Moonlight Challenge – February 2015

There are a few runs/races in every runners calendar that for various reasons they would not miss. Not because they always PB, not because it’s easy, but most likely that it’s different / challenging / painful / long / filthy / slow / tasty. I’m pleased to say that for all those reasons (apart from tasty – I made that up) my ‘race of the year, every year’ is the Moonlight Challenge, held in Marshside, Kent. This year was the fifth time I’ve run it, and every year has stood out due to a different type of appalling weather that makes running 30ish miles over trails in the dark just a bit special (and difficult, challenging, painful, long, filthy and slow). I should probably say that I’m unashamedly biased about it, and know Mike the race director quite well, so don’t expect anything too rational!

This year we had gale force winds and horizontal rain for most of it. Last year was a tropical downpour (after a very wet January and February) that stopped just as the race started…which meant the trails (some concrete track running alongside fields, but mostly field-side trails) started off sticky and muddy, but later (after 60 people had tramped through them for 5 laps) that mud had turned into liquefied gloop, deceptively deep and very very slippery mud underneath. The year before was snow – we started as my car dashboard said it was -10 degrees, and after a while it was simply beautiful snow falling all night (I remember this well as I nearly slid off the road driving home). In 2012 it was just windy I think – hurricane force across the flat marshlands naturally, but nothing worse than that. I can’t remember 2011, my first year, but by a process of elimination it can only be a plague of locusts, scorching 60 degrees sunshine (unlikely, I think) or flood. Probably the last one.

Anyway, that’s enough history. Suffice to say that I like the race and its relaxed atmosphere, and as an added bonus it’s 2 miles from my house so I get to shower and get all the mud/snow/rain off me as soon as possible.

Right then, back to 2015. The race was later in February this year – usually it’s well planned to be around Valentine’s Day – but this year it was at the end of the month. The weather forecast was initially very nice, clear sky and no wind, but naturally as the night got closer it changed into gale force winds & rain. Personally, this was great news as I hadn’t had nearly enough practise running in the rain and wind this year, and as a special treat I bought myself some gaiters, fully expecting them to keep out the worst of nature (which they did to be fair).

This year would be run on a new course too, which would change things a bit. It’s not that I’d run the old 6m loop a lot, but as there are 50 mile & 24 hour races held on the same 6 mile circuit (that I’ve done) I suspect I could have run the old loop with my eyes closed.   I did the 24 hour race in 2011 (I think) and after 17 laps I was completely exhausted / happy / hallucinating / smelly, but by god I knew the route well.

I know some people will say they could never do a ‘loop race’ but it’s perfect for an ultra that you want to access your bag every 6 miles at race HQ as you know the weather will be changeable, get something to eat, or just warm up. I normally have to put a lot of preparation into doing an ultra, but I know I can just ruck-up to a loop race with a bag of food & kit and some trainers and I’m pretty much sorted. I suspect those struggling with the idea of running a loop for 6 hours go a bit quicker than me, and so are used to making better progress.

I got to the race HQ at about 5, straight from work. I take a perverse satisfaction in walking in to get my number in a shirt and tie, while everyone else is Lycra’d-up. A quick chat with Mike, the race director and I zoomed back to my car to investigate a surprisingly tasty goody bag and to do my superman-impression of changing from a mild-mannered office worker to a weird ultra-runner clad in skin-tight gear.

Transformation complete, I went back for coffee and then more coffee. There’s a great mix of people that normally do the Midnight Challenge, from some nutter last year who did it in about 4 hours (despite the mud) to the first-time-ultra runner, dipping their toe in the scene. Oh, yes, that’s another good reason for doing a race in loops…you can stop whenever you want without a DNF label round your neck and having to get a bus home. Quite a few people each year do 4 loops which is marathon distance, and still quite an achievement over the terrain.

This year there seemed to be fewer than usual doing it, I’m not sure whether the weather scared people off or there was another event that weekend that clashed, but I reckon about 40 people were at the start. I was going to run with a friend, Mark, who is capable of running all day at his ‘all-day’ pace, and then stopping….without apparently getting tired. Meanwhile, I flog along behind him, hoping he’ll slow down or even walk the next hill. On the positive side, he is a constant source of information and most of our runs together consist of me saying “Have you ever tried….” and Mark telling me about the time he has (for example) run an ultra, naked, being chased by bears.

The highlight of the start was Mike trying to set himself on fire at the same time as lighting a rocket to signify we were off. A combination of having to shield the flame from the strong wind/drizzle and holding a firework in order to light it, is a great recipe for third degree burns I suspect, but naturally Mike brushed off the smouldering sparks and we got on with the race.

I should probably point out that rather than being a race, all of the Marshside events are touted as personal challenges, which promotes the relaxed atmosphere and general friendliness of the events.   There is no ‘winner’, but rather the camaraderie of “we’re all nutters, but some faster nutters than others”. I like it.

Right, you’ve read this far, you deserve to be told about the running….So, we started running.

