Pilgrims Challenge 2018

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Hello, old friend.

When I finished the North Downs Way 50 – just – back in May of last year, I swore the whole way round that I was DONE with the much-loved national trail which had been the backdrop for much of my trail running career. I’ve run this route so many times, in so many circumstances, and although I’d had my fair share of happy memories it had chewed me up so much that a return would be tantamount to masochism.

As soon as I finished my volunteering stint on Druids at the end of November, the first thing I did was sign up for Pilgrims again. Glutton for punishment.

I first ran the Pilgrims Challenge in 2015 at the start of a year that became my most prolific and most successful so far. When I took to the start line of the 2-day, 66 mile event run by Extreme Energy it was the first time I’d run two back to back marathons, and the thing I was most worried about was how the overnight camping no-home-comforts bit would work. As it turned out, thanks to the incredible support of Neil Thubron and his team, I needn’t have given it a thought. Although I have learned the value of taking a couple of clip hangers for drying out a race vest overnight and a bundle of newspaper for stuffing shoes.

This time all I wanted to do was finish, however slowly. And I knew it would be slow. I believed in my adjusted expectations instead of still vaguely hoping a sub-6 hour finish could be on the cards. And thank goodness I did, because nothing about the terrain and conditions suggested optimism.

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My trouble with the North Downs Way, I realise, is that it’s just too familiar – it beats me because it knows me so well. It knows how to lure me into a false sense of security, how to make me believe that I can push through a runnable section and straightaway knock me down, how to use reverse psychology to its most brutal effect by tempting and then taunting me. I’ve mentioned before that this route – which I know so well, have run so many times – seems to distort and rearrange itself when I’m racing. Whole tracks pop up between hills that before I could have sworn were back to back.

And the worst parts of it aren’t the hills at all. You’d be surprised how much of the trail has little or no elevation change; the demon of it is that the ground yields so easily it’s like running through sand – well, sometimes it actually IS sand. So you beat yourself up for not being able to run the “fast” bits, and wear yourself out before the real test begins. All this is what makes it surprisingly effective training for the Marathon des Sables, which is exactly what many of the runners this weekend were preparing for.

My aim really was just to finish it – I’m not humblebragging here, genuinely I’d have been happy to get to the end, given how much fitness I’ve lost. I had taken for granted my ability to grind through these distances, having been successful at it in the past, that I’d actually forgotten how to suck it up and get to the end on the tougher races. And I’d started a worrying trend of DNFs that were close to outweighing the Fs. So, get to the end, by any means necessary. There would be a lot of hiking.

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I nabbed a fairly jammy parking spot close to race HQ (tent), swapped my bag for a number and a timing tag, and huddled up with the second wave of starters. It was so cold – find me a synonym for cold, somebody, that word is gonna get WORN OUT – that RD Neil decided to hold our briefing inside the tent, having braved the bitter chill on the first wave and nearly lost his loudhailer. There was a wonderful little touch when the owner of the farm we were on blew the horn to start the race then joined us as far as the first checkpoint; just before we started he told us how, nine years ago and no kind of runner, he watched the Pilgrims competitors leave the start line for the very first time and was motivated to give this running lark a go himself.

Normally I’m quite sociable on races like this, but I knew this weekend I could be out there on my own for a very long time; this would be more meditative than conversational. I loaded up the iPod shuffle with hours and hours of podcasts – I’m a bit obsessed with Astonishing Legends at the moment – and zoned out. That’s not to say I was planning to shut myself off from the experience; I just planned to be cautious, considering how naively I’ve been diving into races recently without any real respect for the challenge. Never take a race for granted.

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This last year has been like learning how to run all over again. This race was no different. I felt comfortable through the first checkpoint nearly 9 miles in, having passed the familiar ground of Guildford and the bridge over the River Wey (where on Centurion races you will usually find Allan and his bacon butty barge), but I’d be taking it really easy. It was a long old stretch to the next checkpoint at 19 miles which included the climb to St Martha’s Church and the sandy downhill after it, but as usual it was a glorious opportunity for aeroplane arms. I wasn’t pushing the pace, but I was still conscious of it, running on my own and in my own head for a change. Deja vu – this is almost exactly the runner I was when I attempted this race the first time three years ago, too nervous to engage with anyone else. Well, maybe two of her.

