Who’d have thought that I’d choose to spend a Saturday evening running in the dark, through mud, in the woods?
Dark Woods was my first trail race, and my first night race. It took place just a ten minute drive away from my home, at Great Wood in the Quantock Hills. I’ve been thinking about trying a trail race for a while, and as this one was so close to home, it seemed silly not to give it a try.
Great Wood is a popular spot locally with families, dog walkers and cyclists. I sometimes go for family walks there with the little pooch. I’ve never really thought about running in the woods though. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because of the hills? Or perhaps due to the mud? Both of these things were to feature prominently on my first ever night run.
There were three race distances on offer: 6k, 6 miles and 8.5 miles. Not having done a night race before, I decided to opt for the shortest distance, in case I didn’t like running in the dark.
I arrived at the woods at dusk, about an hour before the race was due to start. I was dressed in my brightest, most reflective kit, and had was equipped with double head torches – just in case.
The weather was damp and drizzly, but calm and not too cold. Things seemed quite quiet when I first arrived, although it soon became busy. All of the races were sold out, and there was a good turnout.
There was a great atmosphere before the race. I chatted to a few people. There seemed to be a lot of other first-timers, as well as a reassuring number of people who’d done the race last year and come back for more. The consensus seemed to be that the course was hard, with big hills.
As the start of the race approached, darkness fell and people started to turn on lights and torches.
The race briefing reminded us of the potential hazards – mud, drops, mud, rough surfaces, tree roots, mud, stones, mud and more mud. I couldn’t quite believe that I was going to do this – in the dark. Me, who is usually so afraid and not at all daring. Some of the course had been re-routed because of the weather, as the usual route was felt to be unsafe. Oddly, this reassured me.
We counted down, turned on head torches, and set off. The first section of the race was straightforward – a nice downhill run that took us down to the entrance to the woods. The surface was a little rough, and it was necessary to pay attention to where I was running, but it felt exhilarating to be trotting along in the dark by torchlight.
At the end of this section, there was a sharp tun, and a steep uphill climb. The surface here became very rough, and most people began walking. I hadn’t done much running this week as I’d been unwell, and I felt ready for a good run, so I kept running. I walked when the surface became too rough, or slippery with deep mud, but I tried to keep the pace up.
I was wearing bone conducting headphones, but never bothered to use them. The atmosphere, running in the calm of the woodland, was magical.
After a while, the hill became steeper, and the surface became rougher. Large rocks protruded from the track. I walked.
About half way round there was an aid station, stocked with fruit, sweets and savoury snacks, as well as water. I was surprised to see a feed station on such a short race. I had a piece of banana and topped up my water. And was relieved to know I was half way round.
There was a downhill section that I felt was too slippery to run down, and then another steep climb. I congratulated myself here on my decision to opt for the short race. A welcome sign announced that we were at the top of the hill. Things levelled out for a while, and I ran as much as possible, slowing here and there to avoid deep mud or tree stumps. Before I knew it, we were going downhill, and then along the last stretch towards the end of the race.
By the time I got to the end, I felt it had all gone too quickly (although it had actually taken me around an hour to cover 4.1 miles).
This was a very different experience to running 4.1 miles on roads. The demands were very different, and very real. The race required a high level of concentration and was tiring. The hills were challenging. Even so, in better conditions I would like to aim for a longer race.
Overall, the race was well organised. The course was well marked with reflective signs and markers, and was easy to follow. Marshals were helpful and encouraging. The atmosphere was fabulous. There were lots of tasty treats at the end of the race, and an impressive medal. The weather and mud didn’t spoil the experience – but added to it (although I expect a clear night with moonlight and stars might also be pleasant).
For my first trail race, it was a good choice.