In the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971) there is a scene in which the participants take on a kaleidoscopic journey into the madness of Willy Wonka’s mind. Departing on a boat, the tour enters a tunnel in which Mr Wonka reveals part of himself that could be said to be hidden by the splendour and colours of the rest of the factory.
Upon entering, the tour leaves the colourful world behind and begins a new, sinister, journey into an otherwise hidden part of the factory. The boat speeds up and chaotic images appear on the walls, close ups of insects crawling, eyes darting franticly and the decapitation of a chicken. The participants begin to loose their sense of time and place, carried by the chaotic nature of the journey into the darkness. The tunnel becomes a place of fear in which you are not sure the ferryman is in complete control of.
“Before we knew it we had all been lined up and off we went into the darkness and a tunnel I would grow to love.”
37 participants in this year’s ultramarathon ‘The Tunnel’ attempted to run 200 miles within 55 hours all within the confines of the UK’s longest foot tunnel. With each lap, a two mile round trip, they only saw daylight for a moment as they crossed the timing mats placed at each end. Described by the organiser as “a mind-bending test of extreme endurance and sensory deprivation” the race is a one of a kind, a place where the mind may deteriorate before the body. With a country filled with so much beauty, who would choose to run 200 miles in the dark?
Any wannabe participant must have first completed a 100 mile race to even qualify for an entry, after that they must be certain that 200 miles of beautiful scenery is not for them. During the day the tunnel is lit by a string of low level LED’s that highlight sections of the rugged and damp walls. These lights give you a sense of the edges of the tunnel but they leave a dark corridor within the middle. During the evening these lights are turned off completely, however each runner is allowed a head-torch. The other ‘wild card’ was the music: at the half way point illuminated discs can be seen attached to the walls and play conceptual violin pieces that seem to be produced only to taunt, never getting close to a melody but remaining stuck on a sliding scale.
“On first seeing the tunnel race a few years back I thought it was an absolutely ridiculous idea, I wondered why anyone would want to do that and if anyone actually could… Mark is an inspirational race director and his races always have a sense of imagination and cruelty to them, and that is what is fascinating about them.”
If you make it to the second day you most likely did your best to hit the 100 mile mark cut off (27 hours and 30 minutes). However by the second night only around a third would remain in the tunnel. It was at this point that one runner remarked “the wheels have started to come off”.
Entering into the second half of the race looked different - people kept their heads down giving each other nods and a ‘well done mate’ in support. The battle to complete had changed inward and each of the runners entered into their own experience in the tunnel.
“On those final laps the tunnel took on another dimension, felt more like walking the decks of a spaceship than a foot tunnel.”
With only their head torches at night the vision in the tunnel narrowed and the dark edges would be given the freedom for interpretation. One runner began to experience rats running around them whilst others found the gaps and shapes of the walls would morph into faces and people.
As the light of the last day came up it was obvious that people were suffering and people were struggling to keep their feet moving. I watched on as one person took what looked like all their might to refill a water bottle. With no outside support allowed the runners were on their own when it came to fuelling. With the lights back on in the tunnel I don’t think the hallucinations went away for many on the last day and to add to that the paranoia kicked in.
With the disorientation that comes from sleep deprivation some began to become confused and many were double checking they were crossing the timing mat, their mind no longer logging the act and making them believe that they had missed it altogether and adding unnecessary laps. During the past two nights people slept very little, mostly in camping chairs or on the grass beside the tunnel entrance. One person even slept on the gravel rocks that lined the side of tarmac path within, having taken so much effort to change from standing to laying that he refused to get back up.
“There were lots of mind games, people standing around that weren't there. Faces in the walls, people in the walls… there were people talking to me that were actually there but I didn't want to look at them because I was scared they may look different. I went to the toilet and I could swear people were sat around me.”
With the end in sight there were 5 remaining runners set to complete the challenge and were using their average lap times to work out if they’d make the 200 within the cut off time. People were talking to themselves to create pace, 1, 2… 1, 2 … 1, 2…. The tunnel wasn’t closed to the public and the painful shuffles from the runners could be felt by all.
Unlike any other distance sport ‘ultra’ races draw in people who may not be the fastest but are usually able to go the deepest. After all that time in the tunnel people reflected on the experience as calming, comforting, warm, familiar. It became a place where suffering was a controlled feeling, it was yours and you could choose to believe in it or not. For those who entered into this place had chosen to forsake a world of light and colour for an altogether more terrifying experience. But I suppose only those who take on this trip will understand what it is like to spend 55 hours in a dark damp British tunnel with only themselves and the people in the walls to keep them company. I for one am glad to have witnessed it but I don’t think I’ll board the boat.