By the time I got to Denbies, around 20 miles, I was feeling perfectly capable of forward momentum but there wasn’t any kind of pace in my legs. That’s fine, I thought, just keep one foot in front of the other. The downhill towards the dual carriageway is usually where I open up a bit and scoot about like a kid, but this time I was on a leisurely old lady jog at best. Nonetheless with the eerie canopy of evergreen trees, the biting chill of the clear winter weather and the soundtrack of a horror story podcast, this leg of the journey scored 10/10 for atmosphere. In fact it came as a bit of a shock to pop out onto the relative banality of the dual carriageway before Box Hill.

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Being close to freezing for most of the previous week (month) there hadn’t been much rainfall, but I still figured they wouldn’t risk sending us across the Stepping Stones. Those things are my arch-nemesis, regardless of the season. I don’t care how deep the river is or how safe they are to stand on, I still get knocked sideways with vertigo when I step on them. But no – to my horror, I watched as the snake of runners in front of me skipped deftly across them instead of diverting left to the stone bridge. It took me a good five minutes to cross – first letting the people directly behind me pass first, knowing they wouldn’t want to be held up, then giving myself a ten count and a pep talk to jump onto each one, terrified that my feet would slip on take off or landing and I’d end up a pile of bones on the riverbed. Thankfully the runners around me were very sympathetic – outwardly at least – and I got across without incident. Of course, if I’d bothered checking the route card in advance I’d have known that we were actively requested not to use them anyway. Ahem.

As unlikely as it sounds, Box Hill is probably my favourite bit. Sure it’s slow, but it does at least give my muscles a chance to swap shifts and even that change of pace can make you feel fresh again – for a few steps anyway. By this point though I was sliding beyond 7 hour finishing pace and only getting slower; not that it mattered in the long run, but I started to pile up on food to prepare myself for the energy needed just to stay warm out there. That turned out to be one small win; I never exerted myself enough to be unable to eat, which made me realise just how low that threshold really is for me. Having spent so long wondering why I struggle with food, the penny finally dropped: the reason I’m no good at it is that I’ve not been training properly for it. And it turns out, when you eat you can run for longer…

Drifting away with the fourth episode of my podcast, I pretty much trotted through the rest of the NDW section, even Colley Hill and Reigate Hill which normally reduce me to swears and tears. And again, I noticed how much easier they felt when I wasn’t running on a deficit. When I thought about it afterwards, I realised that I’d been confusing my perceived effort with my perceived pace for years. Every time I’ve done this section I’ve assumed that slowing down “a bit” would be enough to cope – certainly on previous runs I’ve been more concerned with time than I was today – but this was the first time I’d slowed enough to see a real difference in my heart rate and it shocked me just how slow I had to go to bring it down. But it also shocked me to see how much better I felt when it was under a steady limit. I’m sure if I can bring this threshold up a bit I can do that hill – that series of three hills, actually – without being overcome by nausea, either through effort or inability to eat. Have my past mistakes really been as simple as that?

And having reached the fort, although I was puttering along like a steamboat, I was still moving consistently. My Strava data won’t show that since the data seems to have gone a bit haywire, but my watch readout shows an average pace of 14:42 minutes per mile, which is much better than I could have hoped for. I certainly didn’t have any bursts of speed to call on, but by the same token I wasn’t really getting out of shape. I negotiated the instructions for the diversion to our overnight stopoff, skipped across the timing mat, and that was that.

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My “efforts” that day had bagged me just over  seven and a half hour finish – an hour slower than the first year and with one less mile to cover thanks to a course change. It was comparatively slow, but since all I had to do was get to the end I managed that with effort to spare. No massage needed, a cursory bit of stretching, the main thing I had to concentrate on was warming up. I got into my duck onesie – something I’d often considered bringing but never had the courage to until Druids last year – and curled up with my podcasts.

