The Pilgrim Challenge; Why..…….!?

Posted on: 07 Feb 2020

This is was what I was asked last night; ‘why on earth would I want to run one ultra, let alone two ultras back to back’?! This was also a question I repeatedly did ask myself during the event last weekend and one I am not sure I can properly answer if I am honest, but I’ll try!  So why did I enter an event that involved running, crawling, walking 66 miles over two days along the North Downs Way in winter!?   There were a number of reasons for entering; because it was there, to see if I could still do it, the feed stations would be really good, the event had fabulous reviews, not an area of the country I have explored much, I was unlikely to get sunburnt in February, my pace would be irrelevant, I have always wanted to sleep in a school hall with 200 other people and just why not! 

My last ultra-race had been in 2016 and it was a little traumatic; I’d fallen down an embankment through nettles and brambles and then the friendly locals had removed all the signage!  I survived but had lost my nerve and then with the diagnosis of Fibromyalgia I questioned my ability to cope with the longer distances.  So I now blame my good friend Gerry for inadvertently making me enter!  As I tracked Gerry last year along the Spine Race (a 268 mile ultramarathon along the Pennine Way) I decided if he can undertake such a mammoth event whilst quietly suffering with Ankylosing spondylitis I can take on a 2 day fully supported ultra!  So I guess that’s the answer to the question!

The forecast for last weekend had been rain and this had not varied one iota for the previous 2 weeks so I was surprised to learn when I was registering Friday evening that there had been a change and Saturday was now dry, this was whilst listening to the driving rain on the marquee roof!  True to word Saturday morning arrived and it was mild and dry however the previous weeks of continual rain had done it’s work on the North Downs Way and we were told that the mud level was on a scale of 7 out of 10 (10 being the worse!). 

I’m not going to dissect each mile step by step you’ll be pleased to know but I kept a good steady pace for the first 10 miles; walking the ups, chatting to my fellow ‘Pilgrims’ and enjoying the views.  I ended up running much of the way with Lucy who ironically only lives a few miles from me!  After 10 miles the mud really started and I recall miles 14 – 19 were really hard work and I do remember shouting at the mud at about mile 19; it was a bit of a one-sided conversation! 

After mile 20 the ‘proper’ hills started; firstly the infamous steps at Box Hill where little did I realise that I would end up preferring going up them rather than down them! 

However the views were stunning and the weather had remarkably stayed dry.

Then there was Reigate Hill which was renamed with a less than glamourous name, again the same scenario with Box Hill happened with regards to going up or down!  The downhills were really starting to hurt my toes, especially my left big toe so I was thankful when the hills were no longer a complete vertical climb up and down.  At the last checkpoint I met up with Lucy again and we stuck together for the final 3 miles into Redhill; never have school lights looked so inviting! 

All our bags had been transported to the school so it was shoes off, grab your stuff, bag a sleeping spot and mark your territory for the night! 

Showers in true school tradition were cold; good for the muscles we decided!  However the food was remarkable, I even went back for seconds and with a couple of glasses of wine you nearly forgot why you were there; well that was until you got up for a second glass or dessert and your legs reminded you!  Motivational speakers followed that made our efforts pale into insignificance so there was no way we couldn’t be on that start line on day 2 so by 9.45pm I was tucked up in my sleeping bag with my ear plugs and eye-mask in the hope of a few hours’ sleep whilst listening to the torrential rain on the roof and all the snoring!  I must have slept for some time as I dreamt I was disqualified on day 2 for taking up too much room in the hall!  Before I knew it 5.30am had arrived and I was up having breakfast in readiness for the 7am start!  With a taped big toe, a different pair of trainers and the rain just starting to abate after 5 hours of falling we were off and luckily ignorant of how much longer the return ‘crawl’ would take on tired legs and an even muddier trail! 

On a positive the really bad hills were within the first 13 miles of the route; but they were treacherous and I was even slower going down then up them; especially the steps at Box Hill!  The muddy sections had just intensified and those with poles I felt laughed in the wake of us non-pole users as I slipped and screeched and tried to grab anything to stop myself landing unceremoniously in the mud!  I did at one point end up grabbing hold of a thorny branch in error; scratches whilst your heart is pumping hard tends to produce much more blood which the runners behind felt was a bit disconcerting as they saw blood dripping from my hand!  The going was painstaking slow and my initial estimation that I would be approx. 1 hour slower than Saturday was way out!  I was again running, crawling and walking with Lucy and we were able to pass the miles in comfortable conversation.  A wild wee was required and whilst I was seeking out a suitable spot I managed to kick, with my left toe, a concealed tree log in the undergrowth; the cursing was loud as my toe throbbed more; ‘fancy leaving a log on the ground in a wooded area indeed’!   

Upon reaching checkpoint 3 I was quite emotional but the guys there revived me with tea, chocolate eggs and cola bottles!  Checkpoint 4 and it was all about the Tuc Biscuits and cheese; remarkable healing qualities!  Then it was the final push for home and it was about to get dark quickly!  By now there was 4 of us and running was no longer an option, there was no moonlight and even with head torches it was hard to make out the terrain.  Just over a mile from home and suddenly an older guy appeared from nowhere in the middle of a field and started walking with us, he said he was local and was just out for a walk which seemed quite random as it was pitch black and he had no torch!  We think he was just lonely, a bit eccentric and got caught out with how quickly it became dark; but it was quite spooky at the time as making conversation with an oddity after 32 miles is not top of my list of things to do!  Finally the end was ahead and somehow we managed to run shuffle across the finish line, hug, have a seat and then have a small child stand on your left foot….I was already crying and then I was really crying!    But the elation, I had done it, there were times during day 2 that I thought I’d never finish it but I did!  66 miles over 2 days with 3,390ft of ascent each day and I hadn’t fallen over either!

Monday saw me at the Minor Injuries Unit at Chippenham when it came apparent that my toe was getting larger and angrier!  An interesting conversation ensued as I explained how the injury had occurred, then a slightly bemused Paramedic exclaiming that he’d never seen that happen before when they stuck a needle in it!  It’s now on the mend and I am making a fashion statement in my Crocs and socks! 

If you do want to know how long it did take me!;

Day 1 - 8 hrs 39 mins 18 secs

Day 2 - 11 hrs 21 mins 5 secs

I wasn't last!


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