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.

Moonlight Challenge 2015 3

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.

Moonlight Challenge 2015 2

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.

50 Mile Challenge 2014

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Almost as soon as I’d yanked off my running shoes at the end of the Brighton Marathon this year, I was looking up my next race. There wasn’t much point in looking around though. I already knew which one I wanted to tackle next.

Back in February I had entered the Moonlight Challenge, a race of up to five laps each measuring a quarter of a marathon, on a farm in Kent, in the middle of the night. Race is a misnomer actually; it’s called a challenge, because that’s exactly what it is. Finishers get a medal and a certificate regardless of the distance they complete, and there’s no award for coming first. I had both massively underestimated and missed the point of the challenge at the time, entering it in the hope of finishing my first ultramarathon before my 30th birthday in March but being forced to call it a day after the fourth muddy lap took the last scrap of energy out of my tired legs. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks after that I began to appreciate this fantastic event for what it was, and to stop measuring success by dates and times. I had any number of excuses handy for why I hadn’t finished the fifth lap, but they never gave me anywhere near as much freedom as just getting on with it would have done.

So here I was again in the middle of July, with a double or quits challenge to complete eight laps this time. The 50 Mile Challenge is actually a double marathon or 52.4 miles, with a very generous thirteen and a half hours cutoff point for the final lap, and is run on the same course starting at 6am instead of 6pm. As usual, I had barely done any training thanks to work commitments – both a full time job and a freelance project that nearly killed me – and the day before travelling to the race I would be flying back from a holiday in Menorca and hoping that there weren’t any Icelandic volcanoes planning a surprise eruption. Details, details.

Team Mum and I stayed in a Travelodge a twenty minute drive away and test drove the route to the starting line the day before so that I could pick up my race number. Good job too – driving there just five months beforehand did not prevent us from getting lost again and nearly throwing the satnav out of the window. Nor, unfortunately, did it mean we made it on time the next morning for the 5:45am briefing. In fact, we drove up just in time to see the rocket set off for the start at 6am, me in the wrong shoes and still changing them as the other runners set off. All captured for posterity on the DVD of the event, including a soundbite of legendary organiser Mike Inkster telling me not to look so scared. Not an auspicious start.

In a funny sort of way though it was the perfect start. I’ve said before the reason I love these sorts of events is the lack of fanfare and buildup, and to all intents and purposes I could have been setting off on a Sunday training run, except I was in a farm in Kent – and I keep saying Kent and not being more specific because I still don’t know where exactly in Kent we were. So off we plodded, me more ploddy than most as I spent two full minutes trying to get signal on my Garmin to record the first lap. Even the bloody Garmin didn’t know where we were.

The course was exactly the same as it was back in February, with the one distinct difference that it wasn’t a bog. Nonetheless prepared for the worst and wary of weather reports forecasting a storm, I had my new trail shoes on – last time I’d learned the hard way that the only way to get a foothold in the boggiest parts was with some sort of foot armour. It was a risky move as I had only run in them once, for just half an hour, but I had my foam soled Gel-Lyte 33s on standby in case the bog never appeared. The trail shoes were stiffer and heavier than I was used to, but while I was taking it easy in the early laps they handled the terrain just fine.

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I remembered how I’d kept my head down last time missing out on both the scenery and the social interaction, and how utterly miserable it had made me. This time I made sure I left out the earphones for a bit and chatted to some of the other runners, and immediately the decision paid off. The first two laps passed in no time at all, thanks to the marvellous Gil: a veteran member of the 100 Marathon Club approaching his six hundredth marathon or ultra distance. We talked about all sorts – tips on quick but nourishing meals (particularly ones you can do in one pan), the best websites for shoes, the best events, the best books. His attitude absolutely changed me; I told him about my experience in February and how I’d like to have gone quicker in Brighton, and he told me that negative experiences are just opportunities to learn, and the most important thing is to enjoy it. It’s really all about joy.

