Almost as soon as I’d yanked off my running shoes at the end of the Brighton Marathon this year, I was looking up my next race. There wasn’t much point in looking around though. I already knew which one I wanted to tackle next.
Back in February I had entered the Moonlight Challenge, a race of up to five laps each measuring a quarter of a marathon, on a farm in Kent, in the middle of the night. Race is a misnomer actually; it’s called a challenge, because that’s exactly what it is. Finishers get a medal and a certificate regardless of the distance they complete, and there’s no award for coming first. I had both massively underestimated and missed the point of the challenge at the time, entering it in the hope of finishing my first ultramarathon before my 30th birthday in March but being forced to call it a day after the fourth muddy lap took the last scrap of energy out of my tired legs. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks after that I began to appreciate this fantastic event for what it was, and to stop measuring success by dates and times. I had any number of excuses handy for why I hadn’t finished the fifth lap, but they never gave me anywhere near as much freedom as just getting on with it would have done.
So here I was again in the middle of July, with a double or quits challenge to complete eight laps this time. The 50 Mile Challenge is actually a double marathon or 52.4 miles, with a very generous thirteen and a half hours cutoff point for the final lap, and is run on the same course starting at 6am instead of 6pm. As usual, I had barely done any training thanks to work commitments – both a full time job and a freelance project that nearly killed me – and the day before travelling to the race I would be flying back from a holiday in Menorca and hoping that there weren’t any Icelandic volcanoes planning a surprise eruption. Details, details.
Team Mum and I stayed in a Travelodge a twenty minute drive away and test drove the route to the starting line the day before so that I could pick up my race number. Good job too – driving there just five months beforehand did not prevent us from getting lost again and nearly throwing the satnav out of the window. Nor, unfortunately, did it mean we made it on time the next morning for the 5:45am briefing. In fact, we drove up just in time to see the rocket set off for the start at 6am, me in the wrong shoes and still changing them as the other runners set off. All captured for posterity on the DVD of the event, including a soundbite of legendary organiser Mike Inkster telling me not to look so scared. Not an auspicious start.
In a funny sort of way though it was the perfect start. I’ve said before the reason I love these sorts of events is the lack of fanfare and buildup, and to all intents and purposes I could have been setting off on a Sunday training run, except I was in a farm in Kent – and I keep saying Kent and not being more specific because I still don’t know where exactly in Kent we were. So off we plodded, me more ploddy than most as I spent two full minutes trying to get signal on my Garmin to record the first lap. Even the bloody Garmin didn’t know where we were.
The course was exactly the same as it was back in February, with the one distinct difference that it wasn’t a bog. Nonetheless prepared for the worst and wary of weather reports forecasting a storm, I had my new trail shoes on – last time I’d learned the hard way that the only way to get a foothold in the boggiest parts was with some sort of foot armour. It was a risky move as I had only run in them once, for just half an hour, but I had my foam soled Gel-Lyte 33s on standby in case the bog never appeared. The trail shoes were stiffer and heavier than I was used to, but while I was taking it easy in the early laps they handled the terrain just fine.
I remembered how I’d kept my head down last time missing out on both the scenery and the social interaction, and how utterly miserable it had made me. This time I made sure I left out the earphones for a bit and chatted to some of the other runners, and immediately the decision paid off. The first two laps passed in no time at all, thanks to the marvellous Gil: a veteran member of the 100 Marathon Club approaching his six hundredth marathon or ultra distance. We talked about all sorts – tips on quick but nourishing meals (particularly ones you can do in one pan), the best websites for shoes, the best events, the best books. His attitude absolutely changed me; I told him about my experience in February and how I’d like to have gone quicker in Brighton, and he told me that negative experiences are just opportunities to learn, and the most important thing is to enjoy it. It’s really all about joy.
We finished the first half marathon at a steady, almost metronomic pace, under perfect running conditions – warm but breezy, cloudy but not too muggy. Mum had been planning to walk one of the laps with me, so she joined me for the third lap when I could slow down a bit to preserve energy for later. We kept up with Gil’s metronomic pace for a while but eventually let him take off while we enjoyed the scenery.
Soon enough though it became obvious I’d hung onto the trail shoes for a lap too many. With the weather showing no signs of the storm that had been forecast and the ground only getting harder, I could feel blisters forming all over my toes and became desperate to get back to base to change. It was too much for mum though, still injured and not yet able to walk so far without a break, and although she patiently and stoically put up with my impatient grumbling about getting back I could tell she was in pain too. Eventually I had to take the damn things off altogether and do the last mile in just my socks. The rough gravel burned the soles of my feet for a bit, and the chronic pain of blisters rubbing became the acute pain of stones cutting into my skin, but I actually found this much easier to deal with. Plus, running without shoes was surprisingly liberating and had an immediate effect on my posture. Not sure if a cross country run was the best time to try barefoot running though.
Finally back to base my mum collapsed into the car, I quickly changed into my lightweight shoes and petulantly tore off the waterproof jacket that had been tied around my waist so far, annoying me. My muscles were cooling down and I was eager to get out and run again, so I barely even took the time to eat a Nutrigrain bar before shooting off. Back along the road I shot, hoping to get the pistons firing and make up lost time. Guess what happened next?
