My favourite race of the year: full of cheerful marshals, friendly runners and thick thick mud….
I very seldom do the same race twice, mainly because I enjoy the challenge of something new, and it seems a bit pointless to put yourself through a tough experience if you have already done it once. The exception to this is the Moonlight Challenge, a 33 mile jaunt in mid-February that (as suggested by the name) is run in the dark and is goes over rough trail, concrete track, smelly farmyard, and cycle track. It invariably attracts some of the worst weather that flat marshland in winter can throw at you….gale force winds, horizontal torrential rain, freezing temperatures, thick gloopy mud, and on one memorable occasion, thick falling snow. It is one of those runs that people tend to return to year after year, because it is so unpleasant and illogical to be out running whilst being punished by the elements. It’s fantastic fun too. Each 6-and-a-bit mile lap has a couple of aid-stations, and consists of the first two miles of very rough trail, before settling down to decent track for the last 4 miles. Because it is run as a ‘personal challenge’ rather than a race, a lot of people take it quite gently, pausing in the warm after each lap and just enjoying the experience…this makes it for a pleasant, friendly atmosphere.
You may have already guessed I’m a bit of a fan…and I should say that I’ve got to know the organiser, Mike Inkster, quite well over the years, so you can expect this to be a thoroughly biased race report.
This year’s weather, unlike the previous years, was looking to be half-decent from the advance weather forecasts, with balmy temperatures (for February) of 10-12 degrees forecast, relatively low wind and no rain! Naturally, on the night itself we had horizontal rain & some very strong headwinds, but to be fair this was the best weather I’ve ever run the race in. I could tell you about last year (2015), when I spent some of the course running with one eye closed as the only place the wind & rain could get at me was the gap between my glasses and my eyes (my jacket hood was zipped up to above my nose) and as the wind was coming from my right hand side, the wind was whipping across my eyeball very painfully…so I closed the eye – genius! I could tell you about the year before that, which I think was the year it rained constantly through January and February, flooding the worse parts of the route to create a half-mile channel of liquefied mud that we traipsed through trying to stay on our feet (quite like this year actually!) Or the most memorable, year before that, when I remember sitting in my car before the start, with the car thermometer stating it was -10 degrees outside. That was the year that last couple of hours got really hairy with heavy snow that made any flat surface very slippery underfoot, and I nearly slid off the road on the way home. Happy times. Anyway, enough of the reminiscing…you get the idea. My race report from last year is HERE, so if you’re a real glutton for punishment, then have a look.
But back to this year…I had a bit of a busy day at work, so missed lunch, but managed to grab a Cornish pasty that I ate as I drove to Brook Farm at the start location. As usual, I take a perverse satisfaction in arriving in a shirt and tie, straight from work, while everyone else is Lycra’d-up. It was still just about light as I got my race number, a surprisingly chunky goody bag, and grabbed a strong coffee (the first of many). There were quite a few cars still arriving as I got changed in my car (note to self – get a bigger car or smaller legs if attempting to put on compression tights in the driver’s seat again). In fact there were enough cars to require some creative parking in amongst the farm buildings, which was nice (and slightly amusing) to see.
Once I’d got changed, I was able to grab another coffee and chat to a few people as we stood around in the warm barn waiting for the start. Pam (from my adventures on the Thames Trot a few weeks ago) was there with her husband, and Mark, another stalwart ultra-runner from the very excellent Thanet Roadrunners who I often run with.
I’d chosen to run in a fairly light-weight top, given that it was going to be warm, but also in thin water-proof jacket that would keep the worst of the wind off, as well as keeping me dry (there was a little drizzle going on). I had the same footwear as Thames Trot…three pair of socks (liner pair, padded pair and Sealskinz waterproof over the top)…and trail shoes with gaiters. I’d run the route earlier in the week to gauge the trail parts, and there was a rough 300-400 metre stretch at the start that was just thick mud with very few redeeming features. Although not a long stretch, it would make for an unpleasant time if the feet got muddy & wet at the start as they wouldn’t really dry out. As it happened, my feet survived unscathed, clean & blister-free.
Mike, the race director, gave a “sort-of” motivational speech at the start (“If you’re daft enough to be here, good luck…etc”) and advised everyone to take it easy on the initial stretch of mud, as it was particularly slippery and there was very little to be gained by running this treacherous part of the route. I’m massively pleased to say that when the time came to be sensible, I (and everyone else surrounding me) treated this with the contempt it deserved and ran, slipped, slid, squelched and fell through the mud to gain precious nano-seconds over our rivals. Good work!