We finished the first half marathon at a steady, almost metronomic pace, under perfect running conditions – warm but breezy, cloudy but not too muggy. Mum had been planning to walk one of the laps with me, so she joined me for the third lap when I could slow down a bit to preserve energy for later. We kept up with Gil’s metronomic pace for a while but eventually let him take off while we enjoyed the scenery.

Soon enough though it became obvious I’d hung onto the trail shoes for a lap too many. With the weather showing no signs of the storm that had been forecast and the ground only getting harder, I could feel blisters forming all over my toes and became desperate to get back to base to change. It was too much for mum though, still injured and not yet able to walk so far without a break, and although she patiently and stoically put up with my impatient grumbling about getting back I could tell she was in pain too. Eventually I had to take the damn things off altogether and do the last mile in just my socks. The rough gravel burned the soles of my feet for a bit, and the chronic pain of blisters rubbing became the acute pain of stones cutting into my skin, but I actually found this much easier to deal with. Plus, running without shoes was surprisingly liberating and had an immediate effect on my posture. Not sure if a cross country run was the best time to try barefoot running though.

Finally back to base my mum collapsed into the car, I quickly changed into my lightweight shoes and petulantly tore off the waterproof jacket that had been tied around my waist so far, annoying me. My muscles were cooling down and I was eager to get out and run again, so I barely even took the time to eat a Nutrigrain bar before shooting off. Back along the road I shot, hoping to get the pistons firing and make up lost time. Guess what happened next?

It turns out that wicking fabric is great for removing moisture from the body, but it has a saturation point. My shorts found their saturation point about two hundred yards into the next lap, when no sooner had I taken off my waterproof shoes and jacket the storm clouds finally made good on their promise and it started bucketing down. I weighed up whether or not to go back for my jacket, but I figured I was already wet anyway, and going backwards not halfway into the challenge would psychologically crush me. Still though, this wasn’t rain. This was Noah’s Ark territory. And with the ground unable to drink it up quickly enough, ankle deep standing water was everywhere within minutes.

I remembered how badly I reacted to the mud and waterlogging the last time and felt much more zen about it this time. There was bugger all I could do about it, and at least it washed the salt from my skin. I kept my pace up to avoid getting a chill, although half an hour later it was still pouring down with no sign of letting up. On top of this, I was wearing low rising sock liners instead of ankle socks so every bit of grit and mud was getting right inside them, causing more friction on my burgeoning blisters. Now I understood why Mike always wears gaiters. They went straight on the shopping list for next time.

It wasn’t all gloom though – for the first time, I realised how much I had developed as a runner mentally, rather than physically. The old Jaz was sobbing and shouting obscenities about mud and bemoaning a lack of preparation; the new Jaz was taking it on the chin and enjoying the cool water, laughing about the conditions with the other runners and the marshals, recognising that it would eventually let up and even if it didn’t it wouldn’t matter. I think that’s my own manifestation of the wall – the feeling that it’s always going to be this bad forever and ever and why bother. Experience teaches you actually it won’t always be this bad, and you’ll feel like a bit of a dick later for having moaned so much. I thought about Gil’s words of wisdom, hoped that I would bump into him again and plugged on.

At this stage I did crack out the iPod Shuffle, which I’d loaded with an audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. It turned out to be the perfect choice: romantic tales of vagabonds crossing America with nothing but a canvas kit bag and a brass neck, of sunshine and heat and dust and haze. I can see why it inspired legendary ultra runner Jenn Shelton and it carried me through laps four and five.

Eventually the rain did let up, and almost as if it had never come at all the clouds parted to reveal beaming sun to dry me off; even my cotton vest which was so saturated I could have wrung about a pint of water out of it. I got back to base after lap four to find my mum fully recovered and back to her bubbly self, having made friends with the wife and daughters of another runner. She’d also had a costume change into pink trousers and glittery flipflops and they’d set up chairs, tables and refreshments under a gazebo like a makeshift living room. What a bloody legend.

