Saturday 23 March 2019
I entered this race as a practice night run ahead of this year’s big one, the West Highland Way Race. The race is organised by Trail Outlaws, who always put on a fantastic event, with an army of cheery marshals to pamper you along the way. The race is based in Kielder Forest, Northumberland – a ‘dark sky’ park, as there is very little light pollution due to its remote location. Race HQ was Hawkhirst Scout Activity Centre, where I had booked a bunk in one of the cabins to crash in after the race. I also persuaded my Project Awesome buddy and fellow WHW race first timer, Chiara Franzosi, to chum me along and we drove down together, chatting excitedly about the night ahead.
The race starts at 17:30, so it is still daylight for the first hour or so. As we gathered at the start line, fiddling with head torches and trying to calm pre-race nerves, Chiara and I agreed that a successful outcome for this race would be to ‘finish without face-planting’! I guess I should also have treated the race as a long training run, but as soon as I pinned my race number to my Harriers vest, I knew I wouldn’t be able to! Race mode was on, and when the start gun went I picked my way through the crowd until it began to spread out.
The route follows the Lakeside Way clockwise round the shoreline of Kielder Water. The trail is very runnable, but also very undulating, climbing more than 2100 feet over the distance. I was glad of my recent hill training, as it seemed I was either running up or downhill at any given point, without much flat. This explained the slower finish times from previous years compared to standard marathon times. Plus I also figured that running in the dark would add an extra challenge. I had pondered a sub 4-hour finish, with 3:45 in my head as a gold target. As I reached the top of the lake the light drizzle that started when we set off turned into a proper rain shower. Sadly, it looked like we were not going to be blessed with clear, starry skies that night (there was aurora borealis forecast too), but the rain soon stopped and gave way to a spectacular bright pink sunset. At this point I had been steadily moving my way up the field, picking off a few female runners here and there. I had no idea who was ahead of me or how many, but as I was admiring the sunset one of the ladies I’d passed earlier trotted past me again. I kept pace with her for a few miles, but lost her again once the darkness descended. I popped my head torch on as we headed into the trees on the north shore, and tried not to trip over the branches and twigs that littered the forest floor.
I was feeling pretty good as the sun disappeared over the horizon. I ran every hill as hard as I could and used the downhills to make up some speed. I had Tailwind in my hydration pack and some Kendal Mint Cake in my pockets for an extra boost. The Tailwind was mixed a bit too strong though, and started to make me really thirsty. As I approached the third checkpoint at the dam at the east end of the lake (the first one I stopped at) I downed a couple of cups of water. I must have drunk them too fast as when I headed out across the dam I got a terrible stitch on both sides and had to run for a while with my fingers jabbed into my ribs. This was 17 miles in so told myself that I’d broken the back of the race and I could relax a bit from here. I looked back across the lake and saw miles of head torches bobbing along the shoreline, which was really cool. To my amusement and shock I also got hit in the head by enormous moths a couple of times, which I presume were attracted by the bright lights!
The route had been very well marked with reflective tape, but the south shore had lots of roads and other paths crossing it, and you had to concentrate on where you were going to stay on track. It was very dark at this point and I felt lucky that my head torch was holding out and not bouncing about too much, as I’d heard that you can get motion sickness from running with them for a long time. There are a few dwellings dotted around the lake but all in all there’s very little to help orientate you except the reflective tape and your watch, which I was now struggling to see in the dark. I decided not to keep looking at my watch after 22 miles, but having passed half marathon point in around 1:45, I was sure I’d be close to a 3:45 finish.
The last checkpoint on this route is less than 2 miles from the finish line, and was lit up like a theme park with fairy lights. There were a few spectators milling about too, which was lovely. As I stopped for another cup of water the marshal told me I was second lady, so I decided to get a shift on if I was to hold that position to the end. I’d passed one more female runner a mile or so back, so pushed my speed up a little. Everything was beginning to hurt but I told my legs to shut up and that I’d be finished soon. Half a mile out of the CP I glanced back and was satisfied that the head torches were sufficiently far behind me not to panic. Just then I spotted a runner sitting at the side of the trail clutching his legs. I stopped and asked if he was OK and in a broad Northumberland accent he asked if a piggyback would be out of the question! I politely declined and went on my way!
The road back up to Hawkhirst Scout Camp had been strung with blue and white fairy lights, leading to the finish inside the Race HQ. Once inside I had my wristband scanned and my kit checked to make sure I’d not scrimped on anything. The mandatory kit list is quite extensive, but there for your own safety. If I hadn’t had everything on the list I’d have been disqualified and my time removed from the results. As it happened though, I was confirmed as 2nd lady and also 1st F40, which was a lovely surprise. I spotted the lady who’d passed me on the north shore and we shook hands and chatted about the race and about Penicuik – which she and her husband had visited recently to climb the Pentlands. Not only was she 1st lady but also 1st F50! A young Norwegian lad won the race in 02:52:00, a crazy time for that course.
I nipped back to the cabin for a shower (or should that be nippy shower due to back-pack induced chafing) and just got back in time for the prize giving, where I bagged myself some impressive bling (beer: model’s own). Then I headed to the canteen to refuel with a humungous plate of chilli and a slab of Victoria sponge. My buddy Chiara appeared soon after. She’d had a bad run and had been sick several times along the course. But, in true ultra runner style she kept pushing on and finished the race in under 4.5 hours. What a champ. WHW we’re coming at ya!
Result: 03:44:45, 2nd female, 1st F40, 20th overall
Full results here.