Despite the mainly disastrous Picnic Marathon last month, I was looking forward to this race. After all, it wouldn't be as tough and I wouldn't make any elementary errors would I? Or would I?
I'd chosen the XNRG's Chiltern Challenge mainly because part of the course is on the Ridgeway and I'll be running all of 87 miles of that next month. Quite quickly though I was really pleased as XNRG's communications for the event have been spot on. Regular emails, just the right amount of information and a really friendly approach all added up to a great experience - and that was before the race even began!
In the lead-up to the big day I'd been picking the brains of Shaun (@SpontaneousPlan) as he'd run the route a few weeks before. He suggested long socks due to an abundance of overgrowth in the undergrowth and so I duly invested in a pair.
As well as providing protection from the nettles and brambles, they are also incredibly sexy, as you can see. They turned out to be very attractive to horseflies at any rate.
Back to race day. There were two start times, 0900 and 1000, and as I had lofty ambitions to finish within 6 hours, I chose the later option as this was described as the 'elite' start time and it's not often I'll get the chance to call myself elite. Actually, I was hoping to do it in 5 hours but more of that later.
Arriving in Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire before 9am, I saw Jacquie Millett and Martin White just before they set off on the early start, and shortly afterwards met Shaun and Naomi Newton-Fisher, who was running on her birthday.
We waited for 10 o'clock to tick round and then in light drizzle set off. I was pleased with this weather as the last few days have been far too hot for running so a storm would be a massive relief. I set off at a steady pace, planning to walk the steep hills and run as much of the rest as I could. If I could manage an hour per 10k I'd be pretty close to my target time. I'm good at maths like that.
I reached the first checkpoint (10k) in almost exactly an hour and feeling good. I didn't have anything to eat figuring I'd take the same approach as a marathon and only eating after about 20k. When the next CP came along I was still feeling pretty good and grabbed a 9bar which I ate as I walked on. I was also determined to spend as little time as possible at the CPs, and having bottles in my new Inov8 race vest definitely helped with that.
It was shortly after this that it all started to fall apart. It was getting warmer which may have had an impact but I think my lack of early eating contributed hugely to an energy slump that lasted for the remaining 17 miles. I basically hit the wall and on that course, in that heat, I simply couldn't recover. So despite reaching halfway in about 2.5 hours, I slowed drastically from here and even the flat sections felt uphill.
On the plus side, I took the opportunity to take some photos of what was a stunning course.
As well as a lot of corn fields, there was also a good amount of woodland paths with the nirvana for many trail runners, the wondrous 'single track'. The fact that this was almost entirely in shade was an added bonus, given the conditions. I just wish I'd been in a better position to whizz along them, rather than the shuffle I actually employed.
The stretch between CP3 and 4 was an almighty struggle. I seriously questioned whether I should be even attempting the Ridgeway based on this performance. Have I not done enough long runs? Had I just gone out too hard? Or was it my fuelling (or lack of) that was the main problem? I never felt too hot but maybe that was affecting me more than I thought. Whatever the reason, I was having some negative thoughts and countered this by taking it a mile at a time and forcing myself into a jog as often as possible. It wasn't pretty but all the while I was moving, I was winning. Relentless forward progress and all that.
The final CP gave me a lift as you see by my inane grin, below.
With about 5 miles to go and 4h45m on the clock, it was looking slightly unlikely I'd break 5 hours. On I plodded and wondered idly when Shaun would have finished, given that the last time I'd seen him was about three hours previously. Then, with a couple of miles to go, there was the man in the long socks. His injured Achilles heel had gone at 22 miles and he'd been walking ever since. After a quick chat, I decided I could still break the 6-hour barrier and jogged off very slowly indeed.
Eventually there was a cheery '1km to go' sign and I broke into a proper run and found myself at the finish, crossing the line in 5.59:30. I was officially an elite athlete. Sort of.
It may not have been the best I'd executed a race but I was pleased to a) finish b) do so without any blisters c) not have any stomach issues or d) complete a trail race without either taping or twisting my ankles, which hopefully means they're getting stronger.
This was my first XNRG event and I have to say I'm impressed. Great organisation, friendly, helpful volunteers and a bright pink t-shirt. What more could you want from an ultra?