Undulating. Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? The way the word rolls around in your mouth? Undulating is something that you might want to experience, even. The next time something undulates, you might think, I want in on that action.
The Dark Skies run at Kielder undulates. It undulates hardcore. It undulates, if you’ll pardon my french, like an absolute bastard.
Backing up, Kielder reservoir is a massive manmade body of water in the heart of Northumberland International Dark Sky Park. There are hardly any artificial lights for tens of miles, making the skies the darkest in England. On a clear night the starscapes above are the deepest and clearest that it’s possible to get.
For the last couple of years the Trail Outlaws team have organised a night run of 26.5 miles around the circumference of the reservoir (very fractionally longer than a marathon). They describe the course as ‘undulating’.
Two miles in, I realised that I may not have researched this whole expedition very well. I pondered that for a few moments before realising that I hadn’t done any research at all. My process was along the lines of: dark skies, pretty stars, running, done.
Still, I was there, I was doing it, there wasn’t much point worrying. What will be will be, and all that.
So, the positives. The weather was crystal clear. The water was mirror-still. The views were heartbreaking. When the sun set, it was a riot of blue, black, and orange. When the stars came out it was the sort of view you rarely get outside of movies – a sky so full that it makes you feel utterly tiny. And the forest around the water? All those tall pines that looked like the sinister ghosts of themselves when lit only by my head-torch? Yeah, it felt like running through every episode of the X-Files set outside a city. In a good and haunting way rather than a being-murdered-by-uncanny-wotsits way.
As for the organisation, it was so cheerfully put together that you barely noticed that it was also deeply efficient and professional, from the refreshment stops along the way to the sweeper cyclists that patrolled along the trails in the latter third of the race. The team managed to allow runners the illusion of hardcore isolation, human-vs-the-wild, while at the same time actually looking after everybody really well.
The negatives? Well, they’re not really negatives at all, just not what I’d imagined. Not even that – I was stymied by things I just hadn’t given any thought to at all. This is a trail marathon, with the emphasis on trail. The route for the most part follows a well worn path around the reservoir called the Lakeside Way. It goes up a lot. It goes down a lot. It doesn’t do flat, at all, ever – just bits where hills clasp on to the edges of other hills. Now only a handful of those hills are real problems, the sorts of incline that you’d only normally run up if somebody had a gun to your loved one’s head. A LOT of them are hills of a couple of hundred metres, that you would normally not blink at running up on any given route but would be a little winded and rubber-legged at the top.
And every time one ended with a quad-busting run down the other side, there was another. And another, for twenty-six miles without end, with the temperature dropping ever lower as the warm day receded into a freezing March night. I don’t remember being that cold before. When I finally made it to the end and took my complementary instant black coffee in a plastic cup I immediately spilled it over my own bare legs. Did I scream and howl? I did not. I was grateful for the warmth. When I got back to my car I wasn’t just shivering, I was shaking so hard my keys flew out of my hand twice.
And then there was the two and a half hour drive home, through the clocks going forward, so that somehow I didn’t get to bed until four in the morning. I got lost without realising I was lost. It took me some time to realise that just because the way back across the country to the motorway was all tiny unlit roads, and I was driving on tiny unlit roads, that didn’t mean I was on the same tiny unlit roads. Luckily I’d accidentally driven parallel to the route I was supposed to take so sorted it fairly easily, but still, not what you want when you’ve just run 26.5 miles and are in pain.
But you know, it got done. Not the long, gentle trail run I’d somehow imagined in my head (I positioned this as a slow, preparatory trial for May’s Stirling marathon), but an unforgettable experience – and one that gave up the best looking race bling in my small collection.
Shiny, shiny race bling. How I loves it. All weighty, and sparkly, and sexyballs. It is my best thing. My precious.
Don’t judge me.
Do I recommend it? Absolutely. If this is the sort of thing you’re looking for then it is a splendid event. Am I glad I did it? Yeah, I am, even though I probably wouldn’t have if I’d given an iota of thought to what I was signing up for. Let’s call it a happy accident. As for my time, i’m not quite sure. My watch died at 25 miles, at which point I’d been running* for five hours and twenty minutes. The last mile and a half was… rough. I think probably five forty-five for a finish time, but the Trail outlaws site hasn’t confirmed that yet. A loooong time. It wasn’t the sort of event where speed matters though, so whatever.
I was just glad to finish on my feet.
Updated to add: the final time was 5:41, about ten minutes faster than I thought, and a time I can live with very happily given the unexpected course…
*well, probably about three hours running, two hours twenty of stumbling blindly and in pain