Things are definitely picking up. Into April, well, the end of April, and I am running my 4th race of the year and my 3rd Extreme Energy race of the year, the first day of the Devil’s Challenge. It is my 4th race in 3 months and will be 100 Marathon Club number 69 in what is only 81 months. Not Bad going.
The Devil’s Challenge is a 3 day 97 mile race along the South Downs Way from Winchester to Eastbourne, so effectively its part of the South Coast Challenge and part of the Race to the King, just in reverse, and I opted just for day one, a 32 mile jaunt from the city to, well, Elstead, in the arse end of nowhere. A village, let me say, with no train station, or a cab company. The nearest train station was Petersfield 6 miles away along country lanes. For someone not driving and relying on the race organiser or local transport links, it was a leap of faith.
The Plans Come Apart
I had originally planned to meet up with local yokel Furious Keith Miller for a drink the night before but he had to head to London instead, and so I rescheduled and planned to see volunteer for Day One Kate Allen instead. She too couldn’t make it and so I had a nice relaxing pint or two, pie and mash and an early night. Just how sensible am I?
The Race Plan
Just to prove that my plans are not all drink related, I also had a race plan. A comfy time and race nutrition, planned to the nth degree after filching a plan from a social media nutritionist.
And I would, for the most part, adhere to it. I ate the first two gels, pretzels, although it was a hot day and they left my mouth feeling as dry as Gandhi’s flipflop, swallowed the first salt tab and ate the banana. So 75%? From there though I got sick and binned the last few food items.
I had originally booked the hotel because, as the crow flies, it was about 25 minutes from the start. This is something I do a lot, as I like to be able to rely on myself and walk there. But, after a conversation with Keith, it became apparent that the walk would have meant crossing then walking along a motorway, crossing several dual carriageways and roundabouts, with little to no path. I would not have been happy about that, and so I made use of the free shuttle service XNRG put on to take runners from the local station to the start.
They also, for some races, if not most, take runners from the finish of each day back to the nearest station, or to the overnight camp, or local hotels. They do go the extra mile. On this occasion though, there was a typo, the race details included that they would be supplying a shuttle to the station at the end of each day. This was not the case. And I had to book a cab to arrive at 4:30 from the cab company in the next town. This is fine though, it is what it is.
After arriving at the Race HQ I was not on the list of runners. This was true for others too and it became obvious, after a little process of elimination, that the cause was RaceSpace, the booking agent, did not forward any transfers from previous years. Mine was from last year, when I scaled down from 3 days to one.
Once I received my bib though, and Kate assigned and tested my day release timing chip, after the walkers had been sent out I headed out to speak to the organiser Neil. He has been allowing rolling starts to spread out the field since COVID, and it works in my eyes. Rather than mass starts, with people getting stuck in traffic jams of runners on the narrow countryside paths, you can head out when ready. I did and was soon in the South Downs Way on a gloriously sunny Friday, enjoying my tunes and, after passing the walkers, pretty much the course to myself for a couple of hours.
Dave came by. He was one of the runners there when I got ready. He was shuffling along, tall and lanky, covering a lot more ground than my little legs. And he, like everyone other than the handful of elites, would be walking the ups, running the downs, and jogging the flats. Most of the 70 or so runners would be doing this, saving their legs for the 3 days of racing. I had no excuse, but I was just happy to finish as always.
After climbs and descents, tiny villages, farmland, and the occasional stile, I hit Old Winchester Hill. I found the markings pretty sparse at times from the race organiser, and had to check my GPX file on OS Maps to make sure I wasn’t lost. I didn’t get lost, but I would have to stop and work it out. Other than the hill. Here I went around it, then realised I was on the wrong side of it and had to climb a 30 degree incline up a slippery chalk path to the top, where I met one of the other runners who said I had gone the way he went the year before, that was actually part of the official route for several years. So I did not feel so bad, just knackered as my lungs, quads and Achilles were on fire.
