Pilgrim Challenge – part 2

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This is not even the beginning. For part 1 of the Pilgrim Challenge click here

Being mid pack I had the 8am start the next morning, giving me an hour’s extra sleep over the walkers and slower runners, but an hour earlier than the fastest 50 from the day before (which included fellow Chaser Cat and her friend Sam). Before the event I’d been looking forward to the sleepover – a hundred or so runners in sleeping bags on the floor of a school gym, eating pasta dinner in a canteen, geeking out and swapping horror stories; if anything was going to make me feel like a kid this would – but by the end of day one I was so tired I could barely focus on faces, let alone conversation. I missed out on the talks delivered by two legendary ultra runners and just about managed to smile blithely at everyone who came over to chat to Cat and Sam without falling asleep where I sat, despite the extraordinary stories they had to tell. So, back to my usual unsociable self.

I had grossly underestimated the level of comfort offered by a gym floor and a sleeping bag though. Having only packed one thin roll mat to minimise the weight of my pack, I found the only position I could comfortably sustain for longer than five minutes was flat on my back. A light camp bed is definitely on the list for next time (probably wouldn’t go as far as those wonderfully organised souls who brought airbeds complete with eiderdown and chintz valance). I drifted in and out for maybe five hours in total, and eventually gave up to join the walkers for breakfast.

Struggling with my compression socks in the ladies’ changing room, I met one of the hardcore three who were last back in from the night before; a friendly but proper lady, sitting on the bench already fully dressed and meticulously taping up every last inch of her feet. Given how difficult the last 5 miles had been on my toes once the icy water had got in and numbed them, I can’t imagine how hers must have been holding up. She had such a calm, resolute, no nonsense manner and patiently answered all of my daft questions with a smile, although I can’t say I’d have been so graceful if the tables had been turned. When she told me she’d had less than five hours’ sleep and that it would take even longer today, she spoke as if it was no more remarkable than your average retiree’s Sunday plans. She was the epitome of Britishness.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, I’m ashamed to say, but the race organisers and volunteers must have had just as exhausting a day, if not more so. There were the four checkpoints out on the course, each manned by five or six stewards; three at the finish line of the first day waiting in the freezing cold to take down times and print splits info; God knows how many people making sure of an endless supply of hot and cold food, plus soup and rolls, homemade cakes and tea and coffee; an army of masseuses offering their services at the end of both days who doubled up as stewards; a driver for each of the vehicles transporting kit back and forth; Neil the RD buzzing around rescuing idiots who can’t read directions (ahem); and some poor sod will have found himself with a hammer and a fuck off marquee to put up at Farnham. They all seemed to be up long before us and must have been the last to turn the lights out. Whatever you think of the course, the entrance fee can only barely have covered the cost of the logistics alone. Amazing value.

Whether it was adrenalin still coursing through me, the fact that moving around was so much less painful than lying still, or knowing that the sooner we started the sooner we’d be finished, I couldn’t wait to get going again. Bag repacked and back on the fun bus, I lined up with the rest of the group waiting for the ever so understated race start. We started bang on time, but just as if we were all out on a training run it was just one minute waiting to go, next minute going. No fanfare, no nervy build up, no last minute distractions. Just determination, and focus.

As we ran through Reigate Golf Club I tried in vain to find the point where I’d veered off course the day before, although I felt slightly better about getting lost after hearing that Cat had made exactly the same mistake the year before. The rare stretch of paved ground was icier than the previous day, and the temperature even cooler, but with a low winter sun shining brightly and low humidity it was actually much more comfortable weather for running in. Well, relatively.

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If day 1’s tactic was about saving energy then day 2 was pretty much the running equivalent of triple glazed windows, hand knitted draught excluders and only turning on one bar on the heater. Conscious of the challenge ahead of me I concentrated on keeping my cadence high but my footsteps light and easy, my posture straight and my shoulders low. Despite starting off with a cloudy head and stiff neck from poor night’s sleep, it didn’t take long for me to find my rhythm and find myself plugging metronomically on. A bit like going to work on a hangover; you think you’re on the verge of death, but somehow it all seems to get done.

In fact by around mile 5 I was skimming the mud and dancing over the slopes and troughs like an ibex, well into my stride and enjoying the technical terrain. After first catching up with the early start walkers and even overtaking some ambitious front runners in the 8am group, I made the most of my energy spike to tear down the steps at Box Hill before the long slow climb up the hill at Denbies that I knew wouldn’t be far off. Within an hour I’d gone from just wanting to get to the finish alive to planning race tactics. Call me Mo.

