While today may have turned out to be a glorious day, the early start was not. I rolled out of my pit at 4.50am (yes, that’s right!) to catch the train an hour later from Ladywell to Waterloo East and then on to Farnham in Surrey for 8am to take part in day 1 of the Pilgrim Challenge. It was quite easy to spot my fellow competitors on the train in running kit – who else would be up so early?
Once again, the event was well-organised by Neil and the XNRG team. A minibus collected us from the train station and deposited at the start line. There I ran into other Serpentine club runners, which was really warming. However, having mildly chastised myself for not going fast enough in the Country to Capital race, I decided that I was going to run on my own at my own pace to see how fast I could go. I’d deliberately had a heavy week running and in the gym with no tapering to again condition my body into running when it’s already tired.
Neil gave his customary briefing at the start and forewarned that out of all the XNRG races, this was the toughest in the series. A huge gulp from me. What had I let myself in for…?
I set off with the 9 o’clock runners and aimed to maintain a regular pace throughout. Following the “North Downs Way” signs, we ran through the picturesque village of Puttenham on to check point 1 at the 8-mile mark. In my eagerness to crack on (and having learnt after Rotherham that it’s best not to linger at the checkpoints), I did a classic schoolboy error and forgot to top up my water bottle, although I didn’t notice until I’d already gone too far to turn back. The next checkpoint was another 10 miles away, so I had to ration my water and calculated that I could run the last half hour to the second checkpoint dry. It wasn’t so bad. Maybe this was not the best time to experiment, but having consumed so many energy gels and energy bars in the past, I decided to cut back (if only to control those feelings of nausea when I have to force another one down) and ate one every other hour, which didn’t appear to have any adverse consequences. My body seems to have adapted to conserving energy when running.
I ran into Benno on the course, who is also running in Marathon des Sables with me for Facing Africa. We swapped training stories and tips and then ended up drifting along separately. I also spent a little bit of time running with Noriko from the Serpentine Saturday Hills sessions.
At some point early on we ran past the College of Law in Guildford (where I went to uni in the 90s), and I thought if only I’d known then that all this beautiful countryside had been on my doorstep, I’d have made more use of it. Later on, vaguely remembering something from the start brief about instant disqualification about crossing the dual carriageway near Denbies, I remembered to use the underpass. There were plenty of tree roots along the way and I had my fair share of stumbles. Thankfully, most of these were on the right leg, but the one on the left sent a shudder through my calf muscles and although I feared the worst for my Achilles, the spasm eventually wore off.
The joys of Boxhill followed – 268 steps uphill. However, these were not the teeny tiny steps we’re used to at home. These required either one big lunge, or two smaller human steps just to cover one step on the ground. It was a fair old sweaty slog to the top and at some point I lost count of the steps and just hoped that the end was nigh. We ran past a quarry near Brockham Hill and down a gully (more stumbles) and then on to checkpoint 3 at the 24.5 mile mark. From here on in, the checkpoints were a lot closer as the finish line neared.
For the remaining 8.5 miles, I just concentrated on eating up the miles and getting to the finish line. Talking required energy, so I kept it to a minimum. Checkpoint 4 was slightly nearer to the finish line than advertised, which was by now only two and a bit miles away.
For that last spurt of energy, I tucked away half a pack of Dextrasol tablets. Up until now, I’d managed to keep myself relatively dry. That was to change. On entering Merstham (having run across the golf course) the only was to enter the village was to go through a small gate entrance, across which there was a muddy puddle. I tried to climb across the gate, but it was too slippery. Having come this far, I wasn’t about to be stumped by a bit of mud. Being brave, I stepped right through the puddle to make my final approach.
One of my co-competitors had run the course the previous year, and so I ran alongside him as by now all the “North Downs Way” signs had disappeared and we were back to following the route card for directions, but at the speed we were going, it was tricky to run and read simultaneously without having to stop or slow down and lose time.
As the familar flags of XNRG and the tape marking the finish line came into view, I put on a little extra spurt to the end.
I finished with a time of 5 hours 55 minutes and 23 seconds in 37th place overall out of a field of 134 runners and 6th female out of 37. I was only 27 minutes behind the fastest female runner. I was pleased with my performance, given that I had run with already tired legs. Based on today’s performance, I’m slowly pushing myself from being within the first 30% of finishers, to within the first 25%. Rubbing Vaseline between the toes also seems to have paid off.
After a bit of stretching off and catching up with my Serpentine club mates, I threw on my tracksuit bottoms, jumped in a taxi with others to Redhill station and caught the (very slow) train back to London Bridge and then on to Lewisham and walked back to Ladywell.