Pilgrim’s Challenge 2012 – race report

Well folks, when my alarm went at 04:30 on Saturday morning it was very tempting to burrow deeper down under my duvet, but with a little bit of will power I got up to a freezing cold morning, visible breath and contemplating rarely warming up throughout the day.  I donned my layers of running gear all toasting on the radiator, and quickly made some porridge and coffee – did a last minute kit check, nutrition check and overnight bag check.  Gave a quick hug to my warm sleepy cat who looked mildly surprised at such early morning activity on my behalf, then out the door…quickly back in again to pick up my oyster card and then stood freezing at the bus stop for about 15 minutes.  Arrived promptly at Waterloo Station at 6:30 and met up with Sam, another MDS runner who was busy looking for a shop that would be selling woolly hats (I didn’t want to point out the obvious that it was a tad early for shops of that kind to be open!)  We jumped on the train and set off to Farnham – mmm,  a wam train ride, lots of laughter and checking things off with each other that we had everything.  At Farnham Station, a few other people also got off the train clearly headed for the same destination – you spot an ultra runner easily at this time of year – the only people on the platform who clearly look like they’re a sandwich short of a picnic as we stand there in our running gear shivering.  We all chatted and exchanged names as we stood in the freezing cold waiting for the minibus to pick us up.  You could tell how cold it was when the bus came, there was frost on the inside of the windows!  We were whisked off to the start line, where we registered and picked up our runner numbers, made a quick dash to the loo (worse than Glastonbury, as the flushing systems had frozen, so the loos were just filling up – a nip round the back of the buildings behind trees was far more savoury!) and a hot cup of tea.  Race instructions were given out and then before we knew it 9am was upon us and we were about to head off for 33 miles.  I was running with Peter, Ahmed and Sam at the start. Well, Sam headed off straight away and we didn’t see him until that evening.  It was a quite beautiful morning as we headed off along the North Downs, gentle slopes to begin with, few people around.  I was quite surprised by how everyone slowed down as soon as a hill approached – they weren’t steep hills to begin with and I left Peter & Ahmed behind for a bit as I decided to just keep to my pace of a slow trot up the hills, it felt steadier and more confortable and also my body temperature stayed more regulated for me.  The first checkpoint came along surprisingly quickly after about 8.6 miles, a quick cup of rather weak squash and a sausage role…but most people quickly pushed on.  The sun was bright and gave off the idea of relative warmth.  I was feeling a niggle in my left foot – or more a bruise from doing up my shoe too tightly, I loosened it, but I had a sneaking feeling I had left it too late!

Pushing of for Check Point two, I was running with Peter, a young Dutch guy with an American accent from living in New York who is also running the MDS in April.  We had a fairly equal pace and fell into step for quite a while, running alongside a girl called Carla who was running in knee length shorts (which just made me feel colder looking at her), I was wearing long leggings and loose short ones over the top!  The ultra running community is a special one and so friendly, and as we were not the elite runners we were going at a comfortable pace to chat, and I lost track of everyone’s names as they passed us or we passed them.  There were two guys that Peter and I kept yo-yoing with, but I think they beat us in the end! Check Point 2 was 10 miles from Check Point 1 and it definitely felt like it, but the views along the way were quite magnificent, and I could have got my camera out several times, but the competitor in me doesn’t like to stop for long!  At check point 2 I tried adjusting my shoe again as the pressure was increasing on the top of my ankle, but I was aware that it was going to be a case of grinning and bearing it or popping pain killers.  So I gritted my teeth, slugged down some more increasingly weaker squash from the check point, munched on some cookies and set of with Peter and Carla.  We were heading off through Denbies Vineyard – which was beautiful, and the path became a long tarmac road gently sloping down….for rather a long way – it was great, and we picked up quite a good pace, but at the back of my mind was the constant niggling thought that all this downward bit was surely going to be counteracted by an uphill section, and I wasn’t wrong…Boxhill loomed into sight.  268 steps up Boxhill…felt like 2680!!!!   But relief came in a long down hill gully from Brockham Hill heading down through the Coombe to Check Point 3.  Someone leading up to CP 3 was taking photos of us with their Iphone.  Peter and Carla were just ahead of me and I was beginning to sing to myself enjoying the yomp downhill, the erstwhile photographer shouted out that the CP was about 100meters ahead – at least that’s what I thought he said, it was about 250 meters ahead which believe me at that stage felt like a big difference.  As I came into the Check Point I was aware that the sun had gone, and the temperature was beginning to drop.  The race organisers were great and encouraging, and although they made very weak squash the snacks at the check points were great – pretzels at this one!

