Having completed the Hardmoors 50 the previous Saturday, and just about regained movement and feeling in my legs by the Wednesday on Saturday the 23rd of March I found myself on the start line of the Trail Outlaws Dark Skies 26.5 @ Kielder.
In contrast to last weeks storm Hannah, the weather at Kielder looked good, and there were mutterings of the Northern Lights making an appearance around 9 pm. It was looking promising to be a great night for some star gazing, plus a little 26.5-mile run.
In 2017 I had completed this event as my first ever Marathon. Having entered 2016’s event and broken my foot three weeks before. Back then (for the 2016 event) a storm had hit and I was actually pleased to be injured. The 2017 event provided clear skies and fantastic star gazing opportunities but sadly I didn’t make the most of them. This was my first marathon and I wanted to push hard to prove I could do it.
2019’s event was to be a different experience altogether. No pressure, just go out and enjoy it; taking in the ‘dark skies’.
The route itself runs in a clockwise direction around the perimeter of the Kielder Reservoir, which is, strangely enough, 26 miles (it’s like they planned the reservoir around a marathon route!). Starting out at the Hawkshead Scout Centre a quick loop around the grounds allows the field to thin out from the mass start and the fast lads (and lasses) can fight their way to the front. We were doing no such thing and started out at a comfortable pace, although this was somewhat faster than I had planned in my head. I say ‘We’ because I was joined on the start line by my better half Jill, Dave Toth, Crook AC’s Bill Ford and Sunderland Harrier Tony Erskine. Fellow Striders Eric Green and Club Chair Jonathan Hamill were with us on the start line, but within seconds of the off, they had disappeared.
Starting with a mile’s loop around the Hawkshead Scout site where you then run back through the start ‘funnel’ and head downhill towards the road before taking a right which takes you onto the lakeside path (Technically its a reservoir path but lakeside is easier to spell!). The first 6.5 ish miles to the first checkpoint follows the lakeside path up and down, up and down. I should point out that on this course you are either going up or going down, there are almost no fully flat sections.
The first three miles we’d been running at a quicker pace than I would have liked, and at some point, I knew I’d need to slow. It wasn’t a fast pace by any means, but the weekend before’s efforts had taken its toll. Heading up one of the (many) inclines I remember saying to Dave that I thought we were going a little fast, Dave agreed, but we didn’t seem to slow. Both Dave and Tony had also completed the Hardmoors 50 a week earlier. Gradually as we approached CP1 we did slow down and arrived at the Checkpoint in good spirits ready for some of the famous ‘Trail Outlaws Red Kola’. At least that was what I thought. After getting my cup of ‘Kola’ a very green looking Bill declared that he’d had enough and was off home. He did not look in a good way. We tried the usual “Come on”, “You’ll be fine” things, but his mind was made up. We later found off that Bill did continue for another couple of miles before turning around and returning to the Checkpoint. Something I was very great full for later on.
On we pressed out of CP1 and up the hill. Five had become four, and we had slowed things down. Anything bigger than a slight incline was now being walked.
Just after 7 pm at around 9.5 miles the light was fading and with dusk well and truly upon us, I made the decision to get my head torch out of my packs front pocket and onto my head. I turned it on to try it. It came on. Seconds later it went off again never to come back to life. I still haven’t looked at why the head torch failed on me.
I’d changed the batteries in my head torch just the day before, having used it extensively the week before. I couldn’t believe it, no head torch. Just what I needed. Part of the mandatory kit for the race was a head torch and spare batteries. Fortunately, I had a spare head torch, this was just at the very bottom of my race pack, having put it there on purpose since I hadn’t planned on needing it. As it was not yet fully dark we headed on to CP2 with the intention of using my spare head torch from there onward. None of the others were yet using their head torches, so I was ok for now.
At CP2 my priority was to get to the spare head torch and get it on my head, I did this, repacked my bag, refuelled with more ‘Red Kola’ and pretzels and we were off on our way. I tested my head torch to make sure it worked and thankfully it did. What I hadn’t done with this torch though was changed the batteries. I’d used it in the past but not for long periods, so hoped it would be ok. With this in mind, I opted to allow the light from others torches guide me round to save the batteries in mine for when I really needed it. This worked great for me apart from in the darkened forest parts when I really needed the extra light.