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The next day my legs were… still fine. Still absolutely fine. I’d had a tiny bit of cramp overnight where my lackadaisical stretching routine had missed a spot, but other than that I could have believed we were still on day 1. So another thing to be thankful for – I might not be winning any prizes for speed at the moment, but I’m using the resources I have and right now that’s experience and momentum. I don’t think it’s complacent to readjust expectations and goals as long as you recognise it works both ways. But I still had another 32 miles to go, and I still didn’t want to take anything for granted.

The previous day I’d got through a series of episodes about Black Eyed Kids – a supernatural phenomenon about hollow eyed children who demand help from strangers and curse people who give in – so naturally I was seeing them in every tree knot and dark patch of woodland. I decided to go for some more historical than ethereal and started a series on the Nazi Bell, an alleged superweapon developed during WWII that could have changed the course of European history. Being confident in the route – because that’s never stitched me up before – I let myself drift off while I put my feet back on autopilot.

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The weather on the second day was colder but clearer, and there were breaks in the clouds for the sun to shine through every now and again. The engine was as sturdy as the day before, if a little lower on power. That didn’t matter – all it had to do was last the distance. Touch wood I still hadn’t had any real injuries or even niggles to worry about or nutrition to consider. In fact I still planned to drive home from Farnham, so there was no room for heroics.

That day was about juggling three things – my ability to use the foot pedals on the way home, my ability to stay warm enough to get there, and my ability to stay conscious. Only by keeping a light touch on the tiller would I keep all three in balance – trying too hard to manage one would only jeopardise the others. If I hurried too much to get out of the cold I would either risk a tumble or shut down my digestive system, and subsequently everything else. If I stopped to eat too much I’d take vital blood flow away from my muscles. And if I went too slow and too gingerly I’d likely freeze to death out there. Somehow, keeping all these things in mind kept me going.

It was a slow day though, for sure. Not leisurely, just slow. It wasn’t helped by the fact that my arrogance got the better of me once more and I took a wrong turning at Newlands Corner, an area I’ve been to more than any other on the NDW, forcing me to double back in the claggiest and heaviest mud on the whole route. As the day wore on I became more and more alone, watching first the elites pass me, then all the one dayers, then most of my start group. I think there might even have been a walker or two overtaking me by the end. But, I remembered, my ego wasn’t going to get me home today. My feet were, and they would do it on their own terms.

As the farm at Farnham drew into sight I called on my sprint finish… and found it wasn’t there. In fact, having hiked more than half the day I still had to walk quite a bit of the last 100 metres. But neither that nor the total absence of other people could stop me from belting over the line. I must have been one of the last people home, but I’ve rarely been happier to finish a race. Eight hours, forty seven minutes and change – nearly two hours slower than 2015.

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What I took away from this race though wasn’t a result but a fresh start, a new perspective. After spending the last three years trying to help new runners I realised I was one of them again. There’s no point comparing myself to the person who finished 16 marathons or ultras in a year, the person who ran a 3:41 marathon or the person who came third in her first ever 50. Right now, I’m a person who takes two weeks to recover from a late finish at work, who sleeps up to ten hours a day and still aches in every single muscle. That said, I’m also someone with experience of running ultras, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that low points never stay low, You always bounce back eventually.

You just have to believe that you can.

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Druids Challenge 2017 – the other side of the aid station

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It’s my favourite event of the year. Well, no – Eurovision is my favourite of all events, but Druids is top as far as races go. It’s not even the running bit that makes it, although the Ridgeway trail traces my heart like my own veins; it’s the camping overnight in school halls, eating Anna’s mum’s homemade cake, drinking endless cups of instant coffee and sleeping on an army cot in the frozen depths of November that I can’t wait for. File it in the Venn diagram of “things that make me feel like a kid”/”things only trail runners do”/”happy things”.

I ran it in 2015 and 2016, but had to hold off this year due to the fourth Centurion Grand Slam, the Wendover Woods 50, being only two weeks later. Honestly I’m not sure what upset me more: missing Druids or missing out on the suicide challenge of doing both, just for lols. Nonetheless, paranoid that the slightest intervention would scupper my chances of finishing the grand slam (spoiler alert) I opted to wrap myself in cotton wool, and just volunteer instead. Easy peasy.

