Chiltern Challenge Ultra

Extreme energy hosted its first ever-single day ultra, the Chiltern Challenge Ultra on July 19th, 2014, geared towards enticing runners to the sport of ultra-running. Having previous completed the Pony Express in New Forest, Hampshire, with these fellas, I knew the Chiltern ultra would promise to be a good way to get back in the game.

It has, however, been about two years since the Pony Express 60 miler and since then I have been hitched, changed jobs, relocated and become a father. Finding time to stretch those legs on the wide-open trails has become nearly a fantasy and running has been relegated to a mere hobby status rather than a way of life. I still manage to get out for the occasional 10k to 20k trail races, however, I hadn’t ventured beyond 20 miles at all this year, an uncomfortable fact that was plainly evident with one look at my growing waistline, exacerbated even further by my daily two hour sedentary commute. So the decision to enter this event endeavored to find a way to keep connected with my somewhat thinning running roots.

The Ridgeway National Trail usually extends northeasterly for roughly 87 miles starting from near Avebury as it traverses through various world heritage sites and is touted as one of Britain’s oldest roads. The Chiltern Hill ultra is a 31 mile trail run organized on the Ridgeway National Trails, lying east of the Thames, in southern central England about 40 miles northwest of London. I was drawn to this ultra by the promise of a tractable goal of bagging a race of ‘just’ 31 miles, over the course of a single day. This would also fortuitously spare me the guilt of committing a whole weekend to my selfish pursuits, not to mention the fact, that my poor conditioning would not have allowed me to run anything past a 31-mile race at this stage. Judging from my past experience, I knew that the XNRG team would do a spectacular job of organizing this event. Their routes are always well marked and their checkpoints well stocked and manned thus adding to that morale boosting placebo effect that I would undoubtedly require, were I to undertake this distance without the adequate training miles under my belt this year. Nevertheless, I did sign up for this race yonks ago thinking that this goal would provide me with a suitable motivation to engage in a realistic training program. This, however, was not how things panned out and my best-laid plans were readily overshadowed by the drudgery of work, commute and an overall post work lethargy.

With the exception of a 9-mile train run in the States, which afforded me the opportunity to test my body against the heat and humidity of a typical American summer, I had not nearly logged the kind of weekly mileage, that one ought to, in preparation for such ultras. So needless to say, I had butterflies in my stomach right until the last minute and I second-guessed my decision to run this race numerous times in the days leading up to the race. I had kept the race quiet so as not to put any pressure on myself should I decided to back out at the last minute. This would be exactly the kind of ‘fighting spirit’ that was eschewed by the old Samurai. After all, who wants to go into battle with a defeatist attitude? If committed, however, I had only one objective and that was to finish what I’d started. Previously, my biggest nemeses on these runs were calf cramps brought on by my own inability to keep my salts and water levels in check. So I decided to run my own race this time by taking it easy on the calves by avoiding jumping over puddles or getting competitive with other runners regardless of the inevitability of being eventually overtaken.

I booked us into a nice hotel the night before the race, about 15-mins drive away from the Start site; although, a proper night’s rest eluded us as the heat was oppressive that night and despite the fact that I was sleeping with the fan on the bed with us, neither I nor the family slept particularly well that night. After about 6 hours of tossing and turning, we rose up early and I ended up skipping breakfast in the hustle to get to the start line. I had signed up for the 9 am start and found myself waiting with what I was informed were about 180 other entrants soaking up the atmosphere.

We started off in a light drizzle, which was just as well, as running in temps in the low to mid 30degC would have made this an entirely intractable challenge for me. The pre race briefing informed us that this was going to be a hilly run and the race profile map highlighted just under a kilometer of total climbing, which in the grand scheme of things wouldn’t be such an onerous experience for an experienced ultra runner, but my limited accomplishments in this arena, did in no way qualify me as an experienced ultra runner.