We ran together. He had hurt his ribs badly 19 days earlier, which annoyed him as he seemed to always finish in the age bracket places. We chatted until we hit CP2, Kate nowhere to be seen, and then I left him. But this would be a theme for the rest of the race.
They would be a chatty bunch. A group of four runners, two married couples, ran by, with one of the women slowing to my pace to tell me how she had switched from eating every 30 mins to every 5K. Unprompted she literally listed my race nutrition plan.
An older lady running with her hiking poles told me to get mine out of my pack. I did and used them on the ups and flats from then on. I dropped one of my soft flasks whilst grabbing the last of the nutrition I could stomach (a banana), and hoped I hadn’t dropped it miles earlier. But I hadn’t and a runner, a guy, picked it up and brought it to me. He then said he read my blog, this blog and then pointed me to a cafe. Very kind on both accounts. Am very grateful.
Onlyzoruns came through with her group, and then another lady runner, who also said she read the blog. Very kind. Although the podcast is now more the thing. Certainly the thing I enjoy more.
And then I met runner 69, he was struggling a bit and was, much like 90% of the field, doing all 3 days. We chatted for a bit, then hit Elstead. I hit the finish arch and tapped my day release timing chip to give me my best 50K of the year so far, 45 minutes faster than the others, and a sunny one to boot.
And here is where my planning really did fall apart.
I was 45 minutes ahead of the cab. Yay. But, as I walked into Elstead Village hall, the finish for the day, to see numerous runners sitting around drinking cups of tea, and accepting a nice, sugary one myself I noticed there were no bags. When asking one of the XNRG guys I was told they were all at the school 15 minutes drive away. But… but… but not everyone was staying overnight and therefore didn’t plan on going to the school. Apparently it was all in the race details. I guess in my head I skimmed it all and assumed. And you know what they say about that? It makes an ASS out of U and ME. Or, to quote the Bard, “assumption is the mother of all fuck ups.” And he was right. I now had to get hold of my cab company, who had sent me a duff number in their email, and redirect them to the school for 5, and then wait for one of the minibuses or lifts from the XNRG. And I was grateful that they did. I had enough time to get my bag, deoderise myself, change into jeans, a new t-shirt and hoodie, chat with Shannon about the godawful Amersham tee, have a chat with Neil about Druids (the only XNRG race I haven’t done) and head out to get my cab to the station and home.
Pretty good, wooden and made from sustainable wood. The t-shirt is nice and blue with yellow writing, very WE SUPPORT UKRAINE. And not anything like the hideous fluorescent peach from Amersham
The nutrition did work, but as the day was so hot I found myself drinking more than I would normally and that probably prompted the nausea I felt. I will double and triple check whether the finish line is the place to get my bags, and whether the start line is easily walkable next time.
The kit worked well, the new Nike twin skin shorts, a t-shirt that wasn’t figure hugging or white. The poles were out for the 3rd race of the year. The soft flasks were good, as always. The wireless headphones lasted 4 hours, as per, before being swapped out for their wired brethren. And all in all the issues were minor, the changes in plan were minor, and looking back, if anything I enjoyed being back out in the countryside running in shorts and a t-shirt rather than slogging my way through shin deep mud wearing multiple layers.
I much prefer the South Downs way to the other hills I normally run. The lazy rolling hills of the South are much preferred to the sharp ascents and descents of the North Downs, the winding routes in the Chilterns, Wendover Woods and the Ridgeway. I also prefer it going the other way, from Eastbourne to Winchester. It just seems more “rolling”.
I do have a lot of races left this year, I am planning 15 ultras and marathons in 2022. I have run 4 in 3 months so far. The trails will be good the further into the summer we go, with a double marathon record attempt at Tower, a 50K PB attempt at the Thames Path too (that’ll be flat), as well as hitting concrete at Copenhagen, Berlin, Loch Ness and Yorkshire for a road attempt.
But all in all, I was happy with the Devil’s Challenge Day 1, despite what went wrong.