The race covers almost the entire Ridgeway National Trail over three days: 29 miles on Friday, 27 on Saturday and 28 on Sunday. I couldn’t get the time off on Friday for the first leg from Ivinghoe Beacon to the school at Watlington so I missed out on the first night’s camping as well; on the other hand it had been a big week at work and a solid night’s sleep in my own damn bed was more of a novelty than camping, so I banked it. Car packed, I drove up to my first post at checkpoint two at the crack of dawn on Saturday, ready for action.

Being a production manager by trade, I had printed out every last scrap of information I could find, calculated how long it would take me to get to the checkpoint, gave myself a good margin of error and then set off slightly earlier than that. The instructions told me I was needed at the checkpoint an hour in advance of the runner expected to pass first, and that was half past nine, so there I was, at 08:27 (including a detour for a coffee and a loo stop so as not to seem too eager). And I waited.

And I waited.

I could be relatively certain that I was in the right place – I mean it’s probably the most memorable checkpoint in the whole three days – and my satnav wasn’t disagreeing. But the checkpoint chief, Edward, was nowhere to be seen. Tussling with the fear of posting a stupid question on the group Whatsapp I tried sending messages to both Edward and to Rich the volunteer coordinator, with no luck and no signal. By half past nine I was vacillating between panic that a hundred hungry runners were about to overwhelm me and certainty that it must be me that was wrong; after all, there were at least three other people that were meant to be there and still weren’t. Just as I was about to get my trail shoes on and start running backwards along the route, wondering if the checkpoint had moved, a car drove down the muddy lane to the water’s edge that obviously had nothing to do with fishermen or dog walking.

Out of Edward’s modest estate car a whole checkpoint unfolded – I mean this is Mary Poppin’s carpet bag territory. Two fold out tables, four barrels full of water, eight or nine boxes of food and supplies (including the all-important hand sanitiser), the timing kits, the ubiquitous XNRG feather banner and various other bits of signage. Joined by fellow volunteer Laura and her son we set up as quickly as possible and started doing the clock arithmetic for when we expected the first person to pass, proving once and for all that my calculations were way out. I offered to tick off race numbers and make sure all the runners checked their wristbands against the timer, thinking at least I couldn’t get that wrong.

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As is customary for day 2 of the Druids, especially the second stretch along the Thames, it was soggy. I tried to wipe my phone screen on my trousers to dry it off enough to use, and all that happened was that my phone screen got a different kind of wet on it. My numbers sheet actually got soaked while we were setting up and had to be laid across the car’s heating vents to dry off before we even got started; by the time we were halfway through the field I was marking fat splodges on papier mache with a mashed felt tip, literally counting down the chart to get the right number. It was like playing bingo in wet clay.

Considering the job involved standing outside in the rain without shelter for a number of hours (including the bonus ones I awarded myself) the time passed surprisingly quickly. Having to concentrate on the path and catch the runners before they took off up the road was definitely harder than being the runner concentrating on the path, something I know from previous experience on that course. I’ve given up on enough of my own races to know how annoying it is to let yourself down, but the thought of letting down another runner was really nerve-wracking. Meanwhile, a lone fisherman who was surprised to find us pitched up on the bank before him settled in at the rivers edge with his wolf (he claimed it was a dog) and patiently waited for the fish that our neon coloured, mud-thumping, giggling and panting runners were presumably scaring away. We learned an awful lot about riverside politics between rowers and kayakers, longboaters and swimmers, like a live-action version of The Wind In The Willows.

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The runners came through in various states of undress and humour; most notably a first time ultrarunner who came in wearing just one shoe, having lost the other in the mud (which wasn’t surprising as they turned out to be three sizes too small for him in the first place); the man who found a neat solution to our lack of sandwiches (two jaffa cakes with a slice of cheddar in the middle); and Marie-Claude, a lady who stumbled into the aid station in a bin bag and floods of tears, having optimistically followed the weather forecast and not the basic tenet of Druids which is that day two is always wet. Bless her, she was miserable. Her waterproofs were, helpfully, in her bag back at base. Her ankles were weighed down with a pair of hand knitted leg warmers, by now waterlogged and hefty with mud, and she was pining for her sturdy walking boots. She sobbed uncontrollably as we helped her into a chair and out of the leg warmers, and Edward managed to produce both hot water and a hot chocolate sachet from nowhere. It seemed like she was destined to pull out.

