OCR in the dark
The first thing that attracted my attention to the Nuclear races was the announcement that their events this year would act as OCR world championship qualifying races. Straight away I clicked onto their website and it was then that I discovered a race concept completely different to the norm, and this excited me massively.
Not only was Nuclear Blackout a night race but it was also ran over a set time period of 2 hours rather than according to a set distance. This offered a refreshing change and a brand new challenge that I, along with 437 (273 men and 164 women) others, gladly accepted.
The event was held at Kelvedon Hatch ‘secret neclear bunker’ in Essex. On the start line a fantastic atmosphere was generated from the event MC and just after 6pm we were off. It had been a lovely sunny day so at this point the sky was still clear blue which meant I was able to complete the first of my 5k laps without needing to turn my head torch on. This gave me a chance to get a good feel of what was to come in the darkness that followed.
I took up a position in the leading group and it wasn’t long into the course before we reached the first obstacles. There were a series of water filled trench jumps followed by some really thick sinking mud. Soon after came a 1/4 pipe, which was an obstacle I’d never encountered before and found a great challenge.
Next came two cargo net crawls in quick succession. The nets were secured tightly enough to the ground to mean that the only option was a military style crawl into the squelching mud beneath. This task was made extra tricky by having to avoid getting my head torch caught in the netting, meaning I had to almost scrape my face in the mud.
It was then a jump in and a climb back out of two more water trenches, before coming to a large pond with three telegraph poles secured across. These had to be ducked under in a full head submerge but, after my first dunk on lap two, I was told that I could climb over rather than go under from this point onwards. After this was a hay bale jump, some steep hills made of very loose mud that was only possible to clamber up on all fours, a wall and tyre pit.
Then came something that I know I wasn’t alone in looking forward to tackling for some time: the UK obstacle course racing’s very first ‘Hang Tough’. It didn’t disappoint and I was pretty pleased to make it across with my first ever attempt.
By my calculations this marked roughly the lap’s half way point. I was still in a leading group of around 10 runners which was just beginning to spread out as the sun started to go down and the sky turned a beautiful shade of red.
It was then time to get wet again with a rope swing landing in water followed by some very slippery hill climbs that were kindly being hosed down constantly throughout the 2 hours. The course then took us into some extremely muddy woods, which made it difficult to stand, let alone run, followed by a chest high water wade of approximately 80 metres, then up another hill climb.
This brought the race back into the event village area where we were greeted with supporters and another succession of obstacles. There was a double tyre rope pull, an A frame, a tractor tyre crawl through, monkey bars and an underground pit to lower yourself into and then back out of, a short run then the high Wall.
The Wall involved traversing from one side to the other but I found the foot and hand holes near impossible to get any grip on and after a good 7 or 8 attempts I had to declare it a fail and move on as those around me had already done.
By now the lead group had been whittled down to just myself and two others as we made the short down hill run on a gravel path leading back to the start/ finish to mark one 5k lap completed.
This time, instead of running straight ahead as we did on the first lap, it was a sharp left up some steps and into the secret nuclear bunker – Nuclear Races unique showpiece obstacle. And unique it certainly was; is there any race anywhere else in the world where you run indoors, through long dark corridors filled with smoke followed by hundreds of winding stairs to climb before resurfacing back into the great outdoors?
The next lap, and each one after that, may have involved exactly the same obstacles but I can assure you it didn’t feel that way as it was now pitch black, except for the light of my head torch, and everything had become wetter, muddier and more slippery.
Each obstacle was manned by at least one marshal. They all had a whistle and a bell that become a welcome sound in the distance as I began to get further away from the music and cheers of the event village. Especially after I made my move around 2k into the second lap, if it wasn’t for the friendly, cheerful and encouraging voices of those in hi-viz jackets, often all I could see in the distance, it could have become a very lonely time out there.
It was, however, not much longer into the second lap that I started lapping runners. This was inevitable in a race of such format but the course had been laid out well enough for it not to slow the faster runners down any more than necessary and it also meant that however far I managed to pull myself into the lead, I would always have company, which is always nice on a dark winter’s night.
Before I knew it, lap two and 10k was over and I was treated with another trip into the Nuclear bunker as I began my third lap. I knew I was in the lead and I had a feeling I had put a good distance between myself and anyone else. Yet, in all honesty, I had no idea whether the succession of head torch lights flickering in the distance as I took a glance back were those of the runners I had lapped or those on the chase to catch me.
The rules of the race stated that if you managed to get back to the lap finish point before the 2 hour mark you could go again and you would then be in with a chance of winning. I arrived back from my third lap -15k – with around 15 minutes to spare so I was off for another one. I did, however, have to ask a marshal offering me water what the actual time was as I had no idea. I would suggest that it would definitely make a big improvement if a large clock was installed at the lap finish line for future events of this format. That is one of the only faults I was able to find.
By now the course was severely cut up, boggy and treacherous, the obstacles were covered in mud and the water sections had become pretty damn cold. What, for me, on the first lap was a challenging yet fairly smoothly executed lap had become a flat out slog to the finish.
It was on this lap that my energy levels started to rapidly decrease and I became seriously hungry. Just before I reached the hang tough obstacle for the final time was a water station, and what I hadn’t noticed in the previous 3 laps – and wouldn’t have again had it not been for the voice of a fellow runner I was lapping – was a huge plastic box full of jelly babies.
Now, I have eaten in some of the nicest restaurants all over the world, but those next 3 mouthfuls from my mud soaked glove were, to this day, the nicest, most welcoming and most needed tastes I have ever experienced. They gave me the boost I needed to get through the final few kilometres but the race wasn’t over yet…
With less than 1k to go on the A frame cargo net climb, over 2 hours, 20 minutes in, something happened for the first time in the entire race: I was overtaken. I rolled down the net, rose to my feet and promptly gave chase. As I caught back up with the runner he asked me what lap I was on. I replied “lap 4, how about you?” to which he replied “yeah, me too”.
Upon hearing those words that competitive side of me sprang into action. I had not lead for this long to be beaten at the death! My leg speed picked up and I dashed back onto the gravel path leading to the finish. I suddenly felt like I could just keep on running if that’s what it took but, before I knew it, lap 4 and 20k was completed. I was the winner of Nuclear Blackout 2014! I honestly believe those jelly babies saved the day (or, rather, the night) for me.
Viewing the results puts into context just how challenging this event is. I was one of only 6 to complete 4 laps.