Pilgrim Challenge (66 Miles / 2 days)
XNRG - Extreme Energy
As multi day race preparation I signed up for the Pilgrim Challenge - a 2 day out and back ultra along the North Downs Way National Trail. The plan was to fly out with my trusted crew and best support (dad Rainbow) on the Friday night, run 33 miles Saturday from Farham, stay overnight at Redhill and run the 33 miles back to Farham on the Sunday.
The idea was to get used to running long back to back days and seeing how my legs would cope with running when tired, in preparation for the Marathon des Sables (6 day/250km ultra marathon I am doing in April).
To be honest, this was probably the least mentally prepped for a race I had ever been. With MDS fast approaching as my main goal, I saw this as more of a training run than an actual event. However, that did me good as I turned up with no expectations and no idea how I would find it.
Thanks to coach Sarah, I had done a few smaller double run weekends to build up the endurance in the legs which I did find hard in training - although it was great practice for what was to come.
The weather wasn’t looking ideal either with strong winds and heavy rain forecast - until the day before it looked like it was going to stay dry for us! A picture of the stepping stones at box hill looked super waterlogged, as we all were warned about the mud fest…
The start line was buzzing, with people registering and finding others who are also doing MDS. I also got to meet ultra running icon, Susie Chan - who was so friendly and gave lots of tips for the day ahead.
As we set off across the starting field at 9am, I slotted myself in with a few men who seemed my speed as we followed my watch (showing the map of the route) onto the trails. We got chatting and all talked about why we were running this weekend and what we were training for. I do love this part of running, finding out the ‘why’ for other people. One guy had never done anything like this before with a marathon being his maximum distance whereas at the other end of the spectrum another guy had completed the Centurion North Downs Way 100 miler in just 22 hours.
The route was fun, not as hilly as I anticipated for the first half (I wasn’t complaining), lots of mud, slipping and running through water logged puddles.
Before I knew it, we were at the first checkpoint, this is where I started my jam sandwich eating contest for the weekend and powered on.
Suddenly, my legs were dead - 10 miles in and I thought to myself ‘oh crap’...I wasn’t sure if I had gone too hard to start, or if the last few hills were just too much for my legs. I decided not to panic and to just sit behind the group of runners for a bit but still not to lose them. After about 3 miles of this feeling, I just came out of it and It felt like I had fresh new legs. So bazaar, but these things happen especially in ultras. You just have to learn to ride through them as you always come out the other side… eventually haha!
The rest of the day was very enjoyable, the trails were beautiful and so easily runnable. I even thought Box Hill and its dreaded 275 stairs weren't too bad… At this point it was just Alex and I left to get to the finish. All was going smoothly as the miles were getting ticked off, until suddenly we hit Reigate hill. Having prepared myself so much for Box Hill, I wasn’t ready for Reigate which seemed like an never ending vertical wood. I powered through hiking up it as fast as possible to get it out the way. It worked...before I knew it, I had 3 miles left to go into the town to reach Warwick School. Day 1 was over in 5 hours 24.
I put my feet up straight away and started the recovery and refuelling process as soon as I got to the school hall to ensure I was in a good way Sunday. I checked the leader board to discover I was sitting as 3rd Lady overall, which was a great surprise and confidence boost - with around 120 participants being women (an impressive 40% of the field).
A few people opted to stay in the school hall to test out sleeping ‘rough’ and their kit for MDS. I decided against this after reading Sophie Raworths article following her Pilgrim Challenge/MDS experience in 2019 when she opted for the comfort of a hotel bed over a hard gym floor! (see article link below).
Instead, we stayed at the Redhill Travelodge just a few minutes away from the school and ate pasta and pizza at the Prezzo next door - in hindsight very happy with these choices. We did pop back to the school however to watch the inspirational talks including one from UK MDS race director, Steve Diederich who gave me some really good tips for the upcoming adventure.
Waking up on Sunday, I was totally shocked at how well my legs felt, this was great news. And with sitting in 3rd, my confidence was higher than Saturday and I was ready to give it my best. Having received an email from the race organisers on Saturday night confirming a start time of 9am with the small group of elite runners (due to my finish time the day before), I had to quickly get permission from the Race Director to start an hour earlier at 8am with the main pack as we had to catch a flight home later in the day.
After feeling nervous the night before due to the impression I had formed that I spent most of the day running downhill and would therefore spend Sunday running mostly uphill, I was pleasantly surprised to find out the elevation was practically the same…it’s crazy how my mind seemed to blank out all the uphill running and I just remember the downhills. Must be the way my head works to get me up the hills!
Due to the early start time (cut off 6 hours 10) I ran pretty much the entire day alone. This had pros and cons...it was certainly great practice for me to push and pace myself and to get used to running alone, especially with MDS coming up and not knowing if that will be me most days.
The con for me...no conversation apart from with my dad and marshalls every now and then at the 4 checkpoints. I also didn’t know the route that well so had to continually stop to make sure I was on the right path with my Garmin (life saver downloading the gps file to the watch).
My legs felt surprisingly great, with no heavy legs feeling. I had a dark patch in the long 9 mile segment between CP2 and CP3 where my tummy was finding it hard to process the food/gels with the motion of running - but suddenly I was there and the tummy seemed to settle down.
I was finally in the last 10 miles and was starting to remember the route from the day before and getting excited that I was nearly back. Suddenly out of the blue Sophie Raworth and Shaun Marsden were running towards me waving me on and congratulating me on being first lady on the course. I had a fangirl moment for a split second and had to take the opportunity to stop and say hello to Sophie before the adrenaline kicked in again to get me to the finish.
The last 3 miles were the most painful. It's like when you know you’re nearly at the finish the brain tells your body it’s nearly done and to start preparing to close down and recover but the body is hurting so starts the close down before you hit the finish line!
I finally turned the final corner onto the field and could see the finish line and hear everyone cheering. My day 2 finishing time was 5 hours 48 and my first multi day ultra done! I was particularly pleased with ‘only’ being 24 minutes slower than Saturday when most finishers were posting times of 30 minutes plus. I think this confirmed how well my legs had recovered.
After receiving my medal and lots of hugs, I had 2 cups of sugary tea and cake to celebrate. We stayed as long as we could to celebrate others finishing and tracked the leader board for final positions.
Overall, I got my first UK podium as 3rd Lady overall and 1st Lady for my age group with a combined time of 11 hours 13. I was buzzed!
I had the most amazing weekend, learning lots of tips for a multi day ultra and meeting lots of lovely people. Thank you to the event organisers, marshalls, Susie and Sophie and of course my dad for making the experience so memorable.
Next stop…. The Desert! 2 months to go...