Dark Star Ultra – 2015

It is impossible to complete a race report for the 2015 Dark Star Ultra Marathon without referring back to 2014.  For those of us who were there it is something that we will probably never forget and we experienced conditions that we hope never to experience ever again.

The end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 have certainly been less ‘floody’ than the previous winter, leaving ground conditions easier than the first running of this event.  More importantly, the weather on the day was almost perfect.  No torrential rain, no 30 mph winds for the 14 miles on the home leg.

Having said this, it doesn’t make this event easy. Far from it. I would rank it as second on my list of toughest events behind the same event last year. The ground on the river bank on the way out was lumpy and frozen solid, making life tough at times. On the way back the inconsiderate 70 of so runners in front of me decided not to levitate. Instead, they churned up the now soft ground that had warmed up as the temperatures moved above zero.

So, this is the Dark Star event.  Low key (as all Sussex Trail Events are), 95 runners, very friendly and full of runners who prefer off road, mud and the countryside to tarmac and supporters cheering you on.  There is a big range of running abilities.  You certainly don’t have to be quick to take part in any Sussex Trail Events race (although there are cut off times).

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This event is 14 miles north along the banks of the river Adur (over the stiles that they so helpfully put in your way) and up the Downslink path to the old West Grinstead railway station.  This is where we were met by the wonderful Burgess Hill Runners aid station and where we turned around and head back to where we came from.

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My race prep had been rubbish.  I was ill over the majority of Christmas and New Year and my longest run since October had been 13 miles. Far from ideal, but there you go.  I put my positive head on, set some realistic targets and set off.

My club, Burgess Hill Runners was the best represented club and 4 of us were pretty close to begin with.

10410642_10152649534613870_5957705292945416421_n1549449_10152649364628870_1218185757399585996_n10682227_10152649535288870_3172371489338042745_oI was being dragged along too quickly and even though the company was excellent, I decided to slow down. The plan was to get to half way, stop, chat, re-fuel and leave the aid station after 2 and a half hours.  I left the aid station 2 minutes ahead of schedule.  Not bad really.

10690132_10204351281076525_8463328908636640905_n 10952589_10204351674286355_574479322224837426_nThe journey home is much tougher than the journey out.  Obviously, you have 14 miles in your legs already.  The wind, although not too strong, was in your face and there are a lot more stiles on the way back compared to the way out.

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Apart from the plan about my speed, I also stopped at each aid station to eat and drink, as well as doing the same between stations. This may sound obvious, but I have been a culprit of not doing this properly in the past.

I got home in 5 hours 9 minutes and 35 seconds.  That’s 54 minutes quicker than last year.  I think that this is mainly down to the conditions, but also my race plan and determination helped to shave such a huge chunk off my time.  Very pleased with my first outing of the year.

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I can’t recommend these Sussex Trail Events enough.  Organised by runners for runners. They’re great fun, very friendly and a real challenge.

Happy running, Neil.

A huge thank you to Jon Lavis and Helen Pratt for the brilliant photos.

Here is a brilliant video of the day from a fellow runner – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IJjMa7-7_0&feature=youtu.be

Dark Star Ultra Marathon – 26th January 2014

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

mudThe 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.

darkstarseflieMy 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’.

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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:

https://www.facebook.com/notes/tom-farsides/will-race-for-beer-a-dark-star-river-marathon-race-report/642055809163891

http://sarahstravelsandraces.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/running-and-beer-match-made-in-heaven.html

http://gonerunningshawn.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/darkstar-river-marathon-26012014.html

www.sussextrailevents.com

(Photos courtesy of Jon Lavis)