2. May 2017

Running the XNRG South Downs Devil's Challenge 2017

It’s bank holiday weekend in the UK. What better thing to do than joining a bunch of nutters for a three-day foot race from Winchester to Eastbourne, covering 156 kilometers and many hills? I could not come up with a better idea, so here is how it went.

When you know you are in trouble

The moment you receive a message that goes like “I signed up for race X” you know you are in trouble. You have just committed your first mistake: reading the message. This causes you to drop what you are doing, check the website, let it sink in for a while just to finally reply “I have signed up, too”. Well, at least this is how it went in my case.

May the journey begin

It is my first multi-day race, it is an experiment, and I have no clear idea of what to expect. Not exactly, I know some things. There will be some suffering involved. To minimize suffering, a good amount of sleep is necessary as part of the race preparation. I can’t just sleepwalk 97 miles (156 kilometers). I don’t even know whether I can sleepwalk. But the Friday night before the race, I only catch about four hours of sleep. Fortunately, I got plenty of sleep during the week before the race.

It is Saturday morning, about 6am or something. I put on my running shoes. It is a good habit to put on your running shoes when travelling to a race. This way, there is no bad surprise when you arrive and find that you forgot to pack your running shoes. Instead, I forget my sandwiches that I prepared for breakfast the evening before. Well, that was smart. A bus trip through the empty City of London later, I arrive at Waterloo. Equipped with a hip bacon & avocado bagel, a blueberry muffin, a plain croissant, and a clementine, I am waiting for the train that takes me from Waterloo to Winchester.

There I meet Jeff, a friendly runner whom I quickly identifed as another race participant. It is not many people with running shoes and big pack in Waterloo station on a Saturday morning after all. I catch a nap on the train and miss everything between Waterloo and Winchester. No regrets, sorry. We’re being picked up at the train station by Richard from the XNRG organisers, and transported to a hard-to-find sports ground serving as the start.

Day 1: Walking or running that is the question

Given the lack of sleep, I decide to heed the advice from the fellow runner who invited me in the first place, and ask for permission to start at 9:30 with the walkers instead of at 10:00 with the runners. After Neil from XNRG gives a short and entertaining race briefing, we start off on the South Downs Way (this national trail runs all the way from Winchester to Eastbourne, and is our route for the race).

I forget about my sleepiness, and run at a fairly steady pace. I am first! Of course, I know, this is an illusion. The faster runners will start at 10:00 and I would be surprised if no one caught up with me eventually during the 50 km to the finish. And indeed, later on, a lady in a devil’s costume dashes past me, speeding up the hills as if it was a stroll in the park. A few other runners follow. I let them go, they are clearly stronger than me. Yet, I enjoy the downhills, flying down. Again, mistakes were made. On the days to come, I should regret this.

Five hours after leaving the start, I am finally descending a brutally steep trail down towards the finish. I know the trail from a previous hike. Cake and a cup of tea await me, and more of the great support crew from XNRG. 5:15h, but as I shall find out, this is not the speed I will maintain.

At night, we sleep in the gym of the Midhurst Rother College. I am surprised. Apparently there are school buildings that are architecturally pleasing. After having attended only ugly container-like structures during my primary and secondary education, this is an eye-opener. Chapeau, Midhurst. But soon my mind focuses on two very important activities: sleeping and eating.

Before retiring after dinner to my minimalist sleeping mat & sleeping bag combo (some other runners have brought giant air mattresses, taking advantage of the fact that our kit is kindly transported by the support crew), I listen to the entertaining talk by David Byrne who tells the story of his participation in the Tierra Arctic Ultra Long Course in Northern Sweden. Since I hiked there once (blog post), I could relate a lot to his account of embarking on an ultra marathon with a bunch of crazy Swedes.

Day 2: Sufferfest, it is all part of the fun

On the second day of the race, we are split into two groups for the start based on the results of the previous day. Since I was reasonably fast, I was placed in the runners group this time. The other runners have high expectations on my performance because due to a brief administrative glitch, my time from the day before was calculated under the assumption I had started at 10:00, and I was listed as the second-runner up until I ask things to be corrected.

Anna-Marie, the fast lady in the devil’s costume disappears quickly. So do others. I follow my principle to walk the uphills, jog the flats, and run the downhills. Jon keeps me company until the second checkpoint. This is where I noticed that my quads are trashed. Suffering after a good start. Instead, I have to fall back to walking.

The weather is fine. Not too hot. Not too cold. Not too sunny. Not too rainy. Not too cloudy. Just fine. After more walking, I recover somewhat after checkpoint 3, and start overtaking a few other runners. Still, with 7:33h, I finish much slower than the day before even though with 56 km only slightly longer.

We stay at Patcham (Brighton) in another school. I notice that the fastest runners are also those who are very good at identifying the best sleeping spots in the theatre hall. Particularly good plan: picking a spot behind the curtains on the stage. Since it is still some time left before dinner, we head out to the pub for a well-deserved pint. The pub is full of rowdy football fans.

Day 3: A long-drawn finale

We receive our daily race briefing from Neil, we’re being taxied to the start. If day 2 was a sufferfest, what is day 3 going to be like? I find out after a few miles of running. No more energy left. I resort to walking and I even manage to miss a sign post. Fortunately, the South Downs Way is really well-marked. This part of the route is my favorite.

I am very slow. Clearly, the two earlier days have taken their toll. By the time I got half-way I estimated that Anna-Marie would have nearly finished, and I was not mistaken. Well, it is my own race and I walk. And walk some more. It is a new feeling, to be more towards the back of the field. Slow enough to even take a picture of the gorgeous scenery. At Alfriston, I add a short pub stop, and leave with two bags of savoury crisps which I soon amend with more lovely snacks at the checkpoint.

At West Dean, I recover and start running again. Only 10 miles left! Over the Seven Sisters, past Birling Gap and another checkpoint with fab support, past the impressive Beachy Head, tailwind blowing me up the hills, and then, with the certainty of the finish in close reach, speeding down the descent to Eastbourne. Bling, it is medal time, what a relief to receive the welcome at the finish from Ian.

We get a lift to Eastbourne Station, and then do the last sprint from the ticket vending machine to the train that is ready to depart. How unnecessary. Happy and tired on the train back. What an adventure. Did I enjoy it? I think I actually did. But the litmus test is whether I will sign up for such a race again. Big thanks to the XNRG crew (the checkpoint crew, the medical crew, everyone) and all the friendly runners in this race!