The Pilgrim Challenge
is a two-day trail race organised by Extreme Energy (XNRG, www.xnrg.co.uk ). You can see all the details
on their website but Day 1 consists of a 33 mile run east from Farnham to
Merstham (near Redhill), along the North Downs National Trail in Surrey with an
overnight stop in St. Nicholas School hall. Day 2 is a 33 mile return trip west
along the same route back to Farnham. Quite a few of the 200 competitors use
the event as part of their training for other multi-day events, such as the
Marathon des Sables. It's a demanding, undulating event, which is tough enough
to earn 2 qualifying points for the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc. Although the
route follows the North Downs Way, some navigational skills are required. There
are certainly enough opportunities for the unwary to get lost!
This year's event took place on the very cold weekend of 4th / 5th Feb. We arrived in Farnham with the temperature gauge in my car showing -7C. The cisterns in the portaloos were frozen but at least the reception tent was nice and warm. I was training for the Namib Desert Challenge, so I was carrying some gear in a rucksack but dressed rather warmer than I was expecting to in the desert! The ground was quite dry and hard, so I decided to opt for a pair of road shoes. I wore the Brooks Pure Flow. I find them very comfortable and, because they're a bit lower in profile than most road trainers, they're reasonably stable on uneven ground. They worked pretty well for me and I avoided falling over all day. Although the weather was cold, it was a nice and bright and the views made it a glorious day to be out on the trails.
I was never going to be breaking any records, so my aim was to keep putting one foot in front of the other, running the flat parts, walking the hills (there are plenty of "honest" climbs up Box Hill, Reigate Hill and others) and enjoying the atmosphere as much as possible. There are 4 check-points/ feed stations on the route, so it was certainly useful to be carrying a rucksack for drinks/ etc. on our "day out in the country". I ran most of the way with a couple of friends and it was certainly good to have a bit of shared responsibility on navigation once the field had spread out. We managed to avoid any major deviations from the route and I ran in the last few miles feeling surprisingly strong, having really enjoyed the day.
The facilities at the school were fine, with showers, a tuck shop, a sports hall to relax and sleep in (you can send a bag on from the start with your sleeping bag, etc. â€“ you certainly don't need to carry it all with you!) and a decent pasta meal in the evening and breakfast the next morning. We were lucky enough to have a large screen TV available to watch England beat Scotland in the rugby followed by an interesting talk from James Adams about running in a race across the USA. He has done well in numerous ultra events and his main message seemed to be that we are all capable of doing much more than we think. The weather forecast had been for snow in the evening and, on this occasion, the forecasters got it right!
We woke the next morning to several inches of snow and a few questions about what the day might have in store. The guys from XNRG had been up half the night checking on the course and assessing the situation. There was no more snow expected and after a good briefing on the conditions, it was agreed that the event would continue with a few extra contingencies in place. The temperature was actually higher than the previous day and the conditions underfoot weren't expected to be too bad, but I certainly decided on a change of footwear into my trail shoes, a pair of Saucony Peregrines, with a bit more grip. I also wore a pair of Raidlight gaiters to help keep the snow off.
We set off relatively cautiously but enjoying the feeling of running in fresh snow. It was certainly going to be harder work, plus we'd run 33 miles the previous day. We re-traced our steps from Day 1, although a lot of it looked quite different with a covering of white. Some of the scenery was even more stunning, with snow hanging in the trees. We progressed steadily and for the most part I continued to enjoy myself. Part of the "pleasure" of this type of event is being away from the responsibilities of modern life. We hardly saw a car all day and much of our surroundings had probably looked very similar for hundreds of years. Box Hill was fun in the snow and I don't think there could have been many of us who didn't fall down at one point or other, albeit with a soft landing. It actually got more difficult later in the day when some areas started to thaw and we were running through slushy mud. Obviously, I was getting more tired too, but I continued to enjoy the experience until after the last check point. Having done over 60 miles at that point in the weekend, I think I was entitled to feel tired and I must confess that the last couple of miles really dragged (An ultra likes to give you a little reminder that it's never going to be easy!). Finally, the finish area was in sight and after a final burst of energy I was ready for a welcoming drink and a change into some warm, dry clothes.
Day 2 took me over an hour longer than Day 1, which seemed to be the case for most people I spoke to, simply because of the conditions and carrying over tiredness from Day 1. It hadn't been anything like as bad as it might have and the guys from XNRG had done a great job. My Peregrines had stood up to the challenge well and my feet didn't feel too bad. If you're into this type of event, I would certainly recommend it, whether you're doing it as your main aim or as a stepping stone to other events.