Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Pilgrims' Challenge - February 2012

Despite all of the turkey and other frivolities of the festive season, I have been surprisingly good and kept up with my training. But I was very excited to finally get back down to racing at the Pilgrims' Challenge race, a 2 day event organised by Extreme Energy (XNRG) along the North Downs Way. The race itself is a 33 mile run from Farnham to Merstham on the first day, followed by running back again the following day. With a total height gain of 6,700 ft each day, it was a great way to get a few hills onto the legs. There were three starting groups, and I had been placed into the "elite" group (ha!), starting a little later in the morning. This meant that I got a nice long lie-in until 5am, then drove straight down to the start line.

A festival atmosphere at the start (right down to the dodgy portaloos...)

It was pretty chilly (down to -9 degrees C I believe), and I got some funny looks turning up in shorts and a long sleeved t-shirt. I wanted to try and limit the amount that I had to carry, so used a handheld bottle and my small Salamon pack with a small amount of water (for backup), my teeny tiny Montane jacket, and a couple of gels. I had downloaded the GPS route onto my Garmin as I was determined to not suffer my usual geographical embarrassment, and was all set to go.

We lined up ready to go, and I found myself standing right at the front for some unknown reason. Before I had a chance to sneak back a bit, we were off! We ran to the end of the field, and I found myself leading the pack for 200 meters (enjoy it while it lasts!), up to the first arrow indicating a left turn. I turned 90 degrees left, only to notice that everybody else had turned even further and were heading off across the field. Doh! A wrong turn already at a signposted section - not a good start! I dropped in with the front pack of about 7 runners, and we pulled away at a fair old pace (sub-7 minute miles in some places). I wasn't sure what to expect from the course, but I wanted to take advantage of the flatter sections whilst I could.

And they're off!

The course was icy and firm, but not slippery, which made it very runnable. The first 10 miles or so was relatively easy going, undulating but with no big hills to worry about. At about mile 10, we found ourselves climbing for a couple of miles, up to the highest point of the course. Running across the tops of the hills provided excellent views of the surrounding countryside, which was fantastic in the early morning sun. We soon came back down again heading towards the A24 at the bottom of Box Hill, where the course took a definite turn for the beastly. After hopping across the stepping stones (which was apparently the wrong way, but a lot more fun than the quicker route that we were supposed to take), I took off up the hill. Very slowly. Not much of this section was runnable, with wooden slats buried into the earth to form steps all the way up.

At about this time, I started to feel a bit the worse for wear. My legs felt fine, but I started suffering from a painful stitch which was making it difficult to run as fast as I would have wanted. The Monday before the race I had run a 55 mile section of the Thames Path 100 mile race that I will be taking part in in a few weeks and suffered the same issue due to a bad stomach ache. I guess I hadn't quite recovered. In hindsight, running 50+ miles 5 days before a 66 mile race probably wasn't the greatest plan, but hey ho!

But I was able to push on down the hill to the bottom of the next big climb up Reigate hill. But from the summit onwards, it was all downhill for the last few miles to the finish. As we came into Marstham, I was caught up by another runner and together we headed through the town towards the finish. I feel like we were both pushing each other and trying to break away, but as we got to the finishing straight I kicked into full on finishing mode, coming through the line with a 5:30 min/mile pace to a shout of "Aah! You've got me!" from behind. I finished the first day in 4:48:59 which I was very happy with given my stomach issues. I was especially happy to find out that this was 1 minute quicker than last year's winning time of 4:49:55 from Mark Collinson (the winner of last year's South Downs Way 100 miler). I came in 6th overall for the day which just goes to show the high level of the runners taking part - the winning time was a crazy fast time of about 4:03:52.

Because of the multiple start times, I came across many other runners and walkers along the route, which was quite interesting as most races that I have run in I rarely see anybody! The aid stations were well stocked and the volunteers were all incredibly helpful and friendly. I got straight through the checkpoints without hanging around, stopping at only one to fill up my bottle. Through the whole route, I ate a small piece of Soreen and a couple of crisps, as well as a single GU gel. No wonder I was so hungry afterwards!

Navigation was not too bad, although there were some sections where the route branched and it wasn't always obvious which was the correct path to take. For the first half, I kept up with the front packers, but by the latter half I was left to my own devices. The GPS data worked well at giving me a general feel for when I was heading in the right direction, but it was still possible to go off course. There were also a few times were the GPS took me in completely the wrong direction, but I didn't have any serious cock-ups. The biggest problem that I ran into was when crossing the A24. I had not read the route description handed out at the start carefully enough which specifically says to use the subway to cross the road. Unfortunately the GPS says to go straight across, which is exactly what I did. I felt quite bad when I found out I had inadvertently cheated, so I took a 4 minute penalty on my overall time.