At this pit stop I cleaned and powdered my feet and changed into fresh (ankle high) socks – not much I could do about my trainers still being damp, but it was better than nothing and immediately put a spring back in my step. I also changed into my QPR shirt and took the waterproof out with me this time. Not taking chances again.

Although my mental strength was holding out, my body had started to creak by the fifth lap and I had to take a few breaks to stretch my hamstrings and hips. It was definitely half and half running and walking now. To quote Zapp Brannigan, the spirit is willing but the flesh is spongy and bruised.

Every now and again though I would bump into Mike Inkster running the other way round the course, checking up on the competitors and offering words of support. Mike is absolutely key to the spirit of the challenge, taking care as he does to get to know the runners and their own personal challenges so you feel like you’re always being looked after. I was gutted to hear this is his last challenge; logistical problems and sheer exhaustion after running them for fourteen years mean he can’t do it any more. There is a rumour that it may be taken on by the Thanet Road Runners who also man Jellybaby Corner, but for the moment I had to decide whether or not I could afford not to try the full fifty miles if it did turn out to be the last one.

Lap five was tough – I was glowing with the thought of finally being an ultra runner but my muscles were packing up. The team at Jellybaby corner were egging me on to finish all eight laps but as I rounded off the fifth I knew I’d need a bit of a rest before considering the sixth. Still though, I had always told myself six would be the minimum and so after 15 minutes in mum’s temporary lounge to eat a banana and put my feet up I made for the start again. Mike always says that when you think you’ve had enough you always have one more lap in you, and as usual he’s not wrong.

As she did back in February, mum came out with me for the first couple of hundred yards of the last lap. I almost persuaded her to do the whole thing, but she was still recovering from the effects of lap three and thinking about a three hour drive home via my house afterwards, so she let me go at the entrance to the farm.

I to’d and fro’d about whether I should try for the full distance, but just over halfway through lap six I knew this would have to be my last. It took me an hour and 40 minutes to complete 6.55 miles on the last lap – and that includes running the last three miles when I knew I was nearly home and that with a bit of effort I could get in under ten hours. A little bit of good natured heckling from the team at Jellybaby Corner – whose good humour and boundless patience became a highlight to look forward to each lap – set me off for the final mile and a half stretch on road. I didn’t have my Garmin on GPS mode, just timer, as I knew the battery wouldn’t last otherwise, but a few mental calculations helped me keep my pace steady and I finally sprinted through the finishing area at 9 hours and 58 minutes.

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A little part of me still thought about finishing the last two laps, even if I crawled them, but by then I knew that I’d come here to do what I needed to and I couldn’t make my mum hang around for another 3 and a half hours. I got my certificate and medal from the support team, cheered in a few more finishers, and collapsed into the front seat of mum’s little Corsa.

I’d finally done it. I was an ultramarathoner. But this was in no way the end of the challenge for me – all it did was unlock the door to a world I really belong to. Apart from when I got my 10k PB three years ago (which I’ve barely come near since) I’ve never got quite so much joy out of running as I do ultra running. Just to know the experience of the run is half the achievement, that nobody cares what time you do or when you place as long as you’re happy, that if you fell you would always be picked up again: all this convinced me that this is what I was designed to do. So my hamstrings and creaky knees had better get used to it.

Moonlight Challenge

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“Two things must ye know about the Wise Woman. First, she is a woman. Second, she is-”
“Wise?”

I’ll leave you to work out the two main things you need to know about the Moonlight Challenge. The date is fixed each year as close as possible to a full moon, and this year it certainly didn’t disappoint; for some stretches of the route the moon was so bright I didn’t even need my head torch. And if you find the course anything less than a challenge you’re probably one of those people who thinks of a military assault course as a gentle warm up.

