“The Canary”

It all started three years ago. Two crazy guys, Alan and Mark, decided to create the 1st Annual Head Torch Marathon. Date? Saturday after Christmas! Start time? Late evening! Insane or genius, you be the judge of that. At a time when most people are in a food coma and no one really runs, waiting for the New Year before lacing their shoes again; for me it was just perfect.

But there was another reason for this run, behind the craziness there was a good cause. You see in 2017 Mark was diagnosed with cancer, one that is massively under researched. A man with strong will power and refusal to go quietly, Mark decided that he wants to help the hospital which fights with him to get him better. More research is needed, as well as more staff and resources and all that comes down to more money.

The idea was to simply run, run long, run at night, and alongside all that fun, raise some quality cash for the King’s College Hospital Charity.

I still remember renting a tiny car and driving in the darkness towards the Surrey Hills thinking to myself, “why the hell did I agree to run?” The cosiness of my sofa and the glass of red wine sounded much nicer at that time. The 1st Annual Head Torch Marathon was a small event. Few of us set out into the darkness from the carpark each carrying a canary (it is part of the mandatory kit to this day) and a backpack with all the food and drink we needed to keep us going for a few hours. It was lovely to run with others, although the weather was not very kind to us, battering our bodies with rain and wind.  About 7 hours later we reached the car park again, got changed in the cold and had some hot beverage (or mulled wine if you weren’t driving) before receiving a certificate of completion from Mark himself! And that was that, home time.

The following year, I took a lift from a friend, another Mark, it was great to return to a lot bigger 2nd 1st Annual Head Torch Marathon. The word has spread quickly amongst the ultra and trail runners’ community. Rules stayed the same, it wasn’t a race, it was free and you needed a canary! What’s more we would start together, stay together and finish together. Oh, also no one actually knew where we’re going, except a chosen few, who led and made sure that no one wondered off the trail. I actually liked the unknown; this way I could focus on the run, the surroundings and the people. The second year was tougher for me. I wasn’t as fit as year before and Alan decided to throw some extra hills into the mix. It was a slow plod, but having many of my running friends with me, it was a fun night nonetheless. Miles ticked over one by one, we stopped a couple of times for a photo and whisky, and after 2am we returned to the town hall where we were fed and watered (with beer and mulled wine, pizza and mince pies). By then I knew I would return.

Time goes fast when you have fun, so no wonder that it felt just like yesterday when I was getting ready for my 3rd 1st Annual Head Torch Marathon. This quickly became my little tradition. Just could not, not be there. The event grew enormously in just 3 years. The number of runners reached about 80 people, and the entry fee was set at £35, but there is a fun fact; if you didn’t like the run after you had run it, you simply had to say so at the finish line and you would get your money back. I mean, you’d have to be very brave to say it, but the option’s there. Also, all money would go to charity. The feel remained the same, it was lively and friendly. As soon as I placed my foot in the hall, I felt at home, chatting with my fab friends who were there for the love of running and a great cause.


At 7:30 pm we were set off by the group of even more amazing volunteers, who stayed behind setting up food and drinks ready for our return.

We ran into the darkness of the night, I settled somewhere in the middle of the pack with Mark, who was my lift to the event and back, and also like me had run all pervious Head Torch marathons. We chatted happily until the steep climbs cut my breath short and for a while it was all about dragging myself to the top. Oh Alan! Where did you manage to get more hills from????

I didn’t know where we were, I just followed the group. The run was brilliantly organised, Alan led from the front, but he had a few run leaders who kept an eye out for the middle and the back of the pack. Amazingly we pretty much stayed together throughout the run; that in itself is an achievement for such a big group.

The trails were dark and very muddy. With each step I was sinking into the sticky mud hoping for my shoes to stay on my feet. In all fairness I didn’t even worry about not having the views. My eyes would have to stay focused on nothing but the trail. It was a warm December night and it felt like for most of the run we were going up and only a little bit down, and then up and up and up…..You get the idea. At points I was convinced somehow we have moved to the mountains? But with limited view, I cannot confirm.

Eventually we reached a 14 mile marker, a few volunteers set up a pit stop. We were welcomed with mince pies and mulled wine in happy cups. Got to be the best feed station ever. Before we knew it, we had some quick picture time and headed back to the darkness of the forest. Still not knowing where I am, I focused on conversations with other runners. It was an easy pace run but the run was far from easy. Yes it is social, but you need to be able to run a marathon distance as you will be moving for 7 hours or so, you need to be able to run when others run, and walk when others walk, then stop and regroup before moving your tired and sore muscles again. This in itself can be a challenge, especially in winter in the middle of the night.

“He must hate us a little bit more each year” I said to Mark as we climbed yet another hill. How many hills can one person add to the social run? My legs were burning, breathing became harder, sweat started to warm my back! Mike ran passed me and shouted C’mon Boz, before grabbing my hand and pulling me up. I was so glad for the sudden pull, as I could really feel myself snapping in half at that point. We were half way up the Box Hill steps. From what I remembered it was pretty much the last hill to tackle before the end. I felt relieved, but as soon as I thought that, my dream was crushed by Mark who said that we have another monster to climb, which apparently is even tougher, up to the famous steps.

And then I saw it, the sign. It said Satan’s Staircase and had a little devil picture on it. Did I mention that Al has a great sense of humour? I just don’t think anyone was laughing climbing this monster…

But after going to hell and back, it was the home stretch, and like years before Al was waiting at the corner just before the last few meters to finish welcoming all runners in.

I smiled like a kid, we did it, we did it without really knowing where we were, without knowing which hills we climbed, or how many of them were there, we did it going through unknown fields, cemeteries and the muddiest trails. We did it without seeing great views, or even without really seeing each other’s faces.

We did it…

27 miles

Over 4,000ft elevation

Numerous hills, some real beasts

Crazy mud

Buckets of mulled wine

Plenty of mince pies

Endless laughter

But most of all over £7,000 raised for Liver Cancer Research…. https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=markthornberry&pageUrl=2

This was Canary 3rd 1st Annual Head Torch Marathon for you. See you back in December for the 4th edition.