After the pre-run pep-talk, Mike took us outside to demonstrate (as he does every year) how to throw common-sense aside by holding a lit firework in his hand to signal the start of the race. Usually the firework shoots out of Mikes hand, showering him with sparks and explodes a few seconds later high up in the air. This year, for some reason, it decided to shoot in a slightly horizontal trajectory, arching calmly over a nearby field to explode about 30 feet away, 7 feet from the ground, possibly scaring a field of rabbits to death (definitely reminiscent of something from World War 1).
We all set off, led expertly by a bloke with a pair of luminous trainers. He had been proudly showing them off before the start, and I have to say I was quite taken with them. I don’t really think the pictures do them justice, and I think the future of night running lies in luminous shoes. Frankly, why stop there? Why wear high-viz clothing, when you could be completely luminous? We could paint cars in luminous paint and get rid of street-lights. Or just paint the underside of planes in luminous paint, and save loads of electricity.
I was quite near the front at the start, for no particular reason other than I had been admiring someone’s luminous shoes, but over the mud we all thinned out quite a lot, as we all tried to work out the best way of running on it. At that stage, it wasn’t deep, but a very thin layer of squelchy mud on a reasonably solid surface. It was only when that top layer started to move sideways that trouble started as there was no grip. By the time everyone had done 5 laps over the mud, it resembled frogspawn, with a three inch layer of slime, on top of a squelchy base layer which allowed you to slip and slide everywhere.
I’ve seen a lot of unusual things when out running, including a Jacuzzi-boat and a (bloated) dead deer in a canal, but few things had made me smirk and smile quite as much as a sporty BMW in the middle of a field, in the dark, with a stream of unkind runners sliding past. I believe it belonged to one of the marshals, who slightly underestimated the treachery of the mud, and to be fair he did very well to get as far as he did before trying to turn round and getting properly stuck. I allowed my imagination to picture the marshal having to get out of his car in some expensive shoes and sinking deeply into smelly mud. I know he got the car out OK (more about that later) but I do hope he had a hosepipe at home to clean the car (and his shoes) off.
At the end of the stretch of mud, there were luckily a couple of unavoidable puddles that meant most of the mud was washed off before we tracked it halfway across Kent. I’m sure that I was three inches up in the air with the amount of earth and mud I had stacked up on the bottom of my shoes by the time I reached these puddles.
After the mud, everything seemed fairly tame as we crossed a train-line and did about another 1.5 miles of trail, including the Green Bank – a nicely elevated bank of overgrown earth that is carefully angled to get the worst of side-wind ever.
Mark and I were running together, and both agreed we had set off far too quickly, I think there were only about 5 or 6 people ahead of us (including Mr Lumo-shoes) as we came to the end of the Green Bank. We had quite a lot of catching up to do, as we regaled each other with stories of how well his training was going (Mark) and how I had taken to eating massive spaghetti bolognaise at 10 o’clock in the morning as a training tool (me).
By the time we reached Jelly Baby Junction (the main aid-station on the loop at about mile 3 & 5) we were both regretting our initial pace, but it was a lovely night for a run so (to be fair) it was very difficult to slow down! A quick hello to Sharon & Derek, who were getting ready to keep the constant stream of runners fed and watered, and we carried on. There was a light drizzle, but apart from a couple of stretches where the headwind was quite rough it was warm and pleasant.
By the end of the first lap, Mark and I had set the running world to rights, had run through the race plans for my forthcoming 100 miler and Mark’s Australian adventure (involving lots of stairs!), committed to some nameless future expedition or adventure race (perhaps Everest or something similar), and worked out some of the detail of Marks future coaching career. Phew! We had also not slowed down, going at a ballistic (for us) 9.45 minute per mile for the first lap.
The start/end of each lap consisted of going from the pitch black farmyard into a brightly lit, warm, barn and I’m sure I wasn’t the only runner to be blinking like an owl the first time I went in. I shouted my number (no-one was going to miscount any of my laps!) and then turned straight round to get back out there!
The start of lap 2 was suspiciously similar to lap 1…the mud was just as muddy, the car was still stuck, we were still going too quickly, the only difference was that we’d stopped talking as we were both knackered. After the Green Bank, Mark kindly suggested that I could carry on at the same suicidal pace if I wanted but he was going to slow himself down (without my bad influence around!) and so he gently dropped back. It was only when he’d gone that I realised my torch was not as strong as I thought, and in fact was very dim indeed – probably should have put some new batteries in it before setting off on a 6 hour run in the dark….d’oh! As a result, I spent a lot of time running with it switched off, in order that when I came to a difficult part I could switch it on and my darkness-adjusted eyes would think I had the Blackpool illuminations strapped to my head.
