The Chiltern Challenge: A Review

On Saturday 27th July I took part in the Chiltern Challenge.

The Chiltern Challenge is part of the Ultra Challenge Series and is promoted as:

A fantastic 100km circular route that will showcase the best of the Chilterns and the surrounding countryside. You can Walk, Jog, or Run along 3 historic trails – The Ridgeway, Icknield Way and Chiltern Way – starting and finishing at our Base Camp in Henley-on-Thames. 

Passing through nature reserves & forests, along ancient footpaths, up & down some of the Chiltern’s famed hills it’s a route with real variety, and some wonderful scenery which will surprise you – and it’s all easily accessible from London.

With 50km & 25km distance options also alongside the full 100km – there’s a Challenge here for everyone!

So it is no surprise, I do love a challenge, that I opted for a ‘jog’ of the full 100km distance.

Firstly, I’d like to start with a little bit of context. I run. I’ve completed numerous half and full marathons, as well as a few longer endurance runs. But nothing anywhere near 100km non-stop.

I was excited, but quite apprehensive about this event, it took me a fair few months to actually pluck up the courage to enter. 100km is a long way. I’d done the training, probably not enough, although was regularly hitting 40/50 mile weeks, including 20 mile long runs, in the five weeks leading up to the event.

I was of the mindset that I could do it, but it wasn’t really enough to just ‘do it’, I wanted to do it in a respectable time. But I had no idea what a ‘respectable’ time was. My thinking was that I need to slow the pace down, take into account the hills on the Chilterns (1800m of elevation), the stops for food, as well as the fact I’d be slowing down in the second half. In the end I came up with an arbitrary 16hrs. On paper this looked doable. But I couldn’t help worrying about what happens after 75km. I’d heard plenty of horror stories about people taking part in these long endurance events. But the time had come to push them all to the back of the mind.

I went down to Henley-on-Thames on the Friday night so that I could avoid a really early start. Arrived at the Airbnb to find another fella, Allan, was staying there and taking part in the event. So we spent a romantic evening together with a table for two at Zizzi in town. Allan had done a few of these endurance events so I picked his brains for some top tips. Then headed back to the B&B for an early night. Just to clarify, in separate beds, in separate rooms.

We were setting off in waves, I had a starting time of 7.45am, I had pre-registered the night before so was advised to get to the event 30mins before the start. This ended up being 10mins before the start, after a lack of motivation to get out of bed followed by two circles of the Henley one-way system before I remembered the actual way to the start.

Although, it worked out perfectly. I only missed the cheesy fella on the mike cracking bad jokes and the obligatory group warm-up.

So before you knew it, we were off…

The first 5km were lovely and flat running along the river, the rain that was promised didn’t materialise, and it wasn’t long before we were running by the one-way system that I‘d driven around twice just an hour before.

After leaving Henley we headed onto the actual ‘Chilterns’, and the first of the brutal hills. This was helped, in part, by the start of the drizzle, which pretty much continued on and off for most of the day.

The first stop at 10km had plenty to eat on offer: snacks, fruit, pastries and a plethora of other delights. Although, I went for a few bananas, refilled my water bottle and set off without a ‘rest’, I was feeling good.

The rolling hills continued and I was following my walk the inclines and run the rest strategy.

At 26km, Lewknor, the first proper rest stop arrived. The actual event caters for everyone, so this was a finishing point for some. So cue the cheesy bloke on the mike again. You can’t fault the Ultra Challenge organisers when it comes to rest stops. This rest stop offered a ‘picnic lunch’ which for me meant a falafel and mango wrap. Yes, they had vegan options at all stops, stashed ‘out back’ so the meat eaters wouldn’t devour them. It only required a, ‘any vegan options?’, to send them running to the ‘special’ place. One ultra tip that I had received from various people was that you should be aware of how long you are at stops for, it’s easy to sit down and before you know it 20mins have passed. So it was a 5min sit down before heading off and finishing grub on the way.

The run through to the halfway point was pretty standard. I took plenty of photos, whizzed through another rest stop at 37km.

Made it to the marathon distance, one of my key points in the run, in a better state than I had run a marathon in the past. The slower pace was definitely working.

The 5km into halfway point was a lovely long steady downhill, so was feeling ok when I arrived at halfway point, Princes Risborough, having run 50km in 7hrs. Another finishing point for some, cue cheesy bloke on the mike. I was only interested in food. I was feeling pretty good, yes the legs were aching, but overall things were looking fine.

I had pretty much decided on a 30min rest here. So loaded up a plate with pretty much everything: chips, pasta, couscous, peas, carrots, kidney beans, salad, as well as a side of bananas. I had also initially planned that I would have a change of kit here, but everything felt ok so just decided on a plaster on a hot spot on my little toe (slightly weird – never had anything like it before) and kept everything else as it was.

The rest points are a great opportunity to chat with the fellow participants, we’re all in this together of course. So whilst stuffing food down my throat we were chatting about ‘that’ hill and ‘that’ mud and ‘that’ part. You meet some fascinating people at these events that you’d be happy to chat to for hours. But half an hour goes very quickly when you are relaxing, and enjoying a rest. It was time to get going again.

Another feature of the route is that when you come out of a rest stop, the first thing you are dealt with is a massive hill that you have to virtually crawl up.

Around the 60km mark we passed a village cricket match that was going on. Having seen lots of fields and hills, the image of other people looking like they were enjoying themselves, except maybe the fella I saw caught out on the boundary by a fabulous diving catch, I must have been distracted. I missed a right turn, and it took a shout from a wonderful fellow runner behind me to inform me I was going the wrong way. My hero. I instantly promised him that I would give him my medal on completion*.

About a km out from the 76km rest stop, and the three quarter point, the clouds began to gather. There was heavy rain on the way.

So I upped my pace, when I say upped up pace, I mean from slow to slightly less slow, to avoid the rain and get to the rest stop. You’ll also notice from this point on the pictures stop. Two reasons. One, it was starting to get dark, and two, it was becoming an effort to actually lift the phone and press the button.

The last 25km were tough. Before starting the event the idea of getting to the three quarter point seemed like an important point, get 75km in and you can finish. But getting to that point, things seemed different, 25km was still such a long way to go. However, a change of shirt was enough to banish the thoughts. Small things and all that. So it was just head down and keep going, get to the next check point.

89km. The last rest stop. Although I couldn’t face the thought of actually resting, or stopping. This final rest stop is again, full of food and snacks, but it felt like the last thing I wanted to do was eat. So I forced some pineapple down and began the last leg that will take me back to Henley. My strategy of running the flats and downs had by now become running a bit of the downs. I was knackered.

This last 10km was also technically the hardest. As well as coping with the tiredness and the darkness, now it was through scary night-time woods, slippery muddy paths, strange shadows and noises, steep ups and downs, quicksand**, 100ft cliff climbs***, traversing crevasses****, you get the idea.

There was just one last photo before the end.

One parkrun to go. Which took me close on 50mins to complete. The final 1km through woods and across a field with the finish in sight, was very tough. But I did it.

100km. 15hrs 58mins including stops. And 39th bloke back. I’ll take that. Lovely jubbly.

* I didn’t

** slight exaggeration

*** exaggeration

**** again, exaggeration

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