The XNRG Pilgrim Challenge
Here we go, 2019, starting with a gentle January of New Year’s Eve bottling in Zurich and then a 5K PB attempt failing by a gnat’s whisker, February is going batshit crazy to the extreme and from the off. With the Revenge of Portland Coastal Marathon coming in the second weekend with JK, Keith and Lewis, the running equivalent of the Travelling Wilburys, the weekend before saw me and Running Awards Personal Blog winner 2018 and future MDS runner James Dunne attempt the Pilgrim Challenge.
What is it?
2 days, 33 miles a day on the North Downs Way (NDW), day one starting in Farnham and finishing in Redhill, day two the same but in reverse. There is an option to sleep in a school hall in Redhill at the end of day one, but that is a luxury I wasn’t willing to experience, instead booking myself into a local Premier Inn with the aim of bath, food (including a recovery sundae) at the adjacent Beefeater, and a comfy night’s sleep. Of course, being a plum, I didn’t read the comprehensive race instructions and started by booking myself 2 nights in Redhill. This was at the cost of £113, which I thought a bit high. I then discovered booking the nights individually was cheaper, so I cancelled the 2 nights £113 and booked one at £28 and one at £47. A stroke of genius. 2 nights in Redhill for almost half the price. Well, it was brilliant until James pointed out that day one started in Farnham, a hefty hike away. And so I lost out on the £28 Premier Inn night with Lenny Henry and had to book a second hotel in Farnham for the night before. £85. Balls. I also booked a second hotel in Redhill too, only 300 yards from the finish. But we shall cover that later.
It is a race organised by XNRG, and I am a fan of their work. I ran their Amersham Ultra last year as prep for TGC. This year, as with every race leading up to the end of May, the race is prep for Fire and Ice. I have run 2 marathons in 2 days before at Race to the Tower, including camping, this is upping it a little with 2 ultras in 2 days, and in March I will be running 2 marathons in 2 days again, and all the while training with my weighty backpack. Prep? Just call me by my rap name Prepmeister D.
Joining me on this adventure would be James Morning Coffee Run, whom I met at the tail end of last year and is a thoroughly good chap. He, along with many of his brethren, would be using it as prep for MDS. 2 hilly 33 mile treks? Definitely sounds like it would do the trick.
The Build Up
It snowed! I was joking on Instagram that it would be epic to run through a hefty blizzard but the UK decided that with a day to go before the race weekend that it would dump the white stuff all over the place. So much so that the start looked like this.
But hey, what could we do? James and I had come down the night before and, as mentioned, stayed in a B&B in Farnham with 3 other runners. I thought I had lucked out getting the top floor twin room but this was not the case. The boiler was in the bathroom and, with the heating on full, it refilled and reheated itself every couple of hours, waking me up. And I do not function well on broken sleep. So at the time I was standing in 5 inches of snow at the start I was already a grumpy sausage. A grumpy sausage maybe, but at least I was there. The snow had frightened off quite a few of the participants, and even more would bail on day two as it progressed. There were yellow snow warnings. Personally I don’t see why they bang on and on about yellow snow warnings, we know not to eat it.
Ooh, it was supposed to be so simple. The route runs along the North Downs Way from Farnham to Redhill. The route would have plenty of ups and downs, including the famous steps up Boxhill.
It would also take in Denbies wine estate, scene of the debauched Bacchus races. I would rely on the OS Maps app a few times, and would be glad I did as once in a while the markings would not be obvious.
How I did?
As James and I prepped, me using my new Scott double bottle backpack and Leki “cheating sticks” and Jimbo trying out his MDS pack the field was a bit thin on the ground. Many people had decided to skip it, either snowed in or not fancying it. It was supposed to get colder during the day and even colder on day two. And so, with darkness timetabled in for around 5 o’clock we opted to head out with the first wave at 8am, and we are very glad we did.
The start was stunning to be fair, we shuffled our way through the snow and talked a bit as we took country lanes out and into the snow covered fields. But this was meant to be mental as well as physical training and so we agreed to just keep going, splitting up to work on the time in head, as well as time on feet.
And that is pretty much it. It was a slog. There were 4 checkpoints, one 8 miles in, one 10 miles further down the NDW, the next 6 miles from there and one 3 miles from the finish, because what you really need after 8 hours on your feet is a downhill parkrun.
There would be microclimates, and we were advised to wear layers which was lucky as we did so we could strip one off when too hot, and add it back again when we froze. At times we would climb Hellish hills, slipping on the mud churned by those who had gone before us, and it would get progressively cold the higher we got until we reached the top and more snow. The snow, the fluffy 3 to 5 inches of it, the snowball and snowmen and snow angels kinda snow, only really existed for the first 3 to 4 miles. From then the sandy mulchy soil replaced it. Frozen fields became soft underfoot woodland trails.
