50 Mile Challenge 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brighton Marathon 2014


As I prepared for my first ever marathon last spring, worrying about being able to finish, I got some words of support from Andy, the leader of the work running group. “Don’t worry Jaz. Distances are your thing. God bless you you’re not fast, but you can go long.”

It sounds like a backhanded compliment but I knew exactly what Andy meant. By this point I was one of the stalwarts of the group, running it when he wasn’t there and encouraging more and more newbies to join. But I was always at the back, and I was happy there. As long as I went at my own pace I believed I could carry on running forever, and Andy’s words carried me for miles.

Mum and I finished Edinburgh just inside the cut off point at 6 hours and 26 minutes – well within my capability, I suspected, but I promised mum I would run with her and I did. She loved the cheering, the live bands and the big city event atmosphere at the start and really struggled with the quieter stretches; miles of road flanked by woodland on one side and the sea on the other which I would have been happy to trot through and enjoy but which she found demoralising. Meanwhile I found the crowds distracting, piling on extra pressure and sometimes just plain annoying. I decided the low-key no-frills gigs were more my thing.

So when mum had to pull out of this year’s Brighton with a hip injury, I was suddenly faced with my first “proper” marathon – that is to say, my first time running a road marathon on my own at my own pace. And it was going to be in a big city event with cheering and live bands and crowds and pressure. It would have to be my thing now.

Whatever I thought a big city marathon meant, at the very least the experience would be invaluable. We’d made a couple of mistakes in our preparation for Edinburgh last year and we weren’t going to repeat them. The first big surprise – although probably only a surprise to a rookie like me – was that race numbers needed to be collected from the expo on the Friday or Saturday before, rather than being posted out. A bustling expo in the Brighton Centre, tightly packed stalls, queues and crowds everywhere? Not exactly my cup of tea.

As it turns out those folks at Brighton Marathon HQ do know what they’re doing. Once we’d got through the terrifyingly tight revolving door the expo was well laid out inside, with an army of sports masseurs on the lower ground and sponsors’ stalls upstairs. We’d been planning a surgical strike: get my race number, find my charity if they were there, and get the hell out of dodge. An hour and a half later, we were still darting excitedly between stalls and eventually came away with a box full of my favourite gels, a new gel belt and pouch (best investment EVER), a 5hr15 pacing band, early bird entry to next year’s marathon and unbridled enthusiasm. Ah, so THAT’s why they have marathon expos.

Having completely screwed up our pre-race preparation in Edinburgh by first missing the pasta dinner we’d booked, then making do with a greasy takeaway pizza long past bedtime, we made sure that we were comfortably nestled in a nearby Italian restaurant before five o’clock and in our hotel room by six. Another lesson learned from the year before, mum had booked us a room overlooking the finish line rather than nearer the start, meaning we had a gentle warm up walking the 2 miles to the start line and a 2 minute stagger home at the end, not the other way around. The Ritz it wasn’t – by which I mean our room had no surface other than beds, the bathroom was a cupboard with a shower in it and the floor sloped so badly I had to hang onto the dado to take my shoes off – but after the two hour bus back to the hotel post Edinburgh, I’d have taken a scabby mattress in a tip so long as it was near the finish. And besides, quirky hotels are half the fun of travelling to races. No clear floor surface? Do stretches on the bed then, much more comfy than the ground. Sloping floor? No need for those cushions to elevate my feet at night. And now I’ve got some great ideas about how to use that alcove space that doesn’t seem big enough for furniture.

Races are all about the mindset and I tried to set my mindset that Sunday morning to “This is really your first marathon. Enjoy it. Finish it. Find out what you can do.” Unfortunately that mindset was somewhat drowned out by an internal monologue of “THIS ISN’T LONDON – WHERE WILL YOU FIND SOME BREAKFAST. SCULL A COFFEE. OH NO THERE’S NO 3G. PAULA RADCLIFFE IS WATCHING, DON’T FALL OVER.” for the full two mile walk to the start line and my poor mother – who not content with the agony of giving birth to me has become my unthanked and unpaid support crew – suffered it all with a smile and a plaintive declaration that she loved me. So, another first. Starting a marathon without any form of food in me, under gloomy grey skies but resolutely wearing a redundant (and frankly, hindering) pair of sunglasses in the hope that no-one would see me weep.

