What a difference an ultra makes…

If you read my last blog post you will know that I was nervous about attempting the Pilgrims Challenge this weekend.  66 miles of muddy trail running with nearly 7600 feet of ascent – that’s the equivalent of climbing a Ben Nevis from sea-level and then throwing in a Snowdon for good measure.  I was worried that it would take a lot out of me and take me a long time to recover, as well as providing the possibility that I might get injured into the bargain, neither of which are needed with 9 weeks to go until the Marathon des Sables.  I needn’t have worried.

The route was beautiful, starting in Farnham and following the North Downs Way for 33 miles taking in the Surrey Hills to Redhill and then back the same way on day 2.  The elevation was interesting as well: in Marathon des Sables there is always a ‘Jebel’ day which involves scaling a large hill the size of Snowdon, so to include an ascent on each day that is taller than that was good training as well.  The outward route had some viciously steep climbs (Box Hill and Reigate Hill) and some gentle downward slopes, which on day two turned into relentless upward climbs and viciously steep descents.  It rained for the whole of day 1 which meant mud, and lots of it.  By day 2 a lot of the route had become coated in this weird kind of non-newtonian custard which rebounds the minute your foot hits it, causing you to slide every other step.  Good training for sand?

I needed a game-plan.  To minimise the chances of injury, I would avoid running fast, this would also serve to keep my heart rate down – the major learning of my Druids Challenge experience.  The distances of two days of 33 miles each are significant.  33 miles is longer than any single day in the Marathon des Sables apart from the notorious double-marathon on day four.  And the 66 miles in total is longer than the double marathon day.  Taking this challenge at a sensible pace would give me a good test that I could spend a long time on my feet, running (most of the time), and then get up the next day and do it all again.

The first day went really well.  I met and chatted with some delightful people en route, including quite a few who will be running Marathon des Sables.  Like me, a lot of MdSers use these XNRG events as specific training for the desert.  The rain didn’t seem to matter.  The mud wasn’t too much of a problem, but the ascents!  Running up Box and Reigate Hills was challenging but the dramatic change in spectacular scenery with the quick gain in height was completely worth it.

The second day, although the weather was much better, was a bit more challenging.  There may have been some swearing at the mud, which had deteriorated significantly with the rain and the number of runners over the paths.  Then I had a bit of a mental dip at around mile 53.  Marathon runners talk about hitting the wall, but ultra-marathon runners know that there are likely to be a few walls, and they pass.

I got over the dip by meditating.  It’s a technique I’ve been practising in preparation for just such eventualities.  I count steps and observe how I’m feeling while trying not to judge or react to the feelings.  What this means is that you notice which bits are hurting, and instead of your bored mind spiralling out of control, catastrophising about the consequences of potential injuries, or what it may mean for the rest of the race, you just say to yourself, ‘oh that hurts, it will pass’ or words to that effect, and sure enough it does.  Or you might find you have spiralled off on a train of thought in which case I just gently go back to counting steps.  This technique got me through the next 5 miles and then I found a second wind and comfortably ran in the last 8 miles to the end, even managing a sprint finish to the line!

Upon crossing the line, Neil Thubron, XNRG organiser and MdS alumnus himself declared me ‘MdS Ready’.  What a fantastic confidence boost at just the right time.

The event, organised by the Neil, Anna and the team at XNRG was fantastic.  As impeccably organised as the Druids Challenge, the XNRG event I entered in November.  You are made to feel special despite the 250 entrants, and the checkpoints and staff (Noel – you legend) are so helpful, encouraging, and know exactly what you need, when you need it.  Who knew that I would be craving Jaffa Cakes, sausages and flat Coke at mile 46?

When you attend one of these events, your evenings are spent sleeping on school hall floor with like-minded people having had an incredible day, probably having achieved something you wouldn’t have dreamed possible a few months previously, having stuffed your face on a massive plate of pasta and a never ending supply of tea and cake, and having listened to an inspiring set of speakers who have done similar things to you and endured similar hardships and have fascinating insights into the what’s in store.  You’ve probably also booked and had your massage with Camilla or one of the other fantastic physios that patch people and ease the aches and pains away.  People don’t understand my motivation to do this, but I struggle to understand why it took me so long to discover running.

It’s getting close now.  If you haven’t sponsored me and you want to then please follow this link… https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/damoisrunningmds

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