Moonlight Challenge – fourth time’s the charm

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You can look at endurance sports in one of two ways:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”

“The definition of insanity is to repeat the same action and expect a different outcome.”

I mean, I’ve had a QPR season ticket for the last 8 years, so perhaps a bent for hopeless endurance sports was inevitable.

Here I am then on my fourth outing at the Moonlight Challenge aiming for the elusive fifth lap. Regular readers will remember attempt number one, where I foolishly aimed to nab my first ultra marathon finish on only my second ever long distance race and ended up humbled by the mud; attempt two where I basically chickened out; when number three was stymied by a knee injury I knew I would be back again this year.

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I would be, but two very important people would not. Wendimum, who had been such a regular supporter at Challenge Hub races that she probably qualified for a green number, had moved to The North where the weather comes from; and Mike Inkster, godfather of daft races, had finally handed the Challenge Hub reins over to Traviss and Rachel of Saxons Vikings Normans. The three challenges would now form part of their incredibly prolific portfolio of races, and all I’d heard about SVN was glowing reports. I mean, seriously-are-they-bribing-you glowing reports. Generous goody bags, medals so big and ornate you could pave a driveway with them, cake and beer a staple of every race. I was curious to see if they would do this historic event justice or if the spirit of the Challenge Hub races would simply be lost for ever.

Being Kent-based, the regular faces at SVN were many of the same ones that I knew from Challenge Hub and So Let’s Go Running, so it wasn’t totally unfamiliar ground. What became very clear very quickly was that although I was one of a handful of regulars the new RDs would bring a huge field to this relatively tiny race, with many 100 Marathon Club members and wannabes keen to try a rare “new” course. What was also clear is that nobody ever does just one SVN race. This is a community built around the idea that a) literally anyone can finish a marathon – which is true – and b) one marathon is never enough, and nor is a hundred. It’s like the Challenge Hub ethos on acid.

There were a few tweaks to the race, which loyalty insisted I should HATE but practicality forced me to appreciate. Change number one was that the race would start at 4pm, not 6pm, and more importantly that it would be moved forward by 4 weeks so that it fell on the somewhat milder March full moon night, not a bitterly cold and foggy February one. Change number two was the format; instead of a multi-lap race with a limit of five, it would now be an eight-hour race with complete laps counted towards the total, as many as you could finish so long as the final one started before 10:30pm. I hadn’t any other reason to be optimistic about the race given my appalling preparation and my extra stone in weight, but I did cling to the little luxuries these changes afforded.

The biggest luxury, especially given that Wendimum wouldn’t be there, was to have Andy crewing for me. Let’s be clear; Andy is not a runner. He does not find running as exciting as I do. He certainly does not consider the idea of sitting in a barn on a cold Saturday night, with no wi-fi or electricity, for eight full hours sandwiched by a two hour drive there and back, fun. I had to put on my most pathetic face to persuade him to do it. If I was to have any chance of nabbing the fifth lap I would need not to be worrying about driving home on tired legs or finding my food and drinks at each pitstop. At least we found a huge John Deere tractor to use as a base, and Andy got his fill of machinery porn for the day as we set up our camping chairs in front of it.

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Mooching about the start and half-heartedly stretching, I caught snippets of overheard conversations. The usual run-geekery and gossip, then I heard the word “elevation”. Three very serious looking chaps were discussing whether it counted as basically flat or the fact that the bridge over the motorway, which you cross twice per lap, cumulatively contributed to a lot of climbing. I held my tongue, but it was tough. I wanted desperately to jump in and tell them, elevation is not the challenge on this race. There are humps, but if you look back at your Strava when you finish the profile will look flat as a pancake. There’s a bit of mud, but any relatively experienced runner will be well prepared for that – and anyway, everyone here seemed to be wearing Hoka Stinsons and you can’t really be sure where the foot begins and the lugs end with those things. The repetitive nature of the laps aren’t anywhere near as bad a you’d think either; actually I’ve grown to love the rhythmic nature and comforting familiarity of lap format races. No, the challenge is far more insidious than that.

