A new year and a fresh start. So I’ve only been running ultras since the end of 2013, but my record with injury is pretty impressive, or unimpressive depending on how you look at it. Either way, there’s no mistaking that I have made some training errors. Most of which fall into the category of over-enthusiasm. I’m certainly guilty of this. Conscious of already being 42 and no doubt having surpassed my running prime. It’s always in the back of my mind that each year my chances of progression, becoming a better and faster runner are dwindling. It’s fear I guess. Driving me to push when I shouldn’t and to be lacklustre or at best passive in my approach to recovery.
All that said, I did learn some lessons last year. I was far more cautious in building mileage, and took a more active approach to stretching and recovery. I even made good use of the foam roller that I had previously sat gathering dust under a chair in our sitting room. But the single most important factor in my running improvement of 2016 I would have to say has been my dedication to strength and core work.
Perhaps ‘dedication’ is somewhat overstating it, but I have probably managed an average of two hours a week. After being diagnosed with femoroacetabular impingement of my hip at the start of the year, I had no choice but to follow the guidance of a physio, if I was to have any hope of avoiding surgery. I was sceptical that it would help, but to my absolute joy, it abated the pain and has continued to keep me away from the surgeon’s blade and saw!
Anyway, back to 2017. And like so many years before, I had filled my race calendar before Christmas was over. The intoxication of several days of overindulgence in every respect had me bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm for all the beautiful places I could go, the great people I’d meet and the experiences I’d relish. I’ve wanted to run Pilgrim’s for a few years now, but have only got as far as having to cancel my place due to injury. But this year I’d made it through my annual winter injury window of early December unscathed, so I’d finally get a chance to run a winter race along one of my favourite trails, the North Downs Way.
After my race performances last year (1st, 4th, and 6th,), I definitely came into this with the hope that I could challenge for a podium place, or at least get near to it. That said, if the likes of course record holder, Danny Kendall, or Robbie Britton decided to run, I knew I’d be a very long way behind. I wasn’t as fit as I could be, but my fitness from the Autumn and five or six good weeks in 2017 had got me to a level I was comfortable with for the time of year.
Irene, my wife, and I arrived at registration about fifty minutes before the start where we spent a little time chatting with my friend and serial ultra volunteer and racer, Ilsuk Han. I didn’t know anyone else racing, so it was great to see a familiar face so early on. I’ve long stopped paying attention to the physique of other ultra runners in effort to try estimate their potential ability. It just doesn’t seem to be as easy to predict in the way that runners of shorter races are. But nevertheless there were certainly a few people on the starting line who looked like they were there to push hard.
Unlike a lot of runners, I am least comfortable out front on my own. I don’t enjoy the anxiety of being ‘stalked’ or ‘hunted’. That fear of knowing there are competitive runners behind you, but without clarity on how far or whether they are holding something back with the intention of kicking for the last few miles when I’ve undoubtedly got very little left both mentally and physically. I say this all with the caveat that I am very new to the experience of running towards the front of any race. But as I’ve referenced already, it was something I tackled a few times last year. I like to run with other people, even in a competitive environment. The endless miles of an ultra always seem to pass far quicker when your able to draw strength from the company of another, or even as part of a pack.
From the get-go the race was led by Pavel Bal. He went out with the intent of putting some distance between himself and the rest of the front-runners, which included myself and the overall winner, Paul Fernandez. And he may well have had a different race had he been able to maintain the lead. But despite being a very fast runner (2.28 marathon), this was his first ultra and he had no experience of having to watch out for signage. In the first five miles he must have taken at least three wrong turns. So he sensibly opted to change his strategy and instead ran with the pack.
The early miles were relatively dry under foot. Lots of fields, fire roads and mud-free footpaths, but it wasn’t long before we encountered the chalky clay/mud of the North Downs Way in winter. It was exactly as I’d been warned it would be, and nothing like I’d hoped it would. I’d been chatting about footwear choice with my friend Justin Bateman prior to the race, and he’d smartly pointed out that most of our running had been done there in the height of summer when the ground is firm and bone dry. It’s fair to say this wasn’t the case on the day of the Pilgrim’s Challenge. Despite opting for my Saucony Peregrine’s on day one, which have pretty grippy soles and some deep lugs, there were times when I felt like I was ice skating. The combination of clay, chalk and water creates a wonderfully deep and slippery surface. It’s not so bad on the down hills if you shorten your step and brace yourself for a little bit of sliding each time you plant your foot. But going uphill is really tough. Every step requires additional effort. Almost impossible to gain real traction, at times it feels like your sliding backwards whilst pushing hard forward. If I did this race again, I buy myself some proper fell running shoes with lugs deep enough to embed themselves into the squishiest of surfaces.
