11–13 November 2016 | 84 miles, 3 Days | The Ridgeway
The popular annual XNRG Druid’s Challenge is a 3-day endurance events covering the Ridgeway National Trail from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire to Wroughton near Swindon. The well-known route follows the ancient Ridgeway, starting by winding through the Chiltern Hills, the middle section hugging the Thames path and finishing on day 3 with the classic open chalk and flint Ridgeway tracks the trail is so famous for.
With an outstanding stroke of luck, we managed to evade the typical November Ridgeway weather for two of the three days, with both Friday and Sunday offering the most amazing views and warming sunshine despite the time of year. Even Saturday, although a bit of a knock-back to reality with drizzle and mud, ended dry and with many achieving fast times across the 2-day section.
Split into three sections around 27–30 miles a day, the event offers a challenging multi-day environment with endurance trail runners from all over the UK and Europe. I met runners from Germany and The Netherlands, as well as from all over the UK, many who come back to the race year after year.
Dragging a Tyre for 84 Miles!
The star of the event for me goes to a participant training for the Yukon Arctic Ultra, a series of non-stop multiday races that take place in Yukon at the beginning of February each year. The race is billed as the toughest ultramarathon in the world where the temperatures can drop to minus 50 degrees plus wind chill, with competitors having to pull their own equipment by sledge. This guy was easy to spot, pulling a tyre the full length of the Ridgeway at amazing speed and leaving behind strange tracks and pile of leaves in the woods! Many competitors thought some thoughtful person had been creating leaf cairns along the way, or that there were a series of mischievous squirrels hiding their findings and marking the trail.
Training for the Desert
The event was also part of the XNRG Marathon Des Sables training package, so a good third of the entrants were using it as training for the main event in April 2017. Although of course a quite different terrain (sadly November on the Ridgeway does not offer either heat or sand!), the length of the days, the experience of pacing yourself and the wide, open tracks provide a great opportunity to simulate three days of the MDS experience.
Although not an MDS competitor myself, I had the pleasure to run alongside quite a few of them, from ultra-running novices running the longest distance they had yet run in preparation, to experienced MDS competitors who formed sections of the elite running start category. The MDS community brings an additional family-like feeling to the event with many competitors working as training partners and supporting each other along the way and swapping stories. Many of their stories and motivations inspirational and often very humble — from “I want to show my kids that anything is possible” to “I’d always heard about the race and I wanted to know if I could complete it”. All are an inspiration to me!
For those of us not doing MDS (personally I prefer cooler climates and more hills in my challenges), the most amazing thing about the Druids Challenge as one of XNRG’s most popular events of the year is the chance to catch up with other fellow runners. I bumped into several people from the Cotswold’s Ultra a few months ago, as well as friends of running friends met through other events — it makes you realize really how friendly the ultra-running community is!
My favorite section of the Ridgeway is always on day-2, winding through the woods near Grims Ditch, with banks forming a long rollercoaster run, winding through the trees, skipping over tree roots and tipping down nicely angles slopes. The autumn colours are just spectacular. The Ridgeway proper by comparison is a different beast and equally stunning. The main attraction for most competitors, it boasts huge views over the countryside and long paths you can see skirting the ridge all the way to the finish, spotting many runners heading off into the distance.
The atmosphere is incredibly welcoming and it’s common to form natural running partners along the way, and then relax together after running, over cups of tea, a couple of beers and the evening meal. I ran a lot, and I also laughed and smiled a lot — it’s a real mark of XNRG and the general running communities character that you meet so many friendly, open and encouraging people, coming together sometimes through shared pain of a 3-day endurance event, but more importantly the shared sense of adventure.
Well done to those repeat runners who got PBs on the course, and good luck to all the MDS runners in April! I can’t wait until the 2017 events for more adventures after some well-deserved rest and recovery over the Christmas period.
By Megan James.