The Pilgrim Challenge 2017

By Alice Morrison

It is one of the favourite races on the UK ultra calendar, The Pilgrim Challenge organised by XNRG. It always provides plenty of adventure, speedy times and mud… plenty of mud. Last weekend’s edition was no exception. We talk to some of the racers about the highs and the lows.

First of all, the facts. The Pilgrim Challenge is a two-day ultra which covers 66 miles of North Downs Way national trail. The route, all on the long distance path of southern England, was once used by pilgrims heading for Canterbury. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty and provides some stunning views. Course records are held by Danny Kendall 07:50:23, and Elisabet Barnes  09:56:47 and it is a UTMB Qualifier event (4 points). It costs £140 but once you have paid that, everything is take care of. Overnight accommodation with showers!, evening meals, and food and drink at checkpoints. There are even speakers laid on for the evenings so you get a real sense of event. This year it took place on the 4th and 5th of February.

The men’s top three for 2017 were:

  1. Paul Fernandez 8:43:00
  2. Dudley Desborough 9:14:39
  3. Andrew Fargus 9:18:34

The women’s top three for 2017 were:

  1. Melissa Venables 9:57:06 (6th overall)
  2. Sarah Hill 10:02:55 (9th overall)
  3. Katherine Barrett 11:25:50 (20th overall)

The results meant that Danny and Elisabet’s records still stand. Danny’s by a comfortable margin but Melissa was just 19 seconds off Elisabet.

When we talked to Melissa about the race she gave us a great insight into her tactics and how the run unfolded.

This is the first year I have gone into Pilgrims to properly race it and see what I could do. My target was to get as close to ten hours as possible, as for a female that is a good time and the course record is 9.56.47 by Elisabet Barnes.

I ran much quicker than I expected on day one and finished only 1 min 45 behind lead lady which was a lot closer than I thought when I was out on the course. I thought I may have pushed too hard and would regret it day two but other than an Achilles niggle, my legs felt pretty good.

Day two, the leading lady set off hard and I didn’t think I would catch her. We played cat and mouse for about 10 miles from the halfway point when I first caught her and then, with five miles to go, I managed to get ahead, extend the lead and finish about seven minutes before her.

It’s a tough, challenging course and this year the Sunday was particularly muddy and heavy going. I was delighted to go under 10 hours and to be so close to the course record of phenomenal ultra runner Elisabet Barnes.

I really didn’t expect to pull back the leading lady on day two, so was thrilled that my strategy of consistent, even running paid off.

Colin Harper was another one who put in a great performance, coming in at 14th. He talked us through the highs and lows.

It is tough and muddy – but that’s why I do it! Brilliantly organised and always great to meet the friends I’ve made on these events over the four years I’ve been doing them. The high point for me was running full speed down muddy hills trying not think where I’d end up if I fell.

The low point was on day two, just 3 miles from the finish when my hamstring objected to all the high speed downhill in fairly definite terms. However, we had a chat and I pointed out the only place left to drop out was the finish so we were just going to jog to there and after that it could complain as much as it liked!

John Samuelson was one of the many runners who take on Pilgrims as part of their MDS training.

The weather was absolutely fantastic, having watched the forecast all week showing rain on one or both days… but that didn’t stop the thick (and sometimes deep) mud from sucking at your heels and sapping the energy from your legs. My shoes are a biohazard and will need to be jetwashed. The views from the North Downs more than made up for it – running through history, up hills and across rivers – seeing more of the countryside than you ever could otherwise.

This is my second XNRG multi-day event and both have been immaculately organised and inclusive. No runner is left behind…they will keep the checkpoints open until the last competitor has gone through. This included Duncan Slater who I happened to watch come in when it was dark and getting cold, who still had a smile on his face. He is the first double amputee to have completed Pilgrims and I have no doubt he will go on to finish the MdS this year.

While sleeping on a hard school gym floor might not be everybody’s idea of fun, for anyone looking to compete in the MdS or similar stage races it’s an invaluable opportunity to test your kit and sleeping gear, which should include earplugs!

Pilgrims is probably the final event I will take part in before heading for Ouarzazate in April. I have met some great people, some of whom have become firm friends. It has been a great opportunity to form a gang of tent mates.

I have gained valuable insight into how far you can push the human body – which is much, much farther than I ever thought in my own case. I have experienced some low moments and learned how to keep myself moving forward, literally one step at a time. The pleasure of crossing the finish line after over 100km is something that’s hard to describe. I will be back for more.”

Charlotte Sarah Green is another runner who is taking on MdS this year.

I did one day last year so knew roughly what to expect. I had seen the weather forecast leading up to the weekend and wasn’t looking forward to it to be honest because it was forecast torrential rain the ENTIRE weekend. But as Friday came the weather forecast changed and we had some really lovely weather and the sun came out!

I really enjoyed the event…. the camaraderie and support you get from other runners and volunteers. And the homemade rocky road was epic!

I ran with Kevin Webber, such an inspiring man, and he pointed out lots of interesting points on the route such as pill boxes, forts and wings from a WW2 crashed plane. I hadn’t even noticed these the first time. It made the experience all the more enjoyable.

I expected mud as I had done the Pilgrim before but I didn’t think it was humanly possible for there to be any more – there was! Making my feet wet, it caused blisters and cracks to appear in between my toes. That is something for me to sort before MdS.”

The last word goes to Tish Joyce. She gets a big bravo from us in the RunUltra team for carrying on regardless. This is what she had to say.

Hardest thing I’ve ever done. Just after 9am this morning after being in real pain for an hour, after 7am start and struggling to walk. I decided to drop out. 11 1/2 h and 34.5m after I started I stumbled over the finish line and completed my first back to back 68m (with 2 extra for me). Food now!

Congratulations to all the heroic finishers. Definitely one to think about for next year.

"was thrilled that my strategy of consistent even running payed off (Melissa Venables)"

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