The race started at 6pm and the challenge was to complete as many of the 5 laps as you could handle, as long as you started your final lap by 1am. The course is a 6.55 mile – or to put it another way, a quarter marathon – hourglass shaped route around Chislet Marsh run partly on road, partly on farm tracks and occasionally directly through fields. I knew it was going to be a tough course, and an email on the Thursday from the organiser Mike Inkster reported that the course was “Somme-ish” thanks to recent flooding in the area. Not an exaggeration, it turns out. On a weekend where the political leaders of Britain found themselves standing around like one o’clock half struck wearing brand new wellies and pointing at floodwater, it did cross my mind that the race could be postponed; although that was largely because my mum asked me if I was sure it was going ahead about five times during the two hour drive down through relentless storms and hailstones. And then the first runner we met was wearing waders over trail shoes. My poor road shoes suddenly did not seem like such a good idea.

MC marquee

But sure enough, half an hour before kickoff, the skies cleared and made way for an absolutely stunning night to run through. A field of just 65 runners, and probably half as many again in supporters, organisers, volunteers and film crew, huddled together at the start/finish point at dusk on a Saturday evening, settling in for up to 8 hours out in the Kent countryside. The “base camp” consisted of two portaloos, a caravan for the film crew, a van full of food and support supplies and one marquee (“the other marquee blew away”) – not glamorous, but a perfect balance of necessary and concise. Considering the complexity of the challenge it is brilliantly organised by the ever-present and stoic Mike; the base camp, through which each runner has to pass on each lap and register their progress, has heaters and lamps and a stove keeping warm a huge cauldron of soup, and the route is punctuated by 5 or 6 separate stations variously offering direction, water, hot drinks, sandwiches, biscuits and jelly babies and raucous cheering. Bearing in mind that the route is only a little more than 10k long, that is excellent value for the £45 entry fee.

It’s very much my cup of tea, this sort of race – no frills, no corporate banners, no loudhailers, just a bunch of good natured lunatics trying to challenge themselves – but it won’t be everyone’s. You don’t get the adrenalin rush of a crowd cheering you on or the thumping bassline from a Ministry of Sound ‘running trax’ compilation. Neither is it really a testosterone pumping obstacle course like a Tough Mudder or a Hell Run; the course is what it is, not cultivated for pitfalls or demonic terrain. You are literally running through a farm in Kent, in the middle of the night, in February. That’s it.

Moonlight Challenge map

The course sets off along a road for a few hundred yards, then turns abruptly right to first of the farmland stretches forming the crossover between the two loops which is run twice on each lap, going in both directions. This section was very unstable underfoot, more like skidding or skating than running, and it wore me down so much simply knowing I’d have to do it twice on each lap; the first time I really understood that the challenge is more in your head than your feet. In the first two laps when I had the energy it was actually easier to run it as fast as possible and therefore limit my contact with the ground than to slow down and trudge through it; by lap 3 I had no choice but to slide through, hanging off the branches of overhanging trees to avoid going on my arse. I couldn’t help but feel a bit stupid for all the bitching and moaning I did over a hundred yards of slightly muddy field in January’s Bromley 10k.

Turning sharp right, the next area was straight up flooded and impossible to get through without being ankle deep in water. I actually didn’t mind this so much, as at least the ground underneath was much firmer and eventually dried out. For about a mile I was in and out of tree cover, between pitch darkness and bright moonlight, and I found myself able to completely switch off in this section and listen to my iPod, until the last lap when my audiobook ran out and I realised quite what I had been missing by not taking in my surroundings. A race like this is not run for PBs or competition or glory. Nobody cares what time you do. At that point I was glad I had more than one chance to look around – I’d never be able to remember it now otherwise.

The next stretch is a paved track running alongside the dual carriageway and therefore lit by the spill of the sodium lamps. Other than the stretch of road that brought me back to base it was the fastest stretch on the route for me, but as much of a relief as it was on my limbs it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable bit; I felt a bit fraudulent running beneath streetlamps on a moonlight run. It was, however, manned by a single volunteer with a trestle table and some hot drinks, perfectly timed for those emerging from the woods. I think I thanked that man just for being there every time I passed but I don’t think he heard.

