No light at the end of The Tunnel: Lena’s latest extraordinary achievement in her own words

Last weekend I took on a massive challenge.

I attempted to complete an ultra-run with a difference.

The Tunnel Ultra was a brand new race and the aim was to run 200 times through the Combe Down Tunnel within 55 hours.

The Combe Down Tunnel near Bath was a disused railway tunnel near bath which is now part of the Two Tunnels cycle path, it is about a mile long. The tunnel is dimly lit from 05:00 – 23:00 Then the lights go off. There is also a sound installation in the middle of the tunnel which is a series of lights and violins this plays constantly in the central third of the tunnel between about 09:00 and 19:00.

The race organiser Mark Cockbain designed an ultra that would not just test physical strength but the mental strength to run for hours on end with no mental stimulus. The rules were tough too:

  • no support allowed, athletes needed to be able to take care of themselves
  • no ear/head phones were allowed as the tunnel was still open to cyclists and other runners and walkers so runners had to be aware of their surroundings
  • runners were to run on the left hand side in single file unless passing another runner
  • mandatory kit was a whistle, a phone and hi-vis was to be worn at all times
  • timing was a dibber to be dibbed at each end of the tunnel.

Starting at 15:30 on Friday 8 March there were 31 starters who were set off in small batches a few minutes apart.

I was nervous as I did not know what to expect, The race had never been run before so I was unable to research it. Also I am not keen on tunnels, have only ever run 113 miles in 33 hours as a previous long distance and never attempted to stay awake through 2 nights.

The first lap was not so bad but it was definitely longer than a mile.

Later on I noticed markings on the floor that stated that the tunnel was actually 1700 metres long.

The sounds went off at around 7 pm and there were less and less members of the public, there was no light at the end of the tunnel then the lights went off. Even though I had expected it to happen it was still a shock. I turned on my head torch and suddenly the tunnel was brighter than it had been when the lights were on. The tunnel seemed massive. As the night went on there were less and less runners. The already cold tunnel was even colder.

At 5 am the lights were back on and by 6 there was light at the ends of the tunnel again. At 9 am the sounds started again and the tunnel got busier. It was much busier than Friday afternoon. 

I had 27 ½ hours to reach 100 times through the tunnel. I was a little worried as the tunnel was longer than a mile and I had done my pacing calculations on a mile. I was relieved to get to 100 lengths in 25 ½ hours 105.6 miles. And that is without the trips outside the tunnel to the loo tent or the support tent for coffee.

 As the sounds stopped in the tunnel for the second night there were only a few of us left and not many members of the public. I was spending a lot of time on my own. About 22:00 the tiredness kicked in, I struggled to focus my vision. I had a 15 min power nap. Getting going was tough my muscles had stiffened up. It took a couple of lengths to get going again then the lights went off again.

I spent most of the night alone I think there were only about 9 runners left and we were all spread out. I was relieved when morning came, I hoped that it would stop the road and the walls moving around which had slowed me down enormously. I knew now that I did not have time to complete 200 lengths but I was not giving in until I could not carry on. I had been managing a lap (2 lengths) in under half an hour but this had slowed overnight to around 40-45 minutes. There were soon only 4 runners left, I was the only female, the tunnel was really busy. I was moving much slower and struggling to keep warm. I layered up and carried on, but very slowly.

Then there were three.

On my 73rd lap I really struggled, the floor and walls would not stay still, I stopped and started making very slow progress. My vision was all over the place, I was struggling to concentrate.  It took me an hour and a half to complete that 3400 m. I dibbed for the last time and handed my dibber over. I had gone as far as I could.

I failed to complete the 200 laps, I completed 146. The official distance at 146 lots of 1700 metres is 154.22 but I have rounded that up to 156 miles as distance covered including trips to the support tent for coffee and to the  loo which were quite a distance outside the tunnel. and stopped running after 46:01:10

I am very pleased with my effort, I’m not really disappointed because I really could not continue. I am really pleased with my effort. I did my best and ran the 4th furthest distance and the furthest distance by any of the females.

There were only 2 finishers.

The 2 men I left running were the only finishers, first was in just over 50 hours and the other in 54 hours 35 min.

If I got the chance I would probably give this race another go.

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