This was my third year at the Extreme Energy Pilgrim Challenge and my first year without a serious injury (2011’s metatarsal fun) or snow (last year’s here). So I planned to race it. It’s a good early season running weekend I look forward to – Neil, Anna and the XNRG Team put on a superb two day event with a stay in a school on the Saturday night. It has a good mix of walkers, ultra-newbies and the more seasoned runners making for a really inclusive atmosphere with both speedsters and newcomers mixing and all being well served. It attracts a large number of people training for the Marathon Des Sables and there were about 45 this year training over the hills of Surrey hoping to substitute the cold weather and mud for the heat and sand of the Sahara in a couple of months.
Getting the train from Waterloo on Saturday morning I bumped into Andrew who I’ve seen several times at these events and we caught up. Then a small group of us formed at Farham train station for the lift to the start. We arrived with just under an hour to go. As we walked into the tent Neil said ‘Ah I wondered when our fast runners were turning up’ which I think may have been because we’d been joined on the train by Robbie Britton (who recently qualified for the GB 24 hour team and is off to the World Champs in Holland in May).
About 40 set off on the 10am start – with around 160 ahead on the 8 and 9am starts. It was a chilly but sunny day with little wind, perfect running conditions. I set off at a speed I knew I couldn’t maintain but having run this before I knew the first section out was flatter and the second half would be hillier and muddier, so wanted to get in some quick miles. Hitting the half marathon mark at 1:50 I felt great, loving the North Downs Way trail and running in a small line of guys with the first woman just ahead. Boxhill steps didn’t seem as bad as previous years and I hit the third check point and marathon point at 4 hours after slowing over Reigate hill. It had been a bit muddy in small stretches (especially near the start then near the river) but at about 28 miles it was ankle-deep thick sticky mud that could have doubled up as wet cement thanks to the chalky base. So far the Hokas I was wearing (Mafates) had coped well with the terrain but now I found I had about a kilo of mud on each enormous shoe and heavy legs were getting heavier by the second. I had several sense of humour failures (including a tantrum that any three year-old would be proud of!) but then I got going again for the 4 miles after the fourth checkpoint and had a strong finish in 5:13, 2nd woman by nearly 20 mins but pleased with top 20 overall.
At the finish a very hot shower (with the piercing noise of the fire alarm as the steam was so great!) removed the mud and we all settled in for the night after watching England win the rugby. After dinner we were entertained by a talk from Andy Mouncey on a variety of ultra-topics, including his three different approaches to the Lakeland 100 and some more general advice. In previous years I’ve taken the train home as it’s less than an hour door to door, but I had decided to stay this time to try out my new Thermorest Neolite mat; in Transe Gaule I’ll be sleeping on school hall floors etc so it was good to practice. I had a pretty broken night’s sleep but the mat was ok, sleeping in a room with 100 guys less ok – it seemed every five minutes someone was getting up to use the loo.
So day two and having seen off the 7 and 8am starts there were about 20 of us for the later, fast start. The front guys had been very quick on the first day with the leading man coming in just over the 4 hour mark, but anyone under 5:45 was in the later start (though some had moved to the 8am). The weather was a few degrees warmer with a little wind and showers forecast later so even more incentive to finish as early as possible.
Setting off my legs felt ok, quads a little sore from hammering the downhill but nothing too bad. In previous years day two has been more tortuous with injury issues the first year and snow last year so I couldn’t really complain but the mud made it tough going. I already knew the first woman was well away and I just wanted a decent run without too bad a time. Having resigned myself to 6 hours for day two I plodded on. I was surprised to see two familiar faces on the route – Paula R running towards us near the underpass at Boxhill and Andy G riding the surrey hills on his bike after Denbies vineyard, lovely to get a ‘Hey Jen – keep going!’ after a long climb.
I was caught up by Colin from Ranelagh Harriers and we shared whinges about the mud and heavy legs. We did get back into something of a rhythm and I felt like we were running again, he faded a little but I pushed on – realising that the positive split was going to be absolutely awful if I didn’t. With a mixture of 9bars and soreen to cheer my mood I actually felt ok for the last stretch and wished I hadn’t walked the muddy bits but I was delighted to be cheered into the finish by everyone and Neil greated his second placed woman of the weekend with ‘we’ve been waiting for you’, though a runners-up trophy, XNRG fleecy hat and some more delicious 9bars made up for it. 22nd out of 149 two-day finishers but I’ll be back next year – determined to get that positive split below an hour!
There were some epic performances. The leaders this year were very fast in some very poor conditions. Danny Kendall broke the previous course record of 9 hours 17minutes by posting an unbelievable time of 8 hours 49 mins.
The women’s record also went – Annabelle Stearns clocked up a great time of 10 hours 23 mins breaking the previous course record (held by my friend Claire from 2010 who reckoned it wouldn’t last long) by nearly 10 minutes, I was a good hour behind her, great running!
This weekend isn’t just about the racing though – XNRG create a really inclusive, encouraging atmosphere for everyone and it was a lovely moment when Andy’s talk was halted about 8pm to cheer in Day one’s last three finishers (still smiling!) who must’ve been out there for 12 hours, that’s a pretty quick walk over those hills in that mud finishing in the dark!
Arrived home about half past six via the Indian takeaway – thanks to someone on the train mentioning curry I tucked into a lamb Rogan Josh to finish a superb weekend.
Of course I’ve got to stop by Waterloo Station on the way home from work tomorrow to collect my muddy Hokas which I left on the train from Farnham, I wonder if they’ll have cleaned them…