The Kielder Dark Skies Trail Series is organised by Trail Outlaws, a North East based events company whose ethos is to promote trail running in the North of England’s national parks. This would be the 5th time the event had taken place so in addition to the Saturday marathon and Sunday half marathon (actually 14 miles) there was an additional 10 mile run on the Friday. Giving people the opportunity to take on the double, Friday and Saturday or the triple, all three races. I’d opted for the marathon distance, primarily as it was our 20th wedding anniversary that week and I wanted to spend as much time as possible with Mrs W.
The event takes place on the trails around Kielder Water, the marathon would be a full circuit of the reservoir, with a couple of small detours and loops to make up the distance and the undulating terrain of Northumbria would give around 660m of altitude gain (circa 2100 feet in old money) so this was not going to be a flat race. I’m not a long distance runner (this might appear to be inaccurate considering the ground I cover during events such as Winter Nuts or the Spartan Ultra World Championships, but they are more a running, jumping, climbing trees kind of event, not continuous running) so this race was a leg and fitness test for some more running focussed events I have over the spring and summer, primarily the Rat Race Man versus Coast, Lakes and Mountain series.
I arrived at the venue around 15:30 hoping for a spot in the onsite car park, alas no, it was full, so I drove to the overspill car park some 4 miles away, ditched the car, checked I had everything I needed and wandered off to find the shuttle bus, this is when it started raining. The forecast was for a dry night with some cloud, so not much chance of seeing the stars or the Aurora Borealis that was rumoured to be making an appearance around 21:00, but this is Northumbria, in the Spring, rain was inevitable. Glad that I’d packed the full mandatory kit, I put my waterproofs on and waited for the bus, happily this was a short wait and by 16:00 I was walking up the access road leading to the event village. The venue, Hawkshead Scout Centre is a collection of buildings nestled in the forest above Kielder Water and for the purposes of the event the Trail Outlaw team had utilised several of the buildings as HQ, registration and athlete area, aka canteen. Registration was easy, prove who I was, grab my race number, T-shirt and free Buff and it was off to the canteen to keep out of the weather and faff about with my kit. This is where it struck me that there must be a bag drop, it wasn’t mentioned on the event website or Facebook page, but given the nature of the race there must be one, so I went to have a look, turns out there was drop zone, it was just tucked round a corner I’d not explored (note to self, ask questions before travelling next time).
17:15 signalled the race briefing so it was out of the canteen and into the damp Northumbrian dusk to listen to words of wisdom from the race organisers then a bit of a pep talk to get us ready for the off; 17:30 arrived and we were sent on our way. As expected it was a melee as around 575 adults tried to fit on trails designed for a tenth of that number but nobody got hurt and the field started to spread out as we found our pace. I’d set myself two challenges, run the whole thing, no stopping at feed stations or check points unless things were going badly wrong and finish in under 4 hours. The latter of these two was going to be the main challenge as true to form I had enough supplies for a two-day excursion, this meant extra weight in my backpack, which I estimate weighed 2.5Kg, not a huge amount but after 26.5 miles I was going to wish it was more like 2.5 lbs not kilos, oh well, needs must.
Completing in under 4 hours meant a minimum average pace of 11 km/h leaving a small margin for errors and unforeseen events, such as toilet breaks or getting lost, happily no such event transpired. This did mean that the slow start had to be recovered from so the first 8km were at a higher pace to claw back the deficit. I passed through the first and second checkpoints without need of a stop but due to the waterproof shell I was wearing it was getting a bit toasty, in fact I think I was generating more water than was falling as rain, so it was time to disrobe. Fortunately, the trail leveled out and I had the opportunity to keep moving whilst I removed my shell and stowed it in my pack, so no time lost, happy days.
Dusk was now descending and as we progressed along the northern shore of Kielder Water towards checkpoint 3 mother nature blessed us with a glorious sunset, several runners stopped to take pictures, but I was a man on a mission and that mission did not include stopping for selfies, however, thanks to social media here is a nice picture.
By checkpoint 3 we had covered 15km, the sun had set and it was time to turn on the head torch, so far my pace was on track and my legs were doing everything I asked of them, but I’d been warned by a friend that the next section was a drag and could mess with your head, he wasn’t wrong. As darkness descended, it became harder to assess the pace required for ascents, with no visual reference you cannot judge where the top of the hill is and therefore how hard you should push during the climb, thankfully the hills we short with one exception at 20km, where a series of switchbacks rapidly elevated us by 30m, nothing compared to the hills that surrounded us, but quite a challenge in the dark and silence of Kielder Forest. Pushing on through the darkness I could only see one runner in front of me and only when the terrain permitted, good job that I like solitude and generally run solo, or just with canine company. I knew that checkpoint 4 was at around 25km and that was the turning point back towards Hawkshead and the finish line, however, I was struggling to maintain pace, partly due to the terrain and partly due to a lack of focus on my part.
Dropping out of the forest and into the dam car park we were greeted by disco music, dancing marshals, bananas and pretzels, I managed to grab a handful of food without stopping and pushed through the carpark and onto the tarmac road that sits atop the dam wall. This change of terrain really hit my legs hard, suddenly my feet started to hurt and my hips started to ache, clearly my running form had fallen apart. I’m normally good for 30km before fatigue begins to creep in, today it was 3km earlier, the next 16 km or so were going to hurt.