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Judging the flatness of this race is like measuring fractals. Is that flat ground? Sure. No, wait, look closer. Is that a rut? Try again. A rut IN a rut? Getting warmer. This is a farm on the coast, my friend. That’s right – the ground for at least half of each lap has been rained on, churned, dried out, flooded, churned again, dried again, over and over until there isn’t a square foot that isn’t made up of peaks and troughs which are in turn made up of smaller peaks and troughs that redefine infinity. Good luck finding somewhere to land your feet. I’m guessing this is why the race always used to be run in the rainy season.

No time to worry about it now though. Part of my tactics for persuading Andy to come with me was to promise that we could listen to the QPR game on the radio – that turned out to be an optimistic gamble as pointless run-up coverage of the pointless Six F**king Nations filled the airwaves so I left him to grind his teeth in peace while I checked the first section of terrain. I was wearing my comfy zero-drop Altras in the car intending to change into my Salomon Fellraisers for the race itself, but the ground was much harder tham normal and the Fellraisers’ lugs would have shredded my feet looking for mud to bite into. Not having trained much in the zero-drop shoes was presumably an Achilles disaster waiting to happen, but I didn’t have much choice.

On the plus side, Mike made an appearance after all – dressed for once in smart clothes and boots instead of running shoes and jungle shorts, he had a cameo appearance as the race starter. I was so pleased to see him I nearly knocked him over with my hug. An auspicious start, but unless you’ve run a cumulative 200 miles (or more) around one of his fiendishly difficult courses you can’t appreciate the love I have for Mike, who has become the godfather of ultrarunning to me. That’s Stockholm Syndrome, isn’t it? Either way, another good omen for the race ahead.

There wasn’t the usual rocket going off for the start (“the man who was meant to bring it forgot”) but there we were, pretty much bang on 4pm, set loose on the trails of two of Kent’s muddiest coastal farms. The loop is made of (as Traviss perfectly described it) a dumbbell, where one loop is on Brook Farm, the furthest point of which is also the start/finish, the other is Bell Isle Farm, and the crossover is the bridge over the A299. Brook Farm is definitely the marshier of the two and includes the tricky little ridge of holy-crap-what-IS-that-we’re-running-on, which I am informed is only 400 metres long but can assure you is closer to about twenty miles. It’s ankle-turning central round there, and there are no prizes for finishing it first. So, although I held off walking until the fourth lap, I did take that section at a trot rather than a canter.

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The first lap went smoothly, a good opportunity for regulars to reacquaint themselves with the route in the light and for newbies to learn it, for although it’s signposted Brook Farm in particular has a fair few turns that are easy to get wrong. By the second I was a little bored of being a Focused Runner, and tried to chat to a couple of people, and by a happy coincidence bumped into Jimi Hendricks (real name) from the Rebel Runners. I had run this same race with Jimi and Paula for a fair chunk last year, when both were on their third or fourth ever marathon. In the intervening year Jimi, with the help of SVN, had become a marathon running machine and had completed something like 70 more, well on his way to the 100. These are people who absolutely share my ethos for running, and the more I spoke to Jimi the more I learned about the work that SVN do effectively operating their running community as a feeder system for the 100 Marathon Club.

The belief that anyone can finish a marathon or ultra and in fact all those people can easily go on to finish a thousand more if they want to is underpinned by the practice of stripping back the things in races you probably don’t need (chip timing, baggage pens, disco music and coordinated warmups) and focusing instead on the things you do need (logistical support, sense of humour, a fuck ton of food and a pint of beer at the end). By running many of their races as timed events rather than distance ones, the stress of hitting cutoffs or getting drop bags to the right place is eliminated immediately. Of 91 finishers, 22 completed 5 or more laps in the allotted time to bag themselves an ultra (including one man, Alix Ramsier, who made it to 52.8 miles to take the longest distance by a full 2 laps); a further 49 completed a marathon. And the other 20? They all got their finishing time, their medal and their goody bag too. No DNFs, no timeouts. I’ve been listening to the Ultra Runner Podcast obsessively and host Eric Schranz raised this point just recently – if you’re running your first ultra, a fixed time event as opposed to a fixed distance one is definitely the way to go. I’ve got to hand it to SVN, they’ve got this COVERED.

