It’s some time past 1am and my watch tells me I have been on the move for more than five hours. Five hours. How can this be possible? Things have got a bit dream-like. I am making my way in the darkness around the southern paths of the Polesden estate. Sometimes I attempt a slow jog and sometimes I fall back into a brisk stride. I am also clutching a packet of crisps. They feel important. The trees are my only company, although I know there must be runners just a minute or two ahead of me and behind me. The path forks. I check my GPS and look for the reflective signs which assure me I am on the right track.
Earlier that evening around 40 runners had set off from Mickleham Village Hall for the inaugural Two Towers race. After a two minute silence in respect for the Queen, head torches and watches were switched on, a few cheerful but nervous words shared, and then there was the steady thud and patter of feet setting off into the hills. On the slow climb up to Mickleham Downs, runners began to fall into a rhythm, and I took some steady breaths. A long night lay ahead. 50 kilometres to be precise. My second ultra in distance, and my first competitive one.
Our route dropped down to the bottom of Box Hill, and then passed through Westhumble village. My initial adrenaline started to settle as the path headed north along the Mole Valley Gap and runners spread out according to their pace. A brief wrong turn, then gently the route started to gain height. Above us a full moon, and from time to time an owl would hoot.
Once in the middle of Norbury Park I picked up speed, and found myself alongside a fellow woman runner. We moved ahead and fell into a companionable chat for many miles, taking us to the northern edge of the Polesden Lacey estate and then south through dark forest to the first checkpoint. A gaggle of fabulous volunteers stood under a gazebo and plied us with food. I settled on a slice of melon, a couple of cheesy nibbles, and a slurp of squash - then off again.
A section of trail now took us south and steeply downhill, followed by a more gradual drop past fields. Still chatting, the miles passed easily, and our route crossed the A25 and wound its way south and up again, past the Tillingbourne Waterfall and on towards Leith Hill Tower. Many of these paths were familiar to me, but having studied the route elevation briefly, I knew there would be a cruel twist. We fell into step with a third runner, and near the tower there was indeed a steep drop down. A sharp and protracted uphill slog forced us to regain all the height we had just lost.
Eventually, the tower stood beautifully above us. This was roughly the halfway point, giving me a surge of confidence. But… I felt a bit sick. I’d not taken in gels or snacks at the intervals that I’d intended, and was soggy with sweat. I encouraged my companions to keep moving, and took a few minutes alone to recoup some calories and fluids. I started to fixate on the crisps that I had declined to pick up at Checkpoint 1.
I set off on the second half of the race, navigating with GPS on my phone, and wishing my head torch was brighter. I had a spare, yet I didn’t want to lose time swapping. I suspect this difficulty in making decisions would be familiar to seasoned ultra runners. On I plodded. Checkpoint Two would be at mile 18, and the knowledge that some human company and crisps might be waiting for me was cheering. A long path now took me north west towards Holmbury, and I pushed myself over the grassy route. Suddenly I was greeted by the cheers of volunteers, fairy lights around a gazebo, and, lo and behold, many packets of crisps. Happiness! I could have hugged everyone. I swapped my head torch batteries, ate, chatted to a friendly face. How long did I linger? I’m not sure.
As another runner appeared, it felt right to move again. A sign saying ‘bull in field’ was not what I most wanted to see, but the cows didn’t look too interested in this sweaty, shuffling woman. A clink of a gate told me I was close to another runner. I kept moving, sometimes a slow jog, sometimes a fast walk now. Then I found myself on Abinger Roughs on familiar trails, the bright full moon above, and a deep sense of calm that - although my stomach wasn’t too happy - I knew what I had left to do.
Soon I was climbing again to rejoin the North Downs Way briefly, motivated by the knowledge that Checkpoint 3 was nearing. Hallelujah, I had made it, and my female companion from the first half of the race was there. She was placing first, and understandably took my arrival as her cue to leave. I restocked my water and wolfed down a second packet of crisps. One for the road? I was offered another packet. Why not, I thought, it’ll get me up Box Hill, I reasoned.
And so that is how I came to be shuffling along in dark forests clutching a packet of crisps. Just seven miles to go, but with careful navigation to be done, the trails frequently dividing. I concentrated hard, and at some point realised that holding onto the spare crisps might not be the most efficient way to move. Time blurred. And then I was on a wide path heading down the side of Denbies vineyard. There was a loud kerfuffle. Was a human about to leap out of a bush? I’m not complacent about safety, but it seemed unlikely. The black and white form of a large badger emerged at speed from a bush and sprinted down the path ahead. I laughed.
A brief stretch of road running, and then I was on the path towards the famous Stepping Stones. I was feeling the miles by now. It would be over soon, I knew it, but bloody hell, this was a long night. Reaching the river, it took a few seconds to realise that the strange man stood by the crossing wasn’t a stranger but my fellow runner Pete who was filming the night for Canary Trail events. It was a relief to see a familiar face.
I trod my way carefully over the stones, only to trip on a root on dry land a little further on. I brushed myself off. Steps. Many steps. Up and along, up and along. Somehow they happened. My delight at being in the final miles of the race pushed me. And then, as the look out point on Box Hill came into view, I was greeted by the usual cluster of twenty somethings for whom the summit is a night time gathering point.
'Is that the same lady?’, said one man, as I clambered upwards. Aha, the first lady was not so far off, I realised. ‘Different lady!’, I managed to call out, triumphantly, ‘And there’s about another 30 of us to come.’ There were murmurs of respect for the very different Saturday nights we were having.
I left the look out point behind, and crossed the top of the hill. It should have been a simple route now, but suddenly I was surrounded by misty trees. I lost the way. I took stock, slowed down, and found the path once more. I passed the second tower, but didn’t pause. A careful downhill and then the final climb up the much despised Satan’s Steps. What do I remember of this? Not much, except there seemed even more than usual.
A final stretch up and over, before the drop down into Mickleham. I was really doing this! I picked my way down a well-loved chalky path, and before I knew it Mickleham Village Hall was a yellow glow to my right. I turned the final corner, there were shouts, and with claps and welcoming voices, I had reached the end in six hours and 51 minutes. With quiet efficiency the event crew supplied this dazed runner with a cup of tea and a biscuit, another example of super smooth event operation. An amazing moonlit night in Surrey’s hills was complete.