A Race of Two Halves
Updated: Mar 14, 2022
2022 Pilgrim Challenge 106km / 66 miles: 5-6 February 2022
The Pilgrim Challenge, organised by XNRG events, is a race that I have done a couple of times before, and has a special significance for me as it the first race I did where I actually felt like a proper ultrarunner and was able to finish in a reasonably respectable time. It’s organised as a 2-day, there-and-back stage race on the North Downs Way (NDW) running from near its start at Farnham to Redhill, which is roughly one-third of the way along the whole 100 miles of the NDW. On Day 1 you go East from Farnham to Redhill, on Day 2 you head back West to the start at Farnham again. The previous two times I participated, I chose to just do one of the days, so I’d never done both days back-to-back before. Although I’ve done a number of much longer multi-day non-stop races (Summer and Winter Spines, Devon Coast-to-Coast etc.), stage races are slightly different as they require you to spend a night recovering, and then start again the following morning, by which time your muscles and joints have started to ache and stiffen up. Although the relentless nature of non-stop races requires you to deal with blisters, running at night and sleep deprivation, I find that you pace yourself more slowly to compensate and minimising stopping reduces the risk of stiffness or cramping up. With stage races, they tend to test you physically and psychologically in different ways – physically in that daytime conditions and the shorter duration of each day means that everyone pushes themselves harder, and psychologically at the beginning of Day 2 as you have to reset yourself and start again just when your muscles are beginning to feel stiff and sore.
One of the pluses of a relatively short race, which a 50k day of the Pilgrim Challenge certainly is, is that it allows you to try out new combinations of kit to see how you get on with them in conditions that are likely to be similar to those you will face in longer races. With some really big multiday races coming up later this year – the Northern Traverse, Cape Wrath Ultra, Summer Spine and Dragon’s Back – this was a good opportunity to try out some simulations.
First, I wanted to try out wearing a light racing vest (12l) combined with 6l waist pack. Normally for short races, and for long races where the mandatory kit is not that extensive, I would usually just wear my Salomon Adv Skin 12l racing vest, but with the longer races coming up, this might not be sufficient, and rather than wearing a full 25l or 30l backpack (as I did in the Winter Spine), I wanted to try the combination of vest + 6l waist pack. The advantage of this is that you can carry more stuff, can split the weight between your chest / shoulders and hips, and can keep the things that you need to access more frequently in the waist pack, reducing the need for stopping. The 6l Montane waist pack has two holders for additional water bottles, so as well as the 2 x 500ml soft flasks in my racing vest, I also filled 2 x 500ml of plastic bottles with a mixture of Tailwind and Amino Acids and put them in my waist pack, along with snacks, gloves, and a pair of Yatrax spikes in case the course got muddy.
Second, I decided to try out some new sock / shoe combinations – given the ground in summer is likely to be hard, I used my Hoka Speedgoats, moving up half a size to UK 10.5, and tried a couple of different sock combinations, Drymax liners + Otter waterproof socks on Day 1, and Drymax liners + 1000 mile compression socks + Coolmax liner (on the outside) on Day 2. I knew that waterproof socks were not strictly necessary for this race, but wanted to see whether my feet would overheat / sweat / swell, given the potential need for waterproof socks in May on the Cape Wrath Trail in Scotland.
Day 1 Farnham to Redhill (33 miles, 53km)
With the race being a there-and-back, Young Sil had agreed to pick me up from Redhill at the end of Day 1 and drop me back there on Sunday morning for Day 2, so I took my car and drove to the start at Farnham, leaving my car waiting for me until the finish of the second day. The sky was clear, but it was surprisingly cold, as I showed the marshals my Covid pass and went into the registration tent. For some reason they had lost my registration off their database, so I had to get a new race number, and attached the tracker to my wrist.
With Covid protocols in mind, the organisers were using a rolling start, rather than mass start, so it was that at 8:40am I held my tracker against the sensor, started my Garmin watch and set off. The first part of the NDW is relatively flat and undulating, quite runnable with just gentle uphill slopes that are possible to run up when you have plenty of energy, and gentle downhill slopes where you can pick up quite a bit of speed. I could certainly feel the extra weight of having both a race vest and waist pack but wasn’t sure how much of this was from the extra litre of drinks that I was carrying – normally I’d only carry 1l for a race like this and rely on the regular checkpoints to top up my water supplies.
However, I could feel the benefit of having done a lot of strength work on my hamstrings over the last few weeks in my ability to hold a faster running pace, and once my legs and lungs had warmed up, I could feel myself making rapid headway. First checkpoint came up after less than 90 minutes, and I was averaging something like 10.5km/h so far – a crazy pace for me, considering this was a trail event, not a road 10k. I didn’t stop at the checkpoint – one of the advantages of carrying extra drinks – and carried straight on, soon coming to the first proper climb, up to the Church of St Martha-on-the-Hill, and its fantastic views did not disappoint. Following this, there was a long, flattish section of trail in the woods, maybe 5 or 6 miles long, that brought me to the next checkpoint on the edge of Dorking. The ground was remarkably dry underfoot, and there was zero chance today that I would be needing my Yaktrax; the waterproof socks were also doing OK, and while I could feel my feet heating up a little bit, they didn’t feel like they were being steam-cooked. 3h10, and I was keeping a strong pace of around 10km/h.