Luckily, at this point I was caught up with by Darren. He had a hat the same colour as the soles of his shoes. Very impressive colour-coordination. We chatted for quite a while, so I grew to learn quite a lot about Darren. Amongst other things, he’d only started running in the previous October (perhaps 5 months before) and had never run marathon…so it made very little sense to do his first in the roughest conditions he could find, across farmland in February. To be fair, he had some great history as a high–level cyclist, so was very fit but I thought it would be interesting to see how he coped with the mental stresses of pushing further than he had before.
We chatted for the last few miles of the second lap, and at the finish/start I shouted my number and grabbed my customary 12-mile bottle of fat coke and a Twix. I chugged the coke quickly, and having whooped at the girls marshalling the start of the mud, I got stuck in to the next lap! I had no idea how many people there were in front of me, but I had been watching a green flashing armband for some time in the far distance, and decided that I needed to push on and catch him up as it was getting annoying seeing it all the time but never catching him up.
Darren and I were followed from the start to the mud by a massive tractor, which trundled onto the muddy section to pull the BMW out, and forcing us to detour out into the field to get past it. I assume the tractor was successful, as next time round both tractor and BMW were gone, leaving some massive gouges through the mud.
Darren and I roughly ran together over most of this lap, where he would get ahead of me as we ran over the trail parts, while I huffed and puffed over the rough ground, but then fall back on the better surface as I kept a steady pace. I was still enjoying the night, and keeping up a surprising (for me) pace, but now some of this pace was due to Darren looking exceptionally strong and I certainly couldn’t let him get too far ahead of me, could I? In fact I think it was towards the end of this lap, going up a bit of a hill, that Darren said “It’s all getting a bit real now”, which is good ultra-talk for “Bloody hell, I’m in so much pain I could chew off both of my legs”. He was entering the mind-zone of knowing he’d run about 20 miles (not an inconsiderable distance) but also knowing he still had another 13 to go. And that would take a few more hours. And his legs wouldn’t feel any better in that time.
I’d like to say that, sensing his discomfort, I kicked up my heels and sped past him with a carefree laugh, but actually I got all a bit supportive and told him that he was looking really strong and namby-pamby stuff like that….very disappointing.
Onto lap 4, a bottle of water and another Twix to start, and a whoop to the marshals before the mud who were doing sterling work keeping warm and cheering the runners going past. Once the mud was past, Daren seemed to drop back quite a way (probably to get away from my incessant talking) and he was replaced by number 36. I suspect I could find his name out, but while we were chatting, and at the end, I was happy to call him number 36 (for that was his number) so that will do now.
We ran together for only 3 or 4 miles, but I learnt that number 36 also hadn’t run a marathon yet…what is with these people that choose an ultra, in the dark, over farmland, as their first long run?? It just shows how the ultra-madness is grabbing people early in their running ‘life’ now, rather than waiting until they are fat and old (and hungry) like me. Number 36 was doing amazingly well, as I think he said he’d never run 20 miles, but was starting to suffer a bit to be honest. I was still trotting along fine, my legs were aching but only what I used to, and my energy levels felt good. As with Darren, I was able to chat to number 36 about the mental side of running a long way, as he clearly had the legs to do it.
By the end of the fourth lap, about 26 miles, Darren reappeared from nowhere, and we ran into the barn together. I vividly remember thinking that I was OK (!) and was still running at a pace I wouldn’t have considered normally (somewhere rather better than 10 minutes per mile, on rough ground). The remaining single lap of 6 miles was going to be a bit of a victory lap, and I would push the pace as much as I could just to finish as tired out as possible. It didn’t turn out like that!
Because the drizzle seemed to have stopped, I took off the waterproof and left it behind, setting off slightly ahead of Darren and another runner that had joined him. We all slipped and slid through the mud, which was at its worst by now, but thankfully it was going to be the last time. It was horribly squelchy and pretty unpleasant to be honest. The couple of puddles at the end were much deeper than 5 hours previously, and it was too much trouble to do any fancy footwork except sploshing straight through them.
Just as we left the mud behind (for the last time, whoop whoop) Darren and his friend caught up, and the friend called out that he thought I was in second place.
