Challenge the Wight 2019 — A Marathon Run from The Sun

"I have never run more than 23 kilometres before…" is my response, when stood in the fading light at The Needles a fellow 'Challenge the Wight' participant asks if I can "run like you bike". On hearing my reply, he looks at me with a slight wince "Ah, right… well. Good luck."…

As the sunset casts an orange haze on the English Channel, and a warm westerly wind blows in over the cliffs of Alum Bay, I slightly nervously await the start of my first marathon… off-road, through the fast approaching darkness.

21:00 — The gun sounds, and amidst a cheer of support from friends and family, we are off. Up the lane to the coastguard cottages and the old rocket launch site; from where we will then turn eastwards, and traverse the downlands backbone of the Isle of Wight all the way to the finish at Culver Down — 26 miles (42 km) and 2900 feet (890 m) of climbing. This could be a long night.

Up over Tennyson Down; down to Freshwater Bay; then up again on the long slog through Freshwater Golf Course, as the sun finally dips below the horizon. Ten kilometres in, and I am running with a group of four… unbelievably at the front of the pack. I am certain that the position will not last long; but for now, as I don my headtorch and try not to fall down the rabbit holes, I am clinging onto the respectable placing.

By Brighstone Down I am beginning to get into the stride of things; slaloming around the cow pats and jumping through the numerous gates. I grab a few jelly babies from the feed station checkpoint and have a cheery chat with my good friend Jon who has come out to cheer me on along the route.

Before long, the small group I was running with has dissipated, and I am jogging along in fifth place as we head towards the lights of Carisbrooke Castle on the horizon.

The feed station at the castle marks the halfway point of the route; it seems to have gone surprisingly quick, and to celebrate the landmark I feast on the homemade brownies and flapjack on offer; washed down by a coffee and a pint of water — the temperatures are still well above 20 degrees on this mid-summer night.

On a sugar and caffeine high I head off out of town, and up the brutal road climb of St George's Lane. I have ridden up this climb numerous times, but on foot it seems even steeper, and my pace is reduced to more of a quick walk. Yet, I am in good spirits, and I gleefully update my Instagram Story with details of my (over)indulgence at the feed station.

I feel relief when the tarmac finally turns to sand at the top of St George's Down, and I begin the long descent down into the Arreton Valley. My pace seems to be lifting too, no doubt due to the sugar overload; and as I crest the summit, I overtake the second and third placed runners — moving my standing up to number two in the field. This is a little unexpected… I have never run this far before!

As I pass round the back of the sleeping houses in the village of Arreton, and in doing so click over the 30 kilometre mark, I begin to think how much I am genuinely enjoying this. It may sound strange, but while I do always relish finding new limits and pushing new boundaries, I had been looking ahead to this event with some trepidation… it could have been a painful, long, slow night. Instead, the reality is a blissful summer evening; running under the stars through the deserted countryside, at an unexpectedly good pace.

As we run through the sweetcorn fields of the Arreton Valley I spot the leader's headtorch bobbing along around 500 metres further up the trail. The hunt is on. The soft sand beneath my newly christen 361 Yushan trail shoes is kind on the joints and muscles, and I stride on towards the final ten kilometres.

Approaching the penultimate climb, which involves a step section of steps! I spot Jon driving up the road behind me. Now, there is a promise of a bacon butty at the finish line, but what I am really craving is an ice cream. Sweat dripping form my nose I pass on this hopeful request to his cheery face; incredibly off he goes in search of ice cold refreshment, at one o'clock in the morning!

The final ten kilometres seem to fly by. I accelerate down the hill and through the woods on the outskirts of Brading. Gary — the first placed runner — is just ahead of me now; while I am struggling to make up ground on him now, as my legs begin to complain, it is reassuring to know that I can keep pace.

Then, as we head into the darken wood, I lose sight of his taillight ahead. Suddenly I am on the trail alone again. Hoping that I am on the correct course, I continue on out to the marshes at the foot of Culver Down — the final climb looming ahead.

Stumbling over roots and barrelling through gates, I ascend Culver with legs and mind beginning to wane a little. I keep the pace up in the vague hope that Jonny has found ice cream… I fear not delay in case it melts!

Then, finally, the trail course arrows point downhill, and I can see the lights of the Yaverland finish line.

Damn. I have done it. A marathon.

I stumble into the car park where the GP Sport team awaits me. To my surprise Gary has gone astray somewhere, and I am the first runner home. My first marathon: 04:04:05. The first man home! Jonny approaches grinning, holding an ice cold Oreo McFlurry. This is stuff of legends.

'Challenge the Wight' proved to be so much more than I had anticipated; both in terms of enjoyment and result. What a beautiful way to experience the Isle of Wight in a completely different light (or lack of it).

I will definitely be keen to repeat it next year; and in the meantime, perhaps I will go in search of a few other marathon events… that, I never thought I would say.


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