As always happens when passing through the wine estate, the sight of the vines lining the rolling hills made me feel as warm and merry as drinking their wine would. The area is so peaceful, so calming, even if it wasn’t for the long climb I’d still have taken a walk break, the better to enjoy it. Slightly more with it than I had been at this point the day before, I even stopped to take a photo this time. It doesn’t do the view justice.

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With the fastest runners – including elites like Danny Kendall on his way to a course record, and of course Cat and Sam – due to start an hour after the main group it was only a matter of time before they caught us up. Without the pressure of competition it was really thrilling, in a slightly tragic and autograph hunter-y sort of way, to know that at some point we’d see them all flying past. I actually expected to see them much sooner than I did, but by the time I got to the pillboxes on White Down Lease the still Sunday silence had been broken by occasional bursts of energy as one by one they all shot past. It was as if they were running a completely different race to the rest of us. Which, I suppose, they were.

Cat had been in eighth position in the ladies’ race at the end of day 1, but only minutes behind sixth and seventh, and was feeling strong. I’d clocked a steely look in her eye the night before as she did some quick mental arithmetic while talking about pace and positioning, and I saw it again when she caught me up around mile 18, along a familiar but flat and deadly stretch. She seemed to be gliding along, toes lightly grazing the ground more than landing on it. The thought briefly crossed my mind – was she the first woman to overtake us? In barely a moment she was gone, but that moment was all I needed to give me a lift.

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Ten miles in sixty six is nothing, but ten miles at the end of fifty six might as well be a hundred. By this point I knew I’d finish; I thought I might even have a chance of sub 7 hours (as ambitious as it was to lose only half an hour on the first day; most people were expecting to be at least an hour slower) but I knew from experiences at Beachy Head and Salisbury that in trail running it’s the tortoise’s race, not the hare’s. Sticking to my plan of running to effort rather than pace I patiently trudged up hills and trotted along the flats, slowing eating into those ten blasted miles and comforting myself with the thought that there’d be cake at the end of it all.

Not entirely able to trust my Garmin or the overall distance, I hit the last checkpoint just after 27 miles and couldn’t resist asking them how long was really left. It’s a bit of a rule I have not to do that normally; whatever the marshal says it’s bound to be a little off, either because the Garmin is lying or because the course is, or because you’ve veered off course. On an average day you take that info with a pinch of salt, knowing four miles might mean four and a quarter or two miles might only be 1.89. But when you’re exhausted, slightly delirious and looking for the strongest possible finish, you fixate on the distance to three decimal places, and if you plan your final burst of energy to last for four miles that extra quarter mile is the longest quarter mile ever. But I broke my rule, I asked. And I discovered that neither the course, nor the marshal, nor even my Garmin was lying.

Remembering that the finish was just after a road crossing I powered through the trail path, pretending the final three miles were Wimbledon Common parkrun and reeling in the other runners one by one, until I could see the Tarmac. And on the other side of the Tarmac there was a short, sharp little hill covered in shin high grass, and then there were the flags. I sprinted my heart out – I was probably being overtaken by wildlife but it felt like sprinting to me – and nearly crashed into the finishers tent, sobbing and laughing at the same time. I was done.

The first thing I did – before remembering to stop my Garmin, almost before forgetting to hand my timing tag back in – was find the scoreboards and Cat’s name. There she was – winner of the ladies’ race on day 2, second placed lady overall (unbelievably ten minutes faster on day 2 than day 1) and looking fresh as a daisy. She found me wobbling and stuttering and pressed flapjacks into my shaking hands, just in time for the shuttle bus to Farnham station to whisk us off and catch the one-an-hour train back to London.

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Still dressing in the back of the van, I barely had a moment to reflect on what I’d achieved. At seven hours and five minutes, I was slightly less than half an hour slower than day 1 and had improved my overall placing from 26th to 19th with the effort. 66 miles, 2 days, the medal said. It’s all numbers though; I know what I really took away from those two days. I took away the certainty that every downhill has an up, that you’ve never seen grit until you’ve met a long distance walker, and that every time you feel like giving in there’s someone round the corner with peanut butter sandwiches and pretzels.

Just a few days later an email popped up in my inbox: a place had become available on the waiting list for the North Downs Way 100 miler in August. This August. Bugger it, I thought. I haven’t seen quite enough of the North Downs recently.

So I’m in.

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