Those of you that know XNRG’s multi-day challenges probably know regular face Elaine, often patiently hiking each leg in twice the time of the frontrunners and always with a smile and good humour. We knew to look out for her as the last person expected through, making Marie-Claude the second from last according to the scraps of my sheet. After a last minute bit of foot dressing by Dr Laura and the lend of a waterproof jacket, it seemed that all that Marie was short of was the will to carry on – she was in perfectly good health otherwise. We managed to convince her that if she kept going she would eventually have company from Elaine, and since there were no cut-offs she had nothing but time. To her credit as soon as she was up on her feet she got straight on with it – a lesson in the power of appropriate kit and a bit of positive thinking. We all sympathised with her low moment, but we all know those moments pass much faster than the disappointment of a DNF. Not long afterward came Elaine, as smiling and beatific as ever. We had a bit of a chat with her as she loaded up on jaffa cakes and some of Laura’s homemade flapjacks, and off went the last of our intrepid explorers.

My next shift was back at the school manning the tea and cake stand. Yeah I know, what a hardship. Handing out tea and cake to people 56 miles in to the Ridgeway is a very gratifying job anyway – I mean, nobody’s exactly turning their nose up at free cake – but to ultra geeks like me it’s also a front row seat to the best show on earth, watching the likes of Edwina Sutton and Justin Montague do what they do best and barely break sweat in the process. And because I’m my mother’s daughter I had great fun buzzing around like a busybody and forcing tea into chilly hands.

And then the hard work began.

While Susie Chan and Rory Coleman delivered their after-supper presentations, we had to clear the canteen and set up for breakfast the following morning, as well as keep the hot drinks and cake flowing and the jerrycans full of water. I sort of knew, from previous experience, that the job would involve making sure these vital things were available as long as everyone was awake, but I hadn’t quite appreciated just how much 300 runners and walkers could get through – I don’t think I stopped moving until past 11pm, an hour after lights out. Straight into event mode, I fell into my cot bed feeling wonderfully weary and stared at the ceiling for five hours, too buzzed to sleep.

My alarm went off at half 5 just as I’d started to drift off, and by the time I got to the canteen the early risers on the first wave were already tucking in. The walkers were due to start at 7am but would need to be on the shuttle bus by half 6 in order to be taken to the restart point, on the exposed top of East Hendred Down. The well-oiled machine that is XNRG splits up the runners into groups according to their finishing times from day 2, which is crucial in making sure that there are enough seats on the shuttle buses to get everyone to the top – and naturally, everyone bargains to go in the middle group. Once again I saw the wider context of my selfish runner’s needs; if 5 percent of the field ask to be the “one change” to the grouping, they’d need to hire a whole extra bus to accommodate. Considering that I’ve always felt very well looked after at XNRG’s races, I saw firsthand how it’s not abundance of resources but Anna and Neil’s military precision that fulfils our every need; at the same time, it’s clear to see how quickly what profits they do turn could be swallowed up for the want of a bit of forward planning.

By the time we’d seen all three groups breakfasted and on the buses – not to mention their luggage – I was already jumping into the car for my next job: manning station 2 at Hinton Parva, this time under the guidance of checkpoint chief Wendi. Even more wobbly than the soggy ground we set up on on Saturday, this time the table was on a thirty degree slope and the Haribo were in even more danger of flying away than of being snaffled. Following the classic Druid’s schedule, day 3 was a clear, crisp day, dry and bright but absolutely fucking freezing. FREEZING. So, almost as good weather to be standing out in for hours as incessant rain.

