Hello darkness my old friend…
I first attempted the Moonlight Challenge last year, and at the time it was to be my first attempt at running an ultramarathon, my first attempt at running a trail race and only my second ever race longer than a half. Looking back on it now, it was an ambitious gambit at best. At the time I had fixated on the idea of running an ultra before my 30th birthday without giving proper consideration to the challenge and I was disappointed that I had to call it quits after four laps, despite it being a marathon distance. Looking back on it now, at the shin deep bog, the low visibility, the mental challenge of running laps and the total lack of appropriate kit, I’m really proud that I got as far as I did. But last year, it felt like a failure.
So, I figured some good had to come of it. Muddy terrain was horrible, so I would make it my friend. I spent the last year reinventing myself as a trail queen, and rediscovered a love for running that I was in danger of losing. I entered the 50 Mile Challenge on the same course just five months later – this time the full distance was eight laps or a double marathon, starting at 6am instead of 6pm with the added benefit of daylight and firmer ground – and this time I called it quits after six laps, shredded and sore but jubilant. There was a rumour that it could be the last time this race was run, so I decided that as long as it was on I would keep trying until I could finish it.
After the 50 Mile Challenge – what was technically my first ultra, since I got a time and a medal for the laps finished – I got the bug. By the time the Moonlight Challenge rolled around again in February 2015, I had done the Royal Parks 50k, the Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 50k and the Pilgrim Challenge (66 miles over two days) and had all but set up home on the North Downs with my sexy bastard Salomon Fellraisers. I packed up a Zipcar for attempt number two and set off for the A2. It was time.
If I’ve learned anything in the last two years, it’s that less kit means fewer distractions. Honestly, planning for a race is half the fun for me. I lay out everything I need, then set about weeding out anything I can do without. Start with the mandatory kit if there is one, then only add to it if you absolutely have to; if one piece of kit can do two jobs, so much the better. The one thing I couldn’t do without this time though was a headtorch; clue’s in the name. So, guess what I left at work?
It’s fine, I thought. Wickes is just round the corner, I’ll nip round and pick a new one up. They had one option available to me. I’m pretty sure I made one of these in primary school with a 9v battery, a half inch bulb and a load of Sellotape.
It was too late to worry about it though; battling through gale force winds down the old familiar North Kent route I stuck on some summery ska punk and tried to settle my nerves. On the last two Challenge Hub races I had had Team Mum backing me up, playing chauffeur, race crew, nutritionist and pacer, but this time I was on my own – and, it turns out, not all that good at following a satnav – with the thought at the back of my mind that after running thirty three miles I would need to conserve energy for the two hour drive home.
The route had changed slightly, now sharing about half the figure of eight course of the old route but taking that loop in the opposite direction, so it felt as good as brand new. The HQ and checkpoint for each lap had moved too, now based in the relative shelter of a barn complete with sodium lamps and a heater that looked like a rocket. Which was lucky, because if last year’s theme had been torrential rain then this year’s was gale force winds. I set myself up a chair in the barn, with my nutrition and spare kit laid out ready for the end of each lap, and retreated to the relative warmth of my car for as long as possible. And watched nervously as the tanker parked next to my tiny Corsa swayed and lurched in the wind.
Just thirty six runners were on the entry list; there must have been more people among the organisers and support than actual runners. I’ve said before that one of the reasons I like the Challenge Hub races is their very low key nature, but those thirty six names are testament to just how tough these challenges are. Running off-road quarter-marathon loops on the Kent coast, in the middle of the night in February, is not for the faint hearted. I looked through the list of names to see if I recognised any of them, but the one name I was thrilled to see was Mike Inkster’s; not among the runners, and not officially running Challenge Hub any more, but the figurehead of the operation nonetheless. He remembered me – and less surprisingly he remembered my mum – and would be out on the course later on doing his rounds in the opposite direction.
We started with the typical lack of fanfare; in fact, we very nearly didn’t even get the traditional Challenge Hub starting rocket at all, with winds so strong that the fuse wouldn’t ignite. Ten or so runners huddled round it to provide shelter while Mike wrestled with a series of unsuccessful lighters until finally it took, when we all realised we were crowded around a live rocket and now would be a good time to back the hell away. It’s a novel way to get people running.
