Before this race even started, I contemplated quitting.
Pulling back the curtains the morning before the race revealed a hurdle I had not accounted for, let alone trained for: a heavy deluge of snow. The snow lay thickly upon the ground, silently mocking my precarious mental strength. The race ahead was the biggest running challenge I’d ever attempted: The Pilgrim Challenge is a 66 mile ultra spread over two days across the Surrey Hills, the snow only hardened the endeavour.
As we slid on the snow coming out the driveway on the way to the train station, I asked my partner if doing this race was even a good idea. Doubt had already burrowed itself deep in my subconscious I just didn’t realise it then.
After two trains I finally pulled into the local station and met up with Darren aka Runners Knees, who being a far better blogger than me has already posted his fantastic review of the race. We made our way through the blinding blizzard to our room and then on to some food. We sat and discussed the race ahead, he had already decided that one day was enough as he has the Fire and Ice ultramarathon ahead, the incredible and gruelling multiday ultra across Iceland. With years more experience than me his words settled upon me like the snow and I was convinced this was the right option for me too. I fell oddly soundly asleep that night, ignorance is a powerful relaxant.
We arrived at the start early and huddled around the hot water cauldron in an effort to warm up. The snow meant that the amount of runners was already diminished, with many unable to make the journey down. Darren was still trying to shake off an injury so we opted to start in the earlier wave as we knew that our pace was going to be slow. It wasn’t long before we were ushered outside and the race began. The snow was thickest for the first half of the race but especially at the very start. Way over ankle deep, it regularly found a way into my shoes soaking my socks. While the going was incredibly hard the new experience of running through the snow made the struggle feel somewhat novel.
While the battle through the snow was gruelling it yielded stunning views as its reward. The North Downs Way cuts through the stunning Surrey landscape and with the snow blanketing the way it has to be one of the most beautiful races I’ve ever done. My pace was slow but steady and through the first 20 miles I truly felt strong. In the winter wonderland I effortlessly fell into the pendulum of movement, neither my mind or my limbs cried halt. In the tranquil beautiful of the snow covered trails I truly felt infinite. One of my favourite parts of the race was the many places where kids were sledging, it became more like running the gauntlet than running an ultra in those moments as I narrowly avoided kids speeding past.
But eventually the snow yielded to the warming sun leaving behind precarious muddy trails, churned up by the many runners now ahead of me. To add to the problems I have a disorder known as Raynaulds which is basically a circulation problem that means in cold wind my hands go bright white and are exceedingly painful. It makes it hard to grip or even touch things without the sensation of sharp needles jabbing through the skin. As the sun began to sink and the temperature followed suit this set in fast and within a few miles I was unable to hold on to my poles and opening gates became more of a challenge than a chore. As the majority of the final miles were either up or downhill through that wet, unstable ground my inability to hold my poles for assistance meant that I was effortlessly sliding all over the shop, going over on my ankle numerous times. In those petrifying moments that followed each slip I would say to myself; “are you ok? are you hurt?”. The fear that one false move would result in me breaking my ankle was very real.
Over time I drifted apart from Darren and until I inevitably got lost and caught up with him again I spent most of the day on my own. For anyone who has run an ultra or done any sort of long distance event will know that the solitude is both a gift and a curse. The upside is that you get time with your thoughts, the downside is you get time with your thoughts. I spent most of the race thinking positively and it wasn’t until the final 5-10 miles when the temperature began to drop combined with the pain in my hands that my mind shifted to a truly negative space.
I crossed the finish line and while I should have felt elated to have completed 33 miles in really tough conditions I just felt hollow. I knew then that I shouldn’t and wouldn’t start, let alone complete, the second day and the shame of failure washed through me like the cold winds had done throughout the day. I phoned my partner and muttered defeat out-loud, it would take her an hour or so to arrive but I felt little urge to go in and join the other competitors, worried that they might sense there was a fraud in their midst. Instead I sat outside at the finish line waiting for Darren to arrive and when he did I was there to give him his medal and share our stories from battling the blizzard.
I don’t want to dwell too much upon the race itself because, truth be told, I find it hard to retrace my steps through a moment in time I wish I could change. I do, however, want to talk about what happened in the aftermath of crossing the line.
All parts of my sensible side argued that I should not continue, that I should stop now to be able to run another day. I could have given myself a thousand excuses: the mileage was too high for the amount of training I’d done, the distance was actually way higher than I would ever be doing during two days of Marathon des Sables. But the only real reason left is that I doubted I could.
Looking back in the warming comfort of hindsight I know why I failed to complete the Pilgrims Challenge.
I had my eyes transfixed on Marathon des Sables, much like Hurtwood 50K before it. By staring too far into the distance I missed the mountains ahead that needed to be climbed. I had not built up the hardy resistance required for the race ahead. I thought of it only as a training run so was, in essence, doomed from that point onwards.
The medal now hangs awkwardly, somewhat mockingly with the rest of my medals. Still earned but only half achieved as despite one day being an ultramarathon in it’s own right the medals only mention two days, 66 miles.
Do I regret not completing it? Honestly, yes. While it was the sensible option the doubt created by taking the easy option has made me question wether I am truly mentally tough enough. This dread weighs heavy over my ever increasing sleepless nights. Through the tossing and turning I fear that by not completing it I’ve put a chink in the armour I’ve been trying so hard to build through the months and months of training. A chink that come the heat and the onslaught of the desert may shatter all that I believed was fortified.