Peter and I didn’t dally as we were getting cold, and we trotted straight off. Check Point 4 was about 4.5miles away, so not too far.  However, it did entail a BIG climb up Colley Hill – a seriously big climb, before we got to this point about 15 of us went the wrong way – a lesson in not following the herd but trusting to your own instinct.  We probably lost about 20 minutes because of this, climbed an unnecessary extra hill and went at least a mile out of our way!  Just for fun!  It was getting cold and hard to warm up, so we just kept at a steady jog.  I could feel a small hotspot on the soul of my right foot so just began hoping that a hotspot was all it was.  Check Point 4 was in Gatton Car Park and they had the most delicious snack of all – liquorice sticks – not something I would have thought of but simply delicious!  I grabbed a handful, stood chatting for a bit to some runners, but getting cold Peter and I, still running together set off.  Allegedly it was all downhill to the finish, however by this point even the gentlest gradient was feeling a little bit like Box Hill!  Peter & I were busy keeping up a steady stream of consiousness to make the miles pass (although there were only about 3 to go, the cold more than the distance was taking its effect (for me anyway).  We caught up with another runner whose name escapes me completely (?!), and ran for about a mile with him but as we turned into Merstham and headed along the road he dropped back a bit. The finish to the school seemed to take forever, but finally we turned into the school grounds to be greeted by cheers and stumbled into the school building to the already musky smell of sweatty bodies!  Peter was heading home that night as he had only signed up for the one day’s racing, so we congratulated each other and parted company. I was grateful to him for being my running buddy, especially in the latter stages.  Someone to look out for in the desert.

I found Sam and he showed me to the gymnasium where you had to grab a space to pitch ones camping mat and sleeping bag.  I was impressed.  Having read the instructions on the website about an overnight bag, and being told to be reasonable in size and not bring masses I had decided I did not want to be accused of being a “girl” and packing everything but the kitchen sink I brought a very small overnight bag with just the bear essential, and my camping mat – an old one that is just a thin foam mat.  However it would seem that luxury is not taken for granted – there were inflatable mattress being blown up all around me by seemingly hardy men!!!! (Wusses!) – yes I admit I had severe mattress envy, but I did play my trump card – I was the only person who had thought a hot water bottle might be useful. I may well have tossed and turned through out the night as the hardness of the gymnasium floor grew harder and harder – but I couldn’t have been warmer!  I pitched my mat and bag next to Richard who I train with at The Third Space gym – he is running the Atacam Desert race in March and ran the MDS last year.  After a hot shower and change into warm clothes, we headed to the dining room for the rugby and dinner, good wholesome nosh.  I then bailed fairly early in the evening and headed to bed, and surprisingly as sharing a room with about 100 other folk I have to say I slept fairly well.

Waking up about 5am on the Sunday morning I stayed snuggled down in my sleeping bag as long as possible until I heard enough movement from other competitors.  However, sitting up and looking out of the window we were met by the sight of a different world – we had woken up to Narnia. It had snowed steadily throughout the night since about 7pm on Saturday.  Richard woke up and said he was withdrawing from the race.  The layer of snow would hide the path and any hazards on it and also increase how long we would be out on the course for probably by at least an hour.  So I would be looking at probably 8 hours out in the snow and cold, and a risk of sustaining a twisted ankle or possibly worse.  I gave it a lot of thought.  Having run the MDS before, you don’t run two consecutive days of over 26 miles, and not only that I also have to remember that my day job entails me being on my feet for at least 8 hours.  I’ve put a lot into this MDS, and I want to turn up at the start fit and uninjured, and I want to be able to work to the best of my ability – and if a far more experienced runner was pulling out, along with a few other guys as well, I decided that sense should take precedence.  Sam and Ahmed also decided to withdraw.  By the time we were dropped off at the station we heard two runners had pulled out before even making it to mile 1…the organisers were going to have a busy day by all accounts.  I have no doubt that those who ran on Sunday had a spectacularlybeautiful day’s racing – the snow must have been stunning up on the Downs…but my philosophy is I am training for the desert, not the antarctic…and it doesn’t matter who says that training in the snow is perfect for the desert – they can kid themselves that it is, but I’m afraid in my experience it isn’t, I don’t think it is anything like the desert – not one I’ve been to anyway!  So we headed back to London, we had a fairly long wait for the train, but  this allowed Ahmed to test his stove and coffee making abilities – caught on cctv it might look like we’re setting fire to Merstham Station, but the coffee was very good – I think he’s found his job for the desert!

Sitting in my warm kitchen on sunday afternoon watching the Ireland/Welsh rugby match drinking hot soup, I felt I had made the right decision.  After all, it was a training run, not the final race for me, that is in the desert where there will be no pulling out.

Next stop – apart from a tough training session with Jon who spared no mercy with me in the gym yesterday and put me through a tough workout, a few days down in Cornwall along the North Cornish coastal path, with my ever wonderful sister cheering me along the way (and hopefully meeting me in well situated pubs!).

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