Now……let’s just hesitate a second. Despite the fact that I was running quite quickly (for me), I had absolutely no idea who was in front or behind me due to the clever figure-of-8 course. There is always someone in front, someone behind and someone running in the opposite direction at the crossover. It’s very difficult to understand what position you are in, and to be blunt, it is very seldom (if ever) something I get fussed about as I’m normally somewhere near the middle or back. But hang on! Second! Fantastic!! When did that happen!!!
Even as these thoughts went through my mind, the friend gently eased past me and left me (and Darren) behind. I’d like to say I didn’t shout some stuff at him (in a good-natured way) about how mean it was to tell someone they are in second place, and then overtake them….but I did. I also told him he was looking tired and exhausted, but that didn’t stop him either. Bugger. If I’d thought of it, I’d have rugby tackled him to the ground and then Darren and I could have tied him up and beaten the shit out of him…but I didn’t. (But I will next time).
He disappeared into the distance, leaving me with fleeting memories of when I was once second in an ultra. That’s one to tell the grandchildren!
(Note to self…probably don’t share this many inner thoughts when writing a race report, people may take it the wrong way.)
So, there’s just me and Darren…running over the fields and onto the Green Bank. I’m guessing that we were both thinking that we had to keep up with the other person, to hold onto (joint) third, after second had been so cruelly snatched from our grasp.
Unfortunately, it was here that I caught up to Pam, who was at that point a full lap behind. She had started a bit late when, just before the start, her (how do I put this delicately…..) upper-body-ladies-running-apparatus had come undone, and she’d had to re-fasten it. (Hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning that).
Anyway, I made the crucial mistake of slowing down to have a chat with Pam, and to cut a long story short, when I looked up Darren had sped off into the distance and was long-gone. Dammit.
Never mind. I ran most of the last lap with Pam, chatting away, and had a quick catch-up (for the last time!) with Sharon and Derek who were still doing sterling work at Jelly Baby Junction, keeping everyone fed and watered.
I got to the finish about 4 minutes after Darren, in 5 hours and 46 minutes, which I was really pleased with. The winner finished in 5 hours 15 which was a great time considering the conditions. A medal and certificate, and I quickly put on a thick jumper and grabbed a cup of tea from the endless supply, and said well done to Darren. Shortly after me, number 36 came in, looking great (considering) and then there was a fairly constant stream of finishers every ten minutes or so. Thankfully the barn was being heated by a jet engine (see the picture below if you don’t believe me) so it was quite a pleasant environment to stand around in for a while. There was a decent range of food too, so I helped myself to some tasty home-made soup (which really hit the spot!) and even some Doritos….every race finish should supply Doritos!
Mark finished about 30 minutes later, looking as fresh as a daisy, and at that point I said my thank-yous and set off for home. The mud had dried onto my shoes quite successfully, so any that didn’t come off in my car would spray all over the carpet at home when I took my shoes off. But as I told my wife, that’s clearly what vacuum cleaners (and wives) were invented for.
Logic would suggest that I’d take the next day easy, but for some reason I decided to join my normal Sunday morning Thanet Roadrunners club run (after about 5 hours sleep). At the time it seemed like a fun way to ease my stiff legs, and the first few miles were OK. Unfortunately, by mile 8 I’d lost whatever motivation I’d started with and getting to 12 miles was thoroughly rubbish. An experience not to be repeated! Luckily, a monster roast dinner and some cheap red wine sorted me out later.
So, another year and another brilliant Moonlight Challenge. Better weather than usual, great organisation as usual, wonderful marshals as always…a great night for a run!
Thanks to Mike and all at Challenge Hub for putting on a cracking night, and especially to the marshals who stood in the cold spurring us runners on. Thanks to whoever owned the BMW for giving me a bit of a laugh….hope the mud came off OK. Thanks to Sharon and Derek for manning Jelly Baby Junction – definitely the best aid-station in the world. Not forgetting Gavin and Maria who manned a superb aid-station at Davis’s dyke (what I call the Green Bank).
Thanks to Mark and Pam for their excellent conversation at the start and at the end, and thanks to Darren and number 36 who put up with my wittering-on for ages. Good work guys! Looking forward to running with you in the future…did you know there is a 50 mile Challenge and (even better) a 24-hour Challenge in the summer??
And thanks & congratulations to you, reader, for making it this far! Unless you’ve skipped the boring parts and are just reading the last paragraph in case there is something interesting here….there isn’t. Sorry.