Druids Challenge part 2

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Click here for part 1

The alarm is set for 6am but I don’t need it. I’ve woken up every couple of hours since the lights went off at 10pm – not because of discomfort this time, just my overactive mind swinging between vivid action-packed dreams and anxiety attacks. I have episodes of Spaced on my iPad to listen to (I know them so well I don’t need to watch) and they occupy my brain just long enough for me to fall asleep again, with the added benefit of my earphones blocking out the sound of snoring. But it’s not long before my thoughts bustle in and shake me awake, heart racing and ears pounding, and I have to start the whole cycle again.

The walkers and early start group are up and about around half past five – I try to stay under the covers until at least quarter to six but eventually give up and go for breakfast. There’s hot porridge and an array of cereals available, as well as leftover apple crumble from last night’s dessert; if you’ve never tried apple crumble for breakfast you’re missing out. I try porridge – usually a staple of mine for breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack – but for some reason can’t stomach it and am forced to switch to Weetabix and honey which I peck at like a bird. I scoop two spoonfuls of instant coffee into a paper cup and top up with water from the urn and plenty of milk. It’s not quite as good as Caffe Nero’s extra shot large skinny latte, but it’ll do.

Sam is still stubbornly cocooned in his sleeping bag when I get back to the main room, despite the fact that the lights are on and the majority of runners are shuffling about – I don’t know how he sleeps through it. The early starters are due to receive their briefing and be on their way. There’s still plenty of time before I need to be getting ready for the group two briefing but I know from experience how much longer it takes to do simple tasks the morning after a big run, so I’m not wasting any time. I move as if underwater: deliberately, gently supported by the atmosphere, unable to fall but not totally in control.

A quick systems check. I’m not aching anywhere, despite yesterday‘s hot pace. My muscles aren’t feeling too fatigued, my joints are fine, even the pain in my back from yesterday’s train journey has disappeared. Now I’ve had some breakfast and washed my face I’m more lucid, waking up as sun cracks through the clouds outside. For the first time, there’s no nervousness. Well, that’s not entirely true – there’s a little excitement, but no crippling stomach cramps or quickening heart at the thought of today’s task. Just eagerness to get on.

A hundred past versions of me ask how I’m going to run 27 miles of trail, how I’m going to keep up a good enough pace not to lose position, what about the wind and the rain and the mud and the hills, all that negative Nelly bullshit. Not this me. The me that lines up outside the school for the second day briefing can’t wait to get going.

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I decided to play day two with a little more caution: accept a drop in the standings but exercise damage limitation. I was aware that the majority of the runners will have taken it easy on day one, hoping to make up time on the relatively flat course today. If I’m honest, I much prefer proper steep hills – something I can march up and sprint down – compared with gentle rolling runnable hills that gradually suck energy without you noticing. But, well, you run the course you’re given not the one you wish you had. Tomorrow would be my day.

It was pissing down when the walkers set off at 7am, but by the time we left the school gates at 8am the promised downpour seemed to have taken a tea break and a bright grey sky looked down on us. I stayed towards the front of the pack as we left the school gates again and ran up the high street on our way back to the Ridgeway trail, but resolved to stick to ten minute miles. Another Chaser, Chris, joined the pack to do day two and ran with me for the first half mile, before gunning it to finish seventh overall for that stage. Gradually more and more of the women passed me but I counted them all through and kept in touch. The first section was sharp ups and downs through sheltered singletrack before dropping down to the flat riverside path, and this would be my playground.

Then, only nine miles in, a minor disaster – while I was enjoying hammering down a short hill, I felt a familiar needle working its way between my ribs and knew I had a stitch coming on. Damnit. Within moments I was buckled over and forced to breathe only in short shallow breaths. No more downhill hammering for me – and no enjoying the payoff of seven miles of climbing either. Bastard bloody *gasp* stupid little bah bah *gasp* bah stitch *gasp* bastard… I chuntered on for a good couple of miles, watching runner after runner overtake me. It was so irritating to be humbled by something as pathetic as a stitch that I tried running through it, which obviously made the stitch fight back and strangle my diaphragm even more. Conceding defeat, I walked it off and picked up the pace again just in time for the track to open out onto the Thames.