It was 6pm, so fully dark, and unlike previous years the moon was hidden by a thick bank of cloud. As usual, I had a fairly strong bout of torch-envy, with some lighthouse-type head-torches lighting the way for everyone else. I’m not bitter, but everytime I upgrade my head-torch (I’m on my third) I still find someone that has a better one than me. Yes, you’re right, I am bitter aren’t I.

The group spread out quite quickly, mainly due to the conditions underfoot (muddy, of course) and the variety of people taking part. Most people had started in waterproof tops of some type due to the drizzle, and the reflections could be seen for miles.

As usual, the first lap went quite well, chatting to Mark, feeling good.   After a long run alongside a railway, we had a mile of bumpy grass trail, on the edge of a field, before getting to a long raised bank that we ran along the top of, nicely exposing us to maximum wind & rain by being 6 foot higher than any shelter from trees or bushes. Magic. After that, a few twists and turns and then we joined a cycle path, leading us alongside a dual carriageway.

There were a few inclines (rather than hills) but nothing serious, until a bridge over the dual carriageway that had a steep incline on both sides (as you’d expect), and you went over it & returned on every lap. This shall be known as Tourettes Hill, as there was a prodigious amount of swearing going on either travelling up or down. Mark took on the annoying habit of aeroplaning down the hill (arms out like wings and going “Neeeooowwww”) just to annoy me with how good he was feeling.   On the positive side, there was well stocked aid station, the aptly named “Jelly-baby Junction” actually on the bridge, so despite a hard slog up, you could have a breather at the top and snaffle some food.   Coincidentally, Mark’s wife was actually manning Jelly-baby junction, so that meant I could stop & rest for even longer while he had a chat (phew!).

After the bridge was a 2 mile loop around an unbelievable smelly farm (manure-is-us) and then back to jelly-baby junction. Over the bridge, along another cycle path that was only muddy in the massive puddles that were unavoidable (and deep) and then through a couple of gates, up and down a hill or two, and then back to race HQ.

After the first lap I took off my waterproof top as the drizzle was light and actually quite refreshing, and had a bottle of coke. If there is a better drink than Coke for sugar, fizz, caffeine, and E-numbers then I have yet to find it…it’s like rocket fuel for me. Unfortunately it does nothing to hydrate me, and so I have to balance it with drinking water, but it’s still great.

Lap 2 was very like lap 1, not surprisingly, although the conditions and underfoot were tough. Having chatted pretty much the whole way, Mark & I noticed we’d stopped talking by about 9 miles – usually we can talk for 20 miles or more, so either we had nothing interesting to say or we were concentrating on not breaking a leg on the rough ground.

Lap 3 started to get a bit rough for me. My ongoing leg injury was stiffening up (first the knee, then the thigh, then the hip by the 4th lap) and the rain was back. Mark was chugging along, with me bringing up the rear usually, and I remember thinking that if the wind/rain got much worse the next laps were going to be grim. The ground that had started off soft was getting properly muddy, partially due to the continuing rain and partially with lots of feet tramping over it lap after lap.

I put on my waterproof at the start of the 4th lap, and had fun zipping the front of it right up to my nose. With the hood up, the only exposed bit of skin was from my nose up to my eyebrows, and wearing glasses I was protected from the worst of the wind. Or so I thought, until I realised that while running into the wind & rain was tough, it was a lot worse running along the top of the green bank with the wind and rain coming from the side. This meant that my glasses kindly funnelled the wind across my eyeballs. I actually ran the length of it with one eye closed as the pain of freezing cold rain on my eyeball was not pleasant.

The rain just kept coming through the 4th lap, and Mark just kept tugging me along. I’m sure I’d have been walking long before now if he hadn’t been there, and getting wet & cold at the same time (instead of just wet).

The positive news of the 5th and final lap was that it was the final lap, and I’d soon be finished, warm and dry. Each landmark & turn was checked off as “never have to see that again tonight, thanks god” and we were still going along at a decent clip. We caught up with another runner in a bright orange top, and chatted about other local runs, which the guy & Mark had done (and I’d heard about, which is better than nothing). A speedy push up the final hill to the finish, before all being polite and allowing each other to go through the entrance to the HQ first.

Usually at the end of ultras I’m not keen to sit around, knowing how stiff I’ll be when the endorphins and adrenaline has worn off, but I always make an exception at the Moonlight Challenge, as they produce a sort of soup/stew thing, that seems to be just what you need as you cool down.   It’s also good fun to try and sit down on a rickety picnic chair when your legs are in pieces.

So it was another memorable Moonlight, with some really tough conditions coupled with a new slightly tougher course. My Garmin showed 33.2 miles in the end, in about 6 hours 21, which is probably about right given the conditions. After a shabby month of running due to a buggered leg it was nice to do a decent distance, even if it hurt. Mark was a machine, as always, and just kept bloody running, meaning I had too as well.

Thanks, as always, to the volunteers for staying out in some awful conditions, and Mike for organising another brilliant run. Bring on next year!

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