I’ve said many times before that big crowds and occasions only serve to make me more nervous, and that I prefer the no-frills gigs. As exhilarating as it feels to be cheered literally every step of the way, I had to keep my earphones in – I think if I’d heard a single person call my name I’d have fallen apart. The first couple of miles constitute a loop back around Burgess Park where the race starts before turn south towards the coast, and even though we’d arranged not to see each other again until mile 14 I secretly hoped my mum would see me on the other side of the loop. God bless her there she was; tucked in among the journalists taking photos of the man with the tiger on his back (not a euphemism), excitedly screaming my name not a mile into twenty six, and I suddenly appreciated how heartbreaking it must be for her to watch me run when she couldn’t, and how gracelessly I would have behaved in the same situation. I kicked it up a gear.

Which, without wishing to sound even more graceless, eventually became my downfall. Planning to run a steady 12 minute per mile race, I was comfortably mooching around 10 minute miles right down to the first time I saw the coast and emboldened by my comfort, decided I would not walk until after the half marathon mark. Cocksure, but not clever, as strategies go; nonetheless, at the time I felt great. Although I’m no Mo, I’ve learnt that long distance running is really only a balance of physical and mental strength. If mental strength wasn’t a factor, I could happily plod along for hours until the job was done without worrying about going insane in the process. On the other hand, if my physical strength could hold out I could sprint all 26 miles and never suffer the internal voices pleading with me to give up and crumple in a heap with a jar of peanut butter. But endurance sports are so much more complex than that, and the desire to limit the time on my feet – not to mention my eagerness to see my support crew at mile 14 – overruled my pacing sensibilities and I foolishly kept up an unsustainable speed.

Brighton Marathon route map

The beautiful Sussex countryside was the one thing that slowed me down a bit; not just because of the incline, but because of the view of the lush green hills dovetailing gently into the coastline, the marina and the frothing English Channel. The course had been altered from previous years as I understand – this stage of the race apparently used to be far hillier but had been updated in favour of a flatter, faster route while still taking in the rural area and part of the village. This was my sort of race – too remote for the charity cheering points or for supporters not local to the area, it was peace and quiet and natural beauty, and it was joyful to run through. I briefly reflected on the Edinburgh Marathon of 11 months ago, and how this section would have been torture to my mum. I on the other hand barely checked my Garmin for distance or pace, enjoying the scenery. Which in hindsight probably contributed to my woefully optimistic pacing.

After turning the hairpin and coming back to the city centre I had to take a walk break at the twelve mile mark – not yet tired, but finally conceding that I’d pay for it later if I didn’t. And it was my last chance for rest before the CLIC Sargent cheer point where my long suffering mum had been joined by my partner Andy, and neither deserved to see me anything other than sunny. So when I saw them I took in a mini sprint, grinning from ear to ear and trying to hold back tears of joy as I saw them wielding pink and purple batons, and Andy immortalised the moment in a grainy iPhone picture of two heavy legs and a Cheshire Cat grin bounding towards them. Since Brighton I’ve often come across advice against employing friends and family as support crew because the economy of strength during marathons or endurance sports does not contribute to politeness or good relationships, but at the time I was so happy to see them I could have started the marathon all over again. I want to say I told them this; what I actually said was “IBUPROFEN IBUPROFEN IBUPROFEN.” And the lesson I learned not four miles on was: keep the damn ibuprofen on you. It’s too late at mile 25.

me at Brighton

Everyday’s a schoolday, and this was no different. My iPod playlist – so far something I can’t get more than a few miles without unless it’s a trail run or obstacle race – was a tried and trusted mix of pub rock and heavy metal classics on shuffle. I love this playlist, because it absolutely complements my running philosophy which is something akin to that of Phoebe from Friends: it’s only worth doing if you’re having fun, and who gives a shit how cool you look. Over two hours in though, I needed a little change from Ozzy Osbourne and James Hetfield, and switched to my running playlist full of upbeat pop songs (that is to say, the twelve songs I know from this century). Partway through the residential area and a mile or so before the switchback to the 18 mile point, which marked the onset of the ubiquitous Wall, I ran into trouble; literally. The Gods of shuffle threw up my Kryptonite, my sprint finish song: the DJ Fresh mix of Gold Dust by MS Dynamite. I can’t help but go all out when this song comes on, not least because the beat matches perfectly my cadence when sprinting and the tune is anthemic and exhilarating. I went for it.

Like I said, I’m never going to be fast, but running to this song makes me feel like I’m flying. I can run at a speed that actually causes wind turbulence, ruffles my hair and goes some way to cooling me down, instead of my usual pedestrian trot. I know I can’t sustain it, not even for the length of the song, but it gives me the feeling of being a proper racer just for a minute or two. The reality (I now understand) is that all I was doing was using up the last of my energy stores and leaving nothing for the last seven miles. And those last seven miles hit me like a ton of bricks.

