Race Review – Pilgrim Challenge (Day 2) 2023

Oh I have been here before, twice, or is it thrice? I have been running XNRG races for 5 years. They have been an ultra mainstay in my race calendar. And, if I ever have a gap that coincides with their races I will sign up. So much so that over those 5 years, including the COVID era, I have run 9 races of theirs, the full suite too: Amersham Ultra (twice, inc once with Jeremy and Lewis), Tring Ultra (twice, once with Caroline), Devils Challenge, Druids Challenge (my last race and a DNF), and this, three outings at Pilgrim Challenge along the North Downs Way (NDW).

My plan for 2023 was completed long before the church bells rang in the New Year. It was, and knowing that I say “was” because it invariably changes over time, the following:

  • Pilgrim Challenge – both 33 mile days as prep for…
  • SDW50 – my first 50 miler
  • Highland Ultra – 125K over 3 days across Knoydart
  • London to Brighton
  • Greensand Country Ultra
  • Serpent Trail
  • Stour Valley Path Ultra (SVP)
  • Amsterdam Half
  • New York Marathon

As I said, it always changes. At the time of writing it is now…

  • Pilgrim Challenge (Day 2 only) – COMPLETE
  • Steyning Stinger Marathon
  • SDW50
  • Big Way Round Ultra (Winchester)
  • Greensand Country Ultra
  • North Downs Way 50
  • Serpent Trail
  • Stour Valley Path
  • Amsterdam Half
  • New York Marathon

A few changes and I will explain them now. The first race I signed up for was the Highland Ultra, my birthday race, To be ready for 3 days and 125K on mountains I decided the best prep would be the 2 days and 33 miles (55K) a day and a lot of sharp elevation on the hilly North Downs Way at the Pilgrim Challenge, and then 50 miles along the South Downs Way at SDW50. SDW50 also having tight cut offs and a long of elevation too.

SDW scared me a little so I signed up to work for 3 months with a coach (Shelley) just to get me ready for that. She then prompted me to sign up for the famous, or infamous, Steyning Stinger marathon a month before that covers much of the same route.

I then dropped Highland Ultra, deferring for a year so I can be really ready for it, and signed my brother up to Greensand Country and Serpent Trail, and roped Lewis into the Stinger. Due to conflicts I needed to bin the London to Brighton, instead swapping to the North Downs 50, and I added the Big Way Round Winchester as punishment for swapping everything around as usual.

What this left was a year broken up into “getting ready for and getting broken at SDW” and then “enjoying everything I am running because I have done the SDW50 and it is all easy in comparison.”

And so to…

The Pilgrim Challenge is a 2 day event along the North Downs Way. It is particularly hilly…

particularly muddy

includes the famous Box Hill Steps

and the stepping stones on the Mole River

On Day One you hit the stepping stones at mile 23, and then the steps are on the other side of the river.  It is horrible. They are muddy, slippery, and the water is moving so fast it makes you dizzy. The last thing you want to do is fall in, especially when we are talking about the first weekend of February.

When I ran this race in 2019 we started in 6 inches of snow.

When I ran it in 2022 I was getting over COVID and felt like I had one lung. This time around it would be different.

Would it be different?

For a start there was a rail strike on the Friday that meant I could not get to Farnham and the start of day one. So I changed the plan, booked myself into a Travelodge in Redhill and went for day two only.

This is already a win for so many reasons. 1. Those pesky steps, I would be going down them. 2. As half the field would be broken from the first day, they would be taking it a lot easier (i.e., my level of easier),  which would mean the race organiser Neil would 3. send us out earlier, say 7am. Which would mean 4. we would be finishing in daylight, and I could then be home at a sensible time to recover for work the next day.

Also, as I have a coach, I have a coach that coaches me. Shelley had a plan for me, and it involved eating 400 kcal every hour. I had cheating sticks with me for the hiking, and Chase Mountains on insta and YouTube gave me great tips for finally using them properly (70 degree angle, and with the opposite foot. So right hand, left foot, left hand, right foot etc).

How I did…

I was ready at 7am at the start line. Head torch at the ready, as the sun hadn’t joined us yet. Leggings over my shorts, waterproof OMM windcheater over my t-shirts, woolly hat.

I spoke to Jaz Sandalli. We follow each other on social media, do a lot of the same races but never met before. We talked briefly, having the same opinions of the race and route. We mentioned the stepping stones and she detailed her method for crossing them using her sticks. One at a time, sticks anchoring her onto the next. Brilliant I thought. I would have some of that.

And then we were off.  Up hilly paths out of Redhill, through quiet, sleeping suburban streets, and I was already sweating. The OMM jacket had taped seams, and holds the sweat in. I was overheating, and the sweat had nowhere to go. The longer this went on, the damper my clothes would get, and with the NDW having microclimates that ranged in temperature from 8 degrees to 1, I would get cold and sick. So I stopped at a bench, and disrobed, putting the leggings, hat and jacket in my pack for the rest of the race.