Back to the race. Among the marathon finishers are two people without whom I’m not sure I’d have finished, certainly not with a smile on my face anyway. Simon Lewis and I did a little dance of face-in-a-strange-place “Do I know you?” until we worked out that no, we had not met at previous Challenge Hub Races, no, there was no Kent connection; Simon is in fact another Clapham Chaser and co-Event Director of Tooting Common parkrun. How we found each other all the way out here…  I knew Simon’s face and I knew his name from the weekly club results roundup, but I’d never put the two together before. I’d also never realised there was another Chaser who subscribed to the more is more ethos for race finishes, and who was also well on the way to the 100 Club shirt. We ran half of the second lap together, just as the sun packed itself off to bed, playing chicken with our headtorches. Simon’s finish got him to marathon number 72 and his goal – which I have no doubt he will smash – is to hit the hundred before the end of December. I felt like I was in good company.

About halfway through the third lap, after I’d steamed ahead of Simon with a rare and foolhardy burst of energy, I realised I was back to running a boring loop on my own again and there weren’t even any views to enjoy. Well, there’s the sodium glare of the A299, but it’s hardly anything to write home about. And just as I started grumbling away to myself I came across another lone runner similarly wondering why the hell we were staring at a main road. Claire turned out to be more excellent company for what was becoming the slog part of the race. A lifelong film buff, she remains the first person I’ve ever met who does now for a living what she wanted to do when she was a little girl: a graphic designer that makes film posters. We chatted easily for a lap and a half, a good eleven miles that I barely noticed passing.  In that irreverent way that you do when you meet someone you click with, we discussed GI issues on the run, favourite ways to fuel (both having recently dicovered Tailwind), why do romcom posters always have black and red Arial font on a white background, and Kiera Knightley. It turned out that she’d read my blog before (poor woman) and we shared URLs before we parted at the end of lap four.

I was genuinely gutted to lose Claire for the final lap but she had already pretty much made my race. She forced me to slow a little and walk the occasional inclines, which I’m usually loathe to do but always always regret later on, and I’m positive that that gave me the energy to make it through the final lap. Before I started Andy and I did a little mental calculation and worked out that by giving it a bit of welly I could actually be done with this lap in about hour and a quarter and make the six and a half hour watershed for starting the last one, but it would be a bit stupid to rush and risk injury. Plus, Andy really did not want to be there for another hour and a half. No, I would learn the lessons that Claire had taught me and take it easy for this lap. And since I’d be on my own I put my headphones in for the first time to listen to an interview with my hard-work hero, Jamie Mackie, on the QPR podcast. And off I went.

The zero-drop shoes were, surprisingly, a dream. Given the hardness of the ground and the lack 0f practice running in them I really expected to crash out with an Achilles nightmare (2016 had been that sort of year) but my calves, knees and feet were absolutely fine. I mean, slightly sore in the way that legs that have run a marathon tend to be, but not the sort of sore that actually stops you; in fact I felt as strong as I had in the second lap. Perhaps Altra are onto something here – why the hell are they so hard to find in the UK? I did a bit of shoegazing and saw a ton of Hokas, some Salomons, the occasional Inov-8 (I tried some of those again last week and they’re definitely dolls’ shoes, not made for duck feet like mine) but definitely no other Altras.

The Focused Runner approach actually seemed to be working for me and I kept a steady and not disrespectable pace up for three quarters of the lap before I became conscious of myself ramping up. Then I came across the windmill which marks the final straight, about half a mile of road which goes a bit up and then lots down, and I bloody went for it. The balls of my feet burned, my glutes started firing, my arms pumping as if I was on the Mall at the end of the London Marathon. It hurt, but it hurt good. A hop and a skip through the open barn door and I rang the bell to say I was done – 9 seconds after the final lap cutoff. Worth it. And the goody bag was, true to form, unspeakably good…

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Andy had to concede it wasn’t the worst time he’d ever had, and I think he finally understood what I see in this daft sport when he met the other characters that make it what it is. For my part I don’t think I’ve ever finished a race that strongly, and it gave me a huge boost for the Centurion 50 Mile Grand Slam – something which, with the first race only four weeks away, I was terrified about. After a dismal year of injury upon exhaustion on top of weight gain added to laziness this race really hit my reset buttons  – and obviously the first thing I did when I got home was sign up for the first random SVN race that wasn’t aleady sold out (August). Traviss and Rachel have done a fantastic job of keeping the Challenge Hub spirit alive and I’m sure Mike is relieved to know his races are in good hands. Me, I’m just glad to have my mojo back. God I’ve missed this.

