After the last 10 mile race it was time to prepare for my first multi day event, the Druid Challenge, three days of running on the Ridgeway for a total of 84 miles.
I have been looking forward to this race for more than 6 months and I wanted to prepare well. The four weeks leading to the race went really well. I ran 6 times a week with a weekly average of more than 100k and did back to back long runs during the weekends. I started the first week with 30k on Saturday and 20k on Sunday. Then the week after 35k and 30k and the third week I did 40k and 20k. During those week I also did speed training twice a week, a couple of hill repeats and tempo runs.
Basically I prepared very well and I felt super confident. So I packed my bag and I was ready to go! Actually packing the bag has been quite a challenge as having to run 3 days in a row with no idea of what the weather was going to be like I brought a million things, plus an inflatable bed and sleeping bag.
The train trip to the start at Tring took ages. I met another guy at Clapham who was going to the race too and we could not even get on the first train. It was so packed.
When we finally got to Tring we were just in time to get ready to start with the Elite group, which was fine for me as I registered as “elite”. Anyone that thought they could do the first day in less than 5 hours was elite. The idea is that the fastest runners start later so that everyone sort of finishes together and the checkpoints are ready etc. So walkers always started first, an hour later the runners and another hour later the elite. Depending on how you finished each day you were put in the elite or not. It was my aim to always be in the elite and it was not that hard to achieve.
From the Tring station we were taken by mini-bus to a farm where we could change (inside a silo) and listen to the race briefing. We were then driven to the start of the race, on the Ridgeway. It was pretty evident from the start that it was going to be a wet and windy day, but everybody was excited. We started with a bit of downhill that was probably the most dangerous of the whole race as it was on that white slippery chalk terrain that is characteristic of the Ridgeway. After that the rest was mud for the best part of the three days.
The first day was the longest, almost 30 miles and as I did not know how I was going to feel running for 3 days I took it relatively easy. The race leaders disappeared pretty quickly. Even if the whole race is on the Ridgway and I had the GPX file on my watch I managed to get lost many times. The first time after not even 3 kms and the second time 1km later.
The first half of the day went pretty well. After 20km we entered Wendover. It felt a bit strange as it was a Friday, kids were in school, people were in offices and we were running in the rain. After Wendover I think I took the wrong path again (I got lost there on my second marathon in February too), but after a while on the top of the hill I managed to get back on track. At that point we started overtaking quite a lot of walkers and slower runners which in a way gave me quite a boost.
I saved the mp3 player until halfway through the race which was exactly crossing the fields in front of Chequers. While trying to put my headphones on I lost one of the yurbuds. Sad, but I did not stop.
The rest of the race was a mix of emotions. The wind sometimes was very strong and the terrain slippery. I stopped to put my jacket on and felt terrible for a couple of kms. Then on a downhill bit I felt fantastic, then terrible again.
The last checkpoint was 10k from the end and I was really dead. The 8 or so km after that were the worst one, on endless flat fields with muddy bumpy terrain, hard to run on. Then it started getting dark and I did not want to stop and get my headlamp on so I started accelerating and felt I had more energy than expected and decided to race the darkness. The last 1.5k were on tarmac and I was happy to finally have some grip on the terrain.
I arrived at the school in Watlington were we were staying for the night pretty spent. 48km in 5:01 in pretty atrocious conditions.
After a hot shower and setting up my bed in the gym I started socialising a bit and it was a nice evening. I met a lot of nice people, the food was not too bad either and the evening went by pretty fast. A lot of people do this race to prepare for the Marathon de Sable so a lot of discussions were about that.
While eating dinner I also discovered I finished the day in 15th position which was a lot better than I expected.
At 10pm the light were switched off and everybody tried to sleep the best they could. Not easy with all the snoring and people moving about. Even with ear plugs it took me ages to fall asleep. The excitement and the novelty of my inflatable bed did not help.
The second day was the shortest (just a bit over a marathon) and that was positive as I was already afraid of being out of steam. I knew the rest I had during the night had not been enough. I even tried to sleep more in the morning as I was leaving with the 9am elite group. It did not help. I only managed to miss breakfast and I had to eat just two croissants with some water. Luckily half of my luggage was food. I had enough snacks to survive for a month.
The route on the second day started from the school where we slept so no need for a bus drive. It was raining very heavily and it was very windy. It was not going to get better any time soon.
I started easy as I did not know how fit I was after the day before but I pretty soon got into a good rhythm. The first half of the route was actually the best of the whole three days. Up and down hills in the woods. Even if the weather was terrible the woods were lovely. Autumn is the best time to run. We kept on going between forested bits and open fields where the wind was moving you sideways.
We then arrived at the golf course in Nuffield where I got lost this summer when exploring the Ridgeway and it was a morale boost. I knew that there was going to be a nice long descent for a while and I really enjoyed it and picked up the pace. Then there was a long bit on the river which I had found very boring and I was afraid I was going to suffer. Instead I just concentrated on following the people in front (mostly Laura, the girl who placed second at the end) and when we got to South Stoke I was glad that part was over. I barely stopped at the checkpoint and kept going. Faster and faster. I felt good. I put my MP3 on and started overtaking some of the people that started with me. I was so into it I took the wrong turn at Goring but luckily recovered quickly. Beautiful town on the river by the way.
After that, at the 27th km there was a long climb. I ran most of it. Fuelled by some wafers and the thoughts I was well over halfway through. When I got at the top a Metallica song boomed in my ears and coupled with the descent made me do a fist pump and grin like an idiot. That high point did not last long. I had to walk a bit and lost some time before the final check point but then I knew it was almost over.
