The Devil’s Challenge – 4th-6th May 2019
When competing in an Ultra the one thing you do think of is whether you’ve done enough training. This was definitely going through my mind as I was heading to the start line of the Devil’s challenge. I had done the long back to back runs, the early morning runs when everyone else was still tucked up in bed, but was that going to be enough? Well, I was just about to find out.
The start was at Chilcombe sports ground in Winchester. The first day was 31 miles of the beautiful and somewhat undulating South Downs Way. Paul dropped me off at the start with enough time to get my kit ready, have a cup of tea, get to know some of the other runners and drop my bag off. Bags would be transported to the overnight stop for that night. Walkers were started first and then after our race briefing the runners were started.
Being a little anxious of the route I did stay with a couple of the other runners initially but once I realised the route was very well marked, and as long as I kept my eyes open for signs and markers I felt more confident to run my own race. I was very conscious that I had to be sensible with my pacing.
There were 4 check points each day, each within 7-9 mile intervals, my strategy was to get to each checkpoint. Checkpoints were brilliant, loads of food like sandwiches, sausage rolls, pretzels, oatbites, cheese, ham slices, sweets, orange pieces and melon and then drinks. I was carrying food in my running vest – energy bars and I had Tailwind in both my 500ml soft flasks. On the last checkpoints they had coke, which was amazing.
Mile 21 of day 1 was so familiar to me, it was Queen Elizabeth Country Park, the finish to South Downs Marathon and relays which I had competed in for a number of years with GVH. It was so lovely entering known territory even though I was running the opposite direction.
The last 9 miles I was with 5 other runners, which was lovely to not only have the company but just chat about anything and everything just to take your mind off the miles that we’d just done and those miles still to do. Ultras can be very much the case of the Hare and the tortoise, and I was certainly finding it here when I started passing those runners who had gone out too quick this morning.
The finish was at a village hall in Elsted, welcomed home with a much-needed cup of tea and a proper toilet to use. A minibus then took us to our overnight accommodation at Midhurst Rother college.
The sleeping accommodation was probably not what most people would enjoy, sleeping on a hard floor in a schools sports hall, but this was all part of the weekend experience and actually I thought it was great fun. From doing XNRGY’s Pilgrims challenge in February I knew how uncomfortable lying on a hard floor can be but I also knew they provided camp beds for a minimal fee, so I went for the added comfort. Once we got our beds sorted it was off for a much needed shower, kit ready for the following day and then dinner. The evening meal was provided by outside caterers, tonight it was Lasagne, salad, and cake for pudding, it was very much needed. To be honest I think whatever they had served up we would have eaten it.
A guest speaker was arranged to talk to us about the value of sleep and how we could sleep better, which was quite funny really seeing how knackered we all were and couldn’t wait to get to sleep!
Last minute checks of my kit were done, in my sleeping bag, with the ear plugs in, eye mask on ready for lights out at 10. There were some funny noises that night, and I don’t mean from me!
So day 1 had gone well for me. I could however feel a hot spot to each of my big toes where I knew blisters were starting to form. It was a slight concern but nothing I could do about other than preventing any further damage. Luckily I had brought along some moleskin and tape to pad and protect any blisters, so applied this and just hoped for the best.
Today was an early wake up. Probably the adrenaline and anticipation of the second day, and probably just wanting to get out there and get started. It was an early start for most today though as the walkers needed to be on the minibus ready to go at 06:30 for a 07:00 start. I was due to start at 07:30 and elites at 08:30.
I knew this was going to be a tough day. One of the walkers had already completed The Devils before so knew exactly what was coming, he did fill me in on certain parts of the day just to prepare me. Being the second and middle day I knew psychologically it was going to be hard work. It was also the longest day in mileage, almost 35 miles with a total climb of 1,350 m. So with the rolling hills, the combination of chalk, flint and stone underfoot and narrow paths it was definitely a challenge.
A couple of days before The Devils challenge I had mentioned to GVH members that I was doing this event, one of the replies that I got in response was somewhere along the lines of “are you a nutter? Who would do an ultra with a name like that?”, so true, but it is actually named because day 2 went through Devil’s dyke.
Three forts marathon was also held today so it was lovely seeing other runners heading in the other direction. They looked so fresh compared to us, and they were very supportive, they had obviously heard of our crazy run. I later found out that one of my friends was actually running the Three forts but unfortunately didn’t see him.
Today walking was inevitable due to the hills and the climbing, using my running poles did make it easier. XNRGY always likes their ultras to be fun but challenging. This was certainly a challenge, and anyway, what’s the point of an ultra if it’s not challenging!! My main aim was to get my head down, stay positive and keep going! There was a lot of time spent on my own so I had to stay focused and most importantly not to get lost.
Four miles to go and the last checkpoint! Those last 4 miles felt like they would take forever. The marshalls were so lovely and supportive, the end was in sight, but first, they informed me, was the massive hill which they pointed to in the distance, I could have cried. I didn’t though, I knew I had to save my energy.
I finished today in about 9 hours and I felt shattered. Neil Thubron was there to welcome us all home and a nice cup of tea.
Tonight we were staying at a high school in Brighton, which the minibus shuttled all the runners to. Same routine, beds sorted, showers done, blisters popped and taped and then for our evening meal. Again caterers had been brought in to provide our meal. It was such a lovely atmosphere tonight, those of us who were left knew we were almost there, we could actually do this!
Both big toes were now pretty uncomfortable even when I was walking and I’d also developed a blister on my thumb from the handle of the running pole. I couldn’t even think about it, I would deal with the damage at the end.
An early start today, on the minibus for 06:30 to start at 07:00. Neil Thubron did the race debrief so we knew where the checkpoints were and any tricky bits along the way.
30 miles today with a lot less hills, easier terrain and better paths, or so I had been informed. Considering we were still running the South Downs way I knew it was going to be undulating. Again the checkpoints were every 7-9 miles and again my focus was to get to each checkpoint without getting lost. I did have back up just in case this happened, I had downloaded the route for each day onto an app which I use a lot to plot running routes.
It really was a beautiful run today, lovely weather, with amazing scenery. The route took us through fields of sheep and cows and along really picturesque countryside. One thing I knew wasn’t going to be very picturesque were my toes, they were really starting to hurt and more so when I was running. It was literally focus on something else. I was so glad I had brought my running poles along with me, they helped enormously.
The last 5-6 miles took us along the Seven sisters which was lovely but equally tough. This is very popular for the tourists and locals out walking so we had plenty of company. They were so supportive when they realised what we were actually doing, as this stage it was a much needed incentive to keep going. It was quite emotional towards the end as I was running the last few miles, thinking to myself, ‘bloody hell I’m going to do this!’
The final part was running off the South Downs into Eastbourne and into St Andrew’s prep school to finish. I had timed it just right as well, my family arrived just as I crossed the finish line. After 7 ½ hours it was all over, I had actually done it. So what have I learnt from this amazing weekend? That with the right training, with a positive mindset and determination anything is possible! Oh and also avoid blisters! Will I do it again? Hell yes!
The other question people have been asking me is would I do it again? Hell yes! Apart from the pain from the blisters it was a really lovely weekend. Such a well organised and supported event I would recommend to anyone.