Hi Sandra. You would love the conference in August. It's like a family reunion, and it is very much that coming together of people who know where you're coming from and don't roll their eyes whenever you talk about writing.
The discipline of the Challenge is really the reason we have it. Whether you win or not, it's that act of writing to topic, word count and deadline each week that helps hone your skills.
Then if you read loads of other people's entries and ask yourself why they do or don't work, that will help you grow as well. It's all helpful.
Anyway, congratulations on that first highly commended.