Other than the stick and stones method, Jaz had mentioned two things that would come to pass. First, that it would be a sunny day. It would be, and I did it without my baseball cap to protect my eyes, and 2. she would be running it over 10 hours and would likely not see me for the rest of the race.

But that latter fact, I am ok with. I don’t really like running or walking races with people other than my brother. My brother and I know when to talk, when to shut up, and when to plug ourselves into our music players. Strangers don’t know that. Not that I am anti-social at all, I just like to be out there alone on the trails, marching towards my target.

I started by taking off the clothes, then followed that with losing one of the two curved feet I had put on my Leki poles. It meant I had to bin the other. But the sticks were out and I was climbing into the day.

Other than the fuelling thing, the coach told me in no uncertain terms to not dick about at the checkpoints, of which there would be four, at 12K, 21K, 36K, 43K. or at 7.7 miles, 13.6 miles, 23 miles, and 28 miles. Not that I always tend to dick about at aid stations. I did add about 4 hours to my total time at Race to the Stones by eating, lounging, talking, laying down.  I did the same at the first St Illtyds. The second time around there I blasted through the aid stations and finished 2 hours faster. This time around, I had targets. Oh yes, the targets.

  1. Do better than last time out
  2. Run my best Pilgrims time
  3. A PB at 33 miles/55K
  4. Beat the SDW50 33 mile cut off time

And so that is what I did, well the blasting through check points thing. I tapped my timing chip at the first and just left. At the second I got a coke refill on the left soft flask, and was off.

By the third checkpoint I was having a mental wrestling match with myself, but I was winning with three knockdowns and a submission. It is very undulating, and much steeper in it’s up and downs compared to the SDW in my honest opinion. So as we climbed the ups, and ran the downs, and then shuffled along the flats the temperature genuinely changed from 8 to 1 and back again in the space of a mile.

I was cold in the shade, in the damp woodlands. But I knew that if I stopped to get everything out of my pack I would lose a lot of time. I would need to find a bench, take my pack off, take my shoes off, put my leggings on, put my shoes on (ouch), put on my  jacket, put my pack on,  my hat on and head out. And then I could overheat half a mile down the road. I would rather be cold than overheat. And so I didn’t stop. I just swapped my buff from my wrist to my neck.

I was 3K ahead of my plan 3 hours in. That was fine. But then the whole run the down, hike the ups, jog the flats plan kinda fell away and I was just marching. I still had the targets, but I wasn’t feeling so hot. The fake coke ups and downs made me feel a bit meh so I stopped at a biker coffee kiosk for a hot, sweet latte and a cheese and pickle roll and a sit down.

And this really helped me gird my loins. If, indeed, they needed girding. I would march, I had a time target and regardless of the confusing question I would receive at the final checkpoint, I would keep on keeping on.

The question was, as I arrived, tapped my timing chip, and was about to head out, one marshal asked she could get me anything. I said squash and she asked me a question that still perplexes me. She asked “yellow or red?” Yellow or red? Yellow or red? Even the other marshals looked confused. Yellow or red? There was orange squash and blackcurrant on the table. Surely orange is… um… orange? And blackcurrant is more purple that anything. Anyway, I went orange, and struck out for home.

February in the UK, if you didn’t know, is probably the worst month. It can be the coldest, and one of the darkest. Starting at a pitch black 7am, the sun is going down by 3.30 and it down by 5.  And we were in the countryside, no streetlights here. Sure we started in a town. So day one you can make it in time without your head torch if the streetlights come on. On day two you finish at a farm, in a field.

And I did, hours before darkness wrapped it’s cold cloak around the runners still out there, including Jaz.

How did I do?

I did stop at the coffee kiosk for too long. I did walk too much. And I started walking too early. There were downs I didn’t run, and I did take photos. Still, I managed to beat my 2022 time by 42 minutes (TICK), I got a best time at Pilgrim Challenge so course PB (TICK), and best time at the distance of 33 miles by 16 minutes (TICK).

I was, however, 33 minutes slower than the SDW33 mile cut off. But, I know I walked too early and could have taken an hour off that if there were tight cut offs. When a race has a crazy 12 hour cut off you tend to take it easy.

Oh, and it was 100 Marathon Club number 77. Bosh, job done.

In Summary

It was ok. I did ok. I could have gone better, faster, harder, etc. I just didn’t. It was my first ultra since September, and first completed race since October. And that in itself says a lot about where I am at the moment.

Still, with the help of coach Shelley, I got those PBs. And I ran within myself, on a course that is tougher than SDW. This race was a marker in the sand, a sighter for want of a footballing term. I had a punt and it wasn’t a million miles away. Next time around I will be closer.

And so that is the plan. I am done with XNRG races for a while but I do appreciate them for what they are. They well organised, well marshalled, well sign posted races along the NDW, SDW, Chilterns, and Ridgeway. And when you are preparing for a longer race on any of those paths, then they are ideal tasters.



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