Before I went into this race I had done – if you include each marathon length leg of multi-day events – 24 marathons or ultramarathons, most of which over the space of eighteen months. Not many of those are races I’ve done more than once; not a huge surprise considering the range of events available to the marathoner of 2016, but still an important point to me. I’m not, nor am ever likely to be, a racer in the sense of competing for a time, so returning to a course in search of a PB is pretty low on the criteria when looking for a race. As important figures as they are to athletics, Paula Radcliffe, Haile Gebreselassie and Mo Farah aren’t such heroes to me as the stoic, battle-scarred members of the 100 Marathon Club; the people who ran marathons for fun 30 years ago and who still run them every weekend. Gina Little is to me what rockstars are to teenage girls, although I’m pretty sure I’m never going to get my hands on a poster of her.
The Moonlight Challenge represents to me very much the kind of runner I think – I have discovered, over the last eighteen months – that I am. A lap race that will reward you with a time and a distance regardless of how much you do but never honours winners, this would be my third attempt at finishing all five laps. I originally found it when I was looking for an ultramarathon to complete before my thirtieth birthday, and relying entirely on timing and accessibility from my home without taking into account the course, its inherent challenges or the history behind it. I got to marathon distance on the last two attempts and called it quits there, and for the third time I’m coming back with the idea of finishing it. And still, this is one I think I will be doing over and over again, regardless of whether I ever do finish it.
The race – regular readers will know – consists of a 6.55 mile lap around two farms in north Kent, very close to the coast and a light year away from any public transport, run up to five times to make 33 miles in total. Father of ultrarunning (to me, anyway) Mike Inkster runs the event with help from friends, family, and the hardy souls from Thanet Roadrunners, and also hosts the 24 Hour Challenge and the 50 Mile Challenge on the same course. It’s difficult to explain what it is about this race that keeps drawing me back. It’s not breathtaking views necessarily, partly because it takes place overnight and partly because there’s only so much Kent countryside you can get excited about. The lap repeats are mentally challenging, but there aren’t any killer hills, suicidal terrain or obstacles to conquer on the course. You won’t get much kudos from your workmates because it’s not well known enough for them to be able to quantify what you’ve done, and even seasoned ultra and trail runners will wonder what’s so remarkable about 33 miles in the mud, in the dark, beside a motorway. For the third time now my vocabulary has fallen short of the descriptive powers needed to explain this race. I just know it’s the one I know will always be in my calendar, come what may.
The first time I attempted it poor preparation, lack of experience or trail shoes (or fitness) and a total failure to appreciate its difficulty were what eventually did me in, four laps and a marathon distance in. It stood as only my second ever marathon, first ever trail or overnight run, and the first time I ever even saw gaiters (now a staple of my trail running kit). It was also a year of particularly bad flooding in the area and the mud was halfway up my calves in many places. During that six hours and forty five minutes I learned how important it was to have lugs on your shoes, how moving faster means less likelihood of sinking into the porridgey mud, how far you can subsist on just a fragment of human interaction (for which read: conversation is better than headphones) and how little that timing actually matters when you get down to it. I also learned that however many excuses you find for giving up, ultimately, the only force that made you give up was you.
The second time I was around a stone and a half lighter, much fitter and seven marathons more experienced. I had trail shoes, determination and thighs of steel; what I didn’t have, however, was a headtorch. After just two laps I bottled it, and was on the point of packing it in altogether when another runner kindly offered me their spare. Nonetheless the loaner torch only got me round two more laps of an uncharacteristically moonless night and thick fog, and my nerves overpowered my legs. If I ever wanted to finish all five laps I’d have to come back for another go.
So this was it – attempt number three. Supposed to be lucky, although I’m long past relying on good luck charms and superstition. It was me that chose to quit a race I was perfectly fit and able to complete, it was my brain that short circuited in the face of profound darkness and hallucinations, and it would be my brain and my body that would get me to the end when – not if, when – I eventually did. What’s more, I was more aware of my capability this time, and with such a small field there was a strong chance not just of my getting to the end, but getting there as first lady. All I had to do was all I ever do – float on.
And then I told my body to try and follow a new, regulated training plan for the London Marathon in the hope of getting sub 3:30. Longer midweek runs, more roads, a new stressful job and less rest than I’ve ever subsisted on (with or without running in the equation). My awesome body, who just three months ago I was praising for its achievements at Druids and for the first time in thirty-one years showing a shred of appreciation for, my body was now cowed like an abused dog with its tail between its legs, accepting punishment from its odious master and still timidly wagging its tail in the hope of a pat instead of a wallop. Surprise surprise, two weeks before the race my right knee went boom and the training plan had to go in the bin.
So I’d dealt with my lack of fitness for the event, my psychological capacity, and now for the first time I was facing injury – a revolting list of excuses. There was no point in finding blame or beating myself up further though; I had to rest, give my legs as much TLC as I could afford and hope that they’d make it through. After all that, what a horribly ungrateful way to treat myself. I couldn’t even give the mangy old mutt a proper day off because of my work timetable, but I could at least treat it to a foam roller and a bath every now and again. The question was, would it be too little too late?
