The Sunset to Sunrise Challenge had been on my radar for a number of years but had always clashed with other events. Fortunately for me, this years race fell on a free weekend so I signed up for it without any real expectations.
The race itself challenges you to run as far as you can along the banks of the River Severn on the disused Ironbridge to Bridgnorth railway line in the dark. You have the option to run 9 miles, 18 miles, Half Marathon, Full Marathon or Ultramarathon distance.
I opted for the Ultramarathon distance with the race starting at sunset (4.18pm) and finishing either when you’ve had enough or at sunrise (7.20am) the following morning.
The route is an out-and-back of 11 miles, with a checkpoint at the turn-around point at 5.5 miles. Race HQ (new for 2019) was moved to Coalport Village Hall which meant a warm, well lit and sheltered HQ was available after every lap.
I’ve never took part in a timed ‘run-as-far-as-you-can’ event but the concept does appeal to me. I’d recently signed-up for Thunder Run 2020, which will be my first 24hr event so treated this as its younger brother, albeit a 15 hour event running throughout the night.
The real test, other than the physical aspect of running for anything up to 15 hours, would be the mental side of dealing with the monotonous, repetitive nature of the event – plodding up and down the same track repetitively, led only by the beam of my head torch. Like I said, I had no real expectations but wanted to challenge myself to a different format. I’d set myself a basic target of running beyond 26.2 miles but how far beyond would be anyone’s guess. I’d put no pressure on myself, I’d plan to run for as long as my legs would carry me or until my mind had said that’s enough.
The weather leading up to the event had been awful. Heavy rainfall had caused flooding and local schools took the decision to close early as many roads were impassable. Shropshire County Council had put out a flood warning a couple of days prior to the event and the forecast for the day was pretty much the same – with yet more rain on the way!
The kit list was basic. Essentially, with temperatures expected to plummet into the night, you were required to carry a waterproof jacket, a fleece, hat, gloves and a reliable head torch with spare batteries. I also made sure I’d packed extra layers in my drop bag due to the extreme weather conditions.
I’d opted for road shoes and wore my Hoka One’s for that added bit of comfort and support. I’d fuel myself mainly on Tailwind, Chai Charge bars and trail mix mid-run, whilst supplementing this with pizza, sausage rolls and crisps I’d bought from home (thanks to Ruth and the boys) and any other savoury snacks available from the feed station. One thing was for certain, I wouldn’t go hungry!
I arrived at registration just after 3pm. Parking had been hassle free, choosing to follow the parking instructions detailed in the race pack. I registered, attached my race number and double checked my drop bag. Having a drop bag available every eleventh mile meant that you didn’t have to carry additional kit or nutrition so you could travel light – something I struggled with for Lakes in a Day. With this in mind, I opted to use my Inov-8 Race Ultra 5 litre bag which was sufficient for my needs.
Checks complete, I met up with Jasper, a friend from my local running club. Following a brief chat about race targets, the weather and our recent lack of training for this event, we were ushered to the start line.
Lap 1 – Miles 1-11
Total time: 2 hours
It was a relatively small field of less than 80 runners. I knew from the outset there would be a range of distances being run so it was a challenge in itself to start at my own pace. The last thing I needed to do was sprint off with the 9 milers! It wasn’t long before I settled into a rhythm and with daylight fast disappearing I tried to make a mental note of my surroundings and potential hazards.
The route itself was ‘relatively’ flat (251ft of elevation per lap), a mixture of hard stone track and mud! Mostly mud! The recent bad weather had turned the terrain into a mud pit and it soon become apparent that my choice of footwear wasn’t the best option as I had very little traction. The route was also littered with pot holes and ankle deep puddles; concentration would be the key to avoid injury. The track also appeared to camber across the width of the road in sections which meant sticking to the middle of the track was the best line, although difficult to adhere to in the dark.
Within a few miles the light had pretty much gone and with it, on went the head torch. There were no street lights so without artificial light we’d be running in complete darkness.
I enjoy night running. The solitude and isolation I can cope with. It focuses my mind and in that moment I can switch off from the outside world and just focus on that small beam of light in front of me. It’s eerily peaceful and I find the sound of footsteps rather hypnotic. Metres turn into miles and minutes into hours – you just keep plodding along.
