Trailing the adventures of an ultra-marathon runner; Sheffield & the Peak District National Park, UK

Dark Skies Run

In my own stupidity I had signed up for the ‘Dark Skies Run’ 26.5 miles around the largest artificial lake in England – Kielder. No it was not flat, (nearly 2000ft of climb), no it was not just in daylight, no it was not a marathon, it was a 26.5 mile run around an undulating course partly in the dark. Hell why not, it was something different.

It is often the darkest skies that we see the brightest stars – Richard Evans

The distance of 26.5 miles appealed to me – not a marathon. Steve Cram wouldn’t allow it as he already has the Kielder Marathon in daylight and an Ultra or two takes place with another organisation. So the lovely guys at Trail Outlaws put on a 26.5 mile trail route mostly in the dark. A brilliant way to spend an Easter Weekend.

I was not taking it too seriously otherwise I would have tapered properly instead of running the 40 mile ‘Oldham Way Ultra‘ some 6 days before. I would have had some sort of training schedule, I would be planning my food properly rather than cram in pasta cupasoups, rice and delicious home made flapjacks with ample amounts of easter eggs thrown in for good measure. I would have drunk ample amounts of Beetroot, water and all the other things we are ‘supposed’ to do. Instead I was just being stupid to run in the dark for over a marathon. Stupid I say, stupid.

Be crazy but stupid be silly be weird be whatever. Because life is too short to be anything but happy.

The run was on the Saturday, starting at 5pm, I’d decided to go up on the Friday in order to relax on the Saturday. There were a few of us stopping over on the Friday, including a girl called Georgia who had cycled from Newcastle (50 miles) and was cycling back (hardcore), Di and Richard in their 60s who were doing the camper van thing but came in to say Hi, and Janet and Rachel who were from other ends of the country yet good friends. Awesome chat about races, runs and how we all loved trail running instead of road running made the evening go by very quickly amidst the chocolate eggs provided by the lovely race director ‘Tim’ whose accent I recognised from the Trail Outlaws podcasts that I so love listening to.

The accomodation was lovely for a scout camp, pine beds, microwave for my heated rice, kettle for tea, tea made by Tim, chocolate eggs, more tea, did I mention the chocolate eggs and tea. Helen is happy.

Happyiness is a cup of tea

pic-darkskiesshot The following day I learned how to be lazy. A lazy strung out breakfast, then finally I decided to make a move and drove down to a nice little tea shop with Di and Richard meeting Georgia who had cycled down on her bike (hardcore again). We drunk tea and chatted about all things running. Talking about how Marcus Scotney had seen the rear ends of all our bodies (don’t ask!) and how awesome some of the runners out there in the real world really were. Then back to the scout camp to relax, register and swap ‘bunk rooms’. We found we were all in the same room which was a nice touch along with two new girls. This was really really nice. The stopping over really made it a proper weekend. Never underestimate how much organisation goes into a race, seeing the Trail Outlaw guys organise everything down to the very last Jaffa Cake deserves more than a whole packet of Jaffa Cakes in my opinion. Spot on.

People began to arrive and I began to get a bit nervous. People chatting about the course, about their gear about everything and anything running. I decided to be little miss unsociable and go back to my bunk room to contemplate the forthcoming mission whilst packing my rucksack, unpacking, packing it again, getting nervous, eating too much of my race food which involved digesting a 9bar a McVities flapjack and lots of fudge whilst packing and unpacking it about 10 times over. How many pairs of gloves? How many buffs? To take an extra top or not? To take waterproof trousers or not? Whistle, food, 500ml of water, waterproof top, head torch and spare batteries were part of the compulsory kit, 3 buffs and 2 pairs of gloves was not, neither was the kitchen sink.

Being Nervous isn’t bad, it just means something important is happening

At 4.30pm all kitted up the heavens really opened, it was pouring it down. The heavy clouds weeping, sobbing, hammering the ground. Looking out of the window it looked like someone had taken the whole of Kielder water and dumped it in the sky and poured it all over the scout camp. Nice. We were going to get rather wet, wet wet. ‘Wishing I was lucky’? Hell yeah.