Race Director and Extreme Energy‘s head honcho Neil Thubron had warned us that the middle third felt like it went on forever; despite being the lowest, flattest point of the whole Ridgeway, it was boggy, exposed and straight. As if to further illustrate his point, the storm finished its tea break and clocked back in with a vengeance – winds coming from three directions, rain like bullets, visibility so bad even Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t drive through it. I actually had to pull the hood of my waterproof over my lucky QPR cap to stop it from being lifted off my head, despite having my hair pulled through it to anchor it, and I still had to keep my eyes on my feet to avoid going into the drink. The conditions were pretty miserable. But then I remembered something else Neil said – once you reach the second aid station you were at the end of that section, about to turn back into the woods and away from the exposed riverbank. So now there were two reasons to dream about the familiar white gazebo and trestle tables full of snacks.

The new me was still in charge at this point – unlike old Jaz, I wasn’t too bothered about the storm really, except for the fact that the wind literally took me off my feet a few times and I had to fight to stay vertical. I was a bit disappointed to miss the beautiful views of the Thames, the houseboats and the gorgeous villages of North Stoke, South Stoke and Goring and there was absolutely no chance of getting my phone out for photos. Still though, I was here to run the race I signed up for, and I was running the same race as everyone else. In the words of Dory, just keep swimming.

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Photo courtesy of Extreme Energy

Coming into the second aid station at Goring was like entering a different universe – as suddenly as it had arrived, the storm let up and I even managed to pick up some salted pretzels without them disintegrating in my hands. The stitch long gone, my muscles were still fresh and enjoying the runout. This last stretch would be slightly different though; unlike the morning’s funfair-esque ups and downs miles 17 through 27 would be a pretty much gradual and constant ascent all the way to the finish. It was dig in and climb time.

I knew that the stopover between days two and three was at a leisure centre – a few miles off the trail, so we would be bussed to the gym in waves after finishing the stage, stay overnight then be bussed back in the morning to resume. I heard lots of stories from seasoned Druiders – temperamental showers, long queues, free sauna but cold gym – but the only thing that stuck with me were the words “swimming pool”. We would have run of the centre, including use of the swimming pool, and all I could focus on was being able to squeeze in a gentle few laps at the end of the day. I can only just swim – in fact, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Andy showed me the difference between staying afloat with doggy paddle and actually propelling myself forward in the water – but I wasn’t exactly planning on racing anyone. I just wanted to be submerged in water that hadn’t come from the sky or a puddle in the ground, and give my muscles a break. If it sounds like a weird thing to crave after spending two days running through rain, then call me a weirdo.

September’s New Forest Marathon was the first time I had run a marathon without my earphones in, and I didn’t explode then so it must have been safe. I realised, halfway through day two of Druids, that I hadn’t had them in all weekend, and more than that I wasn’t missing them either. I hadn’t even had anyone to chat to, apart from brief snatches of conversation as me and the other ladies passed each other. My soundtrack was my thoughts, interspersed with Modest Mouse’s Float On which Andy had been playing in the car on Friday morning during the ten minute drive to Clapham Junction station. It was surprisingly liberating, allowing my thoughts to play out underscored by the steady rhythm and anthemic lyrics of the song. Another small victory for me, weaning myself off of music and the need to distract myself from running; finally, I was actually enjoying the moment itself, storm and all. I was alone with my thoughts and for the first time, not tortured by them. I always try to smile when I see marshals or people at aid stations, but this weekend it wasn’t an effort to smile at all.

I passed two remarkable challengers as I started plodding methodically up the hill; one was Mal Smith, a regular at Challenge Hub races who I had seen at both the Moonlight Challenge and 50 Mile challenge this year, wearing a harness and dragging Tommy the Tyre behind him. That’s right; he and his companion Alfredo would complete the 84 miles while each pulling a tractor tire behind them, up hills, through bog and over stiles, to raise money for Age UK. Every day I saw them I waved and smiled, and every day I got a wave and a smile back, despite the combined thirty hours they would spend out on the course, three times as long as the eventual winner. It’s a good reminder not to be ungracious however crap you feel during a race.