The first lap started in daylight, just; with the new route cutting across a lot more open field and fewer obvious trails to follow, I made a conscious effort to remember every twist and turn while at the same time enjoying a good old natter. The group was fairly tight-knit to begin with, but eventually it opened out a bit, and I was reduced to lighting my own way instead of following the brighter headlamps of people more organised and sensible than me. About halfway through lap 2, it all went a bit wrong. The crappy little glow of my primary school science project head lamp had no chance of penetrating the gloom, and with such thick cloud cover the Moonlight Challenge was not lit and boasted no visible moon, as last year’s had. I took a long detour looking for a turning point that turned out to be hiding at the top of a small hill, and even once I was relatively certain of being back on track there was nobody around to follow. Thirty years old, and I found myself genuinely afraid of the dark. I decided that the end of that lap would be the end of the race for me.
When I got back to HQ the second time, I went straight up to the table waving my white flag. I was gutted to have to call it quits not even halfway through the challenge, especially as I still felt strong and well capable of the distance, but I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face out there, let alone the route markings or the treacherous dips and troughs in the terrain; basically, I bottled it. Of course, the organisers were having none of it. When I explained why I was giving up one chap immediately dived into his bag to find his spare Petzl so that I could continue. I didn’t catch your name, but whoever you are thank you. You would have been well within your right to disqualify me altogether, never mind give me your own torch and send me on my way. That was that then. No excuses now.
It was definitely easier with a proper light source, but the night was still thick with fog and the ubiquitous Kent coast drizzle had finally decided to make an appearance and add to the visibility issues, so my progress was sluggish. I was frustrated with my pace, necessarily slow to avoid taking a tumble, and I was getting thoroughly disorientated. The beam bobbed about in front of my face, lighting a spot in front of me like the view through a pinhole camera but casting everything else into pitch blackness by contrast. If you’ve ever played Super Mario World, and got to the level where the world is in darkness except for a small bubble around Mario showing only his position and the step immediately in front of him, you’ll know what I mean. I tried switching it off and allowing my eyes to accustom to the dark. That was a terrible idea. Either way I was beginning to hallucinate.
The point of doing this race again was twofold for me; one, I didn’t want to leave it unfinished, and two, being signed up for a 100 miler in the summer which will take more than 24 hours I needed to get some practice running in the dark. On balance, I’m glad I got to experience running in pitch black beforehand and not be confronting it halfway through a race with plenty enough going on to challenge me, but I’ve honestly never been so frightened. Stepping out of my comfort zone, pushing my limits, testing myself; I’m all over that. But on that night I plodded through the woods thinking to myself “This isn’t fun. I am not enjoying myself at all.”
About halfway through lap four, on yet another long stretch with nobody else around, I saw a figure coming towards me. Or rather, I saw the beam of a torch coming towards me, and inferred the presence of a man behind it. I shit myself. I was alone, in the dark, miles from safety. If this guy didn’t want me here there was pretty much nothing I could do about it. The approaching figure seemed to be growing behind the glow of his torch, growing far faster and larger than the effect of perspective should have suggested, until he was maybe seven or eight feet tall. I kept my pace steady but started to veer a little off to one side to avoid him. He veered too, right into my path, all the while growing taller and bigger. Shit shit shit.
“Jaz. Are you OK?”
It wasn’t a murderous giant. It was lovely lovely Mike Inkster. And a lot of shadow.
The last two times I’ve run one of Mike’s challenges he has popped up out of nowhere with words of encouragement, urged us to do one more lap with a smile, gently but firmly insisted that we could finish. This time though he looked nervous. I admitted I was struggling with the dark and he immediately told me to finish up the lap and call it quits if I had to, that it had been a torrid night for a lot of runners. That in itself was a shock for me; if even Mike thought it was a bad night then I felt absolutely no shame in giving up. I finished my lap and accepted my certificate for 26.8 miles completed.
It may sound complacent, but it felt right to finish there. There’s hard work that is fun and rewarding, there are extremes you push yourself to because you know that the returns far outweigh any mental and physical expenditure. That night was not fun though, not by a long shot. There were no returns to be gained from going out there for another lap and scaring myself shitless, nor was there any value in toughing it out when I had a two hour drive home in front of me. I knew that I would have to come back for another go of the Moonlight Challenge. I know now that I will keep coming back until I finish it.
The one small compensation was that I managed to take over an hour off my time for the same distance last year: 5:39 from 6:45. According to Mike the new route was slightly longer, much rougher underfoot and much hillier than last year’s, but I didn’t notice any of that at the time. Only one woman finished the full 33.1 miles, and of the four women to finish four laps I was the fastest by four minutes, which is a pleasing bit of number symmetry. In the Moonlight Challenge the numbers don’t really matter though, and there’s no prize for coming first anyway. Just like last year, I was reminded that they’re called challenges and not races for a reason.
You know me. I can’t resist a good challenge.