Having built myself a comfortable twenty five minute cushion on my target pace for 5hr15, I allowed myself a little breathing space into mile 18 as we wended our way up a slight incline towards the power station and final switchback. Slight though the incline was, I could already feel tightness in my thighs and knew they would be shredded within a couple of miles. For once, the relative peace and quiet did not help – when all you have to look at is wasteland and both directions feel like they go uphill, any sense of joy is lost and there’s nothing to take your mind off the slog. I fell to pieces, and had to walk. I told myself over and over it was too long, too steep, too painful, I’d never make under five hours now. Everyone else was doing better than me and I should probably give up running altogether. But for a well-timed text message of support from my mentor at work, I was considering giving up and sitting on the kerbside to wait for gin.

The psychological turning point for me was when I stopped caring about my finish time. I hadn’t even realised I cared so much until then; particularly as I hadn’t set myself a goal time until the expo the day before where I picked up a 5hr15 pacing band because a) it was in my capability and b) it was a nice shiny silver. I knew with every walking step I was jeopardising that potential sub five hour finish – a time I had never even been aiming for and really shouldn’t have persuaded myself I could do – and when I finally accepted this fact, I stopped hurting quite so much. By this point I was twenty four miles in and running between the pretty shingles and the multicoloured beach huts. Suddenly there were people cheering again, and god bless them them all cheered like their lives depended on it. I was told to hurry up, no walking, I’m nearly there. I’m pretty sure I told more than one person to fuck off but a combination of obstinacy and pride refused to allow me to walk in front of them, despite the searing pain in my thigh muscles, and amid their irritating cheers I plugged on towards the seafront.

me at Brighton 2

At mile 25 I was planning to see my mum and the CLIC Sargent gang one last time, but my Garmin had run out of juice even before I had and I lost all sense of judgement for distance. What seemed like hours passed between the beach huts and my mum’s outstretched arms offering more ibuprofen, by which time it was far too late to be useful and I made do with a kiss and a promise to see her at the end. And I picked up the pace.

By this point I decided the quicker it was over and done with the better, and dug deep for the final mile. I can’t tell you how long it actually took me but it felt like 5 minutes compared with 15 for the mile previous, and I can’t pretend that had nothing to do with what remained of the crowds. What you get over five hours into a marathon, when faster runners have finished and their supporters gone home with them, is a small contingent of die hard nutters who cheer and scream as if they’re ten people each. These are good people, wonderful people, and if I believed in heaven they would be first in the queue. There’s nothing to be gained from cheering in a marathon apart from the knowledge that you’ve made a complete stranger’s day slightly more bearable, and I’d far rather run for 6 hours than cheer.

Despite the pain, the grumps and the desperate thirst (having lost my temper with the fiddly Iqoniq water pouches two water stations back) I couldn’t resist sprinting the final 400 yards. I don’t believe there’s any point running that far if you have anything left in the tank at the end, and finally Gold Dust came good. Squeezing inside my original target and beating my wristband, I crossed the line in 5:11:02. The song has since been removed from my running playlist and put in a playlist of its own, like a priceless jewel in a glass case. You don’t bring out the diamond tiara for a night down the Tiger’s Head, and I won’t play that song until the end of a run ever again.

My mum and Andy had been tracking me on the hip and groovy Brighton Marathon app; which, as long as you know a runner’s number, tells you at their chip time at each 5k checkpoint and uses this data to give an estimated finishing time. Apparently – and boy am I glad I didn’t know this at the time – I was on course for a 4:45 finish at the 30k checkpoint before hitting the wall, adding nearly a minute per mile to my average pace over the last 12k and skewing the estimated finish time so much my mum began to wonder if I really had given up and gone to find gin. The app is a fantastic idea and runs on technology already available at most large races; the only slight problem is that Brighton’s seafront is notoriously bad for mobile phone and data reception on a good day let alone when there are 30,000 people all trying to use it at once, and that having a hip and groovy GPS app to track people running around Brighton is like buying a plasma TV when you live in a tepee.

Unlike the previous year’s dash trying to find a taxi driver to bribe after two hours on a stationary bus, our journey back to the car from the CLIC Sargent finishers’ tent took all of five minutes including the time spent getting my mum and her dodgy hip up the steps from the promenade. I tease her, but despite injury and exhaustion she covered over a half marathon distance on foot herself that day and still managed to drive first us home to south west London then herself onto deepest darkest Kent. As I curled myself up in the back seat of her car, cradling my hip flask full of cherry brandy and feeling my muscles slowly seize, I thought just one thing: when’s the next one then?

