Monday, 27 March 2017

Race Report: Kielder Dark Skies Marathon

I've been wanting to do the Dark Skies Marathon since it first ran in 2015. That year it was too close to the Manchester 'Marathon', and 2016 it was too close to the Kielder 50k for me to risk it. This year, however, it was perfectly placed as my final long run before the Kielder 80k, with the advantage that it was in the same general area as that race and involved practice running on headtorch. The 80k was not to be, of course, but that wasn't going to stop me running Dark Skies at last.

A broken down car might, though. Cue phone call from Mrs Heathcote on Thursday: "There's something wrong with the car..." That something was a pool of diesel underneath it. Marvelous. The AA were called and, fearing the worst, I started desperately trying to figure out a means of getting to the race. A certain Mr Ian Brown came to my rescue, as he was also heading up for the marathon, and so Cinderella was able to go to the ball after all. As it happened, the AA were able to replace the fuel line at the side of the road so I would have been ok, but one less car made environmental and logistical sense.

The journey up covered a number of topics from track marathons to the difficulty getting a place on ultras these days, and flew by; in no time at all we were pulling in to Hawkhirst Activity Centre. Off to register and get kit checked, and then we pretty much parted company until nearer the start. Lots of catching up with mates, nattering, meeting new people, and queuing for the toilet filled the time until the race briefing.

As has been the case for the last few races I've entered, I found myself near the back of the crowd for the briefing, which meant I was near the back when the race started. Less time nattering, more time paying attention if I want to actually race! Sure enough, I ended up caught in a bottleneck. My plan was to just take things as they came for this event, so I wasn't too concerned, beyond being a bit frustrated to not be able to get into a rhythm for the first few km.

The course did a loop around the Activity Centre before heading out onto the Lakeside Way, and by the time we got onto the trail proper I was able to start moving up the field. I was aiming for something in the region of 3.5 hrs, having looked at the top 10 from last year, so had half an eye on my pace but was mostly running to heart rate in the hope of avoiding blowing up. The race starting at 5.30pm meant that it was broad daylight for the first bit, and I actually regretted not having sunglasses on for a while. By about an hour in though the sun was dipping below the horizon, and the water was calm and mirror-like.

I was steadily overtaking people, and feeling really good at the halfway point, coming through 21km in 1:38'36; nothing spectacular for a HM but decent enough on that course and well on pace for my goal time. I held off on getting my headtorch out until just before checkpoint 4 at the Dam, which was about 27km in: it was pretty dark under the trees, but when not in the forest the light remained good enough to see by for quite a long time, and the trail wasn't in the least bit technical, so I enjoyed being a bit 'primal'! Eventually though, I did slow down a bit to get my torch on, seemingly pulling a muscle in my forearm in the process, and also put on some gloves which, being dayglow green, slightly knacked my otherwise 'stealth' outfit of black Helly and shorts, black trainers, black race pack, and my Harriers vest, also black.

I got a bit confused as to where the trail went at the Dam checkpoint, mainly because of all the headtorches and lighting being used by the marshals; completely did for my night-vision (something to be repeated at subsequent aid stations). Made it onto the Dam itself though, and suffered no further issues. Yes, dear reader, you did read that correctly: I managed to avoid getting lost! Testament to how well Tim, Garry, and their band of volunteers had marked the course.

I hadn't really kept on top of my hydration etc up until this point, and hadn't taken on much in the way of calories either; I had one bottle of Tailwind and one of water, so I'd had a bit, but I was definitely starting to feel a bonk coming on so, reluctantly, slowed to a tactical hike and forced a ClifBar down. I really like ClifBars, but I struggle to eat them during a race unless it's one where the ultramarathon tactic of hike-the-hills-and-stuff-your-face comes into play; I just can't chew them, and my stomach starts to reject anything I try and put in it. As a result, whilst I had energy for the final 10k, I also had nausea and other issues. Every race is a learning experience, and I'll make sure to a) not run out of Tailwind before the race and b) experiment with something more easily consumed like ClifBloks for future races.

It was completely dark by this point, and very atmospheric to see the lights from other people's headtorches snaking around the water. I tried to count the number ahead of me, and could see two, but felt sure there were more. Sure enough, I shortly came across a guy a little further up the trail, and accepted I had no idea where I was in the field, so there was no point worrying... I wasn't racing, remember? *COUGH* I did try to take in the night sky but actually spent most of the final 10k focused on my footing on the trail, and by the final 5k I really just wanted to finish as my stomach issues were getting worse.

A few more walk breaks than I would have liked, and then I was running up the fairy-lit finishing straight. I crashed into the hut in 6th place, with a time on my watch of 3:30'57 (gutted!) so mission pretty much accomplished, despite the slowing of pace towards the end. I then turned a funny colour and gave a few of the marshals a scare as I lay down on the floor with my legs up! A combination of stopping too quickly and dehydration, I think; something similar happened after the Town Moor Marathon in October.

As I was lying on the floor, Ian finished in a brilliant 9th place, 1st V60. Neither of us could figure out where I passed him, as he'd been ahead of me at the one turnaround point on the course because of my bottleneck issues, and I'd been watching out for him as I passed people. Eventually we figured out it must have been the Dam checkpoint; he stopped to fill his water bottle and I was blinded, so neither had spotted the other (Edit: confirmed by the Strava Fly-by). Not a bad result for Tynedale Harriers, all told!

We didn't hang around at the end, and so before long I was sitting at my kitchen table eating pizza and supping on a malted barley recovery drink. A brilliant event that I highly recommend; slick organisation and the views were alreet, like... Chapeau to Tim and Garry of Trail Outlaws, and big thanks to the volunteers involved in set-up and marshaling.


1 comment:

  1. Well done Ben. Great result. Again, interesting to see how people up front cope/manage/tactics/drink/struggle etc.