Ask me again in four weeks.

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Moonlight Challenge 2016 – third time lucky?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

50 Mile Challenge 2015

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When I tackled the 50 Mile Challenge last year, it was my second attempt at completing an ultramarathon. I met a man who revived my love of running by teaching me to share the experience with your fellow runners, I discovered that rain won’t melt you, and that it’s always handy to keep a change of shoes, and why Jack Kerouac was such an inspiration to Jenn Shelton. And I made it round 39.3 triumphant miles of the course before throwing in the (very muddy) towel. I hadn’t run further than that in one go since.

Last year, mum and I had stayed in a Travelodge about 20 mins drive away from the race start, being as it is in the middle of nowhere, but when we drove down on the Saturday evening to register and pick up my race pack spotted a couple of tents and sleeping bags and realised just what a trick we’d missed. This time we came prepared for a campfire and a sing song, and it was absolutely the right decision; even more so when we discovered there was space in the dry, cosy barn for us to pitch our tents rather than the rocky ground outside. We planned down to the last detail, each of us with specific responsibilities to make sure we had dinner, entertainment and lodgings covered between us. Mum was in charge of cooking implements. She brought wine, but forgot cutlery. I knew then it would be an awesome evening.

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It was comforting enough to know I’d be right there for the 6am start the next morning, but it also meant we got to have a good old chat and a game of cards with the other campers: Julie and Derren, both of whom are regular fixtures at Challenge Hub races; Mal, who was attempting to do the whole race dragging a tire behind him; and Emma, who had come all the way from Staffordshire for her first ultramarathon. We cooked up a huge pot of cheese and broccoli pasta on mum’s portable stove, which we ate with some scavenged plastic spoon and a bit of twig, then taught everyone how to play Shithead, fuelled by mum’s interminable supply of chocolate nuts and raisins, before retiring to the pitch darkness of our tents. Camping has never been high on my list of things that are fun, but for a low key race in a low key setting it was the perfect preparation. And at least it wasn’t a fucking Travelodge.

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Sleeping in a pitch black barn, on a quick build campbed (bought after discovering how cold sleeping on the floor is during the Pilgrim’s Challenge), ended up being one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had pre-race. I’ve got to the point now where I just give up any hope of sleeping the night before either through nerves or circumstance, but I honestly couldn’t have got a more satisfying forty winks if I’d been sleeping on clouds and happy thoughts. And so obviously I was in a hideously good mood come 5am the following morning; and for once, on time.

Lovely Mike Inkster gave his legendary pre-race speech as we shuffled around excitably, starting with the phrase “Don’t worry about the distance,” which is pretty much the best piece of advice any ultrarunner will ever get, and off we went. I fell in step with Emma and another lady called Gillian, all three of us doing our first 50 miler, and we promised to stay together for as long as possible to make sure each of us got to the end.

One of the things I love most about ultra running – especially Challenge Hub races – is just how sociable it is. It’s a huge part of the reason why I go back to these races time and time again; these races that make no sense, that push your muscles to melting point and turn your feet to pools of mush, and yet leave me musing on the mental challenges more than the physical, worrying about how I will keep my mind from fraying long after I stopped caring about the effect of fifty miles on my body. I learned in past races how much easier it is to have someone else to run with, and how important it is to switch off the iPod just when you’d think you need it most. It definitely helps when the people you are running with happen to be among the most inspirational people you will ever meet, and it’s not coincidence that the people you meet during ultras often are.

