This was my second year of the Pilgrim Challenge and it lived up to my expectations for a great weekend of running on the North Downs Way from Farnham to Merstham and back again. I can be a bit rubbish at looking around me when running so even though I’d done it last year it still felt like a new route. I was on the ‘elite’ start at 10am with a few familiar faces and grateful for the mini lie-in. This Xnrg event attracts a big range of competitors – from the really ‘elite’ like Mimi Anderson (who I finally met and was as lovely as I’d heard) to the ultra-newbies and lots of people preparing for the Marathon Des Sables in April. About 250 runners and walkers.
It was a very different 2 days of 33 miles – the first was great running conditions, sunny and yes a bit chilly at -9 first thing but we were all well wrapped up and only James was in shorts (possibly still making the most of his US tan?). The news and social media were irritatingly acting as though this was the first winter’s day ever and seemed to have forgotten that December and January were really mild and this temperature isn’t that strange, for winter. I was determined this year not to have as positive a split as last year – when I went out too fast on day 1 (5:40) and suffered on day 2 with niggling injuries (6:50). I’d uploaded my garmin with the route (this itself is a major success) and so decided to run it following the map and at a pace I felt comfortable with rather than looking for a time. It’s a nice hilly route with Box Hill steps and other short sharp hills on the first day, some lovely long drags downhill that I was flying in the Hokas. 4 checkpoints is just enough in 33 miles for me and the Xnrg team are well organised and put on a great event. I felt good, ran well within myself and was incredibly surprised to finish in 5:41, really pleased it hadn’t felt as much effort as last year. That evening we had dinner and James gave his America talk – which went down well and was funny, sometimes for the right reasons. Last year I’d taken the train home to my own bed and creature comforts but with snow forecast Saturday night I didn’t want to risk not getting back to the start of day 2 – so took the ‘staying in the hall’ option. Which wasn’t as bad as I expected thanks to some very good ear plugs (the plasticine kind) and the intervention of Anna from Xnrg who on hearing I’d remembered my sleeping bag but not brought a sleeping mat pointed at a chap in the middle of the room sat on his double inflated bed and said ‘why not see if he’ll share?’ So I spent the night top to toe with a chap called Phil who couldn’t really say no. As lights went out there was a light covering of snow and general excitement and apprehension at what the next day might bring.
We awoke to about 4 inches of snow – enough to gridlock London Transport, cancel the Watford half mara and make most people go back to bed on a Sunday morning. But thankfully trail running is made of stronger stuff and Neil, the Race Director at Xnrg, was keen to continue the race – saying that he thought some would probably do it anyway, which was true as I’d already figure out I could leave my overnight bag with a friend and run anyway; about 50 or so people dropped out and those people signed up for day 2-only were very scarce. We all set off in a mass start at 8am (instead of the planned 7, 8, 9am stagger) and I was glad to have stayed over as I’d never have gotten there for such an early start. It was gorgeous running in fresh crisp snow, like a winter wonderland in the trees and fields. However beautiful it looked, it was tough going. I was conscious of being incredibly clumsy at the best of times, in normal running conditions I have a stack-rate of about 1 in 35 miles (1:25 in mountain maras…), in snow that could only get higher. And I’d not hit the floor all of the first day. I even wore double leggings to cushion the impact (big mistake as was really hot in both skins and other long tights!). I really didn’t want to injure myself with so much ahead so I set of steadily, walked much of the downhill gingerly and found the uphill long and energy-sapping. The first day had been pretty uneventful but the second had lots of extra drama. The massive cows (though as Dan reminded me – not as big as Swiss cows) that usually lie near the NDW path were actually in our way a couple of times and I had to commandeer a chap who was running behind me to go ahead and show me they weren’t going to attack! He survived so I edged round them.
Then about half way I started running with a knee-surgeon called Al who’d lost his buddy to a knee injury after only a few miles and was doing a jog/walk at a similar pace to me, using the weekend to train for the MDS (a hot multi-day event in the desert…probably without snow). We had a good chat, he didn’t laugh when I went flying head first into the ground on my one trip (that’s 1:66 miles and in snow, maybe I’m getting better at staying on my feet?), and generally kept each other going for 20 miles. I usually avoid running with people but strangers who are easy to talk to and not overly chatty are good sometimes to keep you going. The checkpoint guys were also really encouraging, I’m not sure how given they must have been freezing. There were lots of people out in the snow (some families out sledging crossed the footpath and provided another obstacle) and most were surprised to see runners in the conditions. I ended up coming in around the 7 hour mark but what would have been a real beat-myself-up-about-it time was actually fine in the circumstances and with no real pains or injuries. A good time-on-you-feet day and one I wouldn’t have missed. Epic. Others had good races – Mimi was first lady, Carla Dennery (a fairly recent Serpentine member) was 3rd lady over all with what I think was the only negative split (was she walking day 1?). The guys had good runs – James added some extra miles on day 1 and sent a whole group of 30 people up an extra hill after him. Dan de Belder’s finally got back running after being wiped out from UTMB last summer (understandably!). And it was good to see Alan Rumbles again. As we left for the train there were still a lot of people to come in and we started to wonder how long some of the walkers would take, a long afternoon/evening ahead for the Xnrg team who were brilliant and I’m looking forward to the next event with them – the Pony Express at the start of May in the New Forest, though I doubt there will be any snow, now that would be newsworthy.