In the run up to the Druids Challenge, I had plenty to think about.
With 84 miles to cover over three days, I would have to think about pacing myself to make sure I didn’t burn out. Then again, I was curious about my progress over the last couple of years, and I knew I was more suited to multi-day ultras than to long single stage races – should I go for it this time, find out how well I could place if I pushed myself? I compared what I expected my time to be with the previous year’s times, and it was certainly a lot better than the 19th place I managed at the Pilgrim’s Challenge back in February.
I had the terrain to think about too. With no experience whatsoever of the Ridgeway, all I had to go on was the elevation graph, photos of past races, the ubiquitous National Trust acorn markers and a route card. At least I had a fair idea of what the team at XNRG would have in store for us; there were bound to be hills, mud, chalk, rain rain and more rain. Best to assume the worst and enjoy the rest.
Then there was the exhaustion factor; besides running just over a marathon every day for three days over trails, I would have less than ideal resting conditions between stages. No warm bed in my familiar dark and quiet bedroom, no bath to soak my weary muscles in or long suffering boyfriend to wait on me hand and foot; instead of creature comforts I would have a cramped campbed on a gym floor with 150 other people. I learned my lesson from Pilgrims; the key was to finish as quickly as possible so as to nab myself a prime bit of real estate and get my phone and watch on charge before all the power points were taken. And finding somewhere to dry off wet kit was a challenge in itself.
What’s more I had been counting on having fellow Chaser Cat there too for moral support, but she had had to pull out after being sidelined with injury. It wasn’t exactly my comfort zone, being among lots of unfamiliar people who all seemed to know each other – I would have to pluck up the courage to talk to the other runners or face a very isolated three days.
I had all this and more to think about, but only one thing kept coming back to haunt me. My old nemesis: public transport at rush hour. With an 11am start in Tring, the only train that would get me there from Clapham Junction in time would be the same train for hundreds of commuters – hundred of angry commuters already crammed in like sardines and in no mood to let me on with my massive hiking backpack. Eighty four miles of trail would be a piece of piss in comparison.
I wasn’t wrong to worry. Despite getting to the platform a full ten minutes before the train was due, by the time the already heaving carriages pulled in I was pushed – physically pushed – aside and very nearly missed my only opportunity to get to the race start in time. I had to run the length of the platform with three days worth of kit swinging around on my shoulders until I found a door with a crack of space free, and leapt on just in time for it to pull away. I looked up, expecting to see faces full of hatred, then realised with relief that I had found the one carriage full of runners, all looking as traumatised as me.
Settling into my few square inches of standing room, I did a quick systems check and found I’d pulled a muscle in my back, just behind my ribcage and perfectly placed to make it difficult for me to breathe. Great. A runner standing next to me spotted the mixture of panic and pain in my grimace, and offered a sympathetic smile. This turned out to be Noushka, a scientist from Southampton who had won her place on Druids from volunteering on previous events and had already had to make two changes to even get this far. We chatted for the rest of the hour long journey, joining up with another runner called Laura who had also had a ballache of a morning getting to Tring from the south coast, and I had to concede that I’d had it pretty easy in comparison.
By the time the shuttle bus picked us up at Tring to take us to race HQ I was buzzing, impatient to finally get on the road. We were taken to a farm to pick up race numbers, receive the briefing and drop off our packs, which were to be taken to the school in Watlington where the first day’s racing would end and day two would begin. Another series of shuttle buses took us as close to the trailhead as buses could get, but it fell to to race director Neil Thubron to walk us half a mile to Ivinghoe Beacon at the top of the hill for the race start. A steep downhill start that I couldn’t resist hammering for all I was worth, eyes blinded by tears and bitter cold, arms outstretched as I skidded down the chalky slopes. My kind of race start.
One of the remarkable and brilliant things about XNRG races is their policy of no cutoff times – the team stay out until the last competitor is safely back in. Their races are open to long distance walkers covering the same route as the runners, but it means that they have staggered start times with walkers leaving first, mid pack runners an hour later and elites an hour after that. For the first day your start time is based on your projected finish time which you state when you sign up, but after that you are grouped by the previous day’s finish times: 9am for the first forty finishers, 8am for the next forty, 7am for everyone else. It’s a system that leaves no-one behind, as well as presumably the only way to make sure both the four hour finishers and the nine hour finishers got back in time for dinner.
My ambitious start put me in good position in the pack, but I was going quicker than the 10mm pace I had planned while the going was good and aware that a nice big uphill was on its way. I couldn’t resist a good challenge. The strong position felt too good to give up without a fight, so I kept count of the women in front of me and made sure that everyone that passed me on the uphills were safely behind me by the bottom of the hill. I realised I was racing now, a new experience for me and a whole different way to approach running. No chatter, no music to zone out to. Game face.
Day one was the longest of the three but only by a smidge; 29 miles, compared with 27 on day two and 28 on day three. I was starting in the middle pack with Noushka and Laura among others, and the elite pack included Cat’s friend Sam, who I had met at Pilgrim’s. We had briefly bumped into each other at the race HQ and he joked about me saving him a spot at the school, although I was pretty certain that he’d beat me back even with an hour’s head start. Now of course I wanted to shrink that lead as much as possible.
