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  • Writer's pictureSusie Chan

Pilgrims' Ultra - Racing the Longer Ones

Slight confession. Remember that time when I told you ultras were not about numbers and times and minute miles, Well they are not. They are about the experience, the views on the trails, the people.

However, after a summer of speedwork, I thought it was time to see if the faster times and the longer miles could merge – and decided Pilgrims Challenge Ultra would be the place for me to give it a go.

Pilgrims Challenge Ultra is run by the fantastic Extreme Energy events. A family run company specialising in multistage ultra events. It takes participants from Farnham 33 miles along the North Downs way to Merstham. Here you get fed, entertained by guest talkers, can drink beers, and kip down in a school hall to a chorus of snoring, before getting up and running 33 miles all the way back to Farnham.

Highlights of the route include Box Hill, St Martha’s hill, and at mile 27 what is known as Reigate hill (it’s Colley Hill) A 360ft hill so horrendous it hits 31% in gradient. This all culminates to a leg burning 6500 ft of elevation. That’s not the tough bit, the tough bit is the mud. Miles of slippery, sticky glue-like mud. The views are wonderful though. This will be my third go at the race.

Having quietly checked out previous female podium times, mental time goals were set. Certainly try for sub 6 hours on both days, my strategy was to run hard, but leave enough in the tank for day two. Over 200 runners huddled in the biting snow on the first day for the race briefing. The snow was good news as this meant the ground underfoot would be firmer. As we set off it was the least muddy it had been in previous years.

It all felt good up and over Box Hill. However the next section was difficult. I had a bit of a bad patch, it’s a tough part of the course and the mud was getting stickier. Once Colley Hill had been tackled my it was pretty much downhill all the way to the finish. I was racing another lady at this point and pushed out some faster miles to come in 5th lady.

There were some incredibly impressive times recorded that day. MdS veteran Danny Kendall ran the whole course in 7 minute miles. He and female leader, the fantastic Elisabet Barnes had a clear lead, both set to smash course records. The following five females where within 5 minutes of 2014’s winning time, with less than 10 minutes separating us. The race was on.

The rest of the day was spent passing the time with my fellow runners – Shaun, Jane, Paul, Mick and Nicola. We chatted and ate as much food as possible. Sir Ranulph Finnes (competing in the Marathon des Sables this year) joined in with the food and socialising.

Overnight my toes were very sore, but the legs didn’t feel too bad. Shaun and I left in the Elite start on day two. This means you leave 1 hour after the main run pack and can chase people down. Checkpoints are ready for you and everyone comes in around a similar time. It had snowed again and the course today was now muddy to extremely boggy in places. I stuck with Shaun for the first difficult miles to Box Hill. My legs felt tired. I had gone out too hard on day one. Past Box Hill things started to improve. My friends were waiting for me at Newlands Corner around 20 miles in, which gave me a goal to focus on. Passing people helped as they all encouraged you. When I met my good friend Jane and buddy Mick, both doing their first multistage ultra, it was a great moment seeing them doing so well. With only 3 miles to go another lady caught me up. I hadn’t run that far to be overtaken and ran at 100% for the last few miles. It was agony, and a huge relief to cross the finish line.

I came 5th woman and 16th overall, over 3 and a half hours quicker than the previous year. This wasn’t the best bit though. The best bit was being greeted with hugs from C2C and Race to the Stones buddy runner Cat Simpson. The best bit was being cheered and handed a HUGE pizza courtesy of Charlotte Hanson within minutes of finishing. The best bit was Jane and Mick crossing the finish line looking strong and jubilant at their epic weekend’s work. The best bit was being in the company of superb runners breaking course records, and wonderful walkers some who had spent over 10 hours on their feet both days to finish. The best bit about it was of course the experience, the views on the trails, the people. It’s not all about the numbers times and minute miles.

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