It turns out that wicking fabric is great for removing moisture from the body, but it has a saturation point. My shorts found their saturation point about two hundred yards into the next lap, when no sooner had I taken off my waterproof shoes and jacket the storm clouds finally made good on their promise and it started bucketing down. I weighed up whether or not to go back for my jacket, but I figured I was already wet anyway, and going backwards not halfway into the challenge would psychologically crush me. Still though, this wasn’t rain. This was Noah’s Ark territory. And with the ground unable to drink it up quickly enough, ankle deep standing water was everywhere within minutes.
I remembered how badly I reacted to the mud and waterlogging the last time and felt much more zen about it this time. There was bugger all I could do about it, and at least it washed the salt from my skin. I kept my pace up to avoid getting a chill, although half an hour later it was still pouring down with no sign of letting up. On top of this, I was wearing low rising sock liners instead of ankle socks so every bit of grit and mud was getting right inside them, causing more friction on my burgeoning blisters. Now I understood why Mike always wears gaiters. They went straight on the shopping list for next time.
It wasn’t all gloom though – for the first time, I realised how much I had developed as a runner mentally, rather than physically. The old Jaz was sobbing and shouting obscenities about mud and bemoaning a lack of preparation; the new Jaz was taking it on the chin and enjoying the cool water, laughing about the conditions with the other runners and the marshals, recognising that it would eventually let up and even if it didn’t it wouldn’t matter. I think that’s my own manifestation of the wall – the feeling that it’s always going to be this bad forever and ever and why bother. Experience teaches you actually it won’t always be this bad, and you’ll feel like a bit of a dick later for having moaned so much. I thought about Gil’s words of wisdom, hoped that I would bump into him again and plugged on.
At this stage I did crack out the iPod Shuffle, which I’d loaded with an audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. It turned out to be the perfect choice: romantic tales of vagabonds crossing America with nothing but a canvas kit bag and a brass neck, of sunshine and heat and dust and haze. I can see why it inspired legendary ultra runner Jenn Shelton and it carried me through laps four and five.
Eventually the rain did let up, and almost as if it had never come at all the clouds parted to reveal beaming sun to dry me off; even my cotton vest which was so saturated I could have wrung about a pint of water out of it. I got back to base after lap four to find my mum fully recovered and back to her bubbly self, having made friends with the wife and daughters of another runner. She’d also had a costume change into pink trousers and glittery flipflops and they’d set up chairs, tables and refreshments under a gazebo like a makeshift living room. What a bloody legend.
At this pit stop I cleaned and powdered my feet and changed into fresh (ankle high) socks – not much I could do about my trainers still being damp, but it was better than nothing and immediately put a spring back in my step. I also changed into my QPR shirt and took the waterproof out with me this time. Not taking chances again.
Although my mental strength was holding out, my body had started to creak by the fifth lap and I had to take a few breaks to stretch my hamstrings and hips. It was definitely half and half running and walking now. To quote Zapp Brannigan, the spirit is willing but the flesh is spongy and bruised.
Every now and again though I would bump into Mike Inkster running the other way round the course, checking up on the competitors and offering words of support. Mike is absolutely key to the spirit of the challenge, taking care as he does to get to know the runners and their own personal challenges so you feel like you’re always being looked after. I was gutted to hear this is his last challenge; logistical problems and sheer exhaustion after running them for fourteen years mean he can’t do it any more. There is a rumour that it may be taken on by the Thanet Road Runners who also man Jellybaby Corner, but for the moment I had to decide whether or not I could afford not to try the full fifty miles if it did turn out to be the last one.
Lap five was tough – I was glowing with the thought of finally being an ultra runner but my muscles were packing up. The team at Jellybaby corner were egging me on to finish all eight laps but as I rounded off the fifth I knew I’d need a bit of a rest before considering the sixth. Still though, I had always told myself six would be the minimum and so after 15 minutes in mum’s temporary lounge to eat a banana and put my feet up I made for the start again. Mike always says that when you think you’ve had enough you always have one more lap in you, and as usual he’s not wrong.
As she did back in February, mum came out with me for the first couple of hundred yards of the last lap. I almost persuaded her to do the whole thing, but she was still recovering from the effects of lap three and thinking about a three hour drive home via my house afterwards, so she let me go at the entrance to the farm.
I to’d and fro’d about whether I should try for the full distance, but just over halfway through lap six I knew this would have to be my last. It took me an hour and 40 minutes to complete 6.55 miles on the last lap – and that includes running the last three miles when I knew I was nearly home and that with a bit of effort I could get in under ten hours. A little bit of good natured heckling from the team at Jellybaby Corner – whose good humour and boundless patience became a highlight to look forward to each lap – set me off for the final mile and a half stretch on road. I didn’t have my Garmin on GPS mode, just timer, as I knew the battery wouldn’t last otherwise, but a few mental calculations helped me keep my pace steady and I finally sprinted through the finishing area at 9 hours and 58 minutes.
A little part of me still thought about finishing the last two laps, even if I crawled them, but by then I knew that I’d come here to do what I needed to and I couldn’t make my mum hang around for another 3 and a half hours. I got my certificate and medal from the support team, cheered in a few more finishers, and collapsed into the front seat of mum’s little Corsa.
I’d finally done it. I was an ultramarathoner. But this was in no way the end of the challenge for me – all it did was unlock the door to a world I really belong to. Apart from when I got my 10k PB three years ago (which I’ve barely come near since) I’ve never got quite so much joy out of running as I do ultra running. Just to know the experience of the run is half the achievement, that nobody cares what time you do or when you place as long as you’re happy, that if you fell you would always be picked up again: all this convinced me that this is what I was designed to do. So my hamstrings and creaky knees had better get used to it.