The first checkpoint that day didn’t come until mile 11 so I had to make sure I got some food into me long before then to avoid crashing. My bonk at the NDW100 and my issues with eating ever since played on my mind all weekend; normally I could slow down to reduce the effect of jostling on my stomach, but if I wanted to make a good time I would have to go slightly faster than was comfortable, which meant a higher likelihood of nausea. It would be a delicate balance to strike, and I am done with mid-race technicolour yawns thank you very much. But, I’d also learned my lesson after breaking my back on the Pilgrims Challenge carrying a four course meal in my race vest; the XNRG aid stations are well-stocked, varied and pretty kind to a wobbly stomach, so all I had with me were my ubiquitous Nutrigrain bars and some emergency gels and Shot Bloks. The evenings would be my chance to stock up on calories.
The terrain on the first day was relatively sheltered, mostly single track through woods and plenty of ups and downs like the Dorking section of the North Downs Way – I had a blast pushing myself on the twisty trail, and the light rain was nice and refreshing. There was nearly 5000 feet of total elevation gain over the twenty nine miles but the uphills were uphill enough to walk, which is a polite way of saying steep enough not to feel guilty about not running. The exact definition of that gradient changes for me by the day, but that day the balance was bang on. I didn’t get to do as much gossiping as I normally would, or as much touristy photo-taking for that matter, but I enjoyed the feeling of moving at speed knowing that it wouldn’t last too long.
Because of the later start, the first day was the only day we were required to carry headtorches – the only piece of mandatory kit apart from a mobile phone – in case dusk fell before we made it to the school at Watlington. I pushed on through the next aid station but as the sun put on slippers and dressing gown and made for bed I started to flag. As charmed as my day had been, just when I needed a bit of a lift I came across two runners who I’d been passing and passed by all day: experienced ultra runner Ash and his friend Chris who had signed up on a dare after only ever having run a half marathon. We were all feeling the slump, counting down the last few miles just as we found the boggiest, most energy-sucking foot-grabbing custardy mud section of the whole course. Ash and I are both – how do I put this – compact in stature with less than eleven feet in height between us; Chris on the other hand was closer to eleven feet tall on his own, and none of us were built for dragging ourselves through bog. We’d made great time throughout the day but all we could do was walk at this point, so conversation turned to what it always does on trail races: life story, positive reinforcement, trying not to say fuck too much in front of strangers.
I had actually spoken to Ash earlier in the day when I thought I’d recognised him from a previous race – probably not the best way to reassure someone you’re not insane, asking if they’re absolutely sure they didn’t run the such-and-such bazillion miler recently – and seen Chris overtake me on hills a number of times, but it wasn’t until that last stretch that I realised they were running together, just at a much more even pace than me. Chris had been cajoled into taking up running in order to get fit and lose a couple of stone, which is achievement enough in itself, but I was even more impressed by the fact that he’d gone straight for a three day race over 84 miles for his first, bypassing your good old fashioned marathon like any normal person would. He had a very dry sense of humour – he had to have – compared with Ash’s forthrightness and the pair of them made a comedy double act that really cheered me up. They both tried to remain gentlemanly and refused to swear in front of me while I spewed every vile, graphic and unladylike bit of dockers’ vernacular I could think of as each footstep disappeared into the bog. There’s the twenty-first century for you.
Runner after runner passed us on the last mile stretch, just as the light was fading and our legs protesting, demanding recompense for the first twenty eight miles. After we turned off the trail and onto paved ground leading up to the school Chris asked us how far we had left at pretty much hundred yard intervals, and Ash and I doled out information scrap by scrap, partly for his sanity, partly for ours. Less than a quarter of a mile from the end, on the final road that would lead us to the school gates I saw Cat’s friend Sam and leading lady Maree pass us, both having started in the elite start an hour after us. It meant we hadn’t lost that much ground if the front runners were finishing around an hour ahead of us and it gave me a burst for the finish line. Ash, Chris and I crossed together, the three of us holding hands, and piled into the school hall for soup, rolls, coffee and cake.
Our stopover that night was at a school, where we had taken over the assembly hall and gym for sleeping quarters, both sets of showers and changing rooms, and the main hall for a canteen. It wasn’t the most glamourous of locations but Neil and the Extreme Energy team treated us all like stars; as ever tireless, cheerful and with a solution to everything. They had even put down a tarp to leave our muddy shoes on, left bundles of newspaper to stuff inside them overnight, and set up a board with day one standings and information for the following day including elevation, weather report and photos of past races. I set up my pop up camp bed – probably my biggest triumph of the whole weekend, not having to sleep on the cold floor – next to Sam (and more importantly, a power point), and queued up for the best/worst shower of my life. It’s hard to describe how much I appreciated that anaemic dribble of lukewarm water which cut out every ten seconds.
Ash, Chris and I had finished 41st, 42nd and 43rd respectively on day one, which meant we had just missed the first 40 cutoff for the elite start the following day – pretty much the perfect balance between getting the earlier start we knew we’d need the next day and being back in time to grab a good sleeping spot. After the day one standings were confirmed I was shocked to discover that I was eighth lady – how the hell did I manage that? – and suddenly my curiosity became determination. Being top ten felt good, I thought, I’d quite like to hold on to this. As Neil pointed out though, the second day was still to come; despite being the shortest and flattest it was invariably the toughest day, hitting at the point before your body has quite acknowledged that you’re carrying on whether it likes it or not and after the reserves of day one energy have been used up. It would also be a lot more exposed than the first day, especially the stretch along the Thames, and the kind cooling drizzle of day one was due to become torrential rain and winds on Saturday. Not to mention the fact that it would finish on a long slow uphill.
All details, of course. Now I had found my real game face.