Last Saturday I took part in the one of the Sealskinz Ultra Trail series events - the Chiltern Challenge. It was an early start as walkers were to start at 8am with registration starting at 7am. So, up at 4.30 after just a couple of hours sleep. I'd been in bed for five hours, but had reacted badly to dinner the night before and wasn't feeling too smart 😕 Even worse, reacting like that means my painkillers don't work for at least 24 hours afterwards so it was going to be a tough day ahead. We left a little later than planned courtesy of my innards. We should have still got there for 7 but hold ups on the M40 even that early meant we finally arrived at 7.20. I like having loads of time before an event to do the final sort of my stuff, have a cuppa, soak up the atmosphere, chat to people, go to the loo etc. At least the parking was on site at Princes Risborough School where the event starts and finishes so at least we weren't too pushed for time.
It's the first time I've ever done one of their events and the organisation at the start was slick and fast. Literally a couple of minutes to pick my up race number, tracker and free vest then quickly back to the car to put on the last of the race gear and do a final check of my race vest. The race brief for walkers was supposed to be at 7.30 and I got back to the hall at 7.35 - no sign of a briefing yet so I grabbed myself a cup of tea and tried to relax. There were little snacks around but sadly, none of them were gluten free 😕 Generally, it seemed that many had done the challenge before. The relaxation lasted all of a couple of minutes before my innards decided that they hadn't quite finished with me yet! Off with the race vest and a quick dash - better now than out on the course at least 😂😂 By the time I got back, the briefing was in full flow outside. Richard had taken my tea out with him so at least I got to drink it. It was quite a humorous briefing that seemed to put everyone at there ease and despite how I was feeling, I was really looking forward to it. It was dull, dry and cool - pretty much perfect conditions 😊
The briefing ended with a countdown from 10 and then we were off. As a relatively fast walker, I always like to start near the front, but I was surprised to find that we were quite near the back after only 500m or so because most people were jogging. I'm so used to getting a 'feel good' start by being able to pick off a few walkers in front of me over the first mile and this time we were just being overtaken. We went off fast, putting in a 10 minute first km (3.6mph) that was gently uphill - happy with that but then came the first real hill. 130m of steep ascent in front of us including sections of steps. We knew this one from previous training walks and I knew what would likely happen not having done enough hill work due to the ankle messing up training plans. I pushed as hard as I could, using my poles and although they helped a lot, it wasn't long before my hips cramped and went into spasm. Dead stop and a brief pause, vigorously massaging the hips and a few muttered oaths at my stupidity in tackling it too quickly. I restarted at a slower pace and thankfully, didn't have to stop again before the top. There was enough room to ascend without using the steps thank goodness or more embarrassing stops would have followed for sure.
The view from the top was absolutely glorious, even on this dull day, but my phone was tucked away so no photo today. Onwards we went through beautiful meadows and woodland, up and down, settling into a more steady pace, the soreness and stiffness in my back, neck and ankle starting to settle a bit as we did so. It wasn't long before the heavy drizzle started - this wasn't in the forecast when I'd looked before we set off! At least we were in woodland for a fair amount of the time so we weren't getting too wet and the conversation flowed easily 😊 As far as we could tell, six people were behind us but we soon left them behind. The occasional calls and sightings of Red Kites were fantastic as usual. I so wanted that bling at the end with the iconic Red Kite on it 😊 We also finally saw Chequers!
All went well until km 8. We exited a section of woodland and emerged onto a gravel track and in front of us was a narrow lane with fresh tarmac. A footpath headed off left but with no signs that we could see we kept straight on as we had at similar junctions we'd crossed so far. Signage had been good with either a short length of plastic tape tied in bushes or bright orange arrows sprayed on the tracks and roads every 500m or so, sometimes both. After about 200m, we came to orange arrows painted on the road sending us off on sharp right turn. On we went up the next gentle hill, through a little more woodland, down through a field of corn. Out in the open, the drizzle was of the kind thats soaks you rather quickly so out with the waterproof but my legs were soaking from walking a narrow path through the barley. I was surprised that even n the drizzle,the skylarks were singing all around us - so beautiful to hear. Over a road and through another cornfield, another uphill woodland section and finally out into a short cropped meadow. Our unease had been increasing as we should have reached CP1 by now! Then I recognised Hambleden Hall ahead - unmistakeable with its little dragons on the roof and the church next to it (it's been used as a location to film quite a few horror movies in the past). A sudden realisation that we'd gone wrong somewhere dawned - I knew from a brief look at the back up map before we started which showed the CP's that somehow we'd crossed over to the other side of the course, now being at around km 44!! I'll never forget that realisation and the horrible sinking feeling. I felt so dumb for having missed a sign somewhere. For a minute, I was almost tempted to carry on and do the course backwards!