Supporting my new waterproof I ventured out with the other girls. I had not yet tried it out, this was going to be the test for it that’s for sure. It was time to brave this wetness as we made our way out into the race briefing area. I sheltered under a tree whilst the race directors gave us instructions – keep the water on your right, it was that simple. There were a few sections which could be tricky but it was mostly marked and most importantly enjoy yourselves!

pic-darkskiesstartAnd next minute 280 or so runners were pounding around a forested area in the pouring rain and mizzle. I could hardly see with the water lashing down, my hood up tight and all my gear glued to my back. We were running on the rocky woodlandy twisty trail for about a mile, this seemed quite a fast pace. I knew I had to settle in a bit. There was another girl running by the side of me with a yellow top on and we played overtaking each other quite a lot for the first 4 miles or so. She was much stronger on the downs me much stronger on the hills, but then I had to make a move so on the next hill I took forth and overtook her to stay ahead for the rest of the game.

At times the rain was brutal. It was grim, and already beginning to get dark. Certainty was dark skies but we weren’t going to see any stars tonight as the rainclouds were not budging.

If it rains you run, if it rains more you run even faster

pic-darkskiesrun5 miles in and the first checkpoint emerged out of nowhere. I didn’t stop as I had enough water and fuel to keep me going. A bit of a random inlet to ‘touch a wall’ and then back again – follow the runners in-front – easy. The front runners looked very strong as we passed them in the doubling back all drenched in the gorgeous rain.

The next few miles went really quickly as I ran up and down and round and round. The course path was all runnable, a few ‘hills’ here and there with magnificent rainy foggy views of Kielder spread out way way in front. I couldn’t tell where the end was, it felt like an endless mass of water which I was never to get around. Checkpoint 2 came up almost unexpectedly, and again I ran through it feeling still rather chirpy at this point. A couple of runners were ahead of me and one or two behind, I was happy in my own wet world and the coat was holding up rather well.

Bring on the dark

It was time for a bit of a bite to eat, what would the pockets bring me today? I fished out a mini snickers bar and within 2 large bites it had gone. Yum that was nice in the lashing rain. Onwards and sidewards I go.

Onwards and round, 5 miles to the ‘Dam Wall’ I saw an official Kielder wooden sign, only 5 miles, just 5 miles and I would be around 16 miles in. I must be around 11 miles by now I thought. A guy in-front I could just pick out in the dusk had stopped for a wee, I glanced round and ran past him, my watch beeped, I had a peek, yes 11 miles, and the time flashed up 1.24. That’s good going. At this rate I would be running a sub 4 and would be more than happy with that. Keep running girl keep running.

It was getting darker and darker, when would my eyes go loo laa, when would I need the headtorch? As I glanced around I could see runners behind me with the head torches on, maybe it was time to put mine on as I was struggling to avoid the puddles and stones. Be sensible girl be sensible, show the light.

Night was running ahead of itself – Jorge Amado

On went the head torch supported by my club buff, nice. The light shone brightly down and forward, a perfect beam for the next 15 or so miles. The woods were dark as the path meandered up and down and round. The course was certainty undulating, no flat bits but a great ride, up and down at all times. I overtook one guy who was walking a bit, running past saying hi. The rain was hitting hard still and my fingers were beginning to feel the cold. It was now pitch black. It was just me and my head torch.

In order for the light to shine so brightly the darkness must be present

15 miles in, the Dam Wall was approaching, fast but not fast enough. Just under 16 miles and I could see a cluster of lights, Dam Wall Checkpoint – I needed water as I peeled out my flasks from my rucksack and the kind marshals filled it up for me. I took a handful of jelly babies but refused the Jaffa cakes, I refused Jaffa cakes, what is the world coming to? I also got told at this stage of the game that I was ‘Second Lady’. Oh…

Running crazy in the dark

So let the dark race head go on. I had to keep this position, anything can happen in the last 10 miles or so of a Marathon, anything can happen in an Ultra, and this was a cross between a marathon and an Ultra so anything can happen in a mara-ultra. I found myself running across the Dam Wall in torrential rain, cheating by trying to use the guy next to me who had caught me up at the last checkpoint as a wind break. The brutal winds blowing us sideways, the slashing rain and bitter cold bit into my fingertips I just needed to get through this Dam Wall, a good half mile of concrete hell then I would be safe inside the dark dark woods.

Sometimes its not just about speed or miles its just therapy

At the end of the wall the pathway led back onto luxurious trails, bliss! So dark silent. The guy in-front made a move and shot off, as much as I would have liked to have kept up with him his pace was far to strong for me. So once again it was just me, the rain and the head torch plodding on through the windswept wetness and muddy puddles through thick forested ways. Beautiful. This was bliss in its own surreal way. Bliss in the rain and the dark – you sick runner you.