It wasn’t long before I reached the aid station which signalled the turnaround point. I was joined shortly after by Jasper who had been hot on my heels for the first 5.5 miles. We didn’t hang around and ran back together towards race HQ.
The returning 5.5 miles went without incident, conversation was flowing and we were just enjoying the experience. The pace was well within our comfort zones and the miles slowly ticking themselves off.
Upon returning to race HQ, a marshal was on hand to record my lap time whilst I refilled my soft flask and grabbed some food.
Lap 1 complete.
Mood – feeling strong and enjoying the experience.
Lap 2 – Miles 12-22
Total time: 4.5 hours I left race HQ in high spirits.
I was running with Jasper and the conversation continued to flow. We’d walk the occasional muddy section or slight incline but we’d mostly be running at a steady pace and despite the conditions I felt OK. Temperature wise, it was nice and cool and the rain had held off, for now.
We soon reached the turnaround point, hydrated, grabbed some sugary sweets and went on our way. We ran for about half a mile before the problems started. I’d felt an aching pain in my left ankle for a while and it had been getting gradually worse. On top of this, I’d developed a blister on my little toe which was causing some discomfort. Not wanting to remove my shoes, I did what all ill informed ultra runners do and took an ibuprofen for my ankle and ignored the blister! Fail! I’d considered changing my socks once back at Race HQ but later decided against this action. Another Fail!
I hobbled back to Race HQ, running had become a distant memory which had now been replaced by power walking.
Second lap complete22 miles done.
Mood – holding up OK but fatigue and injuries starting to affect my race.
Lap 3 – Miles 23-33
Total time: 7.5 hours
The lap that saved my race!
I left Race HQ with Jasper who was also feeling the distance in his legs. We’d done some basic math in our head and had come to the conclusion that we’d banked up enough time in the first 22 miles to allow us an easy lap. We’d calculated, that based on our split times, we’d manage to get in 5 laps; 55 miles before sunrise which would now be our new target distance. Denzil, the race organisor had made it clear that he’d only grant you permission to send you out on the last lap if you could guarantee to complete the lap and return to Race HQ before the cut-off time of 7:20. No-one was allowed to be out on the course after sunrise.
The Ibuprofen had kicked in for the ankle and the blisters, despite being uncomfortable were manageable.
We power walked the majority of this lap despite the odd shuffle.
I felt rejuvenated.
Another eleven miles done, albeit slow miles.
Jasper had mentioned that he’d be ordering some food back at Race HQ as there were jacket potatoes and tea and coffee on sale. I’d considered hanging around for him but once back at race HQ, I’d started to stiffen up so grabbed some pizza to-go, refilled my soft flask and changed into my waterproof jacket. It had now started raining pretty hard and the forecast was for it to get worse. I bid him farewell and left for leg number 4 on my own.
Third lap complete.
33 miles done.
Mood: cold and wet but in good spirits. A slow, easy third lap had done me the world of good.
Lap 4 – Miles 34-44
Total time: 9.45 hours.
Lap 4 was my best lap of the day and I felt fresh for the whole lap. The pace was slower than the first lap but this was to be expected with 44 miles in the legs. I walked a short distance, ran for slightly longer, walked.. repeat. The rain was constant but it was rather refreshing to run in. It had a detrimental effect on the terrain however, the ground was already saturated and this just worsened the conditions as I found myself sliding around in the mud. Oh for trail shoes! Road Hokas are great on concrete but not so much in saturated mud!
I was also aware that the water had penetrated into my shoes and my socks were now sodden! In hindsight I should have changed my socks at Race HQ, I had plenty of spare pairs but for some reason, I decided against it! This would soon come back and haunt me.On mile 10 of each lap, we found ourselves leaving the trail and joining a road which directed us back to race HQ. There was a bridge which we had to cross, of which I’d run over 7 times previously without incident. However, on this occasion and in full flight, I dropped off the curb into the road only to find myself submerged in ankle deep water – the bridge had flooded! I didn’t notice it in the dark. My feet, if they weren’t wet enough were now sodden! I muttered a few choice words and continued.
Fourth lap complete.