After the dam crossing it was back to the trails, my feet were happier, the rest of me not so much, just a question of keeping my head up, not hunching over and driving with my legs not with my hips (see Nick I do listen to what you tell me). Checkpoint 5 passed by very quickly and it was back to the darkness and solitude of the trails, however, I knew that at some point soon I’d be on familiar ground, as the trails and water’s edge leading away from Leaplish are well known to me, Mrs W and The Horde (the collective name for our dogs). The absence of other runners was a surprise, so I was either doing quite well or really badly, in a few kilometres I’d find out.
32km brought a new experience. As I hit what I hoped was the last steep section my body refused to adjust to the incline and if there had been any spectators they would have seen me try and run through the hill rather than up it, I’ll concede that this was the one section I walked, power walked, but still a walk. 4 km further on and the trees were left behind as the route followed the edge of the reservoir, this really lifted my spirits, as looking across the water I could see the lights of other runners making their way to the dam wall, the dancing marshals and the chance for a banana or two. I later found out that those folk would have missed the cut off and the bus I’d seen parked at the dam was not for transporting marshals and bananas, it was the Did Not Finish bus, which by chance arrived back at the event village as I left to collect the car, but I’m getting a ahead of myself.
Passing by the shale beach where we witnessed one of our dogs swimming underwater for the first time I knew there was short trot to the final checkpoint at Leaplish.
Jogging past the sculptures that line the path leading to the lodges and facilities at Leaplish I could see lights and hear music, for once I was glad to be around people, however, I was not expecting to see Darth Maul, complete with double-bladed lightsaber. As I passed by he asked how I was, “Not sure, I’m talking to Darth Maul”; still have no idea if he was real, nobody else has mentioned him.
Somebody, who was not Darth Maul pushed a cup of something sweet and fizzy into my hand and told me just 2 miles to go and what a 2 miles it was. Looking at my stats after the race I can see that my pace had dropped to almost a crawl 6:30 per kilometre compared to the average of 5:20 per kilometre I’d held for the first 20km, this I believe is what they call The Wall, sub 4 hours was not going to happen, bugger.
Crossing a small footbridge, I could see strings of lights in the trees, so either Darth Maul had been up to no good or this was the home straight, thankfully it was the latter. A short tarmac section led back to the event village where marshals routed runners back into the registration hut and the official finish line. One point I’d omitted earlier was the timing chip, rather than the traditional shoe base RFID tag we had been given a bracelet, very much akin to a FitBit or similar activity tracker, this had to be “dabbed” against a sensor to record your completion. After dabbing my wrist, a nice gentleman told me to not to forget to stop my watch, I clearly had not assumed the official wrist grabbing finishers pose, before giving me a medal for my efforts. Job done as they say.
Leaving the finish line I wandered back to the canteen to gather my thoughts and contact Mrs W and let her know I was alive and well, not strictly true, but I need to maintain some veneer of capability otherwise she’ll not let me out to play. However, as with most of the course there was no phone signal, I had checked every 5 km and where possible sent progress updates, my last at 40 km had been not been replied to, but that was the last time I’d found a signal, no worries I’d call her once I got nearer to civilisation.
Hobbling back to the bus pickup point, I saw the above mentioned DNF bus, it was full of very unhappy folk, better luck next time. Thankfully the shuttle bus was waiting and I got back to the car within 20 minutes of crossing the finish line. Grabbing some food and warm clothes I decompressed and began the drive back to our hotel, some 45 minutes away. Heading along the road that runs parallel to Kielder Water I could see the odd light bobbing in the darkness, hopefully those runners were feeling better than I did at that point, then my phone sprang to life.
True to form Helen had been following the results page and I’d come 66th overall and 8th in my age group, finish time was 04:09:26. Better than I thought and close to the sub 4 hour I’d hoped for, but not quite. However, looking at the conversation between a stupid husband and caring wife was far better than a sub 4 or any medal, I’m a lucky man.
Would I do it again, yes. In 2020 we will be celebrating 21 years of marriage and I’ll attempt the triple.
Almost all images copyright Trail Outlaws, reproduced without asking permission (sorry)
Get The Details On
Kielder Trail Marathon – The Night Is Dark And Full Of TerrorsRunning Review
- Event Website
- When Was The Event?
- 23rd March 2019
- Was This A Qualification Race?
- Reviewed By
- Richard “Itch” Ward
- About The Reviewer
- Richard was born in the late 60’s, the consequence of a chance encounter between a one-handed truck driver and a Catholic. He finds being described as an athlete vexing.
- What Age Group Was I In?
- 50 Plus
- Type Of Competitor
- Was This My First Time At This Event?
Runners are being given an out of this world opportunity to run and race under the darkest night skies in England. Kielder was awarded gold tier Dark Sky Park status by the International Dark Skies association in December 2013, making it the perfect venue for the ultimate starlit running challenge.
- Value For Money
- The Pros
- Easy Registration
- Excellent Marshals
- Good Facilities
- The Cons
- Hawkhirst Scout Activity Centre, Hexham, UK
Booking The Event
- How far In Advance Did I Book?
- 6 months before
- What Discount Did I get?
- No Discount
- How Easy Was It To Book?
The Event Arena / Village
- Rate The Event Arena
- Rate The Buzz Around The Event Arena
- Rate The Food And Drink Stalls
The Event Facilities
- Rate The Parking
- Rate The Toilets
- Rate The Showers
- Was There A Bag Drop?
- Was There A Changing Tent?
- Rate The Medal
- Rate The Swag Bag
No Swag Bag%
- Rate The Marshalls
- Rate The Course Marking
- Rate The Course Buzz
- Was The Event Timed?
- Was There Water On The Course?
- Types Of Terrain On The Course?