Between CP2 and CP3 there are a lot of quite steep climbs followed by descents, so by now the pace was definitely slowing and I could feel the high mileage in my legs. Power walking uphill was fine, running the descents was destroying my right knee with each step. I could feel my body changing the way I was landing to minimise the impact. I started to drop back from the other three in our group at times downhill, catching them up as they slowed to a walk on the up.
Fellow Strider Sarah Fawcett had joined our little group by now, and I can’t recall if we’d caught her or her us, but she was not having a good race. We all stayed together to CP3, at 16 miles and the Dam. Sarah set off ahead of us. Over the Dam is the only fully flat section of this race and makes a nice change from constant climbs and descents, but for me, by now the damage was done. I was tired and could feel myself slowly falling behind the others, but then pushing on a bit to keep with them. On towards the 17-18 mile CP we went. We had again caught up with Sarah, who seemed to be really struggling. She would admit this though. I wasn’t going to admit that I was tired and starting to need to slow the pace even further.
The five of us (Myself, Tony, Jill, Sarah and Dave) reached CP4 almost as a unit, though Dave and Tony were ahead of us. Jill was sitting comfortably in the middle of the pack and I was at the rear with Sarah. I recall saying to her that I wasn’t going to get any faster than this, so she should just try and stick with us to the end.
Leaving CP4 as a group Dave and Tony were pressing on ahead and I knew that we needed to just let them go, for a few miles the distance was only metres, but as the miles increased they got further and further away. Sarah was still with us though and although struggling we stayed together with Jill and I overtaking Sarah, then her passing us.
Somewhere between mile 20 and 21, Jill hit a wall. Not the mental ‘I can’t go on’ kind of wall, but her body had clearly depleted all of its energy stores and she was feeling sick. Despite refuelling, at each checkpoint, your body depletes energy faster than you can put it in during a marathon and Jill’s was definitely depleted. Jill was stumbling, almost falling into a ditch. Fuel was needed and fast. Fortunately, Jill had picked up a banana at the previous checkpoint and ate this and some cashew nuts she was carrying. We walked whilst she tried to get fuel into her body. Jill wasn’t giving in though and despite us walking she was power walking. Please just slow down for a bit I was thinking, as much for her as for my own tired body (I can’t walk as fast as Jill either).
We walked and ‘ultra’ shuffled for a couple of miles, still with Sarah nearby. Dave and Tony had by now long since left us, and were happily running their own race. I’d said all along that I wasn’t leaving Jill and despite her still struggling we pressed on. Not finishing was never an option.
By the time we had reached the woods that bring you into Leaplish and the 24 mile CP Jill was again feeling strong and we were run (shuffle) walking. By this point we had lost Sarah further behind us, she was by now really struggling. In order for us to finish, we had to do what was best for us and kept moving. Not at a fast pace, just moving forward.
At the Leaplish CP, we had a quick water refill and were off 1.7 miles to go. By now Jill had replenished her energy supplies and was again feeling strong. I, on the other hand, was tired and starting to really struggle. I didn’t let on though. From what I can recall we ran large sections of the last 1.7 miles to the finish, Jill was leading me along. At the final hill to the Scout site, Jill was about 10 meters ahead of me shouting “Come on”. I’ll not say what I was thinking at the time.
Up the hill, around the corner and into the hall to finish. We had done it. 5 hours 47 minutes. Nowhere near PB times, but the end goal had been achieved.
At the finish, we were greeted by Tony, Dave and Rachel Toth who were conveniently standing next to the Jelly Babies. I ate a lot of Jelly Babies! Bill Ford joined us looking rather refreshed. He’d been changed, had a massage, watched the first finishers come in, but most importantly of all he’d been to collect Jill’s car from the overflow car park and brought it to the finish meaning we could make a quick getaway. We said our goodbye’s, saw Jonathan Hamill eating cake and were off for pizza and drinks.
I found out the following morning that Sarah had made it to the finish after stopping for some rest at Leaplish. Sorry we didn’t hang around!
As a footnote, the Northern Lights didn’t show up and we saw very few stars since it was cloudy.
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