Feeling very deflated, we turned around and retraced our steps, knowing we'd have to walk this same bit again for a third time later in the day. I also knew that whatever we did now, we'd be last, but even worse, would be keeping the volunteers waiting at the checkpoints all the way around. We'd gone over 3k off course and I felt gutted. It was a very quiet walk back. In a section of woodland we met a pair of participants running towards us. We stopped them and told them they were going the wrong way but that we didn't yet know where. We left them looking at their maps and didn't see them again so I assume they found a different way back to the right side of the course. It helped a little to know that we weren't the only ones to have got it wrong.
A little further on, a group of about 17 runners were all coming towards us and we stopped them too. A girl at the front of the group said she wasn't waiting and was going on and off she went but a French runner consulted his GPS and agreed that we were on the wrong side of the course and he and all the other runners turned around as one (the girl crossed the finish line a little earlier than intended so they drove her out to the ten mile marker where she carried on and finished the rest of the course). Again, at least it made me feel less silly for missing the turn in the first place. We were able to keep the runners in sight long enough to see them head off down the path we'd all missed. Richard stopped to take a photo from a competitors viewpoint -
This lady obviously knew where she was going but the turning was marked only by a piece of tape hanging in a bush some 10m down that path so we'd have to have been looking down it to see it. It was absoluteky invisible on the approach 😕 Even having finally seen it, it wasn't obvious in the really low light levels at the time. At this point, Richard was gently coming to the boil. I was just glad we were back in the right track and we soon reached CP1, only 5 minutes after the last runner so at least they hadn't had to wait too long for us. The first '10k' (actually 16.7) took a massive 3:14! We were already 75 minutes behind where we thought we'd be 😕 There was nothing I could have eaten at the CP so I ate one of my own home made energy bars and Richard grabbed a couple of snacks before we headed off again.
The ankle started to protest more not long after leaving CP1, especially on anything downhill. Over the next 20 k we managed to make up some time but basically, it was just head down all the way. The drizzle continued and sensation in my feet was at a real low so I was having to watch the path in front at all times so I could place the ankle down as flat as possible and try not to trip on anything. At both the 20k and 30k CP's we were clapped and encouraged and I apologised to them all for keeping them waiting so long, and of course, they were just totally encouraging, saying it really didn't matter.
Sometime between CP3 and CP4 I hit rock bottom. For the first time ever, I seriously considered quitting at the next CP. The ankle taping was doing a reasonable job on level ground on the flat and uphill but downhills and uneven ground were just downright painful again. Because of trying to favour the ankle and constantly look down at the path ahead, knees, hip, neck and back were all protesting constantly and whatever I was doing on the downhills, my toes felt like they'd been constantly hit with a hammer. After the 36k split, I really started to slow down. I was tired, in a lot of pain and very disheartened. Richard knows when I'm doing it tough and also knows to leave me in peace to get on with it. Physically, he was doing great. I remember I regularly apologised to him for being so slow but I just physically couldn't make my legs move any faster. I didn't feel like eating, but I ate. I didn't feel like drinking, but I drank. Only thinking about what some Buzzers and their families are going through right now and the thought that I couldn't ever let my sponsors down kept me going at all. Somewhere during that section, the sweepers appeared behind us - the ultimate downer! At least it spurred me on a little.
