with all XNRG events the support & camaraderie were outstanding. The route was very easy to follow signposts throughout and I only used the route card once all weekend (although other did get misplaced and add several miles to their race). Multi-day events are a different ball game to one-days and the need to look after yourself in preparation for the next day is part of the fun, as is sharing a school hall with 150 stinking and snoring runners. The camaraderie created by the shared experience is superb and definitely one of the main reasons I keep returning for these events… that & the need to prepare for MdS2017 of course.
Kit I used –
As I’m currently in preparation for both the Spine Challenger and the Marathon des Sables I used this race as an opportunity to test a variety of kit & clothing… here’s my thought on what I used.
Shoes: Day 1 – On Running Cloudventure. Comfortable again and provided decent grip across all surfaces. Day 2 & 3 – The North Face Ultra MT, great confidence inspiring grip without being too aggressive. Remained comfortable on both days, despite being worn straight out of the box.
Socks: Injinji, wore the same pair on Day 1 & 2 and treated myself to a new pair for Day 3. Choosing these is a no-brainer and they’re well worth the premium.
Gaiters: Day 1 & 2 Outdoor Research, absolutely filthy by Day 3 so bagged them instead… they work well at keeping detritus out of shoes but tnf Ultra’s do a good job on their own.
Underwear: Chaffree Boxers, worn every day & can’t recommend them highly enough.
Shorts: my usual Skins DNAmic Superpose Half Tights, did suffer with ventilation a bit this weekend but remain comfortable with good compression.
Shirts: Helly Hansen Warm combined with Icebreaker Merino kept me warm & dry for most of the race, I switched to the Skins DNAmic tshirt on Day 2 as due to the rain I wore a jacket all day.
Vest: Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20, stacks of space for an event like this but with the straps could be compressed to fit comfortably. Limited number of pockets on the front so will be adding pockets prior to MdS & using the OMM Trio for the Spine.
Waterproofs – Jacket: – Montane Minimus Jacket, lightweight and breathable used it as temperatures dropped on day 1 and when combined with the Merino shirts I was warm enough. Montane Spine Smock, worn in the rain on Day 2, substantially more robust than the Miimus but only marginally heavier. It worked very well and was comfortable but doesn’t pack down as small if it was to be predominantly carried. Trousers: – Salomon Bonatti, carried all weekend without being used. Again.
Headtorch: Unilite H8, heavy & bulky but good value, the batteries were on their way out so light was dimmer than usual & made progress difficult… lesson learnt!
Sleeping Bag: Alpkit Pipedream 400, 840g so quite heavy but comfort rating down to 0 so I was warm all night. Bought as the best balance between needs for both races.
Sleeping Mat: Therm-a-rest Prolite, not my 1st choice but needed to pick it up on the day. Actually pretty comfortable, packs down fairly small & easy to use.
Thanks to Neil, Anna & the whole XNRG team for another fantastic & thoroughly enjoyable weekend.