As the runners finished, we all gathered in St Nicholas school's sports hall, where a refugee camp of sorts was taking shape. I brought a little camp bed with me, and had a few curious glances as I put it together, followed by a few envious glances as people realised they were stuck on the hard wooden floor. The evening was great fun, catching up with everybody and being able to talk incessantly about running without annoying people. It was great to catch up with runners from other races, including Mark who I last saw half asleep in a hotel room following his stonking run at SDW last year. It also gave me an opportunity to meet some of the runners I have gotten to know on Facebook and Twitter, many of whom I am running with in some of my upcoming races (the Viking Way in particular is working to bring all of the competitors together, as it might well be the only way that any of us will survive it!), including the marvellous Mimi Anderson, Allen Rumbles, Jennifer Bradley and James Adams. James recently completed a run across America, running from LA to New York over 70 days, and gave us an inspirational presentation of his experiences during dinner. I particularly liked his nutrition plan of a Big Mac a day...

During dinner, the heavens suddenly opened and we hit by a sudden snow storm. I heard a few people saying that it was snowing, but it wasn't until I finally went outside that I realised quite how heavy it was. Neil put us on standby for the following day as the logistics of checkpoint locations had to be reconfigured. The XNRG crew did stellar work to keep the race from being cancelled, working through the night to recce the route and make the necessary changes, putting checkpoints on main roads which would be easier to get to by car. Instead of the three starting times, it was decided to send everybody off together at 8am. Unfortunately I was a bit late getting this information and missed breakfast thinking I still had another hour. I did manage to cobble together a small bowl of cornflakes though, which was something at least.

 Freezing at the start c/o Mimi Anderson

As we lined up for the start, I really wasn't feeling great. I hadn't slept well, and my stomach was still feeling a bit funny. I decided to see how I got on, but if I ran into trouble I would slow down and not worry about the race. Having said that, one look around me was enough to take my mind off these minor issues. The snow had turned the surrounding area and countryside into a real winter wonderland, with freshly fallen snow all around us. It looked amazing - but how would it be to run in?

We headed off from the start, and the pace was noticeably slower as everybody was careful to keep their footing. Once again, a small group of us broke off from the pack and headed off into the wilderness. I ran with Mark for a while, but he soon took off chasing down the front runners. It might as well have been a completely different route going back, as the snow had changed everything completely. Overall, the profile on the return leg should have been easier and most of the hills were actually quite runnable, but the snow had a definite affect on things. In some places, it was over a foot deep so trudging through it was quite energy sapping, and the downhills had to be taken a lot more carefully to avoid wiping out. In particular, people were being particularly careful on the Box Hill steps, as a slight slip would mean a very painful (although quick I suppose...) trip to the bottom. I confess that I was possibly a little blasé about this section, relying on the lugs of my Salamon Speedcross 2 shoes to grip the steps, and was able to gain some time on some of the other runners (without dying which was a bonus). I had two slight navigational misgivings on the return leg, and unfortunately took two other runners down with me on both occasions. In both cases, it was following the GPS that caused the problem which was a little annoying, although neither detours were particularly bad (Justin, one of the unfortunate runners caught up in my wake, actually went on to come second that day).

 Running in a winter wonderland! c/o Mimi Anderson

As I came to the last checkpoint, I grabbed a couple of pieces of popcorn and headed for the final 5 miles. I knew that this section was quite flat, so was able to pick up the pace without fear of crashing and burning on an upcoming hill. I hadn't seen anybody for a while, so there was nobody to chase to the end, so I just stayed at a nice comfortable pace to enjoy the rest of the race. As I came into Farnham, I saw the arrows pointing me towards the finish. I ran down the field and through the line to a lovely cheer from the runners ahead of me, finishing 6th again in a time of 5:48:19 - almost an hour longer than the first day, and less than 20 minutes behind Wouter Decock's winning time of 5:30:29. The overall results put me in 5th place out of about 250 competitors with a combined time of 10:37:18, which I was very happy with. I do feel that I probably could have run a little quicker in some sections if I didn't have the stomach problems (wah wah wah...), so I will hopefully be able to shift it before the Thames Path in a few weeks. The overall winner was Gwyn Davies in a cracking time of 9:42:48, with Adrien Savery in second (10:06:45) and Mark Collinson in third (10:13:54).

I was just waiting to be pelted by snowballs the whole way round c/o Mimi Anderson

All in all, the weekend was a fantastic event, with amazing organisation from Neil, Anna and the rest of the XNRG team. The extra effort that they put in to deal with the snow was fantastic, and I applaud them for going all out to make sure that they didn't have to cancel. As Neil said in the briefing, if they had cancelled we all would probably have run it anyway! And the icing on an already fantastic cake was the burger van at the end, where I decided to try out James' nutritional advice. By that time, all I had eaten was a small bowl of cornflakes, a handful of popcorn, and 3 gels, so that was one tasty burger! Noms!

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