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XNRG Pilgrim Challenge review

by Paul Hayward
Friday 12th February 2016
On 4 February 2016 we revealed (here) that 'runner's runner', super OCR racer and now ultra runner, and all-round nice guy David Hellard is setting out to win Marathon Des Sables. In order to prepare him for the race, we asked him to take part in XNRG’s testing, but beautiful, 'the Pilgrim’s Challenge' – a gruelling 66 miles set across the North Downs Way. 
Welcome to the #DavidHellardProject Part 2- the warm up: 
I am five miles from the finish and I can barely move my legs more than a shuffle. Final summit conquered, I should be racing home by now, carefree and full of confidence, but the wind is pushing me back and my legs are screaming for me to walk. It wasn’t meant to be like this, it is only the first day of two. With the memory of my worst ever collapse on the second day of The OMM at the forefront of my mind (to date my only multi-day race), I had set off at a sensible pace to ensure I had plenty of energy left for tomorrow. I was so sure that today was just the warm up, I left my music and caffeine for tomorrow. How I could do with a boost of any kind now.
My mind is trying to convince my body that it is now an ultra-runner and that 33 miles is no big deal, but unlike R Kelly, ‘my mind is tellin me yes, but my body, my body's tellin me no oh oh’. Country to Capital was still in my legs or was it the Southern Cross Country Championships? Either way I knew I could not possibly run this all again tomorrow and was repeatedly telling myself “dig deep, get to the finish and then go home. 33 miles is a good training run and there’s no point killing yourself. I’m only here as training for the Marathon Des Sables (MDS) anyway.”

