After ironman, I went back to my beloved running, bike safely tucked in in the spare bedroom for the winter. I entered the Druids Challenge, a popular warm-up race for the Marathon Des Sables organised by XNRG events. It’s a multiday ultra of 84 miles over 3 days in November along the length of the Ridgeway, which is a trail known as ‘Britain’s Oldest Road’ from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire to Swindon in Wiltshire with overnight stops at Icknield Community College in Watlington, and Wantage leisure centre. Overnight bags are transported to the end of each stage, so runners only need to carry a day sack. Breakfast and dinner are provided.
I signed up with my MDS tentmate Alan with no expectations, but just for a fun weekend away. He ran the race last year, but I’d signed up to MDS so late in the day I hadn’t done any of these tune up events. We decided to recce some of the route in advance, so 3 weeks beforehand we met up at parkrun and after a swift 5km, headed to Ivinghoe Beacon. We ran the first 29 miles of the route, stopping just short of the first day finish point. The route was varied with some familiar parts through Wendover and nearby areas (that I have run as part of the Country to Capital race and in Wednesday night training sessions with Bearbrook RC. That night was my flat warming, a bit of a carb fest, and the next morning we loaded up on brunch at The Works in Aylesbury before another 16 miles.
I felt good that weekend, but two days later on my way to running club, I had a niggle in my left knee. I took a wrong turning and thought I wasn’t going to make it in time and resolved instead to do an easy short jog to see what the knee was playing at. Then I rounded a corner and bumped into a group of fluoro-clad runners so joined the session anyway. It was hill reps and my knee just wasn’t right so I dropped out half way through and jogged home. I didn’t run at all for the next week, and then failed a test run with no improvement. That Saturday, I did parkrun and a cross country league race and it wasn’t right but it was ok, and Sunday I went out with the CLC Striders ladies for an off road run to test some new shoes. I’d been doing the majority of my recent running off road wearing quite minimalist zero drop trail shoes, and some cross country wearing even more minimalist spikes. I wondered if while these were OK for the job intended, whether for long distance off road I needed something with more cushioning, so I bought a pair of INOV8s like the trail shoes I’d been wearing but in a heavier weight. I felt good on the Sunday run, aside from the shoes slipping on my heel and aggravating my plantar fascia, but no complaints from my knee. I went to one other club session that week, planning to take it easy, but turned up to find out it was a 5km time trial! And obviously, there was no holding me back.
Druids Day 1
My parents arrived that morning, coming to stay at mine to catsit and drove myself and Alan to the start near Tring. I had a cup of mint tea at registration and was offered sugar, something I’d never considered but accepted, and wow, it took me right back to the sweet Sultan mint tea of the MDS. On day 1, there are two start times: one for the main group and one for the ‘elites’, which apparently is anyone who predicts they’ll take under 5 hours for the 29.7 mile distance. When asked that question on the online registration, I hadn’t known the terrain or likelihood and I just wrote “I hope so?” which they took to mean yes and put me in the elite group. I stuck with Alan for about half way, then told him to go ahead. I had a blister from my new shoes and no way of tending to it as I’d eschewed my compeeds on Alan’s say so that morning! In spite of that, I was delighted to get to the end of day 1 in 3rd place female and 17th overall, although I had been unable to get in under 5 hours, just missing out by 7 minutes and 47 seconds. I had gone for a fun weekend away, but now felt some pressure on me with that unexpected result. That night we slept in a school hall, but not until after a quick sports massage, cake and a good cooked dinner. I made the decision to go back to my old trail shoes for the next day.
Druids Day 2
I was set off in the elite group again. And held on to my 3rd place position overall. However, there had been a girl who should have been in my start who must have gone off in the earlier one instead, so it turned out she’d beaten me on day 2, narrowing my lead on her across the two days. I completed the 26.7 miles in 4:44:35 and 30th place overall, dropping down the rankings slightly from day 1. Now I was feeling really quite anxious about the last day, with the podium position in my grasp, but also annoyed with myself for being so nervous when I’d come for fun not a serious race, and with no expectations. I had a shower, another massage and tended to my blistered foot before a trip to the chip shop and pub, and then had a good nights sleep on the leisure centre mats.
Druids Day 3
Today I meant business, and given I’d not used any of the spare clothes or food in my pack, none of the painkillers and barely drunk any of the water I’d been carrying, I decided to go light. I ditched the pack, putting my phone in my pocket and just carrying a bottle of water in my hand. I went out hard and felt really strong, then around 12 miles in I felt something go in my right knee, stopping me in my tracks. The pain was searing each time I tried to run. I could walk quite fast and weightbear, but just the angle required to run made the pain unbearable. I was forced to walk. There were three race start times this day, and I’d been in the third and fastest. I was catching up with the walkers from the first start group, and now I was slowing to join them. I walked with a guy training for the MDS who’d started two hours before me. He was suffering too and we ended up sticking together all the way to the end. I asked for painkillers at the aid station, but was refused despite my protests that I was a doctor and would take full responsibility for my own stupidity. I was told only the paramedics could provide medication, but as they were roaming and I was moving, I just didn’t chance upon them. I called my parents and they met me with ibuprofen at the next aid station. This kicked in a few miles before the finish and I was able to run again. Poor James had probably never run so fast, but I dragged him with me, blasting that last 5km to the finish. I completed the 28.4 miles of day 3 in 5:58:41 in 82nd place.
In the rankings for the 3 days, I ended up 7th lady, and 39th overall with a total time of 15:51:03 for the 84 miles. I would have been pleased with the idea of top 10 going into the race, but with 3rd there for the taking, I was gutted it had been taken from me. I was only 1:18 behind 3rd place. And my knee was agony.
I took over a week off before testing my knee again without joy. I discovered over the next few days I could run slowly with a heel strike without aggravating it too much, so for the next few weeks, and actually until the end of the year mostly took it easy, scaling back my running mileage dramatically and increasing my spinning/gym classes/strength training, just doing short runs to the gym and back (half a mile each way), parkruns and cross country league races (all around 5kms). I tried Tring parkrun (good muddy proper cross country), Rushmere parkrun (beautiful woodland country estate), Culham cross country for the Chiltern league, Crypt cross country for the Gloucester league, and a slip slidey Didcot parkrun. In reality, perhaps I should have given running a rest altogether, but I wanted to see my old club mates and new club mates and take part in the two leagues. For the rest of November, I ran a total of around 30 miles, and December just over 50, my lowest mileage in around 18 months. I even booked in with a private Physio, but magically when I got there the pain was gone. I went back for a second appointment after a run as he’s asked me to reproduce it but I couldn’t. I had decided to keep it easy until the end of the year though, so I did. Over Christmas, I ran Cardiff parkrun on Christmas Day and Porthcawl Parkrun plus the fun run on Boxing Day. I felt slow but comfortable, and ready to start the new year fresh.
I’d really struggled with the injury, worrying I’d never be able to fully recover and run again. Running is what I love and the thought of not doing it would leave a gaping hole in my life. In fact some evenings, when I managed to finish work on time and didn’t have running club to go to, I got ready for bed and then realised it was only 6:30! My knee still isn’t right and I still have niggles, but I’m really trying to be proactive with cross training and strength and conditioning sessions to help with muscle imbalances and keep my body as strong as possible to cope with the long distances I put it through. I’m planning another period of low running mileage with more cycling and swimming following my 100 mile race at the end of April to give my body a break again.