Pilgrim Challenge report

Iain Martin looks back on 66 hot but rewarding miles along the North Downs Way

Iain Martin

by Iain Martin |

What would you prefer, running in sub-zero temperatures or in a heatwave?

The Pilgrim Challenge trail race has now had both in its 13-year history after Covid forced the postponement of the 2021 event from its usual January date to June.

The event was part of my build-up for the UTMB in August and, while it was great to test out my kit and fitness, I hadn’t expected the dubious bonus of running in temperatures peaking at 27°C.

Last weekend I joined a hundred or so other competitors on this two-day 66-mile trail race that goes out and back from Farnham to Redhill along the leafy North Downs Way.

Covid protocols meant no mass start; we simply turned up within our allocated time window (with faster runners encouraged to set off later), picked up a timing chip and ran.

This system means you have the trail to yourself and don’t have to worry about bottlenecks at early gates or narrow sections, but with the disadvantage that you can end up running on your own for long periods.

The route from Farnham starts very gently, through sandy glades meandering past golf courses. The first substantial ascent comes approaching the church at St Martha’s Hill – the first time you can enjoy the full impressive vista of the Surrey Hills.

One of the benefits of the North Downs Way on a hot weekend like this is that so much of the route is in the shade of the trees. While the views were spectacular when you emerged from the woods, the heat was so oppressive that all you wanted to do was to get back under cover again.

Aid stations are slightly different in the ‘new normal’. Hand sanitiser and self-service wasn’t a problem, although I learned that Haribos left in the sun tend to coagulate into a single sludge of sweetness.

More importantly there was an unlimited supply of electrolyte tablets at every control point and after previous bad experiences of cramping and running out of water, I was careful to top up at every opportunity.

Did I mention it was hot? After carefully crossing the stepping stones at Box Hill, I slogged my way to the top. If you’ve ever cycled up there, don’t be fooled – this is no gentle climb like the road, but steep steps that felt like they never would end.

The final climb of the day up Buckland Hill towards Reigate Fort was just as steep and hot, if not as long. The good news was that from the top it was flat or downhill all the way to the finish in Redhill.

It felt strange after a day of running through the countryside to be in residential streets as the heat burnt up from the tarmac, but within minutes of finishing, the efficient XNRG crew had given me a minibus transfer to the station and I was straight into recovery mode.

Far too few hours later I was back, ready to start the return leg to Farnham. It was going to be hotter, but the hillier section of the course would be in the (slightly) cooler morning, rather than at the end of a day’s hard running.

Whereas day one felt more like a tough long run, day two properly felt like an ultra-marathon: a day when there’s a constant struggle between your mind (“Keep moving forward”) and your body (“Let me stop!”).

I reminded myself that it might be hot, but everyone’s suffering. Just keep moving forward. And despite being sorely tempted to copy the kids who were jumping into the tempting-looking rivers at both Box Hill and Shalford Park Bridge, I pressed on and the kilometres ticked down.

I finished the 66 miles in just over 12 hours, finishing 13th overall and with the bonus of a trophy for 1st MV50.

A two-day challenge like this is very different from a single-stage race. Psyching yourself up to run again after you’ve come to a halt and mentally ‘finished’ is a test in itself. I guess now I’ve done it in the heat, I need to see what’s it’s like in winter…

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