A year ago, I stood at the top of a climb in an unknown Jersey woods looking at pale, shocked faces coming towards me through the darkness, their features hidden by the torches they each carried.
The weather was cold but dry so the tree still crackled and mist rose in the light from their breath. Once they had all disappeared out of sight, I followed to see what else lay in store on this journey into the dark.
It turns out that the course was a brute of roots, turns and shadowy huts with a rope climb and a stream to cross. I wanted in.
So on Friday night I left a very civilised (and interesting) tea tasting with colleagues at Te Amor to drive through lashing rain and near gale force winds to the North coast of Jersey and the Rozel Reaper 2019.
As with all trips out that way, I managed to get lost a couple of times so that I was literally running to the start line when I saw a line of headtorches bobbing around a field. Still, I’d only just missed the start and tagged on to the tail runner.
The conditions underfoot were pretty horrendous. Each person in front had charged through the grass leaving a muddy mess of footprints. Somebody suggested that if I was a “fast” then I should try and get to the front as it turns into single file quite quickly. I am many things but fast isn’t one of them so I tucked in and trooped onwards.
Big mistake. The near constant rain of the previous 24 hours had turned the path into a brown slip ‘n’ slide. Each runner looked like Bambi on a downhill ski course, legs threatening to scoot out from underneath at any point. Even funnier, some people seemed not to have even bothered with trail shoes which gave them Teflon superpowers and led to some hilarious, infectious laughter as the slapstick comedy developed more at each turn.
To give you an idea of how hard going it was, my second mile took 32 minutes…
I also realised that I hadn’t really paid attention to the course the previous year so not only was I finding new and exciting hazards around every corner, those that I thought I was familiar with looked completely different in the fixed beam of light and rain in front of me.
First we rose to the top of my killer hill from the previous year (which actually didn’t look as bad when running it), then descended through the stream that had turned into a rapid, past old huts and poles which I clung onto desperately to keep my footing. It was only a matter of time though and I was soon on my arse, almost taking out the dude in front of me. But instead of frustration, I just had a huge smile on my face. I was laughing at the madness of it.
It was like being a kid again, mud and full tilt at everything with no real thought to what was coming next. Which made it even more surprising when I got to the start/finish line to realise that I’d barely done two miles. Having marshalled in the woods, I’d forgotten that the course actually does go out onto the cliff paths around White Rock.
This though is my turf. It’s as close as I get to saying I know somewhere like the back of my hand (which is actually a weird saying now I look at the back of my hand). I had the feeling that I was towards the back of the pack so thought this would be a great opportunity to get ahead so I went for it and GOD DAMN I loved it. My legs were on a metronomic autopilot despite the rocks, mud and steps while my mind wandered entirely. Ahead I could see France and behind a line of headtorches dancing along in a silent conga. The trail was challenging but came easily, like creating a masterpiece with a paint by numbers kit. I couldn’t see any markings but knew I was on the right route, blackness and the sounds of waves crashing on my right while on my left, a large house with glowing orange windows looked like a huge pumpkin silhouette.
Even now I couldn’t tell you exactly where the turn was but it was marked with three luminous signs so there was no way I would miss it. And just like that, I was back in a field on my own and really trying to pick up the pace to make up for lost time.
With all the twists and turns I had no idea what direction I was going in but I knew I was heading towards the finish line, or in my case, the halfway point. I still had it all to do again!
“You’re doing two laps?” Paul asked as I got within sight. “Yep, which way do I go?”
Little did he realise that I hadn’t done the beginning of the first lap so I just followed his outstretched arm and kept going. The two marshals looked very confused when I again asked which way. I really couldn’t work out what was going on and as I was about to find out, I was a loooooooong way behind anyone else doing the 10k.
But for me, this is where the magic really started.
I was on my own, in the deepest, darkest woods, with the elements against me and only one way out. Instead of watching my feet, I let them do their thing (admittedly they failed a couple of times due to enthusiasm) while I took in the silence around me.
Those marshals that had waited for me were still cheerful despite the abject conditions and I thanked them wholeheartedly, as you always should at events like these where they make the difference.
Despite sliding around, I felt confident enough to go a bit faster, now a little bit aware of how long I was keeping everyone waiting. So down, then up, then down through the raging river (which in my head was the Rucky Chucky crossing at Western States but in reality was jumpable) and back up past the old huts and a rope climb out.
The cliffs once again felt magic and I felt blessed to be on them alone. The weather had begun to relent and as my feet ticked over beneath me I said thanks to anyone listening that I was able to be there. Then I saw the pumpkin house and smiled a big gummy grin which nobody could see in the dark as I sploshed my way through puddles without a care in the world.
A quick, couple of turns and I was again cruising into the finish, this time for the last time. Paul, Nicola and a number of marshals were there with cups of tea and cake, probably a bit confused at the smiling idiot in front of them, blabbering away about how it was probably the best run he’d ever done.
I wolfed down three slices of cake and a cup of tea as I splished and splashed my way back to the car, trying to get any of the mud from my shoes. I was filthy but happy. And when I got home, and Vic asked how it had gone, my answer clearly gave the game away.
“You’ve got your mojo back”, she said. Bang on.