Race Report from The Pilgrim Challenge 2015, day 1 (31.01.15)

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After signing up for the NDW100 this August a friend sent me a link for Pilgrim Challenge, a two day ultra marathon. At first I was sceptical, remembering the Thames Trot race last year, where we ended up running  in the Thames  than along it. However, the more I found out about the race, the more tempting it sounded.  The Pilgrim Challenge consists of running 33 miles on the muddy North Downs Way, a communal meal and motivational lectures in the evening, before sleeping on the floor of a school gym. Early the next day you run back to the start again, with stiff legs and still-wet shoes. If you are now thinking «weirdo» – my favourite kind of holiday is hiking in the Norwegian mountains, staying in self service cabins with no electricity or running water. (However, I draw the line at camping.)

Sadly, by the time I registered the 2 day event was already full, but I could register for one of the days. I chose Saturday. When signing up you had to predict how long it would take you to run 33 miles. I cannot remember what  I put on my form, I think I just chose a number at random. The organisers were obviously impressed, because they put me in the elite start. Bearing in mind the two consecutive personal worsts in my last races I chose to turn up an hour early for the mass start. I feared that if I started with the elites I would feel pressured to go off at a too high pace, which I am prone to anyway, and then tank towards the end. Or, maybe even worse, being unable to run at a fast pace at all and just shuffle along, far, far behind everyone else.

On the train from London to Farnham the train passengers could be divided into two categories: runners and people returning home from a night out in London, still drunk. From Farnham station two minibuses shuttled us to the start for an hour of the traditional pre-race queing to register, use the portaloos, and then the portaloos again, just in case. When coming out of the portaloos the second time the other runners were lining up at the start and the pre-race briefing was underway. It was like someone had pressed the mute button, we could see lips moving, but did not hear a sound. With only a minute to go before the start the information did not have time to trickle down to the runners at the back, I just had to hope all the important bits were included in the route notes.

As we started my feet and hands were completely numb, and I was really grateful the organisers had not made me wait the extra hour for the elite start. The weather forecast said partly overcast and no precipitation. The reality was a very cloudy sky with cold, wet things falling from it. Probably my fault: I brought sunglasses.

The masses started at a very slow pace, and I worked my way impatiently up the field. As the runners started to spread out a familiar phenomenon occured; I would spot some runners in front, catch up with the intention of having some company for a while, only for the runner(s) in front to apologise and step aside. I forced a Dane called Lars to stay with me for a couple of miles by chatting with him in Norwegian, but after departing the first check point at 8,6 miles I was running more or less alone. This tends to freak me out as I then have to navigate rather than just following the runner(s) in front blindly. However, I soon realised that as long as I was paying attention to the signposts, and backtracked and/or asked passing walkers and runners for help as soon as doubt set in, there was no real danger of getting really lost. Trees felled by the wind blocking the path and snow were the main sources of confusion, as it sometimes seemed that the path came to an end just in front of me.

St Martha's Church after 10,2 miles
St Martha’s Church after 10,2 miles

Between CP 1 and 2 I felt really comfortable, that wonderful feeling of being able to go on forever. However, when checking my Suunto it seemed my pace was really slow, only covering about  1 1/2 mile in 40 minutes. Then I realised I had accidentally paused my watch for about 40 minutes. I compared my stats with those of a runner I passed, and it seemed my watch was off by about 5 miles. In additon I had forgotten to switch from metric to imperial units, so from there on I would check my watch, convert from km to miles, and then add the 5 missing miles – a welcome distraction as I became more and more tired.

After CP 2, after 18,8 miles, I felt less wonderful. The surface underfoot had in the beginning been partially frozen, with enough mud on top to require some extra muscle work, but not enough to risk losing a shoe. There were also a couple of sections with loose, sandy soil, so some training runs on sandy beaches will be useful when preparing for the NDW. In the last section of the race the ground had thawed more, and been churned up by the runners in front. In addition, there were lots of rocks and pebbles hidden in the mud. Inevitably, I caught my toe on one of them and took a nosedive. I got the wind knocked out of me for a little while, but luckily there were no cuts, bruises or witnesses to the incident. Some miles later I had a sideways slide as well, adding to my collection of mud stains. The falls were not the worst, the slippery surfaces combined with the steepest hills of the day had my glutes and calves working overtime (now I know which muscles to prioritise in my strength workouts) and cramps became an imminent threat. I would rather forget the 268 steps going up Boxhill. It helped to think of the 4444 steps going up from Florli in Lysefjorden, knowing it could have been much, much worse. Also, although the mud was tiring, it was a pleasant surprise that there were more proper trails and fewer, and shorter, sections on tarmac than I expected.

You can catch a glimpse of my back as I climb the Boxhill steps after about a minute and a half in this video. It also gives a good impression of how cold it was in the morning:

After the last, and possibly steepest, hill, I caught up with another runner again. He thought I would overtake, and seemed very grateful when I decided it was time to walk for a while. I was contemplating walking the rest of the way, there were only about 4 miles left, and I would still probably finish in under 6 hours, my main goal (the secondary being to finish before dark). However, the combination of having company and the usual desire to get to the finish as quickly as possible kept me going. I think we even managed to up the pace a little as we ran through Merstham to the finish.

The finishing time was 5 hrs 25 min, in other words I fulfilled the criteria for the elite group, which was defined as runners finishing in less than 6 hours. According to the preliminary results lists I was 8th female after day 1.  Finally a race going better than expected!

Bags waiting for their owners to finish day 1
Bags waiting for their owners to finish day 1
I brought all the mud back to the posh hotel in London
I brought all the mud back to the posh hotel in London
Ditto for the shoes
Ditto for the shoes

I hung around at the school for a while after finishing, until the RD (?) very kindly gave me and another runner a lift to the train station. There were free tea, coffee and cake for the runners, a tuck shop, massage, and accidentally unisex showers. When packing my finishline bag I completely forgot about the possibility of showering at the school, so I was still damp and covered in mud when returning to my hotel in London. Deprived of the opportunity to sleep on a hard, cold floor I chose the other extreme and took advantage of a last minute offer at a Hilton hotel. I now have a very big bed with very many pillows waiting for me, and some reward-for-my-first-ultra-this year-shopping to look forward to tomorrow.

Next year I will book early and not miss out on any of the fun.

Want to see more pictures? https://www.flickr.com/photos/xnrg/sets/

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