Pilgrim Challenge – part 1

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What would I even have to write on these race reports if I didn’t have public transport to grumble about? Not even a 2 day, 66 mile trail event through the most stunning scenery inside the M25 could upstage my hatred of public transport.

I’ve made my peace with the preparation stage of races. If you can get hold of your nutritionally perfect pre race meal, or do your yoga routine exactly 9 hours and 17 minutes before the race starts, or sleep in your own portable oxygen tent, then good for you; but if you have any sort of life you probably have to take what you’re given and hope it doesn’t give you the shits. You might be lucky enough to have a car and be able to drive to bumfuck nowhere, and you might even find parking there, but if not – and you still insist on traipsing around the woods in the depths of winter – you might have to brave the train.

A few weeks out from the Pilgrim Challenge I looked up trains to Farnham and saw that there was a direct train from my home station, and I would be just about safe to make the pre-race briefing at 8.30 on the Saturday morning. Lovely jubbly. Then it was New Year, which South West Trains celebrated with a prolonged series of engineering works closing the line down every weekend until further notice. Suddenly the options were narrowed down to a) leave at 5am and still be late or b) go the night before. Which means a Friday night commuter train. Which means everyone hates you and wishes you dead.

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After a hectic week at work and a last minute five-thirty-on-a-Friday job, I jumped on the train as soon as it was announced to find a spot where me and my enormous hiking pack would be slightly less in the way. No baggage racks that would take it, no standing gaps to speak of. The train started to fill up with grumpy, tired, weekending commuters, and I mentally wrote my obituary.

Thankfully a Kind Man came to my rescue by shunting the pack into a gap between seats that I would have had no chance at reaching. He warned me that the 18:55 gets pretty full at least as far as Woking, with a slightly feral demeanour and a war vet twitch in one eye, and retreated to a safe distance. Just in time for an Important Man to bustle in, spend fully ten minutes arranging his newspapers then take the seat next to me, and half of mine with it. I clearly needn’t have worried.

All’s well that ends well, as someone said once, and within an hour I was settled into my hotel in Farnham with fellow Chaser and trail club leader Cat, making excited squeaky noises and covering the room with random bits of running kit. Staying over the night before definitely turned out to be the right call – despite me waking up in the morning to what sounded like my pet budgies and then feeling a bit homesick when I realised it wasn’t them – when we peered out of the window to a blanket of powdery white snow.

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We were picked up from Farnham station by the Extreme Energy fun bus and shuttled straight to the starting line, the first sign of just how well we would be looked after over the weekend. Two marquees set up next to the starting pen were the first point of call for runners to pick up their race numbers, electronic tags and cups of hot coffee before leaving it to the last possible minute to brave the freezing weather outside, and I mean freezing. Buffs, double gloves, gaiters, long tights, layers upon layers of clothing, still everyone shivered violently as we waited for the off. I had stuck stubbornly with my short shorts (they’ve never let me down yet) and faced hypothermia with defiance.

To start the race we would beating a path through settling snow and cutting across private farmland before picking up the North Downs Way. I played a game with myself where I tried to keep Cat in view for as long as possible, which I lost almost as soon as we crossed the road. And then remembered she is Superwoman, and I am not, and I was meant to be pacing myself for thirty three steady but treacherous trail miles. Twice.

Thinking about the enormity of the challenge lying ahead is a dangerous move – not that the distance particularly freaks me out, but even my slightly warped brain has trouble processing what to do with sixty plus miles ahead of me. Instead I broke it down into chunks between checkpoints, each of them a separate and manageable 6-10 mile race, knowing that at the end there’d be opportunity for a rest and time to stuff my pockets with salted pretzels, peanut butter sandwiches and sausage rolls. Funnily enough though, every now and again I felt like if I stopped I could never get going again, but as soon as I’d hit a checkpoint and stuffed my mush I’d be raring to go as if back at the beginning of the race, almost without pausing for breath. Somehow, just having something to look forward to gave me the energy to push on. Especially as that something was food.

Quite happy to drift off into my own little world for a while and enjoy the scenery, I suddenly realised this was my first snow all winter, living as I do in tropical south west London. I couldn’t help but grin. As I’ve said before, ultra running keeps giving me more and more reasons to indulge my inner child: tearing down hills, eating peanut butter and jelly babies and drinking orange squash, getting covered in mud without feeling guilty, and now snow. There’s your fountain of youth.

And under the snow, cheekily hidden beneath the crisp crust, there lay icy puddles and mud.

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I’ve had a fair few run ins with mud in my running career so far – looking back through my blog posts I found the one on Bromley 10k in January last year and my first attempt at the Moonlight Challenge six weeks afterwards, and I was reminded of that totally hopeless Atreyu-in-the-bog impression and my abject failure to cope. Something about the way it was pulling my feet down, like running in double gravity, just destroyed me mentally. But I’ve put myself through a lot of mud in the last twelve months and made it my friend – the mud along the North Downs Way more than any other – and I even found myself feeling stronger for attacking the boggiest sections and occasionally skipping past other runners. I also remembered the lesson that I learned on the Moonlight Challenge: the faster you go across mud the less you come in contact with it. In other words, get a bloody move on and stop whinging.

