“Two things must ye know about the Wise Woman. First, she is a woman. Second, she is-”
I’ll leave you to work out the two main things you need to know about the Moonlight Challenge. The date is fixed each year as close as possible to a full moon, and this year it certainly didn’t disappoint; for some stretches of the route the moon was so bright I didn’t even need my head torch. And if you find the course anything less than a challenge you’re probably one of those people who thinks of a military assault course as a gentle warm up.
The race started at 6pm and the challenge was to complete as many of the 5 laps as you could handle, as long as you started your final lap by 1am. The course is a 6.55 mile – or to put it another way, a quarter marathon – hourglass shaped route around Chislet Marsh run partly on road, partly on farm tracks and occasionally directly through fields. I knew it was going to be a tough course, and an email on the Thursday from the organiser Mike Inkster reported that the course was “Somme-ish” thanks to recent flooding in the area. Not an exaggeration, it turns out. On a weekend where the political leaders of Britain found themselves standing around like one o’clock half struck wearing brand new wellies and pointing at floodwater, it did cross my mind that the race could be postponed; although that was largely because my mum asked me if I was sure it was going ahead about five times during the two hour drive down through relentless storms and hailstones. And then the first runner we met was wearing waders over trail shoes. My poor road shoes suddenly did not seem like such a good idea.
But sure enough, half an hour before kickoff, the skies cleared and made way for an absolutely stunning night to run through. A field of just 65 runners, and probably half as many again in supporters, organisers, volunteers and film crew, huddled together at the start/finish point at dusk on a Saturday evening, settling in for up to 8 hours out in the Kent countryside. The “base camp” consisted of two portaloos, a caravan for the film crew, a van full of food and support supplies and one marquee (“the other marquee blew away”) – not glamorous, but a perfect balance of necessary and concise. Considering the complexity of the challenge it is brilliantly organised by the ever-present and stoic Mike; the base camp, through which each runner has to pass on each lap and register their progress, has heaters and lamps and a stove keeping warm a huge cauldron of soup, and the route is punctuated by 5 or 6 separate stations variously offering direction, water, hot drinks, sandwiches, biscuits and jelly babies and raucous cheering. Bearing in mind that the route is only a little more than 10k long, that is excellent value for the £45 entry fee.
It’s very much my cup of tea, this sort of race – no frills, no corporate banners, no loudhailers, just a bunch of good natured lunatics trying to challenge themselves – but it won’t be everyone’s. You don’t get the adrenalin rush of a crowd cheering you on or the thumping bassline from a Ministry of Sound ‘running trax’ compilation. Neither is it really a testosterone pumping obstacle course like a Tough Mudder or a Hell Run; the course is what it is, not cultivated for pitfalls or demonic terrain. You are literally running through a farm in Kent, in the middle of the night, in February. That’s it.
The course sets off along a road for a few hundred yards, then turns abruptly right to first of the farmland stretches forming the crossover between the two loops which is run twice on each lap, going in both directions. This section was very unstable underfoot, more like skidding or skating than running, and it wore me down so much simply knowing I’d have to do it twice on each lap; the first time I really understood that the challenge is more in your head than your feet. In the first two laps when I had the energy it was actually easier to run it as fast as possible and therefore limit my contact with the ground than to slow down and trudge through it; by lap 3 I had no choice but to slide through, hanging off the branches of overhanging trees to avoid going on my arse. I couldn’t help but feel a bit stupid for all the bitching and moaning I did over a hundred yards of slightly muddy field in January’s Bromley 10k.
Turning sharp right, the next area was straight up flooded and impossible to get through without being ankle deep in water. I actually didn’t mind this so much, as at least the ground underneath was much firmer and eventually dried out. For about a mile I was in and out of tree cover, between pitch darkness and bright moonlight, and I found myself able to completely switch off in this section and listen to my iPod, until the last lap when my audiobook ran out and I realised quite what I had been missing by not taking in my surroundings. A race like this is not run for PBs or competition or glory. Nobody cares what time you do. At that point I was glad I had more than one chance to look around – I’d never be able to remember it now otherwise.