Pilgrim Challenge start

What was I expecting? The race was called the Pilgrim Challenge after all and didn’t half of the Pilgrim Fathers die from the cold, following an arduous journey across the Atlantic? My predicament suddenly felt very apt. 
I crossed the finish line and slumped on a plastic chair in the entrance to the school. It was quite an easy choice – spend the night on the floor of a sports hall, trying to sleep, knowing the horror of what awaited me in the morning or catch the minibus home to a warm bath, cold beer and a few hugs confirming that I had made the right decision. Before I ambled into the bus though, it made sense to have a few brownies, a welcoming cup of tea and get a massage to put me back on track for training. 
Several litres of tea and a patrol worth of brownies later and the atmosphere and my disposition had warmed up. If I was going to pull out of the race, it would be in the morning, once I’d had a chance to fully assess the situation. The appeal of a multi-day race that had so far eluded me was suddenly starting to make sense. Each new finisher brought a new smile, a new story and with nowhere to dash off to, the opportunity to spend more than just a passing conversation with fellow competitors. Many of the runners were also training for the Marathon des Sable, Pilgrims being an ideal opportunity to not only test their new kit, but also get a sense of what it is like to have to wake, stiff and tired and race all over again.  
Before that though we still had a night of socialising to get through, comprising beers with the rugby and some talks from speakers including Elizabet Barnes (winner of the MDS in 2015.) I’m not sure if it was the chilli con-carne or the company that had reinvigorated me, but following a great night of meeting potential tent-mates, I knew I’d be racing again in the morning. I nestled into my sleeping bag and prepared for a good old-fashioned slumber party. 
At 5:30 the room sprung to life and I realised the error I had made in my bed selection, I was surrounded by a bunch of errr walkers.  The Pilgrim Challenge starts in three waves – walkers at 7am followed an hour later by the joggers and then the runners at 9. Such a prospect in an obstacle race (my traditional background) would be met with horror, the difficulty of having to work your way through the field being too great, but it worked brilliantly. It’s incredibly hard to navigate a 33 mile route. Walkers have more time to take in their surroundings and are less likely to miss a turning, so sending out the walkers first gives the chasing groups someone to follow. Not only that, but by the second day you are passing through friends, offering each other greatly needed encouragement. 
The gathering at the start line felt like a mini reunion. My finish time on day one was 15 minutes behind Ben, the leader, and 8 minutes ahead of Ali in third. I knew that barring a complete collapse from Ben, it was unlikely I could win and I just had to stay close to Ali to be able to maintain second. The sun was out and it felt like a different race to yesterday. As we hit the first hill Ben and I dropped the chasing group and in theory the race was on. I am naturally competitive and suspected that on paper I was a faster runner, but having experienced three weeks of fatigue following Country to Capital, I was hesitant to ruin myself today for another three, especially as I had no idea how early on I could push without risking bonking and being caught by Ali. Ben and I agreed to ease in to the day for ten miles and then take things from there. I knew tactically this favoured him, giving me less time to attack, but part of me felt he had earned the overall win already with his run yesterday and given my struggle, I was happy to have someone to run with.
The Pilgrim Challenge winds its way from Farnham along the North Downs, over the top of the infamous Box Hill, to Merstham, before reversing the journey on day two. Whilst not completely comfortable, I felt relaxed and as we chatted, passing the walkers and then the joggers, it allowed me to take in more of the course and the race. The route is a combination of open ridgeway, muddy trails and hilly woods. Today the hills came early, the mud was mainly on the downhills and therefore far more manageable and every hilltop offered amazing views. In short it felt as if the sun was shining on us, partly because it was.
We ticked off the miles, stopping at the check points for a change, to stock up on pretzels, peanut butter sandwiches, chorizo and cola bottles.  Ten miles came and went and following a dose of caffeine at halfway, I unintentionally picked up the pace. Ben was being stretched and the downhills gave me several chances to launch an attack, but I suspected that even if I did drop him, 15 minutes was too big a lead. Thank goodness. I could have been tempted into a race, but I didn’t have the desire to run myself into the ground, so we finished the race as we had started -side by side, although with our hands cheesily held aloft (for the paps), second place secured in 9:19, I think. 
I entered the Pilgrim Challenge as a mini-trial run for the MDS and was completely wrong about what the challenge was. I was convinced that the challenge was physical, having to run a second day on tired legs, but that was easier than I had expected. It was the mental challenge that almost broke me, being tired on day one, without the finish in sight and not only knowing that I had to fight to keep going, but that I would have to do it all again tomorrow on tired legs.
I don’t know where this leaves my attempt to be the highest ranking Brit at this year’s MDS. It’s worrying just how tired my legs were on day one from previous races and I worry it may be a sign that my recovery is not quick enough for five days of racing. I have learnt however that even if today offers racing despair, it doesn’t mean tomorrow will and knowing that can only help my mental strength if I’m feeling weary before the final day. 
I am still discovering what it means to be an ultra-runner and this is the first race I’ve got a glimpse of how the atmosphere is different to shorter races. The organisation and spirit of the Pilgrim Challenge creates everything that’s right about running. Personal challenge, for all abilities, along beautiful trails, but within the warmth, support and friendship that the ultra-community offers. I just wish you didn’t have to run so far!”
More information on the Pilgrims Challenge 2017 can be found here: http://www.xnrg.co.uk/events/details/the-pilgrim-challenge-2016.aspx and check out XNRG’s other excellent events for 2016:  http://www.xnrg.co.uk/ 

Photos with kind permission of XNRG. All rights reserved. 


About The Author

Paul Hayward

I am 33 years old and spend the majority of my life within an office environment. Whilst I played football, I never really took an interest in sport let alone athletics. In 2011 I joined a gym as I was slightly concerned about my weight. However I was, like an awful lot of my colleagues, coasting and I considered spinning three times a week a workout.
This changed when I took up a circuits class and found myself entering Men’s Health Survival of the Fittest London in November 2011. I was assured by my friends that this was a good idea and would be a “challenge”.
I had never entered any form of competitive event before and training for this run changed me. I listened to my personal trainer, who assured me that if I quit drink I could be dangerous, and sorted out my diet, stopped drinking so much and focussed my training. I completed the race in just over an hour and I was instantly bitten by the racing bug, I loved the challenge the event offered. 
Nearly two years on I have completed a half marathon in 1hour 49 minutes, came 6th in the Rat Race Horseplay 5k event and usually come within the top 30% at Obstacle Course races. I am also a part time triathlete and I am lucky to find myself in a running club where we have a great coach and the focus is on members. If I am honest - I came to running through these events and I am not alone.
My aim through Run 247 is to promote, discuss and publicise Obstacle Course racing. It is becoming huge and over the coming months we will cover all of the major races and the new competitors entering the scene. 

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