From CP2, there was a very pleasant, long descent on good trail besides the Bradley Farm vineyard down to the A24, which you have to cross via the underpass before commencing the toughest of the climbs on the course – Box Hill. As I reached the stepping stones across the pond, before the start of the climb, a dog had just got there before me. 5 mins of cajoling the dog to summon up the courage to jump to each of the next stones ensued – “go on”, “good boy”, “you can do it”, etc. Eventually he made it across, and I leant into my poles, using them to drive me up the steep steps that take you to the top of Box Hill. It was hard work, but felt better than when I had done the same race 2 years previously. The views from the clearing at the top were glorious, and although I was generating a lot of heat with the exertion, by taking off my hat and gloves and rolling up sleeves and buffs, I was able to continue to shed heat fairly easily and didn’t feel the need to take off my outer layer.
From Box Hill onwards, the course is generally quite hilly, and I could feel my pace slowing down as I moved towards CP3, which is just off the NDW in a car park by a railway level crossing. I’d finished the drinks from my race vest, so quickly took the extra drinks bottles from my waist pack, using them to refill the soft flasks before putting them back in the race best again. My waist pack now felt a lot lighter! At the same time, looking at my watch, 4h30 had now elapsed and I had covered just over 40km, so was going to have push hard over the last 13km in order to hit around 6 hours. The next section is normally extremely muddy, but today was an exception – the mud was pretty dry and firm and it was quite easy to make progress, although the steepness of the hills was slowing me down a lot more than I expected, with the final climb up Reigate Hill proving to be a particularly long slog. Eventually I reached the top, and the flat section that ran towards the final CP at the Reigate Hill car park, where I again I paused just long enough to register my tracker before the long descent to Redhill. By now, although I had been overtaken by maybe 20 or 30 of the elite group (who started an hour after me), I had in turn overtaken quite a lot of other runners and could see several in front of me that I started to chase down. My legs still felt reasonably fresh, and I ran hard down the hill slowing down a little just after the ponds where the track rises for a few hundred metres, before crossing the A242 and entering Redhill proper. The last two kilometres seemed to take forever as we followed the roads through Redhill – I overtook a couple of other athletes, while also being passed by a couple more; my legs were feeling increasingly tired until eventually the school and the end of Day 1 came into view. I passed the finish line on 6h08, 30 minutes than my previous PB for this course, but a few minutes outside the “aspirational” target of 6 hours that I was hoping for earlier that day when my pace was so strong. I felt a bit tired, but pretty good all things considered and was moving fairly easily as I helped myself to some snacks and a hot chocolate while waiting for Young Sil to arrive. The true test, though, would come tomorrow as I would have to crank my legs into gear again for another 50k, with the added impact of 20 hours of stiffening up. I just hoped that I had not pushed myself too hard, that my recovery routine that evening would help alleviate some of the after-effects and that my body wouldn’t be feeling too creaky in the morning.
Day 2 Redhill to Farnham (33 miles, 53km)
That Saturday evening saw me trying to follow a strict process to maximise my recovery for the following morning – lots of protein, some hot food, wearing compression leggings, elevating my legs, stretching and using the foam roller and massage gun on my quads, glutes, hips and calves. And absolutely no alcohol! I was feeling pretty tired when I finally went to bed at around 11pm, but for some reason really struggled to go to sleep. Maybe it was the adrenaline still in my body after the day’s running, maybe it was nervousness about the following day, or maybe it was the aftereffects of the caffeine in the Tailwind that was in my drinks bottle earlier in the day. Whatever the reason, I had a really fitful night’s sleep. My Fitbit reckoned that I had slept for about 5 hours, but it felt like a lot less. Worse, my quads were aching like crazy when I woke at 6am.
I had to be at the start for 7.45am, and with a 30 minute drive from home, that effectively meant that I needed to be out the door by 7am. I drank some water to rehydrate myself, tried to have a stretch, and then got on the exercise bike for a light 10-minute spin to try to warm my muscles up and get rid of some of the stiffness and pain. It helped a bit, but as we set out I was definitely feeling like I had a long and difficult day ahead of me, not least because my stomach was not feeling so great either, and I had already had to make a couple of trips to the toilet. The weather made it even worse as it had been raining heavily overnight, and the rain continued to fall with the wind beginning to pick up as well. Were it not for the fact that I had told everyone I was doing a 2-day race, and was raising money for Mind UK, I may well have decided to stay in bed!
We pulled into the school at Redhill, and I jumped out, took another toilet break (hopefully the last for a while) and then chugged an orange juice while trying again to stretch out the stiffness in my thighs.