Uncharacteristically for me, the moment my knee went pop I let go of the anxiety about racing or winning and took a more fatalistic approach; I would crawl round the course if I had to, but anything I had no control over wasn’t worth worrying about. Then Andy reminded me of something else I relied on my right knee for, which is the two hour drive there and back. Ah. That would be a problem. I put it out of my mind to begin with, but the day drew closer and my knee showed no signs of loosening up. Stubbornly limping to the finish is one thing; driving into the central reservation of the M20 because my knee wouldn’t bend is quite another. And then 24 hours out my guardian angel swooped to the rescue in the form of Team Mum; at a loose end on a Saturday night, apparently quite happy to spend six hours sitting in a freezing cold barn in Kent, waiting to drive me home if my knee didn’t want to. What are mums for, eh?
So there we are, greeting the Challenge Hubs regulars and catching up over frozen fingers and hot coffee. It felt like a reunion, reminiscing on past challenges and filling in the gaps of the intervening year; we even bumped into one of Team Mum’s Petts Wood Runners clubmates Jerry, and took a moment to admire each other’s Dirty Girl gaiters. I was among familiars, in an environment that felt secure to me despite the Arctic winds and pitch blackness, and I couldn’t wait to get going. Then it hit me – this is why I come back to the same event every year. Bugger the result or the time; it’s more like a holiday camp than a race. OK, so the weather’s diabolical and there’s no running water and three layers still isn’t enough to ward off frostbite and you end up with either trenchfoot or blisters, but you also come back with stories, smiles, another bunch of people to look out for next year.
In fact I was gossiping so much I almost forgot to get changed and marched out towards the start still wearing joggers and a puffer jacket. Which would have been a shame, considering the efforts I went to to make sure every single element of my outfit clashed. The first time I ran it I was in head to toe black and hoping to slink into the background, until I begrudgingly accepted a loan of Mum’s neon yellow waterproof. Now I knew the importance of being seen as well as being able to see – from a practical point of view I’d rather know passing trains, marshals and emergency services can spot me among the waist high rushes, but there’s also a huge psychological advantage to peacocking. Also, bright pink compression socks rock.
The first lap passed comfortably; not just I’m-psyching-out-the-opposition-by-pretending-to-be-comfortable, actually comfortable. Taking a nice steady pace my knee was happy, my brain was reassured by the double torch approach and my legs were raring to get out after nearly two months since my last marathon. Had I finally cracked it? I certainly wasn’t going to crack it by getting all cocky about it so I tootled along merrily, chatting to anyone who passed me and trying not to push it too hard. Six and a half miles later I pulled into the barn as the first lady to finish the first lap. Not want to lose momentum or the lovely little rhythm I’d found I made sure my number was taken, got my good luck hug from Team Mum and went straight back out. I felt absolutely in control.
Second time out and I still felt pretty comfy, possibly a little too much so: let’s not give up an easy lead simply through laziness, I thought. About halfway through I came across two members of Rebel Runners in their black and bright green vests, one of whom was the only other lady who seemed to be running in the same lap as me. Eager by now for a bit of company I chatted to her for a bit, and discovered that she had only recently begun running to raise money for charity after her son contracted leukaemia, and today would be her first ever ultra and only her third ever marathon. She had a choppy but efficient and very natural stride for someone who hadn’t been running long, and towards the end of the lap I actually began to struggle to keep up with her. Preferring the controlled approach and constantly wary of my knee I hung back, drawing into the barn only a minute or so after her. I was a little cautious of her speed and of losing position, but more than that I was actually disappointed to lose my conversation buddy.
Again I avoided seizing up by stopping only to pick up a handful of sweet treats – possibly they were fig rolls, although they could have been beer mats dipped in sugar for all I knew – went to get my good luck hug from Team Mum, and off- wait. Where was Team Mum? Not by our seats, or outside the barn by the car, or sitting at one of the picnic tables. I looked around frantically. I’m not superstitious by any stretch of the imagination, but I didn’t much like the idea of going out without my good luck hug. I turned to Julie at the registration desk to ask if she’d seen my mum – she’s as well known at Challenge Hub events now as I am, if not more so – and as she raised her head from the list of entrants to reply I spotted a familiar pair of specs and Cheshire Cat grin.
“Right. You’re working the desk now.”
“Yeah! Thought I’d help out.”
Of course you did.
During the third lap I kept an eye out for the Rebel Runners, assuming they’d be only a little ahead of me, but there was no sign. Bollocks, I thought, they must have stolen a march. Oh well, I’m not meant to be racing anyway. I plodded along carefully, humming along to myself and resisting the urge to take out the iPod. By now my legs were tiring slightly but not so much that my form was dropping – all I had to do was keep the steady pace up. Then, about halfway through, I felt an odd sensation in my right knee – not pain, there was no explosion and seizing up like last time. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; it just felt as though my knee had started to drift away from the rest of my body, as of no longer attached but simply floating away in an ever widening orbit. A little further along the feeling had passed, but it was pretty ominous.