44 miles done.
Mood – tired, wet and aching all over but thankful of only one lap left!
Lap 5 – Miles 45-55
Total time: 13 hours
The final lap!
I’d passed Jasper at mile 38 and calculated that he was about a mile or two behind me. I considered waiting for him to run the final lap together but Denzil was keen for me to get me out the door and start my final lap. I refilled my soft flask, grabbed some chocolate and headed out into the morning. It was approximately 3am which meant I had 4 hours to complete my final lap.
I started jogging and instantly felt a sharp shooting pain behind my right knee/top of my calf. It was excruciating. My feet were also in tatters, which I’d later find out were due to a number of burst blisters and trench foot. (picture below for the less squeamish).
Every footstep was agonising.
My mind was telling me to jog a little, the faster you go, the less time you’re on the trail. My feet and knee were telling me otherwise! I also had a voice at the back of my head telling me that I had 4 hours to complete the lap, so I knew that I could either run/walk which would take me 2-2.5 hours or I could walk which would take me 3 hours. I’d still finish in time. I’d still clock the same distance. It also gave Jasper an opportunity to catch me up which was high on my priority list. Finishing together felt important to me.
I grit my teeth and hobbled towards the turn-around point, one foot in front of the other.
About a mile before I got to the aid station my head torch died. It had completely zonked. I had replacement batteries in my back pack but that meant stopping, which I didn’t want to do. It was still raining hard by this stage, torrential in fact. I had a small hand held torch in my race pack which was easily accessible (thanks to my son James for ‘loaning’ it to daddy) which I managed to locate and used this until I reached the aid station.
I spent a good ten minutes here, probably the longest I’d stayed at any aid station, changing the batteries, chatting to the marshals and taking advantage of the sweets and drink on offer.
Still no sign of Jasper, I headed back to Race HQ for the final time.
I’d been walking for about 200 metres when I saw the light of a head torch coming towards me at some pace. The marshal had told me that there was only 4 of us left in the field and I’d passed 2 earlier so knew it was Jasper. He soon caught me up and told me to carry on whilst he checked-in at the checkpoint and he’d catch me up. He was in good form and was moving fast.
He caught me up shortly afterwards and we stayed together until the finish. We chatted which ticked off the miles but we were both exhausted, both in pain and both under the impression that as good as the race was, it wasn’t one to be repeated!
The last 5.5 miles was a death march.
I couldn’t straighten my leg due to the ligaments behind the knee (no doubt another physio appointment) and the pressure points on the base of both feet were excruciating to walk on.
We hobbled to the finish line.
Upon entering Race HQ we were awarded our finishers medal before taking some time to recuperate and take a few pictures.
We’d done it.
My Gamin had clocked 56.2 miles in 13:29.
The event had us down as 55 miles in 13:37.
Whichever, we finished in joint 6th place.
The winner doing an extra lap which is pretty impressive in those conditions.
I took some time to recover once back at the car before driving home. I considered getting some sleep (I’d packed pillows and a blanket) but as exhausted as I was, I wasn’t sleepy. I felt fully awake and still had my senses about me. Grabbing an hours kip would have made me feel worse. I cranked the air conditioning up nice and cold, put the radio on loud and set off for the hours drive home.
Reflecting back on this race, it was tough. Mentally tough. LiaD was physically harder but the lap format and conditions made this a somewhat different challenge. It’s not gone without incident, my feet and knee/calf are in a bad way and will need rest/physio to heel.
I also came into this race off the back of LiaD 50 which has taken its toll. I’d not run any considerable distance within the past 4 weeks so running back-to-back 50 milers was probably one step too far.
Should I have stopped at 33 or 44 miles? At the first sign of a niggle? Absolutely.
But I’m my own worst enemy sometimes. The injuries will heel. Having a few weeks/months off may not the worse thing in the world. 2019 has been intense with a lot of events, training and personal achievements. Regroup, heel and come back stronger for 2020.
Special thanks go to Jasper for getting me though this event. Without his company I doubt I would have achieved what I did. Massive congrats on his achievements too, there’s nobody else I’d rather have shared this experience with.
And finally to Ruth and the boys for their continued support – without them, none of this would be possible x