Mud appeared as we descended into a village, and crossed a picturesque bridge. I nearly got lost here, starting up Catherine’s Hill before being pointed the right way by a fellow runner. I met James a little way along, he had gotten lost too and I was glad to see a friendly face again. And that was even before running into the wonderful Whiffers on her home turf.
There would be a downhill bit from here she told me, and she was right, after tapping through 2 checkpoints (they use the old school day release from prison style tags) but then, as she warned we had the infamous Box Hill steps to come. Scene of so many running nightmares for so many people I know I had never run up (or down them) and so, when I saw the first set I thought to myself, “this doesn’t seem to bad.”
Of course, there isn’t just one set of steps, is there? In one article I read there were 275 but I am not sure that is true, I didn’t count them, I just climbed them as best I could, one at a time, taking a breather between sets, 25 miles into the race. “Whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take small steps.” Helmut Schmidt was right, large strides on mud, slush or snow and ice just sends you sprawling. And bounding up a set of muddy wood edged steps after 7 hours on your feet just isn’t sensible.
The Notes to Strangers Interlude
Notes to Strangers is an Instragammer that sticks posters up over the city that can give you a little guidance through life. Leading into this weekend I had seen a few on my way to work and the locale, and took photos. These two are particularly relevant here.
It was pretty early on that James and I discussed the idea of running just the one day, limiting our pain and discomfort to just 33 hilly, muddy, icy, snowy miles. He was concerned about picking up an injury with MDS so close, and I just wasn’t ready for it. I know my current limit, this race is very early in the year for me, I had only run a 5K in January leading up to it. And so yes, I would do one day. And, funnily, that decision really kept me going.
And it allowed me the strength to keep moving forward. I did not have to keep something back in the tank. And it even meant, after all those damned steps, and a final climb around Reigate as the sun started setting, when a 3 Pilgrims veteran told me she didn’t remember it being so tough, as we tapped our way through the final CP and headed into a 3 mile downhill run to the Warwick School and the finish, that I actually could run. I had enough in the legs to go bombing down the hill with head torch on (you are not allowed to continue past CP 4 without one), and across the finishing line where James was waiting for me with my medal.
Back to Reality
The rugby was on (England v Ireland), Susie Chan had just turned up to give her talk and I found out I had worn through the heels of my socks as I took off my poor trail shoes and dumped them with the others. They had hot tea. OH MY GOD! They had hot tea!
James had been assessing day 2 and had decided finally against it, as had quite a few others. Although saying this, on the XNRG instagram account I see a good crowd took part in day 2 as well, and more than fair play to them. In better weather, and if I wasn’t running Portland Coastal the weekend after, I may have given it a go. Just not this time.
There is only one medal that one or two day runners get, and that states the total challenge on it. I did earn it, but, until I come back and complete both days and the full 66 miles, have to add that I didn’t. I only did the half.
More Hotel Carnage
I arrived at the apartment hotel I had booked in Redhill, avoiding the shitty high street and the drunkard youths throwing bottles at each other, but there was no one there to meet me. Not only had I booked a second hotel, I had received email of confirmed payment and a second confirming someone would be there. I called the number and a drunk/stoned/drunk and stoned (delete where appropriate) woman said that first she couldn’t find my booking, that then I didn’t have a booking (I told her I had an email, that included her number), and that there was a problem and they couldn’t accommodate me. I informed her it was sub zero temperatures, I had just run 33 miles and was hungry, tired and cold and what did she suggest? She slurred “Travellodge” and I said I wanted a full refund, grabbed an Uber to the Premier Inn I still had a valid reservation for, and enjoyed a hot meal, and recovery sundae at the adjacent Beefeater as originally planned.
If anything this was a training run for me, much as it was for James. This was my Fire and Ice taster. I came up short, well 33 miles short, but what it has done is give me confidence to attack my times at Portland and GMU. Oh, and the Scott bag worked a dream. Will definitely be using that for Portland and Green Man.
The snow and mud put the “grim” into the Pilgrim Challenge and it was exactly that, a grim challenge. People do ask me how I do it. I tend to be okay when it comes to going into such soul destroying races, as I come from the starting point of not having one in the first place. LOL. Joking aside. Anyone can do anything they put their mind to. James will complete MDS, I will complete half Fire and Ice. And then we will pick the next challenge. Just you wait and see.
As for this one, I am happy to say that the XNRG races are consistently good. You are well supported, although it would have been nice to have hot drinks at all CPs, or at least one, it was promised there would be at CP4. The field is friendly and welcoming, and has that family feel that you get from races where you see faces that are familiar. It was challenge and the two day version would really be that. It can be a great start to your running/hiking year as it has everything, or it did this year what with the weather. Free long sleeved tee, medal, hot food at the end, Susie Chan giving an MDS and ultra talk, who could ask for more?
And boom! 100 Marathon Club number 32 for me!
WOULD I RECOMMEND THE PILGRIM CHALLENGE? YES
WOULD I RUN THE PILGRIM CHALLENGE AGAIN? I WILL, and both days!