After that it felt like it took ages to get to the finish line. The final kms where on open fields beaten by such a strong wind I had to remove my hat and I kept on losing my footing in the mud. I was glad when it was over. It had been shorter and I did not finish spent, but I was so happy to be handed a hot cup of tea at the end!
Finished the day in 14th position: 43km in 4:32.
We were then driven to the leisure center in Wantage where we were staying for the night. Luckily I arrived early and managed to get a nice hot shower. Others were not so lucky. I have maximum respect for those people walking most of the route. They spend 9 or so hours in the mud, rain and wind and when they get in they risk of not having a hot shower! Even crazier were the two guys pulling a tire for 3 days, training for the Yukon Arctic Ultra.
The rest of the afternoon was spent resting, chatting with fellow runners and mending the various painful bits. I had a sport massage that I found fantastic. It was my first one but it will not be my last.
I had a little pain in the right shin but there was nothing I could do.
After a nice dinner (hat off to the organisers, everything was like clockwork) we attended two talks. The first one was from course record holder Nathan Montague who talked to us about his latest victory at the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Desert Marathon. Very interesting and inspirational stuff. The second talk was from Rory Coleman. I have to say, I did not enjoy this last one much.
Then we were off to bed. This time I managed to fall asleep pretty quickly and never woke up during the night.
The third day I woke up with a bit more pain on the right shin, but not to terrible. The weather was still quite abysmal but everybody was pretty excited to finish the challenge. Again I started in the 9am elite group. We were driven to where we finished the day before and the first part of the run was basically in the same boring terrain as the end of the day before. I really tried to take it easy (sticking to around 5:30/5:40 min/km) and save enough energy to get to the end, but after a while I felt pretty good (same thing as day 2 basically). The pain on the shin went away. I kept on eating my salt sticks and gels and avoided the check points food. I had been very diligent all the other days and avoided eating strange stuff and that meant no issues at all with my belly this time.
After the first 16k in the undulating fields we started going up and down nicer looking hills and I accelerated a bit and left the group I was with behind. For a second the sun came out but then the rain came back. It was colder than the days before but that was actually better. At around 27km we arrived a Liddington where we had to run on a big busy road which was not fun, but I had a banana from the check point and kept on going.
Then a very steep hill had to be climbed, very muddy and windy, rain was heavy and everything was clouded in fog. It was a pretty tough part of the race. I was surprised to see people having a Sunday walk in those conditions. A bit surreal, you could not see that much ahead and then people walking their dog popped out of the fog, or people on horse back, all this in a killer wind.
Then when the fog cleared a bit I realised I was 15k from the end and I just felt like I could not run slow anymore. I had to go fast and I just went for it. I overtook a couple of people that had started with me and never looked back. At the last check point I did not even stop, I just showed my bib and kept running. I only noticed later I was going at under 4 min/km pace.
Then I saw a guy that I know was close to me in the race timing and decided I had to overtake him. I think he saw me and started accelerating too, but then he stopped to open a gate and keep it open for Niandi and I went pass them. We talked for a bit and I tried not to look tired and accelerated in the fog.
After a bit more of up and down on grassy hills there was the much awaited tarmac road leading to the end. The first half km was a very steep descent. People were walking down it but I could not stop, I just bombed down it.
I think that is where I injured my shin even more and now after almost 4 weeks I am still not running. But whatever happened to my leg that day it was worth it. Those last 15km were probably the best in my running “career”. I was dead and at the same time full of energy. I just ran as fast as I could, uphill, downhill, everything. I never felt so alive. Overtaking people, saying hi to the ones I had met in the evenings. It felt so good. I also felt it was the end of the week end. 15k and then it was it, I had to make the most of it.
The last couple of kms on the road were quite flat and I just went as fast as I could. It felt fast but it was actually just around 4:40 min/km but after almost 135k it felt fast. When I got to the finish line I was very happy: 46 more km done, in 4 hours 29.
The last part of the third day was really an amazing experience and finishing the whole 3 day race felt like an achievement to be proud of. I got my medal, went for a shower. Noticed my shin was a bit swollen, but ignored it. I watched the prizes presentations to the winners and then took the mini-bus to Swindon. The train trip back home was endless.
I only found out a bit later I had finished 13th in the whole race which is fantastic. I dreamt of being in the top 20 and I could not ask for more.
Unfortunately I was not lucky enough to be captured in any of the nice photos taken on the hills and wood, but if you want to see how beautiful and wet it had been, check these albums out: day 1, day 2, day 3.
For people interested in kit and nutrition I do not have much to say. I had to change every piece of clothing each day as nothing dried during the night. I only had one pair of shoes, the fantastic Saucony Peregrine. They worked really well, but sometimes I wished I had bigger slugs. Even with 3 days of wet feet I had no problems, the injinji worked as well as always. In three days (during the race) I ate 10 High Five energy gels, 12 Cliff Shots, 1 packet of Powerbar wafers and 12 saltsticks. I took very little from the aid stations apart from water and the occasional salty snack or half banana.
Now I have not been able to run for almost a month and it looks like it will take bit longer to recover fully. X-rays have not found anything so I guess it’s just a question of taking a rest. It’s hard not to run but I am seeing it as a forced off season before I start preparing for next year Centurion Running 50 mile Grand Slam.
See you on the trails!