The sound of a familiar chatter distracted me from any knee-induced panic attacks; just over my right shoulder, trotting resolutely along, the Rebels. No wonder I couldn’t see them up ahead of me; apparently they’d taken an extended stop after the second lap to take a group photo and were just catching up. I kept up with them until the end of the third lap, the increased pace at the time shaking out the instability in my knee and we entered the barn together. Maybe the tortoise would beat the hare after all?
I took a bit of a break this time, ate a bit more sugar coated sugar, chatted to Team Mum and stretched out my thigh. I was over halfway through now and making good time – I didn’t want to ruin it for the sake of a few minutes. Even with my break I still left the barn well before the Rebels and plunged on for lap four, rejuvenated but wary. The first section of the lap was the only real mudbath, but as mudbaths go it was a doozy. The mud was sticky like clay and at the same time had the foot-sucking properties of custard. I could dip and dive through it quite happily with the enormous lugs on my Fellraisers, but it meant that the lugs remained clogged for the rest of lap since no amount of stamping would loosen them. It was so bad that one of the marshal’s cars had to be towed out with one of the tractors from the barn. But, it was perfect dodgy-knee ground.
Still way ahead of the Rebels I ploughed on, keeping as even a pace as I could manage and making the best of the fact that I didn’t need to stop. Of course it would be too good to be true. About a third of the way in my kneecap came out of orbit and fell to earth with a bang. Pain I can deal with, but as I persevered with it the joint grew stiffer and stiffer until I could barely bend it at all, and that’s kind of its main job while running. Fuck it. The last four miles had to be taken at a walk, and an increasingly slow one at that, as my body temperature dropped and squally showers closed in. Which is why you always carry an extra layer, even on a short lap.
I called Andy, looking for a bit of moral support but knowing what I’d actually get was the dose of common sense I’d need before I persuaded myself “t’is but a flesh wound” and limped on. Even so, the Rebels didn’t catch me up until about two miles to go but once they shot past me, only getting stronger by the step, I had to admit defeat. With the London Marathon only a couple of months away there was no point in hobbling around another six and half miles and inflicting further damage on the knee. I wasn’t even that angry about not finishing for the third time – I was still almost an hour ahead of the next lady to finish a marathon distance and would probably have finished five laps at the same time as the two Rebel Runners even if I’d walked the rest of the way. I just accepted my certificate with a time of 5:30 for 26.5 miles, and started planning for next year. And bless Team Mum, she didn’t even bat an eyelid.
Since then my fatalistic outlook has taken something of a blow; nearly a month on, and I’m still gingerly trotting a maximum of ten miles on hard ground before that orbit feeling comes back and I need to rest again. I’ve put on about half a stone too because my appetite isn’t quite in step with my decreased activity levels yet. This is the bit I don’t find it so easy to talk about. Recovering from injury – especially a less serious one like this, one that came from overuse and can only be cured by rest – you can learn about from any number of sports science books, blogs and personal accounts, copies of Runner’s World, or better still with help from a professional physio. The psychological effects however, though more commonly confronted now than they ever used to be, are complex, varied and unique. Cross-training, keeping in touch with clubmates and getting involved in a non-running capacity all help keep me feeling in touch; the problem is I’ve started to reject this friendly interaction simply because I’m so pissed off with myself, which turns to envy and self-loathing, which festers and chafes and frets away at my self-esteem – what’s more, without the streak to keep up I’m at a loss for motivation to run even if I wasn’t crocked. I mean, it’s such a dumbass way to get injured. Every running magazine I have has an article on how to avoid injury and every single one – Every. Single. One. – says don’t increase intensity and mileage at the same time, or do one or the other too quickly. Basically, trying too hard to take control brought back that most classic of neuroses; my fear of losing control.
So I’ve had nearly a month to chew it over – in other words, nearly a month to procrastinate, to put off writing up this report, to rest and eat instead of refuel – and finally I’ve worked out what to take away from the experience. Feeling in control is so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s less to do with keeping my calorific intake regulated by attuning myself to the sensations of hunger and fullness, and more to do with not caring so much about the numbers that I feel compelled to cheat them. It’s less to do with rigidly following a training plan come what may and more to do with trusting your physiological responses. It’s less about doing what you’re told you ought to and more about doing what you feel is right. Because none of this is news to me; I got this far by listening to my body and never put a foot wrong. My body, which never let me down before, still hasn’t.
On a more positive note, the experience also gave me the vocabulary to really explain why I come back to the Challenge Hub races time and time again. You could point to the fact that there’s often a small field and no pressure, to the reasonable priced entry, unique challenges and friendly faces, but above all the familiarity of them has become a form of meditation to me. No matter where I race or what my goal is, the Moonlight Challenge represents to me now a sort of reset button. I’m ready to stop worrying about being in control, and start being in control.