Crowds and atmosphere may or may not be my thing. Speed may or may not be my thing. I know what is my thing though. Running.

Brighton Marathon medal

Moonlight Challenge


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

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

Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire


This time last year, my mother and I had been rejected for the London Marathon, and fearful that we wouldn’t be able to raise the minimum amount required for a charity place, decided instead to enter Edinburgh. Although mum had run London in 2000 (13 years younger and 5 stone lighter, as she reminded me regularly) it would be my first marathon and the longest distance I had run beyond a half.

We arranged regular weekly runs together, we calculated the miles we would need to cover, we looked up training plans and exercises and advice on form. We tried carb gels and energy drinks and protein bars and identified which ones made a difference and which ones inflicted us with Montezuma’s revenge. As we upped our running distances each week we tried all sorts of weird and wonderful kit until we found what we were most comfortable in (as it turns out two bras, two bumbags and a brand loyalty to Asics). And finally, having planned a run/walk strategy that we could both deal with, we plotted a 24 mile walk up and down the Thames path one sunny Sunday in May so we knew what it felt like just to cover the distance.

We forgot one thing. Any guesses?

The Thames path is my favourite running route for many reasons. It’s like a cross section of London, carrying you alternatively through both affluent and poor areas, historical sites and new developments, industrial concrete grey, warm fiery brick and fifty shades of vibrant green. Hugging the river’s edge is like having a Sherpa with you every step of the way; not one of those fishwife GPS trackers you get in cars that shout at you to U-turn, more like a St Bernards gently nudging you in the right direction when you’re too tired to care. Depending on where you pick it up from you can follow it as far as your feet will carry you, and yet never be far from public transport if that turns out not to be anywhere near home.

Our hike that day was due to start at Embankment, where we would track the Thames going west along the north bank all the way to Kew bridge, and then over the bridge to the south bank which we would follow back to Wandsworth and eventually home. Literally bouncing out of the station like a pair of joeys (to the surprise of some hipsters doing the walk of shame), we cheerfully zigzagged around the Houses of Parliament and the evergreen gardens of Chelsea and in no time found ourselves alongside the peaceful Fulham Palace Park. We were still pretty fresh, not to mention feeling smug about our healthy breakfasts and our energy bars, when my mum look wistfully across the water at an ice cream van parked outside the Star and Garter on the Putney side.

“I want a proper 99. Haven’t had one in years.”
Like the sort of white lie you tell a child to avoid a tantrum, I said something I didn’t really intend to honour. “If he’s still there on the way back we can get one.” I stopped short of raising the fact that would be in something like 18 miles time.

Next up was Hammersmith, a prime example of schizophrenic London. Only a few hundred yards inland you can find your standard rough looking estates, chicken shops and graffiti. The strip along the water’s edge however is like something out of a costume drama – all picturesque pubs and impeccably groomed bankside gardens. We planned which of the gingerbread houses we would buy when we won the lottery and where we would moor our modestly furnished longboat. And then we smelled food. Delicious, gastropubby, hot, nourishing food. And then we looked at our Powerbars, and realised they weren’t going to cut it.

Not yet being even halfway we didn’t exactly panic, but it was a bit of a dampener on our otherwise bright mood. Either the psychosomatic effect of the smell or the fact that we were actually getting hungry started to hit us, as the needle on our fuel gages brushed the red line. By the time we passed Chiswick Eyot and lost sight of a bridge in either direction, mum was flagging hard. The energy bars rationed for the whole journey were almost through, and I could tell her temper was shortening. To make matters worse, I had optimistically spotted Kew Bridge two bridges too early, meaning that after three times declaring us nearly there she was inclined not to believe me when we did reach it.

And as the path leading up to the main road and the bridge crept into view, so did something else. Probably the world’s most expensive sandwich shop.

I can’t say it was worth nearly ten quid for two sandwiches (handmade in a mere HALF HOUR and lovingly packaged in chic little origami parcels, which we immediately and unceremoniously tore off) but if you’d given me a scabby donkey wrapped in a poncho right then I wouldn’t even have stopped to ask for salsa. How did we forget food? After all the planning we had done – lists of accessories, hours agonising over whether to wear shorts or tights, hiding bottles of water all over our persons – how did we forget the only thing a person can’t run without: fuel?

