I wasn’t due to run the Dark Star Ultra Marathon. In fact I’d promised myself that I would not run a marathon again after having a knee operation in 2012. However, due to the fact a friend from Burgess Hill Runners was unable to run due to injury, and place was available and the common consensus on social media was that I should ‘give it a go’.
2014 has been the wettest that I can remember for quite some time and during the weeks leading up to the Dark Star Marathon it became increasingly obvious that it was going to be tough.
The course involved 14 miles due north from the coast at Shoreham by Sea along the banks of the River Adur and along the Downlinks path to the turning point at the old West Grinstead Railway Station. It was then 14 miles back along the same section of the Downslink path and along the opposite side of the riverbank back to where we started.
I had no idea what to expect. I had never run above 13 miles off road and had only completed 20 miles on road during my training. On arrival for the pre-race brief, I noticed that everyone seemed to have all the kit. I had no waterproofs at all. I felt seriously inexperienced and increasingly nervous about what lay ahead.
The brief was very informal, encouraging and with a real emphasis on the conditions and staying safe.
I had a plan. I’m normally pretty useless at sticking to plans. I usually get a quarter of the way into a race and think I’m much better than I am and totally mess it up. I was determined not to do that this time.
So off we go. 55 of us. I’m at the back (or pretty close to it). There was a 6 and a half hour cut off time and I had a finish time of 5 and a half hours in my head. There was a good contingency there if it all went horribly wrong.
We started off with the wind at our backs and on very good tracks. Knowing that the rain would soon arrive, along with the mud and the head wind after the half way check point, I decided that the first half of the event would definitely be quicker than the second half (I wasn’t wrong).
Conditions worsened dramatically. The mud arrived much earlier than expected, as did the rain. As the rain was at our backs, I was lured into a false sense of security and made very good progress.
The main issues on the way out were the mud and the stiles. The stiles totally knock you off your rhythm and the mud all round them made them very difficult to navigate.
The nature of the course meant that the front runners passed you on their way south. I had a huge lift as a crossed Paul Sargent, a fellow Burgess Hill Runner, when I was at 12 miles and he was around 16 miles. He looked a strong as an ox and nearly took my arm off when we high fived. That gave me a new spring in my stride as I headed up the Downlinks path to the turn round point.
My wife, Nick was there waiting for me with some coffee and some Christmas cake. They were also serving hot soup, hot drinking and different types of food. I got there in 2 hours 20 minutes. This was too quick (inevitably). I didn’t think that it was too much of an issue as I knew that the home leg was going to be much tougher and I still had the cut off time in my mind.
So, after 5 minutes, I set off into the wind. ‘It’s not too bad’ I thought. I was right for the first 3 miles, as we were on the Downslink path. As soon as we arrived on the open spaces on the riverbank it soon became evident that it was going to be painful.
My pace dropped. No problem. I knew it was going to happen.
Then came the stiles. They were quite close to each other on the way back. On the first one my thigh cramped is a climbed over it and my calf cramped on the way down. This happened at the next dozen stiles over the next 6 miles or so.
I have never been so cold or in so much pain from cramp. At one stage I reached up to grab a post to pull myself over a stile and my arm cramped up.
I was sodden. My clothes were totally drenched and my camelback dripping wet.
I was now starting to look at my watch at too regular intervals. I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. I was checking it every 5 minutes as my frustration with the conditions and the cramps grew.
I only realised at 24 miles that I had accidentally hit the ‘stop’ button about 6 miles back. I have seen on TV programmes about feats of endurance that you stop thinking rationally and that must have been what happened to me. I was that cold and tired that I didn’t compute that my watch had stopped. At least now, the panic of missing the cut off time had gone, as I was 6 miles further on than I had thought.
It was at the 24 mile checkpoint that everything changed. Nick, my wife, Jon and Steve (both from BHR) greeted me and I immediately knew I would finish. The lift was amazing. They told me that several seasoned Ultra runners were saying that it was brutal and was of the toughest events they had done. That was it. The doubt was lifted and there was no way it was going to beat me.
Nick, Jon and Steve helped me to change the clothing on my upper half and they took my camelback off me and I set off with 4 miles to go. I speeded up and actually enjoyed the majority of it.
For such a difficult event the finish was totally underwhelming. No fanfare. There was no funnel, just a couple of flags and 2 poor ladies checking us in. They must have been freezing. This was extreme volunteering.
It didn’t matter. I’d done it. I am an Ultra Runner. I made the cut off time by nearly half an hour (official finishing time 6 hours 3 minutes). I didn’t enjoy all of it. In fact there were sections that I hated. It didn’t matter. I’d finished. If fact, all 55 starters finished.
A huge thank you to Nick, my wonderful wife and Jon and Steve for their support. Without them I would not have finished.
The hospitality at the end was amazing. There was free food for the runners. There were hot showers and a free massage.
This is my ‘medal’.
This is an event that I would recommend to anyone. Not in those conditions, but you don’t get to choose the conditions when you enter the event.
Right then, what’s the next one then. 30+ miles next time I think.
Here are some links about the event:
(Photos courtesy of Jon Lavis)