46.8k where the next CP should have been (taking the extra distance into account) came and went on Runmeter - we should have reached it by now but the course markings were still there and we were definitely on the right track. We checked the course map and it was definitely marked at 40k. On we went and finally at 48.8k we reached CP4. I really had had enough and after apologising to the CP staff for keeping them waiting, moved away to have a little personal space - I really didnt feel like talking. I looked heavenward for inspiration this time- although my Dad has been gone for 18 years now, I could his voice in my head saying 'you've come this far, you can do this, don't you dare stop now'. That's when I knew I wasn't done yet - I was going to finish this come hell or high water! As there was nothing I could eat there again, I spent a few minutes stretching out my back and neck while Rich ate.
As we left the CP, Richard said that as the sweepers came in, they'd commented that we were going like rockets - lovely sentiment but it certainly didn't feel like it although every time Richard said he could see them behind us probably made me try a bit harder 😂😂 He also told me that he'd talked to one of the volunteers who said that there was only 8k to go because the CP distance was incorrect on the map. That really did give me a boost and and that's when I tried again to pick my pace up a bit (with varying degrees of success). Downhills now had to be done sideways, leading with the good leg - bit awkward really 😂😂
I knew that near the end was a massive downhill slope - we've done it quite a few times in training. We finally reached the top of that slope and I was surprised that the arrows sent us off on a roundabout path at the top over a 'path', and I use the term very loosely, which was truly horrible. No more than flattened brambles and nettles disguising fallen branches. It wasn't too long before the swallow dive came. Fortunately, I was OK (or too numb to notice!). A few yards further on and Richard slipped as well and went down on his backside but thankfully was also fine. Couldn't understand that (very clearly marked) section being included at all when there was a perfectly good (if steep- I know because I've fallen down that one before as well 😂😂) path a few yards away. Finally we were directed back onto the smoother path. A set of 'steps' goes most of the way down but you'd have to be mad to use them. Every one is of a different height and spacing and the wood at the step edge stands very proud of the soil. After much groaning and cursing, we reached the bottom and exited the wood into an open rolling field.
The clouds were finally breaking up and I knew the finish was only a couple of k's away 😊 Across a road and into the next field. I could see the '1km to go' marker at the bottom of the field. I checked my watch and knew if I really pushed, we could get in just inside 12 hours so that became my goal. Out of the final field and onto a track where the finish sign pointed left, so left I went. Richard called me back and after checking the map, we went right instead. A few hundred meters and I could see and hear someone clapping and shouting 'well done'. What I didn't realise that Richard was really dragging his feet behind me, struggling to contain rising emotion at more signage gone wrong (though I suspect that was down to a passer by!). I stopped and looked behind me for Richard and he was a way behind. I checked my watch and shouted 'Come on, we've got this' but if anything he slowed even more. We've always crossed the finish line together so I waited. I guess the combination of struggling with his emotions and knowing we were last was just a bit too much for him as he flatly refused to do anything other than amble to the finish. As we crossed the line I was sooooo relieved!! I even asked if I'd won the 56k race 😂😂(sadly not, I was told, there wasn't one). They'd kept the finish arch up for us, and even kept the kettle out to make us a cup of tea despite their long wait.
In the greatest of coincidences, while chatting to one of the volunteers, I found out that he also has AS - small world sometimes 😊). By the time we'd had our tea and got back to the car, Richard even managed a smile for the camera 😊
I'm so happy I have that Red Kite bling 😊 I was disappointed in myself for the first few days afterwards, but rapidly realised that it was probably one of my greatest victories. Sure it hurts a bit coming last, but it's all part of life's rich tapestry. I did it and that's all that counts now 😊 Happy to say that the ankle didn't swell and the original injury isn't any worse than before - just some increased tendonitis (and my toes still feel like someone hammered them even now 😂😂). Now, a rest from anything more than 3k for a couple of weeks to try and get the ankle more settled again. Not even Parkrun today (and yes, as really missed it but I'll be back there next week ). 11 weeks today I'll be in Morocco😀
Official distance 50k (31 miles). Official elevation 979m (c. 3212 feet) Actual distance covered 56.79km (just over 35 miles). Actual elevation climbed 1018m (c. 3340 feet) - very almost the height of Snowdon.
Happy training everyone 😊
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