I can take a stab at a couple of reasons for this – for starters both mum and I were still a little preoccupied with losing weight and somewhat foolishly were concerned with taking on too many calories, rather than concentrating on taking on enough. In worrying about overeating we had massively underestimated how many calories it takes just to walk that far. It’s not that we didn’t know that you need a lot of fuel to run, we just assumed that walking used a lot less. Lesson very much learned. The whole point of the walk was, after all, to find out what we would need to cover that distance; what we learned is that staying on your feet for that long requires fuel, even if you are only walking. I don’t know why even I assumed walking would take a small fraction of the calories required for running – just existing means a minimum of around 1300 calories each day for me. Fundamentally though, I don’t think either of us are at the stage of thinking of food as fuel. We started with what we liked and then chose the items most likely to help, not the other way round. Hence forgetting to take on some slow-burning carbs and mincing around with fashionable pods of glucose instead. What a pair of wallies.

And we still had 10 miles to go. As soon as the last bite of her tuna sandwich was gone my mum’s mood picked right back up and even the prospect of another 3 hours of walking didn’t immediately dispirit her. We were going back the way we came on the south side of the river now now though, even less populated than the north, and being overtaken by the same dog running rings around us put her a bit on edge. I had the Runkeeper app going on my iPhone, tracking our route and pace, and I could see our mile timings were getting slower and slower. I know from experience that when your feet start to weigh heavy is when you need to get a bloody move on to avoid the psychological wall, and that the longer spent on one’s feet is less time spent relaxing them, but in seeing how far we’d come on the other side of the river mum was struggling with the constant reminder of the distance left and we slowed. To make matters worse, what should have been a wonderful inspiring view became endless miles of GREEN GREEN AND MORE GREEN. Almost every day I marvel how lucky I am to live in a city and still be surrounded by nature. NOT TODAY.

When that bloody dog finally scampered off ahead – not sure if I was more pleased it was gone or annoyed that it had overtaken us – we were almost as far as the first of the rowing clubs that populate the south side, and finding a dry concrete bank used by the rowers to drag their vessels to the water, we decided to rest for ten minutes. By this time every little niggle was a nightmare, and mum had to switch to my spare pair of socks to alleviate the pain of a blistered heel while I basically bathed in Tiger Balm and stretched. The break seemed like a failure to keep up the pace at the time, but in retrospect we should have planned one much earlier and restored our energy instead of plodding on at a soul destroying speed.

Only a couple more miles to Putney, I thought, if that. If we push on we’ll be back in Wandsworth and turning into Garrett Lane in time for dinner. My optimism did not help mum. I was told to shut up.

So, we hadn’t planned our fuel properly, or our rests. Rookie errors. We’ve learned a lot about intake of carbs and effort levels since then, and if there’s a running magazine or training plan we haven’t read between us in the last year, I wanna know about it. But what we stumbled upon next was something I can’t ever imagine Runners World recommending.

Approaching Putney Bridge the pubs became more frequent and the ducks less so. The path widened to a pavement which became a road, and on that road was parked… the ice cream van. I’m telling you now – however much fuel your body needs your soul wants its fair share too. Like a pair of Enid Blyton characters we skipped up to the window and ordered two 99s covered in red syrup with two Flakes in each. I can’t speak for the nutritional value of a double Flake 99 but I can confidently speak for the morale boost (not to mention rediscovered sense of humour) it gave us on our final three miles home. Of course we had deserved it, but I don’t subscribe to the carrot and stick approach to exercise because it’s a system too easily duped, so I didn’t see it as a reward. Fairly obviously, it was no longer a fuel issue either, unless the E numbers in the optimistically named “raspberry syrup” are some kind of superfood. I saw it as a symbol of pure childish joy, the thing that makes me enjoy a sport I am so totally uncompetitive at. I run so I feel like I’m 4 again. I run so I can still tear about with boundless energy, like I did when I didn’t care about grownup things and wasn’t afraid of zombies. I run just because I can.

All I remember of the rest of the trip was openly and hysterically giggling at a man in tight stonewashed jeans pulled up so high he had a full-on camel toe. 29 and 55 years old respectively, and that amused us for a good forty-five minutes. For all our diligence and earnest, the camel toe and the ice cream are what we always talk about when we talk about that walk. I checked the estimated calories spent when we got home – 2,316 according to my Runkeeper, set to my height and weight. 150% of the calories I usually use in a whole day spent in one walk. No wonder we were so crotchety until we got that sandwich and ice-cream. I introduce you, dear readers, to the definition of the word hangry.

So what did we learn? What we knew all along – that in life, a person needs food, water, and a little bit of joy.