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Emma, a petite and cheerful young lady from Lichfield with nothing more high tech than her club vest and a pair of basic running shoes, was relatively new to running. She told us how she loved taking herself off for long runs with no idea of how far she was planning to go; just to keep going until she knew she was done. In fact, she couldn’t even say for certain how far her longest run had been prior to the 50 Mile Challenge, although it must have been in the region of thirty or so miles. Her kit was the barest minimum of what it needed to be, and her soundtrack was her thoughts. At the beginning she asked to run with us in order to make sure she kept her speed under control as she had no idea how to pace herself, but within a couple of laps it became obvious she had nothing to worry about, as she left us in the dust. All I saw of her from that point on was a beaming smile as we crossed over halfway through my lap 6 and her lap 7, a genuine smile which came from the bottom of her boots. She is someone to whom running is the most natural thing in the world.

me and Emma

Photo courtesy of Challenge Hub

My companion for the rest of the way was equally inspirational, but the polar opposite in technical terms. Gillian, also on her first 50 miler, was a 3.15 marathoner and wife of an ex-competitive triathlete, and she was a lady with a plan and a super-disciplined crew to back it up. Her husband, sister-in-law and brother-in-law were all on hand at roughly the halfway point of the course with an SUV stocked full of different kinds of food, plus a portable fridge freezer for cold drinks and ice pops and probably the kitchen sink too, and they even paced sections of the lap towards the end of the race. Having been her husband’s crew for years, she knew how to put them to good use and he, being an elite athlete, knew exactly what was needed before even we did. Crewing at that level is practically an art form.

I was prepared for the fact that we’d see all four seasons over the course of the next twelve hours, and we didn’t get much more than a couple of laps in before the heavens opened and the waterproofs came out. It didn’t matter really; it helped soften the sunbeaten ground, washed the sweat from my skin and the mud from my legs, and kept my body temperature under control for just a little longer than I had any right to hope. The rest of the day was forecast to be very hot with odd bursts of showers, which is actually quite a nice way to spend a whole day outdoors; just as you get sick of one extreme the other steps in with a reprieve. It wasn’t quite so nice for the supporters though and my poor Team Mum went from arctic survivalist to jungle explorer with a costume change and a different kind of drink at the end of each lap. Mike Inkster joked that he was considering changing the name to the Lobster Challenge: “First we drench you, then we boil you!”

I knew it was suicide to spend too much time comparing each stage of the race with how I felt last year – it’s suicide to compare how you feel at any one time with how you felt ten seconds ago – but every now and again a systems check told me I was still on course to finish and finish strong, which is all I needed to do, and maybe even keep in touch with Gillian until the end. The race was my qualifier for the North Downs Way 100, which would take place just three weeks later and on the other side of a high profile project at work. I’m pretty sure that when the NDW100 organisers stipulated all runners needed to have finished at least a 50 mile race before being allowed to compete they had something less ambitious than three weeks to double mileage in mind, but I couldn’t think about that. All I had to think about was getting to the end. And the best way to do that was not to think about it.

Chatting to Gillian, I’m even more certain in retrospect, got me through the race. I didn’t have time to register niggles or allow doubt to creep in or grow impatient or grumpy. We inadvertently started to mark parts of the course, finding bits we liked and bits we didn’t and breaking each lap down to manageable chunks. It was an unexpected advantage to lap racing, normally a form of psychological torture, and because we were chatting so much we even came across sections we didn’t recognise, despite having run them four or five times already. I liked going past the mummy swan with her nest of cygnets who hissed at us every time we ran by, and Gillian looked forward to the house with the windmill, partly because it signified the home stretch and partly because windmills are bloody cool. And obviously, we both looked forward to seeing her crew and their amazing stock of chilled goodies at the halfway point.

team photo

Photo courtesy of Challenge Hub

Having been a runner and cyclist for many years Gillian was clearly in excellent shape with radiant complexion and obvious reserves of mental and physical strength, and to me, that’s the definition of beauty. A working mother of two, she is a role model for women everywhere as far as I can see; not in a “How does she do it all?” Sarah Jessica Parker sort of way, all ostentatious modesty and thinly veiled bullshit, but a clear example of how to balance the needs of a family with the needs of an individual – or rather, how fulfilling the needs of the individual can be crucial to the wellbeing of the family. And yet, she told me stories of her experience as a working mother and athlete which horrified me; being attacked by other (female) athletes for competing in races while pregnant, and then being ostracised by other new mothers for running to and from baby yoga to keep fit, all against a background of conflicting, often plainly erroneous medical advice. Why are we so terrified by the idea of new and expectant mothers indulging in exercise, especially when a sedentary lifestyle carries just as many hazards with a far higher likelihood? The horror stories did nothing for my faith in humanity, but bloody hell did they make the laps fly by. And they reaffirmed to me that truly extraordinary people are simply people who make the extraordinary ordinary.

