The Pilgrim Challenge has been on my list for a couple years.
Last year a stress fracture stopped me from running it just a week before the race, so this time I made sure to be well trained and ready to go.
It’s a 2 day race which sees its competitors run 50k along the North Downs Way on the first day, and 50k back on the second day. The course starts at Farnham and ends at a school in Merstham where the runners sleep.
From the Extreme Energy website’s description:
The North Downs Way was once trodden by pilgrims heading for Canterbury and travellers bound for Dover and the Continent. Today, the Pilgrim Challenge follows a glorious section of the ancient route, passing through countryside, picturesque villages and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Whether this is your first ultra of your hundredth, the stunning scenery of the North Downs will take your breath away and take you to new limits.
Friday night I packed my bag and prepared my running kit.
I brought with me a whole spare set of running clothes, gloves, hat and shoes (this probably saved me on the second day); I had a comfortable change of clothes for the evening, sleeping bag and mat. Thankfully I also thought of asking a friend to borrow an inflatable camping mattress!
On Saturday morning I arrived at around 7:30am at the race start to register as I wasn’t sure when I was supposed to start running.
It turns out I had to wait some time at the start tent because the event had different starting times depending on your expected race time: walkers (the real heroes) would start at 8am, runners at 9am and the faster “elite” runners group to which I was assigned at 10am.
It was a long wait and I was getting cold. The weather was around 0C with light rain and some wind… perfect conditions for a fast start.
I started running with a reasonably fast pace for the first 15 miles. It didn’t take long before we were overtaking the slowest walkers and medium runners. I was feeling strong and running in a group with another 4 people, which helped keep up the pace.
Around mile 15 I ran into the first problem: the onset of a stitch to my side was getting increasingly painful and slowing me down.
As it turns out this is the part of the run that I’m most proud of. This is when I made a good long term decision, instead of trying to run it out, considering that I was now on one of the only flat parts of the course, I decided it was best to walk for ten minutes and make sure that the pain would go away for good!
I let the people I was running with carry on, I put my hat and wind jacket on and forced myself to walk for 10 minutes.
After only 5 minutes I was ready to start running again but no… I had decided for 10 minutes and wanted to stick to that original plan and not risk having to stop again after a few miles!
In long distance running 10 minutes is not a big deal, on the other hand, not taking care of little issues can turn out into being a big problem later on.
As I was walking many runners were overtaking me but that didn’t matter as I was determined to do my race.
When I started running again my pace had slowed down a bit but I was starting to feel strong again.
I kept running steadily until the scary 275 steps of Box Hill, which I climbed hands over knees and then enjoyed a little of descent before the last hill.
At this point we started hitting serious mud up to our ankles.
I was running in a pair of Inov-8 Trailroc 255, which despite having reasonable grip were now slipping all over the place.
At mile 26 the strait upwards path was a complete mudslide, my foot slipped and the fall triggered the cramping of my tired left calf. My left leg completely spasmed, my foot was pointing strait out like a ballerina and I couldn’t reach my toes to pull my foot back. There was no one around to ask for help. I had to wait what seemed to be an endless amount of time (probably just 20 seconds) for the cramp to stop.
Then I slowly stood up, shook some mud off and started running again.
I knew I wasn’t too far from the last check point and just didn’t want to think about how much my leg was hurting so I just carried on.
After that last hill the last 4 miles were downhill and I was able to focus just on finishing the run and on the hot shower that was waiting for me.
The end of the run was at a school in Merstham where we were to spend the night sleeping in sleeping bags in the gym.
The first thing I did as I walked in the school, after taking my wet and muddy shoes off, was to put my name down for a massage, the most painful treatment I have ever received but so happy after having done it.
Hot shower, clean clothes, massage, hot meal and 3 interesting evening presentations made up the rest of the evening before I literally crashed in my sleeping bag before 10pm.
The next morning we were once again divided into groups depending on our previous day race times. I was placed in the fastest group leaving at 9am.
My leg was still really sore. The left calf was super hard and tight, I had trouble bending it and I wasn’t sure I could run on it at all.
The people who were giving massages the night before were now offering taping, so I decided to try strapping my leg up a bit to relieve some of the strain on my calf.
While getting all my stuff ready in my bag I remembered throwing a spare pair of running shoes in the bag at home.
I really didn’t like the idea of having to wear cold wet muddy shoes to start of with so wearing the dry ones was really tempting.
My spare pare of shoes were Inov-8 X-Talon 212, surely not made for long distance running, but probably the most mudloving shoes I have.
Seeing as in my training I often also rotate a couple of minimalistic shoes, and having in the past ran a 50miler in a pair of Vivobarefoot Breatho, I was confident that the X-Talon could get me through the second day.
With dry feet and all my layers on I headed out to the start line after the race briefing.
This time I started off a little slower as my leg didn’t want to run fast, but as my muscles warmed up things started to get better.
Thanks to my extra grip on mud I was able to zoom down and up passing people that were trying not to slip. The flexibility of the shoes also meant that I didn’t end up having a mud boot, mud was just shedding off my feet with every step.
This second day I wasn’t going fast but I also couldn’t walk.
What I mean is that my leg was much more sore when walking compared to when I was running. This meant no walking uphill (something very common in ultrarunning when you start feeling tired) but instead a constant slow running up and down.
The second day course has a few steep up hills right at the beginning, and then it feels as mostly level or downhill (of course it’s not like that…).
Although it feels easier to run, the second day is longer than the first. Everyone ends up adding anywhere from 15minutes to 1hour to their previous day’s time.
My true goal for this race was to finish it.
I must confess that I had also hoped to have a good race time which would place me on top of my V40 category… this didn’t happen not only because I had a hard time with my left leg, but also because there were runners in my category who were much stronger and faster than me.
Nonetheless I ended 18th overall and 4th V40, which for me is a reason of great pride.
At the end I was greeted with a medal, hot coffee and cake. I stayed under the finish tent for a little bit chatting to other competitors before collecting my stuff and heading back home.
All in all this was a very well organized event.
The track was well marked where the NDW signs weren’t obvious enough.
The checkpoints were stacked with all sorts of food and managed by great volunteers that were both ready to spend a few words with the slowest runners and get the fastest ones back on track as soon as possible.
I really liked the staggered start as it allowed the fastest runners to run with the slowest ones and really get a sense of community throughout the whole run.
The night accommodation wasn’t too bad, the gym was warm and I slept all through the night. I’m also truly pleased there was the opportunity of getting a professional sport massage.
I feel the only thing which could be improved was the quality of the food offered for dinner (probably this has to do with my Italian origins).
I did eat it all and even went for seconds as I was extremely hungry, but it really looked like the type of food that you can imagine being slapped in your bowl in one of those army films.
What really was new for me and I really appreciated was the communal feeling of sharing the same space with loads of other ultrarunners. Being in the same room with other people who after running for half a day still want to talk about running, and are truly looking forward to another day of running on tired and sore legs.
A final mention should be made about the respect and admiration I felt for the walkers, that we all applauded when they cut the finishing line after more than 12 hours on the trail in the cold and dark, showing determination and enjoyment which seems to cast a shadow on all other runners…
Thank you Neil and all the Extreme Energy team and volunteers for organizing this great experience.