We hit an uphill single track within the first mile or so and sure enough it thinned out the crowds, setting the stage for a solitary run for the majority of the way. The ground was soft underfoot but we were warned to expect very slippery conditions and shoe sucking puddles. The checkpoints were scattered roughly every 10k or so and I was feeling quite fresh at the first leg of the run much aided by the picture perfect running conditions despite the rain. The last time I’d attempted a 50K run, I had finished in 6h28; this time around, by around the 12 mile mark, I was still running a comfortable 12 -13 min/mile pace and expected to finish well within my self assigned 7 hour time limit. This as it turns out was quite naïve of me and I was already starting to feel the effects of having only had a single 9 bar breakfast before the start. I started to feel a bit dizzy and had to slow down until I could get my energy levels suitably up at CP2. The trails were dense in the beginning and would occasionally open up to a beautiful panoramic view of the Ridgeway, which just stopped me dead in my tracks in admiration. The thrill of exploring new countryside and new trails is part of the whole joy of running on the Ridgeway and certainly made up for all the self-doubts and hesitations I had before the race. I actually envied the folks who have the privilege of calling the Ridgeway their home.

By around the 18-mile point, the short, albeit relentless, hills were starting to wear me down and I was nursing a minor ankle twist at this point. My spirits were low and energy levels sapped. The clouds had cleared up by this point and the sun was beaming down on us making me ever so thankful for whatever forest canopy we could find shelter in during the course of the meandering trails. I totally bonked at 20 miles and was reduced to walking. Fading at such an early stage left me feeling quite demoralized and I had to dig deep to find a way to keep carrying on. I kept on mentally repeating the words on a sign I found deftly placed around the course, which read, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Having given this some thought during my run, I realized that there was, indeed, a way to convince my mind that I didn’t have to let the soreness and lack of energy ruin my running experience. It was a simple matter of mind over body so I carried on awaiting the next checkpoint so that I could refresh my electrolytes. I had been nursing a headache and sore muscles, all signs of a burgeoning salt deficit. I had been running thus far with a pack full of about 10, 9-bars and a small bag of Doritos but didn’t have the resolve to dig into my stash until now.

I realized during one of my previous long runs that, despite using salt tabs in my water bottles, my body responded best to Doritos washed down with salty water as the optimal means to replenish my salt loss. So, armed with some salty pretzels and Doritos and a couple of 9-bars at CP3, I ran on to tackle the remainder of the course with a lighter pack. I had lost a considerable amount of time faffing around CP3. The next ten miles were not so bad and I seemed to have found some energy reserves around mile 24. Feeling fresh but with another 7 miles to go before the finish I was running, at least, an hour behind my predicted finish time. This was disheartening, but then told myself off for having unreasonable expectations given the amount of training I’d done for this run. I was barely running the flats and walking uphill; in hindsight, it felt slightly ‘disrespectful’ to the sport to attempt such runs without running the majority of the way. I feel that a bit of training to increase my leg turnover speed and doing some cross training to get the muscles strong might be a good idea before returning to another ultra.

The finish, thankfully, was on a downhill and I nearly took a nasty tumble on a rather steep descent just a few miles before the finish.  Having stopped briefly to gather my quads, calves and my belongings, I was riding on a mental high and eager to see my wife and son cheering me on at the finish. I ran the last few miles in the gorgeous weather with the sun beating down on my skin feeling euphoric and thankful for having had the opportunity to run this event despite our busy schedules. I crossed the finished line at 08:05 with a big smile on my face. I felt elated at having finished one my hardest runs so far on challenging terrain and relentless hills, despite the fact that I ran about an hour slower than my predicted finish. I was equally surprised, that aside from some general muscle soreness around my neck and shoulders I didn’t experience any joint pain and also managed to avoid the dreaded race ending calf cramps, thanks to some timely snacking on Doritos.

I finished about 120 out of 180 entrants, but I suspect that I placed towards the lower quartiles amongst the runners. The top finisher completed in 04:34. In the end, this race was by no means a coup de grâce for me and with the average age of most entrants in these sorts of ultras being around 41 years of age, I still feel optimistic that my best performances lie firmly ahead of me. I might never class myself as an elite runner in these events, but I find the long hard solitary slogs whilst immersed in my own thoughts as good mental training and a strong mental discipline is quite a transferable skill to possess.

I am grateful to the XNRG team and all the support crew for making this an enjoyable experience for the participants…they are such an optimistic bunch of folks and brimming with so much positive energy that both my wife and I are gearing up to sign up for another event together for the next time.

Can’t wait…