The next stretch is a paved track running alongside the dual carriageway and therefore lit by the spill of the sodium lamps. Other than the stretch of road that brought me back to base it was the fastest stretch on the route for me, but as much of a relief as it was on my limbs it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable bit; I felt a bit fraudulent running beneath streetlamps on a moonlight run. It was, however, manned by a single volunteer with a trestle table and some hot drinks, perfectly timed for those emerging from the woods. I think I thanked that man just for being there every time I passed but I don’t think he heard.
Turning left off the road, the route takes you back into the farmland and straight back into unstable bog. Again, I found that keeping my pace up on the first couple of laps helped hugely, but I’m ashamed to say I gave up a bit after that and just walked it. On top of everything, the track here was wide open and a strong crosswind teamed up with the slush underfoot to make for a very wobbly group of runners. Back in with the iPod. Always forward. And forward takes you straight back to the crossover, which only got muddier, wobblier and skiddier as the 65 runners pounded it over and over again. I think by the third lap I was actually crying at this point.
After this I know there’s another mile of farmland and mud, and I only vaguely remember flashes of it, although I remember it being easily as bad as the crossover. But for some reason, it didn’t feel quite so apocalyptic. It could be because I knew I only had to do it once a lap, that there was solid ground and roads at the end of it, that I didn’t see anyone else successfully run through it for very long, I don’t know. I suspect it helped that unlike the crossover, this section had far fewer trees and much more clear sky, making it less claustrophobic than the previous stretch. All I know is that when it finally turned into road, I saw a gazebo with no fewer than 5 people huddled around it at any one point, stocked like a kiosk on match day. I can’t say I appreciated their good humour or cheering at the time but I will never cease to be amazed by good people like these who give up their evening to stand around in the cold for hours. I would rather do this race twice over than marshal it.
At this point it was all road on the way back to base camp. Up until about midnight the route here takes you through a beautiful country village and past a pub, which for some people is a carrot and for others is a stick. Some supporters choose to wait outside the but I would only recommend that if your runner is either not planning to run all five laps or is Superman – it’s a deceptively long walk back to base when it’s closed and for the first time there’s an actual hill. But it’s impossible not to sprint this bit, even underestimating the amount of time before to check in again, and that’s because you run the best part of half a mile with the moon on your left, guiding you back to base.
At the end of the third lap I was in pieces. Unable to eat but clearly lacking energy, unable to swallow but needing water, unable to do anything to make my trainers more comfortable because they were so heavily caked in mud, I stumbled into the check in area where my mum was waiting for me and sobbed “THERE’S JUST SO MUCH FUCKING MUD!” – not my proudest moment, but all caught on camera and available on DVD. I’m not proud to admit it but it was the mud that did for me. The distance doesn’t scare me; the evening start suited me perfectly since that’s when I mostly run anyway; and the only preparation I’d do differently is to get proper trail shoes next time. It was exactly what I thought it would be – a mental challenge, not a physical one. Bless my mum, she walked me out onto the fourth lap as far as she could safely go without a torch – she literally put me back on track again – and for a couple of miles I convinced myself I could finish it. But by the time I’d reached the crosswinds again, I knew I couldn’t manage a fifth lap. I put everything into a sprint finish, and finally got my certificate with a time of 6 hours 45 minutes for 26.2 miles.
I had gone into this race intending to finish all five laps because the goal I had set myself was to finish an ultra before my birthday. It was the wrong thing to do. Had I done my research properly I’d have known that it wasn’t that sort of challenge – runners are openly encouraged to do as much as they can and their distance is recorded as well as their time, so there is no such thing as not finishing. So I came away disappointed that I hadn’t completed my challenge, that I’d only managed a marathon, that the time was abysmal. I came away convincing myself I’m a wimp for letting mud get the better of me again. I sulked for the full 2 hour drive home.
The reason I’m writing this three weeks after I ran it is because it took me three weeks to fully appreciate the Moonlight Challenge for what it is. It’s not a race. It’s a challenge, and it’s in moonlight, and that’s about the long and the short of it. Quite apart from anything else, staying on your feet for nearly 7 hours is a feat in itself. Even my Garmin gave up after 6 hours, hence the finish point registering as halfway round the course. Now I know when I run this next year I’m not competing against the distance or the time or the other runners. I’m just trying to see how far I will get. And I’m definitely running it again next year.