Everyone needs a race like this once in a while.
I had signed up to the Dusk ’til Dawn 50-miler months ago, getting the last spot in the list of 100 places, and knew fully what to expect. 50 miles, 9000ft of ascent (and descent, obviously), mud (lots of) and a race filled with darkness.
Changing trains at Sheffield on Saturday afternoon, to a rickety service that connected to Manchester through the Peak District, other runners swiftly appeared out of the weekender masses. Rucksacks were packed high and tight, water bottles clasped, strange coloured liquids sloshing around. And the shoes – mud-caked trail shoes that looked like they had seen the wars. I had gone so far as preparing a meal out of the boy’s Thomas the Tank Engine pasta and had a couple of pork pies in reserve.
The train belted out of the tunnel into the Hope Valley and into some of the most beautiful English countryside I have ever seen. The cold wind from the north had cleared the skies, but the leaves clung on, golden and rich. It was perfect running weather. Or so I thought until we got to the briefing at T-40 minutes. It was going to be wet. The ground had turned to river in some parts, others had been churned up by caterpillar tracks. There was also snow on its way.
The race started with a steep ascent and descent – designed for those who wanted a taste
of what was to come and could abandon before heading too far out of Castleton. The first to retire did so here when he realised that neither his torch or spare torch worked. He made his way to the pub, had a pint and called the organisers. So efficient were they, in this and everything else in the race, that they got to him before he could order a second.
As with all trail races groups emerged swiftly and gaps were opening up at the first check marker at 3 miles. (The eventual winner, Charlie Sharpe had over an hour on the next runner at the finish). And then night sunk on us, dropping like a stone into the valley. Where there had been a golden arc of winter sun there was just black silence. With that the temperature dropped, our breath turning to fog in front of us, caught in the haze of the head torches. I had been dreaming about this race for months to experience this kind of non-violent attrition against the elements. At that moment I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world.
On the train up I had been reading the brilliant account of a small-town Texan college American Football Team called Friday Night Lights. Written in 1988 (remember Michael Dukakis?) it’s THE American story as seen through the Permian Panthers, whose games every Friday night fill the stadium to its 20,000 capacity. It it is hard to impress in one paragraph how good this book is, not least at showing how much the rest of this town, in a Texan dust bowl lives and breathes on these games. Failure is not an option.
The corrosion set in around the 19-mile mark. The group of five I was in were making good progress, set to reach the 20-mile check-point in exactly 4 hours. The trouble began with Ringo Starr, or more exactly the sound track to Thomas the Tank Engine, which has been on repeat at home since the summer, and I could just not get it out of my head. This, I knew, was all part of the exfoliation process that these distances are about. You scrape off the layers inside your head until you’re left with silence.
By the time I had left check-point two, I was shaking violently. I have been here before, but it had been a while and I was not used to the cramps that took hold of my stomach, nor the incessant desire to vomit. I was falling further and further back from the group, and when they turned their head torches off, to save batteries, I knew that the end, for me at least, was in sight.
I hung onto them for another 90 minutes, until we reached a main road and I was bundled into a marshall’s car and wrapped my stomach in the space blanket I had taken with me on every long run but never used. Now I know what they are for. 26 miles in five and a half hours is not much to write home about, although I was 16th overall, but it was a lesson re-learnt – you can’t blag your way around these races.
I can not thank the volunteers who looked after me enough. We sat in the warmth for a couple of hours waiting for the grim sweeper to come through and then they shuttled me back to the start where I had the best cup of tea of my life, although I did manage to spill half of it over my hands as they were shaking so much. Then it was a shower and bed. Meanwhile out on the course, visibility had been reduced to 20 metres, the thermometer had dipped below -2 degrees and that didn’t take into account the wind.
The speed of the first runners home meant that from 2am until 8.30am, when I got a lift to the station to leave Hope, there was a team of volunteers standing in the cold and the rain to cheer them across the finish line and into the kitchen for the fry-up of their lives. I’ve taken part in some well organised races before but nothing like this. Chapeau, chaps. I’ll definitely be signing up for next year, better prepared though.