God it was fun though. Wendi, a stalwart of XNRG races, is like your friend’s hilarious mum who you sort of wish was your mum. We were messing around so much I only just got the signage and timing pad set up in time for the first runner through, and as the checkpoint is at the bottom of a long downward slope they were barrelling past us – I had to move up the hill to allow for reaction time, they were that fast. As was to be expected the field was more stretched out than yesterday, and by the time we got halfway through my toes (even in their two pairs of socks and thick boots) were already blocks of ice, and my writing basic caveman smudges through my heavy duty gloves.

There was an addition to the timing system this year: a tracker held by the runner at the back of the field which, in the absence of cutoffs, allowed us to see roughly how long we should stay open, avoiding the risk of closing up too early or hanging around for ages unnecessarily. It’s a fairly low tech system which relies on the last runner handing it to whomever they overtake; on the other hand, the tracker had been in the reliable hands of Elaine for days 1 and 2 so we weren’t too worried about losing it. In fact, we learned over the wireless (Whatsapp) that Elaine had company for the day: Marie-Claude, the girl who looked like she wasn’t going to drop out so much as drop dead the day before, had swapped her trail shoes for her hiking boots and every layer of clothing she had, and joined Elaine to enjoy the rest of the Ridgeway at a leisurely pace.

The third day had really started to take its toll on people, and there were at least three dropouts at our station – injured knees and swollen feet scattered around the trail like the aftermath of a battlefield. As I ticked off each race number, either as they passed or were reported on Whatsapp as a dropout from checkpoint one, my runner bingo card became a tally of the most weary, pained and battered people I’d ever seen. Eventually we were down to a group of four colleagues who were hiking together, who passed through smiling as benignly as if they were on a Sunday stroll – actually I almost mistook them for dogwalkers, they were so laid back – and shortly afterwards, the cheerful grins of Marie-Claude and Elaine. I’ve often commented on Elaine’s particular brand of good-natured, matronly stamina, but together they were giggling like schoolgirls who’d snuck away from double Physics. In fact, they were having so much fun that their pace had increased fairly drastically since the first leg – drastically enough that their second wind later turned out to be enough to overtake the Sunday strollers. That’s the final ingredient in a successful ultramarathon – a pinch of childish fun. Because how else do you forget about the lows?

Having seen them safely off we packed up, and I drove back to base to clock my final shift of the weekend: being the Mrs Overall of HQ once again. I feel like I might have been given a slightly charmed rota since all I seemed to do was chat to runners and serve them coffee; but I reflected later than perhaps my impression of volunteering at a race involved a lot more hardship than I thought it would. Don’t get me wrong, it was still ten times tougher than running the bloody thing – and if I’ve heard a single piece of advice about ultras I feel qualified to pass on it’s that you should always smile at the checkpoint volunteers – but it was worth it to appreciate just how much effort goes into this very very complex operation designed to give a small bunch of nutters a good time. And it’s the tip of the iceberg – I turned up on the day and followed a rota and did what I was told. My professional experience tells me that months of preparation and negotiation went into getting the race permit and selling the places, securing the stopover venues, working out and then booking the logistics, sorting out the food and drink supplies, assembling and organising the volunteer team, reorganising them when people pulled out at late notice – never mind the details.

Only when I started for home, very nearly suppertime and all I’d eaten was thieved Haribo and cake, did I start to dive off the crest of adrenalin I’d been surfing all weekend. My lack of fitness and training sent me into a downward spiral at the beginning of this year that became so bad I couldn’t even bear to look at my running club’s social media posts, I was in such a grimy well of self pity. The idea of volunteering to keep in touch when you can’t run always seemed like a good one on paper, but I just couldn’t bear watching other people do the things I wanted to be doing; like watching the ex that broke your heart in a shiny new relationship. Druids was the one event that I felt would be worse to miss altogether than to be involved with in some way, and I’m so glad I got stuck in. It might not have been an entirely altruistic gesture, offering to volunteer just to cheer myself up, but I hope at least it was a mutually beneficial act. Like sharing a smile at the aid station, a good deed – however selfish the motive – cannot help but spread goodwill.

Still though… my Pilgrim’s entry went in the very next day. I’m gonna earn my cake this time.