So the Marathon Des Sables training has meant a real upping of the distance, and running to work 4 or 5 times a week rather than 3 times a week. However, I know that if I’m going to get around the southern Sahara in one piece, I’ll need some pretty serious mileage under my belt.
I’d eased quite gently back into training in January, with my long event, The Winter Tanners, cancelled due to the heavy snow. Unfortunately I faced the Pilgrim’s Ultra with just a series of 10km morning runs into work, and I turned up at the start line of the excellent Pilgrim’s Ultra feeling seriously undercooked!
The event is organised by the super slick XNRG company, run by the affable Neil Thurbron.
They host a series of these Ultras through the year, and I had heard cruel rumour that they believe the first day of Pilgrim’s Ultra to be the hardest of the lot! Well, being 33 miles over the North Downs in Surrey and via the punishing Box Hill, then it would come as no surprise.
I got there at early o’clock on a sunny Saturday morning. Believe me, if the weather for an event like this was all pish and wind, then it’d be a seriously unpleasant undertaking. But bright and sunny it was.
For some reason, I had found myself in the starting slot for the Elite runners. Having run only 2 marathons in my time, I found this revelation seriously intimidating. However, during our pre race briefing I had it confirmed that the average age for the race was ’40’ and slipping (just) below that, I felt a touch more comfortable!
The event involves an out and back run over a full on weekend. As said, this was 33 miles from Farnham to Merstham over the North Downs way, but a heck of a lot of ascent and descent to contend with. There was no timing to think about (well at least not in my case), and I was more interested in getting round the course! Some 5hrs 50mins later I was there, shattered, relieved, achey, thirsty and very chuffed. But here’s the thing. There was no going home for a warm shower and a glass of claret with a fat steak. My normal race refuelling method. Instead, here we were expected to camp cheek by jowl in a school hall and to turn around and do it all again on the Sunday.
Below is a map of what it’d be like to drive – at times over the weekend I wish I had!
The evening, tho, was excellent. Like minded ultra runners chatted and drank the odd beer. People shuffled into communal tables and discussed other ultras, shared tips on the Marathon Des Sables and generally ‘wowed’ with other tales of ultra endurance. All fuelled with mountainous piles of pasta, steaming cups of tea, apple crumble and custard and a huge screen to watch the 6Nations rugby if you were too tired to hold conversation! And at 8pm was a talk by Andy Mouncey, an inspiring Ultra runner who had the audience captivated by his tales and advice. One particular highlight was the last 3 of the walkers entering the hall at 9pm to a rapturous round of applause which interrupted the speech. This was real encouragement and provided an ear wide smile for all the tired faces in the hall.
Lights out at 10pm, with probably a few hundred runners in the 2 sleeping halls. Ear plugs were put in and soon the room reverberated with the soothing sound of snoring! Grrr. Anyway, tiredness prevailed and a relatively good night’s sleep ensued.
The Sunday morning was an experience. Creaky legs, sore back, achey achilles, general niggles. And the prospect of having to run another 33 miles back over some fairly challenging terrain. Half way through, the hip flexors were screaming and the stride length shortened to an ultra marathon shuffle. I’ll admit also to the odd stretch of walking. But according to ultra Andy, this is not to be ashamed of. Indeed, the advice had been to practise how to walk during a race. Music to my ears!
I limped home some 6hrs after starting off. It’s a real experience being out on your feet and in pain for that long. If you think about it, 6 hours is a real long time; it’s almost a full work day. It’s a long time to mentally contain yourself when in pretty serious pain. You need to shut it out and think of something else, and NOT clock watch.
A respectable finish around about the top 30 out of the best part of 200 runners was very satisfying. My first ultra and it went fine. I was hungry as a grizzly bear for the next few days and ached like never before. But if this is a taste of the Marathon Des Sables, then I felt encouraged and capable. Only there’d be another 4 days to go over in Morocco…that ain’t no weekend jaunt!
Thanks to all at XNRG – I’ll be seeing you again