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.

MC2017 route

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 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.