Nyctophilia – Love of darkness or night, finding relaxation or comfort in the darkness

Another checkpoint appeared rather quickly, I was still good for water and food so ran through it again and shouted as ‘second lady’. I glanced around to see if there was anyone behind me but it was literally just me and my head torch. The runner way in front but just sometimes I could catch a glimpse of his head torch but nothing more.

The pathway was marked here and there but there was still a need to be vigilant with looking out for the arrows and tape on the trees. My eyes were getting a bit blurry from all the rain and the rays of my head torch. My breathing was getting heavier as I smiled through the dark misty miles.

I lost myself somewhere in the darkness

I overtook a couple of guys who were plodding along nicely and lost all concept of miles. I was too wet to even contemplate looking at my watch and I couldn’t even hear the beeps of the miles ticking on by. Back out in an exposed area I felt my body drop, bonking, needed some energy and I had run out of snicker bars, time for a nasty gel before I dropped. What would the delights of my pockets produce this far in? Ohh Bakewell Tart Gel – excuse me if I may, and down it slid. The great thing about gels is that they do give you that little boost if you are feeling a bit bonked out, I don’t like to take them but they have their place sometimes and this was one of those places.

Of course I am out of my mind its dark and scary out there

Within a mile I had perked up and was back on track running well. The rain had finally stopped – hurrah and I could just see a glimmer of a star or two up in the dark skies. How wonderful. This made me smile, a lot. Oh beautiful dark skies.

No one in-front of me and no one behind, it was that simple, just me and the stars and a rather large lake. One way to run a marathon and a bit on Easter Saturday.

The Dark skies have electric fields

Round some more dark pine woods I ran, with a few footpaths veering off left right and centre. I took the centre one hoping it was the right one, assuming that if it wasn’t taped to go straight on. Luckily it was the right one and I ran straight into a caravan site to the next checkpoint and lots of clapping. ‘Second Woman’ they said again and ‘2 to go’. 2 miles to go I had to hold on to this I had to keep going. A guy caught me up and kindly held the gate open for me then went on his way. I thanked him and plodded on, just 2 miles to go, 2 miles that’s nothing. My body was tiring but it was focusing on the headlight and my feet which were now sliding being slightly muddy and in road shoes.

Those who fear the darkness have no idea what they can do

Before I could blink again I was across a little bridge through another gate and onto an inclined road, I began to recognise the road, the road into the scout camp, that seemed a very quick 2 miles, then I saw the trail outlaw flags, just up a bit more and round to the scout camp. I glanced around just in case anyone was going to come flying past me, dragged myself up the last hill and headed for the lights.

Tpic-darkskiesmehe finishing funnel had been decorated with gorgeous white lights either side of the driveway, brilliant what a brilliant finish funnel.

I got into the Scout Camp and looked around a bit dazed, where was the finish, oh inside the scout hut, go go go girl get inside and bang in I went, and snap the camera caught me as I was just about to switch off my head torch and stop my watch. Bang I had done it, ran 26.5 miles in the pouring rain, with a big chunk of it in the dark around Kielder.

Boom, 17th out of just under 250 finishers and 2nd lady. Another boom, how did that all happen? Did I really do it or was it just a dream? The winning time was just under 3 hrs and 15 minutes, the winning Lady’s time was around 3 hrs 36 minutes held by the women’s record holder of the West Highland Way. Way awesome running from everyone out there on a tough night, in the dark and in high winds and fun rain. Great fun if I may say so myself.

Normal people have no idea how beautiful running in darkness is

pic-darkskies1Runners began streaming in, one by one, two by two. I decided to get a shower before my bunk mates came in and get into some clean warm clothes. Presentations were done and I picked up a lovely engraved glass thingy. Back at bed base, the bunk accommodation also supported a nice social area so come 11pm all those that had finished the run were congregating into the social area drinking beers or tea (guess who that was?) handing out peanut butter cookies and homemade sandwiches, and some clever runners even set up a BBQ outside in the pouring rain. Come 1pm (or was that 2pm given the clocks were about to change?) we were still up chatting and drinking beer or tea (guess who that was?). What a fantastic ending to a brilliant event. Hats off to Trail Outlaws but only if it stops raining.

Photos Courtesy of Lee Nixon – view more photos from the run

Results

Position: 17th out of 246 finishers

Gender Position: 2nd Female (2nd FV40)

Time: 3.47.32

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