The first 4 miles were torture. Everything ached, and every time I tried to break into even a limited jog, the pain forced me to slow down again. It was going to be a really long day, and going through my mind was the thought of just finishing, rather than achieving any particular time. Somehow, I struggled to the top of Reigate Hill – l hoped that by the time I reached the flat section that went along the top, my muscles would have warmed up and I would be able to run again. No such luck. Every time I tried to run, my legs and hips completely seized up. I tried stretching my quads again. Didn’t really help. Eventually, after struggling along for another 15 minutes, I bit the bullet and decided to take some painkillers. I was reluctant to do so, as it’s never a particularly great idea to camouflage pain, but it felt as though if I could get over the soreness such that I could run more freely again, it might lead to a virtuous circle of more relaxed muscles and better blood flow.
At the top of the long descent from Reigate Hill, I put my Yaktrax again, figuring that the section at the bottom would have been churned to a complete mud pit by now, and started to shuffle down the slope. It was probably premature as the slope itself was still hard and stony, and the Yaktrax if anything made my grip and stability worse. Still, by the time I reached the bottom of the hill the mud was becoming thicker and softer, and almost miraculously, the pain in my legs seemed to simultaneously fade away. I could run! Slowly at first, and then with increasing confidence, I started to increase my pace to a jog and then a trot and almost astonishingly I found myself starting to catch up some people who were struggling in the by now incredibly slippery mud, including some who had passed me earlier. My spirits, which had been depressed all morning, started to lift again, stirred also by the weather which by now was beginning to clear up. As I came to the path that led into the first checkpoint one of the runners I caught up with was limping quite heavily. I stopped for a few minutes to check if he was OK – his quads / calves / hamstrings were spasming up making it hard for him to bend his knee. I gave him a couple of co-codamol to see if that helped and wished him luck.
I stopped briefly at the checkpoint to take off my waterproof jacket – it was by now getting quite warm – but decided to keep the Yaktrax on as the rest of the course would likely prove just as muddy and my Hoka shoes would not stand a chance of getting any grip in these conditions. The next stage proved just as challenging, retracing yesterday’s steps back towards Box Hill, although with much more mud. By now, most of the leg pain had gone, and the steep descent of Box Hill went remarkably smoothly, followed by the long slog up the slope by the vineyard towards CP 2, which I reached after 3h15.
Bizarrely, despite all my difficulties at the start, this was not that much slower than I had covered the same ground the previous afternoon, but I knew for sure that I would be covering the second half of the course much more slowly than the fast pace I managed yesterday morning. As I was leaving the checkpoint, the guy with the limp came running in. He looked in much better condition, and the co-codamol had clearly worked its wonders on his knee pain. We bumped fists and wished each other well as we took off, him moving quickly ahead of me with his new found pace.
Having changed over my drinks bottles again, I set off on the long, flat winding section through various woods. The pain in my quads was starting to return, and while I could jog downhill sections quite easily, the flats were proving tougher to maintain a good pace, although I was now alongside another runner, who it turned out was a 55-year old Covid doctor, and we managed to alternate between walking and jogging as we covered the ground back to Saint Martha’s church and the descent to CP 3, talking about the races we had done and his experiences as a doctor through the whole Covid crisis. Although the second half of the race took 4h37, compared to 3h13 for the comparable section the day before, the time did seem to go by more quickly – one of the benefits of running with someone else – and it didn’t feel long before we were approaching Farnham Golf Club and the final yards to the finish line. I had been checking my watch religiously during the last hour to see if I could get under 14 hours across both days, and finished in 7h49, making my combined time 13h57, just under 14 hours!
Once again, huge thanks to the organisers, XNRG events, whose races are really well managed and which I always enjoy, and to all the volunteers who help at the checkpoints and start / finish facilities.
It felt more like a relief than a triumph, but some days are like that and you are grateful to get to the finish line in one piece and having learned some things along the way. Out of 200+ starters, I had ended the first day in 53rd place, and this slipped to 76th after Day 2, which was probably on a par with what I was expecting from the outset. Still, I was disappointed that after such a strong Day 1, I was unable to come even close to delivering a similar performance the following day, and there are definite lessons for me to draw in terms of making my body more resilient to the rigours of multi-day stage races, and perhaps also in terms of pacing myself better across both days – maybe I had pushed myself a little bit too hard on the first day, and over-exerted my legs. It's also possible that the effects of not having much of a taper (just 2 days of no exercise, preceded by 3 days with pretty full-on cycling sessions) hit me on the second day but not the first. Equally, with last than 4 weeks having elapsed since finishing the 150 miles of the Spine Challenger North, it's possible that I was still feeling the effects of that race. It's important not to beat yourself up when things don't go entirely as you'd like them to.
Oddly, my knees were completely OK throughout the race, even on day 2, and it was just the upper part of quads that was giving me the most problems, which in turn suggests that I may need to rethink some of the strength work that I do as part of my training, and potentially add some more quad-specific exercises. Next up is the Amersham 50k ultra in 4 weeks time - slightly less hilly than the Pilgrim Challenge, and only 1 day so no problems with DOMS! I will treat this very much as a training run, with no taper at all, so will not be too concerned about my time, just with getting more miles in my legs as I prepare for the 190 mile Northern Traverse in early April.
As a side note, this was Number 5 of the races in my 1,000 mile challenge to run 1,000 miles in ultra races within 12 months to raise money for Mind UK, the mental health charity (see the below link to donate). I'm now up to 381 miles, so just over 600 miles to go !