The other big challenge I decided to tackle in a completely different way: with a total of 66 miles and just under 6000 feet of elevation to cover, there was no point in wasting my energy running up every hill, and there were plenty of the buggers. Sure, I jogged over the first few undulations feeling smug, but I knew as soon as I hit Guildford that effort saving mode would be the key, all the while putting out of mind the impending climb up Box Hill around mile 21. My trusty tactic of running hills to effort – trudge up, tear down – was as successful as I could have hoped. Successful, in that I didn’t collapse in a heap when faced with the first of 268 stairs.

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As thoughtful as it was of someone to build steps for climbing Box Hill, I had to placate my grumbling quads with the thought that at least I’d be going down them tomorrow, which is basically my favourite thing of all things ever. That being said I don’t think it was the elevation that I struggled with so much as the succession of false endings. Only a few more steps to go, then I’m at the top of the hill. What’s this, round the corner? Oh look, more bastard steps. Plainly I cannot count to 268.

Actually, it wasn’t even climbing Box Hill that brought me closest to a nervous breakdown that weekend. Did you know that when you get to the top of Box Hill there’s another little hill just beyond it? Can’t be more than a quarter of a mile long, but it’s almost as high, with a gradient like a painter’s ladder. A band of hikers coming the other way cheerfully informed me I was nearly at the top, as I literally crawled up on all fours. Quite possibly I spat at them.

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But once you reach the top, all there is to do is go back down again. At least, figuratively and literally, going downhill is what it felt like. My Garmin disagrees; according to him we had another fair old climb, not to mention 11 more miles to run, but I have absolutely no recollection of this. At some point there would have been the old faithful downhill at Denbies wine estate – a particular favourite spot, can’t imagine why – looking out over glorious acres of vines all dusted with snow like icing sugar on a Yule log. Despite my hazy memory I remember that image vividly, and I remember thinking that I should take a photo and then deciding not to stop and lose momentum, and that the mental image was strong enough I’d never need a photo to remember it. Flawless logic for an exhausted, frozen, mileage-addled brain.

A brain that was to thoroughly let me down, just a couple of miles from the end. I’d veered off course a few times but not in any way that I couldn’t recover from, usually because other runners who weren’t too stupid to read directions would call me back or point me in the right direction. The North Downs Way is pretty easy to follow when you’re out on the downs proper; contrary to what you’d think, those parts were the easiest to navigate. But as soon as it crossed civilisation of any kind – crossing a road, going through a private estate, coinciding with a footpath – I would be stymied by sign blindness and suddenly unable to navigate a road going in only one direction.

Which is exactly how I managed to follow the signs leading us out of the Gatton Park School grounds not back onto the North Downs Way, but instead onto a tiny country road with a 50mph speed limit and not quite enough room for two cars and a pedestrian to pass. This is not a problem for the cars. It IS a problem for the pedestrian.

Looking back up the road I suddenly noticed I’d been running alone along a dwindling grass verge, following some orange arrows from another race, for a good fifteen minutes. Given that going back the way I came would mean a) going uphill and b) more miles on feet that were already numb with cold, I decided to sprint to the relatively safety of the other end of the road where I could ring the race director and beg for directions, thereby admitting that I’m a massive numpty. Neil was so graceful, kind and patient while working out where I was and how to get me back on track, I was torn between wanting to find and thank him when I got back to base and avoiding owning up to being the prat who ran a mile and a half down a high road.

So far, and yet so close. My little detour meant I’d had to give up on the vague target of six and a half hours, but since I’d managed to get lost just as we were due to turn into Merstham I was only a few winding streets away from the end. Rejoining the Pilgrim Challenge runners in the village I realised that because of the lack of other runners on the high road I’d been assuming I was dead last, rather than noticing I was just in the wrong place, which is why I plugged on in the wrong direction for so long. Of course I wasn’t last. Sprinting up to the finish line at the doors of the school after six hours and thirty seven minutes I found a fair few pairs of muddy trail shoes lined up, but over half the field still out in the freezing cold.

The challenge welcomes walkers as well as runners, so long after I’d had my nice hot shower, eaten a nourishing pasta dinner and tucked myself up in my sleeping bag with my compression socks and book there were three brave, hardy souls still out on the Downs. They eventually finished the first day in just over thirteen hours, having started an hour earlier than most of the runners and due to start again at 7am the next morning. Let me be clear: these are remarkable, awesome people. Any chump can run as fast as possible to get to a nice warm sleeping bag at the end. Staying out in the freezing weather, open to the elements and the pitch darkness, knowing there’s maybe five hours of sleep between finishing this leg and starting it all over again, is an unfathomable kind of tough.

So that was me done for day 1. A bit sore, not quite as sociable as I’d hoped to be that evening and rueing my lack of camp bed on the hard gym floor, but I was halfway there. Now all I had to do was the same thing all over again, in reverse. Even as I fell asleep, I couldn’t bloody wait to wake up again.

Click here for day 2…

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