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Lifted by a second wind – both figurative and literal – I reached the final checkpoint feeling upbeat and singing tunelessly along to Float On (or at least, the only bit of the song I could actually remember). The final section would be relatively short but it would be all uphill, fighting a sidewind as we now turned a sharp right heading north west. I could either smile or growl my way up it, and I knew what I’d rather see on the race photos. Still struggling to eat, I grabbed a fistful of sour Haribo to get me to the finish and thought about a dip in that swimming pool when I got back to base.

The last couple of miles were tough – unsteady ground and on an upward curve, as well as exposed and windy – but I powered up towards the white XNRG flags that seemed never to get closer until the very last minute. I crossed the line ten minutes quicker than the first day, although having run two fewer miles it was a drop in pace overall. Still though, I felt strong and with plenty in reserve for the final day. The ambulance at the top was ostensibly there for anyone suffering from exposure, but more importantly served tea and coffee for those waiting for a lift to the leisure centre – as far as I’m concerned a hot cup of coffee should be a staple in any first aid kit. It was one of the best cups of instant I’ve ever had in my life.

Sam had finished only a little over an hour ahead of me again, and had nabbed us two spots on the gym floor where I set up my campbed and quickly changed for a swim. I managed to get about ten seconds of tepid water to wash the worst of the dirt off me and skipped to the pool only to discover that it was closed for a little boy’s birthday party. The mums were plainly not impressed to find a lot of muddy runners in the communal (read: open) showers, and the runners, although not particularly shy around each other, felt a bit awkward bumping into the birthday boy in their birthday suits. I get the impression neither party was expecting the other to be there, or at least both thought they had booked the centre to the exclusion of all others. I tried to get something approaching a shower without embarrassing myself and went for a massage while I waited for the pool to reopen, trying not to be too grumpy cat about it and feeling a little bit sorry for the boy.

Apparently the mums weren’t overjoyed to find the massage team stationed upstairs outside the sauna either, and complained about the indecent display of oily limbs and groaning runners, but there wasn’t much anybody was prepared to do about that – without those daily 15 minute rubs, there’s almost no way I would have been able to carry on. Eventually the little boy and his very unorthodox birthday party took their leave and immediately I was back in my swimming costume and plunging into the now uncomfortably cold water. It took my breath away for a minute, but it was absolutely worth the wait. Six laps later I emerged feeling like someone had stuck my head on a brand new body, just in time for dinner.

In one final kick to the balls, the caterers were told they couldn’t cook in the space that had been set up for them so they prepared sausage pasta, potatoes and salad, and four different kinds of pudding in the van and schlepped the whole lot up to the makeshift canteen. It all felt a little bit wartime but if I’m honest, it made the whole experience even more fun, and the XNRG team never failed to deliver on any of their promises, not a single one. That evening there were two speakers lined up: Rory Coleman, who had supported Sir Ranulph Fiennes during the 2015 Marathon des Sables and who had himself completed the race 12 times; and previous winner of Druids (and all round loveliest man ever) Nathan Montague, talking about his win at the Kalahari Desert Marathon. I wasn’t too bothered about the MdS but I wanted to hear from Nathan – unfortunately, a change to the running order meant I got there too late to hear him speak so retired to my campbed with Chrissie Wellington’s biography for a bit of inspiration and put my feet up.

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I’m more convinced than ever that multi-day races are the one for me, but one of the best things about the weekend (despite my being nervous about talking to strangers) was actually the isolated, shut-away from normal society side effect of spending three days with other running geeks. That’s not a very marketable way of explaining it, but I can’t quite find the words that celebrate how much fun it was to sleep on cold floors with 150 snoring runners for three days, talking about stage splits and recounting old races. I got to indulge myself without feeling guilty about boring my friends, and I got it out of my system long before I got home. It’s an experience I would highly recommend, especially in the safe hands of Neil and his team, and I can see now the intrigue of the MdS. Still though, you’re not getting me out in the desert for any amount of money. Mud every day for me please.

So that was day two, the hump day, the toughest course. I had only slipped one place to ninth in the overall standings, and a top ten finish was still within reach. All I had to do was the same thing all over again. I do like a routine.

Click here for part 3

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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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