Pavel and I fell into a good rythm running together. Content to let Paul disappear ahead, I was just happy to be keeping pace with a 2.28 marathoner. And I think Pavel was just grateful that he had someone else to show him the way and avoid getting lost. Yet he didn’t know my track record in this respect, having managed to get seriously lost in two races back in 2015. Anyway, they do say ignorance is bliss.
The section from the first checkpoint to the second is probably the best running of the whole course. It starts with a bit of a climb from mile eight to eleven. But then it levels out with some good solid ground and well-managed fire roads where we maintained a reasonably steady pace at about seven and half minute miles.
We ran into the second check-point together where I met Ilsuk, who’d earlier been at the start. I was so focused on stocking up on sausage rolls and filling my flasks that I had forgotten to tag-in, but thankfully Ilsuk was on the lookout and shouted for me to do so before heading out on the third leg. Probably the fastest section of stage one, there’s a two and a half mile downhill through the Denbie’s wine estate with a large section on road. I pushed on ahead of Pavel letting my legs carry me quickly along the downhill with only a minor interruption as I tussled with a large metal gate at Denbie’s. Suffice to say I came off worse and took away a minor black eye. I swore a lot for several hundred yards too. I have a couple of go-to expletives for such occasions, which always serve to provide the required level of catharsis. But I do try to save them for when I’m alone or at least not in the company of young children.
Having spent some time reviewing the course and its profile, I knew the sting was in the tail. Or at least the back third. The hills were shorter, but more frequent and abrupt. And the mud, well, that had got deeper too. My average pace was below seven and half minute miles up the 23 mile point, but the next ten miles increased that significantly as I battled the hills and trudged through the mud. Eventually finishing with an average pace of seven fifty five m/miles.
One of the great things about this race is the staggered start. I was sceptical about this before I began, but by the end was a complete convert. There are two great advantages to this if you’re up close to the front. Firstly, it means you constantly have people to chase and share the trails with, rather than spending the day alone with no-one for company. And secondly, it helps hugely with navigation. The organisers use minimum markings, which at times makes it easy to miss turns when your focus is elsewhere, but once we started catching the other runners it was easy to stay on course.
I managed to completely miss checkpoint three. Leaving my poor wife and parents standing around for hours wondering if I had an accident or more likely gotten myself lost, until I called them from the finish line to let them know all was well. I know this section of the North Downs Way very well, and simply followed it religiously, rather than taking the (ahem, well marked) signage off course to the right and down the hill to the aid station.
I reached checkpoint four, just before the 30 mark in about 3.56 and was told I had just three miles to go. So I stopped quickly for more sausage roles. Truly the food of champions! And some water, and tried to settle into a rythm for the final miles.
As I came through Reigate Hill golf club up the hill towards Merstham railway station I found myself confronted by something of a conundrum. The green and white arrows that we’d been following all day pointed to the left, whilst there were several larger black and yellow signs stating ‘Runners’ pointing straight ahead. As I have mentioned already, my sense of direction is somewhat lacking and I’m capable of getting lost at the London Marathon. In the end, I went with consistency and decided to follow the green and white signage that we’d been following until now. We’d been told at the race briefing that there were several other races going on that day and we should be careful not to follow the wrong signs. Inevitably, I made the wrong call and added a little loop onto the course (half a mile), which I guess was fair penance for having missed the third checkpoint.
I finished second overall in 4.24. Just ten minutes off the winner.
Day 2: Back the other way
The second day was to be much the same as the first. It was still cold, a long way to the finish and there were thousands of tonnes of mud out on the course to wade through. Only my legs were a little more ouchier. Actually I say that, but they were much less so than I expected and they certainly loosened up about ten miles into the race, which genuinely surprised me.
They say that one of the great things about and out-and-back is that you get to know the course. What to look out for, where to push and hold back, and generally take advantage of the what you have experienced and learned on the first day. Sadly though this rule seemed to have past me by and I managed to activate the metal gate at Denbie’s secret spring-loaded self-defense mechanism yet again. Narrowly missing another black eye.
As expected, I slowed a little on the second day adding about 45 seconds to each mile. But a combined time for the two days of 9.14 was result as far as I was concerned. Second overall and a great start to the year’s running.