And speaking of inspirational people, a Challenge Hub race wouldn’t be complete without Team Mum there to back me up. Lap races are a special kind of tough not least because every time you get to the end you have to start again, but having her there to push food into my hands, record my splits, make a general fuss and give me my lap end hug made it feel like I was simply starting a new race each time, without giving her a logistical headache. And as is customary, she did her Wonderwoman costume change for lap six and joined me and Gillian for the 6.6 mile loop, despite it being her furthest run since Brighton Marathon by a long way, and with a smile plastered to her face all the way round.

Well, most of the way round. Towards the end of the lap she started to flag, and with a mile to go I knew I had to push on while I still had the momentum in my legs. I didn’t want to leave her behind but I was still feeling too fresh to slow down and walk, and I knew that once I did my legs would turn to treacle. She was struggling, pausing for a break after every few steps, getting frustrated and resisting my attempts to keep moving. Asking her to keep up wasn’t fair, and having been on the other side I knew how crap it feels to be pushing just above your comfort pace on such a long run. Then again, I also know mum, because I know myself, and just like me I know that she can do anything she puts her mind to, but force her to do anything and it’s fuck you society. Lo and behold, when I reached the HQ a mile later she was less than half a minute behind me. Because mum can do anything she puts her mind to, and because fuck you society. I love her so much.

I had planned to give myself something to look forward to each lap after halfway for a little psychological boost. 5 was a change of shoes, 6 was mum pacing, 7 was a fresh vest, 8 I was hoping would be a reward in itself. Then I felt the dreaded bonk crash into me like a wave on Reculver beach, on the crossover between lap 7 and lap 8. For the first time I started to feel hotspots forming on my toes and had to change my socks to avoid blistering, but it was almost too late. Gillian was feeling strong and needed to carry on, but her brother in law kindly stayed behind to pace me for the final lap and off we plodded, watching Gillian and her husband put more and more distance between us. I was a little disappointed not to be able to keep up, but so happy to see Gillian with her game face on, going for the strong finish she deserved. I knew I couldn’t catch her now, and Emma was long gone, so I had to content myself with third lady and remember what I came here for in the first place. All I had to do was finish, and I would do it crawling if I had to.

It was a long lap, and a slow one. We chatted about football (he was a Leicester fan), and when I didn’t have the energy to run or even speak we trudged patiently on. Despite chat being the force that drove me through the first seven laps, his patient and quiet demeanour was probably the perfect company for that last six miles, when my energy had run out and all I wanted to do was finish. Finally we passed the windmill for the last time and rounded the corner to the farm, where the end of the lap fiendishly required runners to go past the exit and the shortcut to the barn, circumnavigate the outhouses and turn back to reach the checkpoint. I did this last little loop on my own, the better to enjoy the rush down the slope and crash into Team Mum’s arms at the end. I had done it. 53 – or something like it – miles in 10 hours 43 minutes.

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Emma – looking a bit hot but otherwise much the same as she did at the start – had clinched the first lady spot by miles, finishing in just over nine hours pretty much as I was coming in for my final lap. Gillian was about twenty minutes ahead of me, and she and her team were there waiting to cheer me in at the end. We hadn’t managed to stay together until the end, but we’d certainly kept each other going. Only thirty five runners finished any distance, and of those just twenty four completed all eight laps. Emma had her name engraved on the winners’ shield but as is customary in Challenge Hub challenges there’s no prize on offer, no difference between coming first or last. You’re all in it for the same reason. And I’ll be back there next year for the same reason.

I forget sometimes that what I’ve achieved over the last couple of years is actually a bit extraordinary. I think of myself as someone with reasonable standards, but I still take for granted the leaps and bounds I’ve made in my running career – in distance, speed and general fitness – since I was that chubby girl who couldn’t quite make a quarter of a mile without pausing for breath. That was four years and three stone ago. My overwhelming feeling as I crossed the finish line of the 50 Mile Challenge this year was not so much pride at finishing, but pleasure at feeling relatively strong at the end of it – maybe not like I could run another fifty miles straightaway, but at least not afraid of another hundred in three weeks time.  Maybe I got cocky. Maybe that was my downfall…

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Moonlight Challenge 2015 – round 2

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.