Driving down to The North Downs way from Edinburgh for the Pilgrims Ultra looked ominous for the pending race. As soon as we crossed the border into England the rain started, and didn’t stop! Torrential rain & hazardous driving conditions made the drive extra long, and looking out to fields of water we could only imagine what the conditions underfoot were going to be like.
We caught up with Race Director, Neil Thubron, one of our fellow competitors from the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon on the Friday night, meeting his lovely wife Anna, his dad & a couple of friends as well. It was great to catch up over some pasta & hear about his route reccie earlier that day. Basically the forecast for the weather was looking good but nothing could be done about the tonnes of mud & water out there.
The race had 3 start times, 8am for the walkers, 9am for the runners & 10am for the elites (or those planning a sub 6hr finish), Neil suggested we start at 10am. No pressure then! It was nice to have a later start though, we made it to race registration just before 9am and managed to catch up with some other fellow competitors from Kalahari; Marina Ranger & Howard Bailey; also running, and Edward Chapman, volunteer who was going to be on one of the checkpoints. Great to see the gang again.
The sun was out, it was chilly, but dry. A few pre race instructions, and we were off! The likes of Robbie Britton and Danny Kendall were out of sight before you could say ‘ultra running’! Not to be seen again until I crossed the line myself some 6h30 min later. Not quite the sub 6 hour I had hoped for, but pleased with my time considering the conditions. You had to keep an eye on the markers, which proved challenging for some, as Dion and a few other runners came past me not once but twice after getting lost!
The route was certainly challenging to say the least. A mix of road (not much), trail, mud, water hazards, fallen trees to climb, sand and plenty of steep hills. I don’t think I can say enough about the mud; I have never experienced anything like it, it certainly made Tough Mudder seem like a beginners 5km run! Not only was it muddy on some of the flats, but also on hills, making climbing or descending treacherous, and thick ankle deep, squishy mud with nowhere to go but straight through it. It’s not that I mind mud (not once I’m in it, otherwise yes I’m a bit of a Princess) but it is so draining on the legs with all the slipping and sliding, but the time I got to 17 miles my legs were absolutely screaming and were really tired.
Normally I can knock out 20 miles without even worrying. I had been trying to keep refuelled, eating my snacks and drinking my Nuun water in my camelbak, but I wasn’t taking enough on board that’s for sure. I say it every time, but I have to get better at this eating & drinking business. I just don’t enjoy the eating on route which is so strange considering I certainly enjoy eating normally!
It was great to see Ed and Phil at the 2nd checkpoint, where I got a hug, some food and loads of encouragement to keep me going. The last half a marathon from the 20 mile mark were evil. After going up Boxhill, which is a severe incline which would test the very fittest, there was hill after bleeding hill! The weather had stayed good, a bit of rain on Boxhill but not enough to wet you through, and it started again in the last mile, but I couldn’t care about that at that point. What a relief to see the finish line! Made it in before dark which was the goal, and day 1 finished! Dion was there to greet me, having got my bag and set up our sleeping area for the night, what a sweetheart. It was hard to get the trainers off, there was so much mud caked on them!
Thank God for showers! After a shower, a For Goodness Shakes recovery drink, cup of sweet tea, cup of yummy soup and a slice of cake, I started to feel human again. Too sore to stretch (silly mistake must do this in future), I caught up with a few running pals and had a bit of a tweet meet, meeting some fellow tweeps face to face for the first time.
I took advantage of the £10 massages on offer, so 15 mins of the most brutal massage ever from Alex, and my legs were ready to walk across the path to dinner. XNRG put on dinner, which was pasta, garlic bread & crumble with custard. Perfect post race food, and also pre race as there was still a day to go. The perfect opportunity to get chatting to fellow competitors, meet some other runners that are also heading for Marathon Des Sables in April, and catch up with yet another fellow Kalahari runner, Steve Partridge, who had popped in to say hi to us all. It was great to hear from the guest speaker Danny Kendall about his running, and interesting to hear that he too didn’t just appear naturally fast, he had to work at it, and still does, and gets his training in around a full time job, and a full time family! A great guy and gave a really good insight into his training. Looking forward to seeing him again at Marathon Des Sables this year.
Sleep was certainly not happening for most people that night, really only the snorers get a good night’s sleep!
Awoke to another dry day (in the skies at least, we were to find out another river had broke its banks so another detour!). XNRG put on breakfast so there was plenty of porridge, toast and cereal to fill up on. The walkers had headed out at 7am, and I was due to head out at 8am as I had not got under 6hrs the day before, so no longer in the elite group. Dion decided to join me although he should have been in the 9am start as he was in under the 6hr cut off but was concerned about how the day would go and didn’t want to be caught out in the dark either. Legs were pretty stiff, but what to do, there was another 33 miles to run.
Off we went, we were all in the same boat, except for a few fresh runners that were just doing the Sunday, but I was pleased to say I kept my speed up ahead of them so that was a good sign. We all started off pretty slow and steady and quickly the group broke into smaller groups. Within the first mile, I was following the lead pack, Dion leading, and they took the wrong way……only a few hundred yards to make up, but not what you need! After Dion getting lost twice the day before it was weighing heavily on his mind, and that along with me in the pain zone, he graciously sacrificed his own race to stick it out with me.
The first 13 miles were pretty tough going, loads of mud, I know I keep mentioning it, but there really was a lot, and this section was a lot of steep uphill. Not to say that the back half was flat as it certainly wasn’t, but the first 13 were really tough.
Luckily the sun stayed out which was fantastic, especially at a slower pace, it was nice to enjoy the views and feel slightly warm as well. Dion and I enjoyed chatting along the way, and he pushed me on when I was struggling to make sure it didn’t all end in a slow walk and take longer than it did.
The checkpoint crew were fabulous as always, and I took good advantage of the food and the hugs on offer at the checkpoints to boost morale and energy!
We got lost again about 3 miles from the finish, stupidly following another couple, when we should have looked at the sign ourselves, so that cost us about 20 minutes and also some energy & patience! The mud was really wearing me down, the legs were zapped, but there is only one way to get out of this pain, and that is to finish, so finish I did. 7h 40min for 34.5 miles. Not ridiculous, but hardly breaking any records either.
All the pain disappears as soon as that medal is around your neck, okay it doesn’t really disappear as it’s on Wednesday I was still hurting, but you know what I mean.
Would I do it again? Hell yeah! A really well organised event, and a very challenging course, whatever the conditions. I have learnt a lot from the race, I realise I am fit, but I need to be fitter. A big wakeup call for MdS (Marathon Des Sables) coming up, and of course that small matter of my first 100 miler, the Mohican 100 in June. So it is time to up the intensity, get some more hills and terrain in and it will all come together. The plan was to get to more hills after this race as we had been training in fairly flattish conditions, more concerned with the mileage so this just drove it home that this is exactly what needs to happen.