Need a great way to flush out the excesses of the festive season?  Then look no further than Extreme Energy’s Pilgrims Challenge.  66 miles over 2 days on the North Downs Way with 2,364 metres ascent is enough to scare off the most stubborn mince pie!  The format is to run 33 miles from Farnham over the NDW to Merstham, stay the night in a school hall, then run the 33 miles back the next day.  In the evening there is plenty of food & hot drinks, massages on offer, kit to check out and a series of guest speakers including myself this year.  You can opt to run one day rather than the two, but it really is a fun evening and a great chance to catch up with a lot of other runners you might have met at other races or through the wonderful social media world of twitter.  The crew take your bag for you, so you only need to carry what you need on you for the actual race.

This was my 2nd time at Pilgrims, and I had almost forgotten how brutal it is!  Always held in the last weekend of January the weather always plays a part and whilst last year we were redirected around flooded rivers, this year it was just mud, snow, mud and more snowy mud!  I knew I was much fitter than last year, but having competed in Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in November and enjoying possibly too much rest, impacted by a rather naughty period over Christmas, I wasn’t in top form to be racing.  I knew I would do better than the previous year but wasn’t sure how I would shape up to the other runners as this race certainly brings in a very strong field of very competitive runners.

Marina & I ready to start day 1
Marina & I ready to start day 1

I was at the start early to see off Marina Ranger, my co-patriot from Kalahari, whom I have been coaching now since September last year who was off in the 9am wave of runners (walkers had headed off at 8am already).  There was snow on the ground and more sleet and snow falling, so it was truly freezing, here I was thinking I had come south for some warmer weather!  Who was I kidding?  XNRG are always superbly organised events, within 2 minutes of arriving at registration I had my bib number, chip a handful of chocolates and had caught up with Neil, Anna and Brian the wonderful organisers of this event among others.  I hung around and caught up with some of the other runners before my start time of 10am, which by then my feet were frozen solid, I just couldn’t get warm.  I didn’t feel warm during any of day 1 with the continuous wet weather ensuring I remained wet & cold.  Actually the only part of me that wasn’t cold was my hands since I have switched my preferred glove to Gore Windstopper Gloves, a recent acquisition from Run & Become, considering I suffer from Raynaud’s I was very impressed as this was my first ultra distance in them and they certainly lasted the distance.  Read my review here.

Looking rather chilly on the start line of Day 1
Looking rather chilly on the start line of Day 1

The 10am group headed off with a blast and race leader & winner Danny Kendall took off with a bang knocking out the first 10k in 37mins and coming in for the day in 3h 48!  It was fast paced for the entire 33 miles with everyone pushing hard.  It wasn’t long before we were passing the walkers that had started earlier and then started rounding up some of the 9am starters.  It’s always nice passing others, especially familiar faces to give each other a quick pat on the back to push through to the end.  It was muddy throughout, particularly in the 2nd half of the run on the steeper hills, leaving me to wonder how I was going to get up or down some of these hills tomorrow, truly treacherous (as you may know I am not a huge fan of mud!), I managed a respectable 5h 41 putting me in 10th female for Day 1, which was a whole hour quicker than last year but disappointingly a long way off the winning female Elisabet Barnes who did it in 4h 49.

Pilgrims finish line with Neil photo bombing!
Pilgrims finish line with Neil photo bombing!

I got in and got myself sorted with a nice hot shower and got a For Goodness Shakes recovery drink in straight away and some pot noodles.  I booked myself in for a massage and then made sure I checked my presentation worked on the equipment before tonight’s talks.  I expended a lot of energy going around talking to people, which was great in terms of being social, but not what I needed for recovery, and in hindsight I certainly expended a lot more energy being nervous about giving my talk which I hadn’t thought would happen.  So much so I totally forgot to put on my compression before bed as well – a fail in my recovery process that I have tried and tested!  The evening was a great chance to talk to lots of runners, so of whom I know, and some new friends.  I gave my talk on multi day desert running, which was well received with about 100 of the 200 runners all there as training runs for this year’s Marathon Des Sables.

Never do you get a good night’s sleep in a school hall filled with a group of runners, but it is what it is!  With everyone waking up with stiff legs the initial miles are always slow to start as runners get warmed up tackling the hilly first half of the route back.  More snow had fallen but it was a beautiful sunny winters day, very cold but gorgeous.  My legs were stiff to get going and my feet were in tatters so I struggled on some of the muddier hills, downhill is definitely my weakness at the best of times but heading down when you can’t get grip is my worst nightmare, so this definitely slowed me down a lot.  I settled into my pace and from the last checkpoint decided to run with Toby who had been playing tag with me for the day.  Toby is running MdS later this year so I prattled my way to the finish about my experiences as he had missed the talks the night before and pushing him through to keep going.  I finished the day in 6h 44, again another hour quicker than last year, but too slow, finishing as 11th female over the 2 days.  I had taken my mind off the job at hand on day 2 and just didn’t back it up, but it was a good solid training run preparing me well for my challenges ahead in 2015.

I leave this year’s Pilgrims Challenge with a strange mix of emotions, whilst I had a great time running & catching up with everyone and I massively improved on last year’s times, I feel strangely disappointed in my performance.  I put this down to Pilgrims not being my A race as the conditions don’t suit me at all as I much prefer the hot climate races, hence my upcoming race calendar.  It is a great fun event and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to try out the multi day events in a safe, caring and fun environment without having to travel abroad.

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