Turning left off the road, the route takes you back into the farmland and straight back into unstable bog. Again, I found that keeping my pace up on the first couple of laps helped hugely, but I’m ashamed to say I gave up a bit after that and just walked it. On top of everything, the track here was wide open and a strong crosswind teamed up with the slush underfoot to make for a very wobbly group of runners. Back in with the iPod. Always forward. And forward takes you straight back to the crossover, which only got muddier, wobblier and skiddier as the 65 runners pounded it over and over again. I think by the third lap I was actually crying at this point.

After this I know there’s another mile of farmland and mud, and I only vaguely remember flashes of it, although I remember it being easily as bad as the crossover. But for some reason, it didn’t feel quite so apocalyptic. It could be because I knew I only had to do it once a lap, that there was solid ground and roads at the end of it, that I didn’t see anyone else successfully run through it for very long, I don’t know. I suspect it helped that unlike the crossover, this section had far fewer trees and much more clear sky, making it less claustrophobic than the previous stretch. All I know is that when it finally turned into road, I saw a gazebo with no fewer than 5 people huddled around it at any one point, stocked like a kiosk on match day. I can’t say I appreciated their good humour or cheering at the time but I will never cease to be amazed by good people like these who give up their evening to stand around in the cold for hours. I would rather do this race twice over than marshal it.

At this point it was all road on the way back to base camp. Up until about midnight the route here takes you through a beautiful country village and past a pub, which for some people is a carrot and for others is a stick. Some supporters choose to wait outside the but I would only recommend that if your runner is either not planning to run all five laps or is Superman – it’s a deceptively long walk back to base when it’s closed and for the first time there’s an actual hill. But it’s impossible not to sprint this bit, even underestimating the amount of time before to check in again, and that’s because you run the best part of half a mile with the moon on your left, guiding you back to base.

At the end of the third lap I was in pieces. Unable to eat but clearly lacking energy, unable to swallow but needing water, unable to do anything to make my trainers more comfortable because they were so heavily caked in mud, I stumbled into the check in area where my mum was waiting for me and sobbed “THERE’S JUST SO MUCH FUCKING MUD!” – not my proudest moment, but all caught on camera and available on DVD. I’m not proud to admit it but it was the mud that did for me. The distance doesn’t scare me; the evening start suited me perfectly since that’s when I mostly run anyway; and the only preparation I’d do differently is to get proper trail shoes next time. It was exactly what I thought it would be – a mental challenge, not a physical one. Bless my mum, she walked me out onto the fourth lap as far as she could safely go without a torch – she literally put me back on track again – and for a couple of miles I convinced myself I could finish it. But by the time I’d reached the crosswinds again, I knew I couldn’t manage a fifth lap. I put everything into a sprint finish, and finally got my certificate with a time of 6 hours 45 minutes for 26.2 miles.

MC finish

I had gone into this race intending to finish all five laps because the goal I had set myself was to finish an ultra before my birthday. It was the wrong thing to do. Had I done my research properly I’d have known that it wasn’t that sort of challenge – runners are openly encouraged to do as much as they can and their distance is recorded as well as their time, so there is no such thing as not finishing. So I came away disappointed that I hadn’t completed my challenge, that I’d only managed a marathon, that the time was abysmal. I came away convincing myself I’m a wimp for letting mud get the better of me again. I sulked for the full 2 hour drive home.

The reason I’m writing this three weeks after I ran it is because it took me three weeks to fully appreciate the Moonlight Challenge for what it is. It’s not a race. It’s a challenge, and it’s in moonlight, and that’s about the long and the short of it. Quite apart from anything else, staying on your feet for nearly 7 hours is a feat in itself. Even my Garmin gave up after 6 hours, hence the finish point registering as halfway round the course. Now I know when I run this next year I’m not competing against the distance or the time or the other runners. I’m just trying to see how far I will get. And I’m definitely running it again next year.

MC certificate and medal